Every January, it is customary for me to review my favorite media of the prior year. No criticism, critique, or concern–just a pure celebration of awesome things that I love. Of course, it’s over halfway through February so I’m a bit late because I wanted to complete my three-part series on visual & procedural rhetoric. So let’s dive right in with my top television shows from last year:

1) Big Little Lies

This mini-series from HBO feels a bit like a somber Parenthood. The show focuses on a group of parents who are trying to raise their children with love and intention–within the context of their wealthy Monterey, CA community. Jane, played by Shailene Woodley, is a single mom who has just moved into the area so that her son can attend a better school, but very soon after they arrive, her son is accused of hurting one of his classmates, an act that he denies. This incident, along with flash-forwards to an impending murder within the community, frames the rising tensions among the various parents who either choose to support Jane or remain suspicious. Each family has their own secrets and personal struggles. Madeline, played by Reese Witherspoon, is in battle with her teenage daughter and feels constantly outdone by her ex-husband’s new beautiful wife. Celeste, played by Nicole Kidman, outwardly appears to have a perfect life and charming husband, but in truth, their relationship is dysfunctional and abusive.
The drama in each family’s life could easily have been exploited for an overwrought and melodramatic series, but instead, the show creators maintained a subtlety. Each character is treated with compassion and complexity. Some of the individuals I strongly disliked and then found myself softening towards them; others I instantly loved but over time came to see them as more complicated and messy. For all of the characters, one was forced to fully confront the difficulties that parenting entails, and particularly those unique challenges within their socio-economic bracket. Do note, this is not for the light-hearted. True to HBO form, Big Little Lies is dark, depressing, and intense — but I would say well worth it.

My next picks are all sequel series:
2) The LeftoversSeason 3
This show defies any simple synopsis. The basic premise of the show is that 2% of the world disappears into thin air–individuals of every age, ranging from the unborn to the elderly. The show follows those who were left behind, the leftovers, and how they try to come to terms with this unexplainable incident. Some turn to religion; some turn to science; some try not to think too hard about it; others descend into deep despair. The Leftovers is one of HBO’s highest rated shows, yet it maintained a relatively small audience because this show challenges so many conventional expectations of what television is supposed to do. Magical realism is woven throughout the show…but in a manner that feels natural and unsurprising, though certainly unsettling. The episodes move slowly and the storylines unfold in complicated ways, requiring a level of patience and commitment that is unusual for long-form media that are not a mini-series or movie. 
But this is a long-term relationship that is truly worth the work and dedication. It took me a long time to get through season one, but once I found my rhythm, I was fully drawn into the profound richness of the show. Through each character who must make sense of the world after this event, the creators are able to grapple with some huge philosophical questions about the meaning of life, death, family, and society. This third season was probably the strangest one yet, but it gave a really fulfilling end to the series. I’m also relieved it’s over because as much as I love this show and think it’s simply brilliant….I was exhausted by the end! 

3a) The ExpanseSeason 2

Ok I am cheating here a little bit. Number three is a tie between two sequel series for shows that I simply love. Season 2 of The Expanse was amazing. After the slow, tension-filled build-up of the first season, this season was a well-earned whirlwind. There were some new characters like Bobby, who were fantastic, and this season did a much better job in the writing of its women. The politics and interpersonal dynamics of this show are extremely well-executed, and it is one of the few visual adaptations of a written SF text that is able to capture the philosophical complexities, or as Darko Suvin would say, the “cognitive estrangement” of the intended narrative. This show is not about the action or drama (though there is plenty of that); it is very much about ideology, society, and humanity as all good SF should be. (IMO) For more details about the show, check out my review of the first season.

 3b) Broadchurch, Season 3

I’ve mentioned this show before here at High and Low, so I’ll point you to my previous review. It is an all-time favorite of mine, so I was thrilled that they decided to add one more season. This season is less directly connected with the prior two seasons, but it provides some nice breathing room for the town of Broadchurch to transition into its future while being more cognizant of the dark realities that the town has always held. In this season. detectives Miller (Olivia Colman) and Hardy (David Tennant) must solve the case of a local woman’s rape, another traumatic crime for Broadchurch that will challenge a different set of assumptions, particularly in regards to the community’s hegemonic expectations associated with gender. The first two seasons remain my favorites, but this was still a solid season that I swiftly binged.

4) Rick & Morty, Season 3

Fans have been waiting a very long time for this third season to Rick & Morty, but thankfully I only just discovered the show last year so I didn’t have long to wait. If you were a fan of NBC’s Community, you will likely appreciate this cynical and witty endeavor from Dan Harmon about a brilliant but morally challenged (and usually drunk) scientist and his earnest grandson who travel through time and space on various adventures. The first two seasons were smart, but this season’s writing was a whole new level of pay-attention-or-you-will-miss-the-many-layers-of-meaning-and-pop-culture-allusions. This season also contained a much stronger overall season arc, following Morty and Summer as they come to terms with their parents’ separation and Rick as he must face his own role within the family. Season 3 is both the bleakest season yet, but simultaneously a really honest exploration of the value of family. Only Dan Harmon manages to execute that kind of dichotomy. 

5) Master of None, Season 2

Everybody raved about season 1 of Master of None, but I was fairly underwhelmed. When I eventually got round to season 2, however, I was pleasantly surprised. The opening episode is a riff off of great Italian cinema classics like The Bicycle Thief, shot entirely in black and white and set in Modena, Italy. Dev has a random, magical encounter with another tourist but before he can pursue her further, someone steals his phone that also happens to contain her number. The entire season takes on a similar wistful tone as Dev and his friends continue to pursue romance in the modern era. This season felt a little more serious, a little more pensive, a little sadder, but, as a result, I also found myself resonating with the characters in a way that I didn’t with the first season. In many ways, this season felt more like a collection of carefully executed short films, especially considering the stunning cinematography and aesthetics of each episode. 

Special Mentions:
There are a few other shows that I thoroughly enjoyed last year but didn’t make the top 5, ahem 6, list for various reasons. Thanks to a new friend Alea for introducing me to Bravest Warriorsan amazing show from Pendleton Ward, creator of Adventure TimeBravest Warriors also contains a storyline where children must grow up quickly in a tough world without their parents, but this show is definitely for a slightly older audience. After much nagging from several friends, I finally started The Good Place and then promptly binged all two seasons until I had caught up. It’s one of those shows I’d rather not tell you anything about…just trust me and go watch it. It’s funny but also so smart. I also picked up some shows that are old classics upon recommendations from friends. I’ve been steadily working through Battlestar Galactica for quite a while now, but as of this week, I only have 9 episodes left. Season 3 lost its way towards the end, and I’ve been warned to keep my expectations low for the end of Season 4, but still I have thoroughly enjoyed this journey through space with the crew of the Galactica.  Then there was Orphan Black…which I hardcore binged all the way through last year. I just couldn’t put it down. Tatiana Maslany acts as all of the main characters in this ensemble cast…and she is simply amazing. If you want to know why, watch the pilot…I give away no secrets. Finally, I must apologize to everybody who has been telling me to watch Parks & Recreation. Ok fine, you were right. It’s awesome. I’m almost done…

 

As I noted in my last post, most of us “regular folk” are computer code illiterate. We have no idea how a string of alphanumeric characters come together to result in software, websites, and mobile apps. We understand that binary is the idea that everything can be reduced to ones and zeros, but we wouldn’t be able to actually generate a conversion. We have no frame of reference by which to evaluate whether shows like Mr. Robot or Halt and Catch Fire resemble any form of reality. 

Rami Malek as Elliot in Mr. Robot

Yet we are living in the Digital Age. The Information Age. The age in which so much of our lives is dictated by code. Gradually every nook and cranny of our everyday spaces are becoming connected to the Internet. This is the so-called Internet of Things, which is making inanimate objects “smart”.
And behind every iteration of this digital revolution are lines and lines of code.

Only a small percentage of (usually highly educated) individuals are fluent in this language of code. While on the surface our digital lives may seem easily customizable, the reality is that “systems, protocols, algorithms, and ‘codes’ of the technology usually remain locked” (20). This quote is from a book by Ramesh Srinivasan entitled Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Shapes Our World. In the book, Srinivasan, as both a software engineer and a scholar, brings attention to the invisible forms of ordering in the world that are brought into existence through code, visible only to those, like Srinivasan, who have the necessary literacy to comprehend them.

Srinivasan’s work speaks loudly to the necessity of making visible these digital and invisible lines of power. Code cannot remain the language of the Silicon Valley privileged male. Code must be recognized as a global language as important as English—a language that shapes and frames the ways in which power flows, in which social and economic transactions take place, in which new societal structures and systems are formed. I would argue that in today’s digital age, true democracy is not possible without such digital and programming literacy afforded to the public.

Ian Bogost begins to argue this with his concept of “procedural rhetoric.” He suggests that procedural rhetoric is a form of rhetoric that is embedded in the logic of most digital objects but that it tends to be overlooked in an educational system focused on verbal and visual rhetoric. (For more on procedural rhetoric, see this earlier post.) But I don’t think procedural literacy is enough; I sincerely believe until the ability to read, write, and re-write programming is made mainstream, we will live in an oligarchical society organized and guided by the software elite.

If this opinion sounds overwrought, one only has to consider the recent U.S. elections as evidence of the power that the digital holds over the public. Evidence has now emerged that explicitly links both Russian use of digital spaces and the involvement of Silicon Valley corporations such as Facebook with the surprising outcome of the election. Congress can interrogate and threaten Silicon Valley as much as it likes, but the power such technological centers hold over information will remain until that power is dispersed among the people. Srinivasan refers to this power over information as the new oil of the digital economy, and he too argues that Silicon Valley is redefining democracy.

So what type of tangible change am I suggesting? 

Well, to begin, I would recommend that our schools begin teaching programming languages from the elementary level. There are languages like Alice and Scratch that use drag and drop visual interfaces to introduce users to the fundamentals of programming. Other extracurricular activities, such as the FIRST LEGO Robotics League, provide fun, competitive and hands-on environments for students to learn about programming and programming logic. If our youth encounter programming at a young age, by the time they reach middle and high school, they will be ready to pick up more complex text-based languages like Python.

By scratch.mit.edu, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35453328

The second thing I would like to suggest is that we dissociate the act of learning a programming language from an outcome of attaining a software-oriented career. Currently, much of the rhetoric around learning how to code is about diversifying Silicon Valley or about empowering the next generation to procure well-paying jobs. Both of these objectives are valuable; however, it is imperative that we begin to see code as a language that affects all of us, regardless of our societal roles. It is our right and responsibility to be well-versed in the language(s) that are shaping the world.

Of course, the first step is to begin with ourselves. Both my parents and both my brothers are programmers, but I had only briefly dabbled in a little BASIC (because my mom made me in high school) and of course some HTML (to customize my high school Xanga page). Last semester, however, I became increasingly convicted that if I was to write about the digital realm, I needed to up my game and become at least proficient in a popular programming language. So beginning this past winter break, I have begun to teach myself Python using my mother’s online course for high schoolers. It’s been quite the adventure, sometimes exhilarating and oftentimes extremely frustrating. You can follow my progress on Twitter:

Although I’m only in module 5 of the course, I am already developing a basic understanding of how code works and the kind of decisions and logic that go into designing any piece of software. I have no illusions of pursuing a career in programming, but as my literacy grows, I am seeing how my perception of the digital realm is also changing.

If you’d like to join me on this journey, you can either check out my mom’s course, or you can look into a free site like Codecademy. I’ll be sharing some of my revelations here and on Twitter. If you decide to start learning to code too, please reach out and tell me about your experience! 

(Please note that some of this post was adapted from a response paper written for my Global Media and Society course from fall 2017.)

In my last post, I reflected on why we should care about how women are represented on the screen. I drew attention to the fact that women constitute a majority of the humans on earth, but numbers alone should not dictate how we portray people in our media. In a democratic and liberal society, we hold all of humanity to be equally valuable and, as such, equally deserving of being portrayed realistically and robustly. What I only briefly noted before was that beyond women, misrepresentation (or lack of representation entirely) also affects a number of other demographics, particularly minority groups. For example, the lack of African-American representation in Hollywood was a concern raised a few years ago with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.

Addressing representation on the screen is an important and worthy task; however, over the past semester, I have come to realize how a focus on visual representation can distract us from deeper, more insidious dysfunctions in our media. It is those, often invisible, factors that I want to address in this post. 

To do so, we first need to take a brief detour into a book I had to read for my class on Digital Games & Society this past fall semester. The book by Ian Bogost, a scholar and game designer, is called Persuasive Games but before we talk about games (which we will!), I want to look at an idea he proposes in his opening chapter: procedural rhetoric.Bogost writes:

Procedural rhetoric is the practice of using processes persuasively, just as verbal rhetoric is the practice of using oratory persuasively and visual rhetoric is the practice of using images persuasively (28).Ian Bogost

When we talk about issues of visual representation in cinema, we are thus focusing on visual rhetoric. We are thinking about how what we see on-screen makes an argument for how we should view and understand the world. 

If we were to focus on a film’s dialogue, then we would be considering its verbal rhetoric. We would be exploring how what a character says and how they say it might make an argument for how we should view and understand the world.

But Bogost wants us to think about this new form of rhetoric that is based not on images or words but on procedures.

Procedural rhetoric is a general name for the practice of authoring arguments through processes. . . . its arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models. Ian Bogost

Bogost is wanting us to think about how things are made to work. In a cinematic narrative, what arguments do the filmmakers make about how the world-at-large works through the world that they create within their film? For instance, The Matrix introduces us to a version of the world in which our daily realities are actually lies: what we see is a false facade. Thus, The Matrix makes a procedural argument about the nature of reality and about our capacity for knowledge.

The Matrix

 

In computation, those rules are authored in code, through the practice of programming.Ian Bogost

Bogost’s concept of procedural rhetoric is easier to understand within the context of the digital realm. Computer code is a very tangible means by which individuals can construct new worlds, programming certain ideas and procedures into their infrastructures. However, computer code is also not an ideal example since most of us are illiterate in that regard. (Another topic to address in the coming days.) Instead this is where I will turn to video games as a more accessible example, which allows us to think about procedural logic through the mechanics of how the game works, i.e. how the game is coded.

In a paper I wrote this semester, I looked at a game called Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The game is part of a larger franchise in which gamers play as Nathan Drake, an intrepid explorer and supposed descendant of Sir Francis Drake. The Lost Legacy, however, did not feature Nathan Drake and rather told its story through the eyes of two popular female characters from the franchise: Chloe, the Indian-Australian thief and occasional ally to Nathan Drake, and Nadine, the South African mercenary who was Nathan’s opponent in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The game does a fantastic job in terms of representation. Both main characters are women of color, and they talk about many things without referencing a man (i.e. passing the Bechdel Test). Chloe and Nadine are not sexualized; they are capable, witty, and intelligent. Much of the game dialogue is actually dedicated to critiquing the male-centric nature of the previous Uncharted games, which was unexpected and quite enjoyable, especially for me as a female gamer. 

I appreciated Uncharted: The Lost Legacy on so many levels, yet I couldn’t fully embrace the game–because of its procedural rhetoric.

In my paper I wrote:

Despite positive representation, the game continued the same exploitative game mechanics of the previous Uncharted games. Besides the absence of an interminable appearance of crates that need to be pushed off cliffs, the game is still a mixture of combat and puzzle solving in a foreign, exotic land whose treasures have yet to be uncovered.

The Lost Legacy does attempt to justify the treasure hunting in the character of Chloe, who is ostensibly also on a mission to deepen her knowledge of her heritage and provide the country of India with access to a hidden part of its history. In addition, both Chloe and Nadine are not only women, they are also women of color, so the narrative is no longer one of white men invading and plundering.

However, once one peels back the narrative layer of the story and examines the game’s mechanics, one still finds an inherently imperialistic game, where killing and raiding ancient monuments is framed as not only acceptable but also pleasurable. Nadine’s ethnic identity also does not change the fact that she is helping Chloe not for altruistic reasons but for the payout.Rachel Lara Watson

It can be easy with games like Uncharted: The Lost Legacy to recognize the positive representations and laud the game developers for their commitment to progress. But these representations interact with the procedural logics to construct new meanings. What does it mean that the game developers at Naughty Dog replaced Nathan Drake with two women of color who perform the same exploitative (and often destructive) actions that he used to perform? My stomach actually turns when I think about this. That isn’t progress!

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy Screen Capture

Though cinema does not require its audience to engage with and play out a set of mechanics, there are still procedural rhetorics built into cinematic worlds that necessarily also interact with a film’s visual (and verbal) rhetorics. A similar cinematic example to Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is the film The Help. The Help is a film whose main characters are all women, several of whom are also women of color, and it passes the Bechdel Test. However, if you pay attention to the procedural rhetorics of the film, the narrative is essentially one of white women “saving” helpless black women while trying to work through their white guilt. In addition, Skeeter, the main character and a white woman, ultimately reaps a financial benefit from the whole situation by writing a book in which she takes it upon herself to tell the stories of “the help”. (To read a more comprehensive argument about why The Help is problematic, check out this article.)

My argument in this post is not that we should disregard visual rhetoric and questions of representation. My argument, rather, is that when we focus on those elements and fail to consider the procedural rhetoric, we fail to understand how the visual representations are worked out in the film. 

In conclusion, I want us to be more attentive to the arguments in cinema, video games, and other forms of media that are made “through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models.” What is being modeled to us on-screen? What arguments are being made about how the world works? And how do those logics then shape how we must read and interpret the visual representations?

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your responses in the comment section below. And please, as always, remember to subscribe!

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