Capstone Challenge Journal 4: When to Reflect

            Showcase has come and gone, and with it my concerns over finishing my project in time to be able to show anything at all. Despite my best efforts to procrastinate until the bitter end, the project is finished, and a semester’s worth of work now rests quietly in my odd corner of the internet. All there really is to do now is reflect, a process that can easy become a stressor itself. Did I work hard enough on this section? Did I actually make a clear point on this part? Will anything I’ve done actually matter? If looking over my gateway project months upon completing it are of any indication, I can only assume I’ll return to my capstone and feel the weight of everything I failed to do with it rather than appreciate what it was I accomplished. I know this about myself, and as such I need to be cautious about how I direct my reflection, lest it be little more than me giving myself a hard time.

            To this end, the past work that this post brought me to thinking about was a paper I wrote for a course I took on Shakespeare. It’s a piece where I compared Lady Macbeth from Macbeth with Emilia from Othello, both the wives of villainous characters, and both with something of a hand in their husband’s villainy. I’d go into greater detail about my claims, except, well, for one thing they’d probably make for a boring blog post, and more importantly because I don’t actually remember them in detail. You see, I don’t actually have this essay anymore. It’s nowhere to be found on my computer, nor in the cloud or on my google drive, or on old canvas pages or in old backups of my computer. I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to recover it, but it’s seemingly been erased, and I have no idea why.

            And that’s just it, my memory of this piece is all I have left of it. My reflective ability, as far as that work goes, can only surround what I remember and what effect it had for me in the class – which is to say it got me an A in the class, so that’s a pretty positive thing to reflect on. While I certainly wish I could read the piece again just to see it, I understand that a part of why I feel so strongly about it is because I no longer have the ability to over-examine it. It served its purpose then disappeared, forcing me to reflect on what it left behind rather than what it actually was.

            This isn’t to say that I’m going to delete my capstone now that it’s over with, but it is a necessary reminder of how much the work itself can change in the writer’s eyes after the work has served its purpose and now just stands as forever embodying that purpose, unable to change even as the writer moves on and develops a more mature understanding of the work’s subject matter. Having the actual thing in front of you can be stifling in this maturation, the writer getting bogged down by the reality of their work rather than in the ideas they represent. With that in mind, I’m going to step back from my capstone for a while, so that I may more easily see the good in it rather than focus so much on its shortcomings.

Capstone Challenge Journal 3: Coming to Conclusions

I’ve finished (if not polished) the main body of content for my capstone, leaving me with what is probably the more challenging task: developing a conclusion to cap-off the piece and justify all the work I’ve done so far.

I went into this project with an idea for what my conclusion would look like based on how I originally framed my argument, which was to use my analyses of video games to justify that the medium has artistic potential. What became apparent as I continued to develop my ideas, however, was that there wasn’t actually a need to make this argument, as at this point in the discussion surrounding games, anyone who still insists that video games are incapable of being art clearly isn’t informed enough on the medium to be making that call. So I ditched this foregrounding and focused on developing my analyses, knowing a proper conclusion would make itself clear once that was satisfactorily explored…

…well, it hasn’t turned out that easy, actually, and now I’m confronted with the need to have some larger purpose or context to encase my work without a perfect sense of what that might be. That could certainly prove fatal to the integrity of the project should I fail to come up with a substantial enough stance, but I take some comfort in having tackled similar problems in my writing before.

The specific instance I’m thinking of comes from an assignment I had in English 325 last fall, which tasked me with recording ten minutes of dialogue and to somehow find an interesting enough topic for a paper out of it. We were instructed not to deliberately aim the conversation in any particular way, but to try and have as naturalistic a dialogue as possible, only to find its greater purpose in the act of recreating that naturalism in our writing.

It was a formidable task, certainly, but it really tested an essential skill of any writer: the ability to find the deeper meaning in any given circumstance, be it the underlying gravity of a casual conversation or the grander implications of a collection of video game analyses. Before that assignment, I’m not sure I was confident in my ability to accomplish this, but by thinking outside the box (and, arguably, outside the parameters of the assignment, but the professor didn’t seem to mind) I was able to produce something that actually felt substantial. That assignment – and 325 as a whole, really – was hugely productive in how it developed my eye as both a reader and a writer in this regard, which, given the situation I now find myself in with my capstone, is going to prove invaluable over these final desperate days of work.

Capstone Challenge Journal 2: The Problem of Over-Intellectualizing

Here we are again, spending time reflecting on past works that have influenced my current project instead of, you know, actually working on that far from finished project. And I only have myself to blame. Cool!

For this post, I dug out another more untraditional piece that I hadn’t read since turning it in two years ago. It was my final paper for SAC 236, an essay that was pretty rigid in its structural requirements. We were required to split the writing into three sections, the first on our chosen film’s themes, the second on a specific scene and how the different filmmaking techniques inform those themes, and a third as a more general stylistic analysis for how the film captures its themes overall.

For me, something so formally structured as this was actually kind of easy to conceptualize, as opposed to the normally free-form approach to writing found in most of my English classes that count on you to choose an interesting and complex enough topic all on your own. Where the challenge came in this writing, for me, was in how it required me to adopt a new analytical vocabulary for analyzing film rather than literature, something I would have been largely incapable of prior to taking the class.

Before 236, I mostly viewed the technical aspects of film as simply a means by which the story was presented rather than an actual part of the story itself. I had never thoroughly considered how the technical distinctions of film – the composition of shots, the use of different camera techniques, the lighting, the sound, the editing, etc. – were actually a huge part of how we process that medium as an art form. And I admit, I was a bit skeptical about all of this at first. Were the vertical lines of the architecture in the background of that shot really directing my eye towards the subject of the shot? I wondered if this wasn’t reading into the process a bit too much just for the sake of intellectualizing it.

I don’t think it was until I wrote this final piece that it all clicked for me. When forced to look at a single scene and try to decipher how it fits into the film’s thematic whole, just looking at the plot of the scene itself wasn’t enough. After applying what I knew about filmmaking from the class, however, the scene was revealed to me to have surprising depth. What started as a verbose attempt at meeting my page count with over-reaching analyses turned out to be a genuinely interested experiment in how well I could deduce the way this medium told its stories in a way that didn’t rely wholly on words. The importance of the visual and even audible side of film made itself apparent to me in this process, and I haven’t watched a film the same way ever since.

The writing of this piece was of significant importance to my whole understanding of how different mediums tell stories, an idea that my capstone is exploring in the medium of video games. Of course, the challenge I’m facing now is that unlike the SAC piece, which followed a course that taught me exactly how to interpret the medium I was writing about, I’m kind of charting my own course on the video game front. Thankfully, though, my experience with this piece as well as others I’ve written with similar intent has taught me how to detect the distinctions I’m looking for.

But then this circles back to my original skepticism about over-reading certain art forms. How can I be sure that I’m not over intellectualizing the very elements of video games that I’m writing about? There’s really no way to confirm that for myself… but I keep remembering how my own skepticism was alleviated by how well the ideas were presented to me, and how having to apply those ideas myself was a useful exercise in understanding the legitimacy of such analysis. I can only hope that my project manages to accomplish the same thing.

Capstone Challenge Journal 1: Late to the Party

So remember that challenge journal requirement for this class? That makes one of us.

Well, to be fair with myself, I hadn’t completely forgotten about this aspect of course. It just got tucked away deep beneath a healthy amount of other priorities, and, perhaps more significantly, beneath a thick layer of doubt that I had that this reflection process was going to be at all useful for me. This stems largely from the fact that I really didn’t see how any of my prior work related to what I chose to do for my capstone: an analysis of the narrative capabilities of video games. How many posts could I make where I compare how my experience writing English papers for the last four years relates to my analytical approach to video game narrative? It seemed like a road that hit a dead end quickly, so I suppose subconsciously I kept the need to write these journals buried deep.

But a deadline is a deadline, so finally I cracked my knuckles and really started to put my head into this. Thinking back to all those English papers, I still found there was very little to say. Then the most obvious starting point finally hit me: my gateway project, of course.

My gateway project was titled “Empathy and Fiction,” and was essentially me rambling for several scrolls worth of a webpage on the complexities of empathizing with fictional characters who we would be hesitant to empathize with in reality – characters like Walter White from Breaking Bad, Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones, and Omar Little from The Wire. While I’ve got mixed feelings about the end result, it was still a tremendously fun project to work on, as it allowed me to engage with media that I actually enjoyed for a change, and challenged myself to articulate the nuanced experience of connecting with stories and works of art.

As it turns out, I haven’t exactly wandered far from these habits, as my capstone project is built on these exact same ideas. I get to write about the experience of playing some of my favorite games, and putting into words exactly what it is about those experiences that makes them truly unique has been as challenging as it has been rewarding.

Realizing this, however, has brought with it a certain degree of unease, as how can I avoid making the same mistakes that I feel left my gateway project somewhat lacking? Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is that I never really felt I had a handle on what I was writing about with my gateway. I had ideas, sure, but I had way too big of a target, attempting to outline fundamental elements of the experience of fiction as a concept, when really, most of the examples I was pulling from where only coming from television (as I’m sure the three examples above gave away), which made the few examples I pulled from elsewhere feel out of place. I was so absorbed in these grandiose ambitious, I didn’t realize that by actually limiting my scope, I may have actually opened myself up to more interested and nuanced conclusions. This wasn’t all thanks my ignorance, though, as like I said, I knew from early on that this topic was larger than my capabilities. What I couldn’t realize at the time was that it wasn’t the fault of my own ability, but because what I was striving for was always going to be too big to fail. Had I realized this, perhaps I would have been more willing to readjust the project’s scope, rather than brute-force my way to conclusions as I ended up having to.

It would’ve been easy for me to make the exact same mistake on my capstone project, I’m sure, and frankly I’m surprised that I didn’t. The difference, I suppose, has been that I’ve approached this project from a much more deliberate scope straight from the start, limiting myself to video games, a medium I have particular confidence in my own knowledge of, rather than the entire canon of fiction altogether. Of course, even saying that the work of my capstone could apply to any and all video games is, at the very least, ambitious, so I must continue to be cautious in how I frame both my arguments and my understanding of the medium as a whole. So far, I like to think I’ve succeeded in this, and while I’ll keep up my efforts to this end, we won’t know one way or another until it’s all well and done.

Following a Writer: Emily Yoffe

This last writer that I want to highlight actually came to me in just in the course of me browsing the news, which is unique from my other posts where I typically had to seek out interesting pieces to write on. Following the same theme as my last couple of posts, the article was published on Politico and was titled “Why the #MeToo Moment Should Be Ready for a Backlash,” and was written by Emily Yoffe. I do not often read Politico, but I definitely could feel the difference of political allegiance in some of the things Yoffe says. For instance, Yoffe makes a major point of talking about Title IX and how it, in her opinion, made things worse on college campuses in how it denied accused male students due-process. That statement alone would not necessarily be out of place in a venue like The New York Times, but when Yoffe went on to actually nod in approval toward’s the recent backing-away from Title IX reforms that Trump’s administration has done recently. I did not know the details of this move, only ever hearing that “Trump and Devos are getting rid of measures that prevent sexual assault and protect victims” and coverage of such opinions, never having realized that there were actually a fair amount of liberal institutions that approved of Devos’ move, according to Yoffe. While I have mixed feelings about these specific issues (and not nearly enough confidence in my information to argue one way or the other), I must admit I was somewhat shocked at not having heard this opinion in any other reading I had done on the subject. On its own that revelation alone would have made reading Yoffe’s worth it, but she proves herself a persuasive and skilled writer regardless.

Yoffe has a unique and varied history of writing, according to what I could find on her online. She is current contributor for The Atlantic and previously was a contributor for Slate for a number of years, as well as being published in places like The Times, The Washington Post, and, obviously, Politico. At Slate she ran the “Dear Prudence” advice column for a time and appeared on The Colbert Report twice, which says plenty about her personality to me. She also has a book published titled What the Dog Did: Tales from a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner, just in case her repertoire needed to get a bit more unique. Exploring Yoffe’s career and writing repeatedly defied my expectations for exactly what someone classified as a writer can be. Many of my posts were on writers with very particular focuses, which was intimidating as I have never felt myself to be expert enough on anything to write on it, but Yoffe proves that one need not focus so severely in order to write on a subject in an intellectual and admirable way.

Following a Writer: Masha Gessen

Finding The Times sparing in interesting material, I decided to return to my old stomping grounds at The New Yorker, interested in what that publication might have to say that could complement/differ from what The Times‘ writers have said on the issue of Al Franken, which has been a consistent story covered in my posts as of late. Seeing a headline that reminded me of Goldberg’s wonderful writing on the topic, “Al Franken’s Resignation and the Selective Force of #MeToo,” I decided to read the article, which was writen by Masha Gessen. The article did not end up being entirely what I though it would be about, though. It starts as I figured, pointing out how the trend of justice finally coming to long-time portrayers of sexual misconduct really only affects those in liberal circles (Weinstein, Franken, etc.), while those in conservative circles are able to be exposed but still thrive (Trump, Moore), because the people in those circles just don’t care. Liberals have for a long time now chosen the moral high ground as their primary platform, yet it is proving more effective at harming those in it’s own ranks than having any effect on the opposing side. This of course highlights the hypocrisy of many in the left, and a reckoning of people like Franken was probably inevitable and just, but it’s an illusion to suggest we’re making sound progress when the worst perpetrators of these issues still have firm shields protecting them. Franken is small potatoes compared to serial harassers like Trump and Moore, yet he’s the only one susceptible to #Metoo, an unfortunate truth that reveals how much more still needs to be done.

Gessen does not actually say all of this, but I take it as implied. Her article goes on to be more about the policing of sex on both sides, not necessarily acts of illegal nature (Franken’s actions, as well as a supreme court example Gessen cites on a baker who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex couple’s marriage) but of a moral one, and how liberals and conservatives have gone about policing this differently, conservatives basing off of traditional Christian values while liberals go off of general moral principles (Gessen certainly is not afraid to be clear with whose side she is on). Overall, I walked away from the article with a different understanding of the #Metoo movement than I had expected to, so I applaud Gessen for awarding me some new thoughts on a subject I felt I had read enough on.

Going to her bio, Gessen is actually an extremely accomplished writer. She has written for The New Yorker since 2014 and became a staff writer in 2017, and has published nine books, including the winner of the National Book Award for 2017, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Aside from her usual topics – Trump, Russia, LGBTQ rights – she has written on an impressive variety of subjects, and was even, as the bio says, “dismissed as editor of the Russian popular-science magazine Vokrug Sveta for refusing to send a reporter to observe Putin hang-gliding with the Siberian cranes.” I do not know how I have not heard of Gessen before, but I have no doubt that I will start seeing her name in everything.

Following a Writer: Manohla Dargis

Once again at The Times, I took to the arts sections and found an article listing what the writer claimed were the best films of 2017. Aside from being impressed with myself for actually having seen a few of them for a change, I found the writer, Manohla Dargis’ analysis and justifications for her choices convincing, so I decided to look into what else she has written for The Times. From her bio, I learned that she grew up a young film fanatic in New York and studied film at New York University before going on to write critically about film for The Voice, and now for The Times as the co-chief film critic since 2004. Looking over her canon of articles, most are reviews of movies, both blockbuster hits like Justice League to art house films like The Florida Project, but there were also a few non-review based articles exploring the culture of Hollywood and the film industry.

The two articles I read on this subject were titled “2017 Was a Year of Reckoning in Hollywood. Will 2018 Be the Year of Change?” and “Louis C.K. and Hollywood’s Canon of Creeps” (I have once again stumbled into talking about this, but let’s call it consistency of content and leave it at that). In both articles, Dargis views Hollywood through the feminist lens, while also acknowledging the seeming contradictions to the industry’s attitude toward women. In the “Yeah or Reckoning” article, she points out how while the industry did much to hold women back it also propelled some into superstardom, with the women of early Hollywood being a massive part of what popularized the industry and contributed to it becoming a defining cultural element of the 20th century – of course, Dargis also sees this relationship as exploitative of women on part of the male dominated Hollywood machine that used women to this end. This is where Dargis faces a contradiction of values, on the one end being repulsed by the clear sexism that Hollywood has historically practiced but on the other hand genuinely loving the art of film as a whole, and, at least up until today, you could not have one without the other. Dargis faces this dilemma more directly in the “Canon of Creeps” article where she states that it can be a challenge to love cinema as a woman when cinema “doesn’t love [you] back.” She makes several introspective observations – much of it based around an analysis of C.K.’s movie I Love You, Daddy which was never released, but offered a peculiar acknowledgement for Hollywood misogyny while also participating in it – and leaves off with the hope that things can change for the industry she cannot help but love.

Her position is certainly a tough one, having to reconcile her values with her appreciation for an art that goes against them, but I think for that very reason she is the kind of writer that Hollywood needs right now. If more people with genuine love for film and a desire to see it move past this ugly stage in it’s history are a part of the dialogue, then I believe there is a genuine chance for change.

Following a Writer: James Poniewozik

Sticking to The Times once again as well as similar subject matter to my last post, I came across an article titled “Franken and Trump, Hiding Behind Their ‘Jokes’” by James Poniewozik. The article takes a harder stance on Franken than Goldberg, even going so far as to cite Franken’s excuses as in line with the same phenomenon of celebrity immunity that spawned the Trump Access Hollywood tapes last year. In both instances, Poniewozik points out that the men claimed that their actions were excusable because they were meant to be jokes rather than serious sexual advances. Poniewozik writes that the historical effectiveness of this excuse shows how our culture has developed comedy – or entertainment, overall – as a space in which things that were otherwise unacceptable are able to be explored, at least as far as men are concerned, women often being unaware of their role as the object in their jokes. As it turns out, entertainers have gotten away with a lot of terrible things in the past, if the stream of allegations against prominent men over the past few weeks is telling of anything, which hopefully signals an end to Comedy being an excuse for depravity (Poniewozik specifically cites Louie CK’s misconduct as a prime showing of this, which I find especially interesting as I am currently attempting to fit CK’s scandal into my final project, so Poniewozik’s perspective on it was insightful).

Poniewozik’s writing engaged me on a topic that I felt I already had read more than enough about. He’s the chief television critic at The Times and publishes both reviews of TV shows as well as critical essays on the development of TV culture. Before starting at The Times in 2015, he wrote on similar topics in Time Magazine, and, as it turns out, attended the University of Michigan, where he majored in English. While it always feels cool to see a professional in the world with a degree from Michigan, it is especially warming to see that a man with a job I would love to have had the exact same education as myself. For that reason – on top of his proven writing ability – I will definitely keep my eye on Poniewozik’s work going forward.

Following a Writer: Michelle Goldberg

To change it up this time, I left my usual venue of The New Yorker to check out another popular New York publication, The New York Times (thanks for the subscription, mom). Nothing particularly struck me in the arts section, but I recalled an engaging article from a few weeks ago, right around the time Al Franken got accused of sexual harassment. I looked it up and read it again, When Our Allies Are Accused of Harassment being the full title. Written by Michelle Goldberg, the article discusses the liberal dilemma of being confronted with harsh truths about people who before were seen to be on the right side of things, Al Franken being the relevant and primary example. Goldberg sums it up perfectly: “Personally, I’m torn by competing impulses. I want to see sexual harassment finally taken seriously but fear participating in a sex panic. My instinct is often to defend men I like, but I don’t want to be an enabler or a sucker.” I can certainly relate to this, as this was my initial reaction to the Franken accusations, as well as with other men who have been accused in the last few weeks, like Louie CK, who I greatly admired as an artist. That made it hard to accept the reality of his actions, which were repulsive enough to warrant no debate in the end. Franken, on the other hand, is more of a toss up in the public eye, even among his allies in the Democratic party, some of whom have called for his resignation while others have jumped to his defense, saying that his actions were not severe enough to warrant resignation. Goldberg captures the complexity of this issue by critiquing the balling-up of the actions of the various offenders to equal degrees of severity while acknowledging that doing so contributes to the atmosphere of tolerance that allows sexual harassment to go unpunished in the first place. With more women coming forward about different men every day for the past weeks, I’ve been struggling to find the words to describe my own feelings on things, so reading Goldberg’s account and feeling the relation that I did was a relief, and showing to me of how strong she is as a writer.

Goldberg has a website where I was able to read more about her career. She has been an opt-in columnist for the Times for the past year, and previously worked as a columnist at Slate. Aside from being published in venues like The Guardian and The New Yorker, she has published three books, all on different subjects – one titled Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism is definitely going on my reading list. Even though she’s only written for the Times for a relatively short time, her body of work for that paper alone is impressive, as she documents the absurdity of the Trump era. While that certainly isn’t uncommon in writers today, seeing her perspective on the Franken issue gives me confidence that Goldberg’s coverage can maintain an identity of its own.

Following a Writer: Erin Overbey

As I teased in my last post, I chose to follow a writer I already had a little experience with through my investigation into Joshua Rothman, Erin Overbey. Like Rothman, Overbey is an archivist at The New Yorker (the chief archivist, in fact) who specializes in writing pieces covering the magazine’s historical coverage and trends on varying subjects of interest. The article I first took a look at of hers was one on “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Imperfect Romance with The New Yorker,” which she co-wrote once again with Rothman. As I mentioned in class on Tuesday, I’m interested in the culture of 1920’s America, and Fitzgerald is one of the quintessential chroniclers of that era, so this article was right down my alley. It is a short article, but it highlights the various pieces that Fitzgerald submitted to the magazine – which was still in its infancy during Fitzgerald’s time – and how Fitzgerald actually spoke lowly of the magazine and its content despite his contribution to it.

In another article titled “In Trump, Echoes of Nixon’s Constitutional Crisis,” she dissects the parallels between Nixon and today’s president. Published around the time that Trump fired FBI director James Comey under suspect circumstances, this article puts Overbey in a different situation from the other pieces of hers and Rothman’s I’ve highlighted. Here, she uses her position as archivist to compare contemporary politics with Nixon’s area based on The New Yorker’s live coverage of both. In doing so, not only can we better notice parallels between these two situations, but also how reporting of such circumstances has changed over time. It highlights how Overbey’s writing is not just a fun or interesting means of reflecting on the magazine’s (and in a sense, the role of the press as a whole’s) history in the country but also relevant commentary on it.