From the archives: September 2008

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Dustbins of history, landfills of theory

Tuesday, 30 September 2008 — 11:54pm | Literary theory, Literature

Scholars of the theoretical humanities (by which I mean the philosophical and literary species) would be wise to heed the post at Gene Expression bearing the belligerent and self-explanatory title, “Graphs on the death of Marxism, postmodernism, and other stupid academic fads.” The short version: an empirical scan of the JSTOR database reveals that many of the great buzzwords of theory, from “psychoanalysis” to “deconstruction”, are plummeting in prevalence in scholarly articles and citations. The author clarifies the methodology in a follow-up post, and then goes on to produce a set of graphs on “scientific approaches to humanity”, which I take to mean “investigations of material determinism and how far it extends.”

Naturally, this won’t amount to a hill of beans to the apologists who deny the existence of an empirical reality outside discourse and have no use for the positivist prejudices of the hegemons who have the nerve, the nerve to quantify things. Well, it’s their loss.

As someone who studied both the hard sciences and literary theory in considerable measure, I am compelled to make a few quick remarks of my own. If theory in its present incarnation is indeed collapsing, I lay the blame on what I like to call the Two O’s (ooh!): overextension and obscurantism.

Continued »

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Wednesday Book Club: Le Ton beau de Marot

Wednesday, 24 September 2008 — 10:01pm | Book Club, Computing, Literary theory, Literature, Science

This week’s selection: Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (1997) by Douglas R. Hofstadter.

In brief: What begins as a comprehensive study of poetic translation evolves into a treatment of human empathy and intercultural understanding, a refutation of John Searle’s Chinese Room argument against artificial intelligence, and a solemn remembrance of the author’s deceased wife. With its exclusive focus on language, Le Ton beau is a substantially less technical and more streamlined tome beau than Gödel, Escher, Bach; the mathematically averse may find it a more accessible point of entry to Hofstadter’s thought, as there is no talk of recursion or formal incompleteness in sight. Those who prefer their poetry devoid of metre and rhyme will take issue with Hofstadter’s conservative aesthetics; those who prize pattern, structure, and wordplay will rejoice.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Le Ton beau de Marot, keep reading below.)

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Wednesday Book Club: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Wednesday, 17 September 2008 — 12:32pm | Book Club, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature

This week’s selection: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Díaz.

In brief: Astounding. How often do you see a serious (but ironic) novel about serious (but ironic) things like immigration, masculinity, and postcolonial despotism get away with comparing the Dominican Republic to Tolkien’s Mordor, casting a mongoose as a guardian spirit, and measuring acts of brutality in hit points of damage—and make it all look so genuine?

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, keep reading below.)

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Eoin Colfer’s Guide to the Galaxy

Wednesday, 17 September 2008 — 12:13am | Literature, Tie-ins and fanfic


Eoin Colfer is a witty, tech-savvy guy, and based on author’s credentials alone, when his continuation of the Hitchhiker’s Guide “trilogy” arrives on shelves I’ll be sure to take a look. I’m guilty of being party to this kind of brand-driven exploitation, and I know it. Setting aside for a minute my serious qualms about the brand-name licensing trend in fiction publishing, two reservations spring to mind:

  • Didn’t we already see, with Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony (I have yet to read The Time Paradox), that Eoin Colfer is a cautionary case study in wells drying up?
  • Didn’t we already see, with Mostly Harmless (and to a lesser extent, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish), that Douglas Adams is also a cautionary case study in wells drying up?

Hitchhiker’s is finished. Let’s move on.

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Confessions of an intelligent designer

Monday, 15 September 2008 — 3:07am | Science, Video games

I’ve spent the better portion of the week playing Spore. Strictly speaking, one doesn’t finish the game—once your species has developed as far as it can as a spacefaring civilization, you can keep on playing for as long as you like—but sometime on Wednesday night, I completed the “42” achievement for discovering the secret at the centre of the galaxy, which is the closest thing the game has to an ultimate goal. In the true spirit of Battlestar Galactica I have yet to find Earth, though I am assured that it exists, and that you can destroy it.

In case you couldn’t tell, Spore is rather fantastic. Will Wright couldn’t have been more correct when he said (to paraphrase) that there’s a great unexplored gulf between the massive multiplayer online game à la World of Warcraft and the joy of the classic single-player experience where you, you get to be the star of the show without any interference from the addicts, cheaters, and generally rude malcontents who dominate computer game culture on the Internet. So here you have a game of a scope that could only be satisfactorily populated by the freshness, diversity, and sheer staggering quantity of user-generated content in the shared online space—but the territory of the playground itself is yours and yours alone. It’s like Animal Crossing, but more so.

There are some design flaws, many of which are fertile ground for future bloodletting sessions at the hands of Electronic Arts (aka expansion packs), but I want to get the elementary what-works-what-doesn’t criticism out of the way quickly so I can talk about more stimulating topics like user-driven storytelling and everyone’s favourite weasel word(s), intelligent design.

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