TfE: From Cyberpunk to Infopunk

I have a somewhat tortured relationship to literary and cultural criticism. I think that, like most people, some of my most complex and nuanced opinions are essentially aesthetic. I’ve written quite a lot about the nature of art, aesthetics, and what it means to engage with or opine about them over the years, but I’ve struggled to express my own opinions in the form I think they deserve. I’ve read far too much philosophy in which literature, cinema, or music is invoked as a mere symbolic resource, a means marshalled to lend credence to a sequence of trite points otherwise unjustified; and I’ve encountered far too much art in which philosophy is equally instrumental, a spurious form of validation, or worse, a hastily purloined content; art substituted for philosophy, and philosophy substituted for art. I care about each term too much to permit myself such easy equations.

I partially succeeded in writing about Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game, though the task remains unfinished. I also co-wrote a paper on the aesthetics of tabletop RPGs with the inestimable Tim Linward. I’ve got many similar scraps of writing languishing in my drafts folders, including an unfinished essay on Hannu Rajaniemi‘s Jean Le Flambeur trilogy, which is my favourite sci-fi series of the century so far. Science fiction is a topic so near and dear to my heart that I find it difficult to write about in ways that do it justice, with each attempt inevitably spiralling into deeper research and superfluous detail that can’t easily be sustained alongside my other work.

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TfE: Corrupting the Youth

Here’s a twitter thread from earlier today, articulating some of my thoughts about the philosophy of games in general, and the nature of tabletop roleplaying games more specifically.

Here’s a rather different set of thoughts for this morning. Some may know that one of my many interests is philosophy of games. This is a topic close to my heart, but I also think it a timely one, insofar as games are now culturally hegemonic.

The concept of game cuts across everything from the philosophies of action and mathematics to the philosophies of politics and art. We ignore it at the risk of our own cultural and intellectual irrelevance.

If you want to know more about the history of the concept and my own take on it, check out my ‘What’s in a Game?’ talk.

To be concise: I think that if games are art, then their medium is freedom itself, and that there is a case to be made that RPGs, whether tabletop, LARP, computer based, or some cross-modal mixture thereof, realize this truth most completely. RPGs are experiments in agency.

This isn’t to say that they’re necessarily very good experiments. Computer RPGs have suffered from very obvious constraints for decades, and I’ve played enough dull dice based dungeon crawls to last a lifetime. But I’ve equally experienced heart-breakingly imperfect art.

Tabletop RPGs have given me the sorts of barely expressible, intensely formative, and deeply connected experiences that others hope for and occasionally find in art, literature, and the collective projects of politics and culture. People will no doubt laugh at this fact.

Again, most RPGs aren’t this good, and it is much harder to plan and execute good ones as you and your friends get older. Boardgames, a representational art form in their own right, become much more tempting for their ludic precision and easy self-containment.

But I pine for the days of dice and character sheets, exploring the weirder fringes of inhuman narrative and the familiar shores of the human condition simultaneously. Werecoyotes and Psionics, insatiable curiosity and crippling anxiety, joyous battles and crushing failures.

So, after this personal preamble, here is the philosophical thought I came here to express: RPG systems are procedural frameworks for interactive narrative generation, and they contain engines for simulating worlds.

They are therefore deeply philosophical, because they must contain a metaphysics (narrative/fate) and a theory of personhood (identity/agency/destiny), but they may also contain a logic (GM/PC/NPC interaction), a physics (simulation/means), and an ethics (alignment/ends).

My first encounter with philosophy wasn’t reading Nietzsche, Sartre, or Popper, but reading grimoire-like RPG manuals, searching for the hidden secrets of worlds they contained, many of which I have never visited even in play. What is creation? Why is there suffering? Who are we?

My partner in conceptual crime (@tjohnlinward) likes to say that RPG manuals are tour guides for worlds that don’t exist, but in many ways they’re more like holy texts. Many even have completely explicit and thoroughly fascinating theology.

An RPG system/setting is a universe in which the throne is empty, awaiting a new godhead, or a new pantheon to play the games of divinity. An adventure supplement is like an epic poem, awaiting heroes ready to test their mettle in struggle against the whims of fickle gods.

Narrative is a product, but the process that produces it is a complex, concurrent, and creative interaction between ideas and inspirations; brimming with contingency; some of which may even be embodied in distinct creators and muses. Games are our window into this process.

And that is why games disprove Hegel’s thesis regarding the end of art, precisely by being the most deeply Hegelian of art forms. The world-spirit arrives, no longer Napoleon riding into Jena on horseback, but Gary Gygax corrupting the youth with pens, paper, and polyhedra.

If you want to read more along these lines, check out my ‘Castalian Games’ piece in Glass Bead.

No Givenness Please, We’re Sellarsians

Dan Sacilotto over at Being’s Poem has just put up an excellent post discussing some issues that myself and Ray Brassier have been working on, in the light of a comparison between the two titans of Hegelianism in contemporary philosophical world: Badiou (the paragon of mathematical ontology) and Brandom (the paragon of inferentialist semantics). As Dan was so generous in the complements with which he opened his post, I feel I should say a little something in return. The pleasure in our correspondence has been entirely mutual. Dan is an incredibly enthusiastic and sincere interlocutor, and he’s consistently challenged me to improve both the content of my ideas and their form of expression. He’s also patiently and valiantly attempted to explain Badiou to me, and has been very helpful, in spite of my persistent inability to grasp what Badiou means by ‘presentation’. Dan exemplifies a lot of the virtues of a good philosopher: he’s intensely autodidactic, philosophically omnivorous, he doesn’t pull his discursive punches, and he refuses to write about things unless he thinks he understands them. All in all, a top chap.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to address a few of the aspects of Dan’s post. I’m not going to cover everything, as it’s filled to the brim with interesting content. However, I do think that I can present my own point of view on several issues in a bit more detail, and provide some additional context for those who aren’t aware of the way mine and Ray’s Sellarsian projects have been developing of late. To this end, I’m going to carry on my recent practice of quoting from my own correspondence, and post a few snippets from my correspondence with Ray.

However, before I get down to this it’s useful to quickly summarise the central point of Dan’s post. His basic idea is that, although their rejection of the primacy of phenomenal givenness is highly laudable, both Badiou and Brandom end up going too far in minimising the role of experience, especially in their rejection of the role that sensation plays within it. Although the way this happens within each philosophical system differs, he takes it that they both seem to collapse back into something like Hegelian idealism, albeit from opposite directions. He sees myself and Ray as attempting to avoid this danger by championing the work of Sellars, ameliorating the Hegelian dangers of Brandom and Badiou by returning to a more Kantian approach to the relation between thought and Being. The aim here is to give experience its due, without collapsing back into the Myth of the Given, and thereby establish both the principled separation and effective connection between mind and world. However, Dan also suggests that Ray’s greater interest in Sellars’ account of sensation (and the associated notion of picturing) keeps him safer than my own more Brandomian proclivities. Needless to say, I’ve got a few points I’d like to make about this.

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