The cyborg critic

Reflecting on a rhetorical figure

This week, as part of the launch of the Games Criticism Journal, Brendan Keogh published a powerful theoretical reflection on the work that has emerged in online games criticism in the past few years. He links this to the non-academic work of several young scholars who are finishing up postgraduate programs, presenting the figure of “the academic videogame critic, as opposed to the games studies formalist”.

Foregrounding the people

Keogh is aware that these figures are both straw men. The games studies formalist doesn’t really exist in an uncomplicated way—how would we categorise Espen Aarseth? Neither does the academic videogame critic —much of the work he draws on is being carried out by people with no academic affiliation.

The critic and the formalist are rhetorical distillations of broader discursive trends: a focus on how a game feels to play, rather than on how closely it may fit to predetermined ideas of “gameness”; a flat phenomenological approach, rather than an attempt to separate the pure game from the software’s non-game elements. Keogh’s criticism is carried out through close readings, informed by embodied phenomenologies, interested in the messily interrelated pleasures of videogame play.

I feel like normally, when a methodological break has been recorded in an academic journal, it has always been through pieces that are framed purely as a refutation of what came before; the enlightened theorist offers a manifesto for what could be, if only everyone thought like him. Keogh doesn’t do this, instead offering us his theoretically-inclined perspective on the new territory that is already being developed, concluding with a list of at least eighteen different examples of people and places at the frontier he has described—with the caveat that even this long list is not exhaustive.

Worlds as networks

This community-oriented approach in Keogh’s writing reflects a strength in his approach that Daniel Joseph praises as a concern for “political economy”. Keogh’s article suggests that the exceptionalism that dominates games studies is at least in part a response to the economic pressure on academics to demonstrate that the study of video games is deserving of funding. It is because Keogh is highly aware of that political economy that this piece is published in an open-access journal, with significant attention given to writing published independent of the academy.

Keogh hints here at not just an alternative methodology, but an alternative economy of discourse; an academic criticism that exists in communication with blogs and indie digital publishing. Through his rhetorical positioning of critics versus formalists, I see something else emerging. It’s not just academia’s approach to games themselves that marginalises impure elements to try and distil something essential—academia’s approach to discourse itself does the same thing.

The hybridity and cyborgianism Keogh proposes concerns not just how we imagine games, but how critics might imagine themselves. The “overlapping worlds” that he describes between game and real life are also present between academia and online writing. Academic games critics will be attending not just to the flow across the worlds of software and societies, but across the worlds of universities and blogospheres. This means citing blogs in academic papers. It means tweeting at DiGRA. It means self-publishing books for a non-academic audience.

What Keogh is proposing is academia without the purity complex. It’s middle-state writing.


The economy of universities and academic publishers relies on the idea that a certain level of discourse is walled-off, only accessible to those with institutional funding. For games studies to be worthy of that funding, it had to be proven just as exceptional as academia itself. Just as Keogh’s theoretical study argues that games are not exceptional, his long list of young critics producing hybrid writing outside of the academy challenges the idea that the academy is exceptional.

Felan Parker has responded to Keogh’s article by reflecting on “defamiliarisation” as a reading strategy for games as texts—introducing something new to an assemblage to disrupt it, break the habitual, and learn from the reconfiguration of its entangled elements. I would suggest that this is what we’re going to see, as the generation of young scholars that Keogh describes moves ahead in their careers as hybrid blogger-academics.

Parker’s proposal reminds me of Human Computer Interaction’s focus on design breakdowns. It also reminds me of Latour’s Reassembling the Social; we learn how an actor-network is formed by observing it in the process of (re)constituting itself. We’re going to learn a lot about the political economies of blogging and scholarship, as they reconstitute themselves in the process of hybridisation.

If Keogh’s image of the academic critic seems to include people who are not academics, it’s because the cyborg critic is not themselves a hybrid of blogger and academic, but something produced by a hybrid assemblage of academia and blogging.

Next Story — “My feelings are looking up”
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“My feelings are looking up”

Tsukema Tsukeru is a Kyary Pamyu Pamyu song that was released in 2011. I first heard it a year ago, and after listening to it a few times something started to stand out for me. I never wrote up these thoughts because I was hoping I’d encounter someone else’s work on the topic, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m sure the work exists though, and when I find it I’ll link it below. Throw things in the comments to the side of this paragraph if you have any recommendations.

In any case, I keep wanting to reference Tsukema Tsukeru as a feminist text. Here are some notes on why I would do that.

First off, I want to note where Kyary’s music comes from. Kyary started out as a fashion blogger, and she captures in images and words a gyaru aesthetic from Takeshita street in Harajuku. Arguably, gyaru is a radical reclamation of femininity that celebrates girlhood while rejecting reproductive futurism. There is a long history by now of social commentators in Japan decrying gyaru for not meeting normative standards of e.g. adulthood. When I see weird shit in Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s videos like skulls and eyeballs and imaginary substances flowing out of orifices, I see it as part of this wider cultural movement that has separated girly cuteness from any concern about being agreeable to mens’ eyes.

Kyary went into modelling when her blog became popular, and took a route into pop idol status from there. Her songs are written and produced by Yasutaka Nakata, who takes Kyary’s blogging style as a starting point. Kyary talked a bit about this process in an interview with the BBC:

What does ‘Pon Pon’ mean in Kyary-speak?
I’m singing ‘Pon Pon Wei Wei’ – and my blog’s called ‘Wei Wei’. I think the ‘Pon Pon’ bit was a result of Nakata choosing Kyary-style lyrics. Nakata asked me oddball questions: when we were eating together he asked, ‘Kyary, do you prefer rice or strawberries?’ I thought, ‘What the hell is he on about?’ and said I liked cherries, and then one day he’d made a song called ‘Cherry Bonbon.’ He hatched the idea while we were eating.

So there’s a dialogue happening here between fashion blogging and an esoteric approach to music production. Tsukema Tsukeru makes this dialogue particularly explicit as a song about what it feels like to put on false eyelashes, sung by a fashion blogger who has a line of false lashes available for people to buy. This song is an ad, and it’s selling a feeling that you get from wearing false eyelashes.

There’s something about the way this song approaches the topic that stands out to me as revolutionary, and indicative of what makes Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s work so powerful in general.

Let’s go through the lyrics:

Tsukema tsukema tsukema tsuke
Pachi pachi tsukema tsukete
Tsukema tsukema tsukema tsuke
Kawaii no tsukema tsukeru

The first three lines are the word “false eyelashes” over and over again, with an onomatopoeia “pachi pachi” that refers to what it’s like to bat your eyelashes when they’re made up. Note that as soon as I translate this stuff into English I start using phrases like “false” and “made up” that are just not there in the Japanese at all. The Japanese term for “false eyelashes”, tsukematsuge, is “attach eyelashes”. This is very important, as the whole song is about attaching things rather than faking things.

The final line, “kawaii no” is sometimes translated as “am I cute?” I think that’s ambiguous at best. Ending an utterance with “no” could indicate “aren’t I cute?” or just “hey these lashes are cute”.

I- na i- na sore ii na-
Pacchiri pacchiri sore ii na
I- na i- na sore ii na-
Kibun mo ue wo muku

This stanza develops this feeling of reflexive cuteness a bit more. “Isn’t it nice, isn’t it nice,” she repats, with the onomatopoeia “pacchiri” that refers to how it makes her eyes stand out.

The final line, “my feelings are looking up” is where I get really interested in this song. I think that Kyary is interested in how lashes make her feel as the wearer, not in how it feels to be looked at as someone with cute fluttery lashes. In a basic sense, adorning yourself in a top-heavy way shifts your bodily awareness higher, which can feel pleasant (I just got an eyebrow piercing partly for that reason). The next two stanzas go into more detail about how wearing makeup changes the way the wearer feels without making any reference to how it makes her look:

Tsuru tsuru tsurutsuru tsu
Tsukeru taipu no mahou da yo
Jishin wo mi ni tsukete
Mieru sekai mo kawaru kana
Onaji sora ga dou mieru ka wa
Kokoro no kakudo shidai dakara

I’m going to translate these ones directly:

[Onomatopoeia describing the sensation of putting on makeup]
This is an equippable (attaching) type of magic
I acquire (attach) self-confidence
and maybe the world I see [around me] also changes
What will this same sky look like, I wonder?
Because that depends on the inclination of my heart

This stanza pushes the multiple meanings of tsukeru or “attach” even further, exploring what is at stake when you attach accessories like lashes to your face. There’s a gaming metaphor: Kyary equips an item, and gains a new power. “Mi ni tsukeru” is a phrase used widely for any personal quality or skill that you want to develop, and literally means “attach onto the self”.

These things have a transformative effect on the world around Kyary: the “magic” is her own internal sense of self being validated. The sky (remember, her lashes make her feelings look upward) will look different, because her heart will be inclined (literally “angled”) differently (probably further upwards).

This song is fascinating to me because it completely separates the feeling of wearing makeup from the sense that makeup makes you look particular way to other people. While there is nothing wrong with enjoying the gaze of others, there is a difficulty that comes from other people’s gaze being inescapable. It’s hard to do something with your appearance that’s just for you, because it’s not even possible to read the signs that we’re painting onto ourselves as anything separate from the social world around us. How we look to ourselves is in part how we look to others. Despite all that though, there is a sensation to makeup that is entirely separate from all of that, that’s just a person in a body doing something fun and creative.

While in reality we can’t separate the social from the material, this song captures a moment before the social comes rushing in and over-determining everything we do with our faces. It’s a paean to a self-care practice in which makeup is just about making the body feel good for the person who is living in it, rather than making the body look good to other people.

Note: There’s another stanza in this song, about a sad little boy putting on a “transformation belt”. I wish, wish, wish I understood what this meant, because it would really help me to get a fuller picture of this song as a reflection on femininity, but sadly I’m at a loss. Please do comment to the side of this paragraph if you have any insights.

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