Blind Man with a Pistol

Virtual Victory

First: Go read Michael Geist on why Jim Prentice’s digital rights copyright bill is a betrayal.

Then: register your disapproval here and join the facebook group here.

What is most interesting about the mobilized outrage protests against Bill C-61 (what Geist cynically refers to as the Canadian version of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the less strict American digital rights bill that the U.S. defeated) is that they have proven the viability of online, virtual protests. It appears to be a very real possibility that the growing facebook group, the online petition, and the automatically generated emails to MPs will change this bill. Even if the bill passes (with the Liberal Party of Canada’s usual strategy of sputtering anger followed by abstention) the online protest has educated thousands while inspiring political action and demand for change.

When politically motivated online protests emerged a few years ago, they were dismissed as a watered-down version of the marches and sit-ins of the 1960s. This is possibly true, but it is also true that contemporary politics are a watered-down version of their postwar counterparts. In fact, it was easy to be cynical about current marches against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Slavoj Žižek is fond of pointing out, most protests nowadays are virtual and toothless.

The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’

Žižek is the comedic provocateur of philosophy, so perhaps it’s best to take him skeptically. But it is difficult to rid ourselves of the defeatism and pessimism that came with the failure of the anti-war protests to actually stop the war. And while it appears to me that there is a significant disparity of degree between protesting the slaughter of hundreds of thousands and digital copyright, the chance for success for the (actually) virtual protest is greater than the (virtually) actual one.

It is possible that this virtual action is finding traction because it occurs in the medium it affects. But more than this, I think it demonstrates that there is no virtual anymore.  Or, rather, it’s all virtual. After all, isn’t the intention of the digital lock provisions in C-61 in part, to make the virtual physical property? To deny digital proliferation online and shore up its singularity and uniqueness? I’ve always been suspicious of appeals to the “real world” (perhaps, as a graduate student of literature, that’s a matter of psychological denial) and this latest online protest seems to confirm those suspicions. Virtual political action isn’t opposed to the real world, it is the real world.

Grand Theft Reality

Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto IV raked in more than $500 million its first week—and was linked to a real-life stabbing and mugging. The game is praised for its innovative, realistic and complex gameplay—and vilified for its simulated violence and misogyny. Make no mistake: the game is misogynist. Any attempt to excuse the game’s misogyny is revealing. There is something barbaric about the phrase “You don’t have to kill prostitutes to beat the game.”

But what makes me suspicious of such criticism is that video games seem to bear a disproportionate level of ire compared to the much more graphic violence depicted in television shows like CSI or torture-porn film like Saw or Hostel. In fact, much of the female objectification that occurs in the game is no different than what you’d see during a prime-time commercial break on NBC.

The difference, we claim, lies in the virtual participation such games enable. Simulation, the argument goes, is a small step away from reality. In fact, there is little evidence that first-person simulation offer any more of a connection with violence than watching film or television. So why does the virtual murder of a woman attract more media attention than a real one?

The war in Iraq, which has killed more people in real life than GTA4 will ever kill virtually, was a “clean war.” A war with precision weapons that, we were assured, didn’t kill anyone who didn’t deserve to die. Indeed, didn’t President Bush, five years ago almost to the day smiling in his jumpsuit in front of a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished,” assure us that the war is over? Jean Baudrillard, as he argued for the first Gulf War in The Gulf War: Did it Really Take Place?, would likely have said that it never really occurred in the first. “We are all hostages of media intoxication,” he writes, “induced to believe.” It occurs only in heavily mediated images on CNN with only cursory relevance to whatever is taking place on the ground.

Likewise Canada’s war in Afghanistan. Our government wages an imperialist act of aggression upon an unarmed nation for an act of terrorism that was neither directed at us, nor committed by those we attack; and we do it in the name of “defence.” Our military strategy, our Foreign Affairs Ministry informs us, is based on rhetoric, not substance. We are strengthening Canada’s role in the world by effecting American foreign policy. Our enemy is not an opposing army, but ethereal “insurgents.” And we are not allowed to see the bodies of our dead soldiers return home. There are no corpses, no weapons, no armies. “Just as wealth is no longer measured in the ostentation of wealth but by the secret circulation of speculative capital,” Baudrillard writes, “so war is not measured by being waged but by its speculative unfolding in an abstract electronic and informational space, the same space in which capital moves.”

The real violence our society inflicts has become simulated, and we combat this shift by criticizing virtuality as if it were real. Violence against sex workers is all but absent from the pages of our newspapers (unless it fits into our spectacular fantasies like the Pickton murders, effacing the individuals who lost their lives over a period of thirty years). Yet GTA4 comes out with attendant social outrage. It is as if the protests against the game are as simulated as the violence it represents: virtual protest for virtual violence while the real deal continues apace.

Games like GTA4 certainly provoke a visceral reaction, a watermark of the tragic misogynist violence that infects our society. But there is something altogether more tragic about a society that condemns sex-worker violence in a game yet does nothing about it in real life, for real sex workers and for real women. I suppose, when real violence becomes a simulation of itself, when the terror in which we are complicit is so overwhelming, so imposing, and so atrocious, what other recourse do we have? No wonder virtual games like GTA4 are so popular.