Monday, March 24, 2014

Ersatz Knowledge

Some weeks ago, a friend of mine commented that what he liked about this blog was that I tended to relate things that had nothing to do with D&D to roleplaying and D&D ... presumably about such things as history, psychology, politics, personal experiences and so on.  The reason I do this is simple - I don't believe that role-playing exists in a vacuum.  I believe that it adheres to the same principles that all interactive relationships between people do. In turn it can be understood just as anything else can be understood: by comparing it with our experience and our knowledge and deducing the answers to our problems logically. What is a world for?  Why make a world?  How do you control your players?  How do you create excitement?  And so on.  These are not only questions that apply to role-playing, but to every activity.

It is because of this belief that I think very little of unified theories where it comes to describing anything that is cross-cultural or highly reflective of individualism - such as art, say, or the correct means to action.  I am all for the idea of right and wrong.  I think, given a particular situation, and a particular point of view, and an eye to the greatest possible gain, that there is a right answer to be had.  The ideal breaks down, however, when someone starts to argue that in every situation, from every point of view, regardless of gain, such-and-such is the right answer.  It is the bottom level of thinking, the philosophy that sets out to conform everyone to principles that are convenient for some.  Statements such as, "Role-playing is only a game."  Or, "The purpose of role-playing is FUN."  Etc.

This is not to say that role-playing isn't a game, or that it isn't fun.  Of course those things are true.  And it is also true that things that aren't much fun rarely attract a lot of people (although, if there are people who are prepared to cut their arms with knives in order to feel something, we must assume there are people prepared to role-play in a manner that is most miserable).

My contention is the demand that it somehow be straight-jacketed to fit a previously formed conception of what it is supposed to be, as opposed to what it is.

I will confess at this point that the motivation for this post is from Ron Edwards' writings, and an exchange I had Friday with Dave Cesarano, who has been a regular contributor/reader to the blog lately.  Dave has been around for years and he and I get along; and I can't fault the desire to find some sort of logic in the fabric of role-playing ... which Edwards seems to offer.

I'm going to go way out on a limb here, just the sort of place where the limb can be sawn off and cackles of glee can be heard as it topples to the ground.  Mind you, I'm going to do this very gently, and I'm going to stand by my position.  The next few paragraphs are, however, not the subject of this post, and I am really not interested in debating them.  I only want the reader to have a clear picture of where my perspective lies.

There are a number of 'popular' theoreticians that have popped up on the last century which a very select portion of the population likes to look upon as 'geniuses and gods.'  The fact that these individuals are not embraced by the academic community is, for that portion, proof positive that these 'geniuses and gods' are truly as brilliant and far-sighted as they are judged to be.  My experience has been that whenever I encounter an individual with high regard for one of these 'geniuses and gods,' I am talking to someone who has not done the reading.  If they had, they would recognize that the academic world was right to boot these jackanapes out on their ears, in the cold where they belong.

And here is where the shouting begins, because I'm going to name names.  These are names that are, in effect, dirty words in academic circles, but like I say, "gods" to the common unread masses.  For 'unread,' the reader may understand that I mean, "does not read textbooks."  No doubt, any reader about to get affronted at the blasphemy that I'm about to espouse has read great heaps of really shitty books that serve to promote the religious worship of said names.

Carl Jung, for example, would be the first such individual of this variety that I encountered - and I did it at an age when I was too young to know how full of shit he was.  Oh, Jung is fascinating to read, it's an amusing set of passages about the so-called nature of man, blah blah blah, only none of it seems to be applicable, which is why the respectable psychology community has turned its back on the man.  Some readers here, as I say, worship Jung.  They're getting quite angry right now.  That is only because they refuse to accept that the book has been closed on him, and has been for some time.  Still, the books are out there, and as long as they are, someone who knows very little about psychology, and has a strong wish-fulfilment idealism about their own self-importance, will embrace Jung whole hog.  Another really fun character, in a sad way, is Wilhelm Reich, who started off being quite respectable before deciding to wander off into his own little fantasy world of UFOs, organomics, cloudbusting and so on.  The reader may believe me without question that this nonsense is believed steadfastly by a segment with all the fervor that defines the worship of Jesus, Mohammed and Siddhartha.

A real favorite among the role-playing crowd is Joseph Campbell ... and if I get any hate mail about this post, it is going to be in defense of him.  Even Wikipedia has no comment whatsoever about criticism of Campbell or the fact that the only credentials he possessed was a BA.  I took an education in Classical history, and a great part of that education included investigation into myth.  Campbell was never on the syllabus.  Why would he be?  He's only a respected scholar by those who are not in the field he purports to describe. Sigh.  But what the hell.  What do experts know?

Someone is going to write at me screaming about how he's respected by some Classical department somewhere, so let me just tell you to save your breath.  I've been in this discussion now for something like thirty years and I can tell you that people a lot smarter than you have failed to convince me - or any of the Classics scholars, writers or researchers I respect.  I am telling you now, Campbell, Reich and Jung are not the subject of this post any more than Jesus, Mohammed and Siddhartha - and the reader would get a lot farther with me arguing that the latter three were brilliant scholars.

This post is about the pattern produced in the writing of such people.  The pattern never includes motivations, ideals or associations outside the incredibly certain writings of the author.  Edwards, the inspirer of this post, doesn't appeal to the reader's knowledge of psychology; or the principles of contracts; or literary theory on narrativism or design theory on synthesis or simulationism.  That is because Edwards pulls his theory straight from himself - with the belief that being an 'expert,' all he needs is his own viewpoint. This is a pattern for this particular kind of theoretician ... and where it meets with the sensibilities of a particular audience, the theory scores.

Knowledge, however, is not self-derived.  It is outward derived.  That is why it is knowledge.  Being outward-derived, anyone might stumble across the same circumstances and, independently, produce the same logic and results.  In science, this happens again and again.

No one, however, who has not read Edwards is likely to reproduce Edwards given the available knowledge. When an argument about Edwards arises, the only source is Edwards ... so the argument remains, what did he mean?  We can, in fact, never know.  Worse, the words narrativist, gamist and simulationist have been hopelessly poisoned by Edwards' use of them, so that even if we were to speak about 'storytelling' in a role-playing game in terms of dramatic criticism (which has a longer, more contextual history), the water for many people in the game is hopelessly muddied.  Rather than trying to see the process clear and rationally, they are asking the question, "I'm sorry, is this simulationist or narrativist?"

Which is something akin to asking, "This play, is it meant to be a reflection of real events, or completely make-believe?"  That is a hard place to begin one's deconstruction.


kimbo said...

Going at the sacred cows with an axe no less...

my question to you as a well-read person and a writer...
Why do you think the works of Jung, Campbell, Reich had this long term appeal if there are better grounded alternative?

Is it merely the emotional appeal in their writing, or is it conceptually compatible with the emotional rather than rational? OR what?

I like what I have read of Campbell's stuff. It feels right yet I also can tell it sounds just his personal interpretation, journey and feelings too. But it has resonance too. An emotional fiction? What is the appeal?

Maslow's hierarchy of needs come to mind. Proposed in 1943, no supporting data since then, but cited in management texts forever after as THE word on motivation. WTF!?

Is this the opposite of philosophy, rather than finding a truth by thinking and observing one finds a belief which resonates?

Alexis Smolensk said...

I don't find the appeal mysterious, kimbo. It is very human. We like to read people who speak to the same things that worry us; like Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, or Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Campbell gives a sense that anything we write is part of a greater, wider whole, so that we're not alone in our room writing our ideas, we're part of a greater community. Reich appeals to ideas that seem rationale and we hope they're real. Jung speaks to our fears, our anxieties, our neuroses ... and seems to make sense of them.

Do the words of Jesus not seem like fine, well-conceived words? Is the world not a better place if those who grip wealth tightly won't deserve the pleasures of heaven, and is not the camel through the eye of a needle an evoking image, one that has lasted 1900 years (I date it from when it was written, not from the life of Christ).

Concerning all the words that have lasted for millennia, that tapped into the spirit of humankind, why should the endurance of Campbell for a few decades seem astounding?

Alexis Smolensk said...

There is another answer for you, kimbo, that speaks specifically to the question, "... if there are better grounded alternatives?" I have to pull it from another source. At the end of James Burke's Connections series, he makes a point about knowledge.

It starts at about 44:25 of this youtube video. Quote,

"... the key to why things change is the key to everything. How easy is it for knowledge to spread? And that in the past, the people who made change happen were the people who've had that knowledge, whether they were craftsmen or kings. Today, the people who make things change, the people who have that knowledge, are the scientists and the technologists who are the true driving force of humanity ... and before you say, what about the Beethovens and the Michaelangelos, let me suggest something with which you may disagree violently: that at best, the products of human emotion, the arts, politics, music, literature, are interpretations of the world, that tell you more about the guy who's talking, than about the world he's talking about.

"Second-hand views of the world, made third-hand by YOUR interpretation of them. See, things like that:" [an image of religious art]; "As opposed to this:" [a slide from a microscope]. "Know what it is? It's a bunch of amino acids, the stuff that goes to build up a worm, or a geranium, or you."

[Showing the artwork] "This stuff's easier to take, isn't it? Understandable. Got people in it."

[Showing the slide] "This. Scientific knowledge. It's hard to take, because it removes the reassuring crutches of opinion, ideology, and leaves only what is demonstratably true about the world."

That is the whole of it, really. And we make a decision about whether we want to accept that reality, and know things or rush to the arms of Edwards or Campbell, and rely on the hope that they know things.

It is everyone's decision ... and we know the decision that most everyone makes.

YagamiFire said...

It is easier to accept another persons interpretation of reality than to work at interpreting reality. Humans are very quick to invest their faith in anything but themselves.

kimbo said...

answered in spades thank you.
(Bugger! another great Burke series I must digest ASAP)

It seems there is a great need for the halfway zome between art and science.... the communicators who can make the difficult realities easier to digest and metabolise (even if not palatable)without spin, bias or moralising.


Alexis Smolensk said...

I don't dream or pretend I can answer or describe anything without bias. I have my experience, I have my reasons to believe that my thought process and my ways are the best ways. What I can do, however, is try to explain why my thought processes are what they are ... I saw that James Burke series around 1979, the same year I started playing D&D. Think about how long those words, that hit me like a sledgehammer in my developing, impressionable youth, have been bouncing around in this old head and producing bias.

Alan Harrison said...

Relevant to this discourse, my secondhand summary of (one) tenet inculcated during a first year Ph.D. curriculum: "Human investigators are not capable to frame questions that will produce answers purely unbiased by the investigators' expectations."

James said...

I feel that you paint too broad of a stroke to make your point. Not all knowledge is external. Valuable knowledge can come from people's ideas, as those ideas can help us create a context by which to understand the phenomenon we experience every day of our lives.

This is not to say any of the four gentlemen were hugely valuable contributors to academic and scholastic causes. Edwards, whom you are specifically talking about, has certainly poisoned any discussion of RPG design to the point that you are better off starting from scratch than basing it off his own ideas.

Clovis Cithog said...

The problem with intelligent commoners (gamers) is that they tend to agree with those who communicate in prose that they understand (Campbell, Maslow, Jung, Edwards, etc.). The absence of scientific terminology or field specific jargon makes the lay reader feel artificially enlightened, hence if the proponent of these views is charismatic, then that proponent is obviously right.

If I recall correctly, Mr. Edwards is a published expertise in bat reproductive organs – not game design.
. . .
It took decades for me to gain expertise in my craft (I am a physician). I can no more explain medical decision making briefly and concisely to an intelligent non-physician, then a writer could rapidly school me on meter and diction.
I can give analogies and examples to make a patient fill relaxed with my competence, but the illustrations granted by myself are not the reality. The reality of my profession is more complex.

Dave Cesarano said...

I've been doing a lot of thinking about this Edwards thing and I'll be honest, I'm really glad you decided to tackle this head-on.

A couple of comments...

Oh, Jung is fascinating to read, it's an amusing set of passages about the so-called nature of man, blah blah blah, only none of it seems to be applicable, which is why the respectable psychology community has turned its back on the man.
Of Jung I would pretty-much agree with you on all points and I'd add Freud in there also... except for the fact that these guys are taught to undergrads, and those poor saps never get really deep into the current journals and so have little clue unless they go for a higher degree.

Knowledge, however, is not self-derived. It is outward derived. That is why it is knowledge. Being outward-derived, anyone might stumble across the same circumstances and, independently, produce the same logic and results. In science, this happens again and again.

Wow. Just wow. Dude, please, PLEASE walk into an education department's course on pedagogy and say this. The stares you will get are disturbing to say the least. I'm seriously wondering if becoming a teacher was a Bad Idea because of all the crap with which they're trying to indoctrinate me.

This is a great observation about Edwards, though, and something I never really noticed. Indeed, though there are elements of his theories I think are very instructive or applicable, the overuse of specialized jargon and, like you said, the incapability of applying his theories to things outside of role-playing do seem to be a fatal flaw.

Alexis Smolensk said...


As a physician, I ought to send you the passages from my book pertaining specifically to the biological effects of stress ... but I feel that those passages are stolen fairly efficiently from the situational awareness lectures which inspired them.


Take note that the education department is rarely considered to be composed of a science faculty. But I did used to start those kind of arguments at wine & cheese events back in my university days. They're fun.

Clovis Cithog said...

for a scholarly overview I defer to
"Stress and Your Body. "
by Professor Robert Sapolsky ...
from the teaching company ...
if you want me to send you a FREE copy of CDs, post your snail mail address on my blog (I will NOT share your personal data)

Alexis Smolensk said...

No, no, that's fine sir. But thank you for the offer.