Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Embracing the New Flesh

(this is a heavily revised version of a talk given in the "Influences" session at Indiecade 2014. spoiler alert for the plot of Videodrome)

there's a tendency that i keep sensing popping its head up indie games that i call the "boy genius syndrome". it's about being the first to carve out and colonize a new idea space in the digital world. it often takes the form of being really hung up on a particular type of easy-to-convey technological innovation. it's about willingly reducing your ideas to one easily-sellable hook in order to get further and brand yourself as an innovator. it's, of course, an extension of larger patriarchal values - but in this case specifically tech culture's values.

i think this works particularly well because the standards are still so collectively low as far as interesting or unconventional approaches go towards games, that anything that stands out as at all strong in the field gets amplified by those participating on the more progressive end of the culture as this new great thing - BUT ONLY as long as it's relatively easy to communicate what it's all about. then, simply knowing about it and being associated with it becomes a form cultural currency that also increases your status in the culture. the boy genius projects an image of power and knowledge that makes him attractive to be around.

maybe not so surprisingly, this means a harder path for a lot of games that are aiming for more nuanced, or harder to interpret, or convey experiences. this expression, and these fights people in the progressive game sphere are waging against a dominant culture defined by intense conservatism become seen as a novelty, almost a sideshow. work is made to embody one idea only. our expression is always being re-framed by outside cultural forces that are trying to make sense of our work and file it into an easily understandable category. articles about games, in the end, still garner much less traffic and general interest than other cultural phenomena. serious discussion that happens in the videogame sphere is largely disregarded as niche and unimportant in broader cultural conversations - much to the frustration, by the way, of those of us who do see games' ubiquity and value. and so, in the absence of larger serious cultural attention, the boy genius rules as king.

the boy genius thrives from identification (either feigned or genuine) with the norm of videogames as lower culture and sees himself as selling back the most beautiful parts of it to his new, tech-savvy world. the boy genius does not challenge the idea that games are overwhelmingly a culture built from corporate ideology that has manufactured and heavily pushed this idea of "gamer" and "game culture" as active ways of entrenching themselves in the market. the boy genius merely tries to carve out a space in this market, to get another piece of that pie. the boy genius may try to resurrect what are now considered anomalies of the medium's past that don't fit this gamer culture, particularly old PC games or physical games, but only in order to "rediscover" and rebrand them for the present culture. this, in itself, is not bad - except that in the end, the boy genius does not seek to challenge, but merely seeks ways to repeat to us what we already know in different, newer forms.

in the movie Videodrome, an eyeglass corporation that serves as a front for an arms manufacturer for NATO creates a weapon which takes the form of video of an extreme BDSM porn - dubbed "videodrome". the extreme sexualized violence depicted in the film causes deep bodily effects on the person exposed to it, like a brain tumor, and also heavy delusions and hallucinations - eventually re-wiring their body by forcing it, quite literally, to take out their will, and then killing them. the subject in the film they expose it to, under the guise of a pirate transmission, is Max Renn (played by James Woods), the owner of a seedy tv channel, who the corporation is targeting to get him to show it on his network and broadcast it to the kind of seedy people who watch his channel and get them all to carry out their bidding.

Brian O'Blivion, a prominent academic researcher, fought to create a counter-attack to videodrome before succumbing to the tumor he gained from being exposed to it. his counter-attack was to embrace the form of videos and reframe it as a new extension of our own flesh, as a way of communicating the dangers of videodrome, in making thousands of videos, oftentimes many a day. towards the end of the movie, when Max finds out that he has been exposed to videodrome, he is ordered by Barry Convex, the president of the arms manufacturer that makes videodrome, with taking out Brian's daughter Bianca. Barry orders Max to do this by quite literally inserting a fleshy videotape into a slit that has formed in Max's stomach. Max also is given a flesh gun from inside his stomach that fuses permanently with his hand. he uses this to, not under his own control, kill the heads of his network. Max then tries to kill Bianca but she understands deeply how videodrome works and manages to catch him before he does and reprogram him, again by pulling out the old videotape from his stomach and inserting a new one. he repeats this new phrase dictated by her: "I am the video word made flesh. death to videodrome. long live the new flesh."

this "new flesh" is as another way of looking at digital devices as extension of our bodies - and embracing them as body parts we exercise full autonomy over. because if we don't, we can easily fall under the order of strong, powerful cultural programming that favors the aims of corporate ideology and the military-industrial complex.

this is a very real and very intense battleground happening right now, in 2014, and i think it might be most easily illustrated by gamergate.

just compare the extreme violence of videodrome's BDSM porn to a hyper-violent FPS - the violence serves as particularly strong and powerful physical current for ideological indoctrination from larger forces to enlist their ultimately disposable subjects. and so we have disillusioned, small-time males pushed into carrying out acts of violence against counter-contingents which represent the most serious opposition against all this ideology - in the case of games, usually women.

i don't think we understand just how powerful videogames are- but the military does. the military and arms manufactures relationship with the triple-A industry has been increasingly documented. the tactile bodily effects and feedback of games make them a particularly effective indoctrination tool. even in tech, Facebook understands the power of a new technology like VR when they bought Oculus Rift and that it benefits them to be in control of technology so powerful.

the problem with fighting back against the tide of all this powerful cultural programming is we're often bad at envisioning and embracing this new flesh as a tool of progress amidst these vast corporate structures colonizing the internet. in his movie A Pervert's Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Zizek looks at the many apocalypse scenarios increasingly saturating popular media of the last ten years and asks: why is it so much easier for us to envision in the cultural consciousness a total apocalyptic collapse of society than it is to imagine a fairly minor-shift in our ways of understanding and constructing the reality of our situation?

the answer is that is the logical endpoint of the ideological path we're following now. and there is something intensely painful about, in the midst of this, realizing our own bodily autonomy, and our ability to make even a subtle a shift in our understanding and construction of reality. it's a struggle, and it involves experiencing a lot of pain.

i'll do another one for you. i used to hate Stanley Kubrick's movies. i hated The Shining. i thought it was really cold, and alien, and manipulative. it all seemed like to come from this really cynical masculine perspective. i felt upset and used after watching the movie, and i didn't know why. it was very painful for me.

then after reading some deeper analysis, i started to see a voice come out of that movie. the things i had originally observed, instead of misreadings that went against against the surface narrative of the film like i had originally assumed, were actually intended readings. that source of pain became a window into something deeper. it lingered much more than any other films which went for shock value that i saw. and then i saw that it has a philosophy, it functions as a critique of ideology - just like Videodrome. Jack, the father, is never ever meant to be anything less than terrifying in the film, in contrast to the book. the film is a punishing critique of, among other things, the nuclear family structure, and white male imperialism. i think i understood this at some intuitive level, but wouldn't have been able to conceptualize that a horror film like this has that level of depth, because it usually never does.

this way of looking at media - with a deeply critical eye, against the grain of the surface narrative, is one that takes most people tremendous effort to learn and recognize as valid. corporate ideology implanted into media forces us to want to identify with our characters as a way of building a strong (but pre-defined) relationship with them in order to help us feel better about ourselves. getting past the role of media to help you feel better about yourself, and understanding that a piece of media is much more effective when looked at with an intensely critical eye, is tremendously painful to do. we see our natural state as one without ideology, and thus stuff that upends our natural state is seen as ideological. misogynistic gamers see feminism or LGBT rights as an ideology being enforced on them, rather than a critique of an ideology they implicitly, unthinkingly accept as valid.

once you are able to see the ideology underlying the need for escape and comfort, it opens you up to everything else. once, as Zizek in The Pervert's Guide To Ideology says of the movie They Live, you put on the sunglasses and see the true ideology underlying everything, you're not able to go back to normal life again. once i really looked at The Shining, the gears started turn in my brain. and i felt my capacity to understand increasing. but this involved confronting and dealing with pain - that involved willingly putting on the sunglasses, unafraid of what i might see through them.

game culture is so thoroughly built around identification with your character avatar that seriously challenging surface reading comes off as a direct antithesis to the conventional wisdom that exists within it. and that's not to say that big budget games haven't tried (and failed) to muddy these waters ala Bioshock Infinite or Spec Ops: The Line. but they failed in part because of a large part of the ideology of corporate game design is that players are never allowed to feel serious pain for more than the shortest period of time. and i don't mean pain to your character avatar, but pain to you, through design ideas which challenge your assumptions or your patience or your perspectives. often people approach games as some sort of sacred escape space defined by a complete lack of ideology. the almost spiritual, religious fervor that gamers approach games with makes it an excellent breeding ground for intense ideological indoctrination. this isn't rigidly and aggressively applied, but one that is seen as natural and normal state of games to occupy. but that level of deep, almost spiritual comfort games provide make it even easier to actively ignore how strongly constructed that idea of 'enjoyment' is in the first place. it also makes that much harder to wage any kind of serious, sustained counter-current against it.

while most media tends to flatten and flop on the ground upon further analysis, films like Videodrome or The Shining continue to just unfold like an infinitely-layered flower and have a life far after their making. and that's because The Shining or Videodrome embrace their form. they embrace the plasticity of it. they love their images, and their symbols. they love every detail and shot composition. they know their experiences are transparently not real in the pure factual sense (whatever that means, really), that therefore makes them much more real than equally-constructed depictions of "realism" in media, particularly in serious television of the last ten years. they instead, embrace the ideology of media. they embrace the new flesh. "death to videodrome!" they knowingly assert.

so does David Lynch. this simple but effective image is from his film Inland Empire. both the color red and lamps are continually used throughout his work - in this case the red lamp stands like an oracle that shines light into a violent memory. broken down into a series of fundamental symbols and constructions, his work re-examines deeply troubled psychological landscapes; and the deeper, more fundamental forces that flow through all things and communicate much more about who we and how we operate are at a much deeper and more intuitive level. his films, like Kubrick's and Cronenberg's, embrace a highly fabricated world as a channel to something deeper.

the point being that this realm of innovation for innovations sake, of the boy genius, ultimately aims for further entrenchment into existing ideologies. if we hope to win this war, we need to jump out of that realm and into the one of a spiritual healer or oracle. we need to jump out of the brain and into the body, to the larger picture. we need to not be afraid to feel pain. we need to look at media with a more critical, but also empathetic eye. we need to put on the sunglasses and not be afraid of what we might see through them.

because when we don't - not only is the end result co-option and re-entrenchment, but the end result is violence against those who openly resist this ideology, both in the metaphorical and literal sense - because the end result of adopting patriarchal and colonialist worldviews is always violence acted out on the bodies of the marginalized and powerless.