Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dagger Poems in the Slimy Bellies (Barker Bob's Trick Shooting and Bard's Tale)

I taught Amiri Baraka the other day in class. As one would expect, my class was not overly fond of Baraka, viewing him, like good little middle class moderately liberal college students, as a sort of reverse racism. I would fault them for their shoddily timid interpretations, but it's not as though I did not go through the same phase. And it is not even that their interpretation was timid. Rather, it was that they presupposed that their interpretation must be wrong, that they were not the intended audience of the poems. They assumed the poems spoke to someone else.

Lev Manovich famously said that to treat a new media object as interactive is to mistake the mind of the other for your own. He likens the moment to one from Louis Althusser, in which Althusser demonstrates the concept of interpolation. Althusser's example is of a man walking down the street as a police officer shouts "Hey, You!" Because of a larger social circle, the police officer hails the man he seeks - the one shouted for sees the structure of his interlocutor's mind, and interpolates himself within it. Likewise, when we deem a video game interactive, it is because we have bought into the system of rules and controls that it offers us. It is only interactive inasmuch as we think as it commands.

Driving home, every object was a target. This is the nature of shooting games. All objects are targets. If it moves, kill it. If it does not move, kill it before it moves. If there is any ambiguity, shoot it to be sure. Hence modern shooting games focus more on not shooting - throwing non-targets that it penalizes you for shooting. Because the challenge offered by shooting everything is a non-challenge. Barker Bill's predates this move, though. To play it is to graft a level of homicidal mania into one's identity. Pick up the controller and become a madman, shooting wildly.

The appeal is not merely the reduction of the world into the comforting binaries of gameplay - shot or missed, dead or alive. It is also the grafting of new eyes onto mine. I have not played with a Zapper in some time, but I still have the peripheral. I can pick it up, its weight familiar in my hands after all these years, and I am at once programmed, indeed, reprogrammed. My arm stretches out and the world devolves to target.

This programming is the fun of video games. I have spoken of the closed machine loop. My body, subservient to the structure of lines of code. Robotic, yes, but not in the sense of mindless reaction. This is the peak of artificial intelligence - the Turing line between program and being. Am I Turing-capable while I play video games? After?

Bard's Tale is not a game I played before, though as with many games this fact is essentially beside the

point. A dungeon crawl that borders on the Roguelike, with the sadism to match. A brutal hacking to death of your party with little to nothing to be done about it. But its ethos is familiar. That which moves dies. Particularly if it randomly encounters you. Basically, if you didn't expect to see it and it moves threateningly, it's probably best to hit it with swords. Just because, you know?

Baraka calls for assassin poems. Bullet poems. My students did not understand. Did not even know that they were hit. Make no mistake. Buried into their brains, disfiguring them. They are now hideous thought lepers, unable to read, think, exist without exposure and interface with Baraka. It is not just video games that distort us. Not just video games that reduce the world to an inescapable sea of targets and threats. That's art for you.

I remember the movie Three Kings. Actually, I don't. Just one moment, describing that the damage of a bullet is not it tearing through flesh, but rather flesh's reaction to being torn through. Assassin art is similar. Reading it, playing it, experiencing it is not the moment of damage. The aftermath, wounded and rewritten, is where art thrives. To experience art is to feel the bullet wound. This is where my students fail. Unaware of their own wounds, they do not experience art. They do not know they are programmed. They do not know that they are not the player but merely a physical embodiment of the code. Of the system. They do not see the targets around them. They do not see how many things they are a target for.

To write is to take aim - to make everything take aim.



  1. Pretty close-minded of you to consider your students as unable to experience art. If anything, art is, as compared to science reports, journalism and such, about the ambiguity of meaning, the understanding (or incomprehension) emerging from the gap between the creator and the viewer. It's not that your students don't experience art; they just don't experience it the way you do, involuntarily (or maybe even consciously) opting for a faster, more condensed, more face-value interpretation of what they see. It's just different, not better nor worse.
    I'm pretty surprised I'm telling you this; you seemed cynical enough to see things that way already.

  2. I respectfully differ - I think art is actually relatively unambiguous. There are a set of facts, just as with science or journalism. Beowulf says what it says. Words have meaning. It is a mistake to treat ambiguity as belonging to some class other than meaning. Ambiguity is communicable data. Yes, individual reactions to art vary. But they do to journalism as well. The fact of subjective reactions to a thing does not inherently call into question the meaning of the thing.

    The problem is that we (to my mind wrongly) teach people to value the individuality of their reactions, and prioritize how art makes you feel over the content of the art. This is no more sensible than the parody of New Math - how does the fraction make you feel?

    Yes, art is generally designed to elicit a reaction from its assumed audience. But that reaction is determined and intended by the work itself. Baraka's poetry is designed to produce a given response. Whether or not one feels that response is immaterial - the intended response can be discerned from the poems. When we marginalize this fact in favor of concern with individual response, we stop talking about art and opt instead for masturbation.

  3. "To write is to take aim - to make everything take aim." That-right there- made me love you a little bit. Seriously, please keep this project going. It's utterly brilliant and fascinating, and I can't wait to read more.