Revitalizing Geek Buffet

January 5, 2013


It’s 2013! The first year without repeated digits since 1987.

Does this mean that Geek Buffet will come out of its torpor and once again conquer the Internet, as it once believed it might have done?

Could be.
In any case, it does mean a return to semi-regular blogging by *coughs* those of us finally done with our dissertations and now busy with tackling the problems of life and mildly relevant research topics.

The screenshot from Realmz fits the theme here: a game programmed 20 years ago which produced a gut-wrenching groan noise when you resurrected a character.

Feel free to emit said groan whenever you’re ready.

Time for our unlife to begin.


A Crisis of Face

September 10, 2012

Prologue, Errata, Apology

I have been trying to write this essay for over a year now, which is completely and utterly ridiculous (to give you some idea, the file name I’m working from right now is “laser eyes crisis of face redux part eleventy the return of the revenge electric boogaloo.docx”).

It’s way too embarrassingly personal for this blog (so I thought; it probably still is), but it is also too pedantic and research-y for my personal blog. Here is where I default to my crappy academic first-paragraph structure in which I namedrop Montaigne, don’t end clauses with prepositions, and remind you of the etymological origin of the word “essay.” It means to TRY. You TRY to read it, I’ll TRY to write something that makes sense: it’s totally a social contract. Take your expectations and lower them to the floor. Done? Good.

Once upon a time, this was going to be the story of how two days after my 28th birthday, I took a bunch of Valium and let this guy I had never even met before shoot lasers into my eyes and now everything is clear, yay rainbow puppies unicorns ironically-chosen pop songs about rain and clarity!

The thing is – the things are – as follows:

1) The lasers shot into my eyes are really only the start of the story;

2) there’s no point in writing that particular narrative, as others have before and with prettier charts and graphs;

3) It wasn’t really what I wanted to write.

But before I begin, let me answer the questions you really want to know about my eye surgery, the ones I always get asked: nah, just a little bit of Vicodin; yes, I was awake; they gave me a bunch of Valium first, which was probably the most expensive Valium I’ll ever buy, and it didn’t relax me, just made me even less filtered than usual, (ask me sometime how I corrected the surgeon’s grammar); it was about 4 months before I had 20/20 vision all the time; I paid for it with crowdfunding, working an extra job, and a 0% loan because all I really have going for me is my awesome credit score; yeah, probably; no, I couldn’t smell my eyeballs burning and late at night thinking about this, I try to tell myself that the soldering smell was the chemicals evaporating from the laser and I need to believe that, also, why are you asking me about the smell of my burning eyeballs? …Freak.

Then there’s the rambling pre-emptive apology: Why did I do this? How could I, when after a lifetime of derision, suddenly it’s like totally hot to be a girl with extremely thick glasses?

As a feminist and a socialist, I feel that it seems very bourgeois and vain to have corrective surgery or any kind of elective procedure. So why did I do it? When I tell people that by late 2010, without my glasses, I was close to being legally blind in my left eye (yet the state of New Jersey kept giving me a driver’s license), it always turns into some dick-measuring contest where people whip out glasses and contact lens prescriptions. Damn, people are so competitive.

This is what you need to know about my specific choice to do the procedure, and these are my disclosures: by late 2010, I hadn’t gotten a new pair of glasses in more than 2 years; my vision correction was about a -8 in each eye; I also had myopic astigmatism (I forget the exact degree, and it wasn’t as serious as the regular myopia, but it was fairly significant); I couldn’t see well enough to put contacts in; I was getting daily headaches from eye fatigue because my lenses were scratched up so badly.

There were numerous things I simply refused to do, or did not do, or told myself I could not do because the prospect of not being able to see or of potentially damaging my glasses was too terrifying; this included swimming and most other active activities.

By late 2010, these avoidances had become restrictive enough that they came to include leaving the house at night, even to walk around in my dark, blurry, sidewalk-less neighborhood. If the cats knocked my glasses off the nightstand, I was completely helpless. I was in an awkward donut hole of ability: I was not blind enough to fluently navigate sightlessly, but so impaired without corrective lenses that my quality of life was impacted.

I needed new glasses, but the cost would have been close to $1,000 for new lenses and frames, which was frustrating, especially when compounded by my living on a grad student salary ($13k a year!) and the fact that they needed to be replaced every other year or so.  Based on this, I concluded it would be an investment if I pursued laser surgery as it cost approximately the same as 3 pairs of glasses, and the expenditure would pay for itself in about 5 years when I factored in the increasing cost of glasses. Since corrective surgery can’t prevent presbyopia, even if I made it to 40 without needing glasses again, I’d save money (and who’s to say I’d make it to 40, full stop? Quetzalcoatl is coming back this year, right?).

Also, at the end of 2010, some terrible things completely shattered my personal life. Details are unimportant here, but some wonderful people reached out to me and asked what they could do to help. I already said this above, but gifts from good friends both online and off made the financial aspect of the surgery possible, and I emphasize that only because I really cannot ever thank them enough. Anyway, I was able to afford it due to a small discount through my grad student elective coverage, these gifts, some savings I had from launching my business, and a loan from CareCredit, which I repaid in 6 months without paying any interest.

I was, unsurprisingly, not a candidate for LASIK because my eyes were too bad, but I was cleared for photorefractive keratectomy (PRK), which is an older, more intense procedure with a much longer recovery time. That’s what I chose, and that’s what I did, and it’s worked out phenomenally well.

But that’s, frustratingly, STILL not the point. You can look up all kinds of PRK recovery diaries (I found this one very helpful) if you are curious as to how it works in terms of the recovery.

It’s also vital that I emphasize that despite what I am going to write about here, I am and remain extremely happy with the surgery and I have fewer than 0 complaints about the surgeon, the eye doctor, or anyone else at the center, all of whom were just wonderful to me. There is not one single thing I wish they would have done differently and the only clear regret I have is not having found a way to do it earlier.

It’s the unintended outcomes of the surgery and what it did to me mentally that I want to write about. I don’t know how many patients there are like me, who had had very strong prescriptions for most of their lives, and hence had no real idea what their own adult faces looked like.  I don’t know how many people suffered an almost shattering sense of disequilibrium in their self-concept, but that definitely happened to me.

After the prescriptions were done and I no longer needed the assistive features on my computer to read me through my day, I had no idea who was looking back at me in the mirror (and after the surgery, I realized I only had one tiny mirror in my house). Something was missing, but things were also better. I wasn’t who I had been or who I had understood myself to be. I didn’t know who this person was, but I seemed to be stuck with her. After a lifetime of dismissing Looks (“I can barely see; why bother? I hate superficiality! I won’t even buy a mirror SO THERE, system! Fuck makeup damn the man!”), I became acutely aware of every negative feature that anyone could possibly see in me, as well as plenty they probably couldn’t.

I was a conventionally unattractive and overeducated woman living in middle America and teaching 18-22 year old pre-business students, who frequently used teaching evaluations as opportunities to address perceived deficits in my physical appearance. Therefore, I probably had numerous self-image issues anyway, but not having my glasses was strange and redefining, so much more than I had anticipated or imagined. I had thought, prior to the procedure, that in absent moments I might try to push my glasses up on my face and I would wonder what was missing (happens all the time, even now, especially when tired). I had assumed there would be some moments of mild terror, but the amplitude of how terrifying it was to not know who was looking back at me in the mirror was at times indescribable. The cinematic metaphor to which I returned over and over was Eyes Without a Face. This is really embarrassing to admit here, even swaddled in my thick walls of protective text, but I started to really believe  / feel like I was incredibly hideous, almost monstrous. It was like being a teenager again, except it sucked more, because it’s annihilatingly embarrassing to admit I felt like that when I was approaching 30. I began to feel like my glasses had been a mask or protector, and now I was facing the world, alone, and without the barrier the glasses created.

Worst of all was when people implied that I had somehow betrayed an important identity claim or let down some marginalized group: “Oh,” a creepy guy I met via an even creepier online dating site told me, “You didn’t say you got rid of your glasses. That’s a real shame because women with glasses are soooo sexayyyy.” I wanted to punch him in the face (for a lot of reasons, actually), but I started thinking about embodiment when he said that (which I will discuss below). The smaller, less direct comments from other people stung more: “What’s wrong with glasses?” “You just don’t like people thinking you’re a geek?”

Methodological statement: Because I have a stunning deficit in my mind where most other people have common sense, I finally started Researching this just a little while ago. Specifically, I was looking for what other people have said about self-concept and PRK. I limited my search to PRK specifically because this procedure has a more involved and much longer recovery timeline than LASIK and because it tends to be used with people who have a stronger degree of correction than LASIK patients.

I wanted to find out if I was just a uniquely unconfident snowflake, or if there was a larger trend in post-PRK patients experiencing significant and significantly negative ways in the ways they saw themselves. I’m well aware of the fact that I am not personally a sample, that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, and there were significant variables in my own life that probably contributed to or exacerbated my own negative feelings. But I can’t be the only one. Right? … don’t answer that.

But I was curious, and I just moved across the country and am kind of  bored, lonely and under-employed right now (hi! hire me! I do a lot of things!), so I conducted a very preliminary literature review to see what has been said about self-concept and PRK. For the patient readers, I will discuss what I found (don’t worry, it’s only a few things), then talk about embodiment a little as if I know what I’m talking about, then I will put in a gratuitous cat picture. Why else do we have eyes and an Internet, right?


I found relatively few high-quality articles on this topic. Most people seem to agree that PRK and other corrective surgeries enhance self-image. Googling “self-esteem PRK procedure” yields 715,000 results, most of which I consider biased because they come from vision center ads.

I think for most people, these procedures DO enhance self-esteem, but overall, there is a lack of robust literature assessing outcomes in self-concept for patients who had a) worn glasses for most of their lives and b) had a very high degree of correction. The studies I found have small sample sizes and problematic / non-descriptive means of assessing self-image.

For example, in a 2001 study in the Journal of Refractive Surgery, most patients were actually found to have a higher self-image after a PRK procedure (see: Jerzy Toczolowski, Piotr Oles and Zbigniew Zagórski). However, the sample size of this study (alliteration! Awesome!) is very small, only 25, and it was conducted in Poland; my impression and hypothesis is that in late-capitalist, voracious, image-obsessed America, findings might be significantly different. So all this really tells me is that if I take 25 people in Poland and the adjectives they would use to describe themselves as the norm, I’m not normal (also, if I had to pick any adjectives to describe myself, not a one of them would be in Polish).

Lest you think I’m actually just severely dissonant in my perception of self, a 1995 article in the same journal – which used a larger sample – found that “The psychological findings suggest that PRK patients cannot be considered more distressed or anxious than other myopic individuals” (Erickson, Ryan and Aquavella). Of course, that study uses Myers-Briggs, of which I’m suspicious (do I talk to people at parties? It depends on the party). All this really tells me is that the sample they chose indicates there is not a greater than average degree of anxiety or distress among the group of people who are candidates for and then elect to have PRK.

This is not directly related, but for the past year I have also held Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh’s Becoming an Ex in high regard. While I am not a sociologist, I wonder if there is an aspect of role exit at work here. In the past year, I also left a role in my own life (career / career student / mediocre academic). I understand Ebaugh as saying that the process of announcing the role exit reduces cognitive dissonance, and repetition and easing into another role reduces this dissonance. I wonder if the visibility and then the invisibility created this cognitive dissonance for me. I had a role, which was embedded in my face, of a bookish / geeky / nerdy female, and as long as I had that item on my face, the cultural construct in which I lived seemed slightly forgiving or understanding, as I was immediately and visually ascribed as belonging to a certain group. I wore glasses for about 20 years and I had had poor eyesight for years before I got them. There was very little of my pre-procedure life that I remember clearly (again, with the seeing-words) that didn’t involve corrective lenses. But then one day they were gone. There are many moments of bifurcation in one’s life, I think, but this one was certainly the most cinematic in mine. I walked into a room a person with very limited vision (simple past, completed action) and walked out to begin the process of recovering at 20/20. The division is so absolute and crazy. Usually borders bleed into each other, but this is an absolute division.

Leaving grad school was a process, unlike the surgery. People were generally extremely positive about the surgery, and generally very sympathetic about the situations that led me to choose to leave grad school. The difference is that of verb tense, of the simple past vs. the past progressive. I did, I was doing; I became, I was becoming. I was becoming an ex-(Failed!) grad student; day by day I was less and less what I had been and more and more whatever I am now (and it’s way better). But one day I was a person with glasses. I had a procedure and then I wasn’t. I underwent a process letting go of one role; the other happened suddenly. How to reconcile that? It is only now when I understand these two fundamental changes side by side that I think I can understand why it was so shattering and that the real recovery, the mental recovery, went on for so long. I have not had time to look it up, but the rhetoric used to refer to sight, and the English verb tenses used – in all their wonderful specificity – are something somebody (else) should really look into.

I don’t know if everyone who wears glasses had similar experiences to me. As an ex-grad student, I feel compelled to mention the Cyborg Manifesto. I was a cyborg; I went through every waking second of every day with a device that allowed me to see, a device on my body and in some sense part of my body. My physical engagement with the world depended to a great degree on the correct functioning of this device. “From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point” (Carraway). I no longer know on which side of the dichotomy I fall. All I can read in this quote, now, is the imaginary emphasis on the word “see.”

This change in my embodiment and interacting with the world was not as profound as the ones others undergo. I know that. But this experience really has given me a great deal of interest in embodiment, though I know virtually nothing of the theory surrounding it (recommendations?). Of all the changes in identity claims one has in a lifetime, it is virtually certain that at one point one will change how they physically interact with the world. Yet we seldom talk about it. Why?

SO WHAT? As I said before, every single thing about the staff and surgeons was wonderful. But it might be good if the corrective eye surgery field provided some psychological preparation for the profound change in self-concept that is likely to occur. Maybe we should stop fetishizing sexy glasses or understanding them as an intertwined aspect of a subcultural identity. Maybe we should normalize physical difference. Maybe we should just fund preventive measures to address the pandemic of eye issues (did you know almost 80% of urban Chinese children are myopic? [link is in Chinese, sorry]). I don’t really know what any of this does. I don’t even know if anyone is going to read all of this (if it took me a year to write it, I estimate people will read to the end by about 2015 or so). I’m sure my conclusions and interpretations are invalid and intellectually feeble, poorly informed by a useful framework. I live in the real world now, so I can’t do the usual grad-school cop-out and say “there’s just something there, you know?” More research is needed.

What do you think? Have you had corrective surgery? If so, how did you reconcile your former self with the present one? What issues did you encounter during that process? How can we understand embodiment in a world where physical difference can be erased and experiences normalized?


Every time I went for a post-op appointment, I walked by the Lion’s Club donation bin for glasses, which was helpfully situated by the front door of the clinic (great marketing move, there).

And just so you know – every single time, I told myself I was going to do it. I reached in and I opened my bag and touched my glasses and I suddenly could not fucking make my hand put them in the box. I just froze and pretended to be looking for my keys, and walked out the door, still getting fingerprints all over the lenses. I did this four consecutive times. But I still have them. Sometimes I look through them to try and see things the way I used to; I can’t now. It’s all a confusing blur, almost like a metaphor or something.

I just can’t let go, not of that, not of what I was.

I still can’t.

PS: I promised a cat picture:


Works Cited

Carraway, Donna. “Cyborg Manifesto, Part I.” 1985. Donna Carraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. September 2012 <;.

Ebaugh, Helen Rose Fuchs. Becoming An Ex: The Process of Role Exit. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Erickson, D.B., R.A. Ryan and J.V. Aquavella. “Cognitive styles and personality characteristics strongly influence the decision to have photorefractive keratectomy.” Journal of Refractive Surgery 11.4 (1995): 267-74.

Jerzy Toczolowski, MD, et al. “The Sense of Self-concept Change in Patients After Radial Keratotomy .” Journal of Refractive Surgery 17 (2001): 134-137.


A Requiem for Livejournal

March 15, 2011

Ad perniciem solet agi sinceritas – Phaedrus

In which rows of asterisks function as transitions:

I suppose it’s come to a point now where I really have to admit it to myself and make it real by writing it (“Write it!”): It is gone now, or at least, no longer alive. The online community where I felt the most comfortable of any space on earth, digital or analog, is now relegated to artifact and memory. The space in which I met the most meaningful people of my life, the safe place where I could really be myself since high school – is gone and never, ever coming back. The space where I spent my youth – even if this space is reducible to mere 1’s and 0’s – is an ex-thing. It was not even afforded the dignity of total destruction, but rather, it petered out into insignificance.

Oh, sure, the site is still up, the servers humming somewhere. It’s all the rage in Russia, apparently, but the US-based Livejournal is dead and gone, a digital post-nuclear holocaust inhabited only by a few unkempt survivors who are suspicious of outsiders. I know. I am one of them.

For years, as Facebook has gotten creepier, I’ve urged people to repatriate to Eljay, but it never happens. I hit reload on my empty friends list; I look at the IP hits on my journal; I think of the dozens of people who have left the site, drifted away, one by one. I look at the empty landscape and wonder, how did we get here?


Once upon a time, I was 17 years old and my friend Andrew Like-Slettuce kept urging me to join this blogging site. I already felt pretty cool because I had been on Blogger, but one day to humor him I opened the URL and saw what he’d been talking about. I saw the user profiles listing interests and was charmed. I saw the field for “current music” and was utterly enthralled. Surely, what was missing from my life was a way to blog that let me broadcast to the world my interest in Werner Herzog and apocalypses. I needed to tell the world what I was listening to while writing about New Jersey diners, verbs, and dollar stores. I missed achieving “early adopter” status by mere weeks, but I was hooked within minutes.

Before social networking was all the rage, Livejournal connected users in a meaningful way. With a few clicks, I could add new friends to my journal who shared my interests in “seedy diners” and “old classroom films.” Before all the hand-wringing about internet presence and privacy, Livejournal offered “granular” security – a feature Facebook will never have and that Twitter can’t seem to implement. Before all the inane memes and surveys hit Facebook, we on Livejournal answered them, and more cleverly. I knew what serial killer I’d be and what disease I was no later than 2003. Before blogs had effectively coalesced into a sphere, Livejournal brought people together, and used language to do it on one site.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I loved coming home after spending time with friends and reading a different account of everything that had happened; it was Rashomon before I ever lived in a place where I could have seen the movie Rashomon. Livejournal illuminated for me the infinite possibilities of experience, writing, and perspective. Livejournal let me keep in touch with friends from each of my left-behind lives, as I embarked on a relatively transient adult life (New Jersey, Florida, Germany, New York, back to New Jersey, now the Midwest, hopefully somewhere else soon). Livejournal created a nexus of meaningful communication among all the people who meant a lot to me in each place. Livejournal archived all my writing, throughout each chapter of my life. Livejournal helped me learn about new books, places, and lives. Most of my exes are or were on Livejournal. Heck, I even got one of my cats because of a Livejournal post (he has a Twitter now).

In its heyday, almost everyone I knew – everyone who mattered, anyway! – was on Livejournal. At one point around 2005, I had met most of the people on my friends list not only because I tend to get evangelical about things I think are cool, and thus got people to sign up (remember those invite tokens?), but because I felt a certain intimacy with the people on there, enough so that I made a point of meeting up with Livejournalers.

The deep emotional intimacy – that’s  something I really miss and will continue to miss about Livejournal. In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer describes how we never or rarely think about the intimacy of dead animal flesh in our mouths. I immediately thought of Livejournal: I thought of the intimacy I felt with the people who knew me only from the inside of my mind, and how inadequate other human relationships sometimes felt in comparison. Livejournal felt authentic, it felt important. Food is in your mouth, but the friends who read my writing – and, more importantly, the people whose writing I read – were in my head. I could keep an online presence but lock my entries so only friends could read them. I could keep some things public. It was freaking awesome.
Through Livejournal, the quotidian could be transformed into a document, a collaborative experience to which many people responded. While I too was occasionally guilty of living life so as to generate Livejournal posts, I never saw it as solely about me. My life as documented was only meaningful due to the participation of others. My Life, The 17 to 28 Years, was made by Livejournal. For me, Livejournal was made by the comments of others.


In 2009, I wrote a paper for a grad seminar about the LJ Community EFW, in which I argued that this community was an instance of performance of early adopter status. Now I would revise that argument slightly to note that these days, merely being on Livejournal is an inconsequential act of resistance. What are you doing there? Is that site even still around? That’s so 2003. Everyone’s on Facebook now. I like reading your stuff, but Livejournal is too annoying.

At least in the USA, the site owners have managed to fail spectacularly at adapting the site in a meaningful way to the changes in the Internet. At the same time, they have also managed to alienate a large portion of the strong community that made Livejournal what it was. The site has changed hands numerous times in the past few years: Six Apart, SUP, and Livejournal, Inc have all owned it, insofar as anyone can really own a site powered by user-created content (a topic for another blog post, but the answer is probably: total ownership, you’re just a content farmer for a corporation). Nobody has ever leveraged the user base for anything meaningful, and the site seems to operate on a delayed-reaction strategy.  Only a few weeks ago, they implemented a pathetic attempt to add social gaming / data mining (and, that’s like, so 2009, right?). It was late in the game before they established Facebook / Twitter implementation, which as usual was implemented in a way that managed to alienate, confuse, and upset a significant portion of the user base, who were sure this meant non-consensual exporting of data elsewhere on the web.

I’m not sure how things are on the Russian-language version of the site, but the English-language site has become a tacky ghost town. If I am accidentally logged out, the sheer annoyingness of how the ad-plastered site is presented to “free” users makes me kind of dizzy. My paid account is expiring in a few months, and for the first time since 2001, I think I will let it lapse.

Many of those who remain on the site are blasé about it, even condescending towards my nostalgia. Of course all things end, of course all sites and all forms of beauty must fade and die. Of course everyone in my age cohort (except me, I guess) has moved on to Careers and Families and Home Ownership and Children and God, Everyone Just Grows Up, Get Over It! But that doesn’t make it any less painful – not after a decade of it being a big part of your life. Any space of one’s youth, even if it’s virtual, inspires pain and melancholy when it goes to seed.


One of the things I found most moving about the movie Up was the function of the space of the home itself, and how it performed a resistance to change by retaining its charming mid-century aesthetic, even in the midst of hideous corporatization. The interior of the house indexes a lifetime of stories, hopes, and dreams, some achieved, some not. In the scenes that show the house, the most vibrant colors in the palette are in the balloons that buoy the house over the anonymous gray urban corporate-scape. One could over-read this as a metaphor for the hive mind – that the remaining indexes of the past are buoyed, perhaps, by the buoyant nature of collectivity. Maybe.

the house from up leaving the 21st century city

To me, Livejournal has become like that house (which, I suppose, means that I have become cantankerous Ed Asner). As the web has gone  multimedia, Livejournal remains totally rooted in the textual origins of the Internet itself. As the Wild West of the 90s Internet has consolidated into a few corporate-owned cookie-cutter type chains, Livejournal remains a “humble and solid” index of what the web used to be.

Those of us left, perhaps, assert our early adopter status by continuing to use an online social network / platform that is rooted in the textual Internet. On one level, using the textual in this way reflects an identity claim as a literate citizen: after all, using the Internet once required significantly more intellectual, economic or educational privilege than it does today (and of course, privilege is still needed to access it).

Building worlds and communities through words alone is a more difficult and powerful goal than doing it with bells, whistles, and cat pictures. On one level, participating in a relatively old-school site like Livejournal in the current Internet environment is a statement of “I was there way back when. I was there before you.” Or, “We were there before those other people.” These are statements about which I feel ambivalent. At its core, could my nostalgia merely be no more than an index of my discomfort with the web being accessible to more than an elitist few?

Of course, this too leads to interesting questions. Where does a space exist, particularly if it is digital? What is a space and where is a public?  If an easily-accessible archive remains of a time that is gone and nobody has died, is anything really lost? Can it ever be reconstituted? What is the Live in Livejournal? If the site simply shifts and grows in one country and dies in another, is the space really gone? What, if anything, will replace it?

Of course I can look back over the 10 years of my writing, but the thing that made Livejournal alive is no longer there. Of course most of those people are still alive, but the online diaspora has scattered everyone to the digital winds.

Of course, maybe there’s a future, a new place to write and meet new people. At least, I need to hope so. But Livejournal, I miss you- and I’m using Livejournal as a synecdoche for those of my friends who drifted away from the site and thus from me. Keep in touch.

–Miranda / audesapere

Current mood: Nostalgic

Current Music: “Come Dancing” by the Kinks

Up a Creek and Against All Odds – Blowback Role-Playing Game

February 16, 2011

Blowback Cover

As Giorgio Agamben establishes in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, human history can be summarized in terms of sovereign states separating citizens (with rights, privileges, protections) from “bare life” – mere human bodies excepted from the law and fully subject to the forces of the world arrayed against them.

Blowback by Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat is a role-playing game that explores what happens when citizens with exemptions (i.e., government-backed operatives) suddenly become bare lives, which then threaten the mere citizens (i.e., the civilians) about whom they still care.  This “caring” transforms from a passive activity into an active, perilous dance.  As Sampat beautifully puts it:

All you have, all you are, is you. So you make nice with the few people who’ll have you, and rely on them more than you should – but if you’re too cold or uncaring, they’ll turn on you. And if you care too much, the people who are after you will exploit them to hurt you. And if you cared about them at all, you wouldn’t care about them even a little.

Sampat has framed the game as “heavily inspired by the American teleivision show Burn Notice and movies like the Bourne trilogy.”  Some reviews have mentioned the game overstates this influence a bit, but I appreciate that the game knows where it is coming from and proudly wears this badge on its shoulder.  The media that inspire the game are just a springboard, however, for a whole host of questions concerning our ability to function under stress – specifically the stressful conditions imposed by our would-be action movie – and what that does to our relationship to our environment, ourselves and, well, our relationships.

In Blowback, you play a mixture of Professionals and Civilians who have suddenly become interconnected by a botched mission.  While this premise appears incredibly specific, it appears to be to the spy genre what the dame-walks-into-the-private-eye’s-office trick is to film noir: Salt (2010),  Eye of the Needle (1981), The American (2010), The Replacement Killers (1998) — they’ve all got traces of the “botched job” trope.  The GM plays The Agency opposite them, whose role is to turn up the heat under the characters at strategic moments, all the while teasing us with details about the botched job.  The player-characters often find themselves caught between their past and present, with the future virtually unforeseeable (except as a repository for further anxiety).

The game system itself puts you into a fairly rigorous but easy-to-follow flowchart of action, with a lot riding on the tense web of relationships generated in the early part of play (this is an indie game, after all).  The dramaturgy of every session is structured by an individual Job — a man wants to be extracted from his company, a little girl hires you to track down the man who killed her father, whatever — that is further subdivided into the Analysis, Operation and Blowback phases.  Each offer you a chance to indulge in all the cliches of the spy genre while inventing your own:  Analysis is where you trick cameras and bribe informants, Operation is when your plan goes awry but generally alright, and Blowback is where you find out that it’s not okay for you to kidnap visiting state dignitaries and put them in your brother’s garage.  You get a certain number of overall actions, and legible flowcharts within each phase let you figure out the consequences of your decision-making/dice-rolling.  Game echoes of Cyberpunk or Shadowrun, where you assemble crack teams for jobs, mix with the television-relationship dynamics of games like Smallville or Primetime Adventure.  As Sampat was on the playtesting crew for Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, her careful delineation of The Agency’s responsibilities in making the player-characters’ lives “not boring” remains in dialog with Baker’s game on many levels.  Unlike Apocalypse World, however, “opportunities should always seem like the result of what’s happening in the game, not a result of the roll.”  The game’s architecture insists that story remain queen of the realm.

The system and the book itself (printed in glossy full-color) aside, Blowback has some philosophical subtlety built into its design.  The bare life principle, for example, foregrounds the notion of human expendability in the face of modern systems of control and governance.  You as the player-character suddenly begin to take a good, hard look at your surroundings and ask yourself: what are my resources here in Great Falls, MT?  Who here can I trust?  Where does this podunk town fit into the great game?  Then you open your eyes and see it:  at least in the United States, the military-industrial complex surrounds us. It has hardened into a kind of invisible carapace that nevertheless locks us into untenable courses of action:  wars we cannot win in distant countries, mass-scale corruption, families dependent and vulnerable on the few industries that remain, guns sold over the counter to dubious people, and so forth.  And the beginning of heroic action against/within this complex comes from our interpersonal relations, that we ourselves might personally experience the consequences of violence and intrigue and try to spare others from the same.  Blowback thus co-opts the often corporate-fantasy-dominated spy genre for the purposes of exploring what happens when the insulation that keep our professional and personal lives apart is removed, when the ugly foundation of world power is exposed through a seemingly inconsequential “gray op.”

On the one hand, Blowback is all good guys, bad guys and explosions.  And on the other, it’s all instant pain, hope and social critique.  Honestly, what else are you looking for in a role-playing game?

And beyond that, can any of us – Pro or Civilian – survive being cut off?

Breaking news from Libya

February 11, 2011

As part of this blog’s continuing effort to document American civilization from the perspective of the career of Jennifer 8. Lee (that is the project, right, Dana?), I would like to note that Lee has not only a desktop-optimized website,, but a mobile-optimized website ( and a personal URL shortener (

Clever people and their clever people parties.

– posted by Mike

everything i need to know about life, I learned from Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise.

December 24, 2010

Hi! I’m Miranda. I’m new around here (Geek Buffet, I mean, not the Internet). I’m excited to be part of this blog, since I like buffets, and I also like some geeky stuff. That’s all you need to know about me for now. Today I’m going to talk about what I know.

But, like the title of the post says, everything *I* need to know about life, I learned from Sid Meier’s Civilization. I don’t mean any individual title, I mean the entire franchise. My life can be neatly chaptered according to its installments; it has formed my understanding of, you know, Civilization Itself. My involvement with it goes back to the fall of 1991, when I was 8 years old and in the third grade.

*flashback noises* Or, wait, scratch the flashback noises, let’s start how Civ starts: “In the beginning, the earth was without form, and void…” Pretend Leonard Nimoy spoke that. OK!

During recess one day, my friend Brendan pulled a computer game out of his backpack. Remember how they used to come in gigantic, quality cardboard boxes? It was one of THOSE. And everything he brought was really good.

“This game is so great! You should copy it!” he said.

I thumbed through the instruction manual (dude, you guys, do you remember when those were like, analog?). This sentence struck me: “And if you use a pirated version of this, may your citizens flay you in the electronic streets.”* I thought, “Cool! Pirates!” (My father and I would find Sid Meier’s Pirates! in a bargain bin two summers later). Then I asked Brendan what “flay” meant, and he didn’t know, so we went back to the classroom to look it up. I was pretty sure at that point that this was actually the coolest game ever. I could not WAIT to get home and find the pirates!

(Dear Sid Meier: a) I was 8 years old and b) I have bought so much other stuff I probably paid for at least 2 tiles in your guest bathroom, or,  like, the equivalent of 2 board squares in the board of your house. At this late date, I make no apologies.)

I don’t remember actually learning a whole lot in elementary school, but I do remember learning systems in the games I played. I spent that fall sitting in my parents’ garage using my dad’s computer to play Civilization and wage wars and build spaceships, though like I said, it took a couple years to really find the PIRATES!.

How did the world work? You built little cities on squares, and you hit enter, and time passed, and the cities made little shields, that you used to build stuff so eventually you could take over the world. It was also good to have little wheat plants. And beakers. Beakers meant you could get technology so you could build spaceships, and also better weapons with which to thwomp your enemies.

A more serious reflection on this game convinces me that it is a product of its time: Civilization I tells us more about culture and politics in 1990 than it tells us about military or science history or anything else.

In 1990, another media object central to my childhood premiered (50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth). In 1991, Civ debuted, complete with what was later referred to as “whack-a-mole” pollution. You build too many tanks? Uh oh, send your settlers to clean it up, fast! A few months after Gulf War I and just a few years after the end of the Cold War, two victories are imagined: one, a peaceful-enough path of rational technology and colonization of Alpha Centauri (another later title). the other, conquest of every other civilization on your planet. At the dusk of Bush I, Civilization I used limited computing resources to circulate an environmental, relatively Eurocentric ethos, and presented two types of success: one militaristic and one technologically imperialistic. You get extra points for turns without wars (3 for world peace), but you lose 10 points for each square of pollution. When I was 8 years old, I thought pollution was about 3.333333 times as bad as war.

When I was in 7th grade, I lived in a new house and went to a different school. Sid Meier very nicely came out with Civilization II. All the good features of Civ I but better, with that fancy CD-ROM technology and video clips. Leonardo Da Vinci would obligingly upgrade your military and it was really important to build both Women’s Suffrage AND Cure for Cancer. Instead of creating settlers to wander in and irrigate your desert for the whole of human history, you had ENGINEERS! I was getting to the age when kids have to hear a whole bunch of suggestions about what they should do when they grow up. Gifted kids all got told to be engineers and oh god, can’t you please at least pretend to care about algebra? I was a gifted kid. I took great pride in outsourcing menial tasks to MY engineers, but that’s just me. Anyway, during those Information Superhighway Days, when the onramp was metaphorically, I don’t know, that one shot out of Godard’s Week-End or something, Civilization II deployed some pretty sophisticated multimedia with its wonder movies and advisory council. In the post-Republican Revolution and pre-9/11 world, you could establish your government as “Fundamentalism” and recruit “Fanatics” to fight for you. The game, like Civ I, still circulated a strong faith in technology, particularly the development of technology that fought wars or enabled colonization of other worlds.

Civilization III came out at the end of my first semester of college, right after 9/11. Shockingly enough, this edition of the game had neither Fundamentalism nor Fanatics, though you could win with Culture. For the first time, the civilization you played as meant more than the city names and colors. Suddenly, it was possible to dazzle people at cocktail parties by being able to name two adjectives about many historical leaders and cultures. I am sure there were parties I attended in college where I said, approximately, “America is, like, totally expansionist and industrious. I read somewhere that the Persian culture is very…scientific. And industrious! We’re so similar, guys.” As the Bush II era dawned, Civilization III tweaked the system by adding corruption and oil: corruption as a way to shut down city’s production, and oil as a scarce resource that was needed to build plum units. As SUV’s became increasingly common, the game concept of “pollution” was eliminated. As America sought to shock and awe Iraq, suddenly three new paths to Ultimate Civ Victory were presented: Dominance, Diplomacy, and Culture. You can read this in two ways: As a reification of Bush-era politics (you win by being the biggest! And having the most McDonald’s / Mickey Mouses! [Mickey Mice?] And using a Western institution, the UN, to unite the world! Or as a critique, perhaps, of these same politics: Spread the good word of your civilization and its virtues and get everyone on your side. The beauty of Civilization, one supposes, is it can be both and neither to any player.

The year after I finished college, the year I was in Germany, was the year of Civilization IV. Perhaps because I know this installation the best, I feel that it is the best *game* of the franchise. Civilization IV introduces two new sub-systems: religion and corporations, both of which are spread the same way. In the years of the zenith of American consumerist excess, and the “declining years of the long war,” Civilization IV equated religion with corporatism. Oil was still a precious, scarce resource. So was kitsch: Leonard Nimoy was the voice of the game. So were animals: Suddenly, big scary mammals could attack you; the game always helpfully tells you that a “barbarian” wolf attacked and killed your settler, just in case you thought it was French or something. Just like real life, your civilization sometimes had unpredictable Events: natural disasters like hurricanes or scandals like intra-faith marriages. Only months after the rise of Perez Hilton and what I consider the total takeover of celebrity / pop culture, the game introduced the individualistic concept of Great People, units named after Real Historical Individuals who could greatly advance civilization by building special buildings, discovering technology, conducting missions, “creating great works,” etc. Oil is again a scarce resource, and sometimes your “corporate advisors” request that you take it by force. At the zenith of the housing bubble (the final expansion for Civ IV, Beyond the Sword, came out in 2007), the array of things you could build in a city was simply dizzying, and the wonder movies focused on process, depicting the wonder from a blueprint to construction site to final product. This is a game that reflects excess.

This year, the year I finished my PhD coursework (!), Civilization V came out. I’ll be honest: I haven’t had much time to spend with it, and I haven’t been that impressed. Suddenly, in the last gasps of the PC game market, it’s important that the game be all different and like, marketable, and fairly stupid. Gone is the ability to garrison more than one unit in your city; gone is the ability, it seems, to really build up a city. Luxuries aren’t serendipitously found but rather held by city-states, which, according to the Civ chronology, must have existed before the big bang (“the earth was without form, and void” – yet you get notifications about them immediately). I haven’t spent enough time on it yet to really have a full opinion as to How It Tells Us Everything We Need to Know About Year of Our Lord 2010, but I have some ideas that I will expound upon at a later date.

SO WHAT? Did you read all of that? I like to think this is more than a tl;dr nostalgia trip (since I have been mentally composing this essay or whatever for, like, months). I feel that using Civilization, we can see a historiography of the past 20 years and how changed cultural thinking is reflected in a game. Moreover, I think the Civilization franchise is inherently American: essentially, the game is a growth strategy. That’s the most yeah-duh genre thing ever, but let’s think about that for a second: in Civilization, you start with almost nothing, and you leverage your resources to build an empire (as defined, one imagines, in the West). You follow a good old-fashioned bootstrap narrative of building something huge out of nothing. You raise your people from barbarism (loosely defined) to a specific type of victory: a corporatist, Western-rationalist, military-industrial complex type. Ultimately, to win the game, every action or choice you make should help you get one step closer to dominating, destroying, or gaining the technology necessary to dominate or destroy other planets. So in that sense, is Civilization not really AMERICA? Is this game introducing people to the idea of other civilizations but within the rubric of Americanist aims and values? What would a non scientific-rationalist or Western-centric version of Civilization look like? How does Civ V reflect changes in the world since Civ IV came out?

I say this not to be critical. I have spent untold thousands of hours of my life with this game; I’m obviously not going to give it up. However, nobody I can think of has ever thought about it from a critical / cultural standpoint before, and it’s obviously long overdue.

What do you think? About the game franchise, I mean, not how overdue an examination of it is, or how long winded I am.

*Many, many years later, I would pay 50 cents for a copy of the same instruction manual in a thrift store in Sarasota, Florida. That is how I know my memory is correct enough for this quote (Despite the fact that 2 seconds of Googling revealed it online in HTML). And yes, I footnoted a blog. It’s just how I roll.

Cool Cats and Dirtchambers

December 22, 2010

Since the 1990s, the boundary between electronic musician, producer and DJ has been a question of pure market distinction:  (supposedly) electronic musicians finely craft soundscapes in their cobbled-together studios, producers provide electronic backing and mixing to “live” artists, and DJs assemble impromptu mixes for parties outside of the studio.  But anyone in the industry could cut these distinctions down as bullshittery in an instant — most people who do one are fully capable of doing all three roles well (or four, if you count the dubious term “remixer”).  In fact, I’d even wager everybody’s an electronic musician of some kind.  Have you ever made a mixtape?  An iTunes music list?  If yes, you’ve engaged in a similar curatorial effort to those employed as DJs or electronic musicians, meticulously selecting/arranging samples.  But doubtlessly some people do have a leg up over the rest of us in terms of quality.

Anyhow, the issue at hand is really the electronic artist-curated mix CD.  Halfway between a DJ set and a personal home playlist, these CDs have more than anything else clued me into the musical origins/influences of my favorite artists.  Every selection becomes a statement, and every mash-up or beat-matched song combo a revelation about musical possibilities.  This is musical education incarnate, live and direct from an artist whom you like and who, like you, was once a kid listening to other artists and so on.  But the rights for an ideal music education are a prized commodity.  Some of those can get expensive, which is why only celebrity DJs/electronic musicians/producers/remixers (okay, awkward neologism time: depremixers!) with deep-pocketed labels can afford to put out their definitive mixes to enlighten and rock out their listening public.  The tension between two mixes in particular intrigues me to no end.

Case 1 – The Dirtchamber Sessions by The Prodigy (1999)

I’m a giant Prodigy fan, from Liam Howlett’s teenage keyboard noodling on the What Evils Lurks EP and The Experience (1991) to the wry samples on Music for the Jilted Generation (1995), from  the aggro-breaks of “Smack My Bitch Up” and “Breathe” on The Fat of the Land (1997) to the laptop mania of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned (2004).  Their songs combine rock samples, no-nonsense drum loops and acid synths with MC work by vocalist-dancers Keith Flint and Maxim to form an entirely idiosyncratic and immediately recognizable sound.  There is essentially a “Prodigy style” that they have to live up to on each album, and they continue to do so even with their recent Invaders Must Die (2009). Howlett’s 1999 mixtape The Dirtchamber Sessions thankfully gives us a little insight into the progenitors of his band’s sound.

If you look at the track list, several facts become apparent:

1. No Kraftwerk to be seen.
2. Half the artists are African-American.
3. Nods to fellow big beat artists Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and Propellerheads. The Prodigy *gasp*, too.
4. Mash-ups of hip-hop, punk and funk in equal measure, with some added keyboard action as transitions.
5. Dramaturgy guides the endeavour, with musically scripted highs and lows.

Overall, Howlett appears guided by artists from fairly humble origins who were cutting together pop, jazz and funk tidbits to create an innovative, living sound.  Several successes include his mash-up of Propellerheads’ “Spybreak” with the Beastie Boys’ “Time to Get Ill” or LL Cool J’s “Get Down” with “Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground.  The album actually introduced me to the greatness of Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy in one fell swoop, and got me into the old skool hip-hop sound in general.

In any case, I know of few artists who would have assembled such a mix and put it forth with such confidence.  What’s more, there are definite stylistic breaks from what we would consider the Prodigy sound:  the B-Boys paired with Babe Ruth, for example, or Primal Scream. In any case, the Prodigy successfully conveyed the gems of its generation onto my generation, interesting me in artists leading in divergent directions — but whom I now loosely associate with The Prodigy.

Case 2 – Cool Cats by Justice (2009)

Enter our generation, represented by the French superstar group Justice (who actually only have one major album – † (2007) – to their credit).  The Prodigy actually cited Justice as a major influence on the formation of Invaders Must Die, particularly their glitchy, bass-driven form of French house.  The Ed Banger sound, exemplified by artists such as Busy P, DJ Mehdi, or SebastiAn, reached its apogee under Justice’s watch and is still a major player in the club scene for Europeans in their early-to-mid-20s.

Anyway, they apparently put together a tracklist for the Ed Banger “Cool Cat DJ” crew, which then somebody else mixed for them.  So I don’t actually know who has agency for this thing, but it certainly relates genealogically to the Dirtchamber sessions:  artists publicizing the music that influences them.

Looking at the tracklist, we can make the following observations:

1. Oh, there’s Kraftwerk.
2. Most of the artists are white European electronica artists.
3. Nods to Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, but goes out of its way to prove its edge-y cred: Aphex Twin, Basement Jaxx, and Audion. And Justice, of course.
4. Assorted electronic noise is added to tracks –  in the “Justice” style.
5. Endeavors are made to keep the energy level as high as possible — even older hits are sped up.

Most of the tracks I actually owned as a mainstream electronica fans, meaning that they are as well.  Rather than absolutely identifying with their taste, I am instead sensing a careerist tinge:  they are profiling themselves with their/our favorite artists, rather than paying homage to them.  In effect, I listen to the Cool Cats mix and learn nothing new about myself as an electronica listener, only an affirmation that A) big beat was/is cool and B) this should rub off on Justice and their Ed Banger friends.  This is disappointing in particular because the Ed Banger Rec. series is otherwise so well conceived.  And though Justice’s sound may have raised the bar with regard to hard-edged dancefloor party-mixes, their inspiration comes from a place that cannot inspire me.

Put another way:  Schoedsack and Cooper created the (horribly colonialist) masterpiece King Kong (1933) because they had been “adventurers” and “explorers” which qualified them to project fantasies about places they had, in fact, visited.  Peter Jackson created the 2005 King Kong on the basis of, well, the fact that he had seen and enjoyed King Kong.  I feel this one level of media remove affects the Prodigy / Justice split as well:  the Prodigy drew on the roots of funk and hip-hop, and communicate the enthusiasm about it; Justice drew on those who drew on those roots, and feel sufficiently divorced from the source material to self-aggrandize as artists-who-rock-the-party.

Listening to them back-to-back prompted this rant, and now that it is done, I’m going to put on The Dirtchamber Sessions again…