pecha kucha presentation in that I had 60 slides of images and minimal text timed at 30 seconds each. My content concerned the unpacking of a particular phrase and how it relates to intellectual work. This is an amended version of that talk.
The title of my talk, "Seriously Good At This," is a phrase taken from Bioshock, an FPS videogame with Ayn Rand-inspired and dystopian elements. The phrase, though, is the title of a particular in-game achievement, unlocked only when the player completes the game on the hardest difficulty. This is a form of recognition, of course, and one not all that different from those who talk about their critical and creative efforts in academia. So, I adopt this phrase because it is appropriate for why we are all here, but I also take it as the title of my talk because it is a phrase I find appealing. To be honest, I'm enamored with it, and I'm curious about its meaning. With permission, I'd like to unpack the constituent parts of this phrase first before moving into some examples of what I think it means to be "seriously good at this." It is my hope that we will not only come to a more nuanced understanding of the phrase but also see how what we do qualifies as being "seriously good at this."
However, I do not mean to get too serious here. We are not so much engaging in linguistic analysis; consider what follows as more of a thoughtful rumination on meaning.
So, I think "seriously" is revealing of a particular manner, if only for a moment, though it can also be sustained over a period of time. That solemn moment, fleeting or not, can be imbued with whatever narrative we desire to construct. "Seriously" can be for an instant, but it can also be sustained, each happening by different means.
And the particular manner revealed by "seriously" can be a sense of purpose, duty or honor in all we decide to address in our experiences. Evidence of a perspective cultivated over time is evidence of a thing, or multiple things, taken "seriously."
A sense of purpose, though, requires particulars of us all, such as the effort required to not smile for a portrait. Such a manner may not come from within, but from external forces exerting stifling influence upon us. This means a certain concern about the consequences of our actions. For some, performing "seriously" means lacking playfulness as much as it means commitment. In this regard, I think the question is not to be, but to do.
And I do not think it possible to take something "seriously" without actually doing it. In the act of performance, whether or not one is "taking it seriously" cannot be readily questioned. Devotion and determination are evident in a performance, something recognizable by others in how we present ourselves and how we allow ourselves to be seen. An element of choice exists here as well. By "seriously," we mean attention to manner, purpose and consequence.
Meanwhile, "good" often places emphasis on agreeable behavior, what is proper in context and what is right overall. There are ethical and moral qualities associated with "good," too, ones agreed upon and reinforced by those around us. In society, others are as complicit in behaving "good" as otherwise.
There is also an emphasis on performance, with "good" as part of a demonstration of proficiency. It need not just be about behavior, and this performative aspect is as evident with those recognizing the "good" in others as they speak about their work as it is in online and virtual environments like World of Warcraft. Various and sundry forms of aptitude all relate to some understanding of "good."
As with most all words, though, "good" can be complicated in practice. The famous picture of Richard Nixon making Elvis Presley "federal agent-at-large" in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs is the most requested photograph from the National Archives. Questions of "good" still surround both men as the word holds implications of who is estimable and deserving of our respect. There is the question of ethics, i.e., was Nixon a "good" man, a good president? There is the question of proficiency, i.e., was Elvis a "good" man, a "good" performer? Again, there is the moral quality to "good" as well as the more obvious kairotic elements.
Just as "seriously" denotes a sustained manner, "good" does, too. Behavior and performance are both forms of expression, of movement through spaces.
Again, the performative element, that "good" is something acted rather than acted upon, that behavior and performance are not mutually exclusive endeavors but often the same. And we are not "good" alone. I am unsure if we can be either, in part because of the philosophical "if a tree falls in the forest and no one's around, does it make a sound?" sense, but also because of the element of public and social recognition. Others support us in our "good"ness, recognizing it as much as our seriousness.
To be "seriously good" is to be earnest and effective in expression.
Third, "at" is directive, often location-based and related to where we are in the moment. There’s also an intention to action; “at” leads us, points us somewhere, toward a means to an end. We see this in phrases like “at the plate” and even “at the rate of.” The very symbol for "at" (@) even indicates a center, a focus for our attention.
Aside: To my knowledge, the symbol for “at” has no other grand name, nothing so important as ampersand. However, it is known by a range of informal terms in languages other than English. Most of these relate to what @ looks like, including miukumauku (Finnish for “meow meow”), klammeraffe (German for “hanging monkey”) and sobachka (Russian for “little dog”).
The symbol for "at" is also manifest in online communicative technologies. In email, @ is part of an intended location, like an email address. On Twitter, @ is synonymous with “mention” and “reply.”
As part of a sentence or an online address, @ is a leader to what comes next, to where we want to go. @ implies motion in meaning; @ implies progression. @ is both present and future. @ is where we are and where we want to or will be.
Fourth, "this" takes us even further, pointing in a more direct way to what is present, what is before us, near and dear to us. "This" is a form of direction and a continuation of location, just like "at." In asynchronous online discussion, "this" functions as a means of support for the word of another. "This" is a one-word affirmation of someone else's expressed opinion (see Fark.com for examples).
Like the previous three words addressed, “this” can be and often is defined by a moment. There’s an appropriateness to “this,” and it happens by pose and by choice.
"This" is who we are, what we do.
"This" is a role, established by self and/or by others.
"This" is a performance, attention and recognition from others.
And the results of being "seriously good at this" are tangible, identifiable, recognizable and recorded. And to be "seriously good at this" means acknowledging change, being aware of what is lost and gained due to the influence of time.
To be "seriously good at this" means to be earnest and effective in expression of something, and I want to offer up a few examples as a way to clarify this point.
Noam Chomsky has been "seriously good at this" for many years, with "this" being linguistics, political commentary and public, intellectual acts. With books published, speeches given and online activities taken in the form of responding to questions on the social bookmarking website Reddit, Chomsky is consistent in performing a particular role well.
bell hooks, another public intellectual, engages in spheres similar to those of Chomsky, but with more of a pedagogical purpose. Books like Teaching to Transgress and The Will to Change are gracious in their offerings of new models and pathways to teaching and learning about each other and the world. hooks' body of work is a formative and sustained influence on my own pedagogy. Much of what I do in the classroom emulates her ideas.
Ian Bogost is a videogame critic, designer and researcher who sees videogames as an expressive medium possessing a procedural rhetoric. He offers up his ideas on his blog, in his books, on The Colbert Show (just once so far) and in the form of Cow Clicker, a social game available on Facebook.
Jane McGonigal is also a videogame critic, designer and researcher who focuses on how the games we play can change how we experience the real world and make it better. Games like Evoke and SuperStruct are clear, in-depth exercises in such ideas.
These public intellectuals have their own developed identities and performances of being "seriously good at this." I am still working on mine. So far, we can see this in my gaming identity, one tangible result being the 500 note streak on Helmet's "Unsung" in Guitar Hero. Other results are all connected via "betajames," my online moniker for Twitter, Posterous, Delicious and Scribd, each a communicative technology mentioned in my two-year review materials as evidence of scholarship and/or public intellectualism.
The subtitle of my blog is "Against Multiphrenia." I intend it as working in opposition to Kenneth Gergen's idea of being drawn in multiple and conflicting directions because of technologies increasing social contact. The many technologies used on a daily basis construct our identities but also fracture and fragment them. Layers upon layers of our selves are built up and removed. In my own experience, Posterous replaced Blogger and Twitter replaced Facebook. The digital trail still remains. Everything's a work in progress, just like a videogame without a definable end (like World of Warcraft). We are always in development. Even if there is no noticeable change, stagnation itself is rare because of the ever-present potential of outside influence.
Identity is a work in progress; scholarship is a work in progress; "seriously good at this" is a work in progress. And this work has to do with choice, of which we have more than ever. Our choice determines our identity, which determines our audience, which determines agency. It may all appear tedious, but it is worthwhile, perhaps even necessary.
We need to make informed choices about the identity/identities we construct when writing in the public sphere, when we blog, when we perform other online actions. As in post-apocalyptic narratives in books and videogames, who we align ourselves with and to what end have ramifications, changing the landscape and our perspective.
Writing functions as a record and reflection of and on choice. Writing is a continual "seriously good at this," refinement and revision. Writing is a technology present in many forms.
Aside: My vision for the perfect word processor involves a wall-mounted, Minority Report-style flat-screen television equipped with wifi, a microphone, smartphone hookup, document scanner and webcam.
So much of writing is collaborative performance, and the greater evidence of this is available online in many different forms. There is a communal aspect, too, with the common goal involving the becoming of "seriously good at this" together. Demands are upon us, then, just as possibilities are. Some say that online communicative technologies are about little more than marketing, but I disagree. It's about meaning, about marking progress.
Technology enables us to mark progress and to keep those markings private or make them public. Again, there is a choice here in how to be "seriously good at this." There are multiple approaches and tracks with great potential.
Different levels of interest and involvement are available to us. Different levels of devotion and determination are required of us. But we either do these things or we don't do these things. I no longer suggest to others that they "try it out." We do and get "seriously good at this" or we do for a while and then leave it alone.
But any doing can lead to some kind of achievement, to attention and recognition. This happens with everything we do and we see this every day. I look forward to bearing witness to just how "seriously good at this" we are and will be. Thank you.
Posted over 2 years ago