Saturday, 14 June 2008

Survival horror: the machine dreams of late capitalism

A complementary thesis: "machine dreams" (how economics became a cyborg science), a book previously featured on this blog, and Jameson's postmodern waning of affect as a symptom of late capitalism. What is the most obviously successful cultural exemplar? I would argue it is the video and computer game industry, and this relationship awaits consideration in the field of ludology. My previous "machine dreams" post referenced the "fuck you buddy" ethos as descended from gaming theory, so it follows that a transition to a related commodity form would become conventional.
To be sure, discussion could have just as easily focused on recent horror films such as Saw, whose horror is entirely reliant on the assumption that people, when placed in any critical situation equating to the prisoner's dilemma game, will behave predictably in the most self-interested, reactionary manner. But nowhere is it more explicitly articulated than in the pronouncements of game designers who base their "survival horror" on the dynamics of small group relationships, comprised of minimal selves, by drawing on a limited repertoire of texts in a serial fashion; think of the treatment of John Carpenter's remake of The Thing as a confirmatory authority by the designers of upcoming titles such as Dead Island and Left 4 Dead. Antecedents in the culture industry can, of course, be traced even further back, to the dynamic traced by Marx, when he described Robinson Crusoe as the perfect embodiment of economic man (a kind of minimal self who adapts by learning how to rationally make use of his limited resources in the most efficient manner).
As Bauman has also observed, apocalyptic fantasies of lone survivors afford a glimpse of what death must look like, and this assessment is apt insofar as looking is foregrounded more than feeling per se. So, the waning of affect described by Jameson, when translated into Raymond Williams's lexicon, becomes an emergent structure of non-feeling.

This paradoxical effect has been traced to some extent in Jen Webb and Sam Byrnand piece in the June 2008 issue of Body & Society, "Some Kind of Virus: The Zombie as Body and as Trope":

"They show, too, what is perhaps the most devastating aspect of zombie as metaphor for the current economy: there is no (evident) way out. Your only option, when faced with the zombie menace, is to kill or be killed. Either way you’re screwed, because you are dead, or you have become what you fear. The act of violence that removes the horror and threat of the zombie reconstructs me, the human, as zombie – a being that is only body, without empathy, without respect for life: very like the marketplace, in fact".
The "solution" therefore amounts to little more than a zero sum game (i.e. the logic of "fuck you buddy"). By the same token, this might explain the recent focus on creativity amongst many social theorists, say the turn to Castoriadis, who are less interested in following their cultural theoretical cousins, some of whom appear more preoccupied with unearthing emancipatory content in populist forms. I think it fair to say though that all fear a situation in which we would have no alternative other than sharing the same "machine dreams".
Other than the upcoming game, Earth No More, some imagery of which I've posted here, I will try to track down the film Equilibrium, which might be construed as a commentary on both the normotic Left and Right. But remember Barry Schwartz's point about "free choice" too in my earlier tedtalks post: opportunity costs are the price paid under more reflexive conditions because it makes us more disatisfied with what we had previously enjoyed. This gradually leads to a profound sense of disappointment with more attractive successor versions, whereby a self learns to withhold feeling from the world, because nothing is able to encompass the totality of what a "free" self is. It seems then that the culture industry has finally acknowledged this logic by turning an opportunity cost into a niche market. Hence cynicism can be repackaged as ironic postmodern sophistication once opportunity costs themselves are transformed into the cultural icon of the zombie (paralleling the flattened affect experienced by the consumer.

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