Part 1: Trauma Porn
There is one little incident I experienced circa 2012 that really encapsulates my whole experience of the past decade... one that culminates in the present moment.
Around then I was introduced via a music forum to a podcast called Entitled Opinions hosted by an aging boomer Stanford literature professor named Robert Harrison. The podcast started in 2005 and is still going strong as of 2020, though there have been several hiatuses. Most guests are either other Stanford professors, or visiting authors and thinkers. Each episode is focused on talking about the interviewee's particular area of expertise, i.e. the historical Jesus, or the early 20th century European avant-garde, or the ideological rift between Mahatma Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar, or Freud, or Emily Dickinson, etc.
Harrison opens most episodes with drippingly self-indulgent little soliloquies romanticizing the many noble attempts by various humans to grapple with the great existential problems that plague humanity. The show's current webpage (which was formerly an extremely charming bare-bones Web 1.0 artifact until more recently) offers this quote from Harrison about the show, lifted from one of these opening monologues: "This show offers the narcotic of intelligent conversation. ... There's plenty of room at the table, and everyone is welcome, but be warned: the bread of angels is not your ordinary snack. It may set your head spinning and give you a high."
Many of these intros end with a clip of Harrison himself ripping into a guitar solo in a section taken from one of his own band's original songs. Yes, he also plays guitar. This guy loves talking about Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd as much as he loves talking about Heidegger or Dante's Divine Comedy. He also likes to be at times a little overly verbose and interject remarks on how he is deeply troubled and/or confused by what is popular with the kids these days. A lot of the episodes also focus on the eternally-discussed (to the point where it's really a tired cliché to point this out) output of dead white men. On its surface, the show can really feel like a perfect kind of upper-crusty, highly educated Boomer catnip... just pushing the further immortalization of already deeply canonized individuals. It's the kind of thing that seems like kryptonite to current popular sensibilities of online content directed at younger people, where both the hosts and the audiences are striving for absolute moral clarity and certitude.
But in many ways that's also the show's asset. Harrison is definitely a liberal in a general sense and seems to be skeptical of more militant lefty thinkers. But the show is generally "apolitical" especially when we're comparing it to the current wave of lefty-tinged podcasts. Harrison is generally very respectful to his guests and open to various ideas and positions that conflict with his own. His guests are also all generally well spoken and well-prepared. The level of the conversation is high and doesn't try to talk down to listeners or give them an oversimplified "101" type summary. But it is also reasonably accessible to follow for people like me who don't know much at all about the subjects being spoken about.
To put it plainly: the whole intent of the show is to give people a window into the world of intellectual discourse - to suggest that our image of reality is never concrete, but made up of a multitude of ideas and constructs that have long been fought over for eons. It's an attempt to spark curiosity and to open listeners up to a deeper level of questioning about the world around them. This might all seem a bit corny to spell out, but it is very much a goal that the show consciously aims to achieve. While this discourse is all being generated from career academics, it's at least being presented to listeners for free online in a digestible chunk. It's not all locked away in some JSTOR vault. And listeners have an affable host in the form of Harrison to guide them reasonably well through all these intellectual excursions.
For me this podcast was a big thing. It was a relatively accessible way into thinking about various philosophers, artists, composers, etc I'd heard of but never really engaged with because they felt inaccessible to me. I went to one of those brand-name expensive US private liberal arts schools where you're supposed to learn about this stuff, but the few classes I did take that might have been relevant I didn't retain much at all. I was in the mode that public middle-school and high-school had trained me into, just plowing through without internalizing much and doing a good enough job so I could get onto the next thing... a next thing that, it turns out, never really materialized.
By the beginning of the 2010's I was out of college and in an extremely downwardly mobile period of my life. Almost all of what I had grown up with that I had still held onto was crumbling in various ways and I felt I needed to escape whatever was left as quickly as possible in order to survive. It was a tremendously emotionally intense and confusing time. I often was really isolated and without support. Facing a totally unprecedented situation that felt impossible to wrap my brain around, I was extremely open to absorbing anything new that I could grab onto that might help me build some spiritual armor to get through all of it.
My circumstances were worse than they had ever been up to that point. But it was also 2010 and I was 23. I had just came out as trans a year or two before. We had Obama, who still seemed like a decent guy at that point to me. Lady Gaga was on the pop charts, which marked the first time I ever cared about mainstream pop music. The world seemed (at least at the time) like it was changing for the better. As 2010 turned into 2011 I sat glued to my computer screen and watched the Arab Spring and the London Riots unfold via twitter. It was the very beginning of a long decade filled with the now extremely frequent bizarre theater of timelines filled with endless updates about currently unfolding protests. It had far less of the constant dread and feelings of "what terrible thing will happen next" of today and far more optimism that the world could legitimately be changing for the better. It felt like a veil was lifting, and there was a new light shining through.
I wrote a piece for the now-defunct publication Offworld in 2015 which paints so much of this period of my life as being shrouded in darkness, depression, and poverty. I am honestly pretty upset at myself for writing that piece, and it really bothers me that it's still my only piece of writing to ever have been featured in a book. 2015 was towards the beginning of many people realizing that the optimism of the early decade was failing to create a better reality and the world, in fact, just seemed to be getting worse. In 2015 I was also starting to develop chronic stomach issues that I still have now. I kept thinking that through my writing, I'd exorcise some demons of the past and somehow cure myself. The effect was often the opposite. Some parts of that piece feel like a kind of trauma porn that I felt increasingly pressured to engage in. Writing like that was gaining traction at the time and I bought into the idea that it might be empowering for me too. The pain may have been real, but I was entrenched in some high-levels of magical thinking buying into the idea that it could be cured by taking a big public trauma dump over everyone. Now that that kind of trauma porn has become an indisputable part of culture via popular works like Hannah Gadsby's Netflix "comedy" special Nanette, it feels like even more of an empty, brow-beaty gimmick masquerading as emotional authenticity.
Besides, I was being dishonest with myself. In 2010 I was not just crying in the corner every day about how sad my life was. The bottom may have dropped out, but for the first time in my life I also felt a kind of optimism that anything was possible and the future was bright. Maybe you could say that optimism wasn't fully founded in anything rational. I might have been naively invested in a lot of things that turned out bad like the Obama presidency or The Arab Spring (or Lady Gaga for that matter). But this kind of investment isn't a super uncommon experience for a 23 year old who felt recently unchained from any expectation and authority.
So now it's 2012 and I've moved to California. I've been crashing at a friend's apartment in Oakland for awhile but the situation is in no way stable. I'm listening to another episode of Entitled Opinions - this one on the friendship (and falling out) between Wagner and Nietzsche. In that episode, the interviewee professor Stephen Hinton shares a hilarious anecdote about the incident that solidified their falling out. Nietzsche had apparently suffered from chronic migraines that plagued him his entire life. Wagner, being one of those 19th century freaks who believed in stuff like the Graham diet, was in active communication with Nietzsche's personal doctor in a rather blatant breach of patient-doctor confidentiality. Eventually he said that he suspected that Nietzsche suffered from "onanism" (i.e. masturbation) and that in order to solve it, Nietzsche must marry. When Nietzsche found out from his doctor what Wagner prescribed to solve his problems, he was totally furious. Their friendship ended at that point.
When I heard this anecdote, I thought it was the funniest thing ever. What little I knew about Wagner or Nietzsche at the time (namely that the Nazis claimed/co-opted various things about them) I didn't like at all, so this just fueled my morbid curiosity towards them more. I immediately pulled off my headphones and tried to very poorly explain to the friends I was staying with who were currently sitting in the same room as me this story. I'm not sure what I expected to hear from them, but what I got was stone-cold silence. They both looked at me like I was an alien. I don't remember them saying anything but "what?". I don't think the conversation got any further than that before I put my headphones back on and continued listening to the episode, and we never spoke of it again.
Maybe this was just a relatively mundane awkward interaction. Maybe it seems ridiculous that I even brought this up at all. But it was also one of the first moments when it really hit me that this was really not my scene. I had increasingly become both personally and professionally affiliated with a group of people that I felt existed on a different plane of reality from me. With that affiliation came a feeling of immense pressure from them to conform to a specific idea of who and what I was supposed to be in order to be considered part of their group. And talking about Wagner and Nietzsche wasn't exactly putting me in their good graces. In more normal circumstances, you can more easily exit out of situation like this and move on to something else. Things are far more difficult when you're leaning on those people not just for like professional connections and finding an audience for your own work, but also for housing and emotional support. Maybe if I was a little less young and foolish I wouldn't have been in that situation to begin with, but it's easy to say that in hindsight.
I was a queer trans woman who was increasingly only hanging out with other trans women and queer people for the first time in my life. Identity was increasingly becoming the focus in every aspect of how this group I was a part of was living and presenting themselves. The kind of consciousness that brought about wasn't really something I had engaged in or thought about much before, and it was perhaps valuable to learn from in some ways. Moving to a very diverse, very queer-friendly city was certainly not a bad idea for me. Like a lot of people who ran away from their old life to California, I was just looking for some place to belong. That, of course, sounds painfully naive when I spell it out here now. Because in reality that belonging was mediated through a tangled web of so many layers of performative friendships, alliances, and professional power dynamics that were constantly warping and shifting. So many people were constantly throwing around a lot of big important words like community, sustainability, and solidarity and joking about a "trans hivemind" or whatever, but these were really just empty signifiers. There was no "there" there.
The group I was a part of was a group of queer and trans videogame developers. In hindsight I can say we were all part of this ongoing push to change a sphere that has been traditionally very conservative and masculine - both artistically and also materially. It was also part of an ongoing movement pushing for more expressive, non-professional, often non-commercial approaches to making a videogame. These both felt like good causes that I supported. I had more aspirations for my music and I was a film major in college, but the videogame world seemed to be where the interesting and new things were happening at that point. These were peak "can a videogame make you cry?" years, where many in game industry seemed to be experiencing an existential crisis and were really starting to thirst for games could be pieces of art rather than just cynical product pumped out of a bloated, hyper-corporate industry. There was still a lot of idealism floating around the scene in general about what the future of games, and by extension, what the future of technology could be. Many people still saw new technology as potentially benevolent democratizing force on the world. The little micro-scene I found myself inside was a part of that, in one way or another.
But there were severe limitations on the collective imagination of this scene in many ways. We were in the SF Bay Area so we had extreme proximity to the source of new money that was flowing into the newly booming indie game development scene, often via the tech industry. Tech companies were becoming the history-defining forces of nature they are now, and so tech startup culture positioned itself as a bastion for high-minded idealists ready to change the world. In independent game development, this meant that the genuine idealists hoping for some kind of more enlightened future and the businessmen just looking for new markets to exploit often resembled each other. In my heavily queer and trans immediate social sphere, this also led to a weird seeming contradiction of desires of a lot of people wanting to be socially validated by and get money from that space while also not wanting to be seen as aligned with a bunch of uncultured tech bros. We were often heavily antagonizing a lot of people we also really depended on validation from in order to exist in the space at all.
This blurring together of different groups of people with different intentions was aided by this whole twee nerdy "we're all friends" image that defined the indie game developer scene of the past decade; one that often just was a cover for a lot of abuse and exploitation. What was often praised in that scene as "brilliant" or the next big thing was unique in only way and totally forgettable in every other way, echoing startup culture's interest in empty "next big thing" ideas, the most extreme embodiment of which was Theranos. The vacuousness of what was being celebrated as brilliant ended up being a lot of what I started writing about on this blog and elsewhere. Eventually everything just fractured as the good time vibes curdled over into people declaring that the "indiepocalypse" had come, and the idea of the indie developer as it was defined before lost a lot of its meaning.
While many of those trans and queer people I was around saw themselves as an antidote to the more artistically lame, hyper-commercial, and unenlightened white cis bro parts of the scene... it often wasn't any better in terms of the actual work that was produced. Our little micro-scene at times felt totally dour, overly prescriptive and lacking in much imagination. Replacing a fetishization of empty technological gimmickry was an all-encompassing focus on a (supposedly) new kind of identity, which was at the center of everything. Everything started to become focused on validation of your experiences as a trans or queer person, and making other people see your personal trauma. Everything was also extremely rooted to the moment. This addiction to speed, quantity of output, of feeding off the dramas and events of the immediate moment feels like it was a crucial part of the scene's dynamics. Interjecting your little takes in in order to stay on top of whatever was happening was important, and very much in harmony with the pace of social media. And it's what made some people able to ride those waves successfully for a little bit, but it's also what helped sink a lot of things very quickly.
The incident when I got looked at cock-eyed by my friends for talking about Nietzsche and Wagner didn't just stick with me because I was mad at them for not caring about who these guys were. I felt broadly aligned with my friends' stated goals even when sometimes I was totally confused by their motivations. It was that, to me, it embodied the complete and utter lack of curiosity or openness towards, if not outright active hostility to, anything that seemed old or received or outside their sphere of immediate experience. It was a lack of continuity and ability to see themselves as in any kind of real dialogue with the rest of history. It was also the lack of a larger collective consciousness or purpose. And that point really revealed the hollowness under the surface of what so many of us were doing. So much collective energy that was purportedly being spent fighting the sexist, racist transphobes who were standing in the way of a more enlightened future was being used far more towards laying the groundwork to myth-build for individuals in the scene who were starting to get really high off their own supply. Any one individual in the scene's ability to effectively present themselves as an important voice of moral clarity and throw around terms like "community" or "sustainability" or "accountability", terms that seem like they really mean something concrete if you're naively assuming the best of intentions from their speaker... meant basically nothing most of the time. That total lack of interest in self-interrogation meant it was just another mask on top of a lot of people's self-valorization and endless, merciless drama. Nothing really meant anything. It felt like a bad dream.
Part 2: Magical Thinking
A few years ago I was upset to learn that an acquaintance was a big fan of "intellectual dark web" grifter Jordan Peterson because Peterson was apparently his only venue into hearing about philosophers like Heidegger. I told him that he should listen to Entitled Opinions instead. I didn't want to engage him in a long debate, so it seemed like the best thing for the both of us. I found this instance pretty troubling though. Because - in the same way that suspicion was being cast on me by my friends for having any interest in learning about Nietzsche and Wagner because it wasn't relevant to my identity or immediate circumstance - it felt like every sign out there in this dude's environment was pushing him into thinking that his cultural moment as a cis white man has passed and he needs to atone. The majority of popular discourse around race and gender these days seems to focus squarely on this idea of an intense personal psychological transformation undertaken by the subject of a dominant group as the only real way out of being complicit in perpetuating more oppression... including diversity consultant Robin Diangelo's incredibly popular recent bestselling book "White Fragility".
The problem in these arguments is there is often little that clarifies what that psychological transformation really means in a broader social sense and what ideal form it would actually take. The perpetuation of a kind of invented "common sense" wisdom in the mainstream tends to mask all the more invisible aspects of racism, sexism, etc that are forbidden from being talked about in an open way in the mainstream: like how our current institutions by their very design perpetuate inequality and oppression. So many of the people like Diangelo who stand to benefit off of pushing corporate diversity initiatives certainly have a direct interest in doing all they can to make sure that looking at root material causes that might implicate employers or structures they benefit off of don't reach mainstream public consciousness. So I think there's also an inherent deep cynicism to this "personal psychological transformation is the only way" argument. And that's both because it pushes aside any acknowledgement that we should be focusing our energy on the root causes, and also that it often implies we can never really find true solidarity across racial or cultural or gendered lines because of the inherent evil in the hearts of men... something that might double as an argument for more segregation, if taken one step further.
When presented with the mainstream manifestations of this argument, my Jordan Peterson-loving acquaintance can either decide to marinate in his white cis male guilt and wrestle with his psychological demons ... or he can take refuge in an invented idea of the past. I know in this case he's going to do the latter. And I can yell at him and say he's a bad person for doing that, but it doesn't really matter at the end of the day. Grifters like Jordan Peterson are there to scoop up many of these men by taking the implied "maybe we can't all ever really get along" parts of mainstream liberal identity politics discourse and taking them to their logical extreme. He's there to capitalize off a fairy-tale idea of magical continuity across tradition upholding a cosmic hierarchy that's echoed by all the great figures and stories we know throughout history. Disney, Heidegger, and Jung are all connected via some kind of magical, eternal logic. Anything that that challenges this eternal hegemony is an unnatural, grotesque affront to the inevitability of history. Basically Jordan Peterson is there to tell these guys that by the nature of them being alive they're tapped into this magic hierarchical wisdom that has existed throughout history. Things were always meant to be this way, and anything that might challenge that notion is simply wrong.
The rise of figures like Jordan Peterson typifies a larger trend of the past decade for me: that the 2010's were a decade dominated by magical thinking across the board. Some people might attribute this to the rise of Trump, but I think it really started when Obama bailed out the banks after the housing bubble burst in 2008. This didn't mesh with the sunny image of hope and change many associated him with. Many people in the 2010's felt increasingly powerless and unable to effect change due to the societal instability the economy collapsing had created, so a lot of that instability was channeled into a huge number of new systems and ideas those people thought might bring them prosperity and spiritual fulfillment.
The feeling that there was very little opportunity out there in the world was certainly driven into my skull after I graduated college in 2009. My fixation on the idea that I could break into this indie game development scene and be financially successful there only further intensified as a result. I did a lot of things I potentially wouldn't do otherwise, because I thought it was my one real hope to merge my creative interests with something that could make money. Across the internet many people did the same, as they tried to find new and different ways to monetize their hobbies and profit off of the growing shifting of all culture onto the internet. As mainstream culture increasingly seemed to embody by a kind of dangerous, vampiric hyper-wealth and become distanced from the reality of most people's lives, a lot of people on the internet were able to take advantage of this gap. But as with all gold rushes: some lucky people profited, most were never close to striking anything, and the people who were by far the most were successful were the platform holders (in this case: the tech industry).
An article by Hannah Gais in The Baffler last year explores the glut of magic healers and other conspiracy theorists in the Soviet Union in the last few years before its collapse in attempt to draw obvious connections to the US culture of today. My favorite of the Soviet conspiracy theories is a particularly bizarre theory called New Chronology, a system which claimed to prove that chronological history as we know it is false... and has been endorsed by Chess champion Gary Kasparov. BBC documentarian Adam Curtis also invokes the last couple of decades of the Soviet Union in his 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation. He describes how in the presence of a system that almost everyone in the Soviet Union seemed to sense was failing, the fake pretense of reality became reality and people maintained the image of a functioning society. HyperNormalisation was released just before Trump was elected in 2016, but it really effectively seem to predict almost everything about the popular delusions that have become mainstream in the Trump era: from Russiagate, to the widespread belief that the Trump presidency is a historical anomaly... to the increasing popularity of conspiracy theories like the flat earth theory and the growth anti-vaccination movements, to the booming wellness industry, to even the increased popularity of astrology. We now live in a feeling of constant unreality: where chaos, confusion, misinformation, and random violence seem to be everywhere. I also wrote about this unreality in my piece for Vice in 2018 on the masterful Russian/Ukranian Doom mod A.L.T., perhaps the one piece of art that captures that sense of unreality more than anything else to me.
Perhaps all the unreality partially explains the lack of interest in any historical continuity from the friends I was around in the SF Bay Area trans and queer game dev scene. Everyone involved, in their own way, might have been trying to fix the problems of the past by creating the idea of a new history that seemed to be unburdened by it. The tech industry gave the genuine promise of immortality to many people, so the idea that we could all engineer our way into the future was something that many people had in their heads as a real possibility. Perhaps this also explains the addiction to speed of output and the sense that there is no history, because the present always contains a profound importance as a moment to end all moments. With the push to narrativize our own life stories and repackage them as content on social media in order to gain traction and visibility, we become cast as Harry Potter figures in our own fantasy realities: a "chosen one" protagonist who will, through our own sheer prowess, be important warriors on the battlefield of good vs. evil. Everyone is an activist, no matter what they actually believe, and activism and social change are narrativized through a Hollywood lens. Activists act like brands in order to attract attention, and brands act like activists in order to stay in people's good graces.
As economic austerity leads to increasing privatization of the public sector, various corporate entities are rushing to profit off of all this and redirect it back to the properties they own. This leads into feeding an ever-growing beast: another defining force of 2010's culture known as fandom. To me a lot of the tensions around fandom are embodied by the backlash to last year's Martin Scorsese New York Times op-ed where he made the apparently controversial (to some) statement that Marvel and other comic book franchise films are, in fact, crappy mass entertainment that are more theme park rides than works of art with anything to say. Throughout the 2010's, comic book franchise films completely and utterly dominated the landscape of movie theaters. The massive profits of these films at the expense of almost anything else has led to more corporate consolidation, and Disney in particular has solidified as an all-powerful entity with an iron grip on all of culture.
Total corporate control over mass culture means these companies have sought to enter themselves into the ongoing activist struggles and sell themselves as important pillars of contemporary feminist and anti-racist movements. The 2016 all-female Ghostbusters reboot that caused a massive amount of backlash from many hyper-male nerd outposts on the internet, then caused a backlash to the backlash from pop feminist writers who treated buying tickets to the movie as some kind of moral duty women had to undertake to strike back against all the misogynist nerd bros embodies this. But things really solidified with 2017's Wonder Woman and 2018's Black Panther: both were broadly successful, critically well-received big comic book movies that took advantage of the ongoing discourse about race and gender to position themselves as idealized pillars that embodied certain kind of liberal feminism and anti-racism. In the age of Trump, when actual political power in the US (and worldwide) is moving farther and farther to the right, it became our civic duty to support these films and others like them in order to strike back against that.
It's no real secret to say that by now, fandom has become a dominant force across all kinds of media. Which means that mass entertainment has been burdened with the task of finding ways to design itself around the increasingly crucial goal of making sure that it can keep these growing fandoms happy. This dynamic has been celebrated by many voices across the media as just more evidence that online fandoms they're a part of have wielded collective power effectively and exercised agency over what these corporations produce. And because so many of the pop feminists and anti-racists really are just glorified fans, they're in a perfect position to feel ownership over these mass-produced products and defend corporations like Disney for the basic 101 way their movies might address racial or gendered conflicts. To them, these movies show clear evidence that they're winning the culture war. They feel smugly powerful, as if they're the real protagonists of these movies and they're using their powers of the pen to strike back against the forces of darkness, represented by Trump's grotesqueries.
But this also means any visions that don't feel like they're generated out of some kind of collective desire for empowerment that comes out of "grassroots" fandom are viewed with increasing suspicion. Art that is potentially morally ambiguous or that might upset or challenge audiences, if it can even exist in the mainstream at all in the current moment, is far more liable to get framed as the product of morally dubious, if not outright evil, individuals. A fallout from the #MeToo movement in particular seems to be many critics who are suddenly totally incapable of distinguishing a difference between what's depicted onscreen and what a filmmaker personally endorses or believes in, because of a fear that these filmmakers are using it to show the secrets of who they are behind the scenes and provide moral cover to themselves. It all calls back to the conservative Satanic Panic of the 1980's that created mass fear among conservatives that metal music and horror movies would lead to mass murder and devil worship among the youth of America. This got resurrected in its own bizarre way in the completely baffling liberal moral panic over 2019's Joker movie starring Joaquin Phoenix. Many in the mainstream media went into a blind panic after seeing the film's trailer, declaring that this film would be some kind of "incel" manifesto that would inspire hordes of disillusioned women-hating young men to do mass shootings at the film's screenings. That obviously didn't happen, and the film turned out to have almost nothing to do with what those people thought they saw in the trailer (it's actually more about class and mental health).
This current propensity for moral panic about art because of the perpetual fear of a Trumpian takeover of all culture has kind of collapsed all nuance and desire to talk about "art for art's sake" that's not touched by the dynamics of fandom. The haters get framed by fans as not adequately understanding the urgency of the moment and wanting to preserve old, toxic, outdated culture. In the realm of film, Scorsese's assertion that Marvel films fly in the face of all that he loves or cares about cinema translates to the media pundit fans that he doesn't like the diversity and anti-elitism of those new Disney films that they have an imagined stock of collective ownership in. It means that he wants to emphasize the artistic decisions of individuals who might have their own whims that a collective fandom can't exert control over vs. mass produced films that a fandom can (in theory) exert control over. He wants to be a gatekeeper who preserves the old guard of individualistic filmmakers like him or Quentin Tarantino who like to make dark, gritty, violent movies featuring toxic masculinity and aren't always nice to their audience. He wants to preserve indulgent art. And the expression of this somehow, to them, is Trumpian.
To put it in clear terms: the idea of collective struggle has been successfully co-opted and commodified by various corporations, and so many people still don't even know it yet. We've become so focused on the moment-to-moment when the big picture of where these things are heading is a far murkier, darker story. In my SF Bay area trans and queer game dev scene, voices around me parroted the idea that any past that doesn't portray some kind of glorified, idealized image of marginalized struggle in the most morally transparent terms is forever tainted and needs to be scrapped completely. The idea here was that "we" had ownership of how our struggle played out in the moment, but "they" owned all the hegemonic culture of the past. That a corporation could actually be in some way exerting control over and profiting off our struggle in the present moment, but have an active interest in disappearing a great deal of culture of the past just never seemed to occur to anyone.
When I first started getting involved in that scene I think I kinda just knew if I was ever a part of any movement or group that was genuinely trying to do something new and different, I needed to find any kind of anchor I could to keep me grounded. I was scared it all could blow away with the drop of a hat otherwise, and things could end up worse than they were before. History works in strange ways, and the past is filled with moments where people are able to do something for a brief window of time that they, in no way, could do now. I recently watched the late 1960's films Easy Rider and the original Wicker Man and they both seem to inextricably bear the mark of the era they come from, particularly Easy Rider. Some may call the filmmaking techniques (lots of zooms, quick/disorienting editing) they use and the subject material focused on at time as dated. But "datedness" is an idea that doesn't hold much water to me. The late 1960's and 1970's were era where certain ideas of what a popular film could be, how it could look and how it could feel were blown wide open. Creative works that could never have been able to be made at any other time could be made during that window of time, before culture shifted in another direction. Our present possibilities (and/or lack thereof) can be just as hamstrung by the demands/expectations of the time (therefore "dated') as the past. History does not move in a straight line, and there are many ways that elements of the past can be far more open and forward-looking than the present. The only way to really wrap your brain around this is to have a broader awareness of the history.
But a lot of the the awareness of the strange progression of time I had at that point fell by the wayside for me, as much as it probably did for anyone else, as I got swept up in the constant frenzy of the moment. Any sense of curiosity applied towards trying to unlock all the seemingly arbitrary historical circumstances and characters that produced both our most celebrated works of culture and our most oppressive, evil institutions faded into the background. Any idea of a past that can't either be beacon of total moral clarity that you can idealize and look up to is reframed as a hollow pillar of an establishment that needs to be completely and utterly destroyed on one side, or they're framed as carriers of an eternal conservative wisdom thwarted by the indulgences of cancel culture on another. We lose access to culture on its own terms as something that can be shared and appreciated across boundaries, and what remains just becomes content fodder completely ripped from its context and used towards an ongoing, never-ceasing culture war.
The tech companies and the brand empires like Disney get to have their cake and eat it too. That corporate behemoths are historically hugely responsible for censoring, suppressing, and destroying various forms of culture that has reflected broadly marginalized perspectives before they could ever become any kind of mainstream part of culture throughout the literal entirety of modern history doesn't matter. The actual history doesn't matter. Movie studios like Disney get to erase history by making an increasing number of old movies they own that don't mesh with their current brand image unavailable (and therefore invisible) on various streaming services, while also getting to frame themselves as at the forefront of contemporary debates about identity that the old dinosaurs like Scorsese or Tarantino are supposedly in opposition to having happen in the first place. Tech companies get to employ their algorithms towards funneling money back into their top content creators and demonetizing/making hard to locate work that challenges its audience or talks about difficult subjects in a frank way. They also get to destroy the past through the planned obsolescence of their physical products and breaking (or outright destroying) old software (i.e. Flash) and causing everything that depended on that software to be lost to the sands of time. But these companies are branded onto our consciousness. None of this matters because the average person's total paralysis about the political realities and existential problems of today means the Disney's of the world are there to jump in and hold us in their long arms and comfort us like surrogate parents. In the absence of any control over reality there is only fantasy: and fantasy is what Disney is all about.
Part 3: A Symbolic Victory
As one of those high-minded snobs who is sometimes guilty of caring about capital A "Art" above all else, I often feel self-conscious about the creative paths I've gone down. A big reason for me getting deeply entangled in a space so utterly soaked through to the bone with rabid lowest common-denominator pandering as game development was a hope that the blossoming independent game dev scenes were opening up the possibility that videogames could occupy a similar kind of artistic realm as so many the great films I studied in school. And not even just echo great films of the past, but push past them: because filmmaking felt stagnant and increasingly impossible to break into as an outsider, whereas games felt totally exciting and new. At the time I started following the indie game dev scene, people would say things like "it feels like the Wild West!" with absolutely no irony (there's a reason people are constantly getting murdered in Westerns). But that total lack of irony seemed to radiate through everything. My hope was that we would not just drag the medium forward into a venue of substantive artistic expression, but challenge audiences with something totally new different they could never ever even think of seeing before. I think in some ways that happened with some stuff. Games from the 2010's like Cart Life, Oikospiel Book I, Anodyne 2, Kentucky Route Zero, or even the aforementioned Doom wad A.L.T., will (I hope) end up having a much longer tail of influence in the future. But those mostly seem to be produced by individuals with distinct perspectives rather than something created in the heat of the moment as a result of a coherent movement or a scene.
In the little queer and trans scene I got sucked into, it was hard to say how much that desire for a new, challenging kind of art was echoed by a lot of the people I was around. There was definitely a collective interest in obscure, trashy, and strange things made by eccentric outsiders. But the goals that motivated people's work seemed to be constantly shifting and it was hard to trace a coherent position among different people involved, especially when it came to anything that wasn't immediately relevant to the identity issues that came to define everything. But whatever genuine desire for some kind of new radical experimental outsider art that might have been radiating around the scene I was in was still far, far too out-there for most people in videogames world. When Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women videos were first announced in 2013, and the backlash came from a massive number of gamers who targeted and harassed her in large numbers, we were off to the races. The conversation became fully solidified into the mainstream as one about better representation and depiction of women in prestige AAA videogames, rather than about whether you should care about some experimental queer artists or not. And it was probably always going to go that way. The public at large as of this moment still has little-to-no real awareness that experimental art-games are even a thing that exists, and there was no coherent push behind advocating for weird, often non-commercial stuff that was totally fragmented across various corners of the internet. Because many reactionary gamers saw the invasion of feminist critique of the prestige AAA games in their space as something that shot straight at the heart of all they loved and held dear, that issue became the center of the universe. The battlefield around depiction in AAA games was solidified.
"The Events of 2014" don't need to be revisited yet again, but they felt like a little preview of the election of Trump in 2016 in how they seemed to permanently destroy the possibility for a larger kind of nuance in the mainstream conversation and break some people's brains forever. When every part of what's happening is now about how you feel about how a particular group of people is represented inside mass media, it's kind of a real problem when you're trying to make a case for something that is still broadly unknown, unpopular, and largely has nothing to do with that. But also it meant that any of the arguments people like me might have made in the service of trying to make these kinds of unique experimental work by outsiders a more viable part of culture were eventually co-opted and reshaped to be about better depiction of more diverse groups in mainstream games. With my involvement in the space at all came the implicit assumption that I must care about the stakes of those depiction wars above all else - or why else would I even be there? That was something that the industry actually knew how to work with, after all.
The pressure that was being generated on social media from this meant that large companies that didn't want to just outright ignore these issues started responding in their own ways. While the mainstream game industry is certainly still a more culturally conservative space than Hollywood, the industry has always been natively online in a way other creative industries have been far slower to grasp onto. This meant that these battles that were happening online became the defining image of the industry. Companies that wanted to improve their image started hiring people from the discourse sphere of writers and fans that had coalesced around social media who were eager to find any work. This started to undercut the "us vs. them" feeling that existed for many critics of the industry prior to that. But the fact that the game industry is so decentralized meant that other companies could take advantage of the waves of highly-mobilized reactionary gamers too. Characters in games became more diverse and less stereotyped than they were before, and more women and bipoc were put in spokesperson positions for various companies. We were supposed to celebrate this as a victory, I presume, though it never felt that way. But other parts of the game industry just doubled down on their hostile reactionary fandoms because they had no real financial incentive not to (that's where their fans and staff came from). The people who were hired as part of a diversity push, whether they knew it or not, were often just placed in positions to provide the companies they worked for with cover to improve their image, while the overall culture didn't really change.
To this one can say: well maybe this push for more workplace diversity was at least an improvement from before! And yeah, the mainstream game industry is a culturally pretty conservative space and I think that sucks. But it's kind of an easy fallacy to buy into the idea the results of this diversity push was much of a clear victory at all. These companies want to make money. Expanding to new audiences is a no-brainer for a lot of these companies who are always looking for new ways to grow. That does not mean companies are broadly interested in their employees' empowerment, and it's kind of silly that anyone would believe in that in the first place. But unlike in Hollywood, there aren't many labor unions to speak of so issues of power dynamics tend to not be very much at the forefront. The game industry often benefits from having a feeling of more grassroots decentralization away from the big cultural monoliths. Game companies tend to position themselves as a safe space for introverted geeks away from the grandiose glamour of something like Hollywood, and tend to push the tech industry-style "we're all friends here" fake non-hierarchical work culture, especially in the case of Valve's famously toxic "flat" work culture. In that way it feels like the push was just feeding some new especially vulnerable faces into the grinder of immensely gaslightning work cultures that cause a lot of people to burn out and leave the industry by the time they hit their 30's. It also may just make those diverse hires feel largely unsafe and underprotected: when they're not being used as a kind of labor wedge against other workers who might actively resent or and be hostile to these new hires. This is all compounded by something writer J.C. Pan points in a recent article for The New Republic, namely that a growing number of studies suggest that the workplace anti-bias training mandated by most companies that is supposed to create a less hostile workplace doesn't actually work:
A recent study by sociologists Frank Dobbin at Harvard University and Alexandra Kalev at Tel Aviv University, surveying more than 30 years of data collected from over 800 firms, found that diversity programs not only failed to increase workplace diversity, but in many cases even reduced diversity or exacerbated participants’ biases. A 2016 meta-analysis of nearly 500 studies on implicit bias interventions similarly found that while such sessions sometimes briefly and slightly diminished participants’ implicit biases, they had no significant long-term effects on people’s behavior or attitudes. And in 2019, another study of diversity training programs by a team of behavioral scientists further confirmed that onetime interventions designed to reduce implicit bias—the type used by the vast majority of employers and institutions—tend not to change very many minds at all.All of this makes me feel very uneasy, because I don't want my primary legacy as someone who is a queer trans woman who has written about videogames a lot to have just been providing fodder for people in positions of power to prop up their own kinds of diversity initiatives that don't even work. It always brings me back to the question: why should I care about what happens within these game companies when I have an issue with the whole enterprise of how they operate to begin with? I find a large chunk of mainstream games to have no real substantive artistic value and be totally transfixed with fetishizing sheer scale and spectacle over everything else. Not to mention many companies depend on business models that are, to put it very nicely, not particularly ethical. When Martin Scorsese says that Marvel franchise movies employ a ton of skill and craft in their making but they have no real artistry to them, he just as easily could be talking about so many big-budget videogames. So why should I care? I have no real passion for that kind of product.
Trying to muster the energy to care at all is a big struggle for me in general, as someone who cares about art actually being good and impactful, and finds most mainstream entertainment to be totally lacking in those qualities. At the same time, I begrudgingly realize that most of the product these industries squirt out is still, in some way, connected to the work people in the same field who are on the fringes are making. One depends on the other, whether or not that's often apparent to either party involved. I really want to believe these two sides can interact more effectively and that larger scale, bigger budget work can be artistically ambitious and say something of substance, like I'm sure most people do. The more people are directly exposed to better art, the likelier it is to have a positive impact on their own imagination and curiosity. The only way I envision this happening, however, is through a combination of large-scale worker organizing, rigorous anti-trust laws limiting the power of many large corporations (or potentially just turning them over into public utilities), and a high-level government investment into the arts, particularly directed towards local centers and the fringes. With the right actions we would have an extremely good shot at being able to create a more healthy arts culture and vastly improve the quality of what's made, and the quality of life of the people who make it.
Labor issues have been the forefront of a lot of what I've thought about in the last ten years because we are living in an age of extremely absurd inequality. Class issues, up until very recently, have also been very taboo to talk about at all, particularly within US culture. I've also seen so many times how identity discourse get used as a wedge against efforts to build a broader class-based solidarity. The mainstream "identity vs. class" conversation always happens in the most gratingly aggressive way to me. It always seems to derail everything around it. The idea that being part of a particular marginalized identity gives you inherent magical wisdom and a permanent position of moral superiority over other people is my whole problem with identity-centric discourse to begin with. But I often see the same thing echoed in discussions of class too.
As the Bernie Sanders presidential runs of 2016 and 2020 massively popularized a focus on class and labor issues among young people in the US, many more people in my sphere who were not at all interested in talking about those things before suddenly started to position themselves as capitalism-smashing radicals all across the internet. That evolution feels nice on the surface, but it's hard to know how much is really behind it. It also means that those people just as often apply the same kind of extremely dour moralistic discourse that's used to talk about identity towards talking about class issues as well. The idea that we can unite around the idea of worker solidarity, while a great start, doesn't in itself just magically transform people's consciousness and cause a mass revolution against social inequality. The magical thinking and focus on symbolic consciousness-raising above other stuff is the problem. We're all using the same corporate platforms and finding ourselves through this mode of public performance. There are definite economic stakes involved to how well one performs to a particular audience, and how effectively one tells one's audience what they want to hear. And what an audience of people want to believe about themselves vs. how an extremely complicated reality is playing out often don't have much to do with each other. So reductionist moralism that isn't open or flexible to debate can get twisted around to look like it's serving an ultimate empowering moral good.
My experience being a co-founder of Game Workers Unite in 2018 kinda confirmed a lot of my fears about the shallowness of some of these mass actions, even when many involved have the purest of intentions. My initial, not particularly ambitious plan for GWU was just that the group that initially formed via twitter, facebook groups, and word of mouth were going to collectively show up to a roundtable discussion about unionization at the annual Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco hosted by the head of the notoriously anti-union Independent Game Developer's Association and tell her she's full of shit. As more and more people got involved, this expanded into making and distributing materials like buttons, stickers, and zines that we could hand out to people at the event as if we were handing out business cards, zines, or some advertising crap.
The action seemed modest to me, but because of the large presence of press at that event and the nature of that moment's newfound focus on labor issues (several games press publications were undergoing active pushes towards unionization), GWU immediately blew up the internet in the first few days of the conference. Having some experience being around stuff that had blown up before, I was not particularly surprised and expected it to some degree. But many people involved had never had that experience before. So I had the strange experience of witnessing people who just a week prior had been stonewalling these efforts with worries about infiltration and questioning the moral purity of our actions immediately started basking in the glory of this victory we had all achieved before anything really happened. People who presented themselves as totally hardened Marxists who antagonized all aspects of the mainstream press suddenly seemed very occupied with all the press our thing that had just been cobbled together the week before was getting. Many were already glorifying their own personal versions of the narrative of how this story went down in their heads while it was still going on. And people all over the internet thought it was a legitimate large-scale organization because of how much we got written up in the press. Some people even thought that the existence of GWU meant that the game industry had a union now and the battle was over. The lack of a basic literacy didn't matter, because GWU had brand recognition. And the contradiction of an activist organization meant to organize workers existing primarily as a venue for brand recognition is one that says a lot about the moment.
I suppose I should see the whole action and what followed as a major victory towards the battle of breaking through the idea of unionizing into the mainstream of the game industry, a space that's notoriously hostile to the idea of any unions. I wish I could feel happy about that, but I don't really feel that way. The chaos generated from all the press towards that action meant there was a lot of stuff happening behind the scenes that I couldn't keep up with, so that fell on the hands of a few people who were willing to do all the work. A few were in a good position to climb themselves to the top of the organization because they were privy to a bunch of secret knowledge no one else knew. The chaos was being leveraged as a power grab, basically. And while that was happening, people's egos were inflating fifteen times the size of where they had been previously in the span of a few days, so they weren't about to buy into that the idea that this train should be at all slowed down for any reason. I had absolutely no control over anything, and it didn't feel like most people wanted to listen to any idea that wasn't about growing, and growing, and growing towards the biggest goal possible of unionizing the mainstream game industry. It didn't matter that most of the people involved were young and total outsiders with no real in-roads into the culture of the biggest game companies. All the press had massively inflated so many's ideas of what was actually possible. The whole thing became very weird and very intense and seemingly no one wanted to take a step back and reflect on what we actually had the power and resources to effectively do next.
Long story short: I stopped being involved shortly after, and haven't been involved since the first few weeks of its existence. I didn't regret it, but sometimes I still feel like I didn't try hard enough to push it into a different direction. Last month there was a lot of twitter drama unfolding about racism within GWU and I guess I felt both unsurprised and annoyed. Unsurprised because this clearly seemed to be the priority of "we need to focus our resources on mainstream game industry workers ('mainstream' being code for mostly cis white guys with resources)" playing out in real time. My hopes that the organization could provide a decent non-predatory safe space for a lot of the young and vulnerable people getting involved with the industry for their first time seemed to clearly not be a priority to a lot of people in leadership positions. Annoyed because of how a public accusation can quickly derail the focus on the big picture goals of what an entire organization is supposedly aiming for. In my mind GWU was never really supposed to exist as anything more than a stopgap idea to get people to think about unionization in games as a possibility. To me it had no real use beyond that. Especially when that organization mostly exists as a bunch of different dispersed groups that don't have much to do with each other. I welcome the idea of those groups breaking off and doing their own things. I think that is healthy. But on the internet of today that simply cannot be done. If you have any positive brand recognition, you must drive that into the fucking ground.
My fear with any organization like GWU is that people who are new join up because they want to do a good thing and meet more people, only to have a truckload of thankless labor thrown at them. Activist organizations that explicitly are there to advocate against abusive labor conditions within company workplace cultures often have absolutely no self-reflection on the ways that they're echoing those labor conditions within their own organizations. The intense moral pressure of "don't you care about doing the right thing?" can easily be held over people's heads and push them into doing a lot of work that might be worthless or counter-productive and just make them burn out. Especially when the organization is either not what a lot of the people who joined up thought it was (because that was never clearly communicated), or it wasn't focusing its goals enough in a particular direction to achieve any real change in the first place. And those who burn out aren't necessarily people who will ever come back, or be replaced. They have a reason to be mistrustful and feel suspicious that their labor was used to prop up the image of a brand name that doesn't represent them, and may have been just used increase the amount of public adulation directed towards big name members who are using the whole thing as a career-building exercise. So then when the backlash to something like GWU ends up happening further down the line, the lower level people who signed up face getting shunned for even having the gall to try and be involved in the first place, when they had absolutely nothing to do with the focus of the backlash.
Activist work is still work, and all work isn't created equal. Spur of the moment actions can ride a big wave of support but the longer lasting work needs to be planned and directed much more deliberately to bear fruit. On social media, where activists act like brands and brands act like activists, there are major hurdles to overcome. Ones that many activists seem reluctant to acknowledge at all, and might hand-wave away by saying things like "twitter isn't real life". The idea that there is any such thing as a 'real' or 'normal' person, that those people are inherently different from the people who spend a lot of time online, and that only the non-real online people really care about what happens online is a complete fantasy. Media literacy is more important than ever, because the work of activists has become such a dominant media spectacle. But discussions of media literacy are something many of the big figures of the "new left" tend to be broadly resistant to, because they're liable to dismiss it as a squiggly postmodern indulgence and a distraction. It's not comforting to people who want to steep themselves in a romanticized view of the struggle of the underclasses that's based more in historical fanfiction than any kind of reality.
A recent episode of the (apparently) always contentious Chapo Trap House podcast featured co-host Matt Christman bringing up an insightful point on the fixation by many protesters in the currently still-ongoing protests against police violence across the US towards toppling statues of racist historical figures as an act of symbolic protest. Christman said that many involved are trying to imagine this vision of a future where everything those statues represent is gone, which would necessitate the toppling of those statues in an act of celebration. Through the popular lens that we've come to view and understand much of history (often through historical documentaries that focus on particular iconic images of past struggle), the toppling of a statue is a shorthand for a regime or way of life that has fallen. But no such regime is anywhere close to falling, and we're very far from the actual mechanisms needed to reach that reality. So protesters become focused on the symbolic act of removing the statue as a pursuit unto itself, as a way of magically trying to shortcut the process and will that reality into existence. The symbolic becomes such an important focal point because our culture is so saturated in images, and they define how we understand everything. So the sharing and propagating these images on social media defines a lot about how we see the present moment. And it also can lead to a whole lot of people getting really high off their supply about what's happening before anything has really happened. So when we see the statue toppling shared across social media, we know it represents victory over a past regime so we might respond with those feelings of victory even though no such reality has taken place. Present reality is building itself up into becoming an iconic image of the future before it even has taken place. "Where were you?" we ask to ourselves in the future, before it's clear where there is to be in the present. We're trapped in a state where we're simultaneously in the late stages of a revolution and where the revolution hasn't happened yet at all, and it's all in our heads. Reality becomes defined by the collective fantasy, but it also isn't.
And it isn't particularly because, with all of our relentless focus on a need for absolute moral clarity and accountability, so many people who are completely morally bankrupt, who are existing in a time and place that should totally flay them alive for their total lack of any basic decency, are coming out better than ever. Riding the controversy has in fact entrenched them into the popular consciousness even deeper. They seem to just get more and more invincible, the harder we push. We have no idea how to hold those people accountable, or what actual accountability would even mean. We become absorbed by an overarching paranoia that manifests itself in us increasingly targeting and policing the people directly around us in order to just feel in any sort of control over the situation. And action becomes far less about a means to push towards any concrete goal because our focus is so frazzled by the chaos, and far more just an expression of frustration that makes us feel some kind of catharsis. Struggles of the present offer us a possible hope that we might be having some kind surrogate magical effect on the world stage, in a positive or even a negative way. Everything that's happening is always the most consequential or worst thing to happen, until it's escalated and one-upped by something else. We all have an increasing collective investment in the feeling that that has to be true in order to continue to feel like any of this is going anywhere. Everything becomes about trying to will that truth into existence, because the alternative is far too difficult to comprehend.
Is there anything virtuous or, more to the point, useful at all about action undertaken for the sake of action, in an age where everyone seems too frazzled and exhausted to put that action in a coherent direction? The existential threats of climate change, growing authoritarianism and hyper-nationalism, and the now-current reality of mass death via pandemics seem to be holding us hostage. We know that we have to do something, but every time that something feels like it may be moving in a semi-coherent direction, that gets thrown out the window and we're back to the chaos and confusion.
The 2010's were a decade where corporations were able to profit off our diminishing material possibilities and increasing distrust of authority and sell it back to us as empowerment. The 2010's were a decade where people in power were able to stir up constant chaos and panic as a way to make the public feel like their actions didn't matter to a degree that we'd never experienced before. The 2010's were a decade where the idea of collective struggle, even at the most grassroots level, became a commodity from its very inception because so much public life shifted onto to privately-owned platforms. The 2010's were a decade where activism and popular culture became inextricably tangled up inside each other, and all culture became defined by a search for absolute moral clarity in the midst of a reality that had none.
I come back to a quote from this review of Hannah Gadsby's (of Nanette fame) show "Douglas" from last year in the New Yorker by Hilton Als:
Blanche DuBois, that expert on the human heart, has told audiences for generations that the complications of being human preclude “straight” or uncontradictory behavior: there is a great deal of truth in nuance and ambiguity. And yet we are living at a time when nuance and all the confused intentions, desires, and beliefs that go along with it are considered less a way of understanding human frailty than a failure of “accountability.”Anyone who is good enough at manipulating people can leverage this collective thirst for accountability to gain the moral upper hand and find people who will follow them fervently and loyally. Patrick Bateman mastered the art of having the moral upper hand when he spouted out a bunch of nonsense liberal platitudes and it didn't make him any less of a psychopath. It actually just solidified how much of a psychopath he is. The current landscape is defined by the powers of its best faith healers and con-men. Too many parties with no real insight or imagination to speak of stand far too much to benefit off of the current ecosystem for it to be a place that inspires much real hope for the future. I can only hope that the people with some actual insight and imagination will find better ways to claw their way to the surface of the endless waves of mind-numbing chaos we're all caught up in now.
As a decade, I hated the 2010's. Let's hope we can wrap our brains a bit better around the next one.