Copied facebook post about the noob-trap shibboleths of 101 courses

I feel like most academic disciplines have noob-trap shibboleths: things we are tempted to use to show knowledge of the subject but which actually are seen by experts as signals of too little training & cultural indoctrination to be taken seriously – signs of trying too hard. Tentative list:

Film: establishing shot; “auteur”
Linguistics: prescriptivism vs. descriptivism; Chomsky Mark I Universal Grammar rhetoric about syntax
Literary theory: free indirect style; the death of the author
Math: Gödel’s theorems or disproportionate interest in foundations broadly
Games: “ludonarrative dissonance”
Poststructuralism: the word “postmodernism” unless properly traced through Jameson; rhizomes
Analytic philosophy: signs of emotion or human concern – “stoner philosophizing”; trolley problems
Statistics: Bayesianism vs. frequentism
CS: argumentative discussion of programming languages or editors
Economics: Everything

Copied facebook post making a simple point about algorithmic biases

Basic point but it’s a public & important conversation now: the idea that algorithms / software products reproduce the biases and beliefs of their programmers is a subtle misconception: programs do encode assumptions of their designers about “how the world works” but rarely encode political worldviews as such. They encode the biases (often unintentionally) built into their models & those of the “economic” imperatives they answer to; for most machine-learning models that is the biases of the data / corpus they are trained on: not of young mostly-white-Asian-male Californians but of whoever’s posting or searching. A programmer in Hyderabad or São Paolo can easily reproduce American racism because they trained on an aAmerican dataset (separately from the way we export our cultural problems & fixations) or vice versa. And, yes, the default is a highly highly political position (paradoxically exacerbated by how it /tries to appear apolitical/)

My comment 1: There is also a long and rich conversation about the politics of logic & science & computation themselves, in such disciplines as critical theory, science & technology studies, critical race & gender studies, and software studies. I am highly uninformed about these subjects, but i also guess many of the Republican congressmen opining about Google’s hatred of Conservatism hadn’t heard of them (my feelings about that “”hearing”” are complicated because i basically agree with, am doing work premised on, the assertion that algorithms are /not neutral, not objective, involved of course with ideology/ – Just Not In The Way You Think They Are (i do also think that the caricature of a position (that, nonetheless, like most caricatures, some do little to distinguish themselves from) that all programs are imperialistic and anti-radical because computation originates in military labs and science is bc it was formulated by European aristocrats is also missing the point or eliding the actually important & interesting questions))

My comment 2: (Computers are the worst though. Fuck computers!! Burn them all!! Mine keeps failing to account for my ingenious incompetences)

My comments 3-4: deleted (though mostly harmless)

An Earnest Thought About Memes as Cultural Salvage

I had an earnest thought about memes (a form i am intrigued by but from fringes, not a producer) as cultural salvage:

The significance of memes to culture, and therefore politics, is understood, but I usually only hear one use talked about: political memes as a kick of satisfaction for recognizing something one already believes obvious, displacing Real Discourse, perhaps planted by (eg Russian or alt right & Neo-Nazi) Trolls – this is a common phenomenon and danger and I’m glad it’s being examined; but there’s also a thread of simple luddite fear of a new form of communication, ignoring the variety of what’s said in it. One other use of memes, also common and perhaps beautiful, is all about cultural salvage. Especially queer & trans people have formed a culture on websites, like this one, of making heavy use of overloaded, filtered, collaged, photoshopped, images – as headshot and cover photo: snapchat filters, pastel WordArt about depression, Sonic the Hedgehogs condemning consumerist ethics of capitalist consumption, shaggy orange monstrous mascots tripping on ice. I’ve seen this appropriation of pop-culture content talked about around fandom, and fanfiction, eg writing gay relationships in shows that Wouldn’t Dare Alienating An Audience by doing so, before film studios found methods of profiting from segmentation / difference, but not so much with Memes. And i think several important experiences, defined primarily in the negative, including queerness and diaspora (not being heterosexual, or sexual, or comfortable in gender, not being rich, not being white, not being a citizen, etc.) are all about this way of salvaging and constructing a life or sense of personal coherence (a stable language) in the face of a culture committed to erasing & denying it – pieced together from cheaply licensed sitcoms, thrift stores, used books with notes in the margins, & stock images: it’s a meme way of thinking, collaging sense from puns on waiting-room-magazine cutouts. This was generally not where i looked to assemble a self-narrative: pretentious asshole, i prowled the Teen Classics section of the Gilroy library, its CD racks, and what Hulu Student / the Pirate Bay gave you from the Criterion Collection: but i think i understand the impulse.

This is not without problem: it too excludes those who haven’t watched Spongebob / Friends, didn’t have someone in their childhood home pay for a computer with Word 2003 with its chatty paperclip; even as Aragorn passes through Cairo and Budapest the original cultural artifacts are usually produced by corporations in LA or NY (some come from accidents though – Pepe, Kappa). Most memes, as is obvious with hyperniche philosophy/math/science memes, are about a smug shock of recognition emphasized by the rarity of getting the joke about, say, cohomological chains or sad lamp bears or potato epistemology: shibboleths. But sometimes we do just need the vaIidation of common images, passed between strangers to suggest communities of common looking, you know? The problem is not the territory / medium but who is using it & for what (_memes are necessarily overdetermined_).

And, these days, high/low cultural distinctions are socioeconomically real but quite untenable aesthetically: one of the biggest names in my current discipline, New Media Art, is the artist / writer / philosopher Hito Steyerl, and her recent work is all about this way of making / thinking: the video project How Not To Be Seen “about” surveillance appropriates & remixes stock film and free sounds, not to mention the Monty Python sketch; her book Wretched of the Screen explores this way low-res images, quickly photoshoped, proliferate and mutate through digital and physical spaces without discernible original author. And ugly narrative, flarf, all are preoccupied with presenting messy, fraying, cultural salvage as poetry/art/literature, often in a third mode, attempting total rejection of deliberate semantics. That’s cool too! But i’m more excited by the scraps we traded in the back of the classroom, seeking implausible recognition

MFA Thesis Proposal Draft

MFA Thesis Proposal Draft

Kavi Duvvoori, Fall 2018


A collection of short language games, mostly computationally mediated, each in conversation with a formal model of language, presented on a website and in a physical installation.


TITLE UNDECIDED will gather a collection of small digital language pieces: prose, poetry generators, and interactive textual interfaces, all referred to as “language games.” Each piece will explicitly reference a model of language, for example from linguistics, NLP, or mathematical logic. The language game will then attempt to offer a literary text or artwork that implements part of the model, while also playing with its metaphors, and exploring the “remainder-work” that can happen in relation to each model. The aim, in gathering pieces, is to develop and suggest a way of working, referencing a cohesive collection of poetry or short fiction.

The pieces will primarily be written for the web. For the exhibition, each piece on the website will be presented on a seperate surface (for digital pieces old laptops, tablets, or PCs). Ideally these surfaces will be arranged in a quiet space where visitors are invited to sit down for a few minutes and read. The question of the relation between the installation and the digital server may be played with explicitly in a couple games, such as a hand-printed piece and an Arduino and LED based text.

The collection tentatively includes:



Word-embedding models (GloVe, Word2Vec, Skip-Gram) are an increasingly ubiquitous approach to lexical semantics that treats the meaning of words geometrically, as arbitrary points in a high-dimensional vector space, with geometric distance corresponding to similarity, and similarity predicted from the likelihood of words appearing in similar contexts (“the cat runs” / “ the dog runs” -> “cat” and “dog” are similar). The papers’ key result is that the arithmetic of this space captures something semantic – the closest word to “London” – “England” + “France” (added as vectors) is allegedly “Paris” and to “King” – “Man” + “Woman” is “Queen.”

Language Game

I use the GloVe model to create diagram-poems that gradually degenerate a sentence. A program tracks a sentence down a series of disturbances, each time replacing each word with its nearest neighbor in the vector space. The sentences are then “graphed” by projecting down to 2 dimensions (an alternate possibility would be an interactive 3d display) and plotting the text. The fonts are also varied across iterations using the Metaflop tool built on Donald Knuth’s Metafont parametrized typography system. The source sentences follow an additional alphabetic constraint, that each word include the first letter not included in the previous words until each letter is used once – I do not yet have a way to maintain this constraint.


The quirks and failures of such mathematical spaces, calculated from our collective language use in Wikipedia and similar tracts of the web, now act upon and evaluate us through systems for translation, sentiment and network surveillance, and the corporate characters for synthetic conversation. Some of the GloVe model’s correspondences may be recognizable in a thesaurus, but others not: there is an intriguing amount of noise in the trained models – obscure words and misspellings adjacent to common terms. I would like to investigate the “geometry” of this space, and one way to do this is to explore the surroundings of a few “points” in such a space. A related project would be to graph sets of synonyms or opposites to draw out expected and unexpected proximities.


Draft readable at:

Room With Montague:


One of the founding theories of formal semantics is Richard Montague’s 1970 12 page paper “English as a Formal Language.” In firmly Fregean fashion, it identifies the meaning of sentences as assertions of first-order logic about set-theoretic models, built “compositionally” using lambda calculus. Modern approaches replace first-order logic with modal logic, and aim to build “discourse structures” rather than single assertions, but work in the recognizable scaffolding of Montague (and Frege’s) approach remains dominant in formal semantics; it is a key source articulating (uncritically) the metaphor between computational and human “symbolic systems.”

Language Game

A parser fiction, that uses semantic composition to evaluate the truth of sentences the player builds up. The player learns about two rooms, my dorm room and that of the lurid murder of Richard Montague. Juxtaposed against the truth values are paragraphs of prose I write very loosely, also offering description. Both components of the text aim for (different forms of) pure description.


It is a way for me to work through some of the ambivalence / contradictions I feel when moving between linguistic and literary approaches to language and writing. This problem – and it doesn’t have to be in this piece – is one I want to continue to focus on. Richard Montague’s murder seems interesting because his theoretical contribution is so concise and pristine, while the events are so sensational and mysterious that they loosely inspired both a Samuel Delaney and a random mystery novel, working from very little public information (mostly in the biography of another logician): it’s a cliche, but the opposition of work that attempts to excise affect to pulpy biography is an easy / effective trope to use when writing about theoreticians. I can’t deny an interest in the centrality of tragic gay men to 20th century formal logic (Turing, likely Wittgenstein, Montague).


Playable draft (coding basically complete, writing needs much editing and expansion) at



A loose reference to the idea that language is a cognitive faculty refined by genetic evolution. A close reference to evolutionary algorithms, that search for a solution to a problem by varying (“mutating”) a population of candidates and keeping the most successful, in loose metaphor to natural selection. Genetic algorithms, a subclass, generate new candidates by combining the features of two old ones.

Language Game

Uses a “genetic” algorithm to seek out n-gram approximations of John Ashbery’s “Whatever It Is, Wherever You Are” in a population of 100 sentences. Every second, 100 new sentences are generated by splicing together samples from the most successful of the previous 100. Success is evaluated by the number of n-grams (up to n=5) that occur in both a sentence and the source text. An interesting direction to explore would be to vary the evaluation measure, or even let the reader change the measure of success live. The source text is about evolution and language also.


It is a way for me to explore this class of techniques for language generation. An interest of the piece is in watching the “population” shift, rather than waiting for a single interesting sentence. I hope to explore the dynamics possible in digital literature more, as variation-in-time is a key axis of many works I enjoy.


Draft (currently down due to server configuration difficulties)




The primary reference point would be Douglas Hofstadter’s playful obsession with circularity, paradoxical self-reference, and “strange loops” as central phenomena in understanding language and consciousness, referencing Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. This preoccupation may be somewhat out of fashion, or not to have had obvious algorithmic successes, but had great cultural influence, including on me.

Language Game

Two short programs that write themselves or write about whether they write themselves. One outputs its source. The other, encoding Russell’s paradox, attempts to output its source only if it does not output its source, leading to a stack overflow. A quote from “Borges and I / Borges y Yo” and the repetition of the phrase “In all of these words can there be found this author, who chooses to write these words?” attempt to relate this to the problem of authorship.


It took just a couple hours and was great fun.


Basically complete at:,,

Secret and Sensibility:


Word or character-based RNNs are neural networks that try to naively predict a text as a sequence of glyphs. Their naivety, general function fitting, claims to be “unreasonably effective.” Parameters to tune include the length of the “window” considered at each step, the number of cells, the number of layers, the nature of cells in the network (common choices are LSTMs with gates for inputting, outputting, and forgetting, and GRUs with gates for inputting, updating, and resetting), the representation of characters or words (all equivalent or themselves encoded in embeddings), and more sophisticated augmentations (“attention” mechanisms, changes to loss function, switching to a Generative Adversarial Network style architecture). I don’t know much about how to engineer all this, but the models can function well enough as a black box from various tutorials.

Language Game

Produces text from an LSTM word model trained simultaneously on Gutenberg editions of Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, and the erotic Victorian novel My Secret Life to suggest something about the figure-ground relationship between what a corpus includes and what it systematically excludes: in this case “absolute style” and smut. It will generate an arbitrarily long block of semi-readable text, fluctuating between these two modes.


What I like about My Secret Life is how extreme and direct this reversal is, though it may be very problematic in other ways. An alternative would be a colonial novel from an overseas subject of the British Empire near the turn of the 19th Century – but does this novel exist? If there was some English novel, full text available, from around 1800, written by a brown or black person in the Caribbean or India (fortune from a forgotten uncle in Jamaica or a captain returning from a posting in Bombay, which they do not speak of, being staples), I would like that even more, but don’t know of it. The closest thing I can think of would be slave narratives, which I think are too heavy handed or appropriative to use here. Is there a clear choice of countertext for Shakespeare instead? Also, I don’t mean the relationship to Austen to be purely parody – I take that fiction quite seriously, took one of my favorite classes on Austen & Eliot, it just seems to have a particularly tight, controlled, relationship with what it excludes.


Tested, not viewable. Waiting on a new computer with GPU.

Language Happening:


Nonspecifically, those that consider language to simply be interchangeable with its material substrate, and material to be understood from its sensory impressions. Hume, maybe?

Language Game

A pun on a “concrete poem.” Uses a 3D Unity game-space to subject 3D modeled words to Unity’s physics engine. They fall from the ceiling and the player, using first-person DOOM-guy style controls may exert force to attract and repel the variously textured words. Maybe, for hype, this should be done in VR?


In addition to the problem about materiality (and the simulation / skeuomorphism of it) I’m interested in the prefab logic, even prefab ontologies, that come with working in a free(mium) game engine, with logic for physics, lighting, movement, included or adapted from someone else. One puts words into this simulation space in order to explore that space.


Draft with video documentation

The Great Game of aPlayername1870’s Amazing Gaming:


Narrative realist fiction. The corresponding formal theory might be that of narratology, or the computational modeling of narrative.

Language Game

A novella about the rise and fall of a professional Starcraft 2 gamer, eventually defeated by a match fixing scandal. It is told in forum posts by a fan, researched by the fan spending many hours watching the gamer stream himself playing the game. Ideally to be self-published with a few copies printed (if that is affordable).


I like reinterpreting the act of writing fiction in this way, as a play with the patterns from conventional fiction-writing instruction (not a kind I received). I know the concept of “language game” refers a little bit to chess, and not at all Starcraft 2, but am interested in exploring what performing that crude literalization anyway does. I follow this esport, and do find its cultural situation fascinating, tied up in contradictory metaphors, staging nationalism in ways similar to but different from traditional sports, teams establishing corporate identities.


Sitting on my Google Drive, waiting for heavy editing down and repurposing.

Acquisitive Devices:


Contemporary syntax (minimalist program / merge), while it no longer assumes the construction of preliminary and final trees, variously transformed, totally distinct from surface structure, still works with a very particular kind of evidence: syntax papers center on the contrast of grammatical and ungrammatical example sentences (marked with an asterix) that aim to be uncontroversial, but when possible, show a measure of wit. While I think most in the field no longer use the same story from the 1960s (universal grammar, the language acquisition device) some part of that model, where a grammar machine parses sentences into (headed, binary) trees seems to remain ubiquitous and fundamental, despite the empirical fact that most things people say simply do not parse into such trees without much munging.

Language Game

A generator contrasts grammatical sentences (built with an implementation of a merge grammar) with parallel ungrammatical ones, created by reversing or breaking the constituency rules. The trick is that the ungrammatical versions aim for metaphoric or poetic resonance, while the grammatical ones aim for flatness.


The construction of linguistic evidence strikes me as a constrained literary practice, and a fascinating one. Lecercle talks about a “rag-bag” of wordplay and odd language we gather: I feel linguists are actually doing something parallel, if what totally different intent, by talking to one another about language in terms of “donkey sentences” and “pied-piping” and all these other very canonical, very fraught, examples.



Other Models Being Considered

Distributed Systems

The metaphors in this discipline of computing seem very interesting: agents, messages, accommodating failure, elections. I’m thinking about what poetic structure could accomodate messages (perhaps single words, or suggested poetic moves) being sent between a variety of small units, which are somehow assembled into a morphing text. This could be a good place to do something with electronics: it is straightforward to install Elixir (a programming language for distributed systems) on arduino, so a device in the installation could somehow receive and display messages in LED, or send signals when a button is pushed, or something like that.

Speech Act & Discourse Theories

    I want to generate a “novel” for NaNoGenMo (National Novel Generation Month, initiated by Darius Kazemi) that tracks a group of people making and breaking promises, apologies, assertions, pronouncements, to one another. It would encode a minimal speech act theory in the style of JL Austin, and simply simulate the extended interaction of agents acting in such a world.

The Guide to Nonexistent Birds: An Ornithological Logic:

A constrained essay in comments to a Prolog model that generates texts resembling a birdwatching guide. The essay comments on the OuLiPo, language and code. A new third comment-essay (to the lyrical comments in the first essay) will critique the original essay I wrote to try to unpack some of its assumptions about logic and poetics. One of the things I would also seriously grapple with in the third essay – and which it will be an important challenge to speak about properly against the tone of the original piece – is the sexual violence of Pablo Neruda, who epigrams the essay, not to mention that of Charles Bukowski who has a joke-poem included in the original (or in other first projects, extensive references to John Searle’s theories, when it recently came out that UC Berkeley ignored, presumably due to the prestige of those theories, a series of sexual assault allegations against him from students). I don’t know if this exercise would work or not – likely not! – in the context of the thesis,  whether there is anything productive to say, but I may eventually find a more than naive way to write about the complicity of these received forms I work, at times exuberantly, near (military tech, leering lyricism).


Response to the prompt to create a booklet from a single 80×66 page of Python code, that operates by applying various transformations to a grid of these 6 characters, including Conway’s Game of Life: Aims to get at the way digital text can “flicker between being data and language.”

Overall Contexts & Motivations

A first problem, in investigating the use of language, is the question of which second-order language to make use of in one’s investigations. It is this question of discourses about language that TITLE UNDECIDED remains focused on. A presupposition here is that we cannot presume one form, such as mathematical logic or the assertive impersonal essay, can describe all the relevant phenomena adequately, and that the moment where one second-order discourse attempts to represent another (as is happening here) reveals much about both discourses, as well as their limits. There may also be a specific contemporary problem with the speed of proliferation of formal yet incommensurable discourses about language: word-embedding models, categorial grammars, discourse theories, temporal logics, and so on have each gained prominence in a technical literature and demand substantial work to understand the effects of their use. It seems (and I will not defend this further) that a logicist (which may or may not be synonymous here with logocentric?) understanding of meaning is assumed across these forms of theory, but simultaneously the models themselves contradict one another, and are not even structurally similar in the forms of their logic. How is a digital writer, in this situation, to research the material they work in?

This project has precedent in the writings of movements that articulate their literary production as a form of investigation or intervention into language, and the discourses commenting on or mediating it: Oulipo, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry, Fluxus, and Interactive Fiction. I will develop my conceptualization of this intervention, and relation to these movements (which are all, like the language, diffuse clusters of activity and resemblance rather than discrete clubs) in the thesis writing.

There are many popular tropes to describe such investigations proceeding by accumulation, juxtaposition, correspondence, and fibration, rather than primarily synthesis, unification, and hierarchization. These distinct, contradictory, metaphors include Walter Benjamin’s constellations, Deleuze and Guattari’s alluring rhizomes, Feyerabend’s epistemic anarchy, Wittgenstein’s “sketches of a landscape” resisting singular direction and “language games,” Hito Steyerl’s “free falling” perspective, and simply bricolage; finding ways to articulate the epistemic function of such playfully non-systematic “artistic” investigations remains a deep challenge: is this “research”?

This is a fairly abstruse or formalist mfa thesis (this is in no way a prescriptive choice: I believe I have substantial ethical & political commitments but do not currently see a way to honestly involve this MFA project with them). TITLE UNDECIDED may still have a specific educational use, simply in drawing attention to some culturally unfamiliar algorithmic models that are nonetheless coming to operate dramatically in the world, through search & translation engines, sentiment analysis, voice assistants, and so on. One hopes that, for example, “playing” with word-embeddings for the first time will give a reader a better sense of how the use of word-embeddings for sentiment analysis can encode racial and gender biases that are already expressed in the way Wikipedia or news articles are written. The idea that in general algorithms reproduce cultural formations is spreading, through books like Algorithms of Oppression, and it is also necessary to investigate the ways specific models enable this; I hesitate to claim my intended interventions are “tactical” but do think the asymmetry of our cultural awareness to the scope & scale of these language technologies is still so great that mere non-advertising exposure, visualization or “textualization,” is more likely to help than harm.


(limiting here to one per author; will format & expand citations properly upon request; all partially engaged with, but of course still a rather aspirational list for 5-6 months)

Theoretical (Critical / Analytical)

Mary Burger (ed.) – Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative

John Cayley – Grammalepsy

Wendy Chun – Programmed Visions: Software and Memory

Jacques Derrida – Of Grammatology

Paul Feyerabend – Against Method

Vilém Flusser – Does Writing Have a Future

Noah Wardrip-Fruin – Expressive Processing

Alexander Galloway – The Interface Effect

Douglas Hofstadter – Metamagical Themas

David Jhave Johnston – Aesthetic Animism

Saul Kripke – Naming and Necessity

Jean-Jacques Lecercle – The Violence of Language

Jean-François Lyotard, Jean-Loup Thébaud – Just Gaming

Nick Montfort – Twisty Little Passages

Lisa Nakamura – Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures on the Internet

Safiya Noble – Algorithms of Oppression

William Van Orman Quine – Word and Object

Bonnie Ruberg, Adrienne Shaw (ed.) – Queer Game Studies

Warren Sack – The Software Arts

McKenzie Wark – Gamer Theory

Ludwig Wittgenstein – Philosophical Investigations

Theoretical (Technical)

J.L. Austin – “How to do things with words”

Christopher Bishop – Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning

Shan Carter, David Ha, Ian Johnson, Christopher Olah – Four Experiments in Handwriting with a Neural Network

Noam Chomsky – Syntactic Structures

Herbert Enderton – A Mathematical Introduction to Logic

Daniel Jurafsky, James H Martin – Speech and Language Processing

Hans Kamp – “Discourse Representation Theory”

Andrej Karpathy – “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Neural Networks”

Angelika Kratzer, Irene Heim – Semantics in Generative Grammar

Donald Knuth – Digital Typography

H.P. Grice – “Logic and Conversation”

Saunders Mac Lane – Categories for the Working Mathematician

Richard Montague – “English as a Formal Language”

Ernest Nagel, James R. Newman – Godel’s Proof

J Pennington, R Socher, C Manning – “GloVe: Global vectors for word representation”

Gerald Jay Sussman and Hal Abelson – Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs


Cesar Aira – The Musical Brain

John Ashbery – “Whatever it is, wherever you are”

Pippin Barr – works on

Charles Bernstein – Girly Man

Jorge Luis Borges – Labyrinths

John Cage – “Lecture on Nothing”

Italo Calvino – Cosmicomics

Anne Carson – Float

Inger Christensen – It

Alfred Jarry – Opinions and Exploits of Dr. Faustroll Pataphysician

Darius Kazemi – Teens Wander Around a House

John Keene – Counternarratives

Milton Läufer – works on

Jackson Mac Low – Pronouns

Harry Matthews, Alistair Brotchie (ed.) – Oulipo Compendium

Alice Notley – Grave of Light

Alison Parrish – Articulations

Everest Pipkin – picking figs in the *.garden

Joan Retallack – Afterimages

Emily Short – The Annals of the Parrigues

Gertrude Stein – Tender Buttons

Rosmarie Waldrop – Gap Gardening

Christine Wertheim and Matias Viegener (ed.) – The /n/oulipian Analects,  

Condensed Political Post

I think there is a reasonable chance social media posts are a factor establishing consensuses (consensi?) which drive behavior. All at once then:

1. Voting is impactful! In CA, my presidential, senate, and house vote don’t matter at all, because this is a fairly undemocratic country, but the ballot measures and local offices are important! But don’t vote for Republicans, you know? I believe in political disagreement and debate, i just also believe that all reasonable and potentially good-faith policy debate in this country is between centrist and progressive wings of the Democratic party and third parties, choices hidden by the federalist two-party system. Apparently there are things you can do like ask for provisional ballots if you aren’t registered. Somehow Trump’s approval rating has been increasing, 47% now by one poll? There’s no Inevitable Return To Sanity And Justice (as those things weren’t there before either), the moral majority loves the police state

2. I cannot come up with any coherent defence of limiting our moral circle to US citizens (there are some of a strategic use of citizenship, but none of them start with the premise that people in other countries or without documents are actually morally irrelevant), as our politics and even constitution do. What is happening with the large scale long-term caging deportation and terrorization of people, including children, from communities who are a fundamental part of this country, and the region I live in especially, is fascistic, unimaginably horrific: I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to call it a form of ethnic cleansing, if along different lines and in different ways than past examples. One organization I’ve heard of doing useful legal work is the Florence Project, and I would really like to know of other uses of small amounts of money or time a person can do. This extends to things like trade: people losing jobs in Michigan is bad and sad – people not getting jobs & money that means a dramatically more comfortable life in Cambodia or Mexico or Bangladesh is also very bad and sad, and these things needn’t be assumed to be in tension

3. Trans people exist! Policing and tormenting people around gender has become one of their core planks, shibboleth’s, often pushed to the side relative to other concerns. Don’t create databases of chromosomes or genitals!! People who belong to other categories, move between, or slip between the cracks of M/F have existed, as far back as you like if you’re willing to look askew. While the scale of anti-trans violence in the US is perhaps small in comparison to the ordinary deaths of people in the not-rich world for lack of medication, social infrastructure, or nutrition, gendered violence and the enforcement of gender difference are truly fundamental to our and most cultures, and those ordinary harms & distresses add up!

In Middlemarch and Los Santos?

I’m drawn to art of unreasonable maximalism: that wants to represent or at least gesture to everything, if ultimately for how it fails to do so. I had some thoughts about odd parallels between the representational strategies and problems of such world-depicting novels (Middlemarch) and open world video games (Grand Theft Auto [5]). Games are the medium currently large but unserious enough to be permitted to proclaim this ambition.

I’m taking a DANM class this fall with Susana Ruiz called Game Design, Documentary Storytelling, and Social Activism. We’ve been discussing questions about the ways interactive media may express social realism, talk about real issues in the real world. We generally consider connections between games and film/television (in no small part because they work in the same, audio-visual, sensory mode). However, the way open world games think about space, the individual’s simultaneous insignificance and perception of centrality to the city and history, the representation of social “structures” and “logics” over specific facts, their coded fictionalization, and the context in which games are produced and discussed – ever reacting against charges of being an unserious form – remind me most closely of ambitious 19th and 20th century realist novels about communities, like George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Zola’s Germinal, Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy, perhaps even War and Peace, Vanity Fair, and many novels by authors like Balzac and Thomas Hardy which I haven’t read. What’s interesting to me about this is the way certain problems recur in unexpected places & permutations, and how these distant repetitions clarify those problems. We often talk about Grand Theft Auto in terms that come out of tech demos (look at that draw distance! What fine specularity!) and moral concern (look at how easily the game lets you murder sex workers) but they also reflect or enact some pretty fascinating conversations about how we talk about our fragmented and mutually contradictory perspectives of the world. Middlemarch and Grand Theft Auto 5, canonical, massive, also strike me as interesting cases as they are taken often as central examples, to some extent constituting or defining the aspirations of their profoundly different mediums. Works that are so ubiquitous may offer a way of looking at the way ideas of a genre itself consolidate.

It was suggested that I write further on this, and I want to lay out some of these parallels between the the realist novel of place and the representational ambitions of recent “open world” video games. A disclaimer is that these are first & rambling thoughts towards an essay or article, not that article, so I’ll need to go back to the actual books and games, and the criticism I reference, before taking this argument any further. I am very much not an expert on The Novel in English Literature: nonetheless the question of World, Worldbuilding, is richly presented and discussed in games but often more peripheral to discussion of classic realist (as opposed to science fiction) novels – and I am claiming that the simulation of world is quite fundamental to this kind of sprawling novel depicting community, and that there is some interesting common question about perspective, objectivity, and ideology.

Realism and the Film Metaphor

The film metaphor is central to the origins of narrative 3D games, in how they were discussed and marketed, talked about by critics, and even in who developed and distributed them. Many games claim they just want to be a movie. A classic example of the consolidation of this metaphor is the 1999 first-person shooter Medal of Honor, developed by DreamWorks Interactive and written by Steven Spielberg himself, and its 2002 sequel Allied Assault. Watching the opening sequence, you see close parallels to the iconic Omaha Beach landing in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan: wading to shore as an insignificant private as other soldiers drop unremarked dead on the beach in a cacophony of noise and strings, except in chunky early 3d, rendering the viscera as simple red stains, and leaving the water a flat texture.

(opening landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, still from Director’s Guild of America website)

(still from ViruZ A.G.’s YouTube recording of the opening of the Medal of Honor: Allied Assault)

Alexander Galloway tackles a lot of these questions about the representationality of video games: a standard mode for shooter games is the extended first-person shot, rare in film before games – suggesting an embodied perspective but hiding the body. I’d argue this ideal continues to be at the heart of most 3d action games – with the most recent iterations of the blockbuster first-person shooter franchises, both Call of Duty WWII and Battlefield V trying to draw solemnity, self-serious pathos and grit by returning to this WWII that remains a cultural fixation, if one increasingly understood only in reference to media tropes. The way this “cinematic realism” manifests in games remains highly bizarre – the announcement of new NVIDIA graphics cards spent some ten minutes demonstrating how with ray-tracing the irises of character models in Battlefield V reflect the orange bloom of explosions off screen, as though we play games to stare at avatars’ eyeballs! Scenes are mo-capped from professional actors, wearing skinsuits covered in dots in studios around LA: many pixels have been blackened describing how Sony’s new face capture system finally managed to capture the micro-motions of lips in a (queer) kiss in a trailer for The Last of Us 2.

In talking about documentary, “indexicality” becomes a centrally discussed problem: the force & argument of documentary film is closely tied to its claim that there exist exact mappings between on-screen things, and things in the world. This becomes complicated by the regular usage of acted reenactments presented as original footage, post-processing, the hiding of the camera & frame, etc. Ian Bogost among others popularized the term “newsgames” and “procedural rhetoric” to describe a cluster of projects to make discrete games about events in history or in the news: sometimes claiming to be objective representations, and other times taking an explicitly editorial position – these include controversial game engine simulations of the Kennedy assassination and the Twin Towers collapsing, or newsgames like the mobile game Bury Me My Love, a fictionalization by a journalist based on the experiences of a woman escaping Syria and trying to travel to Europe. On the other hand, classic games with political or representational aspirations like Papers, Please! or This War of Mine operate more allegorically, representing social situations or systems rather than particular events – there is much else to be written about allegory in games and literature.

(JFK Reloaded promo on Gamespot website)

(This War of Mine screenshot, from official website)

So this nexus of questions about film, perspective, visual representations of space and bodies remain rightfully at the center of discussions of what “realistic” games are up to, and aspiring to be. But there are also other conceptions of realism and reality, of how realism is a problem for art and how to approach it, like in the “naturalistic” novel as I’m suggesting here.

Open Worlds, GTA5’s Los Santos

Open world games, ranging from Grand Theft Auto, Yakuza 0, Watch Dogs, and Sleeping Dogs; to Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Just Cause; to the Elder Scrolls and Fallout; to The Witcher 3, Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn, to many other simulated spaces, have become one of the most ubiquitous, technically ambitious, and commercially significant game genres. We’re in the season of endless hype around the release of several new ones – Red Dead Redemption 2, Spider-Man, Cyberpunk 2077, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. This list is exhausting! A new city of several km2 fabricated and ready for entry every couple months!

These games are about offering a sense of free movement in vast digital environments featuring fewer invisible walls than other genres: usually, there is a scripted story arc, but the player chooses when to advance the plot and when instead to play digital darts. The map is usually packed with optional side quests, scripted interactions and background characters, activities, and easter eggs. The simulation of place, traversed in first or third person perspective, is fundamental. I will restrict this discussion the first sublist: open worlds with a commitment to simulating real places or fictionalized versions of real places. Grand Theft Auto 5 occurs in Los Santos, a close fictionalization of Los Angeles and its surroundings. You drive around, shoot people, buy bigger guns, invite your NPC friends to see complete included shorts, go paragliding, browse the in-game internet, see if you can steal a tank, get kicked out of the house by your digital aunt.

(a Rockstar Games released screenshot archived on

A key storytelling device of GTA V is to have you play from the perspective of three distinct main characters, with different criminal backstories, parts of the city lived in, bank accounts, and special powers. This is a key strategy of the realist novel of place, Middlemarch’s strategy too. The first couple hundred pages center on “the ardent young gentlewoman yearning for a more significant existence” Dorothea Brooke, before realizing that what it has to say requires also cycling through other centers of perspective, reorienting events and spaces. In GTA V, an NPC will let each of the three main characters smoke digital weed, which for two becomes a paranoid presumably hallucinated shootout sequence, and for the third just makes the screen blur slightly. One of the basic devices people talk about in novels is free indirect style – utterances that are syntactically in the third person, but in fact take a character’s subjective perspective – the subject of both literary studies and linguistic analysis. A close analog of this device seems a part of this kind of game also then.

A common feeling about GTA V, my feeling, is to love the city, but hate “the story” of the game: its parody strikes me as mostly toothless, punching down, if with inevitable moments of cleverness, the characters relentless misogyny too tired to be deconstruction, a key scene seeming to endorse torture. On the other hand, it simultaneously offers the remarkable experience of merging onto a highway, tuning the in-game radio through talk-shows, hip-hop, country, mariachi, classic-rock, as impossibly detailed walk-ups give way to towers, then suburbs, then scrub and trailer parks; the sheer number of minor characters demanding different engagements with the simulated city, ranging from hunting deer, to manipulating the simulated stock market, to stalking & photographing celebrities. You can “play” Grand Theft Auto 5 by following the view of a deer for 48 hours through the city as scripted crimes happen nearby and passersby recite their dialogue lines. What I think about when walking my avatar through Los Santos is that someone took the time to model the municipal waste logo on a dumpster, designed a system to make traffic accidents happen even when I didn’t cause them, performed the swears pedestrians offer when you knock over a power pole.

The main story, following the player through carefully shot & animated cutscenes is the part drawing from film or television: it includes credit sequences over establishing shots making the claim to a film / TV mode as explicitly as possible. On the other hand the scripted interaction and systematic possibilities of the world, and the perspectival shifts questioning the player’s relationship with the world, are what remind me of the other aspect of certain novels. There is a contradiction between what the open world tells you and how it operates, a ludonarrative dissonance one might say: you may endlessly disturb and save the simulated city, but in some basic way it returns to its original state everytime you leave and come back to the block.

Another such recent open world is Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs 2 in a near future San Francisco / Silicon Valley with every streetlight “hackable.” One of its fascinating features lets you hack any individual on the street: each will list their name, occupation (“Poet”;”Programmer”), age, special fact (“avid hunter”; “asexual”), and income (“$22,000”;”$220,000”). Sometimes you get to read a text message or listen in on a phone call they are having. It quickly becomes apparent they are mostly randomly pulling from a set of possible combinations, but nonetheless it is unusual in a game to have this gesture that the models in the background experience the city as a different drama, the gesture towards background characters maintaining intricate and different personal geographies.

(From “8 Ways to Be a Jerk in Watch Dogs 2”

We have the line in Middlemarch, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

It remains a tourist’s Silicon Valley: there’s a (very iffy) depiction of gangs battling it out across from the office parks, a focus on The People Resisting The Man, but minimal representation of the dynamics of segregation, gentrification, displacement, housing crisis and homelessness, that are so central to the region; there were a few widely appreciated explicit discussions of race by the African-American main character, but they go nowhere in the game which still kills the other black character without much care or mourning; you can walk past a bit of a Chinatown, buildings look a bit different in different corners of the map, but the NPCs still essentially pull randomly from the same old names, occupations, and traits; there’s scant suggestion of the Central & Salinas Valleys just past the mountains, with their massive agriculture industry, migrant workers, and precarity, contrasting with, adjacent to, co-constituting the endless office parks. GTA5’s caricatures actually suggest Californian contradiction much better! In any case, the problem seems quite alive in the open world genre.

More on Perspective, Middlemarch

Early novelists had to offer apologia for writing in an allegedly unserious form. This seems very familiar to anyone who wants to talk about video games now. George Eliot wrote a famous essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” in which she describes the unrealistic tropes of sensational romance and intrigue that filled so many popular novels of her era, and articulates her commitment to naturalism – “The fair writers have evidently never talked to a tradesman except from a carriage window; they have no notion of the working-classes except as “dependents”; they think five hundred a-year a miserable pittance; Belgravia and “baronial halls” are their primary truths; and they have no idea of feeling interest in any man who is not at least a great landed proprietor, if not a prime minister.” Her project in contrast intends some anthropological seriousness, to understand and model the actual social, economic, etc. forces in the fictionalized worlds. Certainly the games are generally in trope land, but whenever they visibly offer greater naturalism they seem to get a lot of critical praise for doing so, “growing up.”

I want to stop and think for a moment about what I’m trying to do here, or what this exercise is. The story that different media – novels, film, games – follow similar trajectories of invention, consolidation, experimentation, and becoming cliche is alluring but untrue. Maybe there’s a small plea for a certain kind of literacy – for an open world game made by people who have read Middlemarch (which, no doubt, many or most game writers already have), or more significantly games made for people who have already read classic novels, would be an exciting game – unlikely but not impossible to imagine. I’m not sure whether the problem is about the maturity of the medium exactly (Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grownup people”; a documentary game designer who visited our class made a similar claim about waiting for “games made for adults.”) It’s more that big-budget games have all this fascinating stuff, critique even, in the background – they do this even more than big-budget films since the 2 hour duration of blockbusters don’t give much space to examine all the background work, unless you really stop and look around: games on the other hand pack their worlds with newspapers, paintings, audio logs, that are less edited, more open to reading. It often feels like you can find a sidequest, a bit of dialogue, some peripheral writing, that not only does something different from the main plot, but something that contradicts or critiques it.

I took a great class from Ellen Rooney at Brown, “Austen & Eliot” where we, you know, read and discussed novels by Jane Austen and George Eliot. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Lifeset in a fictional but highly plausible central English town around 1830, offers partial perspectives, constant realizations of partiality, the suggestion of narrative coherence as an act of the mind, not world, despite an incredibly intricate depiction of acts and characters in such a world: considerations of agricultural improvements and the controversy of medicine, many finely balanced polysyllables rhapsodizing landscape and art, farmers speaking in dialect, subtle intersubjective euphorias and disaffection, close consideration of the necessary pounds and how to acquire them, moralizing and horse racing, hypocritical but human maneuverings of village clergymen, and gentlewomen looking for something urgent & meaningful to do while generally – but not always – lacking language for their dispossession. The book is deeply invested in social and geographic “simulation.” I will make a claim that I do not really defend: fiction like Eliot’s develops a technology of representation of the world through the ways people interact with systems and relations, that is also the model for realist open world video games representations.

“A meeting was to be held in the Town-Hall on a sanitary question which had risen into pressing importance by the occurrence of a cholera case in the town. Since the Act of Parliament, which had been hurriedly passed, authorizing assessments for sanitary measures, there had been a Board for the superintendence of such measures appointed in Middlemarch, and much cleansing and preparation had been concurred in by Whigs and Tories. The question now was, whether a piece of ground outside the town should be secured as a burial-ground by means of assessment or by private subscription. The meeting was to be open, and almost everybody of importance in the town was expected to be there. ”

We read Middlemarch alongside Louis Althusser’s essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)” with the suggestion that it was performing a similar theorization: this is worth drawing out. Althusser’s (who murdered his wife during a psychotic break and though i use his name to refer to ideas, should not be celebrated) essay inverts the traditional Marxist formulation in which ideology is a superstructure entirely on top of material relations, to have ideology be the thing that actually constitutes the subjects and objects that relations operate between (this is the kind of exciting, odd, somewhat-orthogonal-to-other-realities, thing one gets to say in The Humanities?). The point of ideology is not simply to give a perspective of the world but to be the lens through which the world is seen. In this sense, representational art simulates ideology, shows a process whereby some things become real, focalized, significant, and others don’t. In a game, this becomes literalized in the choice of what parts of a city to simulate.

“Those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’. It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology. As is well known, the accusation of being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself (unless one is really a Spinozist or a Marxist, which, in this matter, is to be exactly the same thing). Which amounts to saying that ideology has no outside (for itself), but at the same time that it is nothing but outside (for science and reality).”

One of the class’s arguments was that Middlemarch offers a parallel theorization of how ideology or “egoism” constitutes the world before it is seen:

“An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent—of Miss Vincy, for example.”

I was thinking about how this image becomes literalized by playing a character in a simulated world, switching characters.


We come to that part of the compare & contrast that acknowledges the two things are basically different, lined up only by a trick of perspective & light. GTA not serious, not thoughtful, poorly researched, “sophomoric drivel.” Dorothea’s idealistic marriage to Mr. Causubon, who turns out to be entirely stoic and controlling animate punctuation, has little to do with GTA’s marriage counseling scene, featuring affairs with implausible yoga instructors and complaints that Michael commits too many murders. Many of the games have multiplayer modes, raising entirely different questions. The novels I reference are provincial, the games in landmark-strewn metropoloes. The books are written by one person, possibly with an editor, over a substantial portion of their life; the games are made by 200 to 1000+ people, with a release cycle longer than 3-4 years probably meaning bankruptcy.

I do wonder how the scale of labor changes the meaning of multiplicity. There’s surely something interesting to be said about Rockstar North, in Edinburgh & Leeds’, fascination with reproducing LA and other American cities, and Ubisoft Montreal’s (+ Toronto, Bucharest, Paris, Kiev, Newcastle Upon Tyne) simulation of San Francisco, not to mention the enormous 3d-modeling, programming, art, animation, etc. labor for these games by people working in in Kuala Lampur, Chengdu, Bangalore, etc. The problem of assembling contradictory perception into an aesthetic unity is central not just to the content of the work but to the manner of its production. Ubisoft games now all open with a screen with a message like “this work of fiction was designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various beliefs, sexual orientations and gender identities.”

In Middlemarch, “But when Mary wrote a little book for her boys, called “Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch,” and had it printed and published by Gripp & Co., Middlemarch, every one in the town was willing to give the credit of this work to Fred, observing that he had been to the University, “where the ancients were studied,” and might have been a clergyman if he had chosen.

In this way it was made clear that Middlemarch had never been deceived, and that there was no need to praise anybody for writing a book, since it was always done by somebody else.”

In a puff piece in Vulture lionizing the GTA writers / Rockstar cofounders the Houser brothers (who come off as pretty obnoxious, not least for some ridiculous comments about 100 hour work weeks when there’s substantial talk of unionization and the unsustainable working conditions in the game industry) Dan Houser offers some intriguing, odd, comments, about the fact that he reads books:

“Dan says for research he consumed “hundreds” of books and films, “but nothing contemporary. I don’t want to be accused of stealing ideas.” He mentions Dickens, Henry James, Keats, Émile Zola, and “Arthur Conan Doyle, who just has great sections about America, you know, like a brilliant thing about union disputes in Pennsylvania and a brilliant thing about Mormons in Utah. But there’s no greater character in the history of literature than [David Copperfield’s] Uriah Heep,” he says.”

There’s a bit of evidence here for a real aspiration here by game designers to learn techniques from 19th Century novels – I thought of Zola before seeing Hauser cited him! On the other hand, I challenge anyone to play GTA V and think of Henry James as a reasonable reference point: Houser’s list reads like an AP English Lit syllabus rather than a coherent collection of taste or influence. Certainly Dickens is a closer reference than Eliot, for the way GTA and other open worlds characterize through caricature: James Wood, in his quite influential article “Human, All Too Inhuman” (with its rather annoying traditionalism and preoccupation with the category of ‘the Great Writer’) writes, “Many of Dickens’s characters are, as Forster rightly put it, flat but vibrating very fast. They are vivid blots of essence … One obvious reason for the popularity of Dickens among contemporary novelists is that his way of creating and propelling theatrically alive characters offers an easy model for writers unable, or unwilling, to create characters who are fully human. Dickens’s world seems to be populated by vital simplicities … Indeed, to be fair to contemporary novelists, Dickens shows that a large part of characterization is merely the management of caricature.”

This actually gives me a way of refining my argument: it is not that the Open World designers have learned a brilliant way to represent worlds; it is that the Open World embodies the aspiration of the realist community novel, taken to cliche. One of the Fundamental Human Problems in Eliot’s novel, and in her short fiction like “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton,” is how a person is a flat caricature in presentation, in public, to others, and fully human to themselves. Open Worlds too are strikingly able to offer the illusion of a world organized around a player’s perception, while also constantly contradicting it.

“Let me be persuaded that my neighbour Jenkins considers me a blockhead, and I shall never shine in conversation with him any more. Let me discover that the lovely Phoebe thinks my squint intolerable, and I shall never be able to fix her blandly with my disengaged eye again. Thank heaven, then, that a little illusion is left to us, to enable us to be useful and agreeable — that we don’t know exactly what our friends think of us — that the world is not made of looking-glass, to show us just the figure we are making, and just what is going on behind our backs! By the help of dear friendly illusion, we are able to dream that we are charming and our faces wear a becoming air of self-possession; we are able to dream that other men admire our talents — and our benignity is undisturbed; we are able to dream that we are doing much good — and we do a little.”

Other Directions, Questions

People say the world “worlding” sometimes. This seems relevant but I don’t know anything about Heidegger

Not film but television seems to often be invested in the simulation of the logic of a place, even using fictionalized towns (e.g. Pawnee).

How do technical affordances establish the player and character’s perspective of game worlds? This includes graphics technology (objects are instantiated only when you look at them) procedural generation of NPCs, simulation of systems like traffic, weather, and systems to enable permanent alteration of the city. Could be considered alongside analysis of literary devices in novels simulating place.

Middlemarch is very much about industrialization, economic and social change, etc. I do think this parallel is also there, if we talk about “Third Industrial Revolutions” or whatever, Watch Dogs 2 trying to talk about digitization and the fringes of the software industry and so on.


Link to Darius Kazemi Post on Decentralized Social Networks

Enjoyed this nice Darius Kazemi post about the dream of open standards for social media My feelings about Facebook seem common: that I hate many things about it, and think some of it’s corporate interests / tendencies are particularly harmful, but kind of grew up posting on it, don’t know how else to say something at once to many people I know without being really weird rather than just kind of weird, and like keeping tabs on various acquaintances i would be nervous to just talk to (human psychology is weird..) – honestly FB is a key place for my performance of self so just leaving isn’t really an option (and I’m way too verbose for Twitter, I really like my impression of Tumblr, but it’s audience is smaller and it kind of seems too hard to enter when you didn’t in High School, etc). Many of us seem have a kind of Stockholm syndrome towards our social media platofrms, and something like Activity Pub could reduce the nuisances we put up with to speak & listen to each other.
The idea of some open standard like Activity Pub is that, as with email or RSS, it is not inconceivable that the basic (post/friend/follow/comment/react) logic of social media could straightforwardly allow at least partial communication between networks / clients if there were enough demand or regulatory mandate. For example i’ve wanted to use Mastodon, but as far as I know not many of my friends are on it, and without an existing network a social network seems pretty useless to me.. But if I could read what my friends posted on Facebook in Mastodon, that would improve how i spend an embarrassing amount of time. I’m not saying this is plausible – it undermines something like a trillion dollar’s business model – but we do have free email!

Conveyor Belt Pleasures

Published to:

I learned to game by building networks of 2D, grid-aligned, sidewalks and amusement machines. I had never been on a roller-coaster. These games told me to become a Tycoon, but their real pleasure was just to watch the assemblage hum: the accumulation of bodies (the same sprite body, repainted) filling sidewalks and roller coasters, buying burgers and soda (from stores shaped like burgers and soda) to cash-register dings, screaming when a coaster leaves the belt and starts falling. When rain dashes the screen the sprites sprout umbrellas; outside the steepest coasters paths bloom identical vomit stains.

Peek 2018-07-16 10-30.gif

What fascinates me now about these games is the ways they start to play with, not hide, the workings and the material history of the hardware and software system that comprise them, from network logic, to industrial processes, to, yeah, extractive capitalist fantasy. The first two Roller Coaster Tycoon games understood that the screen’s visible pixelation, its isometric diagramming rather than eye-level detailing of a world, could be central to its pleasure and compulsion. This fantasy of controlling a territory with maps and graphs (from some office tower above) is about what is not made visible, as much as about what is. The power-trip of management games is not to be a chiseled supersoldier with a jetpack and no sense of pain, but to be a narrator’s eye without apparent body—rearranging a territory instantly with an immaterial hand. To hire a park employee you dangle them, legs-kicking, before dropping them onto a path.

The early-access game Factorio, despite it’s opposite surface—industrial grays and browns to RCT’s carnival, mines and factories to RCT’s Amusements—brought me back to that exact childhood fascination of linking up footpaths and coasters. In Factorio, playing an engineer stranded on an alien planet, you lay conveyor belts between factories to carry minerals to build bigger factories. In the complexity of its production lines and spatial puzzles, Factorio takes the underlying network logic of 90s-00s simulation games to such an extreme that the genre becomes or reveals something else. In Roller Coaster Tycoon you organize overlapping coaster tracks, sidewalks, bridges and tunnels, to carry guests around until they are sated and broke (then, past the ATM). In Factorio these networks expand across screens, into blueprints, and past the limits of memory. Belts proliferate stuttering ore and iron plates; mineral rivers fray into tunnels and spaghetti, which only their maker comprehends.

Peek 2018-07-16 10-49.gif

The screen surrounds a tiny sprite in a solitude only broken by bugs you build turrets to shoot. This is not a subtle colonial fantasy: the land is imagined uninhabited (despite signs of life), foreign or primordial (despite its earth-like plants and the 20th century industrial aesthetic), and its terrain is laid out strictly to be extracted from, emptied, and organized. It brings out the attraction, the loneliness, and the unsatisfiability of this desire to bring a territory into the confines of an expanding machine;  I cannot tell whether this is intentional critique or symptomatic accident.

Conveyor belt sims show something of the pleasure and narrowness of mass-market video games themselves, thrilling and exploitative at once. Pass through the queue, pay entry, be tossed around, vomit through the exit, buy a soda, repeat. I buy into this messed-up fantasy because I want to see what happens when the next belt of copper fills a train; when the final S-bend closes the track by the path, and the painted cars start swallowing figures, then spitting them out again.

Content warning: sexual assault, in celebrity art/intellectual culture, questions about unlearning

It is so dark to be reminded that not only is power in this society publicly & plainly ok with violence, sexual violence, but that the first things I turned to as a teenager for wisdom or for help imagining alternatives to what seemed bad or drained of humanity were in several cases made by people acting with equal cruelty, maybe with guilt but without change.

Something I’m grappling with is the way I still hero-worship artists and intellectuals, as an alternative to the political / economic / cultural powers we know to be so cruel, when substantial parts of intellectual/artistic celebrity culture continue to be involved with, to enable, excuse, and aestheticize, sexual violence, and that this must be connected not just with their names but in what they said and their sense of immunity. I was thinking about this also when watching Nanette, and its remarkable, terrible discussion of Picasso and art history.

“Too-sensitive-for-this-world” David Foster Wallace, not just sexist and objectifying of female fans, but abusing stalking and threatening another novelist. I remember in college several times showing people classic movies I thought were my favorites, full of depth and awe, Roger Ebert 4/4 stars, and being surprised when they featured men assaulting women in scenes I barely remembered, not knowing what to say, not saying anything, pretending the movie, Good Art, was still supposed to be the thing that showed the world’s resonance to us. The contemporary cases are too many to name of course: John Searle, Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie, Gopal Balakrishnan here, and Avital Ronell and her horrible letter signed by the leading ‘radical’ names (late, but I thought “On Power and Aporia in the Academy: A Response in Three Parts” was really good on this). A Pablo Neruda poem a structuring epigraph to my first large piece of digital writing: that Pablo Neruda was a rapist, but not only this, that he wrote his rape in the same style that he wrote his poetry, in his autobiography, and if he hadn’t written it no one would have known. And that this scene in which he raped a servant in Sri Lanka where he was an ambassador was not surprising or commented on for decades, and even after a cover story in a feminist publication wrote on it in 2011, I didn’t know until a classmate mentioned this in a class and I looked online, and the passage was crueler and more unrepentant than anything.

It’s not really something I’m a survivor of – but what to make of the (common) possibility of being maybe damaged or traumatized by a thing that you’ve also in the past, separately from art, went along with or internalized aspects of? I could try to say some positive things about what trying to unlearn casually inherited rape culture is, some reassurance in the possibility of kinder ways & communities with less ominous assumptions. I do believe it’s possible to learn different models & stories

2 Translations of the Yoneda Lemma

2 Translations of the Yoneda Lemma

Theorem stated by Nabuo Yoneda, and translated by Kavi Duvvoori

Note: all metaphors are to be used at the reader’s own risk. The translator takes no responsibility for any harm – social, academic, emotional, ethical, financial, physical, or otherwise – caused by improper use of the over-large generalizations and unjustified associations made here.



Let C be any locally small category, i.e. a class of objects Obj and a morphism Hom function from the class of objects squared to the class of all sets of sets, a composition operation on adjacent morphisms, and an identity function Id from the class of objects to the class of sets.

Let F be any functor from C to Set, the category of sets as objects with maps as arrows.

Let A be an object in C. Then, the covariant hom-functor at A is a functor from C to Set defined as follows: Hom at A of a morphism f from an object X to an object Y is taken to the map between the hom-set of A and X and the hom-set of A and Y that acts by precomposition of f.

The Yoneda Lemma states that the set of natural transformations between the covariant hom-functor at A and F is isomorphic with F of A, and this isomorphism is natural when both sides are considered as functors from the category of functors from C to Set cross C to Set!


First, learn cartography. No one changes road-signs. Trains leave on time. Flights follow their scheduled routes and blink their positions along monitors over your head and you try to sleep. Ships are registered with the proper authorities. Camels walk where they’re told.

There is language, call it Set. People turn words into words. Authors write encyclopedias, news reports, self-help books, and nursery rhymes which can be found in basements or the Library of Congress.

You start somewhere, C. Look around.

The things around you arrange themselves in terms of old words, remembered hallways that you can walk around the corners of when you close your eyes in the right weather. That house is green and boarded and wooden and high like your neighbor’s, which you walked into once and wished you hadn’t. The city is made out of streets arranged in a grid like you’ve seen in foldout and googled maps, made out of rectangles that you learned the name and shape of with wooden blocks that fit into each other in your Montessori pre-school. You see the way branches rise as the explanation your mother gave about photosynthesis when you, loud and fragile, asked how plants grow (or maybe what she told you about tree spirits waving to meet the running sun.)

You have a children’s dictionary, or an atlas, or a bird watching book, or a Guidebook for the Budget Traveler – F. It says some things.

Go somewhere. Pick something up, A. See how the world holds it. Consider what this billboard or bird or 11th story window, or cloud, or left sock sees. Call what it says A’s Hom, type it up, and put it on a shelf somewhere.

Now hold the stories side by side. Look at one, and then the other. Your left sock tells you about an earthworm experimenting with air, deciding on things, and now you step a little to the left. The book prefers the history of the sidewalk, the experimentations of the early family-run concrete companies, the century old firmness of the stone marked and dated by Herbert & Co, which a foot rests on.

Write an essay comparing and contrasting (but mostly comparing) A’s Hom and F. Make some bubble charts. Notice characters overlapping motivations, and influences in structure and worldview. Try out thesis statements, and support with well-cited examples your properly ordered topic sentences.

Now you’re drowning in a forest of metaphors but look around (says Yoneda). Make some maps – your wrists and fingers feel coastlines turning smoothly forward, then a sudden cutting back. Make islands play off of islands, trace names hovering around the bends in rivers which come out of your mouth like the way the water pumps forward, and which keep sounding right when you step in them. Consider the coastline of a chin or palm or democratic constitution. See how to get from here to there, what this says about that. The maps make matching shapes; they’re the same place. Maybe as you look you know where you are, how you got here.