Transcriber’s note: I took these in a kind of stream of consciousness, half Ken’s voice and half mine describing his. The full talk was entitled “Bisociation, Mashups, the Uncanny, and the Weird: Toward an Aesthetic of Setting Bricolage.” The quotes as I found are based on my notes because I couldn’t do a perfect literal transcription, so I took phrase notes & found the matching quote. Ken may have edited them as he read them. The photo is the most beautifully unheimlich thing I found while looking for an illustration for this post. It’s called “The Long Awaited.”3
If everything is mashup, how do we tell what’s good mashup or bad mashup. It’s a bit different for RPG as compared for show/book. How do we evaluate?
There are two immediate objections—everyone makes their own aesthetics (Deconstructionists), the only aesthetic is anti-aesthetics (to destroy/shame/detourn it) in which case your aesthetic is Dada. Go do it!
You’re looking about getting qualities from more than one source. You’re doing Western with Elves. You’re doing Hidden Fortress with Flash Gordon (Star Wars)… how do we figure it out? Is it close enough to Star Wars? Did Star Wars know what it was doing?
He wants to address the ways people have talked about two contrasting things.
One is Freud’s notion of the uncanny, he’s post-WWI with concerns of horror, unheimlich. Un-homely. It’s also something you keep in the home, hidden, secret, occult, it contains its own opposite. The concept of the unhomely is homely.
In the course of looking for his own definition, he goes past a couple definitions which boil down to “that class of the terrifying which brings us back to the known” inanimate object that behaves animately or vice versa. This is where uncanny valley comes into play. He compares it to Machen’s definition of sin—natural behaving unnaturally/unnatural behaving naturally.
Now we move forward to HPL who has to define Weird. It’s more than just tropes. More than just genre elements:
The one test of the really weird is simply this — whether of not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.
The outside connects to the known.
So now we’re post WWII and Arthur Kessler who goes on at great length1:
The pattern underlying [the creative act] is the perceiving of a situation or idea, L, in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference, M1 and M2. The event L, in which the two intersect, is made to vibrate simultaneously on two different wavelengths, as it were. While this unusual situation lasts, L is not merely linked to one associative context, but bisociated with two.
I have coined the term ‘bisociation’ in order to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking on a single ‘plane,” as it were, and the creative act, which … always operates on more than one plane. The former can be called single-minded, the latter double-minded, transitory state of unstable equilibrium where the balance of both emotion and thought is disturbed.
First determine the nature of your two frames by looking at the rules of the game which govern each matrix. Often these rules are implied. Find the link, the focal concept, the situation which is bisociated with both planes. To find character and make guess regarding unconscious elements it may contain.
In 1989, Bruce Sterling announced he was quitting and was going to make slipstream happen. Of course nobody has a definition of it that fully works. But he’s interested that Sterling begins with the notion that it creates a feeling, a fantastic, surreal2:
It is a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a ‘sense of wonder’ or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction. Instead, this is a kind of writing that simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books ‘slipstream.’
Horton also talks about the unfamiliar. SF tries to make the strange familiar. Slipstream tries to make the familiar strange. Others talk about the way that horror is the literature of fear, slipstream is the literature of strangeness/strangeness triumphant.
There has to be known/unknown, a familiar and an unfamiliar. There have to be feelings evoked. Whether strange or dread or things that make us feel familiar. Everyone recognized Flash Gordon; few recognized the Hidden Fortress.
His idea for a guideline or an idea you might work from: Perhaps one of the things has to be story and one thing has to be not story. This is one of the things he’s trying to work on.
We build new critical languages through analogies. When we think about languages that exist to describe combinations, we can think about color, about composition, about cooking…there may be a big thing and a little thing, like a roast and herbs. We a roast and we need spices. We need a dominant thing and a dominant flavor that enhances it. What we want is the two unrelated things, we figure out the secret thing they have in common, and then we can map everything to that point.
Once we know we’re doing Conan in 1948…Bourne Identity with Vampires… Sometimes a game system will give you the spice rub and you have to bring your own chicken.
Question (me): When people start making Lovecraftian beasts or other strange things mundane, i.e. some people’s treatments of Shoggoths, how do we take that and make it unheimlich again?
[offhand comment about if shoggoths are boring you’re doing it wrong] So you have Shoggoths being boring again. The teen detective or the Goonies, the Stand by Me kids, these are regular things. But the fat kid is always a little fatter. And his roomate keeps changing, we don’t know why, we don’t know what’s going on. We then take that familiar and bring the Shoggoth into the kid.
Conversely, in a world in which you have domesticated shoggoths, then that becomes uncanny because how the fuck is this going to be ok? Now the Navy uses shoggoths to power its submarines, it feels so domestic, now we never lose ships any more. But that makes us all feel weird because we feel wrong about it.
If you want to put Lovecraft into a setting, you have to make one or the other thing unfamiliar. You have to make one of these things feel senses. Story and scenery. Cyberpunk as scenery to the noir story is a common thing.
Question: How do you smell a setting and see if it’s gone bad?
It smells bad when you aren’t feeling it or your players really aren’t feeling it either. Maybe we you see that happen, it’s a sign. Just like an aesthetic tells us not to wear yellow with purple…we want to line our stuff up to that aesthetic.
Question: You can have too much story. Can you have too much scenery?
Yes. If it’s an art form in which excess is its own virtue, then good for you. But otherwise, we’re not as interested in playing in a heavy-metal cover. And even in a game where you do you put ninjas/Cthulhu/robots/eye-lasers/etc. you probably won’t put it all in one actual play session. You might do it as a series of themes, but you probably won’t throw it all in together. As an aesthetic judgment, more than two strong flavors are too many things to do.
Question: Is there a level at which different genres have different tolerances for scenery?
In superhero stuff, for example, you have to have a generic system because they can do EVERYTHING. He suggests Supers really are an edge case. They look like successful mashups. Some things should never have worked, like the DC Silver Universe [sic? Age?]. Marvel all comes from 60s/70s pop art pre-disco sensation, which is its own aesthetic.
Maybe there’s a time element to this kind of thing in terms of tolerances. Maybe you need to slowroast this. BBQ rub doesn’t taste right until you BBQ it.
One of the important things about a bricolage-y setting is that you don’t want to just make people stand around and enjoy the good setting but you want people to tear into it. If you find yourself coming up with really good NPCs that fit, maybe that’s a sign your mashup is working (assuming they have the DNA of both even if they look more like one parent than the other).
Unless a setting’s job is to represent an entire genre, you are probably biting off more than you can chew–unless your setting’s entire job is to represent that genre (like Feng Shui).
In day after Ragnarok, it’s either post-apocalyptic Conan, or Cold War with the color of Quatermass(Bond ish).
The panel concluded shortly after this, but it became more conversational after this point and hard for me to track.
Photo credit: “The Long Awaited” photo by KayVeeInc., sculpture by Patricia Piccinini