Rhetorical Questions

Initial responses to my off-hand reference to an analytic/persuasive divide in the critical videogame blogosphere ranged from incomprehension to ardent agreement, and even a blog post ‘In defence of trolling’ (about which I’m still not sure how to respond other than to say I’m flattered the author thought my ideas worth responding to). In my post I attempted to lay out the case for a detrimental propensity towards the analytic in the critical videogame blogosphere. But I don’t want to labour that particular point – I have no axe to grind against anyone interested in analysing videogames in whichever terms produce the most productive and interesting results.

Instead I’d like to argue the immanent need for an addition of videogame writing unconstrained by a slavish or misplaced adherence to analysis and criticism, a writing much more interested in exploring the rhetorics of persuasion. After laying out what I think is the case for this assessment I’ll go on to point towards some examples of both to help make clear the differences between these two otherwise superficially similar approaches.

The difference was highlighted for me recently by Graham Harman’s defence of the rhetorical flourishes and cognitive poetics of ‘continental’ philosophy vs. its dry, ‘analytic’ counterpart. According to Harman,

For the analytics the great enemies of human thought are fuzziness, non sequiturs, lack of clarity, poetic self-indulgence, and insufficiently precise terminology. I disagree with this threat assessment. In my view these are all relatively minor problems in comparison with shallowness, false dichotomies, lack of imagination, robotic chains of reasoning, and the aggressive self-assurance that typifies analytic philosophers at their worst. (Prince of Networks, p.167)

Harman is responding to allegations levelled by fellow philosopher Quentin Meillassoux that a particular argument about the nature of the human/world correlate (basically an argument over whether anything at all can be accessed separate from how it exists to us, that is, subjectively) is one based on a rhetorical trick rather than a substantive or logical argument. Harman’s disagreement stems from seeing the value in rhetoric that goes beyond an adherence to air-tight, steely logical reasoning – a point that is as close as may well be the main point of difference between ‘analytical’ and ‘continental’ philosophy. Harman turns to Alfred North Whitehead for assistance in disassembling Meillassoux’s argument. Whitehead diagnoses an unhealthy influence on philosophy coming from mathematics, and Whitehead being both a philosopher and mathematician in his time, would be one to know:

…the primary method of mathematics is deduction; the primary method of philosophy [by contrast] is descriptive generalization. Under the influence of mathematics, deduction has been foistered upon philosophy as its standard method, instead of taking its true place as an auxiliary mode of verification whereby to test the scope of generalities. (Whitehead in Prince of Networks, p.169)

For Harman, as I noted in my initial fêting of the idea, “Rhetoric is not the devious art of non-rational persuasion, but the best tool we have for exposing the unstated assumptions that lie behind any surface proposition.” (p.169) Under the influence of mathematics, philosophy has been pressured into conforming to “robotic chains of reasoning” that do little to capture the background reality of a given situation. An interesting point, certainly, but perhaps you are far from ready to diagnose the same issue within videogame writing; if so the connection should soon become clear. A last final quotation from Harman sums up the analytic misstep:

…To say that philosophy is built of arguments is like saying that architecture is a matter of arranging steel girders. It is certainly true that no building can stand with faulty engineering, but there are many ways to arrange steel beams and make them stand. (p.168)

The pieces are now starting to assemble – we have an argument over objectivity and subjectivity; a machine-like adherence to deduction; and a mistake about the nature of a discipline. I’ll borrow another technique Harman uses frequently and address them at length in numerical order:

1. First, ask yourself what is still the number one issue to overcome when writing about games? Is it not the question about objective and subjective reading and response, a question which even though temporarily resolved so frequently reasserts itself with the exhausting predictability of a jack-in-the-box? Why is it that so much writing about games seems timid and content, afraid to reach for the really interesting, the really ambitious arguments that are lying just out of reach of any mere ‘objective’ assessment of the facts? It takes real courage to stretch beyond the realm of pure analysis, beyond assembling a case from ‘facts’, and create an argument that, while perhaps not airtight, contains a seed of inner truth.

Some have succeeded in this area and I will name a few of them here: Tom Bissell frequently reaches lofty peaks in his arguments and while many may (and do) disagree with him, if a reader holds any sympathy at all to the logical base or seed of truth within his reasoning they will not leave unconvinced. Reading Bissell feels like watching the constructing of a mountain of prose that, while often precarious, is never droll or unpersuasive.

I also think Tim Rogers takes a very similar approach, starting from the same intuitive understanding perhaps, even though I personally dislike his style. Rogers’ frequent attempts to build higher mountains than even Bissell comes from with a more ad-hoc, ‘quality through sheer quantity’ approach; a “brute force” philosophy of persuasion. In that regard, I greatly respect his commitment and determination while harbouring little desire to emulate his style.

Jonathan McCalmont is also most commonly found writing in the persuasive or ‘continental’ style. As the author of the blog post I mentioned earlier questions, “Isn’t reading Dead Space as a metaphor for Capitalist Realism perhaps stretching the analysis a bit too far?” Yes, but since the results are so wonderfully imaginative, producing such strange and succulent fruits I want to do more than just nod along approvingly; I want to evangelise it from the rooftops! This is what we should be doing! This is he kind of writing that will convince people (convince ourselves, even) that videogames can actually matter. And before anyone accuses me of it, the continental or persuasive approach does not require, nor result in, a kind of vacation from reality or the truth. Much as analysis does not equate to ‘criticism’, a mere marshalling of the facts plain and simple does not equate to ‘the truth’ either.

Again – no argument here is ever certain and therein lies much of the beauty. Certainty does not resolve itself into the truth, or even always to validity, and I feel that is a crucial mistake we game critic/writer types so often make at our own peril. It’s why in the past I’ve been reactionary regarding some attempts at defining terms. Certainty, definitiveness; these are not, and should not be our goals here. We should listen when Harman cautions us that, “the analytic contempt for rhetoric and metaphor must not be emulated – not just because this attitude leads to boring results, but because it is philosophically false.” (p.169)

2. Next, ask yourself which discipline has been the most foundational and integral to the development of videogames up to the current? Is it not computer science – that tragic mix of mathematics, science and technology that attempts to relentlessly stamp out errant belief in fudging rules with respect to discrete bits and bytes? I don’t blame the computer scientists for foisting onto us an unhealthy reliance on concreteness, definitiveness and finitude – it’s more our fault for letting them.

Like Whitehead for philosophy and mathematics, I feel quite strongly that videogame writing and criticism has allowed itself to be unduly influenced by technologists in the computer sciences. Yes, just because we can point to a very certain fact about a videogame based on discrete bits of data (“The change in sniper rifle reload time had X effect”) does not in anyway mean we should be building arguments about meaning or affect from them. The main way, I think, games writing has tried to escape from the tyranny of this issue has been through New Games Journalism. But sadly this turn follows a similar retreat in philosophy!

When science began to come to grips with explanations for the world, philosophy lost its traditional object to work on and shrank inwards, confining its scope to the human realm of inner experience. This project reached its seemingly final conclusion with the correlationist argument (about which Meillassoux and Harman are mentioned above arguing) that, as humans, we are unable to escape the confines of our nature and existence as subjects. “There can be no access to the world as it is in-itself, but only as it is for-us” asserts the correlationist. Suffice to say, you won’t find many correlationists maintaining this position when faced with the pressing reality of mortar rounds air bursting overhead – and while that fact is not perhaps a ‘logical’ or analytical argument against its veracity, instead a rhetorical one, it is hardly less valid for that fact. (For a more ‘logical’ advancement of an argument against the correlationist position, however, see Meillasoux’s first chapter in After Finitude.)

Harman tells us that a well built rhetorical argument “…still performs genuine cognitive labour.” (Prince of Networks, p.170) The point of a rhetorical argument, he reminds us, is not to poke a logical hole in any given position but “…by suggesting both the need for new options and the possibility of new options” the rhetorical statement does “real cognitive work” (p.171). In Harman’s context as a teacher of philosophy he informs us that even raising the possibility of alternatives “often has a profound philosophical effect on listeners, opening countless new doors and windows” (p.172).

3. I am hoping that by having raised alternative possibilities in the reader’s mind that I can now proceed to persuade you that many of our collective assumptions about the nature of criticism, and videogame criticism in particular, are wrong. We are not out to build an argument, we are out to persuade. We are not out to prove anything, and we should for the most part give up trying. About Philosophy, Harman tells us that Whitehead himself stressed,

…the inability of arguments, propositions, explicit evidence, or tangible qualities to do justice to the world. As Marshall McLuhan might say, to claim that a philosophy is made of arguments is like saying that an apple is nothing but a bundle of qualities – that there is nothing more to the apple than the sum of its explicit traits. (p.175)

For too long we have ignored the cognitive and textual dimension of the aspect of writing and blogging about games, and to our detriment. We can no longer lean on the essay format blog post as a crutch. It is for the slow realisation of this fact that we are seeing the proliferation of writing about games spill out of the blogosphere and into such places as the pages of the excellent KillScreen Magazine and things like Matthew Kumar’s .exp ‘zine. The rhetorical power of print itself over the irresistible mutability of blogs is probably doing more for games criticism than 1,000 posts by Michael Abbott, Mitch Krpata, David Carlton, Leigh Alexander or myself.

Similarly, beyond the form itself, the form of the content (i.e. words) needs to be addressed – as I said, the essay format needs shaking up. How many blog posts about one aspect or feature of a videogame have you read recently that lamely finished a half -second early? I encounter this kind of post all the time, and will readily confess to doing exactly the same in innumerable posts of my own.

Just this past week I read two that did exactly this – and I’m being very unfair to these excellent authors that I am picking on, for which I apologise – the first by Laura Michet at Second Person Shooter comparing the social unacceptability of climbing on low furniture to climbing in Assassins Creed. Reading that particular piece I reached the end and experienced a frustration that could have sent me screaming. “Is that it?!” I wanted to shout. It is this tragic early conclusion of an otherwise potentially stunning and truly courageous argument that I am critiquing here. The analysis is all there – Michet labels it ‘revelation-analysis’ which is as good a name for it as any, yet it ends right at the point of ‘revelation’ when it could have gone on to form an argument about… something. I no longer want to be conveyed information, I want to be persuaded.

The second post was by Jorge Albor of the prodigious Experience Points blog. ‘Barbarians at the Gate’ opens with such a promising premise – an examination of the unstated background assumptions of Civilization V’s Barbarians. A target better suited to some rhetorical elaboration I could hardly imagine. Albor assembles the facts like a curios botanist might overturn a moss covered rock to see what grows underneath, and the facts are indeed worth assembling and investigating, however, Albor closes out the post before taking down any notes on what he finds under there. It finishes before reaching anything like its full potential. Much of the blame for this occurrence I place squarely at the foot of the blog format. It is hardly ideal for the effective persuasion of an audience, as a number of studies of the ‘ideal’ blog post have found. But it is the medium we have chosen to work with, so we must find a way to make it work, or else forever lose the title of ‘critics’.

Before I close, I would like to point to a couple of pieces of game criticism that have successfully gone beyond analysis and deployed persuasion and rhetoric effectively in different ways. Mitch Krpata utilizes visual rhetoric in ‘Using the Sniper Rifle in Killzone 2: A photo tutorial’. Through a few minimalist panels Krpata conveys more about the controls of that game, immediately imparting the frustrations and absurd complexity of using the Sniper Rifle in that game. The extremely short post persuades better than some vitriolic ten thousand word essay describing the same issues in excruciating detail. Equally, that very method is as mentioned above the modus operandi of Tim Rogers. I don’t have a favourite example to link to, but his Kotaku piece ‘Lets Talk About Jumping’ is a good demonstration of his approach.

Tom Bissell has a book, Extra Lives, that is filled with examples of beatific rhetoric and effective persuasion that, to my mind, demonstrates the importance and validity of the approach better than this already lengthy blog post probably ever could. For examples on the internet, try his contribution to the Slate end of year discussion, or better still, his Extra Lives extract published in the UK’s Observer newspaper.

Funnily enough, Jonathan McCalmont told me he was actually trained in the analytic school of philosophy yet he ends up reaching the persuasive position I am upholding here through a double focus: firstly on thoroughly researched topics driven to their extreme conclusion, and secondly by maintaining an unswerving commitment to the bigger picture. From examining the connection between consumerism as self-identification and role-playing game item collection; to ‘The Changing Face of The American Apocalypse’ which is a smart dissection of cultural and political shifts that are working themselves out in videogame spaces. Even when he’s reaching, as some have suggested, his arguments are worth examining for the ‘cognitive work’ they do to expose background assumptions.

Lastly, a thick layer of dust has settled over Dustin Gunn’s ‘Indie Gaming Bingo’, a blog that more effectively skewered indie gaming tropes than any other source. By utilizing the bingo card trope, Gunn disarmed visitors to his site through humour and persuaded readers of the over-use of piano music and the platforming genre in Indie Games. He also did more to undermine the often too-serious tone that indie games can often get trapped into.

To close, I will recapitulate the points I want to get across in this leviathan post: 1. the nature of the subjective reading/response argument gives us urgent and powerful clues about the nature of argument, discussion and persuasion as they apply to games criticism, 2. the conviction of computer scientists of the cold certainty of facts should not be shared by videogame critics, bloggers, and writers, and, 3. having raised the first two points, I think it is now much more likely to be agreed that not only are alternatives to sheer analysis possible, but that they are also crucially important for the development of the field of game criticism. The elaboration of revelatory facts and interesting information has carried us far, but is no longer enough. Whatever form of rhetoric it takes, the earnest persuasion of our audience should be our immediate and pressing concern.

– Ben Abraham, December 19th, 2010

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