Edge of Tomorrow and the Gamification of Being

June 11, 2014


As Jon Stewart commented to Tom Cruise on The Daily Show the other night, Edge of Tomorrow (2014) resembles a videogame. Cruise’s character, William Cage, dies over and over.[1] Each time he dies, he is resurrected with the knowledge of what transpired before he died, and so, much like a videogame, he is able to get “further” than he did before with each “play-through.”[2] Also, like videogames (in general), there is something deeply nihilistic and doomy about this kind of ontological state, this state of being “reset” (often intentionally) so that a better outcome can transpire, again and again, for ends that seem largely unobtainable, and, after a while, not even desirable or coherent.[3] This representation of human life as infinitely repeatable, as “gamified,”[4] as a set of conditions and procedures to be mastered, as a teleological striving toward a singular objective, a boss battle at the end of every single life for the survival of humanity . . . I would like to suggest that such a vision of Being signifies a deep and abiding despair with contemporaneity, a hopelessness with life as we know it, an acknowledgment of the finitude of human life (and, indeed, the species), and an insight into the brutal logic of the gamification of the world in the twenty-first century. It also, of course, holds out a weird hope that the gamification of the very things that make us human (our experience of time, our finitude, love, knowledge, et cetera) might allow us to access transcendent, messianic, heroic existence. This hope, however, only reinforces the audacious despair at the heart of the film.

Edge of Tomorrow’s most clear cinematic forerunner is obviously the endearing, (still) funny, and (at this point, for me at least) nostalgic film, Groundhog Day (1993). I’m surprised it has taken Hollywood this long to revisit this concept of serious repetition, for there is something weirdly fascinating about the idea of living the same day (or week, or month, or life! the possibilities are endless . . .) over and over again. There are clear “affective” pleasures this kind of narrative produces. A single human life is littered with regrets, reflections on what could have or should have happened, words that shouldn’t have been spoken, actions taken that cannot be undone, a litany of mistakes, an index of petty tragedies.Groundhog Day takes this regret and funnels it into a single, relatively ordinary day, experienced by a relatively ordinary bourgeois American subject. The despair at the heart of Groundhog Day is normal: everyday life, with all its attendant regrets and failures. We take pleasure in its comedy—in all senses of the word—because the fantasy it depicts is not, as my students like to say, “relatable,” but because it is wholly other. We cannot undo the past, rework our mediocrity into perfectible “goodness,” living for others, being our best selves, et cetera. We like to imagine that we can be perfect bourgeois subjects, interpolated as Bill Murray is by the end of the film, and we take pleasure in perpetuating the illusion that such subjectivity is possible, but we cannot help but be haunted by our own selfishness, pettiness, despair, complacency, and hopelessness, a state of being that characterizes Murray’s character at the beginning of the film. Groundhog Day is an ideological fantasy that briefly covers over our own dumb, inert selfishness, and for that, it is a balm for everyday life. It briefly holds out a hope that we aren’t all the worst, and as such, we enjoy the illusion.

Edge of Tomorrow, though formally almost exactly the same, is quite different. Yes, Cruise’s character is “unlikable” at the beginning of the film, but not in a genuinely “human” fashion (i.e., Bill Murray: he’s a jerk, a misogynist, a drunk, et cetera). Rather, Cruise doesn’t want to go to war. Sure, he is in the military, performing some sort of military-media duty, but his desire to not go to war (I hope after over a decade of US military adventurism) is not unnatural.[5] At this point the alien invasion seems limited to the area Germany occupied during World War II, so why would one want to go into battle, when there are so many places on Earth that one could still live relatively unharmed (e.g., the US)? Are we really, at this late date, to sincerely accuse Cruise’s character of cowardice at this point? I would hope not. (And, as he points out to the general, he’s playing a legitimately important role in global propaganda! Why would you send one of your chief propagandists into battle?) But of course, the general is nonplussed with Cruise’s cowardice, so (I assume, drugs him? and) Cruise finds himself waking up in handcuffs, his paperwork listing him as a private, being sent into battle on the whims of a sadistic general.

Let me stress how different this is from Groundhog Day. First of all, the physical, material reason for Murray’s repetition is never explained. Cruise’s is explained quite quickly: the alien-hive-mind-Mother-Brain-glowing-thing can transcend space and time, resetting the world every time one of its special-time-whatever-units is destroyed, thus insuring its victory . . . or whatever, and Cruise accidentally got some of that magical alien goo in his blood the first time he died on the shores of, I assume, Normandy, so the Mother Brain thinks Cruise is one of its temporal units. Further, Cruise, unlike Murray, has only been characterized as a media maven with little backstory (family, wife, kids for a man clearly in his forties?[6]) and no discernible character traits. (Murray was able to distill an entire life’s failures into the first twenty minutes of Groundhog Day.) So Cruise is just a tabula rasa, a one dimensional man that, because he finds himself in this extraordinary situation, soon becomes a valiant badass, like we all could (if we were playing a videogame). In other words, Groundhog Day’s repetition does not resemble a game. It resembles the fantasies of what all us poor schlubs would do differently if we had the chance. The Edge of Tomorrow, on the other hand, places us in a (now classic) videogame situation: we don’t know who or what we are, nor why we find ourselves in this extraordinary situation, but through repetition and mastery, we will get to the final castle and save the princess![7]

Just think about the first time you played Super Mario Bros. (1985). Why am I here? What am I supposed to do and why? What are these bricks and question marks? What are these little goombas coming toward me? I doubt anyone pauses to ask themselves such questions. No. The player immediately sallies forth, knowing there is a clear teleological direction (right, always right!) and gamic procedure, and through enough repetition, the gameplay will be gradually mastered. After Cruise wakes up for the first time after having died, he is exactly in the same position as the eight-year-old player of Super Mario Bros. who has died for the first time, maybe even on the first goomba, and finds herself back at the starting position. (And, much like with videogames, his situation is only made clear to him with the introduction of another “player,” Rita, played by Emily Blunt, who also had and then lost Cruise’s ability to play the situation over and over again. She effectively becomes “player 2” in Edge of Tomorrow.)

For the logic of The Edge of Tomorrow is its banal teleology. The one scene where Cruise steps off the path, goes into London to watch the war on the television and throw back a couple of beers, results only in the alien destruction of the city. The message is clear. There is only one direction to go in. Either kill the final boss or nothing.[8] Being, with this kind of telos and repetition, then becomes mechanized, enframed, controlled, and reified. The only possibility for subjectivity, for a subject’s ontological experience of the world, is to abide by the strict limitations imposed by this experience of repetitive time. Cruise has no other choice than to abide by the logic imposed upon him (or else isn’t imaginative enough to articulate other ways of being within the logic of his gamified existence. He’s like the player of Grand Theft Auto who never deviates from the main narrative path. . . .)

Compare this to Groundhog Day. Murray’s first reaction, unlike Cruise, is a deep realization of the banality and horror of his situation. The endless repetition of the same day over and over is an utter nightmare. And so he confronts this horror not by gamifying his existence, but by playing with it, without parameters, for fun (even going so far as to kill himself in a number of clever ways). He then uses his situation to master a host of tasks, but few of them are blatantly teleological. Yes, he masters the piano, but there is no need in the diegesis of the film for him to do so. Achieving his love relationship does not get him out of his situation. Only by becoming selfless, a better person, caring, et cetera, can he get off his track. And, as we might (hope we) know, there is no clear, easy direction toward such caritas, no telos for this kind of love. Groundhog Day flirts with the gamification of Being, but it is clear there is something very much more at stake with the cosmic loop that has been imposed upon Murray.

Cruise’s situation is more horrifying than Murray’s, for he has to die to reset the “game,” and he dies over and over and over. The experience of such constant death, I have to imagine, is unpleasant, as are all those moments prior to death (he breaks his back, arms, et cetera, at points in the film, usually before being shot in the head). And it is this repetitive death, rather than resurrection or repetition, which is the clearest site of the horror of Edge of Tomorrow’s gamification of Being. In a slightly different context, communications scholar Lizbeth Klastrup has suggested that in videogames, “the experience of ‘death’ is thus not one of termination, though it may definitely cause a player grief. In most gameworlds, ‘dying’ is an activity similar to a number of other repeatable activities that occur as a part of the everyday life in the world.”[9] Death is just another mechanic, part of the aesthetic form of the game, something that ultimately can be “playful and explorative, fun and entertaining, or merely be considered an unfortunate nuisance that obstructs the flow of playing the game.”[10] Jesper Juul has taken his reflections one step further, noting that “I dislike failing in games, but I dislike not failing even more,” and as such, “failure in games tells us that we are flawed and deficient. As such, video games are the art of failure, the singular art form that sets us up for failure and allows us to experience and experiment with failure.”[11]

This is all well and good. Failure and death in games are fundamental aspects of the medium’s form, its aesthetics. Death is not an ontological condition in videogames, but a structural one, like a law of physics, a mechanic, a limitation that, by limiting one’s experience, creates meaning and pleasure. If one could not die in, say, Super Mario Bros., it would be drained of whatever (perhaps limited) meaning or pleasure it may have or produce. (This is the same reason that, though cheat codes are initially fun to use because of how they transgress the boundaries of the game mechanics, players quickly get bored with being invincible, or whatever, in games.)

Let me be clear. Death in Edge of Tomorrow is not “playful and explorative, fun and entertaining . . . an unfortunate nuisance.” It is death, clear and simple. Yes, it isn’t really death, because Cruise comes back over and over, but there is nothing playful or fun about it. It hurts. It must take a psychological toll upon him. He sees Emily Blunt die over and over again, which becomes more and more painful as he begins falling in love with her (for reasons that are largely unclear; she is also quite one dimensional). When Bill Murray plays with death in Groundhog Day, it is darkly comic, playful, and, at least for the audience, unsettlingly fun. Like videogames, death in Groundhog Day is aesthetic and formal. But it isn’t, really, in Edge of Tomorrow. By the midpoint of the film, Cruise has ceased trying to save his comrades from often grisly deaths, realizing that only the teleological goal of killing the Mother Brain matters (and if the Mother Brain had been where he thought it was in the first place, we wouldn’t have the redemptive ending we do). Death in Edge of Tomorrow never loses its feel of “reality,” with all its attendant pain, regret, loss, and horror. And gamifying death only makes it more horrifying. If the horizon of Being is death, as Martin Heidegger once suggested, and that Being is Being-toward-death, that Being is constructed on the abgrund (or lack of ground) that is death, Edge of Tomorrow only multiplies the anxieties and horrors of human existence, of Being.[12]

And here is the audacious despair at the heart of the film. Edge of Tomorrow reveals that the horizon of the contemporary fad of gamification, of gamifying increasingly nongamic aspects of life, is the gamification of Being itself. And this is not fun. It is horrific.Indeed, gamification as it is practiced today is not necessarily fun. Who really wants to earn “experience points” rather than grades, or become the mayor of an area because of their savvy shopping? (Well, actually, clearly many people.) But the logic of gamification, extended toward the horizons of human life, of our existence and not just our activities, toward our very Being, our love, knowledge, death, imagination, et cetera, is a threat to ontology itself, a threat to the very Being that is specific to humans. When we gamify human existence, the result is pain, horror, and death. And do not let the ending of Edge of Tomorrow distract us into thinking that it could be redemptive, happy, and fulfilling. It is only by resetting the entire world, by undoing what had been done, by making human activity and life meaningless, that it can achieve anything other than horror.

The ending of the film, and the film’s clear historical references to the Second World War and the invasion of Normandy, point toward a deeper despair than simply the gamification of Cruise’s Being. The film effectively gamifies the existence of the species. It seems to suggest that World War II is a repeatable, recursive activity that humans get involved in, that they will always be fighting evil, landing on Normandy, dying in the thousands (and of course the film cannot help to obliquely point toward the Shoah, another site of the horrific reification of the human). The only way to confront the present alien invasion is to reimagine the site of so much twentieth century trauma. So it is here, with this repetition of the past, the gamification of history, of war, of trauma, of suffering, of militaristic ideology, of American exceptionalism, that the film’s real despair shines through. In short, the film suggest that humanity, unless it figures out a way of gamifying the species, is doomed. Doomed toward a single end. The aliens in this film do not necessarily stand in for climate change, but they might as well. There is no reset button on the glaciers sliding into the ocean, for the disastrous effects of climate change, for the seemingly endless wars of the twenty-first century, for the increasingly nonhuman forces of capitalist exploitation.[13] And the film acknowledges that there is no other way to prevent human extinction other than resetting history. The despair at the heart of the film is this. We are already past the point of resetting anything, and we literally cannot imagine anything else except the fantasy of going back in time to make it right. And we cannot. The gamification of Being covers over this brute reality to suggest that things are alright, we can just try again. By gamifying death, the film obscures the most basic facts of human existence: that we are doomed and repetition cannot save us. And we clearly need something else.


[1] See Jesper Juul, The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013).

[2] Indeed, there are multiple points in the movie where Cruise says something along the lines of “I haven’t gotten this far before.”

[3] For anyone who has played games on the Nintendo Entertainment System, this frequent resetting of the game, often quite soon after one has started the game, should feel familiar. Cruise’s character is often intentionally shot in the head, or “reset,” throughout the film.

[4] For an outstanding essay on gamification, see Patrick Jagoda, “Gamification and Other Forms of Play,” boundary 2 40, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 113-144. Jagoda says that “gamification,a term that derives from behavioral economics, refers to the use of game mechanics in traditionally nongame activities” (114). So, for example, rather than give out grades in a classroom, students might “level up” and earn experience points. (A quick search of “gamifying the classroom” yields many results.) Gamification is happening all over, from corporate offices, to exercise (see that recent iPhone commercial), to shopping (e.g., Foursquare), to other social media.

[5] In fact, the beginning of the film, with its clear imperative to be “patriotic” in some sort of extra-national sense (i.e., when patriotism is applied to the species), is deeply disturbing. It’s as if the last decade and more didn’t happen. That anything less than “fighting for one’s country” (or something) against a clear “evil” (and it is no mistake the film blatantly recalls D-Day right around its seventy-fifth anniversary) is morally questionable . . . is morally questionable.

[6] Though Cruise is fifty-one now?

[7] So often games begin in media res, the player having little idea of who are what their character is, that this has become a trope of videogames. Think of all the Elder Scrolls games, which all feature characters waking up imprisoned with little or no backstory.

[8] The film implies that Cruise repeated this day many, many times. I couldn’t help but wonder how many “days off” he took. Did he structure his repetitions like a work week? Fighting Monday through Friday, but then doing something different two other days? The banality of dying over and over, I have to imagine, would require a bit of rest and recreation after a while.

[9] Lisbeth Klastrup, “What Makes World of Warcraft a World? A Note on Death and Dying,” in Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, ed. Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), 145.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Juul, 2, 30.

[12] This is a radically condensed and oversimplified account of Heidegger. See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit (1927), trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996). SUNY has recently issued a revised edition of this book. Obviously this is not the place to get into a discussion of Heidegger’s forthcoming notebooks. . . .

[13] And it is perhaps telling that immediately after seeing this film, I wandered into a bookstore and picked up Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2014).

Didn’t Ibsen Write a Play, The Doll’s House? (or, More Wittgenstein Week 2010)

July 16, 2010

So I have most assuredly reached those annual halcyon days of summer when I turn into a zombified eating, sleeping, drinking, smoking, writing, media-consuming machine.  The evidence for this is that I just watched both seasons of Dollhouse (Joss Whedon, 2009-10).

It happens every summer like the monsoons,[1] and when it hits, the force is equal and the downpour as brief.  For instance, I quite literally had the following thoughts today: “well, if I go get food, and I walk at a fairly brisk rate while reading Wittgenstein’s The Blue and Brown Books, I not only can get multiple functional activities done at once—1) eating, b/c that will help me go back to work refreshed (maybe I’ll even take a nap), 2) reading, b/c that is what I’m doing right now and I would actually waste more reading time getting in and out of the car than if I just walked and read at the same time—but (less) importantly, I can get 3) exercise.  Though exercise probably should have been one of the first thoughts about my walking/reading/eating, or at least just leaving my fucking house for pretty much any reason whatsoever should have occurred to me as a “good thing,” it not only came in as a firm third in my thinking, it was an incidental thing, an added bonus for my over-caffeinated robot-body.

But the tragedy is actually not my becoming-machine, for that is surely something to aspire to at times,[2] but that this moment of summer also always entails (desperately) finding something I can spend mind-numbingly countless hours doing.  Many things, of course, have served this function, and surely not all bad, but more-often-than-not I read too many comic books, or play too many video games, or watch too many sports, or watch too much internet tv.  I tell myself: I’m still consuming media, so how could it possibly be detrimental to do these activities, but the fact of the matter is, in what sick-and-twisted world does one come to the point, after seriously, rigorously, and carefully consuming media all day, where “wind downing” or “relaxing” is accomplished by consuming more media?Well, I’ll tell you.  The kind of world where I feel guilty for doing anything else, like, the crippling question: “why am I wasting so much time not working?” but simultaneously experiencing the full awareness of guilty-type media-consuming (I’m like a really bad media-vegan [or vegetarian, like I eat media eggs, fish, and cheese]), as in, “why am I wasting all this time watching [insert crappy shit here.]”  Most of the time this doesn’t bother me, b/c a 2 hour (at most) crappy SF movie is at least only 2 hours, but all of Dollhouse in a week?  That is many, many more hours spent.  Damn summer.

But anyway, so I of course have something to say about it.  Dollhouse, that is.  (Gotta get something out of it [for my troubles and anxieties, and esp. as a way of celebrating these halcyon days—in other words, make guilt work[3]]).

The first thing to say is that Dollhouse is overwhelmingly a “tale of archival crisis.”  No two bones about it, and though of course much of what I say here will be informed by this insight, I would not like to make it the meat of the matter.[4] But to bring us up to speed. . . .

Dollhouse is a Josh Whedon affair (Buffy the Vampire Slayer [1997-2003] & Firefly [2002]), and I must admit two things: 1) his affairs are not one’s I find all that appealing, and 2) I’ve never seen Buffy.[5] It’s set more-or-less in the present in a panopticon for dolls—i.e. humans who are able to be imprinted w/ any personality whatsoever.  The protagonist, Echo, is able to incorporate many personalities at once by the end (for “good,” as opposed to her male counterpart Alpha, for “evil”), and she ultimately kills the head of the evil corporation.  Two episodes show us 10 years in the future, where the technology to imprint humans has made pretty-much-everyone into mindless killing machines, and postapocalyptic-savior-type-stuff occurs.  Yeah, that’s about it.

The narrative aside, the place I think Joss Whedon excels is that he makes clear some possibilities for the future of serial television w/ this show.  For the past few years all the really good television, though somewhat serial, resembled really ambitious comic-books more than they did the A-Team.[6] (Plots where you pretty much had to see every show to keep up, epic world building, etc.  You can picture it.)  What is interesting about Dollhouse is that it is the very fact that it is a tale of archival crisis that permits it to be semi-successful in heavily serialized form.  Whedon has allowed himself the opportunity for his main actress, the surprisingly good Eliza Dushku, to play a different role in each episode.  Couple this w/ a clear eschatology to the show, and you’ve effectively made it possible for anyone to tune in to any episode, even knowing that the series is moving toward some clearly defined end,[7] and not only understand more-or-less what is going on, but even be entertained (and perhaps think a bit).  There are, of course, some really striking episodes that wholly stand out on their own, and for something that is as, well, I’ll say it, archival as Dollhouse, this feels like quite an achievement to me.

To extend my discussion, I’m tempted to talk about: identity as archival in the show, which it surely is and it’s freaking obvious; the panopticon they put the dolls in, where they’re imprinted as infantile, passive, and accepting, i.e. all sorts of (whomever) undertones; having someone yet again messianically save the world who is a multiplicity; and . . . well, I guess there really aren’t really an books[8]—but anyway, these are all surely there and deserve to be commented upon.  But I will refrain, and really for one reason.

No matter how many interesting things Dollhouse may be doing, I never get the sense that Whedon even remotely intends them.  Not even to get into any New Critical territory, but (and this is something I rarely say) Whedon is just bad.  His actors are terrible.  The writing is horrible.  The cinematography under-realized.  And, sad to say, he has very low production value b/c of his low budget.[9] Firefly was the same.  And I say this fully realizing that there are drone-cells of fans out there who worship the guy, and I think ultimately for good reason, but, b/c I feel no reason to even justify this remark w/ pretty much anything, I know he’s in the realm of Adult Swim or Bob Dylan for me.[10]

Whedon is popular b/c he’s the only person who’s shown how one might still do a serial, Law & Order-type show w/ an over-arching, compelling, long (SF) narrative.  He’s bad b/c he’s the first(-ish).[11] His television sometimes feels like a naseous mix of Bionic Woman, Bewitched, Kafka and General Hospital, w/ enough Star-[something] thrown in for good measure.  Don’t get me wrong, I was fucking entertained.  (I mean, I watched the whole series in a week for chrissakes.)  And this will be the ultimate success of this type of serial, for, deep down, our true desire is for a Knightrider remake (w/ David Hasselhof) or else a new Lynch tv show where they give him, like, billions of dollars to make a ten-season show.[12] Someone is gonna come along who learned from Whedon and perhaps give us a good mix of this.  No reason to watch Dollhouse in the meantime, unless you’re interested in the intersection(s) of archives and the Apocalypse.

[1] At least since I’ve been in grad school.

[2] And I mean this w/ no sense of irony, esp. not the irony of the footnote.

[3] It used to be, “make anxiety fun,” what has happened to me!

[4] If you want my take, definition, or defense of this term (as a sub-genre of SF), email me at bradfest@gmail.com for a copy of a conference paper I recently delivered.

[5] So whatever I have to say, keep this in mind.  (This is also to suggest I’ve perhaps found my major summer time-suck.)

[6] I.e. a show w/ a high production value.  A challenge: what year do you think they’ll remake Lost?

[7] Much clearer and more satisfying than Lost btw (but of course also not).

[8] Though learning to read is certainly an important step for Echo.

[9] I would love to see what he would do if he was given a blank check.  C’mon Guggenheim.

[10] Things I simply don’t like at all that many people I very much respect enjoy w/ seeming (over-)enthusiasm.

[11] Okay, not even close to being the first.  Just go w/ me.

[12] Do I hear: Television Event of the Decade?  I mean, as the title?

Apocalyptexts 02: Makers by Cory Doctorow and Freedom (TM) by Daniel Suarez

February 8, 2010

(This, like all my posts, will contain spoilers of the entire work(s), so deal.)

Though neither of these new novels by Cory Doctorow and Daniel Suarez (aka Leinad Zeraus) are overtly apocalyptic,[1] their mutual involvement in and speculation of both the demise of capital-as-we-know-it and the virtual disappearance of middle-class life in the U.S. easily suggests what has already become a genre in-and-of-itself in the past couple years: apocalypse as economic disaster.  This, of course, is nothing new.

As we perhaps all well recall, Walter Benjamin in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” clearly and critically considered dialectical (or historical) materialism in terms of a messianic impulse,[2] and it is difficult to read The Communist Manifesto as not tarrying w/ messianism or apocalypticism.  But it is curious that it has taken the complete digitization of capital, capital divorced from “human nature,”[3] pushed to its ultimate logic by the absolutely hyperreal speed of the postmodern market for the contemporary instantiation of this teleological inevitability—or at least the imaginative speculation of it. . . (i.e. money circulates so quickly and freely, w/ such algorithmic “precision” and “logic” that it is only a convenient and soothing fiction that we are able to “blame” CEOs of companies like Goldman Sachs for economic disaster).[4] If we are comfortable w/ calling economic disaster messianic or at least teleological, we can only have recourse to some “ghost in the machine” explanation (or better yet, a dwarf inside Deep Blue[5]).  And yet, central to both Makers (one can read it online) and FreedomTM is the projected inevitability of the breakdown of capital—its parasitic logic, sped up w/ a globalized, digital, networked economy, is eschatological (or at least disastrous).  And significantly, as both of these authors are so involved in various other e-endeavors,[6] esp. Suarez’s own involvement in the weirdness of late-capital, we should note the temporal nearness of these fictions.  The worlds and economies they imagine are clearly speculative (and perhaps “science fictional”), but they resemble our own world w/ only a few minor extensions of the present projected into the future.  As everyone is telling us everywhere, economic disaster, the apocalyptic threat of it, Greenspan’s “once in a century tsunami” (see my addendum to the post on 2012), has happened, is happening, and will happen (unless we do something to stop it, which “we” aren’t).  Lo and behold: economic disaster is the apocalypse, the only one that actually makes any “sense,” the finally achieved end of whatever.  This should not surprise us.

But, as said above, neither of these novels could really be called apocalyptic at all.  Makers presents a world in which the US economy is pretty much destroyed, w/ shanty-towns springing up everywhere,[7] massive job loss, a New Deal type economic revolution called “New Work” that dramatically fails. . . but ultimately, capital, in the form of Disney Imagineering[8] (mostly) keeps on a’rollin’, and the novel ends pretty much in the no-space of narrative “giving-up-ness,” the utopian projects having all failed, capital having not collapsed, and its protagonists getting old and imminently dying (from side-effects from the “fatkins” treatment[9]).  FreedomTM, on similar terms, imagines a “Cybergeddon”: a coup staged by the economic elite-of-the-elite to wipe out virtually all global financial assets but their own, but of course this fails, thwarted by the weak-AI or “Daemon” presented in the first novel of this series, Daemon.[10] This is done in a world where gasoline has risen to $17.87 a gallon, unemployment is at 32.3% in the US, the US dollar is virtually worthless, and gold is at $4,189/oz.[11] And of course the novel ends on a mildly-messianic, hero-having-overcome-obstacles-and-reached-the-end-of-his-quest-narrative, w/ a twist that might set up a third book in the series (which I, for one, would like to see).

So of course the question is: why are either of these novels—even depicting significant, nigh apocalyptic economic “downturns” as they do—apocalyptic?  Well, in quite simple terms, the manner in which both Doctorow and Suarez structure both economic disaster as well as the utopian possibilities both novels present is archival.  Yes, I said it, no surprise (of course), but they are, and they are to a fairly ridiculous degree.[12]

I’ll begin w/ Makers (mostly b/c I read it first).  Though this isn’t a sequel to Doctorow’s teen-fiction Little Brother—a fascinating and kinda brilliant novel that explores surveillance and what Deleuze would call a “control society” in a pretty interesting post-Orwellian way (thus the title. . .)[13]—it definitely is in the same near-future speculative space, and shows Doctorow putting his finger on the pulse of America very well in a similar fashion.[14] (I will also most assuredly give Little Brother to my kids [after 1984, of course] when they get to the appropriate age [that is, if they materialize.])  The first third-or-so of Makers is perhaps the most interesting, but archival themes are present throughout.[15]

Separating the novel as I am into thirds (first third, and last two thirds), each presents an archivalism, both in terms of accumulation and destruction.  The first third posits a venture capitalist purchasing and merging EastmanKodak and Duracell—two thoroughly obsolete companies in this digital age (for obvious reasons)—and creating “Kodacell.”  The goal of this action is to radically redefine how entrepreneurial capitalism works.  Basically, Kodacell will leverage its massive assets toward investing in small, collective entrepreneurial endeavors, “synergizing”[16] them w/ other such endeavors in the company, all to promote creativity, emergence, inventiveness, and un-exploited profit-making opportunities.  This model quickly comes to be known as “New Work.”  Its principal figures are two techno-geek-engineers who basically simply use the detritus and waste of late-capital to make new, creative, inventive products (they’re actually pretty cool ideas. . .).  Though there are many ideas to talk about, this first third culminates in the “3D Printer”: basically a “printer” which can print any three dimensional object one would want, and, furthermore, the printer is able to print itself.[17] These are mobilized primarily as a virtually-free machine geared toward homeless, dispossessed, and third-world inhabitants/people as a cheap, limitless supply of object-making (i.e. the logic here is: how do we exploit the untapped market of those w/o any economic resources whatsoever [and, of course, “help” them]. . .).  What should be clear, is this “alternative” to late-capitalism—collective, emergent, networked, fluid, small, etc. etc.—ultimately produces, w/in the space of the narrative, an object-relationship that is archival.  This 3D printer can make anything.  It is literally an object-archive, in which any object capable of being archived can be reproduced.

The second-two-thirds of the novel is devoted to “The Ride”: an emergent, interactive archive which makes use of the logic of 3D printers to create a space which is constantly and archivally redefining itself.  The logic of this ride is that one gets on, goes through this museum-archive, clicking approve or disapprove on any object one sees, and it constantly re-updates itself, using little robots and 3D printers on steroids.  This ride, of course, gets globally networked and set up in multiple localities, and a “narrative” or “story” starts to emerge—some sort of collective experience of history, the past, nostalgia, etc. that people get ridiculously invested in (one kid, named “Death Waits” gets pummeled to the point of traction for this investment).  One can bring any object they want to be included in the ride, and the collective, nigh utopian endeavor of riding the ride creates an archival space that is supposed to represent some sort of collective unconscious of its participants—and it is emotionally, organically (somehow), fulfilling.  And of course Disney gets involved, lawyers, new modes of litigation, copyright infringement, and all sorts of narrative-pushing shit which is ultimately kinda boring.

What Makers makes (sic) so clear, is that any post-capitalist model (utopian or otherwise) will have to necessarily involve an archival creative commons to hope to overcome the abuses of globalism.  Not only is every text archivally at one’s fingertips, but so is any consumer product, any object whatsoever.  Furthermore, humanity’s relationship to objects becomes an archival question; the relationship to Things (in the best/worst Heideggerian sense) is translated into an emergent property of culture expressing itself—the archive accumulates simply b/c it’s there; and all of this is represented as an alternative to capital.  Though the novel is an obvious narrative failure on pretty much every point, it absolutely succeeds in making quite clear that archivalism is both apocalyptic and utopian, destructive and creative.  For instance:

“Welcome to the Cabinet of Wonders.[18] There was a time when America held out the promise of a new way of living and working.  The New Work boom of the teens was a period of unparalleled invention, a Cambrian explosion of creativity not seen since the time of Edison—and unlike Edison, the people who invented the New Work revolution weren’t rip-off artists and frauds.  their marvelous inventions emerged at the rate of five or six per week.  Some danced, some sang, some were help-meets and some were mere jesters.  Today, nearly all of these wonderful things have vanished with the collapse of New Work.  They’ve ended up back in the trash heaps that inspired them.  Here in the Cabinet of Wonders, we are preserving these last remnants of the Golden Age, a single beacon of light in a time of darkness.  As you move through the ridespace, please remain seated.  However, you may pause your vehicle to get a closer look by moving the joystick toward yourself.  Pull the joystick up to cue narration about any object.  Move the joystick to the left, toward the minus-one, if you think an item is ugly, unworthy, or misplaced.  Move the joystick to the right, toward the plus-one, if you think an item is particularly pleasing.  Your feedback will be factored into the continuous rearrangement of the Cabinet, which takes place on a minute-by-minute basis, driven by the robots you may see crawling around the floor of the Cabinet.  The ride lasts between ten minutes and an hour, depending on how often you pause.  Please enjoy yourself, and remember when we were golden.”[19]

“Culture” here become whatever one chooses to bring to the table.  One can look at it, change it, accept it or deny it, interact w/ it, passively observe, actively participate, or choose an endless stance of destruction; even a Bartlebian stance is possible.  The Ride is the archive par excellence.  It mobilizes all the Derridean logic of archives, while maintaining a weird sense of populism and political potential.  It also clearly interacts w/ markets, and is easily absorbed into the totality of late-capital.  If Doctorow has done nothing else w/ Makers, he’s staked out the terms of archival logic as we go forward, and if the economy contains w/in itself the seeds of its own demise, or conversely, its transcendence into some new model, it will be realized, parallactically, w/in the archive (at least w/in the speculative imagination).

FreedomTM on the other hand gives us something slightly different.  The novel, as said above, is a sequel to Daemon, whose premise was that a “genius” game-designer set off a “virus” upon the moment of his death appearing in the obituaries, which basically inscribes the World of Warcraft (hereafter WoW) upon reality.[20] The virus takes a hold of pretty much every major corporation, infects GPS and all the other surveillance capacities of the police-state, is able to affect material reality itself (through controlling pretty-much-everything), and offers, perhaps most significantly, an alternative economy to the quickly declining US model.  In short, it is a weak AI singularity in the sense we have become accustomed to.  Two things about this novel are notable for myself.

First, for anyone who has played, knows about, has heard of, or even seen the appropriate South Park episode, it should be clear that WoW is archivism inscribed upon (a virtual) reality (in the case of the novel, it ain’t virtual).  What I mean by this is that WoW documents, inscribes, catalogues, inventories, and measures everything.  The entire makeup of its World (and I do mean all the Heideggerian implications of this word) is archival.  One’s very Being in this world is archival.  I’m a lvl so and so, class so and so, race so and so; and though this configuration will change its parameters, it will never stop being true.  I’m a series of numbers stored on a database in some distant land (presumably the Pacific Northwest) whose interaction w/ the “World” is dependent upon those numbers changingEvery single interaction I have w/ this world (in the best late-capitalist sense) is a slight adjustment to my archival being w/in the economy of WoW.  In other words, if I want to “do” anything, I must enter the economy—there ain’t no alternative.[21]

Basically, the gist of FreedomTM is that this model is somehow more “democratic” than our current system.[22] For one, it has clear, teleological goals, something wholly lacking from any model of interacting w/ late capital as a plebe does now.[23] One can enter into[24] the WoW economy, and it is one that makes far more sense than our own.  To be able to interact w/ it, one has to do, idk, stuff—not simply trade futures and fictional assets, but create.  Yes, there are plenty of people that are able to exploit this system, but it ain’t posthuman—it’s practically feudal.  You spend enough time: you become “rich.”[25] And what FreedomTM does is present this economy as alternative to our own.

I can’t help but think, considering my own panoptic time[26] in WoW, that the model Suarez outlines in FreedomTM is in fact fairly prescient and promising.  (Furthermore it evokes, perhaps unconsciously, all the “good” things about Economy 2.0 that Stross outlines in Accelerando; actually, not only that, it resembles more concretely a weirdly [T] Rooseveltian populism than anything that has been broached recently, and for that, I commend him.)  That said, however, his fiction depends upon so many cognitive leaps that even the possibility of its utopian realization has to confront the brutality of late-capital and its ability to totalize, reify, and absorb pretty-much-everything.  In short, he makes it quite clear that even the possibility of this type of emergent, post-capital economy will have to confront capital-as-it-is—i.e. in all its brutal logic.

And this bring me to the second reason why this novel is notable.  I might be totally wrong about this, but I think this is the first novel that truly imagines in a “real” way what the destruction of our current archive would look like.  The real danger of our postmodernity is that everything will be “deleted.”  And this is precisely what the villains of FreedomTM try to bring about: Cybergeddon.  Delete the archive.  All of it.  All the money, digital affects, and flows of global capital: gone.  This is our current apocalyptic scenario par excellence.  The novel posits a conspiracy of just this type of endeavor[27]: to leave capital, and perhaps more importantly, information, in the hands of even fewer people than it resides w/ today.  (This is what the internet is for, btw: to continue informatic (and capital) flow after nukes destroy shit.)  The utopian nature of this novel is that WoW can solve this dilemma.  (Btw, it can’t.  You ever talk to the dumbasses which inhabit that world !?  Shit.)

So I feel at this point tired and that I’ve confronted the major issues of these respective Apocalyptexts, so will leave off.  But basically, if these novels do nothing else, they recast the “economic downturn” in far more interesting ways than simple old-style apocalypticism would, and, though these novels aren’t apocalyptic per se,[28] they still are compelling for all sorts of reasons, the least of which are archival.

In other words: delete the archive, make the archive into an economy, a ride, a (self-replicating) machine, or what-have-you, the nuclear logic of archival accumulation or destruction is still the dominant trope of our fictions.  And btw, Obama may have called what is happening in my current reality “Snowmageddon,” but I prefer my roommate’s words: “Snowbliteration.”  Cheers brothers and sisters.

[1] This isn’t quite true in the case of Suarez and the “Cybergeddon” he introduces.  See Daniel Suarez, FreedomTM (New York: Dutton, 2010), 370-2.  More on this later.  (Seriously, btw, that’s twice in a little over a week that I’ve encountered the suffix “-geddon” applied to things that perhaps do not deserve it.  I’m looking at you Obama, and your “snowmageddon.”  If you really want to get a taste of snowmageddon, read Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy.)

[2] “Our coming was expected on earth.  Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.  That claim cannot be settled cheaply.  Historical materialists are aware of that” (Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt [New York: Schocken Books, 1968], 254).

[3] Whatever the hell that is. . . .

[4] I also can’t help but coin a phrase here.  Perhaps we should call tales of apocalyptically destructive economic disaster: Capitalgeddon?  W/ a British accent: “that is a capital [sic] idea!”  Or perhaps we’d be better off getting rid of geddons altogether.  (Geddongeddon?  Yeesh.)

[5] Recall Benjamin’s famous first thesis: “The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove.  A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table.  A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides.  Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings.  One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device.  The puppet called ‘historical materialism’ is to win all the time.  It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which, today, as we know, is wizened to and has to keep out of sight” (Benjamin, 253).

[6] Suarez is, according to the book-jacket “an independent systems consultant to Fortune 1000 companies.  He has designed and developed enterprise software for the defense, finance, and entertainment industries.”  And of course I would assume Doctorow’s own work in the blogosphere (Boing Boing) is relatively familiar to most.

[7] A particularly arresting passage: “Off the turnpike [between Orlando and Hollywood, Florida], it was even worse.  The shantytowns multiplied and multiplied.  Laundry lines stretched out in the parking lots of former strip malls.  Every traffic light clogged with aggressive techno-tchotchke vendors, the squeegee bums of the twenty-first century, with their pornographic animatronic dollies and infinitely varied robot dogs.  Disney World still sucked in a fair number of tourists (though not nearly so many as in its golden day) [Lewis Mumford anyone?], but they were staying away from Miami in droves.  The snowbirds had died off in a great demographic spasm over the past decade, and their children lacked the financial wherewithal to even think of overwintering in their parents’ now derelict condos.  The area around the dead Wal-Mart was particularly awful.  The shanties here rose three, even four stories into the air, clustered together to make medieval street mazes.  Broward County had long since stopped enforcing the property claims of the bankruptcy courts that managed the real-estate interests of the former owners of the fields and malls that had been turned into the new towns” (Cory Doctorow, Makers [New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2009], 121).

[8] Doctorow imagines that Disney as we know it splits form Disney Theme Parks (“Imagineering”), becoming two separate companies, and allowing the Imagineering arm of it to take on licenses outside of the Disney purview, say, Universal, Fox, etc.

[9] A gray-market genetic treatment one has to go to Russia to receive, which basically wipes away all body fat, but b/c Americans are stupid, they go whole hog for perfect bodies and have to eat 10,000 calories a day, which basically ruins every single system in their bodies in terrible ways.  Yes, ridiculous, but so is this novel. . . (this is not meant in a derogatory fashion).

[10] This novel was published under the penname “Leinad Zeraus” in 2006 by Verdugo Press (basically a vanity press).  Its massive success caused Dutton, an imprint of Penguin, to re-release the novel under Suarez’s actual name in early 2009.  FreedomTM is the sequel to Daemon.

[11] Suarez, 227.

[12] Of course there is much more to talk about w/r/t these novels, but I’ll leave that to someone else.

[13] Thanks need to be given, btw, for much of this post to J. James Bono, as he directed my attention to virtually everything in it.  Seriously, why didn’t I mention this earlier, Jamie is perhaps the most “with-it” person I know when it comes to, idk, pretty much anything (esp. computery stuff).

[14] To paraphrase the Liars (“Grown Men Don’t Fall in the River, Just Like That,” They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top [Mute Records, 2001]).

[15] Its last 2/3 get fairly bogged down in “character development” and far too much interest in theme parks and Disney.

[16] God I hate this word and other variations of it.

[17] Hyperarchivalism if I’ve ever seen it.

[18] I’ve done away w/ paragraph breaks in this quotation for formatting and readability reasons.  If this offends anyone, get in touch.

[19] Doctorow, 124.

[20] Btw, for those who’re interested, I’m “Slothrop” (yes this is a Gravity’s Rainbow reference) or “Wyattgwyon” (a Gaddis [The Recognitions] reference) in “Galakrond.”

[21] Well, of course there is—i.e. I can just run around talking to people, but this action doesn’t preclude that whomever I’m talking to immediately “judges” me based upon my archival makeup.  The transgressive and alternative possibilities of the game are still w/in the game itself.

[22] And I’m inclined to agree w/ Suarez, for whatever reasons.

[23] This is to ignore the clear goals late-capital has for itself, of course.  See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (New York: Picador Books, 2007).  This is also to give an imperative to Obama: provide some fucking goals!

[24] As opposed to being perpetually outside of or tangential to it, as we all are now.

[25] Btw, I ain’t in this economy.  I just don’t have the time, inclination, drive, nor OCD necessary to succeed in this economy; and most importantly, I don’t care.

[26] And I do mean this w/ all the appropriate disciplinary connotations.

[27] Against which, of course, our intrepid WoW-ians are fighting.

[28] Seriously, I think that’s the third time I’ve used this here.  oops.

Apocalyptexts 01: The Chronicles of Riddick

December 30, 2009

Apocalyptexts[1] #01: The Chronicles of Riddick[2]

The Chronicles of Riddick (David Twohy, 2004) is w/o a doubt one of the smarter movies made in the aughts.[3] (And no, I don’t mean in terms dialogue, for it is wretched where that is concerned. . . .)  In the words of others mixed w/ myself: it’s like Dirty Harry meets Han Solo, Shakespeare, the second Iraq War, Messianic (neo-evangelical) Christianity, video games, postmodern irony,[4] and Hitler.[5] For instance, a thought experiment:

how many other films begin w/ an obviously world-ending (and purely) evil force bent on “conversion “ for its “POV”—literally injecting willing applicants into its military program—and then jump to a Hoth-on-steroids-Vin-Diesel-running-amok middle, ending w/ said anti-hero sitting on that selfsame evil throne?  (Answer: none.)

I remember Ted Gerstle[6] dragged my ass to this film, and, even though we walked in about ten minutes late, it was still astounding.  Twohy had done something no one else had ever done before (kidding): make an amazing SF film that no one saw.  Of course it didn’t hurt that Pitch Black was incredible, but TCoR[7]did something no other SF “action” film had done before: make me recall 2001.[8]

Sure, the fact that the ebullient choral tracks accompanied the equivalent of monoliths “falling from the sky to destroy a helpless population” helped, but it seemed to be an updated Arthur C. Clarke-vision of the future, a LeBron for an MJ[9] (if you will. . .), a “what would happen if Vinge made a horror film”-type scenario.

I cannot help but argue that it has been one of the greater crimes of this decade that no one let Twohy[10] make a sequel to this film—further, a sequel that was so obviously and gratuitously needed![11] (TCoR is something I might in fact put in my top 20 [meaning #1] of my sequel worthy films.  Wtf would he have done?  He had no Lynchian escape hatch [see: all Lynch’s films since the mid-90s]).  He would’ve had to actually write something, which, of course, was something he had built his career on refusing to do.  And this is ultimately the tragedy of TCoR: it far more represented Twohy’s orgasm than it did foreplay for something greater—i.e. there will never be a TCoR sequel. . . .

And that’s sad really.  (It is like if Milemarker hadn’t released Anaesthetic after Frigid Forms Sell.[12] All that setup, no payoff?)

In other words. . . this is all to say. . . Avatar bores me.  So yes: 1)  I cannot help but feel like it is a piece of abstract expressionism to which analysis is forever denied; 2) the narrative is boring, sucky, and downright contrived; and 3) I’m gonna miss the early aughts, in which CGI only counted for, like, 50% of the movie rather than, idk, all of it.

TCoR took its apocalypticism seriously—as in: if you can’t break off the knife after stabbing the dictator in the head, why bother type way.  Riddick ain’t a bad Bartleby figure, so if we can’t see how it would be if he ran an “Evil Empire,” then we’re all, collectively, fucked.  Please Twohy, make a sequel.

[1] Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

[2] So seriously, I’ve decided to start a new portion of this here thing (don’t worry, “Repackaging the Archive Part IV” is coming. . .).  Apocalyptexts: where the world blows up and I feel like talking about it.

[3] viz. the last decade.  (I’m committed to using this term, so if it doesn’t catch on, I’m screwed.  [This is also an attempt to not conceal the fact that David Twohy is perhaps a gigantic douchebag.])

[4] Otis Nixon.

[5] And did I mention that the dialogue is horrible, w/ the exception of: “I’ll kill you w/ my teacup.”

[6] Excuse me on the spelling of this Ted, the googles turned up a bunch of fat guys quick, who obviously aren’t you.  (Why aren’t you more easily locatable—i.e. I refuse to use facebook. . . .)

[7] I think I might be pretty into using this acronym for the remainder of anytime I talk about this heaping pile of gold-plated dung.

[8] Of course I’m lying here.  Solaris is w/o a doubt the best exemplar of post-2001 filmmaking.

[9] Sorry, I’ve been reading Bill Simons’ excellent The Book of Basketball (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009) recently (i.e. since 24 hours ago [I haven’t slept it was that interesting. . .]) and cannot help at this moment but relate everything to my favorite, and the world’s most interesting (I will stand behind this to the death) sport.

[10] No matter how much of a douchebag he is.

[11] Unlike, idk, so many others.

[12] Ik.  u have no idea.  look it up.


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