Congratulations Doctor Bateman

One reader of the blog (probably the only reader), Chris Bateman has managed to pass through his viva for his doctorate by publication. Bravo for the amazing accomplishment.

Bateman often mentions about being a philosopher/intellectual outside of the conventional establishment. I think that historically most of the more interesting philosophers had been out of the establishment, which owed much to the uniqueness of their thoughts. Schopenhauer for example, who was massively influential to Romantic and 20th century composers, was a Kantian of sorts, but also outside of the university establishment during his more creative periods. Nietzsche was never strictly a philosopher by the terms of his own time, but he was more in his profession and educational background, more akin to a classicist. Then of course there are the cliche examples of Descartes’ opposing his Jesuit educated Aristotelianism, the establishment mentality of his day; and of course Spinoza, who was exiled from various communities yet kept a community of correspondents which was extremely varied – from Boyle to Leibniz!

Sometimes we find interesting thoughts and profound in unusual places. I’ve recently read a couple of philosophical profiles of two distinctly non-establishment philosophers, Tommaso Campanella, and Bernardino Telesio. Both were empiricists in a time when Aristotelian and overly rationalist thinking was so ubiquitous that we might not have even thought such empiricism could exist as a movement when there are so few. There is a certain amount of boldness to have interesting thoughts outside of the establishment.

Michael

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The Letter

The Letter is a medium of communication. The letter is usually intended for only one recipient and written for an audience of the directed person. Sometimes we have letters which are ‘open’, a recent example of this is from Stephen Fry. Where an audience of the thinking public are also witness to the content of the letter.

 

Chris Bateman wrote a blog post recently about the way in which social media is changing the pre-established norms of blogging. As there is less of a ‘bloggosphere’ as there used to be, media like Huffington Post, or major news services with comments pages and open columns like Guardian’s CIF seem to merge the established print media with online media, as well as its interactivity. Bateman gives a suggestion of models to keep blogging communities going.

 

When I was thinking about Bateman’s suggestions, there is an implicit or explicit (I can’t tell which) implication of two things:

 

  • Explicit claim: We should keep the blogging communities we have established in lieu of the more interactive and diverse media outlets out in today’s internet age

  • Implicit claim: There is something worth preserving in the medium of blogging as it is construed

 

Bateman invited some reactions to his post, in a way I am reacting to what was written, but on the other hand not replying to it at all (I call this the Adorno response) in the terms he has set it. To get back to the original point of my post, lets start thinking about letters again.

 

Letters have been an invaluable historical resource for scholars in philosophy. Descartes’ had extensive letters from his publisher, and through his publisher, a network of critics, which included Thomas Hobbes, on his ‘Meditations’. The letter has been of interest in personal correspondences as well, in instances where there has been philosophical import as well as a telling amount of personal insight into either of the writers also. It has recently been in blog discussion of a series of letters between Mercuse and Adorno on the 60s student activists. This serves as social document, historical and intellectual document and records of a life.

 

Of course there are other mediums these days. I know of friends who have little conversations through the medium of tumblr posts and hashtagging, there are short and not always sweet messages through twitter, which effectively serves as the equivalent of a world wide IRC where everyone is invited and there are no proper admins (yet). There are of course IMs. Most of the emergent forms of contact are much more immediate than the letter, and give much more of a sense of ephemerality to them. That said, I am reminded of an romantic couple who once said their IM conversations should one day be the thing of published prose, due to the juxtapositions of romantic messages to a sudden shift to banal topics.

 

The blog in the age of instant transmission, served as a more enduring form. The blog served as preserving the vanguard of media such as the essay, the discussion, the panel, the contrarian response. I like blogs. I like the diversity of them. Like paper, they can be hidden, sometimes burned away though not as easy to forget them as so much of online content is archived these days. Blogging has more potential for bringing diverse audiences than the printed essay, blogging can communicate many different things. I follow a blog from an olympic weightlifter who talks about her diet and social life or being starstruck meeting celebrities; I follow fitness blogs; I follow blogs about cancer.

 

Then there are blogs which serve as a lightning focal point, although not intentionally so or even with such initial pretensions. Leiter Reports has reached its 10th year and has brought about discussion of issues which have framed academic philosophy from within and without. When I think about the blog (as a genre) and its future, I think about the letter. I suspect most contemporary philosophers will have letters, although I’m more certain many philosophical correspondences have occured through emails or facebook messaging. I wonder if things like that might be studied in the future for some kind of exegetical import.

 

I have a few friends with whom I prefer contacting them through long emails. We write in essay length format to talk about ourselves, things on our mind, and general insights. I have one blogging friend who I have encouraged to document some of her experiences through the medium of blogging, so that our conversations have had a much wider audience. I don’t think the letter has died, or will die. There are still people who will have pen pals, still people who will write letters. Or it might be that the notion of letter writing and correspondences may be superimposed upon emailing, or through the blog. Likewise, blogging does not have social media and a changing online climate to worry about, it will change in some way to account for it.

 

When I think of the letter I think of how immensely informative and insightful letters are in historical philosophy: such as the correspondences between Leibniz and Clarke; Frege and Russell; or anyone Kant or Adorno corresponded with. Letter writing is not lost, it’s just different now. I’d be interested in seeing what emergent forms arise.

 

Michael

This month I am currently reading: Chaos Ethics

Earlier this month I kindly recieved a draft of Chris Bateman‘s forthcoming title, Chaos Ethics. The publication date is forthcoming. Chaos Ethics completes a trilogy of titles put out by Bateman which starts with Imaginary Games (2011) and last year’s Mythology of Evolution (2012). Like Mythology before it, Bateman combines an unusual combination of sources from philosophers such as Kant to those notable cultural staples of Dungeons and Dragons and Cyberpunk to create a picture of morality, the title of which is a reference to Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics. I am as impressed at the references at the end of the book as I am to the book itself, as they form an interesting cocktail of ideas.

 

You can find out about the forthcoming title from Chris here.

 

Michael

Chris Bateman on Videogames: Art and (not so much) addiction: Part II:

This post continues my discussion of Chris Bateman’s talk presented on video games. I will start off with a digression.

The soundtrack

One of the great innovations of the 20thC was the cinema. Cinema captures social history and combined storytelling with visual imagery. Eventually the cinema integrated music into its performance. Films in very early periods involved an organist or performer pianist who accompanied a score. Eventually the music scores became part and parcel of the film product and less of a performance than a tape playing on a screen with speakers blaring. The soundtrack in my view is an addition to the repertory of serious music, this can be evidenced by the fact that quintessentially classical composers have created soundtracks for films, such as Georges Auric, member of the visionary les six coalition of French Composers wrote the score to Passport to Pimlico. Philip Glass contributed to the film classic American Psycho and some composers have gained a name for themselves as soundtrack composers.

Soundtrack composition has become an art form, and it is still evolving. There are exceptionally notable and innovative things that occur in the art of soundtrack. The use of the highly dissonant minor second clashing sound of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho evokes the fear and suspense of the inevitable in the iconic shower scene, likewise, who can forget the use of a minor second upward movement in the John Williams’ Jaws. There are aspects of true originality in the soundtrack. A very recent example of this is the Zimmerman soundtrack to the film Inception. A key plot point to the film involves the association with an Edith Piaf song, which is then slowed down to an exceptionally painfully long drone to form the main theme of the film. This involves a level of innovation, as this is a reference to the nature of the film (experiencing dreams and time through a different rate of ordinary reality) and turns a very sweet Piaf song into something very sinister sounding.

My personal favourite soundtrack of all time is not the most easy to listen to. It is John Williams’ Empire Strikes Back score. This score is highly modernist, atonal and dissonant at times. There are elements of Romanticism (through the Leia and Han romance theme leitmotif or Yoda’s theme). The conflict in the score is between the styles of modernism and romanticism. This is marked much more in this film than any of the other Star Wars films, which lean more on the Romantic/Mahlerian/Wagnerian/R. Straussian. There are aspects in the Empire Strikes Back which are so daring as a soundtrack, so modernist, it gives respectability and power to what the modernist visionaries like Schoenberg and Berg represented in their music. The theme to the Battle of Hoth is utterly surprising to me how an audience took this part of the score with conviction. 60 years previously if something like that were performed in a concert hall there would have been a walk-out!

Relating back to the notion of Video Games. It has been acknowledged on a variety of fronts that one very powerful aspect of well-recognised games is its soundtrack. How notable is the simple theme to the NES Super Mario classic, or the Zelda soundtrack. One thing that Destre often repeats to us is that popular song has not advanced very much since the Lied (German Classical art song).

In praise of conservatism

I wish to introduce an aesthetic notion of conservatism. Conservatism here, I confine as a set of standards in a work that would entertain putative aspects of being aesthetically beautiful or successful even if they are not particularly innovative formalistically, or rely on old  or well established styles.

The video game soundtrack, and the art of the soundtrack is generally quite conservative. I’m not fully sure why but I suspect there are psychological reasons why film sound tracks generally seem musically behind stylistically to lots of other contemporary music. This is not however to undermine it. Composers such as John Williams is essentially a Romantic/modernist in various moves. Bernard Herrman brought Modernism which was a half century old to cinema. This is quite innovative as a soundtrack, but as music, I’m less sure that it’s especially avant-garde.

My contention is that many games would work in the same way. The Modern Warfare series, or RPGs are based on often tired and well-worn tropes, storyline and gameplay elements. They are based on formulae that are known to succeed and are well received by gamers. Often it is the little bits that are different about each individual game that is entirely new that makes such a game particularly innovative, despite the rest of it following all the other rules about its genre. many of these successful games follow much of what has come before, and adds a bit. To state a very tired phrase made in PC magazines: ‘evolution, not revolution’.

This isn’t to say that they aren’t good games, in fact in many ways they are great games. They are however, as Bateman would claim, hardly imaginative and less engaging because of this. Many games that are part series have taken away a lot surprise and offers expectation of what has come before. I’m bemused to find out for instance, that there is a Lego Batman game! That said, I played Lego Star Wars and it did gloss over some of the darker aspects. It’s as absurd as how many action figures in the 1990s were marketed to children who weren’t old enough to actually watch these films.

There are two points I wish to make about ‘conservative’ games. Firstly, many of these games rely on things that make them innovative, that are not necessarily unique about games. A good screenplay, good dialogue, soundtrack and visuals. Buildings can be appreciated as artistic pieces. Bateman himself pointed out how many people have come to know architectural terminology through playing games. What makes conservative games good are that they rely on already established principles or even embellish and add to this. I’m not saying that there cannot be a great and original video game soundtrack, however it will be considered as music and not as game. We may say that such a conservative example of a game is good not because it is a good game, but because it is a good way of using music or drama through games.

What I wish to point out here is that there are more conventional categories to be applied to games outside of the Bateman schema. An obvious point though this is, what is not obvious is why such games may be considered successful (critically and commercially). I deem that this is because they obey conservative criteria.

What I wish to draw out is an historical analogy. The two great composers of the 1910s were Mahler and Schoenberg, Mahler was to some extent a conservative Romantic while Schoenberg is the radical visionary, games may work in the same way and in my personal view Mahler and Schoenberg have their merits as composers, but for vastly different reasons. Mahler is the surviving Romantic who draws from the late 1800s as his source, much like say, the music of Adele or Amy Winehouse are evocative of late 20thC soul, nice music but hardly innovative. Schoenberg hower is the prophet to a new vision (or so we at Noumenal Realm think). Serialism is a re-definition of musical style, although Bachian in aspects, it is a radically different sonic experience to the audience expectations their contemporamous diet of Brahms and Liszt.

This tension is an historic condition. As some games try to be more innovative and break boundaries and create new rules, others rely on already established ones to be successful. Bateman’s criteria of appeal to imagination for games reminds me of this historical-cultural tension. We will always have the conservative stylists against the Nouveau. I think there’s a place for conservatism. Glenn Gould was once questioned about how he considers both Schoenberg and Richard Strauss as favoured composers, his answer is that although they were worlds apart in style, they were historical contemporaries, both facing the rise of the National Socialists and the death of Old Europe. The conservatives and the Nouveau will have to live together, and both belong to their time.

 

Michael

Chris Bateman on Videogames: Art and (not so much) addiction: Part I: Game Criticism and ‘Bateman schema’

(I’ve decided to bump this post forward of everything else because as I’ve told Antisophie: Goffman has been dead for 30 years, a post on him can wait a bit longer.)

This weekend, after swimming in an ice cold water pool, I decided to venture to see a talk held by the good people of St. Barnabas Church in Southfields, SW18, which is a couple of SW away from me, I went to see one of the few consistent viewers of my blog, Chris Bateman of Only a Game and apparently even has a wikipedia page! Bateman is also responsible for this game, the digital equivalent of an ad hominem, but I digress.

The topic of Bateman’s talk goes through a lot of bases, for example Kendall Walton’s landmark work on Mimesis as Make-Believe, a paper which has had influence in philosophy outside of philosophical aesthetics. Bateman also addresses two levels of critiques about games. One pertains to the extent to which they are engaging to the imagination and another is the level to which on a brain level, they appeal to certain categories of stimuli. Let’s start off with a bit of exegesis.

Games and the imagination

There is an implicit bias in Bateman against games modelled on action movies and more favour towards games which engage the imagination, where representation of the things imagined are as limited as possible. Something like Flatland or rulebook based tabletop games are implicitly favourable than the conventional blockbuster games that rule the commercial roost. I think this is immaterial to the point but I do find it interesting how our personal outlooks influence our philosophies in no insignificant fashion.

Bateman argues that the uniqueness of games are the ways in which they engage in exercising the imagination, perhaps even challenging them. There is something refreshingly avant-garde about this claim and if it were made about music I would wholly agree and claim it as an Adornian/modernist idea. Imagination engages the gamer’s mind in a variety of ways which are explained in much more detail in Bateman’s blog such as through his discussion of Walton’s prop theory and many of his other posts on his accompanying iHobo blog, often much of it I barely understand.

What I will say is that there is an analogue with the modernists of the last century with their ideals of authentic art against inauthentic art with visionary games and anodyne games. This invariably cuts into the issue of the commercialism of games in a similar way that Adorno was concerned with the inauthenticity of the anodyne nature of mass culture. One significant way in which the analogy does not work (and probably an important one) is the means of production. Adorno considered much of the dullness of mass culture to be linked inextricably to its means of production. Bateman by contrast works in an industry where the commodity (the game) can be potentially digitally reproduced and offers a potentially unlimited resource as a game can be reproduced digitally through the likes of Steam downloads or other such non-physical retailers.

The idea of criticism and and the idea of success

Implicit in Bateman’s discussion is his idea that video games are an art form and his work has gone beyond the question of whether games are an art form (which I’m sure is almost a banal question for many people these days). What is more interesting is that Bateman seems to be creating a notion for game criticism in a way akin to literary or music criticism. Maybe one day someone will do PhDs in gamer criticism in English Language departments, mostly because some English Language departments in universities hardly even do things like erm, 18th Century novels or Medieval literature, you know, the staples, but I digress (again). Another factor that we might consider about games is the notion of success. What is a successful game? We can consider this both in terms of commercial and aesthetic success, and of course, aesthetically successful games need not be commercially successful. We shall come across this issue later.

Games and categories: introducing the ‘Bateman Schema’

The other aspect of critique about video games involves sets of categories. Lets call them Bateman Schema. Bateman linked these to neurological concepts, namely, generic sectors of the brain and localised sectors that link to certain kinds of responses. For example, fear is a potential aspect of a game, namely simulated fear. The offer of success is another, the potential for co-operation with other agents/players; dealing with randomness/unpredictability. Bateman links these concepts with brain regions, sectors and hormones. I think for a large number of reasons this is very difficult as the onus on this claim is empirical and raises methodological issues such as the naturalistic fallacy, the critique of ‘neurotrash’ or the potentially misleading way of identifying areas in the brain as unified autonomous structures and mechanisms, in other words, can we really say there is a ‘fear’ centre of the brain? The idea of neurotrash is addressed by the philosopher Raymond Tallis, who is also a medical practitioner who relies on brain studies for his work. .

This is not to say I find these categories abhorrent or wrong, far from it. Whether these categories or not are biological is an issue I could happily put aside, I think something like a ‘Weberian ideal type’ or akin to a Kantian/Aristotelian conceptual category would seem more relevant as it is less metaphysically suspect (well maybe not a Kantian category).  The typology of concepts established by Bateman are what I said to him are the most interesting and innovative aspects of his notion of game. Especially towards the critical notion of a game’s success. Many of the aspects of a game’s failure or success can be determined to the extent of these categories. A game which has much to offer in terms of fear and the payoff of surviving that fear (success) or the degree to which a game may fail may be determined by these factors. There was one category in particular which really resonated with me, which isn’t particularly a strong one for many games and that is association.

I have a strong association with playing the piano, often when I play, I go through many memories and feelings, many of these feelings and memories won’t make sense to anyone else and it becomes a highly personal experience. When I thought of this, I also thought that playing the piano isn’t a game, but it is an activity of playing. Bateman identified the semantic indeterminability of the french ‘Jeux’ (meaning both play and game) to highlight this. Playing is a slightly different activity to gaming highlighted by the instance of playing the piano. Maybe piano playing is a game, but I hardly succeed at it, and I don’t really involve other people and the amount of fear in public performing is so terrible it wouldn’t make a very nice game!

I was also thinking of games that I have fond associations with. Franchise games are very good at this. One of my all time favourite games is Grandia II, which I found in a bargain basement sale when my dad was buying a washing machine at comet years ago, when a game establishes a world that is convincing and characters with conviction, you can develop feelings for them and engage with them. It is this notion of association that makes a game personal and yet a very active activity. It is in my view the one way in which my experience of Mass Effect 2 and 3 favour better than when I played Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, because the world in the latter was not emotionally or personally engaging enough with the Dohvakin protagonist (who is rather wooden).

Bateman’s categories allow a way for gaming criticism to emerge. Good games and bad games can be considered through these schema. Bad games are a very good case in point, there are some games that I’ve played where the amount of fear is too high, or the success payoff is too low that I have lost interest in it. There are many games which I’ve admired for many reasons which eventually fail in one aspect that sometimes I may stick with as a way of compromising and accepting that other aspects outweigh the bad things (my general experience with JRPGs with generic storylines but fun level/skill trees). I do think that with these criteria, each of the schema that Bateman has advanced to not have equal weighting. Modern Warfare may be critically well considered for the degree to which it integrates multiplayer elements, but maybe not in terms of an engaging story or necessarily fear. In other words, what makes one game successful does not apply as a rule of thumb for all games. Again this schema raises the question of whether our notion of success is commercial or critical. I can perfectly envisage for instance, that using these Bateman schema (I think I’ll call it that from now on).

What is very unique about the Bateman Schema is that this is his best case for making games an art form. This is because these factors are experientially relevant to the agent, in addition they are perhaps unique to games in a way that other art forms are not. So in short, I think the Bateman schema provide a very useful way of considering games in a way that is aesthetically relevant. It may also provide a scheme and methodology for considering a game’s commercial success on a pre-release basis (if one were thinking as a market researcher), and this also highlights the ambiguity of what success is for a game? Is success critical (i.e. based on its individual merits) or commercial (based on its sales)? Bateman in various points of his writing prides himself on having worked on the games of the Pratchett Discworld series, which he claims were commercial failures but had a cult following. It’s interesting however that his more financially successful game was Bratz: Rock Angels, this fact aggravates this division of our notion of success. Bateman’s characterisation of games through this dual approach of imagination and the brain centres can be used to frame conceptual problems that are not necessarily solvable, but exist in games inherently as a commercial enterprise that may be also an artistic endeavour.

In my next post on Bateman’s talk, I will address a more specific issue which relates more to my own familiar area of interest. This is the issue that I chose to bring up with him in person.

Michael