Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Roadside Picnic Basket Book Club - 2 - Blindsight

For the second meeting of the Roadside Picnic Basket Book Club, Trey from From the Sorcerer's Skull played host, and invited me to discuss the dungeoneering aspects of Peter Watts' novel Blindsight
So despite the cold, pull up a blanket, pour a cup of hot tea from your thermos, and enjoy the club. You can read the first half of our conversation here, and the second half here.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Blog5 on Tape - Type5 of Re5ource5

The fifth season of Nick LS Whelan's excellent Blogs on Tape project is well underway, and I've been fortunate enough to be included again this year!

Big thanks to Nick for his ongoing curation, preservation, and publication efforts, and for including me in his vision of the best of the blogosphere!

And remember to check in on Nick's work at Papers & Pencils and Blogs on Tape.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Over the summer, I got really depressed. I've had major depressive disorder for more or less my entire life, and I mostly have it well-managed, but sometimes it grows out of my control. Summers are often worse, for whatever reason. And of course, the general state of the world has worsened, downgrading from this-is-fine-dot-png to not-great-bob-dot-gif, in ways too numerous to mention, which isn't the cause of my depression, but certainly doesn't help either.

While I was depressed, I took a hiatus from blogging. I'm feeling better now, but it's been difficult to restart all the things I stopped doing during the most difficult time.

In March, shortly before my absence, Josep Torra of the Tirant lo Dau blog contacted me about translating my essay Landmark, Hidden, Secret into Catalan and publishing it in a zine. This easily makes LHS the most famous thing I've ever written. The zine is available on as a free pdf, and there's an inexpensive print option on Lulu. Josep's translation of my writing is on pages 81-86.

Tirat lo Drac 2022

Then in June, Chris McDowell also promoted Landmark, Hidden, Secret. It was tip #2 in his Bastionland Broadcasting episode "Preparing for an RPG Session - 3 Small Tips". The section that mentions me starts at around the 23 minute, 30 second mark.
Over the summer, my regular online gaming group met somewhat sporadically. Peter from Fantasy Heartbreak Workshop acted as the dungeon master, and ran us through Axo's Dungeon - which turns out to be quite a work of OSR collaboration, put together and keyed by Paolo Greco from Lost Pages, using geomorphs hosted on Dyson's Dodecahedron and Stonewerks, with updated art provided by Of Dice and Djinn. We used Peter's SKROP rules, which is his house ruled mashup of the GLOG and D&D 5e, and the game took place in his Owl Light setting, a science fantasy moon orbiting a Jupiter-like gas giant.

We started the campaign looking for human Reavers who'd been kidnapping villagers in a remote lake district, and found the dungeon on an island in lake. Inside we met an affable and nervous priest of Cthulhu, who wished to promote moderate worship of the Great Old One, but not so much worship that it might trigger madness in the worshippers or risk disturbing Cthulhu from his eternal slumber in any way. We also found a whole hoard of Reavers in a tenuous alliance with the Squid King and his Cephalopod army.

The dungeon has a lot of corridors and passageways, giving us an almost Metroid-like experience of rapid exploration. We rescued the Slug Witch from the Slug King, provoked a war between the Reavers and the Cephalopods that decimated both factions, and rescued the imprisoned villagers. Peter was amazed that we managed to navigate the dungeon so effectively to find the things we were looking for. I was amazed that our various disguises and stratagems actually worked and got the two armies to nearly wipe each other out. It was maybe my most efficacious campaign ever, in terms of accomplishing my character's goals during the game.
Axos Dungeon by Lost Pages
Recently we've started a new campaign with me as the referee. Ever since the new edition of Into the Odd came out, I've been wanting to run someone through the expanded version of the "Iron Coral" dungeon. Originally only a single level, it now has three! I actually ran the original as a DCC weird western adventure site, which I called "The Irontown Corral", but this is my first time running it using I2TO.

Peter and Leighton have just found an entrance to the second level, so I'm excited to see what happens next! So far Peter's Prize Breeder and Leighton's Sky Trooper have found 6 jars of "Dr Bronzeworthy's Fantabulous Frictionless Ball Bearings" and a very valuable crystalline sphere, thanks in part to some help from a couple of assistants that I rolled up using the Burnboss and Courier failed careers from Benign Brown Beast. (In the likely event of character death, the assistants will get promoted up to full player character status.) In the next section, I'm hoping they'll delve into territory none of us has seen yet.

The Iron Coral frontispiece by Johan Nohr

So that's how I spent my summer. Feel free to share what you've been up to in the comments!

Friday, April 29, 2022

Bon Mots - A Phone Call from the Joker

BATPHONE - Ring ring!

BATMAN - Hello?

JOKER - Ha ha! Greetings, Batman! It's me, your old pal, the Joker!

BATMAN - This is an unlisted number.

JOKER - Just calling to let you know I've broken out of Arkham again! Ha ha! Next time you should try locking me up in a wet paper bag! By the way, I hope none of those guards had families! Ha ha!

BATMAN - Dammit, Joker, they all had families.

JOKER - Oh good! You see I dosed each of them with a time-delayed chemical, coordinated to the time of my breakout and the length of their shifts! Right about now, each of them should be murdering their spouses and children! Ha ha! 

Don't worry, none of them have control over their actions, and here I am, a known criminal, confessing to poisoning them in a recorded call with a sworn officer of the court! I'm sure the prosecutor won't hold them responsible! Of course nothing will save them from the guilt, or the drug-induced PTSD flashbacks! Ha ha!

BATMAN - What makes you think I'm recording this call?

art by Jonathan Case for Batman 66 #1

JOKER - By now you're probably wondering why I've phoned you! I wanted to let you know that I've decided to play a little game with your sworn oath to never kill anyone under any circumstances ever! Ha ha! My recent flooding of the entire Gotham subway system with poison gas during rush hour, killing thousands, apparently didn't provide you with enough motivation!

BATMAN - I won't stoop to your level, Joker.

JOKER - That's too bad for the people of Bludhaven, Batman! I've stolen a nuclear bomb, and I'm going to detonate it downtown! Millions will die! Ha ha!

BATMAN - I'll never let that happen, Joker. I'll find you before the bomb goes off. I'm the world's greatest detective, don't you think I can find you in time?

JOKER - Perhaps you plan to find me by tracing this phone call? Let me save you the trouble! This phone is the detonator to a bomb vest I'm wearing! Ha ha!

As soon as I hang up, all you have to do is call me back, the phone will ring, and I'll die in a fiery explosion! The bomb vest only has a single stick of dynamite and I'm nowhere near any other people! The bomb will kill me and me alone and won't cause any structural damage to any bridges, roads, or buildings! There'll be no collateral damage of any kind! Ha ha!

Of course that means if you don't want to kill me then you can't risk calling me back after I hang up!

BATMAN - I don't need to find you, Joker, I just need to find the bomb.

JOKER - The bomb? The nuclear bomb? The nuclear bomb hidden somewhere in the heart of downtown Bludhaven? A city of millions? Millions who will die by being blown up by the nuclear bomb hidden by me, the Joker?

BATMAN - Yes, that bomb.

JOKER - You should know, Batman, that there's no way to disable the bomb on-site! Ha ha! It's connected to a remote detonator, and if you disable or remove it, it'll blow up immediately, which, I'll remind you again, will result in the deaths of millions! 

BATMAN - I understand the threat, Joker.

JOKER - What's the remote detonator you ask? Why it's a simple countdown timer, but instead of being linked to a clock, it's connected directly to my heartbeat! Ha ha! The only way to stop the countdown is to stop my heart!

By the way Batman, I hope I haven't given you the impression that you're going to have enough time to stop me any other way! Ha ha! After I hang up the phone you'll have about 3 minutes before the nuclear bomb detonates, less if I get excited and my heart starts racing while we talk!

BATMAN - . . .

JOKER - So what's it going to be, Batman? Lift one little finger to kill me? Or by your inaction allow millions to die and suffer? There's no other way to solve this!

You're trapped in a no-win situation specifically designed to show off the limits of your never kill anyone no matter how much they deserve it policy! A better, or at least more unified team of writers and editors would either allow you to kill or avoid putting you in situations like this one that make you look foolish! 

No one minds a Batman who doesn't kill as long as he only fights bank robbers with silly costumes! But try explaining why you won't execute a war criminal who has wiped out whole neighborhoods, entire cities, and will keep doing so again and again until you put him in the only place he can't escape!

BATMAN - . . . 

JOKER - What will you do? Police can't arrest me, prisons can't hold me! If you capture me, my next crime will make this one pale in comparison! How many lives are you willing to sacrifice just to prevent me from committing suicide?

You can't get to Bludhaven, and couldn't stop the detonation there if you tried! You don't have time to drive or fly here! You don't even know where I am! 

Even your other old pal Superman can't help you! Metropolis is basically Manhattan, Gotham is Brooklyn, and Bludhaven is essentially Queens! And everyone knows Superman never crosses the East River!

BATMAN - Actually, Gotham is canonically in New Jersey.

JOKER - Ha ha! You're almost out of time, Batman! 

By the way, if the millions of lives at stake aren't enough to sufficiently motivate you to take decisive action, let me remind you that your son and heir Robin, under his new nom de guerre Nighwing is in Bludhaven, and will certainly perish along with the others! I don't know your real name or his, but I know he's there, along with his adorable little pet dog Bitewing! Ha ha! 

You have less than 3 minutes, Batman, and then everyone in Bludhaven dies in a nuclear holocaust, including your protege!

BATMAN - No, not Robin!

BATPHONE - Dial tone.

art by Dick Dillin for Amazing World of DC Comics #14

Friday, April 15, 2022

Science Fiction Remix - Baron Harkonnen

My first introduction to the world of Dune happened years before I read the book, when I saw Wayne Barlowe's illustration of a navigator who was mutated by consuming Spice in the quantities needed to allow interstellar faster-than-light travel without the benefit of computers.

The illustration is colorful, and seemed to promise a setting filled with post-human beings, descendants of Old Earth who had gone so far, adapted so much, and been apart so long that they were effectively aliens. 

image from Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials

Frank Herbert offers us just the barest glimpse of this. Spice consumption allows the Steersmen to navigate between the stars, the Mentats to remember and calculate at a level akin to the real world computers of 1965, and grants the leaders of the royal houses a superhuman longevity. 

The text also gives us an interstellar society that's halfway between the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch East India Company - great houses, supposedly peers within the Landsraad beneath an elected emperor who is like the first among equals, all squabbling and jockeying for position and control and a larger cut of land and money and power and influence and Spice, the most valuable resource in human space, Spice, the whale oil or petroleum of its day, the source of the best medicines, the fuel for all travel, the thing that the shared economy cannot function without.

I imagined the costumes in Dune as being modeled after 18th and 19th century European military and nobility, Ruritania in space, and to a greater or lesser extent, both the David Lynch film and the Sci Fi Channel miniseries gave me back some of what I'd imagined, with costumes inspired by Moebius and HR Geiger and probably Star Wars, whose look was allegedly inspired by Moebius and Geiger anyway by way of the unproduced Alejandro Jodorosky version.

The recent Denis Villeneuve Dune film certainly plays up the militarism of the houses, but it also might as well have been filmed in black and white for all the color that Villeneuve allows to appear onscreen. The recent Apple TV version of Foundation probably looks more like my dream vision of Dune than any of the adaptations that actually exist. (The plot modifications probably make Apple's Foundation closer to Dune than to Isaac Asimov's Foundation anyway.)

I'll admit that I might like the world of Dune, with its psychics and mutants, its Great Powers competition that's equal parts espionage and economics, better than the story of Paul Atreides gradually accumulating various Chosen One statuses until he is the Duke of House Atreides, and a trained Mentat, and a trained Voice user, and the culmination of the Bene Gesserit eugenics program, and the leader by marriage of the Fremen of Arakis, and the fiancé of the daughter of the Emperor of Space, and and AND! Paul is the ultimate of what C Wright Mills calls the "power elite," combining military, political, and economic power; he accumulates every possible type of what Max Weber calls "the sources of legitimate domination," hereditary, charismatic, meritorious in every way.

Look - color! Look - costumes that visually distinguish the different factions!
image from Foundation

In contrast to Paul's over-determined heroism, Herbert poured a super-abundance of "villainous" traits onto his chief antagonist, Baron Harkonnen. It's not enough for him simply to be the enemy of House Atreides, or for him to be a sore loser about being forced off Arrakis and away from the most lucrative part of the Spice business. No, Herbert REALLY wants you to know that he's a bad person, so the Baron is fat, so fat he can't support his own bodyweight without antigravity devices, and he's gay, and he's a rapist of adults, and pedophile, AND, because this somehow wasn't enough, the Lynch film also covers him in scars and boils and other skin ailments. 

There's maybe some message in Baron Harkonnen's traits about how unchecked autocratic power allows a person to indulge and over-indulge in every possible kind of appetite, and how people who derive pleasure from pushing past limits and boundaries need to keep escalating, keep doing more and more extreme versions of whatever it is they enjoy if they want to keep one-upping the severity and outlandishness of their own past endeavors. There's maybe a warning about what happens to a person when no one else can say no to them for fear for their lives.

Okay. But like, real talk, it certainly seems like Frank Herbert wrote the Baron as fat and gay because he's the villain.

Apparently one of the prequel novels claims that Harkonnen isn't fat because of overindulgence, but because the Bene Gesserit give him a venereal disease that causes obesity and muscle wasting. This is a retcon that I actually think is worse than the original interpretation.

image from National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe

The thing is, the larger setting of Dune is one where, kind of, everyone is a villain. Everyone the audience is likely to meet, anyway. The emperor assigns each great house a planet to govern; the locals have no say in who governs them or how often new regimes are rotated through. The houses themselves are absolutist monarchies with a single, superannuated hereditary ruler. The economy is colonial and feudal, with the resources of entire worlds getting funneled inward to purchase of Spice and other luxuries, which the houses use to keep their members young and healthy, and to allow themselves the interstellar travel that makes the whole system possible. This is a morally abhorrent society, which means its leaders can be interesting, compelling, captivating characters, but they can't really be good in any meaningful sense.

And while the elite of this society may designate certain of their members as being on the margins of acceptability, its more likely to be for violations of etiquette and decorum as it is for anything the rest of us would consider wrong or cruel. The leaders inherently cannot be criminals, both because they make the laws for everyone else, and because they themselves are explicitly above them. Baron Harkonnen is more interesting to me when he's not THE singular villain, laden down with so many cartoonishly evil characteristics that he needs his antigrav harness just to support the weight of all those tropes, he's more interesting when he is both flawed and, in some small ways, admirable or sympathetic, when he's A bad person in a setting full of bad people. A Harkonnen who's not pure evil is also less likely to make his enemies seem good just by virtue of opposing him.

Let's start with Baron Harkonnen's sexuality, because I'm intrigued by the idea of the head of one of the planetary governments being an out, proud gay man. While I'm sure he has as many consorts, courtesans, and flings as any other house leader, I would prefer to avoid any implication that his homosexuality gives him a special taste for nonconsensual encounters.

In Dune, in addition to the Emperor and his house, and the other great houses that make up the Landsraad, and whatever indigenous political structures exist on the planets underneath the colonial rule of the houses, you have a few major non-governmental power centers. You've got the Guild of navigators who control space travel, CHOAM, which in my limited understanding serves as the equivalent of both the stock market and the marketplace for the sale and trade of Spice and manufactured goods, and the Bene Gesserit, an all-female organization of geneticists and eugenecists devoted to increasing human psychic potential by selective breeding, who hide their scientific prowess beneath a religious mystique, and who have enough social power to insist that every house leader take a Gesserit consort and participate in their breeding program.

Arranged marriages, obligatory consummations, tracking "matings" and "pairings" with the obsessive attention of a zookeeper trying to revive a near-extinct species, and really the whole idea of mandatory "breeding" of human beings are already incompatible with the idea of consent as we understand it. None of the other parts of the history of eugenics are any more palatable. The Bene Gesserit have unlocked humanity's latent psychic potential, but those born with powers just become the psychic bureaucrats so necessary to keep the imperial system running, and the Gesserit themselves are a secondary source of tyranny, alongside the empire. 

Remix Harkonnen has no interest in "doing his duty" to the species, "lying on his back and thinking of the empire," or any of the rest of it. He is an open critic of the Bene Gesserit and their eugenics program, opposes their attempts to arrange marriages and breedings, not just for himself, but for everyone, and he will eventually pass rulership of his house down to a protégé rather than a child. Remix Baron Harkonnen might still be a reprehensible bastard on other issues, but let's let him be right about this one thing.

Next, the Baron's size and weight. The detail I keep thinking about is his antigravity device. What if Remix Harkonnen isn't simply a fat man, but truly someone who can't move around, or perhaps even survive, under Earth-normal conditions? I imagine that he's basically spherical, and looks like the illustration of hypothetical Venusians from the old Our Universe book, seen above. His body has been adapted to survive in an atmosphere that is incredibly thick, heavy, and crushing, and simultaneously very buoyant, like the deep ocean. The inside of any House Harkonnen building recreates this atmosphere, and requires pressure suits for anyone who looks like the humans of Old Earth to survive inside. But when the Baron travels to other houses, he needs a forcefield bubble to protect himself from the same effects you or I would feel in a vacuum.

Why do the members of House Harkonnen look like that? I think that an earlier era of space exploration relied on direct genetic engineering to produce durable, post-human bodies, rather than the combination of Gesserit eugenics, Spice, and high technology that are used in the current age. (As an aside, maybe the natives of each planet have been engineered to survive their specific conditions. This permits them to live openly and in poverty on the surface, rather than requiring specialized and luxurious habitats like the great houses. It also means they can never leave, unlike the comparatively hyper-mobile ruling class, who jet from planet to planet as the Emperor demands. The Fremen would likely be another example of this type of engineering.)

As the product of this prior regime of human improvement, Remix Harkonnen has yet another reason to oppose the Gesserit and their way of doing things. His body is visibly different from the Old Earth phenotype that most of the other ruling houses wear - although perhaps the Harkonnens are not the only ones who have been engineered rather than bred. I imagine he comes from a trash planet that falls outside the empire's direct sphere of influence, meaning that no great house is ever required to relocate there. 

Like some ambitious combination of Kingpin and Jabba the Hutt, Remix Baron Harkonnen started out as one gangster among many, became the don of dons through a combination of smarts and ruthlessness, and graduated to the interplanetary and interstellar big leagues, forcing his way into great house status and a seat on the Landsraad. The other house leaders dislike him for his disreputable origin, post-human appearance, and perhaps for refusing to hide his thuggishness behind the veneer of respectability the rest of them maintain. 

I suppose I ought to consider what sort of economic resource the Baron brings to the table that requires the others to offer him a seat. Perhaps a metal that can only be mined on his planet, or technology from before the AI wars that can no longer be replicated, or knowledge of genetic engineering that can produce results that the Gesserits can't reproduce in the short term. Or maybe he's just that good at bribery, coercion, extortion, etc. Or maybe his knowledge of the above makes his house ideal for rooting out local corruption and slapping the hand of any other great house that sticks their wrist too deep into the cookie jar. 
My remix version of Baron Harkonnen is more like Magneto or Killmonger - a man with a sympathetic origin and understandable agenda, who is nonetheless still deserving of condemnation for his actions. If your Remix Dune coexists in the same setting as a Remix Legion of Superheroes, then I have to assume that Bouncing Boy is a do-gooder outcast from House Harkonnen. If your Remix Dune is also a Solar Dune, then Harkonnen might come from Venus, or perhaps from a cloud city on Jupiter that's deep enough beneath the "surface" to require his distinctive body modifications to survive.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Meta Critical Miscellany - Literary, Intellectual, Enjoyable, Forgotten, Fragile

Actually, Criticism is Literature
Writing about the art of writing is an art unto itself.
Jonathan Russell Clark

"Every once in a while, a critic will feel it necessary to define what they think of as their role in the larger literary community. Now as a critic I love these essays; many of these writers have brought brilliant insights into what can often be a dismissed vocation. But while I appreciate the efforts of my fellow critics, there is one aspect to nearly all of these defenses that I disagree with, deeply, and that is the implication that criticism is separate from the literature it describes, as if novelists, poets, playwrights, and nonfiction writers were the players in the game and we critics merely the referees. What’s intimated in many defenses of criticism is this gap between observer and observed, between artist and non-artist."

"This is bullshit. Criticism is also literature. The word 'also' there insists on criticism's inclusion as a genre of literature, and not as a subject that stands outside of it. When viewed as a separate entity, criticism becomes this Big Brother-like authority ready to pop up and take down any unsuspecting artist; it turns criticism into a practical evil that published authors must suffer through; and it devalues the work of those who became critics because they love literature and they love to write."

"A critic is an artist; I am an artist. I write because I love language and because I love using language to depict the various complexities of my life. Some people use their family and friends as inspiration, while others mine history for theirs. Still others find muses in the calm of nature, some in the chaos of the city. I’ve found it in books - it is through them that I’m able to express not merely what I think of literature, but what I believe about life."

The Intellectuals are Having a Situation
Reviewing the n+1 review of reviews.
Christian Lorentzen

"I am not the most famous book reviewer in America, but I've been reviewing books on and off for 21 years, and it is how I make my living, such as it is. Why do I do this? I enjoy writing criticism, performing literary analysis, and reading and thinking about books. One of my friends once justified our activities by saying you have to help create the literary culture you want to be part of."

"n+1 ran an essay called 'Critical Attrition: What’s the Matter with Book Reviews?' Let's begin with 'the earnest reader.' This reader pays attention to jacket copy on books, uses the website Goodreads, searches Twitter for literary opinions, and doesn't know very much about the literature business. I'll be honest, I have no respect for this fictional character or anyone in real life who resembles him. He's buying books, presumably books that he's going to spend many hours of his life reading. Yet when he has read a book he doesn’t like, he feels misled by its marketing. This reader is simply bad at being a consumer. He doesn’t know how to spend his money on products that will please him. He is not in touch with his own taste and ways of satisfying it."

"A sorry situation, as n+1 paints it. Readers who don’t know how to find the books they like and reviewers writing pieces that are tepid and compromised, secretly driven by their misplaced hopes for minor advancement (n+1 is too sympathetic to their plight to call them grifters, but that's the idea). I think these problems are irrelevant because they constitute the sort of mediocrity endemic to any endeavor." 

"The picture n+1 paints of criticism is a joyless one. If there is a problem with book reviewing the problem is that those of us who are good at it aren’t good enough, there aren’t enough of us, and we aren’t doing a good enough job of expanding the scope of literary discourse, to put it in touch with tradition and open it wide to new writing. We have the duty of helping to create the culture we want to live in, and that world should be full of infinitely various delights. The imperatives are to be stylish, to be thorough, to be funny, to be generous, and occasionally to be cruel."

 Critical Attrition
What's the matter with book reviews?
The Editors

Like This or Die
The fate of the book review in the age of the algorithm.
Christian Lorentzen

Let People Enjoy This Essay
How the mindset of an irritating web comic infected criticism.
BD McClay

"If we were using one of those little pain-measurement scales to log how annoying this comic is, 'shhh' in its original form ranks, at the very worst, two out of ten. It’s a little smug. But it’s basically fine. In a happier world it would have slid down into the great content void and that would be the end of it. Instead, some world-historical monster cropped out the last two panels, which in turn became a standalone reaction image. Let people enjoy things went from one piece of an, again, only mildly annoying comic, to a manifesto for a certain type of fan that gets very, very angry if somebody out there isn't enjoying things."

"'Let people enjoy things' is, partly, just about figuring out when it is and isn’t appropriate to get into a disagreement, which, for conflict-enjoying people, is a lifelong process. There’s a right time and a right place and, maybe most importantly, the right companions for me out there. The problem is this: For a small but vocal number of people online, any opinion they dislike is, essentially, being expressed by somebody in their home. 'Let people enjoy things,' as a way of saying 'learn basic conversational dynamics,' is a banal but true statement. But in practice, 'let people enjoy things' means something else: it is rude or inappropriate to dislike something."

"The 'let people enjoy things' problem is a pathological aversion, on a wide cultural level, to disagreement, discomfort, or being judged by others. I don’t want to move 'let people enjoy things' one tier up so that now we are all fiercely demanding to be allowed to enjoy cultural criticism. Negative criticism can be just as tedious, misguided, and fan-service-driven as positive criticism. But the paradox of a wide-open digital publishing field is that it has tended more and more toward consensus, with its two modes being the rave and the takedown, instead of diversity; even in terms of subject matter, culture verticals focus on the same things, instead of branching out."

"People are as interested in conversation over pieces of art and entertainment they like as they have ever been. But all of these take place within a context where interest and fandom are already established, which is part of why a harsh review can provoke such an angry reaction. A recap isn’t really meant to be evaluative. Much like evangelicals created their own parallel version of everything, from music to magazines, fan culture has its own alternatives. Negative reactions - up to a point - can live comfortably in this world. Negativity is just another brand.  Even so, many kinds of negative criticism, particularly of a vaguely political bent, come down to trope recognition: women in refrigerators, Bechdel tests, who dies first in horror movies."

"But criticism - by which I mean something that demands maintaining distance between the critic and the subject, not a negative or positive viewpoint - is, in a fandom world, an obsolete exercise. The growth area in culture writing is culture coverage - interviews and profiles - not criticism."
Have We Forgotten How to Read Critically?
Since the internet has made the entire world a library with no exits or supervisors, many readers treat every published piece of writing as a conversation opener, demanding a bespoke response.
Kate Harding

"Not every piece of short nonfiction writing is an opinion piece, crafted to advance a particular argument. This is the first thing we all need to understand. I love the essay form because it’s an opportunity to watch someone - including yourself, if you write them - think deeply, out loud." 

"We used to understand this, I think. But social media has tilted things so that books by contemporary authors - let alone essays - are no longer portable worlds that awaken when a reader enters and slumber when one leaves. Today, the author is not dead until the author is actually dead. In the meantime, every published piece of writing is treated as the beginning of a conversation - or worse, a workshop piece - by some readers, each of whom feels entitled to a bespoke response."

"There is no apparent awareness that, in writing a piece and publishing it, the author has said what they meant to say and turned the project of thinking about it over to the reader. Today’s reader will simply not accept the baton being passed. If something is unclear, the author must expand; if something offends, the author must account and atone. Simple disagreement triggers some cousin of cognitive dissonance, where the reader’s brain scrambles to forcibly reconcile beliefs that don’t actually contradict each other."

"Reading can make you feel close to someone without actually knowing them, a precious gift in a lonely world. But if the pleasure of reading is feeling connected to a distant stranger, then the pain of watching people read badly is its opposite: a severing of shared humanity. A cold, demoralizing reminder that we never can look inside each other’s minds, no matter how we try."

"Books once kept the boundaries between writer and reader distinct. Unless you met an author under the controlled circumstances of a public event, you’d never get a chance to say hello, much less insult their intelligence and demand they go to therapy. Now, you and 300 other furious strangers can tell an author to kill herself before she’s finished her first coffee. Technology is a miracle."

Authorial Fragility and the Limits of Poptimism
It's good when critics dislike things.
Christian Lorentzen

"It seems strange to me that people have to invent ulterior motives for critics who don't lavish every new novel, film, television program, or art exhibition with slobbering praise. Disliking most of what you see and hear seems to me the natural way of things. All the more pleasure when you find something that grips your attention. Reading novels and watching films and looking at paintings and sculptures are hedonistic activities. Negative reviews are simply the expression of displeasure. The critics who write them don’t tend to be normal people because if they were their reviews would be boring and either nobody would print them or nobody would read them. In any case evaluation isn’t the ultimate point of criticism, though in the crude slipstream of social media it's usually taken to be."

Everyone's a Critic
Richard Joseph

Your Bubble is Not the Culture
From Hamilton to Harry Potter, critics keep misreading popular culture 
and writing off things that their audiences love. Why?
Yair Rosenberg

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Avant-Gardes, Scenes, Industries, and Traditions in Jennifer Lena's "Banding Together"

I recently read Jennifer Lena's Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music, and although Lena is writing solely about music, it's not hard to think that her model might do a pretty good job describing other kinds of creative communities, potentially including tabletop rpgs.

Lena is a sociologist of culture, and a lot of her research focuses on popular music, especially rap. In Banding Together, she looked at the histories of 60 styles of music and looked for similarities in the ways the styles changed over time. Style here refers to a pretty specific community of musicians and fans; when many related styles coexist and follow after each other in a kind of family, they form what Lena calls a stream. So like, rock music would be considered a stream, while things like grunge, glam, garage, punk, and emo would be considered styles. Style and stream are categories that describe things that exist in the real world, but they have no existence of their own except as useful descriptors.

Lena observes that musical styles change over time in ways that are related to their popularity and access to resources, such as money, access to practice and performance space, and attention from fans, journalists, and academics. Her model suggests four main genre types that music styles can fit into - avant-garde, scene-based, industry-based, and traditional. Genre types are also descriptive categories, and she classifies each style as belonging to a single type at any given point in its history, and as I said, this classification is based on access to resources. 

A successful style might begin as an avant-garde, grow to become a scene, find commercial success in the industry, get taken up as a tradition, and eventually birth new avant-garde styles to either form a new stream or join an existing one. Less successful styles stop short of that in some way, and there are doubtless countless avant-garde styles that never become successful enough to form a scene.

What I find most interesting about Lena's model is her finding that each genre style has not only a predictable set of material conditions that go together - the size style, how it's organized, where its members can meet to practice and perform, how much attention it receives, what sources of money are available - but also a predictable set of cultural conditions - how codified the conventional ways of performing the style are, how style members use technology, how codified the ways of dressing and acting are, even what kinds of debates style members have with each other, a finding that was particularly interesting to me. Lena stops short of saying that the material causes the cultural, but she does observe that they tend to go together in predictable enough bundles that it was easy for her to identify four common bundles and call them genre types.

Really interested readers might enjoy Lena's whole book, but if you just want the primary model where she lays out the four genre types, that's in chapter 2, which I want to quote from some below. Lena's words appear in blue. I've removed all of her examples where she talks about rap, bluegrass, and bebop. But if you're like me, you'll be filling in rpg examples in your head as you read.

Avant-garde Genres

Music, like other forms of taste, changes slowly and incrementally. Nonetheless there are junctures when performers, fans, and commenters point to cumulative changes significant enough to distinguish it from earlier forms of music. Music performers always have some dissatisfaction with contemporary music or their place in it, and fans are looking for novelty, so there is a consistent, in inchoate, desire for change. Avant-garde genres are formed when music practitioners come together and share their concern over the state of music in their field of action and reinforce each other's desire to do something about it. Avant-garde genres are quite small, having no more than a dozen or so active participants who meet informally and irregularly, and are often conceived in spaces like coffee shops and basements. They attract virtually no press attention, performance conventions are not codified, and there is typically little consensus over how members should dress, talk, or describe themselves as a group.

Avant-garde circles are leaderless and fractious and consequently typically unravel in a matter of months from lack of recognition, or because a subset of the circle participants gain wider recognition. The objective of Avant-garde genres is to play informally together, share recorded music, and air complaints about the hegemonic music in the relevant stream of music. 

The genre ideal, and specifically the musical ideas that are central to it, may emerge from members taking lessons, carefully listening to records, and playing with different kinds of musicians. Alternatively, Avant-gardists may assert that prevailing musical styles have become predictable and emotionless and, flaunting the fact that they are not able to play instruments in conventional ways, make what others see as loud and hash sounds. In crafting music that is "new," Avant-gardists may combine elements of musics that have been treated as distinct. The desire to produce a new music drives the group to engage in experimental practices, including playing standard instruments in unconventional ways, creating new musical instruments, and modifying objects that heretofore have not been employed in the production of music. 

Such circles typically meet face-to-face, but this may be changing in the era of the Internet. Circle members need spaces to meet where they can freely discuss and cement their shared investment in musical innovation.

The experimental ethos of Avant-garde circles is often expressed through the idiosyncratic grooming, dress, demeanor, and argot of members, but these are not (yet) consolidated into a distinctive style.

In Avant-garde genres, circle members contribute resources, and they also get resources from others attracted to the musical experimentation. Partners contribute nurturance, financial support, and a home; other musicians and music industry people act as informal advisors and critics; buy supporting a new music, bar owners get customers on off nights. As a rule, Avant-garde members do not receive remuneration for their participation in music-related activities. They earn money for performing conventional styles of music and from nonperformance employment. Thus many Avant-gardists live with little recognition and many privations. These harsh conditions may retrospectively be romanticized as bohemian, but they contribute to the demise of many Avant-garde genres. The privations are exacerbated by the tendency of some Avant-garde musicians to consume quantities of drugs and alcohol.

The music and the people making it receive virtually no press coverage, which makes it exceedingly difficult for us to find accounts of Avant-garde genres that failed to progress to another genre form. Numerous appellations are given to the new music, which also contributes to the difficulty in identifying musics that do not survive the Avant-garde period.

Musics can remain in the Avant-garde period for a long time or may quickly transition into Scene-based genres. The key features of this transition are these: relatively stable aural and visible identifiers of the group emerge; artists begin to seek resources that allow them to perform their music for a larger public; and the group identifies a set of goals for action - actions or ideas that are seen to be solutions to the complaints the group has about status quo music.

Scene-based Genres

It appears that most Avant-garde genres wither or merge with other musical styles early on, and only a few begin to draw more substantial resources and a larger cluster of devotees and evolve into Scene-based genres. Scene-based genres are characterized by an intensely active, but moderately sized group of artists, audience members, and supporting organizations. For more than a decade the concept of "scene" has been used by scholars to refer to a community of spatially situated artists, fans, scene-focused record companies, and supporting small business people. Such local scenes may also be in communication with like scenes in distant locales whose members enjoy the same kind of music and lifestyle. In recent years, we have acknowledged the importance of virtual scenes composed of devotees who interact via the Internet. 

Scene-based genre members earn money from activities within the community, including music making, especially once they attract the attention of the local or specialty press. Much attention is paid to codifying performance conventions, and the dress, adornment, drugs, and argot of group members. Members are also concerned with distinguishing themselves from rival musics, especially those that share the same performance space or fans. Most Scene-based genres acquire a name for their group that is invented or announced in the Scene-based media.

Scene-based genres have a loose organizational form characterized by nested rings of groups characterized by varying levels of commitment to the community. At the center are clusters of those most responsible for the distinctive characteristics of the music, including many members of the Avant-garde genre. Then there is the ring of committed activists whose identity, and sometimes means of employment, are tied to the scene. Outside of this is the ring of fans that participate in the scene more or less regularly. The outer ring is made up of "tourists" who enjoy activities within the scene without identifying with it.

Stylistic innovations and charismatic leaders who promote them play a key role in developing the consensus around genre ideal. The consensus marks the transition from the Avant-garde to the Scene-based genre. Technological innovations can also change the balance among elements of the music during the Scene-based genre. The transition between Avant-garde and Scene-based genres marks the introduction of both technological and live performance conventions that in turn affect conventions in the recording studio later on. Social conventions, including styles of clothes and adornment, body type, argot, and "attitude," are codified in Scene-based genres. These allow fellow travelers to identify scene members.

Scenes, musical and otherwise, commonly emerge in so-called bohemian neighborhoods where rents are low, police supervision is lax, multiple opportunities for low-skill labor exist, concentrations of other artists are found, and residents tolerate diversity of all kinds. Such neighborhoods nurture the scene, and the lifestyle growing around it, by fostering constant interaction among scenesters without attracting unwanted attention from the wider community.

These neighborhoods include local businesses that support the Scene-based genre, including coffee shops, clubs, dance halls, record stores, churches, small recording studios, and independent record labels. Business entrepreneurs, often drawn from the ranks of scene participants, become music promoters, club owners, and band managers. Some found independent record companies, Scene-based fanzines, and Internet sites, while local newspapers, radio stations, and criminal elements arrive in the area to support the scene and to derive profits from it. 

Scene musicians and ancillary creative people are often not able to support themselves entirely from the music. They typically take low-skill service jobs in the community and also depend on money and other support from partners, family, and friends. As scenes develop, these neighborhoods draw both more casual scenesters and merchandisers of elements of the genre lifestyle, hastening the end of the intensely local genre form.

Genre-based media begin to develop in Scene-based genres. The strong and relatively coherent complaints of genre members against the status quo often attract attention from niche media, who provide the clearest, most nuanced and positive portrayals of the scene. These include fanzines, Internet sites, blogs, small-circulation magazines, and often the local free weekly entertainment guide. Collectively they serve to define, explain, promote, and critique the music and its associated lifestyle. Because these writers try to talk about the coalescing style, they have to find a name to describe its musical aesthetics. Thus begins the formulation of the collective memory about the history and founding heroes of the music.

In Scene-based genres stakeholders have only a few contacts with the world outside the scene, but those they do have are important in building the solidarity within the community. First, there is usually bitter antagonism between proponents of the new music and representatives of the status quo in the relevant field. Fighting against a shared antagonist often builds solidarity within Scene-based genres. Second, the operation of the scene in marginal facilities with opportunistic promoters means that scene participants are regularly exposed to what they identify as dangerous conditions, and they may be liable to arrest for violating ordinances concerning dancing, noise abatement, fire, and decency, as well as laws controlling liquor and drug use. Finally, symbols of inclusion/exclusion also serve to identify scene members to outsiders who may be alarmed, upset, or simply bemused. These three sources of censure all serve to build scene solidarity. As importantly, they typically lend the genre an oppositional political cast.

In addition to their musical complaints, Scene-based genre members will often critique large social injustices, although they may target their critique within the local environment. Lyrical content often incorporates aspects of this oppositional stance. Insertion of politics into the scene's identity is an indicator that the music has entered the mature phase of the Scene-based genre. An additional aspect of scene members' political identity project is that they begin to defend the borders of the group and differentiate between what are acceptable lifestyle choices and what are not.

Many Scene-based musics wither or merge into streams. For those styles that transition into an Industry-based genre, the key ingredient is that the scene attracts the attention of major music producers seeking to develop new music and new markets.

Industry-based Genres

Industry-based genres are so-named because their primary organizational form is the industrial corporation. Some of these are multinational in scope, but others are independent companies organized to compete directly with the multinationals. Along with industrial firms, the prime actors in these genres include singers and musicians who contract for their services, targeted audiences, and a wide array of ancillary service providers from song publishers to radio stations and retail outlets. Artists generate income from sales, licensing, merchandise, and product endorsements, and this often drives aesthetic decisions. Performance conventions are highly codified, driven by industry categories and the production tools that standardize sounds. The attire of performers is adapted for the mass market, and made widely available to fans, along with argot, adornment, or features of lifestyle that can be monetized.

The goal for members of Industry-based genres is to produce revenue by selling musical products to as many consumers as possible. There are several means employed to increase sales. Efforts are directed toward codifying, simplifying, and teaching the genre conventions. Tablature for guitars and other instruments and transcriptions of the lyrics are widely available, and musical teachers and mentors are in plentiful supply in most places. Firms train new artists to work within highly codified performance conventions, and record producers regularly coach songwriters and artists to make music that is simple and clearly within the style so it will appeal to the mass audience. 

Over the past century, technological innovations have also served to standardize and simplify the production of music in order to satisfy the needs of mass production. "Contact men" working for the firm conscript music critics and disc jockeys into promoting new works and new artists. Trade magazine-produced weekly charts of song sales help to guide industry decisions about the relative success of individual songs and whole musical styles. The otherwise highly competitive multinational conglomerates collectively fight the unauthorized use and distribution of their copyrighted music, and do whatever they can to frustrate the development of spin-off styles.

A common feature of the transition from the Scene-based to the Industry-based genre is the assertion of market dominance by major record corporations that gain control from the independent labels that had dominated the Scene-based genre. Enterprising independent label heads understandably seek to increase the visibility of their artists and the sales of their records, but insofar as they are successful, the major companies may buy out artist and label contracts. Sales success is a strong indicator of the presence of an Industry-based genre. Sales success is gauged according to codified performance conventions that are governed by industry categories, although they may sometimes be recognized as novel and added as a shelving designation, a type of sales chart, a division of a record company, and so forth.

Artists working in Industry-based genres earn their income exclusively from work performed for large organizations. However, it is a common misunderstanding that sales revenue is sufficient to provide artists with an extravagant lifestyle, or that record sales are the major source of income for artists working in such genres. In fact, industry-based genre artists profit more from merchandise sales, concert ticket sales, and performance royalties (from live and recorded performances of their songs).

In the process of absorption into multinational corporations and mass production systems, genre names become more clearly fixed. If a name emerged in the Scene-based period, producers and journalists may continue its use. Like the music, elements of dress, adornment, and lifestyle are exaggerated and mass-marketed to new fans of Industry-based genres. 

The financial resources and promotional expertise of major companies will often propel Industry-based genres into the national media. In most cases, national media coverage of the genre will be ill informed about the music, and will depict the musicians as the Pied Pipers of deviance. The danger of Industry-based genres is framed in three contradictory ways. Journalists may portray the genre lifestyle as innocent fun and feature its colorful surface aspects; they may spin the lifestyle as a danger to its fans; or they may claim a danger is posed to society by its "lawless, anti-social, and hedonistic fans." The media may also ignite a "moral panic" in which genre spokespeople, police, political authorities, religious leaders, parent groups, teachers, and moral pundits of all sorts provide the willing press with lurid quotes. Press coverage of these moral panics often highlights racist, classist, or sexist tropes. The added attention to the genre is likely to draw even more fans.

Despite the level of conflict that often accompanies the Industry-based genre, hard-core scene members often spend this period complaining that the sense of being oppositional and hip has been lost. The threat posed by the popularity of music created in the Industry-based genre encourages the hard-core scenesters to cleave to a reductionist notion of the genre ideal. Supporters of the Scene-based phase of the music are especially put off by the large number of "tourists" joining the ranks of the music's fan base in the Industry-based phase. New recruits argue over what constitutes authenticity in music, musicians, and signs of group affiliation, and committed older, longer-term fans and performers engage in a discourse about authenticity lost. This tension is sometimes divisive enough to propel some genre members into forming an Avant-garde genre, while the others create a Traditionalist genre.

Traditionalist Genres

Musical styles that have experienced the explosive Industry-based phase of development tend to suffer a crisis as their many casual fans find a new distraction, and a style's mass popularity wanes. Major record companies looking for "the next big thing" no longer promote the music, and the media see it as music to review rather than as a lifestyle that is the source of news. Resources shrink as players, performance space owners, and fans move on to other music interests. The massification of musical styles and growing friction between hard-core musicians and scenesters against outsiders fuels the fracturing of music into numerous distinct styles.

Traditionalist genres emerge when committed players, fans, and genre-supporting business people decry what they identify as the adulterating consequences of the commercial exploitation of the music in the Industry-based genre. They focus on purifying the music by eradicating the excesses of the Industry-based genre and reenacting a version of what the music was like in its Scene-based period. They seek to preserve the community's musical heritage and inculcate in a rising generation of devotees the performance techniques, history, and rituals of the style. Fans and organizations dedicated to perpetuating the music put great effort into constructing its history and highlighting exemplary performers who embody the collective memory of the genre they construct.

Traditionalist genres are discussed in academic or lay treatments of music, are performed at conferences and festivals, and rely on small-scale or non-profit organizations. The genre-oriented press publishes schedules of events, recounts recent events, prints articles on performance techniques, profiles both venerated and rising artists and groups, and review new and remastered records. Many archival music compilations are released, and a small industry is devoted to remastering and rereleasing old albums.

At the start of the Traditionalist genre, a scholarly literature emerges that strives to preserve, codify, and organize the field. Scholars and lay historians are often preoccupied with the quest for the true or authentic, complete history of a musical style, and this preservationist spirit is precisely what differentiates Traditionalist genres from other genre types. Musicians and promoters often play a key role in defining the field, particularly if they were active during the Scene-based form. The codification of a musical style's history and significance is the core activity of Traditionalist genre members.

Members of Traditionalist genres meet in clubs and at gatherings of musical associations, academic conferences, and festivals; they communicate at a distance through newsletters, academic journals, trade magazines, and discussion sites on the Internet. Traditionalist genres are populated by dedicated fans, semiprofessional and experienced musicians, and academics from a variety of disciplines. Academic classes in the music and its history often become available, but much instruction in musical techniques and genre lore is received via one-on-one interaction with established performers and other aficionados.

Performers and promoters commonly rely on employment outside the musical community. Festivals and tours often provide the greatest percentage of music-related income to Traditionalist performers, in combination with income from selling records, musical instruments, and music-related ephemera. Many fans sing, play an instrument, or act as promoters of events, so there is a less distinct division of labor among fan, artist, and industry than in Industry-based or fully developed Scene-based genres.

Members regularly travel to conferences and festivals, collect and display records and memorabilia, raise money for ailing artists, and build organizations dedicated to perpetuating the music. Festivals are extremely common among Traditionalist genres, and are critical to their momentum and cohesion. Festivals play a key role in codifying and legitimating a single genre ideal.

Members of Traditionalist genres tend to resemble one another in dress, adornment, and argot. They wear muted, somewhat stereotypic styles of the aging artist or academic and may often use verbal expressions seen by others as out-of-date. They may also resemble stereotypes of a Scene-based performer.

Committed Traditionalists expend a great deal of energy fighting with each other about the models they construct to represent their music and the canon of its iconic performers. They argue over which instruments and vocal stylings are appropriate, and they may even battle over the place and time when the music originated. The test of authenticity is often taken to be the race, class, educational attainment, and regional origins of performers. Even journalistic and academic accounts of Traditionalist genres engage in such demographic profiling. These outsiders often conflate stories of a musical style's origin with its present Traditionalist form, and these stereotypes influence tourists who want to know something about the musical style.

After the Tradition

Industry-based communities often disband with the drift of casual fans to new musical distractions and the consequent twilight of mass popularity. The crisis within the community is focused on the debate between the nascent Traditionalists, who seek to preserve the music performed in the Scene-based phase, and those who focus on continuing the aesthetic development characteristic of the Scene-based period and living out the creative spirit of the music through innovation and hybridization. This second group often forms a new Avant-garde genre. 

Avant-gardists revolt against the popularizing tendencies of the Industry-based genre, and those who write about them begin to use the evaluative discourse of art, evoking images of genius and creative quest. Some find inspiration in unusual meldings of music in cooperation with other creative artists working in other musical styles. The discourse of creative genius helps musicians to distance themselves from the demands of fans of the style from which they have hived off. Like all Avant-gardists, they must rely on sympathetic independent record companies, promoters, and venue owners. Avant-gardists also tend to distance themselves from Traditionalist artists and fans.