Sunday, 25 July 2010
2. Vancouver was beautiful, as was the campus. I am excited. I will have free access into all sorts of nice places, too, like the Museum of Anthropology and the Asian Garden. I'm sure there will also be studying and stuff.
3. Most of British Columbia, or that of it that we drove through, is beautiful. There are so many different ways for mountains to be mountainous, and so many different sorts of vegetation to adorn then. The forested areas in Vancouver are also nice, far more like rainforests than I had hoped to imagine.
4. On the way back I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I wouldn't call it a great book, but it was certainly enjoyable, clever, and gripping. Leah has warned me that the sequels are not as good. That is a shame, because this book certainly set me up to want to read the sequel. Somehow Lisbeth's character... I want more for her than what she gets.
(This wanting itself bugs me. I don't particularly want to want happy endings. I should know better. Good books end as they end; they don't have to be comedies. And yet, occasionally, I do care strongly for a character, like some sort of fanboy, in the full perjorative sense of the word. It's irksome. But I'm being a snobby grump, of course. For most people, character empathy is what makes a book good.)
5. I got a fair amount of packing done last weekend.
6. I also bought some cheap used books. One of these was a pictoral guide to world religion. I finally found a book containing information about Sihkism, Jainism, and Baha'i. It also had festival calendars and diagrams of many of the traditions' places of worship. But it still had woefully little information on Mormons and Aboriginal traditions, and no information at all on Scientology, Wicca, Theosophy, Neo-Pagan Reconstructivism, and other new or smaller traditions. Sometimes I think that I need to write this book that I want.
7. I went to a barbeque last Sunday night. (Sorry for screwing up the chronology). This was with a former co-worker and a friend of his, who I had never met. We ate steaks and watched The Fellowship of the Ring, afterwards talking about high school demographics, working in call centres, theology, and people being ignorant.
That is all for now.
I may not post again very soon, as we have to move this coming weekend and a major event is coming up at work (Heritage Day), which means I'll be putting in overtime. If I can post in the next few days I will but otherwise don't expect to hear from me. I'll resume previous discussions in the beginning of August.
Monday, 19 July 2010
Believing for a time in Santa actually improved my intellectual faith. I thought that Santa gave toys not to children who behaved but to children who believed in him. My folks warned me that some other people did not believe in Santa, and they would try to convince me to disbelieve, too. I wasn't to listen to them; they did not believe, so of course they would see no evidence, because he didn't bring them presents any more. I was to examine the evidence I received. Eventually I realized Santa was a physical impossibility. For a while I believed in him anyway, but some time in the middle of elementary school the evidence in favour of "my parents are Santa" outweighed "Santa physically exists". Since my Dad was usually the school Santa, and was sometimes identified as Santa by small children, I might easily have believed that my Dad literally was Santa... but the evidence pointed to my Mom, really, so that didn't jive. Instead, I believed that "the spirit of Santa", derived perhaps from St. Nicholas but perhaps instead for a concentration of jovial kindness, inhabited generous people like my parents and made them give gifts. Some point later I believed that Santa was a social reality if not a physical one (not that I'd have articulated it in that way, but the idea was there), and later I disbelieved entirely.
Losing Santa was a process, not an event; my belief in fairies, leprechauns (how I wanted to see one of those!), the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Travel Fairy, pre-Ark dragons and unicorns, and assorted other things went as part of a general questioning of beliefs. (I had an ontological house-cleaning, if you will.) My Christianity transformed many times over since then (from materialism to dualism to other things), but the lessons I learned from my Santa apologetics stuck: there are multiple ways to believe, I had learned in my child-brain, and so I never lost Jesus altogether. (And, anyway, the closest I ever came was to falling from the church was over moral questions concerning salvation, not over metaphysical/epistemological concerns of possibility.)
For me, as a child, the physical Santa helped me understand Jesus; the ethereal Santa helped me understand the Holy Spirit. That process helped me hone apologetics, and I learned early on that other people's beliefs ought not to interfere with mine. For me, Santa, whether or not he exists, was and always will be a servant of Christ.
Most doors these days are still ones with hinges and handles, so by and large I can practice holding open doors for people. This afternoon, however, I felt useless, rude, and alone. There are likely more drastic instances of technology dampening human interaction, but this brief lost kindness struck me. I suppose electronic eyes that open doors for you help if you have an arm full of groceries and a toddler grabbing your shorts. We can't always count on well-mannered strangers easing our way because there might not be strangers about. I nonetheless mourn this bygone opportunity for courtesy.
Friday, 16 July 2010
2. Working on Wednesday was like being in a dragon's throat: hot and smoky. There were forest fires in Saskatchewan, and the smoke drifted over our way. It made it tiring to work outside.
3. I think this is an interesting article on a Harry Potter-theme videogame.
4. I am struggling with One River. Wade Davis' writing is enjoyable, but it's a big book and I'm having trouble returning to it. I might switch to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or to Persuasion. Apparently I was supposed to read Persuasion, not Sense and Sensibility. Oops.
Or I might read The Historian. My brother's girlfriend gave it to me a while back, but I hadn't gotten to it (I though it sounded like Anne Rice, which makes me think of decadence, which makes my skin crawl). My coworkers say it's good, though. Maybe I will try it.
5. Did I tell you I'm moving soon? I am. I'm moving to another part of the city at the end of the month. And then I'm moving again at the end of that month to go to grad school.
6. I read Scott McCloud's Making Comics. If you read my previous post, you already knew that. FYI, very disappointed that no one commented. (Kidding! Jon says he intends/wants to contribute when he's less busy, so it's cool.) More posts on this forthcoming.
7. I am likely going to switch to Arabic numerals in my 7 Quick Takes titles. I think 50 in Roman is a pretty nice place to stop. Yeah, so that's not real news. Sorry.
I'm too lazy and tired to hyperlink this tonight. Conversion Diary runs this blog carnival. You can get to it on my blogroll.
Tuesday, 13 July 2010
Around this basic idea I will write a series of posts.
According to McCloud, the motives, goals, and values underlying the majority of comic artists' work can be divided into four rough groups:
The Classicists admire craftsmanship and mastery of the artform. Their goals include creating lasting works of art which adhere to traditional aesthetic principles. Perfection is impossible, but that doesn't mean they can't try for it. According to McCloud, their catch-word is beauty, and they are an extention of Jung's sensation archetype.
The Animists are interested in content. They aim for the clearest presentation of their story or ideas. To some extent the medium must always interfere with the message, but the animist's focus on the content means they try to make the form as transparent as they possibly can. Their catch-word is content, and McCloud considers them an extention of Jung's intuition archetype.
The Formalists are fascinated with their chosen medium's form. They create their art to explore its boundaries and contours, to learn what it can be capable of and how it works internally. Their works of art incorporate experiments, and they often double as analytical critics. Their catch-word is form, and in McCloud's scheme they correspond to Jung's thinking archetype.
The Iconoclasts value truth and experience in art. To them art must be authentic, must show life as it is. They take aim at artistic conventions that gloss over the imperfections and disappointments at life. Artists who speak of "honesty" or "rawness" are voicing iconoclastic ideas. Their catch-word is truth, and they are Jung's feeling archetype.
To McCloud, these are less clear divisions than campfires around which artists group (you'll also hear them called the "tribes of art"); they draw warmth from these common ideals, and communicate with those gathered with them. He is absolutely clear that people can spend time around more than one. They may grow up at one campfire and then, later in life, find themselves drawn to another. They may switch back and forth repeatedly, even while working on a single project. But as much as it would be nice to think you gather around four campfires (McCloud says it would be awfully nice to see "honest, inventive, engaging, and beautiful" in the reveiwer comments), that rarely happens; for most people, at least two of the campfires offer little light, and one is burnt out entirely.
This tendency to stick to one or two campfires is a result of underlying tensions between the different ideals. McCloud suggests that Classicism and Formalism are bound by a devotion to art, while Animism and Iconoclasm are bound by the opposite, a devotion to life. Running the other way, Classicism and Animism are both rooted in tradition, which tradition the revolutionary Formalism and Iconoclasm seek to dismantle. And their cathphrases make binary opposites: beauty opposes truth, and form opposes content. I've pirated a diagram, below, to make this clearer.
Artist who spend time at more than one campfire tend to spend time (says McCloud), at ones adjacent along some axis. That is, there are those who are interested in simply "telling stories" (Animism), but whose painstakingly beautiful art and spread layout bely that claim somewhat (Classicism). There are those who create technically accomplished masterpieces (Classicism) which in some element or another push the boundaries of what we thought we knew about the medium (Formalism). And then there are those who, in challenging what we think about the genre (Formalism), also challenge what we think about life (Iconoclasm). Dabbling along diagonals is rarer, McCloud says, though he does give one example of each 'diagonal' in his book.
In his TED talk (less so in his book), McCloud suggests that these four campfires, perhaps under different names and stripped down to even deeper foundations, are applicable in any realm of human endeavour. I don't know what these four would look like as far as installing ductwork or typing minutes goes, though I suppose that at some deeper, more foundational level there may still be four groups ("art" may be perfectionism while "life" may be "getting the job done", and "tradition" may be tried-and-true methods while "revolution" may be inventiveness). Nonetheless, I think we can easily imagine them in most forms of art. Pick whatever realm you're most interested in, and try to assign artists to the different groups. In literature, Austen is an Animist, Poe (as a novelist) is a Formalist, Alice Munro is an Iconoclast, and Keats is (at least, as he seems to have imagined himself, which might be hugely problematic) a Classicist. In film, Quentin Tarentino is a Formalist, George Lucas is an Animist, Sergio Leone is an Iconoclast, and Ang Less is a Classicist. I won't even pretend to guess at fine art, music, theatre, or dance, though anyone knowledgeable enough in these areas could post examples in the comments. If I ask really nicely, maybe the guys at Penny Arcade would give me examples in computer games, though this might be harder to figure out when you incorporate the interactive element. (If games designers are partially abdicating authorship, an idea people are talking about in interactive art forms, then perhaps player style could just as easily be grouped in these camps... that might be worth another post.) Also, I could be wrong on any of the classifications I just made. They're for the purposes of examples, so feel free to bicker.
McCloud makes an important point: all four of these campfires has something to offer the field of comics (and any field at all). The Classicists refine artistic techniques and drive the field to produce more aesthetically-pleasing works, while the Animists create compelling characters or offer important ideas, drawing in more readers than the other three groups put together and driving the field to produce more emotionally-pleasing works. The Formalists generate new ideas, find new ways of employing old forms, and sometimes even invent new genres or mediums, all of which can later be used by members of te other four campfires. The Iconoclasts puncture the misrepresentations in traditional art and act as a source of honesty, a check against melodrama, sentimentalism, and sensationalism.
At the same time, all four have weaknesses. The Classicists, in their quest for beauty, can create otherwise boring, heartless, uninventive, or ininspiring art. The Animists often create work that doesn't age well without something else to bolster it. What McCloud doesn't mention is that animists also produce a lot of cliche-ridden, uninventive, terribly-written, and stereotyping swill (every charge laid against the Twilight series or Internet fanfic/art). The Formalists' love of experimentation might lead them to create work devoid of beauty or content, something accessible (or at least interesting) only to those also obsessed with form. The Iconoclasts, in their desperation to be authentic and to never "sell-out," can not only fail badly in creating something marketable, but may lose their prized clear-sightedness in their bias against popularity or beauty. We can likely think of examples of art from each category. Thus it is usually best if an artist spends at least a little bit of time at more than one campfire. (Classicism is usually a pretty good one to visit periodically, in my opinion, even if you spend most of your time in Iconoclasm.)
What this means is while you or I might have particular ideas about art (what it is, what it should do, what distinguishes art and Art), we mustn't make the mistake of judging all works by our own standards. At times we must consider other work by the standards of other campfires. Now, if it fails at those standards, too, we can consider it shoddy (Animistic art which is not engaging; Classicist art which isn't very well done; Formalist art which generates nothing new about the form; Iconoclastic art which doesn't portray life very accurately). But barring the clear failures, we must recognize the benefits all of these approaches bring art as a whole.
I have much more to say about this, including my own disagreements with McCloud's given scheme and some resulting adjustments I would make, but these must wait for other posts. In the meantime, I suggest that you consider which camps you feel most attracted to as either a producer or consumer of art, and see if you can come up with examples of each.
Friday, 9 July 2010
Monday, 5 July 2010
Pedantry now over. You may resume your business.
Saturday, 3 July 2010
Friday, 2 July 2010
In the previous post I explained why the suspension of disbelief is important to being an ethical person. It allows us to accept characters who are different from us as having valid experiences, even if those experiences don't jive with what we believe is true about the world. This comes from the fact that fictional characters live in worlds that operate under different physics (and metaphysics) from our own. Most books we read do not depart from our world in ways that we find offensive, but some do. This is when we hit complications, and these complications will be the subject of this post.
For me the best example I can give of a fictional world I find repugnant is that in Philip Pulman's His Dark Materials trilogy. [Spoiler alert? I don't reveal actual plot, only backstory...but since revealing this backstory changes the novels as they progress, you might still want to avoid the following if you haven't read the books but plan to.] In this world (more accurately, multiverse), the Authority (God) is a senile fake, a mere angel who claims the status of Creator. "Claimed" might be better, for by now he is so old that he is incapable of rational thought. The power behind the throne is a militant angel--St. Michael?--who seeks to destroy free will and secure the absolute authority of fate. Doing the work of these forces is an inter-universe organization better known as the Church, though it operates as different bands of kidnappers and despots, which uses emergent technology to acheive their ends. Against these forces are rallied the resistance, including rebel angels, gypsies, witches, ex-religious scientists, talking bears, creatures that evolved differently in a parallel universe, and a pair of fated children. The afterlife is a miserable jail created by the Authority, and its denizens would prefer utter annihilation, the dissolving of their particles into the universe. Pulman has been clear in interviews that he created his world such that Paradise Lost's Adam and Eve's choice in the Fall would be the right one. [Spoiler alert ended.] You can see how I might object to this world.* Thus while characters' actions may have one standard in this world, I cannot condone their actions had they been performed in our own. Further, I find that the world Pulman has created is a deliberate insult to my own beliefs. Nonetheless I am called to empathize with the characters according to the situation they are in, not the situation I am in. (It is easier that Pulman is a skillful writer who cares about his characters, making the protagonists easy to like and the prose easy to read.) It is this act, this forced empathy, which has merit when applied in the real world. Empathizing with your psychological clone doesn't require much effort;** empathizing with your psychological opposite does.
But here's the trick about the suspension of disbelief. So far we have only discussed differences between our world and the fictional world in terms of physical and metaphysical things: whether or not there are ghosts, what happens to our soul upon death (and whether there is a soul), what is sufficient motivation for a person to dramatically change character, how people speak, whether or not one can make a sword out of laserbeams. But there is another realm of beliefs which we have hardly touched on, and that is ethics. Of course the ethical course of action changes if the world changes: defying God as Christianity depicts Him is, whatever Pulman says, unethical, but by the same standards it could be the case that defying Blake's God in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell or defying Zeus in Prometheus Unbound would be a good thing, since in Christianity God is a liberator, but in Blake and Shelley God is a tyrant. This sort of thing is not what I mean when I say that suspension of disbelief applies to ethical facts as well as metaphysical ones. In many stories it is ethically fine to beat your wives and deprive them of any right, and yet there isn't much metaphysical difference between women in that fictional world and women in this real one. And while we're talking about Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, consider his proverbs. If we take these as unironic (debatable, I know, but bear with me using this as an example, please), we will notice that this world not only has a different cosmos than ours, but a different set of moral laws. This is possible in fiction. And what this means is that we must also try to understand--and care for--the characters in terms of these new ethics. This becomes even more difficult, and requires not only more effort on our part but also far better mental safeguards--that is, better suspension of disbelief.
But at this point we must concede that other people--not us, no, of course not--are not so good at building these epistemic quarantines, as I've called them. They're not so good at the suspense of disbelief. They find themselves believing the ethics found in these fictions, largely because they are not aware that a book's ethical laws can be just as divergent from our own as its physical laws can be. They are tricked, whether or not the author intended it. This is especially true when much of our culture is carrying the same ethical message; we come to accept it as truth. This is where deconstructivism or resistant reading come in. In Reader Response theory, one school of literary criticism, resistant reading means being skeptical of all of an author's claims. You are almost antagonistic to the reader, applying a strict set of lenses when following the story. Reading is akin to examing the evidence. Deconstructivism is part of the postmodern constellation of literary criticism; this seeks to take apart a text's assumptions to see how it works, with the general goal of pointing out how such a worldview is created, which is to say, not entirely true. Both are important skills for someone who is reading a book whose world they cannot agree with, for dealing with propaganda "hidden" in literature.
Let me give you an example. A woman reads a classic dragon-knight-damsel fairytale and realizes that she doesn't care for the passive role the woman has. She therefore does not take it very seriously, refusing to accept its terms as legitimate. This process is resistant reading. She also analyzes how the story is put together, figuring out the relationships in the story's word choice and presented ideas which have to do with the damsel's distress. She thus exposes it's misogynistic and/or patriarchal structure. This process is deconstructivism. Both are valid and perhaps necessary, especially if people are being duped by this story into thinking that girls are primarily in need of rescue. What I am saying is that, alongside this process, we must understand the knight's behaviour in terms of the world around him. It may be the case that we think this world is unlike our own and that we must determine the ways in which it is dissimilar, but that does not mean that we can write the knight off as a chauvinist, even if he would be one in our world. In his world damsels are primarily in need of saving, and it would be unethical for him not to step up to the plate. In his world dragons are wholly evil and killing them is not wrong. In his world things are a lot different than in our own.
This is why reading--and reading well--is so important. It allows us to exercise our suspension of disbelief, to understand how other people operate from within their own points of view. To empathize without uncritically accepting our neighbour's beliefs. To be better human beings.
But of course not everyone does read well. I shall go over this in a future post.
* If you did not read the bit on His Dark Materials, I suggest you think of Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
** Unless you are rivals in love, which would be quite possible. In this case it could be difficult again.