Last wisdom tooth

On Thursday night part of my last wisdom tooth (the remaining upper one – I never had lower ones) cracked. I went to the local dentistry school on Friday to see if they wouldn’t pull the damn thing for cheap. Part of being a graduate student is not having health insurance, so I tend to let these meddlesome medical matters slide for years. But this tooth has always been a problem – it never fully erupted like the one on the right, and it is way, way back in my jaw. It was time for us to part ways.

I was delegated to undergraduates for extraction. Two of them went to work; after about ten minutes, though, they loosened but could not remove it, from lack of leverage or whatnot. Five minutes later, their supervisor, an old veteran, took over, and it felt like he was going to pull my skull out through my mouth and my face was going to be left in the chair like some kind of deflated Halloween mask. But he got it. I think it was mostly perseverance, like how you beat a particularly tough pickle jar.

The pain meds were fun for awhile but I wouldn’t take them again without eating a reasonable meal. By Saturday I was ejecting anything that I ate. H very thoughtfully watched over my dizzy-headed self until I felt human again.

I have read quite a few books but I am behind on summaries again. More to come.

Super Columbine Massacre

My post on VT got me thinking about Super Columbine Massacre RPG, which I remember seeing on Dennis Jerz’s blog some time ago, but I never got around to playing it.

There is an unwritten rule in the gaming universe – a rule that doesn’t always fly in literature – that you can only comment on a game you’ve played. Furthermore, you can only REALLY comment on it if you’ve finished it. So I did both. Didn’t take long.

A fellow named Danny Ledonne wrote the game using RPG Maker. In a nutshell, it’s a commentary on the Columbine shootings in the form of an old-school RPG of roughly 16-bit Super Nintendo vintage.

You play as Eric and Dylan, starting as they get up on the morning of the shootings, and ending (or so it seems) with their deaths. You go through the school, shooting students via traditional turn-based combat (and in this game it is quite possible to shoot and kill everyone in the school, as I did) before the duo, grown bored with their rampage, blow their brains out in the library.

Careful attention to your surroundings will glean details and occasional flashbacks to their lives before the shootings – a night spent blowing up garbage cans behind the pizzeria they worked at, a failed romance, getting beat up in the locker room, daydreams of living on a Darwinistic island, etc.

After their deaths there is a montage of shocked reaction shots from students and police, as well as a chronological progression of kid-photographs of both shooters.

And then Dylan and Eric (or Vodka and Reb, as they more often call each other) go to hell. Hell is just another game level, of course, populated mostly by monsters from the original Doom, a game they were both overly fond of. Getting through Hell is ironically easier, in terms of game logic, if you killed all the students in the school, as this allows Dylan and Eric to be at a higher level and deal out more damage.

Hell is a little tedious, but eventually, after some strange encounters with famous people (my favorite was Nietzsche, although John Lennon, with his piano set up next to a flaming lake, singing “Imagine,” is a close second) you reach Satan. The Prince of Darkness appears as he does on South Park, and after a brief fight, he commends the pair for kicking some serious ass – at which point, everyone settles in to wait for the end of the world.

My summary may seem a bit flippant, but that’s about the size of things. The game works – and I would recommend it – because it occupies a space that usually isn’t occupied. We don’t think of games as actually containing reality. It’s sort of like when my students see me in the grocery store and realize for the first time that I exist outside of the college. In Reb and Vodka’s world, seen through the lens of a SNES RPG, the students they shot didn’t exist outside of school, either. They were just targets – and targets that fit into neat categories – Church Girl (can pray and heal hitpoints), Janitor, Math Teacher, Jock Type (more hitpoints), Preppy Boy, etc.

As I was grinding my way through Columbine’s halls, I realized that the early part of the game is designed to create the kind of listless boredom that the pair eventually experienced – they started to skip classrooms and let people live, and just shot things randomly and aimlessly. Once you’ve shot up a classroom or two, you’ve done them all, I suppose. And their Hell is the very definition of aimless combat – a maze that leads nowhere, filled with incredibly annoying monsters that spawn again and again.

A knee-jerk response to this game would be, well, they got this reality-defying mindset from playing games. But that would miss the point (and ignore that they themselves denied any such connection).

RPGs like this one have very well-established conventions that everyone simultaniously recognizes and ignores: When you touch someone you either talk or fight them to the death, your characters advance in levels that make them deal more damage and take less with each level, physical injuries are measured quantitatively and can be healed more or less instantly, you are expected to progress through clearly delineated areas in a predetermined pattern (being ‘on rails’), exploring every nook and cranny is rewarding, etc, etc.

Generally when we play an RPG, these conventions are waved aside. But the reality of the Columbine shootings, the sheer evil and horror of them, force attention to these rules, which are dehumanizing and insane if taken at face value.

But no one does take them at face value, of course. Assumption of their inaneness is a given. The vast majority of gamers know life is not a Doom level – these conventions are merely simplifications and abstractions that streamline very complex actions for smoother gameplay. We know when someone is shot in the head that they do not lose 20 hitpoints. Games are not an excuse for Eric and Dylan’s skewed worldview, but rather a useful metaphor that allows us to jump into their heads for awhile.

One thing that kept striking me while playing is that Dylan and Eric, despite being younger, seem much more self-aware than what we’ve learned about Cho. Most of the dialogue in the game is taken verbatim from their writings, recordings, and police reports, and I buy the entire package as a legitimate and thoughtful glimpse into their pseudo-nihilistic mindset at the time of the attacks. Perhaps this ability to reflect comes from having a sounding board in each other, whereas Cho was a loner. The result was the same pointless carnage, of course. But it does convince me that they knew what they were doing was wrong in every possible, concievable sense of the word. Perhaps that makes them all the more evil, and truly worthy of hell, if it exists, despite their lower body count.

I think of SCMRPG, as I stated earlier, as a piece of commentary in the form of a game – much as a political cartoon conceals thought under the artifice of wacky characters. It is not primarily a game. It is not designed for fun. It is designed to make you think, just as most thoughtful essays try to do. As games are not usually designed for commentary, it occupies a new space in the panoply of genres.

I particularly like how it subverts the usual aim of a RPG – instead of providing escapism, it makes virtual escape impossible, as I realized very quickly early on that everything I was doing in the first half was a dramatization of one of the worst school shootings in America. Except, of course, I managed to kill nearly everyone, with the expectation that I was pretty sure it would unlock a new area.

Reflections on VT

I’ve had a few days to think about Virginia Tech. I’ve thought off and on whether or not it would be a good idea to say anything. So many people, so many comments and opinions online already – what can I hope to add?

When I first heard the news, I thought of two things.

One, how horrible it would be to get trapped in Patterson Hall here at the University of Memphis with a shooter going on a rampage. All the classrooms have one door and the windows are not only permanently sealed, but pretty damn thick – I’m not sure someone throwing a metal desk chair would be able to break through one in a pinch. Also, the jump from the 3rd and 4th floors is onto concrete because of the decorative walkway on the 2nd floor. Now the doors are heavy, but Cho apparently forced his way in some doors and shot through others at VT.

Two, I thought of Columbine. And in particular, the Onion’s take on Columbine, which said something at the time that needed to be said more. There are a multitude of factors in these kind of incidents – mental health being the predominant one in this fellow’s case, it seems – but the first cause I always think of is bullying.

I was bullied in middle and high school a reasonable amount. Not as much as others, but more than many. As a result, I don’t look at grades 6-12 as a happy time, not at all. Being a social outcast with no immediate means of changing your situation does strange things to the mind – I wouldn’t say I was crazy, but I was unstable. College was a relief – no one has the time to pester you – and it wasn’t until I was some time into my 20’s, I think, that my self-esteem approached something resembling normal.

Could I have killed someone? I doubt it. I didn’t feel the urge to kill. Hurt, yes, definitely – specific people, most of which have faded from memory, some that still linger. But still nothing beyond a schoolyard thrashing of black eyes and bloody noses, and certainly not random, innocent people.

Accounts of Cho as a small kid indicate he was unnaturally quiet. That was the word everyone used for me – quiet. I still get it that word sometimes, even today, and it retains some sting.

Quiet for me is something that happened around 6th grade – it was a defense mechanism I devised to get through every school day. Being quiet attracted the least attention. In high school I never ate in the cafeteria – I instead found an empty classroom or one of a dozen obscure nooks in various buildings. I almost never spoke up in class. I hate being called quiet to this day because it tells the back of my brain to shut down before it gets a chance to fire up – it reinforces the old pattern.

It was teaching that finally fixed it for me. You have to talk to teach, and repeat yourself almost endlessly. I am a different person as a teacher, sort of like that surgeon with Tourette’s in Oliver Sack’s last book, whose hands calm down for operations.

But I still have that old skill in the back of my head, and sometimes I shut down in a large mixed group out of misguided self-preservation. It’s curious how hard it is to get started up again once I’ve shut down, so to speak. If you’re following the metaphors, I think of my brain as a boiler. It takes time to get up to steam, and the supply of wood is limited – though it is much expanded these days, and I can manage rather lengthy social occasions now.

Cho seems to have built a permanent turtle shell that protected him but locked him inside at the same time. In all the accounts I’ve read he is impenetrable, offering only a few glimpses of a strange fantasy-world. In that world, apparently, it was ok to kill a score or two of innocent people to account for a life spent in solitude.

Where college allowed me to start to open up, it shut him down even further. I’ve been reading a lot of VT teacher’s accounts, and they are full of self-blame. This is natural, I suppose, but I don’t think anyone could have helped this kid save himself. Whatever chemicals danced through his brain, we still live in a world based on free will (whether we have it or not) and thus he bears sole responsiblity for his actions.

He could have committed himself. You can’t grow up in Western society without acquiring at least a rudimentary sense of right and wrong unless you are a full-blown psychotic. There is no sane social system that allows the wanton slaughter of innocents – or the guilty, for that matter – a state of affairs that makes the war in Iraq the blight that it is.

The Columbine kids and Cho both came to the conclusion that the world is insane – that Western society is a lie, that there is more pain and mental anguish in the world than happiness and goodness – and that they were powerless in this bizarre experiment called life. Alas, the only idea they could come up with was a protest through mass carnage and self-martyrdom for themselves – the same kind of desperation with existence that fuels suicide-bombers.

I remember when Marilyn Manson was asked, in Bowling for Columbine, what he would say to the Columbine kids, and he replied, “I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.” Terrible documentary, but I recall thinking it was a rather insightful remark at the time.

In light of Cho, though, that remark seems naive. Unlike the Columbine shooters, he had access to the unlimited wonders of college, and he was free of the social crucible of high school. He could have used all that fury for good and accepted some of the attempts to reach out to him. Colleges offer free counseling. The support system to catch him was there.

Instead, he killed 32 people.

Frankly, I really don’t want to know what he had to say. I’ve heard it before. Been there, done that. I already know life is nasty, brutish, and short, that the world is not ideal, and most of my students and people and general will never be as open-minded as I’d like them to be. The rational approach is to hate the damn system, as Lt. Callahan would say, but work within it and promote change.

Not to kill a 76-year-old survivor of the Holocaust for kicks. Cho didn’t show us the world is insane. History tells us that. He showed us that he was insane.

Hot Fuzz

In academia, one argues politely and constructively. In the realm of movies, however, I feel no such civilized restriction. So I can safely say this reviewer of Hot Fuzz is an idiot – and not only an idiot, but an ignorant idiot. Reviewing movies is one of the easiest jobs in the world. It’s almost impossible to screw it up. But he did.

Shaun of the Dead is really the only movie in the last ten years that I found completely refreshing. H introduced it to me. She also introduced Spaced to me. A pattern formed – things starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and directed by Edgar Wright are 10s.

So we went to the theater Friday night fully prepared to be disappointed – they couldn’t possibly top two 10s. We’d get a 7 at best. Maybe an 8.

Nope, we got another 10. I didn’t think it was possible to make a remake of The Wicker Man and Point Break simultaniously. Not to mention including Edward Woodward – who, despite our reviewer’s opinion, American audiences should quite well remember.

Additional repairs

I have been reminded some other pages were still missing from the site – Formal Rants and also Fiction. This is further evidence of how scatter-brained I am. I thought the rants were lost at first, but I fortunately found a backup.

A few panels on Harry Potter at PCA/ACA reminded me briefly of the old arguments in the Potter-Taran Treatise. I didn’t think of it at the time, but if I were in another discipline, it would be the genesis of an article. Such musing will have to wait until Book 7, when a more complete case can be made. Given the events of 6, I think almost all of my original points still stand. The only argument that has been weakened somewhat concerns Draco, who turned out to be not completely evil after all – and now more closely resembles Ellidyr, the Prince of Pen-Laurau, another troubled lad.

Walter Ong’s Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology

Ong’s R,R, and T has been sitting on my desk for a month. I can’t even remember the cite that I checked it out for anymore, though I’m positive it referred to the late chapter on Romantic Difference and Technology.

When I was in Boston, though, one of the few attendees at our panel mentioned my presentation reminded him of some work by Frye and Ong, and he mentioned this book in particular. So I read it after I got back in one burst.

The book is a hodgepodge of small studies – one on Tudor rhetoric, another on primary vs. secondary orality, another on the pedagogy of Peter Ramus and his followers, a nice essay on Swift, quite a few on poetry, but they are all linked together by the intro and the last few chapters. One is the aforementioned one on the rise of romance and technology (which reminds me a lot of Robert Connors’ account of composition history), the penultimate one is on orality, and the last on a ‘crisis in the humanities’.

Summarizing this book is difficult. There are so many allusions and sweeping statements. It’s a keeper, though. I could say his main point is that rhetoric has changed quite a bit, and mostly due to pressure from newly introduced technologies – writing, printing press, tv, radio, etc – from an original ‘primary orality’ base – rather than from any great insights into communication. Understanding these shifts and why they happened is of great historical and practical interest, I believe Ong is saying, as we are in the middle of yet another shift in the humanities, with the rise of a large ‘secondary orality’ that modern educational systems, including colleges, based on past models, don’t quite understand. No wonder his interest in Ramus! For 1971, he seems to have something like the Internet looming in the background – yet another technology waiting in the wings to refine rhetoric in its own image.

So how does Ong’s book fit with what I was doing with agricultural metaphor? Well, I think I said something along the lines that humans are hardcoded for metaphors involving eating communally. It is a ‘technology,’ in a sense, that we are all intimately familiar with. Also, in an agrarian Palestine dominated by state control, metaphors involving agriculture and one-sided interactions between the wealthy and the poor would click right away – and be remembered more easily.

Ong has a similar ‘technology’ that he likes to trot out – Latin and Greek, with more emphasis on Latin. Latin instruction might not even be used by most Renaissance pupils, but it created not only a rite of passage for young boys (Ramus again) but it gave them a body of knowledge that made them 15-year-old master of arts elites, especially in a world where nearly all academic discourse was in Latin. Not all ‘technology’, in the way Ong uses the word, is gadgetry, in our modern sense. Literary itself is technology, too. And rises in technology change the way that rhetoric is viewed and used.

I think my memory buffer has overflowed on Ong. Several of those chapters need rereading. I feel I’m missing several key points that I understood initially but have since slipped away.

Mary Carruthers’s The Book of Memory

Memory is one of the five canons of ancient oral rhetoric – the others being invention, arrangement, style, and delivery, not necessarily in that order. Their relative popularity seems to ebb and flow – delivery had a high point in the 19th century with an elocutionary fad, for example, and accounting for invention was the prime focus of much of composition studies in the ’70s. Style, of course, has been fractured into a billion pieces, and arrangement left to vagaries and formulas.

Memory, however, is hardly considered at all anymore, what with our ability to look up nearly anything at the drop of a hat and document any speech. Carruthers has opened my eyes to how important memory was, not just for the ancients, but through the medieval period. She skips over the early christian period save for a peculiar use of Eusebius, which thankfully gives me some room to make my own case for citation in that period. But she does paint a pretty convincing portrait of how the ancients, at least, viewed memory vs. texts.

In this model, a written text is more of a memory aid than the authoritative record us modern documentarians think of. The real knowledge, ideas, concepts, etc, retained their primary base or home in the mind. This state of affairs appears to stem, though she doesn’t always make this connection, from the limits of pre-press texts. With each text different and handmade, only the memory could provide an ‘accurate’ account. This is a flawed view from our standpoint, as it doesn’t mesh well with transmission and redaction problems, but it’s the way writing was thought of – as a secondary backup to a more oral, memory-based knowledge. This makes sense with the original oral definition of rhetoric.

The Ciceronian orator aspired to an ideal where one could talk about any topic at length without the appearance of any preparation whatsoever – a feat only possible with a highly trained memory. Those with good memories were industrious men of high moral character – those with bad memories were simply lazy, unschooled, or undisciplined; memory was directly tied to an ethical judgment.

Most importantly for me, this casts more light on ancient views of citation. They still had a concept of plagiarism being bad, but it was centered on laziness and having a bad memory, not on theft. Ideas were not owned, but you were still expected to synthesize the ideas of others and remember the gist of what you had heard and read, if not the exact quotation. Originality was valued. If you used blocks of someone else’s material with or without attribution, you were an unoriginal bore that used old furniture that everyone had seen, to poorly paraphrase Quintilian. But you were not a thief, because texts were really only glorified Cliff Notes that could not substitute for true understanding of the material.

Today we have both connotations; students that plagiarize are both lazy AND thieves. Part of this transformation in the concept of texts comes from improved technology and new concepts of intellectual property. But another part of it is the ancient role of memory, with texts increasingly organized in mnemonic patterns to facilitate memorization (much of them Christian, the influence of religious needs is not to be underestimated) – and before that, mental strategies involving creating architectural spaces in the mind organized into grids, into which items of data could be placed. Without instruction in, or the valuing of, an expansive, all-encompassing memory, our technology allows us laziness. Identical texts do the work of cross-checking accuracy for us. Synthesis is also easier with copies of all the texts we need in front of us. No wonder, in this more ideal situation, that property snuck its way in.

Wikipedia, Dr. McCoy, and Freud

I have some book summaries I could be posting (I read almost two quite large tomes today alone) but for some reason, it’s the trivial that always rises to the top.

I have issues with Wikipedia.

Issue #1 is personal, in that every time I post a change there, it gets removed, regardless of correctness. This wasn’t always the case in its earlier incarnations. This state of affairs has led me to stop contributing entirely.

This leads to issue #2, the observation that in any community-run organization, which Wikipedia is, a kind of common-sense, conservative wisdom tends to prevail over change. This distinction keeps it from having the same status as, say, a print encyclopedia. Britannica is conservative, of course – much more so! – but it has the excuse of needing time between editions. Its slow-paced technology, much like that of academic journals, allows such consideration. Wikipedia, however, can be judge, jury, and executioner on a matter in a matter of days, if not hours.

An example should suffice. Let’s take the Wikipedia page on Mr. Spock. I dislike this page intensely, as it has a line that repeats a old, flawed commonplace about Kirk, Spock, and McCoy – namely, that they map well to the Freudian ego, superego (Wiki calls it “intellect”) and id:

Part of the classic appeal of Star Trek lies in the manner in which the dialogue of these three friends mirrors the internal dialogue of the human brain. In this relationship, Spock often appears as the “intellect,” against Kirk’s “ego” and McCoy’s “id.”

Freud is used to spinning in his grave, so I doubt he is very upset about this particular slip. The definitions of these terms are mixed up all the time. Wikipedia’s page on them, of course, is ironically on target (or was when I posted this).

I have never liked this matchup with Freud, and as I like Dr. McCoy (my favorite fictional characters are typically doctors for some reason, ala Stephen Maturin) I must come to his defense. He is clearly not the id.

So what would he be, then?

I can see how someone would come to the Kirk = ego assumption if the role of the ego is assumed to be that of the captain, making decisions, mediating between the advice of Spock and McCoy.

But let’s try it another way.

The id is the source of all desire. Food, sleep, sex, and the faster the better. No planning, no consideration of consequences, WHAT I WANT and NOW – decisive, primal action. It is a despot that issues orders that must be obeyed. The ego and superego exist to manage these desires. What reckless, womanizing military commander with two skilled subordinates do we know? Hmm.

The ego figures out how to fulfill the id’s desires. This chiefly involves logical planning – in particular, the ability to suspend pleasure for long-term considerations. Who does Kirk lean on to solve his problems? Spock, who is a master of suppressing emotion. Without Spock – who functions as not only a science whiz, but as an executive officer, Kirk would have a much shorter career.

The superego acts as an aggressive moral and social filter to the ego, vetoing plans that might cause personal guilt or distress to the community. It is loosely analogous to a conscience. Who scolds Spock constantly for being emotionless and inhuman and serves as the audience’s cranky advocate? Dr. McCoy.

I find this model much more interesting, as it renders Spock as the show’s true protagonist, stuck between logic and desire, trying to take Kirk’s orders and follow them but commonly raising the dreadful ire of Dr. McCoy.

Watching the show in this rather anti-authoritarian manner, I think, reveals how artificial and pompous the character of Kirk is. His main purpose is to generate orders and thus plot. The real drama only occurs when there is tension between Spock and McCoy – between the show’s real ego and his ever-present moral check. This is why The Wrath of Khan, which breaks the old formula, works so well. Kirk is presented with the consequences of being a rampaging, inconsiderate id all his life – something the old show never did. He gives an order to escape Khan that Spock can only follow by committing suicide – an utilitarian solution that overrides McCoy’s usual individualism.

Needless to say, there’s no way in hell this’ll get on Wikipedia. It deals only in facts. Even if the facts don’t always fit. And even if, in the case of its very impressive entries on early Christianity, only informed speculation is available. The line is not clear.

Back from Boston

My trip to the PCA/ACA conference is Boston is over. I was supposed to get back into Memphis late Sunday night, but my flight was canceled. I persuaded (isn’t it fortunate I’m getting a degree in rhetoric?) US Airways to give me hotel and food vouchers, and I stayed a night in the Embassy Suites in Boston, a hotel far above my station. I got to see the Sopranos premiere, even. H picked me up Monday afternoon.

The conference itself was rather blah. The 20 panels on rhetcomp were sparsely attended, despite all of them being held in a ballroom roughly the size of Patterson Hall. I might have seen 15 people once. 7-10 was more typical. Small groups are better for questions, of course.

By Friday, half the panelists were missing, and by the time of my panel (No. 788 of 800) came around on Saturday, there were 2 people in the audience, and both of them had come to see one of the other 3 panelists – who had not shown up (although her spouse had come to read her paper). And yet the show must go on. The papers were interesting, at least. I even managed to rocket through my 35-minute Powerpoint in 20 minutes.

The good side of the trip was seeing old friends from when I used to live in Boston. I managed to see J and M and their daughter W (with R due in late April). I also saw S, who I have not seen in years, and her beau D.

These visits with friends made the expense worthwhile. I didn’t get any support from the department or the college, unfortunately; the department’s travel budget was exhausted halfway through the year and the A&S deadline for applying for spring travel was after I got confirmation that my abstract was accepted. I minimized some expense by staying in a pleasant if cramped guest house not far from Copley, where the convention was.

Boston hasn’t changed much, though it has gotten more expensive (the T costs $2.00 a ride now, instead of $1). Internet connectivity was surprisingly lousy. I bought an oldie but a goodie laptop to take with me so I could keep up with things, but the net was erratic at best. The conference had spotty wireless, and my tiny hotel had a decent setup, but the airport and Embassy Suites charged princely sums for poor connections that I was unwilling to pay. Frankly, I was surprised to find such a tech-savvy city not blanketed with open wireless points.