Filed under: Literature, Video Games | Tags: American Psycho, Brandon Crisp, Bret Easton Ellis, Capitalism, Censorship, Fredric Jameson, Free Speech, Free-Market, La Guernica, National Organization of Women, Pablo Picasso, Postmodernism; or, Slavoj Žižek, Subjective Violence, Systemic Violence, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Violence (2008)
The tragedy of Brandon Crisp, whose funeral was Friday, has fuelled a resurgence in the backlash against violent video games, like Brandon’s favourite, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Although Brandon likely died of chest trauma sustained after falling out of a tree, the incident has inspired what critics term ‘video game addiction’, as in this sensationally titled Macleans article, ‘What Happened to Brandon?’:
The idea that a simple video game could so completely upend a teenager’s life is the kind of thing that most parents, at least until recently, would not have taken seriously. After all, shoot-’em-up computer simulations don’t raise the same sort of red flags for parents as drugs, alcohol, or delinquent friends. But there is growing concern, even in medical and scientific quarters, that there may be a link between video games like Call of Duty and obsessive, even addictive, behaviour. For some teens, this might lead to minor problems like slipping grades and a loss of interest in other hobbies. But there are an increasing number of reports of far more tragic outcomes. Earlier this year, for instance, a British boy committed suicide after his father took away a Wii game. In a youth culture where so much social interaction has moved online, the deep ties young people can form to games and other computer pastimes could, some experts say, be a recipe for disaster. How do you tell when that line has been crossed? Today, it’s the kids who don’t play video games that stand out. According to a survey released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project last month, 97 per cent of U.S. teens aged 12 to 17 say they regularly “game,” whether on a console system, computer, or handheld device. In Brandon’s school alone 25 other students regularly play Call of Duty on the same online system he used. And the business continues to grow exponentially. In 2007, software sales reached US$9.5 billion, with nine games sold every second, according to the Entertainment Software Association.
I’m not sure why any of this is cause for alarm: surely a stat saying that 97 per cent of teens play video games indicates that it is normative behaviour? Are teenagers equally ‘addicted’ to driving cars or ice cream sodas?
In his 2008 book Violence, Slavoj Žižek posits the theory that there are two kinds of violence: subjective violence, violent acts that incite our subjective outrage and ire; and objective or ‘systemic’ violence, the necessary violence that sustains liberal capitalist hegemony. More importantly, acts of subjective violence—the suicide bomber, the school shooting, particularly violent video games, movies or books—blind us to the systemic, endemic violence in which we are complicit. ‘Is there not something suspicious’, Žižek writes,
indeed symptomatic, about this focus on subjective violence—that violence which is enacted by social agents, evil individuals, disciplined repressive apparatuses, fanatical crowds? Doesn’t it desperately try to distract our attention from the true locus of trouble, by obliterating from view other forms of violence and thus actively participating in them? According to a well-known anecdote, a German officer visited Picasso in his Paris studio during the Second World War. There he saw Guernica and, shocked at the modernist ‘chaos’ of the painting, asked Picasso: ‘Did you do this?’ Picasso calmly replied: ‘No, you did this!’ Today, many a liberal when faced with violent outbursts such as the recent looting in the suburbs of Paris, asks the few remaining leftists who still count on a radical social transformation: ‘Isn’t it you who did this? Is this what you want?’ And we should reply, like Picasso: ‘No, you did this! This is the true result of your politics!’ (9-10)
Although I’ve written about this dissonance before, I am reminded now more than ever about the controversy surrounding Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991). The novel, a hyperviolent satire about closet psycho killer Patrick Bateman (interpreted masterfully by Christian Bale in the 2000 film version), viciously skewers the sadistic violence that underpins the so-called free market. Bateman, a stupidly rich Wall Street investment banker blandly narrates his daily life between meaningless affairs, decadent lunches and copious lines of high-grade cocaine. He describes his sadistic torture and murder of prostitutes as casually as he describes returning video tapes or the vacuous pop music of Whitney Houston. Ellis’s statement is clear: violence and the capitalist system are inextricably and pervertedly linked.
The backlash against American Psycho was as palpable as it was predictable. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was ‘outraged’. Incredibly, however, NOW chose to voice their criticism in liberal, capitalist terms, with appeals to ‘free speech’ and free-market principles, precisely the principles Ellis critiques in his book:
“We are not telling them not to publish,” Tammy Bruce, the president of the Los Angeles chapter, said. Instead, she said, members are being asked to exercise their right of free expression by refusing to buy the novel so the publisher “will learn violence against women in any form is no longer socially acceptable.”
The free market would teach Ellis. Consumers would ‘vote with their dollar’. As we now know, the book was a runaway bestseller and spawned a critically and financially successful film. The consumer, as anyone who has read Ellis will tell you, is nothing if not powerless.
I decide to even up the score a little bit by showing everyone my new business card. I pull it out of my gazelleskin wallet (Barney’s, $850) and slap it on the table, waiting for reactions.
“What’s that, a gram?” Price says, not apathetically.
“New card.” I try to act casual about it but Fm smiling proudly. “What do you think?”
“Whoa,” McDermott says, lifting it up, fingering the card, genuinely impressed. “Very nice. Take a look.” Be hands it to Van Patten.
“Picked them up from the printer’s yesterday,” I mention.
“Cool coloring,” Van Patten says, studying the card closely.
“That’s bone,” I point out. “And the lettering is something called Silian Rail.”
“Silian Rail?” McDermott asks.
“Yeah. Not bad, huh?”
“It is very cool, Bateman,” Van Patten says guardedly, the jealous bastard, “but that’s nothing He pulls out his wallet and slaps a card next to an ashtray. “Look at this.”
We all lean over and inspect David’s card and Price quietly says, “That’s really nice.” A brief spasm of jealousy Courses through me when I notice the elegance of the color and the classy type. I clench my fist as Van Patten says, smugly, “Eggshell with Homalian type. . .” He turns to me. “What do you think?”
“Nice,” I croak, but manage to nod, as the busboy brings four fresh Bellinis.
Ellis’s, and our, world is a capitalist one, choice without option, sustained by a dark underbelly of violent psychosis. In the words of Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), published the same year as American Psycho: ‘this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror’.
And here we are quibbling about video games.
Filed under: Critical Theory | Tags: Anti-intellectualism, Dartmouth College, Dennis Dutton, Fredric Jameson, Judith Butler, Priya Venkatesan, Science Studies, Wall Street Journal
The latest foray of conservatism, this time from the Wall Street Journal, in its interminable hostility towards critical theory:
Priya Venkatesan taught English at Dartmouth College. She maintains that some of her students were so unreceptive of “French narrative theory” that it amounted to a hostile working environment. She is also readying lawsuits against her superiors, who she says papered over the harassment, as well as a confessional exposé, which she promises will “name names.”
The trauma was so intense that in March Ms. Venkatesan quit Dartmouth and decamped for Northwestern. She declined to comment for this piece, pointing instead to the multiple interviews she conducted with the campus press.
Ms. Venkatesan lectured in freshman composition, intended to introduce undergraduates to the rigors of expository argument. “My students were very bully-ish, very aggressive, and very disrespectful,” she told Tyler Brace of the Dartmouth Review. “They’d argue with your ideas.” This caused “subversiveness,” a principle English professors usually favor.
Ms. Venkatesan’s scholarly specialty is “science studies,” which, as she wrote in a journal article last year, “teaches that scientific knowledge has suspect access to truth.” She continues: “Scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct.”
The agenda of Ms. Venkatesan’s seminar, then, was to “problematize” technology and the life sciences. Students told me that most of the “problems” owed to her impenetrable lectures and various eruptions when students indicated skepticism of literary theory. She counters that such skepticism was “intolerant of ideas” and “questioned my knowledge in very inappropriate ways.” Ms. Venkatesan, who is of South Asian descent, also alleges that critics were motivated by racism, though it is unclear why.
So, this “journalist” throws a few scare quotes over “problematize,” “heteronormativity” and “deconstruction” in a gleeful stitch-up of academia while casually dismissing claims of sexism and racism on the part of the school’s administration and student body. What never seems to come up in these conversations about the absurdity of academic-speak (as if scholars of literature have no stake in promoting clear and concise writing) is that they are almost always directed at radical leftist writers from conservative or bourgeois liberal corners.
Forget the ignorance or sheer refusal to study the fundamentals whence this kind of theory issues, such decontextualization highlights the very political motivation such critical theory attempts to foreground in areas it is presumed not to occupy. It is no accident or act of providence that the most widely used technology was developed as military projects, nor is it simply an interest in bettering grammar and scientific logic in his readership that compels this “journalist” to attack Dr. Priya Venkatesan (referred throughout the “article” as “Ms.”). When Dennis Dutton premiered his “Bad Writing Contest” in the (conservative) culture journal he edits, he curiously targeted some of the most radical leftist thinkers in North America, like Judith Butler and America’s premier Marxist critic, Fredric Jameson.
This is not to say that bad writing or suspect comprehension of science is not a problem in literary scholarship, on the contrary, the publish-or-perish mentality of many young academics generates all manner of futile text. But the underhanded treatment of Dr. Venkatesan (by an administration that refused to support her when it presumably knew what kind of research she was involved in) underlines what is at stake when such ignorant attacks are levied at studies in the humanities: the freedom to challenge the conservative, regressive tenets that underpin our society with which as progressives, we should ceaselessly seek to dispense. It is anti-intellectualism at its worst: a profound expression of ignorance, entitlement and fear.
Filed under: Technology | Tags: apple, commodification, depthlessness, Fredric Jameson, MacBook Air, Technology
As the entire world already knows, Apple Inc. revealed the MacBook Air last month at the 2008 Macworld conference. The “world’s thinnest notebook” retails from $1799 to $3098 USD. It’s “ultrathin, ultraportable and ultra unlike anything else” according to the Apple website. It “rethinks conventions.” “Innovation” is thrown about like it’s going out of style. In short, the MacBook Air promises revolution. I’m not interested in discussing whether or not the Air constitutes a “smart” buy, or if it performs better than other lightweight laptops, but rather, to examine this “ultra” computer as the fulfillment of the bizarre technological fantasy of the thin. What’s the skinny in technology?
Curiously, while the MacBook Air is the thinnest notebook currently on the market, it is not the lightest; despite the fact that the Toshiba Portege R500 underweighs the Air by more than a pound, unsexy featherweights remain far behind Apple in pursuit of the cool. It is no accident that Apple eschewed a lighter computer, a model doubtless better suited to the commuter crowd ostensibly targeted by the Air, in favour of a slender one. Bypassing the unsettling tendency to label most of Apple’s products indiscriminately “sexy” (a label adopted by the Apple website) it seems to me that the slimness of iPods, iPhones and now the MacBook Air, have much greater cultural implications.
Not only does technoculture exhibit a fanatical obsession in its flight toward the ultimate (or “ultra”) in slim, it does so at the expense of function. In fact, Apple’s counterintuitive choice to build a thinner, rather than lighter product indicates that it is not really interested in function at all. We don’t want to see the guts of a computer (begone Cray-2! You are banished from our memories!) we just want an image of one. The image of a computer sliding out of a manila envelope is much more engaging to contemporary society than a computer that does stuff.
In Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Fredric Jameson posits a theory of “depthlessness” in which a logic of depth–say, interior psychology to exterior expression, or meaning to word–has been replaced by a logic of surfaces. There is little doubt that Apple masterfully converts its products into desperately desired commodities and excels at promotion of the image. But what’s more, as Jameson argues, “this depthlessness [is not] merely metaphorical: it can be experienced physically and ‘literally’ (12). The MacBook Air, which seems to insist that it is less a computer than a conception, not a box of chipsets and wires but a simulation of one, represents the embodiment of this logic of superficiality. It’s called the “Air,” after all: it’s not even there! Indeed, the Air seems to enact a kind of technological physical closure: it lacks a removable-media drive, Ethernet and multiple USB slots. The body of the Air is as inviolate as its perfect, slender image.
What does this say, then, about technoculture in general–besides, that is, that they like their gadgets svelte? As our desktops, redolent with speaker and monitor cables that cheap IKEA and Office Depot desks ceaselessly attempt to conceal (without success), silently retreat into PDAs and two-dimensional laptops, computer commodification dispels the myth that technology increases the opportunity and potential for social change. Instead, it would appear, technology is complicit in capitalism’s ongoing project in perfecting the image, the spectacle. Of course, it’s not as if Apple ever pretended it was pursuing anything else, but it’s nice to know what kind of revolution we’re talking about.