The Virtuous Cyborg - Out Now!

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outHow would you know if you were a good cyborg? My latest philosophy book explores this and other problems of contemporary cyberethics. From arcade machines to social media to Pokémon Go to Google, encounter our strange relationship with technology from an entirely new angle. The Virtuous Cyborg is out now from Eyewear Publishing.

Go to cyborg.ihobo.com or click the book in the sidebar to learn more!


Silk is About... Brexit

BrexitSilk is my Brexit game. There, I said it.

Silk is about Brexit because Silk is about how people live together and, perhaps even more so, how they fail to live together. I see in 200AD an allegory of 2000AD, lessons we can learn and did not learn, and are still not learning.

I am not committed to either side of the Brexit ‘debate’ (‘battle’ is perhaps more accurate, since a debate assumes a conversation entirely absent in this matter). I understand the argument that sees in leaving the European Union an opportunity for national self-determination, even if I myself could not vote for leaving because of my suspicion – now amply proven correct – that voting to leave would not spark the essential political dialogue required for the United Kingdom to acquire a viable, shared national identity. Instead, it deepened a previously ignored divide. Knee-jerk racism lines up on one side alongside those who had more honourable reasons for desiring a departure from the EU, while political one-upmanship and the certainty that everyone has it wrong except those who agree with you overwhelm all sides and leave us no closer to having a sense of what our country could or should be.

In Silk, the desire for self-determination is echoed in the imperial battles the game makes central to the Warlord and the Rebel. Settlements defend themselves in Silk when they feel threatened... today, nations do the same. The potential for military power to be abused was always present, and has little to do with the reasons people desire to defend themselves from threats from the outside. Then as now, what starts as defence ends as empire-building. Many Brits still feel like they are part of the British Empire even though in truth we are only offered the choice of being a neighbour to the European Empire or a vassal of the US Empire. But that desire to make your own nation everything it can be is not as morally wrong as liberal opponents to national pride make out. As Mary Midgley observed, we are entitled to put our own interests first; every species does this, and doing so need not – and indeed usually does not – devolve into utter selfishness, even if that is an ever-present risk.

What risks getting lost in this perspective, however, is that co-operation is almost always in our best interest. In Silk, this is represented by the Caravan itself, where a hugely diverse range of cultures and ethnicities come together to try and succeed in the challenge of surviving in the wilderness in the Traveller, or striving to profit from trade in the Noble. The game intentionally has a little casual racism in some of the Advisor’s responses to the world they are travelling... the unfamiliar culture will always provoke a suspicious reaction, after all. I learned so much about the complexities of racism reading Michael Moorcock’s astonishing Between the Wars quartet, and Isabelle Stenger’s “The Curse of Tolerance” deepened my understanding of this even further. Racism and opposition to racism both block co-operation in their own ways, but the lesson of the Caravan in Silk is that we gain more from co-operating than from going it alone. That’s not an argument for staying in the EU as such: it’s an argument for not letting a fight about whether we should endorse one ideology or another tear us apart as a nation. And that’s just as true in the United States as is it is in the United Kingdom.

So when I say that Silk is my Brexit game, I’m not saying that Silk is offering an answer to the problems of Brexit, but rather that in this game I am reflecting on the cultural problems – in the UK and elsewhere – that led us to Brexit, and that are not solved by leaving Europe, nor by remaining. We have lost our sense of the benefits of co-operating, either because we demonise those from other cultures we see as ‘different’ (especially Muslims), or because we have lost respect for our fellow citizens and are no longer willing to let them participate in democracy because we are so convinced that they are ‘wrong’. I see disaster on both paths. Silk is, in a way that is woven into the tapestry of every game of it that anyone plays, an opportunity to reflect upon our interdependence with those around us, and to consider different paths.

We can be more than divided nations squabbling against each other, if that’s what we wish. The question, as Silk asks every player to decide at every juncture, is always: what will we choose...?

Silk is out on Switch, Windows, Mac, and Linux in October 2019.


Silk is About... Religion

Sapadbizes CoinWe don’t talk about religion, right? That’s what ‘secular’ has come to mean... we don’t talk about religion. Unless of course you want to make criticisms against religion, which are still fair game – indeed, are all but encouraged among the intellectually respectable. Liberals are only credible if they are willing to speak out against Christian nonsense, while conservatives positively thrive upon their distrust of Muslims... So we end up in this strange situation where ‘not talking about religion’ becomes a blanket cover for racism because religion and non-religion are intimate elements of culture, and so if all you’re permitted to do is to speak ill of religion, you have created an environment where racism not only festers, it achieves a kind of illusion of intellectual honesty that, in my lifetime at least, distrust of skin colour has always been mercifully denied.

Because it’s set in 200AD, Silk can be about religion without dealing with the immense baggage of contemporary religions. Islam has yet to be founded, while Christianity and Judaism are a very small part of the world of 200AD, which is dominated by what we tend to unjustly collect under term ‘Pagan religion’ or, perhaps even more misleadingly, ‘polytheism’. The civic religion of Rome and ancient Greece spreads throughout more than half of the Ancient Silk Road, and collides in the Kushan Empire with eastern Buddhism, which is still a very young religion at this time. It’s also worth noting that the very term ‘religion’ has no real analogue at this time: our capacity to talk about cultural mythos as a package deal emerged via the Enlightenment... the Romans had no equivalent term at all. ‘Religio’, the root of the word, carries the meaning of a sense of duty or responsibility in 200AD, and mostly in the sense of social obligations.

Religions that are huge today are minorities in 200AD. What we call today the Hindu traditions are not entirely absent from the game, but what we usually associate with these spiritual paths are definitely on the fringes – you can sacrifice to Shiva in the Kushan Empire, for instance, but most temples there are dedicated to the Lion Goddess Nana, whom nobody remembers today. In the Parthian Empire, Zoroastrian fire temples are the core of civic religion, and although Islam is still several centuries away you can feel the connectivity between the Parthian Empire and Islamic culture in many ways... like everything else in life, religions have a history, they are not as isolated and static as we tend to imagine, and in 200AD this is far more evident than it is today.

Not that long ago, I was interviewed about the portrayal of religion in videogames by a PhD student, in part because my game Kult: Heretic Kingdoms had on the surface a vehemently anti-religious stance. (The actual story in that regard is much more nuanced, but this isn’t the place to explore it...) One of the things I took from that discussion was the manner in which a huge aspect of the portrayal of religion in videogames is the priest or priestess as the healer – a debt from Dungeons & Dragons that seems to have been tangentially influenced by Hammer House of Horror movies of all things! I became interested in finding another approach to this issue. I didn’t set out to make a game about religion, but once I knew I was making a game about 200AD I knew that it was inevitably going to be about religion in addition to whatever else it was about.

As I came to develop the class of Ritegiver in Silk, I began to see them as an opportunity for a different way of approaching religion in games. The Ritegiver is, in effect, the diplomat: by being able to perform rites at different shrines and temples, the Ritegiver allows the player to make friends with people in new areas, to stave off rebellion by performing sacrifices that help bind them to their captured citadels through civic religion, or simply to ask for aid from strangers. I leave it to the player how they interpret this – cynically, as social manipulation, or idealistically, as a marker for what religions do best when they do not lose their way: binding people together into communities of care. Both ways of understanding religion have some truth to them, and always have.

Silk isn’t a game about religion as most people understand the term. That’s because it’s about the religions of 200AD. I happen to believe that this could tell us more about religion today than it might first appear.

Next, the final part: Brexit


Silk is About... Glorantha

RuneQuest TableauKnowing I wanted to make a game in tribute to The Lords of Midnight, the question was: how? Because making a direct spiritual successor to it was clearly not going to work – Legions of Ashworld had already tried, and it had struggled because it was solely fans of the original who could possibly appreciate it. No, if I was going to create a game that spoke to why The Lords of Midnight was important to me, I was really going to be making a game about a square-based map. It was mapping, and using other people’s maps, that made those early game experiences for me, and this was especially so for The Bard’s Tale, which I painstakingly mapped by hand with graph paper, and then took great pleasure in my friends using my maps to complete the game after me.

So I knew I wanted to make this tribute game about exploration, but I also didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to experiment with radical unexplored possibilities in narrative design, and for this I had another influence: King of Dragon Pass. I had always regretted ‘missing out’ on RuneQuest, possibly the only classic 1980s RPG that I never got to play. King of Dragon Pass let me participate in Gregg Stafford’s extraordinary game by having been set in the world of Glorantha and being, in a very tangible sense about Glorantha. To play King of Dragon Pass is to enter into a fantasy world that’s not like any others out there... it’s more Bronze Age than Medieval, it’s a world where gods and spirits are tangible and pressing in on mortal life. David Dunham’s game is an incredible achievement, one that came to my attention because my colleague at International Hobo in the 2000s, Ernest Adams, waxed lyrical about its achievements in narrative design.

But what I really fell in love with in King of Dragon Pass was the Clan Ring, the set of people who advise you as to what decisions you could be taking as the game progresses. I became obsessed with how this worked, and dug into its designed systems and internal language (OSL), becoming ever more convinced that what was ‘just’ another clever extra feature in that particular game could become the central element of a narrative design that was based upon an entirely different kind of play. Perhaps, the kind of play that would see the player striking out across three million square miles of wilderness....

The Clan Ring in King of Dragon Pass became the Advisors in Silk. They’re your party, you hire them to your Caravan, and once you hire them they’re with you until the end of the game. That wasn’t how the design began – for a while, the paper design allowed the Advisors to die if they failed a skill check spectacularly. But as time went on, I came to realise that what I was doing with Silk in terms of letting the player explore the cultures of 200AD (just as King of Dragon Pass lets you explore the culture of Glorantha), was stronger in some ineffable sense if your Caravan was more than just a set of interchangeable pawns. The Caravan is your family in the game... and by necessity, it’s going to be a family of misfits, just like every party of adventurers in RuneQuest. That’s something that speaks to me as a player of games, and a lover of the strange. It’s why even though Silk is set in 200AD, it’s also in a strange but understandable way, about Glorantha.

Next: Religion


Silk is About... 1984

Lords of MidnightIn 1984 and 1985, amazing things were happening in the British videogames industry. The following year, Japan would overshadow this with titles like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda that transformed videogames forever by having the ability to preserve player progression (the genesis of save games), but for these two years nobody anywhere in the world can match the inventiveness of British bedroom coders.

One of these stories is well known... David Braben and Ian Bell made Elite, which with its vast feeling of player freedom would go on to directly influence Grand Theft Auto, and thus give birth to the open world genre as we now know it. But even that’s not the whole story, because Elite is a descendent of tabletop role-playing games, specifically Traveller and Space Opera, and it was the infinite agency of the tabletop RPG that inspired Elite’s radical approach to digital agency. It’s always a mistake to think videogames sprung into life from nowhere... they flowed down the river of artworks like everything else.

Two other great precursors to the open world game that came out of these two years are both from 1985: Andrew Braybrook’s Paradroid – which I still suspect was an influence upon Grand Theft Auto’s car stealing (although I have not yet proved it), and Paul Woakes and Bruce Jordan’s Mercenary, that took Elite’s wireframe world and made a fantastic story out of it (Surely the faction system in the original GTA was inspired by this game...?). Paradroid is actually my favourite game of the last century, but I don’t feel quite the sense of debt towards it as I do to another 1984 classic, perhaps because I got to work with Andrew Braybrook and Steve Turner in the waning years of Graftgold, and so our stories already intersected in some way.

The last of the four harbingers of the open world is Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight, the best adaptation of The Lord of the Rings to never have had the license. Singleton was not influenced by tabletop RPGs as far as I can tell, but was just interested in how to take the two threads of Tolkien’s epic – the adventure story and the epic war – and represent them in the 48K of the ZX Spectrum, Europe’s most iconic home computer. I was spellbound by The Lords of Midnight, even though it was actually terribly difficult to play, and even more difficult to play well. My appreciation of what it achieved grew when I started giving talks about the history of games, and peaked when I finally sacked Ushgarak (let’s not call it the Dark Tower of Mordor...) in Chris Wild’s outstanding port of the game.

Singleton did not rest on his laurels. The open-world-before-open-worlds concept was revisited in a sequel, Doomdark’s Revenge (which also has a fantastic port by Chris Wild) and later in Midwinter and its sequel, games that moved into polygonal 3D and were equally astounding, perhaps even more so, since they attempted the immersive presence we now expect from first person games before the hardware was in any way up to the task of rendering them. But there was just something about that square-based world in The Lords of Midnight that maintained its magic. It’s a mystical wonder that can also be found in Eye of the Beholder and The Bard’s Tale, which also built their world on squares, although both had so much more computational resources available that they cannot possibly count as the technical achievement that Mike Singleton’s classic was.

I felt a debt of honour to him. I don’t really know why, but I always have. In the 1990s, when I was working on the Discworld games, I tried to make a game in that style, but it was impossible to make the argument for it then. It’s not that much easier now, to be honest! But at least now we have a thriving indie community who sometimes welcome the strange and wonderful into their hearts. So I made Silk, to pay off that debt to Mike Singleton. It’s why even though the game is set in 200AD, it’s also inextricably about 1984.

Next: Glorantha


Silk is About... 200AD

Silk NotesSilk is about 200AD.

Silk is about 1984.

Silk is about Glorantha.

Silk is about religion.

Silk is about Brexit.

Five seemingly contradictory statements, all absolutely true. The fact that all these claims are true doesn’t spring from any conceptual gymnastics, it flows naturally from the way I came to design and ultimately implement Silk, with the incredible help of Nathan (the programmer) and Jamie (the artist), and many others (like Becky, the portrait artist; Chris, the composer; and Patrick and Sean, the producers).

That games are about things doesn’t sound controversial, but in an odd way it is. That’s because the entertainment value of a game (or a film, for that matter) is the moral value we elevate above all others for them – provided a game entertains, all other priorities are rescinded. That’s why games are a multi-billion dollar industry today: not because they are a vibrant, extravagant, hugely inventive artform (although they are), but because they entertain. And who doesn’t like being entertained? By definition, it’s something we all want.

But it’s not enough of a reason to make a game like Silk, because the people who might be entertained by a game like this are not the same people who are going to be entertained by, say, Grand Theft Auto, even though the GTA franchise and Silk have their roots in exactly the same places: the British games of 1984 and 1985 that invented the open world before anyone had thought of calling it that. No, Silk is a niche game... it’s a game for players who are looking to be more than just entertained, who are willing to be challenged to take upon a new way of thinking, one quite different from those that most games present us today.

We should start by acknowledging that this is a game about 200AD. This is a time period I’ve always been enraptured by... the Roman republic has mutated into the Roman Empire, bringing the seeds of its eventual downfall. Thousands of miles east, the Han Empire are about to lose control of China as it slips into the vicious civil war known as the Three Kingdoms. And in between these two ends of the Ancient Silk Road are two other empires that people just don’t talk that much about – the Parthians, who are Rome’s bitter enemy (and whom Rome never convincingly defeated), and the Kushan Empire who rule what we now call India with a cosmopolitanism that is quite astonishing for a time two millennia before our own. To play Silk is to visit 200AD. That’s the player experience we’re offering, over and above any other themes I might have weaved into its narrative design.

I’ve been writing Designer’s Notes since 1993 for every game that I can definitively call ‘mine’ (without denying my immense dependence upon those who work alongside me). I was inspired to do so by Sandy Peterson, the designer of Call of Cthulhu (and level designer on Quake), who first made it clear to me that pretending you’re not influenced by other people’s designs is pure arrogance and folly. In this five part series of Designer’s Notes, I want to look at five things Silk is about. The first, as I’ve just discussed, is 200AD. I’m not going to say too much about that because if you want to know about 200AD you should play Silk – short of a time machine, there’s no other way of experiencing it! But the other four thematic influences upon Silk – 1984, Glorantha, religion, and Brexit – those are things you probably aren’t going to get out of just playing Silk. They require me to tell something of the story behind the game, and that’s what Designer’s Notes are ultimately about. These are the notes I want to make about the most personal game I’ve ever made.

I hope you’ll join me for this journey.

Next: 1984


Prime Time: A Dialogue

Prime Time was a five part dialogue between veteran Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich and ‘outsider philosopher’ Chris Bateman, looking at the relationship between music and priming, Nietzsche’s books, and life within social media.

The dialogue originally ran from October 3rd to October 31st 2017. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

The five parts are as follows:

  1. Nietzsche in Hypertext
  2. An Analytic Lamp-post
  3. Prime Time Culture
  4. The Hallelujah Effect
  5. Your Brain on Social Media

If you enjoyed this dialogue, please leave a comment!


Babich and Bateman: Your Brain on Social Media

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.

AmygdalaBabette 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.

SunsetCB: 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.  AdsWe 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.

Disney Star WarsCB: 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, Spice Must Flowand 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.


Babich and Bateman: The Hallelujah Effect

Last week, the culture industry. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman turn to the psychological effects of contemporary media.

NewsBabette Babich: Noam Chomsky basically rewrites this theme of culture industry [the subject of last week’s discussion] in his own book Media Control, in which he defines the same thing, again and again. I don’t think it matters whether one reads Horkheimer and Adorno or Bernays or Benjamin, much less Anders or Marcuse, and most recently Chomsky.  For me it is telling that Chomsky could not break the point down any more than he did, complete with semi-insulting allusions to things “any teenager” should be able to grasp.  People read Chomsky’s book and remain persuaded that they are not affected by “media control.” And where David Berry remains very sensitive to the Frankfurt School, just as he might be, as author of Critical Theory and the Digital, Alexander R. Galloway is much less so, mixing Agamben and Rawls, to come to same literally take or leave it conclusion in The Interface Effect, arguing that leaving it, just leaving it, can be an option, and although his closing “whatever” is drawn from Agamben one can also hear it California-style, and that works too for fielding “no questions” and leaving “very little to say.” If I’d like a little more rigor, the persistence of the conviction that such a leaving is actually an option – one assumes one is not affected by media control – renouncing “predication” remains appealing. For me the appeal of such a conclusion, the very conviction that one can stand down and return to being what one is, “whatever that may be,” is worth noting.

Chris Bateman: I would suggest there are at least two reasons why people remain convinced of their immunity to these issues. The first is our power to narrativise: our very capacity as beings is to be a story of ourselves, one that we edit as we go. I open Chaos Ethics with the horror that is my ‘paper time machine’, that is, diaries going back thirty years to 1984. When I revisit what past-me wrote, it doesn’t tally with the story in my head – because maintaining the narrative of our own ‘I’ is not the same as remembering all our prior events. We simply cannot do this. The other reason is we have become more consciously aware of things like advertising tricks and ‘spin’, and assume that this awareness immunises us... but of course, this is not inoculation at all but merely acclimatisation. Do you think any philosopher has the capacity to make this point about ‘media control’ or ‘culture industry’ or ‘the Hallelujah Effect’ sink in?

BB: Slavoj Žižek comes closest maybe but even he, spitting and all, with all of his wonderfully Slovenian in-your-face charm, has no effect on these many and several ‘effects’ either. Thus if, in The Hallelujah Effect, I point to the phenomenological and hermeneutical how of the same, some inevitable (but nonetheless to me, as author, disappointing) part of the point of what I say about it is that it will, rather by definition (which I do give!), make little difference to the reader.

CB: Perhaps... but despite already having a variety of general concerns in this area (as a producer of commercial cultural artefacts who is actively involved in decisions that manipulate people’s behaviour) I would say The Hallelujah Effect brought me back to questioning the use of music in media, and widened the scope of my concerns. I had, for instance, been struck with the sense in which nature documentaries had come to use music to ensure the story they tell is the one they have chosen. This is not an ‘objective’ form at all; no audio-visual media could be. And your reflections on the Hallelujah Effect radically expanded the scope of my concerns here, and situated them significantly in the context of online content aggregators like YouTube.

BB: As Adam Curtis’s 2002 documentary shows (if one prefers a film to a book) in The Century of the Self — it is important to watch all the episodes and remember the bits as one goes along — the efficacy of ‘The Culture Industry’ that I unpack with reference to music and YouTube and Facebook, in particular, in The Hallelujah Effect is its comprehensive power: this manipulative technique or effect beats fascistic tyranny and violence as even Joseph Goebbels saw this: because one votes for it. And Britain weirdly voted for Brexit, and although I was sure that America would have elected Hilary Clinton, Trump was elected instead, not quite as the kick in the pants Žižek suggested it might be (although its financial benefits for Trump’s own investments do seem alarmingly plain). The choice was between one bad candidate and a worse candidate but this notion of electoral choice should not blind us to the long ago and still present reality of election manipulation and one does not need to imagine, though this may also be true, that we need the Russians to do this for us.  This is old news in the US as political theorists happily reflect, meaning that no secret conspiracy theory is required. In fact, there’s a movie about it, not The Manchurian Candidate but rather a 2004 HBO documentary, HaHacking Democracycking Democracy, a documentary that should have gotten more attention than it did but won numerous awards. It can, I believe, be seen online, though thanks to the soft censorship of supposed privacy laws, not everything one can see in the US can be seen in the UK, much less in Germany (as I know from experience). Citizens got admirably involved in exposing the failure of an election, it got a blip of attention, and then, in effect, nothing was done so that, of course, the same thing continues to happen, with modern and yet more effective technology, ever more ‘undetectable’ the more enmeshed in our technology we become.

CB: One could argue that technology has been ‘hacking’ elections since at least the newspaper – which would suggest that there has never been an election where technology has not been embroiled in the outcome, since modern democracy is not older than newspapers. I’ve called our time the ‘Age of Distraction’ and the election is a clear example of why.

BB: Indeed, the culture of distraction, where politics advances in an oddly fractured twist on Clausewitz, literally proceeding via ‘other means’ just while we are concerned with other things, continues apace. Thus in the midst of unprecedented hurricanes and earthquakes we ignore the underpinnings of extreme weather as if geoengineering were only a Buck Rogers fantasy. The only philosopher who pays any attention to this is Peter Sloterdijk and although I try to teach this in my digital media class, the little concise book that I used just last year, Terror from the Air, is now out of print.  Still the text from the third volume of Spheres has been available to scholars since 2009 as it is published in the fairly obvious journal title, Environmental Planning D: Society and Space, under the title “Airquake,” it may be of interest to some hence a link may be useful. Beyond these sad and more than inconvenient truths – be it those of hacking elections or hacking the weather – when it comes to the Hallelujah Effect, there is no way (and I hope there is no desire) to take the reference to music out of the discussion.

CB: Indeed not! The musical focus is precisely what drew me into your book, in so much as my time as a musician did not take me very far into music as a form, and I think mostly because I was demonstrably lacking the depth of talent shown by others I knew for whom music was a way of life, and I always manage to duck those things that I cannot excel at. And that nags at me, because I have felt for some time now that music’s power has ended up neutering itself. In the Sixties, music was the revolution. And then by 1977, we have the late and sadly missed Joe Strummer of The Clash admitting that there is already a move towards “turning rebellion into money.” Now, don’t get me wrong, music retains its power to bring together large crowds – but with an utter lack of social effect, beyond the gate receipts.

Tori Kelly EmmiesBB: Wow, that is an extraordinary point and my work researching and writing The Hallelujah Effect led me to similar insights. Tori Kelly’s performance at last year’s televised broadcast of the 2016 Emmy Awards is a good illustration of what we are talking about. What made, to an astonishing degree, Tori Kelly’s performance was what I call the ‘Hallelujah Effect,’ and not only because she happened to have been singing the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Thus the video excerpt offers an object illustration of the ‘Hallelujah Effect.’ Tori Kelly herself recommends that one watch it and she posted it for just this reason on her Facebook page, which is literally (and this is no accident, unless you were tuned at that moment watching the broadcast and knew in advance in advance to do a video capture) the only place on the net where one can see more than a snippet or excerpt of her performance – with good monetized reason, and her Capitol records webpage also links to the video on her FB page. To see what blew the audience of viewers away, including such sophisticated viewers as Rolling Stone critics who wrote about it (among others), one has to see the video. At issue, driving the effect as such is not the song alone or the voice alone. The ‘Hallelujah Effect,’ however paradoxical this may appear, is not produced simply by singing “Hallelujah”, however beautifully or stunningly one does so, whether one is k.d. lang or John Cale or Jeff Buckley, or, to be sure and in the ‘hit’ of last year’s moment, Tori Kelly.

CB: I’m afraid I have no idea who Tori Kelly is, but I imagine this has something to do with the relatively recent bizarre situation whereby a newcomer singing a cover version of a song on television generates vastly more media attention than whosoever wrote and performs the original; shows of the form popularised by Simon Cowell...

BB: Yes, Tori Kelly has the ‘Voice,’ this is how she came to fame at 14, as Wiki will tell you (and I know you know what that means...) by successfully – this is true by definition or she wouldn’t have gained the fame in question – by posting YouTube videos of herself, and then through American Idol (albeit not by winning), and she gives a lovely performance of the song. But what makes it work, the effect of the effect, is that same priming you have admonished me for its insufficiency as a word. But priming is a complex phenomenon that works retrospectively as it were, coming into consciousness by the backstairs. It works with triggers not at all coincidentally the same term that politically sensitive educators like to use, along with marketing psychologists and ASMR artists (like asmr zeitgeist, SensorAdi ASMR, and see, e.g., Mickelous ASMR). Such triggers are not merely acoustic but also visual and for the visual one needs movement and, just as with the acoustic, one needs repetition. YouTube is a perfect medium for this, and Twitter features GIFs and little videos for fairly the same reason. Tori Kelly’s Emmy performance is not just Tori Kelly  – it is the whole production: nothing is left to chance but it is brought together via music and video and ultimately broadcast production: once again, the videography behind the scenes, front and centre and completely coordinated with her singing; this is a little music video that takes us, her viewers, with her through and into Cohen’s song and into our own minds, our own associations — that is the beauty of priming: it’s both individually targeted and universal.

The dialogue concludes next week: Your Brain on Social Media


Babich and Bateman: Prime Time Culture

Last week, Nietzsche. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman turn to priming and the culture industry.

Kids Watching Television - Mental ImprintingChris Bateman: Before we started our dialogues, I had just recently finished your marvellous book The Hallelujah Effect, which is (among other things) an analysis of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah”, the phenomenon of cover versions, kd lang’s performance practice (and odd erasure in the literature), and commercial power over cultures – all of this rooted in your understanding of Nietzsche, of course. But the odd thing is, although I can now spot the Hallelujah effect – the deployment of covers of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” in movies and advertising shows it, for instance – I cannot give a concise definition. (Calling it psychological priming seems utterly inadequate.) Is this an artefact of continental philosophical practice? An analytic philosopher would have begun by laying out an overly precise definition, after all.

Babette Babich: That’s a ‘nice’ question in several senses of the term, including some questions with ‘teeth’ as it were. The focus on Cohen, the focus on k.d.lang more so, also the issue of the complexities of desire, male desire, female desire — part of which dynamic is at the heart of the current scandal of male erotic power in Hollywood, a scandal as old as the casting couch and with deep roots in our society. But what is the ‘hallelujah effect’ — surely it is not about Harvey Weinstein or Woody Allen (although much in the scandal is already written into the plot or is the plot of many a Woody Allen movie. To be sure, think of Harry Potter, we all root for the nebbishy guy, which is why Hermione gets to end up with Ron, that’s the plot J.K. Rowling wrote for her, while Harry gets to get one of Ron’s much younger sisters, etc.). But is The Hallelujah Effect a book about male desire and music, misogyny and beauty? Yes, and the book deals with all that but and at the same time the question as you frame it is fair and one that has led me to some sense of despair.

CB: How so? The text of the book does not hint at any such desperation, and indeed definitions are not obviously a cause of suffering — even among philosophers, although we are adept at finding ways to suffer about anything intellectual!

BB: I was led to write a kind of ‘prolegomena,’ framed out in 12 pages for readers interested in phenomenological media studies. I talk about entrainment and music and online porn, all on the first page and I am still not sure I come close to answering the question you raise. It’s all about the manufacturing of hits of whatever cultural kind from pop music to iPhones and it is about the manufacturing of minds. Thus, in my defence, what I call the Hallelujah effect is the same industrial strength efficacy Adorno points to in what he along with Max Horkheimer named ‘the Culture Industry,’ which is perfectly formulaic, and perfectly effective, meaning that it works, left and right and centre, and all the way up to the highest and most recondite levels of high culture and all the way to the most popular kinds of so-called low or pop culture, including pop songs, including commercial jingles – everything. Including Harvey Weinstein — especially Harvey.

CB: I’m afraid I have little to say in regard of the Weinstein scandal... it cannot possibly count as surprising (which is not to say it doesn’t count as horrifying) and I am inclined to observe that the political power of the US left turns itself all too often to finding celebrities to savage when it is unhappy with who is in the White House. I don’t think it a coincidence that the Don Imus scandal blew up while Bush Jr was in the Oval Office. If Nero relieved Roman tensions by throwing Christians to the lions, tensions in the States tend to be relieved by throwing celebrities into the brutality of the media. Which I suppose brings us to ‘the culture industry’, which is something I encounter quite often when I’m peer reviewing other people, although I have very little experience of Adorno or Horkheimer’s work first hand. This does seem to be a critical point about our current situation – and one that your book definitely takes on.

Adorno QuoteBB: The definition of the culture industry (which with a few missing details is also part and parcel of the Hallelujah Effect) is well laid out by Horkheimer and Adorno in The Dialectic of Enlightenment in the chapter, hard to miss it, entitled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In the process, they themselves are freely varying points about broadcast culture, what we call media these days, already made by Günther Anders and the art psychologist Rudolf Arnheim in their different reflections on radio and Walter Benjamin in even larger part in his essay on the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility which is of course a matter of transmission and reception or media following Heidegger’s reflections on “The Origin of the Work of Art” and asking, as Benjamin asked (in good Frankfurt School fashion) about the very material, real, practical, effective conditions of and for the work of art, particularly considered in the age of mass culture, and the means of ‘creating’ that mass worker – and himself echoing and indebted to Günther Anders, the Canadian political theorist of media,  or Dallas Smythe. Smythe is less noted than he should be (he’s unsung) as he is absolutely central to current claims regarding the ‘shallows’ set in motion by our brave new world wide net order but also exactly predating Galloway on goldfarming and of course Ian Bogost and, before Bogost, Evgeny Morozov and all the bubble folk like Eli Pariser. (I discuss just these things with my students in Philosophy and Digital Media this semester.) What Smythe claimed was that media (which he called “communications” circa 1977) is the “Blind Spot of Western Marxism.” For us today, the evolution continues and it’s digital media we need to be talking about, software included, and much discussion focuses on Benjamin and the material details one usually calls mechanical production though one can and should speak of technology in this respect just to be accurate or true to the German itself.

CB: I’m familiar with the Heidegger piece you mention here, and with Benjamin... for Heidegger, however, the concern in that lecture and essay is more about the relationship between truth and the work of art – a point that also occupies Badiou on many occasions. The question of technology is one that gets brought up more explicitly in his lecture and essay with that very specific title – which has been a frequent point of reference for me ever since I started wearing my cyberethicist hat. Indeed, my forthcoming book, The Virtuous Cyborg, is practically inspired by Heidegger’s challenge. But you were talking about Horkheimer and Adorno and I derailed the thread of our conversation. ‘The Culture Industry’.

BB: I was talking about the ‘Culture Industry’ per se and to be sure — but your remarks are directly related to that industry, at least to follow one thread. Thus although you are quite right to say that Heidegger is concerned with art and truth in his artwork essay, his concern there is expressed in terms of the dynamic materiality of the artwork as it worksand if it works. Hence his concern with the working of the work of art as truth. The mediation there for Heidegger, and this is where he cannot but be indebted to Nietzsche, is cultural and that means specific to a given world and time. Thus his supposed focus on the ‘great’ work of art, as Heidegger offers cliché force references to Van Gogh and to Klee, but also mentions specific loci, and he emphasizes Ge-Stell, the same frame up that he will speak of in his technology lectures.

CB: Let me just interject here for the benefit of non-Heidegger scholars that this term, ‘ge-stell’, in Heidegger is problematic in that it is a key concept but — and parallel to my earlier suggestion about your Hallelujah Effect and the continental philosophy tradition — it is never clearly defined (he defines it, but we couldn't consider his definition as clear). In English, it has been translated ‘enframing’, and Heidegger specifically links this concept to technology... because for him, the essence of technology is not the tools but the mindset it puts us in, that mindset that evaluates in terms of utility, that reduces everything to ‘standing reserve’, a resource to be exploited. This mindset, I might add, is the basic design principle of almost all videogames, and this is not coincidental but almost inevitable, although a huge tangent best saved for another time. You were drawing attention to the loci Heidegger links to this concept of ‘ge-stell’ or enframing?

christoph-heinrich-kniep-a-temple-at-paestumBB: Yes, the loci he gives includes the cathedral at Bamberg and the Greek temple growing quasi-organically from the rock, just standing there “in the middle of the rock cleft valley,” just as he says that the shoes “merely stand there” and that “from Van Gogh’s painting we cannot even tell where these shoes stand.” Now before going too much further, it is worth noting the site in question – the temple at Paestum is set in relief against and from and with the rock. Bamberg, like Winchester, grows out of the rock as well, although both Bamberg and Winchester also happen to be engineering achievements steeped in water. But it is the temple in situ that makes all the difference for what has become the culture industry as folks who travel to Athens are increasingly well able to see as the Greeks museum-ify the Acropolis. Whatever cannot have a museum tent set over it, as at the temple at Bassae, is served almost as effectively by having a museum spring up next to it, which touristic convenience serves a very literal culture industry by providing a set supply of consumers with something to do. This is the point Heidegger advances in his technology essay but in his artwork essay he reminds us that the ancient Greeks use the same word to refer to both art and craft: techne. And it was Heidegger’s student, Günther Anders who really expands on Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s reflections on the Culture Industry because reflections on culture and reproducibility articulated in the era Anders characterized as the ‘second’ industrial revolution were linked, so Anders claims at length, to the obsolescence of the human as such: part of the unavoidable logic of the mechanized, broadcast – today we could say networked and digital – culture of culture, the entertainment industry, including music and theatre and film and television as well as journals and popular (but not less including academic and theoretical) books, all of which were dependent upon the medium for advertising and not less technoscience, the very ‘wake,’ as Heidegger would speak of the question, the auratic eclipse of what Benjamin assessed, once again, as the technological means of reproduction.

CB: Because being able to reproduce on the scale that we now can allows the same reproductions (movies, music, games, images, text...) to engulf human culture into industry, which was not possible even two hundred years ago, and which has accelerated and metamorphosed almost every decade in those two centuries – look at the remorseless rise of the internet as just one example. And it all leads us to where we are now with not only culture industry, but with the related capacity to dominate culture commercially. As the Belgian band Deus lament: “Well, what the hell is my place/If someone else will dictate/My singular culture?” The unsubvertible inexorability of commercial culture production. And this ties us back to your Hallelujah Effect.

BB: Wow! Yes! This is very true and you put it quite rhythmically thanks to Deus and I think the Belgians — I lived in Brussels for a year — are well-positioned in just this disconnect. Their ‘Popular Culture’ begins, after American swing and British sulphuring, by alluding to something rarely noted, unless one is at a pub: Belgians make beer, they do it brilliantly, every which way, but it is the Germans who are famed for beer, they invent chips, but the French take credit for that, in sum, and this is American exceptionalism in a song: “If you don't come from the States/You will always be late to be in popular culture” — as the refrain goes “From western slang/To showbiz spells/You’d almost think/There’s nothing else” and I could almost feel that we are back to singing a Flemish version of analytic philosophy, ‘Hallelujah I’m a bum. Hallelujah, bum again.’ Now Horkheimer and Adorno define the process and the effect of the culture industry again and again. And the Hallelujah Effect is a technique for eliciting, quite mechanically, quite like clockwork, very specific results, in accord with industry interests — there is nothing random about it and it does not really admit of subversion if Adorno is right, musically speaking, culturally or aesthetically speaking — and I fear he is. The reason is really because, and Marcuse saw this best and characterized it with the ridiculously complicated and even more ridiculously exactly accurate, exactly descriptive compound: repressive desublimation. Today’s cool language is all immanence and thing-ontology when it is not experimental philosophy — but repressive desublimation was cool/hot in the 1960s. I do not think we are beyond it.

CB: Something that very much concerns me is the sense that the issues raised in the 1960s and the 1970s haven’t ceased to be relevant, we have just become (worryingly) bored of them. Hence my repeated return to Ivan Illich, whose critique of contemporary culture remains as apposite as it ever was. But no, it doesn’t really matter what the problems are when academics are so desperate to justify their tenure or payscale advances by having carved out a niche, an ‘original contribution to knowledge’... there’s always some cool/hot new thing to escape the problems which have, disturbingly, become boring precisely because of overexposure. Maybe this is another aspect of priming that ought to be considered – priming to ignore. Although perhaps that’s the opposite of the Hallelujah Effect.

Slide3BB: I quite agree with you! Priming to ignore, as you put it, is the very mechanism of the Hallelujah Effect, its engine of the same: we get used to things, we disattend to things, and they continue to work on us, beneath our notice. Thus Kalle Lasn’s Adbusters tried to point to this, not that this can work because we are primed to ignore or disattend which entails that we are also primed to claim, whether we are consumers or academics, that priming has no effect on us. Thus researchers claim that free will drives the market — that or ‘rational choice’ — and thus that advertising has no effect. But as I point out in The Hallelujah Effect, researchers who make those claims are in academic fields like political science. Academic researchers in marketing make diametrically opposed claims and, as Horkheimer and Adorno emphasize to begin with, companies without exception invest in advertising. Now I did get your parenthetical warning about ‘priming’ earlier and I feel a little like Socrates (I have always wanted to feel a little like Socrates, every philosopher does…) trying to respond to Thrasymachus who tells him that he can’t use certain terms as they will not do. And I respect that just because that too is a problem of the effect of the Hallelujah Effect. Which only means, despite your disappointment with the language of ‘priming,’ that I cannot help but refer to it, adding the name of Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew but even more important a PR expert who was so good at the people he represented, Enrico Caruso, that they still enjoy reputations to this day. He lived until his death in 1994, just a county away from New York City, in Westchester.

CB: From philosophy to PR... an unexpected segue!

BB: The reason I mention him is because The Economist, which had reviewed the story of his life as part of their feature ‘History of Advertising’ with a review entitled ‘A Bigger Lie’, had a back page memorial for him when he died at 103. Bernays was the author of The Crystallization of Public Opinion and another book on Propaganda. Bernays was also the key to Adam Curtis’ 2002 BBC documentary, The Century of the Self. Priming is important because it crystallises public opinion: what he taught, what he sold for a living had this grand feature, so useful for corporate industry because it works. Public Relations, i.e., PR, i.e., the literal manipulation of men’s minds, is a science, use it and one has no need to force individuals to do anything but what they think they freely choose to do. Just that is the reason it works.

The dialogue continues next week: The Hallelujah Effect


Babich and Bateman: An Analytic Lamp-post

Last week, the trouble with Nietzsche. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman take the discussion further and consider the questions Nietzsche raises, and the relationship between an author’s books and the writer themselves.

Lit StreetBabette Babich: Analytic Nietzsche scholars cannot engage Nietzsche on his question which was, as Nietzsche himself tells us “the question of science.”  This is not least because Nietzsche does not speak, simply and just or only of “the question of science” but challenges what we think of as ‘science,’ putting the very idea in question, telling us that ‘there are no facts,’ there is ‘only interpretation’ – a claim deeply upsetting to us in our ‘fake news’, ‘alt-truth’-anxious world. Nietzsche, almost preternaturally pre-Heideggerian, proclaims that he is the first to raise the question of science as a question.

Chris Bateman: This indeed is why The Gay Science is such a key text, and for myself especially so for my earlier philosophical work where I am having to re-assess what my time as a physicist meant, and why the sciences have somehow taken on properties traditionally attached to that overly-broad category, religion. ‘The question of science’ is therefore tied up in the desire to position ‘science’ and ‘religion’ as opposites, which is roughly the opposite of how Nietzsche sees this. What is your take on this ‘question’?

BB: I have a committed position to be sure on the issue of science and religion and Nietzsche is as subtle there as anywhere, arguing as he does that science both grows out of religion and alchemy (as so many ‘preludes’) and aspires in a terrible constellation of ascetic inversions at the end of The Genealogy of Morals to take the place of religion once again. Nietzsche names science the latest instantiation of the ‘ascetic ideal.’ But, criticizing science was for Nietzsche a precisely ‘scientific’ thing to do as Nietzsche had his own question (and it is helpful to remember what Nietzsche called the problem of the problem of science was the defining question: What makes science science?  For Nietzsche, that question held and had to be explored across the disciplinary board, that is: from philology to physics and cosmology and beyond.  Indeed, even Heidegger, as I have argued, is not above borrowing Nietzsche’s thunder on questioning, as Heidegger already does early in Being and Time... Thus the prime question is one that tends to be left out when one poses the question of science – it is part of the genealogical question (note that Nietzsche’s reflection is offered in his Attempt at a Self-Critique) – is the question of truth, a question which requires the prior question of why we prefer (Nietzsche expressly asks us to think about this preference) ‘truth’ to illusion or in place of deception, the ‘lie’ as Nietzsche speaks of it (and which he allies to art as well as to the world of myth and dream) as well as in the case of logic, the question of what things are called, the question of perception, that things are (or are not) as they seem to be, and so on.

CB: Right, and so the key passage in The Gay Science (section 344):

The question whether truth is needed must not only have been affirmed in advance, but affirmed to such a degree that the principle, the faith, the conviction finds expression: “Nothing is needed more than truth, and in relation to it everything else has only second-rate value.”

And that, Nietzsche traces to Christianity, and from there back to Plato at its root. That entire section went off like a bomb inside my head, and raised so many further questions that I was forced to abandon any attempt to argue against Nietzsche, and had to accept him as a very different kind of problem, a different question entirely.

BB: To me, many of these questions have been ignored because analytic philosophers have a habit of discarding the bits that make no sense to them. The result is readings that are self-assured, self-enclosed, and, neatly, incorrigible, even with the text of Nietzsche’s own writings as one has thereby and methodologically just by looking only for what seems to make sense to one, created a kind of analytical lamp-post under which alone one undertakes to look for the key to Nietzsche.

CB: Aye, which is funny, when you think about it, as Nietzsche’s writing is purposefully and thoughtfully composed to resist this kind of systematic treatment. Indeed, the aphorisms which constitute his most famous (although certainly not only) writing technique seem to have been chosen in part because they defy the academic, encyclopaedic style that typifies the university in his time. Hence MacIntyre putting Nietzsche and the Encyclopaedists into direct opposition [as discussed in Part I].

BoT quoteBB: I also argue, to Nietzsche scholars (although and to be fair, in philosophy – and this follows from what I already noted – Nietzsche scholars are as analytic as most other philosophers tend to be), that it is pernicious in the extreme that we tend to leapfrog over Nietzsche’s own disciplinary formation just as we also tend to bracket his first book, The Birth of Tragedy.  Thus we have an inordinate number of commentaries written on The Genealogy of Morals, occasionally adding studies of Beyond Good and Evil or Zarathustra and these days and for the past few years, a little more attention is paid to Human, All too Human too... But these are analytic readings: that is one reads Nietzsche a la Leibniz, from the vantage of some self-enclosed interpretive schema or module, admitting no light from any other reading (this windowless self-sufficiency is what makes it Leibnizian, rather than some actual reference to Leibniz himself).

CB: It’s tricky, though, with a writer whose output is as substantial as Nietzsche’s... are we engaging with one text, or with the simulacrum of the author we get by engaging with a complete set of works? For instance, I got into trouble using just one of Foucault’s books, The Archaeology of Knowledge (which builds upon Nietzsche), because Foucault scholars who were peer reviewing me insisted I had an obligation to engage with his later work (all his discussions of power). That did not ring true to me at all. My engagement with Archaeology was specific to that work, and was not a question of power at all. Frankly, I did not appreciate being obligated to engage with a different Foucault to the one I had chosen to read.

BB: This is a fascinating point – and has direct corollaries with recent readings of Deleuze or indeed what certain proprietors of ‘performance philosophy’ call and thus define as the de facto standard reading. Thus at the Society of European Philosophy that recently met in Winchester and about which I tweeted (alas to the sorrows of some folk on Twitter inspiring departures and fits of ‘no! not again!’ conference live-tweeting pique) I was surprised to note just how careful young scholars were to explicitly delimit their work so as to avoid having to have to talk about arenas they did not wish to engage. This is the flip side of the same point you are making about Foucault and power or as some will like to say, just to keep the stamp neatly trademarked: biopower. Thus, papers began with dutiful disclaimers, just Deleuze on Spinoza, not Deleuze and Guattari or, and vice versa, just and only Mille Plateaux. To my mind, this practice is consonant with the Foucault point you make. Fiefdoms get established and doorkeepers – and young scholars are more inflexible on being doorkeepers than I think have ever seen before, and it was always bad – insist on having obeisance paid to just and only their specializations, alas in consequence not recognizing the voice of the other in the process.

CB: I would suggest we are entitled to encounter a philosopher by a single work provided we do not think in doing so we have captured anything of them as a person. Understanding who a philosopher is and engaging with one of their texts are very different tasks. Wittgenstein, for instance, was so utterly misjudged on the basis of the Tractatus. Ray Monk, very honourably, tackles the problem of Wittgenstein’s life, which I feel is essential to appreciating the Tractatus, while Alain Badiou, also honourably, gets to an understanding of Wittgenstein at the time of the Tractatus from within the text itself – but he too reads Monk’s biographical work in order to get there.

BB: True! And this is why one takes such good care with delimitating one’s claims. But your other point for me is just as important, that is: one ought to recognize that the thinker him- or herself may exceed a particular work. At the same time, scholars do tend to move in their own circles so they tend solely to expect that others be open to them without imagining any need for reciprocity on their own part. Badiou is a scholar who takes account, as the French do, of what the English write, but does this same engagement work in the other direction? I would argue that this goes back to the analytic-continental divide – does Monk himself undertake to engage Badiou or is he not a Leibnizian sphere complete unto himself? There are rather a huge number of biographies written of Wittgenstein in France, in Germany, even a few in English, but a text appears – this is Monk’s achievement – and suddenly it is as if no other book ever existed, , by which I do not mean to reduce Monk’s work but there is Walter Schulz after all, and perhaps Badiou benefitted (rather literally, title-wise) from that and there is the wonderfully tweedy (to me) P.M.S. Hacker. I think, scholarship is all about realizing that there is an awful lot out there and the more inclusive we are, the richer we are, not the other way around.

If we mean to get to Nietzsche it means, I think, and I am echoing his own contention here, that we need to pay attention to all his books but perhaps and most especially, because this is exactly what we do not do, to his first book, without reducing it to a kind of distillate of the first sentence whereby the whole book is all and only about the distinction to be made between the Dionysian and the Apollonian, because that is, in the spirit of 1066 and All That, the only bits we can remember and thus and as if all the rest of the book were tacked on as a kind of incidental oversight.

CB: This reminds me of the way that Roger Caillois’ is reduced in game studies to the patterns of play he discusses. Which is ironic, since those patterns are developed by Caillois in order to make his wider point about the decline of play in culture (following on from Johan Huizinga, who inspired him). But nobody in game studies goes much further with Caillois than the opening chapters – indeed, in all too many cases, they don’t get beyond the introduction with its convenient definition of play (which, I might add, was largely irrelevant to Caillois himself). It’s the trouble with readily graspable ideas like Ludus and Paidia in Caillois, or Dionysian and Apollonian in Nietzsche: why dig deeper when there’s something oh-so comfortable sat at the surface?

The dialogue continues next week: Prime Time Culture