Neuromancer: A brief review

•December 29, 2009 • 1 Comment

I am not fond of this book. That should be stated up front. My standards for fiction even loosened between the time I began it and the time I finished it, but it did not make it more tolerable.

In effect, there are two characters in the whole of the book. The main protagonist is an ex-hacker, who is offered the chance to become a hacker again, in exchange for hacking. Between his last job and the time we meet him, we learn that he killed three people. He did it for the money. Additionally, he is suicidal, but too cowardly to kill himself. Therefore he hopes that by working as a middleman for drug pushers, someone else will do the job for him. In this context, the death of the three people becomes even more capricious.

The last half of the novel, in contradistinction to the first, has its own internal logic. This leads me to believe that when Gibson visualized the novel, he only visualized the events of the second half, and that the first half was only designed to get his characters there. In fact, the transition between the first and second half of the novels was so jarring that I wondered if perhaps it wasn’t intentional, designed to serve a point.

Near the very beginning of the book, we get such delightful reflections on human nature as “Anybody any good at what they do, that’s what they are“. When I first read this, I thought it was intended as a theme. Upon reconsideration, I supposed that perhaps it was simply inserted after the fact to make up for Gibson’s poor character development. Now I am not sure either way.

Gibson wastes the closest thing to an examination of his main protagonist, a troublesome dream about his past, in order to grind a political axe. At this point in the book, I was expecting the protagonist to experience some form of remorse. I thought that perhaps the flat affect of the characters in the first half of the novel was intended to set up a point about the dehumanizing effects of Gibson’s future society. It was also the first time in the book that a person was shown to care for another person. It seemed like a natural progression.

It didn’t happen. Instead, there were pontifications about the manner in which people are wired and the non-humanity of the rich. When I see sentiments like these, I am inclined to look for a punch line. I waited until the very end of the book for this to pan out, only to find out that it was being direct all along. The final paragraph has to rank among the worst endings I’ve ever read.

There is no unifying theme here. The characters aren’t strong enough to pull the disparate halves of the book together. Several different plot threads, both real and insinuated, are handled in a wholly perfunctory manner in the epilogue. The second half of the book is infinitely more readable than the first, but equally meaningless. It exists as spectacle, a series of curiosities existing in a definite relationship, independently of any reason to care.

This book is said to exemplify the ability of the cyberpunk genre to handle serious questions about technology and human nature. The fact that people suggest this shows what kind of audience the genre has. A digitized recording of a dead man’s personality is presented as lacking some essence which grants humanity to the living, yet the humanity of the living in Gibson’s universe is scarcely worth having in the first place.

When an AI fails to accurately model the decisions that the protagonists will make, this is taken as a result of the fundamentally statistical nature of the AI’s analysis. Yet in this case, statistical analysis is treated as a purely epistemological tool; the philosophical outlook of Neuromancer is reductionistic, and fundamentally nihilistic.  Nothing is retained by this approach in the way of humanity.  The difference between model and reality becomes merely one of ignorance.

When, towards the end of the book, a series of metaphors are used to describe the rich as inhuman parasites, I’m left wondering why this matters.  It has become immaterial within the larger context of the universe Gibson has created.  The reasoning is especially preposterous.  The rich operate by merit of a faculty which grasps at transcendent truths of the marketplace, and in their utilization of this faculty, their human essence atrophies.  Ok.  And what human essence is that, exactly?

It isn’t even good spectacle.  Hacking in the Gibson universe consists of navigating a particularly fanciful GUI.  I get the impression that the service which the main protagonist was hired for required him only to double-click on a pre-compiled program.  Following that, he was required to watch someone else work for 8 hours.  Of course, he also had to have frequent conversations, of the sort which I expect were supposed to seem poignant or interesting, but were effectively nothing at all.

Merry Christmas

•December 25, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I won’t trouble you especially, but there is some pertinent information to report.  Among my gifts was a copy of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, which I am presently reading, as well as a $35 gift card which I used to purchase the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, The Plague by Camus, Leviathan by Hobbes, and Fear and Trembling by Kierkegaard. Needless to say, these are all books, and when I’ve read them I will be sure to offer my own ridiculous, self-educated opinions in characteristic fashion.

Cave Story

•December 24, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I finally got around to playing this game, on the recommendation of virtually every gamer I have known.  There is very little that I can think to say about it.  The gameplay is superb.  It lends itself well to repeat playthroughs.  I also found myself enjoying the story, despite its trope heavy nature.  The execution of the second trope struck me as a cop-out of the largest sort, however, it’s such a small element of the game I feel no need to go after it.  Especially given the existence of better targets, many of which I have attacked in previous articles.

To me, the most noteworthy aspect of the game was the dialogue of the hermit gunsmith.  Upon returning the weapon you stole from him, he breaks down, stating that he is overjoyed that somebody could use his unfinished weapon as rigorously as the player has throughout the course of the game.  Even though he was given nothing in exchange for his hard work, he considers the fact that his work was appreciated to be rewarding.  I hope I am not reading too much into this dialogue, but I see a parallel between the situation of the hermit gunsmith and Daisuke Amaya himself, who created the game and made it freely available.

I would just like to say thank you to Amaya-sama, who made an outstanding game. Perhaps soon I will attempt to clear it using only the polar star.

Popper Selections: A response

•December 17, 2009 • Leave a Comment

After a much longer period than I would have liked, I have recently finished reading Popper Selections as edited by David Miller.  I had been familiar with some of his work previously, both indirectly and from other texts and essays, and even had a habit of enlisting his arguments when I felt it was appropriate to do so.  However, upon finishing the text in question I am left aware of the fact that I do not escape from many of his criticisms.  At minimum it seems necessary that I should account for his arguments in some fashion, and while owing to the book itself I recognize this process should, properly, require criticism, I nonetheless feel inclined to begin this process even if circumstances should prevent it from actually developing.  To put it another way, I can do my best to ensure the positions I put forth are internally consistent and meaningful, even if I cannot guarantee they will receive any degree of critical attention.  I suppose this is a good start.  In the worst case scenario, it leaves me as a philosopher, something which I have been for some time now and am not particularly ashamed of.

Before I set into all that, though, I would like to briefly enumerate the arguments which I felt were helpful or enlightening, and which present me with no difficulties.  In all cases, the discussion of relational properties, as opposed to intrinsic properties, was extremely informative.  The discussion of measure-theoretic probability theory as a solution to the problem of psychologism in quantum physics removed a very large deficit in my understanding of the world.  Essentially, the treatment of probability as a real phenomenon, not simply an epistemological phenomenon, allows me to appreciate why many of the arguments advanced today by social theorists of various sorts, which enlist quantum mechanics as either a metaphor or an argument, are mistaken.  In a similar vein, I am deeply appreciative of the discussion of the shortcomings of Plato, particularly given the very clear relationship which is exposed between him and the bulk of modern philosophy.

All of the treatment of Marx was enlightening, both the praise and the criticism.  My understanding of the shortcomings of holistic political analysis, historicism, and psychologism was greatly improved by reading this text.  In light of this new information, much of my previous criticism of these approaches seems hollow and superficial.  Popper offers very robust and powerful criticisms of each of these approaches, and if I can help it I very much intend to make use of them in the future.

An outline of the positions and criticisms which I have chosen to address is presented below.

  1. The Untenability of Phenomenology

  2. The Requirements of Social Reform

The Untenability of Phenomenology

This issue is of particular importance to me, given both my own inclinations to use phenomenology in the construction of social and psychological models, and my assessment of the relative merit of fiction along phenomenological lines.  In Popper Selections, the eponymous author never takes explicit aim at Sartre, choosing instead to attack the likes of Husserl and Schopenhauer.  As my familiarity with both authors is limited to indirect quotations and responses, I cannot comment on whether or not his distaste for their philosophy is appropriate.  Popper himself explains that every rational theory including those of a metaphysical character can be understood as an attempt to solve certain problems.  In their successes or failures in this capacity they can be weighed critically against other competing theories.  Therefore I feel it is expedient to begin by assessing which problems Sartre’s phenomenology is attempting to solve, and how it is attempting to do so.

Owing perhaps to my philosophical ignorance, my initial impression of Being and Nothingness was that it was predominately an epistemology.  On subsequent consideration, inspired partially by the forward to my copy of the book, I considered it more along the lines of a psychology.  Yet at the same time, serious ontological conclusions are suggested at various places in the text.  So which is it then?  The answer I believe is that it is all of these things, and this can be explained by examining the nature of its methodology.  In his concern about questions of knowledge, perception, and experience, Sartre follows the same paths of inquiry as Descartes.  The fundamental conflation of psychology with epistemology outlined by Popper in his analysis of Descartes is then quite easy to recognize in Sartre as well.  We can hardly fault Sartre for continuing along these lines, given the spectacular appearance of success which the Cogito generated.  It was an argument that was as revolutionary for philosophy as Newtons formula for gravity would later prove to be for physics, with the possible difference being that very little of value was produced by the former.

Just the same, Sartre advanced propositions which allow for the solution of a large number of problems, many of which are recognized as important by Popper himself.  In his section of the book on metaphysics, there is a subsection titled Indeterminism and Human Freedom, which Popper uses to advance the position that it is necessary to adopt indeterminism in order to allow for conversation.  He does this on the grounds that physical determinism renders human action and even (therefore) language meaningless.  This is highly significant, insofar as it increases the number of metaphysical assertions Popper is willing to treat as a prerequisite for the use of the scientific method, adding indeterminism to ontological realism.  In fact, Popper appears to place the requirement for indeterminism above the requirement for ontological realism, stating that he is “first an indeterminist, second a realist, and third a rationalist“.

Subsequently, Popper attempts to formulate indeterminism without using metaphysical concepts, by appealing to probability.  In this capacity he fails, and admits as much.  Yet towards the end of his treatment of this subject, he is still no nearer to a cogent argument for indeterminism, and he concludes without being able to provide one either metaphysical or otherwise.  The principle utility of Phenomenology then, I would propose, is that it allows for such an argument.  Admittedly it presents a problem of its own in the form of existential despair, but this new problem, unlike Compton’s “nightmare of the physical determinist”, does not preclude the solution of scientific problems.  It allows for a foundation upon which we can consider language meaningful, and therefore argue.  More importantly, it does not truly conflict with ontological realism, for the very concept of facticity presupposes things which are prior to human consciousness, just as the concept of transcendence supposes things which extend beyond it.

The Requirements of Social Reform

As I am an anti-statist, the arguments given within the text for piecemeal reform and situational analysis have a particular relevance to my own positions.  In effect, they assert that I must either give up the concept of large scale social reform, or else fail altogether to apply the scientific method to social reform.  Well, so much the worse for the revolution.  Despite the ease of this first conclusion, however, a number of problems still assert themselves.  In adopting Popper’s inversion of Plato, which replaces the question “who should rule?” with the question “how should we assure that those who rule poorly do as little damage as possible?”, I am faced of course with the question of the emergence of the state.  The same question which Rothbard attempted to answer, unsatisfactorily, by asserting that the worst possible outcome of a failed stateless society is simply a state.  This is of course untrue, as there are different forms of state which have greater or worse character.

Poppers own assertion that power is required to prevent economic exploitation of course strikes me as faulty.  It relies upon the assumption of the instability of the market.  Therefore, despite initially being concerned by the argument advanced, I must ultimately conclude that it is mistaken.  For it is perhaps correct in its assertion that some regulative principle must prevent the acquisition of monopoly status on the part of large firms, yet just the same, such a regulative principle is already contained within the market, in its natural tendency towards equilibrium.  This does not of course answer the power question, for I am quite in agreement with Popper that power takes precedence over money, and that force can be used to destroy even the most idyllic of social arrangements.

Therefore, in the absence of a state it will be quite necessary to demonstrate what regulative principle might exist to preclude the use of force.  I am of the opinion that Rothbard made good inroads into this question, but did not answer it in sufficient detail.  I came to this conclusion after engaging in my first and most likely last argument on Cracked.com, and while I believe I came up with a solution of sorts, the comment which it was contained in has since been deleted.  In addition to this concern over a regulative principle, an outline must be given for tracing a course to anti-statism through piecemeal reform.  It is not sufficient to point to a Somalia for evidence, for the same reason that all holistic political analysis is untenable.  Namely, it allows very easily for the analysis of cause and effect to break down, to make mistakes based on the entanglement of many causes and many effects.  Too much is introduced far too quickly, and therefore it is effectively impossible to discern which aspects of a society have desirable effects, and which have undesirable effects.

In this capacity, large scale social reform is undesirable because it removes the ability to calculate.  I believe it is unfortunate that despotic systems cannot be done away with expediently, but at the same time I am forced to recognize the legitimacy of the argument.  At the same time, piecemeal reform as outlined in selections does not seem to offer very explicit boundaries.  How much reform is too much?  Is it simply the point at which people cease to be able to discern which causes have which effects?  And if this is true, then how do we account for false positives, attributable to dogmatism on the part of a given observer, for instance?  The problem of progress in politics does not appear to go away, even with piecemeal reform, and I am afraid that any sufficiently long-term project would become irrelevant before reaching fruition.  There are of course numerous ways in which a state may cease to be, and many of them are based simply on the advancement of technology.  In 100 years, government may very well be the least of our concerns.  Yet at present it still effects the lives of everyone.

It is in this sense that I believe I can express my main problem or concern with the concept of piecemeal reform, and that is that it does not permit time-sensitive reform, if such a thing can be said to exist.  I believe it can.  In addition to the technological example, we might easily conceive of the problem in economic terms.  Deregulation might enable for a firm to engage in the production of greater wealth, and for a time this will lead to employment and other things of benefit.  Yet if the deregulation occurs for one firm, but not for another, the asymmetry may allow the first firm to achieve monopoly status in the interim between the instances of deregulation.  Yet this monopoly status would then likely be taken as a sign of the undesirability of deregulation, owing to a false induction made from the one instance of deregulation to the others.  Each individual act of deregulation appears to allow for a tendency to move away from equilibrium, yet taken together they achieve a harmonious effect.

But in this case, piecemeal reform is not wholly scientific.  It precludes experiments which may reveal otherwise hidden relationships.  In this case, how do we rectify the differences?  I am afraid that I cannot think of an adequate answer.  Yet this problem still appears to me very real.

A reflection on the Martial Arts

•December 4, 2009 • Leave a Comment

There are times when I regret my decision to stop training.  Not because I believe it was wrong, mind you, but there is a hole in my schedule now which used to be occupied, and there’s something to be said for that.  Some nights, adrenalin will hit me without apparent cause and bring me to considerations which have no bearing on my present life, to the detriment of sleep or whatever other task I am engaged in.  I might not have ever been good at it, but it meant something to me, and I was committed.  With that in mind, I can’t help but think back on my experiences and examine what they mean to me now, after they are gone.

On past occasions, I have spoken ill of eastern martial arts.  In any categorical sense, this is innapropriate.  There is also a risk of being accused of hypocrisy.  My own training has only ever been in eastern traditional martial arts.  This is a good place to start then.  My admiration for western and mixed martial arts stems not from first hand experience with them, but from my philosophical background.  In their practice, and in the rhetoric and argument of their practitioners, I saw and heard something which felt like the spirit of critical rationalism.  It was this observation which first led me to begin training seriously roughly a year ago.  Entering an introductory class at Front Range Community College, I tried to take some of this philosophical background with me.

When I was punched, I took this to be refutation.  An argument to the effect that I was dropping my right hand, for example, or leading with my face.  This felt like the proper approach.  However, in order to be consistently scientific, such an approach to training would have to abstain from limiting the scope of “arguments” it permitted.   In TKD at least, this was not the case.  That is not to say that I learned nothing.  Far from it.  I was entirely ignorant of a great many things before pursing training.  My own tendency towards blanket aggression, for example, which made me predictable, prevented the use of sound technique, and interfered with my thinking.  After training for what, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t very long at all, I have learned a lot.  Very little of that is in positive knowledge.  I can say with a great deal more precision what things I am still ignorant about.  It is not a small list.

I am not attempting to speak ill of my instructors either.  Without fail, they were good people: attentive, helpful, and knowledgeable, willing to offer support whenever it was needed, often perceptive, and carrying strong senses of personal responsibility, discipline, and duty.  However, in their own way, they were also dogmatic.  It is not that they forbid learning, or even that they thought themselves to have reached the ends of knowledge.  Instead, the dogmatism lay at the edges of what was demarcated as the formal system being learned.  What lay outside of these boundaries was in many ways significant.

Of course there are a number of possible justifications for this, many of them good.  It is not very useful trying to teach things one does not know, that is certain.  My TKD training also came with a tacit admission by my instructor that it was wholly inadequate when faced with any competent system of grappling.  Therefore it was not strongly or wilfully dogmatic.  Just the same, progression of knowledge in the classroom consisted entirely of observing the techniques performed and then comparing them with the tenets of the art.  In that fashion, the solution to any given problem was always treated as if it was contained in the original teachings of the art.  There was no science to it, just philosophy.

Of course, the origins of propositions are of no consequence so long as they are tested, and to an extent (wherein techniques represent propositions and theory represents their origins) they were.  A limited extent.  These limitations consisted not simply of what techniques could be performed, but how or with what intensity they could be performed.  Again, there is a possible justification for this.  One which I very unfortunately had to learn about first hand before I appreciated.  Twice.  Yet these limitations, constructed in a way that prohibits the use of effective technique, limit the growth of knowledge (technique).  Admittedly, since martial arts are an activity, they do not necessarily need to pursue any ultimate truth; in this case, which technique, strategy, or collection therein is most effective; they can simply be a sport.  Yet even within the context of sport, this approach presents problems.

When I was sparring competitively, I consciously limited myself because I had seen first hand what I could do when I failed to do this.  Therefore, I was acting within the limitations I had been given, and for reasons I agreed with.  My opponent did not similarly limit himself.  Despite receiving warnings and penalties for this decision, he nonetheless won the match without much difficulty.  I erred on the side of caution, he erred on the side of effectiveness.  Of course he won.  A technique which is effective in the martial arts has a tendency to produce effects which prohibit the opponent from utilizing their own techniques.  This is what happened.

It was at that time that I realized I could not practice the martial art as a sport.  It put me in a dangerous position.  On the one hand was the risk of injuring others, and on the other was the threat of athletic incompetence.  I could not err on the side of effectiveness after witnessing what effectiveness looked like, and realizing that my sparring partners had not signed up with an appreciation of the possibility of these consequences.  However, if the result of that was to be incapable of competing, then no profit remained in my training.  It was idle motion.

I realize this may be taken as apocryphal, given the context, but I once attended a special sparring session where one of the masters of my art was instructing.  Due to the nature of the class, and the predictable distribution of belt levels by age group, I was sparring with red and black belts.  Their physical conditioning gave them resilience and none of them expressed any trouble with my intensity.  My own instructor at various times reminded me of my commitment, however.  When sparring was over and everyone was leaving, the master passed me by on a stairwell.  “You did good” he said.  “Thank you” I said, accidentally forgetting the sir (not out of willful disrespect or because I wasn’t raised that way.  Rather, because I was raised that way and therefore by force of habit I tend to omit it.)  “But my instructor tells me I hit too hard.”  “Oh who cares” he said.  That was the end of our conversation.

It’s a good question.  Unfortunately, I think I have to admit guilt on that count.  The truth of that admission, that I am not capable of mustering any aggression in classroom settings under good faith, puts me in a situation I’m not comfortable with.  I tried Judo briefly as well.  It hurt very consistently, which to me served as solid confirmation of its effectiveness.  The practitioners there, with the exception of me, were also built much more resiliently.  Two other things happened at about this time though.  First, my income became inconsistent.  Second, I read Atlas Shrugged and it convinced me to pursue HRT and transition.  Maybe that second part seems confusing to some people.  It could warrant its own discussion.  The point is, my decision introduced another difficulty.  I cannot train in any art with great intensity when I know that there are people who would gladly kill me over this matter if given the opportunity.  Signing up for any martial arts training means signing a waiver which, among other things, limits liability in the instance of serious injury or death.

So in addition to my own reservations about so much as hurting others, and my dislike of any sport which puts me at odds with myself, I also have my own safety to consider.  Maybe when I start generating a steady income again I will begin training firearms.  It is a small consolation.  The sport aspects of that area of self-defense seem less interesting than those of the martial arts, although surprisingly, the reservations I have dissappear as well.

Atlas Shrugged/Bioshock: Dual Review Pt. 2

•December 2, 2009 • 2 Comments

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?”

“Yes!”

“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.

My first novel: Amazing Bullshit Adventure

•November 30, 2009 • 2 Comments

Disclaimer: this was written in less than one month.

Link to .pdf

This can be downloaded 10 times, which is significantly larger than the number of times I expect it to be downloaded.  If it ceases to become available and there is still interest, leave a comment and I will try to host it somewhere better.

Notes:

  • Novel is point of view from a point of view I hate.  This means that I’ve gone to great efforts to make much of it agitating, offensive, and wrong
  • Novel is unedited, so there are almost certainly spelling and grammatical errors
  • Novel was written without an outline
  • Novel was written in less than one month

It is 129 pages long, and several of those pages are chapter headings and things of the like.  I do not know whether or not it is any good because I haven’t read it yet.  That is all.