I’ve actually kept up pretty well with new music this year. How much that’s due to moving out and doing the dishes I don’t know, or maybe that 2-month spell of cyst-jaw horror, but even then I had this excruciating, interminable earache so music was off-limits there. It’s been a weird year. I just started a PhD too, only a couple months ago, but that might have and will prompt a desperate escape into music? ANYWAY, there was a lot of great stuff released this year, a lot of which I haven’t heard yet, or not fully, but maybe that’s because I kept returning to the following gems:
Andy Stott – It Belongs To Us
I never really got the hype for Andy Stott with his breakthrough records. I liked the idea, a ghostly operatic voice matched to the tropes of EDM, but it didn’t stick. Which is weird, because It Belongs To Us abandons that in favour of the kind of stripped back, minimalist electro of his first few records. It’s full of neat rhythms and weird distortions, but simultaneously really listenable. I’ll need to reconsider those other albums now.
Bat for Lashes – Lost Girls
Bat for Lashes is another artist I didn’t care too much about until I heard this. I first heard her supporting Radiohead (lol I know) at Glasgow Green yeeears ago, and I didn’t think much of her. I mean it was outside and raining so no supporting band was gonna fare well. Regardless, I approached Lost Girls with low expectations, and it blew ’em out the water. Lush 80s synths & beats propel this sumptuous melancholy pop record. Again, I’ll need to go back and reevaluate my naive teen assumptions.
black midi – Schlagenheim
A frenzied crash of noise to jump about to, the tunes are savage, the vocals strange and contrived, the guitars occasionally sophisticated & delicate when not raging. It makes me excited for this particular strand of guitar music again.
Caroline Polachek – Pang
Maybe the best pop album ever? If not then certainly the best voice ever? In this eminently catchy, dancey & emotive record Caroline Polacheck sculpts the most magical sounds not only with her extraordinary vocal ability, but with the glossy, hard-hitting & frequently experimental production that just bloody dazzles. I’ve probably listened to this album the most.
Floating Points – Crush
Deconstructed electro jams with some tender, breathtaking cool-down moments? Yes pls, Crush delivers.
Richard Dawson – 2020
One of those rare moments when the Spotify algorithm gets it right. Never heard of Dawson before, so his collection of comic, mordant, bleak songs speaking to the banal terror of late-capitalism in Britain was a pleasant surprise. Seriously catchy tunes, a versatile vocal dripping with wit & it’s all pushed forward by a tight, no-thrills band setup.
Tim Hecker – Anoyo
Ambient music doesn’t always have to be sparkly and divine; it can be dark, strange, disquieting. No other electronic musician does this as well as Tim Hecker, a master of the eerie soundscape. Anoyo continues down his particular niche, weaving together haunting, heart-rending synth lines with traditional japanese percussion. Enter at your own peril.
Mind we aw used tae go to the cinema the ‘gether, sneakin’ into 18+ movies lit Harry Brown, that one wi Michael Caine, takin’ revenge on aw the wee neds in his area. Mind we used to dream about the freedom of turnin’ 18, seein’ Glasgow properly, n sayin’ bye to carryoots. Ye ripped right intae ma teenage music taste, comin’ oot wae bangers lit “Sigur Ros make whale-song interesting” and “Muse are a paradox, they create and destroy music at the same time”, you cheeky basturt, tho ye werny wrong. Mind that time we got turned away at a gig – a three-piece post-rock outfit playing at some dive bar – cos we were underage, and ended up sellin’ the tickets. I mind you hagglin’ for a rip off price, n you said to me “Steve, let’s just go back tae Norrie’s empty n say the gig was class”.
I mind that time in English, you complained to Mrs. Duffy, “what’s the point in reading when you jus encounter words you don’t know?”, to which she replied, “you go check a dictionary, David”, and you scoffed, saying “well that’s far too time-consuming”, but you were a lot smarter than you let on. I mind we had an argument about how yer supposed to pronounce ‘non-chalant’, but I canny mind which syllables we stressed differently. And a mind when you took the piss in Maths, whenever the teacher talked aboot expressing equations you would stand up and sing the ‘EXPRESS YOURSELF’ song, dancin n laughin’, that’s what a heard; a wisny there, but a wish a was. You played a guitar chord in ma room once, a harsh atonal nonsense, n made some joke lit ‘nailed it’. There’s a video of me on youtube, steamin’ at an empty, makin a right arse of myself, and you show up sayin’ “Steve, you’re fucked man”, n I retort, “naw, YOU’RE fucked”. I tried desperately to delete it weeks later, then years later, but now am happy it’s still there.
The last time I saw you was maybe 4, maybe more, years ago. It was in the Lodge with Smithy. You were crackin’ jokes and laughin’ like you always did. At the funeral I learned you enjoyed climbing hills with your family, and that your mum suggested you do it with your friends. I would have loved that. I’ve always wanted to get the old gang back together. I’m so sorry it didn’t happen sooner.
“Where’s Dave?”, we’d all say, after you left a party early, stoatin’ aboot Cumbernauld, always walkin’ somewhere else.
Below is a revised and expanded version of a presentation I gave at the Petrocultures 2018 conference at Glasgow University on Friday, 31st August.
In 2000, scientist Paul Crutzen proposed the term ‘Anthropocene’ as an accurate label for the current era of ecological existence, one defined by humanity’s relatively new, and often destructive, relationship to the environment. Dipesh Chakrabarty explains:
Now that humans–thanks to our numbers, the burning of fossil fuels, and other related activities–have become a geological agent on the planet, some scientists have proposed that we recognise the beginning of a new geological era, one in which humans act as a main determinant of the environment of the planet (Chakrabarty, 2017).
The Anthropocene succeeds the Holocene which refers to ‘the 12,000 years of stable climate since the last ice age during which all human civilization developed’ (Carrington, 2016). Crutzen and many others argue that, since the 20th century, we have entered–or better, created–a totally altered planetary ecosystem and as such should define it appropriately. It is no longer the case that humans are simply harming the planet or corrupting something once pure; humans have transformed, reinvented and produced a wholly new ecological network. Crutzen and Christian Schwägerl elaborate:
Landscapes characterised by heavy human use – degraded agricultural lands, industrial wastelands, and recreational landscapes – become characteristic of Earth’s terrestrial surface. We infuse huge quantities of synthetic chemicals and persistent waste into Earth’s metabolism. […] it’s no longer us against “Nature”. Instead, it’s we who decide what nature is and what it will be (Crutzen and Schwägerl, 2011).
The Anthropocene registers the point at which humanity can no longer separate itself from the ‘Nature’ it exploits. It introduces new ways to think about the position of the human subject, encouraging the uncomfortable but necessary idea that man does not exist independently of the environment. Timothy Morton has written extensively on the Anthropocene, and particularly on the strange horror that a true ecological awareness inspires. Like Crutzen and Schwägerl, Morton stresses the absurdity of the culture/nature, inside/outside binary which characterises mainstream environmental thinking:
The falsity of an inside-outside model is becoming more obvious as we enter an age of increasing knowledge concerning the seemingly obvious fact that we live on a planet. Where on Earth is “away” when we have planetary awareness? One’s garbage doesn’t go “away”–it just goes somewhere else; capitalism has tended to create an “away” that is (fortunately) no longer thinkable (Morton, 2017).
For so long the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude towards environmental degradation has downplayed the alarming implications and consequences of consumer capitalism. The advertising industry creates and reproduces an alluring bubble which neglects to expose the material reality of product manufacturing, waste disposal and pollution. But capitalism’s ingenuity cannot fool the world forever, nor can the human population continue to ignore and repress the damage inflicted by it. not when nations continue to suffer increasingly frequent and dangerous ‘natural’ disasters. The recent barrage of hurricanes and floods across the globe is only the latest of many warnings that a human created global warming is spiralling out of control.
The Petrocultures Research Group, and the conferences they hold, attend to the Anthropocene by placing under scrutiny the forces that move us and everything else: energy. Fossil fuels have powered the modern age of humankind and continue to do so today. Although renewable energy sources and less dirty fossil fuels are increasingly being used, oil is still king and our societies and ways of life are still dependent on it.
‘Petrocultures’ describes petroleum’s influence on our lives at local, regional, national and global levels. It shapes and defines modern subjectivity, creating and reproducing our daily habits, practices, thoughts and cultural imaginaries. The Petrocultures conference therefore concerns itself (primarily, but not exclusively) with the work of those in the Arts & Humanities because of its power to change how we see the world and redefine who and what we are.
This year’s conference theme was ‘Transitions’:
The organising theme of Petrocultures 2018 is Transition. We anticipate its cultural interpretation in a variety of ways. The conference will provide an important forum for examining and extending existent framings and sitings of oil and petroculture, while also striving to consider the social, cultural, and aesthetic life of alternative forms of energy, such as wind, solar, and hydro power (Petrocultures Research Group, 2018).
The ‘Call for Papers’ announcement made me think about what role video games might play in the context of energy transition, and whether they could be a useful tool for the social and philosophical reorientation that many scholars and critics argue is necessary for a successful transition.
in the brief After Oil (2015) book published by the Petrocultures Research Group, they argue that a ‘transition from oil to some other energy source will entail – whether we like it or not, whether we participate in the process or opt out – the unmaking and remaking of our social worlds’ (Petrocultures Research Group, 2015). Andrea Lim expresses a similar attitude: ‘Confronting a problem that threatens the collapse of modern civilization as we know it means drastically rethinking how that civilization functions – and some of the fundamental assumptions underlying it’ (Lim, 2018). Finally, Richard Seymour makes an important distinction between two utopian lines of thought when he argues that ‘we must give ourselves some idea of utopia, not as a programme or plan of action, but to create new sensibilities, new aspirations, new aesthetics, new fantasies. We must give ourselves an idea of needs we may have, that we didn’t know we had. We must give ourselves something we could want, if we wanted to want it’ (Seymour, 2018). They all seem to agree that we need to first address the problematic of ‘what do we need to be or become as social beings?’ in order to inform and ensure the success of the pragmatic issues of what is to be done.
It is here where I awkwardly, but hopefully convincingly, argue for the inclusion of video games into the arsenal of tools ready to combat petroculture.
When I was reading back over the short After Oil book I couldn’t help but notice that they more or less identified the video game medium without explicitly mentioning it. They describe the virtues of words, novels and academic research; the persuasive tricks of the image and other visual media; and finally, the disruptive and productive action of public performance. Video games are made up of words, images, sounds, and many other things, as well as players who effectively perform various roles in virtual worlds. ‘Performance undertakes deliberate organised acts designed to present, problematise and complicate our relationship as individuals and social groups to an oil-dependent world’ (Petrocultures Research Group, 2015). This passage refers to public interventions in the form of artistic protest, like the instance at the Tate Modern in which several artists/activists spilled large quantities of oil inside the building at a fancy event for donors to remind us of the unexpected, hypocritical connections between the art & heritage industry and its oleaginous money.
But game developers too can design games which ‘present, problematise and complicate’ our relationship to the environment, with the players both performing through these games while at the same time being performed on by game designers. The Petrocultures Group also echo the arguments of media scholar Ian Bogost when they say ‘performance is itself processual: it simultaneously registers and responds, and so is always already in transition’ (Petrocultures Research Group, 2015). In 2007 Bogost introduced the concept of ‘procedural rhetoric’ in which he discusses how games make persuasive arguments through their processes. Games are thus an absent presence in the After Oil paper, hiding behind media hierarchies but also perhaps a genuine unfamiliarity with new media.
Games Against the Environment
And the Petrocultures folk can be forgiven for not including video games because, as you can imagine, the video game industry and the games it produces are the last places many would look for progressive environmental politics, and with good reason. Alenda Y. Chang explains that we should focus less on the obvious forms of violence we see represented in games, and instead look at what Rob Nixon calls the ‘slow violence’ of environmental degradation that is also pervasive in games. She says ‘games both duplicate and deny this less sensational but equally destructive sort of violence, often by dissociating industrial and commercial activity from the social and ecological realities of labour, pollution and waste’ (Chang, 2013). There is no shortage of examples to illustrate Chang’s point
The Grand Theft Auto (1997-2013) series has always played into the fetish of the automobile, and it’s always struck me as odd how the player never has to fill up their car or motorbike at a petrol station, as if the vehicles are powered by some magical force. And the reason is because it would interrupt the fantasy of ease and convenience of travel that forms part of the appeal of the game’s playground.
Petromodernity is even starting to infect or intrude upon more fantastical game franchises like the Final Fantasy (1987-2017) series, the latest installment of which wanted to introduce an element of realism in its otherwise steampunk/science fictional aesthetic. The developers decided that the best way to do this was by revolving the narrative around a road trip, and the car travel and gas station stops take up a significant portion of the game’s gameplay.
And you have more obvious examples like Railway Empire (2017) which shamelessly romanticises the steam engine and the era of American industrial and economic expansion, powered of course by fossil fuels.
I could go on, but you probably get the point. These games do not critically engage with petromodernity, but naturalise and reinforce it. So are games in fact an impediment to transition? Should I just stop now? Well, recent developments in game design make me a little more optimistic. John Krajewski, who’s currently developing a promising ecological game, reassures us:
Within the experiential power of games, I believe we can find some of the power to untie the political knots that wrap up climate change, creating an experience in a virtual world where climate change is a problem you can see in front of your face, and it immediately threatens you (Krajewski, 2017).
Chang, despite her earlier criticisms, echoes these sentiments:
[Games] are especially well-equipped to remedy the common difficulties faced by environmental educators and activists—including the question of how to successfully render the scale and urgency of global environmental change in less didactic or declamatory and more dynamic and intrinsically engaging forms (Chang, 2013).
To be ‘less didactic or declamatory’ is crucial, because, as Patrick Harvie said at the opening Petrocultures event ‘Scotland and the Transition’, alarmist methods of communication only encourage defeatism and inaction. I’ll now move on to show a couple of examples of the ‘more dynamic and intrinsically engaging forms’ of communication we can find in games.
Cities: Skylines and Simulation
Cities: Skylines (2015) is a city simulator game where the player gets to act as a frankly despotic mayor who builds a city from scratch. We all know this isn’t how cities are formed, but the player nonetheless gets to play God in this scenario. You are in charge of building residential zones, industrial areas, commercial districts, road infrastructure, and most importantly, power lines, water pipe systems and the energy sources which power them. The central goal is to create a lucrative economy and expand your city to make more money to reinvest in more space and so on and so forth.
If you spend the city’s revenue unwisely and fail to make good returns on your investments, you will be forced to cut valuable services and raise taxes. You soon realise you’re playing a simulation of austerity. That’s no fun, unless you’re David Cameron. It does, however, serve as an interesting and engaging point of entry to the economic logic underpinning neoliberal capitalism. That’s valuable, especially for people who have trouble visualising and comprehending this amorphous, omnipotent beast called ‘The Economy’.
The game also tracks and measures the amount of pollution your city’s causing, from road traffic carbon emissions to ground pollution caused by agriculture. As a player you are forced to make choices between choosing to invest in cheaper energy sources like fossil fuels to expand your city quicker, but at the cost of public and environmental health, or you can invest in clean energy sources like wind turbines which, while being more expensive and make for a slower expansion, keeps the public happy and the environment clean. Now while this is a relatively simplistic scenario – the game’s simulation is after all a rough abstraction of urban planning – this example nonetheless makes the player think about the ‘deep links that have been forged between profit and global warming, GDP and CO2‘ (Petrocultures Research Group, 2015).
I chose this game over the more recognisable SimCity games because the Cities: Skylines developers recently released a ‘Green Cities’ expansion to the game.
In this piece of added content, players have access to a new set of tools to get started on building their dream environmentally-friendly city. There’s an emphasis on public transport, bio-fueled vehicles, and extensive cycling infrastructure; new, innovative energy sources are available like solar towers and geothermal power plants; recycling centres can generate substantial numbers of new goods; more parks, sports facilities and policies geared towards healthy lifestyles help reduce the costs/waste for hospitals and clinics. So far so great, right? It certainly looks very appealing.
But when I was reading Imre Szeman’s critique of the techno-utopian solutions to the oil crisis, I noticed a striking similarity between his description of the techno-utopian post-oil landscape and the so-called green city in the game:
Techno-utopian discourses of future alternatives to oil magically resolve this opposition [between country and city utopias]: since the future is undeniably urban, great metropolises are envisioned as leafy green oases filled with mid-twenty-first-century flaneurs and cyclists who move between buildings crowned with solar sails. All of our worst fears about the chaos that will ensue when oil runs out are resolved through scientific innovation that are in perfect synchrony with the operations of the capitalist economy: problem solved without the need for radical ruptures or alterations in political and social life (Szeman, 2017).
This is almost exactly what we’re presented with in the game’s green cities mode. Yes, we have all these lovely ideas and it’s certainly geared towards decarbonisation, but the game’s green city is still based on a capitalist economy, one which requires constant expansion in order to survive, something that many critics see as entirely incompatible with the project of transition. So is this green city instead merely a green skin layered on top of a business-as-usual techno-utopian complacence? Or worse, is it nothing more than the insidious neoliberal phenomenon of gentrification, replete with expensive health food shops and gated communities? But despite these clear limitations, Cities: Skylines is an enjoyable and engaging simulation which, through a heuristic process of learning, might well sow the seeds of environmentalist thinking in its players.
From Systems Thinking to Abstract Ecological Philosophy
What is the nature of existence? That’s an ontological question beyond the remit of this post, but if we ask what is the nature of our existence in the Anthropocene, then we can say it is an era of anthropocentric hubris, where human being has assumed superiority in a hierarchy of existence/being, where we treat our environment as an ecological experiment, culminating in the present climate crisis. Naming this epoch and situation the ‘Anthropocene’ allows us to reframe our understanding of comfortable anthropocentric logics; it encourages an abandonment of the kind of thinking to which humans are accustomed. In her essay/prose poem, ‘Love Letter from the Anthropocene’, Maria Sledmere articulates the fear and the fascination of an encounter with the non-human as she imagines or remembers falling into a waterfall/lake:
This was a violent, childhood confrontation with the beyond, with possibility. If I entered the pool, I would forego my grounded, mammalian safety. I was young enough to know, to taste danger. This wasn’t salt water; there were no waves to toss me up, return me and hurl me to a distant shore where strangers would save me from the curious urge of myself. I would be sucked right down to the deep (Sledmere, 2017).
To wonder is to let go, to unmoor oneself from the grounded comfort of human logics, to wander away from fixed structures, the familiar world of human semiotics. In this opening passage Sledmere is already letting go, describing her potential human saviours as ‘strangers’ and the alluring but fearsome pool as the ‘curious urge of myself’, identifying with the non-human environment, enacting a kind of ecological co-existence. I want to briefly look at an abstract art game called Everything (2017) by David O’Reily and show how it uses the video game medium to produce a similar experience, one that makes us think about our ecological existence in more expansive ways; in a word, to suck us ‘right down to the deep’.
This game has no scores, points or objectives. It is in a sense a kind of anti-game, insofar as it refuses to conform to mainstream game design norms (however, since it was released on PS4, it does contain ‘achievements’, and although you collect them from general gameplay, they are nonetheless at odds with the game’s mood and purpose). In the game, the player spends time simply being various objects in our universe: from a spoon to a piano, from a planet to a spider, the player roams, crawls, flies, and floats through different planetary -spheres (lithosphere, hydrosphere, troposphere, stratosphere), finding new things to be and doing nothing at all. The game effectively brings the background environments of games into the foreground, as if O’Reily accessed the source code of a traditional shooter or RPG and removed both narrative and game mechanics, leaving only the environments and the objects within it.
Usually, games which centre the environment in their virtual worlds tend to do so only to emulate man’s domination over it. Consider the many popular farming simulators such as Harvest Moon (1996), Facebook’s Farmville (2009),Hay Day (2012) and the more recent Stardew Valley (2016). These games tend to represent romantisised fantasies of the idyllic, rural lifestyle, offering relaxing gameplay which involves tilling the soil, harvesting crops, raising livestock and socialising with friendly neighbours (or in the case of Farmville, with other friends on Facebook). However, what lurks behind these seemingly innocent simulations is the ideology of expansionism we also identified in Cities: Skylines, as players are encouraged to build upon their humble beginnings and expand their businesses. None of the farm games consider or address the environmental consequences of profit-driven agricultural practices, preferring instead to indulge the fantasy of a self-contained and sustainable utopia. While Stardew Valley positions the player as the hero who could defy and compete against the soulless ‘JojaMart’ and the ‘Joja Corporation’ to help revive the local economy, the player nonetheless remains an actor in an economy designed to exploit the environment. It’s worth noting that the intimate relationship between capitalist economics and environmental exploitation has led some scholars to prefer the term ‘Capitalocene’. Given the nature of the games listed above, the term and theoretical lens of the ‘Capitalocene’ is perhaps better suited for an analysis of video game ecosystems.
In Everything, no such fate awaits the environment. Why? There’s no humans in there to do it.
It’s somewhat striking that there are no humans represented in the game, especially for a game allegedly containing everything. It’s clearly a deliberate exclusion. And you might say to me, ‘well, Tetris and Pong featured no humans’, and I would say true, but as far as I know Tetris and Pong didn’t aspire to explorations of the nature of existence (though I’d be happy to hear arguments to the contrary). Everything, the game, does.
As well as encountering other objects which talk to you, giving you advice or muttering vague philosophical statements, the game is also intermittently narrated by seminar excerpts from Alan Watts, a British philosopher in the 60s who was heavily influenced by Buddhist thinking. A characteristic excerpt is as follows:
There are no separate things in the physical world. The physical world is wiggly; clouds, mountains, trees, people, are all wiggly. And only when human beings get working at things, they build buildings and straight lines and try and make out that the world isn’t really wiggly. But here are we sitting in this room all built on straight lines but each one of us is just as wiggly as all get-out! (Alan Watts seminar excerpt in Everything)
If you were listening to this on its own, you might be more likely to dismiss it as hippy nonsense. But within the context of the visual experience of the game, as you crawl along the seabed as a piece of algae, inhabiting a normally unseen non-human pocket of the world, the player can begin to reevaluate and question the anthropocentric thinking which informs and influences all areas of human life, and which has led us into our current ecological situation. Watts and the game encourage players to dissolve the centuries old dichotomy between human/nature, civilisation/wilderness, to embrace a more expansive perspective of existence. O’Reily says ‘the whole game itself is about describing a state of reality with no Us and no Them. No We. Just I. For infinity. Everywhere’ (O’Reily, 2017).
‘You are one note in a symphony that was waiting to be played since the beginning of time’, a galaxy informs me. Cheesy? Yes. Flying in the face of anthropocentric thinking and yet simultaneously calling for a cosmic awareness of and responsibility for our actions as a species? Perhaps. What this lyrical metaphor does is combine two seemingly mutually exclusive ideas: the absolute insignificance of our existence (a tiny note within an endless symphony) and the valued importance of this same existence (the grand symphony includes you). The metaphor expresses the raison d’être of naming and understanding the ‘Anthropocene’: we do not exist apart (at a distance), but rather as a part of something much larger.
And while no humans are in this game, some relics of human destruction are (like oil rigs and human currency, above), almost as if to remind the player why they weren’t included in this peaceful, quiet game in the first place. Now you might have noticed I haven’t mentioned energy or petrocultures here, and it’s because Everything contains no systems or rough ecological simulations like in Cities: Skylines. Everything‘s universe is static, including its time. Humans aren’t there, but it is neither post-apocalyptic nor pre-historic. This level of abstraction is part of the game’s purpose and message, but at what cost? What do we really gain from this game-like art installation? Is the game in fact politically toothless? I’m not sure, but I’m glad it exists.
Well, Friend or Foe?
While the video game industry remains deeply problematic vis-à-vis energy and the environment, publishing games concerned with ‘human stories’ which rarely consider the game environments through which these stories are told, I hope I’ve at least shown that games are capable and primed to be an ally. The two examples I’ve given play very differently and offer different approaches to the Anthropocene, and however limited their scope and execution, they do demonstrate a promising future for environmentally aware game development.
But how can games even continue to be produced at the rate and volume they currently are, or even exist, without petroculture? Good question. That’s an essay for another time, and for someone more qualified than me to answer.
Back in the summer of 2011 I was diagnosed with keratoconus, a progressive eye disease (or the more palatable ‘eye condition’) which thins and misshapes the round curve of the cornea, rendering it conical. Imagine the small, curved bump of the middle of any roundabout expanding upwards into a strange, alien tower. That’s what happened (is happening?) to each of my corneas. As a result, my corneas fail to receive and process light the way they normally should, and instead diffract light to make my vision blurry and distorted. Not short-sighted or long-sighted, but blurry in any scenario. Another side effect here is photosensitivity, when your eyes can become terribly sensitive to light, both natural and artificial, leading to headaches and migraines. I’m not sure on the science behind it, but it’s like some kind of glitch in the information network of your eyes.
I distinctly remember sitting at the back of a class in 6th year, asking my mate next to me to read out the contents of the whiteboard at the front of the class. He was always shocked that I couldn’t make it out. B16 was the classroom. I only remember that because I used to focus on those bolded characters on the plaque of the class door, also at the front, determined to convince myself I was OK. If my girlfriend hadn’t insisted I go get an eye check at the time, I probably wouldn’t have known about this disease for another few months, or maybe a year, all because of some stupid stubborn resistance to believing anything was wrong with me.
Specsavers diagnosed me, and then mis-sold me a pair of not inexpensive glasses. The lenses moved the world a fraction closer to me, but did nothing to correct my corneas. I still don’t know whether they were deliberately conning me or if they were simply misguided in their well-meaning advice. I’m inclined to stick with the former theory because they tried hard to dissuade me from contact lenses, the products outside their commercial domain. it was practically scare-mongering now that I think back on it. Anyway, contact lenses, the hard, gas-permeable ones, were/are the only things that could effectively combat my keratoconous.
The first time someone placed two of these lenses onto my eyes I almost fainted. The sensation is visceral. The first time I saw through a prescription pair of these lenses I didn’t feel like fainting, but I did feel something equally as profound. Whenever anyone asks how my eyesight is when I’m wearing these lenses, I almost always respond with this: ‘It feels like I’ve entered a new world’. I say this so often that any poetic resonance it might once have had has been stamped out with repetition. But it’s true. The deep dust layers on a laptop; the vivid detail of a video game’s HD digital environment; the many blemishes of human faces; the secretive lairs of small print; the slightly different hues swirling in a cup of tea; the beautiful aqua pools of my girlfriend’s eyes. This is a level of detail unknown to me without contact lenses. I quip that the world is so much uglier when I’m wearing them, but that same ugliness is precisely why it’s so beautiful too. I’ve found myself several times walking through streets and staring intently at the small cracks of a building, the layered history of concrete floors, the pronounced palettes of lilting flower trees. I must look rather strange. There’s something here about feeling more connected to the environment. Perhaps, as someone who’s interested in theories of materialism, being closer to the earth that shapes us feels important.
But I’m not writing this because I’m ‘fixed’ and happy now. These lenses are painful to wear. You need to build up a resistance to the fact that, well, you’re putting two bits of plastic onto your eyes. My eyes will get dry, bloodshot, and become irritable after wearing them for a while, even while using eye drops throughout the day. Sometimes I can wear them for most of the day, sometimes it’s only a few hours before I can’t tolerate it and have to remove them. So I still spend a lot of my conscious life without them. This post is about how I cope with a lens-less kerotoconous and an unpredictable photosensitivity.
First of all, this is how I use the internet:
It’s a neat high contrast plug-in called ‘Dark Reader’. I’d recommend it to anyone who doesn’t fancy burning their eyes with late night computer usage. Of course, whenever you encounter a website clever enough to use a black background from the get-go, you need to deactivate it, and you can do so with a quick shift+alt+D combo (If I found out how to change the page you’re reading into black I would). I use it for pretty much anywhere on the net. Google looks better for it; I like to pretend the inversion exposes the black, brutal unconscious of a company embroiled in shady activity.
This is how I like to read PDF files:
The most infuriating thing about PDF files is that they can sometimes be scans of books, all of which are white, and the high contrast option for Windows computers has no effect on them because it can’t edit the original book’s colour. There’s probably a workaround for this somewhere but I’m far too inept and lazy to find it. In these unfortunate scenarios I turn down the computer’s brightness (even though it’s already usually very low) and put on a pair of sunglasses. It’s not just the glare I’m combating here. The brightness not only threatens to immolate my eye balls, but it also makes it more difficult to see. As I’ve said, I receive light in a different way to most people; my eyes scatter it like some kind of evil kaleidoscope. By lowering the brightness and using sunglasses, I can reduce the amount of light that I receive, resulting in a slightly better, less fuzzy text image.
(I want to take a quick moment here to express my gratitude to the only student who, at a conference last year, used black slides. I don’t know her name, and all I remember about the presentation is that it was something about Lutheranism, but I remember sitting there, thinking about whether I should tell her how thankful I was later on. I decided against it on the grounds that it would be a bit weird. ‘Hey, loved the slide colours!’)
The same applies to watching TV, playing video games, or reading a book in the sunlight/or any place with strong artificial lighting. When lens-less, I avoid playing games which rely on a lot of text because I’d have to lean forward into the screen to decipher it. When I’m wearing them I feel weirdly guilty for not playing those same games because I feel like I should be taking advantage of my limited time. When I play a fun, dumb & competitive team game like Rocket League I always joke to my mates that I’ll perform really well because I’m wearing my lenses. It’s sort of true, though; the ball is difficult to see in the distance and the bright colours of most of the arenas fuzz up everything. And it can simply drain the magic of some beautiful environmental design. The Witcher 3’s incredible detail is wasted on my naked eyes.
This can be dispiriting, but when you go to work in an office, using a computer all day with bright white software which has no high contrast options, it becomes especially problematic. I worked in a call centre for a few months. The job itself was bad enough (poor training, crap hours, abusive customers, unhelpful management etc), but having to go into it wearing sunglasses? Well, at first it was embarrassing. It took me weeks to even muster up the courage to ask whether it would be okay if I could use them for the computer. Obviously they were fine about it, and my team were a friendly and supportive bunch. But sunglasses alone couldn’t stave off the inevitable eye burnouts caused by staring at a computer for the better part of 8 hours, 5 days a week. And I know the clash between computer screens and eyeballs isn’t an issue unique to me, but I don’t know if everyone comes home from an office job with their eyes still burning hours after leaving the building. Some days I’d come back, unable to do anything, watch TV, or even read a book. The only viable option was sitting in a dark room, or sleep. It didn’t happen every day, but enough throughout each week to make it barely tolerable. I quit a couple of weeks before my contract was due to end, mostly due to being fed up with the job and wanting to spend half of December unemployed, but it was also a huge relief to know I didn’t need to subject my eyes to that any more. As/if I get better with my lenses to the point that I don’t need to worry about that kind of thing any more, an office/computer job won’t be so scary to me. Right now? It makes me incredibly anxious. I am aware that companies usually offer help for this stuff, but I suppose I’m sceptical that their interventions won’t work and uncomfortable with the idea of being a ‘nuisance’. I work in hospitality right now, computer-free.
(I’m often self-deprecating about my situation, poking fun at myself and laughing with others doing the same. But I find it strange and a little upsetting that the same thing wouldn’t happen if what I had was a more visible impairment.)
I wrote this because I recently applied for a job (spoiler: didn’t get it) and the application noted that if you fit the job requirements and also have disabilities, you will be guaranteed an interview. They then quote the Equality Act 2010 which defines a disabled person as having ‘a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities’. As I read that statement, I wondered, only for a moment, whether it describes me. Is that me? Am I disabled? I quickly shook off that thought, denied it, and clicked No. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I might be Other, non-normative, not perfectly able-bodied. I also felt that, if I did click Yes, I was cheating, or worse, stealing the position of someone who is ‘genuinely’ disabled. After I sent off the application, I kept returning to this point. Kerotoconous is disabling. Yes, I have the fix, but it’s a cursed cure: two small plastic torture devices (how’s that for a depressing Greek tragedy?) Until I can get my lenses under control, I’ll always be coping, struggling with kerotoconous. And I need to realise that the ‘until’ here might only be wishful-thinking, that my eyes might never get on with the lenses in the way I want them to.
‘Ableism likes to tell us that there’s only one thing that disability looks like, that there’s only one way to be disabled. It has lots of definitions, lots of arguments for who “gets” to be disabled. It’s one of the ways in which ableism functions, to keep us apart, to keep us squabbling over who gets a pass into the disabled community.
In the past few years game development has taken some strange, interesting turns. Mostly, but not exclusively, from the indie scene. Games are becoming introspective, inasmuch as they are looking inward at themselves, at the nature of games and play. You could convincingly call it a kind of postmodern turn for game design. We have games like The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013) in which you control a bored but happy office worker who finds himself suddenly alone in his workplace, everyone else having mysteriously disappeared. Stranger still, a narrator starts giving him instructions about navigating through his empty office and the player can either obey or defy him. The game turns into a funny, but disturbing commentary on authorial intention, control and agency. Then we have games like Pony Island (Daniel Mullins Games, 2016), where the game at first seems to be a simple endless runner, but then we find out the real game is about the endless runner’s creator, who appears to be the devil himself, or certainly some kind of evil force. What follows is a battle between you and this manipulative creator as he destroys the game’s menus, makes options unavailable, and wreaks other kinds of metafictional havoc on the player. What these games introduce is a kind of self-awareness and critique of assumptions and expectations we associate with video game design. A lot of great words have been written about these types of games already, so I instead want to say a little about what these games bring to the fore – the paratext surrounding video games.
The paratext of any given text refers to the pieces of information which appear outside of the text, and inessential to it, but which nonetheless participates in and influences our reception of the text. For instance, the paratext of a novel would be the novel’s title, the author’s name, the synopsis on the back cover, chapter titles, publication details, cover art etc. In other words, the paratext is that which appears marginal to the experience of the text, but actually provides a significant network of ideas around which our approach to the text is shaped. Gérard Genette popularised the term and idea, and provides a helpful definition for both text and paratext:
The literary work consists, exhaustively or essentially, of a text, that is to say (a very minimal definition) in a more or less lengthy sequence of verbal utterances more or less containing meaning. But this text rarely appears in its naked state, without the reinforcement and accompaniment of a certain number of productions, themselves verbal or not, like an author’s name, a title, a preface, illustrations. One does not always know if one should consider that they belong to the text or not, but in any case they surround it and prolong it, precisely in order to present it (Genette and Maclean, 1991: 261).
So the paratext threatens the borders of the text, questions what can be included and what is to be excluded – the paratext is both absent and present. Genette suggests that its presence performs the function of presenting the text, a kind of threshold through which to welcome, guide, prepare, or perhaps warn the reader. The text cannot be entered without first encountering the paratext, and this is why Genette stresses the importance of the paratext for any kind of textual analysis. To show the far-ranging implications of paratexts he only has to ask one simple question: ‘reduced to its text alone and without the help of any instructions for use, how would we read Joyce’s Ulysses if it were not called Ulysses? (Genette and Maclean, 1991: 262). The title for Joyce’s epic dominates a lot of the discourse surrounding the novel. It is not difficult to imagine how the critical reception for Ulysses may have been different if Joyce didn’t choose the Greek hero’s name for the title of his novel. But looking at paratexts isn’t about dwelling on the myriad possibilities and ‘what ifs’ of what could have been; it’s about asking how these seemingly external elements contribute to and facilitate our understanding of the texts.
So what exactly would constitute the paratexts of video games? Are there any? Well, there’s the obvious ones they share with literature, namely titles, art work, the name of the artists/development team, publisher etc. You can find them all on the box containing the game (at least for those who still consume this way; I’ve resigned myself to the reign of the digital). But there’s other types of paratexts unique to video games, those that exist within the text of the game itself, not just within the box that presents it (or in the opening credits of the game text which repeats the box). These paratexts break up gameplay (and other content where gameplay is absent, like cinematic custscenes) and constitute the spaces in-between the player’s main interaction with the game. I’m thinking here of main menus/title screens, loading screens, pause menus, and even tutorials, though I realise that to include the latter would be to contradict, or at least qualify the earlier statement that these paratexts involve a break from gameplay. Yet tutorials are both inside and outside the game text; the player controls an avatar usually in a kind of play/test area separate from the game world, or more interestingly, within the game world itself, in which case the tutorial forms part of the narrative. The latter case makes it difficult to place tutorials in the category of paratext, because if the very act of learning gameplay controls falls in line with the character’s narrative of growth, the tutorial slides from the paratextual into the textual. Some loading screens face similar problems. For instance, many loading screens now give the player snippets of information, whether it’s related to the narrative and the world, or if it’s gameplay tips to help the player navigate the game space. In the latter, we can convincingly call these paratexts, but for the former, especially when these narrative snippets are allegedly derived from ancient scrolls or from the transcription of a song—sources based within the game world—they can’t easily be slotted into the framework of the paratext. Are maps within video games paratextual in the same way they are in a lot of fantasy literature? Or do they exist as an ever-present, integral component in the game world? As you can see, video game paratext is just as problematic to define, if not more, than the paratext within (or outside) literature. What I want to do here, though, is look at some game paratexts that I particularly enjoy, whose function perhaps reaches further than a simple interface allowing the player to start the game, pause it, load it, or learn it.
The main menu, which is to say, the menu from which you choose to begin a new playthrough of the game or continue a previously saved file, is usually just that, a flashy but uninteresting title card interface used to offer the player this choice.
The main menu in Final Fantasy VII (Sony, 1997), however, presents a peculiarly minimalistic main menu which I think performs several functions. First of all, the title doesn’t appear anywhere, though it has already made a faint appearance in the opening credits sequence preceding the main menu. Secondly, a strange looking sword placed in the middle of a black background; we don’t know who it belongs to or what it might represent. Thirdly, there’s no music accompanying the menu, even though there was music during the credits sequence – the famous arpeggio backed, melancholic anthem of the game. These three components—a lack of title, a mysterious sword, and no music—present the uninitiated player with several impressions of what this game could possibly be. Now you might think I’m being very hypothetical here, imagining a player unfamiliar with the cultural phenomenon of FFVII, but my first encounter with the game was almost as innocent as what I’m describing here. I learned about the game by watching a friend play a little bit of it, was instantly fascinated, bought it soon after. And although I’d seen the actual game in play, I still had little to no idea about its plot, the characters, the gameplay mechanics etc. All I had was the spectacle of the aesthetic, and that was all I needed.
But to return to the oblivious player, FFVII’s naked, stripped down main menu creates a specific kind of allure for the player which might have been lost if it was presented differently. Even the capitalisation of the ‘NEW GAME’ suggests the scope of creating a new save file, that doing so is not the same undertaking as beginning a new game of, say, Candy Crush or Super MarioBros. The strange, fat width of the sword positions the game somewhere between sci-fi and fantasy, and its isolation in the menu not only hints towards the player’s use of this weapon, but also towards the significance of the weapon as a symbol. The narrative follows Cloud, the sword’s wielder, a young man whose masculinity is wounded quite severely when he is rejected from the specialist military unit called SOLDIER. Several other things happen to Cloud which make him assume the personality of someone who was a 1st class member of SOLDIER, a delusion which cures and fulfils his masculine ideals. The big, fat, heavy sword is thus a symbol for overcompensation, and this finds clear expression in the battles where Cloud’s more detailed animation model shows the comical image of skinny arms carrying this ludicrously hefty sword (at least until the player replaces it with a different weapon). So there’s one example of a seemingly insignificant paratextual component informing and contextualising a wider game text.
I can think of other title screens that are the exact opposite of the minimalist aesthetic used for FFVII, but are no less expressive for it. Consider the main menu of the ultraviolent indie shooter Hotline Miami (Devolver Digital, 2012), a game which revels in its manic, unthinking acts of massacre. Set in sunny Miami in the late 80s, the player controls an unnamed character who receives anonymous, cryptic instructions which usually always involve mass murder. The game’s hazy neon visuals and the sharp, overproduced pop reminiscent of the 80s, creates a kind of drug-addled experience as the player controls this crazed avatar who desperately commits consecutive mass murders. The main menu captures the essence of the game quite perfectly.
The title shows up in Russian (the game’s enemy is the Russian mob), which to unassuming eyes simply looks like words printed backwards. The title, and the multiple options below, slowly sway from side to side in a lazy state of instability. The ‘Start Game’ option repeatedly becomes out of focus in a distortion of violet neon. Palm trees switching hues between shades of purple, red, pink and white flank the screen as they pass steadily into the edges of the front of the screen, simulating a drive down a road in Miami. As if this wasn’t trippy enough, the music played alongside this is a mellow, psychedelic track, and the singer’s reverb soaked drawls make it all but impossible to discern the lyrics. All these elements create a surreal and disorienting title screen which works to convey the unstable mental condition of the avatar and the anarchic sense of morality contained within the game’s action.
Loading screens, arguably even more ephemeral than title screens, can also serve purposes beyond the base function of allowing games time to load their game worlds. Most loading screens, especially lengthy loading screens, are experiences to be endured by impatient players waiting to enter the game world. Sometimes, however, this time is appreciated in loading screens. Bloodborne (Sony, 2015), for example, featured a noticeably long loading screen in its launch state, and was later optimised for a quicker speed. While most players were more than happy about a revamped loading screen (the art design changed too, from a black background superimposed with the game’s title, to a dark blue background with helpful descriptions of items and other pieces of narrative), some players actually mourned its loss because for them it was useful for their game experience. Mark Serrels describes how he gradually developed a fondness for the original loading screen:
To begin with I didn’t notice. Then I noticed. Then I became frustrated. Then I learned to endure them. Then I became indifferent. Then, at some point […] I began convincing myself that this purely technical failure was an actual good thing that enhanced the Bloodborne experience. […] the loading screens allowed you a moment to relax, a moment to ‘think about what you just did’, to consider the reason for your death and come back stronger’ (Serrels, 2015).
In Bloodborne, as in most FromSoft games, the fail state is encountered at a rate most players would agree is frustrating. Of course, the challenge is part of the appeal of these games. After death you face the waiting room of the loading screen, long and unadorned, but a space that also offers time to reflect and regroup. Perhaps the blank art design isn’t lazy, but rather deliberately empty so as to avoid clouding the player’s mind with other distracting thoughts. Serrels even suggests that the long waiting times could have been set in place to force the player to avoid ‘fast travel’ between checkpoints (an event which activates a loading screen), encouraging the player to explore on foot. Whether FromSoft had these intentions in mind when launching the original version is up for debate, because while it seems doubtful that any developer would deliberately include longer than necessary loading times, I wouldn’t put it past a playfully sadistic developer like FromSoft. In any case, Bloodborne’s loading screen history shows how such a seemingly trivial, paratextual component of game design can be used strategically, to guide and influence the experience of play in the wider, textual game world.
Video game analysis should then take care to attend to these small pieces of code, because if we ignore the paratextual components in game texts we risk overlooking important parts of design which, though small and unremarkable, nonetheless contribute to our experience of the larger game text.
Daniel Mullins Games, 2016. Pony Island, video game, Microsoft Windows.
Devolver Digital, 2012. Hotline Miami, video game, Microsoft Windows.
Galactic Café, 2013. The Stanley Parable, video game, Microsoft Windows.
Gennete, Gérard, and Marie Maclean, 1991. ‘Introduction to the Paratext.’ New Literary History, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 261-272.
I thought this list would be bigger because I remember constantly thinking to myself that this year was incredible for music, and it was, but I’m now realising those thoughts probably repeated themselves halfway through the year. I started back at uni in September so I kind of lost touch with all the new releases from that point onwards. Having said that, you’re never going to get around to every noticeable album released in the year so the ones you do get around to and invest time in are the ones you were probably going to really like anyway, and place on an arbitrary list.
Apparently vinyl sales took over digital sales this year. The implications of this are interesting. Does this mean vinyl isn’t cool anymore? Has my stupid, pretentious hobby been breached? Was it ever cool? I don’t know, but I reckon I’m singlehandedly responsible because I bought more records this year than I have in all the years before (though only four released this year, so far). The domination of music streaming services is changing the game too, with some artists releasing albums only on streaming platforms (Chance the Rapper’s Colouring Book), and others releasing them exclusively to one streaming service (Beyoncé’s Lemonade), so the aggressive resurgence of vinyl exists alongside the new digital giants of Spotify, Tidal, etc. Strange times, but what I’m really getting at is that I wish Beyoncé would release Lemonade on vinyl already. A yellow one, specifically.
Below are the albums I enjoyed most over the course of the year (not ranked; I tried and failed), but I’ve included another list of stuff I’ve heard only recently and would like to revisit.
Anohni – Hopelessness
Never has anger sounded so graceful and delicate. This is the power of Anohni’s incredible, deep crooning voice. A voice which asks to be blown away by drone bombs (‘Blow my head off / Explode my crystal guts’), to see the earth crumble before ecological catastrophe (‘I wanna see this world / I wanna see it boil’), to be observed at all times by the intensified surveillance technology threatening our privacy (‘Watch me watching pornography / Watch me talking to my friends and family’). All delivered with bitter irony, Anohni’s voice is the one of someone resigning to the fact that all these horrors will go on and on unless some kind of cataclysmic force of opposition brings about the possibility for change. This all sounds terribly grim, and it is, but it’s all rendered through the grandiose bombast of pop. Co-produced by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never (the latter’s Garden of Delete record was one of my favourites from last year), the sound of this record is massive, with brooding bass, glittering synths, intrusions of acoustic instrumentation, booming industrial percussion. It’s a protest record that matches big ideas with a big sound; I’ve found myself in the strange situation of bobbing my head joyously to a song about capital punishment. The music videos accompanying some of these songs are really disturbing, even though it’s always just a woman (young, old, black, white) looking at the camera and lip-syncing the lyrics. Maybe it’s because it feels like they’re singing from the point after the world has been defeated by us, a kind of post-apocalyptic appraisal.
I only discovered Anohni when my girlfriend sent me a link about an article because it mentioned Radiohead. It was an article about the resurgence of music dealing with green issues, and Radiohead were certainly mentioned, but it was mostly about Anohni. Chance encounters are the best.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead have been one of my favourite bands since I was a stupid teenager. Though at that time the crown was worn by Muse, and I hate to bring up that old and meaningless comparison, but I remember telling a friend that ‘I like Radiohead, but they aren’t as heavy as Muse!’ In many ways this was to predict the trajectory of both bands in my music listening life. While Muse pursued their flamboyant, grand sound to the point of self-parody, Radiohead were busy experimenting with new landscapes of sound, incorporating the fragmented, syncopated beats and swirling synths of electronic music, making experimental but tight records like Kid A and Amnesiac. This new sound reached its peak with In Rainbows, and though The King of Limbs was seen as a disappointment by many, I think of it as the softer, introspective brother of the former.
I bring up this comparison because not only are Radiohead refusing to stagnate, but they don’t let Thom Yorke’s politics become preachy. Matt Bellamy, on the other hand, well, one of Muse’s songs from Drones (the album’s actually called Drones) repeats the refrain ‘killed by drones’ in a cover of a hymn written in the Renaissance. Sigh. All of which is to say that Radiohead’s new record A Moon Shaped Pool is an exercise in understatement, both musically and lyrically. ‘Burn the Witch’ could easily have been another ‘Bodysnatchers’ with distorted guitar riffs but instead they choose to use an army of screeching strings smacking the strings with bows. Alright, that’s not the best example of being understated, but it’s nonetheless an experimental way to approach a song that could easily have been a more conventional, but no less powerful, opener. It’s also about McCarthyism but doesn’t repeat ‘killed by lynching’ throughout the whole song. ‘The Numbers’ touches on Yorke’s preoccupation with environmentalism, rallying the masses, but in the most poetic way (‘The numbers don’t decide / The system is a lie / A river running dry’). It’s hard to even focus on the lyrics in this song because of Jonny Greenwood’s distracting, beautiful yet erratic string arrangement. The centrepiece of the album, at least for me, is ‘Ful Stop’. Using a mean bass groove as a foundation, other sounds build upon it until it feels like it’s reaching boiling point and then Yorke meets the crescendo with a high-pitched refrain of ‘All the good times’. It’s a special moment, and I interpret the lyrics similarly to what Anohni is doing with this kind of distant retrospective look at what’s happened (‘You really messed up everything / If you could take it all back again’). The closer, ‘True Love Awaits’, is a dreamy rendition of a song that first appeared in live performances way back in the 90s. Some prefer the live version, saying it’s more raw and expressive when it’s just Thom and his acoustic guitar. I love both, the new one only adds to the fragility and melancholy of the original.
So, A Moon Shaped Pool is worth a listen, even if you don’t like all the weird directions they’ve taken before.
David Bowie – Blackstar
David Bowie has been one of my wee heroes since I started really listening to him when I was, I dunno, 16? 17? I remember way earlier than that when I saw the music video for Space Oddity, I think, on one of those now defunct music video channels on TV. I was a little freaked out, I didn’t know if he was a man or a woman, I couldn’t slot him into comprehension, so I switched over the channel or something. Of course, that’s precisely the point with Bowie, breaking boundaries, complicating borders, aggressively interrogating the self. 16 or 17 year old me was probably having some teenage identity crisis, maybe along the lines of ‘my hair’s too big, now my hair’s too short, my hair’s too big again, now it’s too short again; who am I?’, and Bowie was there to comfort, to say ‘your hair’s shit either way, enjoy life!’ or something. The point is, he looked weird, acted weirder, made music appropriating several different genres, made careers for others, and so was something of an inspiration to me. When he died, it was the first time I’d ever experienced genuine shock at a celebrity death, the man who fell to earth left it, but did so with the most beautiful farewell.
Blackstar was released two days before his death, so everyone started to see these morbid hints in the lyrics. ‘Look up here / I’m in heaven’ from ‘Lazarus’. ‘On the day of execution’ from ‘Blackstar’. ‘I’m trying to / I’m dying to’ in ‘Dollar Days’. Death permeates the record, it was all so obvious. But what a way to go out. It’s easily one of the most accomplished Bowie recordings in his whole career. The brooding 10-minute opener is a sinister, troubling dirge with a bridge so unexpectedly and wonderfully funky you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s another song. The sombre, melancholic beauty of Lazarus, with its lamenting strings and horns, or the frenetic bursts of the two newly arranged versions of the songs ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’ and ‘Tis a Pit She Was a Whore’. It’s a jazz club in the middle of a desert in hell, and I visit it quite regularly. You should too.
Mitski – Puberty 2
Mitski popped up in one of my Discover Weekly playlists on Spotify. The song was ‘Happy’, where the singer muses about unhappiness by personifying happiness (‘Happy came to visit me, he bought cookies on the way / I poured him tea and he told me it’ll be all okay’). So far, so depressive. And with song titles like ‘I Bet on Losing Dogs’ and ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’ you’d be forgiven for not wanting to listen to it. But though Mitski’s confronting bleak and vulnerable emotions, the music isn’t as downhearted as that might suggest. It’s part shoegaze, part dream pop/rock, and on ‘My Body is Made of Crushed Little Stars’, flat out punk. Her voice is both tender and urgent, you need only listen to the great grunge anthem ‘Your Best American Girl’ to confirm that. It’s instrumental makeup is sparse with electronic and acoustic guitars dominating, with the occasional synth layer in the background, and a saxophone at the end of ‘Happy’. But it’s a compact, tuneful and often beautiful 30 minutes.
Xenio Rubinos – Black Terry Cat
Hip-hop, soul, funk, and R&B all collide in this wonderful album by Xenia Rubinos. Her voice is awe-inspiring, flying in all sorts of directions, whether its rhythmically whizzing by in a quasi-rap, or making its way through soaring high pitched patterns to lower drawls. This is an album whose focus is the playful possibilities of the voice. But that’s not to ignore the funk fuelled instrumentals in the background, simple yet quirky arrangements which do their job providing beats upon which Xenia plays her rhythmic games. The lyrics look at the experience of blackness, immigration, gender, and other important things all dissected by that formidable voice.
Beyonce – Lemonade
Alright, I need to approach this carefully. I don’t want to say something like, ‘Beyoncé finally releases something worth listening to, relinquishing the manufactured, dull R&B she’s known for’, because, well, I’ve not actually listened to all her albums before. But there’s certainly something about Lemonade that appeals to me more than any of the other stuff has. Maybe it’s the ‘visual film’ that originally accompanied it. I saw it floating around on Facebook and started watching it, for what I thought would be two minutes or something, but I couldn’t stop. I watched more than half of it before I had to assert my will and get on with whatever else I was doing. But it was entrancing, the visual splendour of it all, this woman who within the film felt like a mythological being. And, of course, the music. Inviting the assistance of many acclaimed producers and musicians (don’t get me started on the multiple stupid memes mourning the loss of the pure genius of the single person, Beck and Queen aren’t even that good), Beyoncé creates a dazzling collection of songs ranging from minimalist R&B to angry rock to grand pop anthem to country. Okay, the country song I can do without. But it shows the creative possibilities she was playing with when making this. I don’t want to go over the controversial context of the album’s release because you’re probably familiar with it anyway, and I don’t care whether any of it’s true or not; I just hope she has more projects like this planned for the future.
Cavern of Anti-Matter – void beats / invocation trex
If krautrock had a baby with electricity. I’ve not listened to Stereolab much, but maybe I should considering how much I love this record. Tim Gene’s new project creates a world of old synths and propelling percussion to pump out a groovy, strange, spacy sound. It feels like you’re in a detective film set on a different planet, but made in the 80s and destined to become a cult classic. It’s great fun and has some beautiful moments amongst all the frenzied grooves.
Vulfpeck – The Beautiful Game
Only discovered this band this year. They’re quite odd. At first, when I heard ‘Dean Town’, I thought they were just an instrumental group jamming out meaty funk. But they also make upbeat soul music, and it’s funky too. ‘Animal Spirits’ is a modern Jackson 5 tune, and ‘Conscious Club’ is probably the best alarm clock song you could pick – because it’s infectiously fun and happy and well, it’s called ‘Conscious Club’. It’s one of those ‘if you’re feeling crap, this might cheer you up’, or ‘if you’re already okay, this will make you ecstatic’ records. Something needed in these troubled, confusing times.
Brian Eno – The Ship
The king of ambient and other art noise things returns with a cool, meditative voyage (sorry) into dreamy, yet unsettling oceans of sound. I admire those who make ambient music because anyone who can make albums of droning sounds that can function both as background noise and as something interesting to actively listen to, those people are impressive. Despite what many think, making ambient music is not as simple as holding one button for an hour long (though that’s certainly one way to go about it). And Eno shows this once again on The Ship, where various different synths are placed carefully and delicately next to others, creating beautiful textures you could swim in. What’s unusual about this record is that Eno’s voice makes an appearance, a deep, somnolent bass guiding the other sounds. It’s a really interesting and unexpected addition to what Eno usually does, and I more than welcome it. It’s less like a voice than it is a didgeridoo at some points, so it’s really just another strange synth in a world of strange synths. Also, there’s a great cover of The Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Set Free’.
Discover Weekly Gems #1 – The Leanover by Life Without Buildings
Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature is doing all the hard work for me. Before it I would have to rummage through the quiet, obscure alleys of the internet for something new, fresh, weird or none of those things, maybe just some new or old pop. These adventures might prove successful and I’d come back with plenty of new precious stones. Other times it would be to no avail, encountering the same uninteresting or vapid musical iterations I wanted to avoid. In both situations, and to extend this metaphor to its absurd limits, I’d come back to home soil sweating and exhausted, rewarded or punished for my little excursions into the depths of the internet’s exotic islands and caves. But now, with Spotify’s neat music recommendation system, I can reap all the rewards (or still leave empty handed) without having to do all the hard, dirty work. What’s so impressive about it is its difference from other, similar recommendation algorithms. Last.fm’s radio, Spotify’s own genre and artist based radios, or any generic ‘IF You Love X, You’ll Love Y’ lists are always (or have been for me) disappointingly shallow.
Discover Weekly creates a playlist containing 2 hours of music it thinks you might dig, and I’ve yet to be disappointed by it after using it for around two months now. The algorithm is sophisticated and deep as it responds to your feedback (if you skip a song, save another) by moulding new playlists each week, constantly refining its choices. What’s truly great is how many unknown artists and bands pop up, it’s always a delight discovering and enjoying something new. And in the spirit of that, I may as well start chronicling some of the lesser known gems I’ve come across in my more leisurely, one-click travels.
The Leanover by Life Without Buildings is at once a wonderful, melancholy and triumphant piece of music. It occupies a space somewhere between post-punk and emo, pretty chords steadily guiding the song along but giving way to the true force leading the piece – Sue Tompkins’s incredible, rhythmic talk-singing. Tompkins sounds like a little girl, petulantly and defiantly addressing the world in her own terms, bending language in ways which make the listener immediately question which words are actually being said/sang. For instance, the recurring lyric in the beginning sounds like ‘if I lose you in the street’, but after several repetitions is begins to sound like ‘illusion street’ or even ‘evolution street’. What I thought was ‘high heels’ a lyric website has interpreted as ‘high hills’. She’s clearly interested in the rhythmic possibilities of language, but not in the same way that hip-hop is. It’s improvisational, doesn’t always hit the beat the way you expect, and there’s certainly no attempt at structuring verse or chorus. Words seem to be there less for their content than for their form. She even inserts some French (‘je danse je suis’) because it flows well. As for whatever the song ‘means’, I don’t know, but it feels like a hopeful, optimistic anthem against something large and sinister. Its title, ‘The Leanover’, creates a submissive image, as if referring to a repressive act or state of being, and maybe the singer/speaker Is symbolically standing up? I’m not sure, but they’re also from Glasgow, and I’m embarrassed to be discovering this gem from 2001 only now.
As I was walking up from the train station at night, through the long, steep and winding path back to my house I was a little scared not only because it was night (with the deep shadows lurking in the woods flanking the path), but because I was warily anticipating the appearance of that most disturbing of creatures, the clown. The recent clown craze has created an atmosphere of paranoid hysteria, first in the States, then in Britain, and apparently now in Australia (at least that’s what I think is the chronology, but I’ve seen differing reports). What is going on? What does this mean? Most news outlets refer to it as ‘clown pranks’, a practice of scaring and intimidating people (mostly children) with creepy costumes and threatening behaviour. ‘Prank’, however, feels inaccurate. Pranks usually have an element of comedy, even when the main intent Is to scare someone – after the scare the victim quickly acknowledges the lack of danger/their own safety, and it’s laughed off. These clown sightings, though? No laughing matter. Children are traumatised, parents are paranoid, schools are shaken, police departments are taking action. Framing these events as ‘pranks’ suddenly seems wildly inappropriate.
So what could this mean? Is it a craze proliferated by social media? Most definitely. Do these people want to send any kind of message, political or otherwise? I’m not sure. Is this just a new form of delinquency? Perhaps, but that kind of anti-social behaviour is usually practiced in groups, the familiar and dreadful mob of ‘hoodies’ Cameron so eagerly wanted to hug. The clown craze is something altogether more unsettling, more horrifying than a group of threatening boys or girls. At least gangs can be explained; there is a simple logic of rebellion and power at work. But with the single, companionless clown? What possesses you to go out alone? What are you thinking as you stroll aimlessly at night? Why are you doing this? There lurks a mystery about the clown that’s absent in the traditional gang; and considering there’s more footage of gangs of people ‘hunting’ and attacking clowns, it creates a neat image of the rational violently suppressing the irrational. The ‘irrationality’ of it touches on why they are scary. It’s not just the anonymity and the grotesque exaggerations of the mask, it’s the horrible lack of context surrounding their presence. The horror of the clown derives from the absence of its proper context – amusement at a birthday party or a circus/carnival. The ridiculous juxtaposition of a clown costume and the woods near somewhere you live is jarring, especially if they are carrying a weapon. There exists an unreality behind them, that though we know them to be human, our brains can’t quite process this wholly.
So, why does this fascinate me? Probably because we’re not talking about a horror film or game, but real life. At least in fiction we can analyse the design and intentions behind the horror, but not so much here. Are these people a collective? Do they share motives? Or is this a differentiated practice? Is it just a new pastime for bored teenagers? I wonder what China Miéville thinks of this phenomenon, considering he gave a talk on ‘Marxism and Halloween’ back in 2013 discussing the commodification of Halloween, and how it should be reclaimed for socialists. He talks about the value of fear and dread which can be used to conceive alternative futures, and how Halloween in its current form neuters these possibilities: ‘This is about the domestication of dread; the whole point of the model of dread that is constitutive of human consciousness is that it is ultimately ineffable, it cannot be quite contained’ (Miéville, 1013). I’m not sure if he would see any potentiality in the clown craze (especially when he later claims slasher films and torture porn films are not true horror), but I reckon he would have something interesting to say. They certainly are inspiring genuine dread.
Maybe the clowns from Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984) can help. These clowns, sitting themselves to dinner, ‘possessed the formal lifelessness of death masks, as if, in some essential sense, they themselves were absent from the repast and left untenanted replicas behind’ (Carter, 116) So far, so creepy. It further confirms the idea of the clown as something which shifts between the real and unreal, and in this case between life and death. An even creepier description of the clowns comes from a conversation they have which suggests the autonomy of the clown mask:
Sometimes it seems […] that the faces exist of themselves, in a disembodied somewhere, waiting for the clown who will wear them, who will bring them to life. Faces that wait in the mirrors of unknown dressing-rooms, unseen in the depths of the glass like fish in dusty pools, fish that will rise up out of the obscure profundity when they spot the one who anxiously scrutinises his own reflection for the face it lacks, mean-eating fish waiting to gobble up your being and give you another instead (Carter, 122)
I think this haunting description applies to any form of identity creation. If we adopt postmodern conceptions of the self, then we’re always inspecting our own reflection for the face we lack, filling up this interminable void with a multiplicity of personae (but that’s a different discussion). As for the clowns, what void is this filling? Is there a ‘disembodied somewhere’ creating the real life clowns? Which Is to say, are there any overarching implications about this craze? I don’t know, but I do know that I’m strangely interested in this surreal rupture of the real which seems to be gaining global traction (although, like most crazes on social media, will be transient). For now, though, I feel like we’re currently living inside a J.G. Ballard novel, those worlds where bored, frustrated communities dip into a collective id – only now it’s in costume.
Carter, Angela. 1984, Nights at the Circus (Picador: London)
Do you ever find the things you do for fun cease to be fun? Or, to put it another way, does your leisure ever become a task, a thing to complete, a chore to endure? If this sounds like the beginning of a self-help book it’s because I’ve never done this before, give me a chance. Maybe not. Maybe your leisure is safely well-adjusted and the demarcation between the two (labour/leisure) is stable. But several recent experiences of my own leisure and observations of the experiences of others’ forces me to call into question the relationship between labour and leisure, work and play. The best and probably the most alarming example would come from video games and their players. Gaming is one of the most popular leisure activities right now, and it’s associated (often negatively) with pure, cathartic play. The act of reading literature, while leisurely, has an air of intellectual sophistication that is presumed absent in the (‘thoughtless’) play of video games (although this perception has changed dramatically in the last few years, and the detractors continue to become old-fashioned and reactionary). Nevertheless, video games are still seen as an unproductive and wasteful diversion – the ultimate of leisure. But a recent phenomenon (as I like to think of it, anyway) has turned this situation quite perversely on its head.
There are a number of players who are quite obsessed with completion, whether that refers to the simple completion of any given game’s narrative, levels, stages, etc, or whether that refers to the more extreme and dedicated endeavour to collect achievements (a list of tasks set up by the developer which players might not usually consider doing). These achievements, once earned, pop up on the player’s screen with the triumphant notification of its completion. It’s not difficult to imagine how intoxicating this can be. So much so, in fact, that there are players who devote considerable amounts of time to the task of gaining ‘100%’ completion of games. The amount of time and effort put into this completionist practice is such that the idea of playing these games as a leisurely reprieve from forms of labour becomes disturbingly unconvincing. Many players often express their frustration and boredom with this task, justifying their dire experience by thinking of the reward – 100%.
To me, this has unsettling implications about the structure of our leisure. Because this doesn’t just apply to those achievement fanatics, but to any player who’s ever had the urge to complete certain unattractive sidequests soley for the sense of conquering that particular part of the game’s code; it applies to readers slogging through a novel they dislike thoroughly because they can’t quit before seeing the life-affirming 100% on their Kindle; to those who cringe at skipping filler, mediocre songs on an album they love because to do so is to listen incompletely. If leisure shows signs of labour, then labour can dangerously mix aspects of leisure in sinister ways (although ‘leisure’ now, in this particular circumstance, is so precariously dialectic that the distinction bears little meaning). Consider the recent ‘gamification’ of marketing strategies, where consumers are rewarded with points (achievements?) for their loyalty, or when businesses ‘motivate’ their workers by setting up game-like feedback systems in which employees earn rewards (a Twix? Please, infantilise me more). In these situations, ‘completing the game’ becomes ‘being a loyal consumer’ or ‘being a loyal employee’ which, of course, is incredibly fun for the businesses, but for you? Well, as long as there’s a free cup of coffee after the 10 paid cups, or a Twix, who could complain?
So, returning back to the players themselves, why do they do this? Well, one answer is that the challenge, despite its often debilitating effects, is genuinely fun. I can believe this. There’s a reason why the masochistic play of Dark Souls became a phenomenon. And yet I know people who buy games they are not even particularly interested in because they include a short and easy list of achievements – in other words, a quick fix. Or people who play a game well beyond the point of enjoyment (genuine fun) simply to reach 100%. To me, this suggests the influence of a deeper framework. Another answer to the ‘why’ of obsessive completion is the fact that the virtues of completion and progression derive from the humanist ideals of the Enlightenment era. These values, despite the myriad historical disasters undermining them, still pervade our society. So that the desire to convert the unknown into the known (a kind of completion) is not dissimilar to the aggressive pursuit of 100%. That is, the ideal of the known world (a world subjected to or enslaved by complete ‘knowledge’), with the accompanying assumptions about the linear progression of humankind, is an ideal which comforts and encourages those chasing the 100%. It can be complete. I can be master. I dominate this space. In this context, the player is a kind of coloniser of the game world. And the capitalist assumptions which naturally develop from humanist, colonialist values are visible too: a player, rationalising his 100% obsession, once said ‘I just like to see the numbers go up’.
I’m not saying these players, or any other consumers with similar approaches to leisure media, are mindless, brainwashed droids. What I’m saying is that this behaviour, more than a quirk of personality or a form of OCD, is a symptom of something much larger.