Corporate Megatexts (1): Authenticity

Kutanagi v JohanssonWhen Paramount announced that Scarlett Johansson had been cast as Major Kusanagi in the live action adaptation of Ghost In The Shell, it launched another outbreak of accusations about ‘whitewashing’ – the appointment of white actors and actresses into roles with a clearly established ethnicity. Comic book writer Jon Tsuei advanced a strong criticism of the casting, not on the grounds of racial politics, but claiming that Ghost In The Shell is “inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one.” What are we to make of this claim, and of the circumstances that led to it?

This incident is an example of a clash of narrative communities, a phenomena that – with a notable exception I’ll save until later – is peculiar to the last hundred years. The reason we are facing these conflicts today can be traced to a serious gap between the aesthetic and ethical values that sustain contemporary media production. On the one hand, the giant global corporations that produce our most popular entertainments are propelled by an ethical and economic commitment to sustain their franchises by ensuring the money they make will exceed the cost of production. This is the burden of custodianship. On the other side is the question of authenticity in adapting or extending story materials, the demand that all materials be faithfully related. Tsuei’s objections to Johannson’s casting is a good example of an authenticity argument.

The problem of custodianship is often dismissed as pure profit motive, yet no-one is going to stump up millions of dollars to make (say) a blockbuster movie without the hope it can take even more money at the box office, or through other channels of monetisation. To be opposed to custodianship is to attempt to opt out of popular culture altogether – something Marxists certainly have reason to do, but that most people do not. The continued production of content is something most seem to view as beneficial, except where to do so would undermine the authenticity of what was made. Conversely, those pushing against the production of further content can appeal to the diminishment of the core materials, which is another argument from authenticity.

The question of authenticity relates directly to the kind of ‘game’ being played with the fictional world in question. We are not accustomed to thinking of films or books as being ‘played’, but whether this term is taken literally or figuratively, the point remains that there are multiple ways a work can be experienced. As I argue in “What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s legendarium”, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies are ‘played’ differently by someone who takes them as an adaptation of the book of that name than by someone who takes them as a prequel to Jackson’s movies of The Lord of the Rings. The problem of authenticity is always tied to a context.

Now there may be a temptation here to dismiss the issue of authenticity entirely as ‘subjective’, and a corresponding mistake of thinking that custodianship must be objective since the money, after all, can be counted. But successful custodianship must meet minimum requirements of authenticity lest the franchise be ‘milked dry’, and thus depends upon the very subjective elements that the economic factors are contrasted against. The desire to dismiss the subjective elements of a problem stems entirely from the mistaken assumption that they are infinitely variable, and thus cannot be meaningfully engaged with. However, once it is recognised that the experience of fiction entails different games, we are no longer dealing with the irreducible infinite. We are simply dealing with a manifold of practices, that is a set of different ‘games’.

Just as Bruno Latour has demonstrated that a grounded sociology is about tracing relations, a grounded study of fictional interplay is about identifying the network associated with the practices of the ‘game’ being played. This network includes all the works that form the megatext of the fictional world. This term ‘megatext’ is Charles Segal’s idea for understanding Greek mythology as inter-related, and I have extended this in my philosophy to contemporary media franchises like The X-Men, Star Trek, and Tolkien’s legendarium. The network also includes both the causal ‘players’ of the megatext (“I saw that movie”) and the hobbyists (“I’ve read every issue”), and all the people and companies entailed in creating the original media. The situation is further complicated by the interdependences: the X-Men megatext links to the Marvel comics megatext, and to the broader science fiction megatext, and more besides! The task of tracing such a network may seem insurmountable, but it is nothing of the kind – it is simply (as Latour notes for sociology) that you must trace things carefully, one step at a time.

While short cuts in network-tracing are risky, a subset of the manifold of ‘games to be played’ can be constructed to provisionally interrogate any megatext. In Implicit Game Aesthetics I took the conflicts between aesthetic values (evidenced by the arguments that are stated) as distinguishing between different ways of playing (indeed, of playing anything). I do not think it a coincidence that Latour uses the same method to trace his ‘modes of existence’. The provisional manifold for every megatext is thus the different ‘games’ revealed by the arguments between ‘players’. Some games are disagreements about the values of authenticity, but some are clashes between custodianship and specific values for authenticity.

In the case of Jon Tsue vs. Paramount, this is precisely the case: taking an authenticity position based around cultural embedding as his aesthetic context, Tsue argues that any attempt to disembed Ghost In The Shell from Japanese culture is a breach of authenticity. The unstated counter-argument from Paramount would presumably be that custodianship dictates a lead actress with box office draw. Without Johansson, therefore, there would be no movie. (This argument was indeed traced, on Paramount's behalf, by the Hollywood Reporter.) Supporters of authenticity could argue in such a case that it would be better not to make the film at all than to compromise the faithful relationship of the new work to the rest of the relevant megatext. Here, in brutal simplicity, is the crisis in authentic fiction brought about by the practical dominance of corporations in the ownership of all contemporary megatexts.

Next week: Canonicity

Special thanks to Chris Billows, Rob Briggs, John Brindle, Geek Boy (AKA Al Swettenham), Scott Gibbens, Auriea Harvey, Alex Hempel, It's John, Matti Karhulahti, Metal Blackbird, Cuchlann, J.P.J. Garvin, Jeroen Stout, Jacek Wesołowski, and Jose Zagal for contributing to the discussions on Twitter that helped shape this short serial.


Is Free Will Too Cheap?

Klint.Free WillDo we possess a genuine capacity to choose, or is our sense of agency always an illusion? Or to put it another way: is it free will or just a cheap trick?

“Your conscious life”, neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran declares, “is nothing but an elaborate post-hoc rationalization of things you really do for other reasons”. This is the general position of a disparate group of researchers who insist that free will is merely an illusion, a self-deception we conduct upon ourselves. That we frequently deceive ourselves in these ways is hardly news – philosophers and clergy from the sixteenth century onwards were already discussing this oh-so-human capacity, and older references can also been found. What has made these ‘new illusionists’ into something newsworthy has been their willingness to inflate these claims into the broadest strokes: it is not that there is a risk of self-deceit, there is no free will at all, because what really motivates human action is never occurring at a conscious level.

The historical context for the contemporary dismissal of our conscious lives have been concisely discussed by Mary Midgley in her book Are You An Illusion? She quotes co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, Francis Crick, as giving one of the clearest examples of this fairly recent trend, when he wrote (in 1994): “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their attendant molecules.” Midgley raises a proverbial eyebrow at Crick’s use of ‘in fact’, and justifiably questions whether what we are dealing with here really is a factual concern. This is clearly a case of scientists muscling in on philosophical turf – and one should always be careful when claiming authority over somewhere that’s already populated.

As it happens, the new illusionists are latecomers to a game that is as old as philosophy – and in this case, both in its Western and its Eastern traditions. The core of the philosophical conflict has primarily been over the question of how human freedom relates to the apparent causal nature of the physical world. The common sense perspective is philosophically defended by supporters of what are known as libertarian positions – we have a genuine capacity to choose. This was a particularly important argument in Medieval Europe since such freedom had both theological and juridical implications: you cannot blame someone unless they have responsibility for their own actions. But there are two other main camps opposed to this understanding.

The incompatablist position is arguably the default position on free will at the moment. Since cause follows effect so reliably (the standard argument goes), free will would seem to be excluded since in a deterministic universe there is no room for it. Free choice must mean the possibility of having chosen differently – which determinism presumably excludes. The new illusionists come at this position armed with experiments that purport to provide proof of a slightly different kind – namely that our conscious deliberations aren’t evidence of free decision making anyway, since we act unconsciously. The outcome of such lines of attack are still firmly incompatablist, however: free will is excluded by arguments about (psychological) causation.

Back in 1738, the Scottish philosopher and intellectual rake David Hume turned the two established positions over free will on their head with a robust compatabilist argument. Libertarian claims could not be correct since to suggest a different decision could have been made amounted to breaking causality by bringing in a random element. Yet if chance was involved in our decision making, we could hardly claim to have ownership over our choices! Hume carefully defined necessity and liberty and demonstrated an absence of contradiction. The assumption that ‘we could have chosen differently’ has a rather suspicious meaning when it is examined closely, and we need determinism to make sense of our choices (Hume suggests), lest they unravel into randomness.

The argument advanced by Hume, if accepted, would destroy the credibility of every hokey science fiction tale that hangs on a branching timeline where a character makes different choices. If his argument is accepted, these no longer make a lick of sense: from where could this different outcome spring, exactly? If it comes from chance, there can be no coherent claim for the will to command our actions. But if it comes from elsewhere, are we committed to some extra-physical component of mind to explain how multiple outcomes could emerge from the same decision?

Free will cannot mean that in a parallel universe you chose differently: a different outcome would mark a different person. This has been my understanding of the problem of free will ever since I read Hume. We make an utterly metaphysical (i.e. untestable) assumption when we think ‘choosing freely’ must mean the possibility of different outcomes, since we only ever exist within time, and within just one sequence of events. Incompatablist arguments are making untestable assumptions on a grand yet oft-unnoticed scale. But whilst I found Hume's arguments very compelling on this subject, something always felt out of place in his account. It has taken me some time to track it down.

In a fascinating book thriving in the interface between philosophy and empirical research, Nancey Murphy, George Ellis, and Timothy O’Connor collect a host of perspectives on what contemporary neurobiology means for the discussion of free will. Entitled Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will, the most liberating aspect of this volume’s eclectic discussions is its clear recognition that the traditional debate about free will has run aground over its assumptions about determinism. In a decidedly Humean move, the editors recognise that libertarian vs. incompatablist arguments are held up on a perception of causality that is essentially reductionistic – they presuppose a single dimension of causation, from the ‘bottom’ upwards.

Contemporary researchers give ample examples of emergent behaviours that contradict reductionism, and thus display what can be termed downward causation. In a 2006 paper, for instance, philosopher Robert C. Bishop points to Rayleigh-Bénard convection as a simple paradigm case: self-organising non-linear structures in heated fluids (convection cells) must be understood at a scale above that of individual molecules or the entire phenomena is incomprehensible. Bishop correctly recognises the importance of this case for metaphysics and philosophy of mind, since it demonstrates (without any torturous assumptions) that treating causal relations as merely one-directional isn't even sufficient for physical systems, let alone living organisms, or complex minds.

For the traditional arguments regarding free will, the entire conceptual framework is thrown open by bringing into doubt the more simplistic conceptions of causality. It is no longer plausible to assign responsibility for cause and effect in a purely linear and reductionistic fashion, as if atoms were the sole foundational element of reality. Rather, there is a growing recognition in both philosophy and the sciences that downward causation is both plausible and indeed necessary to explain all manner of complex systems. In the case of human behaviour in particular, our symbolic faculties, such as language and mathematics, create spaces for downward causation whereby understanding what counts as a ‘cause’ has to mean much more than simply reducing our focus to the sub-atomic.

As the 2012 volume (which is based on a workshop from 2007) explores, these changes in empirical understanding massively reframe the free will argument, and undermine new illusionist claims. Two such viewpoints are discussed at length: Benjamin Libet’s neurobiological research that suggests our brains begin responding before we are consciously aware of willing an action, and Daniel Wegner’s psychological work separating the feeling of volition from the mental causes of action. Both Wegner and Libet are looking to deflate conventional views on free will. The philosophical push-back demonstrates once again a confusion of concepts, particularly in Timothy O’Connor's chapter, which simultaneously debugs both the new illusionists and conventional understandings of free will, sketching a new framework for understanding volitional behaviour.

In the broadest strokes, however, all the new illusionists are offering self-defeating accounts. This is a point mentioned by numerous authors in the aforementioned anthology, and also by Allen Wood in his discussion of Fichte’s notions of absolute freedom. The essential problem is that if, as Ramachandran and others assert, our entire conscious life is an illusion, there can be no scientific investigation of any credence –these too must be reduced to “elaborate post-hoc rationalization”. Fichte’s arguments, from the tail end of Hume's century but buffed-up by Wood’s contemporary scholarship, form a sharp point of rebuttal. If there is no free will, then there can be no concept whatsoever of understanding, at least as it is usually considered. To understand inherently implies a wavering between possibilities before settling upon one as the adequate explanation. All the sciences depend upon this mental phenomena. Yet if determinism destroys the possibility of free will (or, in the contemporary argument, conscious thought is mere confabulation) this must also make the sciences impossible, since this wavering between possibilities is the essence of free decision-making.

Thus it transpires that it’s the new illusionist arguments that are far too cheap to be taken seriously. But by engaging with them, philosophers once again show the benefits of inter-disciplinary discourse, and the productive gains available when the sciences exchange ideas with philosophy. The classical free will problem is not resolved (nor can it be, because of its inherent metaphysical assumptions), but perhaps we have at long last begun to move beyond it into a new and productive understanding of the relationships between volition and action.

The opening image is Hilma af Klint’s Free Will (1907). No copyright infringement is entailed by displaying this image.


A Brief Introduction to My Philosophy

$45 haircut.cropped

Welcome to Only a Game, the philosophy blog of game designer, outsider philosopher, and author Chris Bateman. Originally dealing with videogames as well as philosophy, most games-related material now appears at ihobo.com (but is also cross-linked here). All sincere – and preferably polite – comments on posts both new and old are welcome, and will elicit a reply as promptly as I am able. What's this blog about? Read on!

Why philosophy? I started out among academic scientists, but my interests and writings these days lie to a greater extent among the discussions of philosophers. I sometimes characterise my rambling nonsense as an attempt to popularise philosophy, which is to say, to bring the resources of philosophical thinkers such as Kant, Isabelle Stengers, or Kendall Walton a little bit closer to any quirky intellectual nerd who stumbles upon this site.

Why is this blog called ‘Only a Game’? I jokingly call the discussions here at this blog a non-fiction role-playing game, and this is “the Game” I sometimes refer to in posts. Also, a lot of my early philosophical endeavours were connected by the image of a game, which is perhaps unsurprising since I am also a professional game designer – I’ve worked on over forty five game projects over the last twenty five years.

What’s the point of philosophy? We experience the worlds we live in via our concepts, and the process of inspecting or adjusting our concepts is philosophy. Everyone is a philosopher sometimes, some of us just spend more time on it than others. While many philosophers have toiled upon their problems alone, I view philosophy as limited if it is not also engaged in public discourse. Wisdom lies scattered amidst the world it might inform: even when uncovered by a lone investigator, wise thoughts lack value until they are brought back to a shared space.

What do I philosophise about? My main interests in philosophy at the moment are in aesthetics and ethics, which are both expressions of our values. The conventional view of both these topics at this time is that they are subjective, which is to say, they don’t have meaning beyond individuals. This is a position I resist. If we understand the knowledge of the sciences as objective, that’s because they entail practices that ‘make objects talk’ (hence ‘objective’), but in many contexts our subjective knowledge is better equipped for dealing with the worlds we actually live in.

Why bother with aesthetics? Imagination transpires to be a key to understanding how living beings like us experience reality, a point I explored in my first philosophy book, Imaginary Games. What’s more, my studies in aesthetics feed into my understanding of game design: it has helped me think about how our different values for play create different kinds of aesthetic flaws in games, for instance.

What's the point of ethics? Our ideals for life are incredibly diverse, yet we must live together: I seek methods that permit this possibility, a project that takes its spirit from Kant’s “Realm of Ends” (which I term communal autonomy). Recently, I’ve been thinking about this in terms of our living in an ethical multiverse (a key theme in my book Chaos Ethics) since we all experience existence from within a unique system of metaphysics, what I sometimes call ‘a mythology’.

What are metaphysics? Untestable beliefs, foundations upon which different thoughts and ideas attain authority. Everyone has to believe something to get by in life, whether a notion of self, a cultural identity, an abstract (Science, God etc.) or some combination therein. By talking about metaphysics I hope to share some of the charms of our many different ways of looking at our shared world, and dissipate some of the prejudices.

Do you have a religious agenda? Absolutely! I want to find ways we can all live together, and that means dealing with religions, like the Hindu traditions, Buddhism, and Christianity, as well as non-religions, like positivism. Frankly, its impossible to explore metaphysics and ethics without intersecting with religion, which is not to suggest these traditions have a moral monopoly. Rather, the paths through morality begin and end in many places, and while many of them have come to us through traditional religious practices, that is far from the whole story.

What about science? The sciences are the means we acquire robust objective knowledge, but that kind of knowledge offers only a very narrow perspective on existence – we need much more than mere research if we are going to find good ways to live. I am unimpressed by the idea that the sciences are ‘at war’ with religion, or destined to replace it: as I explored in my book on the role of imagination in the evolutionary sciences, the relevant conflicts are better understood as disputes within the sciences and between religion and non-religion.

What does this have to do with you? Join in if you're interested! My philosophical thinking thus far – or my nonsense, as I oft term it – is right here at this site. Simply pick a topic from the sidebar (or a link in this post) that spurs your interest and join me for a while in contemplation of questions that I hope will, at the very least, provide an entertaining diversion.

Should I leave a comment? Please do! I love comments. But if you own your own blog consider taking part in the Republic of Bloggers instead, and send me a letter. I am committed to pursuing virtuous discourse, and I welcome discussions on any and all topics however they reach me, and whomever they are from.

Welcome to the Game!

This piece, written in April 2016, replaces an older version with the same title written in April 2010, before I had any of my philosophy books published. The links within this new foreword are intended to offer points of ingress into my nonsense for the intrepid explorer of ideas.


Ongoing Blockquote Fixes

Owing to the move to the new template, older posts with 40 pixel indenting around quotations no longer work. I am in the process of fixing these as I find them (I just fixed the entire ten-part A Secular Age serial, for instance), which just involves hacking out the monstrous miasma of HTML that Word excreted and replacing it with basic <blockquote> tags. It's simple, mindless work, so if you see a post with broken blockquotes and you want to flag it to me,  just leave a comment and I'll get to it when I can.


Free Your Book And What Will Follow?

Digital BookFor the first time in my life, I find myself contemplating releasing my new book for free. This is an odd thought, but it could make sense for where I'm up to in my career as a multi-class author with feet in very different areas. Not ready to commit yet, but even thinking about this marks a change in direction for me.

I've made some good money out of my how-to books like 21st Century Game Design and Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, but with publishing giant Cengage struggling to make ends meet in the era of web content overload they have pulled out of games book publishing entirely. That means as soon as the print edition of my 'how to' books sell through (and one already has), they're out of print. I'm shopping around for a publisher to take over these, but most I've contacted are in the same state as Cengage or worse... Traditional publishing is struggling.

Meanwhile, my last three books are a trilogy of philosophy forming my 'imaginative investigations' (Imaginary Games, The Mythology of Evolution, and Chaos Ethics). Published with Zero Books, these are not titles a conventional small press could handle, but 500 copies is a 'best seller' for Zero, and I've already cleared this sales target with the first of the three and am gradually getting there with the other two. In a few months I will have sold a thousand books of philosophy, which is a tiny fraction of my total book sales yet still an achievement in a niche field like philosophy.

Now in comes Wikipedia Knows Nothing, which is also philosophy but short-form. I wrote it for Repeater, the small press my editor at Zero created after he (and I, unrelatedly) left then. But he knows what my philosophy books will sell, and a thousand copies isn't viable for him, nor for any other small press I've contacted. That leaves the academic presses (who, in fact, would generate greater sales for it anyway) – but will I really get a book that claims blind peer review is immoral through a publisher that uses blind peer review as standard? Every academic press is bizarrely wed to this queer artefact of the twentieth century. I have to doubt my prospects, although I haven’t ruled out submitting to my contact at MIT Books, and maybe to Minnesota Press as well (they pride themselves in being a little unorthodox, and they've been a good friend to Ian Bogost).

But there's a third option: a self-published (or pop-up publisher issued) e-book. I can make these myself easily enough, and even getting an ISBN for book catalogues is quite manageable. One key point in this regard is my realisation that I don't have to worry about a lack of publisher promotion because every publisher below the scale of the upper market 'fast-sellers' leaves marketing to the author. Case in point: despite being a huge multinational, Cengage left promotional activity to my books with them up to me. They supported me, but it was ultimately up to me to make everything happen. That was even more true of Zero, although under new head Doug Lain that is changing in new and interesting ways.

The bottom line is that even the best case for the new book is to generate, say, $5,000 for me. To put that in context, that's what I earn on a typical two-week game consultancy gig. No-one writes philosophy to get rich – we mostly write it because we're unable to stop thinking about philosophical problems and need to work them out on paper to get them out of our heads. So whatever happens I'm not looking at making a lot of money with the new project. Which brings up an interesting option: giving it away for free.

The scuttlebutt on free e-books is that they typically 'sell' a hundred times as many copies as paid e-books. I doubt that number holds for philosophy, but either way the advantage of having a short-form e-book is that it can reach people who currently wouldn't read my work, and could perhaps reach ten thousand people if not a hundred thousand. That potentially expands both my audience and the number of people who might enter into discourse with me - both are desirable, but the latter is especially appealing since I am feeling increasingly isolated these days. (My own fault for going down the philosophy rabbit-hole, of course...) This isn't new logic: even the big publishers are now giving away free e-books in order to build the brands of their authors and thus ultimately sell more books by them.

One final option to consider is Open Humanities Press. I already spoke to Graham Harman about this (he edits their 'New Metaphysics' line), and going with them – if they will have me! – would put me in good company. I might not get the free e-book, because they only distribute free PDFs of their books, but as someone who is now undeniably an academic (for all that it rankles to admit that!) it might be better for me to go where other academics I respect, like Joanna Zylinska, Timothy Morton, and Levi Bryant, have gone. However, I’m pretty sure they use blind peer review as well – so I might do just as well to submit to other academic presses first. Swings and roundabouts.

Being an author has become an important part of my self-image. Indeed, I agonised over what to put as my profession on my first son's birth certificate (Game designer? Game writer? Philosopher?) before finally settling upon 'Author'. It may be a small part of my earnings, but it's a huge part of my identity these days that I write books - and I love doing it, too. Absorbed in a manuscript I am more immersed than in any game. I live among my words.

These are strange times for publishers, and thus also for authors. Perhaps I have indeed reached a point where the best thing I can do is go fishing with a free e-book... But I worry about going it alone, even though it was always only ever me promoting my work. I like working with people, I don't want to push myself into ever-quieter corners of obscurity. But then, maybe a free e-book is the message-in-a-bottle I need to end my hermitage? Forces are pulling me in different directions.

I ask you, whoever had read this far, to help guide me. I'm not lost because I know exactly where I am. I'm just not entirely sure where I am going.