Atlas Shrugged/Bioshock: Dual Review Pt. 2

As a rule, didactic fiction has a very specific structure.  Metaphors and events in the text function as a kind of demonstration, an instantiation of whatever rule the author is trying to convey or to base their message upon.  When the reader subsequently makes their way through the text, these instances are added together in the readers estimation and ultimately used to arrive at this rule by means of induction.  In that capacity, the appeal of fiction is obvious.  It appeals to the sense that life can be pieced together, on first impression, from the visible details alone.  All didactic texts are arguments, but they are also inherently one-sided arguments.  They cannot share space within themselves for competing theories, because doing so would require using metaphors and events to refer to the larger rules proposed by these competing theories.  Doing so would undermine the message of the text.

In that sense, wherein a simulated reality comes to be as a product of a given theory, this theory is then treated as an inescapable truth of the world we live in.  It is a wellspring, the neglected source of things we take for granted in our own lives.  So didactic fiction also appeals to a tendency to see meaningful patterns where none exist; meaning in this instance of course being operationalized in the manner of the continental philosophers.  Meaning as a phenomenon of values, rather than of text.  If it was in the textual sense that I spoke of meaning, then this review itself would be quite pointless.  Nevermind that.

Bioshock is an important game, if any game can be said to hold this status.  It demonstrates the ability of the medium to handle works of didactic fiction.  Furthermore, although the argument presented by the game itself is one-sided, it is presented in reference to another argument; another work of fiction; and in that capacity it represents dialogue.  Due to the unique structure of the game, this review will be divided up into multiple parts.  The first section will be highly nonstandard.  It will seek to restate the arguments offered by the game in plainer terms.  The second section will be about how Atlas Shrugged can be used to respond to Bioshock.  The third section will be a generalized rebuttal to the game, making use of both economic and philosophical arguments.

An outline follows.

  1. The arguments of Bioshock

  2. Atlas Shrugged: a re-examination

  3. The shortcomings of Bioshock

On to the article.

The arguments of Bioshock

For the purposes of this article, two references may be of use.  There are my own recordings of the AccuVox messages used to convey many of the themes of the game, as well as the documentation by text of these recordings in the Bioshock Wiki

Presented below is a classification of themes.  In each case the messages which convey them will be documented below.  Those of particular importance will be in bold.  Following the classification of themes, each theme will then be expressed in detail.

  • Social change is facilitated by internal contradictions in political economy

From: Fontaine Must Go, The Death Penalty in Rapture, Watch Fontaine, Have My Badge, Fontaine’s Smugglers, Meeting Ryan, Rapture Changing, Working Late Again, Arresting Fontaine, Meeting with Fontaine, The Market is Patient, Heroes and Criminals, Offer a Better Product, Pulling Together, Desperate Measures, The Great Chain, Bump Culpepper, Guns Blazing, Ryan Takes F Futuristics, Fontaine’s Legacy, Assassin, Great Chain Moves Slowly, Sad Saps, Marketing Gold, Mistakes.

  • Free market advocacy is dogmatic

From: The Great Chain, Mistakes, The Death Penalty in Rapture, The Market is Patient, Heroes and Criminals, Offer a Better Product, Great Chain Moves Slowly

  • Theories supporting the market are ideological rather than objective (or, society is ideologically determined)

From: Parasite Expectations, Vandalism, Eden Leaking, Death Penalty in Rapture, Arcadia Closed, The Market is Patient, Heroes and Criminals, The Great Chain, Musical insult, The Doubters, Bump Culpepper, It’s All Grift, Ryan’s Stableboy, A Man or a Parasite.

  • Ideology is socially determined

From: Higher Standards, Limits of imagination, Surgery’s Picasso, Timmy H. Interrogation, Fontaine must go, Fontaine’s Smugglers, Death Penalty in Rapture, Rapture Changing, Putting the Screws on, Meeting with Fontaine, Arcadia Closed, Desperate Times, Water in Wine, Bump Culpepper, Stopping Ryan, Fontaine’s Legacy, Assassin, Impossible Anywhere Else, Genetic Arms Race, Artist Woman, Sad Saps, Atlas Lives, Meeting Atlas, Today’s Raid, Mistakes.

These four themes are the bedrock of Bioshock’s allegory, and therefore they will receive the bulk of my attention.  Numerous other subtle jabs are taken throughout the game, in the form of the AccuVox messages as well as various environmental details, announcements, and quotes which are only available during the loading screens.  These jabs are aimed at a variety of targets, most of whom are not Ayn Rand.  They will receive a treatment in the second portion of this review.

Social change is facilitated by internal contradictions in political economy

I am starting with the most tedious as well as the most significant undertone of the game.  Readers familiar with my past reviews should be able to guess its nature easily enough, although tracing the cause of concern is a bit more erratic than usual.  It isn’t fair to accuse someone of being a Marxist these days.  Marxists no longer exist, for the simple reason that nobody actually reads Marx.  However, people do read the works of individuals who claim Marx as an influence.  In that capacity, it is easy enough to trace the intellectual lineage of Bioshock.

It is a certainty that Ken Levine, is his pursuit of a Liberal Arts degree, would have become acquainted with some of these writers.  A popular Harvard historian such as Zinn, perhaps.  Indeed, Bioshock has all the characteristics of a history (the achievement for finding every AccuVox message is called “historian”).  Particularly a Marxist history.  It is of course plainer and less torturous than an actual history (for most) because the details are constructed unambiguously from the abstractions.  Nonetheless, this theme is quite present.

The essential concerns that arise are twofold.  The first is the tenability of the theory.  The second is the attempted foundations upon which the theory is based.  These foundations are most clearly elucidated by inspecting Marx himself, and his reading of another philosopher.  In Marx’s reading of Hegel, the principle weakness of the philosopher was that his holism was based in the wrong substrate.  It was not Geist which formed reality, complete with internal contradictions which drove it forward, but material reality (with these same contradictions).  Ergo, Dialectical Materialism.  It is often said that this insight was based on a misreading of Hegel.  In truth it doesn’t particularly matter.  Regardless of the foundations he proposed, Marx made predictions.  These predictions can be falsified.

The concern about the tenability of the theory then is whether or not modern thinkers who claim Marx as an influence live up to Marx in terms of producing falsifiable theories.  The concern about the foundations is different.  It cannot be addressed by observing the presence of an attribute.  Rather, the foundations themselves are the attribute of concern.  They are a constant even in the writing of the would-be descendants of Marx.  The primary significance comes from an incompatibility with the insights of Phenomenology.  In other words, the adoption of Neo-Marxist theory appears to violate the foundations of meaningful fiction, and to do so in a work which is explicitly didactic.

Free market advocacy is dogmatic

The remaining three themes are much easier to trace.  Bioshock is extremely firm on this particular point, making it more or less explicitly in about 7 different AccuVox messages.  I will present them and examine them in the order given above. “The Great Chain” is perhaps the strongest example of this argument.  It gives us an Andrew Ryan who rejects faith in God, but believes that the combined efforts of self-interested individuals lead to progress.  This would not be particularly significant, except that the eponymous metaphor of the tape is not treated by Ryan as simply a metaphor.  Rather, it is a hypostasization of progress into something more than the sum of its parts.  The adjectives he uses to describe it are also a clear giveaway; Mysterious and Powerful.  This is particularly important, because the great chain metaphor is a clear stand in for the invisible hand metaphor commonly used by market advocates.

The placement of the statement about God in such immediate proximity to the metaphor serves to underline the hypocrisy of Ryan.  He is shown to be blindly following something.  It is an interesting accusation, because it relies entirely on assumptions about the ontological commitments of language.  In other words, it requires that the metaphor refer to a metaphysical argument, instead of simply being a label for a phenomenon or collection of phenomenon.

“Mistakes” is another contender for the strongest single instance of the argument.  We are again listening to Andrew Ryan, this time quite explicitly demonstrating dogmatism.  He ponders about whether or not he has made mistakes, beginning by reaffirming his faith even in the absence of evidence (how could one know something would have destroyed them without evidence to this effect?), then concludes that even if he is wrong he cannot question himself.  Doubt is treated as worse than ignorance.  Ultimately what forces his decision is the presence of an enemy.  Once again I am strongly reminded of Zinn, and of the general conception that social change is facilitated by internal contradictions in political economy.

“Death Penalty in Rapture” is a weaker example, but a solid one just the same.  Again we have Andrew Ryan, this time expressing a will to action even in the face of massive public outcry.  The rhetoric is all about the importance of ideology and the necessity for action to achieve ends which are compatible with it.  This is all very curious, because it bears more in common with Machievelli and Nietzsche than with Rand.  Of course, Machievelli would not have recommended alienating one’s powerbase, but that’s only a concern for people who have actually read Machievelli.  Therefore it likely has no place here, where popular conceptions of the author probably function as a substitute for experience.

Another startling similarity is between the ideas on display here and those of fascism.  The notion of using political action to further ideals at any cost is explicitly fascistic.  It is simple enough to note that not only is market advocacy being called dogmatic in this message, it’s also being called a close relative of fascism.  It might make sense to lay the blame for this on the traditional formulations of right-left dichotomy, but in fact it owes itself once again to neo-marxist conceptions.  After all, Market Capitalism and State Capitalism both have the word “capitalism” in them.  It is not merely an issue of language though.  There is a peculiar sense of cross-compatibility on display in the understanding of the nature of capitalism itself.  The question then becomes whether or not this sense of cross-compatibility is enabled by conceptual error.  That will receive a treatment in the final section.

“The Market is Patient”, again from the mouth of Andrew Ryan, shows us a willing disregard of the catastrophic effects of Ryan’s philosophy.  Again, the emphasis is on ideology.  Ryan states that despite current social maladies, ideology should be tested.  How exactly one tests an ideology is beyond my grasp, but Ryan apparently believes it is possible.  More importantly, he believes that the test is still underway.  It is in this capacity that he shows signs of dogmatism.

“Heroes and Criminals” tells us the words of Andrew Ryan through the mouth of Diane McClintock.  When faced with war, he immediately begins thinking in terms of a dangerous dichotomy.  Specifically, the dichotomy between allies and enemies.  Yet again, Howard Zinn makes a special guest appearance in video games.  This form of dogmatism is easily recognized as false consciousness, the achievement of unity by focusing attention on superficial or non-existent problems to avoid addressing the actual problems.  This is shared in common with “Mistakes”.

“Offer a Better Product”, again from Ryan, shows a failure to account for a problem.  An individual known only as Gregory complains about the dangerous effects of genetic manipulation, to which Ryan suggests he enter competition and drive these effects out of the marketplace.  This fails to account for the barriers to entry erected by the current monopoly status of the market.  This message is a significantly weaker accusation of dogmatism, and functions marginally more effectively as an economic criticism.

Finally, in “The Great Chain Moves Slowly”, Ryan again returns to his hypostasized marketplace fantasy.  This is largely just a repetition of “The Market is Patient” and therefore loses in individual strength what it gains in its extension of the original concept.

Theories supporting the market are ideological rather than objective (or, society is ideologically determined)

This is a less firm but more important criticism, because its truth or falsity has the potential to make or break the analysis Bioshock presents us with.  At least, when taken independently it does.  Certain problems are encountered when it is taken in conjunction with the last message of discussion.  In due time I will present my arguments to this effect, but for now, observation.

“Parasite Expectations” is telling enough.  The speaker is once again Andrew Ryan.  In this message he is comparing the advocates and beneficiaries of charity to rapists.  It is important to note that this is not hyperbole.  It is spoken with complete honesty.  The concern revolves around his focus.  The actions or consequences of any of the subjects under discussion are not dwelt upon, but rather the character of the perpetrators.  Their character fails to meet with Ryan’s idea of proper character, and therefore the issue is one of ideals.  Thus his complaint is ideological rather than theoretical.

“Vandalism” has similar elements, although they are more subtle in their presence.  Careful attention must be given to the language Ryan uses.  He claims that free enterprise is the foundation on which the society of Rapture has been established.  Note what this claim is not.  It is not a claim that society could not function without free enterprise.  Nor is it a claim that such a society would have properties which would not be appreciated by its members.  Rather, it is a claim that free enterprise is the ideology of Rapture and must be deferred to.

“Eden Leaking” is simple enough.  Ryan built Rapture in accordance with his idealized conceptions of how the city should be.  As a result, it was not built appropriately.  Therefore it began to leak.

“Death Penalty in Rapture” is also very straightforward.  Ryan is killing in the name of his ideals.  He makes a statement to this effect, more or less explicitly.

“Arcadia Closed”, a message by Judy Langford, presents us with her distaste over actions taken by Andrew Ryan.  He closed down a forest to all but paying customers, which struck her as absurd.  She relented, however, upon considering what her paycheck meant to her.  The ideals of Ryan are presented, once again, strictly as ideals.  That Arcadia could be commercialized is treated with the same degree of interest as the phenomenon of commerce itself.  In other words, commerce (or the structure of production, as it were) is treated as an ideological arrangement.

“The Market is Patient”, “Heroes and Criminals”, and “The Great Chain”, all convey a sense of society as ideologically determined for the same reasons they portray market advocacy as dogmatic.  Namely, each sentiment is one of an ideological nature, and they all have clear, observable consequences throughout the course of the game as well as in other messages.  This combination of dogmatism and ideological foundationalism reinforces the conception of a society which proceeds through internal contradictions in political economy.

“Musical Insult” is our first message by Sander Cohen, as well as the second direct jab at Rand.  In Atlas Shrugged, a composer named Richard Halley embodies the values of the protagonists in his music.  In Bioshock, Sander Cohen takes on this role for Andrew Ryan, proving that sociopathy is not a handicap in such regards.  In the message, Cohen suggests that a dissident musician is dangerous.  This is because she is promoting a contradicting ideology.  If (and only if) society is ideologically determined, this represents a threat to the status quo.

“The Doubters” is the second message by Sander Cohen.  It explicitly states the theme currently being examined.  In particular, it functions as a less than subtle extension of the undertones of “Musical Insult”.

“Bump Culpepper” is another extension of these same themes.  It combines them with some of the other prevalent themes of Bioshock.  Essentially, whenever an action is indicated, a message references at least the first theme, if not every theme simultaneously.

“It’s All Grift” is a message by a very drunk sounding individual known only as Rodriguez.  In it, he asserts that music is a vessel for ideals; in this case, dogmatic ideals.  It is worth noting that these conceptions of music bear close similarity to those of a philosopher other than Rand.  Originally I had intended to comment upon it in some depth, but the presence of Halley in Rand’s novel makes such a discussion unjustified.

In “Ryan’s Stableboy”, the dissident artist Anna Culpepper seconds the assertion of Rodriguez in her own independent analysis.

“A Man or a Parasite” has Andrew Ryan speaking of character in ideological terms.

Ideology is socially determined

“Higher Standards” introduces a plastic surgeon named Steinman, waxing intellectual about the possibilities of the genetic manipulation technology developed in Rapture.  In this message, he makes a claim to the extent that his standards are contingent upon his means.

“Limits of Imagination” suggests that in the absence of real limitations, the focus of professional standards changes from achieving things people want to achieving things which are novel.

“Surgery’s Picasso” suggests that a doctor might change their medical procedures to detrimental effect because they’re bored.  I personally find this argument quite fascinating. It will receive a bit of fond attention in the appropriate section.

“Timmy H. Interrogation” shows us a person who is not influenced by torture, on the grounds that if he gave in he would experience worse torture later.  It is not too much of a stretch to draw comparisons between this and the torture of John Galt in Rand’s own novel.  In Atlas Shrugged, Galt was able to bear torture by merit of the strength of his convictions.  In Bioshock, Timmy H is able to bear torture by merit of the undesirability of the alternative.  So in that sense, this is not just an argument but another swipe at Rand.  The argument appears to be that people will all make the same decisions under certain circumstances, and that they will unhesitatingly choose to suffer less pain rather than to have a longer lifespan.  The swipe is that anyone can do what John Galt did, provided they have a reason to do it.

“Fontaine must go” is not so much significant in this capacity in itself, but rather in conjunction with various other messages Ryan leaves.  Taken together, they provide a picture of a man being pushed.

“Fontaine’s Smugglers” gives us a Dr. Bridgette Tenenbaum, who turns to Fontaine for funding in the absence of “respectable alternatives”.  Her genetic research is unappreciated by the people who subscribe to Rapture’s values and could also fund it, particularly Ryan.  Therefore she turns to Fontaine, who does not subscribe to Rapture’s values.  There is a twofold role of ideology here.  In the first case, it led her to Fontaine.  In the second, Fontaine’s ideology (phony though it was) was bolstered by this turn of events.

“Death Penalty in Rapture” show us an Andrew Ryan being pushed about by social conditions, in conjunction with and along the same lines as “Fontaine Must Go”.  “Rapture Changing”, “Desperate Times”, “Impossible Anywhere Else”, and “Mistakes”.

“Putting the Screws on” introduces us to a Peach Williams, who is being forced to behave against his interests due to social conditions.

“Meeting with Fontaine” again gives us a Peach Williams, this time acting out of an ideology which he has come to possess simply by being a Proletariat.

“Arcadia Closed”, in addition to showing Langford to be influenced by Ryan, also shows her to be adopting an ideology simply based on her station.

“Water in Wine” gives us a Pierre Gobbi who has changed his standards due to the living conditions of Rapture.

“Bump Culpepper” is particularly interesting because it shows us Sullivan, the same man who earlier threatened to resign over the institution of Rapture’s death penalty, continuing to work.

“Stopping Ryan” similarly shows us a Bill McDonagh who is driven to kill Ryan by the actions of Ryan.

“Fontaine’s Legacy” tells us that the citizens of Rapture where driven to splicing by the presence of other violent splicers, as an act of self-defense.

“Assassin” shows us an Anya Andersdotter who was driven to kill Ryan by the actions of Ryan in much the same way as McDonagh.

“Genetic Arms Race” shows us escalation occuring as a phenomenon with a life of its own, independently of the will of anyone involved in this phenomenon.

“Artist Woman” shows a Sullivan who went through with something he disagreed with simply because he was ordered to do so.

“Sad Saps” has Fontaine reporting that people will respond to charity with loyalty as a rule.  Furthermore, he reports that the sentiment which allows this is generated by the realities of living as a Proletariat.

“Atlas Lives” reiterates the notion that Fontaine takes on special significance to people simply based on their economic station.

“Meeting Atlas” is a humorous message by Dianne McClintock.  It is humorous because its structure makes McClintock an analogue for Cherryl Brooks in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.  However, the change of heart occurs in the opposite direction than in Atlas Shrugged, demonstrating the sentiment that actions can be performed regardless of their driving ideology, and that this driving ideology is determined by social context.  It is also worth noting that since Fontaine does not actually believe in the ideology he espouses and in fact turns of McClintock later, the games criticism against market advocacy becomes significantly softer.  This will receive special attention later.

“Today’s Raid” shows us a McClintock who is not responsible for her actions, since she was pushed to them (by Ryan).

Atlas Shrugged: a re-examination

An important question is whether or not the themes and sentiments Bioshock is criticizing are actually present in Ayn Rand’s work.  To be certain, Ayn Rand is often quite ideological and ruthlessly polemical.  However, Rand is not always espousing ideological statements.  In particular she makes a great number of non-prescriptive claims about how the market works.  This is something which Bioshock, in its reduction of Atlas Shrugged to a purely ideological text, is quite negligent towards.  In effect, its criticism misses its target.  This is true in a myriad of ways, all of which will be addressed here.

In Bioshock, the problems which occur in Rapture come about from the actions of ideology driven individuals.  In other words, the foundations of social reality in Bioshock are of ideological and behavioral origin.  I found this to be quite interesting, as it exposes the work to some of the same criticisms which can be leveled at Atlas Shrugged itself.  Namely, it is unscientific because it focuses on the nature of causes qua causes.  Rather than first observing problems and then offering tentative solutions which can be tested, it first makes statements about character and ideology and then proceeds to model society as a direct consequence of these phenomenon.  In that fashion, both texts are at best descriptive, and at worst (a much more likely possibility); well, let’s leave that for the final section.

In Atlas Shrugged, the problems which occur in rapture are caused by ideology and behavior, but the novel is also particularly clear on another point.  These problems are only caused because this behavior interacts with objective structures of reality to produce undesirable consequences.  In Bioshock, people die simply because Andrew Ryan chooses to have them killed.  In Atlas Shrugged, actions combine with economic realities which exist independently of ideology, and produce the consequences seen in the novel.  Bridges collapse because of an absence of iron, an absence which occurs because inefficient iron production and distribution arrangements are adopted.  These were adopted in the novel due to ideology, but the consequences are not simply a product of this ideology.  The same is true when people later starve to death due to similarly poor arrangements for production and distribution.

Therefore Bioshock does not fully address the arguments contained within Atlas Shrugged.  It opts instead to ignore them and focus on the polemical aspects of the text, elevating them to a significance they do not occupy.  Quite likely this is because of the biases of Ken Levine.  It is easy to suppose this is based less in an ignorance of the text than in a willful substitution of one model for another.  In other words, Bioshock merely presupposes that no economic structures exist independently of ideology.  Reasonable or not, this model substitution avoids direct treatment of a great number of arguments present in Atlas Shrugged.

The second large concern in this area is whether the conditions present in the society of Bioshock; the initial internal contradiction, as it were; was present in Rand’s text.  In BioShock, the social reality which sets the city in motion towards dystopia is the paranoia of Ryan.  He forbids contact with the surface world out of fear that Rapture might be attacked or corrupted.  This allows for a lucrative black market to form in smuggling, which finances Tenenbaum’s genetic modification research, which leads to Fontaine’s business empire, itself a highly lucrative endeavour.  He then uses this money to finance charities, which earn him the sympathy of the underclass and ultimately allow him to foment an insurrection against Ryan.

Therefore this initial condition or sentiment is very important.  Does John Galt, the founder of Galt’s Gulch in Rand’s novel, have a similar attitude?  It is most expedient to simply quote from the text itself:

“Dagny, there’s only one week left,” he said.  “If you decide to go back, it will be the last, for a very long time.”  There was no reproach and no sadness in his voice, only some softened quality as sole evidence of emotion.  “If you leave now – oh yes, you’ll still come back – but it won’t be soon.  And I-in a few months, I’ll come to live here permanently, so if you go, I won’t see you again, perhaps for years.  I’d like you to spend this last week with me.  I’d like you to move to my house.  As my guest, nothing else, for no reason, except that I’d like you to.”

He said it simply, as if nothing were or could be hidden among the three of them.  She saw no sign of astonishment in Galt’s face.  She felt some swift tightening in her chest, something hard, reckless and almost vicious that had the quality of a dark excitement driving her blindly into action.

“But I’m an employee,” she said, with an odd smile, looking at Galt, “I have a job to finish.”

“I won’t hold you to it,” said Galt, and she felt anger at the tone of his voice, a tone that granted her no hidden significance and answered nothing but the literal meaning of her words.  “You can quit the job any time you wish.  It’s up to you.”

“No, it isn’t.  I’m a prisoner here.  Don’t you remember?  I’m to take orders.  I have no preferences to follow, no wishes to express, no decisions to make.  I want the decision to be yours.”

“You want it to be mine?”


“You’ve expressed a wish.”

The mockery of his voice was in its seriousness – and she threw at him defiantly, not smiling, as if daring him to continue pretending that he did not understand: “All right.  That’s what I wish!”

He smiled, as at a child’s complex scheming which he had long since seen through.  “Very well.” But he did not smile, as he said, turning to Francisco, “Then – no.”

The defiance toward an adversary who was the sternest of teachers, was all that Francisco had read in her face.  He shrugged, regretful, but gaily.  “You’re probably right.  If you can’t prevent her from going back – nobody can.”

She was not hearing Francisco’s words.  She was stunned by the magnitude of the relief that hit her at the sound of Galt’s answer, a relief that told her the magnitude of the fear it swept away.  She knew, only after it was over, what had hung for her on his decision; she knew that had his answer been different, it would have destroyed the valley in her eyes.

In this exchange, Francisco d’Anconia is asking Dagny Taggart to live with him.  Dagny Taggart is attempting to trick John Galt into forcing her to stay in Galt’s Gulch.  He refuses, even though he understands the possible consequences of letting her leave.  This is because of the (perhaps naive) idea that to forcibly keep her there would be to fake reality, something which an Objectivist is not supposed to do.

To prove that he understood the possible consequences, I present another quote:

“We must discuss the conditions of your departure,” said Galt; he spoke in the dispassionate manner of an executive.  “First, you must give us your word that you will not disclose our secret or any part of it – neither our cause nor our existence nor this valley nor your whereabouts for the past month – to anyone in the outer world, not at any time or for any purpose whatsoever.”

“I give you my word.”

“Second, you must never attempt to find this valley again.  You are not to come here uninvited.  Should you break the first condition, it will not place us in serious danger.  Should you break the second – it will.  It is not our policy ever to be at the arbitrary mercy of the good faith of another person, or at the mercy of a promise that cannot be enforced.  Nor can we expect you to place our interests above your own.  Since you believe that your course is right, the day may come when you may find it necessary to lead our enemies to this valley.  We shall, therefore, leave you no means to do it.  You will be taken out of the valley by plane, blindfolded, and you will be flown a distance sufficient to make it impossible for you ever to retrace the course.”

Galt allows Ms. Taggart to leave with only her word for evidence that she will not betray him, acknowledging fully that she has the ability to break her word and that he has no ability to enforce the contract, recognizing that she could very plausibly have or come to have a motive to break her word, and realizing the threat this poses to him and to Galt’s Gulch.  He attempts to mitigate this danger by decreasing her knowledge of the location of Galt’s Gulch, but does not actively take measures to prevent her from leaving.

This presents an extremely strong contrast with Andrew Ryan of Bioshock, who forbids contact with the surface.  Therefore, the very condition which causes the events of Bioshock to unfold is not in accordance with the tenets of Objectivism and the entire analysis misses its target.  This is almost certainly the strongest criticism which can be provided in terms of the relationship between Bioshock and Atlas Shrugged itself.  However, similar mischaracterizations are common or at least appear to be common.  It is difficult to tell what target Bioshock is attacking.  Ryan and associates appear at various times not simply to be a stand-in for Ayn Rand and her characters, but also for George Bush, Freidrich Nietzsche, and Hermann Göring.

For instance, at numerous times throughout the game, public service announcements are made which are of a revealing political nature.  The citizens of Rapture are admonished that “doubting the council emboldens the bandits” and that “if you stop spending, the bandits win”.  This is evidence of what might very easily be called a neoconservative sentiment, if not worse, and is at minimum inconsistent with the philosophy of Rand if not an outright anachronism based on the time period.  The interjection of Bush-isms demonstrates that Levine does not have the discipline to choose who he is attacking, opting instead to try and attack numerous figures at the same time, despite significant differences in their politics, philosophy, and ideology.

Steinman’s elevation of aesthetics to a “moral imperative” finds no corollary in Rand; certainly not one present in Atlas Shrugged, at any rate.  In fact, the subject receives almost no treatment within the text at all.  It then becomes a curiosity as to who is being referenced by this statement.  Perhaps it’s simple enough to guess, but any answer one could come up with doesn’t seem appropriate.  At minimum it demonstrates a misunderstanding.

With that in mind, Bioshock is indicative of very poor dialogue between its creator and the subject of his criticism.  It can quite easily be characterized as a straw man, provided one attempts to treat it as a response to Rand.  There are very few viable alternatives.  Perhaps some target might meet the criteria necessary for Bioshock to function as a criticism of them, maybe even George Bush.  However, if that’s the case then why co-opt the symbolism and settings of Rand?  It’s either a careless use of language, or a brazen conflation of a few dozen different philosophers, philosophies, and phenomenon.

The shortcomings of Bioshock

In addition to those criticisms which can be leveled at Bioshock simply in terms of Rand’s own work, a number can be given from more general sources.  Several of these can be aimed at the underlying analytical framework which was used to create the game.

As with Atlas Shrugged itself, the picture is focused on behavioral explanations.  However, these explanations have a different source and nature from those of Rand.  In the first place, they are based on foundations which deny free will.  This is not always done explicitly.  Some elaboration on this point seems necessary, so I will provide it.  Their essential characterization comes with some of the Hegelian aspects of Marx, and therefore the point will be well served with an examination of Hegel.  Hegel argues that individuals are instruments of some transcendent spirit, and that their substantial business is prepared and appointed independently of them.  Particuarly important is the transposition of his holism to political analysis.  This transposition allows for the same metastable hypocrisy which permeates Hegel to present itself in the materialistic philosophy of Bioshock.

Notice how throughout the game, action appears to be taken, yet at each point in the course of events, these actions can be traced to a cause external to the actor.  Therefore we see Andrew Ryan behaving in a certain fashion because of Fontaine, Fontaine Behaving in a certain fashion because of Ryan, McDonagh behaving in a certain way because of Ryan, etc.  It is simple enough to note that this thought process arrives quickly at an infinite regress, as it must owing to the status of its foundations as a form of platonism.  More significantly, it preserves in some capacity the illusion of choice.  By perpetuating a focus on action and actors, agency hovers over the affair as some sort of shadowy illusion.

Therefore, the approach of Bioshock is not merely unscientific.  It also possesses strong nihilistic implications.  This is significant, as it renders the message of the game inapplicable to the world, either because it is wrong, in which case it misses the mark, or because it is correct and therefore meaningless by its own terms.  The illusion of agency permits certain curious perversions, such as the treatment of Andrew Ryan as a tragic figure.  Ultimately, his sin was not malice, ignorance, arrogance or aggression.  His downfall was an inevitability, an unavoidable result of his nature and his place in history.  If this is the case, what is it supposed to signify?  Why are we supposed to care? It’s a perplexing question, and one which I fear has not yet been answered, even in comparable works.

It is a distinctly modern reformulation of old Marxist tropes.  Whereas Marx was at least optimistic and believed that social problems could be addressed, the sentiment on display in Bioshock shows us that social problems are an instrinsic, unassailable aspect of society, and what’s more, the driving aspect of society.  In that capacity, even if the false sense of agency is taken at face value, the underlying message of the game is still one of abject fatalism.

The story demonstrates very strongly anti-rational sentiments.  In its rejection of objective structures from the analytical table, it places a much stronger influence on behavior and ideology than Rand did.  It is certainly refreshing to see such baseless abstractions as “demand” get thrown out the window in favor of an investigation into the proper foundations of things, these of course being psychology and behavior.  By that of course I mean the opposite of that.  Yet this is exactly what is happening throughout the course of the story.  Steinman is a terrific example.  If a person received exorbitant sums of money for doing perfect work effortlessly in their chosen career, would they eventually tire of the aesthetic of perfection?  If you answered yes to this question in any universal sense, your error was in assuming it was a question that could be answered so expediently.  Just the same as if you answered no, actually.  Therefore it was a trick question.  Sorry to subject you to one of those.

However, what is an area which cannot be examined in such a way except beyond the boundaries of scientific investigation?  Once we’ve arrived at the point where no hypothesis can be made about behavior in collective terms, any attempt at explanation or prediction becomes unfalsifiable because it refuses to grant a negative result.  If Dr. Steinman’s behavior only says something about Dr. Steinman’s behavior, then it can never be used as an example against any behavioral theory, and the same extends to the behavior of all other individuals.  The statement “some people will go kill-crazy if you make things too easy for them” cannot be falsified, because you would have to subject every individual in the world to this test.  As a matter of practical reality, it might be observable.  However, theories of this nature are far too shaky to use as the foundations for any investigation into society.  They lack predictive power because there is no way to soundly generalize from the observations.  Therefore at best, they are descriptions, and rather impotent descriptions at that.

This reliance on bad propositions in the construction of a model stems from the sense that society is determined by non-rational criteria.  A popular proposition in the liberal arts, it is a sentiment which is taken for granted a priori.  Of course, this would never be admitted to by any of its advocates.  Unfortunately it is particularly significant in that it represents a form of dogmatism, as modern believers in the position refuse to accept criticism of their principle.  In the same manner as a Wittgenstein who attempted to prove that philosophy was nonsense using nonsense, this picture of reality presupposes an ontology and then uses its implications to deny the act of presupposition.

It is particularly egregious lunacy that a criticism of utopian political thinking would be presented by someone who holds that ideology is the formative basis for society.  If love conquers all, then what criticism is there of love?  None.  Similarly, if the state of Rapture comes from the whims and will of its citizens, then how is it that they manage to get it wrong?  As a matter of the subjective nature of values, it should be utterly inconceivable.  Except, the determinative ideology is not that of the citizens, but of some clumsily renamed God, cruel and vindictive in nature, and for this God, human individuals and their own apparent ideologies are mere instantiations of his will.

Right.  Then, as the game reaches its final chapters, the entire message stutters to a halt.  The blow is softened to the point it nearly becomes a conciliatory pat on the back.  First, Ms. McClintock takes on the role of Cherryl Brooks.  She goes to Fontaine in much the same capacity as Brooks went to Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged.  However, Fontaine subsequently betrays her in the same fashion as James Taggart.  I couldn’t help but feel that this felt like, of all things, a shoutout.  I puzzled over this for a bit until I realized what it was.  It is a recognition of the Great Sacred Truth of Liberal Arts:  that ideology is beyond question.  If ideology is both subjective and formative, so it goes, then it cannot be criticized.  The second part is particularly important as it denies the possible interaction of ideology with objective structures, and therefore puts off-limits any objective standard by which an ideal or behavior might be criticized (utilitarianism, for instance).

It is similarly reinforced in the fact that Fontaine is the final boss of the game, rather than Ryan.  Why is this?  To restore some degree of internal consistency to the underlying values of the author, presumably.  Although this itself is unecessary according to liberal arts dogma, it is nonetheless the only laudible thing in the entirety of the message of the game.  There is a tendency for things to magically stop being culture as soon as they get close to home, and in recognizing this perhaps Levine is worthy of some strange sort of praise.  Unfortunately, it softens the allegorical intensity of the story while dramatically increasing the display of hypocrisy.  Ultimately, it serves as a prime example of why tolerance is an incoherent goal.  To be consistently tolerant is to be tolerant even of those positions which are intolerant.  Which is of course all of them, because intolerance is effectively just a dislike for something.  If this is the case, then admonishing someone to be tolerant is a sign of intolerance.

Well nevermind.  That’s all a bit pedestrian.  It is unfortunate in the sense that it demonstrates the author of the game did not even have the courage of his convictions.  While making a persons actions an inevitability does reduce their status as a villain, it does so in exactly the same capacity and to exactly the same degree as it reduces their status as a person.  To nothing.  I give special condemnation to the use of gameplay elements to strengthen this message.  They have this effect already simply because of the structure of games, yet in this case a particularly willful glee was adopted in both their recognition and utilization.

~ by Kilroy del Dancefighter Estallion the First on December 2, 2009.

2 Responses to “Atlas Shrugged/Bioshock: Dual Review Pt. 2”

  1. A few criticisms which I couldn’t find room for in the article.

    * Nothing says bad philosophy like a conflation of free will with political and social freedom.

    * Plasmids present a technology that does not exist, which could not have had their effects predicted, as an argument for regulation. Nevermind such a drug would make it to market under most systems of medical regulation in the world, it’s ok because it would be recalled later, after the damage was already done and despite the terrible effects of withdrawal.

    * Health stations which repair damage caused by being burned, shot, electrocuted, and bludgeoned cost only twice the price of potato chips, yet the citizens of Rapture complain about living standards. This complaint is not simply one about the conflict between game design and story design, because the fact that bathrooms cost money is a clear use of in-game mechanics to make an argument.

  2. Wow. I’m going to bookmark this particular review. Astounding. I especially like your views on Dr. Steinman.

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