Archive for July, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

Sunday, July 16th, 2006

I’ve been having trouble writing about Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly. It’s a great film, as well as being surprisingly faithful to the Philip K. Dick novel on which it is based, and from which much of its dialogue is taken verbatim. But it’s a subtle film, and it kind of sneaks up on you, even if you are familiar with the novel (as I am) and know in advance everything that is going to happen. (So there will be MAJOR SPOILERS in the following discussion, stuff that I already knew to expect from reading the novel; I have no idea what sort of effect they might have on someone who comes to the film without knowing the novel).

A lot of the film is just hilariously addled druggie talk (though hilarious in a dry and deadpan sort of way); and it’s only gradually, and as if by inadvertence, that its genuinely tragic elements become apparent. This is in full accordance with Dick’s novel, surely the least moralistic “anti-drug” tract ever written — something that is only compounded by the fact that Linklater uses some of Hollywood’s most notorious druggies (Winona Rider, Woody Harrelson, and the always wonderful Robert Downey Jr) for his supporting cast.

The protagonist, on the other hand, is played by Keanu Reeves, who here (more than in almost anything else he’s ever been in) turns his congenital inexpressiveness into a virtue, as his character slips (without quite realizing it) into an ever-more-befuddled state of paranoia, cognitive dysfunction, and split personality (as a result of Substance D, the illicit drug that is the focus of the narrative, his two brain hemispheres become separate and competing entities). Keanu plays a narc who has gone underground: he’s taken on the identity of a drug-using social dropout, Bob Arctor, and gets addicted himself to Substance D in the course of trying to track the source of the drug. To his police colleagues and superiors, this narc is only known by the pseudonym “Fred”, a double-blind precaution taken to keep his true identity hidden. This identity confusion is only compounded when Fred is ordered to run surveillance upon Arctor. His time is divided between sitting around his house, getting stoned and hanging out with his junkie friends, and sitting in front of multiple monitors, watching surveillance tapes of himself thus sitting around and consuming Substance D. Since the drug itself is personality-disingetrating, no wonder he has increasing difficulty keeping track of his own identity.

These convolutions all come straight out of the novel, which is fairly unique among Dick’s writings for the way in which the usually Dickian theme of ontological (and not merely epistemological) slipperiness and instability collapses back upon the self, becomes a structure of subjectivity as well — so that the protagonist is not simply (justifiably) paranoid or adrift or trapped, but himself becomes a kind of black hole into which all substance, and all contradiction, implodes and disappears. What Linklater adds to Dick’s depiction is a more externalized and political sense of how the downward and inward personal spiral of addiction is formally identical to, and seamlessly connected with, the ascending, and always more-widely-encompassing spiral of surveillance and “war on terror.” In both the novel and the film, Arctor wonders whether a scanner (surveillance camera) sees as “darkly” and confusingly as Arctor sees into himself, or whether it provides a greater clarity. In the novel, Dick is of course echoing the Bible (“for now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face”), and foregrounding the irony that, for the damaged Arctor at least, self-examination or introspection is the least reliable way of knowing himself, in contrast to the more objective insight that the scanner might be hoped to provide. In the film, the nuance is slightly different, because of the way there is more emphasis on the scanner — the surveillance apparatus — itself, as a manifestation of the society of control of which drug addiction is just another facet. Here there is no sense of the scanner’s possible, or hoped-for, objectivity, since it is part of the mechanism for producing the hallucinatory breakdowns which it then proceeds to record.

The main formal innovation of the film is the rotoscopy technique that Linklater previously used for Waking Life. The scenes of the film were first shot, with live actors, in digital video; then the footage was converted to animation, by being drawn over frame by frame. In the first place, this animation allows for the film’s most memorable “special effect” (which is also the most science-fictional aspect of the original novel): the “scramble suits” worn by narcotics agents to conceal their identity. This is a device that, when worn, projects outward (to quote the novel) “every conceivable eye color, hair color, shape and type of nose, formation of teeth, configuration of facial bone structure,” all of these changing many times a second, so that the wearer is “Everyman and in every combination… during the course of each hour.” Protected by the suit, you have no distinct personality — to everyone looking at you, you are just a “vague blur.” Linklater’s animation realizes this vision (multiculturalism pushed to its absolute point of absurdity?); often he cuts back and forth between full-body shots of the suit, and close-up head shots of Reeves/Arctor inside, his gaunt and tired face, suspended somewhere between angst and blankness, standing out against a field of gray. The “scramble suit” works throughout the film as a metaphor of the breakdown of personal identity as a result of both the chemical shocks of Substance D and the relentless process of surveillance. (I also see it as an image of the infinite modulation that Deleuze sees as characteristic of the society of control: “like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point”).

In general, and aside from its use in this special effect (and several other special effects that specifically depict drug-induced hallucinations), the rotoscope animation of A Scanner Darkly helps to define the look and feel of a world of (again, both) addiction and surveillance. There was a certain exuberance to the look of Waking Life that is entirely lacking here. The animation here is grim and depressing in terms of its generally washed out color scheme, whether it is depicting the run-down, filled-with-junk quality of Arctor’s druggie house, or the whitewashed anonymity of police headquarters and of the offices of New Path, the creepy corporation that rehabilitates victims of the drug. At the same time, facial features and other important visual details are sharpened, with the exaggerated iconic simplification that cartooning in general so frequently provides. This gives an eerie sense of identity as merely a mask or a performance (I couldn’t help being reminded, a little, of the mask Hugo Weaving as V. wears through the entirety of the otherwise live-action, although comics-derived, V for Vendetta). We think of schizophrenic hallucinations as being disturbingly mutated or mutable, and video surveillance as being grainy and low-resolution; the animation here suggested both of these at once. These images are rooted in the indexical reality of actors and objects before the camera, in a way that purely computer-generated imagery is not. Yet at the same time, Linklater’s images are not photorealistic or hyperrealistic in the ways that state-of-the-art CGI, whether in animation (Pixar) or summer blockbuster special effects (as in, I presume, the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, though I haven’t seen it yet) strives to be. Rotoscoping, at least in Linklater’s use of it, is rooted in the real, but the real has been somehow displaced or distorted — with the implication that this displacement and distortion is itself, in a deeper sense, the bedrock Real of the society of addiction and control. (This could well be a Lacanian or Zizekian formulation, of course).

In this way, the “look and feel” of the rotoscope technique is itself the real meaning of the film. We get immersed in the world of the film thanks to this look and feel; gradually, it “naturalizes” itself in our perceptions. The first scene of the film (as of the book) shows a man hallucinating bugs crawling rapidly over his skin. We “see” the hallucination, but the blatantly cartoony look of the bugs helps to clue us in to the fact that it is just (just?) a hallucination. But eventually this sort of distinction becomes as uncertain, and difficult for us to make, as it is for the characters themselves. There’s a quietly terrifying scene (again, taken directly from the novel) where Reeves/Arctor wakes up, and finds himself next to a woman whom he had enticed into his bed with the offer of drugs; as she sleeps, her body metamorphoses into that of Donna (Winona Ryder) — the unattainable woman (she won’t let him touch her) Arctor really desires — and then back again. Arctor goes to the surveillance room, and (as Fred, in a scramble suit) watches the incident on video replay — and the momentary metamorphosis takes place on the tape as well. The hallucination has been objectified: it plays out for the scanner, as well as for Arctor. This is kind of what happens for the spectator, over the course of the entire film. Angela was right to suggest (on the basis of seeing the trailer) to say, “I see grim hyper-realism. Not crayon drawings.”

The work done by the rotoscoping is what allows Linklater to make the film itself (in terms of narrative unfolding) so low-key, and (in terms especially of Reeves’ performance) so low-affect. Arctor doesn’t understand what’s happening to him, as it happens; and neither do we, except more or less subliminally through the effect of the animation. The downward spiral (which also turns out to be a kind of solipsistic circling in a void) only becomes apparent towards the end, when Arctor is checked into the New Path rehabilitation center. It’s as if we could only really notice it retrospectively. And by that time — since there is no Outside to this self-enclosed world of addiction/surveillance, which is also the world for which rotoscopy is the proper expression — it is too late, and we’re trapped. In this sense, the film’s (and the novel’s) final revelation that New Path itself grows and produces Substance D, the very drug whose victims they treat, is entirely logical. Consumerist hedonism and repressive surveillance join hands; chaotic self-destruction and therapeutic rehabilitation are parts of the same process; rigid social control, and the incitement to expend oneself heedlessly (the superego command of enjoyment, as Zizek might say) are facets of the same strategy of capital accumulation.

(I should add: the only aspect of the novel that I felt was missing from the film was the final portion, in which Dick goes into great detail — which Linklater entirely omits — about the procedures and ideology of New Path, their devotion to a religiously-mandated death of the spirit. This adds another dimension to the analysis of the society of control, one that I wish Linklater had paid a bit more attention to).

McKenzie Wark’s GAM3R 7H30RY

Tuesday, July 11th, 2006

McKenzie Wark’s GAM3R 7H30RY is one of those very rare academic books that makes me envious. I say to myself, “damn — if only I could write something that good.”

Wark’s book is a kind of meta-commentary on computer games. This puts it in a different category from Alex Galloway’s excellent recent gaming book. Galloway theorizes games, analyzing them formally, and pushing toward questions of their socio-political implications, the way they both mirror and help to constitute what Deleuze calls the society of control. But Wark’s book sort of begins where Galloway’s ends: it moves to a higher (meta-) level of abstraction in order to reflect upon how computer games relate to and mirror or encapsulate the world, and vice versa. Wark is less concerned with delineating either the communities surrounding gaming or the formal properties of games, than he is in tracing the computer game as a diagram of larger social processes. For Wark, all of social reality today is a vast “gamespace,” dominated by the algorithmic codifications and unequal power relations that are displayed within computer games in their purest and clearest form. Social reality today is governed by the same “military-entertainment complex” that actually manufactures and distributes computer games. Wark uses actual computer games as lenses or prisms to examine the “gamespace” of our media-saturated, simulacral world, and to discover the structures of feeling, or forms of subjectivity, that we find ourselves exhibiting as inhabitants of that world.

GAM3R 7H30RY — like Wark’s previous book, A Hacker Manifesto — is written with a lapidary precision. There are nine chapters, each of which consists of exactly 25 numbered paragraphs. The chapter titles are arranged in alphabetical order (though Wark only gets a little bit of the way through the alphabet; the last chapter is CONCLUSIONS). Each chapter refers to one particular computer game (they range from Deus Ex to The Sims to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City). The exception is the first chapter, AGONY, which refers not to any actually existing computer game but to The Cave(TM), as in Plato’s cave: which is to say, to the lived social world as illusory “gamespace,” from which there is little hope of escape to the outside world of sunlight, and to the spaces of actual computer games as allegories or models or idealized maps of this world-as-gamespace. Wark relentlessly tracks this more-than-metaphor through his chosen series of games. The 25 paragraphs of each chapter present a linear argument, but they do so by introducing one or two key concepts, and then relentlessly mulling over alternative implications and ambiguities of these contents. All this in a honed-down, sharpened prose that is almost mathematical — or algorithmic — in its repetitions and pitiless clarity. Each game is thereby revealed as an allegorithm — Wark’s neologism, a portmanteau word combining “allegory” and “algorithm” — of social gamespace.

[Added Note: as Wark says in the comments, the neologism “allegorithm” was in fact first invented by Alexander Galloway.]

The result is a book that is very schematic and abstract. But this is justified, because the features of social life that Wark abstracts away from in order to perform his analyses are those very features that games themselves — and the game-like simulation models that control social reality in business, in education, in military action, and so on — themselves ignore, repress, and abstract away from. Computer games clarify the inner logic of social control at work in the world. Games give an outline of what actually happens in much messier and less totalized ways. Thereby, however, games point up the ways in which social control is precisely directed towards creating game-like clarities and firm outlines, at the expense of our freedoms. In this way, Wark remains alert to the ambiguities that infect the gaming paradigm, but he also registers the very way that this paradigm works to keep those ambiguities at bay, to reduce or destroy them.

Wark’s analyses thereby point to the ways in which “postmodern” society:

  • is increasingly virtual,
  • is saturated by digital media,
  • is oblivious of time or history and indifferent to particularities of space or topography,
  • is governed by impersonal algorithms that tend to reify “choice” as a series of binary options without ambiguity,
  • is increasingly homogeneous as it absorbs any possible “outside” within itself,
  • is increasingly being reduced, not just to a spectacle, but to a “pure agon,” a perpetual Darwinian competition, a struggle that no longer respects divisions between work and leisure, or between private and public, and that never ends, but that nonetheless continually divides the world into “winners” and “losers.”

Although each chapter of GAM3R 7H30RY is pretty much self-contained, the book as a whole traces a Marxist/McLuhanite metanarrative, or historical progression, from “topical” to “topographic” to “topological” conceptions of space, and from books to movies to games as media forms. Like Adorno and Debord and Foucault, Wark sees the history of technological progress as also a history of increasing subjection. It is not that he idealizes the past in any way, but that he insists on the configurations of unfreedom that constitute the present, and that inhabit our very narratives of liberation and progress. In a certain sense, GAM3R 7H30RY is the dystopian flip side of A Hacker Manifesto, in which Wark presented a utopian, post-Marxist (or, as Wark himself put it, “crypto-Marxist”) vision of liberation, by rethinking the slogan (or the truism) that “information wants to be free” in the context of class analysis and “the property question.” In, GAM3R 7H30RY, in contrast, Wark looks at the structure of space, rather than the narrative of liberation that (necessarily) unfolds in time. For the time that it takes to play a computer game is in a certain sense an illusion, since all the game’s possibilities are given in advance by the algorithm that constitutes and governs it. “Gamespace” is therefore a maze that seems to be closed or closed off (though the last two chapters flirt with the very distant possibility of a way out of the maze, a possible escape from the closure of a space in which every contingency is governed by an algorithm).

In the penultimate paragraph (224 of 225), Wark states that “only by going further and further into gamespace might one come out the other side of it, to realize a topology beyond the limiting forms of the game.” This is both a warning, and a hope. It’s a warning that we will not get anywhere by expressing horror at “gamespace” or by yearning for an older world, and older media, before the algorithmic calculations of the military-entertainment complex ruled everything. We can’t ever go back; the only way out is through. The hope is that there is something better if we do go through. It’s a process, Wark says, of “pressing against the limits of the game from within, to find the contrary terms behind the agon.” Such is the hope; it is really a matter of faith. It is demonstrated within the pages of GAM3R 7H30RY only by the dry exuberance of Wark’s prose itself, as it pushes against the limits by which it is circumscribed, the limits of the games themselves and their ruling algorithms. The exhilaration of gameplay comes from the working out, the mastering, of its algorithms. Wark suggests that this exhilaration, this victory, is ultimately the sign of a deeper subjection; but he still holds out the fugitive hope of a different kind of victory, an active playing against the game. Is it even possible?

Alex Galloway’s Gaming

Monday, July 10th, 2006

Alexander Galloway‘s new book, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, has recently been published. And McKenzie Wark has made his forthcoming book, Gamer Theory (or, rather, GAM3R 7H30RY), available on the Web. These books are quite different from one another, but both provide considerable insight on the subject of video games or computer games. Both rightly regard these games as the major media form of the early 21st century, playing the role for us today that film and television did for most of the 20th century. I will comment about Galloway’s book here, and Wark’s in a subsequent post.

Gaming is a useful and thoughtful investigation of some of the formal properties and political possibilities of computer games. His five chapters are pretty much separate essays. “Gamic Action, Four Moments” presents a typology of the kinds of activities that take place in computer games; such activities can be initiated either by the “operator” (i.e. the person playing the game) or by the machine itself; and these activities can be either diegetic or not. (“Diegetic is a term taken from film theory; it refers to the parts of the movie that are parts of the actual action; i.e., something we see a character do is diegetic, but the theme music playing while she does it is nondiegetic, since the character doesn’t hear this music, only we do. Similarly, in a first-person shooter game, firing a gun and killing a monster is diegetic, but the readout of the player’s points, energy level, etc., is nondiegetic). This first chapter is useful simply on formal grounds, because it gives us a more precise vocabulary for talking about what actually happens in various games. It also begins to explore some of the deeper issues Galloway is interested in; particularly the import of “play” as a human activity, and the question of what it means to be in a space governed by algorithms and the programmatic reduction of ambiguity.

The second chapter, “Origins of the First-Person Shooter,” considers the history of the “subjective shot” in film — the shot taken directly from through the eyes of a character — and follows the mutation of this unusual sort of shot into the predominant point of view of shooter games like Doom. In film, it is quite common to see things from a particular character’s point of view (POV); but this shot is usually not literally equated with what the character sees with his/her own eyes. Rather, we are “sutured” into the character’s POV precisely by seeing the character’s act of seeing, together with what he/she sees. We look from over the character’s shoulder, for instance, or we have a cut between a shot of the character looking, and a shot of what he/she sees. Actual subjective shots, on the other hand, are quite rare. They often seem awkward, and fail to get the audience to identify with the character through whose eyes we are seeing. A classic example is Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1946): nearly the whole film is shot through the eyes of Philip Marlowe, and the effect is weirdly (and unintentionally) alienating. Probably because they seem alienating or unnatural, subjective shots were often used in the 1970s and 1980s to give us the POV of the monster in horror films (like the shark in Spielberg’s Jaws, and the killer in the Halloween films). And Galloway points out how these shots have also been used to signify machinic, robotic, or otherwise inhuman vision: as in the Terminator and Robocop films. But if these shots are alienating in the cinema, why are they so successful in first person shooter computer games? Galloway suggests that this is because computer games involve active movement through space (whereas films are more about the passive contemplation of space, or — a la Josef von Sternberg — of patterns of light). Gamespace must be “fully rendered, actionable space” (63); the operator/player must be able to roam through this space at will (as is never the case in film, where the camera angles and shots are all determined in advance). This gamic sense of active space makes montage superfluous (64), and instead demands full freedom of movement. So the subjective shot works in games, as it does not in films, because the gamer is active in ways that the cinematic spectator cannot be. All in all, I found this chapter powerful and persuasive from my own point of view, or subjective stake, as a film scholar (but as someone who is determined not to see film as the be-all and end-all of media evolution).

The third chapter, “Social Realism,” and the fourth, “Allegories of Control,” go more deeply into the political consequences of computer games’ formal properties. In the former, Galloway considers the various senses in which computer games might (or might not) be thought of as “realistic.” He tries to shift the emphasis away from mere representational naturalism (that the world of the game looks, as much as possible, like the “real world”) and towards the more interesting questions of how games might intervene in social reality, or relate to the outside-the-game experiences of the people who play them — how they might have “a special congruence between the social reality depicted in the game and the social reality known and lived by the player” (83). This leads, on the one hand, to further questioning of the concept of “play,” and on the other, to a consideration of games and war. Though “play” is supposed to be, by definition, apart from the “serious” business of living in the world, in fact, “with the growing significance of immaterial labor, and the concomitant increase in cultivation and exploitation of play… as a productive force, play will become more and more linked to broad social structures of control” (76). War, similarly, has become progressively more entwined with gaming: from the presentation of bombing raids as being like video games in the First Gulf War, to the promotion today of games like America’s Army as recruitment tools for the actual US Army. In both these ways, the question of “realism” in games is tied up with the question of action: of what actions players can take in the games, and how these resonate with actions we are allowed or incited to do in the real world.

“Social Realism” is really just a preparation for the larger arguments of the fourth chapter, “Allegories of Control.” Here Galloway points up the insufficiency and lameness of content criticism of games (e.g. that they are too violent, misogynistic, Western-centered, etc.), and points up the need instead for a more system- and media-based (I am inclined to say McLuhanist, though Galloway himself does not say this) form of critique. The real limitations of a game like Civilization reside less in its dubious, ethnocentric assumptions about world history, than in the way in which, precisely, Civilization embodies “the logic of informatic control itself” (101). What’s crucial is not the particular content, but the basic algorithmic logic of computer games, the way that they reduce everything to quantifiable bits of “information.” It is in this formal dimension that computer games not only reflect, but actively participate in, what David Harvey calls the regime of “flexible accumulation,” and what Deleuze calls the “control society.” Gameplay promises freedom, at least imaginatively and allegorically — that is to say, at least in “play” — to the gamer; but at the same time it reproduces the very structures of domination that are becoming increasingly prevalent in postmodern, or “late” capitalist, society. “A game’s celebration of the end of ideological manipulation is also a new manipulation, only this time using wholly different diagrams of command and control” (106).

Galloway’s final chapter, “Countergaming,” describes the (would-be) subversive strategies of net artists who have made works that try to mess with, or actively subvert and critique, the formal structures and political implications of mainstream games. He compares the work of JODI and other “countergaming” artists to the “countercinema” of Godard and others in the 1960s. His account of these artists, and their work, is detailed and sympathetic, but he concludes (rightly in my estimation) that they do not succeed in their subversive mission, either aesthetically or politically. Works by JODI, for instance, mimic the look and feel of games, but frustrate the gameplayer’s expectations, because progression through the game becomes impossible; instead, you get simulations of crashes and breakdowns and random output on the screen. But this means that “countergaming is essentially progressive in visual form but reactionary in actional form” — and in games, actional form is the most important thing. “It serves to hinder gameplay, not advance it. It eclipses the game as a game and rewrites it as a sort of primitive animation lacking any of the virtues of game design” (125). Galloway concludes, therefore, that JODI is no Godard, and that countergaming is still “an unrealized project” (126). I find this harsh conclusion both sobering and extremely important. Computer games are a relatively new medium; and we still do not really know what they can do, or what we can do with them or to them. When it comes to creative resistance, or radical re-creation, we still haven’t caught up with them.

Galloway’s own book, I think, itself participates in the very dilemma it describes. Galloway declares in his Preface that “this book is about loving video games. It’s about exploring their artistry, their political possibility, their uniqueness” (xii). And clearly his lucid and powerful formulations could only have come from somebody who has spent a lot of time with video games, who has lived them and loved them, who has experienced them from the inside. Yet ultimately Gaming testifies to a kind of blockage, and failure of imagination — not on Galloway’s part so much as on that of all of us. For the book points to a political deadlock — the ubiquity of the new systems of control — and to the inability of gamers (of players, designers, artists, and activists) thus far to oppose, to work through and work out of, these systems of control. Galloway powerfully describes some of the parameters of the new media environment in which we (even those of us who don’t play computer games) find ourselves living today. But he also testifies to our continuing inability to think — or to act — with it, through it, and around it.