Video Games Live — concert review

A friend and I saw Video Games Live, the concert featuring primarily music from video games; the show was emphatically so-so, mostly because the music kept being interrupted for banal reasons, chiefly related to defending the idea of video games as an art form. The structure of the concert went like this: the musicians would play for five to ten minutes, then a guy would show up to declare that video games are ART, DAMNIT! or run a contest, or show a video game, or pick his nose, or whatever. Then the music would resume. But is a show devoted to music of games really an ideal venue for the purpose of trying to show video games are art? In other concerts I’ve been to, no one comes out to defend Beethoven or The Offspring as art: it’s merely assumed. You’ll know video games are art when people stop claiming they are and merely assume that they are.

I feel the worst for the musicians themselves, who presumably haven’t spent more than 10,000 hours of practice time for underdeveloped pieces that, to highly trained ears, probably sound bombastic or manipulative, like bad romances seem to literary critics. You could see them looking at one another when the conductor / showman stopped to extol the virtues of video games and drench himself in glory for putting the show together.

You may notice that I haven’t mentioned much about the music: that’s because the show wasn’t really about music. Some video game music is interesting and deserves serious attention; Final Fantasy is particularly famous for its soundtracks. The Mario theme music has become a pop culture cliche. But you won’t find attention to music at Video Games Live: look elsewhere for that.

Without being able to discuss much of the music, someone dealing with the concert is left to discuss what the nominal concert really engages. Like a dizzying array of phenomena, Tyler Cowen has asked similar questions about the status of video games and art, which he engages a little bit here regarding a New York Times piece and also here. Salon.com is asking the same questions, but is more rah-rah about video games. I don’t think anyone has argued that video games don’t “matter,” whatever that means in the context. It seems unlikely to me that games will have a strong claim to art until they can deal with sexuality in a mature way—which paintings, novels, poetry, and movies have all accomplished.

We’ll know video games are art when their defenders stop saying that video games are art and merely assume they are while going about their business. This change happened in earnest with novels around the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Mark McGurl argues in The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James. Maybe it’s happening now with video games. If so, I don’t think Video Games Live is helping.

One good thing: my friend won tickets. So the only cost of the show was opportunity, not money.

Anathem — Neal Stephenson

I read Anathem when it came out and tried it again recently because I’m a literary masochist. It concerns a giant graduate school/university where really smart people gather in seclusion from the rest of humanity, who are busy running around distracted by cell phones (now called “jeejahs”), futuristic TV, and religious-style demagogues. Erasmus (get it?) is in the middle of this and realizes something bad is going to happen. He’s a low-ranked “avout” who lives in one of those cloisters, which demands an kind of autarky of ideas, a bit like Vermont without Internet access. There are a lot of passages like this, taken from the beginning:

Guests from extramuros, like Artisan Flec, were allowed to come in the Day Gate and view auts from the north nave when they were not especially contagious and, by and large, behaving themselves. This had been more or less the case for the last century and a half.

It’s unfair to take this out of context and not explain what the hell is going on. But for the first quarter to half of the book, there is no context until you’ve created your own.

Confused yet? Hopefully not too much; if you pick up Anathem, you will be further. The novel famously comes with a glossary, which reads like code with too many GOTOs in it. And if I make the novel sound ridiculous, I’m doing so intentionally and picking up the flavor of those lofty New Yorker reviews whose greatest tactic against the manufactured noise and lights that sometimes pass as popcorn movies is ridicule. In Stephenson’s case, the noise is highbrow and intellectual, or maybe pseudo-intellectual, but noise nonetheless, regardless of the number of philosophic references put in it.

The biggest problems with the silly vocabulary is that it a) makes the the novel harder to take seriously, even in a humorous way, and b) make it more likely that readers will abandon the novel before reading it, and in turn badmouth it to their friends (and on their blogs, as I’m doing). I wanted to like the novel, but Neal Stephenson is beginning to feel like Melville: someone who peaked before he stopped writing novels, to the detriment of his readers, but who nonetheless still writes a lot of unconventional and interesting stuff. Stephenson’s Moby Dick is Cryptonomicon, a novel still justifiably beloved, and his earlier novels The Diamond Age and Snow Crash are both unusually strong science fiction.

By now, one gets the sense no one restrains Stephenson’s grandest impulses: the long well-done novel is a unique beauty, but the poorly done long novel is more likely to be abandoned than finished, and one could say that all the more of a poorly done series of long novels like The Baroque Trilogy , which is destined not to be a collected in a single physical volume thanks to its heft.

In Further Fridays, John Barth writes of great thick books that “One is reminded that the pleasures of the one-night stand, however fashionable, are not the only pleasures. There is also the extended, committed affair; there is even the devoted, faithful, happy marriage. One recalls, among several non-minimalist Moderns, Vladimir Nabokov seconding James Joyce’s wish for ‘the ideal reader with the ideal insomnia.’ ” Neal Stephenson answers this call for heft and then some: Cryptonomicon is a marvelous book that would demand more than a single night of insomnia to read, and yet none of it seems extraneous, or at least not in a way that deserves to be cut. Even the several page description of how one should eat Captain Crunch seems apt to the mind of the hackers and proto-hackers Stephenson follows. So it is again with Anathem, a novel whose demands are much greater.

Stephenson has made steadily greater demands of his readers, and I wonder if those demands were most justified for Cryptonomicon. Midway through Quicksilver I gave up, and what The Baroque Trilogy demands in sheer length, Anathem demands in depth. As has often been mentioned in reviews, it has a glossary, and the dangers of it are well-expressed by this graph:

(I will note, however, that one of my favorite novels of all times has not just made up words, but an entire made-up language embedded: Lord of the Rings. So it’s important to note that the probability of a book being good descends but never reaches zero, at least as far as we can tell from this graph.)

One other point: as Umberto Eco said of The Name of the Rose:

But there was another reason [beyond verisimilitude to the perspective of a 14th C. monk] for including those long didactic passages. After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill.
Entering a novel is like going on a climb in the mountains: you have to learn the rhythm of respiration, acquire the pace; otherwise you stop right away.

Or, worse, you might think you get to the mountain’s summit and then intellectually die during the descent (and yes, the link embedded in this sentence is highly relevant to the issue at hand).

In the novel, Stephenson is dealing with the potential for an increasingly bifurcated society with supernerds on one side and proles on the other. You can see the same ideas in 800 words instead of 120,000 in his essay Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out, which I assign to my freshmen every semester and which almost none of them really get.

Still, the concern that smart people are going to rule others does have a certain pedigree, and the idea of a cerebral superclass detached from the material world is hardly a new one; monks were an expression of it in a religious context for centuries if not longer. H.G. Wells thought of something not dissimilar in his idea of an “Open Conspiracy,” through which leading scientists and philosophers would form a benevolent world government. In Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, he describes physicist Leo Szilard similar conception of an improbably super-competent elite ruling the world:

[…] we could create a spiritual leadership class with inner cohesion which would renew itself on its own.

Members of this class would not be award wealth or personal glory. To the contrary, they would be required to take on exceptional responsibilities, “burdens” that might “demonstrate their devotion.”

Sounds great. Keep them away from me.

People who like second-hand philosophy and who need a superiority complex or to feed one that’s developing might like Anathem. Mastering it is perhaps as esoteric as being able to quote at will from Hegel The Phenomenology of Spirit and about as fun. I’ve barely talked about the novel, the text, and the story because the story feels like a skeleton for the novel’s concerns. Again, like Melville, Stephenson seems to have forgotten about the pull of story in his later.

Umberto Eco, in contrast, is another writer of enormous books filled with ideas, and his two best—The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum contrast with weaker efforts in those others—like The Island of the Day Before and The Invisible Flame of Queen Loanna—become obsessed with how story is told rather than the story itself. The “how” is a fine subject to address in novels, as many postmodernist novels do, but it can’t be subjugated to the what—otherwise one isn’t writing a novel; one is writing literary criticism. Trying to shoehorn the latter into the former isn’t going to create anything but boredom, with characters who aren’t characters but Vessels of Great Meaning. Erasmus in Anathem isn’t a person—he’s a convenient way to explore ideas. I’d like a character who explores the idea of why idea must be integrated into characters rather than vice-versa.

Is there something wrong with story? For a novel to work, its meaning has to be at most equal to, but more likely subsumed beneath, its story and the language used to convey that story. But Anathem is too busy preening to let that happen. I’m reminded of something Philip Pullman said regarding the His Dark Materials Trilogy: for every page he wrote he threw five away, and he concentrated ceaselessly on moving it along. That has our hero, Lyra, in a closet, where she’s hiding because she’s broken a rule and sees someone attempt to poison her father, a returning hero. The novel moves ever faster from there.

It’s a beginning so forceful that I’m recalling it by memory. Where does Anathem begin again? I can’t remember, and I look at the tome on my desk and considering finding out. If I were to force myself to remember, it would be doing so with all the joy of memorizing for school. His Dark Materials, in contrast, I remember for pure joy, and for its impact.

This is, to be sure, an overlong post, but it suits an overlong novel. Let this serve as a warning regarding and substitute for Anathem.

Hypocrisy as enabled by wealth: a lesson from Daniel Okrent's Last Call

In Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, he writes: “As businesses came apart, as banks folded, as massive unemployment and homelessness scoured the cities and much of the countryside, any remaining ability to enforce Prohibition evaporate.”

One can extract a larger point from this passage relating the Great Depression’s effects on Prohibition: hypocrisy regarding victimless crimes is a luxury good. It can be indulged when a society has sufficient wealth that it can afford to be hypocritical, signaling that its members want to be perceived as virtuous even when many of them as individuals would prefer to indulge in alcohol, other drugs, or sex-for-money. The same basic dynamic is playing out in California with weed: the state is broke; willing buyers buy from willing sellers; the cost of enforcement and imprisonment is pointless; and the tax revenue increases the temptations of legalization.

The Economist has recently reported on this dynamic regarding California: “Another big topic in a state with a $19 billion budget hole is the fiscal impact of legalisation. Some studies have estimated savings of nearly $1.9 billion as people are no longer arrested and imprisoned because of marijuana.”

A lesson Last Call offers is that societies can afford to become more hypocritical as they become wealthier. But when we have to confront the trade-offs that pointless policing of personal behavior entails, the costs of various kinds of prohibition become relatively higher and no longer look as appealing as they once did.

Hypocrisy as enabled by wealth: a lesson from Daniel Okrent’s Last Call

In Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, he writes: “As businesses came apart, as banks folded, as massive unemployment and homelessness scoured the cities and much of the countryside, any remaining ability to enforce Prohibition evaporate.”

One can extract a larger point from this passage relating the Great Depression’s effects on Prohibition: hypocrisy regarding victimless crimes is a luxury good. It can be indulged when a society has sufficient wealth that it can afford to be hypocritical, signaling that its members want to be perceived as virtuous even when many of them as individuals would prefer to indulge in alcohol, other drugs, or sex-for-money. The same basic dynamic is playing out in California with weed: the state is broke; willing buyers buy from willing sellers; the cost of enforcement and imprisonment is pointless; and the tax revenue increases the temptations of legalization.

The Economist has recently reported on this dynamic regarding California: “Another big topic in a state with a $19 billion budget hole is the fiscal impact of legalisation. Some studies have estimated savings of nearly $1.9 billion as people are no longer arrested and imprisoned because of marijuana.”

Societies can afford to become more hypocritical as they become wealthier. But when we have to confront the trade-offs that pointless policing of personal behavior entails, the costs of various kinds of prohibition become relatively higher and no longer look as appealing as they once did. Drug prohibition is a salient example.

Even nuns work towards status: an example from Danielle Trussoni's Angelology

In recent years Evangeline had been assigned to work in the St. Rose library as assistant to her prayer partner, Sister Philomena. It was an unglamorous position to be sure, not at all as high-profile as working in the Mission Office or assisting in Recruitment, and it had none of the rewards of charity work. As if to emphasize the lowly nature of the position, Evangeline’s office was located in the most decrepit part of the convent, a drafty section of the first floor down the hall from the library itself, with leaky pipes and Civil War-era windows, a combination that led to dampness, mold, and an abundance of head colds each winter.

That’s from page nine of Angelology (which isn’t very good overall). Even nuns have hierarchies, which might not involve money, but they nonetheless involve what the organization is designed to optimize—in this case, conspicuous charitability. But Evangeline doesn’t have that option: she has an “unglamorous position” that she appears to know is unglamorous, and the position doesn’t even have “the rewards of charity work,” which presumably include the recognition on the part of those being helped that you are helping them, or, if those being helped feel resentful or ashamed, the sense that one is able to rise above the circumstances. But books aren’t people and can’t provide the recognition that people can.

And the office itself is “located in the most decrepit part of the convent,” yet Evangeline doesn’t gain recognition from other nuns for the hardship that entails—including “dampness” and “mold,” although the “abundance of head colds” is a mistake on the part of either Evangeline, through free indirect speech, or Trussoni, since colds come from viruses, not from temperature drops. Still, the overall effect of privation without the recognition that would make up for the privation is apparent, as is the fact that money isn’t the primary mover of status in the nuns’ economy or society: it’s something else, something more vital to the organization’s purpose.

Even nuns work towards status: an example from Danielle Trussoni’s Angelology

In recent years Evangeline had been assigned to work in the St. Rose library as assistant to her prayer partner, Sister Philomena. It was an unglamorous position to be sure, not at all as high-profile as working in the Mission Office or assisting in Recruitment, and it had none of the rewards of charity work. As if to emphasize the lowly nature of the position, Evangeline’s office was located in the most decrepit part of the convent, a drafty section of the first floor down the hall from the library itself, with leaky pipes and Civil War-era windows, a combination that led to dampness, mold, and an abundance of head colds each winter.

That’s from page nine of Angelology (which isn’t very good overall). Even nuns have hierarchies, which might not involve money, but they nonetheless involve what the organization is designed to optimize—in this case, conspicuous charitability. But Evangeline doesn’t have that option: she has an “unglamorous position” that she appears to know is unglamorous, and the position doesn’t even have “the rewards of charity work,” which presumably include the recognition on the part of those being helped that you are helping them, or, if those being helped feel resentful or ashamed, the sense that one is able to rise above the circumstances. But books aren’t people and can’t provide the recognition that people can.

And the office itself is “located in the most decrepit part of the convent,” yet Evangeline doesn’t gain recognition from other nuns for the hardship that entails—including “dampness” and “mold,” although the “abundance of head colds” is a mistake on the part of either Evangeline, through free indirect speech, or Trussoni, since colds come from viruses, not from temperature drops. Still, the overall effect of privation without the recognition that would make up for the privation is apparent, as is the fact that money isn’t the primary mover of status in the nuns’ economy or society: it’s something else, something more vital to the organization’s purpose.

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