Jan 22, 2007

In Which I Am De-Angsted by the Power of Electronic Entertainment, and Tekken 5 Stabs Bertrand Russell in The Eye. Also, I Eat a Horse.

This post is very long and rambly, and there are no pretty pictures at the end. If you are afraid of words, I suggest that you do something else, like play with kittens or make jam.
Yesterday Ghost Face took me to a video arcade in Kurashiki, and lo, it was awesome. Prior to going out, I'd been working on a new post for this blog, and I don't really know what sort of mood I was in, but whatever sort of mood it was compelled me to write something that was really rather sophomoric. I went out, with every intention of completing the below post when I got back, but thanks to the healing power of video games, I have since concluded that the following thing I was writing is fairly immature (though I do like the title):

Through a Normally Transparent Thing (Say, a Glass), But Without Any Light (Which is to Say, Darkly)
She asked me, "So, do you like this place?" This an innocous enough question, it seems, when one goes to a new restaurant. I said something like "yeah, it's alright," but then I just started thinking about how I really couldn't answer that question.
The place in question was a Kurashiki restaurant which seemed to cater to a younger crowd. Concert fliers littered the walls, ads for art shows were pasted up prominently near the bar, and a bulleten board was cluttered with all manner of announcements. I was sitting on a couch drinking a beer amongst a group of about seven people, and I thought about how I couldn't completely answer that question.
Certainly, it was the sort of place that I tend to like, the food was good, and the beer was quite acceptable (though still lacking to my Oregonian tastebuds). I was having a good time, but the reason that I didn't feel like I could answer the question "So, do you like this place?" was because of language limitations.
I have taught myself to read katakana and hiragana, the two Japanese phonetic alphabets, and I know a handful of Kanji. But, just a handful. While I can read foreign loan words or various words that are only spelled with hirigana, I'm at a loss when it comes to things written in Kanji. Not to mention that my Japanese vocabulary, while getting better all the time, completely lacks nuance or connotation. I only know things in a totally literal manner.
For example, "uma" is the Japanese word for "horse," (which is hilarious, I think). When I think about this, I don't think of an "uma" as an oft-domesticated equine- I first have to sort of mentally translate it to "horse," and then from there the word "horse" conjurs up images of an oft-domesticated equine.
Likewise, when I read Hirigana or Katakana, I sort of mentally Romanize them. I still think of all of the syllables as being abbreviations or signifiers of sets of Roman letters, which, of course, they are not. This feeling gradually dissipates as I'm exposed to various bits of the language, for example, "otsukaresamadesu" has meaning in and of itself, for me, but it's still a very odd mental sensation.
For a long time, I really hated Bertrand Russell (this is related to stuff above, I swear) for threereasons. The first was because he was an advocated of using a nuclear first strike to eliminate the Soviet Union, but he later recanted this. The second was because he was an insufferably arrogant person, and it showed up in pretty much everything he wrote. The third reason was because he insisted on bringing up all these moldy Cartesian arguments about "how can we know if the world is real or not?" and other such ponderous mental exercises.
For instance, he constantly complained that we can only know things because of our perceptions, and we can't know "things in and of themselves." He maintained that there was always the possiblity, however slim, that our perceptions were being manipulated, and we were unable to really know the world.
Now, as much as I like The Matrix, I still find this line of thinking to be circular and boring. It's the sort of question that's fueled all manner of Philosophy 101 wankfests, and I don't really want to waste my time with it. (I've since mellowed on Bertrand Russell. He did do some cool stuff when he came out against nukes, later in his life.)
However, there is something to be said for mediated experince. I know that I'm experiencing Japan through the distorted lens of my language and culture, so there are lots of things that I can't "get" or percieve. It's as if I've got all the Cartesian limitations of mediated experience, but someone who's actually from here can experience Japan "in itself," something that I won't ever be able to do.
It goes the other way, too.
For instance, a Japanese guy told me about how he's excited to go to an upcoming Red Hot Chili Peppers (or, as I like to call them, "rap with training wheels") concert in Osaka. This guy spoke very little English, and I doubt that he's going to get much of what Anthony Kideas is talking about, both in terms of vocabulary, and in terms of cultural references and signifiers. This is not to say that he's not going to enjoy the shirtless antics of men named after spicy plants (in fact, he'll probably have a better time that I would) but his Chili Pepper experince will be somewhat different from a native English speaker's.
Now, none of this is to say that mediation of experience cannot be compensated for. I just finished a collection of Akutagawa's work, and loved it. It was in English translation, of course, and loaded with footnotes. They were footnotes explaining historical and literary references that Japanese readers would be familiar with, bits of langage background, and sundry bits of trivia. I love footnotes like this, and they vastly improved my experience of reading Akutagawa.
But, the simple fact that I needed footnotes reminded me of this experience of mediation. It is quite a different sensation to read a book and know exactly what the author is talking about, then it is too have a third party editor chime in to tell you what a given reference means.

And that's as far as I got before leaving. Blah-de-blah-blah.
What the fuck was I thinking? What sort of angst-crack was I on?
Well, of course all experience is mediated, of course people see things in different ways. Wow, didn't I just ever have the most insightful insight ever there. God, what a dumb thing to get worked up over- there's your Philosophy 101 wankfest, right there.
Let's go back to Mr. Akutagawa- the guy was highly literate, multilingual, and really smart (also, depressed as hell). English wasn't his first language, but that didn't stop him from enjoying English-language literature. Hell, now I'm re-reading The Odyssey. Am I going to be completely ignorant of it's aesthetics and the experience of it because I'm not traipsing about in sandals and a toga? Of course not.
And I came to that conclusion because of video games.

We got to the arcade, and Ghost Face showed me around the place. The whole thing was like a mixture of a dance hall and a casino, with blipping machines and colored lights blaring all over the place and I think the best adjective for it all is "overstimulation." Various games had musical instruments as their controllers, there was of course DDR, and the back was full of pseudo-slot machines that spit out tokens for prizes instead of coins. Rather impressively, there was also a bank of monitors set up for Counter Strike, and a glut of retro games, which was music to my eyes.
My instict was to go straight to the fighting games, but Ghost Face insisted that I try out some of the various musical games. I said ok.
The machine we went to had nothing like a standard controller on it. Instead, the controller was a pair of taiko drums and sticks. The idea of the game is that the machine plays a song, and when various signals come up you have to beat your drum in time with the song. Now, we don't have this sort of thing in the States, really, but we do have DDR- and I think that I may have called people who play Dance, Dance, Revolution "ridiculous looking" at various points.
So, I was sort of skeptical as I took up my taiko sticks, and wondered how this could be nearly as much fun as shooting zombies or single combat. The music started, I began banging my drum in time to Japanese pop music, and soon discovered that I was having a lot of fun. We played for a while, and afterwards I was amazed to find that a video game had caused me to break a sweat. We tried a few more music games, and then I eventually did wind my way over to the fighters. I found Tekken 5, and proceeded to kick the computer's ass with my kung-fu prowess.
Until this guy challenged me.
Now, this guy was Japanese (obviously) and I have no idea if he spoke any English, but when he sidled up to the machine, put in his coin, and selected his character, we both knew the protocol, and we commenced digital combat.
While this was happening, I thought to myself about how I was interacting with someone who had a different language and of a different culture, in a totally familiar way. My wankery of the previous night all vanished as I realized that me and this other gamer shared a common language of punches, throws, and kicks, and that even with our different backgrounds, our experience there was unmediated direct.
And, maybe because I was thinking about this, the guy ended up wiping the floor with me. Fortunately, I managed to beat another fighting game in one credit, which was awesome.
When we left, Ghost Face and I started talking about basashi for some reason, which is raw horse meat. I'd never had it and he insisted that we get some. At the local supermarket, we were able to procur some of said uma flesh, and went back to my coworker's place where we fired up his newly acquired Wii.
Firstly- basashi is delicious.
Secondly- the Wii is incredible. Earlier I'd been surprised that a taiko drum made for an enjoyable game controller, and was further surprised by how workable the Wii's remote controller is. Of course, I'd read plenty about it's intuitive-ness when the machine came out, but that didn't really prepare me for the actual use of the thing. One can use the Wii's odd controller utterly without thinking, which says a lot about the design, I think.
Both of the games that Ghost Face had were in Japanese, and both were a collection of miscellaneous multiplayer party games. One, a Wario game, was masterfully absurd. Any game wherein you must high-five puppies, fight with samurai, and shoot mechanical mice all in the space of thirty seconds is a winner in my book. Oh yeah- there were also disco kittens. What's not to love about disco kittens? I was thoroughly entertained by the game, and then realized that it was all in Japanese.
Granted, the graphics were all pretty self explanitory, but all the controls and such were in hiragana and the bits of dialogue in Japanese. But, the mediating screen of language didn't really matter here. I was able to get it, to enjoy it, have fun with it.
I had many things turned around, it seems. Language does not make experience, it describes and organizes it. It is a tool and signifier, not a system of the world. One of my favorite Shakespeare quotes is about poetry, and he describes it as "giv[ing] to airy nothing local habitation and a name." The naming of experience (i.e., using language or cultural signifiers) does not dominate or dictate that experience. Cultures and languages are different, yes, but people are not so different, I think.
Yeah, I liked the place from the night before. Also, an uma is an oft-domesticated equine animal that is most delicious whilst playing Nintendo.


Kristin said...

Hey Joe,

Funny thing, I'm actually taking an art theory class called "Dismantling Cartesianism" right now. It's really good, actually, albeit a bit angsty at times. I'm glad you resolved your angst of cultural differences entrenched in the nerdiness of Nintendo. Also, you said wankery alot...that's awesome. Anyway, I hope you're doing well and send me an e-mail sometime. I'd love to hear from you. BTW, I sent you a package via snail mail a while back, did you ever get it?

Talk to you soon!

Joseph said...

Hey, Bertrand Russell did write the Principia Mathematica, which is, you know, kind of a big deal. I mean, it's mostly a big deal 'cause Gödel came along and showed the futility of trying to create a complete and consistent axiomatic system of math. But still, nothing to be sneezed at.

Nice to read about your video game experiences. I remember when the EMU installed a skateboarding arcade game whose control was an actual skateboard (mounted to the arcade, of course). You looked awful silly playing it, but man was that game fun...

Buffy said...

People should read this.