It’s hard for snakes who eat their own tails to get a fair break nowadays…
The Ouroboros is a symbol that is said to date back to ancient Egypt but it also appears — spontaneously it would appear — in a number of other cultures scattered across the globe. Nowadays, we tend to view it as a representation of cannibalistic futility. Of something that tries to consume in order to stay alive only for that thing to wind up consuming itself. However, this is not the only way of interpreting the symbol.
While we tend to view the snake as a thing that consumes, it is important to remember that the snake is eternal and so its consumption must be (at some point) counter-balanced by creation. Carl Jung recognised this when he adopted Ouroboros as one of his archetypes:
The Ouroboros has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness. In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself. The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites.
People tend to reach for Ouroboros whenever they want to stress the absolute futility of discourse and the endless cycles of re-litigation and re-iteration that comprise cultural debate. This is particularly true whenever you think about discourse relating to things like horror or RPGs: What is the point of endlessly rehashing old arguments? You’re never going to convince anyone or anything!
This may be true, but what if cyclical discourse arrising from irreconcilable differences was productive? What if it was itself apart of the creative process? What if the act of creation is born of destruction?
I was an undergraduate when I first became aware of the fact that people outside the hobby wrote books about roleplaying games.
Back in the days before Amazon, these books were virtually impossible to find and if you did manage to track any of them down you discovered that had all been written decades previously for lay audience. I can still remember using an inter-library loan programme to get hold of a copy of Gary Alan Fine’s Shared Fantasy hoping for some academic-level analysis of RPGs only to discover a weird collection of anecdotes about Americans playing Empire of the Petal Throne at some point in the early 1980s.
However, in the twenty-or-so years since that first encounter with RPG scholarship, academic institutions have tried to catch up.
Like all human institutions, academia is an expansionist project. Always desperate for more money, prestige, and resources, academic departments invariably recruit more graduate students that they need and so each new generation of graduate students faces greater pressure when it comes to finding jobs, building careers, and carving out professional niches. As a result of these economic and social pressures, each new generation of academics is forced to push the boat out just that little bit further in search of virgin subject matter that can be mined for articles, books, research fellowships, and undergraduate courses.
Evidently, all of the intellectual land east of the D&D has now been settled and the covered wagons are starting to trundle across the plains of Roleplaying.
I have recently been reading Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift, a book about the early days of the RPG hobby and how RPGs became a sub-culture in their own right with their own ideas and values. I will almost certainly be posting a longer piece about the book at some point but I wanted to just jot down some ideas as they occur to me.
The Elusive Shift sifts through a load of fanzines and magazine editorials in order to re-construct the process by which RPG culture detached itself from war-gaming and became its own thing. While the book is pretty interesting all things considered, I was quite frustrated at Peterson’s reluctance to really engage with that process of cultural drift. To be fair, Peterson is not alone in this myopia, when we attach ourselves to institutions and sub-cultures we tend to internalise the narratives that said cultural institutions repeat about themselves. Regardless of whether or not these narratives are true, the fact that they are internal narratives constructed by members of the institution tends to result in narratives that treat cultural institutions as monolithic, coherent things that change according to internal forces but ultimately retain a degree of continuity.
Shrink-Wrapped Recall – An occasional series about memories of old game shops.
The history of roleplaying games is inescapably post-apocalyptic. Anyone who knows anything about the origins of the hobby will have heard about early editions of D&D breaking through to the mainstream, becoming a fad, finding their way into every American shop, and eventually turning up in the opening scene to ET. We all know this history, we carry it within us.
The strange thing is that (despite dealing with different people, different places, different times, and different economic conditions) every subsequent popular history of RPGs seems to have maintained that post-apocalyptic vibe. We are always surveying the ruins of a collapsed empire or an imploded boom.
That post-apocalyptic vibe was also present the first time I went to a shop to buy an actual RPG. The shop in question was a local chain bookstore and while they did carry a load of gaming materials, they were all stacked on top of a shelving unit and you had to borrow a stool to get anywhere near them. I remember my friend scratching his head and muttering that the last time he had been there, the D&D books had had an entire section to themselves.