Monday, November 28, 2011

Response to "Toc"

From my "Future of English Studies" course.  Toc is a new-media literature project.  Here's the website.  Despite my critique below, it is worth taking a look at.

As a piece of writing, Toc has its virtues. As a piece of electronic media, it's a disaster.

Disclaimer: I'm a gamer. I have been since I was young. I grew up on Civilization II, Front Page Sports Baseball, and Doom. As important to me in college as the "Great Books" and the discussions that went with them was the purchase of my first real computer, and the weekend (and wee-morning) hours I poured into Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights (1 and 2), and countless other strategy and RPG titles. It is true that video games often do not contain great - or even good - writing, and that their stories, when they have any, are largely derivative. What they do well, however, is interface.

Toc suffers because it is "interactive" without the interaction actually amounting to anything. Sure, there's a certain randomness (and, the authors would likely argue, timelessness) to the order in which you encounter the various fragments of the story, based upon what you click when, but the fragments are sufficiently free standing that the order hardly matters. Instead, the interaction implies the game world - you have to click precisely on the little blue, green, and red lines to get the appropriate media to operate - without embracing it. The experience of the reader remains mostly passive.

A passive reader experience is fine, of course, but in this case it's the "mostly" that's the problem. The experience isn't passive, but what interaction there is either is too limiting, too frustrating, or both. The lack of controls on the videos (mostly they cannot be paused or rewinded) is a UI disaster. Clicking on the little lines is finicky. The "lens" through which the textual parts of the story is read looks bland, at best. The mix of beautiful hand-drawn images and cool 3D effects in the videos with poor and outdated CGI is jarring.

In all, the authors of Toc, it seems to me, couldn't decide whether they were making this story for readers or for users. They embraced technology as a medium without embracing the design principles that go with it. Sure, the video game industry has its faults, but design is not one of them. Sure, UI people don't have all the answers as to how we can best interact with computers, but they have some good ideas. Sure, modern digital distribution of software of all kinds raises copyright questions, but the archaic "insert CD to install" - without even an autorun function! - places Toc several years behind the times (as does its lack of a patch for the few but noticeable bugs).

Worst of all, Toc is doomed by its lack of flexibility. Though ostensibly friendly with both major operating systems, it requires Apple's Quicktime, which has a tenuous and unhappy relationship with Windows. Toc does not run in Linux (I tried), and I suspect it will struggle once the current generation of its dependent technologies has passed (that is, once we're on to OS 11, Windows 8, and Quicktime Whatever). Even if it can run, it will certainly feel outdated (as it already does). This is true for most digital media, of course, but it is particularly ironic here. For a work so sensitive to time and its illusions, Toc is perhaps more vulnerable to time's passage than most works of art and literature.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Questions for the Liberal Arts Major

The title is a bit misleading here.  Basically, I'm working on drafting a dialogue (of all things) about the future of liberal arts education for my "Future of English Studies" course.  The goal is, in short, to reimagine the St. John's College Great Books program - or something like it - with an eye towards important modern concepts like multiculturalism and technology.  The fundamental question is, how much do you lose from the radical dialogic pedagogy of the college in modernizing it (or post-modernizing* it, I guess).

* Post-modernism still makes me viscerally uncomfortable, even as I recognize that almost everyone - including myself - with any semblance of education in the modern world believes in it implicitly.  Truth is relative?  Of course.  Context matters?  Duh.  Moral sensibilities have more to do with culture than with eternal, Platonic forms? Yeah, I guess so.  That doesn't change, though, that I also dislike post-modernism.  I think this is in part due to its horrible name.  Someone should have foreseen a problem with future naming of philosophical movements when they called their own time "modern."  Someone else should have realized that calling the next movement "post-modernism" was also silly.  What comes next?  Post-post-modernism?

The goal in this post is not to write my draft, but to pose questions.  That is, I don't even plan on trying to answer or discuss those questions here: that's what the dialogue will do.  I just want to pose questions.  So without further ado, here are, in no particular order, questions for the liberal arts major:

- Is it desirable for every student in a college to share a reading list with every other student?
- Is it possible to share a reading list in a multicultural curriculum?
- What makes for a good classroom discussion, and how important is a shared reading list - or even a shared reading - to that project?
- How could a St. John's-like program teach writing effectively without abandoning its pedagogical roots?
- What is more important to St. John's pedagogy: the illusion of equality in the classroom, the apparent absence of grades, the commitment to the shared reading (and no outside sources), or the participation of a sufficient percentage of the students in the class?
- How many students and tutors is ideal?
- What is the purpose of a liberal arts education?  How can we justify it in the modern world?
- Could St. John's work as a multicultural institution?  That is, is it merely the reading list, or is it the entire structure that is racist and sexist? (Can the subaltern speak?)
- Indeed, is higher education in general (not just St. John's) not culturally hegemonic?
- What subjects should make up "tutorials?" At St. John's we do Math, Laboratory, Music, and Language.  Are these the best options?  What is the goal of the tutorial?
- If Husserl's "Crisis of the European Sciences" organizes the traditional St. John's, what text or texts would best organize a modern St. John's?
- How should a student be assessed in a dialogic classroom?
- Is it possible to just update the reading list and keep everything else about St. John's the same?
- If we did update the reading list, what would be thrown out or condensed, and what would be added?  Isn't it too ironic to have a multicultural, post-modern canon?
- What about increasingly prominent non-textual works of art and philosophy, like movies, documentaries, albums, and born-digital documents like blogs or video games?  What would it mean to study these, and would it be possible to do so in a dialogic classroom?
- Can elements of the St. John's program be recreated online?
- What would a fully digital St. John's seminar look like; what would it gain over the traditional model, and what would it lose?
- How important is the credential to a liberal arts education?  Practically and theoretically.
- How should questions like these even be decided?  That is, how should a modern liberal arts program be run politically and socially?

I'm sure I could pose more questions, but this seems to me a good start.  Of course, if you have any thoughts, I'm happy to hear them.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Reading Asterios Polyp's Chart

In my "Future of English Studies" course this week we read David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp.  It's a wonderful graphic novel that you should go read.  Then you can come back and read this post.  I'll do my best, as always, to explain my astrological analysis in non-astrological terms.

Doing a natal chart for a fictional character is always tricky business, but in the case of Asterios Polyp I feel justified.  The book itself draws attention to Asterios's birthday and sign, as one of his key companions in the story is a self-proclaimed "Goddess" who studies astrology and, hilariously, lets Asterios know not to worry "if you fall in love with me, everyone does."  She's a Pisces, we're told, but she must be an Aquarius cusp or a Leo rising the way she comes across in the book.  She's, uh, forward.  And one of only two other characters as opinionated as Asterios.

While Asterios, as a rational thinker, dismisses astrology and its nebulous determinations and interpretations, I thought it might be interesting to see whether his chart tells us anything more about him than "he's a Cancer-Gemini cusp."  Now, the book tells us a few things - birth date, and a number of significant life events - but it gives no time or place, so we have to do a little rectification.  Guessing at place is easy enough.  Asterios lives and works in New York, and his parents are immigrants from Eastern Europe (hence the "Polyp," a shortening of a longer, presumably Greek, name).  Assuming that Asterios was born in New York City seems safe enough.

Time is a little trickier.  I ended up deciding on 5AM, for a number of reasons.  First off, we learn that Asterios is born a twin - his brother dies - after a 30+ hour labor.  For whatever reason, I imagine the doctor's decision to perform a c-section as happening at the end of a second long night of labor.  As for astrological reasons, the first argument for this birth time is that it puts most of Asterios's planets on the Eastern side of his chart.  Asterios is a fairly self-absorbed character who, moreover, is an architect used to shaping his own world.  That jives better with Eastern hemisphere of self-determination than Western.  Moreover, we learn that Asterios has not yet designed something that was actually built, so he's more of a theoretical architect.  That his Northern hemisphere is stronger than his Southern with a 5AM birth time supports this facet of his personality: despite his vociferousness and manifest brilliance, much of his work (Saturn) remains below the horizon (in the fourth house).

The other virtues of a 5AM birth time include a Piscean midheaven, supported by the positive and, I think, transformative relationship he has with our aforementioned Goddess and her family.  Also, Sagittarius - the sign of philosophy and higher education - fills most of the 6th house of work, another sensible configuration given that Asterios works in Academia.  Finally, and most importantly, this birth time puts his Sun in Cancer in the first house, but keeps his ascendant as Gemini.  The book as a whole is largely concerned with how Asterios deals with duality, and so a Gemini ascendant makes sense, as does a first house Sun, as Asterios is extremely self-absorbed for much of the book (it is worth noting that he is a progressed Leo, too, making him something of a showman).

Ultimately, we can't rely too heavily on the houses here, despite how sensible the rectified chart looks.  Nevertheless, they can serve as guideposts for interpreting the signs and planets.

Without further ado, here's the chart.

Asterios Polyp Rectified Chart - Generated by OpenAstro

I won't go into too much detail here.  There's a lot here and, to even my surprise, it fits Asterios extremely well.  Indeed, the chart's correlation to what we know about Asterios as a character is strong enough that I wonder whether Mazzucchelli consulted an astrologer while he was writing.  Anyway, let's look at the highlights.  What really jumps out here?

Short (technical) answer: T-Squares.  Big, messy t-squares.  Mercury in Gemini squares a Saturn-Moon Conjunction, Squares Chairon.  Indeed, throw in Jupiter and you're on the verge of a Grand Cross.

Non-technical answer: Asterios has serious conflict and difficult in his chart.  His workmanlike attitude belies the difficulty he has in translating his work into reality.  Nevertheless, he's so deeply invested in what he does that he makes it a part of his home.  He has a strong aesthetic that he must see realized in his home, and even slight deviation from his expected and desired order of things is profoundly upsetting to him.

This quality he has a hard time expressing and understanding, tending to overwhelm his interlocutors precisely because he's not as self-assured as he seems.  He struggles to communicate how deeply he is what he does and says.  That is, ideas are not merely ideas to Asterios, but are rather a core part of his personality.  This multi-faceted sense of self is so upsetting to Asterios that he subsumes it in his subconscious, refusing to realize that the way he lives is peculiar and personal, instead externalizing it as a philosophical position.

Because of this internal conflict, duality takes the place of complexity in Asterios's thought.  In a beautiful piece of astrological serendipity, Chairon sets off both the internal and external senses of self with a deep, personal wound.  For Asterios, this wound is his dead brother.  Indeed, his splitting the world into dualities is his attempt to heal the loss of his twin.  Not only that, in healing himself - so he thinks - he finds a means by which he might heal others.  That is, he can bring them a simplifying dualism.

That Asterios does not understand that dualism is, of course, the irony at the heart of his character, and the quality that sets the plot in motion.  The story is very much an effort by Asterios to better connect with complexity.  Fittingly, this is represented by the place to which his t-cross opens up: Pisces in the 10th house.  Asterios has Jupiter - a planet of growth - in Pisces, and it is no surprise that his growth throughout the book is both Piscean - in the sense of embracing emotional complexity - and social, as signified by the 10th house.

There are other interesting aspects in Asterios's chart, but this t-cross (which is nearly a grand cross) is really the heart of the thing.  How well it fits perhaps raises a question: how much am I mapping the book onto the chart, and how much am I mapping the chart onto the book?  That is, which is prior?

The answer, of course, is neither.  Yes, my familiarity with Asterios as a character colors my reading of his chart, but should I know nothing about him, I would come to similar, if more abstract, conclusions.  The forces at work here - the important planets, signs, and houses - have very broad meanings that, nevertheless, are narrow enough to allow only particular interpretations.  That the events of Asterios Polyp fit so well with that interpretive baseline, yielding a rich, specific chart seems to me no accident.

Now, the question is, does this tell us anything about Asterios we didn't already know?  Perhaps not.  But it does give me a different language through which I might explain the things I sensed in reading.  Just like writing a reflection on a text, doing a chart might open up linguistic and artistic interpretive pathways that would otherwise stay closed.

To the skeptic, then, that opening up of new pathways is the value of astrology.  It is not about fate.  It is about understanding.