Tag Archives: risk-taking

Risk-taking, Spring 2017

How intentional anachronism changes identity processing via history in Assassin’s Creed

In a Tortoiseshell: In Hastings’ paper, he develops the key term “intentional anachronism” to forward a complicated argument that investigates the multiple identities revolving around the main character of the video game Assassin’s Creed, Altaïr. Risk-taking in subject and in the issues he considers, his essay showcases a thrilling take on the worldwide phenomenon of Assassin’s Creed and is a model consideration of such a topic.

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Risk-taking, Spring 2017

Volcanoes and Detectives: Writing unconventionally in academic work (and maybe doing it well)

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Throughout my four years at Princeton, I’ve written about everything from Saladin to shopping mall design, from the Black Death to (more than one) history of the Princeton geology department. Given that I’ve had to write about a small compendium of subjects, I have often tried to use unconventional entry points to situate increasingly esoteric topics. In this article, I will discuss the introductions of three off-the-wall papers I wrote while I was here, assess what I was thinking at the time, and reassess their strengths and weaknesses. It goes without saying that risk-taking has its rewards, but it also has its risks.

The first paper’s introduction that I’d like to look at is from a term paper called “Preparing for Ecumenopolis: Urban Sprawl’s Persistence and Avenues for its Reform.” This paper, written for an urban studies class, looked at a (too wide) variety of components of American urban sprawl and its possible solutions. The introduction is somewhat an augury for the rest of the paper’s eclectic hodge-podge of sources, indicated by an initial lengthy block quote from literature followed by a similar statement from a polemical mid-20th-century urban planner named Constantinos Doxiadis:

The 2010 science fiction novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe takes place in a sprawling urban agglomeration that houses 87% of the human population, a city called New Angeles/Lost Tokyo-2.

The formation of [New Angeles/Lost Tokyo-2] occurred in two steps. Step one: the cities of New York and Los Angeles, 2,462 miles apart, much to the surprise and consternation of residents and property owners and municipal officials and parking lot owners and westsiders from the eastern half and eastsiders from the western half, slowly and invisibly and irreversibly merged into each other, in the process swallowing up what was in between, leaving one metropolis that contained, within it, what had been America. Alaska and Hawaii were included as well.

The second phase began a short while later, when the sprawling city of Greater Tokyo spontaneously bifurcated along a spatio-temporal fault line. Half of this bifurcated Tokyo moved across the world and wrapped itself around the perimeter of the recently formed New York/Los Angeles chimera. This half is referred to as Lost Tokyo-2.

Surprisingly, the fantastic urban agglomerations of New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo merging into one colossal city are not so off base as to be outside the realm of urban theory and population demographics.

In 1967, the Greek architect Constantinos Doxiadis proposed the idea of ecumenopolis, a speculative city that will span the entire world. His concept is remarkably in line with Yu’s fictional “New Angeles”:

This city [ecumenopolis] is already under construction. It will absorb almost all the important cities of the present, and will gradually grow out of them through their dynamic growth, as well as through the dynamic growth of the new settlements that are going to be created. It will be composed of almost all the major cities of the past and present. This city is going to expand widely over the plains and the great valleys and rivers, since the most restrictive factor in its formation will be the presence of water.

This conception of macro-urban sprawl has its precedents… In 1961, Jean Gottmann characterized Megalopolis as a network of continuous urbanism, its chief example the North American line of cities stretching from Boston to Washington. Grounded in the reality of the American Northeast Corridor, Gottmann’s ‘Megalopolis’ observation suggests Doxiadis’ vision may not be too far from reality.

In this paper, I opened with a block-quoted section of a sci-fi novel and juxtaposed it with a block-quoted section from an urban planner’s theory, using it to motivate a question of how the real world may reflect these visions. Looking back now, perhaps a simpler–and no less effective–opening might have involved just the provocative quote from Doxiadis. After all, my discussion of sprawl that followed only needed one nightmare vision of an urban future to provide adequate framing. 99.9% of the time, one block quote is enough.

But in other papers I wrote, I tried to finesse even more layers to my introductions, in a process that was not unlike the main conceit of dream-levels from the 2010 film Inception. One of those papers was called “Not a Mountain like Others”: The Dangerous Complacency and Photographic Legacy of the Thera Eruption through Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red.” It is perhaps the weirdest paper I have ever attempted, its lens text and subject under study being extremely contrived. In it, I tried to associate tourism of the volcanically-preserved Bronze Age city of Akrotiri on the island of Santorini with the theory of photography through Anne Carson’s prose novel Autobiography of Red, which itself associates photography theory with volcanoes. That was a mouthful. For a taste, here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

On the island of Santorini, a boutique bookstore sells a pamphlet entitled “The Atlantis Dialogues.” On its cover is the image of a bust of Plato and a small, white silhouette of an aerial view of Santorini. Within its pages, the pamphlet quotes one of Plato’s most famous lines about the mythical lost island of Atlantis—“In a single day and night of misfortune… the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared into the sea.”

The implicit association between Santorini and Atlantis, in this case inscribed on the pamphlet’s cover by an image of Santorini, reflects an aesthetic circulation of a geological event—namely, the eruption of the Thera supervolcano around 1614 B.C. that extinguished the Minoan Bronze Age civilization at Akrotiri. During the eruption, 150 billion tons of volcanic debris were ejected from the volcano, significant segments of the island’s ring collapsed and Akrotiri was buried in volcanic ash. Similar to the myth of Atlantis, the civilization disappeared with a violent natural catastrophe—freezing the Akrotiri settlement in time through a process similar to the taking of a photograph.

Anne Carson explores the relationship between volcanoes and photography in her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red….[the protagonist] Geryon’s fascination with the relationship between volcanoes and photography forms an intrinsic part of the work, best expressed when the third-person narrator writes, “A volcano is not a mountain like others. Raising a camera to one’s face has effects no one can calculate in advance.” … Just as the volcanoes depicted in Autobiography of Red have far-reaching consequences on their subjected populations, so does the Thera volcano on the public perception of Santorini.

In this excerpt, you can see that I was trying to do a great many things at once. A postcard sold at a store becomes a discussion of Atlantis, followed by an explanation of a real-life Atlantis destroyed and preserved by a volcano, and then an introduction of the lens text Autobiography of Red, which traffics heavily in volcano imagery—it’s just too much! I simply become exhausted even when explaining it. Again, for a much less convoluted opening, all I needed to do was talk about Akrotiri and then Autobiography of Red (which would still be contrived, but more acceptable). Given these two misfires concerning the ecumenopolis and volcanoes, I must leave you with an example of what might be a more effective way to handle this.

One paper I wrote, “‘I was part of the nastiness now’: Death, photography, and survival in Raymond Chandler’s ‘Killer in the Rain’ and The Big Sleep,” employed a much more manageable introduction, one that introduced the themes with lens texts that were more organic and less belabored. Rather than force lens upon lens upon text, in this passage I established a situation and a means of analyzing it. No more, no less, and therefore much better.

In Raymond Chandler’s detective story “Killer in the Rain,” a curious line appears. In the midst of a struggle between a blackmailer named Marty and an unhinged woman named Carmen over pornographic photos, the narrator-detective observes that “Marty and Carmen were still facing each other like a couple of images.”

Well known for his flashy similes, mystery novelist Raymond Chandler was one of the pioneers of the hardboiled detective genre and is regarded as a major voice in American literature. He is most known for his novels featuring Philip Marlowe, a cynical but mostly honorable private detective who investigates the dark side of 1930s Los Angeles. In particular, the themes of death and survival are intrinsic to Chandler’s work, and are exhibited throughout his 1939 breakout novel, The Big Sleep. The aforementioned line from “Killer in the Rain,” however, through its photographic metaphors of “still” and “images,” suggests that photography’s exhibition of these themes is critical to understanding their depth and complexity, themes which resonate with Jacques Derrida’s philosophical work. In his book, Athens, Still Remains, Derrida discusses the intrinsic connection between death, survival, and photography, a connection that is revealed through “Killer” and further elaborated upon in The Big Sleep.

“Killer in the Rain” is a story that Chandler expanded and combined with one of his other stories, “The Curtain,” to create The Big Sleep. However, the line is absent from its analogous scene in The Big Sleep. Not only does this line demonstrate a conflict between “Killer” and The Big Sleep, it implies that Chandler’s meditation of death and survival through photography evolves over the writing of the two works. To borrow a photographic term, Chandler’s philosophical meditation on death, survival, and photography develops into a form that illustrates Derrida’s implied assertion that photography’s association with death and survival make survival more complicated because traces of past experiences haunt the archival nature of photography and life.

In this introduction, I first outlined a scene from literature, drawing attention to a line that motivates a contextualization of the work and the need for a theoretical work to address the line’s questions relating to the imagery of photography. The tension between the earlier version of the Raymond Chandler story and the final novelized version therefore motivates the application of the lens text by Derrida to learn more about the use of the photographic theme in literature.

Thus, each component is organically established and introduced, and there aren’t the same onion-like layers to get through to get to the main argument. Of all the strange and eclectic papers, this one about detectives is one that I look back upon quite fondly. My volcano paper may have been messy, and so too was the one about the “world-city”—but I guess even these imperfect works are motives for greater ones. For full disclosure, I must admit I ended up writing my senior thesis on Doxiadis’s ecumenopolis.

To conclude, a writer’s work is never finished. It can just grow to expand the whole world. The trick is making that expansion organic through the use of “form-fitting” lenses and texts and sources that are complementary rather than distracting.

Works Cited

Carson, Anne, Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, vintage contemporaries ed. (New York:

Alfred A. Knopf, 1998; New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1999).

Cartwright, Mark, “Thera,” in Ancient History Encyclopedia (Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2012), accessed July 22, 2014, http://www.ancient.eu.com/thera/.

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. Aerius, 2004. First published 1939 by Knopf. Accessed July 7, 2014. http://ae-lib.org.ua/textsc/chandler__the_big_sleep__en.htm.

Chandler, Raymond, Killer in the Rain (Black Mask, 1935; London: Penguin, 2011).

Derrida, Jacques, Athens, Still Remains: The Photographs of Jean-Francois Bonhomme, trans.

Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, english ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 2, originally published as Demeure, Athens (n.p.: Editions Galilee, 2009).

Doxiadis, Constantinos A., 2005. “Ecumenopolis : The Coming World-City.” Ekistics 72.

Friedrich, Walter L., Marit-Solveig Seidenkrantz, and Ole Bjorslev, “Santorini (Greece) before the

Minoan Eruption: A Reconstruction of the Ring-island, Natural Resources and Clay Deposits from the Akrotiri Excavation,” Geological Society 171 (2000): 71, accessed July 23, 2014, http://sp.lyellcollection.org.ezproxy.princeton.edu/

Gottmann, Jean, 1990. Since Megalopolis: The Urban Writings of Jean Gottmann. Edited by Jean

Gottmann and Robert A. Harper. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

King, Stephen, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Scribner, 2000; New York: Pocket Books,

2000), 137, accessed July 8, 2014, http://books.google.gr/books

McCoy, Floyd W., and Haiken, Grant, “Anatomy of an Eruption,” Archaeological Institute of

America 43, no. 3 (May/June 1990): 48, accessed July 23, 2014, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41765836.

Moss, Robert F., “An Introduction to The Big Sleep,” Criticism and Scholarship: The Raymond

Chandler Website, last modified 1997, accessed July 9, 2014, http://home.comcast.net/~mossrobert/html/criticism/bigsleep.htm.

Plato, The Atlantis Dialogues, trans. Benjamin Jowett (London: Paravion Press, 2014).

Vougioukalakis, George E., The Minoan Eruption of the Thera Volcano and the Aegean World, trans. Alexander Doumas (Athens: Society for the Promotion of Studies on Prehistoric Thera, 2006).

Yu, Charles. 2010. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. New York: Knopf.

Risk-taking, Spring 2017


In the context of writing, risk-taking is about going against the established methods of writing. It’s about trying something new at the risk of falling flat. It’s about the freedom of going your own way with the threat of no return.

Before I spout another platitude not unlike one delivered by Matthew McConaughey at the wheel of a Lincoln Town Car, I want to emphasize that risk-taking in writing may strike some as cliché, but it’s absolutely necessary to change the game of the writing form and create new, useful paradigms for organizing prose. What would fiction look like without Ernest Hemingway, who dared to write more by writing less, thereby advocating the “tip of the iceberg” approach to spare prose? What would the world be like without the writing of Princeton’s own John McPhee, whose meandering nonfiction has opened up an entire field to literary journalists, as well as given us more than enough information on the geologic history of North America in the volumes that make up his Annals of the Former World? Who knows who will follow the poet Anne Carson, who has created her own genre of classical meta-prose poems through works such as Nox and Autobiography of Red?

It takes guts to change the way people think and write about things. While this whole issue is full of essays that strive to do just that, in this special “Risk-Taking” section of Tortoise, we spotlight the pieces that best embody the elements of risk-taking, which in this sense means works of academic writing that engage with the scholarly conversation in unconventional and surprising ways.

In Noah Hastings’s “How intentional anachronism changes identity processing via history in Assassin’s Creed,” the author takes an unconventional approach to the popular video game by interrogating the conflicting imposed cultural identities on the game’s protagonist, Altaïr. Not only does the piece take risks in its analysis of a traditionally nonacademic genre, the video game, Hastings’s analysis of the protagonist’s stereotypically “American” features is compelling as much as it risks stereotyping itself.

On the other hand, Hayley Roth’s journalism feature, “The Classroom Cure: Greece Struggles to Educate a New Generation of Refugees,” takes excellent fieldwork collected in Greece and tells a compelling news story. It does so through the employment of creative nonfiction techniques, which, although going against some of the genre’s conventions, creates a more powerful story, better capable of conveying the gravity of the refugee crisis in Greece.

Next, we feature a critical essay called “Volcanoes and Detectives,” which discusses the techniques of some of my own more off-the-wall essays that I’ve composed over my four years at Princeton. Through a critical reading of some of their components, we can see what aspects of them worked more effectively than others.

Lastly, in “Dead end or Dividend,” editor Myrial Holbrook considers an essay in which she attempted to analyze a passage from Cicero, an effort that fell victim to the intentional fallacy. Again, here is a moment when risks overwhelmed the risk-taker.

So, buckle up and enjoy the ride. In the next few pages, dart across rooftops with Altaïr, witness the sobering scenes of the refugee crisis, and then read about some of my more bizarre (and not very successful) academic essays. It will all be in good fun.

Risk-taking, Spring 2017

Dead end or Dividend: Falling (Face-First) into the Intentional Fallacy

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In a male-oriented, male-documented society like ancient Rome, how can we reconstruct women as they really were? This was the task I set myself to in the crafting of my essay “Medeas of the Palatine,” in which I examined and made a case for the changed status of late Republican women in Rome. I started with a case study of an elite woman of the late Republic: the notorious Clodia, a wealthy widow who, according to Cicero, behaved “riotously” like “a common harlot” and was involved in all manner of intrigue—financial, sexual, even criminal. I drew on her case study as a microcosm of the broader status of women at the time.

Due to the scantiness of female-authored primary source material, I resolved to distort the already-distorted male-written history and hopefully arrive at something less distorted. No easy task, to be sure—plunging into an intentional fallacy head-on is a messy and confusing business. I was working from Cicero’s speech, a decidedly male-centric opinion in a decidedly male-dominated institution in a decidedly male-governed society.

Nevertheless, I took the plunge, cataloguing Cicero’s known biases against Clodia as well as more general perceptions of women in Roman society at the time that might be coloring his speech. Here’s an excerpt of that passage:

Cicero was an orator; his aim was to win the case, so he molds the story and his argument to the benefit of his client, Caelius, and to the audience of an élite all-male assembly. It should also be noted that, besides the professional motivation, he also had several personal scores to settle with Clodia and her family. Clodius, Clodia’s younger brother, was Cicero’s greatest enemy (for Clodius, the feeling was mutual). Moreover, as Cicero himself mentions in the speech, Clodia had perpetrated violent actions against him and his family, such as burning down his house while he was exiled. There is also an indication that Cicero might have been romantically involved with Clodia himself at one point; Plutarch mentions that Terentia, Cicero’s wife, “suspected Clodia of wanting to marry Cicero” (Plut. Life of Cicero 29). Although Cicero claims he is “brushing aside the memory of what I suffered” in the case, there is no doubt that his personal dealings with Clodia and Clodius shade his arguments (Cicero, Pro Caelio 50).

As regards the limitations of the case itself, one has to wonder how representative Clodia is of the status of a typical Roman woman in the late Republic and thus what quality and quantity of insights can be gleaned from the case. She was a noblewoman, widowed, wealthy, and propertied. She had not remarried, her father had been dead some years already, and her brother, Clodius, was in no place to supervise or criticize her behavior with his own record of scandal (including, but not limited to, persistent rumors of incest with his sisters, as well as his infiltration in 62 B.C. of the women’s festival of Bona Dea to schmooze around with Pompeia, the wife of Caesar), so Clodia was in a position of relative freedom to do as she pleased—up to a point.

Perhaps this is a package deal; a woman can have her fun, but only if she masks it well and plays out her social role of devoted wife and mother. When Pompey, for example, was away on campaign for many months and caught wind of his wife Mucia’s increasingly “loose life,” he was at first unperturbed (Plut. Life of Pompey 42). As he began the return trip to Italy, however, he decided to divorce her (Plut. Life of Pompey 42). As Cicero said of Clodia, “she no longer even bothers to seek privacy and darkness and the usual veil of discretion to cover her lusts” (Cicero, Pro Caelio 43). It is difficult to tell here if “usual” means “usual” for Clodia or “usual” in the lusty pursuits of the elite. However, in the context of some of Cicero’s other statements, it seems to be the latter. He lumps Clodia into “a household of that sort under a woman who behaves like a prostitute,” a situation in which “it is perfectly obvious and universally known” to what extent Clodia pursued “lusts and excesses” (Cicero, Pro Caelio 56). Her particular case might have a few “unheard-of perversions,” but the case of Clodia and her “associates” nonetheless seems to fit a well-known societal mold, whether fitted by Cicero for argumentative purposes or by the ready-made cache of circulating rumors.

I’m still not sure how I worked myself into that “ready-made cache of circulating rumors” (what a mouthful!). Phraseology aside, however, I had set myself up well—I was going to scientifically dissect this case study for biases and account for them in my analysis. But what I failed to do is realize the improbability of my construction. I was trying to be precise, setting up the biases and limitations of my case, then using that same case to prove something bigger. In a case study alone, such dissection might be workable (though still delicate and difficult). But the task of my paper was to make an argument for an entire period of history, not just one woman in a brief moment in that history.

Constrained by a ten-page limit, I was forced to compromise my rigor. By the end of my paper, I had left things rather open-ended, juxtaposing two more male-authored primary sources to hint at a noteworthy sense of male vulnerability in response to spurts of female agency in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. In many ways, I had backtracked—my claims were no longer as nuanced nor as persuasive as they had been in the case study format. I should have been prepared for the same level of rigor in my broader arguments. On the small-scale case study level, the intentional fallacy seemed to pay off, but when I tried to extrapolate, I found myself hovering in a realm of ambiguity and uncertainty. Lesson learned: always look (long and hard) before you leap.

Works Cited

Appian. Roman History, Volume IV: The Civil Wars, Books 3.27-5. Translated by Horace White. Loeb Classical Library 5. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. “In Defense of Marcus Caelius Rufus.” Selected Political Speeches of Cicero, translated by Michael Grant, London, Penguin, 1969.

Culham, Phyllis. “Women in the Roman Republic.” The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic, compiled by Harriet I. Flower, 2nd ed., New York, Cambridge UP, 2014.

Evans, John K. War, Women, and Children in Ancient Rome. London, Routledge, 1991.

Livy. “The History of Rome.” Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University. Accessed 16 Jan. 2017.

Plutarch. Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated by Rex Warner and Robin Seager, Rev. and expanded ed., London, Penguin Books, 2005.

Plutarch. Makers of Rome, Nine Lives: Coriolanus, Fabius Maximus, Macellus, Cato the Elder, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Sertorius, Brutus, Mark Antony. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, London, Penguin Books, 1965.

Richlin, Amy. Arguments with Silence: Writing the History of Roman Women. U of Michigan P,