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Archive for September, 2014

Have you ever sat down to eat outside at a park or public market, only to be mobbed by seagulls looking for a handout? Change the species, and that scenario has become the norm for my dinner – and don’t tell me that two small parrots can’t be a mob, because my first hand experience proves that they can.

For years, I used to eat dinner with Ning and Sophie, and our cripple bird Ram with Trish. Since the deaths in the flock, Ram has taken to eating with me. I scoop him up on to my left shoulder as I come in from the kitchen, and almost before I sit down, he is rappelling down my arm after whatever has caught his attention on my plate – usually, potato, rice, or a piece of chicken. If his target is healthy for him, I put a small portion aside for him, and, when he is temporarily sated, he wanders around the table, pausing for a drink of fruit juice before clambering back up on me.

Beau, my other remaining bird, was a neglected bird, and, for years lacked the confidence to compete with the others – especially Ning, who had him thoroughly mentally dominated. Usually, I tried to make it up to him by offering him some juice before I sat down, but even that made him nervous.

Suddenly, two weeks ago, Beau suddenly found the courage to see what he was missing. He landed on the table with a thud and a small squawk (like most parrots, he is not the most graceful of landers), and started waddling towards my plate.

About thirty-five centimeters from the plate, Beau paused and retreated, keeping the diameter of the plate between him and Ram. With his head down, Ram was so busy making delighted noises and cramming his crop full that I’m not sure he even noticed Beau.

Moving slowly, I broke off a piece of roast potato and offered it to Beau. He grabbed it and retreated to the far end of the table. There, he adjusted his beak’s hold on the potato, and leaped as much as flew to his cage, retreating to its depths where he could enjoy the spoils of his raid undisturbed.

The next night, he repeated his visit. I could tell his growing confidence by the fact that he actually took my offering from the plate, and only retreated as far as the top of a Windsor chair to eat.

Since then, Beau hasn’t missed a night. It takes some alertness on my part. If I am slow to put aside Beau’s portion, he sometimes ventures to help him himself, always with a nervous air as if he is not sure of his right to be there, or as though he anticipates catastrophe if he puts a foot wrong.

At other times, however, he will show his impatience by trying to take a bite out of my book. And should the phone ring or some other unexpected event happens, both Beau and Ram take to the air, forming what the old Elizabethan madrigal described as “a shipwreck in the sky.” Since they both tend to take refuge on me, that usually means that sharp beaks and strongly flapping wings are all uncomfortably close to my face, and both reading and eating a hot dinner have to wait as I try to play peace keeper without one of them striking out at my fingers.

Dinner used to be a quiet time for me, but I’m not complaining. Beau and Ram are edging slowly to detente, and I’m happy to see Beau overcoming his timidness enough to claim his rights. Sometimes, I am tempted to put them in their cages for the night and have a quiet midnight supper, but that seems so lonely compared to dinner with the mob that, so far, I haven’t actually done that.

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An audience’s response has two sources: what is actually said, and what the audience brings to the hearing. In the case of Anita Sarkeesian’s analyses of popular culture, I can only conclude that only a fraction of the hostility comes from what she says, and most of it from those opposing her.

Sarkeesian’s critiques are easily identified as being grounded in mainstream feminism. Her perspective is nothing new, nothing bizarrely novel. She says nothing that has not been said constantly for the past three decades. So far as theory goes, her main contribution has been the relatively minor one of naming tropes, which is useful, but hardly revolutionary. In fact, although I might have missed something – the anti-Sarkeesian responses being far too numerous for anyone to be familiar with all of them – even her opponents adopt her coinings without objecting to them. Her opponents may refer ironically to Damsels in the Refrigerator or Ms Male, but they use the terms all the same, helping them to become part of the accepted terminology for talking about women in popular culture. Nor should that be surprising, because most of the names she gives tropes are colorful and instantly identifiable.

However, essentially, Sarkeesian is a popularist. She is less notable for adding to feminist theory than for taking academic discourse and translating it for a general audience. This is a difficult accomplishment, and should not be under-estimated, especially since few people are capable of it. Except in some of her conclusions, Sarkeesian generally minimizes jargon, and, when she does use an academic term, she is careful to explain and illustrate it before developing her argument.

Personally, as a former writer of software documentation, I find the ability to explain important, yet it seems, in itself, an unlikely source of controversy. After all, she is only giving a specific examples of a critique whose general outline is familiar in contemporary culture.

Ordinarily, the responses you would expect from work like Sarkeesian’s are queries about her interpretations, and the pointing out of omissions and inaccuracies in her analysis. For instance, her Straw Feminists video can be criticized for its characterization of the third season of the cult TV show Veronica Mars, which mistakes the depiction of feminist activists as flawed and opportunistic – a perfectly appropriate depiction for the show’s noir world where everybody is untrustworthy – as anti-feminism.

Yet this is rarely the kind of criticism she receives. More often, reactions to Sarkeesian are intense and hostile out of all proportion to anything she says.
Perhaps, part of this reaction is due to her critics feeling that something important to them is under scrutiny. This uneasiness is probably all the stronger because Sarkeesian is hardly a participant observer in the best sociological fashion. Even though she is a popularizer, the fact that she speaks from an academic background tends to cast her as an outsider, noisily entering the scene and dispersing judgment from a superior position.

But, whatever the reason, the responses to Sarkeesian are almost never examples of valid arguments. Much of the time, they are personal attacks, accusing her of being a front for a behind-the-scenes lover, or the public figure for some unfolding conspiracy, and at times accompanied by threats and personal, even sexual insults. She is faulted for having a Kickstarter campaigner that resulted in twenty-five times what she asked (as though success was proof of dishonesty), for not being a “real gamer” (as though only a member of the gaming sub-culture can observe it), for turning off comments on her postings (as though the Internet doesn’t have plenty of room elsewhere for responses), and for turning her harassment to some advantage (as though she should simply endure it). Less specifically, she is accused of lying or being evasive. Yet even if some or all of these accusations could be proved, none of them have anything to do with the validity of her arguments. The accusations express hostility, and nothing more.

In fact, attempts to address Sarkeesian’s observations are rare. When they are made, they generally fall short of logic. For example, while she is often accused of cherry-picking her evidence, her attackers fail to explain what else someone with as narrow a topic as Women in Video games is supposed to do. Similarly, complaints that she does not mention the broader context – for example, that only a minority of a popular game’s missions take place in a strip club – fail to address Sarkessian’s basic point of why such missions are included at all.

At other times, efforts to address Sarkeesian’s argument can only be described as willfully blind. One critic, for instance, faults Sarkeesian for mentioning a scene in which players can kill strippers and hide their bodies on the grounds that the game penalizes players for doing so. Yet how many gamers do not carefully save so that they go back and explore the paths not taken? Although the scene is not part of the main storyline, it is still part of the game.

The critics do have one point: Sarkeesian can be careless about citing sources. In response, Sarkeesian cites fair use, and I would add that popular and informal works (including this one) are more casual about sources than equivalent academic works. However, even the validity of this accusation is soon overshadowed by the quickness with which it is inflated to proofs of duplicity. Someone without a grudge would be more likely to attribute careless citing to nothing more sinister than inexperience.

What is troubling about such responses is not that they attack Sarkeesian. She is not, and should not be immune from criticism. However, when the responses attack Sarkeesian as often as her arguments, and employ such tormented logic the few times that they do discuss her arguments, they can hardly be called responses in good faith. They are not interested in discussing her argument to get closer to the truth, and would probably not concede that she was valid on any point whatsoever. Their goal is to deny or silence by any means at hand, no matter how irrelevant or illogical.

Add a sneering tone, and overt sexism, and they can hardly be called responses to Sarkeesian at all. Instead, they seem more projections of what the commenters bring to viewing Sarkeesian’s work.

Fear of feminism or women? Denial and doubts about what effects video games may have? Not being telepathic, I cannot presume to say. But, to all appearances, if Sarkeesian did not exist, at least some of her attackers would need to invent her.

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Yesterday, Steve Bougerolle tagged me for the meme of listing “ten books that stayed with you in some way.”

Considering I’ve been on a diet of three to ten books per week (depending on their density) since I was eight or nine, confining myself to ten is a bit of a challenge. Nor did I simply want to name without commenting, or to bother other people with the meme, which is why I am blogging rather than just answering on Facebook.

Still, here is my list, in no particular order:

  • George Eliot, Middlemarch: I’m one of those who think that Middlemarch is the greatest Victorian novel. The story of several couples in a small industrial town, the novel has a psychological depth that is unequaled even today. I’ve read it three times, and can easily imagine me reading several more times, each time finding something new to admire.
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: I started reading the first book of the trilogy one Saturday in the summer between Grades Four and Five. I spent a very long Sunday evening waiting for Monday so I could get the last two volumes from the store. The experience was overwhelming, and gave me a life-long taste for fantasy and science fiction.
  • Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Although I have been an agnostic since my mid-teens, I always assumed that a historical Jesus existed. But when I read this plausible case for the non-existence of Jesus, I was shocked for one of the few times in my life. I felt cheated that so much history and art had been founded on nothing. The book itself is obsessive to the point of unhealthiness, but worth wading through for its ideas.
  • Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign: I read this fragment of the Vorkosigan Saga for the first time a few months ago. Two weeks later, I read it again – something I almost never do. A mixture of space opera, Shakespearean comedy, and Regency romance, A Civil Campaign is one of the funniest books I have ever read, with a cast of characters that you can laugh at while still identifying with.
  • George Orwell, Collected Essays: This collection features not only the calm clarity of Orwell’s writing, but also the best record of what it was like to be an English intellectual in the 1930s and 1940s. By the time I finished it for the first time, it had had a permanent effect – for the better, I believe – on my prose style by making me much more aware of what my goals in writing were.
  • Wilkie Collins, No Name: A young woman is declared illegitimate, and seeks revenge and justice in Victorian England. Of course she has to repent at the end, but watching her get to that point is so much fun it hardly matters. This is one of the lost classics of Victorian literature, and deserves to be better known.
  • Susan Faludi, Stiffed:, The Betrayal of the American Man: I had read Backlash and admired it, but Stiffed, which was relatively ignored, is even more monumental. Feminists often say that men suffer under patriarchy as well, but, so far as I know, Faludi is the only feminist who set out to examine and prove this contention. It’s a book that every feminist should read, and every anti-feminist as well, and establishes what Backlash first suggested: Faludi is one of the great modern American journalists.
  • Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, and Don D. Jackson, The Pragmatics of Human Communication: This classic textbook applies system theory to psychology. For me, it was a gateway to the works of Gregory Bateson, Jacques LaCan, and Anthony Wilden, and, as such, a lifelong influence on my habits of thought.
  • Carl Gustav Jung, Collected Works (in English): I worked steadily through these thick volumes as I was writing my thesis. Jung is not an easy read, but he gave me the intellectual framework for studying fantasy and proved to me the importance of symbols in people’s thinking. If I seem eccentric, one reason is that I am more of a Jungian while most people are Freudians or anti-Freudians.
  • Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book: As a boy, I loved the deliberately archaic language and the poems between the stories, as well as their genuine pathos. I probably wouldn’t have stayed in Cubs as long as I did, except I loved the fact that the rituals were based on Kipling’s poetry.

Give me another five list items, and I would include Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which started me reading anarchists, and the collected works of Shelley, which taught me most of what I know about poetry and kept me sane during my warehouse job between high school and university. But give me another five, and I would undoubtedly want space for another five, and five more after that. For me, books are not just ways to kill time, but some of the main building blocks of my psychology (most of the rest being music and people). So when I’m asked to list influential books, in an indirect way, I’m really telling my own story, which to me seems endless.

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Will Self recently published an article in which he proclaimed George Orwell a “literary mediocrity” and his admirers even more so. In particular, he condemns Orwell’s rules for writing in “Politics and the English Language” as a reaction to the inevitable growth and change of language. My first reaction to these statements is that nobody has a right to condemn an influential writer as mediocre unless they can demonstrate at least equal skill, which, both analytically and structurally, Self has not done. My second is that his interpretation is so unsupported that it seems a willful misunderstanding.

If you have any interest in writing at all, you have probably seen Orwell’s rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Contrary to Self, these rules are concerned with clarity, so to claim that they are even implicitly about the evolution of language is forced. Besides, when “Politics and the English Language” ends with the claim that its topic “has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear,” Orwell cannot possibly be said to be resisting linguistic change. In fact, far from being against change, Orwell’s rules overall advocate originality, and an avoidance of over-used expressions.

Moreover, as I used to explain every semester when teaching university composition, the rules are far more flexible than a general impression of them suggests. For example, most people reading the first rule emphasize “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech.” However, Orwell’s real concern is expressed in the words that most people forget: “which you are used to seeing in print.” Orwell is not trying to ban figures of speech, but to encourage original, expressive ones.

Similarly, Orwell’s second rule does not blindly favor short words or longer ones. The result of following such a rule would be an affected simplicity of the kind that you sometimes see in Hemingway. If you mean to convey only a general sense of size, then “big” might do, but if you want to suggest something truly outsized, then “humongous” would be a more appropriate word choice, even though it is three times as long.
In the same way, “Never use the passive where you can use the active” proposes a general rule, but makes the choice a matter of purpose. If you want to suggest helplessness in a short story, “A groan issued from his lips” would be a better choice than “he groaned,” and never mind that it is in the passive voice. Nor, to judge from Orwell’s own writing, would he hesitate to use “a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word” if no “everyday English equivalent” comes to mind.

However, of all Orwell’s six rules, the last one is the most important. “Politics and the English Language” is all about original, forceful, and clear expression. With these concerns, presumably the last thing Orwell wanted to do was limit expression artificially, so in the last rules, he specifically provides for exceptions. He is talking about general tendencies, but in the end what counts for him is whatever works, not keeping the rules. “One could keep all of them and still write bad English,” he admits in the paragraph after them, and their sole virtue is that even a bad example of them would avoid the over-inflated type of English he condemns.

Of course, like all writers, when Orwell advises about writing, he is on some level rationalizing his own style, and his advice may not be as meaningful to some readers as to others. However, before Self or anyone dismisses his work as mediocre or out of date, they should at least do him the courtesy of responding to what he actually said, instead of debunking what they imagine he says.

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