South Park games and metaphysics; Let’s back up first

So… we live in the present, the unmapped and unchartable present, that is past as soon as we formulate the experience – actually before we even ‘experience it’ which occurs in the conscious processes so already past, even if just a nano-second past.  We formulate experience as neurological phenomena.  We can only analyze media as a past experience.

Maybe gaming is not past-enough.  I’m still enjoying the metaphysical meat that old-school digital media gives us to chew on.

Early digital-era metaphysics

I first presented my analysis in a philosophy conference at the dawn of the digital media revolution, it was a “mind the gap” metaphysics.  I was pointing to the discontinuity that the media actual presents – gapped.  Someone I respected tried to explain how I was wrong.  My argument goes: digital media is gapped experience because there are open spaces within the code, similar to alphabetic texts, that we fill in because we are biological beings.  “Nature abhors a vacuum” indeed.  With photos and sound there is always something, even if we perceive it as empty space.  Not so with digital media.  It’s a code that represents, rather than presents, the experience that is decoded.

The gapped experience presented in digital media, unlike celluloid film and the imaging chemicals in photography, present us with nothing.  Really nothing.  We can’t take that in so we fill in.  We make up a continuous image, that we experience as present though it’s past.  (See everything I’ve said before about this…)

Mind the gap

My astute critic/collaborator told me I just misunderstood code.  The ‘o’ in the x and o is just another piece of code.  It could be (indeed) a ‘b’ or ‘c’ – but that is totally misunderstanding what I’m suggesting here.  I’m not suggesting that ‘0’ is like a donut with a hole in it.  I’m suggesting the gap within the code, the gap between any symbol and the next is what opens the code up to infinity.  Certainly, as biological beings, we have to fill it in.  We live as narrative beings and the narrative has to continuously unfold.  The continuity of our cellular interactions is absolutely necessary, just as continuity with our stories is necessary.  If the continuity is radically disrupted it’s called death.  With a story, it’s called ‘the end’.

Back to Kenny for a minute.  When he yells at his friends that they don’t get it, that it isn’t cool, as Kyle suggests, that he can’t die, he screams at them, “It hurts!”  He demands they pay attention to the pain – his pain.  He demands some comprehension, if not compassion, that he suffers his super-power.  Yet it’s the process of dying, not the actual death, that hurts.

Like Jesus on the cross:  “It is finished” meant that the pain stopped.

(I’m a priest; you must have known all along I’d get to this… and also if you read Vigil.)  It might be that God knew about death – as all-knowing creator actually created death – but for God to know what it feels like for a human to experience death Jesus had to do it, and even then it would only count as this experience o knowing if Jesus was indeed God.  There have been storms, fires, whole universes exploding, but no pain there.  Only biological beings experience pain, and only a human experiences human pain.)

Radical disruption of the sequence, the narrative sequence with the beginning, middle and end, happens with every space within the code where one symbol ends and another begins, where one pixel breaks to allow the next, like the alphabet – we’ve been here before but perhaps failed to notice.  Digital media in this way is closer to the printed page than to photography.

The trajectory of a theory

Just as the invention of the printing press, that radically personalized western folks’ experience of scripture, gave way to the Reformation, the invention of digital media allows for the birth of a new spirituality, highly individuated yet shared… (to be continued…)

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A new frontier for Metaphysics and Media

… So once the South Park kids in 2D animation morph to digital characters, from drawings to pixels, then comes the new video game South Park; Fractured but Whole:

This isn’t the first South Park game.  The South Park franchise produced a first-person shooter game in 1998,  and this style of game is perhaps not the most challenging game for our metaphysics.  But even then, do our metaphysics keep up?  We haven’t come to terms yet with Shane Hipps’  “communities of individuals” identified in Flickering Pixels.  So how do we recognize communities reconstructing themselves as games?  They might refer to themselves as ‘virtual communities’ but they are very real.

Who recalls “Chose Your Adventure” books?  They are closer to these games than regular printed pages, inviting interaction.  The robust quality of modern games is matched by the communities they create – groups of people engaged, creating their own identities – go far beyond those children’s books.  And these programs overtake television and movies as the preferred medium, not just preferred by adolescent men but women of all ages as well.

At least for the purposes of philosophy, I want to crawl back to the printed page.  I don’t even own an Xbox.  Yet, I was one of the Pokemon Go traffic hazards.  I chased after virtually real objects which is a misnomer for sure given any metaphysics,  And am I now preparing to go where no metaphysicians have gone before…

… Just not yet.  Let’s get back to the concept of “virtual” as in “virtual reality” after taking the weekend off to play South Park, Fractured but Whole

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Kenny in Infinity – coming of age in the digital era

Kenny is produced as 2-D animation, old-school animation that is now largely superseded by 3-D animation.   Here’s a good video that explains some differences between 2-D and 3-D animation by “Bloop Animation” if you’re not clear on the difference:

The difference between 2D and 3D animation

The metaphysics I’m setting out are more evident with 3-D animation, where it’s all algorithms.  Kenny is not the code; the code points to Kenny, creates Kenny pixels, but that’s not Kenny.   The process of how computers make an image is described in some detail here:

http://How computers make images

Yet Kenny is more than pixels that present the idea of Kenny.  Kenny is encoded and we read the code, sort of the way an alphabet presents the sounds of a word we hear, a silent alphabet read as a spoken word.

So, while 2D animation is old school, 20th century techniques, the metaphysics of 21st century 3D are way older. Remember Plato’s cave, circa 400 BCE? Real old school.

Here’s the allegory for those who forget: Outside the cave, the freed slave finds what’s real – really real – which are the forms of everything, rather than the manifestations shown on the screen within the cave.  The stuff of the world is just a manifestation of the forms.  2D animations are those manifestations; 3D animations are the forms.

The difference between the metaphysics is manifest in the artistic practices of 2D vs. 3D animators:  2D animators work with stuff – pencils and paper, human and animal models. 3D animators work with code beneath screens, computer simulations, algorithms, the form of the human body, not bodies and not physical models, just computer models, again: the forms.

So 2D Kenny can die. The drawings can fade, celluloid film is notoriously fragile and disintegrates; the Buddhist principle of impermanence is painfully obvious with this medium.

Code, on the other hand, doesn’t deteriorate. It might get corrupted, but then it’s no longer the original code but a new code. It is represented by Xs and Os but those symbols are not the thing itself. They simply represent the thing itself – the code creating something entirely different than code, pixels we intuit as images.

Kenny was born in the celluloid era, but his reality as a super-hero, as a being who cannot die, is realized in the digital era.  We learn the truth about Kenny,  the real Kenny, Kenny as Kenny always was.  The audience just didn’t get it yet.  Kyle didn’t get it yet.  Maybe Matt Stone and Trey Parker didn’t even get it yet.  It wasn’t clear until the digital medium allowed it to be clear – manifest.

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Kenny’s consciousness – like Jesus only not

Try this:  Think about your own future:  What’s the chances of that actually happening?  We might not be responsible for what actually happens in the future, but certainly what we think might happen is all in our imagination, therefore partly in our control. Yes, possibly it’s informed by logic, careful planning, or maybe it’s just a leap of faith but we have to will it (in time) and leap (in time).  And by the time we will and leap, that action is past.

Similarly, and more obviously, the past, rooted in actual historical occurrences, is brought back to consciousness through memory, a construction, our own construction of what happened, and we forget a lot.  (This proves particularly annoying to Kenny – that his friends don’t seem to remember that he died, again and again and again…)  Kenny remembers, and we can check his memory (if a cartoon character can have a memory) by scrolling back through past episodes, but even then…

I’m being ridiculous here – you remember.  But you might also forget, like Kyle…   Or you misremember.  In any case, memory is a process of re-creating the past from traces.

So this crazy animation represents a point I am belaboring.  Just to get to the present moment…

Which is already past….

It’s way past by the time I cut and paste this text into the blog, but it was already past by the time I thought of it, even before I wrote anything, even in the present moment by the time I thought of it as present, or as a moment.

And not just because I’m slow.  If you were thinking about your own past, present and future… well, think about it.  There it goes, you just thought about it in the present moment, and it’s past now.   By the time the present is brought to conscious awareness it’s over. That’s my point, and I’m sorry if I’m belaboring the obvious.

I just love Kenny.

When Kyle objects that maybe it’s not so bad that Kenny can’t die, that maybe it’s a good thing, Kenny loses his temper.  The point isn’t about being dead; it’s that dying hurts.  “It fucking hurts,” Kenny shouts and pulls out a gun.  “See?  Try to remember this time,” he shouts at his friends and then shoots himself.

Here’s where Kenny really isn’t a Christ figure: “Accepted death on the cross” is a phrase used in creeds, that can be misleading.   Jesus didn’t embrace the cross; he was nailed to it.  Jesus didn’t kill himself; he was murdered.  And once was enough, and it wasn’t suicide; it was murder.  It’s a lot different.

But there are some similarities to Kenny’s reality is all I’m saying… that the present moment may not have any structure in consciousness.  It certainly doesn’t have a narrative structure: past, present and future.  So, like Kenny, we live in infinity even if we die.  Even if we’re born again (like Kenny) or rise from the dead (like Jesus.)

We live in infinity, this unstructured timeless present/presence, unlike Kenny.  He’s just a comic character, but he makes this much clear which is only one reason why I love him.

[Check out this tribute video:

Kenny as Mysterion –

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Kenny in time, out of time

(Photo by Sarah Boehmke)

Here’s the thing (if you can refer to time consciousness as a ‘thing’) that makes Kenny such an ingenious character:

We can’t represent the present moment as we actually know it, so linear time has gaps – the gaps being our inability to represent the present moment to our knowing.   We each have a past, pretty much represented in our consciousness as a figment of our imaginations according to the findings of neuropsychologists (more about this later) as well as to many filmmakers and artists.  Maybe most of what we remember is true, but something that didn’t happen we can believe did happen.  Watch Get Out (2017) and there are a lot of other good movies and also good science to back it up.  The past is a construct of our imagination.  It might be what happened, or not.

The future, of course, is entirely a feature of our imagination; it hasn’t happened yet so we just make that shit up too.

So the present is all we can know for sure, but we can’t know it really because as soon as we represent it to our minds, in our minds, it’s past. It’s here and now, life as we live it, so logically speaking it’s got to be.  Yet, in the nanosecond it takes us to process what’s happening now, it’s already become past.

We live in the present.  We can figure that much out.  We can represent it, but that’s an act of our imagination.  We make up the present moment that’s already past.

Then we configure it into a narrative thread, as having a narrative structure:  a beginning, middle, and end.  Like Tray and Matt and all the South Park kids with their beginnings, middle, and end (except the series goes on season after season, while the characters don’t seem to age, and then there’s Kenny …)

Only Kenny doesn’t die.  Here with Kenny’s immortal being we have represented what is present (without the narrative structure of beginning, middle and end) and generally unimaginable (the kids can’t even remember Kenny has died, over and over again.)

It just happens to be true: we, logically speaking, live in the present but the present has no narrative structure and our brains create a narrative anyway.  We, like Kenny, live in the present, outside that narrative structure of our own life and death.  We construct the narrative in our heads, certainly:  our remembered past (that is a figment of our imaginations) and our anticipated future (again, a figment of our imaginations).  It’s in the present where we actually do our living, we just can’t imagine it.  It has no narrative structure.  It just is.  We just are.

Again: that is-ness doesn’t have the structure of narrative time (past, present, and future).  Like Kenny, (though he’s being shaped into a confounding narrative) we just are.  Without a narrative structure – without a beginning, middle and end – we must exist.

This being with no structure is presented tonally as silence, which of course we can’t actually experience – just try to meditate to find out how noisy silence can be.  It is presented visually as a blank space, the horizon, a Rothko painting … or as Kenny in the vortex of death and rebirth.

(Just to be clear: we’re talking about time consciousness, not necessarily physics.  But we can only try to understand physics as conscious beings, so that’s hardly an aside.)

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Spiritual. Period.

Okay, maybe a South Park cartoon figure is an unlikely poster-child for a spiritual moment, a movement that I like to think of as Spiritual. Period.

Spirituality is affirmative, defining a group of practices that put meditation, art, community and ecological sustainability over institutional sustenance.  If religious practices inform or support these practices, that’s great.  If they don’t, well just forget about them.  There’s no need to oppose them.  Without our support these unhelpful practices just die on the vine.  Fine.

So who is Kenny?

On a representational level (what Kenny represents) it’s hard not to recognize him as a Jesus figure.  He’s poor, does good, dies and then is alive again.  Something like Jesus but Jesus just did it once; Kenny does it all the time.  The creators of South Park mock death; it’s not what we thought it was.  Death is just part of a plot; it doesn’t have any ultimate meaning.  It sure doesn’t have any finality about it; death is a temporary state, a plot point.

So I’m binge-watching Season 14, and Episode 12 “Mysterion Rises” and monks … I need to see this over again… the monks kill Kenny/Mysterion in his dream.

Then in Episode 13, unlucky indeed, Mintberry Crunch describes her superpowers, and the whole group confronts Kenny, what is his superpower?

“I can’t die.”

His friends don’t believe him, infuriating him.  He argues that not only is it true – he can’t die – but they never even notice.   Kyle tries to console him, argues that maybe that’s kinda cool that he can’t die, when Kenny loses it.  “Pretty cool?  Do you know what it feels like to be stabbed, to be shot, decapitated…  It’s not fucking cool; it funking hurts.”

The evil is pain, not death.

Kenny pulls out a gun, “Pay attention.  Try to remember this time,” and  he shoots himself.  Now insofar as Kenny is a Christ-figure, we’re really in the territory of heresy, common enough, and just to be clear; Jesus was murdered, he didn’t kill himself.  And the Father didn’t have him killed.  What is revealed with the crucifixion … it’s not this… but that’s for another day.  It’s not God that is revealed in the crucifixion as it is who we are; humans will kill innocents – read today’s newspaper.   But that’s not the final word; death isn’t the end of it.

Carmen/Coon confesses; he’s really a bad guy.  And then he proves that’s true.

Okay… just watch this if you don’t believe this is a fairly serious exploration about some serious theological issues, and most specifically Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

Evil isn’t as persistent as Kenny’s question, “I have to know who I am.”

Watch it.  “Use your powers.”

You’ll wind up at Burning Man.  In the next episode…

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Kenny in infinity – and Shane Hipps’ Flickering Pixels

Reading Shane Hipps’ book, Flickering Pixels; How Technology Shapes Your Faith, I realized that Marshall McLuhan’s work had indeed shaped mine.  Then I also realized I hadn’t given McLuhan any credit, though I’d studied with him as an undergrad, and then went on to do work in media studies and philosophy, not giving him so an entry in the bibliography of  A Phenomenology of Movies: Subjects, Objects, Language and Time Reconsidered (again and again)… and here reconsidered again…

So thank you, Shane Hipps… and yes, thank you Marshall…

Digital media changes the way we record images, receive images, and perceive images.  Hipps recognizes that as part of the trajectory: from cave paintings that are directly perceived (you have to be there – hence they constitute a physical community of people perceiving the images), to photography where there are traces of light recorded so there are still traces of direct perception of the object of perception and the perceiver.

Movies made these pictures move so, in McLuhan’s terms, this is a relatively ‘hot medium’; you don’t have to do a lot of interpreting.  Just sit back and enjoy the show.  But movies are kind of cool insofar as they involve more than one sense perception – the audience is linking the voices and music to the visual images. Cooler than cave paintings anyway.  But we talk about the audience in the singular, as if it’s one experience everyone’s sharing. Kind of like a cave painting.

‘Kind of like Plato’s cave, but that’s a well-trod path we’ll avoid traveling down now.

Television is cooler, partly because the quality of early television in McLuhan’s day was low-resolution, black and white, interrupted by ads, etc. There was a lot happening on the screen, and a lot going on among the people watching the screen(s).  It’s way cooler today with the audience multi-tasking today, with maybe three screens flickering at the same time: the TV, and maybe a laptop and a cell phone … how does anyone concentrate? We don’t. That would be McLuhan’s point, I suppose, if he was alive today to make it.

An aside: I’m hugely grateful to bell hooks (she doesn’t capitalize the first letter of this, her pen name) for her analysis how this is different for African American audiences that white audience, as she writes about in Reel to Real; Race, Sex and Class at the Movies.

FOCUS, ROBERTA! That’s my point… It’s hard to stay focused because new media, digital media, is cool.

And Kenny is the coolest character of all because he slips in and out of lived life in South Park, dies and then it’s like it didn’t happen. There he is in the next episode alive again.

Shane, I’m getting back to you. You point out in Flickering Pixels how we get back the simultaneous quality of hot media, media that creates a viewing audience that’s right there, media that constitutes a community, but we’re not experiencing it at the same time necessarily, and almost certainly not in the same place. Particularly with cell phone videos.

A disparate audience, a community of isolated individuals which would be a contradiction of terms if we are using those terms to describe what used to be, but we’re not; we’re trying to describe what is happening now.  What we are experiencing now.

What’s happened to Kenny?

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Kenny in infinity

Okay, maybe a South Park cartoon figure is an unlikely poster-child for a spiritual moment that I think of as Spiritual. Period.

This spirituality is affirmative, defining a group of practices that put meditation, art, community and ecological sustainability over institutional sustenance.  The expression, “Spiritual but not religious” takes us down a long road of opposition to other practices, and who has time for that?  If religious practices inform or support spiritual practices, that’s great.  If they don’t, well just forget about them.  Without our support, unhelpful practices just die on the vine.  Fine.

And like Kenny, genuine spiritual practices and whatever they present as opportunities and life itself will be back again in the next episode.

What I love about Kenny is how this cartoon character can present time consciousness, as we all experience it but have no clear language for this experience.

There might be some confusion at the outset between theories of time in physics and time consciousness, which is what is being addressed here, though it could turn out to be a distinction without a difference:  It might be that what we are conscious of as time is the same as what it addressed in physics, even theoretical physics.  Or perhaps there is a difference.  We might come back to this (or not) but, to be clear, time consciousness (human being’s experience of time) is what I’m talking about here.

And with respect to cartoon characters, after all, as my friend and philosopher Talia Bettcher says about all philosophy:  We just make this shit up.

It does refer to something specific nevertheless, not solipsistic (just in your head; just in mine).  There are words for this, shared concepts, and shared experiences that are reflected upon when….

“Oh no!”  Kenny just died again.

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“There is nothing out there but light,

The would be artist said

As usual just half right. There’s a touch of darkness, everyone knows,

on both sides of both horizons.

Prescribed and unpaintable…”

Charles Wright,  “Lives of Artists”


The original inquiry I’m blogging here began where my novel, No Words for Love and Famine, left off: the main character fell between the cracks of words which is silence.  She embraced the quiet, apparently to give up writing altogether, while the author took this project in another direction, to another silo: academic philosophy.   “Kenny in Infinity; or Why it Takes Popcorn to Make Movies a Sacrament” was the project title.

My premise:  Movies in particular and digital media more generally (with rare exceptions) entail only our distal senses – sight and sound –  where the objects sensed have no direct physical contact with who is perceiving them.  In the olden days of celluloid, if you saw a filmed sequence of food being prepared and served there was actual light hitting actual chemicals that produced physical phenomena, celluloid photos and audio tapes, that were physically handled and glued together.  There was some “chain of custody evidence”, to use the legal term, even though was no process to capture the smell of the food, or to allow the viewer to feel or taste the food.  (There were experiments to include smell as part of the film-screening experience – more about that later.)

With digital media it’s an act of imagination between filmmaker and audience all the way down.  There’s information without any direct experience.  The information about the scene is captured as bits and bytes by the camera and audio apparatus, reconfigured, then presented to an audience who reimagines the whole experience.  In short: we make all this shit up, the audience in collaboration with the filmmakers, a secondary collaboration because a previous collaboration occurred on the set, sound studio or documentary location where the information is recorded.

A year into my philosophical investigation I changed my mind about the title and the proposition it entails.  I became convinced that the proximal senses – touch and taste and smell – work with the more distal senses that movies employ – sight sound and kinesthesia, movement.  Our experience is all of one piece.

Now I want to revisit the original premise:  The cacophony and the avalanche of images, as much as I love the whole mess of it, is obviously not the same as being there with the proximal and distal senses fully engaged with the thing itself. The media experience is a total experience as well, but it’s a different experience, truncated.  We’re missing something – various tastes and smells and textures, although the couch potato senses the soft cushions, the smell and taste of the popcorn.  Those sensations are distinct from that object of attention – the media images and sound.  That’s a good thing.  If the said couch potato, aka audience, is not absorbed by the movie or game it’s probably a bad movie or game, stale popcorn or a lumpy couch.

I can be accused here of nostalgia, this longing for an integrated sensory experience, unmediated.   The first time I articulated this, I was trying to explain the concept of unmediated experience to a group of students who were staring above their screens, looking at me with zero comprehension.  I decided to offer an example in our immediate environment but everyone’s hair had product in it or was colored, the floor was carpeted with unnatural fibers, the sunlight filtered through glass and fiberglass shades.  The food items people pulled out of their backpacks were almost certainly genetically modified if not processed.  There wasn’t anything I could use as an example of unmediated experience, so I concluded:  We have to go camping.

“This is my body,” Jesus said, taking bread and breaking it.  Ancient practices: we should be used to this by now, one thing being something else altogether, so what’s new about digital media?

Marshall McLuhan made at least one good point: “All experience is 100%.”  Our online experience, where food has no smell or taste, nevertheless a feast for the eyes, satisfies.  It’s the space in between the digital code that fascinates me.  I was dissuaded once that there is no ‘nothing’ in code, that code is all there is.  I don’t accept that, or at least I want to revisit that now.

There is the code and it creates an experience that is already past by the time we recognize that we are having an experience.  The anticipated future is an expectation at best, maybe pure fantasy.  The present moment cannot be experienced as ‘present’ before it’s already past.   So…. the structure of the present is without structure even as it is present in consciousness (in which is it is past).  But we do live.  So Kenny slipping out of the specious present, this present that we can’t represent, makes perfect sense.

“Oh no!…”  There he goes again.

Please feel free to leave your reflection/comments.


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