Just returned from a rather wonderful weekend at the Hay-on-Wye literature festival… or I would have done if I hadn’t realised that there was the “HowTheLightGetsIn” philosophy and music festival on at the other end of town. Despite Elinor and I both technically subscribing to the status of literary scholars, the call of reasoned debate trumped the megalomaniacal brain-farts of the likes of Martin Amis and philosophy, as ever, won over.
The most striking debate that I attended was that of Zygmunt Bauman talking about Utopias, Dystopias and society. The striking element was my sudden inability to grasp the word “society”. Used in every sentence, Bauman obviously knew very well what it was, as did the rest of the audience, yet I grew increasingly confused. It wasn’t, as was suggested to me, that some unconscious Thatcherism had revealed itself in a bout of free market solipsism – no, it was the very transcendental quality of the word and the resulting metaphysical warmness that it made me feel as a result. Like Bion’s Group Experiences, it suggests an unspoken, unified coherence of minds in such a way as to alleviate any possibility of existential anxiety; a charming prospect.
That the talk took place in the context of (U/Dys)topias was no doubt a helpful indicator of this transcendental quality of the “social”. Taking 1984 as an example – the “social” threat lingers in the dystopian ambivalence. The state apparatus itself (similarly with the book’s political ideologies) is indistinct, only to be pictured in the mythic figures of Big Brother and Goldstein. These figures are “social” where the state itself, be it legislature or particular representatives, can only be seen as what they are within that society. Society is like Room 101; we already know what is in it, and it is not Winston’s rats. The appearance of the rats (not particularly scary in itself) is purely an indicator of the potential of Room 101, just as any definable entity can only be a potential of society and not society itself.
The notion of the social and Utopia overlap in this capacity. William Morris’ late-Victorian anarchist utopia, News From Nowhere, is essentially a description of this transcendental field of society. Its great success in achieving this comes through a mix of two-dimensional characters and a total lack of any concrete politics or history within its established world. Utopian cohesion is “natural” unlike the individual or the state that, as definable entities, can never truly exist within the ambiguous melange that is “society”.
“Society”, like “Utopia”, appears to be an attempt to cross what can only be considered a truly “Parallax gap” as described in Zizek’s The Parallax View. Individual personality and politics, as is evinced in the hyperreality of “personality politics”, can never truly be attached together (perhaps Kant’s distinction of private and public reason is the case here?). Society is a useful bridge between these two that encapsulates both whilst placing itself “elsewhere” via a kind of theoretical Derridean “differance”. I would not consider myself to be society, nor would I consider David Cameron, a parking ticket, a 20 pence piece or a bacon sandwich to be society – yet they are all “part of” society. Zizek’s description of society as only existing in the “background”(Perverts Guide to Cinema) is not so much true as to say that society exists only in vignettes. We can never truly “see” society but by making a situation indistinct enough we can start to “feel” it.
Perhaps the ultimate description of a “society” can be seen in the second level (and title sequence) of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in which you are driven around the city, helplessly looking out upon countless scenes “symptomatic” of violent revolution. The marching soldiers, the massacred civilians, all are uniform and without individuality, signifying similar events without even truly signifying themselves. Even the moment when, driving down an alley, a man pops up from a rubbish bin, sees you, screams and disappears back into it to hide, seems faceless. He is the comedy of the human stuck within political engines as their most inhuman. A symbol of the social - not Barry or Jeff or Akhmed…
Perhaps this indicates something intrinsically reactionary, or at the least paralysing, within descriptions of “society”. Its general effect is that of reductionism without use; by stripping entities of forces in order to locate them in a transcendental social they lose autonomy within the social field. This is perhaps what Latour and the Actor-Network-Theorists are dealing with at the moment; there is a society outside of the individual and the state but it exists as a network of influences and not as a residue of trends and generalisms. That which takes place within the social can therefore never be passive, it must always be active – even if, like Pacifism, it is active towards passivity. For if society is to be thought of as a “between” and not as an “elsewhere” then only that which exerts influence can exist within its existential jurisdiction.
Perhaps the ultimate A-N-T Utopia, then, is Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar. The world of “Watermelon Sugar” is one of balance similar to Morris’ “Nowhere” yet each of the individuals within the anarchistic community differ in beliefs and personalities, even to the extent that some choose to live in a junkyard and drink themselves to death. No resident of Watermelon Sugar exists in order to represent wider trends. Even the lingering, evil genii Other of the “tigers” get their chance to explain why they killed the young protagonists parents (hunger, family needs, his parents long, full lives upto that point) and, as such, can be seen as Actors in a Network and not as a “social threat”. Morris’ “objectors” to “Nowhere” are passed off as fools that would soon die out – Brautigan’s “tigers” are active characters simultaneously to being a menace. Of the two situations, we can only truly understand (and thus think of ways to change) the situation of the tigers, whereas the “society” of objectors must be left to die out of their own accord, much as we’ve expected racists and fascists to do for the past however-long-it-is…
Last week’s Zero Punctuation article (www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation/1472-Dantes-Inferno) began with a description of Dante’s Divine Comedy as an epic scale piece of fan-fiction. As I’ve said before of other jokes, this one hides an interesting kernel of truth inside its comic juxtaposition. Dante himself is the hero of his epic, through which he personally meets his hero, Virgil, and makes friends with the Angel Gabriel, then through these ‘spirit guides’ comes into contact with both Satan and God – sounds a clear case of “fanboyism” to me. In fact, when seen in this light, the spirit guides resemble those described in Flournoy’s From India to the Planet Mars. Such parallels suggest the relationship between fictional characters to the reader being comparable with a schizophrenic’s with their alternate, unconscious egos.
The phenomenon of embodying alter-egos is one well demonstrated in the medium of computer games. Dante’s Inferno, as a game, may simply be a fan-fiction of the ultimate in fan-fiction, but the game that Zero Punctuation compares it to, God of War, explores this concept more fully by setting the game within the realm of ancient Greek myth. The works of Homer are considered “primary” epics compared to the “secondary” epic of Dante (The Odyssey and Iliad being originally spoken unlike the written Divine Comedy) and therefore haven’t a single, authoritative text but rather a conglomeration of alternatives about recurring themes and events. God of War, like the upcoming film Clash of the Titans, can then be as cavalier as it likes in its depiction as there can be no true “correct” version to compare it to.
The essential difference between primary and secondary epics could then be seen to be a preference of “event” over “word”. Homer’s greatness lies in the situations where Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, is great for its precise wording. The primacy of “event” is similarly the key to great games. Every few months a game comes out claiming to be “novelistic”, yet simply supplies an overabundance of words into the event of play, thereby coming across about as interesting as a live reading of the collected works of Dickens – good for about an hour, then punishingly tedious. No, great games lie in great gaming experiences.
The experience of games, and the primacy of event that grounds it, is indebted entirely to the projection of ego; the “immersion factor”. The Avatar that simultaneously “is you” whilst you “play them” is, in essence, an alternate ego-isation similar to day-dreaming (the serious-play of Freud’s creative writer) and thus engages incredibly directly and viscerally with the phantasmic core of lived experience. It’s for this reason that computer games are becoming increasingly appreciated as what they really are, an art form. They’re an interactive theatre that the likes of Brecht or Artaud would have relished the possibilities of.
To demonstrate this in a quick paragraph, I’d like to compare the classic Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare with its sequel Modern Warfare 2 – what I believe to be a vastly inferior game. COD4 created one of the most potent images in gaming history in its level “Aftermath” in which, following a gruelling battle through the streets of Baghdad to rescue a single downed pilot, a nuclear bomb hits and you are left helplessly dragging your avatar’s near-dead body around a nuclear wasteland - the facelessness of your character, Jackson (?), greatly adding to the immersion. Here the shock of nuclear breaks in to the phantasy as a fragment of unwanted Real that leaves you feeling exposed and powerless where you had just a moment ago been the great bulletproof hero. Similarly, COD4’s loading screens following your characters death showed quotations from real soldiers and generals mixed with statistics on the price of real weaponry and other ambiguous and troubling actual facts; all of these breaking the screen of phantasy just at the point at which “you are dead” within your avatar.
The opposite effect occurs in Modern Warfare 2. The quotations are replaced by comic war-ironies of the Catch-22 or Dispatches type and rousing patriotic nonsense such as “If you won’t stand by your flag, then you should get another one”. The result is that the game’s phantasmic screen is not broken and, worse, succeeds in enveloping the real that it suggests. This screen of ideology, of the most reactionary and least human type, is not even dealt with ironically (the way that American film noir deals with similar ideology, for example) but instead makes the image of collective murder “cool”; upgrading guns as “bling” for example – the phallic motifs here are so obvious I feel abit stupid even bothering to point them out. Overall, it is games like Modern Warfare 2 that justify the reactionary hysteria that is so ironically misplaced in the likes of the satirical series Grand Theft Auto.
Needless to say, there is still some way to go before computer games are recognised as the potential art form that they are – although the increase in people studying populist film and literature is promising, as is the growing awareness of other previously-pulp forms such as comics. Similarly, game designers need to start taking more responsibility for the politics of their games as “the kids” are far more susceptible to indoctrination through arbitrary hegemonic attitudes than to any amount of the sex and violence that the hysterics worry about. Yes, less Modern Warfare 2, more Bioshock please, or just anything with a zombie Lenin in it would be fine.