A post has been a long time coming. This summer has been over-packed with excitement, opportunities, and good times, but it has also remarkably distracted me from the actual writing of my dissertation. I spent a week going through the Ken and Roberta Williams Collection at the Strong Museum of Play and then spent a week at Princeton University at the 2nd annual Princeton-Weimar Summer School for Media Studies (where I met the amazing Hiilei Hobart, Jacob Gaboury, and Dylan Mulvin). I'm effortfully pulling together a panel for SCMS 2013 on interventions within media archaeology, and prepping a paper for SHOT in Copenhagen this October. I just got interviewed about Internet Memes by an independent journalist writing an article for PCWorld. I taught a section of CCS101: Intro to Cinema and Media Studies, and have had a blasty-blast with my students discussing everything from Foucault to modernity to semiotics to Peter Lunenfeld's The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading. I used Tumblr in class for the first time, and it's been a great success--students are always throwing up links, clips, quotes and images that remind them of course content. Tumblr is proving an amazing archive for our course investigations. I also have a few projects that shall remain top secret until further verification (so the 3 of you who read this blog, stay posted).
But throughout the summer, I was having a horrible time actually working on my dissertation. First I'd committed to writing a methodological article on a feminist materialist critique of media archaeology--but every time I sat down to do the lit review or aim my sights at Wolfgang Ernst, I felt myself getting sucked into a black hole of philosophical vitalism (a Bermuda Triangle of Spinoza, Bergson and Deleuze). I felt like I couldn't write anything without having the entire weight of continental philosophy in my back pocket (which, not being a philosopher by training, was presenting a problem). I felt impotent to even know where I could start, as I stared down the barrel of a 300 page project that loomed ominously empty on the Word document before me.
However, this summer I also got recruited to join a Feminist Writing Group organized by the insightful Laura Portwood-Stacer, who I met at Now! Visual Culture. "Feminist Writing Group?" my friends scoffed. "Doesn't seem like your kinda thing." I tend to be a little too aloof and much too cantankerous for such dynamics. I'm often the student who would sit in seminar and doesn't make a peep, and loathes the eyes of strangers on my work. But I volunteered some work for the second session, thinking it would be good motivation to get my Copenhagen paper written--and as a straight up history, I figured it would be safe and not too over-exposing. However, when my one-week deadline emerged, I was still days behind on having something to show. I couldn't bail on the group, but also knew I couldn't send a 4-page lit review and retain any self-respect. I hit the panic button, and emailed out the only other reasonable paper I had relating to feminism, a Feminist New Materialist Critique of Media Archaeology that I'd presented at the New School that past spring and planned on presenting at SCMS in 2013.
I spent the week on edge. This was intense theoretical work, couched in brazen, sometimes arrogant writing. I'd never exposed this to any of my professors, or anyone who even really had a background in feminist critical materialism (i've pretty much taught myself). I also, perhaps predictably, thought the piece was damn near perfect, and hadn't anticipated revising it much for SCMS. I was in a cold terror about what others might say, and nervous that no one would have anything to say. When the day of the actual group arrived, the group was almost twice as large as the first meeting, and all new people, and mostly university faculty (a "real world" step up from my grad student status, however much I take myself seriously).
I gave a stuttery introduction and prepared for the worst--and instead, lo and behold, I got the best. Not ceaseless praise or neck-wringing admonishments, but critical attention trained at making this work better while still highlighting what I did well and where I could push further. I've only occasionally ever received such honed, invested, and engaged feedback from peers or profs. And amazingly, this active, brilliant group of lady-minds managed to help me shed the cloak that had been holding me back from writing for almost two months. Stop trying to dismantle someone else's work. You know what you're doing, so just move forward with your own ideas. Show us what you're really capable of. When I woke up this morning, I could stop thinking--"what if I did this? what if I argued that?" Suddenly I realized the first chapter of my dissertation had been sitting in my Dropbox all along, just mangled into a bunch of different pieces I'd been too hesitant to pull together. I woke up at 8, was at the library by 11, and had my own intervention written by 12. By the time I tapped out for happy hour at my favorite bar, I had 17 pages of a chapter--cobbled, slapped together, in terrible need of stitching, but a start, with a clear outline of what I'm doing and where this project is going.
The mental deep freeze is over. I'm going to write this bastard. And all it took was showing my work to a group of strangers invested in questions of knowledge production, sensitive to the struggles of a grad student, but not willing to let something half-wrought slide by: a lesson in feminist orientations and co-relationality if ever there was one.
I've been reading Peter Lunenfeld's "The Secret War Between Uploading and Downloading" hard on the heels of finishing Mass Effect 3. For a game that made me cry in pure affective overload at the end of Mass Effect 2, the end of ME3 made my cry out, in complete disappointment. I'm filtering some of my thoughts on ME3 through the Lunenfeld's interest in pushing for "meaningful downloading" and a "mindful uploading" culture.
The Mass Effect franchise—if played for reasons other than just killing aliens—is an exercise in scenario visualization. Faced with the possible extinction of the entire galaxy, Commander Shepard is called upon to act in an apocalyptic circumstance the proportions of which cannot be visualized--even the imagination strains to conceptualize all organic life winking out. The game toggles deftly between the various heartstrings that must be pulled to wed you to this effort—from the individual to the social, the game excels at presenting different scales of attachment that help you stretch your empathy outward, unfurl a hope for a future that motivates your action.
Closest to the level of the individual, you have your lover who provides an emotional foil for Shepard's inner thoughts. Yet your investments unfold beyond your romantic dyad, from the crew, each with their private demons, to the people of the Citadel who need your aid in both personal requests and species-based dilemmas, to whole planets, fleets, and biological ecosystems. You understand that your actions are consequential, always moving outward, and you are asked to consider the potential consequences of those decisions, how those choices alter the fragile scenario that you are trying to stabilize. Who will help you, and who will turn into an Achilles heel? How can you always work toward the best possible outcome for the largest possible beings? What guides your ethics—self-preservation, a rigid code of honor, case-by-case pragmatics? A good gamer, a mindful gamer, is thoughtful about these decisions, and recons with them.
The grand failure of ME3's ending is that the power of what the platform was able to do ceased to matter. Suddenly Shepard is dropped into a situation over which he/she has no ability to foresee. The grand universe scenario that you've been visualizing, managing and calibrating doesn't matter. All your careful planning, all your thoughtful choices, bottom out to a numbers game, a hollow stand-in for the intellectual and ethical work and exploration we filled Shepard up with for 90+ hours over the course of the trilogy. The game works powerfully as a simulation of leadership development, a playground for trying out responses on how to treat others, a way of thinking from the micro to the macro, and how these scales of behavior are latched into each other--how this thing over here effects that thing over there. That's the reality of living in our world—that our actions have consequences that are always spreading out beyond us, slipping away from us, operating in systems of power we can't totally comprehend. Complexity. That's some of what Mass Effect got at. That's why it felt particularly alive. When that complexity is removed, when suddenly the whole world is just the machination of a never-before-seen godchild/deus ex machina, we've traded a complex systems model for a top-down hierarchy model. It's this flip, wherein we are removed from meaningful choice--which was in no way keeping with the structure of the game--that feels most insulting, saddening, and disingenuous to a game that helped me imagine what I might want from a future I could cooperate in.