Saturday, 19 April 2014

Every Day is Holy Saturday

In “Protestantism And A Human Understanding Of Time,” Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry explains why Catholics view the Mass as a sacrifice:

Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is eternal. Because God experiences every moment of time simultaneously (or “simultaneously”), for God, there isn’t a moment “before” the Cross and a moment “after” the Cross. The sacrificial character of the Mass, then, is about us sharing in this divine sacrifice, which is made possible because (through the communion of the saints) Christ’s sacrifice exists for all eternity.

I have little to say about his discussion of Protestantism, because 1) I didn’t find it especially revealing or interesting (his post, really, is about Catholicism rather than Protestantism) and 2) I’m not sure there’s much point in talking about Protestantism at any length because, like “Africa” or “contemporary world literature,” “Protestantism” isn’t at a level of specificity which enables useful analysis.

What I do want to point out is Gobry’s implied claim that every day is Good Friday. Sure, he doesn’t say so in those words, but that’s the point of the paragraph. As Clara is scattered throughout the Doctor’s timeline in order to save him, so the crucifixion happens in every moment of history. Because every day is Good Friday, every Mass is a sacrifice. Every single day, Christ hangs on the cross.

But if every day is Good Friday, I suspect that every day must be Holy Saturday, too. Holy Saturday is that day, during the liturgical calendar, when God is dead and buried in the tomb. Holy Saturday is the day when there’s a God-shaped hole not in the human heart, but in the world. Every day Jesus dies on the cross, and every day Jesus rises from the dead, but every day, too, Jesus is dead and forsaken.

This is the world I feel like I live in: a world of perpetual Holy Saturday. I wonder if different people, at different times in their lives, live in worlds of a single perpetual liturgical day. Some live Good Friday every day; others live Pentacost every day; others live Christmas Eve every day. For me it is Holy Saturday. There is a hole that runs through the centre of the world and justice, compassion, and truth lay entombed. I recognize of course that I can’t say that every day is Holy Saturday without also admitting that every day is Easter Sunday, but I have such trouble seeing the Easter Sunday in each day. Maybe this is why the happiest liturgical season I can manage is Advent: I have trouble believing in a world in which Christ is risen (been born), but I can believe in a world in which he will rise. And that isn’t so bad.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Multiculturalism in the Monster Kingdom: Part II

Majesty 2’s Monsterculturalism

As I said in the first post, Majesty 2’s third and final expansion was called The Monster Kingdom, and this expansion let you play as the monsters rather than as the humans (and elves and dwarves). Not only did that excite me to no end, but I found the narrative even more compelling than I had anticipated.

Monster Kingdom begins with the Conclave of High Priests stealing the Crown of Ardania, using it to summon the legendary Spirit of Kings, and storming the palace. The Sovereign—that is, the player’s avatar—is smuggled out of the palace thanks to the quick thinking of the Adviser—the Sean Connery-esque narrative voice of the game—but the Conclave succeeds in installing the Spirit of Kings on the throne as their puppet. In order to find safety and muster an army to reclaim your throne, the Adviser forges an alliance with a tribe of goblins. Thus your quest to return to power begins by reconciling with your former enemies. As you reclaim territory and build up an army (and the infrastructure to sustain it), you must gain the trust of other goblin tribes and incorporate other creatures into your polity: liches, minotaurs, werewolves, koatls. Often you must undo actions you had completed in the previous games; in order to win the liches to your side, you must help resurrect an especially powerful lich that you had killed previously, and in order to recruit the minotaurs, you must destroy the ancient defense towers you helped Baron Pampa rebuild—towers which forced the minotaurs out of the area and prevented their access to ancestral territory.

What is interesting about this narrative is that all parties are changed by it. It is not only about how the humans' long dominance came to an end, but also how the monsters were brought together into a single polity—the eponymous Monster Kingdom. The goblins are now organized in a way more reminiscent of human than goblin culture, after all, since you run the kingdom the same way you ran your human one. Minotaurs now adventure with liches and ratmen. And the end of the game promises to involve integrating the human kingdom with your monster kingdom, once you get the Conclave under control. Grum-Gog’s shamans would have a place on that Conclave, and one of the liches’ demands before joining your cause was that you reserve for them three seats on the Council of Archmages. The minotaurs had their own demands, too, most of which involved a recognition of minotaur culture. Unfortunately, that is where the game ends; I assume we do not get to see what happens when humans and monsters are made to live in one kingdom. (I have not finished the game yet, so I cannot be sure.) But even prior to this it is clear that you are forging a new culture, a mix of human, gnome, goblin, ratman, lich, minotaur, koatl, and werewolf influences.

I am, alas, overstating the degree to which the game presents this cultural development. For one, there is little sense that the Sovereign and what remains of his human court really value anything the monsters offer except their military force: there is a running joke that the goblins’ pumpkin-based cuisine is unappetizing, and the way the game presents the minotaur demands suggest that they might be a joke about political correctness. (I actually think the things the minotaurs ask for are great: they want one of their holidays officially recognized, they want cultural centres and museums that attest to the fact that they have a civilization of their own, and, most interesting of all, they want a human legend re-written so that it no longer represents minotaurs are wild and bestial. I love that last one, because it actually demands that the other races change how they understand the minotaurs; however, it could also be a joke at the expense of feminist or anti-racist retellings of legends, fairy tales, and history.) And there isn’t much sense that the monsters change in response to one another, either. Ratmen seem to have little to no impact on the kingdom’s culture, despite being a part of it from the very beginning. Other than the fact that all of your heroes are equipped with goblin or human goods, there is little sense that they are learning new skills (or lifeways) from each other. Rather, they are living side-by-side in the same community, they have found a place for themselves within the goblin/human political and economic structure, and that structure has accommodated them, but they remain otherwise unaffected by their new-found proximity, even when you’ve assigned goblins and ratmen and werewolves all to the same party. Were is the minotaur who decided to become a shaman? Were is the gnome who decided he could be a hero rather than a labourer or guard? An why are the fire elementals, who show some signs of sentience, not volunteering to join the Monster Kingdom?

The only instance of one monster race adopting the lifestyle, values, or technologies of another race comes in the option to upgrade Ratman Robbers to Paladins to Grum-Gog. The story goes that the paladins of Daurus went underground as missionaries to the ratmen, but it seemed that their words fell on rocky soil. Some years later, however, humans began encountering the Paladins to Grum-Gog; it turns out that the ratmen had no interest in Dauros, but they were impressed by the idea of a paladin, and applied that idea to their own god, instead. Except it’s interesting to note that Grum-Gog is not, exactly, the ratmen's god; at least as established in the original Majesty, which Majesty 2 occasionally references as its own past, Grum-Gog is explicitly the goblins' god. Not only have the ratmen adopted a human type of religious specialist, but they have applied it to a goblin god. However, all of this occurs before the development of the Monster Kingdom. We do not get to see any of this syncretism or religious inculturation within the timespan of the game. Each race is for the most part content to live in the same community, but not in the same way, as the other monsters.

Of course this is a common way of thinking about multiculturalism, at least in Canada: there is one core or standard cultural framework, which is willing to accommodate other cultures, so long as those cultures are willing to fit within that framework. So, English or French culture makes the framework, and other cultures must fit into it. But the framework-cultures are also understood as flexible (after all, in its secularism it can accommodate the others) and evolving (it is the culture that drives technological development and social reform). The other cultures do not, in the multicultural imagination, evolve; they are time-bound, old-fashioned, traditional; they are relics. Members of those other cultures (other races, that is) are allowed to practice their time-bound cultures, we have allowed them to do that, but if they want to move forward, they had better adopt parts of the mainstream, dominant, evolving culture. The problem with this vision, of course, is that all cultures change and evolve, borrowing from one another and developing their own forms; no culture is locked in time, except and unless social governmental structures lock them in time. (I am drawing from Thobani’s argument in Exalted Subjects here.)

The way Wade Davis describes cultures in The Wayfinders seems relevant here: people have a finite amount of intellectual/creative resources (time, energy, material goods, and capital), and any use of these resources is a kind of investment. Different cultures have invested in different things, at first as a response to the physical environment and then in response to both the physical environment and the social environment that has developed. You wouldn’t go to the Polynesian wayfinders if you wanted brain surgery, he writes, but if you knew what you were doing you would go to the wayfinders before going to Westerners if you wanted to sail the ocean. Cultures are specialized, he is arguing, and they contain specialized knowledge that other cultures do not contain. When cultures come into contact, the people of those cultures would do well to learn from one another rather than engage in cultural conflict or, as in multiculturalism, build cultural siloes.

I’m not seeing, in Monster Kingdom, how the monsters are learning from one another, and I’m absolutely not seeing how the humans learn from the monsters. I think I know why this is: the game developers do not want to change the political and economic structure because they do not want players to have to learn to play a new game on top of familiarizing themselves with new units. RTSs with different kinds of units work best if those units fit in rigid, distinct niches; if they started learning from one another, these niches might start to erode. And more importantly, they need these units to be visually distinct, so it might be confusing if some of the archers you recruited were ratmen rather than goblins. While it would still be possible to make the game that I want without compromising on these practical necessities, I don’t think most players would care one way or another, so the developers have no incentive to make that game. But still, there is an interesting story about the formation of a new culture, maybe even a new kind of culture, and I would like to see that developed more. I would like to see the monsters learn from each other; I would like to see the humans learn from the monsters.

And before anyone else says it, yes, I know the answer to my problem is fan fiction.

Multiculturalism in the Monster Kingdom: Part I

Race, Religion, and Culture in Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Simulator

This two-part informal essay was written to be one post, but it wound up far too long, so I have  broken it into two parts. This first part will simply explain the mechanics of the computer games I will discuss, and why they appealed to me; if you are familiar with both Majesty and Majesty 2, I imagine you could skip right to Part II, though it might be good for you to read this one if you want to know how I am framing them for discussion.

Paradox Interactive’s Majesty 2 is the sequel to Cyberlore’s Majesty: the Fantasy Kingdom Simulator; the first Majesty was my favourite game for most of my life and still ranks in at least the top three. Both games are real-time strategy games (RTSs), putting you in the role of the Sovereign of a kingdom in a fantasy world called Ardania. You can order the construction of buildings and the research of improved technology. You can recruit heroes to defend your kingdom and enforce your decrees. You can set tax and building repair policies. You can commission spells from local temples and wizard’s guilds. As Sovereign, you attempt to complete quest, which usually involves building up a settlement, earning gold, and, invariably, trying to rout out the enemy monsters and defend your village against dragons, ratmen, goblin hordes, and the like.

What sets the Majesty games apart from other RTSs, however, is that you cannot directly control your heroes; instead, you can try to motivate their behaviour using reward flags (in the original, only Attack and Explore flags; the sequel adds Defend and Avoid flags), providing them with equipment, and constructing specific buildings which promote certain behaviours. You also carefully choose which heroes to recruit: Warriors tend to be stalwart and aggressive; Rogues are cowardly but highly motivated by gold, and also tend to steal from you; Rangers prefer to explore above all else and will; Paladins are stubborn and tend to take on foes well out of their league. (If you can’t tell, the franchise draws heavily from D&D.) These quirky, flawed, endearingly predictable, and frustratingly autonomous heroes are the heart of the game; the storylines leave much to be desired, but that’s usually fine given the minor dramatics your heroes will be getting into spontaneously.

In the original Majesty, there were three non-human races[1] you could recruit—elves, dwarves, and gnomes—but since elves and dwarves shared a mutual enmity, and neither of them cared for gnomes, you would have to choose only one. Which you chose would have an effect on your whole settlement, since if you chose dwarves, you could then defend your settlement with much superior defense towers; if you chose elves, your economy would grow but gambling halls and elven “lounges” (thinly veiled brothels) would pop up; and if you chose gnomes, slums would appear. In a subtle but important way, which non-human race you chose would influence your settlement’s culture, both cosmetically (lots of blue-tiled roofs if you choose elves) and mechanically (everything will be in good repair if you choose the handy gnomes).

And there was more: you could build temples to the assorted deities of Ardania, but these gods (and their followers) had a complex set of alliances and rivalries which meant that by building certain temples, you prevent yourself from building some of the others. For example, if you build a Temple to Dauros, god of law and commerce, or a Temple to Agrela, goddess of life, you can no longer build a Temple to Fervus, god of chaos and nature, or a Temple to Krypta, goddess of death. Again, your selections have subtle impacts on the culture of your settlement, both in flavour and mechanics. For instance, if you go with Krypta and Fervus, your settlement will likely be swarming with packs of charmed vargs (wolves) and rats thanks to Fervus’s cultists, and protected by mobs of skeletons thanks to Krypta’s priestesses.

Majesty 2 did not keep these mutual exclusions; instead, it limited the number of Temples you can build, in order to keep the need to choose between them, and it programed rivalry and hostility into the characters’ own decisions: paladins will attack a friendly priestess’s skeleton bodyguards, for instance. In addition, you can assign your heroes to adventuring parties, which stay together until you re-assign the heroes to new parties; there is an art to putting together a successful party, and part of the fun is pairing up mutually antagonistic characters together. I do not know how I feel about the change: on the one hand, you do still need to be deliberate about which temples you build, and it is fun to make dwarves and elves go a-Viking together; on the other hand, you settlement does not gain the same unique culture depending on your choice of temple. I miss the sense of custom-building local character depending on your navigation of these alliances and rivalries. (I suppose, in a way, what I liked about this RTS is that it had an element of an RPG to it: you could customize your kingdom by your choice of temples and non-humans much as you can customize your character in an RPG by whatever choices such a game offered. Majesty 2 loses some of that.)

Enter the Monster Kingdom expansion. This expansion was, in a lot of ways, exactly the game I had been day-dreaming of for years, for the simple reason that it lets you play as the monsters: your heroes are goblins, ratmen, minotaurs, and liches, not humans, dwarves, elves, and gnomes. (It wasn’t quite the game I dreamt of, only because the cosmetic change between Majesty and Majesty 2 meant the goblins I could play as were not quite the same goblins as in the original game, the ratmen weren’t quite the same ratmen as in the original, and so on. But close enough.) But in some ways it was more than I had been hoping for, in that the narrative frame holding the expansion together was far more interesting than what I would have written.

I will deal with that in a second post.

[1] I have a lot of trouble with this use of “race” in fantasy fiction and gaming, but I’m going to keep using it because Majesty uses it. If I had my druthers, the word we’d use would be “species.”

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Sky Does Not Speak

Warning: unapologetic religion, of the Christian existentialist variety. You have been warned.

In his short essay “Pascal’s Sphere,” Jorge Luis Borges traces the history of the sphere from Xenophanes’s declaration that God was an eternal sphere to Plato’s insistence that the sphere is the most perfect shape, from Bruno’s description of the Copernican universe as an infinite sphere—its centre everywhere and its circumference nowhere—and finally to Pascal’s very modern despair in such a view:

In that dejected century, the absolute space that inspired the hexameters of Lucretius, the absolute space that had been a liberation for Bruno was a labyrinth and an abyss for Pascal. He hated the universe and yearned to adore God, but God was less real to him than the hated universe. He lamented that the firmament did not speak; he compared our lives to the shipwrecked on a desert island. He felt the incessant weight of the physical world; he felt confusion, fear, and solitude; and he expressed it in other words: “Nature is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.”
I do not know how accurate a description of Pascal this is; I do know that much of this description is fairly accurate when applied to me. I too yearn to adore God, but God is less real to me than the universe; I too consider our lives to be like those shipwrecked on a desert island; I too feel the incessant weight of the physical world, and respond with confusion, fear, and loneliness. I find myself alienated from that to which I declare allegiance, and I see this alienation—acknowledged or not—in all of us. A labyrinth and an abyss indeed.

But there is one way in which this description is inaccurate: I do not hate the world and I do not lament the silence of the firmament. Oh, there are many things about the world which I find deserving of hatred: the world is filled with limitless suffering, more than I can imagine or bear, and my scant incomplete knowledge of this unremitting suffering sits like a hole in my chest. But I cannot bring myself to hate the world, and its speechlessness in particular I find lovely. I look at the mountains piled above Vancouver, distant and stony; I look at the hummingbird flitting about my feeder, dependent on the sugarwater my neighbours and I provide but thoroughly indifferent to us; I look at the toiling ants on the pavement and the silverfish swimming across my bathroom floor, incapable of even perceiving me; and I am enchanted by them. Their indifference to me is the twin of my incomprehension of them, my inability to imagine myself in their place. They are wholly other to me, and in this they free me from my suffocating self-concern. In this they also remind me of the distance of other people, people with whom I am tempted to exaggerate my empathy and affinity. And they also remind me of God, the distance and self-sufficiency and ineffability of God. I am not sure why, but these reminders calm my soul. I bask in their otherness and at least feel connected, in this way, to the otherness of God. God may feel distant, but at least God's distance is near to me. The firmament does not speak, and for that I love it.

This is my reminder to myself: I can try to cross the silence of the sky, but I shall never truly know it; I can try to read the silence and the speech of friends and strangers, but I shall never fully understand them; I can reach out into the absence I perceive God to be, but I will never totally plumb those depths. And yet my failure to succeed perfectly does not encourage a failure to try. There is a beauty in trying.

The sky does not speak, and I shall listen.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

He Hath Ever But Slenderly Known Himself

From Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression:
It is arguably the case that depressed people have a more accurate view of the world around them than do nondepressed people. Those who perceive themselves to be not much liked are probably closer to the mark than those who believe that they enjoy universal love. A depressive may have better judgement than a healthy person. Studies have shown depressed and nondepressed people are equally good at answering abstract questions. When asked, however, about their control over an event, nondepressed people invariably believe themselves to have more control than they really have, and depressed people give an accurate assessment. In a study done with a video game, depressed people who played for half an hour knew just how many little monsters they had killed; the undepressed people guessed four to six times more than they had actually hit. Freud observed that the melancholic has "a keener eye for the truth than others who are not melancholic." Perfectly accurate understanding of the world and the self was not an evolutionary priority; it did not serve the purpose of species preservation. Too optimistic a view results in foolish risk-taking, but moderate optimism is a strong selective advantage. "Normal human thought and perception." wrote Shelley E. Taylor in her recent, startling Positive Illusions, "is marked not by accuracy but positive self-enhancing illusions about the self, the world, and the future. Moreover, these illusions appear actually to be adaptive, promoting rather than undermining mental health. . . . The mildly depressed appear to have more accurate views of themselves, the world, and the future than do normal people . . . [they] clearly lack the illusions that in normal people promote mental health and buffer them against setbacks." 
The fact of the matter is that existentialism is as true as depressiveness. Life is futile. We cannot know why we are here. Love is always imperfect. The isolation of bodily individuality can never be breached. No matter what you do on this earth, you will die. It is a selective advantage to be able to tolerate these things, and to go on--to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. [...] Depressives have seen the world too clearly, have lost the selective advantage of blindness. (433-434)
While I understand the research is not quite so clear as all that, and while depression is capable of speaking lies, it is also the unfortunate case that depression sometimes tells the truth. Those with depression know in their bones that their automatic negative thoughts are true, and part of the practice of therapy is to learn to shut those thoughts out, but there's an equivocation there: do you ignore the thoughts, or deny them? Because, if we're going to be honest, some of the negative thoughts are true; the person with depression is right, and they know it. This makes it so much harder to identify the negative thoughts which are just lies your depression is telling you.

The fall-back position, I guess, is interpretation; change the metric and you can change the answer. I can say for sure that positive self-talk works (sometimes), but it's hard not to believe that positive self-talk is a ritual of lying to yourself. Maybe mental health is constituted by having more rather than less productive delusions.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Postlude: Eternal Consequences

or, What Kind of Harm?

I see that I had planned to write another Moral Foundations post and had forgotten to do so! This is my attempt at recovering that fumbled intention. 

In the previous post of my Moral Foundations Series, I wrote, "If moral intuitions can be wrong (which is a truism these days), should we even be talking about Moral Foundations Theory? Shouldn't we be talking instead about deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, moral nihilism, immoralism, divine command theory, or other logical bases for morality?" My proposed answer was that, on the one hand, there's an argument to be made that Moral Foundations make bad philosophy, but on the other hand, we cannot act morally without investments, and our Moral Foundations provide those investments.

 Ethical philosophy's role, then, might be to manage those investments. I wrote in "What Kind of Character is a Virtue Ethicist?", in my Good People and Going Wrong series, that telling me your moral philosophy (I discuss deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics) doesn't help me figure out what matters to you. If you say, "I am a deontologist," I don't know what you think your duties are. If you say, "I am a consequentialist," I don't know what goods you are trying to maximize and what harms you are trying to minimize (and for whom). If you say, "I am a virtue ethicist," I do not know what virtues you are trying to cultivate. Your moral structure might be clear, but I still don't know what your values are. What I wonder, then, is if the Moral Foundations provide those missing values.

That sounds great, but there's a problem. Some of the Moral Foundations lend themselves to certain moral philosophies better than others. Harm/care, for instance, seems to work much better with consequentialism than with deontology or virtue ethics. I suppose you could say, "I have a duty to provide care," or "I have a duty to do no harm," a sort of layman's Hippocratic Oath, but these are pretty heavily skewed towards consequentialism. Meanwhile, it seems very difficult to articulate loyalty or authority/respect in consequentialist terms: how would you maximize loyalty in a system? These lend themselves much more to deontology or, perhaps especially, virtue ethics. One of the reasons I've never declared for a particular moral philosophy is that none of them deal especially well with all three of harm/care, fairness, and freedom/oppression.

 The difficulty of expressing certain values in certain moral systems might explain why the deontologists I've known have often been social conservatives while the consequentialists have often been social progressives. But I actually wonder whether those social conservatives really are so deontological after all. A lot of Christians seem to be consequentialists in one respect: they care very much about the consequences their actions will have on the fate of their soul. So they might be divine-command flavoured deontologists or they might be virtue ethicists of Christlikeness, but for a lot of them, the eternal consequences matter; a long-game consequentialism is powering a short-game deontology (or virtue ethics). I must not lie, despite the consequences on this side of the grave (deontology), because to stray from God will have consequences on the far side of the grave (consequentialism). And the drive to proselytize is all about this! We have to save those souls from the fire (harm/care)! (Now certainly not all Christians are driven by afterlife concerns--I'm not, for example--but there is such a stereotype for a reason.)

This shows up particularly well in the purity/sanctity Foundation, I think. Purity binds together all three of consequentialism, virtue ethics, and deontology. Normally the moral or ritual laws which protect purity are deontological ones--pre-marital sex is defiling (for women and not for men, but that's another matter), and it does not matter whether the consequences of not having pre-marital sex are, let's say, the death of every living thing in a the neighbouring village. But, at the same time, the loss of purity is a consequence and constitutes damage to a person's virtue. (Indeed, I'm reading virtue ethics now as a very specialized kind of consequentialism, in that it has to do with the consequences actions have on your soul/identity/character.)

I don't think we're doomed to failure if we use moral philosophy as a structure which the Moral Foundations fill out, just because the results are sometimes difficult or make the structure look different; indeed, I've said over and over again that the content you plug into structures changes how those structures operate, and the structures into which you plug the content changes what that content means. The fact that some combinations will be clunky or will require retro-fitting is unsurprising if you look at it in the way I've discussed genres. What I think the exercise shows us is that consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, divine command theory, et al aren't so nicely separable after all. Oh, there are probably people who do distill their moral philosophies down (Kantain deontologists who eschew concerns about salvation, total utilitarians who do not care about how their hedons are distributed), but most of us aren't purebreeds. Most of us are left with the hard work of kludging together a mutt moral system which does justice to our values as best we can make it.

This is the last Moral Foundations Series post. The index is here: link.
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