Limitations as Virtues

March 18, 2011

Over here, Ryan asks what “punk” means, as far as indie publishing goes. I agree with Lukas that “punk” is not quite the right word, with all of its other associations.

Let me just quote Our Band Could Be Your Life, since it’s what I’ve been thinking about recently. In it, Michael Azerrad suggests that the American indie music scene of the 1980s was organized around “viewing as a virtue what most saw as a limitation.”

I think that works pretty well for us too.

10 Responses to “Limitations as Virtues”

  1. jessecoombs Says:

    Great book! Very inspiring for lots of different fields actually. The idea that I can get off my butt and work with what I already got to do something I love is what I got from it.

  2. Ryan Macklin Says:

    Say more about viewing it as a virtue?

    – Ryan


    • Like: big companies have freelancers and full-color books of hundreds of pages with great art; we can’t really do any of those things. But, you know what, that’s actually a good thing because a lot of that stuff is a distraction from what actually matters, which is the clarity of the creator’s vision and our personal relationship with our fans.

      It’s both rhetorical — we’re better than or at least as good as them despite not having their capabilities — and about having different goals — we want to do something different than them, which means doing things in a different way.

      Part of it is a marketing and ideological move, trying to turn the low ground into the high ground by making it “cooler” than the forces dominating the existing market. But part of it is embracing the limitations and seeing what can be done within them, making a new market there.

      • Ryan Macklin Says:

        I hear you there, but I read this and have the same reaction I had to a friend telling me about being punk the other day:

        a lot of that stuff is a distraction from what actually matters, which is the clarity of the creator’s vision and our personal relationship with our fans.

        Are you intending to imply that you only have that relationship if you’re doing it this way? Are you intending to imply that if you don’t do it the way you’re saying, there’s no clarity of the creator’s vision?

        Because if you are, there’s no agreement here. I have seen complete lack of clarity in garage-made projects. And I have seen a lot of personal connections to fans from “big” companies thanks to social media.

        There are advantages of working with limitations to break new ground. I am totally down with that. Fuck, Joe’s Gun Thief blew me the fuck away, and has changed some of the stuff I want to do in the future. But I think you’re dangerously close to fetishizing that sort of process, Jonathan.

        – Ryan


    • If you think I’m fetishizing it then you’re misreading me and injecting identity politics when I’m intentionally trying not to do that. I’m not arguing that “kid with a dream” products are inherently better than “beat The Man at his own game” products (if you saw my last post). In fact, I’m arguing the opposite, that neither one is inherently better or worse.

      My point here is that there is often a rhetorical tactic (i.e. one doesn’t reflect actual reality, just a matter of cultural positioning) where you try to turn your limitations into virtues. And that can be really effective.

      Saying “punk (or whatever) things are awesome” shouldn’t necessarily be read as a statement that “non-punk (or whatever) things suck.” The thing is, Hasbro already has a lot of advantages, so it’s more meaningful to say “that photocopied game is awesome” than “Castle Ravenloft is awesome,” because Castle Ravenloft is already going to get a bunch of attention, right? But some dude’s photocopied game might not.

      Still, being a champion for certain products and methods shouldn’t mean having to talk shit about other ways of doing things. Often it does, but that’s a choice and not entirely necessary.

      • Ryan Macklin Says:

        The moment that the word “punk” was thrown around, it went into identity politics land, because that’s a judgmental word. But I happen to know from conversations over beer than we both loathe identity politics, so sure, let’s toss all that crap aside.

        My objection was partly to “distraction from what matters,” which is also pretty judgmental. But reading charitably, how about this?

        The thing about the garage-style is that because it isn’t your livelihood, you can try whatever. I totally dig that — and, in fact, that’s why I left trying to be a full-time freelancer because I didn’t get to experiment as much, since I had to work a lot of hours to barely make ends meet. Started killing my enjoyment of this thing.

        Maybe it’s just a semantics thing, and I’ll cop to it if so, but saying you’re turning limitations into virtues doesn’t sound like what you’re describing. It sounds more like you’re accepting limitation but also finding virtues. Which isn’t the same thing.

        “Because we don’t have money for X, we can do Y” isn’t the same thing as “We don’t have money for X. On the other hand, we can do Y.” The former gets into a case of arrested development, where you think you can only do Y (have creative control, be directly connected to your audience, etc.) if you don’t have X (money, people, skill sets). The latter promotes figuring out how to keep those Y things should you start getting Xs.

        And while I’m pretty sure you get the latter, it reads to me like you’re promoting the former.

        Saying “punk (or whatever) things are awesome” shouldn’t necessarily be read as a statement that “non-punk (or whatever) things suck.

        You might buy that. (In fact, I know you enough to know you do.) But unless 100% of your personal audience does too, J, then they’re going to keep bringing identity politics into the discussion. People have investment in these labels, and that makes getting these discussions beyond them harder.

        – Ryan


  3. That’s a great way to put it, JWalt.

  4. Gregor Vuga Says:

    Ryan, I don’t want this to sound insulting or dismissive, but no 100% of any audience ever buys something, that’s an absurd requirement to make. How many people agree and understand everything you put on your blog?

    Knowing what I know of, say, the Story Games community or whatever you want to identify as Jonathan’s “personal audience”, I’d say maybe 85% of people buy it. Yes, we can (and should) work harder to make it 90% or 95%, we should do more. But a 100% is like a “hey wouldn’t it be nice if people of all creeds and nationalities would come together in peace and loving” pipe dream.

    I think there is very little exclusive identity politics within the indie scene these days. Jonathan mentions Castle Ravenloft. I’ve seen much love for it on SG. For example Burning Wheel, 4E and OSR clones are all being played and judged on their own merits. Adherence to one-true-wayism (these games rule, these games suck) is *absolutely* not a characteristic of the people that I assume Jonathan’s “personal audience” consists of.

    I am well aware that this has not been so universally the case, say, even five years ago, and we should absolutely admit it, and take note of it in our conversations.

    However when you say that “Jonathan probably means X, but it reads as if he’s saying Y!” I wonder how much of that reading is influenced by a certain reputation that, in my experience, has been much more read-into this “community” than actually projected out of it.

    • Ryan Macklin Says:

      Knowing what I know of, say, the Story Games community or whatever you want to identify as Jonathan’s “personal audience”

      Your claim (which I should say are numbers pulled out of the air and not actual data) doesn’t match my experience. Some are, some aren’t.

      An aside: using made-up numbers to justify a gut feeling, man, that’s toxic. Gets people to argue about those numbers and not what’s actually important. A lot of internet bullshit happens because of that. :/

      I agree that it’s be awesome if we could get to more people, but you can’t exactly argue or use rhetoric to make it happen. Because “I don’t buy identity politics” is, unfortunately, also an identity politics things. *sad panda*

      I wonder how much of that reading is influenced by a certain reputation that, in my experience, has been much more read-into this “community” than actually projected out of it.

      Unpack that. I don’t know what you mean be “a certain reputation.” Whose? Mine? The community’s?

      And keep in mind that I’ve been inside indieland for a number of years now, so this isn’t someone outside looking in. I’m someone who has watched identity politics in the tribe unfold — as some dude on a forum, as a one-man publisher, as someone involved with Evil Hat Productions, and as someone previously involved with Indie Press Revolution. So I still see it well going on.

      It’s easy to be blind to identity politics when people around you share them, and when you don’t pay attention to the conversations arguing against those things.

      That said, maybe this “do we have identity politics?” discussion is also a toxic distraction. I don’t want to say that to sound dismissive of the conversation, but to clearly point out where the emergency exit is in case that’s true.

      I don’t want this to sound insulting or dismissive

      To share my thought process some, my first reading of this was “fuck you, man, you don’t get to give yourself permission to insult me.” Then my brain said “uh, dude, maybe he’s genuine about that, and isn’t pulling the asshole trick other people do with that phrase?” So, totally reading you charitably here.

      – Ryan

      • Gregor Vuga Says:

        Ryan, I always enter these kinds of discussions with the intent of having a honest conversation, as if amongst friends. Which means that, this being the internet, the most toxic shit often blows up despite my best intentions. Friendly, playful honesty often lets slip figures of speech that are easily ill-received in a different context.

        Anyway, I’d like to talk more about this with you, but I’m annoyed by the comments format, so y’know, if you feel we should discuss further (if you want to hear my reply to your reply) we can take it elsewhere.


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