- Play This: Bad Paper
- Art and Identification
- Back to discussing games
This semester I’ll be asking you to use twitter. This is for professional development and civic development. Today we will create accounts, and I’ll ask you to send out a couple of tweets. Using the course hashtag.
Tolstoy, Isocrates, Ethos, and Identification
For our last class, I asked you to read excerpts from Tolstoy’s 1896 essay “What is art?” The excerpted version is broken into aphorisms, or a series of short concise statements. I want to focus a bit of attention on the opening aphorism:
In order correctly to define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life. Viewing it in this way we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man.
In our discussion of Aristotle, I suggested that art, and even a theory of art, is a response to problems. These can be universal problems–problems that every human, every where, at every time, faces. Or they can be particular problems–problems that arise at a particular time for particular reasons (often they are a mix of both–it isn’t necessarily an either or). For instance, the game we played at the beginning of class is clearly a response to what many have terms America’s culture of debt. But, thinking universally, we could say that it is a commentary on poverty and helplessness. And, if we are thinking Romantically (in Tolstoy’s words, if we are interested in the transfer of feelings), then the game attempts to recreate that feeling of hopelessness by locking you into a series of “can’t win” choices.
Back to Tolstoy: what does it mean if we argue that “a condition of human life is intercourse between [hu]man and [hu]man?”
Identification, Nationalism, and Art
I want to twist Tolstoy a bit away from his Romantic interest in the recreation of emotion to focus on his interest in uniting human beings. I am thinking particularly of his conclusion that:
Note that this Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity. (emphasis added)
And Tolstoy clarifies what might happen if art did not effect this union:
And if men lacked this other capacity of being infected by art, people might be almost more savage still, and, above all, more separated from, and more hostile to, one another
Thus, art contributes to our unification, our identification with each other, our sense of community and nationality. Art is the glue that commits us to write and maintain Rousseau’s social contract.
This theory of the social contract, and the idea of art as what unifies a group of individual savages into a civil “we” traces back Ancient Greece–specifically, to the rhetorician Isocrates (not to be confused with Plato’s teach Socrates–Isocrates was actually their rival). In his long mockery of Plato’s Apology, Isocrates argues for the cultivation of paideia, or for an education dedicated to producing the Ideal Greek citizen. For Isocrates, to be Greek wasn’t a matter of race, religion, or birth. Rather, it was a matter of “culture”–of accepting a particular set of values, of having the proper upbringing, of attaining a measure of class. Isocrates’s place in history is often debated–is he a progressive offering a democratic education? Or an elitist, conservative, reactionary prioritizing privilege and exclusion? This is not an easy question to answer–but his writing asks us to think about the political dimensions of art and education.
Regardless of how we answer that question, we can draw from Isocrates’s the idea that art cultivates ethos, one of the three primary rhetorical appeals. Let me explain: according to ancient Greek sophists and Aristotle, for a person to be persuasive, her speech needs to balance three dimensions (or appeals): logos, ethos, and pathos. Different occasions call for different appeals–one should probably not be too logical in a eulogy.
Quick test (all stats made up):
- Don’t you realize people who smoke are 340% more likely to contract lung cancer?
- Don’t you remember that Dr. Robinson emphatically argued that smoking is hazardous to your health?
- Don’t you realize 9 out of 10 doctors condemn smoking?
- Don’t you realize that if you keep smoking you’ll never meet your grandchildren?
- Don’t you realize that LeBron James couldn’t play basketball if he smoked?
- Don’t you realize what you could do with that 6 dollars a day if you weren’t smoking?
While we often use ethos to mean “credibility,” this is a pretty impoverished sense of the word. Yes, ethos is often an indication of whether we are willing to accept someone’s ideas, and thus whether we consider them credible. But it is also more complicated, since we will often only accept their ideas after they have proven that they are “one of us,” after their speech has exhibited the culture markers that indicate they are a member of “our” community (and not one of “them”).
Ah, the “them.” The dark underside of paideia, ethos, and identification. As a number of theorists have argued (including Kenneth Burke, Edward Said [pronounced SI-EED], Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler), the “we” inevitably defines itself in contra-distinction to a “they.” The “they” often takes on villainous tones. “They” are the barbarians that threaten Isocrates’s Athens, barbarians who would storm the gates. Or, as Burke argued, wherever we find union, a bringing together, we will also find division. Or, as Derrida argued, every act of definition will necessarily exclude and marginalize (here I would highlight, in Derridean fashion, how terminate and determine share the same root, “term,” from the Latin “terminus,” which means “end,” “bound,” or “limit”). In the most blunt terms, Burke and Derrida would ask us how we determine who to terminate (and to encourage us to adopt more inclusive ways of identification that resist limits, or at least seek to expand them).
I have strayed quite far today from our purpose: what is art? Let me return to the question, to Tolstoy’s interest in unity, and to Burke et al’s caution toward the inevitable violence of division.
Great art, I propose, is art that shakes our identifications and points to the ways in which those identifications exclude. Simple art does the opposite and reinforces a narrow or established idea of what it means to be an American. Prime example: Frederick Douglas’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Both of these works expose us to the kinds of discrimination buried in our term citizen or American. They also work via pathos and empathy, asking us to stand in an/other’s shoes. A more contemporary example might be the now almost forgotten action film The Peacemaker, a film that has almost completely disappeared after 9/11. Or, I would argue, disappeared because of 9/11. Why? Because the film problematizes our traditional identifications of terms like “American,” “Patriot,” and, most importantly, “terrorist.” It is a film that works hard to make you identify with the terrorists, not to condone their violence, but rather to sympathize with their motives (and, as a great piece of art, it even problematizes this sympathy by demonstrating that “terrorists” aren’t some homogenous group, but themselves a group of heterogenous people each with their own motives and investments). After 9/11 I would argue that the audience for such a film is very small.
So, here’s what to think about and write in your game journal today: what identities exist in your game? Races? Genders? Nationalities? How are they portrayed? Are they complicated and heterogenous, or simple and homogenous? What kind of “us” does the game create? And what kind of “them” does it pit “us” against? Are “we” the GOOD GUYZ and “them” the BAD GUYZ? Or is it more complicated? How do you describe that complicated?
Super short re-cap: does this game try to make you feel uncomfortable? About what?
Talking About Games
We’ve got to nail down what games people are playing for the first project.
- Read the two short Dali pieces I distributed in class, “The Moral Position of Surrealism” and “Reality and Surreality”
- Play the heck out of your game! Write about it in your journal!
At this point, I want you to invest as much time in playing your game as you can. For every hour you play, put time into the gaming journal, addressing the questions we have touched upon thus far. You should copy and paste these questions into the gaming journal and answer any that are relevant:
- What is this game identifying as the “problem” of being human?
- Who does this game think I am?
- Where/when is the setting of this game? Is the setting important?
- What emotions does this game engender?
- What questions does this game want to ask?
- What beautiful images does this game present?
- What music does this game use?