Monday, July 15, 2013

Empty my God (un)to Thee

The only thing that surprised me about the verdict is that juries work on Saturdays.-@michaelianblack

This weekend started off well enough, with my own personal terror alert system elevated to orange, and a surprise visit from a fellow Tori room kid. When nothing happened on Friday, I assumed we'd hear on Monday, which was fine. So, when a sociology instructor whom I never quite managed to befriend in undergrad posted "fucking florida" to her feed, I didn't immediately identify to what she had referred. There are, after all, a lot of things about Florida that ought to be fucked.

The bestial nature of that metaphor aside, Florida's a strange place, and I doubt I'd have chosen to have been born and raised there had I been consulted beforehand. That said, you could do worse for a tutorial map. For those of you unfamiliar with America's wang, it can be kind of counterintuitive: the further north you go, the further south you are. South Florida is an odd amalgam of New York expatriates, Cuban-American families, tourists, relocated witnesses, snakes, and hideous half-human muttations produced in the labs beneath Disney World. North Florida is, for lack of a technical term, Georgia's muffin top, the southeastern border of Confederacy country. The two are bisected by the I-4 corridor, our perpetually sunny Valley of the Ashes, and where elections are won and lost. Along this winding stretch of demographic confusion lies the city of Sanford.

Like any American city, Sanford is a place where quiet, mild-mannered wonks and loud, racist loons live in such close proximity to one another that you'll occasionally be surprised at who is which. It is, perhaps, easier to see there than in less liminal locales. So when I heard about the shooting of Trayvon Martin, I wasn't entirely surprised by the shooting, and I was even less surprised to hear that the police had essentially taken a pass on investigating it as a crime. Ta-Nehisi Coates explains it all for you:
For some reason there's this notion out there that Trayvon was killed on Monday, Al Sharpton showed up on Tuesday, and there were marches on Wednesday. There's an entire contingent of critics who are much more comfortable attacking Sharpton, or wondering why "black on black" crime doesn't attract any protests. 
As I have written, the contention is, itself, false. But more importantly the protests aren't merely about Trayvon Martin's killing, they are about the failure of a police department to rigorously investigate a crime. [...] At its root, Trayvon Martin's killing is a law and order case, and you would think conservatives would latch on to that. Instead, with few exceptions, we are being told that the true calamity here is the presence of Al Sharpton. 
I didn't have any predictions of which I was confident, largely because I hadn't bothered to follow the trial. I knew a conviction was hardly a fait accompli, but it struck me as immediately and obviously important that there be a trial. As it went on, I'd pick up little bits from arguments in FB threads and blog posts about the broader political issues at work. Consequently, I don't have a whole lot to say about the trial itself. The state's burden of proof necessitated that they essentially prove a negative, since the victim was conveniently dead, and the more distant witnesses ignored or persuaded in the hours after the shooting. And while Zimmerman is rather obviously a paranoid lunatic with a history of impulsive violence--and his explanation of events is so wildly improbable that it ought to have been accompanied by a laugh track--unless he was actively engaged in a crime before he pulled the trigger, Florida says there's no crime.

What I find most disconcerting about this scenario is that, applied fairly, both Zimmerman and Martin would have been within their legal rights to kill the other. Assault requires that the fear apprehended by the victim be well-founded; deadly force in self-defense only requires that the fear be legitimately felt. (Furthermore, immediately prior to the gunshot, neither party would have had the responsibility or the ability to retreat; running away from a man with a gun is a great way to get shot in the back, especially if he's a complete stranger who was threatening you, in the dark, for no apparent reason.) Knowing that being legitimately afraid entitles you to kill the object of your fear, one party can be plausibly afraid for their life simply because they believe the other party might be afraid for their life. In political theory, this is known as the Hobbesian trap, and it's the problem the Leviathan is designed to solve. The state takes sides. If it doesn't--if the state hedges its bets and says "whoever dies first is the criminal"--then it has abdicated its primary function. Wyrre, the late Old English word from which modern English's "war" derives, means "to bring into confusion." The state is, first and foremost, an epistemological construct.

Of course, the "war of all against all" scenario isn't actually going to happen, because laws like Florida's self-defense+ aren't intended to be applied fairly. This is what "empowering citizens" to do the job of law enforcement means. This is what it's for: creating a definition of self-defense so wide that it's impossible to convict anyone unless you have an a priori reason for wanting to imprison or kill them. It's jury nullification in reverse. The police's power to enforce laws encompasses not only the ability to deploy violence against citizens, but to choose not to deploy violence against some citizens. Legitimization of vigilantism makes the police more powerful, not less.

George Zimmerman stood trial for the death of Trayvon Martin, and that's a good thing. We almost didn't get that.

George Zimmerman is, for the moment, not going to face any legitimate penalty for having shot and killed Trayvon Martin. That sucks.

It sucks differently for different people, obviously, but for the people whose sons he hasn't shot, the most important is this: there's no legal disincentive for Zimmerman, or any of his adoring fans, to keep doing this sort of thing. Martin isn't the first, nor the hundredth, person to be killed in an extremely sketchy "defensive" shooting; Zimmerman's justification is far from the most ridiculous. And while there's some irony in noting that Zimmerman is now essentially an anthropomorphized security dilemma, I sincerely hope this is the last we hear of him, either as an aggressor or as a victim, because vigilantism is inherently a threat to all of us. Because the people for whom Zimmerman is a hero will avenge him a hundredfold. And because the outcome of this case doesn't actually mean that people are now legally allowed to hunt and kill each other in Florida. It only means that people are legally allowed to hunt and kill people whose deaths the police don't feel to be worthy of an investigation.

The police are a weapon. The legislature decides at whom it's pointed.

Now get out there and make them do their fucking job.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Albert, Somme

Roger Ebert is dead, and were I to be called upon to spend another minute talking about whether or not videogames will ever be "art," I'd prefer to join him. A few weeks back, I made a mental note to reread John Walker's recent RockPaperShotgun editorial on the relationship between games and stories, so I could explore some of its unexamined conceits. Not a rebuttal, exactly, or even a critique--Walker seems to have handled that responsibility himself--but a vague thought on vocabulary, and what imprecision can conceal.

Story is a revered word among gamers, even if some critics aren't so enthusiastic. We're used to that. If you've spent any time reading games criticism, you're as bored with the yes/no of games and story, and have hopefully moved onto the how. What I find interesting, though, is not the idea that story is a desirable thing for a game to "have," but the assumption that story is the essential aspect of other narrative media.
[w]hat exactly is it we’re holding aloft as an example of storytelling done right? There are games whose stories I’ve enjoyed a great deal. I immediately reach for The Longest Journey, Deus Ex, Planescape Torment… um… and then I start to struggle. And the most recent of those was 2000 – thirteen years ago. [...] But of these, which do I hold up as great examples of literature? Honestly? None. That’s not to demean the best of them – stories from games have genuinely changed my life, moved me enormously, altered my thinking in significant ways. But if gaming’s ultimate goal, from both technology and development, is this spurious notion of “storytelling”, then it’s doing a pretty poor job.
 "Literature" is an interesting place to go here. The written word remains our most highbrow massively reproducible medium; as Supernatural has reminded us recently, men of letters are not to be trifled with. And as Eagleton reminds us in Literary Theory: An Introduction, "literature" is far from a stable subject. "Literature" is often employed as a synonym for "classic," or "art," or "good." People who study literature do not employ it this way, because for litnerds, literature is a descriptive term, not an evaluative one. It's a thing, not an admiring way to describe that thing. Ceci n'est pas un stick, after all.

Description is an important concept to keep in mind, given the next two uses of "literature":
My thought is whether this matters at all. Perhaps it’s time for us all to just accept that games aren’t ever going to be home to classic works of literature – it’s not what they’re for, and it’s not what they’re ever going to achieve.
For years I’ve lamented this, decried the failure of this medium to mature to a point where it can match literature and cinema in terms of intelligence in design. (And to be clearly, yes, most books and movies are terrible – we’re talking about comparing the very best.) When is gaming, I would ask, going to find its great stories? I believe I was wrong to ask.
Here we see references to "classic works of literature" (emphasis mine, obvs.) and "literature and cinema," which rules out such pedestrian fare as books and movies, or even novels and film. I don't know exactly what Walker means by these terms, beyond entities in particular media that are better than most others. But I wonder how he would describe some of these works. When people talk about "story" in videogames--especially when they talk about it derisively--they go to examples, and something gets tricksy. Yes, a prose summary of a game's plot, even one of the best plots, is going to sound pretty silly, but plots invariably sound silly when you alienate content from form. As children, we're taught to use "plot" and "story" interchangeably, primarily in an evaluative sense: "story" is what movies with a lot of CGI must necessarily lack; "plot" is why grown-up movies about mediocre people fucking are better than kids' movies about exceptional people killing. I'll not dwell on the technical definitions, because the comprehensive definition is one of the most beloved lies we tell to schoolchildren. Suffice to say that a description of a story is not that story, a plot summary is not a plot. If games are not a narrative medium, then "story" is an element extricable from the rest of the experience, identical to its own summary. If games are a narrative medium, the story isn't a thing that the player is drawn into, nor is it a thing the player creates by interpreting the text, but the experience itself. The decisions you made, and the ones you were forced to make, and the ones they pretended to let you make, and the way you felt about the experience. Granted, those distinctions might still be useful to make, as they are in other media, and that's a conversation I'd be quite interested in having. But we have to start with the text, the thing. If you want a story that's easily communicable in text, you're going to have the experience and then write about it afterwords.

That's right; videogames are just as depressing as real life.

Oh, bee tee dubs, if you opened up the first Walker article, I advise you to break the first rule of the internet and read the comments.