Prelude to Cataclysm: What Happens When Bartleby Inhabits the World of Warcraft

Thescrivener in the Doorway: The Narrative

In a quite busy part of Galakrond there is a toon[1] who appears from time to time.  On her first day of existence, the following things happened to her:

She attempted to form a macro that said: “I would prefer. . . I would prefer. . . I would prefer,” and then, understanding that this macro worked, said, “I would prefer not to.”  This, of course, was after she entered a vale full of aggressive elementals where she was wounded by one who had bested her blood-ally.  “Her skill in defense rose to 4.”  She discovered Azure Wash where a letter was waiting from a friend (though a friend she could never meet.)  She went to the inn to ponder awhile her next action, for the letter contained 100 gold.  After having taken a short nap, she re-emerged.  On the road to somewhere, she was attacked by a giant fern; her defense increased to 5 and then she died; she was resurrected.  To go to Odesyus’ Landing or to The Exodar?[2] She died afk;  she was resurrected.  There were horses loaded w/ supplies in an encampment walled by spiked logs.  (She thought: “Power work is never over.”[3])  She “followed” him.  She was on a boat; they danced.  She told him to wait around, for he was about to see something he’d never seen before.  He followed and didn’t leave for quite a while. . . . She arrived in Stormwind and went to the auction house to buy new clothes.  Newly outfitted, she sat in the door of the AH[4] and said, many times, “I would prefer not to.”

For awhile there this draenei mage (lvl 1) remained.  Wearing a beat-up hat, a rust-colored shirt, and what appeared to be Capri Pants, she kept saying the same thing over and over; no one would respond to her (in any meaningful way).  Even her recent travelling companion got fed up and left.  Soon after that, she disappeared.  She has been spotted only occasionally and randomly since, but has not been observed to move nor say anything except, “I would prefer not to.”

The Scrivener in the Doorway: The Commentary

 

The brief narrative presented in “Thescrivener in the Doorway,” with a few emendations and a bit artistic-license on my part given to the recounting of events, well, actually happened.  After an excellent conversation one evening w/ a good friend about the totalizing reification of the player/subject that takes place when one plays World of Warcraft, I came home eager to institute a literary—and recently politically celebrated—hack into the game.  I wanted to exploit the very structure of being-in-the-game.  And the “Thescrivener” is what resulted from this.

What is quite clear from playing WoW[5] for any amount of time is this: one is paying about $20 a month for the privilege of working.  Though WoW can be fun, exciting, challenging, carnivalesque,  etc.—pretty much like any really good (video) game—most often it really isn’t any of those things.  Quite often, in fact, it can be quite boring.  And, like a lot of really mindless jobs that lack any real skill, it is ridiculously, obscenely repetitive.

Scott Rettberg puts it nicely: “World of Warcraft is both a game and a simulation that reinforces the values of Western market-driven economies.  The game offers its players a capitalist fairytale in which anyone who works hard and strives enough can rise through society’s ranks and acquire great wealth.  Moreover, beyond simply representing capitalism as good, World of Warcraft serves as a tool to educate its players in a range of behaviors and skills specific to the situation of conducting business in an economy controlled by corporations.  While it’s certainly true that some students are failing out of college, some marriages are falling apart, bodies are slipping into flabby obesity as a direct result of World of Warcraft addiction,[6] in a larger sense the game is training a generation of good corporate citizens not only to consume well and to pay their dues, but also to climb the corporate ladder, to lead projects, to achieve sales goals, to earn and save, to work hard for better possessions, to play the markets, to win respect from their peers and customers, to direct and encourage and cajole their underlings to outperform, and to become better employees and perhaps, eventually, effective future CEOs.  Playing World of Warcraft serves as a form of corporate training.”[7]

What is really insidious about WoW, is that the game wholly depends upon what Rettberg so accurately calls a “capitalist fairytale.”  The game requires players who are producers and consumers.  W/o people actively pursuing their individual goals, their unique professions,[8] and exploiting their individual talents, the fabric of the game is entirely hollow.  To really advance in the world, to make it into further “end game” content requires synergistic cooperation b/t many actors.  Of course one can play WoW w/o interacting w/ others, but this greatly limits one’s experience and the possibilities presented w/in its world.  The capitalist fairytale the game so wholly relies upon is that there is a kind of one-to-one relationship b/t time spent in the game and money made, w/o the interference from banking trusts, stock markets, unstable import and export taxes, union laws, governmently mandated hourly wage, etc.  It is an Adam Smith wet-dream.  B/c WoW purports an entirely circumscribed, self-enclosed and self-sufficient world, it presents the illusion of an economy totally divorced from “real” economies in the “real” world.  And of course, nothing could be further from the truth.  It is brilliant, really.  Blizzard is ultimately playing on the most basic interpellations of the postmodern, late-capitalistic subject.  To make money, they’ve structured an economy (more than even a game) that directly plays upon the subject’s position w/in that economy.  To “enjoy” the game, one has to participate whole-hog in the economy: one has to be a productive, dedicated, not-easily-distractible worker.  One has to act, to participate.  Always.[9]

This constant imperative to act should not be surprising, either, as all video games rely on this imperative for the realization of their game-space and their unfolding.  The quite distinct thing about WoW, however, is that in terms of narrative, the game is wholly non-teleological.  Yes, there is a loose, flimsy framework of a narrative that structures one’s course through the game, and one is constantly interacting w/ narrative when one performs various tasks and quests.  The fact, however, that one can kill the Lich King (or whatever) again and again and again, ad infinitum, provides no narrative closure to the game.  Furthermore, the sudden appearance of your toon in the world, cannot really be said to constitute a “beginning” either.  Where the “middle” is, where the moment of conflict or resolution is, can also be shown to be almost entirely lacking.  Instead, Blizzard, by making the game primarily about one’s economic relationship to the world and its inhabitants, has effectively inserted the myth of capitalist teleology as the game’s goal—i.e. the “good” life, when one has all the goods one could want, and of course Blizzard has been very good about making this goal eminently unreachable.[10] There is always something more one could do, procure, purchase, achieve, etc.[11] You know, like “real” life.

Despite this totalizing imperative to act and participate that the game presents, WoW has also been a singular phenomenon in presenting chances for play and creation w/in the parameters of the game that the creators could not really have (easily) anticipated.  There are many examples of this subversive or anti-gaming, machinima creations being perhaps the most notable (and interesting).  (There are many of these, but I urge you to consider the following, as to document the sheer archival accumulation of WoW-related cultural production would be a dauntingly thankless task indeed.):

The thing about all the “alternate” ways of “playing” WoW, is that they are all wholly permitted, and oftentimes even sanctioned by both the game logic and Blizzard itself.  B/c it is a World (something that I will assume here as a given, though not one I have the space to develop), a massive space w/ strictly defined rules of action, the possibilities for exploiting the game and its algorithm are equally massive (and, even now, probably mostly unexplored).  In other words, b/c the game is so non-teleological and “infinite,” play can easily appear to step outside the imperative to act, and the imperative to act w/in the economy.

What should be immediately apparent about both these videos, however, is that they took a massive amount of time to put together and an incredible amount of logistical cooperation b/t participants.  Yes, they are modes of play not strictly w/in the parameters of the game, but their sheer ubiquity and availability on the interwebs, how they further the appeal of this already addictively appealing game, and how they continue to reproduce Blizzard’s ideological project of presenting a World in which one can “do anything,” in which “anything is permitted” (as long as you play by the rules, which are both quite clear and completely hazy simultaneously)—all of this ultimately only reinforces this imperative to act.  Even when one is playing the game in ways not defined by the game, one is still acting w/in the game, and, perhaps most importantly, contributing to the game’s economy (as well as Blizzard’s bottom line).  In other words, there is, fairly strictly, no outside-the-game(’s economy).  The only way to avoid the totalization the game imposes upon its reified participants, and many people have quit the game for precisely these reasons, is simply to not play.  Yes or no.  Act or not.  Participate or not.  These binaries all boil down to: either one is playing WoW or one isn’t.

If one grants me the preliminary claim that WoW does in fact constitute a World, then the analogue for the “real” world would be: one either is or isn’t.  The only way not to play the world is to commit suicide.  This would be equivalent to not playing WoW.

Though this may be a slightly hyperbolic and extreme analogy to draw, players who have quit the game have often done so by annihilating their character so as to make it less attractive to come back to the game for themselves.  Once one is in the World of WoW, oftentimes the only way out is simulated suicide (deleting your character, giving away all your gold and possessions, etc.).[12] Yes, for many people, it is probably quite easy to simply stop playing, but because your character remains w/in Blizzard’s database (one suspects forever, or at least until WoW 2 comes out. . . .), there is always the possibility of coming back.  One’s avatar is still a possibility w/in the game-space, even if one hasn’t played in years.  Thus the self-annihilation that so often takes place: the fact of an avatar’s continued, or possibility of existence is too tempting.  (Though I realize the analogue b/t deleting one’s character and suicide is perhaps a bit of a stretch, the biggest reason this analogue suggests itself is that one has to actively delete one’s character—it will never disappear on its own.)

Consequently, WoW presents a very curious “truth” (or aporia).  In short: to be in the World is to act in the World.  And of course this is something presented by any World.  What makes WoW (perhaps) so interesting, is that it reveals not merely the potential impossibility of the political effectiveness of the Bartlebian stance w/in such a structured, controlled, networked, and totalized world such as WoW, but it simultaneously reveals what is so often overlooked in much of the recent commentary on “Bartleby, the Scrivener”: that the ultimate outcome of his stance is death.

In terms of WoW, we might understand this as the “30 minute Bartleby” problem.  To understand this problem, first let me give you a bit of background on my thinking about Thescrivener.[13]

Initially I had it in mind that Thescrivener[14] could be rigged up to simply sit in front of the auction house, answering “I would prefer not to” to any request made of her.  I quickly realized I had neither the time, patience, nor know-how[15] to make this happen, so instead I hardwired a macro to button 8 (quite easy to do) that would cause Thescrivener to “say”: “I would prefer not to” anytime I pushed it.  The main reason for this is that it also became quickly apparent that I could not just leave her to sit “unattended”: it would log me out.

The implications of this last sentence are, of course, significant.  If one could simply log into World of Warcraft and let their character just sit, not act, the servers could quickly jam.  It would be an efficient, manageable hack to make—i.e. simply convincing so many people to log on at once that it would overload the system (I’ve been in Dalaran, I know what happens. . . ).  People wouldn’t even have to do anything.  They could log on and go to work for weeks.  Furthermore, it would be totally w/in the parameters and rules of the game.  So, to maintain optimum bandwidth efficiency, Blizzard automatically logs you out after a pre-determined length of inactivity, about 30 min.  W/r/t my plan for a Bartlebian “hack,” this would ruin the basic fundamental idea of the toon: that it would only respond.  Not addressed specifically, it would just sit there, in front of the auction house, robotically-(im-)mobile, but only for a short time, before disappearing (since ultimately, a low-lvl toon sitting in the auction house entrance is a thoroughly uninteresting thing, and not a lot of people would bother to address Thescrivener, esp. if she wasn’t bothering anyone).

Not feasibly and quickly being able to find or make what would ultimately make her a “bot,”[16] I realized that I could still make her say “I would prefer not to” quite easily, and so, if I ever “choose” to inhabit her on that particular server, I simply cause my character to sit there, saying “I would prefer not” to at my whim.  This toon has a single purpose in the world, and it is to utter this phrase.  Furthermore, since her active refusal to participate is not automated, she more clearly resembles her name-sake—i.e. Bartleby, though perhaps in- or non-human, is not presented as an automaton in “Bartleby.”  She is what I affectionately call my “Bartleby alt.”

For those perhaps unfamiliar w/ Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” let me provide a (very) brief synopsis.  Bartleby, a clerk, has recently been hired by the narrator.  Over the course of the story Bartleby stops really acting at all, let alone doing the work he was hired to do, replying to all questions regarding his actions with his famous formula: “I (would) prefer not to.”  This ultimately causes the narrator to leave his offices, since Bartleby has ceased to move from them.  As a result, Bartleby is thrown in jail for not vacating the premises.  In jail he ceases to eat and dies.

The “30 Minute Bartleby” problem might be understood as follows: b/c WoW logs a character off after 30 min. of inactivity, the entirety of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” indeed, of Bartleby’s entire life is boiled down into a half-hour.  The Bartlebian act of preferring not to act in the game[17] results in the player’s disappearance (though not death—you cannot really] die in WoW[18]).  The stakes of this problem are many, but I would like to submit a somewhat lengthy reading of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Gilles Deleuze so as to also gesture toward all the other people who have chimed in on Bartleby:

“The formula I PREFER NOT TO excludes all alternatives, and devours what it claims to conserve no less than it distances itself from everything else.  It implies that Bartleby stop copying, that is, that he stop reproducing words; it hollows out a zone of indetermination that renders words indistinguishable, that creates a vacuum within language [langage].  But it also stymies speech acts that a boss uses to command, that a kind friend uses to ask questions or a man of faith to make promises.  If Bartleby had refused, he could still be seen as a rebel or insurrectionary, and as such would still have a social role.  But the formula stymies all speech acts, and at the same time, it makes Bartleby a pure outsider [exclu] to whom no social position can be attributed.  This is what the attorney glimpses with dread: all his hopes of bringing Bartleby back to reason are dashed because they rest on a logic of presuppositions according to which an employer “expects” to be obeyed, or a kind friend listened to, whereas Bartleby has invented a new logic, a logic of preference, which is enough to undermine the presuppositions of language as a whole.”[19]

The reason I call the “30 Minute Bartleby Problem” a problem, is b/c the effects of Bartleby’s formula are simply not possible in 30 min.  The formula requires the persistence of its inflexibility to be repeated over and over again for it to begin to operate.  Esp. if I decide that I will only say this into the game-space of WoW as a response, 30 min. simply isn’t enough time for someone to bother to interact w/ your sitting toon.[20]

Considering all the other reasons that Bartleby’s formula is inapplicable to true revolutionary inaction in WoW, the simple fact of the game logging you out is the most important.  B/c of this aspect of the game, it (perhaps unlike the world) does not permit Bartleby—he is an impossible figure.  Giorgio Agamben argues that Bartleby opens up a third option to Hamlet’s yes or no to being[21]; WoW, however, firmly removes this third option.  To illustrate, I would now like to turn to a little self-reflexive exegesis of the narrative that began this discussion.  The narrative presented is, more-or-less, a faithful representation of some of the actions that took place while I attempted to present Bartleby into WoW.  It is austere, sure, but considering that the subject was Bartleby, I felt that austerity was of the essence.  (See the beginning of this post for the tale.)

The first action, the forming of a macro, directly places us w/in gamic action.  Sure, I could sit there and type “I would prefer not to” every time anyone addressed me, but automating this response stripped down Bartleby to a kind of pure action: hitting number 8.  (This is perhaps similar to the manner WoW shares some of the basic structures of the real world, but they are like a pale shadow, where only their framework is necessary.)  Pressing the 8 button on my keyboard was as close, easy, and repetitive of an action I could come up w/, since I cannot say (only “text”)[22] this response.

The narrative then immediately takes us to the fact that this macro was only formed after the fact of some action—i.e. it was not the ur­-moment of Thescrivener’s experience of the game-world, in the same way Bartleby didn’t start off saying “I would prefer not to.”  More to the point, however, is that I had to move in the world, travel to my intended location—the steps of the AH.  I’m a Draenei mage, so this required getting on a boat, among other things.

The very next thing that happens is that Thescrivener gets attacked by an elemental.  I did nothing to provoke this whatsoever, beyond getting w/in a certain radius of the elemental.  Usually, sticking to the roads prevents random encounters, but this is not always the case.  This reveals two things: 1)  The world of WoW will accost you.  No matter how much you remain inactive, at some point (I also have PvP[23] enabled), the world will impose an aggressive action upon you.  2)  In the case of the specific aggressive action taken toward myself, the result of this, even w/o fighting back, is that your character’s stats will improve.  My “defense rose to 4.”  This is incredibly significant, b/c even when you’re not trying to improve or advance in the game, you cannot help not advancing.

Thescrivener then goes to a mailbox, where she has received, from Slothrop (my main toon), 100g.  The reasons for my doing this are important.  I wanted her to have a significant enough amount of money so that her lack of participation in the economy could at least have an effect: keeping 100g out of circulation.   Also, ontologically, it is fascinating that you can send another version of yourself, an other (self), something immediately through the mail—a total non-diegetic act—but never the twain selves shall meet in the World.  They are ontologically prevented from doing so.  Also, to be sure, despite the “purity” of my Bartleby experiment, for an experiment is surely all that it really was, I wanted her to look the part.  A mage in a robe a Bartleby does not make.

The next thing that happens, is that Thescrivener is attacked again, though this time she dies (one rule: she never, ever attacks anything).  Here is where trying to draw an analogy b/t WoW and the real world hits really shaky ground.  Yes, I could leave her dead, but if I did so long enough (a week) the game would resurrect me.  The only way to truly die would be to delete her character, and that would of course be an action, and far closer to suicide than any other kind of death (suicide is a thoroughly non-Bartlebian action).

The next detail of the narrative is perhaps one I just felt to be amusing: “Odesysus’ Landing or Exodar.”  One of the redeeming features of WoW to me is the sheer hyperarchival nature of the game’s content.  Literary, pop-cultural, and other references abound.[24] So I couldn’t help but feel a bit like Odysseus here, carrying the oar of Bartleby into a land where it may be mistaken for a winnowing fan.

Nor is the insertion of the quote: “Power work is never over,” merely an insignificant detail.  In all honesty, I was listening to Daft Punk’s Discovery at the time, and, from this simple detail it should be made obvious that, no matter what the experience of Thescrivener be for other characters, for “me,” it would always be one of mediation—things would be going on around me, acting would be occurring (in the real world).

And this insertion of Daft Punk’s tongue-in-cheek celebration of the capitalist work-ethic, even if those workers be robots, reveals the essential problem of the rest of the text.

In short, I had to get to Stormwind.  To not act in what I felt was a particularly illustrative manner at the door of the AH—the very gate of the economy—required all this other stuff.  A dude started hitting on me, which was interesting b/c I’d never really experience this as a male toon,[25] so I danced w/ him.  He started blowing me kisses, I was my coy Bartleby self until—the controller me not able to help myself—I told him, follow me and I’ll show you something you’ve never seen before.  He did.  All the way to the door of the AH.  He stuck around for a while, despite the fact that all I was doing was “spamming.”[26] But this is my last experience of anyone interacting w/ The Scrivener.  She is invisible to others.  Her preferring not to is completely impotent.

And this is where I understand the recent invocation of this act as the one politically necessary right now by the likes of Hardt and Negri, and Žižek: within WoW, for this action to have any real effect, many, many more people would have to actively not participate in this manner.  Given enough people, it would clog the game.  Its logic would be pushed to a breaking point.  Perhaps, even at some point, Blizzard would have to take action despite the fact that sitting around doing nothing in the game is not only permitted e, it is at times necessary for the game to function at all, for example, waiting around for people.  But, not to get utopian here, even a small group of people committed to Bartlebian play would have influence on the social network of people interacting (all over the world) with the game.

Now, the craziest part of Bartlebian play, is that one can make a “Bartleby alt” that would not significantly impact how one played the game in other ways.  No one has to know that Thescrivener and Slothrop are related.  Indeed, no one at the time of this writing does.  I can play the Bartleby alt or not, but I have one.  If I want to play big, mean,[27] active Slothrop, I can.  And potentially, no one would be the wiser (except Blizzard).

What should be clear about Thescrivener is that, b/c I’ve chosen one method of play for her, she is immediately and clearly thrust into many of the basic structural, algorithmic, and formal aspects of the game which, used w/ some amount of collective direction, could result in real effects w/in the World of WoW.  What these might in fact be, at the moment, remain unclear, for having a goal toward which such inaction is directed would defeat the whole purpose.  The stance, however, even only taken when one feels like it (prefers to), remains a total one.  It needs no goal.  It justifies itself by its own radicality—to be simultaneously participating, even giving the perception that one would participate if they so preferred to, while actively not participating (rather than passively), neither saying no nor yes, but “I would prefer not to” (what. . . ?).  Though in theory all games give us just this type of Bartlebian possibility, even games as simple as Pong or Super Mario Bros., WoW is a singular example in that it provides an environment to experiment w/ the very real possibilities of the gesture.

As with what might result in the game world from such a stance by necessity remains unclear, I will save how any of this affects or could affect the “real” world for another time, or else let someone else take up this question, for to fully precede with such an analysis would require more rigor than this forum affords, but suffice it to say, this stance intervenes directly into the apologia that began this essay, but has subsequently been removed.  Simply put, the shame/nerdiness one feels from the many instances of cultural criticism about participating in such virtual action as WoW affords,[28] is radically upset and complicated by having a “Bartleby alt.”

On the one hand, one feels even nerdier and more embarrassed for realizing that they’re using this game for such a ridiculous pursuit (like trying to create a virtual Bartleby).  On the other, it is mildly, to use a quotidian phrase, “empowering”; I feel like I am making criticism into an action w/in the game, and WoW gives me the chance to do this in a fairly large World (as opposed to other games).  Though this ultimately may be more terror-inducing in regard to what is called, and for good reason in this context, a “control society”; and I might have to reassess the fact that I have to use the word “feels” in the previous sentence, for I am surely doing this virtually, even if it is still real; the Bartlebian stance does open a horizon for a clear, code-based exploit.  WoW has squirreled away in it the very thing that might upset its smooth functioning (like its permissiveness re: add-ons); also, and this is of singular significance, no rules are broken.

Perhaps, if nothing else, the thing that is opened up by this discussion is simply the awareness that WoW, like so many time-sucking entertainments, jobs, families, social groups, etc., contains w/in it the possibility for a kind of criticism, and a kind of criticism unique to its formal aspects.  Rather than immediately and unproblematically dismiss WoW upon its many glaring and obvious drawbacks, faults, and problems (which are myriad), what a game like WoW produces as an important site of cultural debate, revolves precisely around what is going on (or not) when we immerse ourselves into an online World.  If many of the questions we ask are the same, and the stakes of problems posed remain equally significant, perhaps the question to ask is of a different, more clearly aesthetic nature: what happens when Entertainment becomes a World and vice versa?  I will, however, refrain from answering this question in here, for various and complicated reasons, but let it be said that it will be answered one day. . . .

And of course all of this is to suggest, as this post is indeed titled “Prelude to Cataclsym,”–Cataclysm being the forthcoming expansion pack in which a major, apocalyptic-type event takes place in the world (simply unprecedented really. . .)–all this is to suggest that there are many more things to explore w/r/t Archivization and Apocalyptics in WoW. . . .


[1] Note: what follows will contain liberal use of a specific lexical lingo.

[2] This must have been where he brought the oar, for there are surely many men chopping trees.

[3] Daft Punk, Discovery (2001).

[4] Auction House.

[5] The common acronym for World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004-10).

[6] Note Rettberg’s: “I am nearly certain that the term ‘addiction’ will be unpopular with my fellow players, because the popular media have used the term while terrifying us with stories of teenage World of Warcraft players (these stories are typically set in China, and like horror movies, the victims are always teens) literally dying because they forgot to eat while playing a MMORPG.  While I’m sure that at least one of these stories is true, I doubt it’s a widespread phenomenon.  Your child can and likely will survive World of Warcraft.  Intelligent adults can spend hours a day play [sic] MMORPGs without becoming pale-faced, sunken-eyed, self-destructive shadows of their former selves.  While playing World of Warcraft has the hallmarks of psychological addiction, it may in fact also be a kind of cure.  Like MOOs, MUDs, and many other types of online activities, World of Warcraft is a social activity, a cure for the deadly human disease of loneliness.  Nonetheless, we can crave human contact in a particular type of structured way just as much as we can crave a cigarette” (Scott Rettberg, “Corporate Ideology in World of Warcraf,” Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, eds. Hilde G. Corneliussen & Jill Walker Rettberg [Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008], 34-5, n. 3.).

[7] Rettberg, 20.

[8] Tailoring, hunting, leatherworking, mining, herbalism, alchemy, inscription, enchanting, engineering, and jewel-crafting.  One can select two of these professions.  Cooking, fishing, and first aid are available to all.  (Archaeology is also forthcoming. . . .)

[9] Furthermore, the in-game economy has direct a relationship to the “real” economy, as in-game gold is bought and sold on the internet; there are the semi-mythical MMORPG farms in places like China; the individual unit currency (gold) even has real market value, and is, in fact, more valuable than some national units of currency in terms of real-world money!  None of this is novel or striking to say, however, as these are fairly widely-known and well-documented in-game-to-real-world economic relations.  My purposes here, as should be apparent, are differently directed.

[10] For instance, my quite reachable goal in the game, getting to 80, obviously presented itself as an illusory one at best, for certain aspects of the game are still unavailable to me until I get better gear, which translates into: I need to spend a lot more time working to be able to purchase or procure the necessary items to continue playing the game, to continue advancing along its pseudo-narrativistic lines.  Anyone who wants to send me gear, w/o compensation, feel free, but realize that though this act may be slightly subversive to the in-game economy (something for nothing), you should concomitantly realize that whatever you send me is the result of many hours of your labor.

[11] For example, there is the supposedly accurate account of one player who has earned every single in-game achievement (see here), but this is really so fantastically impossible—i.e. it really would take a herculean amount of time spent playing the game, probably to the detriment of virtually anything else—that it stands out as a news item in something like Wired.  It is remarkable that someone could achieve everything there is to in the game.

[12] See WoW Detox for firsthand accounts of such activity.

[13] The avatar I’ve created to enact a Bartlebian stance.  Her name in the game is “Thescrivener.”

[14] See Herman Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” Piazza Tales (New York: Modern Library, 1996 [1856]), 21-68.  Slavoj Žižek, Giorgio Agamben, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, among others; all have things to say about Bartleby, for those interested.

[15] At least not yet.

[16] A toon who has been given certain software commands to make it endlessly do one activity, like farming leather from wolves.  This is also highly against the rules.  Though I’m not sure Blizzard would really look down on my activity—they’re still making their 20 bucks.  The problem would be, of course, if many, many more people started a “Bartleby alt” . . .

[17] Of course, a “pure” Bartlebian stance is not available if one is already paying for WoW, this goes unsaid—and also suggests something about the impossibility of a pure Bartlebian stance in any world.

[18] Another significant complication of the Bartlebian stance.

[19] Gilles Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, the Formula,” Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith & Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 173.  For another, slightly more extreme take, Giorgio Agamben says: “In the place of the Prince of Denmark’s boutade, which reduces every problem to the opposition between to be and not to be, Being and non-Being, the scrivener’s formula suggests a third-term that transcends both: the “rather” (or the “no more than”).  This is the one lesson to which Bartleby always holds.  And, as the man of the law seems to intuit at a certain point, the scrivener’s trial is the most extreme trial a creature can undergo” (“Bartleby, or On Contingency,” Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. & ed. Daniel Heller-Roazen [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999], 259).

[20] One of the reasons for this is also that many inactive toons are the results of their controller being away from the computer—i.e. the Bartlebian stance in WoW, unlike in the real world—may imply there is no one there to respond at all.

[21] See note 19.

[22] Which is also important.

[23] Player versus Player.  I am on a PvE (Player versus Environment) server, where, if one so chooses, other characters cannot attack yours without you agreeing to a duel.  This is also the default setting of this world.  You can, if you so choose, turn off this restriction, and players from the opposing forces can slaughter you w/o compunction, esp. if you’re a lowly lvl 1 mage.  (That said, since the AH is in a fairly populated area, w/o reinforcements it would be very difficult for someone to kill me w/o getting killed in turn by someone else.)

[24] For instance, the other day I played a quest called: “Crank it to 11. . . ,” or something like that.

[25] There are of course many interesting things to say about how gender is constructed in WoW.

[26] Writing stupid, senseless text over and over into the chat channels.  It is my belief, however, that my kind of spamming is slightly more interesting/serious.

[27] Seriously, he’s killed so many animals he might as well be the entire U.S. whaling fleet b/t the years 1840-60.

[28] Btw, most of these critiques focus on the inaction, sitting at your computer for hours on end—like we don’t do that anyway. . . .

 

The Archival Erotics of Repo Men

(So first off I’ll fail to apologize for only now realizing that I have not posted anything on here for over a month, and that my continual engagement w/ Otis Nixon should not have perhaps been heading this page for as long as it has—which is to say, hopefully there will be a slight flurry of activity re: this blog on my part in the near future, as I hope to have posts on a bunch of new work from people of some eminence: Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, John Ashbery’s Planisphere, and perhaps a piece on a short story from the March edition of Harper’s, “The History of The History of Death.”  But for all that, I thought I’d start w/ a film I saw recently that legitimately surprised me in more ways than one.)  (Also, like all my posts, there will be spoilers galore.)

I in no way intended to see Repo Men (Miguel Sapochnik, 2010).  Like many other things in my life recently, I’ve inexplicably taken a break from my frequent and unapologetically saccharine foray into commercial cinema.  So a few days ago I realized I desperately needed, for whatever indefensible and inexplicable reason, to see Hot Tub Time Machine (I did, btw, but snuck in after Repo Men).[1] The reasons for this are probably more complex or simple than I would like to pursue, but suffice it to say, the film was peculiarly suggesting itself to me.[2] I also very much wanted to see Scorsese’s new effort, which was playing ten minutes after Time Machine.  Due to an inexplicable lane closure for construction that was nowhere apparent as being done, there was a familiar intensity of traffic over the Homestead High-Level Bridge and I arrived, of course, too late to see the beginning of either film.  Not wanting to wait around, my only chance for immediate darkness infused cinematic bliss was Repo Men, and even though I’d thought little-to-nothing good about the previews, I decided—hell, why not; it couldn’t be worse than Hot Tub Time Machine.  And I was right.

I should’ve known better than to dismiss this film so off-handedly as just another vehicle for Jude Law’s increasingly weird and inconsequential career (which I’m tempted to say isn’t inconsequential at all).  I mean, Forest Whitaker is in it for christ’s sake.[3] From the previews it appeared to be yet another Fahrenheit 451 rehash: agent of the oppressive dystopian police force turned resistance sympathizer, etc.  Don’t get me wrong, it is that.  And it very easily could have been very little but that, despite the interesting and complex friendship b/t Forest and Jude, the commentary it is so obviously making on our current economic crisis, and its portrayal of late-capitalistic posthuman cyborgicity.  Basically, I should’ve known better b/c of the fact that many recent SF films have been deceptively incisive and captivating despite their mundane genre trappings and crappy trailers.  In other words, unlike, say “comedies,” or even Hot Tub Time Machine specifically, in which all the best, funniest, most worthwhile moments are portrayed in their trailers, this type of film is fairly exemplary of putting none of why it may be interesting in the trailer.  The typical contemporary comedy often feels simply like a device shuttling you from one recollected moment of the trailer to the next.  We’ve already seen many of these films, for like most jokes you hear twice, they simply aren’t as funny on the second go-round.  At first glance, Repo Men appears to be doing just this.  It’s political, social, aesthetic, and economic stakes are clear: a 451 for the cyborg generation.  It looks exciting, action-packed, violent, bloody, and perhaps just complex enough w/o being too difficult to garner some mild amount of attention.[4] And of course it is these things.  But why Repo Men is worthy of some attention is for completely different reasons.  (Say, in the same way Steven Shaviro finds Gamer interesting.)

For my own purposes, the readily suggestive reading of the film is an obvious one, but the film’s specific archival engagement is only grounded upon this blatancy.  Basically, the premise of the film,

is that a massive corporation—sterile, all-encompassing, and totally ruthless in its pursuit of the bottom-line[5]—has cornered the market on artificial organs, enabling them to charge extravagant prices for them.  As a majority of these organs are vital [sic] for the customer’s continued existence, of course. . . they pay, and they pay w/ credit.  Inevitably, they miss a few payments, at which time the repo men repossess these organs, often killing the customer in the process.[6] There are clear things at stake here: 1) an engagement w/ our current mode of late capital and a critique of consumer debt; 2) a surveillance society in which the body is literally marked w/ its own potential death; and 3) a clear engagement w/ the (hopefully soon to be) aftermath of the wars of the early 21st C.[7] If this were all the film did, I believe it would still be worthwhile as, even though it is grossly heavy handed, it raises some important questions about the role of capital w/r/t the body in both the future and the present.  But ultimately it would be so heavy handed as to be eminently dismissible—yet another dystopian, paranoid speculation on an idea taken to its obscene limits.

Repo Men avoids simply being another generic entry into SF’s archive for two reasons: 1) the important, yet obvious twist that occurs in the film; and 2) the frankly incredible scene at the heart [sic] of the Union corporation: its organ reclamation center.  And, for reasons that will soon become apparent, I’ll address the second of these first.

The film (of course) culminates in an all-out-assault on the Union Corporation’s headquarters, w/ all the necessary Matrix-esque action, gunplay, and some pretty gruesome (actually) knife-wielding by a small band of people to topple the very structure that makes the Corporation run.  At the heart of Union, behind an (appropriately) pink door, is the database of all the people w/ artificial organs and, if one were to delete the database, everyone who currently had an organ would be “free” to “enjoy” it w/o worrying about paying or missing a payment.  Like so many of these films, Law’s character has descended into the underground—that of course gets brutally wiped out[8]—and the only recourse to possibly getting off the grid is attempting a last-ditch desperate effort to destroy the corporation which manufactures the very thing keeping him alive.[9] But none of this is the point.

The point is that when Law and his girlfriend make it behind the pink door, sealing themselves inside, there is no keyboard.  Instead, all there is is yet another sterile white room w/ scanners to literally scan the barcodes of the organs into the database.  In other words, there is no way to delete the archive.  The basic thing Law and his girlfriend confront in this scene, is not only that humanity has become totally and utterly archived, at the most bodily, vital level, but this archive’s logic is impenetrable: it can’t be burned (i.e. deleted w/ a keyboard).  The body throughout the film is always at the mercy of the most brutal of archival processes.  Your specific, numbered organ’s “time is up,” it must be put back into archival circulation to be repossessed again and again, and all through this process human bodies are piling up.  This, in many ways, is more sinister than everyone being implanted w/ RFID tags or barcodes.[10] The very thing that marks and distinguishes these bodies, that archives them in the state’s (or capital’s) panoptic gaze is absolutely essential to the continual existence of the lives of those bodies.  What appears clearly at stake w/in the context of the film is an extension (and perhaps complication) of Giorgio Agamben’s comment on the notion of survival w/r/t biopower:

“the most specific trait of twentieth-century biopolitics: no longer either to make die or to make live, but to make survive.  The decisive activity of biopower in our time consists in the production not of life or death, but rather of a mutable and virtually infinite survival.”[11]

Agamben says this mostly w/r/t Auschwitz, but I think it is equally applicable here.  This making survive is in capital’s best interest, in the case of the film, as it will funnel the last available resources out of the subject trying to survive.  They will go into debt so deep it causes death—the final logic of capital.  Most importantly, this making survive takes the form of placing directly into the body the very limits of its survival.  The artificial organ simultaneously makes survive and when biopower no longer has use for this survival, reclaims it to begin the process over.  As long as you are surviving and paying exorbitant amounts of money to survive, the corporation will let you.  Once you cease to do this, biopower no longer has any interest in continual survival.

The archived nature of this survival, however, I think slightly extends or complicates Agamben’s notion of survival.  Survival here is wholly dependent upon being w/in the systemic archive (i.e. making one’s payments) or else going off the archive’s grid (not making payments and “running.”)  Either way, however, when Law enters this room and realizes there is no way to ultimately delete one’s presence in this archive of survival, something is made very clear.  When the very processes of the body become the site of archival logic and the interest of biopower in survival, there is (virtually) no recourse.  The archive and survival become synonymous.  Nothing is outside the logic here and everything is caught w/in the camp.  Consequently, and this is what is so important about this film, for all Law’s Matrix-esque shenanigans, there is nothing to be done.

Sorta.  And what Law and his girlfriend do, and what director Sapochnik portrays so well, is an alternative.  Law has an artificial heart, his girlfriend some ten (or so) artificial organs, including lungs and kidneys.  Obviously they cannot simply cut these organs out and scan them, for their very survival would be compromised.  Instead, Law sees that the only recourse they have, the only way to get off the grid, to get out of the archive, is to cut into each other’s bodies and scan the organs while they’re still operating, while they’re still alive! (And furthermore, this is perhaps one of the most erotic scenes I’ve ever seen in any film.[12])  Anesthetizing each other while making out, Law’s girlfriend, actress Alice Braga, cuts into his chest, inserting her hand all the way to his heart to scan it, to take him out of the survival archive.  This ultimate act of love, freeing the other from biopolitical control, however, requires this ultimate penetration of the body (and it is, of course, important here that it is the female penetrating the male body, and not just anywhere, but precisely at that point [the heart] where it is most vulnerable).  Then it is Law’s turn to “scan” Braga: her eyes, her ears, her throat (he pushes his hand to the back of her throat), her knees, and ultimately her lungs and kidneys, mirroring and complicating her own penetration of himself.  Blood is flowing everywhere, their bodies intertwined, “passionate kisses,”[13] etc.  And, less it be unclear, this act is neither sadistic nor masochistic.  The only power over the body that is expressed by either sexual party is the act of getting rid of power over the body.  No pleasure is taken in the inflicting or receiving of pain, but rather in liberating the other’s body.  No genital sex takes place here, and this weirdly pure, violent, horrific, gruesome act of lovemaking may very well be what Gilles Deleuze had in mind when he talked of “non-genital sex.”

The point this scene seems to be making w/r/t the film as a whole is that, though the very survival of the body may be inscribed into the archive in totality, the body’s sexual role w/in this constellation defeats this reification through what I would like to call “archival erotics.”  The act of deleting one another from the archive, is the erotic act par excellence.  This is not sex as: two people simply masturbating w/ each other.  Rather, sex here becomes a liberatory, vital act of not only survival, of emancipation, but of escaping a totalizing archival logic.  And most importantly, there is no other option available w/in the space of the film. The “way out” is only available through a radical re-imagining of two bodies relationship to each other at the most primal level.  Bodies interacting ceases to be procreative and becomes liberatory.  Sex (w/o genitals) becomes a mode of escape.

But of course, and this is why this film is so interesting, that is not the end of the story.  Whitaker bursts through the door to perceive Braga and Law in post-(non-genital)-coital bliss, revealing he has a bomb.  Since Braga and Law have entered their organs into the archive, the machine is asking for those organs to be placed into a receptacle.  Conveniently, Whitaker’s bomb is placed in this receptacle, which is then taken into the archive where it explodes, deleting the archive.  The characters then sit back against the door, laughing.  And it is this laughter that is so captivating.

If they had just let Whitaker in a few moments earlier, this entire erotic scene would have been unnecessary.  Perhaps they are laughing at the absurdity of what they were forced to do.  Or perhaps they’re laughing at something else.  What I would like to suggest is that they are laughing at the absurdity that it is only after such a violent and poignant moment where biopower’s control over them is displayed so keenly that it becomes possible to literally penetrate the archive and delete it through, of course, technology.  In the space of the film, the laughter is important.  It not only signals that something is (perhaps) slightly amiss w/ this whole spectacle we’ve just witnessed, but that this act has been procreative.  The technology (of the bomb) was produced in this act.  What Law and Braga have given birth to is the very technological tool w/ which to delete the archive.  And this is fucking hilarious.  But it is hilarious because it is ultimately false.  Pain is funny, and the pain we’ve just seen was ultimately for no reason whatsoever.

And this brings me to my first point of why this film is interesting.  Long before the scene I just described, there is a “final showdown/confrontation” b/t Law and Whitaker during which Whitaker hits Law over the head w/ a chain(-thingy).  Immediately after this, the screen goes blank (evoking Law’s voice-over of “being knocked out”), and then Law’s life flashes before his eyes.  The twist at the end of the film is clearly perceptible here.  Throughout the film, a system that would preserve consciousness in the case of catatonia is repeatedly referred to, and it was at this moment I realized that Law “died” and that everything that was to follow in the film was taking place in his catatonic-consciousness.[14] And, as the film closes, this is precisely what is revealed: the twist.  Everything we’ve seen b/t this moment and now was pure simulation.  The whole moment of archival erotics was simply a projection of Law’s (un)consciousness.  Consequently, his badassness in killing virtually everyone while storming the castle is revealed as pure fantasy.  In other words, the laughter following the amazing, erotic scene is nothing but the acknowledgment that this sort of narrative, poignant and incredible though it may be, is impossible w/in the system all the characters are inhabiting.  And this is why Sapochnik’s first feature-length is so incredible.  He simultaneously gives us an incredible, gorgeous, brutal “answer” to the whole problem while acknowledging that this answer, this “way out” is complete fantasy.  Furthermore, it occurs in a kind of hyperarchival [sic] mode.  Law has become totally subject to the survival archive.  His very consciousness only persists w/in its logic.  This “survival” will now only be maintained by Whitaker continuing to repo organs (i.e. this life-after-life is very expensive).   Whitaker asks: can we know what he’s thinking, and of course the answer is no.  Survival here, and indeed consciousness itself, becomes only a function of the dominating totality of the archival logic.  Not only is there “no way out,” but there are further ways in.  Consequently, the entire amazing, incredible scene b/t Law and Braga becomes merely how archival erotics themselves get absorbed into the system.  Something posited as a way out only is possible by being more thoroughly w/in the system than one ever was before.  Love and sex are merely (hyper)archival expressions.

And this is why Sapochnik’s vision is so much more terrifying than merely a rehash of 451There is no alternative here.  The only, quite provocative alternative is ultimately presented as part of the whole damn thing.  Even resistance is a function of archivization.  And if this is terrifying, it should be, for it presents us w/ the truly terrifying prospect of the only solution being a fantasmatic one that can only come as a result of being so thoroughly plugged into the machine that we cannot survive w/o it.


[1]This is also of course to suggest that part of my unapologetic enjoyment of commercial cinema is seeing multiple movies for the price of one.

[2]I also have absolutely nothing to say about it.

[3]Also of impressive note, is that Repo Men is director Miguel Sapochnik’s first feature-length film.  How he got Forest and Jude, I presume, would be an intriguing back-room Hollywood story if I cared to do any research.

[4] For how little attention it may have indeed garnered, however, it need be noted that I was the only person present in the fairly major cineplex during its screening—something I always thoroughly enjoy b/c it affords me the opportunity to smoke cigarettes and see the smoke rising in the light of the projector.  Mild crimes like these are strangely enjoyable.

[5] I.e. the film goes as far as to suggest that the company desires people to have their organs foreclosed upon as it insures that the Union company can re-sell that specific organ to someone else.  The fantastic scene in the seemingly endless, sterile, white manufacturing center of Union also appears to suggest that this company is doing very well indeed.  (On a side note, the Repo Men also give a semi-hilarious twist to the notion of the body w/o organs.  In the case of the debtor, their bodies are w/o organs b/c they’ve quite literally been removed.  A tangent to this is that in the opening scene Jude Law is, by law, required to ask the “patient” whether or not they want a doctor or ambulance present.  This is totally absurd, as Law’s character clearly perceives, b/c he asks this of the “patient” after he has been stunned unconscious, of course implying that a body w/o an organ, in this scene the liver, clearly will very soon have no need of a doctor nor an ambulance.)

[6] It also need be noted that there is no affinity whatsoever b/t this film and the fantastic punk classic, Repo Man (1984).

[7] Law and Whitaker are both veterans of (presumably) the Iraq (or some other) war.  They are highly trained soldiers who have found the perfect venue for their training, and b/c their actions are clearly sanctioned by the state, they can approach it as “just a job.”  One of the most important parts of the film is that both Law and Whitaker are portrayed as not terribly intelligent; indeed, there is a quite hilarious flashback where they are shown to be specifically bodily suited for operating a tank: they have large heads and small brains, the better to prevent concussion.  They’re just dumb, “normal” guys who are violently carrying out the whim of capital.

[8] The aftermath of this scene is actually quite affective as Law’s character walks over piles of corpses.  The resonance w/ other genocides is quite clear here.

[9] Oh, btw, predictably, Law’s heart fails and has to get an artificial one.  He of course misses the payments now that he can empathize w/ his victims and subsequently doesn’t make any money.  (Also of note, how weird is it that these dudes work off commission, like some sort of used-car salesman death squad.)

[10] I distinctly remember one techno-industrial-kid who worked at my local zia in t-town, AZ who had a barcode printed on the back of his neck—the “subversive” irony of this I thought was dumb then, and I surely do now, btw, if you’re interested.

[11] Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 155.

[12] W/ the exception of Marina de Van’s Dans ma peau (In My Skin, 2002).

[13] Mary Chapin Carter had no idea her “Passionate Kisses” may ever have been used in such a manner.

[14] Thus the penultimate scene on the beach is obviously a pure dream-construction.