Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Why Y'all Should Read Dave Hickey

First off, a note: some guy on twitter, who is a real writer, called me a minor-league Pauline Kael of games crit, and that was about the best thing that happened to me on Friday. I didn't say "all weekend," 'cause on Saturday I prepared an elaborate meal for the lady friend, and this was followed by us curling up on the couch and watching Battlestar Galactica. Ahh, romance. And then, on Sunday, everything I ate had barbecue sauce on it.

Speaking of whichawho, I'm fairly certain I'm the only videogame blog type on earth who is still not on the Twitter. Which leads me to ask: am I that one guy who's like, "I don't have a cell phone," as if he should be proud about not availing himself of a technological advance that is both fun and useful? I don't have anything against the microblog phenomenon but I think the pressure of thinking up interesting things to say about myself would slowly drive me insane. Also, as a side note: video game bloggers, I am lurking your twitter feeds. It is because they are they are there, on the internet.

Last week I asked Insult Swordfighting's Mitch Krpata about video game writing he wishes he could write and he responded. In the question I mentioned Dave Hickey, who does not write about video games. Most folk are unfamiliar with Hickey's work-- I wouldn't have come across his stuff if I hadn't found his book Air Guitar in the meticulously curated remainder section of the Harvard Book Store.

It is not enough for a critic to have keen insights into the object at hand. It's a start, but it's not enough-- you need to have wit and style. People knock critics for being parasites on others' creativity, but the truth is that good criticism is art, because it requires good writing. And if you care even a little bit about writing well, writing is about the most agonizing task on the planet. It's why I stand in awe of my favorite critics: Susan Sontag, Walter Benjamin, Lionel Trilling, George Steiner, Adorno, Nathan Rabin. They're all brilliant prose stylists in their own right who turn their minds to the work of others.

Hickey has a really distinctive sensibility; he writes about so many topics-- basketball, Sigfried and Roy, Punk Rock, visual art, Perry Mason-- and he brings to each this mix of erudition and complete sociability. The style is conversational, unassuming, even hip, and yet absurdly well-informed. He can tell a good story and he can drop in an illuminating quote from Ruskin. Despite the coherent sense of what makes art important that emerges along the length of the book he's not out to sell you a system. He's just out to explain why certain things are worth your admiration. Since an example, unlike the previous paragraphs, is really the only thing that'll do him some justice, I'll close with a passage:

"In the process of writing about works of art, then, we make the same sort of Draconian decisions that we do when writing about nonart experience. We write about what can be written about. We decipher that which lends itself to cipher and discard the rest as surplus. Unlike the lost surplus of nonart experience, however, the surplus we ignore in works of art survives, remains available to be invested with meaning by subsequent viewers under different circumstances. But a problem remains, which is that the aspects of visible artifacts that are most effectively translated into writing usually have little or nothing to do with the occasion for writing about them, which, in my experience, invariably resides in the pleasurable, confusing, or horrific nature of the experience itself-- an experience which is neither surplus nor cipher. 'In the landscape of spring,' the koan reminds us, 'the branches are neither long nor short.' They are simply present, precedent to the standards and expectations we impose upon them as we name their attributes, pronouncing them long or short, strong or weak, young or old.

In the act of writing about art, then, you press language to the point of fracture and try to do what writing cannot do: account for the experience. Otherwise, you elide the essential mystery, which is the reason for writing anything at all. The easy alternative is just to circumnavigate the occasion of seeing something-- to 'professionalize' art criticism into a branch of academic art history-- to presume that works of art are already utterances in art-language that need only be translated into a better language to achieve perfect transparency. In this way, the practice of criticism is transformed into a kind of Protestant civil service dedicated to translating art-language into word-language that neutralizes its power in the interest of public order. The writer's pathological need to control and reconstitute the fluid universe of not-writing is fortuitously disguised by this stratagem-- since in the truly 'professional' discourse, no more intimate engagement with the 'needy' object is requires than that of a doctor with a patient, and no more stress need be placed upon the language than that required by the clinical assignment of symptoms."


adam sanchez said...

dave hickey is peerless, i agree. there's simply nobody else out there who matches both his range and depth of critical inquiry. plus he's totally entertaining.

rock on, Iroquois. love the blog.

laz said...

Heee I love imagining you in the remainder section of the harvard book store reading a book called air guitar!

Also, wasn't BSG amazing! I had to watch it twice in a row to figure out what was going on!

thesimplicity said...

The beauty of microblogging is that there's no reason for it to be interesting, I think. I feel pressured to come up with a solid blog post once a week, whereas Twitter is where I say "I'm having trouble coming up with a solid blog post." 10,000 characters for a blog post is something you have to commit to producing, 140 characters for a twitter update is something that happens while waiting for a web page to load.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@sanchez: hey sancez! thanks for reading. And yes, Dave Hickey is totally rad. It didn't come across here but the man is also really damn funny.

@laz: I had so much food in me, it was very difficult to figure out what the hell was going on in the bsg. I mean, seriously: what the hell?

@thesimplicity: this is a good point, I just don't know if I'm cut out for that kind of thing. I would just be out informing the internet whenever my butt is itchy, ("my butt itches... and I took a shower!) or giving updates on the sad clown guy at the neighborhood peets. ("currently reading clowning tips on the internet. I have a tip, which is to look less sad")

Frank Lantz said...

The Heresy of the Zone Defense is one of the greatest single pieces of writing on games ever. It is a brilliant exploration of the complex ways in which games are meaningful.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@frank: I love that piece so much. Now I think on it it's a great defense of emergent gameplay, right?

Anonymous said...

Dearest Mr. Pliskin

You rock

Love, Elliot
P.S. From whence is that excerpt excerpted?

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@anon: hey thanks Elliot! It's the titular essay from Air Guitar: Reflections on Art and Democracy

Frank Lantz said...

>> it's a great defense of emergent gameplay, right?

And even moreso an exploration of emergent meaning. What Hickey's pointing out is that a game like Basketball, which has no explicit theme and no representational layer at all, is still capable of evoking rich, complex emotional and intellectual responses. Most people's notions of meaning are so completely fixated on theme and representation that they can't recognize this other type of meaning, even though it is quite possibly the one that matters most.

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