#whalerape and the undeath of the author: separating the art from the artist

Paul Raven @ 06-06-2011

It’s a perennial problem: artists and writers, just like everyone else, can be appalling buttheads with deeply unpleasant ideas and attitudes. But do those attitudes poison their creations by association?

It’s all down to personal responses, of course. Here’s a post at ThisRecording that takes a look at the misogyny, racism and antiSemitism of beloved children’s author Roald Dahl; I was raised on Dahl’s books and loved them dearly, and I’m pretty sure my mother and my aunt – the main vectors by which Dahl’s output arrived in my world – would be just as appalled by Dahl-the-man as I am after reading that piece. But because I knew the work before I knew the man (and possibly because the work was edited to remove some of the more unpleasant subtexts), I find myself still able to draw a line between the two… though I suspect were I to re-read Dahl now, in light of the above, I’d be looking out for clues and signs of his sublimated nastiness. It’s hard to read with clean-slate innocence with that sort of knowledge hanging at the back of your brain.

Interestingly, though, this doesn’t seem to work the other way. Regular readers will know of my antipathy to archbigot and homophobe Orson Scott Card. I discovered Card’s reputation before ever reading any of his books, and as a result have read none of them (though I have read a few short stories since, which seemed only to confirm my opinions). And speaking of Mormons, habitués of the genre fandom Twittersphere may have noticed the #whalerape hashtag over the weekend, as a bunch of people (re)read this year’s Nebula winning novelette, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone. As the body and comments of the Locus Roundtable blog post about it demonstrate, opinions differ wildly as to its merits (or lack thereof), and the point of fracture seems to be along lines of attitude to religious missionary work in general, and Mormon proselytising in particular. Having seen the running commentary – not to mention discovering that Stone’s attitudes to homosexuality are in the same retrograde camp as Card’s – I’m finding myself deeply prejudiced against the guy’s work.

To be clear, I don’t think this sort of prejudice is dependent on the nature of the offence caused: I imagine that a conservative reader might be just as shocked and put off an artist by finding out they were a closet Troskyite, for instance. But I do wonder if the problem isn’t exacerbated by the new-found publicness (?) of the artist lifestyle. With writers in particular, the old model – communicating with your public primarily through one’s work, and the occasional public appearance or bit of journalism if one were of sufficient stature to get the gigs – has given way to a much more performative presence: the author as celebrity, as pundit. It’s never been easier to find out what the most minor of authors thinks about sports, politics or other ethical quandaries… though, to be fair, the same applies to people in all walks of life. We’re all celebrities now; it’s merely a matter of audience magnitude.

This all ties in with my ongoing fascination with what literature critics call the intentional fallacy, which suggests you can only judge a text on its own merits; critiquing a text on the basis of knowledge about the author’s philosophies and actions beyond those admitted of in the text itself is an act of biography rather than criticism. Part of me finds the poststructuralist undertones of the intentional fallacy appealing – the author is dead, and we can find whatever meanings we like in every text! – but I’m increasingly convinced that, as noble and high-minded a critical ideal as it may be, it simply isn’t compatible with the world we now live in. Call it “the undeath of the author”, maybe; they may not be alive within the text itself, but something of them shambles around outside its perimeter fences. Perhaps in the post-war years it was easy to assume a text could be hermetically sealed off from the world in which it was created and in which it will be read; in the hyperlinked and searchable world we now live in, the outer membrane of every text has become permeable to a lesser or greater degree – no firewall is completely hack-proof, right? – and one of the first and easiest conflations to make is that of the author’s publicly-held opinions and the meaning of their text.

All of which may seem like academic noodling (guilty as charged), but I think there’s a real issue here, too. In light of recent discussions about the comparative invisibility of women or people of colour in anthology TOCs, best-of-the-genre lists and prize nominations, this difficulty in separating art from artist becomes a more problematic thing, and damages the credibility of editors or anthologists who claim to be colour-, creed- or gender-blind when reading submissions. To flip the issue around (and demostrate the prejudices do point both ways): say I was editing an anthology, and an Eric James Stone story came over the submissions transom; I like to think I’d read it and give it as fair a chance to succeed on its own merits as anyone else’s, but I can’t in all honesty say I’d truly manage to do so. And that’s an example of a conscious prejudice, one of which I am aware and can – to a lesser or greater extent – work to minimise; what about the subconscious culturally-encoded prejudices against women, LGBTQ people and people of colour, the ones that we almost all believe we don’t have, but which we almost all do have?

(I fully count myself among that “almost all”, by the way; I’m not entirely sure I believe any of us can entirely free ourselves from culturally-encoded prejudices, but we can at least work to mitigate them once we’ve become aware of them, a process which becomes – albeit very gradually – easier over time. Much as in AA’s twelve-step program, the first step is to admit that you have a problem; that’s also the hardest step of all.)

As is probably plain (and certainly in keeping with local tradition) I don’t have any answers to this dilemma; I’m just throwing out a collection of ideas to see what other folk think about them. So, whatcha got, huh?

Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story: High School, Privacy and Blended Identity

Jonathan McCalmont @ 25-05-2011

Don’t Take it Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story is the follow-up to Christine Love’s critically acclaimed indie game Digital: A Love Story. Much like its author’s previous work, Don’t Take It Personally is a game devoted to exploring the nature of online identity. However, while Digital expressed a delicately muted nostalgia for a fictionalised past in which cyberspace allowed Mind to detach itself from Body, Don’t Take it Personally expresses a similarly ambivalent attitude to a notional future in which privacy has become an archaic and outmoded concept. Continue reading “Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story: High School, Privacy and Blended Identity”

Sucker Punch: Video Games and the Future of the Blockbuster

Jonathan McCalmont @ 20-04-2011

One of the great failures of 20th and 21st Century film criticism has been the failure to recognise that Blockbusters are a genre unto themselves. Forged in the 1970s by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Blockbusters borrow the trappings of other populist cinematic genres – such as science fiction, fantasy, espionage, war and disaster movies – but their aesthetics are entirely divorced from the concerns of the genres they borrow from.

In this column, I would like to examine the nature of the modern Blockbuster and argue that the next source of genre material for Blockbuster film will be video games. However, while there is much promise to be found in the idea of a film/game stylistic hybrid and Zack Snyder’s latest film Sucker Punch hints at much of that promise, it seems that the form of video games itself is as yet too underdeveloped to provide film makers with anything more than another set of visual tropes that will be used, re-used and eventually cast aside as the Blockbuster genre continues its predatory rampage through popular culture. Continue reading “Sucker Punch: Video Games and the Future of the Blockbuster”

The American Dream is SPENT: Two Visions of Contemporary Capitalism

Jonathan McCalmont @ 30-03-2011

At times of crisis, the irrationality of capitalism becomes plain for all to see. Surplus capital and surplus labour exist side by side with seemingly no way to put them back together in the midst of immense human suffering and unmet needs. In the midsummer of 2009 one third of the capital equipment in the United States stood idle, while some 17 per cent of the workforce were either unemployed, enforced part-timers or ‘discouraged’ workers. What could be more irrational than that? – David Harvey The Enigma of Capital (2010)

In my previous column, I cast an eye over the different ways in which strategy games depict the world and how these distorted visions of reality mirror the distortions that affect people when they become part of large institutions, such as governments and corporations. In that column, I discussed strategy games such as Civilization V (2010) and Europa Universalis III (2007) and god games such as Populous (1989) but I omitted to mention games that set out the simulate what it is like to run a business. Continue reading “The American Dream is SPENT: Two Visions of Contemporary Capitalism”

Seeing Like A State: Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths

Jonathan McCalmont @ 02-03-2011

0. A Tendentious History of Strategy Games Leading Up To A Question

All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring.

– Chuck Palahniuk

Some video games require greater imaginative leaps than others. For example, games like Pong (1972) and Space Invaders (1978) were so graphically primitive that the gap between the things on the screen and the things they were supposed to represent could only be crossed with the use of a rocket-cycle; this collection of squares over here is an alien. That collection of squares over there is Earth’s last line of defence. The little squares moving up and down are particle weapons… or possibly missiles… or shoeboxes filled with explosive. It was difficult to tell. Continue reading “Seeing Like A State: Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths”

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