5000 Words About Why BioShock 2 is the Best of the Series

BioShock 2 has been lauded but brushed over. It is “the best” and “most nuanced” of the BioShock trilogy, but compared to the glorified first game and the explosively controversial third, BioShock 2 gets only intermittent attention.There has not been a really good analysis of BioShock 2 on its own terms (and I am not going to attempt or pretend to provide that here). There are several reasons for this, but one important one is how the series itself side-lines BioShock 2BioShock: Infinite and Burial at Sea involve themselves both narratively and emotionally with Jack’s story from the first game, Infinite towards the end, and Burial at Sea throughout. They invest his journey, and the characters of his game, with symbolic and meta-narrative significance. Blame Ken Levine for this. He worked on the first and third games, but skipped the second, and I guess he didn’t like the one on which he didn’t work.

But there are a ton of important things to say about BioShock 2. Here are some of them.

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Reviewing… I, Claudius (and ripping into modern prestige TV)

I, Claudius (the 1976 BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’s 1930s novels) is the kind of production that would be ripe for a modern HBO remake. It has sex, drugs, incest, plots, murder, and a huge range of characters to act all these things out — a perfect set of qualities to catch the Game of Thrones crowd after that show’s end. And I, Claudius would need to be remade to fit into the current landscape anyway: the cinematography would have to be more adventurous, the lighting more dynamic and varied, the aging makeup better, the crowd scenes actually rendered with CG rather than background noise, the violence done with more spice and less theatrics.

But, by being the kind of narrative that would work perfectly for contemporary adaptation, I, Claudius throws into even starker contrast the aesthetic and violent indulgence characteristic of modern prestige TV.

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Thinking About the Undeserving Poor

A relatively recent article in the LA Review of Books reviews two books, one on the idea of “responsibility,” the other on the use of the word “privilege.” It’s a good article, but what particularly stood out to me about it was the section on Mounk’s book, which discusses the now-prevalent and dominant rhetoric of responsibility in the United States. Here’s a representative quote:

“The problem, Mounk argues, is that we have been getting responsibility all wrong. Lurking behind the current use of the term is a pervasive distaste for the allegedly undeserving poor.”

Although people will invariably look for ways to go beyond the current rhetoric and way of thinking, I think it’s also worth going back, specifically going back and reading some of Shaw’s plays. Major Barbara has its own pantheon of undeserving poor getting handouts from the Salvation Army, but Mr. Doolittle in Pygmalion has the best speeches on the subject. His way of thinking — not just his way of thinking, but that he and Snobby Price in Major Barbara would get such a sympathetic treatment from their author — seems fairly alien today. Here’s part of a scene where he asks Pickering and Higgens for some money in exchange for Eliza:

“DOOLITTLE: … What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that hes up agen middle class morality all the time. If theres anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: “Youre undeserving; so you cant have it.” But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I dont need less than a deserving man: I need more. I dont eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I’m playing straight with you. I aint pretending to be deserving. I’m undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it: and thats the truth. Will you take advantage of a man’s nature to do him out of the price of his own daughter what hes brought up and fed and clothed by the sweat of his brow until she growed big enough to be interesting to you gentlemen? Is five pounds unreasonable? I put it to you; and I leave it to you.”

Now, Doolittle is talking about a slightly different sense of “deserving,” here — the idea of “responsibility” has become more strictly governed by the capitalist logic of ‘work-in for goods-out’ in the intervening century. That’s happened to most moral understandings. Still, I appreciate how novel Shaw’s perspective seems today: having sympathy for people who are poor, shiftless, responsible for both, and intend to do nothing about it.

Reviewing… Okja

Okja is not a film of ideology or argument. From the critical perspective of those in favor better treatment for animals — especially those most radically so — Okja has clear flaws: how it implicitly denigrates ugly or genetically modified creatures; how it ignores other animals such as chickens or fish; and that it depends upon human-like intelligence for its source of empathy. These things are errors under the light of reason. But our empathies do not always align with our reasons. Okja intends to make us care, and when, as now, our cultural starting point is so far from the conclusions of our thinking as to make them seem alien, emotion may be at odds with ideological purity. I do not say this to discount those aforementioned criticisms: I write as someone who considers my vegetarianism the bare minimum of ethical duty. It can be difficult to make ourselves feel what we want to feel, or believe that we should feel, and and I respect Okja on that account.

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Explaining YouTube’s Content ID System

During the spring, I wrote a piece for the Wilson Quarterly on YouTube and how it handles copyright law. I’ve become increasingly interested in intellectual property law more generally, and was pleased to be able to write about how that intersects with digital technologies. The piece turned out well, I think, and you can find it over on the Wilson Quarterly website:


Though I don’t go into it in that article, I think the idea of parallel, preemptive, or de facto law enforcement by large platforms is a big deal. YouTube does it on the grounds of copyright, but you can also see how this plays out, for instance, with Facebook and hate speech. These ISPs have great power, great legal freedom, and sometimes even a legal obligation to control their spaces in an extra-judicial manner.