Powering the Distraction Engine: Black Mirror, Slavery, and the Abstraction of Power

April 15, 2018

 

The British television show Black Mirror often envisions a dystopian future, mostly surrounding our impending and pernicious relationships with technology. The series’ second episode, “Fifteen Million Merits,” is often received in this same way: a critique of smartphone culture, social media avatars, and social isolation. These critiques seem to miss the underlying relationship that the episode’s characters have with energy production and consumption, however, as they neglect an ecocritical approach. Ecocriticism, the interdisciplinary study of storytelling and environmentalism, has taken on narratives that reveal much about the energy culture from which cultural stories emerge. Such stories reach beyond the historical canon of literature, and certainly beyond our contemporary relationship with energy in the twenty-first century. “Fifteen Million Merits” inherits the nineteenth and early twentieth century tradition of “energy slaves,” using sources of electrical power – human beings – to reinforce social power structures. These social power structures are abstracted from the lives of the characters in “Fifteen Million Merits,” rendered invisible until the episode’s protagonist suffers a grave injustice. Once the power structures become visible to the protagonist, “Fifteen Million Merits” becomes a tale about how power can destroy relationships, societies, even one’s own identity and convictions. Black Mirror suggests that our problematic relationships to contemporary energy sources won’t be solved by a technological panacea. Such a future might, in fact, be worse.

“Fifteen Million Merits” takes place in an enclosed facility that houses hundreds of thousands (perhaps more) people. The characters in the story wake up each day and head towards endless rows of stationary exercise bikes. Each meter travelled on the bike translates to a “merit” (i.e. currency) that can be redeemed for resources within the facility: toothpaste, water, food, etc. These merits are predominantly used in the consumption of digital entertainment, however, as each character is locked into cramped, isolated bedrooms each night. These bedrooms feature all four walls entirely covered with digital screens, almost in an Orwellian manner, and these screens forcibly advertise to the residents of the rooms. To skip these mandatory advertisements requires a substantial cost, something to the effect of 10,000 merits – more than a day’s work. Thus, unless someone is willing to be mindlessly subjected to ads for crude digital entertainment, they are virtually trapped on the exercise bikes forever.

It is relatively unclear where energy comes from in the episode’s beginning, but the showrunner Charlie Brooker’s notes reveal a post-petroculture that still inherits metaphors from past non-renewable energy resources. The first instance of petroculture in the screenplay describes Bing’s toothpaste dispenser in his bedroom. Brooker writes, “Using a wall-mounted mini-pump, like a miniature petrol pump nozzle, he dispenses a small amount of bright green toothpaste onto a brush.” The question for Brooker would be whether this description should be taken as a mere artistic flair, or whether he was commentating on the collective unconscious of a post-petroculture in this episode. As evidenced by a description further in the episode, Brooker’s answer would assuredly be the latter. For the next instance is equally petrol-centric, towards the end of the episode, when Bing is saving up merits. In the process, Bing becomes extremely frugal with his expenditures. This frugality is best captured when Brooker writes, “Bing keeps an eye on the screen — he’s trying to stop the nozzle at a nice round number, like someone filling a car with petrol trying to stop on an even figure.” Again, this nozzle is explicitly described in terms of petrol and energy consumption. The merits stand in for Bing’s reckoning with his own relationship to the culture of excessive energy production and consumption. To complicate this relationship further, the episode never once mentions fossil fuels. Energy seems to come from somewhere else: the bikes.

The exercise bikes in “Fifteen Million Merits” often appear as set pieces that facilitate character proximity, representing how hard it is to remain isolated while exercising in a public space like a gym. Characters can of course stop riding these bikes, but will be relegated to a lower class almost immediately. Overweight people, in the episode, are downgraded from the bikes to become “Lemons,” or yellow-dressed custodians for the (relatively speaking) middle-class bikers. Those who don’t participate in energy culture are doomed to be crushed by its powerful machine. Thus, the plot unfolds in a way that, despite intense character motivations to accumulate enough merits to escape this labor-demanding facility, reinforces the hierarchies of power throughout the society in which they find themselves. One way to escape the facility is to earn fifteen million merits, which buys a “golden ticket” to join a game show not altogether unlike America’s Got Talent. Escape is not guaranteed, however, even if they pay into the system. One can infer the motivations of those in power based on the ubiquity of these stationary bikes: these bikes generate electricity, and the human power required to generate these bikes is too valuable to allow people emancipation.

The digital interface of the exercise bikes in Black Mirror serves to obscure, render “opaque to ordinary perception,” the mechanisms by which characters enslave themselves to endless hours on the bikes (Shannon 312). The bikes feature digital technology integrated into each unit that functions in a lot of ways like social media. This digital technology becomes important for questions of energy’s and power’s (in)visibility, and why the inevitable reveal of power at the episode’s climax is so devastating for Bing’s character. Laurie Shannon writes of how “Western culture has transitioned to forms of energy whose origins are opaque to ordinary perception, whose material workings are comprehended only by specialists, and whose business operations are shielded and securitized” (312). Only the “specialists,” or those who are in charge of the facility in which the episode’s protagonists find themselves, have a deep understanding of how these bikes work, how the factory works, why this mode of energy generation is the way humanity – or, “Western culture” – has transitioned into this unorthodox and labor-intensive mode of producing power. When characters are motivated to investigate and challenge their relationship to the system, their dissent is squashed by the system itself.

Throughout the course of the episode, energy remains implicit within the factory. As we’ve seen, for the majority of “Fifteen Million Merits,” energy is rendered invisible and somewhat magical to the characters. By virtue of the episode’s sophisticated technology, and how seamlessly it is integrated into the characters’ lives, it seems like this facility has moved beyond crude, non-renewable forms of energy like fossil fuels. But to see this technological advancement as a kind of moral advancement would be too simple a reading, neglecting the power structures that demand human bodies to be used as capital. As Bob Johnson recounts in his history of energy slaves in the 20th century, “Fossil fuels did not replace human labor, they displaced it by rendering physical exploitation less visible to the privileged” (974). In “Fifteen Million Merits,” human labor has been displaced entirely from the eyes of those in power; the countless lives spent entirely on the exercise bikes is one indication; the mindless digital “dopples” (avatars) from the episode reinforce how futile the characters’ efforts are; and the relegation of the laboring class of bikers to this facility is a way of masking a kind of human slavery from who are later to be revealed as the upper, privileged classes.

The relationship between energy-producing bikes and the larger facility trapping these people finally becomes visible in the episode’s culminating tragic scene, in which Bing loses his merits to the arbitrary whims of the privileged class, represented by three obdurate judges. These judges listen to a song by the young woman Abi, for whom Bing has bought the golden ticket, but they don’t hear her beautiful voice. Rather, they crudely offer her a career in Judge Wraith’s porn industry with the tempting offer, “You’ll never have to pedal again, not one minute. We could really work with you.” Abi resists this dehumanizing remark, but Judge Hope persists:

“Who do you think’s powering that spotlight? […] Millions of people, that’s who. All out there right now, putting in an honest day on the bike, giving back to the world, while you stand in the light they’re generating and dither. And you know what? They would give anything, do anything to be where you are now, to have what you have.”

At this point in the episode, the energy-producing role of these exercise bikes can no longer be ignored. One key phrase that indicates that these bikes are explicitly acting as electrical generators is the idea of “giving back to the world.” Their efforts, their “honest day on the bike,” somehow give back, notably in the form of “generating” power, as indicated by Judge Hope’s first question: these people, everyone in the facility, are powering those spotlights. (Who knows what else they’re powering?)

Energy’s presence, revealed as the invisible heart of this episode’s factory, shapeshifts into what Imre Szeman calls “an absence inescapably present through negation” (324). This “absence” borrows from in Jean-Paul Sartre’s mode of “nothingness.” Nothingness, in Sartre’s conception, is a present lack, something you’re looking for but don’t see mise en scene. As Szeman relates to Black Mirror, then, this absence – this nothingness – becomes a “gap,” one which arises out of “the apparent epistemic inability or unwillingness to name our energy ontologies, one consequence of which is the yawning space between belief and action, knowledge and agency” (324). The ignorance of self-circumstance displayed by the characters in “Fifteen Million Merits” plays to the upper-class’ advantage. It’s within the scope of interests for the (absent) nameless people in charge of this episode’s facility to keep people in the dark, on the bike. In not being able to name their own “energy ontologies,” they aren’t equipped to stand up to the unfair conditions in which they find themselves. But, as will be seen in the episode’s cynical conclusion, it’s not unthinkable to imagine an akrasiatic response to the revelation of energy’s dark role in these characters lives: that “we know where we stand with respect to energy, but we do nothing about it” (Szeman 324). Or, returning to Sartre’s terminology, our epistemic inability leads to “inaction and bad faith” (Szeman 324).

Our historical relationship to energy anticipates this perverse relationship between the people and energy bikes in Black Mirror. Returning to Bob Johnson’s 2016 essay, “Energy Slaves: Carbon Technologies, Climate Change, and the Stratified History of the Fossil Economy,” he traces the pejorative terms from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that referred to the first “energy slaves” (955). Energy slaves were considered to be “any labor-saving device that could convert energy into the functional equivalent of a laboring body,” and emerged as a remedy to household labor (956). Energy slaves, replacing human slaves, perform(ed) “ideological work on behalf of modernity’s privileged classes” (956). In this light, the characters of “Fifteen Million Merits” perform as energy slaves: they convert energy from the toils of a laboring human body; they reinforce the ideological agenda and do the work of the upper, privileged classes (e.g. the Judges). The most these characters receive as compensation is a made-up digital currency: merits. The energy slaves of Black Mirror are “obedient and docile,” given all their technological distractions (Johnson 960). As long as there’s something new to pedal for, Johnson suggests, the characters will remain on the bikes, subjected to the abstract power structures in which they find themselves embedded.

Though “Fifteen Million Merits” begins in medias res, the visual context of this episode suggests that these energy slaves may have “submitted to being ‘shackled,’ and ‘obeyed,’” their enslavement due to economic pressures (Johnson 960). As with Johnson’s historical energy slaves, the characters of Black Mirror “go to ‘sleep’ when ordered to do so” (960): their digital cubicle rooms artificially mimic sunrise and sunset, and are monitored by the anonymous powers that run this facility. The energy slaves are responsible for powering the very system that enslaves them. As the episode suggests, it would be impossible for any single person (energy slave) to throw off their shackles (bikes) and overthrow the system that oppresses them. But why the universal complacency? Greg Singh offers a convincing explanation, warning that the energy slaves of “Fifteen Million Merits” are in, what he calls,

a permanent waking-sleep, a zombification of sorts that is seductive precisely because it shuts off so much of the relentless affect felt through the pressures of supermodernity. This disconnection is desirable in the first place because the affect alerts us to the alienated state to which we may succumb at any moment, through the always-on relationships we have with and through technology – the very last thing that many would wish to be reminded of (127).

The fact that the facility in this Black Mirror episode is always on means an enormous demand of energy needed to keep the place running. These imposed “always-on relationships” alienate the characters within, who have hopes of eventually escaping, thus renewing the cycle (pardon the pun) of their lives being spent on energy bikes.

A final consideration about human relationships to energy arises out of Richard Heinberg’s book, The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrialized Societies, when he writes of how, over the course of centuries, humanity’s “increasingly utilitarian frame of mind led them to begin treating other human beings as tools” (27). With the rise of energy-capturing and energy-reliant tools, writes Heinberg, sources and systems of energy have consolidated and allocated energy distribution to non-local places (27). Further, the growing complexity of human societies has lead to hyper-specialization within individual “technological-economic ‘ecosystem[s]’” (27). In “Fifteen Million Merits,” for instance, each corridor of exercise bikes serves as a microcosm of both familiarity and social currency. Each character can feel better about themselves when another out-of-shape, overweight person is kicked off the bike, bound to become a “lemon.” Dominance is established by characters like Dustin, throughout the episode, as they mindlessly buy into the internal dominance hierarchies within the facility. Dustin thinks that he can treat others contemptibly simply because he’s “put his time in on the bike.” In the same way, historical sources of energy have formed these “ecosystems” that Heinberg describes, rendering a kind of meritocratic contempt for the unsuccessful society to be treated as subhuman. Heinberg claims that we use tools to “adapt ourselves” to a variety of habitats,” which function like “prosthetic devices” (25). In this instance, the compulsory exercise and energy generation on the bikes is a way of demonstrating human adaptation; people don’t wield tools, tools wield people. By this conception, the oppressive relationships between human and bike in this episode becomes a kind of “prosthetic device,” allowing rapport and social cache to develop with the hopes of working hard enough to retire the bike for good.

Over the course of the episode’s second arc, Bing furiously works towards achieving fifteen million merits once more. This time, his efforts are not for Abi, but rather for himself. Rage, resentment, and bitterness have consumed Bing’s heart since the atrocious conscription of Abi into the pornographic Wraith Babes channel. The episode frames a montage of Bing now getting up impossibly early, cycling far more than anyone else, climbing back high with a newfound determination. He endures watching all the adverts, even the porn ones. He miserly monitors his spending, ensuring he uses only one merit for toothpaste. He waits for the vending machines to jam up so he can fish the food out for himself. He waits for people to leave their scraps behind before snatching them up greedily. Eventually, weary from merciless determination and effort, Bing reaches 15,000,000. He stops, gets off the bike. Now, with enough merits, Bing purchases another Hot Shots ticket, and slips a shard of glass into his waistband, along with the used Cuppliance from Abi’s visit. Bing fakes a dance routine, sneaking past the guards, concealing the shard of glass. On stage at last, Bing raises this shard of glass to his throat and, shaking, delivers an impassioned speech, the highlights of which are worth reproducing here at length:

“It’s not people, you don’t see people up here […] Real pain, real viciousness: that we can take. Stick a fat man up a pole and we’ll laugh ourselves feral because we’ve earned the right. We’ve done saddletime and he’s slacking, the scum, so ha ha ha at him. We’ll happily meld with the sheer callous madness of it because we’re so out of our minds with desperation we don’t know any better. All we know is fake fodder and buying shit. That’s how we speak to each other, how we express ourselves; buying shit. ‘I have a dream’? […] We buy shit that’s not even there. Show us something real and free and beautiful? You couldn’t. Cos it’d break us. We’re too numb for it; our minds would choke.”

Embedded in Bing’s captivating and extemporaneous rant is a fusion of the ideas of energy and power that have been explored here. Putting in the “saddletime,” according to Bing, is a way of justifying the status quo. For inside this facility, the status quo is social stratification, enslavement, and the worst parts of consumerist capitalism – all perpetuated by bike pedals.

Bing doesn’t have access to the outside world; these ideas are all raw, his own. But his psychological insight rings in harmony with the ideas of energy and power reinforcing each other. The production of energy in this bike-bound society is what allows any of them to have their own lives; the maintenance of their lives allows corrupt power structures to end up controlling them. Bing, and perhaps many others, recognizes this fusion when he concludes his ardent monologue:

“We’ve grown inside this machine, breathed its air too long. There’s only so much wonder we can bear. That’s why when you find any wonder whatsoever, you dole it out in meagre portions — and only then when it’s been augmented and packaged and pumped through ten thousand pre-assigned filters till it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights to stare into while we ride, day in, day out: going where? Powering what? Powering the whole distraction engine. All tiny cells and tiny screens and bigger cells and bigger screens and FUCK YOU.”

Bing – impassioned, tired, adrenaline burnt out – goes silent. The hall goes silent. Stunned but composed, dignity on public display, the unexpected occurs. Shockingly, Judge Hope offers Bing a 30 minute show twice a week where he’s encouraged to “perform” like this again, this “gimmick” of ranting with a shard to his throat.

This moment of truth for Bing’s character toes the line of what Tim Jordan describes as “culture jamming.” For Jordan, culture jamming is “an attempt to reverse and transgress the meaning of cultural codes whose primary aim is to persuade us to buy something or be someone” (102). Culture jamming bears particular relevance to ecocriticism and its relationship to viral marketing, attempting to stop or change a particular politically salient conversation and shed light on otherwise obscured or silenced issues (e.g. the BP oil spill). In Black Mirror, Bing is conscripted into the very “distraction engine” that has kept him on the bike, that took away his brother, that took away Abi. His protest has succeeded and, when presented with this prisoner’s dilemma, his resolve comes into question.

Bing’s reaction can be usefully described in Eleftheria Lekakis’ article on the relationship between climate change activism, culture jamming, and what she describes as “the logic of appropriation” (312). For Lekakis, forms of “discursive political consumerism” tend to recycle themselves (e.g. the Truth campaign against the tobacco industry). Culture jamming, seen through the logic of appropriation, “appears to be a modality of creative activism creative activism that both asserts the power of consumer politics and contests the commercialization of social change” (312). Protest and resistance can quickly be appropriated by those in power, however. For, at this point in “Fifteen Million Merits,” it appears that Bing has won. He has made his point, left the world speechless, and perhaps generated true activism within the episode’s facility. Black Mirror offers a darker conclusion. Instead, offered with a life off the bike, offered bigger living quarters, merit-free amenities, Bing caves into power. The culture jamming has been reinscribed, rebranded, and, as Bing’s rant points out, repackaged, into the culture.

The episode doesn’t entirely wrap up Bing’s complicit relationship with the power structure that has enslaved him and so many others. Rather, the episode provides small snippets that suggest, amongst other things, that nothing has changed for the people inside the system, still toiling away on the bikes. Kai, a young man who has biked in Bing’s corridor throughout the episode, is seen at the end of the episode to be purchasing a “Bing Shard” for his dopple. Bing’s enraged rant, seen by everyone, has evidently become part of a fashion trend. It’s now cool, edgy even, to tack on this little sign of rebellion to one’s dopple. Of course, this shard doesn’t actually get anyone off the bikes. Implied in Bing’s absence is the fact that the powers that be won’t let another incident like Bing to be aired for all to see. Rather, the episode concludes in Bing’s newly expanded apartment. We see Bing’s new show end, and watch him carefully rest his shard of glass perspex in a velvet case. This “gimmick” has indeed become a gimmick. Bing has bought into the machine that he sought freedom from. And it seems that the amenities have coerced him into complacency: he drinks from a chilled carafe of orange juice, stretches out over the wide apartment, and saunters over to the windows on the other side of his apartment. But these windows are deceptive. The episode’s script reads, “And he stands before an immense window overlooking a beautiful green forest, resplendent beneath deep blue skies.” And yet, clearly, this immense window is just another series of digital screens. It looks real, but the viewer gets the ominous sense that even this newly found freedom from the energy bikes is its own kind of imprisonment. The power structures, momentarily rendered visible by Bing’s righteous indignation, are once again obscured, made invisible by the dominant culture.

“Fifteen Million Merits” presents the kind of future that most technocratic thinkers denounce as far behind societal progress. It’s thought that technological advancements will bring about a more fair, equal society that provides energy access to all who seek it. This attitude is also borne out of the sorts of intersectionality that Ecocriticism adheres to; it’s thought that paying attention to how issues of social justice overlap with environmental and energy issues will be enough to solve the problem. Black Mirror suggests something more bleak: as long as there are dominant modes in control of energy and energy production, as long as we are mindlessly enslaved to our digital lives at the expense of our real ones, these problems of energy, social power, and social justice will only compound in their pernicious consequences. Individual efforts, like Bing’s, to subvert the dominant modes of discourse and power, will be squashed by the strength of the system itself. Collective efforts, virtually impossible within the world of “Fifteen Million Merits,” are also doomed to fail because of social complicity and political apathy. Culture jamming, in this instance, is doomed to be conscripted into the very culture itself.

If “Fifteen Million Merits” teaches anything, it’s that optimistic vignettes of the future fail to seriously engage with the all-pervasive forces of entrenched capitalism and unregulated technological development. As technology increases in scope and scale, so too will inequality increase. If we don’t stare this brutal fact in the face now, far before any such energy bike-driven dystopia comes into being, then the future might look something not altogether unlike the Black Mirror hellscape. “Fifteen Million Merits” mordantly critiques the picturesque mirages of the future, not out of some kind of sadism (although that too, at times), but out of an authentic need to think about these questions now. Even better, Black Mirror insists, start thinking about them yesterday.

Works Cited

Heinberg, Richard. The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. New Society Publishers, 2008.

Johnson, Bob. “Energy Slaves: Carbon Technologies, Climate Change, and the Stratified History of the Fossil Economy.” American Quarterly, vol. 68 no. 4, 2016, pp. 955-979.

Jordan, Tim. Activism! Direct action, hacktivism and the future of society. London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2002.

Eleftheria J. Lekakis. “Culture jamming and Brandalism for the environment: The logic of appropriation.” Popular Communication, vol. 15, no. 4, 2017, pp. 311-327.

Shannon, Laurie. “Greasy Citizens and Tallow-Catches: Early Modern Equivocations on Fuel.” PMLA, vol. 126, no. 2, 2011, pp. 311-313.

Singh, Greg. “Recognition and the Image of Mastery as Themes in Black Mirror (Channel 4, 2011–Present): An Eco-Jungian Approach to ‘Always-On’ Culture.” International Journal of Jungian Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, May 2014, pp. 120-132.

Szeman, Imre. “Literature and Energy Futures.” PMLA, vol. 126, no.2, 2011, pp. 323-325.

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Lord Byron’s Complex Relationship with Time

March 6, 2018

Lord Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is packed with nostalgic meditations on youth. The very fact that this poem is centered around a “child” figure, which archetypally indicates the temporal meditations that will plague Byron’s narrator in the poem’s final canto. Particularly in the fourth canto, the framing of this topographical survey poem in terms of a temporal perspective proves crucial. In Childe Harold, Byron visits Italy, longing for the past zenith of the country’s great cities and empires. The ruins (and occasional superfluities) evoke the greatness of Italy’s past, and, in a similar way, call Byron’s “Harold” into question. That is, Harold’s journey, though topographical, is grounded more fundamentally in a temporal quest. In the way that Proust’s great narrator searches in recovery of lost time, so too does Byron’s narrator seek, through travel, to negotiate his own relationship to mortality – a morbid intimation that bleeds throughout his otherwise romantic poetry.

Byron’s temporal lamentations begin at the third canto’s inception, and carries on throughout the final canto of the poem. This preferatory stanza anticipates the narrator’s travel from Dover to Waterloo:

In my youth’s summer I did sing of One,

The wandering outlaw of his own dark mind;

Again I seize the theme then but begun,

And bear it with me, as the rushing wind

Bears the cloud onwards: in that Tale I find

The furrows of long thought, and dried-up tears,

Which, ebbing, leave a sterile track behind,

O’er which all heavily the journeying years

Plod the last sands of life, – where not a flower appears. (19-27).

 

Here, Byron opens the third canto’s journey from the frame of youth, but more symbolically, the youth’s “summer” in which time passes like the “rushing wind.” The “Tale” that Byron’s narrator tells begins with moribund perseverations, namely the language that Byron’s narrator invokes: “dried-up,” “ebbing,” “sterile,” and so forth. In other words, Byron’s narrator feels that his life-force is washing away in the proverbial tide; Byron’s narrator feels the “journeying years” “heavily” which is to say that the “sands of life,” that is, an hourglass’ sands, passing by like a momento mori – and an indication of Time’s (Byron’s capitalization) passage. In the end, presumably in apocalypse, no flower – a biological symbol of reproduction – appears. The earth will die; time will run out.

Byron’s fourth canto, in Venice,  is where the meditations on Time influence the outcome of the poem’s narration. Byron’s narrator feels moved by the surrounding city, its history, all the lost time that it evokes:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;

A palace and a prison on each hand:

I saw from out the wave her structures rise

As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:

A thousand years their cloudy wings expand

Around me, and a dying Glory smiles

O’er the far times, when many a subject land

Look’d to the winged Lion’s marble piles,

Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles! (1-9).

Implicitly, Byron evokes the past, namely through Venetian memories that are indelibly etched into the landscape around Byron’s narrator. The balance of “palace” and “prison” within this opening stanza self-contradicts within these Venetian memories; this contradiction bears the weight of “a thousand years” and simultaneously dusts itself off as its “cloudy wings expand.” These wings expand around Byron’s narrator, casting memories of sacrifice (“Glory”), smiling through the landscape. The peopling of Venice’s past peers through the landscape, through time.

Structurally, Byron’s lamentations about time continue in the poem’s fifth stanza, deepening the doubts that plague the poem’s narrator throughout the poem’s eventual unfolding:

The beings of the mind are not of clay;

Essentially immortal, they create

And multiply in us a brighter ray

And more beloved existence: that which Fate

Prohibits to dull life, in this our state

Of mortal bondage, by these spirits supplied,

First exiles, then replaces what we hate;

Watering the heart whose early flowers have died,

And with a fresher growth replenishing the void. (37-45).

It’s safe to say that the “beings of the mind” that aren’t clay are simply memories. The “beings,” or perhaps, figments, of the memory’s object are “essentially immortal.” For memories “create” and “multiply” versions within us that cast a “brighter ray” and “more beloved existence” on the meaning within our lives. Byron’s narrator here suggests that “Fate,” fickle as it is, requires the adoption of sacrifice and responsibility – as evidenced by the invocation of prohibiting a “dull” (expedient, perhaps, instead of meaningful) life. By calling “our” state into question, Byron’s narrator here bonds himself to every human’s “mortal” fate. These fates are doomed to a cycle: first exiling our ‘selves’ from ourselves, and then burning off those parts, like dead wood, allowing “fresher growth” to appear, replacing “what we hate.” Time thus replenishes “the void,” and interpolates us to improve; as Jung would later suggest: our future selves are beckoning to us in the present.

The poem’s sixth stanza begins with brief but premoniscent predictions for how Time becomes an object of obsessive fixation for Byron’s narrator. Here, Byron’s observations about Time arrive in his mind “like truth,” and disappear “like dreams” (55):

Such is the refuge of our youth and age,

The first from Hope, the last from Vacancy;

And this worn feeling peoples many a page;

And, may be, that which grows beneath mine eye” (46-49).

Here, Byron equates “youth” with “refuge,” which suggests how one can retreat into the confines of youth as a means of escape from, presumably, adulthood – the very condition that Byron’s narrator in Childe Harold is attempting to escape from. Furthermore, the indication that “Hope” and “Vacancy” are places to seek refuge “from” wears on the narrator’s conscience; this is indicated by the “worn” feeling that, as it “peoples many a page,” simultaneously “grows,” like a cancer, “beneath mine eye.” Time takes its toll. It can’t be stopped.

Byron’s narrator lingers in Italy, prasing its virtues while simultaneously lamenting its faults. Here, we will fast-forward through the key stanzas in which Lord Byron accentuates and (fittingly) accelerates the importance of Time’s passage in Childe Harold:

These are four minds, which, like the elements,

Might furnish forth creation: — Italy!

Time, which hath wrong’d thee with ten thousand rents

Of thine imperial garment, shall deny,

And hath denied, to every other sky,

Spirits which soar from ruin: — thy decay

Is still impregnate with divinity,

Which gilds it with revivifying ray;

Such as the great of yore, Canova is to-day. (487-495).

“Time,” capitalized at last by Byron’s narrator, becomes a sort of agent: a character for Byron’s “Harold” narrator. Here, Time has “wrong’d thee with ten thousand rents / Of thine imperial garment,” which is to say that all objects are torn apart by Time. The attainment of objects is a plethoric act that is in vain, according Byron’s narrator, for all will disappear. The “imperial garment,” or architectural decay, is transparent to Time; the “wrongs” committed by either self, neighbor, or government, shall be rectified by Time’s judgment. In this stanza, Time denies even the sky, and the “spirits which soar from ruin.” The “decay” of the landscape – the topographical element – is supplanted by the “impreg[nation]” of “divinity” within the history – that is to say, Time – of the landscape: Italy (or, appropriately, “Italia!”).

Time becomes a teacher – not just for Harold, but for the reader of Childe Harold as well. This first becomes clear when Byron’s narrator realizes that these beautiful Italian landscapes and architectural achievements are “Too much, to conquer for the poet’s sake” for there would never be time to write it all “forced down word by word” but that there is still “pleasure to record” (673-675):

Aught that recalls the daily drug which turn’d

My sickening memory; and, though time hath taught

My mind to meditate what then it learn’d,

Yet such the fix’d inveteracy wrought

By the impatience of my early thought,

That, with the freshness wearing out before

My mind could relish what it might have sought,

If free to choose, I cannot now restore

Its health; but what it then detested, still abhor. (676-684).

At the risk of redundancy, Byron here equates memory with a drug. Time instructs, even for the addict. The mind, then, evolves to “meditate” on these lessons – whether drug-induced or Time-induced. Thus, “inveteracy” sets in, stubbornly reducing the narrator’s experiences into easy packages; this is borne through the “impatience” and “wearing out” of the narrator’s thoughts. Further, calling back to memory, the narrator’s mind fails to “restore” the “relish” with which its memory would otherwise find in “health.” That is to say, even repressed memories (“what is then detested”) are still abhorrent.

To refute the reader that casts a skeptical glance on this thesis of Time in Byron’s poem, I’d appeal first to the poem’s eightieth stanza, in which Byron’s narrator puts Time on equal footing with God. In love with Rome, the “city of the soul” (694), Byron’s narrator realizes just how “fragile” (701) the world is, how fragile human beings are:

The Goth, the Christian, Time, War, Flood, and Fire,

Have dealt upon the seven-hill’d city’s pride;

She saw her glories star by star expire,

And up the steep barbarian monarchs ride,

Where the car climb’d the capitol; far and wide

Temple and tower went down, nor left a site: —

Chaos of ruins! who shall trace the void,

O’er the dim fragments cast a lunar light,

And say, ‘here was, or is,” where all is doubly night? (711-720).

Byron’s narrator lines up some otherwise transcendent, Platonic ideas next to each other in this first line: “The Goth, the Christian, Time, War, Flood, and Fire.” This might be a gesture towards the fundaments of human nature. It might otherwise be a condemnation of these six forces, as they tempt and corrupt human societies. Time, again capitalized – afforded agency – becomes associated with War in terms of its sociological and psychological impact on Byron’s narrator.

Byron’s obsession with Time becomes prescriptive when he is taken aback by the “Imperial Mount” that all, even the “mighty” falls (963):

There is the moral of all human tales;

‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,

First Freedom, and then Glory — when that fails,

Wealth, vice, corruption, — barbarism at last.

And History, with all her volumes vast,

Hath but one page, — ’tis better written here,

Where gorgeous tyranny hath thus amass’d

All treasures, all delights, that eye or ear,

Heart, soul could seek, tongue ask — Away with words! draw near, (964-972).

The “moral” edge to this stanza is where Byron’s prescription becomes apparent, that is to say, learn your damn history (“History”). For “wealth, vice, corruption,” supervenes on the redeeming aspects of human nature, for Byron’s narrator. “Barbarism,” unfortunately, emerges from the unrefined mind, from the unrefined relationship with “Freedom” and “Glory.” “History,” then, personified, “hath but one page,” and that page is reflective of all human nature: Time corrupts even the noblest of intentions; further, “Tyranny” emerges from those who perseverate on these temporal matters: “All treasures, all delights” dissolve in the face of corrupt cravings, urges to “ask” for more than mortal lives can (or should) bear.

The ego of Byron’s narrator, dwarfed by Time and history, finally submits in the presence of a ruined palace and crumbling arches. As Harold begins to see himself anew, as unquestionably and inexorably mortal, he supplicates a gift from Time, himself:

Oh Time! the beautifier of the dead,

Adorner of the ruin, comforter

And only healer when the heart hath bled —

Time! the corrector where our judgements err,

The test of truth, love, — sole philosopher,

For all beside are sophists, from thy thrift,

Which never loses though it doth defer —

Time, the avenger! unto thee I lift

My hands, and eyes, and heart, and crave of thee a gift: (1162-1170).

At last, Byron’s narrator submits himself to the fatalistic (deterministic) force of Time’s passage. Time then becomes the “beautifier” of the dead, the “adorner” of the ruin, the “comforter” and “only healer” for the broken heart that “hath bled.” Time, nuanced in this passage, becomes paradoxical: signifier and signified. Time, thus, is the existential “corrector” for mistakes in judgment; Time, thus, “never loses,” which is to say, is always correct; Time, thus, always avenges (moral wrongs?); Time, finally, offers the power of bestowing a gift – maybe not just for the poem’s narrator, but as a reinforcing gesture, harkening back to the poem’s aforementioned “moral” that was promised. Time becomes the great equalizer for Byron’s narrator.

The fourth canto’s most iconic stanza, stanza 137, recursively incorporates Byron’s narrator’s lamentations about Time and Time’s passage. Several stanzas precede this penultimate moment of realizing the “mountain of [Harold’s] curse” (1205):

But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:

My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,

And my frame perish even in conquering pain;

But there is that within me which shall tire

Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire;

Something unearthly, which they deem not of,

Like the remember’d tone of a mute lyre,

Shall on their soften’d spirits sink, and move

In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love. (1225-1233)

Here, Byron’s narrator confronts the inevitable decline of his bodily and mental faculties. Harold’s quest throughout this poem has been, in some sense, to recover his youth – whether that means age or spirit is an undecided question. But Byron’s narrator, here, at last, collapses the distinction between a lived life: a long life and, more importantly, a well-lived life. Byron’s narrator at last acknowledges that “conquering pain” is part of what makes life a meaningful endeavor. Byron’s narrator at last acknowledges that a life well-lived will “tire” him at the end of the day, as opposed to the privileged, restful existence that he’d been existing with so far. “Torture and Time,” now twin forces, equally and tyrannically supplant the narrator’s initial quest: to recover inspiration out of the act of traveling. Again, Proust’s great narrator is anticipated in Childe Harold’s temporal meditations throughout this fourth canto. Time, perhaps, is what Byron’s narrator means by “something […] not of,” hence the “remembered” lyre, and the remorseful, rocky “hearts.”

Time emerges as a cohesive conceptual unit, particularly when Byron writes of the great Roman Colesseum and “Saxon times” (1300). Rome confronts Byron’s narrator as irreparable and “Ruin[ed] past Redemption’s skill” (1304).

Simple, erect, severe, austere, sublime —

Shrine of all saints and temple of all gods,

From Jove to Jesus — spared and blest by time;

Looking tranquillity, while falls or nods

Arch, empire, each thing round thee, and man plods

His way through thorns to ashes — glorious dome!

Shalt thou not last?  Time’s scythe and tyrants’ rods

Shiver upon thee — sanctuary and home

Of art and piety — Pantheon! — pride of Rome! (1306-1314).

The span from “Jove to Jesus” indicates the kinds of temporal span within Byron’s narration in this canto. This span is “spared and blest by time,” which, curiously, is not capitalized here. Time, thus begins to fade in existential importance for this poem hereafter. But, for the time (pardon the pun) being, the theme of Time continues: empires rise and fall, while human nature persists. Further, humanity “plods / [their] way through the ashes” of past civilizations, past cultures, such that they (humanity, people) culturally appropriate that which is perceived to be valuable from disparate civilizations. When Byron’s narrator then asks, “Shalt thou not last?,” Time’s “scythe” and tyrant’s “rods” come in to punish the asker of the very question. Returning to the comparison between Jove and Jesus, it’s as though Satan himself emerges, reprimanding Byron’s narrator for the audacity to suggest that Time and mortal finitude is unfair.

Byron thinks of Rome as the Garden of Eden, of a kind of paradise lost that still offers a “fruit” (1341) from the “deep pure fountain of young life” (1333). Byron’s narrator puts his concerns with Time to rest, as “youth” offers a gift to him:

But here youth offers to old age the food,

The milk of his own gift: — it is her site

To whom she renders back the debt of blood

Born with her birth.  No; he shall not expire

While in those warm and lovely veins the fire

Of health and holy feeling can provide

Great Nature’s Nile, whose deep stream rises higher

Than Egypt’s river: — from that gentle side

Drink, drink and live, old man!  Heaven’s realm holds no such tide. (1342-1350).

“Youth,” as a predominant theme, resurfaces at the poem’s end. The initial place of embarkment from which this poem began becomes a recursive loop to which the poem’s narrator emancipates himself from in this stanza. This emancipation happens when Byron writes that youth “offers” to old age the “food,” or the “milk,” of “his own gift.” This gift is time, age, experience – in other words, the potential with which one is “born with [one’s] birth.” The inevitability of one’s fate to “expire” is bound in fate (capital Fate, in Byron’s language), but that should – for the poem’s narrator – never diminish the “fire” in one’s veins. “Health” will be maintained, in accordance with “Great Nature’s Nile,” if one drinks from the stream of life, so to speak. That is, as Byron writes, “Heaven’s ream holds no such tide.” Earthly existence, impermanent as it is, holds treasures that no poem can quantify.

Time unwelcomingly appears for its final volley when Byron’s narrator concludes, “Farewell! a word that must be, and hath been – / A sound which makes us linger; – yet – farewell!” (1666-1667). The past-tense evocation that the word “farewell” brings with it suggests that the poem’s narrator has had to work up to this utterance. Saying “farewell” is emotionally difficult for Harold; Time is a virtue that Byron’s narrator has only just begun to acquaint himself with. But, as the poem continues, the “sound” of the word “farewell” makes us “linger.” We, in other words, are contradictorily bound when this utterance occurs. The intent of the message, “farewell,” is interrupted by the emotions undergirding the phrase itself.

Afterword

For further thoughts on Byron’s complex relationship with Time, one might turn to the 43rd International Byron Conference in 2017, a conference that themed itself around “Byron, Time and Space.” The element of “Time” was heavily explored in this conference, but never touched the elements of Chile Harold that so obviously complicate Byron’s relationship with Time. Of this conference, Stephen Minta writes of Tatevik Movsisyan from Yerevan State who stringently argued that The Giaour, one of Byron’s most acclaimed works, was fundamentally tethered to this idea of “Time and Space” (Minta 2). Further, Byron himself authored a poem five years before the publication of Childe Harold’s fourth canto, entitled “To Time.” In this poem, Byron explores these themes that occur throughout Childe Harold. Those interested in the innumerable connections between Byron’s narrators and Time would be wisely advised to explore “To Time.”

 

Works Cited

Byron, George Gordon Byron, and Jerome J. McGann. Lord Byron, the major works. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Minta, S. “‘Byron, Time and Space’ 43rd International Byron Conference, Yerevan 29 June–1 July 2017 [2–4 July: excursions].” The Byron Journal, vol. 45 no. 2, 2017, pp. 177-181. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/683077.

 

The Ludonarrative Podcast – 1.2 Shadow of the Colossus

February 8, 2018

In this month’s episode of the Ludonarrative Podcast, Preston and I spend time unraveling the hauntingly beautiful “Shadow of the Colossus” (2005). This game, designed by Fumito Ueda, adheres to the design principle, “design by subtraction.” The game’s mechanics come alive, even today, as we anticipate the forthcoming redesigned release for the PS4.

The Ludonarrative Podcast – 1.2 Shadow of the Colossus

Check back with Epilogue this month for more on “Shadow of the Colossus.” And, if you’d like to see more of this kind of content, head over to Patreon to support us.

Life is Tumblr: A Refutation

January 28, 2018

My latest column for Epilogue argues against critics like E;R who say Life is Strange is a bad game. My problems with these critiques are that they are lazy, boring, and misogynistic. For a game that capitalizes on what I’ve called the “Telltale genre,” they represent some serious innovations in videogaming and storytelling that deeply move me as a player.

 

My Defense of the videogame Life is Strange

January 17, 2018

So I can officially say that I get paid to write about videogames. That’s pretty cool. Take that, mom!

Here is the article in question: “Life is Strange: A Ludonarrative Lighthouse in the Darkness”

It would mean the world to me if any of you read through my piece on Life is Strange. I put a lot of work into everything I do, but this piece stands out as something that I truly believe is important work. Any feedback, as always, is cherished.

And if you like it, please check out the rest of Epilogue Gaming’s website. They’ve done a lot for me so far, and I want to help them grow as much as possible. They’re doing a stellar job of carving out a space for intelligent discussions about storytelling that I’ve never seen before.

And if you enjoy my article, which I think you will, then please head over to the Epilogue Gaming Patreon. For as little as $1 per month, you can promote my ability to write more articles like this one. 🙂

The Ludonarrative Podcast – 1.1 Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

January 7, 2018

I’m excited to release a new project that I’ve been working on for weeks: The Ludonarrative Podcast. This podcast investigates the relationship between videogames and storytelling; or, more specifically, the intersection between gameplay and narrative: how do game mechanics tell stories?

The Ludonarrative Podcast – 1.1 Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

This podcast was born out of a literal dream that I had in June, after beating The Last Guardian for the first time. It was the first videogame I’d had time to play in almost a year. I had just wrapped up a grueling semester. And this game made me cry. I was so moved by The Last Guardian‘s ending, that I went down a rabbithole of research, trying to find discussions about how powerful this game is/was. And there was almost nothing deep, almost nothing compelling. There was a noticeable absence of critical discourse about videogames.

A maxim that I’ve picked up from Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s lecture courses is that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated. This maxim becomes truer with each iteration that I say it. In this case, the absence of critical discourse about videogames gripped me: it was my responsibility. And so here we are. This is a project that to say I’m proud of would be to understate the case entirely: it’s one of the best things I’ve ever worked on. And I get to do this podcast with two great, generous, sagacious friends: Ben and Preston. Thank god for them.

Please give this a listen. If you like it, check out Epilogue where I’ll be publishing a minimum of two articles per month about ludonarratives. And, if you’d like to see more of this kind of content, head over to Patreon to support us.

Joyshtick III: Ludonarrative in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

December 7, 2017

The third (and likely final) installment of the “Joyshtick” series of academic conferences.

Enjoying these conversations? Check out EpilogueGaming.com (@EpilogueGames)

Preston, Ben, and I will be launching a ludonarrative podcast in January.

A Brief Tale of Sacrifice: The Unlikely Alliance of Jacques Derrida and Jordan B. Peterson

December 1, 2017

Jordan B. Peterson, a clinical psychologist who has risen to international fame in the previous year, regularly disparages Jacques Derrida in his talks and lectures. Peterson recently argued on the Joe Rogan podcast, for instance, that Derrida’s influence on the University system has been a “corrosive force,” the results of which are “absolutely pathological to the core.” Many of Derrida’s conclusions (e.g. lifedeath) are, for Peterson, “true, but…” because they always rest on the notion that categorization in society exists primarily to marginalize others, a notion Peterson finds “absurd” as a critique. The absurdity that Peterson attributes to Derrida momentarily disappears, however, when they discuss sacrifice and responsibility. Peterson, a champion polemic of post-modernism, at least within the scope of this discussion, sounds a lot like Derrida, the post-modernist who he claims to most condemn. Perhaps Peterson might take Derrida’s Gift of Death into account in the future, an act which might soften some of Peterson’s harsher blows against post-modernism.

Jordan B. Peterson’s arguments about Christian sacrifice in the story of Abraham most strongly coincides with Jacques Derrida’s recasting of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Derrida, through the writings of Jan Patočka and Martin Heidegger, argues that even Kierkegaard’s reading of the story of Abraham was insufficiently complete as an interpretation. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard epically interrogates the “faith” that many people claim to have, and yet “go further” in vain from their own mistaken presuppositions. Kierkegaard dismantles these presuppositions and painstakingly details the “anguish” that Abraham would have felt when he was commanded by God to sacrifice Isaac. Kierkegaard’s portrait of Abraham’s anguish underscores the multifaceted sacrifice that transpired when Abraham committed to the task that God has commanded of him. Abraham’s multifaceted sacrifice is threefold: (1) his son, (2) his ethics, (3) his future. The call is a call to accept the aporia of responsibility, as Derrida would have it, or the call to willingly adopt sacrifice in order to transcend suffering, as Peterson would have it. This aporetic (perhaps transcendent) responsibility cannot be refused but, simultaneously, will inevitably fail to manifest into being.

In the seventh installment of his wildly popular Biblical lecture series (“The Great Sacrifice”), Peterson argues at length that the sacrificial tale of Abraham and Isaac is an archetypal foundation for Western Culture. This archetypal foundation presents itself as a fundamental problem to contemporary life; that is, sacrifice is a religious notion. Sacrifice requires integration of pain and suffering. This religious notion has still not fully integrated itself into secular society. Reading from a draft of his forthcoming book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson concludes his characterization of Abraham’s sacrifice with a discussion of pain and suffering that echoes Derrida’s sentiments from Gift of Death:

“Pain and suffering define the world; of that, there can be no doubt. Sacrifice can hold pain and suffering in abeyance to a greater or lesser degree. And greater sacrifices can do that more effectively than lesser. Of that, too, there can be no doubt: everyone holds this knowledge in their soul. Thus, the person who wishes to alleviate suffering, who wishes to rectify the flaws in being, who wishes to bring about the best of all possible futures, who wants to create Heaven on Earth, will make the greatest of sacrifices: of self and child, of everything that is loved. To live a life aimed at the Good, he will forgo expediency. He will pursue the path of ultimate meaning. And he will, in that manner, bring salvation to ever-desperate world.”

Peterson’s evocation of salvation, in this conclusion, harkens Derrida’s notion of originary responsibility. For Derrida, responsibility is Biblical in origin: love thy enemy, love all children (not just one’s own). This responsibility produces an aporia, for Derrida. For, as finite beings with limited resources, one can only discharge one’s responsibility only incompletely. That is, one can never properly care for (love) all children, one’s enemies, etc. One’s mortality prevents oneself from properly caring for these others, as one can’t possibly discharge the eternal, infinite obligation present in human beings: responsibility through sacrifice.

Sam Kimball, in the twelfth lecture of his 2017 graduate-level literary theory course, tangentially argued against the ontological notion of responsibility. In Kimball’s terms, each of our decisions is urgent, yet problematic. A decision is only a decision, in other words, if one has inadequate knowledge; one must be uncertain. If one isn’t certain, then one is following a protocol. To make a free decision, a responsible decision, one has to make a decision under certain circumstances of inadequate information; but that makes one’s decision irresponsible, by definition. To decide responsibly is, thus, according to Kimball, to decide irresponsibly. Derrida’s ethical aporia of responsibility is thus evoked in this consideration of irresponsibility (again, in Kimball’s terminology): my responsibility will occur within a Darwinian world that is governed by the logic of the infanticidal, without which the sacred would not appear to me. This apparition of the sacred harkens back to the “salvation” that Peterson describes in his conclusion on the Abrahamic tale of sacrifice. That which is sacred, the ideal future, is achieved through sacrifice, through responsibility.

After arguing against the ontological notion of responsibility, Kimball retraced his logic back through the chronology of Derrida’s Gift of Death. This chronology begins with the Akeda, a text which makes infanticidal logic explicit. This explication complicates the notion of responsibility further, according to Kimball, because Abraham sacrifices Isaac even if he doesn’t. Abraham sacrifices all other sons, furthermore, even if he doesn’t. These “even if” conditionals reveal Derrida’s logic of responsibility: to sacrifice all other possibilities (decisions) even if they aren’t sacrificed.

The (or any) instant of life (or care) is an eternity (infinitude) of sacrificed futures, in Kimball’s terminology. As an individual, one can only be a parent to some kids – it’s encoded in the structure of existence. Parenthood is thus a matter of responsibility and irresponsibility, logically necessitating another form of the gift of death: by taking care of one’s own children, one is sacrificing others’. If one truly understood one’s implication in the infinitude of sacrificed futures, according to Derrida, one would tremble before this mysterium tremendum demanded by the wholly other (God). Every responsibility is thus a coming to face with the resurrection, the gift of death that one can never repay but must try to. This gift of death takes the form of the “bargain with the future” that Peterson emphasizes in the Abrahamic story. To bargain with the future, to sacrifice the present, is an ultimate responsibility – a gift of death willingly sacrificed to one’s future self.

Peterson offers the evolutionary anecdote of mammoth hunting to illustrate the biological origin of sacrifice in human culture. In human culture, unlike in animal life (culture?), massive food resources like a mammoth are preserved and shared in order to bring about a more sustainable future. Animals don’t participate in this bargain with the future, as humans do; rather, wolves, for instance, will eat entire carcasses at a time. Humans, however, distribute the carcass amongst members of the group, thereby conferring notions of sharing, trust, and sacrifice. One who shares, or, in Derrida’s terminology, gifts, is responsible. Peterson continues with the detailed account of the pre-Abrahamic sacrifices:

“Eventually, the utility of ‘for later,’ starts to be appreciated. Some provisional notion of sacrifice begins to develop at the same time. If I leave some for now, I won’t have to be hungry later. That provisional notion then develops to the next level: if I leave some for later, I won’t have to go hungry, and neither will those I care for. And then to the next level: I can’t possibly eat all this mammoth, but I can’t store the rest for too long either. Maybe I should feed some to other people. Maybe they’ll remember, and feed me some of their mammoth when they have some and I have none. Then I’ll get some mammoth now, and some later. That’s a good deal.”

Hence, societies begin to organize and emerge out of the pleistocene, as Peterson would have it. This emergence, in Kimball’s terminology, does not guarantee an escape from the Darwinian economy of necessity. Rather, in the peace that follows the emergence, society invents culture. Culture, in this conception, is a collective noun for a series of manifestations that subvert the necessity to sacrifice (i.e. taboos, curses, prescriptions, anathemas, oaths, law, religion, customs, etiquette, and gift giving). This subversion is, like the gift of death, precarious. Eventually, this precarious contract will expire and the economic necessity for the group will undermine the peace from which the sacrifice has precluded itself (e.g. natural disaster, invasion, war, pestilence).

When this precarious contract expires, a new sacrifice will have to be made. Peterson might argue that, as sacrifice is a bargain with the future, the reemergence of the sacrifice is inevitable, and even good, if voluntarily undertaken by an individual:

“And maybe those I’m sharing with will come to trust me more generally. Maybe then we could trade forever. In such a manner, mammoth becomes future mammoth. And future mammoth becomes personal reputation: that’s the emergence of the social contract. To share does not mean to give away something you value and get nothing back. That’s only instead what every child who refuses to share is afraid that it means: to share means to properly initiate the process of trade. The child who can’t share, who can’t trade, can’t have any friends, because having friends is a form of trade.”

Sacrifice, in Peterson’s conception, builds cultural trust. Trust through sacrifice is concretized in the social contract, and initiates trade between individuals. This reciprocal trade is precisely what is at stake in Derrida’s Gift of Death. Derrida’s argument about gifts and giftgiving is that a gift is only a gift if it is received and not acknowledged as a gift. A gift, ontologically, cannot be reciprocated, otherwise the intended “gift,” now profaned, enters the market of economic exchange, of Darwinian necessity. This reentry into the market of economic exchange, though necessary, precludes the possibility of the object of intent ever being received as a gift. A gift is thus sacrificed in one’s perceived responsibility to say “thank you,” and pay the gift-giver back for their generosity.

Derrida intentionally refuses to define precisely what he means by the “gift of death,” but repeatedly he emphasizes the “mystery” that the gift reveals. This mystery can be thought of in terms of sacrifice, as well. For all life survives on the sacrificed (gift of) death of other living beings. All life predicates itself on the sacrifice of other life. This sacrifice becomes a gift truly given, a gift which retains its ontological status as gift. That is, one doesn’t give one’s death to others; rather, one gives one’s life for others. This reciprocal relationship culminates in the deconstructed notion of “lifedeath.”

Lifedeath arises as a seemingly self-contradictory term because, as we have seen, life is never purely life. Life is always sacrificial of life. According to this explication, life is infanticidal. Similarly, life produces more life. This production of life is a production of future(s) at the cost of other, lost futures. The (present) instant of time in which the sacrifice is willfully adopted, as Peterson would have it, bears the trace of eternity. This trace implicates an infinitude of lost future, futures lost as permanent loss of infinitudes. If this line of logic holds, then each moment (the present) then inheres infinite value, infinite amplitude of importance. Each moment is infinitely valuable because of the infinitely infinite sacrifices inherited (or gifted) from the past (i.e. lost futures). Each moment of life, then, is a moment intimately bound with death. This intimacy, for Derrida, collapses the illusory semiotic opposition between the logocentric binaries of life and (as independent from) death. Perhaps Peterson’s dogmatic adherence to this logocentrism is at fault in the disconnection between these two great thinkers. Or, perhaps, the psychological truths embedded within the substructure of these Biblical stories are uniquely sufficient to unite the most disparate thinkers. 

 

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.

Peterson, Jordan B. “Bible Series XII: The Great Sacrifice: Abraham and Isaac.” YouTube, 19 August 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yUP40gwht0

Peterson, Jordan B. “Joe Rogan Experience #877 – Jordan Peterson.” YouTube. 28 November 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04wyGK6k6HE

Sloganeering: An American Critique of Identity and Place in the Neoliberal University

November 23, 2017

The University of North Florida boldly boasts its twelve-year-old slogan throughout campus: “No one like you, no place like this.” This slogan rings like an apology, vehemently denying an accusation that no one has made. The slogan promises to retain “that small college feel,” according to President John Delaney, without yielding to the fact that “we’re growing larger” (Kormanik). But, like all slogans, the vacuity and imprecision of these words – promising individuality and appealing to the neoliberal banking model of education – betrays Delaney’s intentions. The antecedent premise, “No one like you,” appeals to archaic notions of selfhood that are inscribed in the pronoun “you,” a signifier that the UNF slogan takes for granted. More accurately, the UNF slogan uncritically appeals to the shifter pronoun “I” implied in “you.” The UNF slogan appeals to what traditional American literature has revealed as the now-vacant status of the “I” pronoun, a vacancy to which the UNF slogan is now anachronistically performing. The UNF slogan’s consequent premise, “no place like this,” appeals to an outdated and mistaken metaphysics (of subjecting reference to essence). This mistake is effortlessly revealed by the self-examining writings of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. These two writers warrant the call for a new slogan.

“No one like you.”

The interpellative and thereby obfuscating function of the pronoun “you” is one indication that the first premise of the UNF slogan (“No one like you”) rests on a faulty foundation. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s timeless essay, “Self-Reliance,” harshly accuses society of manipulating its citizens such that they thoughtlessly defer to authority: even one’s pronouns are not one’s own. Emerson’s description of thoughtless deference to authority that “you” provokes could just as easily apply to the UNF slogan’s invocation (though not explicit use) of the “I” pronoun, which signifies the same thing: “the hieroglyphic by which they obscurely signified their consciousness” of rights and responsibilities within the University (149). Emerson does not (explicitly) define the pronoun “I” in this precise manner, but psychoanalytic and deconstructive thought have, for the past decades, mutually vacated the pronoun “I” in ways that might recast Emerson’s writings on authority such that it decays into a “hieroglyphic” that “obscurely [signifies (or, outdatedly, signified) one’s own] consciousness.” The hieroglyphic pronoun in the UNF slogan might be fairly described, then, as obscurely signifying one’s conscious relation to the University itself. That is, if the first premise (“No one like you”) obscures one’s relation to oneself, then the University of North Florida is implicated in a shell game of promising individuality, and attending to it, all while subordinating it to the incoherently assembled collective of “you.”

Walt Whitman modifies Emerson’s “hieroglyph” to explicate the interpellative effect of each utterance of “I” (or “you,” in the UNF slogan’s terms): each hieroglyph is uniform. Walt Whitman’s epic lyrical ballad, “Song of Myself,” openly interrogates the relationship of “I” with the rest of the world (not-I) through an anecdote of a child offering the narrator a blade of grass: “Or I guess the grass is itself a child…the produced babe of the vegetation. // Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic” (29). This “uniform hieroglyphic,” a simple blade of grass, is, according to Whitman, referentially identical to a child: an individual with potential. In other words, the grass is a yet-to-be (perhaps already) “I” pronoun. Indeed, a blade of grass even (uniformly) looks like an “I” pronoun. The uniformity might be the primary reason that UNF chose their current slogan; it masquerades as a caring, individualistic, hieroglyphic appeal to each student, while actually applying to everyone in a uniform way that applies to no one. One might even say that the UNF slogan appeals to no one (like you).

Whitman further distinguishes a “Me myself” pronoun which problematizes the lazy, uncapitalized pronoun “you” that the UNF slogan appeals to. Whitman crafts the curious phrase “the Me myself” first in place of the “I” pronoun, which is another reason to suspect the truth-claim to which the pronoun “I” (and, for the purposes of this argument, “you”) adheres. The opening stanza of the fourth section of “Song of Myself” loquaciously lists off gobs of gossip and nugatory news, concluding: “but [these externals] are not the Me myself” (28). The capitalization involved in Whitman’s diction of “Me” evokes the proper noun status of the pronoun “I,” but somewhat redundantly continues to modify “Me” with the common noun “myself.” This hierarchical redundancy serves to distinguish not only between “I” and “not-I,” but to distinguish the thoughts and cares of others with the narrator’s (Whitman’s?) own. It also breaks down the interpellative effect of “you” that the UNF slogan employs. But even further, the “Me myself” evokes a kind of spirituality: an inner life which isn’t immediately accessible in the presence of others. Whitman’s spiritual idea of the “Me myself” is precisely what’s missing in the UNF slogan.

The pronoun “I” thus ontologically collapses into the vagaries of UNF’s “no one like you” slogan; “I” becomes “you,” for Whitman. Emerson, for instance, condemns the timidity of the times, the unwillingness to declare “I think,” or “I am.” These declarations are antithetical to Whitman’s project throughout “Song of Myself.” That is, Whitman answers Emerson’s criticism to the extent that Whitman vacates the “I/you” pronoun of all distinction: “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (25). Hence, Whitman’s need to articulate the “Me myself” in contradistinction to Emerson’s charge. “I” and “you” are thus a self-reference, hyper-linking access points to sources of meaning in other parts (places) of the world. Whitman further develops this idea that the thoughts within his poem are, in fact, “the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands” (41). His ideas are, in other words, “not original” (41). And, in some sense, the opening lines of Whitman’s poem are not original: either they, the words, belong to you, or “I,” the narrator, belong to “you.” Yet, if these words belong to “you,” that is to say, everyone, then one can’t help but be timid and apologetic in a world where neoliberal institutions like UNF shamelessly rely on empty promises without nuanced distinctions regarding identity: “No one like you, no place like this.”

 

“No place like this.”

The second premise of the UNF slogan, “no place like this,” is similarly defeated by a cursory glance at the tradition of American literature. Whitman’s “Song of Myself” perplexingly evolves from an examination of the self, the “I,” into an examination of the self in a place. Or, more accurately, Whitman’s poem declares that “I resist any thing better than my own diversity, / Breathe the air but leave plenty after me, / And am not stuck up, and am in my place” (41). An overtly literal reading of these three lines might interrogate (in a similar fashion to the discussion above) the “I” in relationship to “my own diversity.” Furthermore, the buried double-negative in Whitman’s formulation “resist anything better than” could simply be rewritten as “can’t (or don’t) resist.” In other words, I can’t resist my own diversity. The diversity of the self, or the “I,” becomes present in the following lines, in which the the narrator describes the breath. Breathing entails an ebb-and-flow routine of inhalation and exhalation. In breathing, one takes a part of the world into oneself and then releases it back to itself. This reciprocal relationship of the body and external world (“I” and “not-I”) leads Whitman’s narrator to conclude that he is “in [his] place.” This feeling of being in one’s place might be a way to frame the following discussion of the UNF slogan’s second premise, “No place like this.” That is, if one is always in one’s place, then one is always in places “like this.”

This universal well-placedness of oneself, if Whitman is to be believed, fundamentally undermines UNF’s presupposition that there is, in fact, “no place like this.” And, to be charitable to the UNF slogan, Whitman isn’t as categorical about “always” being in one’s place. But the poem’s following (parenthetical) stanza warrants such a reading: “(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place, / The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place, / The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)” (41). At the risk of being obvious, moths and fish-eggs live and breed in vastly different ecological conditions: ocean vs. air, hot vs. cold, etc. Yet, the disparity between such diverse creatures is insignificant for Whitman’s narrator. Furthermore, bright suns and dark suns that the narrator can’t even see are “in their place” as well. Epistemological ambiguity, in other words – something to which the narrator has no epistemic access – is still confidently “in its place.” Finally, both the palpable and impalpable are “in their place,” suggesting a metaphysical certitude on behalf of Whitman’s narrator. Both what seems tangible and what seems intangible, or real and fake, etc., are to be confidently believed in as “in their place” as well. At each instance, Whitman’s narrator walks the reader down the path of understanding the universal well-placedness of things. Again, to the UNF slogan, there are many places like this.

Here, one might object to Whitman, defending the UNF slogan to the extent that there will never be a place like this again: one’s experience at UNF in 2017 will be different than one’s experience at UNF in 2018, and so on. Even if this objection holds, and Whitman’s discussion of the universal well-placedness of things is an eccentric oversimplification of the world, Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” palliates this objection with a definitive discussion of temporal “place.” That is, Emerson writes of time in a fourth-dimension-evoking sense of place. Emerson argues further in “Self-Reliance” that, by civilizational disposition, “man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future” (151). By postponing or remembering something other than the present, one is, in effect, not where one is. And, in Emerson’s terms, one “does not live in the present.” One must thus avoid the “reverted eye” and “tiptoe,” for one will be “heedless” of that which surrounds oneself. Furthermore, if one rejects Whitman’s notion of the universal well-placedness of things, as Emerson does, then one is, in fact, never where one is (in time). Either instance – of spatial or temporal “place” – reveals the empty promise behind the UNF slogan that there is “no place like this.” Both defenses, spatial and temporal, fail. The situation is thus twofold: one is either always in a place like this, as Whitman would have it, or one is never in a place like this, as Emerson warns. Categorically, there can be no “no place like this.”

 

Symptoms of Sloganeering

For a place that claims to be unique, UNF spends an inordinate amount on advertising and facilitating international study abroad programs, a trend that Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (predictably) warns about. To travel, or to study abroad, for Emerson, is to pursue a “fool’s paradise” (160). This paradise is that of a fool because one who travels for amusement, or seeks some external fulfillment or insight into the self, “travels away from [oneself]” (159). That is, as was the case above, one who travels is never where one is. The question then becomes whether the promise of UNF’s uniqueness as a place conflicts with its honored commitment to multicultural globalism, sending its students to novel places: places not “like this.”

The UNF slogan promotes the “superstition” that Emerson condemns and attributes to the archaic urge, specifically amongst University students, to travel (159). Emerson associates this superstitious urge to travel with “all educated Americans” whose “fascination” still permeates educational spheres (159). One might suppose that students, as intellectuals or “all educated Americans,” would be immunized to superstition; obviously this is not the case. Rather, according to Emerson, “it is for want of self-culture” that students feel compulsion to study abroad (159). The compulsion to study abroad, seen as incompatible with UNF’s vain slogan, is the pathway towards growing old “even in youth,” according to Emerson (159). Surely, growing old is not the aim of students seeking fulfillment abroad or in travel. Rather, returning to Emerson’s earlier evocation of the temporal aspect of “place,” one travels to escape the present. Or, in this case, one travels to escape the present place: “this,” as UNF would articulately prefer.

The urge to travel manifests itself within the University’s culture and structure due to a deeper problem: intellectual morass. For Emerson, “the intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness” (160). Obviously, Emerson wrote “Self-Reliance” in 1841, nearly two centuries ago, far before publicly funded high schools were mandatory, much less Universities. Emerson’s prescient problematizations for pedagogy thus presage this historical worry which, to this day, fails to undercut the persistent “restlessness” of studenthood and the isolating  “vagabond” feeling that attends one’s completion of a college degree. One graduates restlessly insofar as one’s education misleadingly “trains” oneself for an incongruent, unforgiving world. One is restless when confronted with the prospect of what one does not already know; as one is educated (or, as one might worry, indoctrinated), one becomes increasingly aware of one’s uncertain relation to the world. And, to Emerson’s second point, one seeks to study abroad because one’s intellect is already vagabond. One might say that the University structurally disassembles people, that the role of a classical education was to train students for the project of becoming who one is, living out the heroic archetype underneath the foundations of Western culture. Only vainly does the UNF slogan project the heroic archetype onto its students; there is, after all, “no one like you.” If UNF sincerely squared itself against Emerson’s mordant critique of what the UNF slogan’s second premise promises, then perhaps the dissonance between the UNF slogan and the experience of individual students subsides. Perhaps there can be a harmonious relation between the UNF slogan and its students, if the University were to critically examine and recast its own slogan.

 

Giving the Devil his Due

Emerson warns that, in polemically addressing the UNF slogan and thereby its contradictory relationship with travel, the “rejection of popular standards” will be seen as a “rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism” (155). This critique is not “mere antinomianism,” a cynical rendering of bureaucracy as such, or travel as such. Rather, the UNF slogan in particular reeks of detached corporate sterilization that seeks to please everyone, a task which no one need ever embark. Rather, UNF should rally around something else: laying out a path of coherent orientation for students who, ultimately, attend University in pursuit of direction and meaning in their lives.

Young people enter University with the primary intention of contributing meaning to the world. This seems to have been the purpose of the classical University structure, as Whitman’s “Song” suggests: to teach people how to meaningfully contribute to the world, to equip people with the vocabulary for generating significance in otherwise insignificant things like a blade of grass. But the University no longer participates in such activity; rather, the dominant narrative throughout the humanities departments is that the world is a corrupt and terrible place, that one’s sense of self (“you”) is conferred constitutive worth by one’s ability to undermine it. The problem with the impetus to undermine society is that it undermines the constitutive identities of the student. Then, undermined, students haphazardly search for that which is worthwhile, something which is easy to seek refuge in: the socially pressured escape in travel, partying, and the online advertising of identity. Hence the phrase that sounds equally lost: “No one like you, no place like this.” The attractiveness of these refuges, according to Emerson, arises from the University’s general cynicism towards cohesive, traditional meaning, the meaning that the classical University structure – as opposed to the banking model of contemporary Universities – once promised to produce.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph W. The Portable Emerson. Penguin Classics, 1981. Print.

Kormanik, Beth. “New logos, new slogan and a new angle for UNF.” The Florida Times Union, 19 August 2005, http://jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/081905/met_19541575.shtml#.WhRMz7Q-eRs. Accessed 10 November 2017.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition. Penguin Classics, 1961. Print.

 

Joyshtick II: Ludonarrative discussion of SOMA and The Last Guardian

November 16, 2017

The second of academic conferences in which Blake Guthrie and Preston Johnston argue that video games have literary value. This video took place at the FCEA conference in Melbourne, FL, in October 2017.

In this conversation, we discuss the history of video games, arriving at a discussion of SOMA and The Last Guardian. We move into other concerns such as The Witcher: 3 and Fallout: New Vegas towards the end of the Q&A.

Ben, our originally scheduled copanelist, sadly could not attend this presentation. Our discussion thus took a more formless structure towards the end.

Our third and final panel will take place on December 6th at the University of North Florida. We will be condensing the content from these first two discussions and proposing some paths forward for this field of study.