Sunday, March 25, 2007

unit operations, part II

Just finished reading the second chapter of Ian Bogost's Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, and found it shockingly similar to the first. The pile-up of important names continues: this chapter tackles Plato and Aristotle, linguist Ferdinand Saussure, deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, computer scientist John von Neumann, digital media theorists Lev Manovich and N. Katherine Hayles. And, like the previous chapter, this one ends up with a kind of strange left turn, this time analyzing the Department of Homeland Security's Homeland Security Advisory System, which "underscores the tension between unit operations and system operations."

I'm still really enjoying this book, although I'm still struggling to make sense of its thesis in even the most general sense.

Friday, March 23, 2007

unit operations, part I

I just finished reading the first chapter of Ian Bogost's Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, and I'm really enjoying it.

Bogost's approach hinges on the concept of the "unit operation," a "mode of meaning-making that [privileges] discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems," and the first twenty pages of the book pretty much constitute an attempt to clarify this distinction.

I'll confess that he isn't a hundred percent successful. At the end of my first pass through the chapter, I feel like I might have a tentative grip on what distinguishes a "unit operation"-based analysis from "systems operation"-based analysis, but I strongly doubt that I'd be able to do something like summarize the difference between the two. I can't entirely blame Bogost for this: "units" and "systems" are both high-level abstractions; we're not exactly talking about apples and oranges here.

Determined to make it clear, Bogost starts pulling in conceptual machinery from a variety of different disciplines: half the fun of the book so far is watching the interesting thinkers pile up on top of one another. By page twenty we've moved through quite the array: Heidegger, Spinoza, Leibniz, Alain Badiou, "object-oriented" philosopher Graham Harman, "autopoetic systems theorists" Francisco Valera and Humberto Maturana, sociologist Niklas Luhmann, mathematician Georg Cantor, digital media theorists Janet Murray and Espen Aarseth, and poet T. S. Eliot—all this en route to, of all things, a unit-operations-oriented analysis of Spielberg's film The Terminal (2004), in which Bogost concludes that the film is about "specific modes of uncorroborated waiting."

So, in conclusion, I'm not really sure yet exactly what Bogost is even talking about, and yet I've jammed the first chapter full of about a pound of bronze (in the form of Levenger Page Points). Being disoriented by brilliance is a good thing.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

reefer madness: sex, drugs, and cheap labor in the american black market, by eric schlosser

Three decent essays posing as a coherent book.

There's a broad unifying theme—the premise of examining "what happens in the black market." But the approach that Schlosser takes towards this content—what we could consider his methodology—varies widely from piece to piece, rendering the examination oddly diffuse, short on unifying vision.

Compounding the problem is the fact that each piece comprising the book seems drawn from a different genre: the "drugs" chapter is essentially a persuasive piece, a call for marijuana-law reform, and the goal of examining "what happens" in the drug market is mostly subordinated to the making of that argument. (This isn't to say that growers, dealers and buyers don't make their appearances—but Schlosser's more interested in focusing on the few penalized growers that will help him to make his case rather than trying to draw a larger, richer picture of the market as a whole.) By contrast, the "Sex" chapter is built around the model of the biographical profile, looking at the figure of pornography magnate Reuben Sturman (1924-1997). Sturman was a colorful guy, and Schlosser makes his tale engaging reading, but I'm not convinced that Sturman embodies the vicissitudes of the porn industry so perfectly that one can pass off Sturman's life story as an exploration of the market.

None of this is intended to knock the pieces themselves, which are clear, well-paced, and nicely detailed, essentially bedrock models of good journalism. But as a book it doesn't live up to the promise of its organizing principle.

This review will eventually be cross-posted to Raccoon Books.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

assorted capsule reviews

So here's the last bunch of book reviews I wrote.

Batman: Year 100 by Paul Pope
Paul Pope is one of the best comics creators at the moment, not only because he's a great visual artist and a sharp writer but also because he has a wild, unsummarizable theory about the way that comics work as an iconic language. His theory, wild though it may be, intersects nicely with the way that superheroes are currently being treated in our culture: less as characters (who would need to grow and change as their narrative unfolded) and more as unchanging archetypes, collections of iconified traits. Once a set of traits is indestructibly established (as with Batman) you can improvise off of it pretty freely, just like you'd do with a jazz standard. Pope understands all of this, and it's part of what makes his superhero riffs so great.

In this book, Pope plants Batman in the 2030s, which permits him to riff mightily, telling his tale with verve and style, but ultimately the stock elements of the State-controlled dystopian setting erode some of the freshness on display. It's still a blast to read, but ultimately it doesn't hit as hard as the best Batman stories out there, or as Pope's own unfinished masterpiece, THB.

Godland Volume 1: Hello, Cosmic! by Joe Casey and Tom Scioli
In this graphic novel, Casey and Scioli blow the dust off the vast cosmic machinery of 1960's-era Kirby-Lee collaborations, and reboot it for the contemporary present (by deploying it in a world that contains junkies, S/M, punk rock girls, and irony). It makes an ambitious attempt to be both parody and homage and a satisfying SF/adventure story in its own right—and if it occasionally falls short of getting this balance exactly right, it at least gets points for trying. Fun.

Groundhog Day, by Ryan Gilbey
Part of the BFI Modern Classics series, slim critical volumes, each on a single film. The critical elements in this one are dialed back a bit—it's more of a summary-plus-appreciation. A quick read, likeable, on an enjoyable film.

Deer Head Nation, by K. Silem Mohammad
A paranoid mind, restless in its search for pattern, can take just about anything that can be named with a noun and make an organzing narrative out of it. In this book of poems (which utterly transcends the "novelty" origins of the "flarf" genre), K. Silem Mohammad chooses deer as the thread that joins up the rest: at the beginning of the book, a deer head is merely "spooky," but by the end of the book, after being presented with a "suite" in which dozens, possibly hundreds of disembodied Internet voices have made their ellipitical proclamations on the search term "deer," the animal and its oft-displayed head both seem deeply braided into the book's other concerns (war, terror, America, human abjection). Paranoid? Sure. But these are paranoid times. Highly recommended; one of the best new books of poetry to emerge in the last ten years.

Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers by Henry Jenkins
Odds-and-sods collection from Jenkins, reprinting a smattering of essays, interviews and Congressional testimony [!] from the last dozen years. The divide between the more rigorous critical writing, and the more generalist Technology Review pieces renders this collection slightly uneven, but Jenkins is one of the preeminent thinkers on fandom and participatory culture, so even at its most fluffy, this book is always an interesting read.

The Mother's Mouth, by Dash Shaw
I seem to remember reading an online profile (or something) where Dash Shaw described his work in indie comics as exploring the effects of "putting one thing next to another." I've been unable to relocate the exact quote, but The Mother's Mouth is testament to this as an aesthetic. At its most straightforward it tells the (fragmentary, partial) story of an emerging romance between Virginia (a sunken-eyed, heavy-set librarian) and Dick (a gaunt musician). But this story is intercut with other kinds of visual material--from cutaways of geological formations to dance instructions to the drawings of children in therapy --which expand the context and deepen the narrative in intriguing and evocative ways. Recommended.