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This has been a rough semester for me. I’m really glad to say it’s almost over, and it hasn’t been a total wash. I really did need grad school to kick my ass a little bit and remind me to be humble, justify myself better, and keep being a curmudgeon. I’m working out some really interesting stuff for myself with regards to the role of play in civic engagement and bureaucracy, the role of fun in governance, and the importance of gamic attitudes in grappling with major social issues. I’m paving this path with good reading, some experiments, and the simple act of standing up for what I believe is right.

I’ve started having thoughts about what it means to “document” an event, though. I got my ass kicked in first year review for presenting work that was in process (apparently a faux pas, but I didn’t know that at the time), and not having documentation for the work that I have been doing. I feel a bit like a cranky awkward camera user, but I don’t feel like it’s my job to document the things that I make happen. I generally leave a pretty good paper trail in most instances, but there is something about my own bias as the maker that makes it seem to me like I shouldn’t be doing my own image production or video production to show what happened.

On the other hand it seems a little exploitative for me to say, “document what happens yourself.” Kyle pointed out that I can always ask friends to lurk around with cameras (which sometimes happens of its own accord), because they’ll probably find the things that other people would find interesting to record. At least there is always the possibility of them creating footage I couldn’t, and I can take some editorial freedom with what gets included in, say, a video documentation of a performance/play action.

I still don’t know. There is something about creating documentation for something that is designed to be experiential that is very unappealing to me. If you weren’t there, maybe you should have been. Maybe what I should do is get one of the documentary filmmaker grads to follow me around with a camera. (But of course that seems more than a little conceited.) Of course I’m going to have to suck it up and document things, because at some point I need to show that I’ve been doing work and so deserve the eventual degree that comes from that. Nevertheless, the whole idea of it kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Shouldn’t I just be doing what I want to be doing, for the sake of doing it or because it’s the right thing to do?

(Maybe I’m just bitter.)

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I’m experiencing a little bit of an intellectual burnout this semester. I kind of want to crawl under a rock and draw pictures of animals with colored pencils, or ride my bike around Forest Lawn all day. Not that I’m not still interested in the things I’ve been thinking about lately, but I have been feeling the drain of other demands, and they’ve been taking momentum away from the bigger projects, and I just don’t have the energy to focus on all the things I have to do as well as the things I want to do. It’s kind of ironic, though, because I feel like the reason I am in graduate school should be to work on these bigger things. I’m a little disappointed and am feeling a bit of a crisis of faith in what I’m doing now. As I told Feliz the other day, though, I kind of feel like I can’t do this any other way, though, and this is a step toward where I want to be.

I’m still trying to cling furiously to the ideas I developed earlier this semester. I went out and bought Late Marxism on Anna’s recommendation, as a companion to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory and Negative Dialectics. I’m excited to see that other people are interested in what I have to say on this topic. I’m hoping this summer gives me time to do some serious reading. One of the weird things I’ve been finding is just that I’m way more well-read than any 23-year-old is expected to be, but I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle when it comes to finding, absorbing, and understanding ideas. There’s just too much out there. That’s probably another reason I feel kind of burnt out at the moment.

I think it’s also a little tough for me, because politically I’ve been doing a lot more wrangling than I had been. There’s the GSA election, there’s PHEEIA, and there’s a lethargic, willfully ignorant group of people to contend with. Some days I just feel like I care way more than anybody else does, or at least that I’m trying harder. And then sometimes I wonder if I’m just insane, and all this is just too much. I get lost sometimes when I try to explain myself to people. But it seems to be working alright. That’s the other thing — explaining myself doesn’t seem to be going well for me.

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So I’m a little stuck, and I like to think out loud here, so here I go. Because it’s here, I’d love to hear what you think about my thinking. I’ve been ruminating on this for a few days now and I’m not quite ready to conclude.

In Homo Sacer, Agamben describes the concentration camp as the most perfect implementation of biopower in human history, which, of course, implies that it is the outcome of any biopolitical environment, whether we are talking about totalitarian dictatorship or a liberal democratic welfare state. If this is what we face when we are facing down biopolitics, it’s clear that we need to break the cycle. The problem is, of course, that Agamben effectively proves that all politics have been biopolitics since the beginning of recorded Western history. In light of that, how do we “solve” the problem of biopolitics?

I’ve been thinking about this a little obsessively because the issue has become deeply personal. I don’t want to offer some kind of sophistic solution. I’d really like to — at least — point in a direction that might be fruitful for further investigation, or gesture at what I think might lead to politics beyond biopolitics. In thinking about the biopolitical situation, I couldn’t help but go back to Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto,” because she writes of biopolitics: “Michel Foucault’s biopolitics is a flaccid premonition of cyborg politics, a very open field.” [Emphasis mine.]

What could this mean? Is the cyborg a product of the concentration camp? Another possibility that has crossed my mind is — the cyborg is both a product of the technology required by the concentration camp, and produced by the concentration camp. Which would mean that the cyborg springs from the same source, and grows alongside, the concentration camp.

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I don’t think I’ve written about the choice to run for GSA executive board here at all. As many of my more regular readers are undoubtedly aware, I do fancy myself a bit of a public intellectual and I think that civic involvement is both my right and my duty. I think I’ve found a situation that I can address from my perspective and my power, and add something to with my skills and knowledge. I want to make clear here that what I write in this blog is not the official line of our coalition, but rather my reasons for being a part of it.

One of the things that excites me most about the election is the very real possibility that we stand on the cusp of change. This is a critical time for public higher education, and it is also a critical time for the SUNY system, with Albany crumbling and funding drying up from the public sector. I don’t think I’m the only UB graduate student who’s alarmed by these developments — far from it. In fact, this isn’t an issue that is limited to people who are supposed to be “left-wing intellectuals” anymore. The public university is a critical site for scientific research, too — the kind of scientific research that needs to take place without being beholden to shareholders, for example.

Many newly-minted Ph.D.s and others with terminal degrees are being siphoned off to universities abroad. Now, I don’t think there’s a problem with finding a job in another country — I have fantasies about pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Copenhagen — but if U.S. institutions can’t keep Americans here, the American university system is going to go hollow. But more immediately than that, current graduate students are suffering because all kinds of resources are drying up. These are only some of the complaints and concerns I hear from graduate students. I also think that, if we combine our forces and present a united front, we might have a shot at getting listened to.

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There is a fine line, in critiquing the institutions you thrive on, between nihilism and the injunction to think about them in radically different ways, especially when your critique is as far-reaching as Giorgio Agamben’s in Homo Sacer. I had an argument recently about whether or not Agamben’s book is political — I think it is. In fact, it seems absurd to say that he argues against politics entirely. He explicitly writes:

The idea of an inner solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism…is obviously not…a historiographical claim, which would authorize the liquidation and leveling of the enormous differences that characterize their history and their rivalry. Yet this idea must nevertheless be strongly maintained on a historico-philosophical level, since it alone will allow us to orient ourselves in relation to the new realities and unforseen convergences of the end of the millenium. This idea alone will make it possible to clear the way for the new politics, which remains largely to be invented.

Which is to say, of course, that Agamben knows he doesn’t have the answers, but rather that he thinks the answers are in the offing if we engage his analysis of the underlying ideological overlaps between liberal democracy and the totalitarian state. He is not implying that we should be apolitical (in fact, this should be an injunction to be political, just not the kind of political that is average or expected). His text is, I think, deeply political.

The implications of bowing to a nihilism that might grow out of the shared basis of both democracy and totalitarianism — that is, the nihilism that grows out of the realization that biopolitics underpins virtually all the politics of recorded Western history — are grave. If we accept this nihilism, we damn ourselves to the future we are building for ourselves in security checkpoints, terror warning levels, and even the refusal of a nationalized health care plan. We accept that there will be the kind of genocidal mass killing, ruthless dictatorship, and tactical abduction of political prisoners in the 21st century, as there has been in the 20th. These are all instruments of biopolitical control, but in order to solve the impasse between security and freedom, health and economy, debate and stability, Agamben writes that we must think beyond biopolitics.

To say that Agamben’s critique of biopolitics is a critique of political life is entirely absurd. This week (spring break!) I am going to explore the idea of political life beyond biopolitics, because I believe it is not only possible to think a politics that rejects biopolitics, it is also ultimately essential. Oh, and I also want to prove a point.

As friend and colleague Adam Liszkiewicz has recently noted, FarmVille is a terrible game. It doesn’t even really qualify as a game, under Roger Caillois’s six criteria of games, and no matter what credence you give to classical ludology, you have to admit — there is an unprecedented number of people who continue to play, despite the absence of any of the rewards of play, or any of the rewards of labor. Zynga, the company that runs FarmVille, continues to make an absurd amount of money from hooking or scamming its players. Which is something that Jesse Schell neglects to mention in his DICE 2010 talk about design outside the box.

Now, before I begin, let me make perfectly clear that I am skeptical of the idea that Caillois’s criteria constitute a complete and definitive measure of a game. (i.e., I think that Caillois’s criteria are necessary but not sufficient.) Nor am I resistant to the idea that this definition can change. However, thinking about Martin Roberts’ talk at a conference this past fall and reading a bunch of Adorno has turned me a bit curmudgeonly. Ultimately, I think there are not a lot of people who are really enthusiastic about the things that games can do, while simultaneously being skeptical about certain deployments of gaming and the “fun” buzzword. And, as an industry and community, we desperately need more of that attitude.

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This talk presented 2/13 at Pecha Kucha Buffalo, Western New York Book Arts Center.

I am a game designer, theorist, and hacker. You might say that game design is my artistic practice. But I don’t really want to talk about games tonight, because I spend a lot of time talking about them in other venues. Instead, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about a more personal aspect of my practice, one which is based upon my complex set of social identities — compiled into a single identity that we might call cyborg identity. This is the first and foremost way in which I am a hacker.

We are all cyborgs in a Harawayan sense. We are amalgamations of complicated histories of violence, socialization, and the internalization of the oppression that surrounds us. In her 1989 “Cyborg Manifesto”, Donna Haraway writes about the ways in which feminism has failed women of color and women in the Global South. She neglects to mention the group which has been failed most violently by feminism, transgender people. Feminism has a nasty history of erasing transgender people: denying the humanity and womanhood of trans women, fetishizing and degendering trans men, and rejecting legitimacy of all people who queer gender. This is a topic for another talk entirely — what matters tonight is that Haraway is not trying to squeeze all non-men into a certain framework. She is trying to pull apart the tangle of identity.

The interesting thing about Haraway’s exclusion of transgender identities from her discussion of cyborgs is that we are perfect examples of cyborg praxis. By that I mean, we have bodies mediated in complex, meaningful ways by technology which, in many cases must be separated into component parts (and we are often examined as medical curiosities and rarely treated as holistic people); we have a preoccupation with the technologies of writing and language; and regardless of the complex gender identity we claim for ourselves, we represent an embodied experience of dissonance, language-play, Deleuzian multiplicity, and mediation. Trans people are living rejections of a dualism that separates the mind from the body: by virtue of our trans-ness, we refuse that there is any division at all.

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Yesterday, the Department of Visual Studies hosted a conference on failure in the arts and failure as a part of artistic practice. While I think there are a number of crucial, interesting topics to be discussed under this general rubric, I don’t think the presenters succeeded (ahem?) in bringing them to light, or turning a critical eye to the way they regard success and failure. By this I mean — all the presenters are situated in a certain relation to others in the academy or professionally; and all the presenters are positioned in other privileged positions. Interestingly, their bios did not outline in detail the ways in which they have failed in the past, but rather their successes — why we should listen to them as voices of authority, but perhaps not voices of authority on the topic of failure.

I think one of the things most confusing to the folks I was sitting with during the conference was the complete absence of any discussion about failures that are ultimate, that you cannot get up from and dust yourself off from, or that deal you the sort of blow that makes things impossibly difficult for you. As graduate students working on MFAs, trying to figure out what to do with them going forward, it’s actually kind of offensive to suggest that all failures are things we can get up from. There is a certain threat of failure from which we are acutely aware that either we cannot recover from, or a recovery might require more effort and resources than would be a change of course entirely. While I am sure the latter kind of failure would teach me something, I can’t say that the former kind of failure offers too many opportunities for learning.

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I really meant to write a bunch over break, but after going home, I found it very hard to. I think it has a lot to do with the state of being home, and also the difficulty I had in terms of access to technology while I was home (this was partially intentional).

Home was alright. It was kind of refreshing to see people and play at how my life used to be. It also reminded me that I am glad my life is the way it is right now, not because I dislike anybody at home, just that home is not home anymore. Buffalo has been so nurturing to me in the past four months, I can’t even begin to say. It’s not like Ann Arbor was for me — actually, in contrast, Ann Arbor was kind of stifling. I mean that on a number of levels. I can’t tell you how weird it is to think about my life a year ago, let alone ten. I guess I am just not ready for Michigan again. I guess I’ve fallen in love with Buffalo (sorry, Michigan).

I got a lot done over break but I still have a lot to do — I just bought a pile of books for the comparative literature class I’m taking this semester. The syllabus is packed with books I’ve been meaning to read, and now I get to, and talk about them with a bunch of other people who want to read them, too. I have a lot of things to read and write about and consider and plan. Now I have a great lair in the back of the VR lab to do my planning in. I am thinking about getting a chart-making surface to hang back there, so I can make flow charts and to-do lists and other things that make me look enormously productive.

I have a lot of goals this semester, and a formidable course load. Oh, but I can’t wait. What’s even more exciting for me is that I know where my thesis is going…hee!

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