Intersectionality

If you spend any time at all in spaces where discourse (or, if you prefer, Discourse) takes place, then odds are that you will encounter the word ‘intersectionality’. It is a strange word, which manages to attract both too much and too little attention, both at once. This anomalous state of things deserves some more discourse headed its way.

First, the word itself. Intersectionality is frequently used as a noun, but it does better as an adverb or adjective. Treating intersectionality like a noun, a thing, does strange things to the mental categories we bring to bear when grappling with it. There is no such thing as “an intersectionality”. There are, however, plenty of things that are intersectional. And it is possible to apply an intersectional approach.

This might seem like a subtle point, and it is. It is so subtle, in fact, that bringing it up would be a waste of words and online space, were it not for the peculiar fact that this is so often misunderstood. Verbosely misunderstood, at length.

To say that something is intersectional is to say that it tries to take many factors into account at once. For example: an intersectional analysis of a book could discuss aspects of race, gender, class and international supply chains, all at once, and relate these aspects to each other. The point of discussing all these aspects is that each have an impact on the book in question, and they all have to be considered in order to understand the book.

That’s it. If you can read and understand the above paragraph, you have understood everything you need to know about intersectional approaches. Everything else written about it is just an aid in getting used to the idea.

This raises two questions. The first: it cannot possibly that simple, can it? The second: hold on, did you just say international supply chains?

It can possibly be that simple. Do not be fooled by the length of the word – it is only slighter longer than an intersection. Moreover, do not be taken in by those who have seen the word used by women that are feminists and thus oppose it on reflex. You have it within your power to understand this word, and I have complete faith that you will choose to do so.

As to the international supply chains: yes, I did say that. ‘Looking at many aspects of something’ is an empty concept unless you bring along your own aspects, and international supply chains could be one such aspect. You are, by and large, free to choose whichever aspects you want – there is nothing that says you have to pick this or that aspect by default. Whichever you choose is up to you, and up to which ones are appropriate and/or applicable to the analysis you are trying to make.

By virtue of tradition and general applicability, the most frequently chosen aspects are gender, race, class, sexuality and a few others. These tend to be universally important, and thus relevant to many cases. Leaving them out would mean important insights are missed, which is not optimal. Thus, many intersectional analysis you encounter are likely to include these; it would, given the assumption of a shared physical universe, be strange were this not the case.

At this point, a third question might arise, as to whether or not all aspects chosen for a particular analysis are of equal importance. If an analysis looks at gender and race and class – does that mean these are all equally important?

The short answer is that no, it does not. The slightly longer answer is that it depends on what you are trying to do. If you, for instance, are writing an intersectional analysis of Martin Luther King, you will most likely find that there are interesting things to say about the gender and class dimensions, but that race was kind of a bigger deal. The point is not to enforce some sort of false equivalency between the categories of analysis, but to find out what interesting things can be said when they are all considered together, all at the same time.

History does not deal with counterfactuals – things happened the way they happened. But an intersectional approach would open up for asking interesting questions and learn something useful out of attempting to answer them. Interesting questions such as: what if, ceteris paribus, there was a Martina Luther King?

The statement “but that’s not what happened” is true. And rather uninteresting.

All things considered.

Intersectionality

Rational Atheists vs the Bible

It is a common enough refrain these days to hear someone burst into spontaneous anti-religious rants every now and again. It happens, especially to self-proclaimed rationally thinking atheists whose critical prowess is thus put on display in these extemporaneous discourses. Indeed, it is at this point as much liturgy as anything else, the point of such extensive expoundings being more to foster a sense of community among those who agree than anything else. Or, perhaps, to spark arguments with those who disagree, for similar performative reasons.

In either case, more and more of these self-styled atheists have come to a point where they have to make a choice. It is in all aspects a crisis of faith, and the choice stands between this style of loudmouthed atheism – or perhaps more properly Atheism – and the professed virtue of critical thinking. The two come to a head, and it is uncertain whether either will win out over the other. It could, like all crises of faith, go either way.

Truly, a discursive anomaly if there ever was one.

One flashpoint of this crisis of faith is the Bible. Focusing on it is natural enough from a capital-a Atheist point of view – given its status as the revealed truth of the dominant religions of the English-speaking world, it would be somewhat of a stretch to focus on other religious works. Focusing on far-off religious writings of distant religions wouldn’t have quite the same sting as battling the behemoth at home; at best, it would be an attempt to show off one’s familiarity with the big books of the world, at worst, it would be an attempt to pander to some manner of latent xenophobia and suspicion of unfamiliar things. No, to be a proper Atheist, only the strongest opponent will do, lest it all comes to empty gesturing.

The thing about the Bible, though, is that it is necessary to have read and understood it in order to understand the history of Western civilization. Trying to grapple with the trends and forces at work over the last centuries without understanding the influence of biblical teachings and metaphors will inevitably run into a brick wall. Not only will the motivations of many of the important actors remain inscrutable and opaque; the very language they use will be impossible to decipher, clad as it is in biblical imagery and allusion. Whether it be 16th century English parliamentary sessions or the 20th century speeches of Martin Luther King, any attempt at understanding will lack a necessary component, and thus fail in an undignified manner.

The challenge is obvious. If there is some well-defined contextual understanding necessary to make sense of past events, then not attaining this understanding leads to a deficient view of both the past and the present. Given the self-proclaimed adherence to rational and critical thinking, embarking on a quest that is doomed to fail is a self-contradiction of the highest order. Rationality demands that the proper tools be applied to the task at hand, and any critical approach that insist on failing by design is not critical enough. Indeed, willingly denying yourself the tools you need is the explicit opposite of the critical and rational method proclaimed to be preferred. Which is the crux of the matter and contradiction: a too dogmatic adherence to the Atheist creed that the Bible is Bad leads to a deficiency in the very values espoused by this very creed.

The way in which someone deals with this challenge reveals important aspects of their character. And, more so, the character of their beliefs. If they acknowledge the inherent historical significance of the bible as a text, and develop an understanding of it in historical context, then they have made a significant stride towards radically critical thinking. If they, on the other hand, stick to their Atheist guns and denounce the Bible out of hand, then they have chosen creed over critical and/or rational thinking, and should be approached accordingly.

Thus is the nature of this particular crisis of faith. The Bible is not the only flashpoint for this contradiction, but it is one of the most obvious. There are other issues where this dynamic comes to bear, to be sure, but the general pattern is that “rationality” and “critical thinking” become mere talking points. Whether you are a believer, agnostic or a lower-case atheist, this is not a development which aligns with your interests. Too much is at stake to leave these concepts to those who shout about them the most and apply them the least.

Rational Atheists vs the Bible

Booth: the Company We Keep

What is the point of writing? Moreover, what is the point of writing about what others have written? Even more over, what is the point of reading these metatexts?

There are a number of answers to these questions, and most of them begin with the words “it depends”. It depends on the text, why it is read/written, and what result is expected to be gained from going through the motions. There is no one mode of writing, or reading, or metareading; there are as many as there are writers and readers, and it all depends.

This makes for awkward discussions with regard to why writing or reading happens – for any one answer that comes along, there are any number of other possible answers that are equally legitimate for other circumstances, different or similar. Trying to agree on one singular answer or – more dramatically – settle the issue once and for all would most likely only end in dissent or conflict. As one answer comes along, another equally good answer accompanies it, and choosing one over the other becomes a matter of circumstance.

It becomes very much akin to choosing which book to read during a non-hurried moment: a question of taste and what readings happen to be at hand. Or, phrased another way: which company we keep.

Booth uses the metaphor of company throughout the Company We Keep. Books are friends, which we keep around because they make for good company whenever we want or need them. In the act of reading, we are in the company of the text and the motions it performs during its course. In the act of writing, we provide company for someone else as they (eventually, maybe) read our words and take in what we have to say. The point of writing thus, at some level, becomes to provide good company, and the point of writing about what others have written is to become a part of this company of friends. And, perhaps, to shed light on what it is these texts do that make them such good company.

Being in someone’s company is to be in relation to them. Your presence affects the other, and their presence affect you. What you say and how you act has consequences, and the same goes the other way around. There is an ethical dimension to being in someone’s company, and Booth reiterates this ethical dimension again and again. Reading certain books will affect you in some way, and writing certain books will affect your readers in some similar way. You are in the company, and you are the company; thus is the dual nature of reading and writing.

Booth stresses that this ethical dimension has significance for the act and art of criticism. Indeed, the quality of company a particular piece of writing brings is one of the main aspects to critically evaluate. Not merely if the text depicts its subject matter accurately (although that is an important part of it), or if it provides all the facts needed to properly understand said subject (which is important too), or even if it is well written in a technical sense (which, again, is also important). These qualities can be either excellent or lacking, and a proper critique will have to take them into account, but they are secondary to the overall quality of the company the text provides. A critic asks: what manner of friend is this text I describe?

Somewhat counterintuitively, this is more important when it comes to writing a positive critique than a negative one. The purpose of a positive critique is to provide the knowledge needed to appreciate the good parts of something (and to draw attention to these same parts). To do this, it is necessary to convey why and how the good parts do what they do, and to gently introduce the context at hand. It is akin to standing next to a statue or a monument and pointing to different parts, explaining what they are and why they matter. The point of the extended expounding is to, when all is said and done, have a shared understanding of the present situation. A critic is not merely providing a technical description, but also the patient company of a knowing party who wants you to know, too.

A negative critique may or may not share this same ambition. If it is well written, it does. But, in this day and age, it might also just want to point out and emphasize that something is bad, in general. This is an easier task, which requires less attention to detail and nuance. It is an unfortunate aspect of the human condition, but we are willing to trust the opinions of our present company when they proclaim something to be bad; the fact that they proclaim it with such emphasis and pathos means there must be something to it.

For this reason, it is more common to see critics tear things down than bring praise. It is an easier thing to do, and listening to someone go on about something with confidence lets us borrow from this sentiment and feel confident as well. In uncertain times, being in the company of someone who can proclaim which things are bad is a comfort, and more than one critic has made their name by virtue of projected confidence alone.

Booth does not object to giving negative critiques, or of tearing something down should it be necessary. But he asks us to consider what manner of company we provide when we are doing what we do, and what insights our discoursing brings to our readers. If the only thing we are able to bring to the table are reasons why everything sucks, it might very well be that we are not being a positive influence on our peers, who enrich their understanding of what they see, read and feel. We might not be as good or constructive company as we think we are.

This extends to the topics we choose to write about. Every text is an introduction of the thing it depicts, and as good companions it behooves us to make good introductions to our friends. If, on reflection, we discover that we have only written about bad things and why they are bad, then those who have partaken of our company have been introduced to many a bad thing, and the company we have kept have been exclusively with these bad things. Whether or not it was our intention, the result is that our readers are now more familiar with the bad than the good. Our friends listen to what we have to say, and if all we have to say is to expound endlessly on the evil things in this world –

Why, we might not be the company we want to be. Or company worth keeping. Or reading.

Booth: the Company We Keep

Hyde: the ethos of rhetoric

Being in the world is a counterintuitive process. On the one hand, all the parts are already in place, and the only thing to do is to react to them. On the other hand, merely reacting to things as they are is no way to be. To be sure, most of life is navigating the tension between these two poles, with the focus shifting from one time period to another. At some times, life is 100% crisis management mode, where making sure that the situation is under control is of paramount importance. At other times, life happens at a more indirect pace, where the task at hand is to – if you’ll pardon the wordplay – build a life for yourself.

This second part is no less dramatic for being indirect. More often than not, the only difference in terms of drama is that it takes more effort to appraise the situation. The paradigmatic example being someone’s school performance. From a direct point of view, it may appear that everything is going fine and according to plan; arriving on time, doing the work, getting the grades. From an indirect point of view, though, the feat of going through the motions may lay the groundwork for unhealthy or unsustainable habits later in life. This may or may not be readily apparent at the time, and may or may not be possible to alleviate if given proper attention, but in terms of building a life, it is hard to say whether the one is more important than the other.

Hyde is a rhetorician, and as such focused on the strategic aspects of intentional communication. In the introduction to the anthology The Ethos of Rhetoric, he naturally discusses the nature of the concept of ethos. Ethos in the context of rhetoric, as you might be aware, relates to a person’s character: their presentation, their force of personality, the personal aspects of them in particular that makes them persuasive. Just as communication in general is always tied to someone doing the communicating, ethos is always tied to the person holding the mic or the pen. Ethos is personal – it relates to the qualities of the person and the aspects of their discourse affected by these qualities. In a sense, ethos is a being in the world.

Hyde takes hold of this sense, and expands on it. For Hyde, ethos is not just a quality of some immediate discourse (a direct quality), but also a feature visible in more indirect ways. While a person’s character is undoubtedly visible in their immediate communication, it is also visible in other ways: the topics they choose to discuss, the manner in which these discussions take form, the recurring tropes therein, etc. Moreover, it is visible in such indirect aspects as architecture, decoration and aesthetics. Ethos, for Hyde, is not just a one-off affair: it encompasses all the things.

Attentive readers will note the use of the words “being in the world” and their Heideggerian connotations. This is no accident; Hyde is very explicitly taking off from Heidegger in his discussion of ethos. Ethos is a way of dwelling in the circumstances we find ourselves in, the ways in which we carve a piece of the world for ourselves and in our image. As humans, we may find ourselves thrown unbidden into the world and forced to confront it head on as is, but while we are here, we might as well leave an imprint on the parts we have control over. Our imprint.

This is, to be sure, a very general notion of ethos, more akin to its modern day incarnation of branding than its Aristotelian guise of arête. Which is both a point and the point. As a point, it serves as a reminder not to get stuck in the technicalities of neo-Aristotelian terminology, and to be open for other ways of looking at discourse in general. (This point is especially addressed to practitioners of rhetorical criticism, a group who gets their own chapter in the anthology.) As the point, however, it strikes closer to home, even to non-rhetoricians: we have it in our limited power the capability to affect our being in the world, and upon becoming aware of this, an imperative to do so in a responsible and reflected manner.

This, then, returns us to the starting point of the counterintuitive nature of building a life for oneself. On the one hand, we are faced with a myriad of choices every day: what to wear, what to eat, where to go, who to interact with, what to say. The immediate tactical tactility of everyday life. But we are also faced with the indirect choices of how to shape the way we live, the spaces we inhabit and the possibilities of our future selves. The one begets the other, both ways, and it becomes an ethical imperative to ensure that they work in tandem to take us where we want to be. Moreover: it becomes a responsibility to help others find ways to harmonize the two, and find a sustainable way of being in the world.

Hyde, being a rhetorician, mainly discusses the ways we do this in discourse. By discussing some things and not others, and by discussing them in some particular way rather than some other way, we give our readers and fellow humans a way of looking at the world. When they read our words, they are dwelling in a particular viewpoint, and get to try it on for size. Here, again, the ethical imperative returns: to provide others with the means they need to successfully navigate the tension between what is, what could be, and what should be. Our words are not ethically neutral, and upon being aware of this, we are compelled to ethical action. To do good and, if possible, better.

The point of writing is to give others words to live by. It is, at once, a comforting and terrifying thought.

Hyde: the ethos of rhetoric

Building Utopia by the numbers

A non-trivial aspect of computer games is watching numbers go up. The process usually goes like this: there is a resource (a number), which can be used in various ways. If used in the correct ways, the player can amass more of this resource (which is to say, a bigger number). This process then iterates, wherein the player uses the amassed resources to amass more resources, and so on until either the player or the game runs out.

This might seem like something of an oversimplification of the process. This is because it is an oversimplification of the process. For the player, things are more involved than it would appear from the outside. The increase of numberage is merely the mechanical side of things; if you had to describe the process in non-involved terms, this is what you’d end up with. Numbers used to increase numbers, and a difficulty to understand why players put hours upon hours into the activity of playing.

A more involved description would dwell upon the intent of the player. The intent is seldom to increase from a 2 to a 3 for the sake of the increase itself; rather, the intent is to further some other, involved goal. Sometimes it is to further a narrative, sometimes it is to increase the number of available options, sometimes it is part of a complex multi-stage process difficult to convey but pleasurable to experience. The numbers in and of themselves do not tell the whole story – the story is provided by the intentionality of the player. An increase from 200 to 300 means nothing in and of itself; it also means that one’s realm has grown by 50%, with all the implications that goes along with such an expansion.

It is with these things in mind one should understand online multiplayer browser games such as Utopia. On the surface, all that happens is that numbers increase. Once every hour (on the hour), the current set of numbers iterate and produce a new set of numbers. Or, phrased another way: buildings produce their goods, soldiers continue their training, thieves and mages recover their strength, and so on. Every hour, numbers go up; every hour, everything happens.

The game plays out very much like a spreadsheet. There are formulas for every aspect of the game, and if you are willing to crunch the numbers (or trust those who claim to have crunched the numbers), you can optimize for whatever purpose you might have in mind. Want to become the mostest mage possible? There is a formula for that. Want to become the mostest thief possible? There is a formula for that too. Want to become both a mage and a thief? It can be done, but by doing both you will find yourself not optimized for either. It’s all in the numbers; it is in fact all numbers.

Of course, what a player sees whilst playing is not a spreadsheet. The player is embedded in a kingdom with some twenty-odd other players, who talk to each other and help each other out – and occasionally go to war with other kingdoms. Understanding these interactions is the core component of understanding what the players are up to – whether it be the strategic preparations for war, the tactical sharing of information, or the more purely social exchanges. The point of seeing numbers increase – or of being the mostest mage possible – is to be able to contribute when things get hot. When things get real and the flames of war rise high, being able to bring numbers to bear and outmage the enemy mages is a valuable contribution to the shared effort.

The numbers do not mean anything in and of themselves. But they represent the idea of something happening, and are given meaning through the context in which they are situated. Any description of a game – or indeed any social process – that do not take these things into account, will find itself lacking in both accuracy and relevance. Going by the numbers will, with random precision, miss the point.

Addendum: upon writing this, I discovered that the game is (somehow) still active, rather than just being a nostalgic memory of a game I used to play around the turn of the century. Reading the changelogs of the most recent update (which took place a mere couple of weeks ago) brings back thoughts and associations from those olden days. There is a lot of social significance going into those abbreviations and percentages, to be sure.

Building Utopia by the numbers

Critique

Critique is such a misnomer for the activity it denotes. The split between denotation and connotation is such that those who are interested in the former are discouraged from engaging with it by the latter – and, moreover, that those who are interested only in the former claim it at the expense of the latter. The result is writing that proclaim to be ‘critical’ without knowing the first thing about critique, and (sadly) writing that never takes place for pretty much the same reason.

It is a shame. I daresay it is bad.

The split is between the notion of being ‘critical’ – having negative things in general – and critique – being able to discuss something intelligibly and for the purposes of mutual enlightenment. One of these can be done without knowing anything in particular about the subject matter, almost effortlessly; the other is a painstaking effort wherein the ambition is to present the best possible knowledge on the topic at hand. As subtle as the difference between the two might seem at first glance, it turns out to be the vastest of abysses when put into practical use.

The purpose of critique is to make sense of things, and to make this sense publicly available in some form. Determining whether a particular thing is good or bad is part of the sensemaking process, but it is not the most interesting thing that can be said about it. A critique that ends after proclaiming something good or bad is an uninteresting critique – it only tells us that the thing exists, is good/bad, and possibly some reason for this verdict. It tells us nothing about the thing itself, its context, the various aspects of it that fail or succeed, the ideas it mobilizes by going through its motions, and so on. All these things are relevant to make sense of with regards to a particular work or text, and if the only thing that can be said about it is “it’s bad”, then no sense is being made or shared at all.

The worst critiques are those who have a set list of criteria for good and bad respectively, and then proceed to judge everything based on whether these criteria are fulfilled. Not only are these algorithmic critiques possible to predict beforehand, they also tell us very little about the object in question. More specifically, a reader will only find out if the work possesses any of the (un)desired qualities the critic has deemed relevant, and nothing else. In terms of furthering a shared making of sense, the advance is limited indeed. And if your view of the world is limited to only considering these aspects when confronted with new works of art or texts, then it does double duty by also being limiting as well.

This focus on furthering shared understanding places an onus on the critic to partake of what is already said and known about the subject matter at hand. If something has already been said a thousand times, it is a missed opportunity to not learn from these previous times when preparing to say it for yourself. If what you are about to say something about has extensive documentation written about it, then choosing to remain uninformed is a counterintuitive choice. While not knowing everything about everything is not a failure in and of itself – it is the human condition, from which we all suffer – the critic owes it to their ambitions to know something about something. There is already a shared understanding of most things, and any ambition of furthering this understanding requires some familiarity with its general outlines.

If you have read this far, then you are probably beginning to suspect that a critique is about more things than simply pointing out flaws in something. It is an unfortunate fact of language that the word ‘critical’ has come to connote assuming a hostile position against something, and that being critical and being hostile is seen as being the same thing. To be sure, if you are hostile towards something, then pointing out its flaws is a gratifying activity. But the gain to our shared understanding of the thing ought to be greater than simply finding out that you are hostile towards it; and, in the spirit of honesty, you owe it to yourself to find out why you are hostile towards it. Not only to be able to think clearly about it, but also to convey to others exactly why you think what you think.

The best critiques are those who ground the reader in a tradition and introduces them to useful points of reference for further thinking about the subject matter. It is for this reason some texts about particular works of art or fiction begin by talking about seemingly unrelated topics, until they suddenly arrive at the subject matter with such clarity and explanatory force that it becomes unthinkable not to see things that way. The best critiques manages to convey this sense of shared understanding by sheer force of explication – they formulate a point of view, and by trying on this point of view we can see the world in new and improved ways.

All this requires a non-trivial amount of time and effort to pull off. Having read the books, seen the movies and initiated oneself in a tradition is not something that happens overnight. It is about more than merely knowing a subject matter – it is about understanding the point of view that goes along with it. And, in the process, to point out any potential flaws inherent in this particular way of thinking about the world. So as to make us think better.

The purpose of critique is to make points of view visible.

Critique

How to read Fallout 4

The first thing to note about Fallout 4 is that it is not a story. It is rather a collection of stories, all contained within one single overarching frame. In order to read these stories as they are, in their manifold, it is important to acknowledge them as such: many.

There is an argument to be made that this multitude of stories gets in the way of the main story. Ostensibly, the protagonist is on an emotionally intense quest to recover their kidnapped child. In terms of gameplay, the player spends weeks and months of gametime doing absolutely everything but searching for that kid. After having become a raider boss who deliberately and systematically enslaved vast swathes of the countryside, the sudden emotional intensity of finally being reunited with the prodigal son is, to understate it, sudden. There is a main story, to be sure, but there are also so very many other stories going on that it becomes something of a sidequest. As it were.

That is a possible avenue of critique. But it is also a sidetrack from the assertion that you can read Fallout 4. Which is a more interesting assertion. Not least because it implies that the game is readable, and that it somewhere along the line had authors, who made choices as to what went where.

A first thing to note is that (almost) nothing is where it is by accident. This tells us something important. This tells us that if we pay attention, we can glean information as to what happened to the places we visit as we explore them. The placement of corpses, the layout of buildings, the textual residues on terminals (which, as an aside, are a nice return of the epistolary genre), the kinds of enemies encountered, and the various missions which brings you to these places in the first place. All of these things tell us something, if we but pay attention. It is environmental storytelling, and it is a lot of it.

The corpses, especially, tell many tales. They speak, ever so silently, about what happened before you found them. Some of them are from before the war, and suggest at the social processes taking place on the day the bombs fell. Other corpses are more recent, and subsequently tell of more recent events. Pay attention to where you find them, how many of them there are, and if there are items nearby which suggest particular courses of events. There is a suggested grammar to the corpses you find, in that skeletal remains are implied to be prewar, while meaty (to use a word) ones are recent. It is also implied that teddy bears represent the younger pre-war generations, but this is not universally applied.

At this point, you probably have questions, such as: why are the terminals still working after all this time without an apparent power source? How come no one has removed the corpses in the hundreds of years between the bombs falling and you finding them? Why are you apparently the first person to visit some of these places, when there are evidently people moving about mere hundreds of meters away?

These are good questions, and rather than answer them, you will have to either suspend your disbelief, or see the game as a written artifact. Everything is where it is because you are meant to find it there, and you are meant to see it as it is presented to you. The ghoul you find in the director’s office is in fact the director, and he has been in his office all these years, waiting. The nearby terminal that tells his story is indeed telling the story of the feral creature you just witnessed. A story that you, the player, is the endpoint of, and that you, the reader, is a witness to.

Fallout 4 is many things, and one of them is a balancing act between player and reader. It is possible to blast through the game without paying too much attention to detail, and still have a good time. Reading is not a requisite for playing. But a lot of effort went into making a great many places readable, both in themselves and in reference to the earlier iterations in the Fallout series. Should you effort to acquire a literacy in reading the results of these efforts, you will find yourself back at the start of this text: with the realization that there is not a story, but many stories. In this game and in life both.

How to read Fallout 4