In the dust of this planet / Eugene Thacker

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This book has a gained a small measure of notoriety because its cover appeared in a few places in pop culture and because professional moron Glenn Beck singled it out as a destructive force in American culture. However I can’t imagine many people reading this — it is essentially a short work of philosophy that looks at how twentieth and twentieth-first century horror (in fiction, films, and music) might help us comprehend the unthinkable world we now face: the world that might be: the world after human extinction. (I am reminded of the ancient skeptical quip that just as we do not fear the nonexistence we enjoyed before we were conceived or born, we should not fear the nonexistence that follows our death, but Thacker would probably want to say: The individual’s nonexistence is one thing, the nonexistence of humanity, perhaps even of rationality, is another.)

Thacker’s basic idea is subtle and difficult to paraphrase. If I am understanding him (and as someone who studied philosophy pretty extensively, and in particular a lot of nihilism, as well as someone interested in or familiar with most of the writers he uses to illustrate or explore his ideas, I may be among the relative small minority of people who actually comprise his audience) — if I understand this book, the first premise is that we need to distinguish among three “worlds”: the world-for-us, the world-in-itself, and the world-without-us. (For my money this distinction alone was worth the price of reading this short but difficult book.)

Briefly, the world-for-us is the world understood instrumentally*, the world as something for our use as humans; the world in relation to humans. This concept of the world is most fiercely promoted in myth and religion, but it is also how we usually think of the world in our everyday interactions with it. Thacker uses the generic term “World” for this world.

The world-in-itself on the other hand is the world as it exists independently of human concerns and interests, the subject of scientific inquiry perhaps but potentially hostile. Paradoxically our scientific investigations generally convert the world-in-itself to the world-for-us because we normally undertake these investigations to solve some problem or gain some understanding of human problems, however it was the rational, scientific mindset that reveals the possibility of the word-in-itself. But philosophically, at least, we acknowledge that the world-in-itself is not just some human construct or a world made for- or by- us. The Kantian noumena (“thing-in-itself”) is obviously being invoked here, but Thacker is not strictly being Kantian here. For one thing he doesn’t necessarily agree with Kant that we know nothing about the world-in-itself; we in fact have a concept of the world apart from human concerns. Thacker calls the world-in-itself “the Earth”.

Lastly the world-without-us is the world that is, by definition, hidden from us and beyond our reckoning, and its reality is most plain when we think of the world after human extinction. This concept is of fairly recent vintage because it is only in fairly recent times that we’ve had any idea of a world with no humans. In the mythological/religious past, we could only think of the end humans as the end of the world itself. But climate change, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the threat of extinction-level pandemics, the notion of civilization-ending disasters generally: these possibilities evoke the world-without-us. Thacker calls the world-without-us “the Planet,” because when we imagine the world without us we are considering our world “objectively,” as one planet among many, and not merely in-addition to humanity but apart from and independent of humanity. The Planet is not even hostile to us; it is indifferent to us. This indifference is terrifying to us, because it negates the humanocentric world. I should hasten to add that the alienating thing about the world-without-us does not depend entirely on human extinction. The very idea of the multitude of worlds, the near-infinity of time and space, and the possibility of alien intelligences also invoke the world-without-us.

Thacker’s thesis is that modern horror (in film, fiction, and even music) provides a non-philosophical approach to grappling with the Planet, that is to say: the world-without-us. The bulk of the book tries to illustrate this thesis, drawing on everything from black metal music and Hammer films to H.P. Lovecraft and Georges Bataille. Theological and occult writings on magic and demonology are also analyzed as precursors to modern horror. Along the way Thacker uses a variety of philosophers, especially Schopenhauer and Aristotle (!) to explain how the world-without-us can be understood philosophically. Perhaps obviously, Lovecraft’s notion of “cosmic horror” very aptly describes the human response to the idea of the world-without-us. Towards the end of the book he suggests a mystical approach to comprehending the world-without-us, using certain “darkness” mystics (Bohme, John of the Cross) to analyze a strange, supposedly anonymous poem that is probably the work of the author himself.

I should finally comment on the utterly strange but effective structure of his book: we are treated to a series of medieval scholastic forms (quaestio, lectio, disputatio) each exploring specific questions or topics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thacker does not settle on a clear conclusion, but there are at least two more books in his “Horror of philosophy” series.

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*Thacker doesn’t specifically use Heidegger’s concept of “instrumental rationality” here, but Heidegger certainly applies: The world-for-us is the world for Dasein.

Published in: on July 22, 2015 at 8:57 am  Comments (1)  
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Books are books, games are games

<I wrote this post back in January and never got around to finishing it.  I don’t remember if this was in response to specific forum or blog posts I’ve read or just wool gathering based on various asides.  Although it’s not exactly polished, and does not really lead to any particular conclusion, I figured I’d better go ahead and publish this to get it out of the way.>

One fairly controversial column Gary Gygax wrote for his “From the sorcerer’s scroll” series in Dragon Magazine was titled “Books are books, games are games” (it originally appeared in The Dragon #31 but I saw it first in the Best of Dragon, vol. II). Gary wrote at length about why epic fantasy (and a certain book about a ring) did not make an ideal setting for D&D games. I can’t really say much on that topic, as I have not really played in games that attempted to create an epic campaign from the start, or at least not one that lasted long enough to be able to say how successful it was compared to other kinds of games. As a player, the most memorable long-term games I’ve played in have been fairly episodic, or started that way. A pair of swashbuckling/pirates GURPS games and many short fantasy games in D&D, Rolemaster, or GURPS, as well as some Westerns in GURPS, stand out and I’ve kept those character sheets for years, perhaps decades. I can also think of a couple that were slowly revealed to be epic-style games, but this was not necessarily obvious at the beginning. One was a semi-historical fantasy game set in Norman England, which began very much like a medieval/Arthurian romance but grew into a massive story involving a Viking invasion (sadly, the game fell apart before reaching any kind of conclusion). The other was a gonzo but really fun riff on Ultima IV, which started as planetary romance type thing as the players made characters based on themselves (idealized, naturally) and ended with a massive battle that involved most of my miniatures. So I can’t dismiss epic style play out of hand even if I’m more interested in picaresque/episodic play now.

Anyway, what I really have been thinking about is the tendency gamers seem to have to go back to the “sources” to promote, justify, attack, or defend their preferred game styles and their conceptions of various fantasy tropes.

What I want to say is that different media like films and books and games are essentially different — that is: are different at a fundamental or essential level as experiences. Reading a book is a different kind of experience than watching a film or playing a game. (Video and computer games are another, fourth thing; board games a fifth; etc.) People don’t always remember this.

I say this because I’ve seen some comments and discussion about how the pulp fiction of Howard and the others don’t have any of the hallmarks of classic D&D (starting weak, working in medium sized parties, looting dungeons, etc.), and how action movies are more like modern editions of the game (ignoring small details and focusing on the big action sequences, heroes from the start, etc.). People often valorize things that make a game “more cinematic,” as if that were inarguably a goal of RPGs. Likewise I myself have been tearing through old sci-fi and fantasy books looking for signs of D&D tropes, and to some extent that seems misguided to me now.

Novels and movies generally don’t have multiple heroes the way an RPG does because of the way those mediums work. It is an exceptional (perhaps experimental, and certainly more challenging than usual) novel or film that features more than one primary protagonist.  Even in the case of literary duos, it seems to me that that one character takes center stage.  (For example, in Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, I tend to see either Fafhrd or the Grey Mouser as the ‘main’ character, following the narrator’s focus from story to story or scene to scene.  In Dumas’ The three musketeers, isn’t D’artangan the protagonist?)

In films, usually it is the hero and some number of sidekicks. Perhaps the hero is not clear at the start but is slowly revealed as in a slasher/horror film where we figure out who is a main character by seeing the others killed off. Ensemble casts in an action or caper film like Ocean’s Ten or the Seven Samurai may be better candidates for exemplifying “parties” of adventurers, but realistically the viewer is unlikely to see them all as equally “main” characters.

In books, there are celebrated examples of rich storytelling where many characters are fully fleshed out, but these are fairly exceptional. The vast majority of novels feature a single main character and editors and publishers encourage this. (JRRT himself thought of Samwise as the central character of LotR, by the way, so don’t point to LotR as an example with multiple “main characters”!)

One suggestion I’ve seen is for DMs to try to make a single PC the “star” of a session, and this seems pretty misguided to me. Among the assumptions you’d need to make for such a suggestion make sense are (1) there needs to be a main character at all; (2) the DM can actually control things sufficiently to keep the spotlight on one PC; and (3) the game is supposed to recreate the cinematic experience. I don’t think any of these assumptions are good ones for a D&D game (although these assumptions could apply to other kinds of games).

I say, play the damn game and let the story emerge from play. Over-planning a story line and assigning a lead character doesn’t sound like the kind of game I’d enjoy at all. I’m not saying you shouldn’t throw in a hook or event that is tied to something a character did or is or which relates to a particular character’s background or goals. You can do that without trying to force the PC in question to take any action about it or to take the lead. Likewise I’ve definitely enjoyed sessions where one PC takes a lead role, but it has to happen naturally.

But unless I’ve been completely deceived, I don’t think I’ve been a player in a game where the DM sets out beforehand to make a certain PC shine in a given session.  So I’m curious, for those who use movies or books as the frame of reference for how a game should play out, how do you handle (or circumvent) the issue of a ‘main character’?

Published in: on September 27, 2011 at 5:00 pm  Comments (5)  
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Some Smullyan-style puzzles

I mentioned Raymond Smullyan’s logic puzzle books as a source of “tricks” for dungeons and never really gave any examples. I probably wouldn’t use them exactly as written, but the template is pretty easy to understand if you have a very basic understanding of propositional logic.

Portia’s caskets

One species of problem I like very much are the “Portia’s Caskets” problems from What is the name of this book? (the puzzles being inspired by Portia’s test for her suitors in The merchant of Venice).

The general form is to have two or more boxes, each inscribed with a statement that is either true or false.*

I think this sort of puzzle can be reasoned through fairly easily, though so I’d add a time limit to increase tension. I have a three minute hourglass I used to time riddles earlier and that worked pretty well.

So here’s an example you might use somewhere in a dungeon:

There are three boxes, one lead, one silver, and one gold. They are inscribed with statements, each of which is either true or false. One contains the McGuffin (key to get out of the room, treasure, map, etc.) and one or both of the others contain some peril or setback (an evil spirit, poison gas, alarm, curse, etc.), so you don’t want to guess blindly or open them all. The caskets may be inscribed:

Lead: The treasure is in the gold casket.

Silver: At least one of these statements is false.

Gold: The treasure is not in the silver casket.

As presented, there is only one casket the treasure can be in. The important thing to remember when creating these is that you need to account for every possible truth-function (state of being true or false) for each statement … but some combinations of truth-functions are not possible. For example, it is not possible that the Lead has a true statement and the Gold has a false statement at the same time, given the rest of the information from the set-up.

One variation that you can use is to say that the caskets were created by one of two smiths, one of whom always puts false inscriptions on his caskets and one of whom always puts true statements on his caskets.

The lady or the tiger?

Another way to present what is essentially the same the puzzle is to put the statements on doors (which Smullyan describes in increasing complexity in one chapter of The lady or the tiger?, after the famous short story).

There is a beholder behind one door and the statements are either true or false.

Door one: There is a beholder behind this door.

Door two: There is no beholder behind this door.

Door three: At most two of these statements are true.

Comment: this is actually a much easier problem, since two of the three doors must not have beholders, so a random door-opener has a 2/3 chance of opening a “safe” door. But you really, really don’t want to be surprised by a beholder, huh? Happily the way the problem is set up one door must be safe and you can tell which one it is.

A better version has some reward behind at most one door and a peril behind one or two doors. On the other hand you can increase the number of doors…Smullyan had a variation with nine doors!

The most interesting thing about these problems, for me anyway, is that while you need to plan ahead to make sure they are solvable, you can pretty much pick the statements out of the air and end up with a solvable problem. I actually wrote both of these problems and then checked and luckily, both were solvable as written, but if not I could have changed a “most” to “least” or added or removed a “not” to create a fairly vexing problem. <UPDATE: as you can see from the comments, I sort of messed up these examples.  You might be better off stealing the problems verbatim from Smullyan or at least having someone else read them to make sure you are presenting something solvable!  How embarrassing — I try to be all clever with some logic problems and screw them up…>

*A sadistic DM might set the players up by giving a series of such puzzles and then having a last puzzle that does NOT stipulate that the statements are either true or false. Logically of course a statement can be indeterminate or meaningless. Or think of it this way: are the statements necessarily about these caskets or doors? Of course not; we need to stipulate that they are self-referential. The players can be rather cruelly reminded that unless they know the statements on the caskets/doors are either true or false, and about the caskets/doors & statements themselves, they could have no bearing on what is inside.

Published in: on November 15, 2010 at 6:00 am  Comments (5)  
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Mining the works of Raymond Smullyan

Raymond M. Smullyan is a mathematician and logician (and a concert pianist and magician — a real polymath) who has written several books of puzzles and logic games, generally riffing on simple or classical puzzles and taking them to ever increasing extremes.

For example, readers of this blog are likely familiar with the  scene in Labyrinth where there are two doors, guarded by a two-headed knight, one of whose heads lies and the other tells the truth, and the heroine must ask one question to determine which door to take (one leads to certain death). This is derived from ancient Greek logic problems (“All Cretans are liars…”) and the solution is fairly straightforward.  But Smullyan develops a series of increasingly difficult permutations of this problem (he calls these “Knights and Knaves” puzzles — knights always tell the truth and knaves always lie), with additional layers of complexity. Smullyan’s problems usually involve a set of rules about when people are knights or knaves (it might depend on the day of the week, or other things) and provide a set of statements from which the reader deduces who is a knight, knave, or other (some characters might not always lie). So you might vex your players with problems where the informants are known to be knights or knaves but they don’t know which. Obviously the problem will always have to impose some limits on the number of questions that can be asked — perhaps the “Speak with dead” spell always contacts either a knight or a knave but you don’t know which and you only get one question… Here is a cool Knights & Knaves puzzle generator.

You may also be familiar with the famous story “The lady or the tiger?” by Frank Stockton.  Smullyan has a book (of the same title) which riffs on this sort of puzzle, usually with more than two doors, but with the added feature that the correct door can be induced from the inscriptions on the doors (at least one of which is true). This is related to a similar puzzle somewhere in The Merchant of Venice (a Shakespeare play I never read) where Portia’s suitors need to choose the correct box to win her hand, and each box is inscribed with a statement but only one is true. Smullyan riffs on and complicates this puzzle to create much more challenging versions in his book What is the name of this book? (Yes, that is the title. A little self-referential.)

So, if you’re tired of “Which lever do we pull?” type puzzles, check out the works of Raymond M. Smullyan! Your players will hate you forever.

Published in: on July 8, 2010 at 10:28 am  Comments (3)  
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St. Andre’s jungle

Attention whore that I am (why else would anyone start a blog?) I am proud to notice Ken St. Andre’s comment on an earlier post and I am reminded by it of Meinong’s jungle. (If you are too lazy to follow the link, the idea is basically that if words refer to things, then some relationship exists between a word and its referent, and if a word is meaningful it refers to something (a thing that exists), so there must be some manner or form of existence enjoyed by non-existent things like unicorns or square circles. Yes, nonexistent entities. And philosophers have dubbed this plane of existence Meinong’s jungle, as it is presumably a chaotic and densely-inhabited domain, like a jungle as imagined by ivory-tower philosophers. The only jungle I was ever in, in the Yucatan, had no unicorns though.)

(more…)

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 12:41 am  Comments (4)  
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D&D & philosophy: a call for papers

Confession: I was a philosophy major in college. I was drawn to it since high school, and it had pretty much nothing to do with D&D. Maybe my reading skills and vocabulary benefited from reading Gygax.

So I know how little most people think of and care about philosophy. I got the weird looks when people asked the inevitable question they ask college students. I taught philosophy to the ignorant savages known as college students for several years. I think it is terribly interesting but if you aren’t interested in logic or metaphysics that is fine and I don’t feel the need (anymore) to evangelize for Mill or Marx or Nietzsche. (more…)

Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 11:12 am  Comments (6)  
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