Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dispatches from the Software Etc. of Babel (Chou and Chubby Cherub)

Update: Alex Reed of ThouShaltNot has helpfully hosted the existent songs of the Peyote Foundation (Including a sixth song I had missed when I wrote the entry) and provided a few insights into the various rumors regarding their past. That information can be found here.

Stumbling about recessed folders of my hard drive, I discovered a five-song EP from The Peyote Foundation. No amount of Googling provides insight here - one organization by that name exists in Arizona, but they are a drug legalization activist group, and do not appear to record music. The music itself is, put simply, bizarre. Two tracks appear to be the stoned ramblings of... someone set to music. One consists of audio of a baby being dismembered in a cave (presumably simulated). The other two tracks might arguably be called songs, although if one is to do that one has to note that they are not designed to be fun experiences. On the whole, they sound like weird, underground experiments - too produced to quite be done on a lark, too insane to quite be done seriously. At times the voices are oddly familiar - as though I could place them as part of another band. Mostly, it's just a mysterious and unfamiliar wave of sound.

I mention this because the discovery of mysterious and potentially authorless texts is a surprisingly frequent occurrence of late. The other day, as I walked to my front door, leaves of weeds in my yard were littered with torn scraps of paper with printing on them. Oddly, the paper settled directly on the leaves, looking as though words were growing from my yard. The scraps were small enough that context could not be determined - a word or two at most complete. The rest was negative space and graphemic fragments. Inevitably, I wondered what message was here, although I doubted an author beyond the wind...

And then there is Chou, a game that survived my attempt to purge my games folder of unlicensed and import games before I started. Clearly this was not entirely successful. But Chou remains deeply strange. Loading it, you see a graphic of a witch crashing into a butterfly. Then comes highly stylized Japanese text that would be difficult to read even if I could read Japanese. Then comes the game, which is a space shooter, Gradius-style, in which you appear to be a butterfly. No attempts to Google this game succeeded. I have no idea what it is, who made it, whether it saw a US release, or, really, anything at all. I assume that the title is a misnomer, except that one translation for Chou is "Butterfly." Although apparently the Japanese text does not look much like "butterfly."

The game is unremarkable - I'd have assumed it merely obscure except that it had no copyright information or anything on it. Not even a year of release - it may well be some modern game made in a retro style - several such NES games exist. The game is not so bad as to obviously be an amateur attempt, nor is it good enough that I have significant hope of a secret cult following. Truth told, it is the perfect game for the position it finds itself in - cryptic, mysterious, even a bit ineffable.

One of the supposed proofs of God's existence is the watchmaker analogy. The argument is simple - if you walked along the beach and found a watch, you would assume the existence of a watchmaker. Therefore you should assume the existence of a creator for the vastly more complex world. Where the watchmaker analogy fails is that it merely justifies why the existence of God should be considered - not why it is necessary. It is a compelling argument for God as a hypothesis. Nothing more.

But how much deference do we owe this hypothesis? If we were to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to the archipelago of Tristan da Cunha, the most remote settled place in the world, and were to further land at Inaccessible Island, an island that is not inaccurately named, and were to voyage up the 1000 foot cliffs that block progress from the beach, and there at the heart of Inaccessible Island were to find a watch in seemingly perfect condition, would we assume a watchmaker? How many watchmakers must be found and asked before Occam's Razor starts to dictate that an alternative hypothesis is in order? At what point in a failed quest to seek the divine do alternative hypotheses grow appealing?

On one level, certain facts present themselves. The music in my mp3 collections comes from one of three sources. I can rule out that I downloaded or ripped the Peyote Foundation, which means the mp3s must have been given to me by one of two people. I can ask them what they know of the Peyote Foundation. Likewise, whatever problems exist in judging Chou, it is clearly a game that has some prior source. Even in the (essentially impossible) case that the game exists only because someone delineated a certain string of bits as a ROM file and discovered that these bits constituted a playable game, the object has a lineage.

Stanley Fish points out, in arguing that authorial intent matters in the reading of literature, that it is only when we assume an author that it is possible to discern meaning. In his own twist on the watchmaker analogy, he argues that if you are walking along the beach and see a formation of rocks that reads "HELP," you only assume that this is a distress signal as a consequence of assuming that the rocks were placed there by a person. If you assume that the rocks are a fluke of natural processes, you assume no message, and do not seek to interpret.

This thing called Chou, these things called The Peyote Foundation's songs, they are arbitrary strings of digits that already existed in some Platonic state. Binary code is a misnomer - these files are, in the end, just numbers. These numbers correspond to game and song only because of a given interpretive method that names them. Chou could just as easily be a novel or a photo with a different encryption. The watchmaker then is not God but Adam, wielding the mad power of names.

But here our lexicon starts to fail us. The given names - Chou, Peyote Foundation - somehow fail to separate thing from other. The watchmaker hypothesis, still better than the alternatives, seems woefully inadequate. The names signify nothing but the objects before me - tell me nothing save that there is something here.

Out of context, the strangeness of the object comes forth. Why does this butterfly work its way through space? Why can it shoot things? What was the witch? Why is this man talking about turning into a butterfly, or not being a caterpillar? It is not that such incommensurabilities are absent with context. But context, at least, gives us something else to look at besides the cracks.

Or perhaps context simply eats away the glamour surrounding the scene. The watchmaker hypothesis is, in the end, the belief that all mysteries are meant to be solved. No matter that Godel, Heisenberg, and Turing laid waste to that possibility decades ago. The human brain ill-accepts the possibility of a code that cannot be cracked. Adding even the ghost of an author intoxicates.

But authors are a difficult bunch. One never really knows where one stands with an author. Whether the author is holding cards to the chest, whether she knows more than she's saying. Or, perhaps more troublingly, we know for certain that the author does know more than she's saying. Authors lie. We have to. Right from the first, the moment we suggest "I," we're lying. I'm not here. I wrote this on Wednesday, September 26, 2010, at 8:27 PM, Eastern Standard Time, at my parents' house in Newtown, Connecticut while my mother prepared a pot of french press coffee so we can watch the season premiere of Castle. You are not. You are reading it at some later date. I've moved on. "I" denote nothing more than a tomb in which I've buried an old identity, and with it all of my myriad of secrets.

But words are a poor tomb. Meant to express, word tombs inevitably haunt, just as I am clattering around now, long after I've been buried. This is an important realization, both to the Nintendo Project, and in general. And, actually, if you'll forgive the discursion, Chubby Cherub is an excellent illustration of this.

Chubby Cherub is an awful game (listed by Seanbaby as the 15th worst Nintendo Game ever). It consists of an eponymous fat angel who flies around and throws hearts at dogs, who are apparently complete bastards who hate the heavenly host and try to kill it. The eponymous cherub is a fairly standard depiction of the cherub - a sort of fat cupid angel, inevitably infantile, essentially the most harmless and cuddly variety of angels our culture has yet thrown up.

Here is a description of the Cherubim from Ezekiel:
They had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf's foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass. And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings. Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies... As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning
Burning wheels of fire with four faces and animal features are relatively dissimilar to flying overweight babies. The word "cherub" has entombed this concept though. And yet, beneath the surface of Chubby Cherub, something uncanny writhes. Dead? Perhaps as dead as an idea can be.

This is the awful mystery of Chou and the Peyote Foundation. It is not who the watchmaker is. No doubt he is long gone, just as I am. I am not worried about where the departed author has gotten off to.

I'm worried about what exactly he left behind.


  1. I'm entirely ambiguous about religion in general. However, isn't all that any being can hope is to leave a piece of themselves behind? Whether God or man, whether the author creates life or creates a rather mysterious Japanese Nintendo game--isn't it all about what is left behind, and how future generations respond? All any human being can hope to do is leave their individual mark on the world, and hope not to be forgotten.

  2. Well, yes. But on the other hand, the difference between the mark and the self is vast. One might leave a mark on the world, but it's an uneasy existence as a mark. Immortality seems preferable, and not entirely worth discarding as a possibility.

  3. I love it all! Please continue with this in another post!

  4. Do you do youtube videos? And if you have time check out my blog and tell me what you think about it. My youtube channel is godzilla23i.

  5. Have played Age of Empires III and what d you think of it.

  6. It's rare you find cliffhangers which work and are not fictional on blogs.

    Well played, bro.

  7. Excellent article! Oh, and speaking of Peyote Foundation, I may--or may not--have some information concerning the current whereabouts and activities of Dr. Harkness Locrian. Rumours circulating amongst the so-called "metapsychiatric underground" have it that Dr. Locrian is currently involved with some form of psychoactive research in the Middle East, perhaps in Cairo or Irem, the so-called lost "City of Pillars" in the Rub al-Khali.

  8. What sort of immortality are you talking about? As I see it, it's not possible for a person to become immortal at this point, but the person's mark can be. It's why we have history books. I'd much rather have an immortal mark than nothing.

  9. Were it an option between an immortal mark and nothing, I might agree with you. On the other hand, right now, I am thinking of a number between one and the largest number that anyone has ever actually thought of.

    In all likelihood, this number was, a moment ago, thought of by nobody in the world. Did the number then not exist? As I have not told you the number, and as, by the time you are reading this, I have moved on and forgotten about this, nobody is thinking of the number at all now. Has it blinked out of existence?

    Or is it immortal?

  10. Enjoy!Please continue!

  11. This might sound poetic but isn't because of death that life is worth living? Life cannot have any meaning without death. Seriously, what if there was no death, how little would we value life? Immortality would make anything we do in life of no consequence. How could any moment, any encounter, any event, anything in time be precious should we be given an infinite amount of it? The only kind of immortality worth anything is the one one gets to enjoy while others don't. It would be only because others die that we would value immortality. But should we all be immortal ... what a drag that would be.

  12. Philip this is quite an undertaking yet very original. I commend you and wish you well on your journey. Hopefully you still have some scruples in the end (if there is one).


  13. This is great. As far as information goes, all is ultimately ephemeral. Languages die, and -- barring the use of an emulator -- Consoles die, and with them goes tomes, scrolls, ROMs, and CDs, respectively. Yet, even with emulators it is nearly, if not completely, impossible to emulate with 100% accuracy. Ideas mutate as they grow older and more distant in time from the audience and media of it's inception.

    Terrifically insightful, well written, and the mirror of great intellect and knowledge. The show must, at all costs, go on!

  14. lol great project. hope you can get to some of the great games on nes...


    Does anyone remember which one is about the tanks shooting?

    I have been trying to find the name but no luck.

  15. i never know that there are still people who plays nintendo game..

    but this games are still cool..

  16. Jean Paul Sartre and Voltaire made valuable contributions to similar debates but as Homer Simpson put it


    and I agree.

    FREE nintendo ds

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  18. Jason - I have, actually, talked to an instructor. His name was Stanley Fish.

  19. @Gareth - Sorry it took so long to reply here, but yeah, I agree - death is necessary. But death and immortality are not mutually exclusive. In a linear understanding of time, we are constantly dying - moments pass never to be reclaimed, and the self we had then, the self we have now, is already gone forever. Immortality, in this sense, would not bring an end to death.

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  21. Am I seriously going to say that Stanley Fish is for authorial intent?

    No. I'll let Stanley Fish do it for me.

    "Think about it: if interpreting a document is to be a rational act, if its exercise is to have a goal and a way of assessing progress toward that goal, then it must have an object to aim at, and the only candidate for that object is the author's intention."

    I mean, that's unambiguous.

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  23. I had a longer and funnier comment here, but Blogger ate it, so I'll leave it at this.

    You're not wrong about Fish - it's just that you're describing him based on one essay, and I'm describing him based on having read lots of stuff by him (including Interpreting the Variorum, which I actually cite in my dissertation), and having spoken with him, worked for him, and taken a class with him. As a result, you're seeing the tree and thinking you see a forest.

    Yes. Fish obviously believes in interpretive communities. But they're not the answer to the question you think they are. Here's roughly how it works.

    What is the goal of an act of interpretation? Discerning authorial intent.
    What determines how an act of interpretation is carried out? Interpretive communities.

    To ask an analagous pair of questions:

    What is the goal of climbing Mount Everest? To reach the summit.
    What determines how an ascent will be carried out? Individual decisions made by a climber.

    See the issue? Interpretive communities and authorial intent are not at odds - at least not as Fish understands both terms.

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  25. "You sir, seem to be recanting what you originally put forward."

    An odd accusation coming from someone who no longer appears to be questioning whether Dr. Sandifer indeed has his Ph.D. Also, your uncovering of the grand context — the opinion section of the NYT, which is evidently liberal — is hardly as sweeping a move as you make it out to be.

    Jason, you're coming close to reducing Fish to a single viewpoint. I can't tell if it's because you misunderstand him or because you cannot hold two conflicting views in your head at the same time.

  26. Just wandered by here and saw that someone went and deleted their comments, rendering a debate unfollowable. How sad. Especially as he's a grown man who used the phrase "rape machine" without a trace of irony.

    Good thing I have e-mail archives with every comment left on the blog so I can fill these important gaps. Here we go - the four deleted comments, in order.

    1: >Stanley Fish points out, in arguing that authorial intent matters in the reading of literature, that it is only when we assume an author that it is possible to discern meaning.

    Stanley Fish is famous for his idea of interpretive communities. He was never one to promote authorial intent -- the meaning of the work being decided by it's creator.

    Cite your sources friend. I would suggest reading the essay you cite, maybe taking it to an instructor, before you put something into print that misrepresents what the essay puts forward.

    2: Philip, are you seriously going to sit there and type that Stanley Fish was for authorial intent?

    Well allow me to warm up the rape machine.

    I'm going to be quoting "The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism." ISBN: 0-393-97429-4
    Pg. 2069
    "Interpreting the Variorum" epitomizes Fish's stances and style. It characteristically uses Milton as a test case, attacks accepted beliefs in authorial intention and textual autonomy, and proposes the provocative thesis that texts are empty in themselves and made only by the reader."

    Do me a favor and stop being so far up your own ass.

    3: It would be good to note that this letter written in addresses the meaning of the constitution, and therefore invariably has a political agenda.

    He deconstructs and constructs in many of his texts.

    I don't think you've read them though, and I don't think you actually have a PHD.

    Go fly a kite.

    I'm out. Good luck having people take you or your work seriously when you flagrantly disregard Literary Theory; but who are we kidding though, you hadn't heard of that essay that is quoted in my last post until you read it in my last post.

    4: You're ignoring the context in which the the column was written. The political bias is evident, and made even more so when the fact the the New York Times is a liberal paper, especially their opinion section, is considered.

    You sir, seem to be recanting what you originally put forward.