CCR 633: Archives, Scribes, and History

Doing readings that draw from history, particularly history connected to literacy, always makes me more reflective about my own practices and assumptions.

In Trithimius’ “In Praise of Scribes,” he comments that parchment lasts longer than paper (35), that copying is a form of manual labor (49), that one who cannot write should still read (85), that books should be protected (93), and that the copyist gets some level of longevity and fame beyond the author alone (97). Many of these are things that I don’t really think about as my current print/writing culture differs.

As a teacher and scholar, I often glibly talk about literacy, particularly drawing from the idea of multi-literacies from the New London Group: the role of circulating languages, shifting modalities, new genres and materials, etc. I often get stuck in a contemporary tunnel-vision and forget the socio-technical systems that underscore literacy.

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ENG 730: Player Experience, Identification, and Identity

I feel that Roger Caillois, in some ways, offers a helpful rejoinder to some questions (or critiques) to Huizinga from last class through his focus on “games.” While Huizinga seemed more concerned with a broader concept of play, Caillois seemed to take a more more grounded approach. As Caillois says early on, “[Huizinga’s] work is not a study of games, but an inquiry into the creative quality of the play principle in the domain of culture” (4).

In particular, I thought Caillois taxonomy of games proved helpful, particularly as it further acknowledged the hybrid mixes that could take place within the terms. As he lays them out: “I am proposing a division into four main rubrics, depending upon whether, in the games under consideration, the role of competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo is dominant. I call these agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx, respectively” (12). To this “rubric” he adds a further axis between the more open play of paidia (a tem Huizinga also takes up in tension with agôn) and the more structured ludus.

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CCR 633: The Cherokee Syllabary and Writing Technologies

If I could summarize my main takeaway from Ellen Cushman’s Cherokee Syllabary, it would be the way it showcases–through a particular case study–how people, technology, language, and writing interact with one another and the values or worldviews of  a given context. Tracing the formation of the writing  system as a written syllabary, to typefaces, to unicode and other digital materialities, the linguistic history also aligns with nation forming through newspapers and other technological, rhetorical interventions.

Similar to other readings, Cushman’s Cherokee Syllabary shows how language doesn’t inhabit a vacuum. Like Rickert’s contention, Sequoyan and the Cherokee language feels somewhat ambient, fitting into a broader context of identity and material. As Cushman writes, describing digital teaching materials, “Students hear, see, and experience the Cherokee language and writing system as complimentary and mutually sustaining. The also learn something of the Cherokee worldview implicit in each word and phrase written in the language” (215).

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ENG 730: Illuminati and the Play-Sphere

Huizinga’s notion of play often connected to four main elements as he traced it through its various spheres: the notion of the agonistic contest,  the role of rules, and way it took place outside of everyday life. As he defines it:

a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.  It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means (13).

As the definition shows, “play” extends beyond games, including the grounds for the ritual of religion, the structure of law, the agonsitic structure of “warfare,” and the playful riddling at the root of philosophy. Of these parts, the break from “ordinary life” and the role of internal rules–a structure outside of the rules of everyday life–seem to be particularly significant.

To transition to Illuminati, I think one can see some of the tensions and manifestations of this definition. In particular, I want to focus on the role of cheating and deceit in the game.

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CCR 633: Memory and Platonic Print

One of the main things I get from reading Walter Ong’s “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought” is his primary thesis: that writing–particularly non-oral alphabetic discursive literacies–not only offer tools for communication but change how we think and communicate in fundamentally “noetic” way. As he writes, “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form” (24).

Ong’s point connects to the ongoing discussion of whether technology or artifacts have politics, though in this case, it focuses more on the way that technology affects our thinking.

One way writing changes us is through memory. As we noted from Rickert–who drew from Hayles–people have tended to build “smarter” technology to help with memory. This could include the early tokens of Mesopotamia, as Denise Schmandt-Besserat discussed, and their capacity to track goods. It could also include the various  reminder and calendar apps that populate smart phones and computers. All of these keep track of other things so we don’t have to.

On the one hand, this is positive. Answering a few Doodle polls this past week to schedule meetings, I’ve consulted the calendar on my smart phone. I also use a more low-tech near-daily inventory of general to-dos. All of these keep my working memory from getting too cluttered.

But Socrates, via Plato–whom Ong cites–criticizes these technologies, particularly the technology of writing. As Socrates says, in the apparent voice of King Thamus, “You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.” The person who writes something down, he goes on, is relying on extrinsic things–an extrinsic system of signs, materials outside the body, etc.–and is only creating a later sign-post to return to an earlier thought. The writer is not actually holding onto and engaging with the thought. They can’t defend it either. The thought is orphaned, isolated, and silent.

This leads Socrates to characterize writing as something static, like a visual image. As he  says, “The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The this is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever.” I find the turn to the visual to be an interesting shift, but it makes sense, as visuals are more static if we take an oral view of language.

This characterization made more sense as Ong took it up, connecting the static quality that Socrates ascribes to print to the static “being” of Platonic forms.  As Ong argues, “Platonic form was form conceived of by analogy precisely with visible form. Despite his touting of logos and speech, the Platonic ideas in effect modelled intelligence not so much on hearing as on seeing” (29). We see this with his discussion in the Protagorus, as they dissect a poem, which would be hard to do without a static referent.

Indeed, print is a visual medium, a series of squiggles carried through some medium–captured through handwriting, type-faces, or pixels. It is silent, like a fresco, and in a Platonic sense, it’s non-material. But this silent, non-material Being of writing, as Ong notes, “assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a limitless number of living readers” (31). It gets “spoken” in our heads or through bodies and machines, but as the word-iself, it feels permanent.  Parmenides has triumphed over Heraclitus.

This non-material sense of writing brings me back to one of my teachers in Classical Philosophy who drew a triangle on the board. “What is this?” he asked. “A triangle,” we said. “No,” he replied, “it’s some chalk dust smudged a certain way.” He then wrote out the definition; we fell into the same trap. “No,” he replied, “it’s the definition of a triangle.” The triangle-in-itself is only mediated into existence, never actually existing as a material being.

With this Platonic view of writing, I think we are somewhat trapped in all the distancing that Ong ascribes to writing. It’s a somewhat long litany, but he often focuses on the growing divide between the “lifeworld” and the abstract, as writing makes our own thinking more abstracted from everyday life. We discuss more the idea of things than the things in themselves. Time and space also distance. We become more artificial in out being, though, as Ong paradoxically notes, it’s natural for humans to be artificial through technology. Technology, itself, is natural.

But I don’t think we need to be Platonic. As Heidegger argues–and Rickert–regarding the fourfold, dwelling assumes a lifeworld of both matter and meaning. “Hammer,” as word, is deeply stitched into the material of the hammer-object and the action of human-hammering, and in-turn, this layered ontology of the object, withdrawing and presencing as the situation changes, fits into the broader world of relations. So, to me, there is nothing Platonic about a hammer or the word hammer.

The same for visuals. I think here of Lauri Gries’ work. Following the Obama Hope image with a New Materialist underpinning, she highlights the “vital materiality” of the image. As she writes, “rhetoric transforms and transcends across genres, media, and forms as it circulates and intra-acts with other human and nonhuman entities. Rhetoric also moves in nonlinear, inconsistent, and often unpredictable ways within and across multiple networks of associations” (7).  Seeing the networked and networking threads and ripples of beings–both human and nonhuman, concrete and nonmaterial–something that feels “distant” or “dead” is very much alive.

Game Studies: Rules, Emergence, and Information

Of all the games we played last week, I was most interested by Mastermind, as it felt the most systematic and logic-based. From the six base colors and the four possible slots for these codes, you had 6x6x6x6, or 1,296, outcomes initially. I found myself thinking through my succession of moves each round logically whittling down these potential outcomes, in a somewhat mathematical way.

In other words, with the code already made, I was free to work within my own head and not respond to the moves of the other player in an ongoing, emergent way, unlike Blockus and Connect Four. I could stick to my own system or strategy and not have to worry about the way other players shifted their strategy. Over a succession of rounds in Mastermind, this may change, but in the context of the night, it did not. It was almost like the game was completely inside my own head as a series of logical possibilities scaffolded over a series of decisions.

This in-my-head quality made the game feel more like what Salen and Zimmerman say about “decision trees,” where one could trace out a consistent set of approaches, including a winning strategy, through a flow chart. With the numbered layout of six colors and four slots, the game has a series of discrete decisions mapped along two possible axis of variability, unlike Chess with its range of varied moves. But this only describes the possible moves, which is where the role of information came in.

Again, in Blockus and Connect Four, my move changed based on the information of the ongoing moves done by the other player(s). As Chris encroached on my territory, for example, I started making a stronger effort to block him. But in Mastermind, my moves changed based on the information provided by my own past decision. In this way, strategy was still emergent in Mastermind as I got new information, but the components of the game–like the input of other players–affected that emergence less. I could create an arc of moves that, theoretically, could be almost algorithmic and unchanged as each guess progressed.

In the information theory approach, as Salen and Zimmerman define, “information is a measure of how certain you can be about the nature of a signal” (193). As they breakdown Mastermind, as the guesser gets more feedback about the nature of the code through the black and white begs, “the guesser narrows down the possible answers (decreasing uncertainty), carving out a single guess fro ma range of all possible guesses” (194-95). Initially, the uncertainty is total–1,296 possible outcomes–but each round reduces the possible answers, so that by my final guess, I was no longer guessing. I logically knew exactly what my answer was.

In the other games, I never experienced this level of certainty. There was no set “strategy,” just an emergent web of possible strategies based on the changing game board, particularly in Blockus. I could get a sense for where people may go, but I never “knew.” I got a sense, as Even points out in his post, that a more expansion-oriented strategy seemed effective, or that certain pieces could fit into key choke-points for other players. But chance, or uncertainty, remained high. Noah, for example, could deliberately not play the “right” move, as we often did in connect four to delay the victory. Or one of us would miss the right move. Or a new move would come up based on the third or fourth person. All of these variables would, in turn, affect my move, feeding back into the system and affecting theirs.

In this way, Blockus, and to a lesser extent Connect Four, felt more “complex” and more uncertain than Mastermind. Or perhaps, it felt more emergent. But importantly, as Salen and Zimmerman point out, these feelings may simply be feelings, and the formal backdrop, the “constituative rules,” of all the games had a similar logic that operationalized in different experiences.

CCR 633: Thinking through Things, Dwelling, and Fourfold

This past weekend, my parents and I attended a concert at a Anyela’s a winery just outside of Skaneateles. From our seats, we saw lanes of grapes, stretched out like topography along the hills. Behind the stage, the lake reflected back the setting sun in bleeding reds and oranges staining the the once-blue water.  The stage rose up like a wooden ark, seeming to sit becalmed amid the people, trees, lake, and grapevines. And the musicians–a motley collection of strings, brass, harpsichord, and players–played as the sky dimmed through stirred-up rainbows into muted black.

In time, crickets chirped amid bow-strokes and the temperature fell. Under-dressed for the cold, I buttoned up my cardigan and sipped at my Cabernet Franc–its living brethren growing on the hills nearby.  When the sky was a steady darkness, fireworks perched over the shoulder of a distant hill, occasionally sneaking a muted rumble into the music.

At one level, these noises and sites–combined with our distant seats–got “in the way” and impeded the “piece” of Vivaldi or Sufjan Stevens from reaching us, “the audience.” Vivaldi may have pulled out his (wig) hair imagining how fireworks, crickets, and someone tripping over a stair in the dark would fit is double cello concerto.

This is what my parent’s thought. But the whole time I kept thinking about Heidegger and Rickert’s ambient rhetoric, thinking how this particular concert was incredibly ambient, even down to the fourfold of Heidegger’s dwelling. How the crickets and the cold, the sloped earth and changing sky, fit together, indeed “spoke together.”

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ENG 730: “Werewolf” and Fundamentals of Play

I had played “Werewolf” a handful of times in the past, mostly at parties with larger groups of people. These past times also had different variations, like the inclusion of a witch who could silence a villager in the night and no dead goat/cow/chicken/corn to start the game.

This initial dead goat/chicken/cow/corn felt like one of the more significant parts of the game, as (unless you are the Seer and get lucky) you lack information, making the choice of the vote more random. Salen and Zimmerman’s concept of the “anatomy of choice ” highlights the character of this initial vote I think. As they break it down, the anatomy of choice includes the following five steps:

  1. What happened before the player was given the choice?

  2. How is the possibility of choice conveyed to the player? 

  3. How did the player make the choice?

  4. What is the result of the choice? How will it affect future choices?

  5. How is the result of the choice conveyed to the player?

If we take the “voting of a villager to exile” as our choice, then some of the answers to these questions would be the same in latter votes. For example, the possibility of choice is conveyed through the narrator announcing the daylight and the need to vote, and the immediate result would be the showing of the player’s card and their exile.

But other elements differ. For one, the dead goat offers no information, so in the initial vote, we are all suspect. Initially, we had no way to really back up a decision–no answer to the “how” in an experiential sense for making our choice. Later on, we could use evidence from the course of play, but the first vote feels more awkward, dangerous, and random.

I feel like that created our role-playing. With the addition of roles, it eased the difficulty of this initial vote because we could essentially make up narrative reasons, easing the sense of randomness. As time went on, however, we seemed to embrace more of the arbitrary nature of this vote with a “go for it” approach. The randomness also heightened our appeal to the gambler’s fallacy and other more probabilistic thinking. Later votes invited more meta-gaming, analysis, and psychology.

The result of the choice, in a larger sense, was also important. If the villages got the wolf in the first turn, winning was much easier, raising the stakes.

I think what makes Werewolf an interesting game is that the choice–while the same procedure through each round–changes so much as the in-game context changes. As Salen and Zimmerman note about design, “Design is the process by which a designer creates a context to be encountered by a participant, from which meaning emerges.” Almost like stages in a game-show, as contestants get eliminated, each new vote provides a new “level,” “round,” or context to be encountered by the players as participants. And as the context changes, the experience changes. Patterns and skills emerge, but each vote presents a new problem to solve, a new experience of “meaningful play.”

This creates an elegant scaffolding between the “macro” and the “micro” levels of choice and outcome, to use Salen and Zimmerman’s terms. Each round, the available information changes and the stakes change in terms of our immediate “quantifiable” goal, and while the larger strategy for either wolf or villager may be the same, the tactics for each round are flexible and rhetorically situated.

Early on, for example, the wolf may want to appear completely innocuous and invisible. As time goes on, the wolf may want to eliminate more villagers, especially in the penultimate round. Or, initially, the wolf may kill the other wolf, making them appear innocent for the rest of the game. The round helps determine the more productive choice, to which the player must respond and be sensitive to, while maintaining the larger goal in mind.

Works Cited:

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT P2004.

ENG 730: Werewolf and Meaningful Choice

I’m going to start posting my school blog posts here, just so all my writing is in one place. They’ll come up fairly regularly and will be signified by a course title. Today is Game Studies.

I had played “Werewolf” a handful of times in the past, mostly at parties with larger groups of people. These past times also had different variations, like the inclusion of a witch who could silence a villager in the night and no dead goat/cow/chicken/corn to start the game.

Continue reading “ENG 730: Werewolf and Meaningful Choice”