On Jessa Crispin’s “The Dead Ladies Project”

dead ladies

The Dead Ladies Project is a collection of essays centered around Jessa Crispin’s travels in the shadows of the writers she’s fascinated with. The subtitle, “Exiles, Expats, & Ex-Countries,” almost doesn’t manage to touch what’s actually going on in the volume, which is nothing less than Crispin coming to terms with the afterimages of these literary figures that she’s tracing across a couple continents.

This isn’t a review so much as it is a recommendation. The literary essay as a form, steeped in reference and argument and confession and affect, is almost a lost art. Not lost as in “no one can find it” but lost as in “taken by a tidal wave.” The thinkpiece, the confessional, and the linear argument/college term paper published as cultural criticism have all become so dominant that they’ve pushed out more considered (hell, more elegant) essayistic forms.

I blaze through reading all of those genres, but Crispin’s book was maybe the slowest read that I’ve had in a long time. That’s not because it’s difficult (it’s not easy, I will say), but rather because it requires the reader to think along with it. Crispin is profoundly open about how she feels about herself, and she gives us many scenarios that frame those feelings: being a mistress, crying in an airport, taking taxis, becoming fascinated with black magic, and on and on. She hands all of this information over, and she evaluates it, and you listen to her. And you decide how you feel about it.

There’s emotional labor in that decision. I slipped over into care, into worry, about how the trip around the world to these sites of literary worship would end. I’m reading a Dragonlance novel at the same time, and they’re on a similar quest: Jessa has to make this pilgrimage in order to establish sense in the world; Tanis Halfelven has to do the same. I know how the latter will end, but the former has real danger in it. Real-world emotions are much scarier than dragons and their masters, but no less powerful.

In any case, read the book. It is good.

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On Broken Age

broken age tree

A few weeks ago I played through Broken Age, the “Double Fine Adventure” that went through a rollercoaster of development, release, and fan-relationship troubles.

It’s an adventure-game-ass adventure game, and being true to the lineage of a very particular time period in adventure games, it is profoundly frustrating. My own experience of the game went something like this: I stumbled through the first half generally understanding what I was supposed to do, and the second half seemed to be something akin to the experience of slamming into a brick wall at 400 miles an hour.

I have no idea how one would solve the puzzles in the back half of that game without randomly using objects on various characters and locations until the problems solved themselves. It is not a good time, and I ragequit the game (something I think I have done maybe three or four times in my entire life) after reaching a puzzle that continually reset itself in the last ten minutes of the game. The sequencing kept getting mixed up, and I just straight-up turned it off and uninstalled it from my console.

I wasn’t going to write about this experience at all, but I saw that Mathew Kumar had written this about the game:

I don’t think that in the “twenty-tens” or whatever we call them we should really accept games where you know what a character has to do, and it would be easy for them to do it by themselves, with no items or whatever, and yet you can’t do that. This is a game where you have to work out which specific person will lick icing of a cupcake (even if the hero Shay doesn’t want to eat it, he could just scrape it off!) Where you can’t give someone a Heimlich manoeuvre, you have to do something that is actually totally counter-intuitive screens away (which I won’t spoil.)

Now, I get it. It’s a puzzle game. You want to have puzzles to solve. But could they be… better? And the game’s “dual” nature—you can switch between two heroes, Shay and Vella—is totally a wash. There’s none of the interaction that made Day Of The Tentacle so incredible, and the mechanic is used to give characters information that they would never know without the invisible hand of the player-god. It’s actually sort of immersion breaking, so that blows.

I enjoyed, pretty much, none of the puzzles in this game. But I’m fond of Broken Age. It’s too pretty, too well-acted, and too charming to totally discount. It’s just weird to almost recommend the game saying “just play the whole thing with a direct, spoiler-free walk-through.” Or even worse, “watch a long-play on YouTube.” But it feels like what I’d like to do; it’s worth experiencing, sort of.

That’s the real conundrum at the heart of Broken Age. It’s a game that has all the trappings that might make me like it, but the actual execution drives me away from it. It’s like a beautiful painting hanging in the most hostile museum space.

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Oath of the Gatewatch’s Most Interesting Cards

nissa writing

I’ve been writing lists of the most interesting cards of the most recent Magic: The Gathering sets, and the articles are somewhere between useful and total frivolity. I just wrote another one about Oath of the Gatewatch. I’m literally writing about the cards that I find the most interesting, and while the positive feedback I get is a general enjoyment of the commentary I provide about the cards that I find interesting, the negative feedback is really strange in that it demands that I do the normal labor of just ranking the cards of the set. And those power/applicability/playability rankings are literally everywhere and have been for a couple weeks now, so I’m really not sure about why every entertainment list (and to be clear, this is an entertainment article) needs to be so serious and chock full of info.

In any case, conundrums aside, you can read The Most Interesting Cards in Oath of the Gatewatch.

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Constance Penley on Fan Fiction and NASA


I got back into space and its fictions in the mid-1980s by hanging out with some very interesting women from around the country who write homoerotic, pornographic, utopian romances that take place in the Star Trek universe. Fellow academics have suggested that my “hanging out” with these female fan writers was really “doing ethnography,” but I cannot bring myself to put that more scholarly grid over the wondrous tangle of experiences and relationships that I found in that fan culture. In the “/TREK” chapter and the ones that follow I talk about everything I learned from this underground group of pseudonymous amateur writers who have ingeniously subverted and rewritten Star Trek to make it answerable to their own sexual and social desires. But what I learned most from them was an attitude that I later developed into a critical stance, a method of addressing what had become for me the increasingly entwined issues of sex, science, and popular culture. If the “slashers” (as the fans call themselves for reasons that will be revealed later) could rewrite the massive popular phenomenon that is Star Trek, why couldn’t I write NASA itself? After all, NASA has by now become popular culture–an issue I address in the “NASA/” chapter–making it without a doubt an object available to cultural criticism.

Constance Penley, NASA/TREK pp.2-3

I love the argument being put forward here (despite not really thinking that Penley rewrites NASA in the book). The idea that cultural existence equates to a kind of canon or lore that can then be reinterpreted in the same way that Spock and Kirk’s relationship is is another way of talking about speculation, and I’m 100% into the idea of speculating about the conditions of things in the world.

Parroting Marlo Stanfield (recognizing the baggage that comes with quoting The Wire in any form: “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.”

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Let’s Play Rollercoaster Tycoon – Bumbly Beach

This was the level that I was super excited about playing through in my Let’s Play of Rollercoaster Tycoon. I love the spatial setting of the entire thing–it is right in the middle of some rowhouses and a beach. It’s something like an east coast American time capsule, and while I never play it in that way (there would have to be way too many carousels and ferris wheels), there’s something about that that is really special. This is the high-water mark for this playthrough, and I hope that you enjoy it if you haven’t seen it already.

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Gamestop Publishes A Game, Is Not A Publisher

“We are not attempting to be publishers here,” he told MCV. “We are simply taking a great opportunity to collaborate in a non-traditional way, and trust that the combination of all these great ingredients we have put in make for a great experience.”

Christopher Dring, “GameStop: ‘We’re not trying to be a publisher’

I think this is some real bad stuff, and I am actually surprised that there aren’t some kind of business regulations that would prevent vertical integration of the game industry this one. Would Best Buy be able to legally enter the game development industry? I honestly have no idea, but this is super strange to me.

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Animals, Drones, and the Police


We love when animals destroy drones. The compilation videos and their buzzf’diggification on Facebook has drawn together a very clear contemporary fascination with watching animals of all kinds destroy the most annoying objects of modern life. Animals fighting with flying machines is the new “watch a dad get kicked in the crotch on Christmas Day” in entertainment media.

The most recent story to draw attention around this phenomenon is the Dutch effort to train raptors (the birds not the dinosaurs) to snatch drones out of the sky. It’s worth clicking on the article to watch the short video because it is fascinating.

There’s nothing super complicated about the effort proper. A private, bird-based security firm has been contracted by the Dutch government to make those birds attack the drones that are threatening the privacy of, well, private citizens.

What I find interesting about the logic of the entire operation is the set of assumptions that exist to inform it. While the Guardian article I linked above is light on details from the security firm proper, the additional expert opinion from Geoff LeBaron really informs the majority of the piece:

Often drones lose their flying privileges because local birds feel crowded. “The drones are pretty much the size of a bird of prey, so smaller birds on the ground aren’t likely to mob a bird of prey when it’s flying – but larger birds are, especially when it’s around their nests,” said LeBaron, who’d seen the behavior in barnacle geese as well as raptors like ospreys. “The birds of prey are having an aggressive interaction to defend their territory from another bird of prey.”

LeBaron’s explanation naturalizes the antagonism between the bird and the ‘bot, and at first pass we could see an argument coming from this that would reaffirm some nature vs culture arguments right out of the Enlightenment and its echoes.

However, I think what’s more interesting is that there’s some strange flattening going on around the motivations of the bird in relationship to the drone. The animal psychology reading of the situation holds that the bird perceives a flattened relationship with the drone–when it looks at the drone, it sees a threat on par with other similar-sized flying things and deals with it appropriately.

There’s clearly a set of aviary disciplinary training that is going on here that’s similar to the training of a police officer or a private military corporation member. After all, the group doing this is a security firm. This bird isn’t just acting on instinct, but rather it is acting on training in the same way that a police dog or an assistance dog would be. When a dog helps someone who is visually impaired cross the street, we don’t essentialize that act into the “nature” of the dog. We recognize training.

There’s a politics to flattening out the bird’s relationship to the drone. We’re able to cast private operation of drones as literally “unnatural” and threatening to the order of things. More importantly, we are able to perform an action on humans by naturalizing the surveillance state as part of the instinctually-correct world of instincts available to animals.

Additionally, and this is some of the most interesting stuff for me, we are able to treat both the bird and the drone as equivalent creatures whose combat is an arena for working out what should exist in the world. It’s the choice between being a goddess or a cyborg abstracted out into violence between two inhuman things that we have objectified into combatants for our pleasure. What’s telling is that we can replace the bird with any other animal here–we can find an expert to naturalize the antagonism between the cat and the drone or the crocodile and the drone without any friction.

To end, I think that Greg Borenstein’s “Animal Tech Cop” does a great job of making this argument in a much more concise and entertaining way, so go look at that.

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