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Darklights

I identify as an illustrator, game designer, writer, and 3D artist by trade. I'm driven by a symbiosis of passion for dance, new media, philosophy of aesthetics, cinema, creative writing and visual arts. My username? A shout-out to the tides of history that invented the camera obscura.
Darklights has written 18 posts for Engine Tones

Moving sideways from cultural hegemony?

This post is part of an intricate conversation centring on the question of whether there is a unified and narrowed message presented dominantly through corporate media, and whether or not it inherently socializes subservience from top-down towards an ever highly-media saturated group of entertainment consumers. Very quickly, we find that we cannot escape from certain conceptions of hegemonic ideology. The difficulty, first, then, is in how to define a hegemonic ideology, whether it exists and in what forms and contexts, such as if there are fissures in its structure.

© Corbis Images



To start, Antonio Gramsci gives a salient Marxist perspective by maintaining that the entrenchment of the capitalist system maintains what he calls a ‘cultural hegemony’. The important details for our purposes are in his emphasis that cultural hegemony is not distributed as monolithic, but as layered into the complexities of cultural society. In other words, capitalist cultural values has become the norm, crafting expectations, priorities, and sensitivities, making certain things in the cultural sphere gain an exchange value that is exponentially higher than its use value. Where the working class have to develop culture of their own in response to the ‘norm’, the bourgeoisie culture is closely tied to the political institutions, civil culture and engagement and legal constitutional structures. In this sense, the naturalization of social constructions and institutions have aided in the emergence of self-reproducing ideologies.

There is some validity here in thinking of artistic production as necessarily always interacting and responding to types and experiences of cultural hegemony in the Gramscian sense (capitalist values as not monolithic and unified but as multi-layered and labyrinthine). Artists will often push themselves to see their work as producing not just a cultural experience, but a cultural experience which has a certain exchange value. I use exchange value in this sense to distinguish from use value (the value of something based on its utility) but take it to mean that it is the value as comparative to everything else on the marketplace. According to Marx, the exchange value of a commodity implies the ability to command limited labour, which is implicitly confrontational in a materialist sense. However, the messy part of this is that artists ought to reasonably emerge from all parts of society, from all walks of life; So too, their audiences (who should be likewise invited to produce, in the form of responses and conversations). They necessarily articulate perceptions that are not articulated by bourgeoisie culture persay, which I have previously defined as the norm, the reified, the law. The very definition of art (and even entertainment) is to move away from previous subsistence of the mundane. However, the very articulation of the mundane is at least greatly framed by a cultural hegemony. Thus, exchange value, in this sense, is often outside of the control of the living labour of the artist, leading to what I would contend is a divisiveness between pleasure derived from succeeding at a creative endeavour (self-fulfilment), and pleasure because the external value based on the appraisal of the market system “approves” of the artwork (positive alienation).

Let’s link this back to the notion of ideology. Ideology works in a manner to reproduce certain social relations and to give broad, normalized justifications for a given ‘-ism’. Althusser, for example, contends that capitalism socially constructs the concept of the individual as a subject, that is, an agent responsible for his motivations, preferences, and values. All ideological practices as such constitute an individual as a subject in particular ways. This is not a natural occurrence, but something that conserves and reproduces subjects in the hegemon’s image. I think that this theory is somewhat complicated by the inherent competition and non-unitary disposition of the “bourgeoisie”/ “big media players”. Here on in I will move away from the Marxist divisional class structure and strive to work in theories that pertain more to contextual, time- and space-based sociopolitical phenomena. Nonetheless, the Marxist philosophers have emphasized that exchange value is always being conserved and added to in a relationship of oppositions. This is at a tension with art production and discourses about art, which both seek to question and perceive in new and context-compassionate ways. In other words, if we are not talking about derivative crafts, art as practice much more readily takes the form of sharing and communication, than it is about the individualization of choices, competition, and managerial organization. Art – the vagrant, non-linear, nomadic kind – must be contorted and warped to fit the transformation and socially constructed time normalized by capitalist managerial structures and cultures.

So what sort of structure can we define as relating to (nomadic) arts? Here, I am quick to point to postmodern thinkers, whose works I am greatly indebted to. For brevity, I will not discuss hypermodernists such as Baudrillaud and Marc Augé, although their framing of non-spaces and the hyperreal (the inability to distinguish between the virtual and the real) are instructive to aesthetics in general. Where Marxist philosophy engages in a discussion of broader socioeconomic materialist historicities, which binds the artist/audience through socialization/education from top-down ideological producers, the sections below will look at art and leisure of the streets, as lived experiences, and as chronic, addictive responses and forums.

Barbara Kruger (1981): Your Gaze Hits the Side of my Face. Installation, and other agitpop objects. Click on the picture for more details (external link).

As Jean-Francois Lyotard declares, postmodernism is an “incredulity toward metanarratives”. To Lyotard, our current experience of history, memory, and events outside our immediacy is one where we find obsolescence in the traditional narrative functions of a great hero, a nearly impossible but ultimately assailable quest, and a direct line of motivation. Instead, we live at “intersections”, without preordained linguistic systems to stabilize or communicate prescriptively or descriptively without mis-appropriation. Indeed, an audience has become ever fluctuating, mobile, and virtual (the clearest case being that of a hyperreal audience in cyberspace), thereby creating unpredictability. Sometimes great movements and agency bursts through, whilst other times there are only near silences and social deficits.

Instead of an emphasis on ownership and the measurement of derivative and exchange value, the emphasis is on pastiche and context. By moving away from framing cultural goods as principally materialist, but instead focusing on its conditions of relations through time, spatiality, and affect, we gain a critical theorization of cultural objects as transformative and vernacular. Cultural objects, through the lens of postmodernity, are embedded and constantly being rewritten, overwritten, underwritten. Culture is performed in a manner that speaks through multiple modalities – it respects, transgresses, decries, suspects, laughs at, and so on (as postulated in de Certeau’s Walking in the City). And then the (nomadic) artist flourishes in these fragmentations, at the fringes where she feels most at home and can propel conversation from tidal waves of different identities, groups, and newfound civil spaces.

I do not believe that I am guilty of reification when I suggest that groups in support of the hegemonic ideal has sensed this threat of fragmentation. The exponential growth of overt sponsorship and product placement of Veblen goods is a great example of the capitalist response to nomadic artistry. A exchange-value laden product wholly subservient to the hegemonic ideal thus baptises itself in an isolated, spectacular vision, making hedonism seem like a naturalized Need-to-live. So far, it’s seen great successes, if one measures by the metric of its profitability. One can even say that it has gained crucial political support in the form of investment opportunities for formidable businesses. However, political and civil support may go in the other direction as well (depending on the particular place), in the form of art grants, post-secondary education, and the emergence of community governance and local autonomy. Even if counter-hegemonic praxis is jostled into the shape of capitalist packaging, it is constantly undergoing further renegotiation from below. This has happened in the form of public forums, street festivals, artists collective, localvores, buskers, farmers markets, culture jamming, protests against globalization and closed-door trade agreements, independent political campaigns, even more passive-aggressive trends such as democratic deficits and low voter turnout. As postmodern cultures become more prevalent, I believe that the artists and the artphile shall jostle back against the binds of necessitating interactions to mere currencies. In fact, I believe that they’re doing so already, slowly but surely.

My warmest thanks to Gordon Frederickson (@midmotion) and Jeff Resnik (@jeffresnik), friends and forward thinkers, who were willing to put so much great ideas and tangents into open conversation. And yes, all of the earlier part of this conversation all took place on Twitter. I am at @tonedarklights and I welcome you to join us!

References:

  • de Certeau, Michel (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press.
  • Jay, Martin (1986). Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukacs to Habermas. University of California Press.
  • Lyotard, Jean-François (1979). Introduction to The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Online Source: Uppsala University.

First glimpse of Global Agenda: F2P sci-fi action MMO


A level 50 veteran next to my avatar, first entering Dome City at a fledging level 5. There's lots of gradually earned customization in this game that isn't apparent from the character customization screen before entering the game.

I am just about 8 hours into Global Agenda and I find it to be a surprisingly good F2P MMO. I’m enjoying pretty much every minute of it, and would consider it one of the best MMOs that I’ve played in the last two months.* I just picked it up from Steam under the Free to Play section, having known of the game as a title even back in its Pay-to-Play days. The controls and gameplay mechanics are highly responsive, enabling me to move and weave towards my enemies however I chose. The control makes me feel like a superhero in a way that City of Heroes fail to do so, because there is a mixture of skill and specialization involved. You can fly around in jet packs and there is a reticule for actually aiming to shoot down enemies.

I’m playing here as the Robotics class, which gives me a cool extra arm to set up personal turrets, forcefields, medical stations, and drones. It’s a pretty sweet mixture of defensive and offensive strategizing using fast-paced, real-time action.

From what I can see through teaming up with others in the game world, the classes are well-balanced and can support each other wonderfully. However, the game supports both solo play style as well as grouping, even at the early levels. The community is fairly quiet, though not sparse in numbers. When asking to partake in a group, players have always demonstrated themselves to be friendly and helpful, even putting up with silly newbie confusions and bad strategizing of personal turrets. There’s also VoIP support and what appears to be thriving co-operative missions and massive regional PvP battles, none of which I have yet to try out.

One of the first areas outside of the starting city hub that you will find yourself in is Junk Town and the stretch of outposts, ruins, robot-owned bases, all reminiscent of those National Geographic images of the Arizona desert. The red desolation is beautiful to gawk at, and tease at me to the reasonable expectation that a story will reveal itself as to why there is such debris and the lack of flora and fauna on this futuristic Earth. Indeed, I am actually not told as to what continent I am on. And yes, I have read all of the quest dialogue windows! To add to the immersion, I can’t remember when I’ve ever hit a loading screen, which is fantastic for wandering through the vast stretches of the desert. If there could be slight variation of weather dynamics, that would be even better.

GLOBAL AGENDA: The HUD is simple, with a clear reticule and quick keys for each specific slot. The UI is less modifiable than MMOs like Eve Online and Warhammer Online, but serviceable. There's a high level of variability for graphics settings, including bloom, textures, and rendering engine (Direct X 9 or Direct X 11). I was playing with almost no lag with everything set on high.

Find me as the moniker “Avepekra” aboard Global Agenda!
I’m sure that I’ll be playing in the game for some time to come.

* MMOs played for the first time in the last 2 months are described in this post.

MMO update from my perspective

Haven’t updated here in a long time. I’ve kept with some basic EVE news but not gone game-side for about a year. So I heard all about the controversies on EVE’s new mini-mart for vanity items that would cost a pretty $60 USD, and the  internal developer discussions that could not have been leaked at a worse time, entitled “Greed is Good?” The lack of improvements on the User Interface, together with the controversy, have made me not too quick to re-sub my fast-flying alter-ego, Marceline Nantakarn.

GUILD WARS: The slain beast of burden as part of an in-depth series of quests in the starter city and its premises.

So, for better or for worse, here are a short summary of MMOs that I have dabbled in in the past two months:

  • City of Heroes: Never got past two days in trial mode; Frankly, the world looks ugly and suffers from poor and repetitive level design. The gameplay mechanics are unresponsive, which makes me feel like a mutant victimized citizen, not a superhero.
  • Warhammer Online: Black and white good vs. evil characters (which frankly bores me), but decent if rather conventional gameplay. Great lorebook system that gives incentive to exploration and quests. On the other hand, for something that has paid subscription, it sure has lots of repetitive dungeon design even from several hours of play. The “limitless trial” is also fairly limiting. I’d rather pay for EVE Online or Guild Wars.
  • Imperion: I’m just not a browser strategy MMORPG kind of person. Couldn’t tell if the game was well-balanced or not, but I just didn’t find it to be fun. Furthermore, the game doesn’t have nearly enough buildable structures and units for a online strategy MMO. Would rather play old-school Starcraft.
  • Guild Wars, Prophecies: Lots of pros for things that are important to me: Amazing skills variety and dual-classing, varied classes, good mission design, good storyline. However, outdated textures that don’t look great at 1080p, the map is annoying in that doesn’t show where I need to find certain non-quest-related NPCs, and the game itself is not so fun without groups at the same level. Starter area is rather drawn out without getting into the fun of choosing proper skills and strategies to take into missions and battles.
  • Forsaken World: No love for auto-routing to quest (I like exploring on my own), over-the-top costumes that are at points deliriously hilarious and absolutely irritating (why is my avatar flashing her thong with a Catholic cross on her back?), boring skills customization compared to Guild Wars, poor storytelling in some parts that lead to a break of immersion and motivation. Okay, despite the campy costumes, the world is gorgeous, and the level designs are suitably spaced (especially with all graphics settings on High), which makes it all the more annoying that there’s auto-routing instead of being given incentives to explore.
  • Global Agenda: The most fast paced and fun game of the bunch from my experience so far. Storytelling is tight, action and a balance of using twitch-based offence and defence is tighter. Not so much skills specialization as Guild Wars, but trees do exist. Appears to have some PvP options which I haven’t tried yet. Had a good experience with teams, and the game appears to encourage it through channels and VoIP support. Look forward to more posts on Global Agenda!

FORSAKEN WORLD: I'm sorry, you expect me to do battle in this? And they call Lady Gaga a scandal against the Catholic Church! P.S., my character's class is a vampire. The irony alone kills.

More plz: Female (avatars) in shooters


I’m not that adamant about FPS games in general, but my interest has been held and sustained by first person titles such as Oblivion and Bioshock. Probably one of the games that I had been most comfortable with “jumping into” cooperatively that I did not own at home had traditionally been Halo on the X-Box (for the record, I’ve played it around 5 times, but felt much more comfortable with the mechanics and was able to hold my own compared to CounterStrike).

However, I think that in this day and age, not having female soldiers on the field of battle at all continues to prevent the more versatile female gamers – that is, willing to try their hand at everything from RTS to RPG to FPS – from getting into the genre. This is especially the case in multi-million dollar game titles. Even for a shooter, there are many motivations and strategies that one can play it – especially with the proliferation of classes such as electronics warfare and medics in many of the recent titles. So, why not the simple option of female characters?

DEVIL MAY CRY: Lady knows how take hold of her big guns.

I want to be given an option to see women on the field. Games are a fantasy, after all, and my fantasy is that I would like to see more of the perceived inequalities between men and women as skilled combatants becoming more equalized. This is especially in the case of future dystopia/sci-fi storylines, where you’d think women would be necessarily included towards so-and-so fight for the survival of the human race. Women having the typography of lower str & con in the game world? That can be easily explained In Character through enhanced military training and evolution. So why can’t developers take that extra little step to reach out to a wider and less narrow-minded audience?

I'd want to muscle it out with the boys too. Where's my lady lumps in the picture?

Which is why I’m not amused in the slightest by the lack of female avatars in Brink, and especially the fan base’s conversation surrounding its release. Brink is currently being under development for Q1 2011 by Splash Damage, to be published by Bethesda Networks. It seems to have everything that I find appealing: deep customization, stylized and unique artwork, great hit detection, and parkour-like navigation to take advantage of some terrific level design. However, there is one part that excludes me. There has been too many games in the past which have male-exclusive characters, but where we can chalk it up to the relative newness of the gameplay mechanics, and the style of the game. I don’t think that we can make the same argument anymore. While Brink fans are oohing and ahhing over the huge variety of customization and outfits and accessorizing that they can deck out their gun-totting male brawler in, some of them have the audacity to insult others for wanting female avatars, for either themselves, their wives, or their female friends. It’s this sort of attitude that I feel is a step backwards for the genre, because clearly the technology is there for us to go beyond the “old boys shooting club”. When the celebration of boys’ dress-up play can be weighed at the cost of the girls’ representation, I wonder why  people are not more discomfited by this. It’s game design decisions like these which makes me seek out games such as Borderlands, Metal Gear Solid, Mass Effect, EVE Online, Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, and so on – over Brink and its ilk.

Mind, I don’t mind playing as a male character in some cases (Hi, Gordon Freeman, you hunk). But I want to be at least given the option to represent my own sex. It’s a necessary nod – albeit sometimes undergirded by a developer’s fan service – at the fact that we can act in progressive roles in these game multiverses.

A quick word on A Single Man (2009)

Director: Tom Ford
Writer: David Scearce, Christopher Isherwood
Stars: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult

My one-paragraph take: At the cinema, there’s no equal that can generate in me intensities of incoherency and stunning clarity all at once. Every frame of the film is meticulously thought out, but moreover, felt out, as though the camera caresses both what is in front of it and that which remains momentarily off-screen. The pacing is incredible, like taking deep breaths but rolling inexorably like storm clouds taking shape. One watches and becomes drawn in to the inner space of the protagonist, Professor George Falconer, who is overcome by a conflagration of many memories, thoughts, and emotions. We feel him weighing his words with the complexity of histories and connections. It is beautiful, poignant, humanistic. It is something sacred and true to heart, true to life.

It’s quite the fine moment to realize that I’ve just experienced one of my favorite films.

A quick word on The Social Network (2010)

Director: David Fincher
Writers: Aaron Sorkin, Ben Mezrich
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake

My one-paragraph take: The Social Network comprises of witty and fascinating storytelling, particularly due to the quick lines and the pacing of the settlements. At its heart, it’s a story of friendship and its fragility under the unenviable pressures of better connections and profit. The cinematography and the editing are brilliant and coherent. We really see this in action when the editing matches Zuckerberg’s frenzied programming talent when he cobbled together the Facebash.com. Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg was an intense, unrelenting performance, crafting a character that effectively courts both my contempt and sympathy in multiple successions. This was a portrait of Zuckerberg that isn’t out to vilify him, but shows his uninhibited determination to get what he wants, with the intellectual capacity and belligerence to see it to its end. He is the antihero par excellence of our decade. No one really leaves The Social Network with their initial reputations unscathed – Harvard University’s elitism perhaps the most irreconcilable negative portrayal of all – and perhaps that’s just the point.

A grab-bag of Madonna, Mirror’s Edge, and Death Note (no kidding)

I can’t help but see Madonna’s music video for Jump coinciding with Mirror’s Edge. Though the photography and “cinematography” is very different, especially since Madonna’s video has a centric focus on the superstar herself, while Mirror’s Edge has Faith, the protagonist, organizing the POV shots. However, the play on the theme of urban parkour and the lyrics “don’t look back now baby” is very suitable towards an adventure-puzzle genre. Madonna’s dance improvises on a parallel style of movement seen in Faith’s reliance on her hand-to-hand combat and evasion techniques.

And, I also found the very amusing connection between the Jump MV and the manga/anime Death Note’s Mello character in multiple youtube comments. The whole idea that existent superstars are cosplaying is definitely an appealing topic that I hope to revisit one day. Death Note is one of the few mangas that I would describe as an “intensely deliberate and involving narrative that probes at questions of moral conscience through modern and popular appeals”. The story is very urban, space- as well as time- driven. Concerns about independence, coming-of-age (and of power) and the need for heroes who can pull criminal in through feats of passion are all central to Death Note – and certainly Jump’s visual and lyrical aspects fit this theme.

A quick word on 500 Days of Summer (2009)

Director: Marc Webb
Writers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Stars: Zooey Deschanel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Geoffrey Arend

My one-paragraph take: I keep expecting melodrama considering the number count on the days “left” with Summer, and Gordon-Levitt’s well-nurtured dumped and decrepit expressions. In a good way. But I’m glad that this expectation did not borne itself out. Both Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt were charming and comfortable with each other, and their characters’ courtship really grew on me. The quirks and the impromptu scenes of falling in love were wonderfully heartfelt, from the happy-dance to the Ikea to the especially nifty mockumentary intermission, which actually made me more involved in the characters even though it interrupted the existing film aesthetic. The climax felt alien and jarring and leaves open many questions. Indeed, the film’s refusal to offer not some overarching grand moral narrative but snippets of experience made the narrative all the more consequential. The cinematography was lovely and familiar, so much so that I rewinded on a few occasions to see if I recognized a building or a landscape. Perhaps it speaks very much to the careful craftsmanship of this film that I felt like I could be in Tom’s shoes, where his perception of that significant other ignored the grayer points of reality. Worth seeing for its meandering and sensible storytelling alone.

A mix-bag of Lady Gaga to Luis Royo

Lady Gaga’s latest video, Alejandro (2010), has endeared itself to me on the very first playthrough. The only Gaga video that I hold higher esteem for is Paparazzi. I would contend that the aesthetic atmosphere of the Alejandro MV lends itself to comparisons of paintings by the prominent erotic fantasy illustrator Luis Royo. Luis Royo’s artwork features precarious beauties who wield smoke and rusted steel in an uncompromising cyborg terrain. Somehow, Royo makes his images soft like reveries but hard like industrial winters. There’s something bitter about the grimy but refined aesthetic.

That Alejandro employed less of the hyperextended MTV cuts so promiscious in many of Gaga’s videos made the MV look positively similar to a tableau. However, while Royo’s paintings are imminently directed towards a heteronormative male fantasy over the exotic female object, Alejandro is more progressive by questioning images of male and female beauty as well as who moves with authority or leadership in such an image. Alejandro overturned the relentlessly unquestioning beauty of the gothic woman as artifact and gave her teeth (for Gaga’s fangs, see 2:26) and a roving, penetrating gaze.

Note: Counterparts are a series of short posts that compares one film or video to another cultural object based on what I’m tangentially reminded of when I experience a certain cultural or leisure activity. It basically lets me casually mention images that capture my attention and, also equally casually, work in Humanities modes of analysis that I’ve read about or employed the last few years. Furthermore, it encapsulates the philosophy behind the hodgepodge of topics that I’ve allowed on Engine Tones: because games do generate conversations with everything else, and visa versa with other cultural progresses. This loose and fast compare-and-contrast can work between TV commercials and museum pieces, MVs and video games, films and plays, and so on. I will aim to update with new renditions every Friday, although this is by no means a hard and fast rule. Friday has consistently been the day that my university’s club offered a good offering of non-mainstream films in the screening facilities. Friday had also been consistently the day that is notoriously bad for me to schedule any large chunk of extracurriculars, between dance practice and relatives visiting. So this is an open but indirect homage to all those Friday indie films that I’ve missed.

Baking during the downtime

Sometimes, my body in the capsule needs some motivational foodies to make the ISK runs worthwhile. I haven’t really done anything in my frigate in the last two weeks other than park down to a station, answer the call of some agent, and waste some ammo in deadspace. Extended downtime today really only interrupted my observation of my skills training window’s gradual progression. So, today, I’ve found myself staring into the depths of a very different set of chemical reactions and engineering: the oven.

I made some Soft Chewy Oatmeal Cookies, which were gifted with being very healthy and at 0.55g of fat per cookie, but were unfortunately very addictive. This was essentially the first time that I’ve ever used 1/2 cup of multigrain flour and 1/2 cup of cake flour in a bid for a more healthy replacement of the all-purpose flour. As far as I’m aware, it tastes like it’s supposed to, and smells wonderful. It’s also low in sugars as far as pastries go (sweetened with apple sauce, honey, and brown sugar!), so my grandmother can feel welcome to try them. I also made some chocolate chip scones last week. They’ve all been devoured by now! Considering the response, I’m making that one again (with new mods such as the multigrain-cake flour mixture).

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