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What the Ancients Knew

In addition to my doctoral studies, I write about the Washington Capitals for a local sports blog. In response to some of the histrionic responses and rationalizations after Monday night’s overtime loss, I wrote this post as a bit of long perspective. Most of the following research was conducted in graduate seminars at the University of Maryland. Yes, this is a post about a hockey game.

The ancient Greeks famously made their gods into humans, and their humans into gods.

After death, heroes like Theseus, Odysseus, and Jason were deified, honored with memorials and hero cults. After death, they possessed the ability to enact positive effect – in a limited geographic range – to those who honored them (or negative to those who did not) through ritual tribute and sacrifice.

Gods were divine beings who possessed even great power than heroes and who were also venerated, out of fear more than respect. Gods were capricious, unpredictable. We’re familiar with the Olympians, but emotions, primordial elements, and even physical locations were governed by gods as well.

Marble sculpture of Tyche, wearing a crown shaped like city walls. This Tyche was meant to bring luck to a specific city. Image from Flickr user mharrsch (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mharrsch/)

Eris, Eros, Hypnos, Thanatos. Strife, love, sleep, death. Helios, the sun. Selene, the moon.

Tyche, daughter of Hermes and Aphrodite (you probably remember her, right?), was a favorite goddess of cities and other institutions. She’s the goddess and personification of luck.

Implicit in this type of mythological system is the search for the answer to a fundamental question: Why do bad things happen to us?

Not “why do bad things happen to good people,” although morality at times became a factor. Why do bad things happen to us?

(And how do we define “us”, anyway? That’s a subject for another day.)

Happen to us. Passive voice. The bane of freshman English comp students. Passive voice is weakness, a lack of agency. When you make something happen, you control it. When something happens to you, you have no control.

The gods became a coping method as the ancient Greeks realized how much of the world around them was out of their control. Mount Etna erupting? The titan Typhon trapped underneath it, struggling to break free. Harsh storms at sea? Poseidon raging against a lack of tribute, the misdeeds of someone on the ship, or perhaps he was fighting another god and the fleet is caught in the crossfire. Now there is agency. There is a reason. You can still believe in an order to the universe.

Sure, it’s not that much solace when your friends are dead or your ship is sinking, but at least you know why. Even the things that are completely out of your control still have an underlying reason, a structure, and that brings small comfort. More so if you, in some small way, had (or could have had) control over the event through prayer, offerings, or actions.

Another aspect of Greek religious practice was the scapegoat, though in that part of the Mediterranean the unfortunate being was a human. This person, the pharmakos, was a marginalized member of society – slave, beggar, disfigured – who was expelled from the community. The pharmakos could be deemed necessary when a disaster befell the community, or as part of regular ritual practice.

Much like the Biblical scapegoat, most pharmakoi weren’t actually killed as part of the ritual, though they were beaten and derided before being driven from the gates. The act of expelling a pharmakos or scapegoat is a rite of purification. Whether in response to calamity or as a regular matter of course, the pharmakos carried all the sins and negative baggage of the community, purifying that community to allow it to prosper in his or her (usually his) absence.

Identifying and expelling the pharmakos, the scapegoat, was an act of agency by the community. It didn’t necessarily allow them to regain control over their own fate, but at the least it was a reset button. It was an act of catharsis as well.

Small consolation to that man wandering the rocky Greek countryside. Small consolation to the one individual given responsibility for the ills of the entire community. The scapegoat has no say in his selection.

Prayers to the gods. Tributes offered to local heroes. Rituals. Scapegoats. Reactions of a community to events happening to them, beyond their control, that seemingly make no sense.

Nature abhors a vacuum, especially when it comes to meaning.

Funny how some things never change.

When The End Is Soon, But Uncertain

Art history is one of my main loves, but only my love for my wife surpasses that of hockey. Growing up in suburban Maryland, when my town was nothing but a bedroom community for D.C., I was a Washington Capitals fan ever since attending my first game at the Capital Centre in Landover at the age of 4. Not just a fan, I’ve been playing organized hockey basically straight since then, only taking a few years’ break during college.

Last night, the Caps lost a second round playoff game in triple overtime. In the Stanley Cup playoffs, games that are tied at the end of 60 minutes of regulation then proceed to sudden death overtime: 20-minute period after 20-minute period of hockey until a player finds the back of the net with the puck and the game abruptly ends. In this game, it happened at 14:41 of the third overtime period, almost double the length of a normal game. In almost a century, only 19 games have lasted longer.

Many overtime games end early. The average length of the previous 20 or so OT games in the 2012 playoffs was about seven minutes, but with no official end time, teams can’t prepare for a final 30 minutes of game action like in soccer.

Players have to focus on giving their best effort, while also preserving themselves for future shifts. Most forwards play 12-18 minutes in a 60-minute game, most defensemen 15-24 minutes. On the Capitals, whose coach Dale Hunter prefers to utilize all his players, the low man in terms of ice time was Keith Aucoin, who was on the ice for 17:21 of game action. Dennis Wideman skated over 40 minutes. On the other bench, Rangers coach John Tortorella prefers to use some players heavily. Top defenseman Ryan McDonagh was on the ice for 53:17 of game’s 114:41 length. By comparison, sixth defenseman Stu Bickel played 3:24 – he spent over an hour-and-a-half of game time sitting on the bench after his last shift early in the second period.

Earlier in the afternoon yesterday, my department hosted a retirement party for my advisor, who is leaving the university after 25 years. That occasion was the genesis of a lot of conversation between myself and others about the process of completing my dissertation, now that my advisor is moving several states away.

It strikes me that overtime is an apt analogy for the completion of a dissertation, even though I’m still in the first period of mine. Often the phrase used is “the end is in sight,” but really it’s only sensed, not seen. You know it’s there, but there’s still tweaking, editing, re-writing, refining, and all those other processes. Add to that the fact that it’s only really done with someone else – your committee, but really just your advisor – pronounces it “done”, and the comparison makes sense. Try your best to give every aspect your all and put in the necessary work, while not getting too high or too low. It’s about pace – how quickly and efficiently you can complete tasks – and pacing. And sometimes, luck.

For the almost …

N.B. As proof of my naivete when it comes to posting blog entries, this was the original blog I wrote and thought I had posted, but instead saved as a draft. Here it is now, for the sake of completeness.

For the almost two years of its existence, this website has been an e-portfolio dressed up in a blog’s clothing, with some static pages of information and an updated CV. Inspired by Katy Meyers’s April 3 GradHacker column, I’ll be experimenting this month with posting here twice-weekly with my academic-related thoughts.

To start off, within the past few days I’ve been working on the syllabus and promotional materials for a summer art history course on comics, as well as on organizing a “game night” later this month as a preview for a fall semester symposium series on video games.

My research and readings on comics and video games have taken me in interesting places, with a fair amount of unsurprising overlap. Taking a glance at Mark Sample’s graphic novel syllabi for inspiration, I took the time to read some of the linked articles on general popular culture criticism he assigns for the first week his grad level class. Heeding Sample’s instructions, I not only read Ian Bogost’s Against Aca-Fandom and Henry Jenkins’s On Mad Men, Aca-Fandom, and the Goals of Cultural Criticism, but the extensive comments following Bogost’s post as well. Impressive that Bogost, Jenkins, Jason Mittell, Sample, and others engage in such extensive (and civil) dialogue refining points and challenging assumptions made in Bogost’s post and related articles, as well as expanding on points that were glossed over or only barely touched on in the initial work.

However…the comment that struck closest to home was the following:

I love this! Not only for the insightful post, Ian, but for the conversation thundering through your comments section. It’s a nice peek behind the curtain of media scholarship for those of us who haven’t spent much time backstage.

Conversations like this are bound to get a little clubby in the end, bound to circle the adorno/zizek/buffy drain eventually. I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or not. If it’s true that scholars need to make more kinds of things, then I wonder how they can make more things that appeal to more people, including (maybe especially) people who don’t look, act, or talk like them. Not saying you need to trash adorno, zizek, or buffy, of course–as Mickey Knox would say, it’s pretty hard to beat the king. I’m just wondering if it’s possible to have this conversation in ways that welcome voices of people from outside of the troupe.

Which is totally true. Part of this may be my coming from art history, and a traditional department at that, but my fluency with all the theory being tossed around is pretty slim. Adorno, Zizek, the Frankfurt School, Stuart Hall…all things/folks mentioned in asides with comfort and ease that are totally unfamiliar to me (and another Benjamin, I only have a passing familiarity with).

It’s daunting to realize you need a bibliography in order to comprehend a comments discussion. The commentator phrases her point in a way that encourages the participants to think about non-scholars, but in using “scholars” she’s really referring to media (television, video games, digital humanities) scholars. And to be honest, I gave up on the comments about halfway through as they continued to parley in philosophical theories and insider catchphrases.

The more I read on comics and video games, the more I feel unprepared to teach them appropriately in a college setting. Which is sad, because I’ve been teaching this class since 2010, before I’d even heard of the aforementioned influential scholars. Hell, I hadn’t heard of Mittell and Jenkins until last month.

I enjoy teaching the class on comics. I thought it was successful in 2010, and even better in 2011. My hope is that the 2012 iteration will be even better still, though I haven’t quite figured out what changes I’ll be making yet, other than knowing I’ll be making them. My students enjoyed the class, and truly seemed to learn critical approaches to comics as narratives and art. Hell, I’ve even given two conference presentations related to the class, and have two book chapters forthcoming drawing from it – one presentation and chapter each on pedagogy and on interpretations of materials I use in the class. That said, there’s no question that the class operates a step or two down intellectually from even Sample’s undergraduate-level class.

Is it alright to be satisfied with the results of the class and with the level of scholarship I’m operating at? I’m not proud, per se, to know that Bogost, Jenkins, et al. are out there and not engage with them, but I’m okay with it for the purposes of my class and even for the scholarship I’ve produced so far. However, knowing that’s what’s out there is also a strong negative reinforcement to not try to do much more or dig much further. With a dissertation, other academic projects, and a life to lead, devoting the months and years to develop the level of fluency demonstrated by the commentators at Bogost’s site is far more than I’m able to give. I wholeheartedly respect that scholarship, and hope to be able to wiggle my way deeper, inch by inch, at my own pace

Sometimes Failure Works Out Pretty Well

The past few months have been the first where I’ve spent dedicated time researching my doctoral dissertation on the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Anglo-American artist Benjamin West and his family and workshop. My research involves a very wide-ranging cast of characters, and so a lot of the work I’ve done so far is background reading on various individuals who trained under West between 1765 and 1820…quite a range of dates.

Although I’m grappling with a few dozen artists (all American) who flitted in and out of West’s life over the course of three generations, there are two who stand out: Samuel F.B. Morse, and Robert Fulton.

Why do I like Morse and Fulton so much? Because even though I’m studying them in the context of painting and Benjamin West, they’re best known for something completely separate: the wildly influential inventions they had a part in creating, the telegraph (heard of Morse code?) and the (first commercially viable) steamboat.

Both men knew about West because of his status as the only truly internationally famous American-born artist to that point (John Singleton Copley was more skilled, but far less of a self-promoter and more easily discouraged). The crux of my dissertation is an examination of West’s desires to become recognized as the father of an “American school” of art and one of his tactics was to welcome any American-born or raised artist into his London studio for training, so that he may eventually leave and garner acclaim as a student of West, as well as an artist in his own right. Fulton and Morse both tapped into that notion. Fulton was born outside Philadelphia and his parents knew West’s father, so it was only logical that he travel to train with West once he decided to be a painter; Morse was younger than Fulton and so became an artist later in West’s life, and followed the same route as others in the 1810s, first training as a student under one of West’s students, Washington Allston, before traveling with his teacher to work with West.

Morse I’m more familiar with at this point, because he spent more time in West’s workshop, had a longer career as a painter before turning fully to the telegraph, and because his last gasp at artistic fame, the Gallery of the Louvre, is on display at the National Gallery of Art and I’ve been doing some background reading on it to familiarize myself for a Study Day tomorrow.

The Gallery of the Louvre was Morse’s attempt to collect and present the great works from that museum – Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is a small speck on a wall of masterpieces – for an American audience he wanted to expose to the greatness of history painting. It flopped before an audience that was more receptive to portraiture and to narrative painting, elements which appear in the Louvre but are not the focus.

Around the time Morse was finishing and exhibiting Gallery of the Louvre, he was beginning to work on the telegraph. A decade-and-a-half later and by then an established inventor, Morse received a letter from his old friend, the author James Fenimore Cooper, whom he had spent time with in Paris and who appears along with his family in Louvre. Cooper was low on money and inquired if Morse wanted to buy back a painting he sold to the author in the 1830s. After mentioning his own financial issues, Morse then wrote at length about his relationship with painting:

…Alas! my dear sir, the very name of pictures produces a sadness of heart I cannot describe. Painting has been a smiling mistress to many, but she has been a cruel jilt to me.I did not abandon her: she abandoned me…I sometimes indulge a vague dream that I may paint again. It is rather the memory of past pleasures when hope was enticing me onward, only to deceive me at last. Except some family portraits, valuable to me from their likenesses only, I could wish that every picture I ever painted was destroyed.

A harsh reflection by an individual who had previously been a strong advocate for the arts in America. Regret and shame, but also coming from a man who continued on to become a great success in another field in his 40s. It shows the impact art had on Morse’s life, that even at 58 years old he still couldn’t bear to think about the medium.

We Think About How We Play Games…What About How We Save Them?

This summer I’ll be teaching a seminar-level class for undergraduates on the art of comics at the University of Maryland for the third straight year (presuming enough students sign up, which is always a tenuous proposition). I already discussed the class in my previous post, so I won’t belabor that point. In addition to doing a lot of reading about video games, to fit that element into the class in conjunction with The Art of Video Games at SAAM, I’ve been doing a lot of playing of video games (tough life, I know).

The game I’ve spending the most time with at the moment is the first Assassin’s Creed (AC) game, which came out in late 2007. There are a few academic reasons for that game in particular. It was wildly popular in its own right and the third full installment is coming out later this year so it’s timely. I see a lot of potential for taking a study of Assassin’s Creed II, which takes place in Renaissance Italy and counts Leonardo da Vinci among its characters, to a pop culture conference like MAPACA, and possibly doing the same with Assassin’s Creed III, which will be set in revolutionary America…the same time period I’m working with on my dissertation. A long stretch, I know, but I figure it’s worth it to direct my entertainment in a potentially productive manner. The reason I’m starting with the first AC is simpler: when it comes to games I’m a completionist and a sucker for narrative, so I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the second and third games nearly as much without knowing the backstory from the first.

AC has a pretty clever narrative structure, which I wasn’t aware of until I started playing. Although the killing and whatnot takes place in the 12th century Middle East – Jerusalem, Acre, Damascus, Masyaf, and a generic “Kingdom” – but your primary player-character, Altaïr ibn-La’Ahad, is actually an avatar of a 21st century ex-assassin, who’s strapped into a machine called an “animus” which allows him to access the genetic memories of his ancestors. All this happens at the behest of an evil corporation which turns out to be the front for the Templars, bent on achieving some sort of ends (I haven’t beaten the game yet and I’m not going to spoil it for myself just to write this post!). Long experiences of romping around Crusade-era cities is interspersed with expository dialogue in a modern office building.

Beyond the game itself, and the very impressive graphics for a 5 1/2 year old game, something that’s really interested me in this playthrough is the issue of player interaction with the game. I’m playing it on a PC, where the game was released in April 2008, over five months after its initial release on PS3 and Xbox, neither of which I own. The controls are clearly ported from the console versions without a lot of concessions to the differences between a controller and a mouse and keyboard. In general, as the actions get more complex, the sequence of button-pressing gets more obtuse.

What’s got me thinking the most, even more than the controls, is the save system. As a single-player, sandbox type of game, AC‘s gameplay is most similar to Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas in terms of games I have recently played. In those games you can save any time you want, and make multiple saves, simply by pressing ESC and hitting a button. AC gives you no such freedom, which is fine. You can create multiple profiles, but within each profile you have no choice of when to save. There are nine missions, each of which entails going to an ancient city, receiving a mission from the local Assassin’s Bureau, climbing some buildings, getting some information, and then assassinating a target. Each time you take a significant action – climb a specific building, get a specific piece of information – the game automatically saves.

All that said, the issue I noticed wasn’t even with how the game saves, it was with where you are when you come back to the game. A few nights into playing the game, I was approaching a city for the first time when my game began to freeze. Zoning into the region itself was a checkpoint, so the game had automatically saved. After force-quitting the game, I logged back in to find my character standing in an unfamiliar building. Checking the map, I saw that I’d been teleported from the city gates to a location inside the city walls.

Obviously there was intention on the part of the designers – if a player wants to stop playing in the middle of a city, it makes sense for them to be in a safe space away from hostile guards and other NPCs when they log back in. However, the oversight to allow players to teleport to places they otherwise had yet to reach reach – getting into each city is supposed to be a tricky process – is a byproduct of a save system that takes agency away from the player to decide how and when to save.

The situation I found myself in was one that could only happen three times ever, at the first approach to each of three cities…not something that would happen frequent enough for designers to expend a lot of brainpower over. Nonetheless, it was a reminder that for all the focus on how players interact with games, the gateways provided by designers for stopping and starting games can have unintended impact on the player experience.

Comics, Video Games, and Theoretical Fluency

For the almost two years of its existence, this website has been an e-portfolio dressed up in a blog’s clothing, with some static pages of information and an updated CV. Inspired by Katy Meyers’s April 3 GradHacker column, I’ll be experimenting this month with posting here twice-weekly with my academic-related thoughts.

To start off, within the past few days I’ve been working on the syllabus and promotional materials for a summer art history course on comics, as well as on organizing a “game night” later this month as a preview for a fall semester symposium series on video games.

My research and readings on comics and video games have taken me in interesting places, with a fair amount of unsurprising overlap. Taking a glance at Mark Sample’s graphic novel syllabi for inspiration, I took the time to read some of the linked articles on general popular culture criticism he assigns for the first week his grad level class. Heeding Sample’s instructions, I not only read Ian Bogost’s Against Aca-Fandom and Henry Jenkins’s On Mad Men, Aca-Fandom, and the Goals of Cultural Criticism, but the extensive comments following Bogost’s post as well. Impressive that Bogost, Jenkins, Jason Mittell, Sample, and others engage in such extensive (and civil) dialogue refining points and challenging assumptions made in Bogost’s post and related articles, as well as expanding on points that were glossed over or only barely touched on in the initial work.

However…the comment that struck closest to home was the following:

I love this! Not only for the insightful post, Ian, but for the conversation thundering through your comments section. It’s a nice peek behind the curtain of media scholarship for those of us who haven’t spent much time backstage.

Conversations like this are bound to get a little clubby in the end, bound to circle the adorno/zizek/buffy drain eventually. I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or not. If it’s true that scholars need to make more kinds of things, then I wonder how they can make more things that appeal to more people, including (maybe especially) people who don’t look, act, or talk like them. Not saying you need to trash adorno, zizek, or buffy, of course–as Mickey Knox would say, it’s pretty hard to beat the king. I’m just wondering if it’s possible to have this conversation in ways that welcome voices of people from outside of the troupe.

Which is totally true. Part of this may be my coming from art history, and a traditional department at that, but my fluency with all the theory being tossed around is pretty slim. Adorno, Zizek, the Frankfurt School, Stuart Hall…all things/folks mentioned in asides with comfort and ease that are totally unfamiliar to me (and another Benjamin, I only have a passing familiarity with).

It’s daunting to realize you need a bibliography in order to comprehend a comments discussion. The commentator phrases her point in a way that encourages the participants to think about non-scholars, but in using “scholars” she’s really referring to media (television, video games, digital humanities) scholars. And to be honest, I gave up on the comments about halfway through as they continued to parley in philosophical theories and insider catchphrases.

The more I read on comics and video games, the more I feel unprepared to teach them appropriately in a college setting. Which is sad, because I’ve been teaching this class since 2010, before I’d even heard of the aforementioned influential scholars. Hell, I hadn’t heard of Mittell and Jenkins until last month.

I enjoy teaching the class on comics. I thought it was successful in 2010, and even better in 2011. My hope is that the 2012 iteration will be even better still, though I haven’t quite figured out what changes I’ll be making yet, other than knowing I’ll be making them. My students enjoyed the class, and truly seemed to learn critical approaches to comics as narratives and art. Hell, I’ve even given two conference presentations related to the class, and have two book chapters forthcoming drawing from it – one presentation and chapter each on pedagogy and on interpretations of materials I use in the class. That said, there’s no question that the class operates a step or two down intellectually from even Sample’s undergraduate-level class. 

Is it alright to be satisfied with the results of the class and with the level of scholarship I’m operating at? I’m not proud, per se, to know that Bogost, Jenkins, et al. are out there and not engage with them, but I’m okay with it for the purposes of my class and even for the scholarship I’ve produced so far. However, knowing that’s what’s out there is also a strong negative reinforcement to not try to do much more or dig much further. With a dissertation, other academic projects, and a life to lead, devoting the months and years to develop the level of fluency demonstrated by the commentators at Bogost’s site is far more than I’m able to give. I wholeheartedly respect that scholarship, and hope to be able to wiggle my way deeper, inch by inch, at my own pace.