Call For Comments: The PCA/ACA Preview Special

From Mav: We’re doing something a little different on the next show. One of the reasons we started VoxPop was because as academics we end up doing a lot of academic conferences… and we had the idea that the kinds of discussion we have at them would make for an interesting show, especially since my favorite conference, PCA/ACA is all about pop culture. Well, in a couple of weeks, all four of the regular hosts (plus several of our frequent guests) will be going to DC for PCA/ACA 2019. All four of us are presenting there, so we thought for the next couple of shows we’d talk about our projects a bit. Give you an idea of the kinds of things that we do there and maybe, if we’re lucky, get some feedback from you for things that we maybe should talk about when we present for real. Katya and Hannah will both be presenting on games and Wayne and I will both be talking about comics.

In other words, help us do our work! (Pretty Please!!!!) We talked it over and we don’t think most of our listeners would really like to read 10 pages of academic paper, for fun, but we figured we’d let you see our abstracts and ask us questions and we could address them on the show. So here goes:

Katya’s Abstract: Antonin Artaud and the Violence of Alternative Worlds in BioShock Infinite

In 1938, playwright Antonin Artaud uses the term “virtual reality” (VR) to describe how the theater simulates another world through the stage. VR is part of his “theater of cruelty,” which uses the depiction of alternative realities to confront the audience with deeper truths lurking beneath their daily experiences. The ability of VR and the theater of cruelty to break down the spectator’s beliefs is figured as a violent act: it rips the audience from their world, scarring them with new truths. For Artaud, this is an essential and ultimately productive violence.

My paper applies Artaud’s theater of cruelty to the video game Bioshock: Infinite. I demonstrate that the violence of first-person shooter mechanics coincide with moments of narrative reversal. New enemies—specifically the game’s Columbian guard and slave rebellion—emerge simultaneously with a destruction of the player’s perceptions of the gameworld. That is, each time history is rewritten, the player is subjected to an increase in violence which they must reciprocate. I argue that Infinite represents alterations of narrative history as violence, like the theater of cruelty. This locates violence in the form of the video game itself. Simulating a world becomes a violent act, but one that is necessary, productive, and ultimately benign. I finally connect this to popular narratives that connect video games and violence, especially mass shootings, that persist despite the lack of empirical evidence to show how violent games can be used to circumvent the very problems they supposedly generate.

Hannah’s Abstract: Regency Roleplay in Good Society: Representation without Responsibility

The new roleplaying game Good Societytranslates the world of Jane Austen’s novels into a collaborative, multi-player experience. Before the game, players are asked to select the rules of the world they will inhabit, including gender norms. Players can choose the “standard regency patriarchy,” gender equality, or a matriarchy. Despite the attention the game gives to the gender dynamics of Austen’s world, however, the makers of the game avoid the issues of race and imperialism that shaped Austen’s time. Makers have claimed, “Austen’s work is not about race, and doesn’t grapple with racial prejudice,” and “racial prejudice does not exist [in the game], and characters may be of whatever race they choose without incident.” While their intent to include diverse representations is laudable, the game produces an alternative version of history that allows players to ignore the structural violence hidden in Austen’s works.

Claiming Austen’s work ignores race is inaccurate — Austen alludes to estates being propped up by investments in the colonies, discusses the slave trade, and pushes racialized figures to the margins of her texts. In ignoring the problems of race in Austen, I argue, Good Societyreproduces – and so perpetuates —Austen’s own cultural logic. By glossing over the imperial violence that propped up the country houses in which her romances take place, the game can deny that legacy was, and remains, inextricably tied to romance and polite society. Good society— in the literal sense —becomes equivalent to white society. 

Wayne’s Abstract: The Hero Divergent – Binary Paths on the Quest for Self-discovery in Mage: The Hero Discovered

The stories and tropes of Arthurian fiction, particularly that of the Grail Quest, have often been interpreted as psychological symbols of the search for personal identity. This is most clearly seen in the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and his famous Heroes Journey, as well as Jungian psychologists such as Emma Jung, Maria-Louise von Franz, and Robert Johnson.

Though creator Matt Wagner has said that he was unaware of Joseph Campbell’s model of the Heroes Journey when he created Mage: The Hero Discovered, his protagonist Kevin Matchstick follows this paradigm closely. In this narrative the search for the Fisher King serves to launch Kevin on a journey of self-discovery. But it is not Matchstick’s quest alone. One of the villainous characters, the Grackleflint Emil, traces a similar pattern, going on a journey of his own. In this presentation I will argue, using ideas from Jungian psychology, Campbell’s work with myth, and the Thematic Paradigm of Robert Ray, that Emil’s story is a dark reflection of Kevin’s and sheds light on both his success and failure as a hero.

Mav’s Abstract: I Didn’t Know Backs Could Bend That Way: ɸ, The Uncanny Valley, The Male Gaze And Liefeldian Anatomy

For the modern comic fan,“Liefeldian” evokes many things: impractically large guns, a proliferation of pouches, and mullets everywhere! It also implies a certain sense of “anatomy” or lack thereof. Rob Liefeld’s artwork features unnaturally tall brick-like men with impossibly bulging muscles and inhumanly sexy women with implausibly small waists, improbably large breasts, ludicrously long legs and spines that bend like slinkies… and everyone has tiny feet. Nevertheless, Liefeld was perhaps the most influential artist of the 1990s. His expressive “extreme” style helped revitalize the industry, ushered in “the Image Era,” and continues to inspire the direction of many comics today. However, his signature anatomical distortion that once made him innovative is now the source of near constant critical derision.

In the superhero world, violence has always been the major currency of note. The thematic paradigm is formulated around the masculine-coded capability to perform violence and the feminine-coded capacity to evoke violence through sexuality. In the “gritty” era of 90s superhero comics, hypersexuality and hyperviolence became equivalent. They could explicitly be freely traded for each other. The superhero body thus became fetishized to the point where both genders ceased being representations of human form and took on the value of pure commodity. The hypergendered body was power.

Liefeldian anatomy is the visual representation of the hypergendered narrative. I would argue that Liefeld’s rise was due to his stumbling upon φ, the golden ratio formula for aesthetic representation that allowed his women to be seen as aesthetic works of art and his men as perfect industrial machines, both matching the male gaze focused narrative structures of his time. His eventual fall came as he discovered that when this mathematical boundary pushed past its breaking point, we enter an uncanny valley within which the narrative cannot survive.

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