Last week, a discussion of media control span into the Emmy Awards. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman pick up the discussion where they left off. Contains one word some readers may find offensive.
Babette Babich: Last week’s conversation ended with Alan Rickman, which happens so regularly that I should add a specialization to my CV. However the reference was not to a philosophical theme, say, Augustinian eternity – Rickman’s Snape uttering the word ‘Always’ – but to analyse the 2016 Emmy Awards ‘In Memoriam’ segment, which included only one verbal eulogy (for a producer, and as the Weinstein scandal reminds us, they are hugely important). The ‘Hallelujah Effect’ corresponds to the magic of the ‘silver screen’ mediated by or through the music. The actors offered their own tributes to themselves, in very recognizable vignettes. Thus, including the pauses that made Rickman irreplaceable, from the 2004 film Something The Lord Made, we hear Rickman in an American southern accent above the Hallelujah refrain: “I think we should remember not what we lost … but what we’ve done.” (2:06)
Chris Bateman: Less an act of grieving than a final publicity event from ‘beyond the grave’...
BB: Exactly and alas! The movements of each vignette, each memory, evoke, (this is the way priming works), recognition, and that recognition calls forth, thank you Proust, thank you Freud, if Adorno (always the killjoy) does complains about this, emotion: that is, both delight and pain, capturing the eye and keeping the viewer’s attention while Cohen’s song and Tori Kelly’s performance captures the ear and entrains the mind. The Hallelujah Effect is that kind of slam dunk. And we are moved.
CB: In the aesthetics crowd, there was the example (I think Kendall Walton gives it, but I might be mistaken) of the philosophy professor who had gone to a sappy B movie, and still found himself welling up with tears at the conclusion, despite utterly detesting the terrible quality of the film in question. This was raised in connection with our emotional responses to fictional events, but that particular example is almost certainly Hallelujah Effect... the use of the music in the finale almost certainly provoked a response above and beyond what the fictional storytelling had managed, or rather, failed to manage.
BB: We are prime-able, manipulable: we can be played, and Edgar Allen Poe writes about this when he tells us, play by play, the technique he used to write The Raven, inasmuch as all of it can be done on cue. Of course, in the case of poetry, one has to be a reader for the techniques Poe emphasizes to really work. Today we read less, focusing more and more on our screens: we live in them, as I repeat these days, we are soaking ‘in’ them. Everything, especially our brains on social media, Twitter but not less our anxious attention to our cell phones, not just for the tweets but tricked out with apps in place of the weird but accurate terminology that Adorno used to speak of the “physiognomics” of what he called the “radio face”. Today we can talk as much as we like about ‘screen ontology’ but the phenomenon is more complex and more entrained than the simple augmentations that McLuhan and Ihde and recently Floridi suggest. We still need a little more phenomenology (beyond what some, following in fealty to Don Ihde, tend to brand as ‘post-phenomenology’) and a lot more hermeneutics and, of course, we also need a lot more discussion. It was to try to start discussion on some of the more complex details that I sought to add a few easy to miss questions about the nature of desire, male and female, just to highlight a certain material nature of ontology, in this case on the nature and working of objectification. Which is where Leonard Cohen and k.d. lang come in.
CB: With respect, that isn’t ‘all you did’ in your book, since you also packaged the entire conceptual apparatus in a way that made it easily accessible by building it around this one song, Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – and that is a significant task, and one that should not be overlooked. I am always looking for these ways to take philosophical ideas and present them in a way that breaks down a little of their inaccessibility to a wider audience... I would count this as a significant contribution.
BB: But if you ask, as you rightly do, hey what is the Hallelujah Effect? Isn’t there a spare and sweet definition, a WFF [Well-formed formula], if we like, the answer is as clear and distinct as it is likely to be disappointing. Thus I tried to avoid simply appropriating Adorno’s laconic two-word definition: standardized ubiquity. But that standardized ubiquity is still the answer. What is on offer all around us today is only the same thing, presented in various ways.
CB: Obviously I work in a commercial entertainment medium, videogames, so I see this over and over again in the marketplace for games... and it’s funny, because gamers are wont to ask for originality and inventiveness – and do indeed have a taste for it – but the numbers that would go out of their way to buy that originality, that inventiveness are so few (if there are any) that this whole underside of the market, the videogame equivalent to arthouse cinema or off-Broadway theatre, is reduced to a lottery. Because the big games are the games that sell precisely because of their standardized ubiquity.
BB: That is intriguing – and I recall when Pokémon GO appeared wondering if this would spawn a range of Pokémon alternate realities. I just joked with my students that an app to dress one’s dates for the evening, especially useful I would think on blind dates, or better said: social media or dating app mediated dates, would liven things up: one could date a knight in shining armour or tweak one’s companion so that she would look like some Hollywood starlet, or, we could even bring back Alan Rickman as I argue elsewhere. I am not entirely serious because, of course, and as you have also argued, with our phones to distract us we are already retuning our virtual surround whenever present company is not captivating enough by checking our phones, clicking, seriatim, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so on. I am worried about the coming corporate branded version of my more role-playing, aesthetic idea, because virtual reality already exists in a minor way anytime one uses Google maps.
CB: I would argue that even paper maps were enough for virtual reality – there is not, after all, any kind of straight line to find in the space between Montana and Saskatchewan, or Indonesia and Papua New Guinea...
BB: I was also suggesting that we might gamify reality – taking off on my former student Jane McGonigal’s powerful insight that ‘reality is broken’ – Mark Zuckerberg just channelled her point by saying that reality is ‘limited’ – at least on the level of the gamer who prefers a grander, better, she would say ‘super-better’ reality. But where I am keen on the aesthetic possibilities (these are hardly realized) we are often limited to contest-style gamification, and this is one of the worries I have with some of the suggestions Ian Bogost makes, adding agonistic elements, red team vs. blue team – and now we are back to elections or again, and more uncomfortably, Brexit. Trump’s America First (which of course means Trump and his 1% buddies first and foremost as the disaster capitalism currently in play in Puerto Rico and elsewhere doing relief efforts and ‘clean up’ and privatizing utilities as they go all too obviously illustrates) is part of this competitive spirit.
CB: I’m not sure if you aren’t misreading some of Ian’s sarcasm, since he is staunchly anti-gamification, and indeed complained that ‘gamification is bullshit’. It’s funny, since despite a lot of noise being made about ‘gamification’ (both positively and negatively), my chief concern in this regard is with the gamification of games. Huizinga and Caillois were concerned about the decline of the play element in culture within the twentieth century, and Caillois is explicit in terms of this happening through the cultural deployment of competition… in my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a disturbing decline in the play element of games. Yet players seem unperturbed – anything (perhaps) to alleviate the boredom of not having something to do.
BB: Even the ways we might avail ourselves to hack our boredom, make uninteresting tasks more interesting (I am still holding out for the chance to spice up social interactions by adding Alan Rickman in our visual surround here and there as opposed to random Pikachus), still leave us – and here we are back to Nietzsche – needing to learn to speak with one another. I find it instructive that Nietzsche defines this common compact, this very social contract, as the necessity to deceive one another according to fixed convention. Not any lie will do as a polite or genuine or friendly or collegial (take your pick according to any given situation) reply to the question “How are you?”
CB: I often take people aback by actually answering that question, which is not what is expected, although so often there is not time. Our familiar social rituals become ephemeral handshakes... I acknowledge that you are there, and that will suffice because it always has.
BB: And yet Sherry Turkle, we talked about her in an earlier dialogue, and she is hardly the only one although she does get the lion’s share of attention (or once upon a time she did) points out that we ‘acknowledge’ one another less and less. We look past other people as we look past the world hunting Pokémon and just this excluding capacity of consciousness or focus will be a boon for Augmented Reality. We have been playing with GPS and Google for so long that we automatically play their game their way, decoding the ‘augments’ superimposed upon the world: this locale features shirts this one serves lattes. But, because this advertising, only corporations that subscribe will be featured.
CB: One of the factors leading to me giving up Pokémon GO next week is the way it is encouraging me to hide from the local community in my park because I want to take control of an in-game Gym situated within that physical space. The game has on occasions brought me together with strangers, which I value, but the intrusion of Turkle's ‘alone together’ is something of a deal breaker for me.
BB: Turkle sees this (as do other social anthropologists and psychologists) by looking at children interacting with their parents. There are microbids for attention, micromoments of bids for acknowledgement, which are neglected in fractions of a second with consequences that last a lifetime. Thus The Hallelujah Effect looks at a phenomenon that we know, one that works on us, one to which we are abandoned and which we ourselves use, but which – such is the nature of corporate advertisement and industry interest – mostly uses us. I try to read that complex effect via Adorno and thus to raise in a fashion apart from Roger Scruton’s massive animus anti-Adorno, the question of Adorno’s insights as these are also on offer in Marcuse, in Anders, in Benjamin, and articulate them for us today as I find it striking how very loyal we are to the effect of the effect as it were. In a decidedly late-capitalist and stubbornly we’re gonna prop it up no matter what the market does, pro-capitalist era, we love what manipulates us and will swear with our last breath that we have complete free will in everything. Thus the biggest effect of the Hallelujah Effect seems to be our loyalty to branding as such; that’s why the ads are so important to VR/AR.
CB: Hence my questions and issues with the fact that ‘All Roads Lead to Disney’ (in boardgames, it is ‘All Roads Lead to Hasbro’)... I find myself quite troubled by Disney’s acquisition of The Muppets, Marvel, Star Wars – and no doubt more popular brands to come. And it is not that I do not respect the work that Disney does in the medium of film, incidentally, since there are a great many films to have come from that corporation that I admire and continue to admire. Some artworks (and videogames prepares you for this realisation) require considerable investment to even happen. But Star Wars, for instance, means something different as a corporate brand whose raison d’etre is to make money than it did when it was a personally-owned brand (with corporate backing, of course – else we would not have found it in the first place!). In the prior arrangement, the brand made money as a side effect of being what it was, which was at least three things: a tribute to the adventure media of the mid-twentieth century, a clever reworking of Joseph Campbell’s insights into classical mythology, and a political allegory. Now, if Disney-branded Star Wars movies manage to achieve any of these things (and I’ve no idea, as I do not wish to participate with the surrogate franchise) they do so in spite of the conditions of their creation. And that troubles me. It troubles me that critique of the US as an empire is now unlikely to come from one of the places it once did. It troubles me that entertainment value seems to have become one of our highest values. And it troubles me that nobody else cares. What’s more, that concern is in no way limited to Star Wars... I am just as troubled by our relationship with social media.
BB: These are powerful points, and I am as concerned, oddly, with the hijacking of Marvel characters which are flattened when made into films, exactly the opposite of what one would expect. The same thing, more powerfully, holds true of DC characters, not Batman but Superman, which is perhaps fine because the figure twisted out of control even in the comic book medium. As for social media, nobody finds it the least bit paradoxical, not philosophers and certainly not Facebook users – and apart from Facebook, think of Google – that one is invited to work on one’s own ad experience, giving conscious feedback in addition to the standard tracking already at work, so to ensure its best tailoring to one’s interests and concerns. One can be asked for input on the kind of ads, Twitter does this as well, that one would ‘like’ to see. But, it seems to me, one would like not to see any ads at all. One would, as Žižek’s Bartlebyesque T-shirt of the moment says, prefer not to. But Bartleby (and Žižek) have turned out not to be enough. Thus to say that one would like not to see any ads might require a new Alice — perhaps a Through the Looking Glass of the Matrix — but we are lacking an author capable of writing that Alice today, and to echo one of Alan Rickman’s last blue caterpillar lines, to us, his Absolem: “Do mind your step.” Indeed, minding one’s step is the least of it. It is a long way down…
CB: The trouble with the analogy with The Matrix, and Žižek says this explicitly in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, is that it was never just a choice between the red pill or the blue pill, between accepting the illusion or escaping it ‘into reality’... the phantasy of escape from Plato’s cave – which in India had never been a plausible dream, because amongst the Dharmic traditions was the wisdom to recognise that ‘all is Maya’. Thus Žižek says:
The Matrix is a machine for fictions; but these are fictions which already structure our reality. If you take away from our reality the symbolic fictions which regulate it, you lose reality itself. I want a third pill... a pill that would enable me to perceive... not the reality behind the illusion, but the reality in illusion itself.
And here again, my concerns are less with the possibility of our biology-psychology being hijacked by the Hallelujah Effect – because as a game designer these kinds of legerdemain are part of my own stock-in-trade – but the question of what we are allowing ourselves to notice, and what is beyond our ability to become aware of, and to what extent those with the commercial power and influence are committed to merely ensuring that ‘the spice must flow’, as Frank Herbert expertly allegorised capitalist empire in Dune.
BB: Brilliant! And Žižek himself brings Lacan to bear on this, rightly so, filmic imaginary. And here notice that rather than a film adaptation of Dune such as we might have had years ago (or perhaps there was one and nobody noticed rather like the terrible adaptations of Bradbury and the nonexistent adaptations of Ursula LeGuin that I am still waiting for) all we got were film after film of videogames on screen, i.e., Star Wars. But part of the point you are making is that we do not mind, and that we are more than we think ‘ensuring’, as you say, that ‘the spice must flow’.
CB: There was a Japanese anime made of Earthsea by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Gorō, although LeGuin was merely polite about it, and it’s safe to say that it was one of those adaptations – like Peter Jackson’s reinterpretation of The Hobbit as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings – that rather sadly erases the identity of the original material.
BB: To my mind, we ought to find this paradoxical, we ought to be up in arms against the commandeering of our consciousness precisely because of the small, the very tiny requisite needed for the purveyors of the Hallelujah Effect to effect the effect as such is a fraction of a second of our time. That is all they need and still they take minutes and hours, to control the way we think, while urging us to think that our will is utterly at our disposal, utterly free. Which we buy. Thus we live daily the very first line of Herbert Marcuse, who was like Günther Anders a student of Heidegger and who wrote about nothing other than the ways and means of purveying and living a “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom” in his to-date still unbettered book on Western consumerist society (folks find Baudrillard’s The System of Objects tough going, after all), that is, and you really only need the title: One-Dimensional Man.
My thanks to Babette for all the correspondence that went into these dialogues, and to you for reading them.