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Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category

Yesterday the Oscar nomination were announced; to no surprise, Heath Ledger has a spot on the list of Best Supporting Actors (and will certainly win) for his performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight; to much outcry, The Dark Knight failed to recieve any other major nominations, such as Best Director or even Best Picture. I don’t care, really. As much as I love it, I don’t think it deserves Best Picture (though admittedly I haven’t seen any of the actual nominees this year, to my failure). But the hullabaloo got me thinking about the film again, and why it’s so problematic to me. Because as I addressed in my original essay on the film–the first piece written for this site–I have a lot of issues with The Dark Knight. I already explained what I think is wrong with it, with regards to the ethical position presented by the narrative; now I’d like to expand on that, a bit, but more importantly, explain how to do it right.

The Dark Knight is a film about the myth of the Hero. A cursory view might say that it is a film deconstructing the Hero: it emphasizes, after all, that Batman/Bruce Wayne is not a hero, and this is true, depending on how we define “hero”. The film seems to mean the popular sense of an individual who acts ethically to eliminate injustice and preserve society’s righteousness. I’m not going to dispute that definition too much; in fact, I want to look much closer at several parts of it and what they mean, and how they impact the status of Batman as a Hero.

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Thesis (WIP)

Free (decentralized, node-based) global networking means that small-scale (individualized) groups can harness both the intrinsic mobility and speed of innovation of small-scale groups and the intrinsic efficiency of action of large-scale (heirarchal) structures. Large-scale structures, however, are not similarly benefited. Therefore, as long as free global networking exists, the paradigm will continue to shift towards small-scale groups producing larger and larger power shifts while large-scale structures are more and more outmatched and antiquated; and because small-scale groups are of course more numerous and reactive than large-scale structures, power shifts will become more and more common, greatly increasing the dynamism and fluctuations of social and political systems (among others). Small-scale, rapidly reproducible but highly localized (individualized, decentralized) resiliency systems will become the only sustainable method of stability.

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Merlin’s Principle

A short note today. This isn’t anything new for those who know me, but it’s an important foundation of what I believe, so I figured it should be up here, especially for some pieces I want to write in the future.

Major Premise: All rational/logical structures/systems can be fundamentally represented mathematically.

Minor Premise: Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which collectively demonstrate that a mathematical system cannot be both consistent and complete (i.e., contain irreconcilable contradictions and/or errors).

Conclusion: All rational/logical structures/systems contain irreconcilable contradictions and/or errors.

Facile, perhaps. But the point is this: never forget that rationality, logic, structures, systems, order, et. al., are not ends to themselves. They are useful but dishonest; they are an attempt to bound, limit, define what is fundamentally unboundable, limitless, indefinable: physical reality and the human experience of it.

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A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. (Robert A. Heinlein)

Who are the pinnacle of modern Western society? Our political leaders, variously despised and mistrusted? Our philosophers, who don’t exist in the minds of a majority? Our artists, ignored if they don’t produce carefully constructed entertainment to numb the pain of living our lives of quiet desperation? I think a strong argument could be made that the pinnacle of modern Western society, from the view of modern Western society itself, in terms of those paid the most and getting the most media coverage (easily argued, I think, to be the two primary definitions of status for modern Western society), are professional sports players. (“Most of them don’t make that much and aren’t known”, yeah, yeah. Same goes for all the other aforementioned categories, and everything in general.)

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Narrative space

I’m a storyteller. I see the world in stories. That’s not saying much, because this is true of everyone. What is a story, after all? It’s an organization of reality, an illusionary order imposed by our brains to make sense of the fundamentally nonsensical universe. So why say I’m a storyteller? Because it means something else to most people, and the difference between that meaning and my meaning is what I want to talk about. For those with some knowledge of narrative theory this won’t be anything new or interesting, except maybe the stuff about video games and D&D later.

When most people think “story”, they think a book, or a movie, or whatever. Words, images, a sequence of events experienced by and actions taken by characters, fictional or non. For most people, a story is a distinct entity, separate from them, that they may borrow for a time but that remains outside of them. If a story is in a forest and no one’s around to read it, is it still a story? Most people say yes. The answer is no.

Well, not necessarily, because “story” is just a word and it means whatever you want it to mean, whatever meaning you endow it with, but there are other words for that sort of thing. “Text”, usually: if a text is in a forest and no one’s around to read it, is it still a text? Yes. (Well, actually, I would say no, because I think that all that really exists is the relationships between things and that the idea of “things” is just another false order constructed by our brains to make sense of nonsense, and so something without any relation to anything else doesn’t exist, but that’s for another time.) Unless you mean something else. But using a different word isn’t the problem; the problem is that people don’t accept that anything exists besides text. That, whatever you want to call it, there is something more than text.

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This post is something of a sequel to this one.

I’m halfway through season two of The Wire (just finished “All Prologue”) and I’ve got some more thoughts on it and David Simon’s other HBO production, Generation Kill (thoughts which of course apply to television and to some extent narratives in general as well).

What strikes me now, especially after getting into Generation Kill, is that the problem I attempted to describe previously already has a perfect title, albeit one not widely used: the “tragedy of verisimilitude”. Coined, as far as I know, by Battlestar Galactica‘s James Callis in a “roundtable” podcast of several of the show’s actors and crew (a fascinating, albeit very long, discussion, you can get download it from SciFi’s Battlestar site, which unfortunately prevents more direct linking), he lamented that Battlestar‘s oft-praised dedication to realism (or more accurately verisimilitude) was occasionally a burden, when the principles of physical reality (or the expectations of the audience) made simple stories needlessly complex (or worse, made them impossible to convey believably).

While the problem occasionally rises on Battlestar, it’s much more prevalent on the much more grounded Wire and, in a twisted, more acceptable fashion due to its semi-nonfictional nature, Generation Kill. The second season of The Wire begins with the main characters of the first season, who were pulled from various disparate police units to serve on a special detail, scattered into the wind. McNulty is working the boat; Freamon is in Homicide; Kima has a desk job; Daniels is in the basement; etc. The first episode juggles the ongoing fates of these characters while continuing the story of Avon Barksdale’s similarly scattered drug crew and introducing an entirely new set of characters at the Baltimore docks (not to mention beginning a plot, although that’s clearly, as always on The Wire, a secondary priority). It’s a clusterfuck of too many characters, too much to carry, and yet it works in a twisted way, because this is what happens. People move on, with their jobs and with their lives, and the attempt to follow that, rather than unrealistically but more simply keep them together, or bring them back together on another detail for a new case.

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Having finished the first season of The Wire (and the first episode of season two), I think I’ve figured out what my problem with it is: I’m not engaged by the characters. I don’t mean to say that I don’t like The Wire; I think it is brilliant, and great, and powerful, but so far it isn’t the best show on television to me, because I don’t love it. That sounds cheesy and it’s about to get worse. There’s no beauty in The Wire (for me). I am cognizant of the quality of what I’m watching, but I don’t care.

As a writer I’m a character guy. My first priority in a story is always making the characters true and real; while of course I think about themes and motifs and structure and mechanics and what have you, if it undercuts the characters, it goes. On The Wire, I can’t help but feel that the characters are working for the story and not the other way around. A part of it is likely simply that the characters are for the most part quite pedestrian–McNulty, setting aside the quality of the series and simply looking at the substance of his character, is a character I’ve seen a thousand times before in nearly every cop show ever: self-righteous, arrogant, intelligent, divorced, battling with his wife for custody, fucking another woman. This is more-or-less the sum total of his character at the end of season one. There’s nothing interesting here. And the same goes for almost all of the characters. (I find Stringer Bell fascinating, but that may just be me.)

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