This class is presented in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut New York as part of a larger program that will include a gaming installation and a series of public talks and discussions.
In the second draft of Walter Benjamin’s celebrated essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility,” he argues: “What is lost in the withering of semblance, or decay of aura, in works of art is matched by a huge gain in room-for-play [Spielraum].” This Spielraum – which plays on the multiple meanings of the German Spiel, “play,” “game,” “performance,” “gamble,” – becomes the grounds for new emancipatory possibilities to emerge in an art freed from cultic, mimetic, and “authentic” value, freed from use-value to play. The late film and media theorist Miriam Hansen was one of the first to note, almost in passing, that perhaps Benjamin’s argument, originally constructed around film, might in fact apply more obviously and directly to videogames. In this class, we will explore this particular possibility as we apply an array of aesthetic, literary, and social thought towards the articulation of a critical theory of videogames. The videogame has become an ascendant cultural form of vast aesthetic, sociological, and, of course, economic significance. But a literature focusing specifically on the aesthetic experience of the player – and indeed on the Spielraum that is opened up between the game and the player – is only beginning to come into focus. As such, this will be a highly experimental class which will incorporate theoretical readings, in-class game analysis, and at-home play and reflection.It will be held over three Saturdays for three+ hours at a time and accompanied by a gaming installation and a series of public talks and discussions. Excerpted readings will be drawn from: Plato, Kant, Benjamin, Schiller, Haraway, Habermas, Hansen, Weber, Auerbach, Butler, Schechner, Baudelaire, Berlant, Buck-Morss, Brennan, Horkheimer, De Duve, and others, as well as more recent videogame-specific literature. Games to be considered include: Super Mario Bros., Metal Gear Solid, Journey, Fez, Portal, Metroid Prime, Noby Noby Boy, Bioshock, Child of Eden, Saints Row, Bit Trip, Monster Hunter, Katamari Damarcy and more.
* “Better than Real Life” was the advertising slogan for Saints Row IV (2013). It played popular psychological fears of gaming’s ability to capture and influence impressionable minds off the utopian promise, however distorted, of something that is “better than real life,” as expressed through the mutually constitutive gameplay and narrative of Saints Row itself.
In 1938, the Dutch scholar Johan Huizinga set forth an ambitious argument in Homo Ludens (“Playing Man”) that culture arises in and as play. The French sociologist Roger Caillois responded to this foundational text of play studies twenty years later with his own seminal work, Les Jeux et Les Hommes (translated loosely as “Man, Play and Games”). A member of the Collège de Sociologie circle in Paris—alongside such figures as Alexandre Kojève, Walter Benjamin, Georges Bataille, and André Breton—Caillois sought to provide a corrective to Huizinga’s account with a fourfold typology of play as agôn or competition; alea or chance; mimicry or simulation; and ilinx or vertigo. (Notably, one of Caillois’s chief criticisms of Huizinga was that he overlooked gambling.) In this class, we will explore these and other definitions in order to address some of the vast array of activities that seem to fall under the concept “play.” From the roll of the dice to the role of games in economic modeling, from the avatars of Vishnu to the avatars of videogames, we will ask how play mediates value, meaning, sacrality, and even biological being in the contemporary world. How does play relate to the evolution of animals, the development of children, and the expression of cultures? Does play have an ethical significance? Drawing on an interdisciplinary set of readings from Huizinga, Caillois, Plato, Freud, Pascal, Jesper Juul, Gordon Burghardt, and others, we will seek, put simply, to theorize play.
This course is capped at 20 students.(Class will not meet the week of Nov. 26)
This course explores the role of time and narrative in tales of queer desire. How are queer stories told and what is their relationship to so-called “normative” romantic narratives of marriage, monogamy, and child rearing? What kinds of “queer becomings”—strange combinations of futures, pasts, and presents—are made possible by writers who experiment with temporality, sequence, and pace in narrative? From Virginal Woolf to Gertrude Stein, modernist writers have suggested that temporal and sexual dissonance are deeply intertwined—in other words, that feeling “queer” might have something to do with feeling “out of time.” If queer modernists march to the beat of a different drum, then how do they explore this temporality through their stories? Shaping our inquiry will be Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel To the Lighthouse, Gertrude Stein’s reflections on repetition and portraiture, Radclyffe Hall’s fantastical tale of gender transformation, and recent transgender theory on what it might mean to transition from one gender to another.