How to Be Ugly

How to Be Ugly

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I’m not using the verb “to be” in the sense of becoming, a transitive action from “being” to the adjective “ugly,” but rather, in the essence of being, of existing. How to be while ugly, how to exist despite being ugly — “ugly” being the independent variable at the core of being, a noun central to an identity.

One of the difficult parts about being ugly is that we’re not allowed to be ugly. Our surrounding exerts itself at convincing us otherwise. Loved ones try and persuade you of your beauty — which they indeed perhaps see with their subjective eyes. Gyms make a dream body attainable through hardship (and money). Surgeries make a dream body attainable through money (and hardship). Clothes are a way to hide your ugliness. Makeup distracts others from it. Eat well, have a healthy lifestyle, exercise, and you will finally be beautiful. Work out and eat well, you lazy piece of shit. Health is beauty, they say. Ugliness is just some sickness you have to ward off. Every one of its symptoms is marketed as treatable. You’re not allowed to be sick in public. But if you throw up looking in the mirror in the privacy of your double-locked washroom, that’s fine. Keep eating the unattainable dreams that society feeds you and choke on them.

Ugliness is congenital. It is inscribed in our DNA. Beauty is a lottery in which the winners convince the losers they got there through hard work. As if their everyday actions change their DNA sequence in a society whose beauty standards have been long established. Beauty is a privilege which needs to be recognized as such, much like heterosexuality, cisgenderism, whiteness, and class. And like those, it is not static, you may of course gain and lose beauty due to events, like going up and down social classes, but that doesn’t make it less of a privilege.

As a kid, I wasn’t told that I was cute or handsome. I was born ugly and grew up ugly. Yet I always blamed myself for being ugly. I must not have worked hard enough to be cute. Maybe I didn’t practice my smile enough, maybe I didn’t shower enough, maybe I needed to cut my hair, maybe I had to buy more expensive clothes, maybe I didn’t do enough sports. But it ran deeper than that. It had to be my fault; other kids were told they were beautiful. The most basic yet most excellent quality. They didn’t even really have to try. There was something wrong with me, in me. My body was wrong, my face was wrong. They still are.

But much like the rich who try and convince the poor that everyone gets what they deserve, the beautiful actively work at keeping the ugly ugly. They benefit from them. Their identity is based on their relative beauty, and the uglier the ugly are, the more beautiful they are. And, of course, in the current social climate, beauty translates to success and wealth. Beauty sells. Ugliness buys. The ugly need to buy those skin creams and workout programs that the beautiful use. The beautiful need the ugly to watch their TV shows and listen to their music and follow them on Instagram and pay attention to them and control them. “Be good little uglies, and maybe you’ll be less ugly. Watch us and bow down to us, and maybe we’ll grant you a bit of attention.” Have you ever seen an ugly influencer? They literally make a living from their beauty.

But, what if the ugly embraced their ugliness? Ugliness would become a tool of deconstruction. It could be an empowering statement. The ugly could unite and with time could dismantle the institution of beauty, and capitalism would crumble with it. The ugly would only date each other and take over, since beauty lacks content and depth.

I wish. If only.

Meanwhile, I am stuck in the in-between, and always have been. Do I accept, embrace my ugliness, and spend energy developing other tools to achieve success and happiness (qualities, intellect, skills)? Or do I work more actively at fighting, at concealing my fundamental ugliness?

Perhaps this in-between position is what I should embrace. Perhaps I could find solace and empowerment in having my inherent ugliness push me to develop compensatory qualities which have become central to my identity, while at the same time fighting this ugliness, diminishing the control that this sickness has on my life. And hey, I do like how those branded jeans make my butt look, and how that expensive conditioner makes my hair silky and soft. But I can never be healthy if I was born sick. I will never sell, and not buying at all is utopic, but maybe I can barter.

Here’s to bartering, fellow uglies. Stay strong and smart and kind. You deserve love too.

mes bleus multicolores

as-tu

senti mon cœur

battre

entre tes doigts

sur mon cou

en forme de deux W

laissant passer

un courant d’air

sur ma peau

censurant mon dernier soupir

de dignité

 

as-tu

senti mon cœur

battre

sur ton poing

s’écrasant sur ma poitrine

sur mon bras

sur mon autre bras

terroriste de mon corps

je me ferme les yeux

à chaque écrasement

 

as-tu

senti mon cœur

battre

quand tu l’as enterré

mon corps sa tombe

mes bleus son épitaphe

des hiéroglyphes manuscrits

à l’encre de mon sang

qui a peur de couler

prisonnier de ma peau

 

tes impulsions

colorient mon corps

peignent

notre histoire

à coups d’ecchymoses

je suis devenu

tableau vivant

 

le bleu tourne au vert

le vert c’est beau c’est le printemps

le printemps sur ma peau

la violence se renouvelle

une épitaphe multicolore éclot

fifty shades of blue

du mauve du vert du rouge du jaune

le drapeau gai étampé sur le front

le drapeau blanc dans la main

 

j’attrape un coup

de soleil

sur mon bleu

en maternelle les doigts dans la gouache

j’ai appris que le bleu et le rouge ça fait mauve

c’est faux

ça ne se mélange pas

un bleu sur fond rouge ça reste un bleu

Of Numbers, Death, and Nonsense

Of Numbers, Death, and Nonsense

        Despite (or because of?) my very clear interest in languages and the more liberal arts, my brain constantly thinks in terms of numbers. I’m obsessed with assessing my own productivity. Today is December 19, which means that 62% of the month has passed, and considering I have a deadline in mid-January, I have to increase the amount of time I work by 50 to 65% for the rest of the month in order to make it in time, considering other commitments and my recent fatigue which increases my average sleep by one hour per night, and the weather which increases the dog-walking time and preparation by 33% every day, and adding in some extra time for eventual unpredictable variables.

        And then I realize, today my dad would have turned 50. And in mid-January, I’m turning 28. The same gap between today and my deadline. Then all these numbers lose their purpose in face of my emotions. At the same time, these numbers have always ruled my life. It’s like a constant fight between the bigger picture and the precise details, the macro versus the micro, in which the micro wins out of sheer quantity, becoming the macro. And then, the unquantifiable, innumerable elements, the beyond numbers, get shoved under the rug until I start tripping on the bumps. Like today.

        Man, my dad would have turned 50. It’s a number beyond numbers. It doesn’t make sense, it creates sense. It’s a quantity which empties yet defines my life. It’s an addition of years of absence, it’s a subtraction of what should have been in favor of what was, it’s an unknown variable that became known too early in the equation and displaying ERROR on my calculator. It does not make sense.

        Or can sense ever be made? In French, we say to have sense, or to be sensical (which isn’t even an official word in English). So, is sense contained, had, rather than made? Do things, events possess sense? No. Neither language is correct.

        Sense is the unknown variable of the equation. We are the ones who try to create or see sense in that which is inherently void of sense. We impose sense onto variables through an emotional equation whose result is entirely subjective. We add up or subtract or multiply or divide numbers in our lives that we put together ourselves to try and give sense to them as a result. I suppose it’s easier to accept nonsense when we make it make sense, or make it have sense.

Happy 50th birthday to my big nonsense, my unknown variable.

Photography and the Reconstruction of Memory(ies)

Close friends of mine know that the last year has been one full of academic stress, as I had to not only find a new thesis supervisor and committee members, but also a new topic altogether, while falling behind on deadlines. And so, while I’m still quite a newbie in the field of photography, an aspect of my “new” topic, I’ve had to study it (from a theoretical standpoint; I’m a poor photographer and often prefer not to take pictures, but more on this later, perhaps) very intensively in the past two years. And what a deep, fascinating, complex medium it is! Recently, it was the 177th “birthday” of photography (I’m always reluctant to use the term birthday, because such mediums are eternal processes: it existed in other forms prior to its so-called invention, and has since then changed beyond the point of recognition). As I’m currently bathing (or drowning) in research for my upcoming comprehensive exams, I feel compelled to share a tidbit of personal experience.

In May, I moved into a new apartment, one into which I plan to stay for at least 3 years. Having been quite a nomadic person since being of age, I have rarely lived in the same apartment, let alone the same city/country, for over a few months at a time. And so, most of my less practical but meaningful mementos were kept at my mom’s. This necessarily includes photos. When I visited my mom last month, I went through a few different things that I wanted to bring with me, considering that I had settled in somewhere. I came across a few pictures that were quite emotional, and I would like to share one along with a few thoughts, without delving into theory.

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If I had to date it, it would probably be some time in 1991, back when the photographic act was democratized and readily accessible, but still substantial and meaningful since a camera roll had a very limited amount of pictures, which could not be retaken. And so, for the working class, or at least in my family, photography was not a hobby or a passion, as it was indeed a significant expense, but a luxury. We had to invest and make the decision to remember something. Photography is indeed a future-oriented act of archiving. The frame of the photo becomes the prison cell of something that must be forever remembered, a moment frozen still.

However, this “freezing in time” is only true in graphic terms, since indeed meanings aren’t static. Viewing this picture, for instance, brought tears to my eyes not only because of the beauty of the picture, and not at all because it triggered a memory, but exactly because it created a memory. It created an intimate moment with my father that I had never lived. Evidently, I do not remember this moment at all. I would argue that photography, in many cases, isn’t so much the mnemonic device we like to see it, but rather, it participates in the creation of memories. Memories are created every time the picture is viewed, and rather than referring back to the moment it was taken, it emphasizes the very present act of viewing, interpreting, feeling. We are in fact viewing absence itself — what we see in front of us on the picture has vanished with time, and so the (physical) presence of a memento of what once was is merely a perpetual trigger of (chronological) presence when it is viewed. In other words, we don’t remember the moment depicted so much as we are in fact viewing the photo itself depicting a moment, and the act of viewing then triggers a certain (re)construction or even the creation of memories. In fact, the same picture may lead different people to reconstruct different, even opposite, memories.

This picture is of course a prime example. Let me focus on my thoughts as I analyze this picture, so as to underline the very process of the reconstruction of memories. I do not remember this picture being taken nor having ever seen it before. It was completely out of context. Though, I recognize my father, and I recognize myself thanks to other baby pictures of myself that I have seen. This photo thus inserts itself in my metaphotographic world, along with all other pictures I have seen and taken, so as to gain meaning. Its context, the context of its viewing, depends entirely on all my other experiences, particularly my other experiences with photography. I even need these other photos of me to recognize myself in this photo. And, as these experiences keep piling up at every minute of my existence, the experience of viewing may be different one minute from now.

After having recognized the two characters, my dad and me, I am of course struck right away by emotions. Photography captured my dad as he was alive. He has passed away. Let me reiterate that I had never seen this picture, and there are very few pictures of only the two of us. This idea of “capturing” life is one that I explored a little in Photography as a Spell Book so I will not repeat here what I wrote there. But as Roland Barthes, Hervé Guibert, and many others, have looked at in their texts, thinking photography is particularly complex when it is tied to death. This photo forces my brain to think of my dad as alive, almost as if it were a time capsule that keeps changing every time I view it. Like necromancy, he is constantly brought back to life in my mind every time I am the photo’s viewer.

Then, there is me, one year old, a testament of the passage of time. Barely recognizable were it not for having seen other pictures of me, for having been told that “that’s me.” I seem to be very happy; a sort of happiness that doesn’t seem staged, innocently spontaneous. My dad’s very well might be, but, again, these interpretations are reconstructions of the moment through my (limited and) subjective knowledge. The white and empty background, were it not for a chair, really focuses the entirety of the attention of the viewer onto the two of us — the two of them.

Then, I found myself comparing the two of us/them. My hand is tiny compared to his. I try to find myself in him. Do we look anything alike? My ears? My eyes? My posture? My cheeks? I’m not sure, I’m terrible at this, it’s hard to tell. Why this need, though? Am I trying to prove to myself that I am (that the baby depicted here is) indeed his son? Or am I trying to find myself in him? I’m not sure in which direction the comparison is going, as my eyes shift quickly from one to the other. I also come to ask myself: who is the photographer? My mom? If she does not remember, then who would?

I am also made to look at him in a way to reassure myself that yes, this is what he looked like. No, I have not forgotten him. But details have indeed escaped me, and this photo makes these details jump out. I had forgotten where and what his tattoos were. I had forgotten the way his lips smiled. His stomach. The warmth in his eyes. The shape of his eyebrows. His not-so-recently shaved chin. His tanned skin. A great amount of details, all very subjective, that were gone, that turned him into a blur in my mind. An idea more than a physical body. His physicality as a human being was disappearing. Or rather, has indeed disappeared, but this photo helps me reconstruct what I interpret that it was. He does not have the chance of growing older, so unfortunately I am left with a few pictures to fixate his body, to re-create memories of his tangibility without much regard to chronology. Every time I look at this picture, I create my father once again from the debris in my mind. Like making a snowman out of melting March snow. I make something approximate with my knowledge, my interpretations, my memories, and my feelings, which are all rooted in the present act of viewing and thinking, knowing that memories fade slowly with time. Viewing photographs is part of the artistic process of photography, and just like a poem that you re-read, it is different every time and entirely subjective. Photos are not just a crutch for memory, they make memories. It becomes even more complex when you or important people are the subjects/objects of the photo.

Thank you for reading this entry and for your respect toward the photo and my thoughts. Please do not share the picture out of its context, which is this page.

I Forgot

I Forgot

July 25, 2016. I am 26 years old. It’s 5:05 am. I just finished grading a stack of 64 midterm exams. A thunderstorm is roaring outside. My 7-month-old puppy is whining. My poor baby. 7 years ago, at 5:05 am, my dad had already choked to death. An accidental fire, I read in the newspapers. I was 19. He was 42. He would be 48 today (his birthday is in December, mine is in January). I was 5 weeks away from starting university. I was at my aunt’s, 33 du Barrage street. Too many numbers, my head hurts. Their cat was restless. No. It was only the following day that I learned about it. But I already knew. I’ve never told anyone, but I knew before knowing. People waited a full day and a half before telling me. 1 day and 1/2. His one son. But I knew, so I looked it up myself. I found this article in the newspapers: http://www.lapresse.ca/la-voix-de-lest/actualites/200907/27/01-887549-la-victime-na-pu-etre-reanimee.php. I learned about my dad’s death in the newspapers. Online, at night, at my aunt’s. It was that night that the kitty was restless. Yes, I remember now. I didn’t like that cat. I didn’t like the yellow pillow in the guest room either. I called my mom 6 or 7 times before she answered. The funerals were 1 or 2 days after. Why can’t I remember? I’m such a dumbass. I went shopping for funeral clothes at some point. I guess it was 2 days after. But it seemed quicker than that. I also got a haircut at some point but I think that was even before I knew. I mean, I already knew, but before I knew knew. Wait no. I spent the day right after with Karine. I pretended everything was ok. We even went out. We made a silly lip-sync video. So I was wrong, the funerals were 2 days after. I don’t remember how I got there. I don’t remember if it was my mom who picked me up or my aunt who drove me. They both attended. My brother was there too (half-brother, his dad is still alive, but of course he knew my dad well). My mom had separated from my dad a long time before. I have no memories of them together. But my memories are fading it seems, so what do I know. I was on autopilot for two weeks. My brain had trouble registering. I was numb. I didn’t cry much. I understood but didn’t feel. My mom cried, my aunt cried, everyone cried. Did I cry? I don’t remember. I was watching the movie of my dad’s funerals. I could only think of the fire. I was miles away, but I could see it so clearly in my mind. It was right there. I only had to go in and save my dad, but I didn’t. This scene was on endless replay for 2 weeks. That’s all I remember. All I remember is something that didn’t happen. Me not saving my dad, over and over again. Him dying endlessly. Me standing there watching his death. I remember plants. They were given to me afterwards. I still have them. I remember my mom’s tears on my shoulder. My aunt sniffling behind me. People looking at me. The fire. A lot of people looking at me. Some that I’ve never met, wishing me well. I don’t know you, wish well to your father who’s 82 and still alive, not to a stranger. I remember chairs. The fire. I remember not going to the washroom. I remember nothing of the following days. I also remember they didn’t let me be alone with my dad’s body. Those were the only words I said all week, “can I have 2 minutes alone with him?,” but they were denied. It’s the only thing I really wanted, but they refused. If only they let me, it would’ve been much easier. It would’ve been easier to cry. How could I react with so many people around me waiting for me to react. Dying to see my reaction. I remember some kind of priest saying stuff. My father didn’t believe in religion. Dumbasses, why have a priest at his funerals. I think the last time I saw my dad (not his corpse) was at his sister’s house. We drove there. It was kind of boring. I had a cheeseburger. He watched me sleep at some point. Or maybe that was the time before. I was half-aware, but I know he watched me sleep. I never watched him sleep. The closest I got to watching him sleep was in his coffin. He looked sleepy. He looked happy, happier than me. I wanted to join him. There was room for two. I’m not very big. I’m struggling to remember. We went on walks together and found crabs. He made me love crabs. He taught me how to grab them. But I don’t remember today. I forgot so many things. It hurts how much I’ve forgotten. The beautiful memories all gone. Only the feeling of loss that I will always remember. His death. Taking the whole space of my memories of him.All that’s left is his death.

Bildungsspiel: Pokémon and the Novel of Formation

Bildungsspiel: Pokémon and the Novel of Formation

            A young boy goes off traveling the world by himself, meets people that will change him forever, and comes back home wise, grown up, mature. If this sounds like the premise of Pokémon, it is also that of a whole literary genre, the Bildungsroman. And while the latter exudes respectability and artistic legitimacy, the Pokémon series is little more than a childish toy to most people’s eyes. I beg to differ, naturally. I will try raise a few parallels between the literary genre and the Pokémon video games, and see how the latter may even take it further.

            The Bildungsroman goes back to the end of eighteenth century, with Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. A few works of German literature then drew inspiration from the eponymous character’s epic quest of self-awakening and psychological growth, and later, it spread to the rest of Europe. In fact, it may well be responsible for the still popular coming-of-age story in books, movies, and TV shows. The premise of the Bildungsroman is often a decision made by the protagonist to leave and embark on a journey without a specific goal or end date, sometimes caused by a major rupture at home. In the case of Wilhelm’s Lehrjahre, he cannot stand the bourgeoisie anymore and he goes off to do what he truly wants: to be an artist (specifically: he joins a travelling theater troupe). While this is very clichéd today, the Bildungsroman is at the origin of certain of these tropes. In the sequel, his Wanderjahre, the travelling, the different spaces, become the central part of his journey. This is in fact reminiscent of the subsequent travel literature. Travelling as trigger of personal growth is nothing new.

            It is in this context that I feel like Pokémon inscribes itself perfectly into the Bildungsroman genre. The player becomes the protagonist who embarks on a long journey of growth and awakening. All Pokémon games put an emphasis on travelling from one city to the next, as the map shows, where the hero encounters a variety of mentor figures (mainly professors) and helpers (Pokémon centres, allies), as well as challenges — namely, gyms which serve to track the progress, the growth of the hero as a trainer, the core of his identity. Identity which relies on his or her ability to breed, train and utilize fictional pets. The protagonist/player is expected to learn as the game goes along, the same way that his or her Pokémon learn and grow alongside him or her. The Pokémon’s growth is made obvious by the leveling up system (an actual numeric representation of growth), by abilities that are learned (much like learning skills, mastering trades), and emphasized by evolutions (and in some cases, mega evolutions), where the Pokémon actually grows in size, age, strength, and gains a more mature look — like growing older. They sort of hit puberty, much like the protagonist himself/herself does. Both Pokémon and trainer hone their skills. These Pokémon are thus much more than pets: they mirror the protagonist/player’s growth. A symbiosis happens, which is all the more emphasized by the addition of mega evolutions in Pokémon X and Y, where the trainer and the pokémon reach a paroxysmal point of intense synergy, which triggers a hidden ultimate form in the Pokémon.

            So while cities and gyms are milestones and give tangible rewards for the player and his or her team’s growth, the heart of the games themselves is the in-between cities. That is to say, the various unnamed “routes” that link precise areas. The spaces in-between is where the growth happens: Pokémon are caught and fight here, the vast majority of the times. Much like in the Bildungsroman, the cities provide a space of interaction with others, but the character’s growth happens in the travelling itself, the act of leaving these cities and going elsewhere, wherever elsewhere is doesn’t matter so much. In fact, it is in these in-between spaces that the player has the most freedom, while cities offer more or less a checklist of things the player must do in order to move on once again. The player may choose to fight and catch as many Pokémon as he or she wishes, go back and forth indefinitely, and thus, gauging how much growth his Pokémon — and himself/herself — experience. Cities are where the growth is put to the test, and also a pause between travels where the Pokémon may rest and heal. Bildungsroman also portrays cities as tests of the hero’s mettle. It is where he or she encounters the Other in all its frightening glory, must interact with other human being who inevitably (often implicitly) challenge his or her morals, ethics, decision-making abilities, and wits, among other traits of personality.

            The transposition of the highly human(e) characters of the Bildungsroman onto fictional creatures in Pokémon is an interesting one. It allows for a less overt, more relatable, more playful way of emphasizing growth and important decision-making as part of maturing. In fact, Pokémon could be seen as a fairy-tale-like allegory of the Bildungsroman in video game format. Much unlike a great number of video games, the end goal is not focused upon by the narrative or the gameplay per se. While there is a high number of elements that track improvements (number of Pokémon caught, their levels, number of badges, number of opponents defeated, items found, money acquired, etc.), the ending of the game is never really the end. You do not ‘beat the game’ and never touch it again after you become the Pokémon champion, like the last page of a book. The end is when the player decides to stop playing, in which case the game itself is not finished, but the player has decided to stop his or her growth, which could practically be endless.

            This is indeed taking the Bildungsroman even further, as books as a medium do not allow the same endlessness as video games do. It is however interesting that Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister spans over two books, and ends with “to be continued” despite never having been continued. I interpret this as a certain future-oriented gesture at human growth which never truly ends. Wilhelm could keep growing until his death, and so the possibility of a sequel was always open (keep in mind this is way before the epoch of the Harry Potter and Twilight era, as well as the Marvel and DC era, where sequels and prequels and side stories keep coming up). It was, at the time, shocking that a novel would end like this.

            What makes the video-gaming appropriation of the Bildungsroman fascinating is the player involvement. I have discussed this at length in other entries so I shall not restate my points, but the mirroring of the player and the protagonist (who is himself or herself a mirror of his or her Pokémon) may create a certain infiltration of the game’s ethos into the player (who of course infiltrates the game clearly through the decisions he or she constantly makes). I would argue that the growth experienced by the protagonist through his travels and his Pokémon is simultaneously experienced by the player. Therein lies much of the nostalgic power of Pokémon: the generation of players that grew up with Pokémon feels very tied to the games which instilled the sense of growth present in the games into the players. The creatures, the protagonists, and the players all grew alongside each other, with each other, and caused each other to grow (the influence goes back and forth between all three poles).

            This becomes even more fascinating in the case of Pokémon GO, not only because it capitalizes on the nostalgia for the Bildungsromanesque growth its players experienced with the Pokémon games, but also because of its medium. In fact, being mobile (and thus following the player absolutely everywhere), this player/protagonist identification is taken to its extreme. The very space of the game becomes the player’s space, using an actual GPS-powered map tracking the player/protagonist’s movements, becoming his or her movements. Virtuality becomes a layer of the player’s physical space, merging with it, like the player and protagonist merge. The player becomes the hero of his or her own Bildungsroman, or Bildungsspiel (game of formation), as I amuse myself to call it.

Language Comparisons I

I would like to take a closer look at some expressions and words that I feel like are strikingly different in English and in French.

Life expectancy vs espérance de vie

So when we speak of a given population’s average life span, English uses the noun expectancy, and French uses the noun espérance, hope. That is to say, Anglophones expect to live to a certain age, while Francophones hope to live to a certain age. Expectations imply confidence, a given right. We demand to at least live that long. Hopes imply luck, a privilege. We would be ever so lucky to live that long. I’m wondering how high of an effect this linguistic difference has on actual perceptions of death. Are French speakers more likely to have a certain carpe diem approach to life, while English speakers would have a more pragmatic, future-oriented way of living, taking for granted their life expectancy? There is a huge difference between hoping for something to happen and expecting something to happen. I don’t wanna make unprovable assumptions, but this difference is fascinating and it must have at least a minor, unconscious effect on our way of thinking.

Domestic violence vs violence conjugale

I am interested in the idea of domesticity here. I find this concept quite odd to use in the context of relationship. This term is used so often in so many contexts. We domesticate pets. They belong to us, we tame them. We also use it in political contexts, where domestic means national, as opposed to international or beyond regional borders. It is the geopolitical entity under the rule of one major head of state (say, a queen, a president, a prime minister). Domestic violence is a civil war. It is among two people who are in a conflict, wanting to own and control the territory. They want to tame the other, to assert rule over the home. Conjugal on the other hand is more difficult to grasp. It is only an adjective implying 2 or more people, together (con-), and jugum meaning yoke. So, two people working together, pulling their weight equally. The concept of equality and justice is prevalent here, and makes the breaking of it through violence all the harsher. As well, we conjugate verbs, they become inflected by the Other, the person they are assigned to.What does this difference between English and French? I don’t know, but it’s huge, and problematic in both cases. But it also adds some richness to the conceptualization of these expressions, and there is poetic and healing value in exploring latent baggage of certain realities that we might be victims of.

Graphic vs graphique

Both the English and French forms of the adjective are used to refer to visuals, to images of sorts, but only the English use it to also mean something that is very vivid, with realistic details, often said of accidents or gory events. The fact that these two meanings are contained in one word is interesting. In English, a written description can be graphic. This means that English makes a certain equation of visuality with reality. Something with graphic qualities is something which is vivid and does not spare details. If it is shown visually, it is graphic in both senses. There might be a hidden connotation here: words hide while images reveal. Graphique, on the other hand, is purely a technical term that refers to visuals.

 

 

Instant Individualities on Social Media

davis-social-media-for-teachers-tips-01

              Social media has given us the truly wonderful tool of self-expression, but with it, an immediacy that makes depth and reflection impossible. Thinking takes time, but the internet culture does not allow it. As soon as an event happen, individuals turn into journalists, read an article or two on the matter, talk with a person or two, and give out their opinion right away, before the next hot topic. There is a constant need to be current in order to be relevant. And the internet compels us to participate, not to miss out. It makes us believe that our two cents are important.

            Most particularly, comment threads are simultaneous, “live,” while being delayed at the same time due to typing. Writing is the art of the thinker, who contextualizes, reflects, problematizes, introspects. Conversation is the art of the diplomat, who discusses, shares, listens, challenges, contributes, “extrospects.” I like German writer Kleist’s ideas in On the Gradual Production of Thoughts during Speech. In both the written and spoken word, in order to be productive and thoughtful, a great dose of empathy and calm is needed, or you fall into the trap of wanting to defend your opinion coûte que coûte, which is not productive whatsoever. Your pride is at stake. And this is often what happens in discussions over social media. It falls between the cracks of literature and conversation and between the cracks of temporality. It is neither for thinkers nor for diplomats.

                And with your name and picture next to everything you write/say, how can you not feel that your self is at stake in these discussions? Your markers of identity are omnipresent. Your individuality and subjectivity take the whole space (literally and figuratively). You are your opinion; your opinion is you. This is emphasized to the extreme by the tools for reacting, liking, and sharing. Fight to the death for your pride; what your text is defending comes second. And this is made extremely obvious by not only the content, but also the choice of words and sentence structures, which subtly or directly attack rather than reflect and discuss. I am responding to your opinion rather than adding my own to yours. I am responding to you, not discussing with you (conversation) or reflecting (literature). Therein lies the problem of instantaneous written words that are shared online. As well, because of its aforementioned features, social media culture compels one to share their opinion on any matter, in order to affirm one’s identity. I post my opinion therefore I exist. If one does not react (like, comment, share, etc.), then one does have an opinion, and one’s identity is erased. Your name and your picture are absent. Your picture and your name show first (as the picture is left, so what we read first in Western languages, and then the name, which is on top); only after (and last) the content of your post is read. And in a context where there is a massive amount of people and information, length and depth are discouraged, even explicitly so, through character limits. The immediacy, briefness, and prominence of markers of identity in social media posts hinder productivity and empathy on sensitive topics and texts of opinion.

LISA and Postmodernism in Video Games

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LISA and Postmodernism in Video Games

                Postmodernism, if reduced to three words, is defined by Jean-François Lyotard as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Not unlike poststructuralism, postmodern works have sought to deconstruct, delegitimize, put under scrutiny long-standing claims of truth by society – such as patriarchy, capitalism, and religion, for instance. Such master institutions, considered by many as natural to humanity and society, clearly become harmful social constructs, used to preserve a status quo which benefits the people at the top of said society, when put under a postmodern magnifying glass.

                Scholars and critics of postmodernism turn first and foremost to literature as an expression of this movement, whence much of its theory stems. Fewer critics have sought to highlight postmodernism in cinema. But only a handful have looked into postmodernism in gaming. Without pondering over the eternal yet outdated – can we move on? – debate of video games as art, their legitimacy in academia is very much just sprouting.

                The past five to ten years have seen an incredible rise in so-called indie games – games developed by a relatively small team (or even one single person), rather than by a huge corporate team of thousands. Without disregarding mainstream games, a free artistic approach is de facto much more prevalent in indie games, privileged over a consumerist or business-minded intent. Let us think of a few gems such as Braid, Fez, Bastion. Of course, as with anything, the line between indie and mainstream is (and should be) blurry, as highlighted for instance by mainstream-ish games such as Portal and Child of Light, both ascribing to a very much artistic approach. Or even games such as The Legend of Zelda, Silent Hill, and Mass Effect, which are sort of Gesamtkunstwerke in that their many pieces of art (the soundtrack, the storyline, the animations, the cinematics, etc.), already powerful separately, come together, creating one gigantic piece of art. In fact, I am absolutely not trying to raise a dichotomy between art and business, or between indie and mainstream, this would be quite ludicrous with the postmodern approach I am taking – let us remember: the postmodern ethos is to fight such normative boxes. Everything is and should be a spectrum, its own category which it creates through its existence. Lyotard wrote of the encouraged proliferation of “small narratives”; the destruction of globalizing, forceful, constraining boxes, in order to promote everyone’s individual story, the self-construction of their own identity, and their own willful association in small groups. I am not either trying to place artistry under the realm of indie games, and entertainment under that of mainstream gaming – again, such divisions are silly: good art is entertaining, and good entertainment often has artistic quality to it. However, the reason why the bringing up of the concept of indie gaming in this discussion is pertinent is because of freedom of expression. Rather than being the result of a huge team of developers, some of which have a full time job taking care of just a tiny aspect of one game, such as lighting, designing doors, voicing a character, or sound effects, indie games are the result of the vision of one single person or very few people (relatively speaking), who take charge of many aspects of one said game, their voices creating a choir. In so doing, they convey a vision through their game, a vision which doesn’t stem from a boss ordering employees what to do in a very top-down hierarchy inherent to a great number of harmful metanarratives. This is what makes some indie games relevant when discussing postmodernism, more so than mainstream ones. Not coincidentally, this is why I brought the corporate issue in mainstream games; money and its inherent power dynamics have not played the same role in the making of The Binding of Isaac and that of Call of Duty. They do not obey to the same market-driven driving forces. These economic power dynamics, which are central to the creation of some games, are tenets of capitalism and corporatism, which are naturalized by Western society, and which are sought to be deconstructed by postmodernism due to their latent harm and constraints.

                One major goal of postmodernists, as literary critics such as Linda Hutcheon, Barbara Havercroft, and Janet Paterson have advanced, is to destroy existing norms which limit identity-building in oppressive social institutions. This destruction can involve, for instance, an appropriation of these metanarratives in order to show their ridicule and lack of legitimacy (see Hutcheon), the repetition of these metanarratives with variations or disruptions (see Havercroft), the underlining of the harm perpetrated by them (see Paterson), among many other processes. A major postmodern writer is Angela Carter, who, for instance in Bloody Chamber, appropriates canonical characters from Baudelaire, and even the writer himself, rewrites their stories, and gives a voice to the voiceless characters. The perspective is turned around: main characters and heroes become weak and helpless, damsels in distress become heroes. Anne Garréta appropriates the timeless iconography of the Sphinx, major in Western culture and society, and challenges the equally timeless notion of gender. Her protagonist is neither (both?) male nor (and?) female, and so is the object of her/his/their desire, challenging the readers themselves who come to see gender as a riddle to be redefined, rethought over again. Another writer, Nicole Brossard, criticizes literature through the dismantled use of that medium, through the fragmentarity of her writing – the disruption of preconceived notions of time and space that have stuck to the literary institution seemingly forever, as embodied in all of its Western canons. Expectations must be shattered: they are instilled by an age-old institution which dictates what is and what is not literature – an institution, paradigm of society as a whole, which decides what and who has value, and what and who does not (as a writer or text in literature; as a person or identity in society).

                Can some of these postmodern tools of deconstruction be found in video games as well? This is what I attempt to see. There are games which contribute to redefining what is a game. There are games which do look away from what has been done and is being done; persons or teams developing their very own game in their very own language. There are also games which point toward or outright appropriate elements of past games, turning them around completely. There are games which satirize, parody socio-cultural elements. There are games that openly exhibit a strong critical and political component. And so on. I do not attempt to survey all postmodern aspects of games but rather create, through postmodernism, a tiny fissure in the shell of video gaming that has preserved it from much academic, theoretical, and philosophical discourse.

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                The main game that interests me is LISA. In fact, this is the game that inspired this discussion in the first place. The premise is set in a post-apocalyptic society reminiscent of a decadent, desperate, destructed Western society. This type of setting isn’t unusual for postmodern works. This is the setting in which men (solely men) interact in a gruesome manner. They are constantly drunk, depressed, obese, wounded, monster-like, wage war against each other, exchange “magazines” and weapons. They are constantly on the verge of death. The art has a grotesque quality to it which becomes the norm for all characters in the game – the player does not cringe at the sight of Queen Roger, a transvestite pimp; of Carp, a half-fish half-man; of Birdie, a drunkard; of Fardy, a shirtless, obese, depressed truck driver. These characters in fact join your party, come to be controlled by the player, are heroes essential to the player’s success. A new norm is created for the game’s universe, one which is very far from what the player is used to in the usual RPG virtual world – he or she does not control black mages, paladins, and archers, as (stereo)typical of RPGs, but rather, grotesque versions of people in his or her real world, confronting him or her with distorted versions of his or her reality, or ones that are completely nonsensical (such as Geese, a goose who speaks in rhymes). LISA is a parody of RPGs. It actually brings up actual elements of society and turns them around, for instance when a non-player character dramatically says “I like big butts… They cannot lie…”reminding us of a popular song, but imposing it a new context completely, or when there is a retake on the Power Rangers with the Salvation Rangers.

More emphatically, one area of the game consists of a village of worshippers of a fast food God. There are “W” signs made of fries (the inverted “M” sign of McDonalds), characters that are obese and starving, and that pray to an intercom as in a drive through, begging for food. The particular scene involves a child asking for food. Then, magically, a meal falls from the sky. Just past this intercom are two bodyguards that refuse access to everyone, safeguarding the “God,” who is in fact Wally, a suicidal, twisted mascot whose intestines are all over the place.

McDonalds is the prime example of a multinational capitalist and harmful corporation that deals in something as basic as food and that is anchored in most of the world, incorporated in and naturalized by many societies. LISA expresses an all-too-clear criticism of the restaurant, depicting it as a false God who slowly destroys an entire population that reveres it. The way the criticism is constructed as well as the object of critique are very postmodern: through clear and poignant appropriations and deconstructions, LISA destroys a metanarrative’s legitimacy, emphasizes the harm it perpetrates, and turns it into its paroxysmal caricature, parodying it.

                The protagonist himself is always on the line between hero and anti-hero, never quite one or the other, and the storyline forces the player to make difficult ethical decisions. The prime example is when the player must choose to let the protagonist get his arm cut off or let a party member die permanently.

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This brings forth the fascinating issue of morality vis-à-vis success. In fact, the player must not only make a choice accordingly to his or her own morality and conscience, but also in terms of gaming logic. Being the protagonist and a fist-fighter, losing an arm is a very heavy drawback that decreases the player’s rate of success highly in all future fights, while party members are quite numerous and somewhat dispensable – though the disadvantage of losing one must not be neglected, particularly if said member happens to be one which the player has fought much with, and thus is strong, has good items, and has leveled up. So, on the one hand, the player must weigh the pros and cons of both the moral and gaming elements of various decisions, but also weigh morality and gaming logic themselves. This process, whether conscious (actually measuring pros and cons) or subconscious (following one’s gut instinct and desire), is one which engages the player himself or herself with the game and with himself or herself. The reflection is not merely one which happens fictionally in order to complete a game, but happens in the player’s actual reality, bringing forth questions of morality. At one point, the game even forces the player to play Russian roulette with a party member of his choice (and eventually more), again killing them permanently, pushing this engagement with the game and with morality even further.

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I personally couldn’t bring myself to kill some of the characters I like, namely Terry and Geese, simply because I like them and want to see them develop further, despite them being rather weak. Though I couldn’t quite bring myself to kill some of the stronger characters either, which I deem crucial to my succeeding the game, despite me finding them bland or boring. In The Art of Failing, Juul debunks the idea of games as purely fictional, as creating their own distinct world away from reality, highlighting the engagement of the player with the game, his or her need to succeed (the phrase “it’s just a game” is just a way to cope with failure). This blurring of the line between reality and fiction, between self and the Other, between the virtual and the actual, is quite postmodern. LISA is constantly engaging the player in its virtual world, while also using his or her own actual world morality, and emphasizing his or her agency through the presentation of difficult, heavy choices. The game is more than just a game. It opens a rift between reality and virtuality – though all games do, LISA does so in a particularly engaging manner, involving both logic and emotions.

                The game opens with a flashback – one which the player controls – of Brad’s, the protagonist, childhood. A traumatic one, to say the least. Throughout the game, the present timeline is disrupted with various flashbacks of his abusive father, his bullies, and his finding of a little girl. In fact, memories seem to mesh with not only the present but also with Brad’s imagination. At the beginning, for instance, exiting a room randomly triggers Brad’s father’s apparition, holding the baby girl that Brad found and leaving it on the ground, until the player, as Brad, goes to her and picks her up, taking us back into the present. And so, three timelines are intertwined and made to interact, in a postmodern moment which is actually the protagonist’s imagination as the timelines do not cross per se in reality. They are, however, Brad’s reality as he experiences it – his traumatic experiences follow him in the present and taint his reality. And not only are they Brad’s reality, they are also the player’s reality, since he or she controls Brad even while he is imagining. It is also interesting that LISA challenges notions of first and third person in gaming. Though the player controls Brad in the third person, he or she sees through Brad’s eyes. His hallucinations become the player’s hallucinations, for instance when Brad is high on “Joy” (the infamous drug in LISA, which I could also go on about) and the player controls Brad walking in a discoloured world of blood, and also when the player sees the numerous appearances of Brad’s daughter hung, which has never happened but is only Brad’s fear, scattered through the game.

His imagination, his trauma, and his fears materialize in tangible manner in his world and in the player’s. The unusual way in which third and first person perspectives mesh in the game pose a challenge to these very clearly defined notions in gaming. These postmodern techniques of breaking away from the mold provide real, meaningful insight into the protagonist’s mind, who is obsessed with finding his adopted daughter (the purpose of the game) and his own tormented childhood, of which his father is the embodiment. Finding his daughter is an act of agency, Brad reclaims his past through fatherhood. The baby’s gender is of course central to the narrative, as she is seemingly the only woman left. Brad’s goal is to protect her no matter what, against all of society (or what is left of it) – even against her will? Even if it means the end of humanity? And so, Brad is a hero from one standpoint, but completely evil from another.

LISA plays on this blurry line, and ultimately puts the player in a position to judge himself or herself the hero. He or she must use his or her own judgment, without the game imposing its own morality, which is very postmodern. The concepts of right and wrong are, after all, informed by metanarratives such as religion which have come to be naturalized by society and imposed as norms. Both LISA and postmodernism (attempt to) break free from these, making the reader/player hyperaware of his or her own morality that is being involved in the narrative. The game forces an informed introspection and reevaluation of one’s own values.

                Postmodernism in video games does appear to me as a valid and legitimate field of inquiry, one which may contribute to postmodernism as a movement. Video games are a medium which offer a relatively new and very powerful sense of agency, if only through the direct control of characters, and so, they can become great postmodern tools of deconstruction, as individual agency is so central to postmodern philosophy. The game developer(s) and the player become conarrators of a narrative whose control is ultimately shared by both of them. And in fact, many games, particularly indie ones, depict such an agency as completely separate from metanarratives and in reaction to oppressive institutions – not only in the narratives that are recounted, but also on a variety of levels in the making of the game which offer a stark contrast with what is the norm in the video game industry. Considering video games as postmodern also builds a bridge between the said industry and other art forms, giving it credibility, depth, and weight. It also imbues it with an additional well-grounded layer of legitimacy in terms of carrying social and political critiques. Indie games in particular highlight the subversive potential of video games, coming from a position of relative artistic and economic freedom, thus not obeying to direct orders and constraints.

 

It should’ve been me

It should’ve been me

 

It should’ve been me

dancing in the club

feeling out of place

observing and imitating

having fun nonetheless

getting drunk to become like them

wanting to go home but still dancing my heart out

because of my friends

that I love, so much

 

It should’ve been me looking over

glancing at the cute boys

trying to catch the eyes

of one of them looking at me

then looking down and blushing

putting on a dumb performance

and deep down pray that it works

 

It should’ve been me in Orlando

hearing panic over the loud music

gathering my friends like a shepherd

holding hands and hiding

wanting to be a hero but not wanting to die

calling my mom to tell her I love her

running through a million escape ideas

but ultimately doing nothing

 

It should’ve been me waiting

for the coin to flip

heads you die tails you live

but you don’t want to live

nor do you want to die

you want everything to be over

not just the shooting

but everything after

you want the aftermath to be over

before you even know if you’ll get to see it

 

It should’ve been me avoiding bullets

yet wanting to be shot so bad

to run up to him, grab his gun, and shoot yourself

and hopefully your brains splatter on his eyes

and everyone runs away

except they don’t want to

stuck between the death drive and the survival instinct

frozen by their marriage

forever frozen inside

no matter the outcome

It should’ve been me in there

It should’ve been me