Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Future of Mind

The New York Times has been adding blog content to its online site.  One of the most interesting (and most surprising) additions to the unfortunately named "Opinionator" section has been "The Stone,"  a forum edited by Simon Critchley, chair of the department of philosophy of New School in New York, that began in May. It's a philosophy blog--a welcome addition, especially compared to the blogged content on other newspapers (sports, crime, consumer news, entertainment).

Over the past couple of weeks, the columns have turned to critiques of neuroscience--or, should I say, a critique of popular representations of neuroscience, where every culture and behavior has its materialist correlate measured in the release of dopamine, the firing of neurons.  Which, of course, is on one level entirely true--we are biological creatures, after all. But the results of neuroscience that trickle down intro etiolated newspaper articles present the materialist reduction as "explaining" our complex lives--violence, love, etc.--in a way that seems calculated to shut down curiosity in science by suggesting that everything is on the brink of final explanation.

But "mind", like "body," is instead a perpetual work-in-progress, with room for sociological or even (gasp) anthropological speculations on what may emerge next.  In other words, the study of cognition is inherently future-oriented. 

A couple of the most recent columns come from one of the more well-known cognitive scientists out there, Andy Clark.  He's a popularizer, certainly, but one who has always argued for a more complex model of thinking.  In his December 12th column, "Out of Our Brains," he recapitulates the arguments for a "distributed cognition" (somewhat disingenuously described as a "current" movement even though it's been around for decades).

But he extends those argument to ICTs--information and communication technologies:   

If we can repair a cognitive function by the use of non-biological circuitry, then we can extend and alter cognitive functions that way too.  And if a wired interface is acceptable, then, at least in principle, a wire-free interface (such as links in your brain to your notepad, BlackBerry or iPhone) must be acceptable too.  What counts is the flow and alteration of information, not the medium through which it moves. 

This is not exactly a revolutionary idea.  The example James McClelland and his co-authors gave in their seminal, 1986 paper was a simple arithmetic problem--multiplying 2, three-digit numbers.  How many can do it in their head?  And how many need a "tool" (e.g., pencil and paper) to "think" this problem through to a solution?  And if we accept that the the boundary of cognition can be drawn to encompass the environment (in this case, the pencil and paper) around us, then there is little reason not to consider the information technologies we use in those processes as well.  Extrapolating on this to the future of cognition, we can safely predict that new tools will bring new, complex forms and configurations of cognition.  As Clark concludes:

At the very least, minds like ours are the products not of neural processing alone but of the complex and iterated interplay between brains, bodies, and the many designer environments in which we increasingly live and work.  

Fine.  Thank you Andy Clark, for the observation!

But where I begin to become more interested is with the idea that the "interplay" may go the other way as well.  We take it as axiomatic that--however extended our cognition is into the cell phones we deploy--"cognition" extends from the the "I" outward, a Cartesian intentionality where "I" am the master of my many tools.  But couldn't it happen the other way?  Couldn't we be the "tool" of some machine cognition--a pawn, as it were, in the connectivity of our hand-helds?  We don't, I think, need to stoop to Hollywood science fiction to imagine this--indeed, this is the whole branch of science and technology studies (Actor-Network Theory and its many spin-offs).  Our machines "exert" some of their own priorities onto us, and, rather fittingly, we, accordingly, become more "machine-like" in our thinking.  The moment you've moved outside of a room to get a better cell phone connection is the moment you've done your machine's "bidding"!   But how has this impacted our conversations and relationships with each other? 

We can see this Andy Clark's blog entry itself--"What counts is the flow and alteration of information, not the medium through which it moves."  He already conceives of cognition along the lines of information technologies--as quanta of information sent and received.  He has become (as have all of us) more "computer-like" in our cognition, just as our current development of multiple social networking platforms has made our social life more "network-like".  Or the universality of Graphical Use Interfaces has made us capable (or incapable) of "multi-tasking".  That is, not just adding a new word ("multi-tasking") but enabling people to consider cognitive actions as discrete "applications" that can be simultaneously undertaken like opening multiple windows on a computer screen. 

For the future, these are the interesting, unanswered questions: if we're doing "cell phone" thinking today, what kinds of cognitions will we be embedded in tomorrow?  What machines will we invent to help us think?  And how will those machines "think" with us?

McClelland et al. (1986) J.J. McClelland, D.E. Rumelhart and the PDP Research Group (eds).  Parallel Distributed Processing.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Parasitic Twittering at the Anthropology Conference

I posted this at www.wfs.org as well . . .

I’m back from the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana.  As expected, 6000 of us shuttled between two, huge, corporate hotels on Canal Street, soaking up hundreds of panels, poster sessions, round tables and workshops organized according to our association's unique calculus—unpopular panels (like mine) should be held in cavernous banquet halls, while popular topics should be granted a room the size of a bargain berth on a Carnival cruise.
But there was also Twitter.  By all accounts, a few thousand tweets from a handful of people before, during, and after our conference.  You can see them all archived with the #aaa2010 hash code.

There was “Kerim” (as he is known at the anthropology blog, “Savage Minds” [savageminds.org]), alerting anthropologists to the “Twitter Meetup” at a restaurant near the hotel.  “Ethnographic Terminilia” to a party at Du Mois Gallery (uptown).  The jazz funeral for Walter Payton, the celebrated New Orleans bassist.  A book signing at an uptown bookstore.  Hints on getting around town; kvetching about the water “boil alert” (from Friday to Sunday).

Not exactly South By Southwest, was it?  It depends on what you were expecting.

Last year, there was an avalanche of blogging about the political power of twitter in Tehran—later (and rather embarrassingly for journalists who ought to have been more skeptical) revealed to be far less of a revolution than originally depicted.  But it’s par for the course for our society, where technologies are regularly accorded tremendous power to affect social and political change.  Malcolm Gladwell critiqued this tendency towards hyperbole in a recent New Yorker article.  He warns,

"It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability.  It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.  The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient.  They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.  If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you.  But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause." (Gladwell 2010)

In many ways, Gladwell is spot-on in his critique.  Too many essayists and academics write about Twitter the way people write about iPads or cell phones or whatever—as pivotal, ultimately deterministic technologies that are going to change the world in some beneficial way.   This is where marketing and scholarship meet: sales hype finds its hyperbolic echo in academic scholarship.  When the reality is less than game-changing, you’d think that these kinds of proclamations would become less common.  But the same commentators just move on to the next social media.

Ultimately, this distracts us from considering what social media do, and what they might do in the future.  Looking back at the modest twitter presence at the anthropology meetings, it would be hard to suggest that twitter represented an alternative to the main conference.  Nothing of the sort, really—most of the tweets were actually commentary, summaries or advertising for papers and presentations at the conference.  But the stuff that got retweeted the most were announcements for off-site events: little challenges to the monopoly of the conference site in the form of meet-ups, gallery showings and book signings.  In other words, nothing there that represented an actual alternative to the conference (not a new way to conference), but little nudges to conference attendees to consider supplemental events outside.

Here, twitter reminds me of Michel Serres on “parasite logic,” the way that a outside, third party (or media) intercedes in a dyadic communication and opens the possibility for new meanings or new action.  As Brown (2002:16-17) writes,

“In information terms, the parasite provokes a new form of complexity, it engineers a kind of difference by intercepting relations. All three meanings then coincide to form a ‘parasite logic’–analyze (take but do not give), paralyze (interrupt usual functioning), catalyze (force the
host to act differently). This parasite, through its
interruption, is a catalyst for complexity. It does this by impelling the parties it parasitizes to act in at least two ways. Either they incorporate the parasite into their midst–and thereby accept the new form of communication the parasite inaugurates–or they act together to expel the parasite and transform their own social practices in the course of doing so.”

Twitter’s power lies in its ability to interrupt, supplement and catalyze different kinds of behavior: a media to impel people to (briefly) diverge from their expected scripts at the conference and, say, take a trolley uptown. This is a powerful potential—one that people like Clay Shirkey have made a career off of extrapolating upon.

But it is, ultimately, a parasite technology, one that requires the presence of more monolithic institutions to function.  That is, it supplements the school, the meeting, the demonstration, rather than moves to replace them.  More than that, its ontology rests on the presence of these more permanent, more powerful structures.  This hardly represents some grand failure on the part of social media—it’s a just a reminder to look to the social contexts of media rather than media themselves.

Doing so can also free us to imagine other parasite technologies—cascades of social media that nudge, prod, intrude, implore.  We move to a future where social technologies will consistently fail to be transcendent—will fail to utterly transform the way we exist and communicate. But ultimately, the parasitic itself can prove transformative.


Brown, Steven D. (2002). “Michel Serres.” Theory,
Culture & Society 19(3):1-27.
Gladwell, Malcolm (2010).  “Small Change.”  New Yorker 10.4.2010: 42-49.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Anthropological RPG

While looking for the European journal, Anthropos, I stumbled across another Anthropos--this one an anthropologically-informed RPG start-up comprised of a PhD student in anthropology (Calvin Johns) and a linguistics/ literature Ph.D. (Travis Rinehart).  It looks like they'll be releasing "Early Dark" soon--although I can't tell whether it will get any kind of distribution or whether it will be strictly print-on-demand (POD).  It's a typical, table-top RPG, but with the anthropological twist.

What does it mean to have an anthropologically informed RPG?  In a July interview with Park Cooper (posted on the Comics Bulletin column,  "The Park and Bob Show"),  Rinehart describes their goal as creating "a world that as accurately as possible represents an anthropologically correct vision of human reality (besides magick)," while Johns adds that "We take influence from cultures traditionally demonized, feminized, stereotyped or homogenized in other games."  Moreover, players move across a culturally heterogeneous landscape--"each nation in the game (there are no races, because any intelligent person realizes that race is a mythic category that wasn't even an issue in the world until the last 400 years or so) is a blend of at least two other cultures."  Basically, anthropology old (the emphasis on systemtic generalization) and new (a multicultural, pluralist vision).

Sunday, September 26, 2010

How to avoid staying at the corporate hotel . .

I blogged a bit about my multi-agent systems-informed theories for de-centralized convention planning at the World Future Society . . .This, as the American Anthropological Association again prepares to meet at a non-union venue.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Blogging . . .Somewhere else

These days, I've been blogging a bit at the World Future Society.  I'm joined there by other future-oriented bloggers . . .

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review of Time Treks by Ashis Nandy

Ashis Nandy.  Time Treks: the Uncertain Future of Old and New Despotisms.  NY: Seagull Books, 2008, 228 pp., US$ 34.95 (paperback).

It is easy to assume that we have no future.  Not a real one, anyway.  Business and government collude to limit our imagination of the future to a catalog of product releases.  Within the confines of advanced capitalism, the future can only be The Present 2.0.  The alternatives can only be, we’re told, atavistic returns to the “tribe” and to the various parochialisms they imply.  As Fredric Jameson complained a few years ago (2005: 281):
The surrender to various forms of market ideology—on the Left, I mean, not to mention everyone else—has been imperceptible but alarmingly universal.  Everyone is now willing to mumble, as though it were an inconsequential concession to in passing to public opinion and current received wisdom (or shared communicational presuppositions), that no society can function efficiently without the market, and that planning is obviously impossible.  
But there are possibilities, and one of the challenges for cultural critics writing in the West is to attempt to articulate—or at least evoke—the potential for alternative futures, if for no other reason than to open up a space for critical thinking outside of the morally, politically and (now) economically bankrupt “free market”.  But it has not been easy for Western intellectuals to mount a Great Refusal against an economic, social and political system which overdetermines consciousness and structures even haptic sensations.    Even academic publishing (like media in general) ensures the endless proliferation of certain theorists, keywords and texts, and the complete obfuscation of others—particularly Asian scholars.  Like the other products we consume, our scholarship is driven (and delimited) by the market it embraces.

I came to Time Treks looking for just such alternatives and come away intrigued with what I’ve found.  Nandy is one of a select few Indian intellectuals whose work is read and reviewed in the West.  Of course, he is hardly the only Indian intellectual to be so prolific or so wide in his breadth, but he is one of few to have maintained both a critical and geographic distance from the US and Europe for most of his long career. 

Time Treks is a compilation of academic addresses made over the past two decades, ranging over an exceptionally broad terrain—utopias, India-Pakistan relations, urban studies, poverty and development, nuclear arms races.  What ties them all together is an incredulity towards the kinds of futures thinking (literally) capitalized on in a globalized world—linear, progressive, teleological.
It is a remarkable feature of our times that so many individuals and collectivities are willing and even eager to forego their right to design their own futures.  Some societies do not any longer have a workable definition of the future.  They have a past, a present, and someone else’s present as their future.  (174)
Here, he joins a number of non-Western intellectuals (e.g.,  Afro-Futurists) taking aim at the monolithic one-dimensionality of discourses on the future.

And, whatever the target of these essays, his work can be seen in the context of a political psychology extrapolating on Erich Fromm in his sustained critique of Enlightenment rationalism, and, in particular, the way the Enlightenment sets up particular dichotomies of citizen and state, developed and developing, that both determine and contain the course of postcolonial struggle.
In ecology, human rights, and feminism, too, there is the usual aggressive ethnocentrism masquerading as global ethics.  In dissent, as in radical social protest. European and proto-European intellectual traditions are often as arrogant as ever about their centrality in the global order of cultures.  They continue to see the Enlightenment vision as the ultimate depository of answers to all basic human questions on society and politics.  (81)
This is a hard pill for those of us involved in any sort of global activism to swallow, but one that is, I think, ultimately salutary.  The question is the extent to which Eurocentric assumptions about politics, society, economics, religion and science limit our imagination about what might be.  How do we imagine the future of the multicultural state?  It is difficult to challenge the vague cosmopolitanism which forms the basis for many of our hopes and fears.  But, as Nandy (162) points out, there is much to be gained by challenging the “singular historical trajectory” at core of writings on the cosmopolitan.

But where do we find this post-colonial, Marcusean challenge?  Not in the prognostications of futurists and policy makers, whom Nandy singles out for special critique.  Instead, Nandy urges that we look to alternatives in the absurd and even occasionally half-articulated visions of people speaking from the margins.
This is not merely because the absurd and the surreal should have a place in the creative endeavour, but because in a multiethnic, multicultural world they can act as bridges among incommensurable worlds.  In a confederational global order of cultures, one’s normal is always someone else’s absurd, and someone else’s surreal is one’s reality.  (20)
Here, Nandy is little help in articulating what the visions of such a “global underworld” (109) might be, but this because he self-reflexively includes himself in the set of intellectuals who have been co-opted into Eurocentric imaginings of the future:
It is unlikely that I shall live to see the day, but I am consoled by the thought that I belong to a generation of South Asian scholars whose demise can only hasten the end of the present phase of self-hatred, of our ridiculous attempts to live out some other culture’s history.  (39)
But we can, at least, begin to sketch the contours of that vision by following Nandy’s Marcusean negation.

First, a disavowal of Enlightenment teleologies that imbricate our imagining of technology, democracy, progress and change.  This can involve a direct critique of institutions, as in Nandy’s characterization of the UN as “only an edited version of the present global nation-state system” (193).  But it also means overcoming cherished myths of Western progress and replacing them with more fluid, even heterotopic, possibility:
Perhaps in the present global culture the shaman, taken metaphysically as opposition to the king and the priest, remains the ultimate symbol of authentic dissent, representing the utopian and transcendental aspects of the child, the lunatic, the androgynous, and the artist.  In this he remains the least socialized articulation of the values of freedom, creativity, multiple realities, and an open future.  (178)
There’s a question here about the ultimate value of something like the “shaman,” itself a Western reification resting on pernicious binarisms of nature/culture, western/non-western, rational/ irrational.  But I would argue that Nandy’s shaman is not Castaneda’s shaman (nor Eliade’s, nor Campbell’s).  Instead, the “shaman” stands in for a kind of sublimated possibility at the core of globalization—the possibility for unrest, certainly, but also the virtual potentials that have been silenced by the head-long rush into neo-liberal oblivion: “In this he remains the least socialized articulation of the values of freedom, creativity, multiple realities, and an open future” (178).   Perhaps here Nandy’s shaman might be compared to Michael Taussig’s, a figure of magic and secrecy, to be sure, but also “a set of tricks, simulations, deceptions, and art or appearances in a continuous movement of counterfeit and feint” (Taussig 2003: 278).

The “shaman,” in other words, is less some exoticized figure standing outside science and rationalism than a place-keeper for the tactics on the margins, involving not only alternatives to present configurations of power/knowledge, but also the heterogeneity of challenges to the center in the oftentimes unrecognized and delegitimized tactics of the powerless.

Jameson, Fredric (2005).  Archaeologies of the Future.  NY: Verso.    
Taussig, Michael (2003).  “Viscerality, Faith, and Skepticism.”  In Magic and Modernity, ed. by Birgit Meyer and Peter Pels, pp. 272-306.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Mars Habs and Anthropology

One strand of emergent anthropology that I've been following over the years has been the "anthropology of outer spaces,"  one recently given new life by a few anthropologists, Deborah Battaglia and David Valentine among them, who have begun to theorize space not just as shadow of terrestrial geo-politics, but as "reconstituting humanness and human sociality in the here and now" (Valentine, Olson and Battaglia 2009: 11).

Space is one of the paramount sites for the legitimation of Western configurations of power/knowledge.  The kinds of futures people ascribe to space--e.g., the military-technocratic order of Star Trek: the Next Generation--have a lot to do with the apotheosis of colonialism under the auspices of neo-liberal capitalism (Kilgore 2005).  But there are different possibilities as well--as Vaelntine et al point out.

But some of these possible, alternative futures are happening right here, in the form of Mars simulations placing groups of scientist-volunteers in a "hab" environment for long periods of time (from a few weeks to, in the case of the ongoing Russia/ ESA project, a few months), during which communications with the Earth are severely truncated and people should "suit up" before going outside, etc.  Sure, as Valentine et al point, only 500 people may have inhabited space, but how many thousands more have enacted life in outer spaces?  

The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) has been around for some time--since 2002, and has been joined by other habs as part of the Mars Analog Research Station (MARS) project.   Over the last 7 seasons, teams have gone to the station, simkulated their Mars colony, and posted lots of repoprts and updates.  Lots of these present and former para-astronauts have left behind their blogs--"Mars, ho!".

OK--some of this looks an awful lot like those dismal Star Trek futures, but there are occasionally intimations of sometghing else.  Together, all of these records, journals and reports suggest other possibilities--challenges to race, gender and class.  Possibilities for a playful and emancipatory outer space. 


 Kilgore, De Witt Douglas (2003).  Astrofuturism.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. 

Valentine, David, Valerie Olson and Debbora Battaglia (2009).  "Encountering the Future."  Anthropology News: December, pp. 11+. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A tale of two futures--North and South Korea at the Shanghai World Expo

I am deeply disappointed that I can't travel to Shanghai to see the national theater that is the World Expo.

With both Koreas plotting futures in which China plays a pivotal role, both expo pavilions express the shape of future, Korean engagements.

South Korea with a nod to its accelerated program of "cultural content" projected into the future as a longing for Korean culture through variously streamed media (image from the official site).   Korean writing (한글) forms the building blocks of a multimedia spectacle--literally, a media ziggurat erected upon Korean culture and language. 
 The North Korean installation (looking a bit like a carpet discount outlet), expresses an affirmation (an also a desire) for a properly "juche" future where China and the world will look to North Korea for its steadfastness.  The juche tower still burns!  I don't know what's up with those umbrellas, though.  

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Review: Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks

Over the past couple of years, a rising trend: ethnographic explorations of gaming and RPG's. The anthropological ones have been interesting: Tom Boellstorff's Coming of Age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the Virtually Human and the forthcoming ethnography, My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An anthropologists account of World of Warcraft, by Bonnie Nardi. But it's the para-anthropologies that concern me here--Mark Barrowcliffe's blistering (and ultimately depressing) The Elfish Gene and, most recently, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: an Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms

All of them (anthropological and para-anthropological) share certain characteristics: they all approach role-playing games from the perspective of the middle-aged outsider, socially distant from the world of the gamer. This is at least methodologically familiar in the academic anthropology. Stereotypically, the anthropologist is always supposed to straddle ironic configurations of engagement and detachment. But for the nonce anthropologists, it is an invitation to indulge in psychologisms about "those" people. What makes those gamers tick? Why are they spending so much time in WoW, anyway?

This is at least partly attributable to the writers themselves. Ethan Gilsdorf begins with the psychodrama of his mother's aneurysm, the trauma of which intensifies his adolescent fascinations with role-playing. In fact, it's Various Issues originating in this that send him into metonymic encounters with other forms role-playing far removed from his childhood D&D campaigns: Live-Action Role--Playing (LARPs), the Society for Creative Anachronism, World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings tourism in New Zealand. Amidst interviews with men and women who game, his own adulthood is never far behind: What does he really believe? Can he let the past go? And can he commit to his girlfriend (or, perhaps, find a new one)?

Of course, it's all about him in the end. At the end of his journey, Gilsdorf finds himself clutching some Lord of the Rings action figures in the shadow of Mount Victoria (site of the "Outer Shire" where Frodo and co. first encounter the Nazgul). Here, he finds both deep embarrassment and, of course, self-revelation:
Goofing around with the figurines had been fun, until it began to feel pathetic. What was I doing, a forty-two-year-old, single, and childless man, traveling on his own, sleeping in youth hostels, and playing with toys?
[ . . .]
I gathered my strength. It was time to leave Mount Victoria and Middle-earth behind. I packed up and headed down the path. Then, I heard a voice.

This is what you're going to do, Ethan. You're going to leave them here.

[ . . .]

You are digging a hole in a hillside in New Zealand, the voice continued. It was hard to turn it off. You are doing something symbolic. This is what it feels like to have an epiphany. (266-67)
But do gamers indulge in the same introspection? I suspect that the vast majority are no more troubled than, say, the modal American (and perhaps considerably less so). But this really isn't a critique of Gilsdorf's otherwise engaging essays. Gilsdorf's relentless pop-psychology and narcissistic navel-gazing seems to be an inextricable part of this genre. In fact, I consider this a kind of popular ethnography, full of interesting interviews and observations--all to the good, I think.

But I wonder if Gilsdorf's book, in the final analysis, is constrained by the same assumptions that enable it in the first place. That is, what animates the book project is the sense that gamers have broken with everyday mores, that they, in other words, are different, odd, noteworthy, iconoclastic: that they require investigation and explanation. Once we've understood their gaming lives, of course, they no longer seem quite so strange after all, do they? What Gilsdorf's book does is to fall into the old anthropological gambit: a) describing the strangeness of gamers; and b) rationalizing that strangeness.

But what if gaming isn't a particularly strange activity? What if, in fact, "gaming" describes a very commonplace experience? Gilsdorf begins to develop this idea towards the end of his book (181):

I noticed gamers playing everywhere, even in my corner cafe. Being online with WoW and other MMOs has become an acceptable use of public space. However, penetrating the MMO subculture proved more difficult than showing up for a weekend event in a purple shirt. Online gaming runs silent. Online gaming runs deep. And it takes place both everywhere and nowhere, and the spaces in between. As I learned more about online gaming, and spoke to players and game developers, nothing seemed black and white. I kept reading stories that linked gaming to either escapism or hedonism, antisocial behavior or community. Both warm fuzzies and red flags kept popping up.

But I knew that alternative electronic identities were a part of life. I'd already participated in online dating, MySpace, Facebook, and e-mail: In my profiles and flirtatious texts, I'd put forth my best, most seductive versions of myself. Safe behind the barrier of a computer screen, I was tempted to rewrite my personal history, or claim to be passionate about something--say, ending world hunger--just to snare a date. Wasn't I already role-playing, even if not in a heroic fantasy realm? But at what expense to me, not to mention the millions of MMO players whose interest in gaming seems to fill a psychic hole in our culture?


I didn't find my Lady Geek. My Rings fanboy was only partly sated. To end with the Dark Lord of the Sith felt like poetic justice. But, as Ethnor-An3 might say, observing the scene in a partial state of inebriation, I was as welcome here as anyone. The great bat wings of Dragon*Con embraced all types. This was the lesson of the con. Even if I personally did not end up embracing anyone.

I trudged back to my hotel, passing through the real Planet Earth, that brash zone of Hooters and Hard Rock Cafes and warring football fans who had descended on Atlanta, or Atlantis, or wherever I was. Folks lingered at tailgator parties in parking lots, each side dressed in matching uniforms--one fandom (Clemson) in orange T-shirts, polos, and baseball caps, the other (Alabama fans) in scarlet. They stumbled about, smashing bottles, trying to find their hotels, clinging to their gods and heroes, no more or less freakish than the rest of us. (239)
I think Gilsdorf is right--gamers are similar to people who spend their time posting on Facebook, or sports fans who tail-gate. They're all investing--lavishing--time and money on their hobby/ avocation. They're all working at their play.

It has become commonplace to look at consumption in the age of Web 2.0 as (after the work of Michel de Certeau) a form of "secondary production," where meanings, social relations and affect shift in the act of appropriation by the consumer. But little, here, on the "relations of secondary production".

As Marx wrote in Contributions to the Critique of Political Economy,

In the social production of their life men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure, the real basis on which rises and legal and political superstructure . . .

Couldn't this also be the case with secondary production? Much of the work on consumer studies implies a separation of the work of producers from that of consumers. Somehow, "leisure" and "consumption" haven't implied the level of alienation and reification that we associate with "real" work. In fact, the opposite has generally been true, with critics in cultural studies characterizing work practices utilizing language and theory cribbed from leisure. That is, work practices get coded as social and cultural expression, rather than the opposite.

But if we consider leisure a form of work, or, rather, if the two have become so interpenetrated in an age of networked capitalism that it is no longer particularly helpful to analytically separate them, then we can see games as work.  As Vandenberghe (2008: 884) notes, “With the privitization of the commons, the boundaries between production and communication, production and consumption, labour and leisure, paid and unpaid work disappear. [ . . .] When free time becomes productive, everything becomes work"

This is particularly the case in the more socially networked games that Gilsdorf explores. Without the "free labor" of 11 million WoW adherents, there would be no record-breaking profits for Blizzard Entertainment. Moreover, despite the absence of wages, it seems obvious to me that this is a form of work, similar to other forms of non-remunerated labor.

So what was most interesting to me in Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks were the tales from the trenches, the narratives of labor: how many hours people lavish on costumes, the tales surrounding the acquisition of various artifacts, the hours they drove to LARPing, the time they'd put into DragonCon. A "relations of secondary production" would focus our attention on the conditions of (secondary) work: the relations of (re) production, the alienation of the (re) worker: the proletarianization of the world in the frisson of Deleuzian capitalism.


Vandenberghe, Frederic (2008). "Deleuzian Capitalism." Philosophy & Social Criticism 34(8): 877-903.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Notes from the Ethnographic Archive

Web 2.0 has stimulated ethnographic desire--the archiving of vast records of everyday life in the form of videos and podcasts. The Gamer's Haven is one, hours and hours of role-playing game sessions . . .

Friday, March 19, 2010

Robert Fletcher on Cory Doctorow

There's a nice piece on Cory Doctorow by Robert Fletcher in the current issue of Science Fiction Studies (SFS).  It surprised me a little to find it there, since Doctorow is not exactly the sf canon, yet, as I have blogged about here, there is really no better example of the current "structure of feeling" than Doctorow--he's right there, blogging constantly, writing for any magazine that will have him, putting a creative commons license on everything but insisting on the profitability of the whole enterprise.  In short, it would be hard to find a literary figure who does a better job exploring the tensions and contradictions of the neo-liberal, especially when it comes down to the fluidity of information, the role of the state, the constitution of the individual and, in general, the contradictions of a monolithic yet simultaneously superannuated capitalist system.  It's that aspect of his fiction that I find interesting, even when it doesn't quite hold together: the accelerated heteroglossia of a networked era. As Fletcher (81) writes, "Like Dickens's competing roles as artist, advocate, and entrepreneur tell us something about his novels' relations to changing modes of cultural production and to the social organization they entail."  And as Doctorow continues to write past the dot.com crash into the depths of our information-saturated, Orwellian state, we'll see more in his work that chronicles the contradictions of our times.  One of the best parts about what Fletcher identifies as Doctorow's "networked" identity is the perspective it gives us onto the messiness of figuring things out in the global present.  Drawing on the diverse discourses around him to form occasionally refractory assemblages of ideas, and then working those ideas back and forth over the course of several essays, novels and short stories is not only symptom but also synecdoche of the neoliberal present.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Imagining a Unified Korea, Part I--파란 달 아래와 국가의 사생활

A nation like Korea that has been artificially partitioned (분단) necessarily spends considerable resources planning for unification. Indeed, the governments of both north and south Korea have historically drawn legitimation from their promise of eventual unification. But the scholarship here falls mostly along economic, security and administrative policy lines: the logistics of the unified nation. What's missing from much of this is a sense of the everyday life of a unified Korea, i.e., one that, whatever the course of unification (sudden v. gradual) or the ultimate shape its will take (e.g., one nation, two systems), addresses the way people will live and interact with each other. How do people imagine interacting with the Other on a quotidian level? Indeed, the imagination of everyday life may be the most important factor in the successful unification of the two Koreas.

There are some interesting sites from which one might extrapolate. One is the growing population of North Koreans residing in the South (탈북자, or the more official, '새터민'). As they interact with their southern counterparts, seek employment (a big problem for this small group of people) and render their opinions of life in the South (helped by a fairly relentless crowd of network television and Korean social scientists), we can begin to see at least one shape for a unified Korea.

But, science fiction may give another. There have been a handful of sf novels and stories extrapolating on Korean unification through the eyes of the south, although I expect to see more as the imagination of unfification moves from an emphasis on redressing past injustices (i.e., correcting the distortions of Korea's artificial partitioning and restoring the nation/ethnos (민족) to its rightful patrimony) to the plotting the ascendancy of a Korean future (Korean unification merged into the developmental discourse of the neoliberal state).

Probably the best known of unification sf is Bok Geo-il's (복거일) 1992 novel, 파란 달 아래 (Under a Blue Moon). Originally published serially on a discussion board, Bok's novel traces the unficiation of two lunar bases in the year 2039--the north's Kim Il-sung base, and the south's Jang Yeong-sil base. There is considerable resistance from their respective Earth-bound governments, but, in the context of a strong, lunar independence movement (the Selenites, after H.G. Wells), the possibility for a truly unified ethnos (한민족) gradually becomes possible,

Indeed, we can see Bok's vision as an extrapolation of 1980's minjung (민중) discourse that sought to transcend political and social divisions through transcendental evocations of "folk" Korea, i.e., a critical, oppositional discourse on Korean identity arising "from below" and drawing selectively from agrarian tradition (Bok would return to minjung themes in some of his more recent writings). In this novel, the message is simple: without the interference of government (both domestic and international), Korean unification is a natural tendency. Through Bok's North Korean protagonist, we get both a critique of government brinkmanship, but also a circumspect critique of Western imperialism.

Here, as Grinker points out in Korea and Its Futures, Bok anticipates more official sentiments in exonerating the North's people of any wrongdoing: the tragedy of division lies with the government that has prospered on the back on bundan (분단). The lunar bases literally allow the realization of a minjung utopia from the ground up.