If dramatic change requires a brazen statement as its motivation, how can any movement avoid falling into dogmatic excess?
An arcane title such as this is off-putting; it reduces the chances of anyone deciding to look into it further. Yet on this occasion, I have nothing to gain by pulling in those nomads of the internet who click mindlessly through to 'fifty things you didn't know about whatever' or 'such-and-such is dead' or any of the other rhetorical traps I have set as honeypots to drive attention towards my own thoughts. Driving attention has become part of the problem: we have consented to be distracted, to be entertained. And part of my problem is that I do not think this is wrong so much as I think it is out of hand, and I do not yet know what a reasonable response would look like. I doubt anyone does.
The title is not, however, constructed at random: it is a very precise reference to our situation, combining as it does an archaic term used in Kant's précis of his Critique of Pure Reason – the very architecture of the 'modern' mythos, as Latour and others attest – and Alain Badiou's use of 'manifesto' in his short books that summarise his major works. I recently finished Badiou's Second Manifesto for Philosophy, and it has left me wondering more than anything: can I even conceive of a manifesto? To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I couldn't commit to a manifesto that had me as its author. The thought of getting my point of view across succinctly appeals; casting down anything authoritative, well, you can understand my hesitation!
The problem with manifestos, movements, and indeed with taking action in general, is that which Hannah Arendt beautifully appreciated: you can never be sure, when you commit to a course of action, what the outcome will ultimately be. Look at that other famous Marx, and his Communist Manifesto: setting off for laudable ideals of equality released the most horrific violence our planet has ever witnessed. The worst, that is, unless we count those extinctions that have left such a permanent mark upon our planet that even sober scientists deign to call them 'events'. We are going through one right now. If I were to commit to action at this time, would it not have to be towards a direction that minimized the eventual loss of life and diversity our catastrophic mishandling of the Enlightenment has unleashed?
Yet at the same time, my 'platform' (as they say in media circles) is in games – and increasingly invested within the aesthetics of play at that! There are many more people willing to talk to me in this context than any other, and here we are back at the problem of distraction: games have succeeded beyond anyone's dreams as a commercial medium, but they are still marginal as an art form. Do I feel – can I allow myself the luxury of feeling – that a movement in art is worthy of a manifesto at this time? And even if it was, would I be the one to pursue it? Here, I seem better suited to a role as intellectual cheerleader, which perhaps is more helpful than it might first appear.
Where then, to manifest a manifesto? I should look to my influences for guidance, and my first port of call (historically, at least) must be Kant. His original 1781 critique, and the 1783 Prolegemena to Any Future Metaphysics that summarized it, set up the presumed requirements for any scientific metaphysics (or mythology, if you will) and this approach eventually dominated thought, even until now. It spread, via the sciences, to every nation plausibly reading this. Kant had the most honourable reasons for establishing this perspective, but he could not have anticipated its consequences, as Arendt warned in more general terms. Nonetheless, his split into subjective and objective has led us into making measurement the foundation of reality, and creating an era that, as Einstein warned, perfects its means while muddling its ends.
The comforting idea of severing circumstances from general patterns that Kant skillfully reasoned has gone on to become the core principle of our age – the wellspring of the asserted authority of the sciences. Someone willing to speak in that name is always available as a portable expert, provided research funds are available. But this a sad substitute for democracy, let alone some equal form of governance, were something like that to prove both possible and desirable. We have mangled what is valuable in both politics and the sciences, and this part of our mythology needs substantial re-writing if we have any hope of living together for any significant further length of time.
But what, we must ask, could replace faith in the order of nature, that unacknowledged premise of contemporary 'rationality' quietly critiqued by Alfred North Whitehead at the dawn of the twentieth century? Human experience is not to be trusted, after all, we are tainted with dreaded subjectivity (so the story goes). Mind you, this neglects to mention that we must already have elevated measurement to our sacred value before this could possibly become our credo. As Nietzsche warned, it is the strongest faith we have, far beyond that professed within any religious tradition. Doubt in God, why of course – only a fool had never entertained the scepticism of the masses, even if only briefly. But doubt in the sciences, surely not, since they alone reveals reality – provided we constrain that contested phrase to measurement alone.
No, I cannot write a manifesto because I still lack faith: I cannot match the faith of the rational worshippers of technological saviours; or the servants of blood who can tell who belongs to a nation or who is unquestionably foreign; or the idolaters who place books or rules ahead of the God they claim to serve. But I can no longer rest content with furiously criticising them either. They are all my sisters and brothers, and I love them. But I cannot simply let them destroy all our cousins, those other animals neither cursed nor blessed with the 'divine madness' of mathematics, let alone our own wonderful, miserable kind.
I have to act somehow. But – for now, at least – it must be without a manifesto to guide me. Such a thing could too easily become objective – or worse, an objective! – and thus irretrievably static. What I need is isn't a manifesto, but a practice, a good practice like that found at the heart of impressionist painting, Islam, radio astronomy, tantric yoga, differential calculus - or myriad other things, many of which I haven't even heard of.
And I have one, I suppose – I still have this much faith, at least – one I call virtuous discourse, or the Parliament of Bloggers, or letter writing. It is communicating with intelligence and civility, sometimes across metaphysical gulfs so vast it might seem as if we could never understand one another. Yet, nonetheless we do, at least when we make the effort to try. Many worlds trying to live as one, and many voices sharing in this very-old, very-new practice. Together, perhaps there are things we can do that we could not even conceive of alone. At the very least, it is worth the attempt. Any manifesto I might be unfortunate enough to author would have to be built first and foremost upon that.
The opening image is from the album cover forProlegomenaby nicoroc, which is available for free download on Bandcamp. No copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.
Because my readership is partly in Europe, partly in the US, and partly scattered across the globe, I am experimenting with new posting times. I previously ran all posts on Only a Game and ihobo.com at 10:30 am GMT. For the near future, I will be posting at 5:30 pm GMT instead. This is based on trying to minimise any impact from time zones on my readership. If you are affected by this change, do let me know your thoughts!
Once upon a time, I did a snippets every week. I'd like at least to get back to doing them every month if I can. So without further ado, here are my idle thoughts:
Reading my second Whitehead book, his 1925 lecture series Science and the Modern World - and it's phenomenal. Ideas in this book do not re-emerge until the 1970s or later, and his critique of scientific materialism is essential reading for anyone with an interest in philosophy of science. Forget Popper; Whitehead is the twentieth century master of scientific philosophy.
While away in the States, I read two more books by Alain Badiou, who I continue to enjoy - while disagreeing with him on many points. I am particularly stirred by his explanation that what he called 'true' is what Plato calls 'good', what Deleuze calls 'sense' etc. This point makes me utterly re-evaluate Plato. Still reeling from the implications of this.
The fallout from the terrible events in Paris recently have shown the shallow appreciation we have for our now-fragile, collective rights. It is perfectly reasonable to defend freedom of speech and yet suggest that we should not use it to defame (as Pope Francis recently did) - don't confuse legal protections with moral duties. Those who think you 'protect' freedom of speech by intentionally speaking offensively have failed to understand the moral project of the Enlightenment or the responsibilties entailed in freedom of speech.
It is also worth stressing that the motive for the Paris attacks was not the defamation of the prophet Muhammad, per se, although this was the reason for the choice of target: terrorist groups are responding to the atrocities conducted - primarily via robotic bombings - in and around countries such as Pakistan etc. We all should be horrified by what is being done in our name: why aren't we even talking about this?
On a lighter note, I am very excited by the new Tale of Tales project, Sunset, and am indeed in the process of conceptualising Michael and Auriea's work in terms of Badiou's truth procedure for art. I hope to write to them about this later this year, if only I can find a gap in their busy schedule!
Last year, I made a commitment towards attempting to get back what was valuable to me about blogging, and the primary means for that was to stop complaining about the shallowness of other social media and to focus on writing to others via my blog. I did not quite manage to write a blog-letter every month, but I wrote eight over the course of the year, which seems like a satisfactory outcome. In your blog-letter – your first! – you say many flattering things about me, but on one point I must take you to task: the Republic of Bloggers is definitely not mine, for all that I may be trying to popularise the term.
As I say in that original statement of intent, there was a Republic of Bloggers the moment blogs began talking to each other – which we did all the time before Twitter, Facebook etc. because the blogosphere (as it came to be called) was the locus of new kinds of communication. My view is that the Republic of Bloggers existed the moment the first pair of blogs exchanged posts, even though they were probably not doing so in a letter format. It was more common to begin a post “So-and-so over on such-and-such says something-or-other”, with a link so others could see what was said. This method of impersonal address obfuscates the underlying discourse, but it does not eliminate it.
So although I am certainly championing the Republic, I don’t want it suggested for even a moment that I created it – it was here when I arrived! – and indeed, I came here because my good friend Matt Mower, to whom I addressed my first blog-letter as such (Taxation as Injustice – actually, as much about drone assassination as tax, per se), insisted that I should be blogging, even though he could not articulate this intuition as clear reasons. Because the Republic is distributed in a way beyond any formal method of control or organisation, I feel it is important that no-one can own it, claim it, or be anything other than a citizen of this Republic. I have chosen to declare my citizenship – now you have too: welcome to this unabashed realm of invisible virtue!
Virtue is a term I am using more and more these days as it marks that aspect of ethics that is about individual agents, their positive moral qualities (as opposed to the aspects of ethics that concern the permissibility of actions, or the value of outcomes). Indeed, if we go back to before my trumpeting of the term ‘Republic of Bloggers’, you’ll find me already doing what I desired in my open letter to Oscar Strik entitled Virtuous Discourse, to which the title of this missive refers. What I desire is discourse that builds bonds between people rather than being mere entertaining distractions – for my fear is that the internet has taken the soporific power of divertissement possessed by television and added to it the addictive compulsion of certain games. I find little to celebrate in this aspect of our current technological apogee.
All this being said, I find no need specify that the content of our discourse will be “philosophy, politics, media studies, and far more beside” – unless it is to stress the ‘far more beside!’ We should talk about what we feel compelled to talk about. I think, perhaps, there is no other option. I greet you warmly across the digital pony express of the internet and welcome you to my province, parish, district, oblast, shěng, or prefecture of the grand disorganised Republic that we bloggers all have the power to belong to.
And I welcome your discourse – or, indeed, anyone else’s! – on whatever topic you should wish to discuss with me.
Over on the website of the incomparably wonderful Institute of Art and Ideas right now is a piece I wrote for them back in December about multiculturalism, ethics, and imagination. Here’s an extract:
The mythos of ‘multiculturalism’ is something that liberally minded individuals – such as myself – tend to take for granted. In the United States, where my wife is from, liberals can become pathological in their defence of it. But if we take up the floorboards of this idea, as Mary Midgley suggests is a philosopher’s task, we’d have fewer reasons to celebrate our ‘tolerance’, since the unacknowledged baggage of a multicultural society is an arrogant faith in our own correctness. It is only because we have faith in rational truths that everyone is obligated to accept that we graciously allow others to have their own beliefs. Beneath the warm mask of compassion that multiculturalism likes to wear is a vast and condescending gulf. We are proud to share Britain with Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists – as long as they accept the rational restraints we put upon them.
The orchestra has finished tuning up its instruments, and the overture has begun. Soon, I will start blogging again, and I'm going to be carving out some set times during my week for it so that I can give and get more out of it than last year.
There are already a few changes - social media integration has been added to the bottom of each post, for instance, and I'll be automating my Twitter integration so that I don't have to waste so much time there.
Hadn't been planning on blogging over the Winter Festival, but I wrote this comment on another blog and then realised it meets the criteria for the Republic of Bloggers, so I've echoed it here in case anyone else might find it of interest.
Many thanks for your thoughts in Badiou vs Latour: Is religion a mode of existence? Although I'm not sure I've commented at your Agent Swarm blog before, you have been in indirectly connected to my own blog cluster for some time via the object-oriented ontology blog cluster (I'm not into OOO for my own philosophy, but one should always respect one's neighbours!). Let me also apologize for making this a lengthy response - I do not, alas, have time to shorten it.
I should preface my remarks by saying I've not yet read the new Latour - I only just finished his 2005 pair (Politics of Nature/Reassembling the Social) and am currently working through a few Badiou that are in my never-ending reading pile. But the contrast between Badiou and Latour is for me the most interesting boundary line in contemporary philosophy, being in effect a clash between Badiou's ontology of Order and Deleuze's ontology of Chaos, that Latour inherits. Seeing how people come down in this face off is of great interest to me, and in particular because it is also necessarily a mirror of the conflict between positivism (in my broad sense, outlined in The Mythology of Evolution and picked up again in Chaos Ethics) and the religious traditions, which Latour participates in.
I should explain that I am using 'positivism' in both a historical sense (the tradition descending from Comte) and as a convenient marker for a broad range of practices - in a similar way, in fact, to the way that 'religion' collects the Christianities, Shinto, Hindu traditions etc. into one category e.g. very broadly and not very well. But each and every discussion that uses the abstraction 'religion' hurdles this barrier, and so the abstraction 'positivism' is needed to position against it. And the one thing that unites all the philosophers in the object-oriented camp (as far as I can tell) is their positivism. Graham, Levi, Ian, Tim etc. all step off from a positivistic position and never leave it - which is what they have in common with Badiou who equally begins inside - and never leaves - positivism.
What tips me off in your very interesting account here that you are probably also moving in this world is that in your attempt to position 'religion', you view it as a skeleton key for moving in the belief-truth space - a space that Latour, drawing against Stengers, explicitly rejects. Only someone who was not embroiled in any religious practice could come to perceive religion in these terms - and it's telling for me that I did the same at a particular point in my enquiries. Latour has the opposite problem: he rejects this view (correctly, in my view) but doesn't then know how to proceed - an ambiguity he attempts to address in On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods et al, and presumably in the new book too.
I see both camps in this case - Badiou [+OOO]/Latour & Stengers - as effectively highlighting a split in how to deploy Whitehead. (Obviously Whitehead isn't on the table for Badiou, but he still ends up moving in the same space because both philosophers begin with mathematics). The positivist move is to use Whitehead to collapse the mythology of 'scientific materialism' (Whitehead's term) into a different-yet-related ontology - in Badiou's case, into a different kind of materialism, although a kind that I think is so contiguous with most OOO philosophies as to be at least a neighbour. But the counter-move from Whitehead is to go to a process/practices perspective - and Stengers is the best exemplar of this in many respects. Latour absolutely moves in this space, which fits well with his Deleuzean-inspired philosophy, because Stengers is his single greatest touchstone for philosophy.
My biggest problem with Badiou is that I find his 'four and only four' truth procedures to be uncomfortably contrived - and at times, contrived to expressly exclude religion. I found it fascinating to discover Badiou trying to exclude religion from his love condition because this suture is simply a bad play on his part - his love is his "scene of Two"; it is amorous love, eros. As someone so fond of Plato, Badiou should immediately see this is the wrong place to try and sandwich religion, since in so much as love forms a collective theme between traditions in this sphere it is always either agape or philia! Badiou should perhaps be trying to fit religion into his condition of politics - but it sits uncomfortably there because Badiou's philosophy pursues the universal, and actually religious practices are only mythologically universal (a point that Latour sometimes tries to patiently draw out, but never - in typical Latour fashion - manages to make explicit). The point of religion is found in its community, as every religion practices in community even when it doesn't know it is doing this. Latour's philosophy (and even more so his sociology) recognizes this - but it is difficult (impossible?) to get this across to anyone coming from the other side of the divide.
Well, I cannot come to a useful conclusion in so short a long remark but I hope I have been able to offer you a fragment of another perspective here. As someone trying to broker between positivism and religion (being of both and neither), the mistake I see most often - and especially in Badiou - is to force an understanding of religion in terms of how its mythology generates truth-claims that purport to objectivity i.e. to view religion erroneously as 'failed science'. This view has nothing to do with the truths of religion, per se, something which Latour seems to recognize, even if he doesn't fully understand it either. But then, does anyone?
All the best,
Terence swiftly replied in the comments (see below), and in the comments of his original post.
Alas, not even enough time for my traditional well-wishing to each and every religious festival of the season. Off to stay with my wife’s family in their ‘log mansion’ outside of Nashville for three weeks. Since my wife is still on maternity leave, it’s a rare opportunity for them to host their grandkids for the festivities. I wish you all a happy Winter Festival of your choice and hope to speak with you again some time after Gregorian New Year. Have fun!
Only a Game will return in January 2015 with yet more nonsense.
Pleased to announce that I’m part of the team behind a new conference provisionally entitled The Player Experience: The Emotions and Worlds of Digital Games, due to launch in the Summer of 2016. An inter-disciplinary event, we are intending to sit at the intersection between Game Studies and Cyberpsychology, but will accept submissions from philosophy, narratology, neurobiology, or any other field with connections to the subject. We also welcome delegates from the games industry who’d like to give a presentation, or who’d just like to attend.
The theme for the first conference in the series is Avatars: Presence and Immersion, looking at the representation of identity in and around the fictional worlds of games, and how these lead to presence (high fidelity of experience) and immersion (deep engagement) within those imagined worlds.
The conference will be hosted at the University of Bolton in Greater Manchester UK, and we expect the Call for Participation to begin in February 2015 and close around 30 May 2015. The conference organisers are myself, Dr. Angela Tinwell, and Dr. Julie Prescott. At the moment, we are asking for Expressions of Interest consisting of an email stating that you would like to take part and your academic field and institution, or your company.
Please email px [at] ihobo [dot] com - or click this Email Robot – to let us know this event interests you. Hope to hear from you soon!
Contains spoilers for both Sunshine and Interstellar.
Recent decades have seen a rise in popularity for non-religious allegory films. But the latest, the Nolan brothers’ Interstellar, provides its own strong reasons for rejecting its message.
The religious allegory has long depended upon travelling as its strongest metaphor for life, as evidenced in both John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Wu Cheng’en’s Journey into the West (also known as Monkey) – the classic Christian and Buddhist travelogue allegories respectively. Two of the recent spate of non-religious allegories also build their plots upon an epic journey, namely Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Here, the mythic themes of traditional religion are replaced with contemporary non-religion, specifically positivism (which collects various mythos that have in common a strong trust in the sciences as our most reliable truth-givers). Other positivistic allegories in cinemas recently include Greg Motolla’s Paul (penned by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) and Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson’s The Invention of Lying, both of which descend into bigotry, the latter to a jaw-dropping extent. Of course, religious allegory is hardly immune to this: Journey to the West is about as racist towards Taoists as Paul is towards rural Christianity, for instance.
Interstellar and Sunshine are two peas in a pod: movies about scientists embarking upon an epic space journey to save the Earth from a poorly explained global catastrophe that – quite implausibly, in the case of Interstellar - can only be solved by physicists. Both movies have similar influences; Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has been mentioned by both directors, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris also deserves a nod in this regard. And both movies hired astrophysicists as full-time consultants – Einstein Medal winner Kip Thorne for Interstellar, and perpetual rictus-grinned Brian Cox for Sunshine. On the surface, this seems like a sensible consultation gig, although in the case of Interstellar the scientific themes go beyond mere physics and a broader consultation might have been sensible. The role of these physicist-advisors is as much spiritual as it is practical, though, as can be seen in Brian Cox’s conversion of Sunshine-star Cillian Murphy to atheism (i.e. a specifically atheological form of positivism) during filming. I suspect in this case that Murphy’s prior agnosticism was already positivistic in inclination, so the ‘change’ was more of denomination than of inclination.
Whereas Sunshine feels very much like Pilgrim’s Progress for those who put their faith in Science, at least before devolving into serial-killer-in-space, Interstellar seems a little more internally conflicted, but only just. Matt Damon’s hilarious cameo as evolutionary dogmatist Dr. Mann provides (sometimes unintentionally) some much needed humour in the frankly overlong movie. Mann has swallowed all of the Dawkins-esque dodgy metaphors about evolution without, it seems, accepting Dawkins’ own exultation to rise above this fallen state (a mythos Dawkins himself exports from Christianity, as others have noted). Similarly, John Lithgow has a few injections of grandfatherly wisdom that help leaven the oh-so-slowly rising bread: I giggled at his remark about Matthew McConaughey’s character ‘praying’ to his gravitational anomaly – far more apposite than perhaps even the Nolan brothers intended!
As spectacle cinema, Interstellar is a strangely effective mix of awe and boredom. But as didactic cinema, the Nolans shoot themselves through their collective feet. Christopher Nolan has stated that with this movie he wanted to rekindle interest in space travel after the disappointing termination of the space shuttle programme. But by its own internal logic, Interstellar is a massive argument against its own rhetoric. The problem springs from its energising mythos being that of the early twentieth century Russian school teacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who responded to early rocketry by stating: “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot live in a cradle forever.” In the film, this is delivered as “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here”, and Dylan Thomas’ striking poetry is repeatedly deployed to underscore this theme. This is a mythos I have dubbed “Flee the Planet” – and it is one of the most dangerous (in the Enlightenment sense) non-religious ideologies in circulation. As ground-breaking evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis remarked, it is a fantasy to think that space exploration is something possible solely through shiny metal technologies and not through messy biological partnerships. As a result, if we are to explore the stars, it is first necessary to fix our problems here on Earth.
This is the first way Interstellar’s message stumbles: it spends the entirety of the first hour painting its picture of a doomed Earth but never really manages to explain why that catastrophe is inescapable, or (equivalently) why super-physicists can save us by evicting us into space but super-biologists are powerless to save us on Earth. If it is possible, as the film’s ending posits, to create majestically perfect space colonies through the wonder of physics, why is it impossible to build (sealed) terrestrial colonies upon the Earth? Because frankly, being in space changes nothing here: if you can’t build sustainable self-contained colonies on the Earth, you’re not going to be able to build them in space either. The film may have got its physics ducks in a row, but its biology ducks are all higgledy-piggledy. We can still buy into conceit this because apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios are so familiar to us now, but in this case we ought to be more sceptical about its premise, given the director’s intention to motivate viewers towards a specific way of thinking.
More egregiously on this front, Interstellar veers into very strange metaphysical nonsense in its attempts to neatly tie everything up too neatly. Behind its immediate mythos of “Flee the Planet” lies a more general mythos that philosopher Mary Midgley has dubbed “Science as Salvation”. But the sciences are utterly powerless to provide salvation in Interstellar, because its entire premise is based upon aid from unknown beings that McConaughey’s character insists (with a total absence of evidence – bad positivist, no cookie for you!) are five-dimensional future descendants of humanity. These beings open the wormhole and construct the tesseract that are the necessary plot devices for saving all of humankind in the story. This actually doesn’t make a lick of sense if you examine it too closely, but setting this aside the whole “Science as salvation” mythos fails if what actually saves you is a deus ex machina, or rather homo ex machina since we are supposed to believe that future descendants of humanity are the godlike aliens in this story. Thus if the film attempts to rekindle interest in space travel by suggesting that we’ll need to escape the planet to live after we kill the Earth, it contradicts its own didactic intentions by making such an outcome impossible to conceive without a thoroughly un-positivistic faith in superpowered future post-humans manipulating events like the Greek Gods lowered by a crane into the theatre that gave us the god-in-the-machine metaphor in the first place. As allegory, Interstellar is shockingly self-defeating.
When religious and non-religious allegories posture against rival mythologies, it is almost always ‘the best of us’ versus ‘the worst of you’ – which is (not coincidentally) also how the “Science versus Religion” mythos operates ideologically. In Journey to the West, the silly Taoists are never allowed to present their perspective, and problems within Buddhism never come to the fore. Of course, this doesn’t hurt the story at all! In Interstellar, however, there is a surplus of what I’ve called cyberfetish (blindness when judging our technology) that, unlike the magical battles in Wu’s narrative, undermines what the Nolans want us to make-believe. McConaughey expresses cyberfetish succinctly when he is enraged by his kids’ school adopting textbooks that say the moon landings were faked for political purposes (nice touch, that). He objects that there used to be a machine called an MRI and if they still had it, his wife wouldn’t have died. Maybe so. But isn’t grand scale monocultural farming facilitated by mechanized agriculture the root of the blight that threatens humanity with extinction in the film? Cyberfetish encourages us to see technology solely as friend and saviour – magical medical interventions, test-tube repopulation miracles, sassy robot friends, and galaxy-spanning spaceships. It blinds us to the ways that unfettered technological development has hastened the threat of our own extinction, and already brought about the permanent eradication of many of the species we shared the planet with until very recently indeed.
Interstellar is an epic thought experiment that seeks to persuade us into taking a rash course of action by eliding almost all the relevant information and making it seem that its way is the one true path. There is a nasty history of this in twentieth century moral philosophy, not to mention Medieval religious doctrine: we should not find it more palatable just because it indulges our valiant yearning to touch the stars. If humanity is to explore space, it will not be through the “Flee the Planet” mythos: as Interstellar inadvertently makes clear, this is a dangerous fantasy. Rather, our relationship must first and foremost be with our living planet in all its necessary diversity. “The Earth and then space” is the only mythology that might give us even a fleeting chance of one day travelling beyond our world, and even then we may have to accept (as Interstellar publically denies) that it is our robots that will have to be our proxies amongst the stars. Science fiction inspires us all – both religious and non-religious people alike. Let us ensure it inspires us to do our duty to our fellow Earthly beings rather than encouraging us to hasten our self-inflicted apocalypse by trying to sacrifice the planet in order to ineffectually flee into the heavens.
Interstellar is in cinemas now. For more on science fiction as positivistic mythos, see The Mythology of Evolution, and for more on cyberfetish and the moral dangers of thought experiments see Chaos Ethics.
Please note that this is not a review, but rather a philosophical critique. If you want my review of Interstellar it would be "see this movie if you enjoy attempts at serious science fiction with striking cinematography."
Back in residence, for what it's worth. Looks like I will only have time for two posts before I am once again away, this time travelling to the United States for the Winter Festival. The first one goes up on Tuesday next week and is about the film Interstellar, but I'm not sure what the other one will be yet... Watch this space!
As with every year since the Game began, I shall be taking a break from blogs and social media for a minimum of twelve days in November for the Wheel of Fortune.
I had hoped to have another blog letter prepared before then, but time has run out. My motivation to write the blog letters is weak at the moment because of the low rate of response - basically, only Oscar has responded to anything I put into the Republic of Bloggers, although Jed and Joseph did chip in on their own (bless you guys!). I would still like to have these exchanges, and will certainly reply to any that are written to me, but my general feeling is that our attention has been shattered to the point that it is almost impossible for coherent written dialogue to occur now. Some view this as inevitable. I view this as quietly tragic. The internet cannot be a path to liberation while it is primarily an infinite source of distraction: it has merely imprisoned us in a more entertaining jail.
I would especially like to hear from anyone who has read Chaos Ethics, since at the time of writing I know of no-one who has read the book (who didn't read it prior to publication). There are at least a few hundred copies in circulation now - so at some point there will be someone who has read it. If this is you, I would love to hear from you! And of course, it could be you, if you read the book - or the ebook, which is on a special offer all November. Who will be the first reader to talk to me about the book? I don't know, but I greatly anticipate finding out.
In the meantime, enjoy the silence and I will be back for the run-up to the Winter Festival with more nonsense of one kind or another.
It being Samhain today, decided it was time for a bit of Autumnal cleaning here at the Game. So I’ve resequenced the side bar, added a search box that someone asked for a while back, and update the bio and sidebar of the ‘About’ page. If you have anything else you’d like done, let me know. (We could switch to Disqus for comments, if anyone wants this, but so far no-one has been keen).
Could there be a viable concept of ‘player rights’, and if not, are there any grounds for legally restricting games?
There have been several attempts to propose a ‘Player’s Bill of Rights’ (e.g. Graham Nelson in 1994, Raph Koster in 2000, Peterb of Tea Leaves in 2004, Ernest Adams in 2005, and Brad Wardell in 2008), but the tendency of these has been to present wish lists of requirements game developers should adhere to, motivated partly by personal frustrations, and partly by professional expertise. Such statements can be exceptionally useful as proposals of best practices for game design or commercial game development, but the ‘bill of rights’ aspect of such manifestos is best understood as an imaginative framing. It certainly helps such claims get noticed, but it does not rise to the level of a genuine claim to rights.
There are two possible ways that we might get clear of this problem. Firstly, we could involve many different players in a discourse on their issues – which will prove intractable in the face of the immense diversity of players, and the vocal bloody-mindedness of certain factions among them. The alternative, which I take up here, is to pursue a concept of player rights from similar philosophical groundings to the US Bill of Rights and the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely Kant’s concept of Recht (what I will call ‘the rightful state’ or ‘rightful conditions’). This idea has been a substantial influence in the emergence of what are now asserted as ‘rights’, although it should be noted that the very first Bill of Rights (pictured above) was written in 1689 and reflected the earlier philosophy of John Locke (although this was also an influence on Kant’s work).
It is worth observing that of the above mentioned bills of player rights, Raph Koster’s A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars is closest in form to historical documents of this kind (being partly modelled upon them). But for these kinds of player rights claim to hold up, they must hold up on grounds parallel to historical rights legislature – and this is far from obviously the case, for reasons this enquiry will undertake to make clear.
Ethics vs. Rightful Conditions
Kant divided morals into ethics (which he saw as rational self-constraint) and the rightful state (which concerns civil law). Rightful conditions are distinct from ethics because Kant thought, as many of us do today, that freedom consists in setting your own ends (that is, your own life goals), without being unnecessarily constrained by others.
As Allen Wood explains, it was Kant’s proposal that the only justifiable role for coercion of any kind was to secure the external freedom of citizens – this and this alone is the rightful state for any nation. Kant did not consider it reasonable for anyone to be forced to adopt other people’s ends, since anyone who is constrained in this way is not free. But ensuring that everyone was able to set their own ends in a civil society means protecting against attempts to force other people to adopt ends that are not their own – and the only reasonable use of coercion would be to prevent this.
Such enforcement does not require anyone to adopt any specific end, it merely protects everyone against any such attempts to dominate their freedom. We are only free, the argument goes, if we are free to choose our own ends, our life goals, although we may be rightfully constrained in the pursuit of those ends because some things that we might intend to do would violate the rightful condition (e.g. murdering people who block your chosen end).
It is thus from the idea of a rightful condition that the authority of civil police arises, and also from the rightful state that concepts of human rights develop, to protect against external coercion. This sets the background to exploring the idea of player rights: if such an idea is valid, there must be a rightful condition for games.
The Ends of Games
To begin with we must ask: do we ever possess ends when we play? It is important to appreciate that an end is far more than just something you want. As I explain in Chaos Ethics, ends are imagined future states in your life that you actively commit to pursuing. You may heartily crave an ice cold beer but it cannot be one of your ends – although it could be one of your ends to own a brewery, say.
Either our gaming-ends – to reach Level 70, build a castle, 100% a game etc. – are truly ends in the sense that freedom implies, or else they are something akin to fictional-ends, hence (analogously to Walton’s quasi-emotions) quasi-ends i.e. imagined ends whose meaning occurs solely within fictional worlds and not in everyday life as such. This distinction is not that easy to settle, however. A player may genuinely want to 100% a game, but then lose interest and play something else – or may become so obsessed with World of Warcraft that they drop out of college.
Notice also that some kinds of game are difficult to imagine quasi-ends for – what I have called thin play games such as Dear Esther and Proteus do not afford much room for willing future states, as they are experiential, like other artworks. Similarly, you may want to win at Snakes & Ladders but it is not a plausible end to set, nor is becoming a master at this particular game a particularly plausible end, as it might be (potentially) for Chess or Tetris.
The safest answer is to provisionally treat ends within the fictional worlds of games as quasi-ends that nonetheless can affect the ends we set in life – such as the undergraduate who succumbs to the lure of Azeroth, and thus frustrates his original end to earn a degree. This approach helps us deal with ambiguities about the diversity of player responses to the very same games that should affect our assessment of whether and how players set ends in the games they (freely) choose to play.
Do Games Coerce Players?
For there to be a question of player rights in Kant’s philosophy there must be a possibility of coercion that should be excluded – so we must ask: can game developers force quasi-ends upon players against their will? It is not entirely clear that they can.
In the case of the MMO drop-out, it does not seem entirely reasonable to suggest the player was coerced by Blizzard so much as suffered a personal moral failure after playing their game (i.e. this is an ethical problem, not an issue with rightful conditions). Blizzard, World of Warcraft, and other players who know the drop-out are all implicated in the network of moral agency here, but implying coercion seems to massively overstate the level of responsibility of anyone involved. The same would appear to apply to scurrilous microtransactions that take advantage of frustrated players – they may be ethically questionable, but preying upon the impulses of players does not quite seem to be of the magnitude required to constitute coercion. After all, isn’t this more or less what casinos do?
What this suggests is that there cannot be any player rights based upon this idea of rightful conditions, which is where all our other uses of ‘rights’ descend from (even those older conceptions drawing against Locke). It may be immoral for developers to produce games that take advantage of compulsive tendencies, but it does not qualify as a breach of rightful condition. The developer, on the other hand, does have its ends unrightfully frustrated by players who acquire access to their game via piracy – namely their end of being compensated for their own work. But this was not the subject of this particular enquiry.
No Rights, Many Wrongs
The reason it sometimes feels as if there should be player rights is that some decisions developers make frustrate players and seem thoroughly unnecessary – not allowing cut scenes to be skipped being a classic example (included in both Ernest’s and Peterb’s bills of rights), or using inadequately specified puzzles (as Graham Nelson’s bill of rights argues against).
However, at best we can say that it is bad business sense not to appreciate the needs of players in this regard, and (on the other side of this coin) players ought to be aware that software development is expensive and time-consuming and even small features place significant burdens on developers if they are required to implement them. In this regard, ‘player rights’ as lists of bugbears are not something that can be justified as anything other than advice for best practices. (Of course, this doesn’t mean developers shouldn’t pay attention to such issues, only that they cannot be compelled to adhere to them!)
In other cases (such as with Brad Wardell’s bill of rights), certain specific demands concern the commercial relationship between a player and a supplier that do not actually relate to games at all. For instance, it might indeed be a breach of rightful condition to secretly install hidden software drivers in so much as the individual’s ends regarding being in control of their own computer are being thwarted. But this has nothing to do with playing games.
Issues like this do, however, suggest there might be software rights that could be pursued, depending in part upon the rather important question of whether users are effectively forced to use certain instances of software. Again, this idea lies beyond the scope of this enquiry.
On purely philosophical grounds, I can draw several conclusions:
Games are not clearly coercive, and as such are not a suitable venue for protective rights.
Software (including game software) can potentially be coercive and might qualify as breaching rightful condition.
There is a moral distinction between games that do not cause players to set specific quasi-ends (some of which share kinship with other kinds of artworks) and those that do.
These latter games, where they are especially compulsive, might justifiably be subjected to legal limitations in so much as civil societies restrict narcotics and gambling for similar (moral) reasons – and it could be argued (although I will not do so here) that such things do breach rightful conditions, although this claim is certainly a matter of debate.
Along similar lines, game developers who prey upon players through manipulative microtransactions cannot necessarily be prevented from doing so as a question of rightful conditions – but this does not preclude them from being judged immoral, and as such communities might decide to institute laws to restrict access to such games by (say) age, or some other appropriate criterion.
Such laws would not necessarily be consistent with Kant’s concept of rightful conditions, except where in so doing they clearly protected external freedom. This might be justifiable when dealing with children, who we tend to treat as being more susceptible to external influences, but if we think an adult is sufficiently autonomous to get drunk, we should equally think them capable of being in control of their games. It is not that players have rights so much as it is that players have responsibilities – and not least of all, to themselves.