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The Language of Interaction

Rafael Arrivabene

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 17-29.

 

Rafael Arrivabene

Game Designer

 

 

The Language of Interaction

 

Abstract

Actions, reactions, conditions, and restrictions form the basis of any game. The rules designed to conduct participation and behaviours of players and objects can be understood as a particular language. In an attempt to elucidate an expressive potential that may have been underestimated by game developers and researchers, this paper presents an approximation of game rules to linguistic concepts.

 

Key words: interaction, games studies, ludology, linguistics

 

Thinking games as interactive texts

 

Interaction is the most inherent aspect of the game phenomenon. Not every interactive system is a game, but every instance of a game, be it a digital game, a physical sport, or a verbal riddle, has some degree of interactivity. This word means mutual or reciprocal actions and influence. In a broad sense, an action is a process that induces alteration in something else[1]. Interaction is, therefore, the reciprocal dynamic between systems in an action-reaction, cause-effect or call and response fashion. Players interact with each other and with the game system itself. They interact with its physical components and rules, always changing the game’s state. Games are artefacts or events in which interactions are not just random or spontaneous, rather they are designed to achieve some purpose. In games, interactions are a way, a medium, to communicate ideas and create experiences.

In order to situate the understanding of interaction in games, it is useful to analyse it according to Schell’s Elemental Tetrad (Fig. 1), which states that any given game can be analysed in terms of four aspects: Aesthetics, Narrative, Technology and Mechanics[2]. The Aesthetics, one of the most visible aspects, is responsible for much of the sensory stimuli of the game and its nonverbal messages. Another explicit aspect is Narrative. This comprises the lore and the symbolic verbal communication of the game. In abstract games or sports, the Narrative aspect comprises the events that emerge from play. Technology is one of the two implicit aspects; it is what supports the very existence of the game. In a board game it would be paper cards, game boards, plastic tokens, and dice. In a digital game it would be the hardware and system specifications. Finally, Mechanics is the other implicit aspect. It stands for the rules of the game and the behaviour of its components and its objectives. Players engage with every one of these aspects and each of their elements foster some level of interactivity. But it is the Mechanical aspect and its elements—the rules—that account for most of the interaction in a game.

 

Figure 1. Elemental Tetrad of any game.

obraz 1

Source: made by the author, based on Schell (2008).

 

One can say that when Espen Aarseth defined cybertexts and ergodic literature, he shed light on the less visible aspects that are also found in other forms of texts. Aarseth was interested in the performance of the text, its material nature and the rules that bind the reader/user. Using Schell’s terminology with Aarseth’s perspective, one can say that judging only from the Technological aspect, a printed book would be less linear than a hypertext, since all pages and content are accessible to the reader in any given time. The material technology of paper-sheets glued or sewed together does not induce linear reading nor prevent page skipping, as a digital text might. From the mechanical aspect, however, a regular book is generally linear. The linearity of the printed text media comes from a socially established rule of reading, not from the attributes of the media itself. For Aarseth, a cybertext is one that promotes non-trivial interaction with the reader. The author gives examples of books that work under different reading mechanics, like the Chinese divination book, the I-Ching, or Ian Livingstone’s choose your adventure books. Although still physically incapable of directing the reader’s path through the text, these books require a non-trivial effort to be read properly[3].While traditional books’ mechanics only require eye-movement and sequential reading of words and turning of pages, these examples prescribe a set of actions that the reader must perform and a set of conditional reactions that also must be followed by the reader, as in a game of solitaire. It creates an interaction between the reader/player and the rules system of that particular text.

In these nonlinear books and tabletop games, both actions and reactions need to be performed by the users. Sports rely partially on the laws of physics which rule the movements of bodies in space and combine them with made-up rules that must be observed by players or referees. But in digital games, the very medium that supports the game can update the system state. The players do not need to know all the rules, neither do they have access to all its content and possible states. Instead, they are free to experiment within the designed possibilities and can learn the game rules from the designed consequences they face. In Janet Murray’s words this kind of participant is called an Interactor[4]. She perceives that it is a different kind of audience because participant involvement is central to the development of the piece. Also, she notes that authorship of interactive texts requires different knowledge and planning than linear narratives. The procedural authorship, as she calls it, comprehends the definition of a rule-based world that must enable and respond to the interactor’s performance. Acknowledging this difference from traditional participation and writing raises questions of how this affects the semiotic processes in this medium. In other words, what is the role of interaction in the meaning of games?

Pioneers of Play studies, Johan Huizinga and Eugene Fink, addressed meaning in games and play, noting that during these events objects, places, people, and actions are resignified. For a child, a wood plank may represent a doll, while a doll, in turn, may be become a person[5]. When puppies play, biting can be part of the playful enactment of a fight. But sometimes it can also suspend such a game by breaking its implicit rules[6]. In play and games, a symbolic dimension overlaps reality, bringing new and temporary meanings to normal signs. For Huizinga and Fink, games and play are forms of representing and understanding the world through the symbolic dimension. Later, when Gonzalo Frasca proposed ludology as a field of study, he claimed that due to their interactivity, games not only represent, but rather simulate the behaviours of objects and systems through mechanical rules[7].

Closed forms of representation such as paintings or movies can only describe the properties of something in a given time, but interactive and open-ended forms of representation like games and simulators model such properties and behaviours, making it possible for the user to experience a range of situations. As with any kind of representation, simulation is always partial and biased. Frasca affirms that a “simulation is the act of modelling a system A by a less complex system B, which retains some of A’s original behaviour”[8]. It is impossible for a simulation to retain all aspects of a given system because if it did, it would be equal to the original system and would therefore no longer be just a simulation. Thus, the modelling of a system is bound by the objectives of the simulation, by its feasibility and by the knowledge its authors have about the original system itself[9]. Like choosing the best angle for a photograph, selecting which properties and behaviours from the source system will be retained is a form of conveying meaning in a simulation.

It must be acknowledged that to understand meaning in games, one needs to understand them as multimedia. Multimedia conveys meaning through a combination of signs from various media or languages. The signs of each language must be appreciated together to be fully understood. In games, as in an opera, verbal language, body language, sonic language and visual language must all join forces to achieve maximum expressiveness. But, as stated, games bring yet another language into play: the language of interaction. Many game researchers are therefore trying to understand the expressive potential of this particular language and how it works.

Ian Bogost discusses how game designers transmit ideologies through the rules of their games[10]. He develops the concept of procedural literacy and rhetoric, which in his words is “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions”[11]. Building on Bogost’s work, Joris Dormans applies the Peircean triad “sign-object-interpreter” to simulations. He shows that the way game designers define the rules through which they represent objects or events in their games can have iconic, indexical, or symbolic characteristics[12]. James Paul Gee argues that the meaning of signs in games is related to their function and purpose. He states that game designers construct grammars made of rules in an effort to conduct player interpretation of objects and actions. He also notes that the semantics of games will always be a negotiation between the functions that players attribute to objects, the goals they accept for themselves, and those defined by the author in the game rules[13]. Coming from Greimasian semiology, Óliver Pérez Latorre proposes an analysis method by which game rules are divided into three major categories of representation:

(1) the representation of the protagonist or player

(2) the representation of the world or environment

(3) the representation of activities.

With this division, Latorre shows how games can be organized as a rule-based discourse. The next section of this paper will try to build upon these ideas by sketching what could be the basic grammar and semantics of the language of interaction.

 

Thinking interaction as a language

 

First it must be declared that the purpose of this perspective is to suggest where and how meaning-making and poetics can occur in interactive pieces. The scheme presented next will borrow terms from logical languages and linguistics, but with some license to adaptation. To demonstrate how Interaction can be seen as a meaningful language, it will be compared to Verbal/Spoken language and Visual language. I will begin by looking for the very nature of the language, and then develop it into more structured elements. Each element will be explained and exemplified when possible. The table below starts this exercise by searching for the building blocks and main structure of these languages.

 

Table 1. Comparison between basic elements of the languages

Verbal/Spoken Visual Interaction
Physical Source Sound Light Time / Change
Fundamental Contrast Phonemes Values and Colours Causes and Effects
Meaningful Unit Words Shapes Rules and Actions
Syntactic Categories Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Prepositions, etc. Lines, Plain Shapes, Volumetric Shapes, etc. Inputs, Outputs, Restrictions and Conditions.
Composition structure Linear Spatial Branched, multilinear

Source: made by the author

 

The atomic element of a spoken language would be the units of sound—as studied by phonetics and phonology—that by contrast are understood as phonemes that can be combined into words. In a visual language, the source would be just light, which by contrast becomes values of light and dark and hues of colours that are responsible for the perception of shapes and volume. Both are physical signals that affect the receiver, who in return (de)codifies them. The relative signal for Interaction language should be time as it promotes the ability to perceive change. By contrasting moments in time, we perceive changes in configurations. This enables us to understand that something happened and thus to infer cause and effect relationships. By acting in a given system, these causal relationships then inform us about general rules or laws that govern reactions in that system. As with words and shapes, so rules and actions should fall into some main categories that distinguish them by their syntactic functions or characteristics. Inputs are actions that the interactor performs or triggers. Outputs are the results of said actions. They are reactions from elements other than the interactor. Restrictions are rules that prevent actions. Conditions are contextual rules that, when met, enable, modify, or trigger other actions. An interaction piece is then constructed by creating conditional cases for each input and output that unfold into many possible scenarios. This minimal set of elements should be observable in many systems in which humans interact with designed Technologies and Mechanics.

It is worth pointing out that inputs, outputs, restrictions, and conditions can be physical rules or arbitrary rules. Taking as an example a child learning to play basketball, any move she makes would be a physical input in the game system. The movements of the ball would be then physical reactions or physical outputs. Physical restrictions would be natural forces and bodily limitations that prevent her from doing some actions. Weather is a physical condition that can modify the parameters of the game, making it easier or harder for her to play. Arbitrary inputs would be those actions in which she relies on some level of communication and agreement, like asking for time. Arbitrary outputs would be scores and penalty shots because they are events triggered by other actions. She will also learn from other players, referees or coaches that an arbitrary restriction prevents her from running while holding the ball and that there are some arbitrary conditions that change the amount of points given for a successful throw, based on the context.

She would soon appreciate the values to each rule. Dropping the ball unintentionally, for instance, can be contextually understood as a negative input, since its output would be the loss of control. Whenever she learns that by applying the right force, the ball will bounce right back to her hand, she may understand it as a positive action, because it brings different feelings and utility. According to Gee, if actions are signs, then their functions inform their meaning. The composition of a game is always open-ended or at least undetermined between the possible outcomes. The possibility space of a game like this is infinite. At each moment of play there is a current state of points, positions of players and ball, and the available actions that each player can chose to do next. Each decision branches the play to another configuration until an ending condition such as a time limit is met.

To show how interactivity can foster aesthetic expression, we can frame the design of games and other interactive pieces as a speech act using John Austin’s concepts of locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts from verbal/spoken language[14]. The first concept, locutionary, refers to the spoken sentence—the actual words used by the speaker. In interaction language, it would be the material objects that support the interaction, the Technology in Schell’s Tetrad. The second term, illocutionary, is the intention of the speaker—the goal behind the message. It would be the design of such interactive objects—their behaviours and functions. The last speech act, perlocutionary, refers to the reaction produced on the listener by the sentence. These acts help to show how the intention of the speaker or designer may guide the composition of their texts. Serious messages may ask for more formality to avoid misinterpretation, while flexible structures may serve aesthetic purposes. The table below tries to demonstrate simple samples of messages in each language, split according to the formalism of their structures.

 

Table 2. Simple messages in order of formality

Verbal/Spoken Visual Interaction
Less formal Proverb Doodle Kaleidoscope
More Formal Warning Scheme Hand crank

Source: made by the author.

 

Note that a hand crank on an industrial machine was probably not designed to bring emotions to those who spin it, but a hand crank on a music box certainly does. Fink stated that tools are “meaning that has been impressed” onto materials, but for him these objects do not inhabit the same symbolic dimension of toys. Tools are objects that only have the dimensions of real life[15]. Nonetheless, it is easy to imagine that one could subvert the function of a tool and start using it as a toy. In the language of interaction, as in other languages, the meaning of signs is constructed by the context and other signals. Gee argues that the meaning of signs is always situational, given on the go by the participants of the communication. Signifiers are not really attached to a specific idea. Their meaning is constructed by contextually inferring the objective of the communication. In his example, the idea of coffee in a sentence is changed by the presence of the words “mop” or “broom”. These other signs are responsible for resignifying “coffee” by making us imagine it as liquid or solid. For him, the meaning of a sign in a game “is what players can do with it, how they can use it in the game”[16].

The presence of other media in games enhances the meaning of the interaction. Actions in a game, especially in video games, are often not just pure movements but symbolic representations of other actions or events which are completed by narrative or aesthetic aspects. Using a hammer to build something is different from using it to break something[17]. When a chess observer declares that the black horse was sacrificed to save the queen, he is naming actions according to the visual symbolism of the pieces. When the cartoonish character Mario smashes a turtle with his hammer, it produces dissimilar feelings than a hammer homicide in the game Manhunt (2003, RenderWare). Dormans would say that the difference between the horse and the hammer examples is that the first is symbolic while the latter is iconic. An icon is a sign that produces the idea of its object by sharing some of its physical attributes or qualities. When developers model a system to produce human-looking objects, aggressive-looking movements, and bone-crushing sounds, they are increasing the iconic properties of the actions. On the other hand, even if the pieces of a chess set were crafted in a detailed way, the action of killing the knight does not share any similarity with the real event. It is only understood as such by cultural convention; it is a symbolic simulation that is found in many board games.

A simulator, on the other hand, is expected to be a high-fidelity rule-based representation of a system. Simulators should be based on an adequate model—an abstraction—of complex real-world situations, with the goal of providing users with a better understanding of reality[18]. But while the purpose of a simulator is to be useful and educative, the purpose of a game is to be entertaining and fun. Dormans compares this difference with the one between a technical drawing and a painting[19]. But games such as Goat Simulator (2014, Coffee Stain) play with such a distinction. Despite its title and realistic three-dimensional looks, in this game you take control of a goat that can destroy anything in its way, perform amazing jumps, and other uncanny actions. This is not a case of a bad simulation; it is a game based on ironic, silly rules. Similar to Cortazar’s Instructions on How to Climb a Staircase or Carelman’s Catalogue of Fantastic Things, this game plays with the expected structure of this form of communication. It is possible to make intentional stylistic choices for interactive pieces.

If the meaning of an action is constructed by its contextual function and by its contextual symbology, it should be possible to devise semantic categories for actions, just as homonyms, synonyms and antonyms are categories of words. Words fill these categories not according to their syntactic function, but according to what they mean in relation to other words. This is a subjective interpretation of signs that can happen in other languages as well. The dove and the white flag are different images that both mean peace in western culture. A big black dog can be seen as the visual antonym of a little white cat. Homonyms, however, are dependent on the context. While a skull in a yellow triangle may be read as a warning, a skull in a black flag specifies the idea of pirates.

Synonyms in an interactive piece would be actions or rules that produce the same functional outcome. Their function is the same, but their symbolism is different. This kind of rule is uncommon for it can be seen as unnecessary redundancy. Nevertheless, presenting these synonyms in a game can be meaningful. In Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (1999, Crystal Dynamics), health is restored by absorbing the souls of killed enemies. It is a ranged move that attracts nearby floating souls to the protagonist’s mouth. Another way to restore health is to suck blood from the necks of human bystanders. This is a close-range move, non-lethal for humans but a less effective way of gaining health. These rules encourage players to take more risks and fight more[20] because enemy souls restore more health than human blood. But it also adds a symbolic element. Raziel, the protagonist, used to be a vampire, so this action is there more to make this connection than to be useful from a gameplay perspective.

Antonyms would be actions or rules that have opposing functions. Basic examples are, to buy and to sell in economic simulations, or to punch and to block in a fighting game. The first inflicts damage on an opponent, while the second prevents damage to the player. In other example, Undertale (2015, Toby Fox), players can choose to fight or spare their opponents, and this opposition is central to the game’s lore and innovative gameplay.

Homonyms would be cases in which one action serves two or more purposes. Due to technical limitations, early video games had to make the most out of a few buttons and commands. In Super Mario Bros (1985, Nintendo), a simple jump has combat, movement, destruction, and activation functions. Recent games have a much wider set of actions. A contemporary game like Battlefield 1 (2016, DICE), has commands for jump, crunch, dodge, aim, shoot, reload, change weapon, change secondary weapon, drive, etc. Maybe by pursuing that iconic simulation Dormans criticizes, some developers have ignored the possibilities of games with fewer but symbolic actions. As a counterexample, Journey (2012, That Game Company) allows players to only walk, jump, and sing. Singing serves to gather items nearby, to activate mechanisms, to communicate with and to energize fellow pilgrims. However, it also draws the attention of dangerous enemies. It is an action that has both the positive function of recovery and the negative rule of increased danger. Journey is poetic not only in its visual and narrative aspects, but also in its mechanics. Players can open doors by singing and avoid danger by staying quiet.

 

Table 3. Examples of possible semantic categories in each language.

Verbal/Spoken Visual Interaction
Synonyms Different words,
same semantical meaning
Different images,
same symbolic meaning
Different actions,
same practical function
Antonyms Different words,

opposite semantical meaning

Different images,

opposite symbolic meaning

Different actions,

opposite practical function

Homonyms Same word,

different semantical meaning

Same image,

different symbolic meaning

Same action,

different practical function

Source: made by the author

 

By combining function with contextual signs, actions can hold strong meanings that can be played with by the authors of interactive pieces and games. As in poetry and visual arts, beauty comes when words or shapes are used in clever ways which explore their characteristics. The expressive potential of this language is related to the creative use of these possibilities. Procedural authors must know when to simulate events as they are and when to subvert their behaviour. They have to decide which actions need more detail and when to make them abstract and symbolic. They need to know how to play with the expected functions of inputs, outputs, restrictions, and conditions. By creatively playing with these choices, some patterns of composition must emerge. Just as with the rule of the thirds for photography, or redondillas in poetry, there should be characteristic stylistic elements for interaction. These will not be covered by this paper as this theory is still in an early stage, but it presents a goal for future research.

 

Conclusion

 

In search of how meaning is constructed in games, researchers have found that interactivity is a strong element of this media. Game studies should, therefore, pay attention to this element and its communicative properties. Games cannot be taken as just another representational media because interactivity brings at least two particularities: actions do not always represent something but meaning will still emerge from interpretations of how such actions function in a cultural system. Moreover, when actions are there to represent something else, they do this by simulating that something. Especially in this last case, actions become signs that reference ideas or concepts outside the game. They mediate the dialogue between the ideas of the creators and their interpretations by the players. They can be iconic, trying to be similar to the actions and behaviours they represent, or they can be symbolic, indicating events more by consensus than by accuracy. Choices concerning how to simulate these real or imaginary systems are rhetorical since the exclusions and adaptations made by authors are biased towards their intentions and knowledge. The final rules of an interactive piece—especially ludic pieces such as games—form an ergodic cybertext or cyberdiscourse that is materialized in a language of its own. In striving to understand such a language it has been loosely compared to other well-known languages in an attempt to discover useful similarities or differences. It seems that actions and rules can be positively thought of in linguistic terms. The development of this thought may lead to advantages in the analysis of video games and interactive art, and hopefully serve to improve the design of such works. Maybe in the future a basic grammar of interaction will help procedural authors to craft even more meaningful interactive multimedia discourses.

 

 

Aarseth Espen, Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature. (Baltimore/London: The John Hopkins University Press) (1997)

Aarseth Espen, “Computer Game Studies, Year One” Game Studies. 1:1 (2001), http://gamestudies.org/0101/editorial.html, date accessed 12 June 2017

Austin John L., How to do Things with Words. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1980)

Bogost Ian, Persuasive Games: the expressive power of videogames. (London: The MIT Press) (2007).

Bogost Ian, „The Rhetoric of Video Games”. in The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, ed. Katie Salen. (Cambridge: The MIT Press) (2008).

Dormans Joris, „Beyond Iconic Simulation”, Simulation & Gaming, 42:5 (2011)

Fink Eugen, ​Play as Symbol of the World: and other writings. Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner (trad.). (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2016).

Frasca Gonzalo, „Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative”, Ludology.org (1999) http://ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 12 June 2017

Frasca Gonzalo, “SIMULATION 101: Simulation versus Representation” Ludology.org (2001), http://www.ludology.org/articles/sim1/simulation101.html, date accessed 12 June 2017

Gredler Margareth, „Games and Simulations and Their Relationship to Learning”, in Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, ed. David H. Jonassen and Marcy P. Driscoll (New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates) (2014)

Gee James Paul, „Proactive design theories of sign use: Reflections on Gunther Kress”, in Multimodality and Social Semiosis: Communication, Meaning-Making, and Learning in the Work of Gunther Kress, ed Margit Böck and Norbert Pachler. (New York: Routledge) (2013)

Huizinga Johan, ​Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul) (1949).

Latorre Óliver Pérez, Análisis de la significación del videojuego. Fundamentos teóricos del juego, el mundo narrativo y la enunciación interactiva como perspectivas de estudio del discurso, (Barcelona: Universitat Pompeu Fabra) (2010)

Latorre Óliver Pérez, „From Chess to StarCraft. A Comparative Analysis of Traditional Games and Videogames”. Comunicar, 58:19 (2012), pp.121-128

Latorre Óliver Pérez, „The Social Discourse of Video Games Analysis Model and Case Study: GTA IV”, Games and Culture 10:5 (2015)

Murray Janet, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. (New York: The Free Press) (1997)

Robinson Stewart, „A Tutorial on Conceptual Modeling for Simulation”. Proceedings of the 2015 Winter Simulation Conference, ed. L. Yilmaz, W. K. V. Chan, I. Moon, T. M. K. Roeder, C. Macal, and M. D. Rossetti. (Piscataway: IEEE Press) (2015).

Sauvé Louise, Renaud Lise, Kaufman David and Marquis Jean-Simon, „Distinguishing between games and simulations: a systematic review”. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 10:3 (2007)

Schell Jesse, The Art of Game Design: a book of lenses, (Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann) (2008)

 

 

 

[1] Merriam-Webster’s dictionary includes other common definitions and uses of the word action, but the interest here lies on the approximation with processes and alteration.

[2] Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design: a book of lenses, (Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann) (2008), p.41.

[3] Espen Aarseth, Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature, (Baltimore/London: The John Hopkins University Press) (1997), p.9.

[4] For more on this see Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. (New York: The Free Press) (1997), p.149.

[5] Eugen Fink, Play as Symbol of the World: and other writings. Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner (trad.). (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2016), p.36.

[6] Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul) (1949), p.1.

[7] See Gonzalo Frasca, „Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative”, Ludology.org (1999) http://ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 12 June 2017.

[8] Gonzalo Frasca, „SIMULATION 101: Simulation versus Representation” Ludology.org (2001), http://www.ludology.org/articles/sim1/simulation101.html date accessed 12 June 2017.

[9] Stewart Robinson has a series of papers on modeling systems for simulations. See for example Stewart Robinson, „A Tutorial on Conceptual Modeling for Simulation”. in Proceedings of the 2015 Winter Simulation Conference, ed. L. Yilmaz, W. K. V. Chan, I. Moon, T. M. K. Roeder, C. Macal, and M. D. Rossetti. (Piscataway: IEEE Press, 2015), pp. 1820-1834.

[10] Ian Bogost, „The Rhetoric of Video Games”. in The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, ed. Katie Salen. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008), pp. 117–140.

[11] Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: the expressive power of videogames. (London: The MIT Press) (2007), p. IX.

[12] Joris Dormans, „Beyond Iconic Simulation”, Simulation & Gaming, 42:5 (2011), pp. 610-631.

[13] James Paul Gee, „Proactive design theories of sign use: Reflections on Gunther Kress”, in Multimodality and Social Semiosis: Communication, Meaning-Making, and Learning in the Work of Gunther Kress, ed Margit Böck and Norbert Pachler. (New York: Routledge) (2013).

[14] John L. Austin, How to do Things with Words. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1980).

[15] Eugen Fink, pp.35.

[16] James Paul Gee, pp.45-46.

[17] Óliver Pérez Latorre, „From Chess to StarCraft. A Comparative Analysis of Traditional Games and Videogames”. Comunicar, 58:19 (2012), pp.121-128.

[18] For more on the differences between games and simulations, see Margareth Gredler, „Games and Simulations and their Relationship to Learning”, in Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, ed. David H. Jonassen and Marcy P. Driscoll (New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2014) pp. 571–581, and Louise Sauvé et. al., „Distinguishing between games and simulations: a systematic review”. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 10:3 (2007), pp.244-256.

[19] Joris Dormans, p.612.

[20] Another example of rule-inducted behaviour can be seen in Game Maker’s Toolkit: How Games do Health [YouTube Video] Mark Brown, 1 August 2016, and in Óliver Pérez Latorre, „The Social Discourse of Video Games Analysis Model and Case Study: GTA IV”, Games and Culture 10:5 (2015), pp. 415-437.

Playing in fractal universes: Thinking with scalable patterns in interdisciplinary game studies

Garfield Benjamin

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 47-64.

 

Garfield Benjamin

University of Birmingham

 

 

Playing in fractal universes: Thinking with scalable patterns in interdisciplinary game studies

 

Abstract

Games offer a scaled and scalable experience of technologically mediated human action and interaction. The study of games therefore holds the potential to offer a far wider analysis of our technical and social structures than might be first apparent. Yet this scaling of behaviours and frameworks is applicable not only beyond simply an increase in degree, but also across different types of meaning, society, reality, and our understanding of them. Thus, to assess the expansion of games beyond conventional dimensionality, we can identify in games and game studies a fractal metaphor to guide our analysis. Drawing on concepts of iteration, self-similarity, recursion, complexity, and scalability, this article examines key games that embody a fractal dimension to their in-game universe, the player’s experience, the game’s development, and games as a field of study. The fractal analysis of a game will thereby be revealed as also an analysis of the metagame and its situatedness in broader concerns of technoculture and its academic study. The model offered will be applied to specific games and the existing literature through which game studies is formed as an interdisciplinary fractal conceptual space of its own.

 

Key words: fractal, game studies, games, No Man’s Sky, Everything, EVE Online

 

 

Introduction

 

The playing of a particular game generates iterative and often functionally self-similar experiences for players based on the ludic and narrative constructs that constitute the game itself. Yet these experiences are increasingly interdisciplinary in their relation to human activity, creating ever more total works of media that engage with simulations and representations of our social and technological realities and fictions. This necessitates an inherent and increasing interdisciplinarity to the study of games that expand the player’s interaction from the quantum to the cosmological, from the individual to the collective, and from the fictional to the real. This article offers a new mode of viewing games as both a mode of interaction and a field of study: the fractal mediation of humanity by technology.

Firstly, we will construct a fractal metaphorical framework through close analysis of examples that directly address such mediation of humans at different levels of reality. The highly anticipated, controversial, and often much maligned game No Man’s Sky creates a procedurally generated reality that expands algorithmically to produce a fractal game on the ontological level. Everything takes the fractal experience to an extreme by offering the player the opportunity to interact with the universe by ‘being’ everything, scaled from cellular to stellar levels. Consideration will also be given to similar games that involve such fractal realities even in their construction, generating a relation with players during the design stage through user-created content and responsive beta testing. Worlds Adrift creates an environment filled with floating islands created by users during alpha testing, expanding fractal interaction between players and with the environment according to a functional mediated logic developed further through beta testing. We Happy Few takes this beta testing further with extensive player involvement that has initiated major changes in the game’s aesthetic and the relation between which ludic and narrative aspects players would prefer to see emphasized. Finally, the long-running EVE Online demonstrates fractal human organization with its emergent and expansive economies and politics from the individual to the guild up to the entire player base and game world. Across these examples, a fractal expression of representation, reality, and relationality can be elucidated in the ludic structures and open narratives. Beyond the restrictions of closed objectives that define clear methods of interaction, the ludic mediation and human engagement still results in self-similar or iterative experiences of fractal play.

We will then address the fractal study of games across disciplines – the similarly situatedness of gaming in broader social reality, and the recursive relationship between games and our own world. Focusing on the extensive literature of EVE Online and applying these findings to newer games, the discussion will explore the necessary links between different fields in game studies. In the analysis of games, particularly those with MMO, procedural, or social aspects, there is an inherent need to take into account mathematics, computer science, psychology, economics, philosophy, art, literature, media, and many other fields. Yet the mediation of the ludic experience unveils scalable and self-similar features between these fields, already embedded within the construction of game studies as a distinct discipline. Indeed, it is notable that game design itself straddles the arts and sciences, employing programmers, writers and artists (to name a few) to construct a full experience across traditional disciplines. Amidst the myriad future paths of game studies, therefore, the article will posit the need for fractal modes of thinking about play and narrative in the persistent mediation of humans by their ludic creations, as well as the broader mediation of our society and experience by technology.

 

Fractal Games

 

Fractals – a concept with a long history in science, mathematics, and culture, but given voice as a coherent theory by Benoit Mandelbrot in the 1970s – has perhaps most poetically been defined as a way of seeing infinity in the mind’s eye.[1] Indeed, fractals appear to have had almost limitless applications and have contributed to the understanding of chaos and of conceptual and actual spaces beyond the conventional three dimensions of Euclidean geometry. The term fractal has its roots in fragmentation, with the aim of breaking down the infinite complexity of nature into human-readable patterns. Yet for all their mathematical precision, it is important to remember that “there are no true fractals in nature”[2]. Fractals only ever offer an approximation of natural phenomena, an abstraction of patterns far beyond human understanding. The use of fractals should therefore always be combined with an acknowledgment of their position as an artificial framework of thought. Fractal analyses to some degree therefore always create the precise pattern they are analysing. Indeed, as an abstract human construct, the development of fractals was inherently bound to that of computers, another quantized reality that builds worlds through rigid codes not possible in the physical world. Not only did Mandelbrot work as a researcher for IBM at the time he developed fractal geometry, but it was the increasing access to and power of computers that enabled Mandelbrot and others to calculate fractals and construct the abstract shapes they produce. The artificial forms of fractals, while offering a way of abstracting and understanding nature, tend to exist “entirely inside a computer’s memory”[3]. They thus provide a constructive analogy and conceptual framework for understanding the abstract and computational dimensions of computer games. Not only that – and moving beyond the simple use of fractals as actual graphic constructions in the style of computer-generated landscapes or trees used in many films or games – but the application of fractals to diverse fields of natural and human activities lends itself to an exploration of the social aspects of games and the broader facets of game studies.

Yet fractals persist as an elusive concept, with definitions relying more on a series of typical characteristics.[4] For the present discussion, therefore, a few key concepts will suffice as a starting point to develop a fractal framework for thinking about games. Firstly, fractals are iterative, simple to define and often recursive. They produce the same patterns at arbitrary locations and use the same functioning – the same code – to create evolving and scaling structures. They are also often self-similar, spreading this symmetry and iteration across scales. These characteristics combine to form the “pattern inside of a pattern”[5] whereby the part matches both other parts and the whole. While this is not necessarily an essential part of all fractals,[6] it defines simpler linear fractals and appears in some form (for example, quasi- or statistically self-similar) in most practical definitions of the concept. Thus, self-similarity allows us to view patterns between arbitrary facets that may indeed have chaotic or emergent properties, or which obfuscate simple comprehension via high complexity. Another key concept is the notion of scale. Fractals allow us to view symmetry not only between parts of equal size, but also across scales. The recursive quality of fractals enables a shift in perspective between large and small levels of difference and irregularity, thus offering a mode of viewing functional rules in even the most chaotic data. In computer games, this shifting in perspective can occur at the technical or social level, between systems, renderings, and servers or between players, economies and conceptual spaces. This scaling goes beyond an increase in conventional dimensionality into partial and even abstract dimensions that cut across individual human perspectives and thereby reveal, at the level of the metagame, a hidden order in chaos and functional consistency between apparently disparate parts of a complex whole. Between these various parts and scales is revealed the complexity of fractals, which cannot be expressed through simple geometry. Indeed, the emergence of games as a distinct field of study highlights the additional experiential intricacies compared to traditional art, film, or other media. From complexity stems the notion of a fractal dimension, itself open to variable definition but always signalling a dimensionality greater than its topology. At a basic level, this can be expressed in the link between the concrete world presented on the screen and the vast array of code beneath it. Using procedural generation and non-linear structures, across player narratives and experiences it forms the ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ quality that generates the ‘replay value’ of games. Procedural generation, originally developed in ‘roguelike’ games of the late 1970s and early 1980s, is a process of compressing the game world. This was exemplified in the space exploration game Elite, which sought to create a huge world using only 22k of memory.[7] By reducing the internal reality of the game from a detailed description to a functional algorithm, a much greater space can be unfolded from comparatively minimal code. Finally, fractal dimensionality can be seen in the multiple fields that games straddle and the implied relation to our own world that games can address, stage, and critique, expanding our metaphor to situate games in their broader context. We will now elaborate this conception of games through examples that address gaming reality, gaming experience, and game design.

 

No Man’s Sky: a fractal gaming reality

 

Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky is a vast procedurally generated universe of unprecedented size, containing 264 (18,446,744,073,709,551,616) planets. While this 64-bit algorithmically-created galaxy falls far short of the unknown limits of our own physical universe, the scale in relation to human perception achieves the same relative infinitude. Even at the impossible rate of one planet per second, it would take over five billion years to explore every single planet in the game – longer than the lifespan of our own sun.[8] Fractals, as a way of converting limitless complexity into scales perceivable by humans, offer a convenient method of understanding the construction of this game reality. Much like the mathematical functions of fractals, No Man’s Sky creates its reality according to strict deterministic calculations that can nevertheless generate a far larger universe than any single human could ever hope to experience. Yet it is not only the construction of No Man’s Sky at the planetary scale that takes on a fractal quality, the analogy scales too. Rather than loading a new environment when a player hopes to explore a given planet, the game’s procedural generation scales down to render landscapes, mineral deposits, environmental factors such as weather, and a rich population of fauna and flora. Yet this functionally limitless expanse returns to haunt us in its endless iteration. The looping nature of the gameplay extends beyond an identical algorithmic mediation of one player and another. The algorithmic construction of similar planets initially offers wonderment and variety, but after visits to multiple planets the appearance of the same kinds of worlds exposes the underlying iteration and an evolving self-similarity through time. This limit of the aesthetics of the game reality applies also to the gameplay. The open exploration, the often repetitive (particularly in the initial release before the streamlining aspects of later updates) nature of gathering resources needed for survival and travel, and the scaling of achievements (in terms of both in-game economic attainment and the convention of ludic ‘achievement’ rewards) can end with the player seeing through the complexity and reaching a level of predictability to the game over longer timescales through fractal understanding. Thus, the kaleidoscopic non-novelty highlights the creative limitations of self-similarity and the ontological limitations of the No Man’s Sky reality, as after a certain number of iterated experiences everything looks the same (much like many fractal images), creating a scalar shift in perception whereby the detail becomes flattened. Here we can attempt to behold the entirety of the complexity at work, and the processes of mediation reveal themselves within the literal frame of the screen and the conceptual framing of the universe held within the computer and within the game.

However, the narratological aspects of No Man’s Sky further this relation to iteration and scalability in constructing a reflexive ontology that loops into itself. What sparse storyline there is to find across the vast emptiness of space reveals a universe that embraces its algorithmic functionality and challenges its relation to the player. The main ‘goal’ –  although this is entirely optional and only one path of achievement a player can explore – of No Man’s Sky is to follow the instructions of a being called Atlas to reach the centre of the galaxy. Along this path the play encounters two recurring NPCs, Nada and Polo, who describe themselves as errors within the simulation. They are counterposed to the Sentinels, a variety of robotic entities that enforce the rule-based system of the Universe’s will by attacking players who rapidly interfere with the landscape by mining for resources or killing fauna. The player is part of a universe-wide experiment to break free of these rules and discover the source of the Sentinel’s power,[9] and it is the ultimate quest of the player to become an anomalous entity by achieving self-awareness of the rules and systems of the universe. The ending of the game, the big reveal at the centre of the galaxy, takes on a tragic tone that embraces the full despair of mediation and control by technology. The universe is revealed to be a simulation, nothing more than an absolute deterministic causal structure – a game – and while the character (the ‘traveller’) becomes self-aware, the player is returned as a new traveller on a new starting planet at the edge of the galaxy to begin the cycle anew. As the player learns more and more information, gaining greater and greater detail as they move closer to the centre of the reality, they end up being thrust outwards to the broadest scale. The player’s perspective, and their causal relations with the game, go beyond even a fractal towards a strange loop, “a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop”.[10] Even in a supposed critique of the medium itself, the recursive element exposes the iterative repetition of game playing and the rigid and ultimately deterministic causality of apparent complexity and chaos in both fractals and gaming structures. Perhaps this is why Mandelbrot himself focused on consequences over causes,[11] working backwards from human-readable problems to create gradually more detail from the chaos of recursive complexity. Cast into a universe and expected to find not only our own meaning but to discover for ourselves the limits of the simulation, the monstrous character of fractals unfold in No Man’s Sky as a ludic and narrative experience beyond rational scientific or philosophical explanation.

 

Everything: a fractal gaming experience

 

A game that embodies fractals in the experience of the player is Everything by David OReilly. Described as “a magical playpen of being, rather than doing”,[12] and – with an eleven-minute trailer that made it the first video game to qualify for an Oscar – Everything displays the fractal experience of being-in-the-world. Players interact with the universe through being anything and ‘everything’. Starting as a mammal, players can shift from item to item and ascend/descend scales to play as approximately three thousand different objects. These items fall into a variety of categories and include natural objects such as animals as well as man-made objects as well as more abstract entities. Examples include a shoe [attire], cigarette butt [trash], warped ruins [space junk], scale manipulator [tool], recursive house [home], convex stellated polyhedron [3d], and Planck length [1d]. This selection in particular highlights a focus on scale and a relation to fractal perspectives and experience. The objects themselves and the perspectives the player encounters create a fractal reality whereby we are offered the self-similar experience of simply ‘being’ across all scales of matter. Like No Man’s Sky, this universe is procedurally generated, but it is also connected and persistent, remembering the state of a previous scale when you next return. However, the map at each scale is not particularly large, enacting spatial loops where necessary that are visible upon zooming out but not ascending to the next scale. But a fractal universe does not need to be large (and even if it is, as with No Man’s Sky, there is fundamentally no difference between ‘more’ space and ‘more of the same’ space). The expansive environment here comes from the fractal dimension, moving beyond three dimensions to folded spaces of experience and new perspectives of scale.

Initially, however, the player can simply move around (and even that is somewhat stilted as the movement animation for mammals is a rather ignominious and awkward four-frame roll). As one early-encountered NPC (a mammoth) remarks, “you can’t control Everything//not yet anyway”.[13] Indeed, the game often plays with the double meaning of its own title and the objects it contains, applying the different levels of parts and the whole within its very construction. The ability to move around as objects (no matter how improbable their independent locomotion might be in our universe) is gradually augmented through talking to (or ‘thinking as’) other objects. Increased abilities include being able to join with other entities of the same kind or category, moving around as a collective being and even dancing together in order to create new objects. The player also obtains the ability to ‘ascend’ and ‘descend’, moving up and down in scale. Manipulation of the environment here stems directly from expanded notions of being in greater dimensions beyond human perception, a philosophical and even spiritual sentiment reinforced by the inclusion of recordings of a lecture by Zen philosopher Alan Watts concerning nature, patterns across scale, and being. This grows in Everything with the player’s expanding experience. For example, once you have ‘become’ a particular item, you can become it again at any time via the encyclopaedia, but it will then be scaled to the current perspective, offering a self-similar and scale invariant quality to even objects usually experienced at a single given scale. Further, if one is to keep ascending or descending far enough, the game universe loops round between galaxy clusters and atoms via a ‘feedback sphere’ at the one-dimensional Planck scale. This embodies Hofstadter’s ‘strange loop’ in terms of space-time, a sentiment echoed in Max Tegmark’s loop between cosmology and quantum mechanics via a multiverse of mathematical structures.[14] It also embodies recursion in terms of human consciousness as a feedback loop that intensifies over time.[15] In Everything these two feedback loops are one and the same, for our consciousness of the game expands fractally alongside our experience of being at different scales, or even simply perceiving/thinking as the game autoplays if left to its own devices.

The fractal strange loop of causality and the gaming medium that we saw in the ending of No Man’s Sky returns once more to haunt us at the ending of Everything. As another game with sandbox-like and experiential open play, the term ‘end’ must be used loosely, but open reaching a certain level (having achieved ‘being’ a certain number of objects) the player may descend into the ‘Golden Gate’. Here an abstract space of random objects awaits in a collision of different scales. Among these, surrounded by pieces of skeletons, is a computer which duplicates the player’s screen on its own monitor. After a lengthy but vague monologue lamenting the frustration of Everything in this place, the player is instructed to ‘empty your mind’ in order to escape this world. The player is finally allowed to ascend the Gate, triggering an ending cut scene of a glowing particle flying through different scales before returning the player once more to a starting position (with new abilities such as instantly bonding with objects or a documentary mode). There is no escape from a fractal game, as with all games. The fundamental mediation of a game system is to keep playing, returning always once more to a reality of rules which deterministically controls not only itself but our own actions. Whether we play as an abstract concept or a piece of shit, we experience the same mediated play in a simulated universe, beholden to the whims of the game developers.

 

Fractal game development and its problems

 

If fractals can be used to analyse the in-game ontologies and the experiences of the players, they can be applied also to the existence of the game throughout its development. No Man’s Sky received much positive attention prior to its release, so much so that the developers received death threats after announcing a delay to the release date. And when the final release of the game failed to meet certain advertised promises, the backlash was again significant. These issues span creative, cultural, and legal concerns in the feedback loop of perception and expectation. The spiral of hype that led to death threats, as part of the often vitriolic cultural sphere of gaming,[16] was echoed in the spiral of disappointment that led to a (cleared) advertising standards investigation. This latter issue, whereby key features such as multiplayer, ship design and others were missing from the initial release, sparked a fractality to the development of the game itself. While DLC add-ons to games is becoming increasingly common, and updates or patches are standard practice, the free updates to No Man’s Sky instigated major changes to the way the game plays. The development of the game after its release thus constructed a temporal fractal zoom, adding greater and greater detail to the game with each iteration. Each upgrade made visual improvements, refined the interface, and provided more content in various categories. The first (1.1 Foundation) update added the freighters and base building that were originally missing; the second (1.2 Path Finder) added exocraft, online base sharing, multiple ship ownership and ship specialization; and the third (1.3 Atlas Rises) added missions, increased story mode, portal travel and (crude) multiplayer. This last development was a major change, and one that was high on the list of missing features. While communication between players outside the game made it possible relatively easily, the original idea with No Man’s Sky was that it would essentially be single-player in a multi-player universe, for the odds of randomly encountering another player were astronomically low. Yet this feature was only added later, transforming the game fractally by adding greater levels of interaction and expanding the experience not only in level but also in kind, creating new dimensions of play. As an indie developer trying to create an AAA title, Hello Games had given themselves an unenviable task. Yet the later additions have not simply added what was originally promised. Rather, they have evolved in an emergent manner in light of the game being released in the world. The interaction between players and developers creates new perspectives and functions that otherwise may not have been thought up.

In the wake of the release disaster of No Man’s Sky, other games appear to be learning from their mistakes. While open beta and early release testing is now commonplace via platforms such as Steam, Worlds Adrift by Bossa Studios involved players before even the alpha release in order to create a user-generated world. Functionally quite similar to No Man’s Sky, Worlds Adrift is an open environment for exploration and resource gathering. However, it has several key differences. The game is highly multiplayer, indeed for many activities collaborative play is nearly essential, and it is highly creative, being based on players/groups designing and building their own ships with which to travel between floating islands in a limitless sky. Thus, while the expansive universe of areas is much reduced, there are greater dimensions of interaction. Not only that, but the islands themselves are procedurally generated content as well as user-created content, embedding players in the pre-alpha stage via a separate, free, Worlds Adrift Island Creator game. Thus, throughout and before the extensive closed and open beta phases, players were able to work with Bossa Studios to collaboratively create a game that itself opens up opportunities for free interaction between players, building on core functionality before adding visual detail in a fractal development of form and content. Beyond the initial release, Bossa set up mechanisms to continually include players in the game’s ongoing development. The Sky Crier, a weekly news summary of stories from players, highlights the importance of player experience in the history of the game, while further developments to the Island Creator have been aimed at turning players into game designers by producing new levels and new experiences for other players.

The desire to integrate this degree of player involvement is also echoed in Compulsion’s We Happy Few, which, in strong contrast to Hello Games’ closed development and the misinformation of No Man’s Sky, focuses on transparency and inclusion.[17] As another small studio thrust into creating a higher profile game than they had intended, Compulsion sought to make regular public announcements about the process. This helped guide their relationship with players through an extended, delayed, and not unproblematic development. But it was not only communication that aided them, for they made several key changes to the game in response to early player comments. As the developers describe, “What the public and the press were telling us they loved about our game wasn’t anything like the procedural, story-light, rogue-like survival game we were creating at all”.[18] As a result, they switched their focus to develop in greater detail the story, the world, and the mechanics in response to what players wanted. The move to Kickstarter also emphasized a literal investment by players, drawing them into the game world not only through the experiential suspension of disbelief for this psychedelic drug-fuelled horror game, but also as co-creators and co-owners, bringing all perspectives into the discussion across different scales and types of engagement. This extended to further types of gameplay based on five drug-specific modes, as well as a suspension of the gaming framework with the addition of a non-violent ‘Birdwatcher’ mode in which players could simply explore the environment and, much like Everything, enjoy ‘being’ in the game. After the shift in expectation towards an ‘AAA’ level game by partnering with Gearbox Software, however, the communication and inclusion broke down somewhat. The sudden doubling in price and further delays angered many fans, although the level of engagement already established did allow for some mitigation of these problems. Bonus content was promised to early backers, and the financial support from the larger studio enabled a fourfold scaling of Compulsion’s team. This reminds us that the business side of gaming cannot be forgotten, for while the reactive nature of the development that increased in size to handle the increased expectation does itself embody a certain fractal quality, the problem of shifting scales highlights the competing forces at work in game development. In We Happy Few, we can at least see the creative intent towards creating a fractal experience that extends between layers of in-game perspective, modes of gameplay, and involvement in the design process.

The fractal model at the level of the metagame is thus achieved by enabling players to engage at multiple scales, creating their own local perspective through the emergent differences between iterations. Far from being a rigid abstract reduction, the conceptual ‘geometry’ of such games could only be mapped in multidimensional relations between the designers, the manifold facets of the game, and its many players. The feedback loop of a fractal game extends spatially, temporally, and conceptually back into itself as an evolving experience for all involved.

 

Fractal Game Studies

 

We have explored how fractals might be used to view games, but what of game studies as a discipline? Fractals can be considered one of three major revolutions in twentieth century science[19] and, perhaps even more so than the other two (relativity and quantum mechanics), have far-reaching interdisciplinary applications not only within the sciences but across social science and the arts. Mandelbrot’s initial work on fractals, coalescing a collection of vaguely similar approaches in mathematics spread sporadically across several centuries, was driven by a combination of geography (the problem of measuring an infinite coastline at high enough resolution) and economics (the need to balance sudden dramatic fluctuations with periods of stability). But his own work and the work of others quickly spread the fractal concept across a wide range of disciplines, and today there is a rich yet often unconnected literature that applies fractals to diverse fields. Indeed, perhaps the fractal as a field of study is itself fractal in its iterative self-similarity and possible application at various scales and in various locations. However, it must be remembered that fractals only ever offer an approximate representation of reality, an abstraction and reduction of complexity into human frameworks of thinking. The broader application of fractals therefore takes on an inherently aesthetic quality within scientific thought, a mathematical description of a topic rather than a rigid methodological framework. Examples abound of this fractal interpretation of our universe and society: in physics, fractals have been used to understand the two other key developments of modern science (quantum physics[20] and relativity[21]) as well as cosmology[22]; in economics they have been applied not only by Mandelbrot but also to financial crises[23]; in organization theory they are useful for assessing interdependence and multi-dimensional folding in networks[24], as well as management[25] and organization design[26]; in biology, furthering Mandelbrot’s focus on analysing nature, they are relevant in, for example, the organization of cell nuclei[27]; in psychiatry to movement and depression[28]; and in applied computing it can assist in understanding IT needs for complex organizations.[29] Fractals can be useful to understand any natural, human and artificial systems at scale, and the field itself therefore takes on its own implicit metafractal quality in its interdisciplinary application.

In a more explicitly and intentionally interdisciplinary manner, games as a field of study also acts as a fractal description of human culture and its mediated constructions of reality. There is a microcosmic quality to many games, particularly those that display MMO, exploration, or social characteristics. Indeed, the field of serious and educational games demonstrates the usefulness of games as a scaled-down staging of wider society or reality, especially when speculating on complex behaviours in exceptional environments or circumstances. From individual experiences to inter-human relations and up to the overarching societal structures, games offer a sandbox arena for experimentation (for designers and players) and analysis (for scholars). However, we must remember that games are never an accurate or neutral microcosm for concrete experiments. Rather, they are a hyperreal, mediated representation. It is this quality that expresses the fractal nature of the field, amplifying characteristics of reality with their dimensional reduction to the scale, logic, and experience of a game. A game can thus act as a more extreme expression of diverse problems in diverse fields, iterating broader concerns in specific implementations and intensified at a smaller scale. Some aspects will always be lost (otherwise the game would simply be reality), but this in turn generates the non-integer dimensionality of games as a fractal simulation of reality. The chimerical nature of games as a discipline is applicable in inspiring an engaged and experiential response to many issues, from the grand questions of reality down to the specific problems of individuals in an unequal world. The complexity of these issues drawn into the sandbox experiment of the game universe and mediated framework reveals an increased dimensionality of the impact of games in their necessary analysis through the lens of other fields. These various perspectives combine to generate a much broader view that expands into the spaces between disciplines and between the game and reality. We will now turn our fractal metaphor to the context of games within their field of study, taking the exemplary case of EVE Online.

 

EVE Online: a fractal metaverse of game studies

 

EVE Online is a ‘sandbox’ reality, not quite a game and not quite a virtual world but displaying characteristics of both. This space exploration and conquest environment combines the vast open universe and free economy of virtual worlds with the player-versus-player space combat one might expect from a game. There are a number of key aspects of its design, however, that differentiate it from other such games or worlds and emphasize its fractal quality as an object of game studies. Firstly, EVE Online goes beyond the iterative environments of many MMORPGs (such as World of Warcraft) in that, rather than placing players on different servers to deal with population overload and different rulesets, EVE takes place in a single universe on a single server with scalable architecture and adaptive workload management. While there is also a free to play version with much reduced player violence, this is more like a demo than a separate game environment. The main EVE platform is therefore not only a marvel of scalable technological achievement but in making the entire universe open to players, what is usually a series of parts becomes a whole system and the simulated reality becomes itself a closer iteration of our own physical environment. The similarity with the material world is emphasized through EVE’s second distinctive feature, the lack of constraints. Other than active cheating, almost anything is permitted in EVE, including mass player on player violence, scamming and other such nefarious activities. Like a Wild West in space, EVE reflects humanity’s best and worst relations, bringing together conflict and collaboration as large-scale guilds are formed for mutual protection and economic or political attainment. As one player review comments, “imagine if every chat troll had guns, and were in the same room as you. That’s EVE in a nutshell”.[30] The characteristic behaviours of humans playing games is amplified in a social feedback loop that allows us to zoom in on radical social interactions at a much faster pace and greater scale than is often the case (in either a game or the real world), and the actual financial value of assets that might be lost or stolen only further emphasizes the social intensity of EVE.

The universe of EVE takes on a further fractal character through its persistence – a temporal scaling of experience that has, running since 2003, outlasted many other continuous game worlds. This historicity, to an even greater extent than what Worlds Adrift is attempting to achieve, forms a feedback loop of the game’s internal truth, reality, and identity, between the players, the technology and the designers. Aside from any fictional narrative, the history of EVE Online is now that of its players, its guilds, its own pivotal moments, all of which express the shift from narrative to ludic history that Neal Stephenson later detailed as the battle not between arbitrary good and evil of writers but between player-chosen colour palettes in his novel Reamde.[31] EVE now includes player activities in its own lore, embedding the human interactions within the game structure in a fractal narrative with a higher degree of ‘reality’. This history and player experience scales even beyond the singular game itself, with a tie-in first-person shooter game Dust 514 expanding the universe onto the planet’s surface. More than a game set in the same fictional universe, Dust offered a fractal experience in the same game universe, connected in real time with the events of EVE, to the extent that players on the surface in Dust could signal for orbital bombardment from their guild’s battleships in EVE, and the players in EVE could benefit from resources won in Dust. The universe of EVE Online is thus constantly expanding in a fractal level of detail in space and time, with new experiences contributing to the constant increase in the game’s multidimensional size and impact. This impact extends also into the real world, with Project Discovery turning minigames with in-world rewards to the cause of actual space discovery, using players’ enthusiasm for astronomy to sort through telescope data to find new exoplanets. The fractal metagame thus expands outwards from itself, iterating through our own reality in social and epistemic detail.

In academia, the scale of the game’s impact is such that there is even an EVE Online reader,[32] establishing the singular game/platform as a worthy field of study on its own. And, much like fractals themselves, EVE Online has acted as a lightning rod for various disciplines as a scaled study of many aspects of human behaviour, society, and technological mediation. This includes (again, offering only a representative sample) applications in: law, for an assessment of property[33] and normative behaviours;[34] history, as collective memory;[35] politics, for the study of online propaganda[36] and political economy;[37] social sciences more broadly for issues in identity,[38] gender[39] and ethnography;[40] business, for studying the links between supply chains and skills development;[41] technology and networking, for issues of workload and player behaviour,[42] scaling,[43] and EVE Online’s unique novel approach to server architecture to overcome these challenges;[44] and mathematics, in relation to science fiction and reality.[45] Of particular note is the importance of scaling in both the technology and the socio-political structures. Scalability is a challenge in system design whether it be of the order of CPUs or legal frameworks, echoing human society in general in the complexities across scales of material and social dilemmas. The fractal nature of games reiterates the fractal character that appears in all technology, its design and mediation of human life. The importance of technology studies as an interdisciplinary confrontation with our mediated society reflects the necessity of game studies as a fractal field of its own – a scale model of the relation between humanity and technology that can provide valuable insights into the fundamental processes of mediation that increasingly define our digitized world.

 

Conclusion

 

We have demonstrated the application of fractals as a metaphor for the construction and analysis of games as objects, as a medium and as a field of study. The scalability of gaming experiences offers not only an application of the fractal model but also a model with which to view the interdisciplinary relations inherent to technologically mediated human society. Through the analysis of feedback loops, self-similarity across iterative player experiences in different parts of the same game, and the scaling of experiences to the game world as a whole and the metagame of development and expansion, we have viewed No Man’s Sky, Everything, Worlds Adrift, and We Happy Few as models of fractal games, and EVE Online as a model of fractal game studies. A fractal mode of approaching games allows us to view multiple aspects of ludic and narrative experience alongside external facets of the game in its context. Thus, the fractal metaphor becomes a metafractal analysis whereby the model is itself fractal in nature, self-similar across the various scales and objects of its intellectual gaze, and iterative across disciplines. Games and game studies stand currently at a multidimensional crossroads, having transcended the ludo-narrative dissonance of the field itself, while integrating and spreading across multiple traditional disciplines. It will be essential to find new ways of understanding the intersecting topics and interactions across the ever-expanding dimensions of gaming as a medium.

 

References

Selma Aybek, Anisoara Ionescu, Alexandre Berney, Oury Chocron, Kamiar Aminian, Francois Joseph Godfried Vingerhoets, “Fractal temporal organisation of motricity is altered in major depression” Psychiatry Research 200 (2012), pp. 288-293.

Aurélien Bancaud, Christophe Lavelle, Sébastien Huet, and Jan Ellenberg, “A fractal model for nuclear organization: current evidence and biological implications” Nucleic Acids Research 40:18 (2012), pp. 8783-8792.

Kelly Bergstrom, “Virtual inequality: a woman’s place in cyberspace” FDG’12 (2012), pp. 267-269.

David Brandt, “Scaling EVE Online, under the hood of the network layer” NetGames ‘05 (2005).

Marcus Carter, “Emitexts and Paratexts: Propaganda in EVE Online” Games and Culture 10:4 (2015), 311-342.

Marcus Carter, Kelly Bergstrom, Darryl Woodford (eds), Internet Spaceships Are Serious Business: An EVE Online Reader, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2016).

Jessica Conditt, “How ‘We Happy Few’ plans to avoid the pitfalls of ‘No Man’s Sky’”, Engadget, https://www.engadget.com/2017/08/17/we-happy-few-fans-feedback-release-date-gearbox-compulsion-interview/ date accessed 1 September 2017.

Jonathan Dickau, “Fractal cosmology” Chaos, Solitons and Fractals 41 (2009), pp. 2103-2105.

Falconer, Kenneth, Fractal Geometry: Mathematical Foundations and Applications (3rd ed.), (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons) (2014).

Wu-chang Feng, “A Long-term Study of a Popular MMORPG” ACM SIGCOMM NetGames ‘07 (2007), pp. 19-24.

James Gleick, Chaos, (London: Vintage) (1998).

Bobby Glushko, “Tales of the (Virtual) City: Governing Property Disputes In Virtual Worlds” Berkeley technology law journal 22:1 (2007), pp. 507-532.

Halldor Fannar Guðjónsson, “The server technology of EVE Online: How to cope with 300,000 players on one server” Proc. Austin GDC (2008).

Chris Higgins, “No Man’s Sky would take 5 billion years to explore,” Wired, http://www.wired.co.uk/article/no-mans-sky-planets date accessed 1 September 2017.

Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop, (New York: Basic Books) (2007).

Daniel Horn, Ewen Cheslack-Postava, Tahir Azim, Michael J. Freedman, Philip Levis, “Scaling Virtual Worlds with a Physical Metaphor” Pervasive Computing Jul-Sept (2009), pp. 50-54.

Michael Hugos. Essentials of Supply Chain Management, (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons) (2011), p. 219.

JackSepticEye, “BLOW YOUR MIND | Everything #1”, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeJvh212pEQ date accessed 1 September 2017.

Arkadiusz Jadczyk, Quantum Fractals From Heisenberg’s Uncertainty to Barnsley’s Fractality, (Singapore: World Scientific) (2014).

Darren Jorgensen, “The Numerical Verisimilitude of Science Fiction and EVE-Online” Extrapolation 51:1 (2010), pp. 134-147.

Benoit Mandelbrot, A Fractal Geometry of Nature, (New York: W.H. Freeman and Co) (1983).

Oskar Milik, “Virtual Warlords: An Ethnomethodological View of Group Identity and Leadership in EVE Online” Games and Culture (2015), p. 1-22.

Ikujiro Nonaka, Mitsuru Kodama, Ayano Hirose, Florian Kohlbacher, “Dynamic fractal organizations for promoting knowledge-based transformation – A new paradigm for organizational theory” European Management Journal 32 (2014), pp. 137-146.

Laurent Nottale, Scale Relativity and Fractal Space-time: A New Approach to Unifying Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, (London: Imperial College Press) (2011).

Kathryn Pavlovich, “A Fractal Approach to Sustainable Networks” E:CO 11:3 (2009), pp. 49-60.

Rajiv Ramnath, David Landsbergen, “IT-enabled sense-and-respond strategies in complex public organizations” Communications of the ACM 48:5 (2005), p. 58-64.

S.M. Saad, A. M. Lassila, “Layout design in fractal organizations” International Journal of Production Research 42:17 (2004), pp. 3529-3550.

Jay Sorkin, Shera Buyer, “Using fractal geometry in a financial crisis” Futures 31:10 (2002), p. 48.

Neal Stephenson, Reamde (London: Atlantic Books) (2012).

Styxies, [Steam comment – 5 May 2017] , Steam http://store.steampowered.com/app/8500/EVE_Online/ accessed 24 May 2017.

Nicolas Suzor, Darryl Woodford, “Evaluating Consent and Legitimacy amongst Shifting Community Norms: an EVE Online Case Study” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 6:3 (2013), 16p.

Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe, (London: Penguin) (2015).

Wanderbot, “Let’s Play No Man’s Sky Update 1.3: Atlas Rises – PC Gameplay Part 1 – All Sorts Of New Stuff!” Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bITSv0TXJ7k date accessed 1 September 2017.

Nicholas Webber, “EVE Online’s War Correspondents: player journalism as history”, in Fans and Videogames: Histories, Fandom, Archives, ed. Melanie Swalwell, Angela Ndalianis and Helen Stuckey (New York: Taylor and Francis) (2017), pp. 93-110.

 

 

[1] James Gleick, Chaos, (London: Vintage) (1998), p. 98.

[2] Kenneth Falconer, Fractal Geometry: Mathematical FOundations and Applications (3rd ed.), (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons) (2014), xxix.

[3] Benoit Mandelbrot, A Fractal Geometry of Nature, (New York: W.H. Freeman and Co) (1983), p. 10.

[4] Kenneth Falconer, Fractal Geometry: Mathematical FOundations and Applications (3rd ed.), (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons) (2014), xxviii.

[5] Gleick, p. 103.

[6] Mandelbrot, p. 166.

[7] David Braben in Emma Boyes, “Q&A: David Braben–from Elite to today,” Gamespot, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/qanda-david-braben-from-elite-to-today/1100-6162140/ date accessed 27 February 2018.

[8] Chris Higgins, “No Man’s Sky would take 5 billion years to explore,” Wired, http://www.wired.co.uk/article/no-mans-sky-planets date accessed 1 September 2017.

[9] See from 10:00 – Wanderbot, “Let’s Play No Man’s Sky Update 1.3: Atlas Rises – PC Gameplay Part 1 – All Sorts Of New Stuff!” Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bITSv0TXJ7k date accessed 1 September 2017.

[10] Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop, (New York: Basic Books) (2007), p. 102.

[11] Mandelbrot, p. 423.

[12] Colin Campbell, “Everything review”, Polygon, https://www.polygon.com/2017/3/21/14991494/everything-review-ps4-PC date accessed 1 September 2017.

[13] See from 9:16 – JackSepticEye, “BLOW YOUR MIND | Everything #1”, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeJvh212pEQ date accessed 1 September 2017.

[14] Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe, (London: Penguin) (2015), p. 358.

[15] Hofstadter, pp. 19-23.

[16] Such as gamergate, an example of mass abuse by collections of gamers against (in this case female) games developers.

[17] Jessica Conditt, “How ‘We Happy Few’ plans to avoid the pitfalls of ‘No Man’s Sky’”, Engadget, https://www.engadget.com/2017/08/17/we-happy-few-fans-feedback-release-date-gearbox-compulsion-interview/ date accessed 1 September 2017.

[18] Quoted in Conditt.

[19] Gleick, p. 6.

[20] Arkadiusz Jadczyk, Quantum Fractals from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty to Barnsley’s Fractality, (Singapore: World Scientific) (2014).

[21] Laurent Nottale, Scale Relativity and Fractal Space-time: A New Approach to Unifying Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, (London: Imperial College Press) (2011).

[22] Jonathan Dickau, “Fractal cosmology” Chaos, Solitons and Fractals 41 (2009), pp. 2103-2105.

[23] Jay Sorkin, Shera Buyer, “Using fractal geometry in a financial crisis” Futures 31:10 (2002), p. 48.

[24] Kathryn Pavlovich, “A Fractal Approach to Sustainable Networks” E:CO 11:3 (2009), pp. 49-60.

[25] Ikujiro Nonaka, Mitsuru Kodama, Ayano Hirose, Florian Kohlbacher, “Dynamic fractal organizations for promoting knowledge-based transformation – A new paradigm for organizational theory” European Management Journal 32 (2014), pp. 137-146.

[26] S.M. Saad, A. M. Lassila, “Layout design in fractal organizations” International Journal of Production Research 42:17 (2004), pp. 3529-3550.

[27] Aurélien Bancaud, Christophe Lavelle, Sébastien Huet, and Jan Ellenberg, “A fractal model for nuclear organization: current evidence and biological implications” Nucleic Acids Research 40:18 (2012), pp. 8783-8792.

[28] Selma Aybek, Anisoara Ionescu, Alexandre Berney, Oury Chocron, Kamiar Aminian, Francois Joseph Godfried Vingerhoets, “Fractal temporal organisation of motricity is altered in major depression” Psychiatry Research 200 (2012), pp. 288-293.

[29] Rajiv Ramnath, David Landsbergen, “IT-enabled sense-and-respond strategies in complex public organizations” Communications of the ACM 48:5 (2005), p. 58-64.

[30] Styxies, [Steam comment – 5 May 2017], Steam http://store.steampowered.com/app/8500/EVE_Online/ accessed 24 May 2017.

[31] Neal Stephenson, Reamde (London: Atlantic Books) (2012).

[32] Marcus Carter, Kelly Bergstrom, Darryl Woodford (eds), Internet Spaceships Are Serious Business: An EVE Online Reader, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2016).

[33] Bobby Glushko, “Tales of the (Virtual) City: Governing Property Disputes in Virtual Worlds” Berkeley technology law journal 22:1 (2007), pp. 507-532.

[34] Nicolas Suzor, Darryl Woodford, “Evaluating Consent and Legitimacy amongst Shifting Community Norms: an EVE Online Case Study” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 6:3 (2013), 16p.

[35] Nicholas Webber, “EVE Online’s War Correspondents: player journalism as history”, in Fans and Videogames: Histories, Fandom, Archives, ed. Melanie Swalwell, Angela Ndalianis and Helen Stuckey (New York: Taylor and Francis) (2017), pp. 93-110.

[36] Marcus Carter, “Emitexts and Paratexts: Propaganda in EVE Online” Games and Culture 10:4 (2015), 311-342.

[37] Nicholas Taylor, Kelly Bergstrom, Jennifer Jenson and Suzanne de Castell, “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online” Games and Culture 10:4 (2015), pp. 365-388.

[38] Marcus Carter, Martin Gibbs, Michael Arnold, “Avatars, Characters, Players and Users: Multiple Identities at/in Play” OZCHI’12 (2012), pp. 68-71.

[39] Kelly Bergstrom, “Virtual inequality: a woman’s place in cyberspace” FDG’12 (2012), pp. 267-269.

[40] Oskar Milik, “Virtual Warlords: An Ethnomethodological View of Group Identity and Leadership in EVE Online” Games and Culture (2015), p. 1-22.

[41] Michael Hugos. Essentials of Supply Chain Management, (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons) (2011), p. 219.

[42] Wu-chang Feng, “A Long-term Study of a Popular MMORPG” ACM SIGCOMM NetGames ‘07 (2007), pp. 19-24.

[43] David Brandt, “Scaling EVE Online, under the hood of the network layer” NetGames ‘05 (2005).

Daniel Horn, Ewen Cheslack-Postava, Tahir Azim, Michael J. Freedman, Philip Levis, “Scaling Virtual Worlds with a Physical Metaphor” Pervasive Computing Jul-Sept (2009), pp. 50-54.

[44] Halldor Fannar Guðjónsson, “The server technology of EVE Online: How to cope with 300,000 players on one server” Proc. Austin GDC (2008).

[45] Darren Jorgensen, “The Numerical Verisimilitude of Science Fiction and EVE-Online” Extrapolation 51:1 (2010), pp. 134-147.

Warping Diegesis: The Evolving Role of the Sound-track in Virtual Reality Gaming

Katherine Mancey

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 83-101.

 

 

Katherine Mancey

University of Liverpool

 

 

Warping Diegesis: The Evolving Role of the Soundtrack in Virtual Reality Gaming

 

Abstract

Whilst the study of music in audio-visual media is a well-established academic field, the fast and constant evolution of gaming technology creates the need for a simultaneous evolution in the analytical methodologies of video game music, and results in a need to draw from a wide range of disciplines, from film music studies to cognitive science. The rising popularity of virtual reality gaming, with the mass market introduction of VR headsets such as the Oculus Gear VR and Sony’s PSVR opens up a new field of discussion for the evolving role of non-diegetic music in gaming, and its subsequent effect on the player experience. My article addresses the shifting role of music from 2D screens to the in-world experience of virtual reality, and how this alters our perception of diegesis. This is supported by a discussion of varying neuropsychological explanations for the relationship between music and emotion, its effect on various theories of immersion/presence, and their application to this new visual immediacy. Through an analysis of a selection of films and video games, including the most recent Batman: Arkham VR, I will be questioning whether the same need for a non-diegetic underscore exists, or if this new visual experience calls for more musical fluidity across the diegesis where soundtrack and in-game audio flow seamlessly. Now that the physical distance between the player and the graphics has been drastically reduced, I question whether traditional non-diegetic video game scores will break the fourth wall rather than enhancing the player’s immersive experience. By examining where we draw lines within diegesis, this paper acknowledges the need for a re-evaluation of the relationship between soundtrack and in-game audio, as gaming technology moves away from the traditional static screen experience and into an edgeless game world, highlighting the significance of analysing all game sound as a guide to emotional response.

Key words: music, virtual reality, video games, soundtrack, Batman, film

 

The soundtrack has been a vital part of audio-visual media since its introduction in early film. However, before discussing the evolution of the soundtrack from silent film to virtual reality gaming, it is important to first contextualise virtual reality within both the gaming world and the wider technology sector. Whilst VR video games and 360º visual experiences have only recently emerged on the mass market, the design principle of Darlene Wheatstone’s 1838 stereoscope is still used today for the Google Cardboard and other lower budget VR head-mounted displays for mobile phones, using two different 2D images side by side to build a 3D image. One of the first ‘VR’ gaming experiences for the mass market was Nintendo’s table top console, Virtual Boy. Released in 1995, it used the same stereoscopic principles to create a 3D display but without free head movement. This proved unpopular with global sales of only 770,000 units[1]. Since then, developments in technology, such as an increase in graphical fidelity, have led to greater sophistication in virtual reality technology and in 2016 three premium VR headsets were released, the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, and the PSVR. Of the three, the PSVR has been the most commercially successful, perhaps due to its lower price point and easier set-up, requiring a PS4 to use rather than a high specification gaming PC, selling roughly one million units in its first six months.[2]

The HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift have applications outside of the gaming world, with their virtual reality technology starting to be introduced into a range of industries. For example, VR headsets allow architects to better ‘feel’ the spaces they are designing[3]. There has been a rise in 360º video production too, with popular entertainment outlets such as Buzzfeed sharing numerous 360º videos on their YouTube channel. To be experienced, their videos use stereoscopic principles which require lower-end VR headsets such as Google Cardboard, or they can be viewed without a headset by scrolling around the video, bringing this new cinematic experience to a much wider audience, and beginning to normalise the virtual reality experience in popular culture. Although these videos are not interactive, it shows a rise in the popularity of this visual engulfment, with their ‘How Animals See the World’ video being viewed over 4 million times[4]. In contrast, the PSVR is only used for gaming as it works in conjunction with the PS4. Due to its popularity and sole gaming function, I will be focusing on the PSVR and games made for the PSVR specifically whilst discussing the shifting role of music from film to 2D video games, through to virtual reality.

The soundtrack is well established as an essential part of film, television, and video games, serving many functions both practically and aesthetically. Before the advent of synchronised dialogue in 1927, films were completely silent but the theatres themselves were far from silent. The machinery involved in projecting films was loud, and audiences treated going to the movies as a social occasion. This gave music a functional purpose as it could drown out the real world, drawing attention to the screen. Music was seen as part of the performance of a film, with composers Hans Erdmann and Giuseppe Becce questioning in 1927 whether films needed music at all[5], as it was believed that non-diegetic music during dialogue scenes could annoy viewers who were trying to concentrate on the dialogue. But this opinion was not universal; when film makers managed to synchronise dialogue with image, the fidelity of the sound playback was poor. Actors had to stand awkwardly still and close to hidden microphones which lead to unnatural line delivery. This resulted in actors on screen appearing ghostly, as suggested by Adorno and Eisler, ‘For the talking picture, too, is mute. The characters in it are not speaking people but speaking effigies’[6]; without music films became ‘emaciated, bloodless, lacking in emotional appeal’[7]. It was music’s job to bring emotion to scenes and to breathe life back into the ghostly figures, overcoming the ‘questions of belief, immediacy and illusion’[8] from the audience. Musical ensembles differed between theatres, with some using full orchestras, but most movie theatres employed solo theatre organists or pianists to accompany the film. After reading the director’s ‘emotion’ annotation for the scene, they would use a mixture of improvisation, original scores, and compiled scores from pre-existing music to express this emotion to their audience; as noted by Stuart Oderman, ‘The tremolo increased suspense…A diminished chord called for resolution’[9], creating the foundations of a soundtrack. This use of soundtrack to convey human emotion has carried through to video games. As Collins suggests, sound in video games is a ‘simulacrum of the real’[10], whilst this also applies to the reactive sound effects in games, the principles behind the use of sound are still the same, to stop the on-screen action from feeling alien and detached.

We can draw parallels between the use of musical cues in early film and in video games. Just as audiences had to read slides, in early video games the players had to read text to continue the narrative, reinforced by music (see Fig 1.1). Without the capacity to play dialogue, music had to bring the text to life. Whilst still very obviously non-diegetic, this music was a key communicator of diegetic mood. Square Co.’s Final Fantasy I (1987) employs this technique. After reaching the Light Warrior Memorial Bridge, a prologue screen opens accompanied by the Final Fantasy overture (see Example 1.1)

Zrzut_07 2018-07-29 00.46.05

Example 1.1: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nWX1M6xTA0>

 

The music during the prologue has to set the scene for adventure, achieving this through a variety of compositional techniques. If we analyse the opening melodic statement (See Fig 1.2 and 0’0’’ to 0’13’’ from Example 1.1) we can see how its structure mirrors the beginning of a journey. It starts with the tonic note in the bass and the fifth in both melodic lines, followed by a minor seventh leap. The seventh pushes us to the expansion of an upper octave in the safety of the tonic key opposed to a more nostalgic return to the original octave[11]; therefore, its use in the opening of the prologue readies the player for expansive adventure as the on-screen text reads, ‘And so, their journey begins…’. The use of the seventh is repeated in sequence; transposed up a tone to G minor it accompanies the text, ‘What awaits the Four, they do not know’. By using rising sequential repetition and a minor chord, tension builds which creates an air of mystery to mirror the text, finishing with a C major 7 chord which propels the music forwards as the ear wants it to resolve, again creating an expectation of exploration and a sense of adventure.

Zrzut_08 2018-07-29 00.46.36

The melody, harmonic structure and overall musical phrasing is reminiscent of baroque music, using a continuo bass and melodic counterpoint alongside binary form and faster-paced chord changes. However, Finally Fantasy I is not set in 17th Century Western Europe, therefore the decision to use this baroque style is not reflective of the diegetic world. When Final Fantasy I was released for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, only three audio channels were available, and during gameplay one channel had to be left open for sound effects. As Collins suggests, ‘technological constraint has shaped aesthetic decisions’[12]. The use of this baroque style fit nicely within the three-channel system, it allowed for melodic lines to be effective whilst sounding in similar timbres akin to the contrapuntal melodic lines in Bach’s piano preludes, building and resealing tension to add depth to the pixilated characters. It also gave a sense of grandeur to the otherwise thin textures, making the resolve to the major tonic feel triumphant.

Final Fantasy I has spawned a series of sequels since its 1987 release. The most recent, Final Fantasy XV (2016), has a vastly greater capacity for audio with huge development in both the technology within the game engine and consoles (such as memory and processing capacity), and the technology used to record the music itself (such as microphone fidelity and digital processing) since the 8-bit three channel system, resulting in a high-fidelity and far more musically intricate soundtrack. It uses the same prologue theme from Final Fantasy I, but this time it is heard at the end of the game and in much richer scoring (see Example 1.2).

 

Example 1.2: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=EojQj4UI58A>

 

As Summers suggests, ‘The total time, on average, that a player spends with any one game is significantly longer than the running time of most mainstream films’[13], and the player’s exposure to this prologue motif is significantly longer if they have played through all fifteen games in the series. This familiarity and long-term association with the motif adds greater emotional value to the piece above the sociocultural meaning accompanying its musical style, reinterpreting the prologue theme from the opening game play of Final Fantasy I as a finale theme to bring the whole series full circle. Yoko Shimomura’s re-orchestration of the prelude theme takes the music from a string quartet, to a piano-led quintet, through to a fanfare using brass, percussion, and a choir. This mirrors the journey the player has taken throughout the game (and throughout the whole series,), moving away from the baroque scoring techniques used in Final Fantasy I and using more contemporary scoring techniques with no technological restriction. For example, the opening string quartet uses homophonic harmonic movement with a leading violin melody on top, previously impossible via earlier 8-bit technology (See Fig. 1.3). However, both Example 1.1 and 1.2 are taken from cut scenes. These passive moments from otherwise interactive experiences allow for a linear score which lends itself to filmic musical tropes: scoring can be thicker, and the certainty of linear playback allows for greater melodic and harmonic development. Whilst this interpretation of the theme is much grander and has been humanised through the use of acoustic timbres and performance techniques such as varying vibrato, the music is still firmly non-diegetic and there is a clear distinction between the sounds and timbres of the game world and those of the soundtrack.

 

Zrzut_09 2018-07-29 00.46.57

 

Numerous studies have been conducted analysing the effect that music has on emotion; Schäfer et al. found in their study that the faster the rhythms, the more stressful and dangerous a situation the listener experiences[14]; this correlates with the use of fast-paced music in chase scenes. Chia-Hung Yeh et al. found that participants in their study could easily and accurately identify the emotions behind a piece of popular music even through different cover versions of the piece using varying lyrics in different languages[15], thus showing how powerful melody can be. Lipscomb and Kendall analysed participants’ ability to determine which music best fit a scene from Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home from five musical examples. They found that participants could identify the ‘correct’ music for each scene with a high degree of accuracy, and this level of accuracy increased when scenes included human characters as the music worked to mirror human gestures[16].

This reaction to musical cues works in reverse too, as found in Bullerjahn and Güldering’s study in which participants watched intentionally ambiguous film clips accompanied by a range of music, and found that musical genre had a great impact on the participants film outcome predictions, such as ‘thriller’ music leading them to imagine a more adventurous and violent film ending than the ‘melodrama’ score which lead to visions of happier, family-centric plot conclusions[17].  Imagining an accompanying image is a commonly reported reaction to music[18] and whilst each image in the mind of the listener may differ from the next, Osborne found that listeners often associated relatively similar images to specific music[19], which shows how music can be used as a powerful tool in video games to underpin gameplay and create a vaster picture of a game world than can be shown on the screen. Musical foreshadowing is a powerful tool in video games too; as Whalen suggests, ‘the paradigmatic atmosphere music also acts as melodic foreshadowing’ in relation to the interactive ocarina feature in Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in which ‘the melodies they learn have an eerie familiarity’ as they are heard throughout the game [20]. Therefore, as discovered in each of these studies, music has a profound impact on the players’ emotional reading of a scene, with musical cues both aiding the emotional understanding of current gameplay and also creating narrative expectations for gameplay sequences to come.

There are varying neuropsychological explanations for these emotional responses to music. Juslin and Västfjäll suggest that the emotional response is controlled by brainstem reflexes, and that emotions are induced by music because of their fundamental acoustical characteristics, signalling a potentially important and urgent event[21]. For example, a large shift in dynamic from pianissimo to fortissimo is alarming to the brain and can result in an emotion of fear or shock, manipulating an evolutionary response to sound. Berlyne suggests this emotional-arousal property of music, regulated by the brainstem, explains why there is a preference for certain music at certain times[22], such as soft and harmonically predictable music being relaxing. Another explanation for the relationship between music and emotion is evaluative conditioning, which suggests that a formerly neutral stimulus such as music is transformed into a conditioning stimulus by its repeating pairing with an already existing emotionally charged stimulus[23], such as the repeated pairing of kiss scenes in film with lyrical string melodies to create an association between lush string scoring and romance. Another theory, emotional contagion, relates musical expression and gesture with an internal mimicking of that gesture by the listener, which in turn reproduces the emotions felt by the performer. This phenomenon has been seen in facial expressions in which musical expressions of fear have been recreated in the tensing of certain facial muscles by the listener[24]. Davies’s theory of emotional episodic memory works with theories of the personal semiotic values of music, as it suggests that specific emotions can be induced by the relationship between an emotional memory and the sounds of that time, also called the ‘Honey, they are playing our tune’ phenomenon[25], and can also be used to explain the emotional currency of nostalgia. All of these theories attempt to describe the way music can trigger emotion within the listener, and whilst exact emotion responses are unique to each person, they all suggest there is some commonality in emotional reactions to certain audio stimuli, whether it be an evolutionary response or a culturally embedded and subconsciously learned response to certain musical stimuli.

This use of music to aid emotional depth is a significant contributing factor to a player’s level of immersion, so that the player can experience the sensation of feeling spatially located in the game world environment[26]. There are a range of theories as to what creates this feeling of immersion and how it can be sustained, but there is a general consensus amongst scholars that immersion is a multi-faceted process. Wirth et al. suggest that this immersion process happens on two levels, influenced by media factors, process components, user actions and user factors. Primarily, the media factors and user factors work together to create both controlled attention, such as the player actively choosing to play a video game, and automatic attention, such as game music drawing the player’s eye to the screen. Once the player is engaging with the game, they suggest that immersion moves to a secondary level where the player experiences a ‘suspension of disbelief’ as they adapt to the laws and physics of the game world[27]. Brown and Cairns suggested a three-tier system: The first is engagement, which includes learning the controls and game mechanics when a conscious effort has to be made to play the game. The second is engrossment, when the controls have become second nature the player is susceptible to emotional influence from the game as their focus moves from learning to experiencing. The third is immersion, when the player is totally emotionally invested in the game at that moment and their own emotions are influenced by the characters and narrative in the game world[28].

Sweester and Wyeth focused on quantifying what creates immersion, developing their GameFlow model, using a table of ‘GameFlow criteria for player enjoyment in games’ in an attempt to explain the process of becoming immersed in video games[29]. From this table they can award games an individual GameFlow score, but their calculation does not take into account the role of music on any of their criteria, which is arguably a prominent influencer on player immersion, as suggested by Lipscomb and Zehnder’s study[30]. Using game play sequences from Electronic Arts’ Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, they measured player enjoyment with and without music using a verbal scale and found a positive correlation between music and enjoyment. Nacke, Grimshaw and Lindly’s study furthers this notion, analysing the impact of both music and sound effects on player enjoyment in a first-person shooter game, and found through their gamer experience questionnaire that the most enjoyable play occurred when both music and sound effects were present, and that playing without music and sound effects resulted in a tenser and less enjoyable gameplay experience[31]. The fact that these two studies focused on games from distinctly different genres but resulted in similar findings highlights the universal importance of music for player enjoyment, as it created a better environment for player immersion to occur.

 

The Batman franchise serves well as a case study to discuss the varying use of music to evoke emotion from early film through to virtual reality gaming, with a long lineage of films, video games and now a virtual reality video game for PSVR to analyse. Batman is a long-standing figure in popular culture, with the first Batman story, ‘The Case of The Chemical Syndicate’ published in Detective Comics issue #27 in May of 1939[32]. He first appeared in films during the 1940s and has since been a staple character of the blockbuster, rebranded in 2005 with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, taking him further away from the underpants-over-tights comic book hero and into the more sophisticated ‘dark’ hero that Batman is best recognised as in current popular culture. This new image for Batman proved popular, with the two sequels The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), also directed by Christopher Nolan, earning over $1 billion worldwide.[33]

Throughout his appearances in film, television and video games, Batman has existed at the extremes of musical gesture. Lambert Hillyer’s 1943 The Batman, released during Hollywood’s ‘golden age’, uses a full orchestral score synonymous with that era of film, with culturally embedded musical tropes such as tremolo strings and rising melodic lines to create suspense (See Example 2.1). In 1966, Batman was brought to television with a live-action series based on the comic books, its theme tune is in stark contrast to the music of Lambert Hillyer’s film, with obvious influence from popular music of the 1960s in both musical style and instrumentation, using a jovial, catchy melody (See Example 2.2). In further contrast, the use of music in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins moves away from the heavy orchestral scoring of the 1940s and the up-tempo theme of the 1960s, and takes a more reduced, almost acousmatic approach to scoring Batman’s scenes (See Example 2.3). The first Batman video game, Ocean Software’s Batman, was released in 1986 for the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, and other 8-bit personal home computers. Even with the limitations of the three-channel audio system, the game opens with a chip-tune version of the Batman theme from the 1966 television series (See Example 2.4). This ease of adaptation to fit changes in contemporary popular culture aesthetics throughout the past century shows the robust nature of Batman and his sustained popularity as a character, from early film to television through to video games.

 

Example 2.1:  <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zVmIit0PXU>

Example 2.2: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDWSHNEbkII>

Example 2.3: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8tT_2QMwxI>

Example 2.4: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5_cHljImI0>

 

Just as there is a long and varied history of Batman films, Batman has been a staple character of video games across gaming platforms for decades, appearing in over sixty titles, of which he is the main character in over thirty. The portrayal of Batman in these games has largely stayed in line with his portrayal in film and television. Due to technological limitations of the 8-bit systems, the earliest Batman video games used soundtracks typical of 8-bit games during gameplay but still took musical cues from other Batman media where possible (See Example 2.4). In 1990, SunSoft developed four video games with the title Batman; each game was tailored to its platform (Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, PC) resulting in a difference in gameplay across platforms, but it is best associated with the release for the Nintendo Entertainment System, selling over a million copies[34]. Whilst it was released just after Burton’s film Batman (1989), the game’s narrative does not bear much resemblance to the film, and Naoki Kodaka’s soundtrack is independent of Elfman’s film score. However, they do share some melodic characteristics. For example, in the first level (See Example 2.5) the overall melodic contour is similar to that of Elfman’s scoring for the film’s opening scene (See Example 2.6), with both melodies rising up from the tonic to the sixth and falling to a sustained fifth (See fig 2.1).

 

Example 2.5: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HktXo2AgWBk>

Example 2.6: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXGXllCMOQg>

Zrzut_10 2018-07-29 00.47.32

As the possibilities of game audio increased, the music of Batman video games became more stylistically reminiscent of film scores as it was possible to use a full orchestral linear score during interactive cinematic cut-scenes and more sophisticated modular cues that are triggered during gameplay. Tsunami Music’s score for Eurocom’s Batman Begins (2005) is far more closely linked to Nolan’s film Batman Begins (2005) than Sunsoft’s Batman (1990) was to Burton’s Batman (1989) in both character representation (See fig 2.3) and soundtrack, due to improvements in both graphic and audio fidelity. This considerable increase in game audio fidelity caused a shift in video game soundtracks as composers could broaden their use of timbres and move away from the synthesized sounds of 8-bit and 16-bit consoles.

Whilst the music in Batman video games does reference its use in film, especially during interactive cinematics, film uses a fixed linear narrative which creates a passive audience experience, while video games use a more flexible interactive narrative and active player engagement which calls for a difference in compositional approach during gameplay. Ryan suggests that interactivity appears on two levels, one constituted by the medium and one intrinsic to the work itself. She suggests these can exist as internal, where the user plays the role of an individual in the narrative, or as external, where the user has a god-like role. This creates two main types of user experience: the first is exploratory, in which the user has no creative power in the story world, such as in films; the second is ontological, in which user actions create objects and cause effects that bring lasting change, as in video games. These can be combined to create four types of interactivity: external-explanatory, external-ontological, internal-ontological, and internal-exploratory[35]. Dogramain and Liptay discuss the relationship between ‘solid’ and ‘liquid’ realities, suggesting that the anticipation of liquid spaces breaks down the barrier between the viewer and media[36]. Although they discuss this in relation to visual art, this anticipation of liquid space works within Ryan’s descriptions of interactivity as the premise of a liquid narrative environment invites player immersion, as seen in the external-ontological and internal-ontological narrative structures. This ontological narrative results in a need for dynamic, reactive scoring, based on modular cues. As discussed, music has a prominent effect on emotion, but the player’s ability to direct the narrative leads to the condensing of musical tropes to short looping cues which can seamlessly fade in and out of the non-diegetic score during gameplay. This use of adaptive scoring further cements the internal-ontological status of the player within the game world, as they are leading the soundtrack through their narrative choices.

Though there is a need for different approaches to music with linear versus modular scoring, film and 2D video games share a need for music to draw focus to the screen and to help transport the audience/player into that 2D world. However, virtual reality gaming brings a new visual experience to the player, totally separate from that of 2D video games, film and even 3D film. It creates for the first time an edgeless game world, where the player experiences total visual engulfment. With the headset on, there is no room to look away from the screen, giving the game world an immediate sense of vastness. There is no separation between the player and the action, with characters appearing to be standing directly in front of their face. This alters music’s function as it no longer needs to attract the player’s attention to the screen, and this change in function can be seen in comparing the opening of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) with their Batman: Arkham VR (2016). The opening of Batman: Arkham Asylum (See Example 3.1), uses orchestral timbres such as horn swells, rising sequential string melodies and a choral pad. In stark contrast to this, the opening of Batman: Arkham VR (See Example 3.2) uses a more processed string sound, synthesised pad swells and a melody heard once in octaves on horn and strings before launching straight into thick atmospheric sounds. There is no melodic development, more synthesised timbres, thinner scoring, and a much shorter title sequence. It still depicts the darkness of Gotham City and the image of Batman as the dark hero, but in a musically simplified way in comparison with the 2D game. The ‘Suit Up’ scene in Batman: Arkham VR (See Example 3.3) does use a slightly thicker score for this interactive cinematic, but it is still far sparser than the music of the 2D game. We hear the theme but again in octaves with no countermelody or obvious harmonic reinforcement, underpinned by a synthesised pulse and low horn and string pad which swells when the player is not engaging with the game mechanics. This use of more prominent processed timbres and less prominent orchestral timbres both reinforces the visuals of the technology surrounding the player and also compliments the new ‘high-tech’ experience of virtual reality.

 

Example 3.1: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHXR4QIQPsA>

Example 3.2: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTiTnY9FPgk>

Example 3.3: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bedb1UBtEc>

 

Another explanation for this use of reduced scoring could be the change in the physical delivery of the sound to the player. More than ever before players are encouraged to use surround sound headphones with the PSVR; a pair is included with the headset and there is a headphone jack on the headset control with its own volume control, making it easy to adjust the sound. This change in delivery plays with the notion of diegesis as the sound feels closer to the player and there is greater accuracy in the reception of stereo imaging. A busy soundtrack using orchestral timbres runs the risk of breaking the fourth wall for players as it becomes more obviously non-diegetic whilst they are totally visually situated within this game world. Using these electronic timbres that are more congruent with sounds of the game world creates a less obviously non-diegetic soundtrack which can aid player immersion and comfort without making players hyper aware that they are playing a video game. This soundtrack is reduced further during gameplay, when moving sound creates a 360º audio picture to accompany the image and to further reinforce the player’s feeling of being surrounded by the game and at the centre of the image (See Example 3.4). Just as the player is totally encompassed by visuals, they are totally cloaked in sound. Techniques applied to orchestral scores to create tension are instead applied to game world sounds to create a sense of unease without it being obviously musical. There is a constant pitter-patter of rain, setting a pulse, then rhythmic fragments are created by the blowing wind which moves between left and right and occupies the higher-end frequencies usually inhabited by violins and upper woodwind in an orchestral setting. This is underpinned by a consistent sub-bass rumble, then dissonances used to create tension come from the moving sounds of trams which pan from side to side and slide in pitch from high to low or low to high depending on their starting position in relation to the player, reminiscent of the doppler effect. Where these sounds intersect, dissonances are created, as if these tram sounds were an evolving instrumental pad; the dissonances do not resolve, they simply fade away as the trams pass, building suspense as the ear waits for a solid resolution.

 

Example 3.4: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTsjbn-6e30>

 

This use of music alters our perception of diegesis as it uses a mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic timbres that work together to create a soundtrack, existing somewhere in between the two sound worlds. It also changes the relationship between music and sound effects: rather than existing as two independent devices, they exist as one multifunctional device. Barnabé suggests that the notion of space in video games can be broken down into three concepts. The first, cosmos, is the game world that exists regardless of play participation, game narrative, or game objective. The second, diegesis, is the cosmos which is oriented by the story as its construction is necessary to allow for gameplay. The third, ludiegesis, is the diegesis as ruled by the player’s actions, the space that exists as a result of the player’s decisions[37]. If we apply this framework to virtual reality, the collaboration between in-game and external sound sources facilitates the smooth transitions between these virtual spaces as the player moves from the diegetic, such as an interactive cinematic scene, to the ludiegesis during gameplay. For example, Batman transitions from the ludiegesis, where he has the ability to capture the Penguin, to the diegesis, where he listens to the Penguin’s dialogue, back to the ludiegesis, without an obvious break between the fixed scene and the gameplay as there is no change in the sound world (See Example 3.4). Virtual reality easily accommodated this transition as the characters appear to be directly in front of the player, so a full screen close-up of their face can appear in both gameplay and the cinematic without needing an obvious change in camera angle. The seemingly randomised interactions between the various sound sources that creates the soundtrack also means there is no sense of interruption to the underlying score as the player transitions between these game states, allowing the player to feel as if they are always actively engaged in play even when a non-player character is delivering dialogue to progress the narrative.

From Wheatstone’s stereoscopic invention to modern day virtual reality technology, there has been growing interest in experiencing total visual engulfment. Although it has many cross-industry applications, the largest mass market for virtual reality is currently in video games, and an increasing number of game developers are creating virtual reality-only games and adding virtual reality downloadable content to their other titles. Throughout history, sound has accompanied moving image and has adapted to developments in visual and in audio technology. By analysing the way soundtracks have been used from early film through to virtual reality, we can see its evolution from the thick romantic scoring of the ‘golden age’, to the baroque stylings of early video games, to the use of modern film music technique. However, what has been shared throughout all these iterations of soundtrack is the use of a clear distinction between the diegetic world and the non-diegetic music, whether this is the live accompaniment during silent films or the full orchestral scores used in Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009). Virtual reality brings with it another change in music scoring technique, sound design and sound delivery to the player. It shares some fundamental characteristic with 2D video games, such as anchoring the player in the game world, but there is a contrast between the way these are executed. Now, the player’s perception of diegesis is warped as they are wholly visually engulfed in the game world, and the use of greater fluidity between music and game-world sound reflects this. We are still at the beginning of mass market virtual reality gaming, and whilst it is popular, it could take a few generations of virtual reality technology and a decrease in system prices before more players become accustomed to the new visual experience. However, through combining theories of immersive play, music’s representation of emotion, and its influence on feelings, with a discussion of the development of soundtrack over the past century, it is clear that music and sound are still vital to the gaming experience. The new game world of virtual reality may be edgeless, but our field of vision is still 114º, needing sound to add emotional context and depth to build a 360º experience.

 

References

Adorno, T. Eisler, H. Composing for the Films, (New York: Oxford University Press) (1947).

Bakshy, A. With Benefit of Music. The Nation, 27 May (1931).

Barnabé, F.  ‘Storytelling in Videogames: From ‘Narraive’ Towards ‘Fictional Universe’, presented at: Poetics of the Algorithm – Narrative, the Digital, and ‘Unidentified’ Media. Liège, 18th June 2016. <http://orbi.ulg.ac.be/handle/2268/198777>  accessed 5th January 2017.

Berlyne, D. E. Aesthetics and Psychobiology. (New York: Appleton-Century-Croft) (1971).

Bocking, S., Hartmann, T., Klimmt, C., Schramm, H., Vorderer, P., Wirth, W. “Spatial Presence Theory: State of the Art and Challenges Ahead”, in Immersed in Media: Telepresence Theory, Measurement & Technology, eds. Biocca, F., Freeman, J., IJsselsteijn, W., Lombard, M., Schaevitz, R. J. (New York: Springer) (2015).

Brown, E., Cairns, P. “A Grounded Investigations of Game Immersion”. CHI’04 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors and Computing Systems (Vienna, April 2004).

Bullerjahn, C., Güldenring, M. “An empirical investigation of effects of film music using qualitative content analysis”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994).

Collins, K. “In the loop: Creativity and constraint in 8-bit video game audio”, Twentieth-century music 4:2 (2008).

Collins, K. Playing with Sound: A Theory of Interacting with Sound and Music in Video Games. (Cambridge: MIT University Press) (2013).

Curtis, M. E., Bharucha, J. J. The Minor Third Communicated Sadness in Speech, Mirroring Its Use in Music, Emotion 10:3 (2010)

Daniels, L. Batman – The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Dark Knight. (San Francisco: Chronicle Books) (2004).

Davies, S. “Philosophical perspectives on music’s expressiveness”, in Music and Emotion: Theory and Research, eds. Juslin, P. N., Sloboda, J. A. (Oxford: OUP) (2001).

Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. “Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media”, in Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media eds. Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. (Leiden: Brill) (2015).

Edwards, B. Unraveling The Enigma Of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, 20 Years Later. Fast Company. <https://www.fastcompany.com/3050016/unraveling-the-enigma-of-nintendos-virtual-boy-20-years-later> accessed 13th May 2017.

Field, A. P., Moore, A. C. “Dissociating the effects of attention and contingency on awareness on evaluating conditioning effects in the visual paradigm”, Cognition & Emotion. 19:1 (2005).

Fruchter R., Lia, A. Developing a collaborative workflow from BIM to virtual reality. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University) (2015).

Good, O. S. PlayStation VR sales figures revealed in exec’s interview. Polygon. <https://www.polygon.com/2017/2/26/14742880/playstation-vr-sales>  accessed 17th May 2017.

Groner, R., Weibel, D., Wissmath, B. “Dubbing or Subtitling? Effects on Spatial Presence, Transportation, Flow, and Enjoyment”, Journal of Media Psychology 21:3 (2009).

Halfyard, J. K. “Cue the Big Theme? The Sound of the Superhero”, in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, eds. Richardson, J., Gorbman, C., Vernallis, C. (2013).

Juslin, P. N., Västfjäll, D. “Emotional responses to music: the need to consider underlying mechanisms”, Behavioural Brain Science 31:1 (2008).

Lastra, J. Sound Technology and the American Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press) (2000).

Lipscomb, S. D., Kendall, R. A. “Perceptual judgment of the relationship between musical and visual components in film”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994).

Lipscomb, S. D., Zehnder, S. M. “Immersion in the Virtual Environment: The Effect of a Musical Score on the Video Gaming Experience”, Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science 23:1 (2004).

Lundqvist, L. “Facial expressions are contagious” Journal of Psychophysiol. 9:1 (1995).

Maman, F. The Role of Music in the Twenty-first Century. (California: Tama-Dõ) (1997).

Nacke, L. E., Grimshaw, M. N., Lindly, C. A. “More than a feeling: Measurement of sonic user experience and psychophysiology in a first-person shooter game”, Interacting with Computers 22:5 (2010).

Oderman, S. “The sound of silents”, Films in Review 47:3 (1996).

Osborne, J. W. “A phenomenological investigation of the musical representation of extra-musical ideas”, Journal of Phenomenol Psychology 20:1 (1989).

Reay, P. Music in Film: Soundtracks and Synergy  (New York: Wallflower Press) (2014).

Ryan, M. Narrative as Virtual Reality 2: Revisiting Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) (2015).

Schäfer, T., Huron, D., Shanahan, D., Sedlmeier, P. “The sounds of safety: stress and danger in music perception”, Frontiers in Psychology 6:9 (2015).

Strangman, R. Memoirs of a Virtual Caveman. (North Carolina: Lulu Press) (2014).

Subers, R. Around-the-World Roundup: ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Joins Billionaire Club. Box Office Mojo. < http://www.boxofficemojo.com/news/?id=3514&p=.htm>  accessed 18th May 2017.

Summers, T. “Wagner and Video Game Music” in: Music in Video Games: Studying Play eds. Donnelly, K. J., Gibbons, W., Lerner, W. (UK: Routledge) (2014).

Sweester, P., Wyeth, P. “GameFlow: A Model for Evaluating Player Enjoyment in Games”, ACM Computers in Entertainment 3:3 (2005).

Tan, S. L., Kelley, M. E. “Graphic representations of short musical compositions”, Psychology of Music 32:2 (2004).

Whelan, Z. N. Play Along: Video Game Music as Metaphor and Metonymy (Florida: University of Florida) (2004).

Wingstedt, J., Brändström, S., Berg, J. “Narrative Music, Visual and Meaning in Film”, Visual Communication. 9:2 (2010).

Yeh, CH., Tseng, WY., Chen, CY. et al. “Popular music representation: chorus detection & emotions recognition”, Multimedia Tools and Applications 73:3 (2014)

 

Films

Batman (1989, Tim Burton)

Batman and Robin (1949, Spencer Gordon Bennet)

Batman Begins (2005, Christopher Nolan)

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, Leonard Nimoy)

The Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer)

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan)

The Pawnshop (1916, Charlie Chaplin)

 

Video Games

Batman (1986, Ocean Software)

Batman (1990, SunSoft)

Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009, Rocksteady)

Batman: Arkham VR (2016, Rocksteady)

Batman Begins (2005, Eurocom)

Final Fantasy I (1987, Square Co.)

Final Fantasy XV (2016, Square Enix)

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002, Electronic Arts)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998, Nintendo)

 

[1] Edwards, B. Unraveling The Enigma Of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, 20 Years Later. Fast Company. <https://www.fastcompany.com/3050016/unraveling-the-enigma-of-nintendos-virtual-boy-20-years-later> accessed 13th May 2017.

[2] Good, O. S. PlayStation VR sales figures revealed in exec’s interview. Polygon. <https://www.polygon.com/2017/2/26/14742880/playstation-vr-sales>  accessed 17th May 2017.

[3] Fruchter R., Lia, A. Developing a collaborative workflow from BIM to virtual reality. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University) (2015).

[4] How Animals See the World, Buzzfeed. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqmBa8FPMx8> accessed 28th August 2017.

[5] Discussed by Reay in Music in Film: Soundtracks and Synergy  (New York: Wallflower Press) (2014).

[6] Adorno, T. Eisler, H. Composing for the Films, (New York: Oxford University Press) (1947) p76.

[7] Bakshy, A. With Benefit of Music. The Nation, 27 May (1931) p359.

[8] Lastra, J. Sound Technology and the American Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press) (2000) p64.

[9] Oderman, S. “The sound of silents”, Films in Review 47:3 (1996) p38.

[10] Collins, K. Playing with Sound: A Theory of Interacting with Sound and Music in Video Games. (Cambridge: MIT University Press) (2013) p135.

[11] Maman, F. The Role of Music in the Twenty-first Century. (California: Tama-Dõ) (1997).

[12] Collins, K. “In the loop: Creativity and constraint in 8-bit video game audio”, Twentieth-century music 4:2 (2008) p209.

[13] Summers, T. “Wagner and Video Game Music” in: Music in Video Games: Studying Play eds. Donnelly, K. J., Gibbons, W., Lerner, W. (UK: Routledge) (2014) p206.

[14] Schäfer, T., Huron, D., Shanahan, D., Sedlmeier, P. “The sounds of safety: stress and danger in music perception”, Frontiers in Psychology 6:9 (2015).

[15] Yeh, CH., Tseng, WY., Chen, CY. et al. “Popular music representation: chorus detection & emotions recognition”, Multimedia Tools and Applications 73:3 (2014).

[16] Lipscomb, S. D., Kendall, R. A. “Perceptual judgment of the relationship between musical and visual components in film”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994).

[17] Bullerjahn, C., Güldenring, M. “An empirical investigation of effects of film music using qualitative content analysis”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994)

[18] Tan, S. L., Kelley, M. E. “Graphic representations of short musical compositions”, Psychology of Music 32:2 (2004).

[19] Osborne, J. W. “A phenomenological investigation of the musical representation of extra-musical ideas”, Journal of Phenomenol Psychology 20:1 (1989).

[20] Whelan, Z. N. Play Along: Video Game Music as Metaphor and Metonymy (Florida: University of Florida) (2004) p43.

[21] Juslin, P. N., Västfjäll, D. “Emotional responses to music: the need to consider underlying mechanisms”, Behavioural Brain Science 31:1 (2008).

[22] Berlyne, D. E. Aesthetics and Psychobiology. (New York: Appleton-Century-Croft) (1971).

[23] Field, A. P., Moore, A. C. “Dissociating the effects of attention and contingency on awareness on evaluating conditioning effects in the visual paradigm”, Cognition & Emotion. 19:1 (2005).

[24] Lundqvist, L. “Facial expressions are contagious” Journal of Psychophysiol. 9:1 (1995).

[25] Davies, S. “Philosophical perspectives on music’s expressiveness”, in Music and Emotion: Theory and Research, eds. Juslin, P. N., Sloboda, J. A. (Oxford: OUP) (2001).

[26] Groner, R., Weibel, D., Wissmath, B. “Dubbing or Subtitling? Effects on Spatial Presence, Transportation, Flow, and Enjoyment”, Journal of Media Psychology 21:3 (2009).

[27] Bocking, S., Hartmann, T., Klimmt, C., Schramm, H., Vorderer, P., Wirth, W. “Spatial Presence Theory: State of the Art and Challenges Ahead”, in Immersed in Media: Telepresence Theory, Measurement & Technology, eds. Biocca, F., Freeman, J., IJsselsteijn, W., Lombard, M., Schaevitz, R. J. (New York: Springer) (2015).

[28] Brown, E., Cairns, P. “A Grounded Investigations of Game Immersion”. CHI’04 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors and Computing Systems (Vienna, April 2004).

[29] Sweester, P., Wyeth, P. “GameFlow: A Model for Evaluating Player Enjoyment in Games”, ACM Computers in Entertainment 3:3 (2005).

[30] Lipscomb, S. D., Zehnder, S. M. “Immersion in the Virtual Environment: The Effect of a Musical Score on the Video Gaming Experience”, Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science 23:1 (2004).

[31] Nacke, L. E., Grimshaw, M. N., Lindly, C. A. “More than a feeling: Measurement of sonic user experience and psychophysiology in a first-person shooter game”, Interacting with Computers 22:5 (2010).

[32] Daniels, L. Batman – The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Dark Knight. (San Francisco: Chronicle Books) (2004).

[33] Subers, R. Around-the-World Roundup: ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Joins Billionaire Club. Box Office Mojo. < http://www.boxofficemojo.com/news/?id=3514&p=.htm>  accessed 18th May 2017.

[34] Strangman, R. Memoirs of a Virtual Caveman. (North Carolina: Lulu Press) (2014).

[35] Ryan, M. Narrative as Virtual Reality 2: Revisiting Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) (2015).

[36] Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. “Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media”, in Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media eds. Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. (Leiden: Brill) (2015).

[37] Barnabé, F.  ‘Storytelling in Videogames: From ‘Narraive’ Towards ‘Fictional Universe’, presented at: Poetics of the Algorithm – Narrative, the Digital, and ‘Unidentified’ Media. Liège, 18th June 2016. <http://orbi.ulg.ac.be/handle/2268/198777>  accessed 5th January 2017.

Intermediality and Digital Games: On Player-figures and Media Borders in Uncharted 4

Kristian Ahm

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 102-121.

 

Kristian Ahm

University of Copenhagen

 

 

Intermediality and Digital Games: On Player-figures and Media Borders in Uncharted 4

 

Abstract

This paper will present the argument that Nathan Drake, the player-figure in Uncharted 4, is an intermedial entity. By this, I mean that he is an entity with the ability to cross media borders. Based on this argument, the concept of gameworlds will be discussed and it will be suggested that the worlds players encounter in modern digital games should be perceived as intermedial landscapes. This landscape is traversed by the player via a player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders. In doing so, the analysis is meant to highlight the potential fruitfulness of utilizing perspectives from intermedial studies in the analysis of individual games, instead of mostly focusing on processes of transmedial adaptation.

The paper will begin by defining the concept of the player-figure and Nathan Drake as a player-figure will be analysed. It will be argued that by appropriating the same player-figure to different contexts, the player-figure switches back and forth between being perceived as an avatar and a character.

Subsequently, the concept of intermediality will be introduced and an analytical framework from that field will be utilized to analyse how the player-figure crosses media borders. It will be argued in this analysis that a fundamental change takes place on the spatiotemporal modality when the game transitions from gameplay to cutscene. This marks a crossing between two qualified media – from that of games to cinema.

In the discussion, the argument is presented that Nathan Drake is an intermedial entity because of the audio-visual consistency of the player-figure, which means it is the player-figure itself traversing the media borders. From a media studies perspective, this paper focusses on the intermediality of the player-figure to highlight how intermedial perspectives can be useful in the analysis of the player-figure and its relations to the player controlling them.

Finally, a jumping-off point for future research will be established, focusing on what intermediality could potentially bring to game studies. Most importantly, it will allow for a more granular analysis of what defines the digital game as a medium.

 

Key words: intermediality, player-figure, gameworlds, ludo-narrative, media borders, game studies, digital games

Introduction

 

While digital games are always mediated, seeing as they are dependent on the processing power of computers and (almost) always on some sort of screen output, it is only in recent years that researchers have highlighted the fact that contemporary digital games are something more than just games. Aarseth points out that games, fundamentally, are “complex software programs that can emulate any medium, including film, text/novel [and] graphic novel […]”[1]. He goes on to call these “games” ludo-narratological constructs, highlighting their composite nature, consisting of elements from games as well as narrative media[2]. For clarity’s sake, the paper will primarily refer to games as ludo-narrative software. The acknowledgement of the multimodality of digital games seems to suggest that the intermedial perspective would be especially fruitful for the analysis of digital games. This is especially the case for contemporary games that, due to great advances in processing power, can mix earlier and newer media in innovative and interesting ways[3]. For now, we can broadly define intermediality as a concept describing “the totality of cross-media phenomena, […] involving a crossing of borders between media”[4]. Within game studies, the intermedial perspective has been used to study transmedial phenomena such as the adaptation of games into movies or tv series into games[5];[6]. This paper makes a distinction between what we could call external intermediality, which focuses on transmedial processes of adaptation, and internal intermediality, which focuses on the crossing of media borders within a single media object. The present paper will not engage with external processes of adaptation across media, but instead focus on the internal intermediality of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (Naughty Dog, 2016). As such, the object of analysis is the crossing of media borders within the ludo-narrative software itself, between the qualified media that constitute it. Recently, Fuchs performed an intermedial analysis of Alan Wake in the same internal vein, focusing on how the constellation of several media managed to create a sense of gothic uncanniness[7]. This paper however, will focus on the player-figure of Nathan Drake, the swashbuckling hero the player controls during gameplay.

This article will consist of four parts. In the first part, Nathan Drake will be analysed through the lens of Vella’s concept of the player-figure. Next, the concept of intermediality will be presented and an analytical framework from that field will be utilized to analyse how the game transitions between gameplay and cutscenes. Part 3 will discuss the results of the analyses and present the following arguments:

1) Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 is an intrinsically intermedial player-figure. This distinguishes him as a new kind of media entity, different from earlier, multimodal player-figures.

2) The worlds encountered in modern ludo-narrative software should be conceptualized as intermedial landscapes which players traverse via a player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders.

Finally, a jumping-off point for future research will be established, focusing on how intermediality can contribute to the field of game studies. Specifically, it will be highlighted how intermedia studies can present new perspectives on what constitute digital games as a medium.

 

  1. The Player-Figure

 

Theory

 

Klevjer argues that avatar-based gameplay, i.e. games where players take control of a character in the gameworld, creates a sense of bodily immersion which is based on the embodied experience of play[8]. The immersion is not a trick of fiction, but the result of experiencing playing the game. This prosthetic agency is created through real-time control of in-game elements[9]. He also remarks that a distinction needs to be made between the avatar understood as a playable character and the avatar as an entity that grants the player agency and presence within the gameworld[10].

This is where Vella’s theoretical framework enters the picture. In his dissertation he lays the foundation for his concept of the player-figure. He makes an ontological distinction between avatar and character[11]. The avatar refers to the player-figure as a game component, while the character refers to the player-figure as a represented individual in the game’s heterocosm[12]. He goes on to define an avatar’s most important characteristic: that all player interactions are structured through them[13]. The character, on the other hand, is both a mimetic representation of a possible person, and a textual construct constituted of signs[14]. A character is built up of characterization statements (from now on called CSs), a stream of signifiers that allow the player to construct a mental image of a character[15].

This differentiation into avatar and character does not imply a duality. Instead, Vella describes the player-figure as a hybrid-identity, where the player may waver between perceiving it as an avatar or a character[16]. This hybrid-identity is possible because of what Vella calls the double perspectival structure; that the player has an internal and an external perspective on the game’s events[17]. From the internal perspective, the player inhabits the I can of the avatar and has a first-personal experience of playing out subjective experience within a domain. From the external perspective, the player sees a translation of events of her being-in-the-gameworld into discourse “in the form […] of a temporal sequence of audio-visual representation”[18]. This again relates to the player either perceiving the player-figure as avatar or character.

 

On- and off-line engagement

 

In the coming analysis of the Nathan Drake player-figure, I will be focusing on the differences in perception of the player-figure during gameplay and cutscenes. I will be using the concept of on- and off-line engagement[19] to refer to these parts of the game. On-line is to be understood as “the state of ergodic participation that we would […] think of as ‘playing the game’” [20]. On the other hand, off-line “describes periods in which no registered input control is received from the player” [21]. When I refer to on-line segments in Uncharted 4, I mean parts where the player is granted control of the player-figure by the software. Conversely, off-line segments refer to parts in which the player is not in control of the player-figure.

 

Analysis

 

On-line engagement.

 

During on-line segments, the Nathan Drake player-figure functions mainly as an avatar, a game-systemic entity. This is especially the case during action-filled shootout sequences. Here, the player must fight to survive, not because they fear the character Drake will feel distressed if he dies, but because the player wants to overcome a challenge and progress to the next chapter. Drake becomes a vessel for the player’s engagement within the gameworld and has systemic characteristics that structure the player’s decision making. For example, if Drake gets shot too many times in a row, the game stops and returns Drake to an earlier part of the game. The player utilizes the actions afforded by the player-figure to overcome obstacles, i.e. find cover and shoot henchmen. It seems reasonable to believe that during shootouts the player identifies as Drake. This is further stressed by Drake’s utterances during such segments. If a grenade is thrown near Drake, he will frantically shout “No, no, no, no!”. In Vella’s terms, this outburst could be perceived as a CS originating from the character Nathan Drake[22]. However, I would argue that the outburst functions more as a signifier of the grenade having landed within a certain radius of the player-figure, who is implicitly warning the player to get away from it. While this point is arguable, it makes sense if one views Nathan Drake the avatar, as a virtual game object that has certain behavioural properties, which places him on a different level than the fictional[23]. The utterance does not characterize Drake as a character who dislikes grenades, but as a game-systemic entity that also functions as a dynamic information source to the player.

During on-line segments of exploration, the Drake player-figure manifests traits of a character through numerous instances of CSs. In Chapter 11, Drake must traverse a Madagascan street market. The player still controls Drake’s movement and must guide him towards a destination, but small verbal exchanges and constraints on player actions function as CSs, creating a mental image of who he is as a character. The player-figure fluidly changes between being perceived as an avatar and a character. When walking through a crowd, Drake automatically squeezes through crowds and occasionally mumbles “Excuse me”.

 

Figure 1. Drake traversing a Madagascan street market

obraz 1
Source: YouTube[24]

 

Here, a combination of dynamic mimetic elements[25], i.e. the context-based animation of the player-figure and voice, create an image of Drake as a character, not a game-systemic entity. While it could be argued that the cover and shooting animations experienced during shootouts also characterize Drake, the point made here is that the dynamic mimetic elements utilized in the street market are more overtly expressive about Drake, since they are unique to him. Drake’s companions, who occasionally join him in battle, are programmed to shoot and take cover using the same animations as Drake.

Further on, the player can choose to buy an apple from a vendor. If the player chooses to do so, she does not get a health bonus or any kind of boost to their avatar’s systemic attributes. Instead, this serves as another dynamic mimetic element where the player, through her actions, decides what type of character Drake is.

 

Figure 2. Drake buys an apple from a vendor

obraz 2
Source: YouTube

 

The most notable CSs stem from the lack of player actions possible in the market sequence, compared to the wealth of actions possible during shootouts. Besides walking and looking, the only other possible action is to “look closer”, which makes the game camera zoom in. This action is performed by pressing the button that normally makes Drake aim his weapon. Although the 3D model of the player-figure is visibly equipped with a gun and rope hook, they are no longer signifiers of possible player actions, but are part of the character’s costume[26], characterizing him as an experienced adventurer. This shows how the player-figure’s features, both semiotic and mechanical, can be appropriated to different contexts, thereby facilitating the seamless change back and forth between avatar and character.

 

Off-line engagement.

 

During off-line segments, the Drake player-figure functions only as a character. I would argue that the player, no longer having agency within the gameworld, takes on an external perspective on the events of the game. Although the word ‘cutscene’ may have problematic implicit meanings, I will summon it now to help properly explain what these off-line segments are. According to Klevjer, a cutscene is a “cinematic sequence that suspends regular gameplay in order to convey plot, characterization and spectacle”[27]. Because the Uncharted series is deeply inspired by action-adventure cinema, the cutscenes are indeed cinematic elements that form the most explicitly narrative parts of Uncharted 4. Here, the player is fed a stream of static mimetic CSs[28], as if they are watching a movie. Static mimetic elements are “statements regarding fixed (or relatively fixed) facts regarding a character” such as name and appearance[29]. Some might argue that the instances in cutscenes, where the player is asked to choose a response on Drake’s behalf, turns the player-figure into an avatar. I would argue that this is not the case since these choices, like the situation with the apple vendor, only serve to characterize Nathan Drake. What is particularly interesting when examining Drake as a character in off-line segments is how much emphasis is put on showing his face to the player. Because of the sophistication of the performance capture technology used, Drake’s expressiveness during cutscenes is very impressive. It thereby foregrounds him as a represented individual. As engagement changes from off-line to on-line, the view of Drake’s back signals the change from character to avatar. He is stripped of his salient characteristics and reconfigured into a vessel.

 

Figure 3. Drake player-figure off-line

obraz 3
Source: YouTube

 

Figure 4. Drake player-figure on-line

obraz 4
Source: YouTube

 

This concludes the analysis of the Nathan Drake player-figure. It has attempted to demonstrate how Drake can switch between being perceived as an avatar and a character by the player. The fluidity of this transformation process is important for this paper’s argument that the player-figure is an intermedial entity. By reconfiguring the same player-figure, players are confronted with a visually coherent player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders, instead of being split into several different representations.

 

  1. Intermediality

 

Theory

 

Intermediality is the study of all instances in which different media interact with each other, assuming a theoretical “in-between space” where these interactions take place[30]. In Elleström’s words, intermediality is something “that sometimes ‘happens’; an effect of unconventional ways of performing medial works”[31]. As such, it is important to define what intermediality means in the context of this paper[32].

The intermedial focus of this paper is the subcategory of media combinations[33]. This is to be understood as media objects that combine “at least two conventionally distinct media or medial forms of articulation”[34]. Of interest for this paper is the crossing of borders between qualified media, considered a key intermedial phenomenon[35];[36]. Because of Uncharted 4’s status as a piece of software, within which are encompassed several distinct media, I believe it is ripe for intermedial analysis because of the novel ways it seamlessly changes between those media. The word “media” has been thrown around quite a lot by now. Let me elucidate what the term means in the context of the coming analysis. Elleström divides the medium into basic media, qualified media, and technical media[37]. Basic media are media that are “mainly identified by their modal appearances” such as “still images”, “moving images” or “organized non-verbal sound”[38]. Qualified media are what we would normally call “art forms and other cultural media types” which are constituted by both historic contexts and communicative conventions, and which consist of basic media[39]. While the first two categories are abstractions that help us understand how media are formed, technical media are the physical objects or physical phenomena that “‘realize[…]’ and ‘display[…]’ basic and qualified media”[40].

These distinctions help me clarify my last statement: When I talk of the novel ways the Uncharted 4 software transitions between media, I am referring to transitions between qualified media. As will become clear when I begin my analysis, I am interested in the ways the software transitions from the qualified medium of games to the qualified medium of cinema.

To properly analyse these transitions, I will be utilizing Elleström’s analytical framework, based on his four modalities of media. The term “modality” is related to the term “mode”, which is a “way to be or do things”[41]. In Elleström’s analytical framework, which will be introduced presently, he uses the term “modality” to refer to the different ways media can manifest themselves. He describes these modalities as “the essential cornerstones of all media without which mediality cannot be comprehended […]”[42]

The first of the four modalities is the material modality, referring to “the latent corporeal interface of the medium”[43].

Second is the sensorial modality, which relates to the “physical and mental acts of perceiving the present interface of the medium through the sense faculties” – through sense-data, receptors, and sensation[44].

Third is the spatiotemporal modality. This modality covers “the structuring of the sensorial perception of sense-data of the material interface into experiences and conceptions of space and time”[45]. In other words, this modality refers to the way a person perceives and constructs the experience of space and time in the medium at hand.

Finally, the fourth modality, semiotic modality, relates to the “creation of meaning in the spatiotemporally conceived medium by the way of different sorts of thinking and sign interpretation”[46].

For my analysis of Uncharted 4, I will be focusing on the spatiotemporal modality since I believe an important shift happens in this modality when the game transitions between gameplay and cutscene. I will argue that this shift in modality marks a transition between games and cinema.

 

Analysis

 

Please note that in the following I will be writing numbers in parentheses, the decimals will refer to the images within Figure 5.

 

Setting the scene

 

In chapter 8, Drake and his brother are exploring a cave-system.

 

Figure 5. Transitions between on- and off-line segments

obraz 5
Source: YouTube

 

The player is in control of the player-figure, meaning its current status is an avatar (5.1). Occasional chat between the brothers deploys verbal CSs that characterize their relationship. The player steers through the cave-system and begins climbing a wall (5.2). As they press the jump button, which makes the player-figure jump up onto a small ledge, they lose control of the player-figure and the camera closes in on the brothers (5.3).

A cut, and the viewer is now witnessing a conversation between the antagonists, which the brothers are listening in on (5.4).

As their scene ends (5.5), it cuts back to the two eavesdropping brothers (5.6).

As they converse, the camera automatically pulls out (5.7) and control of the player-figure is returned to the player (5.8).

 

Time and space

 

It is the argument of this paper that a change in modality has occurred within Uncharted 4, thus signalling a transition between the media encompassed within. For this analysis, I will focus on the changes happening on the spatiotemporal level, since this modality most effectively indicates the crossing from the medium of games into the medium of cinema.

If we begin by looking at the temporal level, the change is obvious. We move from the partially fixed sequentiality of games to the fixed sequentiality of cinema[47]. I refrain myself from claiming that Uncharted 4 has non-fixed sequentiality, since the game’s linear nature does not leave much room for the player to improvise.

On the spatial level, it is not as easy to use Elleström’s concepts of spatiality to make relevant distinctions between the types of space the player encounters during on- and off-line segments. Instead, I will use the concepts of gameworld interface[48] and scenographic space[49] to make these distinctions.

During on-line engagement, the player controls Nathan and must navigate the cave without falling to their death. The world is presented to the player in a wide view, allowing her to survey the world through the player-figure. Also, the player can control the view she has of the gameworld. Small reliefs of stone communicate to the player that she can grab them. The space functions as a gameworld interface, a space that’s “designed to support and inspire certain gameplay activities” and which allows the player to “take gameplay-relevant actions within the gameworld”[50]. The space changes as soon as the player loses control of the player-figure and thus also the view they have of the gameworld, signalling a change to a different modality.

The nature of the space changes to that of a scenographic space, where the player, now a passive viewer, constructs the world through visual and auditory cues[51]. Unlike before, the player cannot control where they want to look, but are fed cues that help them construct the space in their minds. This is most explicitly the case with the room in which the antagonists converse since the player-figure will never set foot in that room. The room’s function is not to feed the player information about relevant gameplay actions, but to set up expectations for the unfolding narrative. From this perspective, it could be argued that a change has also taken place on the semiotic modality, since the player/viewer employs different types of “sign thinking and interpretation” depending on whether the player perceives the represented space as a gameworld interface or as a filmic, scenographic space[52]. What is important to note is that this perception of space is dependent on whether the player can control the perspective (i.e. the camera) or not. Keep in mind that the scenographic space is still technically constructed in the same way as the gameworld interface: inside a game engine. The fundamental difference is that the player during on-line segments can control the perspective and thus engage with the world in a different way than if they did not control it. Interactivity, it seems, also plays a big part in cueing the player/viewer to employ a specific type of sign interpretation.

Based on this analysis, I am arguing that a transition has taken place between two qualified media: games, and cinema. What is particularly interesting is the seamless nature of these transitions, which can be quite jarring when the player is engaged in the real-time control of the player-figure. This seamlessness rests on the design decision to present the player with information in an ecological, integrated manner in a way that does not draw players’ attention to the fact that they are playing a game[53].

Before I move on to discussing the implications of these blurred media borders, I will quickly summarize the results of my analysis.

By analysing the player-figure of Nathan Drake, I determined that he is mainly perceived as an avatar during on-line segments of gameplay, but that he was able to manifest traits of a character through different kinds of CSs. During off-line segments, he was perceived only as a character. This transformation from avatar to character is seamless because of the constant reappropriation of the same player-figure.

In my analysis of the player-figure’s media border crossings, I concluded that the modality of the software changed fundamentally on the spatiotemporal level, turning the heterocosm from a gameworld interface during on-line segments, to a scenographic, filmic space during off-line segments.

 

III. Discussions and Contributions

 

The Player-Figure as an Intermedial Entity

 

As has been pointed out in the analysis, Uncharted 4 jumps to-and-fro between different qualified media. It does so in an almost seamless way, both by reconfiguring the player-figure and the perspective on the space the figure inhabits. But does this seamlessness exclude it from being categorized as an intermedial phenomenon? Rajewsky highlights digital media’s ability to simulate earlier media forms and to erase perceptible media differences[54]. This is certainly problematic since the study of intermediality is based on the existence of perceptible borders, which can be crossed. With that said, this paper would like to present an idea of where this perceptible border might be found.

In ludo-narrative software, the perceptible border between media is grounded in the player-figure and its ability to be mapped onto several qualified media in a way that is perceived as being coherent. Nathan Drake as a player-figure can be either a game-systemic entity, i.e. an avatar, or a character. We as players perceive him as a unified whole and this is key to him being an intermedial entity. Another very perceptible way that the player-figure signals a crossing between media borders is by having the player relinquish control of it.

 

Multimodal and Intermedial Player-Figures

 

This does not mean that all player-figures are intermedial. Cloud, the protagonist from Final Fantasy VII (Square, 1997) could certainly be called a multimodal player-figure with the hybrid-identity of both an avatar and a character[55]. However, the player-figure of Cloud is built up of several different audio-visual representations. Avatar-Cloud is a small polygonal man during on-line segments of exploration and a slightly more realistically proportioned man during combat. The Character-Cloud found in off-line segments is a wholly different, third representation. This compartmentalization of several different player-figures makes the types of border crossings seen performed by the player-figure in Uncharted 4 impossible. This does not make the intrinsic intermediality of Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 some technological goal that developers should strive for. Instead, the realization that a player-figure can consist of several representations opens new avenues of inquiry. What implications do these multiple representations have aesthetically, ontologically, functionally? The recent World of Final Fantasy (Square Enix, 2016) acknowledges the multiple representations of its protagonists and incorporates their shape-shifting abilities as a part of gameplay. What does this self-reflexive design practice tell us about the ontology of the player-figure? This brings up another point. While Vella’s study of the player-figure is very detailed, many of his analyses are based on games developed in western countries. Except for a footnote mention of Final Fantasy VIII (Square, 1999), all the role-playing games mentioned in his dissertation are western. It would be interesting to analyse how Japanese role-playing games utilize multiple representations to create a coherent player-figure. As Fuchs points out in his analysis of Alan Wake, the co-presence of several representations of the same character can have an aesthetic function, e.g. to create discomfort[56].

In summary, Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 is intermedial because he is audiovisually consistent across media, in a way that has been hard to achieve until now for technological reasons. This consistency is instrumental for the player perceiving the player-figure as both an avatar and a character. Even in the previous game, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (Naughty Dog, 2011), changes from off- to on-line engagement are marked with a second of black screen. This second of black is a way of compartmentalizing the player-figure into different modal strata. The player-figure is multimodal in this instance but not intermedial, since the figure itself is not crossing any media borders.

The observation that the Nathan Drake player-figure in Uncharted 4 is an intermedial entity brings me to my next point.

Discussing Spatiality in Digital Games

 

If we accept the argument that Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 is an intermedial player-figure, we must also accept how this problematizes the ways digital game worlds are conceptualized. As was argued in the analysis – in tandem with the player-figure’s transformation from avatar to character and the player’s loss of control of it – the spatiotemporal modality of Uncharted 4 changes. Instead of being a gameworld interface, it transforms into a filmic, scenographic space. The implication of this is that we can see the world of the ludo-narrative software as an intermedial landscape that can be both a gameworld and a traditional filmic space. It is never just a gameworld or a scene, it is something in-between and can switch between these. To echo Aarseth[57], it would be metonymic to simply call them gameworlds since the world in Uncharted 4 is used as much more than an obstacle course for players to conquer. While the concept of intermedial landscapes is used by Fuchs in his analysis of Alan Wake’s uncanny, gothic world, it is used in this paper to call attention to a fundamental characteristic of the worlds players are confronted with when they play modern digital games.

This paper suggests that the worlds players encounter in ludo-narrative software should be conceptualized as intermedial landscapes which the player traverses via a player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders. It seems salient at this juncture to point out that this view builds on the fundamental observation that videogames are not simulations, but virtual worlds that are ontologically distinct from the physical world[58]. Uncharted 4 is not a simulation of the physical world but is its own virtual realm in which these border crossings are a very real phenomenon.

Finally, future research endeavours utilizing the intermedial perspective will be outlined.

 

  1. Future Research

 

Towards a Conceptualization of the Digital Game Medium

 

The intermedial approach could potentially be useful in the investigation of understanding what digital games are as a medium, beyond simply calling them a “virtual hypermedium”[59]. What is the medium of games? What borders surround it and how do we identify these? Wolf states that media borders are created by conventions[60]. Elleström’s concepts of the two qualifying aspects of media could be useful for investigating these conventions[61]. The contextual qualifying aspect relates to the use of a medium in specific historical, cultural, and social circumstances[62]. By performing analyses of the discourses, practices and conventions surrounding the videogame medium, we gain insights into its evolution, but more importantly we may be able to discourage the use of normative views and colloquialisms[63]. The second aspect, the operational qualifying aspect, relates to the aesthetic and communicative conventions of a medium[64]. Much work has been done in this field, with researchers from different disciplines attempting to describe and explain how videogames as a medium communicate and foster aesthetic experiences.

In this academic context, the intermedial analysis of individual games that could be categorized as unconventional medial works would be particularly interesting. To use this paper as an example, by being aware of communicative conventions from several qualified media, an argument has been formulated that relates to the ontology of ludo-narrative software and the modern player-figure. Wolf writes that media function “as cognitive frames for authors as well as recipients and are therefore […] part of the message itself”[65]. This suggests that the individual media present in the media constellations we normally call “videogames” have a great impact on the experience that emerges when interacting with the media object. As a future research endeavour, it could be interesting to analyse contemporary experimental games that combine media in novel and surprising ways. Examples of this could be Cibele (Star Maid Games, 2015), Her Story (Barlow, 2015) or Uriel’s Chasm (Barry, 2014). All of these games utilize real video footage captured in the physical world, but they utilize this footage in a different way than they were used in the 90’s, when the future of games was envisioned as being a combination of action cinema and shooting games (see Sewer Shark (Digital Pictures, 1992)). Kattenbelt writes about intermedial studies being a way to investigate “those co-relations between different media that result in a redefinition of the media that are influencing each other […]”[66]. This seems like an interesting avenue of research and one which this paper hopes to contribute to. How is the inclusion of the basic medium of ‘moving images’ reshaped by being put in different types of ludo-narrative software? In Sewer Shark it serves as part of the gameworld, with video footage being overlaid on a game interface and sprites of enemies. In Her Story, the video clips of a woman being interrogated are framed more like collectible objects, with the player tasked to unearth as many clips as possible to solve a murder mystery. What could an analysis of this change in convention potentially tell us about the medium of videogames? What does it tell us about how the borders surrounding the ludic medium have been reshaped in the last 20 years? What Kattenbelt’s quote also suggests is that the search for a clearly definable digital game medium is futile. The field of game studies has struggled with defining games since its conception. I certainly do not think that an adequate, stable definition can be found, but a history of game media conventions would have academic and historic value. For investigations like these, Elleström’s analytical framework of the four modalities would be a powerful tool for thinking about these (un)conventional media constellations with greater granularity. As Schut points out, every time a medium is presented in a digital game, it is no longer the exact same medium as before, since it is put in a new context.[67]

Wolf writes that the study of intermediality, “if carried out wisely”, will strengthen the core of the field of study[68]. While it is not entirely clear what Wolf means by “wisely”, perhaps Elleström’s advice to study all kinds of media “with a high level of awareness of the modalities of media and the crucial modal differences and similarities of media” is an answer[69].

The more we know about videogames as a medium, the closer we get to answering the question of what games are as a phenomenon, and this would be an important milestone[70].

 

 

References

Aarseth Espen, “A Narrative Theory of games”, in Proceedings of the international conference on the foundations of digital games, (2012), pp. 129-133

Aarseth Espen, “Ontology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), pp. 484-492

Beil Benjamin & Schmidt Hans Christian, “The World of The Walking Dead – Transmediality and Transmedial Intermediality”, Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 10, (2015), pp. 73-88.

Bolter Jay D.  & Grusin Richard, Remediation Understanding New Media, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) (1999)

Bordwell David, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge) (2013[1985])

Burn Andrew & Schott Gareth, “Heavy hero or digital dummy? Multimodal player–avatar relations in Final Fantasy 7”, Visual Communication, 3(2) (2004), pp. 213-233.

Elleström Lars, “The modalities of media: A model for understanding intermedial relations”, in Media borders, multimodality and intermediality, ed. Lars Elleström (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 11-51.

Fuchs Michael, “A Different Kind of Monster: Uncanny Media and Alan Wake’s Textual Monstrosity”, in Contemporary Research on Intertextuality in Video Games, ed. C. Duret & CM. Pons, (Hershey, PA: IGI Global) (2016), pp. 39-54

Hennig Martin, “Why Some Worlds Fail. Observations on the Relationship Between Intertextuality, Intermediality, and Transmediality in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill Universes”, IMAGE 21, (2015), pp. 17-33.

Jørgensen Kristine, Gameworld Interfaces, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) (2013)

Karhulahti Veli-Matti, “Suspending virtual disbelief: a perspective on narrative coherence”, in International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, ed. D. Oyarzun, F. Peinado, R.M. Young, A. Elizalde, G. Mendez (Berlin: Springer, 2012)

Karhulahti Veli-Matti, “Do Videogames Simulate? Virtuality and imitation in the philosophy of simulation”, Simulation & Gaming 46:6 (2015), p. 845

Kattenbelt Chiel, “Intermediality in theatre and performance: Definitions, perceptions and medial relationships”, Cultura, lenguaje y representación: revista de estudios culturales de la universitat Jaume, 6 (2008), pp. 19-29

Klevjer Rune, “Enter the avatar: The phenomenology of prosthetic telepresence in computer games”, in The philosophy of computer games, ed. JR Sageng, H. Fossheim & T.M. Larsen (Dodrecht: Springer, 2012), pp. 1-24.

Klevjer Rune, “Cut-scenes”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), pp. 301-309.

Newman James, “The myth of the ergodic videogame”, Game studies, 2(1) (2002),

Rajewsky Irina, “Intermediality, intertextuality and remediation”, Intermédialités: Histoire et théorie des arts, des lettres et des techniques Intermediality:/History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 6 (2005), pp. 43-64.

Schut Kevin, “Media Ecology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), pp. 324-330.

Vella Daniel, The Ludic Subject and the Ludic Self: Analyzing the ‘I-in-the-Gameworld’. (IT-University of Copenhagen, 2015)

http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/newman/, accessed November 13th 2016.

Wolf Werner, The musicalization of fiction: A study in the theory and history of intermediality, (Amsterdam: Rodopi) (1999)

Wolf Werner, “The relevance of ‘mediality’ and ‘intermediality’ to academic studies of English Literature”, in Mediality/Intermediality (Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature 21), ed. A. Fischer, M. Heusser and A.H. Juncker (Tübingen: Günter Narr Verlag, 2008), pp. 15-43.

 

Games:
Cibele (2015, Star Maid Games)

Final Fantasy VII (1997, Square)

Final Fantasy VIII (1998, Square)

Her Story (2015, Sam Barlow)

Sewer Shark (1992, Digital Pictures)

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011, Naughty Dog)

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016, Naughty Dog)

Uriel’s Chasm (2014, Dylan Barry)

World of Final Fantasy (2016, Square Enix)

 

 

 

 

[1]  Espen Aarseth, “A Narrative Theory of games”, in Proceedings of the international conference on the foundations of digital games, (2012), p. 130.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA:MIT Press) (1999)

[4] Martin Hennig, “Why Some Worlds Fail. Observations on the Relationship Between Intertextuality, Intermediality, and Transmediality in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill Universes”, IMAGE 21, (2015), p. 17.

[5] Benjamin Beil & Hans Christian Schmidt, “The World of The Walking Dead – Transmediality and Transmedial Intermediality”, Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 10, (2015).

[6] Martin Hennig.

[7]  Michael Fuchs, “A Different Kind of Monster: Uncanny Media and Alan Wake’s Textual Monstrosity”, in Contemporary Research on Intertextuality in Video Games, ed. C. Duret & CM. Pons, (Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2016)

[8] Rune Klevjer, “Enter the avatar: The phenomenology of prosthetic telepresence in computer games”, in The philosophy of computer games, ed. JR Sageng, H. Fossheim & T.M. Larsen (Dodrecht: Springer, 2012), p. 14.

[9] Ibid., p. 4.

[10] Ibid., p. 2

[11] Daniel Vella, The Ludic Subject and the Ludic Self: Analyzing the ‘I-in-the-Gameworld’. (IT-University of Copenhagen, 2015), p. 216.

[12] Ibid., p. 217.

[13] Ibid., p. 219.

[14] Ibid., p. 371.

[15] Ibid., p. 374.

[16] Ibid., p. 227.

[17] Ibid., p. 364.

[18] Ibid, p. 364.

[19] James Newman, “The myth of the ergodic videogame”, Game studies, 2(1) (2002), http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/newman/, accessed November 13th, 2016.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Daniel Vella, p.393.

[23] V.M. Karhulahti, “Suspending virtual disbelief: a perspective on narrative coherence”, in International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, ed. D. Oyarzun, F. Peinado, R.M. Young, A. Elizalde, G. Mendez (Berlin: Springer, 2012)

[24]All Figure sources: Youtube (2016). Uncharted 4 Gameplay Walkthrough Part 1 FULL GAME 1080p No Commentary (Chapter 1-23). RabidRetrospectGames. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxaw6CqVMss

[25] Daniel Vella, p. 393.

[26] Ibid., p. 379

[27] Rune Klevjer, “Cut-scenes”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), p. 301.

[28] Daniel Vella, p. 376

[29] Ibid.

[30] Irina Rajewsky, “Intermediality, intertextuality and remediation”, Intermédialités: Histoire et théorie des arts, des lettres et des techniques Intermediality:/History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 6 (2005), p. 46.

[31] Lars Elleström, “The modalities of media: A model for understanding intermedial relations”, in Media borders, multimodality and intermediality, ed. Lars Elleström (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 28.

[32] Irina Rajewsky, p. 45.

[33] Ibid., pp. 51-52

[34] Ibid.

[35] Irina Rajewsky, p. 46.

[36] Lars Elleström.

[37] Ibid, p. 34.

[38] Ibid., p. 27.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., p. 30.

[41] Ibid., p. 14.

[42] Ibid., p. 15.

[43] Ibid., p. 17

[44] Ibid., pp. 17-18.

[45] Ibid., p. 18.

[46] Ibid., p. 22.

[47] Lars Elleström, p. 19.

[48] Kristine Jørgensen, Gameworld Interfaces, (Cambdrige, MA: MIT Press) (2013)

[49] David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge) (2013[1985])

[50] Kristine Jørgensen, pp. 2-3.

[51] David Bordwell, p. 113.

[52] Lars Elleström, p. 22.

[53] Kristine Jørgensen, p. 147.

[54] Irina Rajewsky, p. 62.

[55] Andrew Burn & Gareth Schott, “Heavy hero or digital dummy? Multimodal player–avatar relations in Final Fantasy 7”, Visual Communication, 3(2) (2004).

[56] Michael Fuchs, p. 47

[57] Espen Aarseth, pp. 129-133.

[58] Veli-Matti Karhulahti, “Do Videogames Simulate? Virtuality and imitation in the philosophy of simulation”, Simulation & Gaming 46:6 (2015), p. 845

[59] Chiel Kattenbelt, “Intermediality in theatre and performance: Definitions, perceptions and medial relationships”, Cultura, lenguaje y representación: revista de estudios culturales de la universitat Jaume, 6 (2008), p. 23

[60] Werner Wolf, The musicalization of fiction: A study in the theory and history of intermediality, (Amsterdam: Rodopi) (1999), p. 37, in Lars Elleström, p. 28.

[61] Lars Elleström, p. 24

[62] Ibid., pp. 24-25

[63] Ibid., p. 25.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Werner Wolf, “The relevance of ‘mediality’ and ‘intermediality’ to academic studies of English Literature”, in Mediality/Intermediality (Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature 21), ed. A. Fischer, M. Heusser and A.H. Juncker (Tübingen: Günter Narr Verlag, 2008), p. 23

[66] Chiel Kattenbelt, p. 25

[67] Kevin Schut, “Media Ecology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), p. 329.

[68] Werner Wolf, p. 21.

[69] Lars Elleström, p. 38.

[70] Espen Aarseth, “Ontology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014).

Pokémemory: Time-images, Transmedia, and Memory

Jayme D. Mallindine

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 122-141.

Jayme D. Mallindine

University of Texas

 

 

 

Pokémemory: Time-images, Transmedia, and Memory

 

Abstract

The 2016 launch of Pokémon Go, Pokémon Sun, and Pokémon Moon – video games that shattered sales records and expectations – show that the Pokémon brand continues to capture the hearts (and wallets) of people all across the world. Sidestepping questions of whether Pokémon’s influence is the direct result of conscious player choice, corporate control, or political power plays, this paper investigates the inflammatory lines between power and play. This paper argues that Pokémon products, as a branded transmedia franchise, have the ability to spark moments of nostalgic recall for consumers through the use of memory mechanics called “gestures” that link Pokémon products both to one another and to a player’s embodied history of play. Drawing from Laura Marks’ work on “radioactive memory fossils” and Deleuze’s “time-images”, this essay investigates a few Pokémon gestures that operate both intra-platform (within the same type of platform, such as between the animated film and the animated series) and inter-platform (between different types of digital media platforms, such as between the animated series and the video game). By investigating these gestures, we expose ways in which the Pokémon brand can inspire the recollection of memories in ways the player and producer can influence but not entirely control. Pokémon’s presence as a branded transmedia experience embedded in individual biographies of players opens avenues of resistance to traditional lines of influence in the media industry by reframing power not just as the ability to control, but also as the ability to surprise.

 

Key Words: memory, transmedia, Pokémon, branding, time-images

 

Introduction

 

In the late 1990’s, there was a sudden and seemingly never-ending influx of strangely cute monsters making their way into the United States. The children were in love. The adults? A little confused. The monsters were Pokémon[1] and they were the most recent pop culture craze from Japan. Their almost over-night popularity with youth in the United States was so surprising that the phrase “pokémania” was coined to describe what appeared to be an irrational obsession for these pocket-sized toys.

Twenty years later, Pokémon remains a transmedia heavyweight. In 2016, Pokémon proved, with the release of Pokémon Go[2], that Pokémon as a brand was still powerful enough to break the internet. An article in Rolling Stone Magazine reported that Pokémon Go, an augmented-reality game that utilized Pokémon imagery, developed by Niantic and released to iOS and Android, experienced such unexpected high demand that the developer’s overloaded servers crashed within two days of the game’s initial release.[3] Pokémon’s continued popularity is not limited to smartphones either. The 2016 hand-held console video games, Pokémon Sun[4] and Pokémon Moon[5], became Nintendo’s fastest-selling titles ever in the Americas by selling 3.7 million copies across the American regions within the first few weeks of sale. [6]

The popularity of this twenty-year-old brand has sparked conversations about why these toys garner such intense affection and what that means for players and society. Some viewed Pokémon’s success in terms of global politics, with the brand’s popularity seen as evidence of Japan’s burgeoning ability to counteract the hegemonic media industry of the United States.[7] Others focused on smaller-scale and individual responses and uses of Pokémon products.[8] Researchers and journalists wanted to understand how and why Pokémon had burrowed its way into the youthful hearts of U.S. children and who ultimately was the one responsible for its popularity. Was the Pokémon takeover planned from the top down as the result of corporate ingenuity, or did Pokémon gain its influence from the bottom up due to player autonomy?

This essay posits that Pokémon itself, outside of purely corporate or consumer control, can move meaning and value through memory. Looking at the various ways in which Pokémon products create their own affective and nostalgic value, I argue that Pokémon products can spark involuntary moments of recall for consumers using mnemonic “gestures” that link Pokémon products both to one another and to embodied histories of play encapsulated within the memory of the consumer. This makes the vested popular interest in Pokémon lie somewhere within an assemblage vast enough to include a multitude of various components: corporate goals, political power struggles, consumer agency, as well as meaningful memories not always controlled by either consumer or creator.

Noticing the ways Pokémon can move meaning independently of conscious thought is not to say that power inequalities, whether between producer and consumer or between nation-states, are non-existent or unimportant. It instead provides an increased awareness of tools that open the potential for media to swerve within the configured lines that typically shape the movement and flow of entertainment and information. This swerving is based on Amit Rai’s conceptualization of clinamedia, “the intensive process of becoming” that he believes is the new order of media assemblage. The ability for media to swerve like “the clinamen of Lucretius”,[9] deviating from the straight lines of cause and effect dictated by outside forces, opens up the possibility for a type of political tweaking, offering additional methods of resisting the enforced methods of control. Gestures, when seen as a type of swerve, are not ways to avoid acknowledging power differences, but instead are sources of hope that hegemonies and power structures do not always have the final say on meaning. There are ways to move outside of power imbalances, and the playful gestures found in toy objects are just one of many.

 

Gestures and Memory Mechanics

 

Pokémon’s current success in part deals with the brand’s existence as a nostalgic entity. Nostalgia, a “yearning for something that tends to have been within living memory rather than distant historical memory”, is a key component in the construction and marketing of video games today.[10] As video games, including the Pokémon franchise, age as a medium, nostalgia and memory have made appearances in the research behind why certain games become cultural and financial hotbeds of activity. Nintendo is especially known for this, with academic volumes on gaming and nostalgia, such as Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, referencing the success of Nintendo’s franchises as proof that memory and video games are significantly intertwined.[11]  But how are people encouraged to remember previous Pokémon experiences, and who controls those memorable moments?

In Laura Marks’ The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, memory is described as something that is stored bodily, as well as something that is not always called upon consciously. Marks identifies that media can be a hotbed of triggers that uproot a previous flow of experience (i.e. a memory) involuntarily on the part of the rememberer/viewer, making memory a minefield of potentiality that opens up a person to multiple flows of time simultaneously.[12] Images or objects, which she terms radioactive memory fossils, inspire this jump to the past and disrupt the time and coherence of the present plane. This launches the viewer outward into other planes of both time and experience,[13] revealing that “the past [the image] represents is not over”[14] and that it continues to live on and influence the present moment, with the present moment also reaching backwards to inexplicably influence our past experience.

Marks’ writing works in part from Deleuze’s theory of “time-image”. Time-images, as compared to movement-images, do not follow the chronological order and representation of narrative actions and reactions. While past, present, and future are all clearly differentiated from each other in movement-images, time-images flatten that temporal plane, making past, future, and present indistinguishable.[15] Pokémon achieves a similar effect through use of “gestures” which, like Deleuzian style time-images, are movements, actions, or images that disrupt the development of linear narrative by pointing towards other memories and media products within the transmedia franchise. This creates a wider system of moments that extend beyond the specific medium and moment at hand. These gestures are not “gestures” in the sense of a physical movement by an actor within the story, but rather a “pointing towards” another aspect of Pokémon through the mirroring of a familiar image, phrase, character, game mechanic, or environment. The presence of a gesture involves movement from the present moment to a previous one and has the feel of a verb – a moment that moves you – versus a noun, a moment one has.

As we learn from Marks, memories are not always purposeful, and these gestures towards the remembered past do not necessarily imply voluntary action on the part of the viewer. Rather than being a recollection in the form of purposeful nostalgia, the gestures can point to the past regardless of whether the player intended to imagine it or not. The viewer cannot choose to remember or not remember and is instead moved to memory by the gesture itself. It is an excavation of the past not by the methodical digging of a shovel-wielding archaeologist, but by an unexpected and explosive tripwire.

These types of gestures disrupt the place and time of the present experience when they surface. When a gesture moves you while you are playing the newest Pokémon game, you are pushed into a moment where your memory of playing Pokémon previously exists simultaneously with your current experience of playing, all in the very same moment. Due to the player’s embodied, tactile memory of having interacted with other Pokémon products, these gestures do not simply disrupt via the rational plane, but also via the affective one. Playing is an action, a very bodily one, and memories of play are also memories of movement and body.

The word gesture also in part draws from Bergson’s discussions on the explosive nature of repetitive, unconscious, and “disruptive comic gestures”, which he says contrast with intentional or conscious actions.[16] In the case of Pokémon, these gestures disrupt the narrative using mimic-able images, actions, game mechanics, and phrases that are associated with other temporalities, like Marks’ radioactive memory fossils. They both “condense time within themselves”[17] and expand time outwards upon the viewing or “excavation”. Using the word “gesture” instead of “fossil” is appropriate for a transmedia franchise that originates with a game, a media form that more obviously relies on physical movements of the player for a story to unfold. Using the word gesture more easily brings to mind movement, which helps us to remember the interactive (and therefore action-oriented) nature of games. This is not to say gestures are more powerful than other types of references, like music or visual imagery, just that gestures are well-suited to transmedia franchises that involve games. All forms of transmedia storytelling use a variety of different narrative-making techniques, but the narrative found in games is intertwined with game mechanics – system-based feedback mechanisms that affect how a narrative is experienced. Using action-based ideas versus noun-based ideas helps not only pay homage to what is unique about video games, but also expands our conception of transmedia memory-making beyond what an audience member remembers seeing, but also what an audience member remembers doing.

 

Brands and Memory-Making

 

Transmedia, in addition to being multiple kinds of interrelated stories based on the same fictional universe produced on multiple types of media platforms, is also a type of brand. When someone says a media product is part of a transmedia franchise, like Star Wars, the label brings with it certain expectations about what an experience with that product will be like based on previous experiences with products made under that same umbrella. Branding relies heavily on affect and past experiences, and corporations have been harnessing the power of memory to create effective branding for quite a while. In Robert J. Foster’s book, Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea,[18] Foster studies how soft drink brands such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi become more than mere commodities as they spread globally from place to place. For Foster, the qualifying of the meaning and value of Coca-Cola lies beyond production or simple commodity consumption, but in the affective work that consumers do through their association of past experiences and feelings with the Coca-Cola brand.

This affective significance comes as a result of Coca-Cola embedding itself into the everyday lives of consumers to such a degree that it becomes part of people’s individual biographies, “a prop for the particular narratives through which individual consumers actively produce their own pasts”.[19] Coca-Cola’s value and meaning is essentially produced by creating a time machine, a type of time travel only possible to consumers with previous, embodied connections with the Coca-Cola brand in physically salient ways. An example being the bodily experience of drinking a Coca-Cola during a particularly memorable summer spent at summer camp. When you see an ad for Coca-Cola, you not only rationally recognize and read the message, but also remember the emotional and physical feelings of drinking from that cold glass bottle on a warm pier. The value of a brand such as Coca-Cola comes from two interlinked sources: one from the actual consumption of a commodity marked by brand image, and the other of the memory of that consumption upon viewing the brand image later. Each product must be able to stand alone as a complete experience, but also gain in value, depth, and meaning when it becomes a node in the network of memories and experiences that make up a consumer’s experience with that brand.

Framing Pokémon as a brand like Coca-Cola makes for easy connections. Brands are created when consumers (or players, in this case) form emotional relationships with the franchise through a brand’s ability to connect products to remembered individual biographies. While brands like Coca-Cola do this through advertisements in relationship to a single experience – that of drinking Coca-Cola – Pokémon is a brand that stimulates similar time-traveling tendencies not for one product, but for a large collection of media products. Each encounter with a Pokémon product can connect various aspects of the consumers’ individual biography and identity, linking together different times and experiences of the player’s life into the continually expanding Pokémon universe.

Colin B. Harvey in Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds, identifies memory and nostalgia as key mechanisms through which transmedia products are created and spread.[20] For Harvey, “the role of memory can be understood as central to transmedia storytelling, in which the invocation of ideas, characters, plot points or audio-visual imagery between elements of a franchise are central to that project’s success.” [21] This makes sense. It would be difficult to link different forms of media together (linking stories together being the basis of transmedia storytelling all together) if an audience member could not remember any of the previous stories.

When discussing the significance of memory when it comes to creating canon, Harvey examines “the multiple ways in which creators, fans and other commentators seek to control and negotiate the tensions between subjective and collective remembering of a storyworld’s diegesis” [my emphasis].[22] The emphasis on control and negotiation implies that memory is something that can be controlled through agency of either consumer or creator. This is seen again in the final chapter, where Harvey explains that,

the degree of control exercised by the IP holder in each instance in relation to how memory is controlled directly affects the particular narrative being told and the wider storyworld. Equally the lack of control experienced by those outside of such legal arrangements determines how memories can be articulated, and the extent to which they can be subverted.[23]

Control of memory, collective memory especially, is important when it comes to transmedia storytelling. While memory can be affected, encouraged, and subverted by both authorial intent and consumer choice, there are also additional ways to subvert power that are not as tied into conceptions of control. Memory, as Harvey says, can be “an unruly beast”[24], and memory’s ability to continually surprise us provides an alternative way to think about the way media moves us.

 

Producers, Players, and Play Objects

 

From the beginning, concerns about power, both why Pokémon held such a powerful position in the imaginations of players, as well as who controlled that power, were at the forefront of conversations surrounding these pocket-sized monsters. Alternatively called “Cool Japan” or “Japan’s Gross National Cool”,[25] the success of Japanese media products like Tamagotchi, Hello Kitty, and Pokémon in markets outside of Japan, especially the United States, could be interchangeably seen as either a symbol or a symptom of Japan’s rise in “soft power”. Japan was viewed as a blossoming media powerhouse, and more eyes on Japanese media meant Japan was increasingly able to affect culture, values, and politics through the appeal and attraction of their nation and their nation’s media products.[26]

This assessment of Japan’s growing persuasive capacities in globalized media networks was problematized by Iwabuchi Koichi, whose analyses of the extensive localization practices of Pokémon showed that all visual cues that marked Japanese media as being a specifically “Japanese product” were effectively removed. These localization processes revolve around the intention of making these products culturally neutral, something Iwabuchi terms “culturally odorless”.[27] In that case, it means the popularity of products like Pokémon cannot easily be interpreted as consumers appreciating or yearning for anything that, in Iwabuchi’s language, is “distinctively Japanese”. For Iwabuchi, the success of Pokémon stems not from Japan’s rise as a cultural superpower, but rather from the successful removal of all specifically Japanese references so that the world of Pokémon is familiar and comfortable for American audiences.

One of the primary limitations to research like Iwabuchi’s and McGray’s is that, as macro-level and global political commentaries, they do not consider how individual players interact with and emotionally relate to Pokémon products. It is hard to tell what consumers of media products think without researching their actual opinions, and the media itself can tell a narrative or story that moves the meaning beyond just international power struggles. Both Iwabuchi and McGray reduce Pokémon and its consumers to symbolic static straw men for clashing sovereign powers in a way that turns the individuals engaged with the media, as well as the media itself, into somewhat passive mirrors of larger, external political vying for international power. That is a meaningful conversation to be had, to be sure, but not the only one.

Anne Allison in her book Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination offers up a different reading of Pokémon. By interviewing young Pokémon fans and examining the crossover media traffic between Japan and the United States, Allison argues that Japanese entertainment goods such as Pokémon are not static objects, but instead examples of the interlocking relationships between things like Japan and the US, or fantasy and reality, effectively becoming mutable assemblages that attract youths through their ability to move, shift, and transform.[28]  While children admit to the importance of these products coming from Japan in terms of authenticity, Allison argues that the popularity of international Japanese media goods instead derives from a “Japan” that operates as a brand signifier for a certain type of fantasy-ware, rather than a marker of specific geographic or national origin.[29] In some ways, this type of scholarship fills in the gaps left over from a heavy emphasis on structural powers or national intentions. Rather than players being totally under the influence of sovereign agencies, the individual and multifaceted ways in which children are actively utilizing these toy objects in day-to-day life shows how macro processes and symbolism are not the only ones in control of the media and its meaning.

Other types of Pokémon scholarship have also focused more heavily on the relationships players and fans have formed with Pokémon, flipping the focus from macro to micro to examine the ways children actively interact with and use Pokémon products on an individual or demographically narrow level. The topics covered are highly varied, from being impressed by the information and data gathering of young players,[30] to documenting how French children purposefully integrate Pokémon cards into more traditional French card games,[31] to demonstrating how children purposefully use Pokémon to construct new identities for themselves.[32] Rather than practices that are entirely reflective of larger social or cultural narratives, this type of research reinforces the agency of young players in their creative play.

In the research mentioned, Pokémon products become inert tools in either the international hands of nations and corporations, or the somewhat smaller hands of children. I seek instead to complicate this hierarchical relationship, placing Pokémon alongside both the player and producer in terms influence and power, rather than strictly below or above. The value players imbue the Pokémon brand with is not entirely a result of top-down decision-making, with The Pokémon Company solely managing the brand and its meaning, nor is it entirely a product of consumers dictating their own emotions and use of Pokémon products. The answer is between all these things, with the producer, the player, and the actual play product itself interacting on a playing field that is not entirely predetermined, hierarchical, or even adversarial.

 

The Method Behind the Memories

 

To catalogue all the interconnections within the vast and ever-expanding universe of Pokémon would be a monumental endeavour and beyond the scope and limitations of this essay. Instead this article provides a digestible snapshot of how gestures can be located and understood using only specific parts of the Pokémon franchise. I avoided looking at narrative similarities between media products, which lean towards being “movement-images” that utilize rationality versus emotion and affect as the primary driving force. I concentrated instead on the memories that were playful or action-oriented, elements of the world geared towards memories of doing or playing. These gestures are slight, large enough to jar something loose in the memory banks of someone who has played or experienced other Pokémon products, but small enough to not disrupt the story or seem out of place to someone who did not understand the reference.

I started with two specific iterations of the Pokémon franchise: the 1999 cinematic release, Pokémon: The First Movie,[33] and the 2013 video game release, Pokémon X. The gestures found in these two iterations flatten time both intra-platform and inter-platform. Intra-platform gestures point across new or older versions of the same type of product. (i.e. the newest version of a game pointing towards older versions of the game). Inter-platform gestures point across different types of platforms or formats (i.e. an animated television episode pointing towards a video game). This sort of snapshot analysis shows how these gestures are not limited to a specific type or era of Pokémon media, and how gestures can tie together a transmedia brand across multiple products and platforms. The presence of memory gestures across multiple renditions of the franchise, and even across different decades, make this aspect of the media a part of Pokémon’s lasting transmedia brand and emotional legacy.

 

Intra-Platform Gestures

 

“Who’s That Pokémon?” is a question-and-answer segment featured in numerous episodes of the Pokémon animated television series.[34] During each episode, before a commercial break, the silhouette of a Pokémon is shown with the voice of the narrator asking the audience to guess the name of the Pokémon being shown. To ask the question, the narrator always uses the same phrase: “Who’s that Pokémon?” After the commercial break, a human character from the show shouts the name of the Pokémon as the fully detailed and non-silhouetted image of the Pokémon appears. For instance, in figure 1, the answer is “Pikachu”, the main Pokémon throughout the series. In addition to being a playful game to pass commercial time, “Who’s that Pokémon?” is also an intra-media memory gesture, a moment pointed towards by Pokémon’s first full-length film.

Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back (Gekijōban Poketto Monsutā: Myūtsū no Gyakushū)[35] was released in 1998 in Japan before making its way to the United States in 1999. As reported by Anne Allison in her book Millenial Monsters, the movie earned opening day profits that at the time exceeded all other films in American film history except for Star Wars. [36] The film was based primarily on the characters from the syndicated animated television series: Ash, Misty, and Brock (as they are called in the American release). In the film, our human protagonists, plus Pikachu, face Mewtwo, a bioengineered Pokémon made from the cloned DNA of Mew, the legendary Pokémon, and the super-Pokémon clones MewTwo has created. Like any good iteration in a transmedia franchise, it is a stand-alone film, and it is possible to find enjoyment watching it without having played any of the Pokémon video games or having watched any episodes of the animated television series. While previous knowledge and experience with a Pokémon product is unnecessary to understand what is happening, there were special, memory-laden gestures that offered additional depth and meaning for viewers who did have familiarity with other Pokémon products.

During Pokémon: The First Movie, the “Who’s that Pokémon?” gesture is referenced during a scene in which two members of Team Rocket, Jessie, and James (a pair of “villains” that often act as comic relief rather than a serious threat), are trapped in the underground laboratory of MewTwo. In the giant stadium above, MewTwo captures the Pokémon of the various trainers he has lured to his island (including Ash, Misty, and Brock) and sends the captured Pokémon down to his lab to be cloned. The cloning machine, while the captured Pokémon go through an assortment of tubes, displays on an overhead screen the silhouette of the Pokémon being cloned. At one point, when James sees a Pokémon’s silhouette on the screen, he mutters aloud “Who’s that Pokémon?” (see fig. 2). While this scene is part of a larger narrative arc revealing how MewTwo is creating his team of super-powered Pokémon, the moment when James asks quizzically about what is being shown on screen, and in fact even the existence of the screen itself, are largely unimportant for continuing the action of the story. But for viewers with previous experience of the animated Pokémon series, this gesture could potentially point towards memories of playing this specific guessing game while watching the animated television series on a couch in their living rooms, therefore recalling a past moment and layering it on top of the present to create an experience that extends backwards through time.

 

obraz 1 obraz 2

Fig. 1 (left) and Fig. 2 (right). A side-by-side comparison of a screenshot of the “Who’s that Pokémon?” segment from the first Pokémon episode, “Pokémon, I Choose You!”, in the United States (Fig. 1) versus a screenshot from Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back (Fig. 2).

 

The Pokémon video games also make use of intra-media gestures. Pokémon X, one of two of the first sixth generation games published in 2013, includes instances of gestures that take players out of the present moment by bursting backwards into older video games. For instance, at one Pokémon Center, a type of building that provides healing services within all of the games (its continued existence a type of gesture in and of itself), a non-playable character you speak with makes mention of the changes that have happened to Pokémon Centers within the last ten years (see fig. 3). One change the non-playable character notices is that of building aesthetics.

The Pokémon Centers, while common staples found in most of the main-franchise role-playing games, have gone through several changes in terms of their appearance as the games have developed over the years. The mention of there at one point being two stories is temporally important, as the two-story Pokémon Centers in old games (most notably the original 1998 video games Pokémon Red[37] and Pokémon Blue[38]) were due to technological specifications of the Game Boy console. The “Pokémon Cable Club”, as the character mentions, used to be housed on the second floor of the Pokémon Center in Pokémon Red and Blue. It is where players went to trade Pokémon with friends via physical, real-world cables connecting one Game Boy console to another before wireless transfer was made technologically possible.

For players of the original video game, stumbling across this innocuous comment in Pokémon X [39] could push the player back in time to a moment where you sat two feet away from your friend, impatiently watching a grey blob travel along tubes on your black-and-white pixilated screen as you waited for a trade to complete. It could also work in reverse. If you first encountered Pokémon X, encountering the second story in Pokémon Red or Pokémon Blue could cause you to “remember the future” of the franchise, adding meaning to the in-game architecture through your previous experiences of future renditions of the Pokémon Center.

 

obraz 3aobraz 3b

Fig. 3. Screenshots of a conversation with a non-playable character in Pokémon X while at a Pokémon Center.

 

The Pokémon themselves are their own intra-media gestures. As time goes on, the Pokémon franchise adds new Pokémon that are available for capture and training in addition to the ones that already exist. Generally, Nintendo only adds more Pokémon to the Pokémon universe, and never takes any away. Even if all the Pokémon are not available for capture within the same game, a player’s digital Pokédex (like an encyclopaedia or a field guide) holds information about every single Pokémon ever created. While the first games, Pokémon Red and Blue, started with a total of 151 Pokémon, the official online Pokédex compiled by The Pokémon Company on Pokemon.com lists a total of 801 different Pokémon as of 2017.[40]

Since the available Pokémon changes from game to game, recent developments have made it possible to transfer Pokémon from older games to newer games, so players can more fully complete their Pokédex. That means Pokémon from different generations can still be played with inside the game no matter what game you are currently playing. This has some interesting affective possibilities. If, as a player, you choose to move some of your old Pokémon to your new system, that means when you battle it is not just any Venosaur you’re playing with, it’s the same one you’ve owned and trained since 2004, the Venosaur that has seen you through different birthdays, bad romances, and good years. Pokémon you previously formed a relationship with are now available in your present moment, blurring the temporal lines between the battle you are having now and the battle you had ten years ago when you first levelled up the Pokémon on your screen.

 

Inter-Platform Gestures

 

The tendency to throw in moments that bring to mind other renditions of the Pokémon franchise is not limited to referencing products within the same type of platform. Pokémon: The First Movie, in addition to gesturing towards the animated series, also pointed the viewer towards the original video game, Pokémon Red. Upon revealing his powerful Pokémon clones before the final battle, MewTwo describes the very impressive battle trio standing in the frontlines as the “ultimate evolutions of the three Pokémon any trainer can get upon starting their journey”.[41] The Pokémon he is talking about are Charizard, Venosaur, and Blastoise, the final evolutions of Charmander, Bulbasaur, and Squirtle. This might mean nothing to the average viewer, but players of the Pokémon Red or Pokémon Blue video games would know that Charmander, Bulbasaur, and Squirtle are the first three starter Pokémon you must choose from at the beginning of the first Pokémon games. Hearing MewTwo’s speech brings the viewer back to the first time they ever turned on their Game Boy, reminding them of how difficult it was to choose which cute and cuddly battle monster would be their comrade for the remainder of the game.

Pokémon: The First Movie gestures towards more than just one video game. Pokémon Yellow[42] was released in 1999 as an almost a direct copy of Pokémon Red and Blue with only two big changes: Pikachu is the only available Pokémon to start with (rather than the typical trio of Charmander, Squirtle, and Bulbasaur), and Pikachu follows the player around on the screen rather than being carried in a Pokéball. This is directly gestured towards by the relationship between Ash and Pikachu in the film. It is quickly revealed to the audience that Pikachu is different than other Pokémon, namely because Pikachu refuses to go inside his Pokéball, which is where most Pokémon spend most of their time, even when critically injured. Watching that episode can instantly suggest the memory of navigating the game-world in Pokémon Yellow, with that tiny pixilated Pikachu you were forced to choose following happily along behind you.

Game mechanics are their own sort of gestures, with most Pokémon games utilizing some variation of in-battle moves relating to attack, defence, switching to another Pokémon, using an item from your in-game inventory/bag, or running away (if you are battling a wild Pokémon). While these game mechanics have stayed similar from game to game, changing little between iterations, they also re-appear across different platforms. “Thundershock” is a move used by Pikachu in Pokémon X, but is also seen in the first episode of the animated series.[43] It is also available as an attack move on some of the Pikachu playing cards from the Pokémon Trading Card Game (see fig. 4).[44]

 

obraz 4

Fig. 4. A Pikachu card found in Pokémon Trading Card Game, listing “Thunder Shock”, a move seen in both the anime, film, and in video games.

 

Game mechanics like this are unique to transmedia franchises that incorporate or are based out of games. Game mechanics and actions, rather than providing additional narrative depth or filling gaps in a story-line, combine media threads together through memories of repetitive action to create bonds between different kinds of media.

 

Who is Choosing Who? Purpose vs. Potential of Implanted Gestures

 

While these examples are just a few among many, they expose the multiplicity of ways that Pokémon could potentially inspire memories on the part of the player. The key point here is that of potential. While it is likely the creators purposefully implant some of these gestures throughout the franchise, the order in which the gestures are experienced and the effect they will have (if at all) is not entirely predictable. If your memories of a certain game are entrenched with memories of hiding in your room while soon-to-divorce parents are downstairs screaming, a game unintentionally causing you to go back in time to that moment might be met with frustration and sadness rather than joy and happiness.

Additionally, like all transmedia franchises, not everything will inspire moments of memory, in part because there is no specific chronological order in which to encounter the Pokémon franchise. Creators have little control over the order in which the franchise is experienced. A player can start anywhere, either the card game, anime, a video game, or movie, and still be able to participate in the main narrative arc of each Pokémon variant. Tajiri (the creator) says this himself in an interview with Time Magazine:

TIME: Do you think the TV show now dictates how people play the game?

Tajiri: At first, I was a little concerned. It depends on how people are

introduced to Pokémon. If they start with the TV show, or with the cards, or

the video game, they approach it differently each time.[45]

Some people start with the newest video game and work their way backwards to the classics, while others have purchased every video game since 1998. Some start in the middle. Some skip a game. Some people participate in all levels of the Pokémon franchise, from the card game to the anime, and still others participate maybe in only one or two types of the Pokémon media medley. Unlike a series, in which starting at the wrong point would cause confusion, the Pokémon franchise has many entry points that are constantly expanding outwards. The gestures work regardless of what order they move you, mainly because they have nothing to do with chronological time or narrative sequence. Each entry, each memory, each action, is just another addition to the individual biography, the individual Pokédex, of the player’s life which can be collected in any order.

These Pokémon products can exist separately even while being enmeshed in networks that bind them together across various stories, times, and method of engagement. The ability to pick up and engage with the Pokémon franchise at any point, even though these games are laden with references to other parts of the franchise, is possible because these types of gestures are not essential for narrative action. In fact, as a game, the glue that holds much of this transmedia franchise together is not even the narrative arc, but rather types of actions a player or audience member has performed when interacting with this world sometime in the past. These gestures draw the consumer in through the engagement of their individual, and very active, biographies, busting the present moment open to the possibility of pollution by other times and other experiences throughout the player’s life.

The possible effects of these radioactive memory gestures embedded within Pokémon products not only hold parts of the branding of this transmedia franchise together, but also provide a way to move meaning in ways not entirely calculable by producer or the player. Catching these movements of memory, or at the very least the moments in which these movements are possible, helps us better understand the ebbs and flows of media and its meaning as it crosses national borders, media platforms, and individual relationships. Catching just the power of the state or the power of individual intent is not enough. Put in the language of the Pokémon universe itself, we “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”.

 

References

Allison Anne, Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press) (2006).

Bergson Henri, Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, (Los Angeles: Green Integer Books) (1999).

Brougere Gilles, “How Much Is a Pokémon Worth? Pokémon in France”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

Deleuze Giles, Cinema 1. The movement-image, (London: The Athlone Press) (1986).

Foster Robert J., Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea, (New York, New York: Palgrave MacMillan) (2008).

Frank Allegra, “Pokémon Sun and Moon set big new sales record for Nintendo”, Polygon http://www.polygon.com/2016/11/30/13797626/pokemon-sun-and-moon-sales-record, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

Harvey Colin B., Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds, (King’s College London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan) (2015).

Iwabuchi Koichi, “How “Japanese” Is Pokemon?”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

John Davison, “How Pokemania Broke ‘Pokemon Go’”, Rolling Stone Magazine http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/pokemon-go-how-pokemania-broke-mobile-gaming-app-20160712, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

Taylor Laurie N., Whalen Zach, “Playing the Past: An Introduction”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008).

Lien Tracey, “How successful is Pokémon? Take a look at the numbers!”, Polygon http://www.polygon.com/pokemon/2014/8/18/6030089/Pokemon-sales-numbers, date accessed 27 November 2014 (2014).

Marks Laura U., The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2000).

McGray Douglas, “Japan’s Gross National Cool”, Foreign Policy http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/11/japans-gross-national-cool/, date accessed 27 November 2014 (2002).

Nye Joseph, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, (New York: Basic Books) (1990).

Pokémon Blue (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

Pokémon Go (2016, Niantic, iOS and Android).

“Episode 1: Pokémon, I Choose You!”, Pokémon [animated TV program] Cartoon Network, 8 September 1998.

Pokémon Moon (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

Pokémon Red (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

Pokémon Sun (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

Pokémon X (2013, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition (1999, The Pokemon Company, Gameboy).

Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back! (1999, Yuyama Kunihiki).

Rai Amit S., Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2009).

Reading Anna, Harvey Colin, “Remembrance of Things Fast: Conceptualizing Nostalgia Play in the Battlestar Galactica Video Game”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008).

Sefton-Greene Julian, “Initiation Rites: A Small Boy in a Poke-World”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

Tobin Joseph (ed) Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

Willet Rebekah, “The Multiple Identities of Pokémon Fans”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

“All Pokémon Video Games”, The Pokémon Company http://www.pokemon.com/us/pokemon-video-games/all-pokemon-games/, date accessed 14 January 2017.

Pokémon Trading Card Game (2014, The Pokémon Company, XY-Furious Fists expansion, “Pikachu”).

“Pokédex”, The Pokemon Company https://www.pokemon.com/us/pokedex/, date accessed 14 January 2017.

“The Ultimate Game Freak”, Time Magazine http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html, date accessed 30 November 2014 (1999).

 

 

[1] Because the single word “Pokémon” is used to describe and name a cornucopia of media objects and things, I utilized a specific key to help readers recognize references more easily. Throughout this paper I use the term “Pokémon” to discuss the creatures, or objects of capture, that inherit the Pokémon universe; I use the italicized “Pokémon” to discuss specific products (i.e. cartoons, movies, card games, video games, etc.); and I use the underlined “Pokémon” to discuss both the franchise and brand itself, as well as the universe in which Pokémon and Pokémon discussions are situated in or centred around.

[2] Pokémon Go on iOS and Android (2016, Niantic).

[3] John Davison, “How Pokemania Broke ‘Pokemon Go’”, Rolling Stone Magazine http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/pokemon-go-how-pokemania-broke-mobile-gaming-app-20160712, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

[4] Pokémon Sun (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

[5] Pokémon Moon (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

[6] Allegra Frank, “Pokémon Sun and Moon set big new sales record for Nintendo”, Polygon http://www.polygon.com/2016/11/30/13797626/pokemon-sun-and-moon-sales-record, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

[7] Douglas McGray, “Japan’s Gross National Cool”, Foreign Policy http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/11/japans-gross-national-cool/, date accessed 27 November 2014 (2002).

[8] Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

[9] Amit S. Rai, Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2009), p. 218-219.

[10] Anna Reading and Colin Harvey, “Remembrance of Things Fast: Conceptualizing Nostalgia-Play in the Battlestar Galactica Video Game”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), p. 164-179.

[11] Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen, “Playing the Past: An Introduction”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), p. 1.

[12] Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2000), p. 65.

[13] Laura U. Marks, pp. 77.

[14] Laura U. Marks, pp. 81.

[15] Giles Deleuze, Cinema 1. The movement-image, (London: The Athlone Press) (1986).

[16] Henri Bergson, Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, (Los Angeles: Green Integer Books) (1999), p. 130.

[17] Laura U. Marks, pp. 77.

[18] Robert J. Foster, Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New

Guinea, (New York, New York: Palgrave MacMillan) (2008).

[19] Robert J. Foster, pp. 85.

[20] Colin B. Harvey, Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds, (King’s College London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan) (2015).

[21] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 34.

[22] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 92.

[23] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 200.

[24] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 183.

[25] Douglas McGray.

[26] Joseph Nye, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, (New York: Basic Books) (1990).

[27] Koichi Iwabuchi, “How “Japanese” Is Pokemon?”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 53-79.

[28] Anne Allison, Millenial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press) (2006), p. 34.

[29] Anne Allison, pp. 277.

[30] Julian Sefton-Greene, “Initiation Rites: A Small Boy in a Poke-World”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 141-164.

[31] Gilles Brougere, “How Much Is a Pokémon Worth? Pokémon in France”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 187-209.

[32] Rebekah Willet, “The Multiple Identities of Pokémon Fans”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 226-240.

[33] Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back! (1999, Yuyama Kunihiki).

[34] “Episode 1: Pokémon, I Choose You!”, Pokémon [animated TV program] Cartoon Network, 8 September 1998.

[35] Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back!

[36] Anne Allison, pp. 237.

[37] Pokémon Red (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

[38] Pokémon Blue (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

[39] Pokémon X (2013, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

[40] The Pokémon Company, https://www.pokemon.com/us/pokedex/, date accessed 14 January 2017.

[41] Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back!

[42] Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition on Game Boy (1999, The Pokemon Company).

[43] “Episode 1: Pokémon, I Choose You!”.

[44] Pokémon Trading Card Game (2014, The Pokémon Company, XY-Furious Fists expansion, “Pikachu”).

[45] “The Ultimate Game Freak”, Time Magazine http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html, date accessed 30 November 2014 (1999).

 

 

 

 

 

Creation Myths, Community, and Collectanea: A Folk Group Case Study, or “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”

Ciara Smith

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 142-161.

 

Ciara Smith

Auburn University

 

 

Creation Myths, Community, and Collectanea:

A Folk Group Case Study, or “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”[1]

 

Abstract

This paper posits folklore studies as an appropriate lens through which to examine a specific gaming community. Game studies, itself an emerging but recognized field of study, offers an alternative possibility. In practice, folklore seems to be more appropriate. Ludology, the study of gameplay, lacks methodologies and metrics specific to the field by which to study communities, their practice, and the process of coherent group creation. Other gaming studies research focusing on gaming communities invariably employs techniques and terminology of other disciplines in order to contribute to the growing compendium of gaming studies that have been conducted. The following paper might be seen to contribute to practices by which folklore studies provide similarly lendable terms and methods; it also clearly represents the expansion of folklore studies into the realm of the digital world. Accordingly, three aspects of folk group study are examined: community beliefs, community creation practices, and communally significant material culture. In each, there is a necessary process of adjustment from the physical to the digital iterations of these traditionally examined aspects. These aspects represent only a few of the myriad possibilities of digital versions of folkloric methodologies.

Key words: gaming studies, digital folklore, gaming communities, MMOs, MOBAs

 

Introduction

In 2007, webcomic artist Randall Munroe posted a comic called “Online Communities” which features some of the most popular websites, social media systems, virtual communication tools and online gaming communities reimagined as a geographical map, complete with the Gulf of YouTube, the Mountains of Web 1.0, and the Blogipelago.[2] By 2010, this map was obsolete and he produced “Online Communities 2”. After an interval of only three years, the area devoted to MySpace had shrunk considerably and is now located near the “Wasteland of Abandoned Social Networks”; Facebook sprawls Sino-Russia-like across the top of the map and YouTube has become its own land mass with smaller areas like the Britney mountains and the already-abandoned Rick-Rolling Hills. “Communities rise and fall”, Munroe writes, “and total membership numbers are no longer a good measure of a community’s current size and health. [‘Online Communities 2’] uses size to represent total social activity in a community – that is, how much talking, playing, sharing, or other socializing happens there”.[3]

Society is already happening online, and although geographic location is still an important factor in a person’s life, online activity (and “where” this activity happens) is becoming just as important. While the art community expands to include the digital arts and humanity scholars examine the “written” word that is now being transmitted and consumed virtually, those who study the artists, the writers, and their societies must learn to incorporate the reality of online identity. Alan Dundes, claimed that:

The term ‘folk’ can refer to any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor. It doesn’t matter what that factor is – it could be a common occupation, language, or religion – but what is important is that a group formed for whatever reason will have some traditions which it calls its own.[4]

In their chapter on folk groups in Living Folklore, an introduction to folklore study, Martha C. Sims and Martine Stephens qualified this definition. Citing Dunde’s and the definitions of a number of other folklorists in regard to folk groups, Sims and Stephens eventually arrive at what they consider the centrally important ideal of group: that the group is “doing folklore”. “Basically, if a group has folklore, it’s a folk group”.[5]  Such a definition is clearly applicable to online societies which produce or revolve around a number of recognized forms of folklore. Even before such an in-depth exploration as is attempted below, personal experience renders undeniable the claim that online communities produce such items as jokes and art – two forms that are mentioned in Dundes’ non-exhaustive list referenced by Sims and Stephens.[6]

The possibilities of a folkloric study of an online gaming community are potentially endless. Such a community’s status as a lore-producing group seems clear, but despite the current rise in participation in virtual folk groups there has not been so drastic a rise in corresponding study of such groups. Digital folklorist Trevor J. Blank has identified one of the potential reasons for this slight:

On the surface, it may appear that the identification of “folkness” via a technological medium (such as the internet) is presumptuous, or worse, inherently “non-folk”, since it requires some technical prowess with computer-mediated communication in order to be engaged. However, there is an inborn “folk” presence in cyberspace by virtue of the fact that people are behind nearly every symbolic interaction that takes place online and through new media technology.[7]

Technology, Blank claims, is merely a conduit through which folkness is expressed.[8] As stated in the Randall Munroe quote above, online communities are in a constant state of rise and fall. Even as communities are abandoned, the nature of the Internet itself means that an archive of these communities is already being created.

One of the longest lived online communities is that of World of Warcraft. WoW, as it is generally known, is one of the most exoterically recognizable of online gaming communities, yet its community is incredibly esoteric.[9] WoW is an MMO (or MMORPG), a massive multiplayer online game where players from all over the world can interact with others and make friends. Such a game is inherently social in nature, mimicking real life societies in terms of race, class, and faction divisions (somewhat comparable to national divides). Players themselves recognize the social aspects of the game:

When I started, WoW was more of a social experience than gaming. I spent the bulk of my time chatting with people, and that was the reason I logged on everyday…

And theres [sic] more to it than levelling. You can do professions, gather pets, earning money, exploring, immersion, roleplay… And most important of all; friendship! Youll [sic] undoubtely [sic] meet some people. Ive [sic] played WoW for many years and I have friends all over the globe.[10]

This is a member of the WoW community’s response to someone who was trying to play the game without any real motivation, “just because”. These ideas of social interaction online are not restricted to MMOs, WoW, or even to the game communities to which this article will eventually turn its attention: DotA and DotA 2. However, such online communities as these are clearly defined, esoteric, and somewhat homogenous in ways that, for example, social media sites (Facebook, Pinterest, etc.[11]) are not.

While this paper is primarily occupied with the attempt to speak of a gaming community as a folk group, an obvious question remains: If folklore is a discipline ill-suited to the task of examining this group, what discipline would be more appropriate? The field of gaming studies is particularly apropos, but similar studies on gaming communities by scholars of games and gaming communities have been largely conducted by sociologists with an interest in gaming. While folklore studies must change and adapt to online life and the new facet such phenomena bring to a study of communities, gaming studies continues to develop as a field that is inherently interdisciplinary.

In general, ludology, the emergent term for the study of play, seems far more suited to the aspects of play than the communities themselves. According to Gonzalo Frasca, “A ludologist is somebody who wants to have a better understanding of games”.[12] Notably, Frasca used this description when trying to differentiate ludology from narratology, implying that these two fields are similar and neither of them seem concerned specifically with the study of the players and their communities. While games such as WoW allow players to create personas and interact in their community during gameplay, DotA and DotA 2 games are often very short. DotA players spend almost as much time out of game taking part in their community as in the game. This does not mean, however, that the gaming aspect does not matter to DotA players. Nor does it mean that this external component of community is exclusive to these communities. In his work on identity expressions in the gaming subculture, J. Patrick Williams has noted the way that items, understanding, and gaming history including success statistics all play a part in the identity of players of collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering. He notes for these games what might be applied to the community-identity aspect of most if not all games: “Multiple, overlapping processes are involved in the construction of ‘authentic’ identities”.[13] Such a statement highlights both the social complexity of these groups and the way in which the construction of such identity is not limited to in-game activity. Ludology’s focus on gameplay seems, therefore, to fall short of a comprehensive study on the DotA communities. Recent developments in gaming studies posit the game as a tri-part artefact of technology, individual activity, and social pastime. It is this final aspect with which this researcher is most concerned and which would be broadened by the use of folklore studies as a research apparatus.

Where relevant, the following examination of the DotA and DotA 2 communities has attempted to refer to gaming study articles and works that examine related aspects in other games and their communities. In general, even when the authors of these works primarily deal with digital studies, games, etc. they are dependent on these other disciplines for methodology and terminology. Furthermore, the myriad ways in which this case study examines aspects that are often divergent or oppositional between the DotA communities and similar ones in other studies conducted by scholars of games speak of the breadth and range necessary for broader attention to community studies in the still emerging discipline of game studies. The idea of a single discipline of gaming studies assumes qualities that are unique to games. However, the current status of gaming studies as an inherently interdisciplinary field both recognizes the unique qualities of games and allows them to be seen as a newer subsection of humanities and liberal arts studies, neither so different as to be unrelated nor so similar as to be subsumed by earlier works.

Below, the DotA communities will be examined through a folkloric lens, but like folk groups situated in the “real” world, the DotA communities are comprised of members who in turn populate myriad other groups. The influence of other folk groups is omnipresent: many gamers are a part of the WoW community or choose to participate in DotA alongside real life friends with whom they form a different sort of community. Although this digital folklore exploration is far from a one-to-one comparison between online and “real life” folk groups, I’ve chosen to focus on creation stories and beliefs, community making, and “collectanea” within these online communities.

Although mediated by technology, such folkloric forms are recognizable as variations on their non-digital analogues. I’ve therefore conducted this research primarily through examination of various websites where players interact with each other. Some of these websites are forums and literal discussions while others are websites such as Wikipedia and DotA and DotA2 Wikipages. Such sites are often viewed as neither legitimate nor credible but are particularly useful here as they represent archives created by and for members of these communities. Also, email interviews have been conducted with a few members of the DotA 2 community. These members, while hardly representative of a large and thriving community, do allow for more personalized feedback than can be drawn from simply observing community activities.

 

Creation Myths: Dota Beginnings, IceFrog, and Game Deities

 

According to Sims and Stephens, belief is an important aspect in folk groups, indeed it is one of the ways that “cultural information is most often communicated within groups”.[14] For many folk groups, “the question of belief is often most apparent in studying religious elements.[15] Some games include an in-game religion that players become pseudo practitioners of during gameplay. In her book-length study on an MMO called Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, Celia Pearce elaborates on some of the ways in which players of this game participate in a specific religion.[16] While DotA and DotA 2 players do not participate in religious activities per se, they have long exhibited an interesting set of creation myths regarding the existence of the games. These creation myths, in conjunction with famous figures within the community, regularly lead to community members expressing their beliefs about the game in terms and phrases that mirror religious participation.

As the 2 in “DotA 2” implies, DotA 2 is the more recent of two games. DotA[17], while strongly related to WoW, is not an MMO, but a MOBA, a multiplayer online battle arena game in which teams compete for a specific goal or specific amount of time on a game map that is much more restricted in size than the world map of an MMO[18]. DotA is an acronym for Defense of the Ancients, a reference to the goal of the game. Two opposing teams of 5 players defend their “Ancient”, which isn’t specifically defined. An explanation can be extrapolated from in-game contexts and definitions of the word, such that it becomes a combination temple/tower/deity. Regardless of how the term is understood, these opposing Ancients figure in the game as attackable structures in opposite corners of the game map with a limited amount of “life”. Teams must attack and destroy several tiers of towers and eventually the Ancient of the opposing team while protecting their own towers and Ancient. The team whose Ancient falls first, loses the game.

DotA began as a kind of sub-game in Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, [19] which included a world builder, where players could create custom scenarios. “These custom scenarios can be simple terrain changes, which play like normal Warcraft games, or they can be entirely new game scenarios with custom objectives, units, items, and events, like Defense of the Ancients”.[20] Because gameplay was located within the Warcraft game, original players were part of the Warcraft community. However, in 2013, the standalone sequel DotA 2 was released as a free-to-play MOBA by Valve Corporation, allowing gameplay for experienced DotA players as well as newcomers unfamiliar with Warcraft. Hero names, images, and other in-game terms were changed, but DotA 2 is easily recognizable as a “sequel to DotA”.[21]

The DotA mod for Warcraft was originally created by an anonymous player named Eul in 2003, who soon disappeared from the scene, allowing for a series of other notable “modders” to step in and curate gameplay, heroes, and the map, including Guinsoo, Neichus, and IceFrog.[22] Players were invited by IceFrog to comment on what changes they wanted made in the game, and IceFrog listened to these requests, reportedly changing a hero’s abilities less than two weeks after a newer version had been released because the community claimed that the hero was too powerful.[23] In 2009, it was announced that IceFrog would be working at Valve Corporation to develop a new game.[24] While community involvement in the creation of DotA 2 wasn’t as public as it had been in DotA, it was created by the same people who were controlling DotA.

Although anonymity isn’t a requirement of the DotA and DotA 2 communities, it does seem to be a mark of the creators to remain anonymous[25]. This did not stop community members from speculating about IceFrog’s identity. A defamatory blog post by an alleged Valve employee identified IceFrog as Abdul Ismail was published in 2010 during the development of DotA 2.[26] Although Valve Corporation denied these rumours, a man named Ismail does appear to be a Valve employee, as his name appears in the credits of several Valve projects including their DotA 2 documentary Free to Play. DotA players’ devotion to IceFrog is apparent in the comments section of this blog post. Despite the claims that IceFrog/Ismail had previously worked for a rival game company, comments largely amounted to: “I don’t care as long as DotA 2 is good”. Meanwhile, commenters that leaned towards condemning IceFrog/Ismail professed a dislike for DotA players in general,[27] demonstrating a clear break between DotA community members’ adoration and the cynicism of non-members.

Another theory behind IceFrog’s identity explored by those in the community includes the possibility of IceFrog’s being Bruno Carlucci, a statistician, programmer, and DotA player and game commenter. Bruno’s publicly available timeline doesn’t match up very well with IceFrog’s apparent one. IceFrog was announced to have been working with Valve from 2009, while Bruno announced in May 2014 that he’d “recently accepted a job at Valve as a Software Engineer”.[28]  Nevertheless, rumours that Bruno is IceFrog persist. Forums discussing the possibility cite age, astrological sign, tweeted pictures, and even an apparently shared love of mangoes as evidence for this. There are also several interviews in which co-workers of Bruno appear to ask him directly why he refused to make certain changes in DotA, implying that he indeed was the IceFrog controlling and editing the game according to player suggestions.

I’ve been referring to this quest to determine the identity of DotA and DotA 2 developers as a creation myth because the mystery surrounding the game’s creation and players’ interest therein mirrors the creation story questions posed by other societies. Most of the conversation and evidence surrounding these ideas are provided by community members who are active curators of official DotA history in avenues such as Wikipedia pages on DotA content and self-written DotA histories, such as that published on Facebook by professional DotA player Bu Yanjun “YaphetS”, from China.[29]

However, there are other strains of what will be termed “worship” and “belief systems” in the DotA communities. The aforementioned YaphetS is one of the players who has occasionally had “god” attached to the end of his name because of his “godlike” skill level. These DotA gods are described by a strange mixture of fan speculation and “official” information, often with mythic claims like “labeled by the Chinese”.[30] In addition to the worship that seems to be inherent in labelling someone a god, players have been known to share items with other players they believe to be DotA gods or professional players.[31] There is also talk of fraternization between the DotA gods and IceFrog. YaphetS’s hero of choice in gameplay was Shadow Fiend, whose alternate name on DotA was “YaphetS”. This name was reputedly given “by IceFrog himself”, in tribute to this player.[32]

Furthermore, DotA and DotA 2 players often “believe in the RNG gods and either their favour or disfavour”.[33] RNG stands for Random Number Generator (or, occasionally, RNG is Random Number Gods). As a game that relies on strategy and skill, there is still a certain amount of random “luck” involved in DotA. A number of heroes possess skills that randomly deal more damage than at other times, while a number of items will similarly randomly deal damage or randomly block attacks. The “disfavour” of the RNG gods is demonstrated by a random number that works in a player’s disfavour.

Interestingly, rhetoric surrounding IceFrog, the DotA gods, and the RNG gods, while usually clearly parodic, is often religious in nature, revealing if nothing else a tendency by DotA community members to explain DotA conventions in terms of belief. Players have created and posted parodies of the Lord’s Prayer as prayers to IceFrog and to the RNG[34]. In one forum, a community member posed the question “Is IceFrog a god?” and responses to the post intentionally understood the question to be about IceFrog’s divinity rather than his playing ability. Responses include such assertions as “Eul is the Creator and IceFrog is the Savior”, and “IceFrog is a merciful god”.[35] The rhetoric surrounding the aforementioned DotA gods, meanwhile, seems mythic in nature as community members attempt to pass on the correct lore to new(er) players. “These titles were given during the DotA1 times”, one community member says, explaining the DotA gods to a self-professed new player asking about them on a forum.[36] These stories don’t always agree, and players are quick to defend their views using the same language. “Vigoss is the first god; they called him V-god because it sounded like Vigoss, and this is when he redefined how Dota was played. At least this is the legend I’ve heard…”[37]

Game designer Aaron Oldenburg has demonstrated the potential for virtual games to “simulate religious faith” through procedural and emotional response-provoking elements. His exploration, however, limits itself to first person games. Not being a folklorist, Oldenburg’s interests do not extend to a gaming community’s creation of such faith. However, Oldenburg’s assertion that “religion and games often seem separate from the everyday world, as believers and players (by no means mutually exclusive categories) choose to follow agreed upon sets of rules and narratives that distinguish them from non-believers and non-players” has a certain poignancy when applied to the DotA communities”.[38] Religion and gaming become inextricably linked as markers of community participation.

 

Community: Self-Regulation and Groups within Groups

 

An important aspect of community participation is ritual, which includes not only religious and coming-of-age rituals, but also initiation rituals. “Initiations involve activities that an individual initiate or group of initiates perform to prove their worthiness or to bond them to each other and/or to the group”.[39] Gaming communities have their own sets of rituals, including initiations. Through playing the game in his research of Magic: The Gathering, Williams discovered that before a player is able to play, he or she must construct a deck of cards, usually by buying a number of packs of cards from which players choose a combination to create a deck, which may or may not be strong depending on players’ skills and available cards. Although ready-to-play decks are available for purchase, Williams notes that players typically do not buy these decks,[40]  indicating that the process of creating a deck – which demonstrates investment and understanding – is a sort of ritual for these players. Initiation and ritual in the DotA communities include such aspects as the structured act of downloading the game and completing the tutorial as well as the less rigidly defined period of time in which new players go from being hazed by experienced players to joining in the hazing of “newbs”.

DotA is a game created and regulated by the gamers who play it. Despite the way updates and changes were made to the game by apparent individuals like Eul or IceFrog, the changes were suggested by the community at large:

“Eul, Guinsoo or IceFrog alone did not make the map. The DOTA community…makes the map”, one player said. Loadscreen art is drawn by fans. Some bugs are found and some items and heroes are made, erased, and changed almost entirely because of community outreach.[41]

Community members are aware of their own power in this game-creation, and they extend this regulation to the moderation of the community itself.

With the release of DotA 2 as a free-to-play MOBA in 2013[42], entrance into the DotA community became much less restricted for new players. Before this, it had technically been restricted only by purchase of the Warcraft III game. However, WCIII was notably the third game in a series of games with an already-tight community. DotA 2’s easy availability removed the lingering traces of esotericism in terms of familiarity with the Warcraft games. However, the DotA and DotA 2 communities are self-regulating. Although the common stereotype of gamers such as these includes social awkwardness or inability to express themselves, these community members are incredibly prolific on forums, blogs, and YouTube. While access to the community is never officially denied, ignorance, lack of skill, or inability to learn from past mistakes is vehemently ridiculed and derided by the community. That DotA has a “steep learning curve” was attested to by three of the community members interviewed, all of whom confess to playing as many as six hours a week.[43]

Because of the large number of heroes (each with their own set of abilities) that players can choose from, and the even wider selection of items that change the in-game situations, DotA and DotA 2 gameplay necessitates the ability to strategize; this requires a commitment to practicing as well as the inherent ability to mentally organize, calculate, and remember the items and heroes. Many players learn by watching public matches, watching YouTube videos, or reading Purge’s guide to DotA, subtitled “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”. Purge is a professional commentator and sometimes professional player.[44] The guide was originally written for DotA in 2011, before the public release of DotA 2 and it was updated for DotA 2 in 2012 and again this year. Purge’s most recent version changes his opening line from “Welcome to DotA, you suck” to “Welcome to DotA, you su… well actually you guys have gotten a lot better”.[45] This guide represents the starting point to even the minimal level of skill in DotA for many players. A number of blogs suggest this as a starting point, and this researcher has been personally told that reading this Guide is the best way to learn to play.

However, until the recent updates which thank players for “taking a chance on this game” that “takes a long time to refine your skills and learn”, the guide read almost as a discouragement from entering the community.

You suck, and you are going to be constantly reminded of this fact for about 6-9 months (if you learn). If you read this guide and use your brain and be actively aware of how bad you suck, you can easily shave 3-6 months off of your complete noob status… You are going to feed. You are going to ruin games, and someone is going to be happy to tell you why.… You are going to have to have thick skin to play DotA.[46]

Learning by playing can be similarly discouraging. In public matches, opposing teams will openly mock the losing team. Furthermore, many players talk about and practice “rage quitting”, in which a particularly good opposing team or, more often, a particularly unskilled set of allies will lead to a player getting angry and leaving in the middle of a game. Interestingly, the community seems to regard these ostensibly destructive relationships as constructive criticism. DotA forums hold regular discussions on rage quitting, in which members show a mild amount of embarrassment after rage quitting while other players often console them with similar stories. Players sometimes describe these actions as necessary: “Someone on my team picked Necrophos, bought a ward and went to our ancient jungle camp. I knew what had to be done”.[47] Such phrasing in these responses and even in the titles and original posts (“everyone has done it at least once in their gaming lifetime”) posits these actions as intrinsic parts of playing DotA.[48]

Such a hard-to-enter community, however, doesn’t actually seem to discourage players. Instead, the high standards set by the community seem devoted to regulating the skill and care that goes into playing. Half-hearted community members are culled out, but even poor players who are committed to playing will be allowed to remain in the community.

Professional DotA players belong to teams, but regular public matches often loosely consist of teams as well[49]. The five players interviewed all know each other in real life and sometimes, but not always, play together as a full team[50]. One of them says that he began to play because “it had been getting a lot of press at the time due to The International 3 tournament going on” in 2013.[51] The others all profess that they began playing because their friends were playing. With the exception of one of them, however, they all claim to play even with only one or two of their friends and often with “randoms”, players they don’t know.

These interviewees met in college, and DotA seems to have presented an opportunity for the friends to “stay connected”, though many of them have moved to distant states. Even when only three or four of them play, they regularly use a different program than the one provided by the DotA 2 game to audibly chat with each other. In addition to offering a hands-free chat mechanism, this separate program allows these friends to talk to each other without having to talk to any “randoms” that might be playing as their teammate. These friends usually opt instead to include the random teammates in strategies via typed messages.

Although members of the DotA communities at large, the interviewed players maintain a community within a community. They are each active within the community to varying degrees, often keeping up with the professional DotA circuit, online forums, and occasional public matches without their friends. However, they seem to largely view the DotA 2 community to which they belong as a virtual conduit that allows them to continue the community they established prior to playing together. “We have a private chat server, and a lot of times we talk about our lives, our jobs, and things that have nothing to do with Dota around the game or while we play”.[52]  Even when the players are physically together for visits, their conversations and activities are largely DotA-related. Sometimes, this group will play together while all in the same room, foregoing the virtual chat system to plot strategies and discuss the game aloud. Digital community for them has become a stand-in for a physical community, but apparently is no less realistic.

 

Collectanea: Digital Collectibles and Player Creations

 

Sims and Stephens have identified material culture as an important genre in folklore studies. For traditional studies, this material culture looks at permanent and ephemeral objects such as architecture or food, respectively. “Permanent or not, material culture has in common that it is tangible – can be touched, seen, eaten, or lived in”.[53] The study of a folk group’s material culture includes not only items produced by/within that community, but also items used by the community. These items acquire relevance and meaningfulness for folklorists through the method and purposes of their production as well as the occasion and frequency of their use.

Although there are a number of physical objects associated with the DotA games, such as T-shirts and figurines, there are also a number of digital items and activities that, while unrelated to actual gameplay, are very much a part of the DotA communities. Players can, for example, buy a $35 hero set for a hero named Crystal Maiden which includes new clothes, new animations for her in-game abilities, and a wolf pup pet that follows her around during the game. These items are not necessary to gameplay in the way that some items are necessary for gaming, such as the cards in the collectible card games that Williams has examined.[54] Williams spends a significant amount of time elaborating on the capitalist aspect of such games. While it is possible to acquire a particularly strong card in a cheap pack of randomly assorted cards, it is much more common that strong cards are held by players who have invested more monetary capital into the game by buying more random packs and increasing the odds of getting a good card or by outright buying expensive cards from other players. DotA 2, however, is a free to play game and while some items are bought and paid for, they do not have the power to affect player or character skill or strength.

Perhaps the most popular digital content in DotA 2 is the Compendium. Each year, a new Compendium is released which gives players a number of in-game challenges that allow them to win prizes, many of which are available for purchase and some of which are specific to the Compendium. These special items are displayed during gameplay and players can see each other’s achievements. Although such items are not as unique, as the anime artist Trevor Blank examines in his chapter on digital collectors, his claim that such collectanea represent “a type of fetish in both an imaginative and a social sense” seems apt here as well. “Ownership”, Blank says, “means absolute possession of a specific, emotionally significant event in the narrative created by using the object. For this reason, possessing such an object invests the owners with equivalent social power among those sharing the same reverence for that narrative”.[55] Similarly, Pearce has spoken of the way that artefacts in the Myst games are often common to most or all iterations of the games, demonstrating the way that physical (or the digital version of digital) objects are an integral part of a community.[56] The acquiring and exchange of items and knowledge as well as original creations such as art or fictions that are based on DotA characters or experience in the DotA communities are likewise markers for community involvement and participation.

The sales from the Compendium fund one of the other main out-of-game activities that community members participate in: The International. The International (TI) is a tournament that happens every year, most recently in Seattle, WA. DotA 2 fans and players can travel to watch the tournament in Washington, or they can watch live online. In August 2015, the tournament was also broadcast live in a number of theatres both in America and in other countries, so that members of the DotA 2 community could watch the championship match live, even if they were unable to travel to the tournament. TI is truly an international tournament, demonstrating, as the small sub-community I’ve chosen to interview attempts to do, the way that this online community is unrestricted by distance. TI consists of Chinese teams, Korean Teams, Argentinean teams, and teams that are comprised of members from multiple nations, like Team Secret, which is located in “Europe”, but has players from Sweden, Canada, and Germany, for example.[57] TI watching is an interesting activity that imitates the gameplay between friends discussed above. DotA community members meet together and combine online activities with physically present social situations.

The DotA communities, furthermore, regularly create and share material that is relevant to the communities at large. DotA’s loading screens are community members’ fan art. Other community creations include guides such as Purge’s guide to the game as a whole and his other guides for individual heroes. Players, furthermore, have access to “builds” for each hero in-game. These builds function as minimalist guides, suggesting which abilities to prioritize and which items to buy during the game, but without the explanation and commentary of the longer guides that players often create. Builds can be rated by community members, helping other players to make informed decisions regarding which build they use.

Other community creations include YouTube videos of games and tactics. These can sometimes be used constructively for gameplay by members but can also be used for entertainment. During my interviews, several players claimed to have learned the game by watching, but some of them specifically mentioned watching the “DotAWTF” YouTube videos, which are a series of videos highlighting particularly poor in-game choices by players.[58] The comments, like on the forums, are often extremely negative and/or harsh. There are more than 150 videos and the views and likes on the individual videos sometimes total more than 2,000,000 and 34,000, respectively.

There are, finally, community creations that have little to do with gameplay and more to do with creativity. Although not at all relevant to gameplay, each hero has a bio and story. During my interviews, it was revealed that the interview was for a folklore seminar, and the players were then asked if they had any ideas about how DotA 2 related to folklore. One of them pointed me to these hero profiles, which read like short fantasy summaries.[59] Another provided an internet link to an hour-long film created by a Chinese DotA player in 2011. Using scenes from the game, the player creates a story about Mirana, Magina, and TerrorBlade, wherein Mirana and Magina are in love. At the climactic end, TerrorBlade (Magina’s brother) kills Mirana. Instead of the common harsh criticism typical of the community, the film seems to be well received. The comments are overwhelmingly about how touching the movie is. Interestingly, the negative comments also seem to be caught up in the movie, as commentators flame the film character using the same language of in-game censure: “Use your ultimate [on] mirana [sic] and kill yourself noob uninstall dota”. Responses to such criticism, explanations like “He was too far to ult”, use in-game experience and logic to argue the point.[60]

 

Conclusion

 

The DotA communities and their lore demonstrate the growing presence of online identities and an opportunity for an extended examination of how traditional folkloric practices are transposed to a virtual space. Although the virtual and physical activities occasionally intersect seamlessly, the digital has largely become the real for such communities. From their beliefs, to community boundaries, to creation, this lore is being distributed virtually to a group of gamers whose physical presence is as realistic as their virtual one.

As a field that focuses on the unique qualities of a community as well as the development and practice of these qualities, folklore seems an apt field for discussions of gaming communities. It’s clear that even though these communities are formed and practiced online – their involvement and focus on games rather than more “traditional” activities like quilting (also a common focus for folklore studies) – gaming communities are not so radically different from traditionally recognized folk groups that a new terminology or methodology is necessary for examination.

As a competing field for the most suitable field by which to study gaming communities, gaming studies poses an interesting possibility. However, although frequently recognized as an independent field, game studies is not only made up of scholars from other fields, but it also often relies on long-established methods and terms used primarily in other disciplines. Perhaps folklore studies will eventually become one of the fields from which scholars enter gaming studies, as sociology, anthropology, and literature are now. Eventually its methodologies and vocabularies may become regular players in gaming studies works focusing on individual gaming communities. For this current project at least, folklore is a fitting field through which to examine the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of these particular communities. The way in which these methodologies prove successful in being applied to digital communities’ comments upon the potential trajectory for further folkloric studies of digital communities, gaming-focused or otherwise.

 

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Tucker Lavernius, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

Tyler, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

Walbridge Michael, “Analysis: Defense of the Ancients – An Underground Revolution”, Gamasutra, https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/109814/Analysis_Defense_of_the_Ancients__An_Underground_Revolution.php, date accessed 11 December 2015.

Williams J. Patrick, “Consumption and Authenticity in the Collectible Strategy Games Subculture”, in Gaming as Culture, ed. J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler (London: McFarland & Company, 2006).

Willjaf, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

WoDota, “TerrorBlade’s Revenge”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fr3lrxg-2mA, date accessed 14 December 2015.

YaphetS, “A History of Dota: Part 1”, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/notes/yaphets-pis/a-history-of-dota-part-1/377203832338260/, date accessed 22 November 2015.

“YaphetS”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/YaphetS, date accessed 22 November 2015.

 

[1]My title comes from a popular DotA guide, discussed below. The community members often use such harsh language with other community members in a stringent display of community building.

[2] Munroe Randall, “Online Communities”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/256/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

[3] Munroe Randall, “Online Communities 2”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/802/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

[4] Dundes Alan, Interpreting Folklore, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1980), pp. 6-7.

[5] Sims Martha C. and Martine Stephens, Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions, (Logan: Utah State University Press) (2011), p. 36.

[6] Ibidem, 8.

[7] Blank, Trevor J. Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction, (Logan: Utah State University Press) (2012), p. 2.

[8] Ibidem, 3.

[9] I am using the words “esoteric” and “exoteric” here and elsewhere as reference to “insider/outsider” knowledge. “Esoteric” refers to aspects, language, etc. that is easily understood or recognized by those within the gaming world – usually participants but also researchers or other observers. “Exoteric” refers instead to knowledge that is recognizable even to those outside of the gaming world.

[10] InZomnia365, “Re: I Don’t ‘get’ WoW”, WoW Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/1p92a7/i_dont_get_wow/, date accessed 5 November 2015.

[11] Pinterest users, for example, don’t form a community in the way that gaming groups do. Instead, Pinterest seems to be a place to declare to which communities a user belongs, including WoW and DotA.

[12] Quoted in Gamespot, “Redefining Games: How Academia Is Reshaping Games of the Future”, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/redefining-games-how-academia-is-reshaping-games-of-the-future/1100-6106009/, date accessed 2 September 2017.

[13] Williams J. Patrick, “Consumption and Authenticity in the Collectible Strategy Games Subculture”, in Gaming as Culture, ed. J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler (London: McFarland & Company) (2006), p. 89.

[14] Sims and Stephens, p. 56.

[15] Ibidem, p. 59.

[16] See Pearce Celia, Communities of Play, (London: The MIT Press) (2009).

[17] Although I will sometimes refer to it as “DotA 1”, the first game is rarely called as such, and is only done so anachronistically. Different companies control the two games. DotA 1 was never trademarked as a game and there was no intention of a sequel.

[18] Although DotA was not the first MOBA, it is often cited as one of the most influential. As a testament to its ubiquitous fame, you can reach the MOBA Wikipedia explanation page by following a link for “Dota (genre)” from the Dota Disambiguation page.

[19] Although I feel as though “sub-game” is a sufficient explanation for the relationship between DotA and Warcraft, it is somewhat inaccurate. The Warcraft games are actually a series of several games that are related but not dependent on each other, and they comprise several different genres. Blizzard entertainment first began releasing Warcraft games in 1994. These were RTS (Real Time Strategy) Games, to which MOBAs are directly related, since gameplay involves strategizing against the opposing team. World of Warcraft was the fourth game in the series, and the first that is an MMO rather than an RTS game. DotA, meanwhile, debuted in 2003 (one year before 2004’s World of Warcraft) as a “mod” of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. These first 3 games, including DotA required a purchase of the game, but not of a subscription like that of WoW.

[20] “Defense of the Ancients”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_of_the_Ancients, date accessed 11 December 2015.

[21] For more information on the copyright agreements between Blizzard and Valve, see Curtis, “Blizzard and Valve settle ongoing ‘Dota’ trademark controversy”, Gamasutra,https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/170248/Blizzard_and_Valve_settle_ongoing_Dota_trademark_controversy.php, date accessed 9 December 2015.

[22] “Defense of the Ancients”

[23] Ibidem.

[24] O’Connor Alice, “DotA Dev Joins Valve, Hints at Future Game”, Shacknews, http://www.shacknews.com/article/60733/dota-dev-joins-valve-hints, date accessed 30 November 2015.

[25] Usually, but not always. For example, Guinsoo’s real name, Steve Feak, is publicly known.

[26] In May 2017, only a few months after the original research in this study, IceFrog’s identity was confirmed to be Ismail by the papers in a court case in California. Forum posts on reddit obscured Ismail’s name when announcing that the mystery was resolved, implying that some community members might prefer the belief and speculation to the truth. See pwnies, “Icefrog’s identity finally revealed in court documents”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA 2/comments/6c1tp8/icefrogs_identity_finally_revealed_in_court/, date accessed 1 September 2017.

[27] As is common in online communities, many of these remarks included an impressive display of vulgar language and insults, but some of the milder insults referred to them as “dota fan boys”, implying weak-minded bias. For a more detailed look, see Anonymous, “The Truth About IceFrog: Behind the Bullshit”, http://icefrogtruth.blogspot.com, date accessed 10 December 2015.

[28] “Bruno”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Bruno, date accessed 19 November 2015.

[29] YaphetS, “A History of Dota: Part 1”, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/notes/yaphets-pis/a-history-of-dota-part-1/377203832338260/, date accessed 22 November 2015.

[30] See Lapyex, “Dota Gods”, JoinDOTA.com, https://www.joindota.com/en/forums/691-joindota-and-community/693-community/197339-dota-gods&page=1, date accessed 2 December 2015. and “YaphetS”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/YaphetS, date accessed 22 November 2015.

[31] Naut1g, “How Do the Devs and Community Feel about Players That Impersonate Pros on Steam?” Dota2 Dev Forums, http://dev.dota2.com/archive/index.php/t-100430.html, date accessed 10 December 2015.

[32] See just kiddings’ response to Lapyex, “Dota Gods”.

[33] Caboose, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

[34] The RNG prayer was made by a member of the WoW community, referencing things outside of DotA gameplay.

[35] See Aircross’ and killer3254’s responses to Dotanewbe, “Is Icefrog a God”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/is-icefrog-a-god.1342407/, date accessed 4 December 2015.

[36] See terryken’s response to Lapyex, “Dota Gods”.

[37] See Dusk562’s response to Lapyex, “Dota Gods”.

[38] Oldenburg Aaron, “Simulating Religious Faith”, Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 3.1 (2011), pp. 51-52.

[39] Sims and Stephens, p. 119.

[40] Williams, pp. 79-80.

[41] Walbridge Michael, “Analysis: Defense of the Ancients – An Underground Revolution”, Gamasutra, https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/109814/Analysis_Defense_of_the_Ancients__An_Underground_Revolution.php, date accessed 11 December 2015.

[42] DotA 2 was released for play in 2011 for professional players. TI1, the first international tournament for DotA 2 was held in Cologne, Germany in 2011. However, the game wasn’t available to the public until 2013.

[43] According to emails from players Smith Matt, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015., Tucker Lavernius, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015., Tyler, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015., and Willjaf, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

[44] “Purge”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Purge_(Kevin_Godec), date accessed 2 November 2015, and Godec Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to DotA, You Suck”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/welcome-to-dota-you-suck.462907/, date accessed 11 December 2015.

[45] Godec, Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”, Purge Gamers, http://www.purgegamers.com/welcome-to-dota-you-suck/, date accessed 6 December 2015.

[46] Ibidem.

[47] Barachaos, “Re: Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

[48] masoomdon, “Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

[49] “Teams” is perhaps a misleading term here. 2–5 friends can choose to play together, and any extra players needed to fill the 5 player slots will be filled with random players.

[50] There are several other members of this group whom I did not interview, but that sometimes join them in playing.

[51] Smith Matt, “Dota Interview”

[52] Tucker, “Dota Interview”

[53] Sims and Stephens, p. 15.

[54] See Williams, “Consumption and Authenticity”

[55] Blank, p. 167.

[56] See Pearce, pp. 158-167 and throughout.

[57] “Team Secret”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Team_Secret, date accessed 9 December 2015.

[58] Tucker, “DotA Interview” and Caboose, “DotA Interview”.

[59] willjaf, “DotA Interview”.

[60] WoDota, “TerrorBlade’s Revenge”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fr3lrxg-2mA, date accessed 14 December 2015

Different levels of game genre. A Review.

Marcin Petrowicz

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 177-183.

 

Marcin Petrowicz

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Different levels of game genre. A Review.

 

The problem of genre is probably as ancient as literature itself; anyone who takes up this topic not only has to face the tradition of genre studies but also has to justify the validity of applying narrative fiction concepts to game studies. Therefore, Maria B. Garda’s book Interaktywne fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych (Interactive fantasy. Genre in digital games)[1] was a daring endeavour from its inception. Yet, after reading through the first chapter one abandons initial doubts regarding Garda’s thesis.

Genre been thoroughly examined not only in many academic disciplines dealing with different media, but also in popular discourse. Labels such as fantasy, gothic, thriller, or romance are used by researchers and connoisseurs of different media, and by novice amateurs, children, and unsavoury fans that are just learning to recognize and understand the vast landscape of different cultural artefacts. Marketing copywriters use genre tags to set expectations for their consumer base; media producers employ genre effects, using them as a recognizable means of communication. Garda argues that game culture in many ways replicates the Hollywood film complex, in which “genres are by definition not just scientifically derived or theoretically constructed categories but are always industrially certified and publicly shared”.[2] Yet the fact that these collections of conventions and effects are constantly used and transformed makes it almost impossible to create an ultimate definition of any genre. Furthermore, living in a world where different types of text converge, exchange, and leave their native platform—a postmedia landscape[3]—the quest for the academic definition of genre is so much more difficult. Therefore the author of the reviewed book writes, “That is why the goal of my work is not to define the concept of [game – M.P.] genre, but rather to examine the role of genre distribution of digital games in relation to similar divisions in film and literature”[4]. Inspired by the concept of genre layers[5], Interactive Fantasy introduces the original concept of merger models and analyzes an example of a well-established one: hardcore fantasy RPG.

 

Genre layers

 

Genre layers assign games to specific genres on different levels. In Interactive Fantasy… three such layers are presented: thematic, ludic, and functional. “Thematic genres relate to categories of semantic systems and are defined primarily on the basis of the representation”[6]. These genres are easily identified throughout any medium that uses any kind of narrative or figurative imagery. Fantasy, horror or western are examples of thematic genres; they are transmedial and mostly originate from creations preceding videogames, thus frequently the tools for their analysis are derived from literature and film studies. The second layer is the ludic genres that are defined by the rules, mechanics, and conventions of gameplay. A point-of-view perspective paired with a three-dimensional environment and shooting-based gameplay will result in an FPS (first-person shooter) game, for example, the Doom series (id Software, 1993–2016), while continuous time plus a commander’s perspective and a gameplay based on economy and military conflict will be an RTS (real-time strategy game) such as the StarCraft series (Blizzard Entertainment, 1998–2017). The Ludic genre is also transmedial, as there are card games (Gwent (CD Projekt RED, in public beta from 2017) and poker), roleplaying games (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (Games Workshop, 1986–2009) and The Witcher (CD Projekt Red, 2007–2015)) and wargames (Panzer General (Strategic Simulations, Inc., 1994) and Warhammer 40,000 (Games Workshop, 1987–present)) created for different media; but at the same time there are platformers (Super Mario Bros (Nintendo, 1985)), tile matching (Candy Crush Saga (King, 2012)) or dexterity games (Twister (Milton Bradley Company, 1966)) that could not have been transferred to any other platform than the original one. The third layer presented by Garda is the functional genres defined by the context of reception and the modes of participation. The author introduces two independent divisions of games within functional genres. The first relates to the declared goal of the product; whether it is an entertainment game or whether it has another purpose besides fun; the latter is the case of serious games, which can be further divided into educational games, advertisement games or persuasive games. The second division is based on the designed cognitive effort that the game requires from the player, resulting in either hardcore or casual games, as defined by Paweł Grabarczyk[7]. This is probably the most interesting and the least recognized genre layer, because although much is written in academia about serious games, there is little reflection on casual or hardcore games as genres.

 

Genre effects

 

Within each of the described genre layers, the games are divided by a different set of distinguishable features: narrative, gameplay, and social context. Yet, even within the categories the differentiators for each genre label are not of the same nature. FPSs are defined by environment whereas RTSs (real-time strategies) are defined by usage of time. Therefore, as Garda states, the role of the genre is less that of classification, but rather that of interpretation. To analyse this situation, she uses genre effects borrowed from Dominic Arsenault:

Playing a game is experiencing a constant flux of (genre, series or intertextual) markers, that depending on the individual spectator and his competences, can produce the genres effects that precise their expectations and prepare their favourable disposition for the upcoming semiotic sequence.[8]

A genre marker can be one of many differentiators for a single genre, like progression of character statistics in role-playing games, but a marker can also be used in several games of different genres, such as the multiple endings marker. Under this tag on the Steam platform there are listed such different games as triple AAA role-playing game The Witcher 2: Assassins of the Kings (CD Projekt Red, 2014), indie narrative adventure game The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013), or a visual novel Cinders (MoaCube, 2012). Genres arise, mix, and evolve so the gaming community and industry use not only names such as cRPG or FPS, but also tags, which Garda refers to as genre labels, which can either signify a whole genre, e.g. FPS, or also relate to just one genre marker, e.g. multiple ending.

 

Merger models

 

Upon those theoretical foundations, Maria Garda presents her original idea: genre merger models[9]. She argues that specific genres from different layers attract each other and have been historically proven to be popular clusters. For example, the ludic genre of HOPA (hidden object puzzle adventure) is frequently combined with the detective story theme and a casual mode of engagement, resulting in a recognizable historically embedded trend. Merger models describe a specific convention popular at a given time, “those relations change historically, as today many genres that were in the past associated with a hardcore mode of engagement open up to more casual practices”[10]. We could ask about the popularity of the WWII hardcore FPS model of the early 2000s, and how this model has changed now in a time of a possible revival of the model with the premiere of Call of Duty: WWII (Sledgehammer Games, 2017). Garda emphasizes that the list of layers is not complete and can be expanded with labels beyond what the gaming community considers genres. Two interesting additions would be the hardware and nationality layers. A collection of specific local merger models that are highly popular in a particular country could shed light on the national style of game development, while analysis of merger models related to a specific console would tell the story and reveal the strategy of the owner company.

Merger models ought not to be limited to genres; while this framework can serve to interpret a specific genre and its evolution, in my opinion it is more of a tool for writing histories of games. What it should provide us with is an insightful multidimensional map of interconnected trends in game development and its transformations over time. As presented in Interactive Fantasy, the merger model concept can be used to holistically and thoroughly describe a group of games, such as hardcore fantasy RPG, or to analyse chosen aspects of single or multiple games, as Garda does in the last chapters of the book.

 

The Exemplar Model

Fantasy

 

The fantasy genre as it is applied in video games is most indebted to J.R.R. Tolkien, his successors, and followers. Yet Garda does not limit herself to this genre core and presents a brief history that led to the creation of Middle-earth. She describes the inspirations of early fantasy writers (mythopoeic narratives, romantic nostalgy for the pre-industrial world and the English Fairyland) as the roots that set the genre’s standards for the following decades. Following the arguments from Tomasz Z. Majkowski’s monograph of the 20th century fantasy “In the Shadow of the White Tree”, Garda adapts her definition of fantasy based on three main characteristics:

  • its ‘otherness’, geographical and chronological distinctiveness from the areas identified with the common reality (…)
  • presence of fantastical elements motivated by magic,
  • conventional ancientness or ‘medievalism’[11]

Tolkien is also indirectly responsible for the popularity of magic and elves in 21st century popular culture, firstly by inspiring the nascence of tabletop role-playing games in the ‘70s and later with the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings (2001–2003, Peter Jackson). Not satisfied to just follow the history of fantasy popularity, Garda goes on to summarize the academic research dedicated to this genre. While it is not the main point of interest in the book, it is deep and thorough and can be an interesting read not only to uninitiated scholars.

 

Hardcore

 

The chapter devoted to hardcore games, or more precisely games that demand high cognitive engagement, is mostly focused on gamers’ culture and players’ typologies; it is the chapter that concentrates on the social context of games instead of the artefact itself. Following various researchers, Garda presents a history of the rise and fall of the gamer. Looking for the birth of the gamers she summons Greame Kirkpatrick, who places it in the middle of the ‘80s and points to British gaming magazines as the source of this identity[12]. The author of Interactive Fantasy rightly adjusts this statement to a Polish context, in which gaming culture experienced a similar boom in the ‘90s. On the other hand, she sees the beginning of the fall of the gamer in the Casual Revolution—the transformation of the video game industry in the early 2000, when developers opened their products to wider audiences who would not call themselves gamers, as described in Jesper Juul’s A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games[13]. Garda follows the different definitions and characteristics of the engaged user and describes how the RPG genre relates to them. While for years role-playing was considered to be the definition of hardcore games, in her opinion it is more interesting to see the latest changes in that matter. As more and more developers adopt casual strategies for their work, we see titles that have the characteristics of role-playing, but are also more open to casual players, like Games of Thrones: Ascent (Disruptor Beam, 2013), which is analysed in a later chapter.

 

RPG

 

Role-playing games are one of the most popular and vital genres in games culture and even in trying to grasp the topic broadly, Garda has a lot to cover. Yet she does so in a brief but detailed and engaging form which covers the archaeology of computer role-playing games, presenting the details of the creation of Adventure (Will Crowther, 1975), the ancestor of all RPGs. Later Garda discusses the periodization of the genre as defined in Dungeons and Desktops by Matt Barton[14]. However, the most important part of this chapter is the reflection on the foundation elements of role-playing and especially how they changed over time. Nonetheless, the two defining traits of role-playing are just as relevant now as they were in 1998, when the book Garda quotes was published. These essential RPG genre effects are the character development system (aggregation of points) and the player’s diverse interaction with the game world (role-playing)[15]. The analysis of these elements gives insight into the genre’s roots and also its relationship with its tabletop counterpart.

The last part of Interactive Fantasy shows how the theoretical model conceived by Maria Garda can be used in analysis. Especially valuable is the ludic analysis of the roguelike genre, in which the author delves into the history of this convention, describes the revolutionary effect of Diablo (Blizzard North, 1996), and the recent popularity of neo-roguelike. This part not only presents an insightful research of a forgotten breed of games but is also a great example of a middle-range game analysis.

I am convinced that Interactive Fantasy. Genre in digital games will be an essential book in Polish game studies curricula. It is a great handbook for games genre theory, presenting all the necessary concepts for aspiring students. The different theories and wide range of topics related to fantasy role-playing games will make it also engaging reading for fans or avid gamers, as the academic nature of the publication does not make it inaccessible or overly complex. On the other hand, in Interactive Fantasy Maria Garda presents an original and inspiring theoretical framework that could be useful for seasoned game researchers. The genre merger model is an insightful concept that is open to further developments and, despite its name, should be developed and adopted to game aspects beyond just genres.

 

References

Altman Rick, Film/genre, (London: British Film Institute) (2000), p. 16.

Arsenault Dominic, Des typologies mécaniques à l’expérience esthétique: fonctions et mutations du genre dans le jeu vidéo (doctoral thesis) (2011), pp. 287-288. https://www.academia.edu/2999430/Des_typologies_m%C3%A9caniques_%C3%A0_lexp%C3%A9rience_esth%C3%A9tique_fonctions_et_mutations_du_genre_dans_le_jeu_vid%C3%A9o date accessed 11 November 2017.

Barton Matt, Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, (Wellesley: A K Peters) (2008).

Celiński Piotr, Postmedia. Cyfrowy kod i bazy danych, (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej) (2013).

Garda Maria, “‘Limits of Genre, Limits of Fantasy’: Rethinking Computer Role-Playing Games”, in Cultural Perspectives of Video Games: From Designer to Player, ed. Adam L. Brackin and Natacha Guyot (Oxford: Inter Disciplinary Press, 2012)

Garda Maria, Interaktywne Fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych, (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (2016).

Grabarczyk Paweł, “O opozycji hardcore/casual”, Homo Ludens: Czasopismo Ludologiczne Polskiego Towarzystwa Badania Gier. 1(7) (2015), pp. 89-109.

Juul Jesper, A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, (Cambridge: The MIT Press) (2010).

Kirkpatrick Graeme, “Constitutive Tensions of Gaming’s Field: UK Gaming Magazines and the Formation of Gaming Culture 1981-1995.” Game Studies 12.1 (2012). http://gamestudies.org/1201/articles/kirkpatrick  date accessed 11 November 2017.

Majkowski Tomasz Z., W cieniu białego drzewa: powieść fantasy w XX wieku, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2013), p. 331.

Uchański Aleksy, Gawrysiak Piotr, Mańkowski Piotr, Biblia Komputerowego Gracza, (Warszawa: Iskry) (1998), pp. 231.

Voorhees Gerald, Call Josh, Whitlock Katie, Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens: The Digital Role-Playing Game (New York: Continuum) (2012)

 

Garda Maria, Interaktywne Fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych, (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (2016).

 

[1] Maria Garda, Interaktywne Fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych, (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (2016).

[2] Rick Altman, Film/genre, (London: British Film Institute) (2000), p. 16.

[3] Piotr Celiński, Postmedia. Cyfrowy kod i bazy danych, (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej) (2013).

[4] Maria Garda, p. 22.

[5] Gerald Voorhees, Josh Call, Katie Whitlock, Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens: The Digital Role-Playing Game (New York: Continuum) (2012).

[6] Maria Garda, p. 25.

[7] Paweł Grabarczyk, “O opozycji hardcore/casual”, Homo Ludens: Czasopismo Ludologiczne Polskiego Towarzystwa Badania Gier. 1(7) (2015), pp. 89-109.

[8] Dominic Arsenault, Des typologies mécaniques à l’expérience esthétique: fonctions et mutations du genre dans le jeu vidéo (doctoral thesis) (2011), pp. 287-288. https://www.academia.edu/2999430/Des_typologies_m%C3%A9caniques_%C3%A0_lexp%C3%A9rience_esth%C3%A9tique_fonctions_et_mutations_du_genre_dans_le_jeu_vid%C3%A9o date accessed 11 November 2017.

[9] Maria Garda, “‘Limits of Genre, Limits of Fantasy’: Rethinking Computer Role-Playing Games”, in Cultural Perspectives of Video Games: From Designer to Player, ed. Adam L. Brackin and Natacha Guyot (Oxford: Inter Disciplinary Press, 2012).

[10] Maria Garda, (2016), p. 27.

[11] Tomasz Z. Majkowski, W cieniu białego drzewa: powieść fantasy w XX wieku, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2013), p. 331.

[12] Graeme Kirkpatrick, “Constitutive Tensions of Gaming’s Field: UK Gaming Magazines and the Formation of Gaming Culture 1981-1995.” Game Studies 12.1 (2012). http://gamestudies.org/1201/articles/kirkpatrick  date accessed 11 November 2017.

[13] Jesper Juul, A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, (Cambridge: The MIT Press) (2010).

[14] Matt Barton, Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, (Wellesley: A K Peters) (2008).

[15] Aleksy Uchański, Piotr Gawrysiak, Piotr Mańkowski, Biblia Komputerowego Gracza, (Warszawa: Iskry) (1998), pp. 231.

War&Technology (Editorial)

Joanna Walewska

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 1-4.

Joanna Walewska

Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń

 

 

War&Technology (Editorial)

 

Jacques Derrida (2008), when asked if the attacks of 9/11 would become one of the major events of the last century, answered that it is symptomatic that we refer to this event by means of its date: 11 September, 9/11. He concluded that it was a “thing” which probably has the status of an event for which we do not have yet a proper name. Referring to Derrida’s words, W.J.T. Mitchell wrote (2011) that every history in fact consists of two histories, one focused on what actually happened, the other on the ways of interpreting and describing the events. The first type of historical narrative is focused on facts and figures, while the other is focused on images and words that enable understanding of past events. Narratives about the past are no longer a domain reserved only for historians, because more frequently they are created in real time by official and independent media (e.g. the attacks on the WTC, when the emergency services learned about the plane that had crashed into the WTC towers from a television broadcast), millions of social media users around the world (Cottle 2006; Monahan 2010; Grusin 2010, Huff M. et al 2013), and the narration of movie directors and video game developers.

A number of social scientists, journalists, scholars, and philosophers have observed that the outcome of the attacks was a radical shift in political discourse and social practices—explained by the necessity of applying new security measures and justified by the “state of exception” (Agamben 2008; Sidel 2007; Sottiaux 2008; Neal 2010). As a result, the notions of terms such as terrorism, bioterrorism, torture, and enemy combatants were redefined in the context of 9/11 (Peters 2004; Meisels 2008; Nathanson 2010; Miller 2013; Stampnitzky 2013). This semantic operation and the introduction of the policy of fear allowed the authorities to make the “state of exception” a permanent state, which caused long-lasting effects and changed the social processes of interpretation of historical events—not only those directly related to the 9/11 attacks, but also those of earlier events from the history of the U.S. military.

These semantic operations were brilliantly identified and described by Peter Singer, who observed that many addresses delivered by George W. Bush during the “War on Terror” are based on the vision of clear binary scheme which allows a clear differentiation between Good and Evil. Singer noted that Bush’s Evil was almost a substantial entity which acts independently of human actions (Singer 2004). According to Bush, those who attacked the WTC were “enemies of freedom” or “enemies of democracy”, and the prerogative of their actions was “to plot Evil”.

Taking into consideration the long-lasting and significant effects of these cultural changes in the social perception of international military conflicts and the threat of domestic terrorism, it is no wonder that most of the authors who responded to our call for papers devoted to the relations between war and technology have dedicated their papers to topics related to the 9/11 attacks.

Most of these texts are devoted to critical analysis of how those post-9/11 phenomena have been reflected in the sphere of pop culture. Thus, in his text about American gaming industry, Filip Jankowski shows how the majority of the shooting games released between 2001and 2008 created a heroic depiction of American soldiers’ WWII effort by using national stereotypes, erasing civilians from the theatre of war, and reinforcing the U.S. government’s position as the primary guardian of global order in the face of the threat of international terrorism. It seems that a highly polarized depiction of military battles during WWII was the equivalent of President Bush’s “Axes of Evil” speech and, in retrospect, it can be seen as a propaganda tool aimed to strengthen public support for US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author also analyses the games that have emerged since 2008, when the gruesome acts of torture committed by American personnel in Abu Ghraib prison were revealed and Barack Obama was elected president. Since then, game producers have created a more realistic reflection of military conflicts, abandoning the binary description of ours as good and enemies as evil and presenting the player with moral dilemmas.

In the current issue of TransMissions, we also include a block of papers devoted to critical examination of the interrelations between the current military complex and the moving image industry. In her paper, based on the analysis of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2013) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Bethany Crowford shows how the film industry has reinforced neoliberal political agendas and military incentives by creating filmic endorsement glorifying the U.S. government’s military campaigns. In her paper, Kaja Łuczyńska presents military technologies as a precise and effective tool for managing conflicts. She shows that along with the post-2008 politics of of “no boots on the ground”, such an image of military technologies led to the erasing of the image of casual victims (on both sides of the conflict) in the social perception of contemporary conflicts.

Based on the considerations of philosophers and critics of post-9/11 politics such as Noam Chomsky and Jean Baudrillard (among others), she shows the influence of the Western taboo of death on the perception of military interventions in the Middle East. The same line of inquiry is presented in the paper by Tatiana Prorokova, who, while analysing the moving image industry, shows how unconditional belief in the power of technology has changed American society and ensured its confidence in “superiority and dominance of its possessors”.

In the first months after the attacks, the fear of being considered an “enemy of freedom” stopped numerous U.S. intellectuals and scholars from asking questions about the actual causes of the events of 9/11. Also, the “war on terror” declared by George W. Bush led to the international military campaign against Al-Qaeda and other militant organizations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (from 2004), as well as to the introduction of a number of legal measures such as the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, which was based on the unclear and arbitrary category of “domestic terrorism”, which enabled the limitation of civic rights for the sake of security. The researchers point out that this Act resulted in noticeable loss of privacy as well as the reduction of transparency in public life. Both these phenomena are the subject of the papers by Marta Stańczyk, who analyses Hollywood productions concerning WikiLeaks and Hackers, and by Ivory Mills, who assesses the impact of technologies used to wage war in cyberspace. On the other hand, the paper by Sandra Trappen assesses the consequences of the engagement of anthropologists in the so-called Human Terrain System, a phenomenon which is referred to as “a cultural turn in military”. It seems that all three texts correspond to each other, because while the milieus of anthropologists and psychologists have rejected this type of cooperation as an unethical and undesirable breach of independence in the area of knowledge they are pursuing, it has become evident that the Human Terrain System is a key concept that applies not only to anti-insurgency military actions, but also to the frontiers of cyberwar. The concept appears one more time in the documents leaked by Edward Snowden 2013, concerning on-line actions developed by the American National Security Agency (NSA) and the British intelligence bureau, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) against supporters of WikiLeaks, The Pirate Bay portal, and hacktivist groups such as Anonymous.

The last two texts in the current issue of TransMissions are devoted to more general topics concerning the image of war and technology in contemporary culture, but they can still be read in the same context as the other texts in this volume. In her paper about the return of the nuclear technology debate, Agnieszka Kiejziewicz analyses post-Fukushima movies (both fiction and documentary), accurately pointing to the fact that in some way the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 plays a similar role to 9/11 in that it invigorated historical debates on the country’s nuclear past. Meanwhile, the paper by Magdalena Podsiadło also addresses the problem of heroic narrative, albeit based on the image of rape in Polish contemporary cinema.

 

References

 

Agamben Giorgio, Stan wyjątkowy, (Warszawa: Korporacja Ha! Art) (2009).

Cottle Simon, Mediatized Conflicts. Issues in Cultural and Media Studies, (New York: Open University Press) (2006).

Derrida Jacques, Filozofia w czasach terroru. Rozmowy z Jürgenem Habermasem oraz Jacques’em Derridą (Warszawa: WAiP) (2008).

Grusin Richard, Premediation. Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2010).

Huff Mickey S., Rea Paul W., Deconstructing Deceit: 9/11, the Media, and Myth Information, http://www.projectcensored.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/DeconstructingDeceitOnlineEd.pdf (date accessed 10.11.2013)

Meisels Tamar, The Trouble with Terror. Liberty, Security, and the Rispons to Terrorism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press) (2008).

Miller Martin A., The Foundations of Modern Terrorism. State, Society and the Dynamics of Political Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press) (2013).

Mitchell W.J.T., Clonning Terror. The War on Images. 9/11 to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago) (2011).

Monahan Brian, The Shock of the News. Media Coverage and the Making of 9/11 (New York: New York University Press) (2010).

Nathanson Stephen, Terrorism and the Ethics of War (Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press) (2010).

Peters Ralph, Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books) (2004).

Sidel Mark, More Secure, Less Free. Antiterrorism Policy and Civil Liberties after September 11 (Michigan: University of Michigan) (2007).

Singer Peter, The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush (Dutton: Plume Books) (2004).

Sottiaux Stefan, Terrorism and the Limitation of Rights (Oxford-Portland: Hart Publishing) (2008).

Stampnitzky Lisa, Disciplining Terror. How Experts Invented „Terrorism” (New York: Cambridge University Press) (2013).

New American Patriotism in Games: WWII-Themed Military Shooters in the Shadow of Post-9/11 Politics

Filip Jankowski

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 5-20.

 

Filip Jankowski

Jagiellonian University

 

 

New American Patriotism in Games:

WWII-Themed Military Shooters in the Shadow of Post-9/11 Politics

Abstract

In the 1980s, American popular culture started to restore its reputation as a dominant political power—weakened after the Vietnam War—by recalling the success of World War II and constructing its mythology. The following cinematic tendency, which Frank Wetta and Martin Novelli label as New Patriotism, disseminated triumphalist views on the U.S. presence during the earlier conflict. This study aims to examine the similar trend in the American gaming industry between 1999 and 2008, when a considerable number of first-person shooter games with a World War II setting were released. The author later argues that this wave responded to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, when the George Bush government started a crusade against the so-called “axis of evil”. This political background affected the American gaming industry, as shown with examples of several shooters constituting three important game series: Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Brothers in Arms. Those franchises used the specific setting and stylized antagonists, thus recalling the contemporary events in the Middle East. The main problems with New Patriotism are also raised, including the demonization of enemies and the simultaneous absence of civilians during in-game military actions. Further analysis discusses the hyperrealism of World War II-themed shooters produced in the United States. Products such as Call of Duty resembled cinematic narratives not only in terms of ideological message, but they also recreated scenes from films as such Saving Private Ryan and employed documentary-like cinematic techniques. Finally, the reasons for the natural atrophy of the movement are explained. This explanation includes increasing cathartic violence, the declining credibility of the ideological message provided by New Patriotism, and overutilization of episodes from World War II that are too well-known. The results of the research allow diagnosis of new possible reincarnations of New Patriotism.

Key words: 9/11, digital games, hyperreality, ludology, World War II

 

Introduction

 

The United States has one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world. From Hollywood motion pictures to television stations, this industry plays a vital role in shaping the global political discourse. One of the most important forms of U.S. cultural expansion to foreign countries has become digital games, which are not free of the “discursive, political and ideological meanings” associated with an American point of view on politics, the economy, and history.[1] As Nick Dyer-Whiteford and Greig De Peuter remind us, digital games as a form of media were created for the purposes of the “U.S. military-entertainment complex”, contributing to national imperialist politics.[2] Numerous publications describe digital games as media which support aggressive politics towards other countries (especially Middle Eastern) on the same footing as motion pictures; America’s Army (2003, U.S. Army) serves here as an important example of explicit military propaganda.[3]

However, digital games shape not only discourse about the present, they also influence current views of the past. This article examines a certain tendency in American digital games which coincided with the appearance of military shooters set in the Middle East while using another historical setting and serving similar militainment purposes. Between 1998 and 2008, the movement included an explosion of numerous American first-person shooters[4] devoted to the main events of World War II. Although World War II had already been a theme for several digital games like Panzer General (1994, Strategic Simulations) and Steel Panthers (1995, Strategic Simulations), such productions paid attention to the strategic abilities of the player, therefore appealing to a limited number of board game enthusiasts. Hence, they were overtaken in popularity by action-oriented fantasy games such as Duke Nukem 3D (1996, 3D Realms) and Quake (1996, id Software).[5] The appearance of Medal of Honor (1998, DreamWorks Interactive) changed many things, as this game succeeded at merging the reality of World War II with the conventions of the increasingly popular first-person shooter genre. The choice of this ludic genre was no coincidence because the convention of first-person shooters had a greater potential to immerse players in the game world than strategy games. This article explores the causes of that further expansion of American WWII-themed shooters, their characteristics, and political background.

The aforementioned tendency can be termed “New American Patriotism”, with reference to the name suggested by Frank Wetta and Martin Novelli to describe a movement encompassing American motion pictures with “sentimental and ideological concepts that put the nation and cause ahead of individual survival”.[6] The New American Patriotism, according to Wetta and Novelli, is a celebration of “loyalty to one’s comrades in battle, the ability to survive the horrific face of modern hyper-lethal weaponry and warfare, and the shared experience of battle”.[7] Although both researchers count numerous films from different historical settings as examples of the movement,[8] they claim that an important influence on the message of such motion pictures was remembrance of World War II, which will be further discussed below. Then, because of similarities in their depiction of combat and suffering between both American WWII-themed shooters and films, I will restrict the definition of the New Patriotism to include only the World War II setting.

The following analysis of game characteristics excluded the subversive, parodist reinterpretations of World War II such as Wolfenstein 3D (1992, 3D Realms) and Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001, Raven Software), as well as the games of non-American developers, merely published by American enterprises, like Battlefield 1942 (2002, Digital Illusions CE). Instead, several installments in three gaming franchises (Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Brothers in Arms) were chosen because of their prestige among players and non-parodist approach to the war. Because of their highly cinematic form, this analysis intends to indicate the specific narrative form rather than the gameplay. The former ludology vs. narratology debate has lost its significance and some ludologists acknowledge that the narrative can also be the object of research.[9] Espen Aarseth, for example, indicates that modern first-person shooters are linearly designed. The presence of fixed kernels, which Aarseth defines as “events that define a particular story”,[10] makes linear games immune to the randomness of gameplay, as the kernels are repeatable and foreseeable during each play.[11] The American WWII-themed shooters are chained to fixed kernels, which makes them useful for the analysis of storytelling.

 

From “New Patriotism” to Digital Games

 

According to Wetta and Novelli, New American Patriotism was formed as an ideological response to national trauma after the failure of the Vietnam War.[12] During the 1970s and 1980s, American cinema encountered numerous films criticizing national involvement in the Vietnamese conflict and citing several war crimes committed by the U.S. Army. Motion pictures such as Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola), Platoon (1986, Oliver Stone) and Full Metal Jacket (1987, Stanley Kubrick) reflected an absence of faith in optimistic narration about modern conflict. In contrast to this traumatic imagination, the American government sought to replace the feeling of guilt with a revived militaristic discourse (identified with the term “Reaganomatography”) shaped by both the Ronald Reagan administration and the Republican Party.[13] The flood of action heroes like Rambo helped to reinvent the heroism of individual soldiers and therefore allowed an anxious American society to be reassured that right was on their side.

A key role in redefining the official patriotic discourse was played by the remembrance of World War II. A new historical approach, comparing the conflict in Vietnam with more prestigious successes in World War II, reshaped the U.S. attitude to patriotism. World War II became the “Good War”,[14] a conflict which did not shame the nation and could instead help re-establish the common view of soldiers as patriots. The main supporter of this new movement was Stephen Ambrose, a historian who often portrayed combatants from the 1940s as common heroes or “citizen soldiers”. Ambrose’s vision of World War II was embraced by the director Steven Spielberg, who suggested a redefined approach to the spectacle of war. The New Patriotism, combining suffering and explicit violence with moral characters having a deep faith in the legitimacy of war, could give more credibility to such a discourse.[15]

In 1998, Spielberg directed Saving Private Ryan, which would serve as inspiration for the subsequent digital games. The film suggested a new, hyperrealistic approach to the representation of the effects of war on soldiers. The opening sequence of the Omaha Beach assault during the invasion of Normandy staged with attention to violent details and the frequent point-of-view camera shots, condensed the day-long attack into several minutes. Therefore, it fell within Nicholas Mirzoeff’s definition of a “visual event”, which in this example became a prototype of subsequent reconstructions of combat assaults in popular culture.[16] At the same time, it helped reconstruct the triumphalist vision of subsequent conflicts in which the United States took part; the Americans are depicted as the only liberators of Nazi-occupied France, and although “they commit atrocities in the fog of war […], this is the exception rather than the rule”.[17] Albert Auster notes that World War II, thanks to films like Saving Private Ryan, “has become for Americans that mythic, Edenic moment when the entire nation bent itself to victory over evil and barbarism”.[18]

In the same year, Spielberg produced a digital game called Medal of Honor (1998, DreamWorks Interactive), which served the same triumphalist purpose, but the adaptation of World War II reality to the first-person shooter genre was intended for younger recipients. Spielberg, fascinated with digital games, planned to popularize the “Good War” amongst a new generation raised with new forms of media. Knowing that Private Ryan’s violence would be potentially damaging to children, he commissioned a war game with a different plot, without blood and suffering.[19] The result was an adventurous shooter with the player directing a serviceman at the Office of Strategic Services. Tasks involved diverse covert actions behind enemy lines, such as stealing important documents and sabotaging military objectives. In contrast to previous strategic games about World War II, Medal of Honor did not intend to realistically imitate the historical battles themselves, and it employed the point of view of an individual soldier only; its arcade-like gameplay seemed to imitate the spy shooting game GoldenEye 007 (Rage, 1997).[20] However, there was no specific story which shaped the Rage game; intersections during the main game included briefings with tasks to complete, and nothing more.

Nevertheless, Medal of Honor received positive reviews and encouraged its publisher, Electronic Arts, to develop a series of games within a World War II setting. The sequel to Medal of Honor, subtitled Underground (2000, DreamWorks Interactive), maintained a similar tone while providing the fresh perspective of a French female underground activist.

 

The Influence of 9/11

 

Medal of Honor’s adventurous tone changed after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. According to Jean Baudrillard, the psychological damage it caused to the American nation led to a globalized cultural expansion of the United States (resulting in such events as the First Gulf War, where the United States led military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), with such symbolic violence questioning the global domination of this North American military power.[21] However, the terrorist attack did not lead to any reflections about the U.S. militarized national diplomacy. Instead, it became an excuse for President George W. Bush to order military intervention in Afghanistan in the same year, where the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda responsible for the attack was based. In 2003, the Bush government invaded Iraq for the second time, citing Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction as a reason. Both invasions were legitimized by Bush’s speech of 23 January 2002, during which the President branded Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan as sponsors of international terrorism, the so-called “axis of evil”. A comparison to the political alliance between Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan (Axis Powers) during World War II was evident,[22] and was not without reason, as further World War II games would allude at the same time to both “axes of evil”, both historical and current.

In the post-9/11 period, the number of military first-person shooters alluding to the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq became much more visible. Popular culture, steered by the connection between military forces and various kinds of entertainment, was involved in the popularization of “justified” violence against other nations, as it had been during the previous events.[23] The role of military shooters cannot, therefore, be diminished, as this ludic genre reflected the enduring cult of guns and violence in the United States.[24] First-person shooters, as one of the most popular ludic genres, reflected this attitude to violence. On the one hand, there was a vast array of digital shooting games directly supported by the American government, such as America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior (2004, Pandemic Studios). Their role as persuasive games with an explicit political message, whose intention was to convince players to support U.S. military interventions, became a topic of comprehensive research.[25] However, it is harder to explain the simultaneous wave of American WWII-themed shooters, which lasted until 2008.

Following Medal of Honor’s success, Electronic Arts continued the series with such games as Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (2002, 2015 Inc.), Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (2003, EA Los Angeles), Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault (2004, EA Los Angeles), and Medal of Honor: Airborne (2007, EA Los Angeles). Meanwhile, another publishing company, Activision, decided to jump on the bandwagon and launched another gaming franchise with Call of Duty (2003, Infinity Ward), Call of Duty 2 (2005, Infinity Ward), Call of Duty 3 (2007, Treyarch), and Call of Duty: World at War (2008, Treyarch). An independent gaming studio, Gearbox Software, also joined the trend, producing a trilogy named Brothers in Arms, consisting of three games: Road to Hill 30 (2005), Earned in Blood (2005), and Hell’s Highway (2008). Whereas the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series employed various perspectives of soldiers from different fronts, and featured run-and-gun mechanics restricted to shooting at enemies and destroying enemy installations, Brothers in Arms established a coherent narrative about a squad from the 101st Airborne Division during the Normandy invasion and the Operation Market Garden in 1944, with more monotonous and slow-paced gameplay involving the ability to command the whole infantry squad from a first-person perspective. Although the games were cloaked under a specific historical setting, scholars such as Marc Ouellette[26] and Trent Cruz[27] claim that the World War II-themed military shooters were used to account for military interventions both in Afghanistan and Iraq, assumptions we shall now consider.

Firstly, it is noteworthy that WWII-themed games, while not explicitly showing the influence of the war in Afghanistan and the Gulf War, tended to re-locate to Middle East settings in time and space. For example, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, set in the Pacific Theatre, begins with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which became a convenient excuse for the United States to engage in the world conflict. The Japanese invasion has been frequently compared to American public opinion concerning the devastation of the Twin Towers. Although there are claims that such a comparison has been lax and based on simplification,[28] the memory of Pearl Harbor within the context of the 9/11 crisis functioned as a persuasive emotional response to human misfortune and suffering.[29] This metaphorical outlook on recent events as a reiteration of the past permeated Rising Sun along with Pacific Assault. In both games, Pearl Harbor develops into a turning point of the main story. While playing Rising Sun, the player confronts kamikaze planes while defending the USS Oklahoma destroyer; in Pacific Assault, the Japanese bombers devastate the base while the defenseless player sees the other people suffering from below. Ouellette observes that the fumes of burning Pearl Harbor seen from the distance in a cut-screen resemble the smoke from the Twin Towers after the 9/11 attack.[30]

Conversely, the references are sometimes subtler. For example, the beginning of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault is a covert operation taking place in Arzew, Algeria, where a group of OSS servicemen prepare for Operation Torch, an invasion of the Allied military forces on Morocco and Algeria, where the Axis forces are stationed. One of the campaigns featured in Call of Duty 2 also includes levels depicting the British offensive against German forces in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Although both games feature protagonists of different nationalities (the reasons for establishing different national viewpoints will be discussed later), the allusion to current events in the Middle East is mediated via Arab urban landscapes. In such scenarios, the Germans—the like Japanese in Rising Sun and Pacific Assault—serve as the equivalent of Middle Eastern terrorists. If the Japanese soldiers attack the player with bayonets and sword by surprise, the German soldiers organize a violent resistance against Allied forces, performing ambushes with grenade launchers—just like the guerrilla forces in Iraq.[31]

The Germans and the Japanese in these games are both portrayed as fanatics: they repeat conventional cries like “Banzai” and “Amerikaner”, and their role is restricted to those of targets at a shooting range. They are cruel to their captives, and their brutality becomes highlighted in Call of Duty: World at War. Each campaign of the game opens with similar scenes: in the American campaign, the player observes an enemy officer burning a prisoner with a cigar, then cutting his throat; the Soviet campaign begins with the player witnessing a massacre of his comrades by German forces. The unfolding narrative suggests the following message: the enemy shows no mercy, so we cannot show it to them either.[32]

Of course, the situation is different when it comes to portraying the Allies. Activision’s Call of Duty series, marked initially with the slogan “No one fights alone”, involves the diverse perspectives of nations fighting against the Axis. The Call of Duty game series, in contrast to homogenized American meta-narratives about their involvement in the war, features varying viewpoints of American, British, Soviet, and other Allied soldiers. All the gaming franchises also include naturalized Americans from ethnic minorities such as Italians and Mexicans (African Americans are not featured, though, due to racial segregation in the American military forces). What linked the meta-narration of the New American Patriotism in games was the accentuation of an international alliance against common enemies.[33] The national and ethnic diversity of fighting characters suggested that they united against a serious threat to their existence. The inclusion of selected Allied nations was affected by the contemporary balance of power, for example the Soviet presence in the Call of Duty series can be attributed rather to the intermittent collaboration between the United States and Russia during the invasion of Afghanistan than to the historical alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States during World War II.

By contrast, the perspectives of the defeated nations are not included. Tanine Allison notes that while in many strategy games the player can control German and Japanese forces, the narration of American WWII-themed shooters stays highly vectorized, and the Allies constitute the only playable side of the conflict.[34] The civilian perspective is also reduced from the main narration, as the New Patriotism in games would lose attractiveness if the player confronted the real suffering of defenseless people murdered during military action. According to Holger Pötzsch, such a tendency is typical for first-person shooters in general:

If civilian deaths are presented, their fates are disconnected from player involvement and usually presented as the consequence of the opponents’ actions and decisions. The only violence that is enabled is strictly battle related and targeted at opposing soldiers or paramilitary forces this way excluding such documented war-related abuses as rape, the killing of children, or the unintended targeting of non-combatants with heavy weapons.[35]

The only WWII-themed shooter which included civilians as refined characters is Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. The game, set in The Netherlands during Operation Market Garden in 1944, features several Dutch people who interact with an American unit while residing in the city of Eindhoven; a shoemaker offers the main protagonist Matt Baker some information about the enemies’ position, and a secondary character falls in love with a local girl. However, two motives—resistance and love—are dramatically curtailed with the brutal deaths of the shoemaker’s son and the girl. Their sacrifice, however, is used pretextually to illustrate enemy atrocities, and the narration still defines the American servicemen as people determined to prevent the civilians from suffering.

 

Cinematic Imagery

 

These factors—relocation of the present into the past, demonization of enemies, and heroization of protagonists—correspond to period films constituting the cinematic New Patriotism. However, American WWII-themed shooters are defined not only by their common, ideological message, but also by their hyperrealism in staging scenes from the conflict. Although the games’ developers frequently used slogans that seemingly attest to the authenticity and realism of their products,[36] the notion of realism in digital games is actually very problematic. We can attribute this issue to the ontological status of digital games in general. The realism considered as being in the real-world environment does not apply to digital games because they can only simulate their worlds, and simulation always excludes some factors constituting real life. For example, virtual bodies disappear after the passage of time, and the player can easily heal herself even after being seriously injured. As Aarseth says, virtual bullets used in various shooters do not differ ontologically,[37] and simulation as part of gaming experience always combines the real and the fictional.[38]

Furthermore, WWII-themed military shooters from 1998–2008 are more intertextual than extratextual, which means that they borrow from cinematic imagery rather than from real experiences on World War II battlefields. One can cite numerous inspirations of game developers by the cinematic New Patriotism. For example, the Omaha Beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan appeared in two Electronic Arts’ games about the Normandy invasion (Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Medal of Honor: Frontline) where even details such as the subtitle “Omaha Beach, June 6th, 1944” with the Times New Roman font are copied from the film. Similarly, the Call of Duty and Call of Duty: World at War’s Soviet storylines that take place during the Battle of Stalingrad remediate the settings and events previously seen in Enemy at the Gates (2002, Jean-Jacques Annaud). The spectacularly staged sequence of the parachute landing in the French countryside, which introduces Road to Hill 30, as well as the serialized narrative of the whole series, recalls the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001, Steven Spielberg & Tom Hanks), whereas Rising Sun and Pacific Assault imitate Pearl Harbor in their depiction of the titular base attack.

Adapting Jay David Bolter and David Grusin’s term of “remediation”, defined as the “refashioned and improved versions of other media”,[39] James Campbell sees such a tendency as an example of “remediated nostalgia”. His research indicates that WWII-themed shooters were intended to simulate not World War II itself, but a World War II film. Hence, games such as Medal of Honor and Call of Duty attempt to provide ludic visual experiences similar to those from the 1990s American combat films.[40] This assumption, according to Eva Kingsepp, recalls the Baudrillardian notion of hyperreality which replaces historical events, currently impossible to revive, with their mediated representations.[41] The games imitated reality, but their developers could not develop a real experience, only a feeling of authenticity.[42]

Following James Campbell’s suggestion that WWII-themed shooters simulate cinematic experience, we discover that their design is intended not to demonstrate real suffering during combat, but to just “look” real. Discussing this issue, Andrew Salvati and Jonathan Bullinger define American WWII-themed military shooters as using “selective authenticity”, a term introduced to describe the creative interpretation of historical facts instead of strict historical reconstruction. This process, according to Salvati and Bullinger, applies to these shooters within the framework of three categories: technology fetishism (an accurate depiction of the weaponry used during the war), documentary authority (a selection of documentaries or quotations from known personalities), and cinematic convention.[43] The latter category is characterized by frequent use of slow-motion and cut-scenes (Rising Sun, Pacific Assault, Earned in Blood, Hell’s Highway), as well as a stabilized virtual camera during significant events (Road to Hill 30, Call of Duty 3, World at War) and the inclusion of authentic documentaries that are already cinematic in their form. All these factors contributed to the meta-narrative of the New American Patriotism in games and made them a visually attractive collection of factual discourses, where complex military operations are rapidly achieved on screen.[44]

 

The Decline and the Revival?

 

New American Patriotism in games, considered here as the presence of American WWII-themed shooters, rapidly disappeared after 2008—there were no further productions about the conflict. One can posit several causes of such a decline. Firstly, the virtual image of World War II became much darker during the existence of the movement. The first Medal of Honor games which attracted the attention of players featured no blood or gore. This situation changed after the appearance of the Brothers in Arms franchise, in which the player had to confront the dispiriting deaths of fallen comrades and scenes naturalistically picturing the physical fragmentation of soldiers. This increase of violence reflected the brutalization of the Second Gulf War, when a growing number of news reports indicated the tragic result of American aggression against civilians. The military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were failures resulting in the appearance of so-called Islamic State in post-2010 Iraq. The last game of the Brothers in Arms series, Hell’s Highway, is set during Operation Market Garden in 1944, which was regarded a similar failure because of equally poor intelligence and dire consequences for civilians. This game, featuring horrifying imagery of the consequences of war on soldiers and civilians, ends with the operation unaccomplished and the player-directed unit being demoralized, but nevertheless having faith in further phases of the war (retrospectively motivated, anyway). James W. Creel suggests that the closure of Hell’s Highway was paradoxically uplifting in its allusion to the War on Terror and hope for a final victory since World War II had been won despite the operational failure.[45] Yet if we consider the demotivating tones of the whole game, the implicit ideological message of Hell’s Highway seemed ineffective, the story being assessed by a British journalist Kristan Reed as “overblown, and, towards the end, really quite cringeworthy”.[46]

Secondly, the constant ideological remembrance of such historical battles as the Normandy beaches, Stalingrad, and Pearl Harbor became counter-productive. The discourse, when repeated without refreshment, turned out to be unconvincing, and the depictions of historical conflicts lost their attraction, as the meta-narrative of the New American Patriotism was still the same.[47] When Activision realized that moving the World War II setting to fictionalized modern conflicts in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007, Infinity Ward) “made the game more exciting to the players”,[48] the developers shifted to political fiction while maintaining the militaristic discourse to justify U.S. military aggression. Conversely, a new trend began to infect military shooters. The bonus horror episode of Call of Duty: World at War, in which the player could battle against zombified versions of the Nazis, became more popular than the game itself.[49] Thus, World War II in military shooters turned itself into a dead project, and the military–entertainment complex sought new methods of persuading the audiences to intervene in the Middle East.

However, the relocation of U.S. military forces to Iraq to counter an increasing regional threat from the so-called Islamic State gave the American government new arguments for maintaining the position of primary guardians of the global order. The military–entertainment complex seems to respond to such trends, with Activision and Gearbox Software recently announcing the development of new games set in World War II.[50] Thus, the question of American imperialism is being reintroduced. The living dead of WWII-themed games are rising from their graves, thus forcing us to indicate the renewed articulation of New American Patriotism.

 

References

 

“Readers’ Top 10”, Computer Gaming World 150:1 (1997), p. 42.

Aarseth Espen, “A Narrative Theory of Games”, in Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (Raleigh, North California: ACM) (2012), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Espen_Aarseth/publication/254006015_A_narrative_theory_of_games/links/57fb37a708ae280dd0bf9983.pdf, date accessed 14 February 2017.

Aarseth Espen, “Doors and Perception: Fiction vs. Simulation in Games”, Intermédialités 9 (2007), p. 35–44.

Allison Tanine, “The World War II Video Game, Adaptation, and Postmodern History”, Literature/Film Quarterly 38:3 (2010), pp. 183–193.

Andersen Robin, Kurti Marin, “From America’s Army to Call of Duty: Doing Battle with the Military Entertainment Complex”, Democratic Communiqué 23:1 (2009), p. 45–65.

Auster Albert, “Saving Private Ryan and American Triumphalism”, Journal of Popular Film & Television 30:2 (2002), p. 98–104.

Baudrillard Jean, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays (Verso) (2003).

Bolter Jay David, Grusin Richard, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press) (1999).

Borch Fred L., “Comparing Pearl Harbor and ‘9/11’: Intelligence Failure? American Unpreparedness? Military Responsibility?”, The Journal of Military History, 67:3 (2003), pp. 845–860.

Campbell James, “Just Less than Total War: Simulating World War II as Ludic Nostalgia”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. by Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), pp. 183–200.

Clearwater David A., Full Spectrum Propaganda: The U.S. Military, Video Games, and the Genre of the Military-Themed Shooter (McGill University) (2006).

Crecente Brian, “Video Games Bid Adieu to World War II”, http://kotaku.com/5555349/black-opsvideo-games-bid-adieu-to-world-war-ii, date accessed 24 February 2017.

Creel James W., “Failure Is Not An Option: WWII, Video Games, and the War on Terror”, in The Game Culture Reader, ed. by Jason Thompson and Marc Ouellette (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2013), pp. 175–187.

Cruz Trent, “’It’s Almost Too Intense’: Nostalgia and Authenticity in Call of Duty 2”, http://docplayer.net/30795749-It-s-almost-too-intense-nostalgia-and-authenticity-in-call-of-duty-2.html, date accessed 28 February 2017.

Dittmer Jason, “Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95:3 (2005), pp. 626–643.

Dyer-Witheford Nick, De Peuter Greig, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2009).

Frasca Gonzalo, “Ludologists Love Stories, Too: Notes from a Debate That Never Took Place”, in Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, ed. by Marinka Copier and Joost Raseesne, (presented at the Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference, Utrecht: DiGRA and University of Utrecht) (2003), pp. 92–99.

Kingsepp Eva, “Fighting Hyperreality With Hyperreality: History and Death in World War II Digital Games”, Games and Culture, 2:4 (2007), pp. 366–375.

Kingsepp Eva, “Immersive Historicity in World War II Digital Games”, Human IT: Journal for Information Technology Studies as a Human Science, 8:2 (2013), p. 60–89.

Kleck Gary, Point Blank: Guns And Violence In America (Transaction Publishers) (2005).

Kobylarz Łukasz, “‘Rambo! Your Country Needs You!’ czyli kino w służbie państwa”, Panoptikum, 7 (2008), pp. 296–302

Kokonis Michalis, “Intermediality between Games and Fiction: The ‘Ludology vs. Narratology’ Debate in Computer Game Studies: A Response to Gonzalo Frasca”, Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies, 9:1 (2015), pp. 171–188.

Mirzoeff Nicholas, “The Subject of Visual Culture”, in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, (London and New York: Routledge) (2002).

Nieborg David B., “America’s Army: More Than a Game”, in Transforming Knowledge into Action through Gaming and Simulation, ed. by Thomas Eberle and Willy Christian Kriz (presented at the Transforming Knowledge into Action through Gaming and Simulation, Munchen: SAGSAGA) (2004).

Onder Cade, “Randy Pitchford teases new Brothers in Arms game”, http://www.gamezone.com/news/randy-pitchford-teases-new-brothers-in-arms-game-3453060, date accessed 11 July 2017.

Ouellette Marc, “‘I Hope You Never See Another Day Like This’: Pedagogy & Allegory in ‘Post 9/11’ Video Games”, Game Studies 8:1 (September 2008), http://gamestudies.org/0801/articles/ouellette_m, date accessed 22 February 2017.

Pötzsch Holger, “Selective Realism: Filtering Experiences of War and Violence in First- and Third-Person Shooters”, Games and Culture 12:2 (2007), http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1555412015587802, date accessed 9 February 2017.

Ramsay Debra, American Media and the Memory of World War II (Oxford: Routledge) (2015).

Reed Kristan, “Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway”, Eurogamer, 2008 http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/brothers-in-arms-hells-highway-review?page=2, date accessed 24 June 2017.

Retro Gamer Team, “The Making of Medal of Honor”, https://www.retrogamer.net/retro_games90/the-making-of-medal-of-honor/, date accessed 4 February 2017.

Rosenberg Adam, “Zombies Don’t Belong in Call of Duty — so How the Hell Did They Get There?”, Digital Trends, 2015, https://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/zombies-dont-belong-call-duty-hell-get/, date accessed 24 June 2017.

Safire William, Safire’s Political Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford Dictionary Press) (2008).

Salvati Andrew J., Bullinger Jonathan M., “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past”, in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, ed. Matthew Wilhelm Kapell, Andrew B.R. Elliott (New York: Bloomsbury) (2013), pp. 153–167.

Schiesel Seth, “In This Electronic War, Momentum Shifts to the Underdog”, The New York Times, 4 July 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/arts/television/08battle.html?nytmobile=0, date accessed 24 June 2017.

Schulzke Marcus, “Serving in the Virtual Army: Military Games and the Civil-Military Divide”, Journal of Applied Security Research, 8:2 (2013), pp. 246–261.

Silverstein Ken, “Soviet-Designed Weapon Is Still Guerrillas’ Choice”, Los Angeles Times, 6 July 2003, http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jul/06/world/fg-rpg6, date accessed 24 June 2017.

Susca Margot A., “Why We Still Fight: Adolescents, America’s Army, and the Government-Gaming Nexus”, Global Media Journal, 12 (2012), p. 1–16.

Terkel Studs, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Ballantine Books) (1984).

Voorhees Gerald, “Monsters, Nazis, and Tangos: The Normalization of the First-Person Shooter”, in Guns, Grenades, and Grunts: First-Person Shooter Games, ed. Gerald Voorhees, Joshua Call, Katie Whitlock (New York – London: Continnum) (2012), p. 89–111.

Wetta Frank J., Novelli Martin A., “Now a Major Motion Picture: War Films and Hollywood’s New Patriotism”, The Journal of Military History 67:3 (2003), pp. 861–882.

White Geoffrey M., “National Subjects: September 11 and Pearl Harbor”, American Ethnologist, 31:3 (2004), pp. 293–310.

 

 

[1] David A. Clearwater, Full Spectrum Propaganda: The U.S. Military, Video Games, and the Genre of the Military-Themed Shooter (McGill University) (2006), p. XIII.

[2] Nick Dyer-Witheford, Greig De Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (Minneapolis: Universiaty of Minnesota Press) (2009).

[3] Nick Dyer-Witheford, Greig De Peuter; see also Marcus Schulzke, “Serving in the Virtual Army: Military Games and the Civil-Military Divide”, Journal of Applied Security Research, 8.2 (2013), pp. 246–261.

[4] First-person shooter (FPS) is a genre of digital games based on shooting at enemy objects and moving within three-dimensional game worlds where the player can manipulate the point of view by steering the mouse.

[5] In the Readers’ Top 10 poll for an American gaming magazine Computer Gaming World, the debuting Quake was placed immediately higher than the Steel Panthers and Panzer General games, which were listed there for several months. See “Readers’ Top 10”, Computer Gaming World 150:1 (1997), p. 42.

[6] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, “Now a Major Motion Picture: War Films and Hollywood’s New Patriotism”, The Journal of Military History 67:3 (2003), p. 861.

[7] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, p. 861.

[8] Their objects of analysis range from movies about World War II, like Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg), The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick) and Pearl Harbor (2001, Michael Bay), to modern warfare, like Three Kings (1999, David O. Russell) and Black Hawk Down (2001, Ridley Scott), to the American Revolution, like The Patriot (2003, Roland Emmerich).

[9] Michalis Kokonis, “Intermediality between Games and Fiction: The ‘Ludology vs. Narratology’ Debate in Computer Game Studies: A Response to Gonzalo Frasca”, Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies, 9.1 (2015), pp. 171–188; compare Gonzalo Frasca, “Ludologists Love Stories, Too: Notes from a Debate That Never Took Place”, in Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, ed. by Marinka Copier and Joost Raseesne, (presented at the Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference, Utrecht: DiGRA and University of Utrecht) (2003), pp. 92–99.

[10] Espen Aarseth, “A Narrative Theory of Games”, in Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (Raleigh, North California: ACM) (2012), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Espen_Aarseth/publication/254006015_A_narrative_theory_of_games/links/57fb37a708ae280dd0bf9983.pdf, date accessed 14 February 2017.

[11] Espen Aarseth.

[12] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, pp. 865–867.

[13] A term coined by Łukasz Kobylarz, “‘Rambo! Your Country Needs You!’ czyli kino w służbie państwa”, Panoptikum, 7 (2008), pp. 296–302.

[14] A phrase popularized by Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Ballantine Books) (1984).

[15] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, p. 868.

[16] Nicholas Mirzoeff, “The Subject of Visual Culture”, in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, (London and New York: Routledge) (2002), pp. 6–7.

[17] Albert Auster, “Saving Private Ryan and American Triumphalism”, Journal of Popular Film & Television 30:2 (2002), p. 102.

[18] Ibid., p. 104.

[19]Retro Gamer Team, “The Making of Medal of Honor”, http://www.retrogamer.net/retro_games90/the-making-of-the-sims/, date accessed 4 February 2017.

[20] Gerald Voorhees, “Monsters, Nazis, and Tangos: The Normalization of the First-Person Shooter”, in Guns, Grenades, and Grunts: First-Person Shooter Games, ed. Gerald Voorhees, Joshua Call, Katie Whitlock (New York – London: Continuum) (2012), p. 103.

[21] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays (Verso) (2003), p. 6-8.

[22] William Safire, Safire’s Political Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford Dictionary Press) (2008), pp. 30–32.

[23] See, for example, an examination of the Captain America comic book as influenced by up-to-date geopolitics: Jason Dittmer, “Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95:3 (2005), pp. 626–643.

[24] See a comprehensive study of the Americans’ attitude to gun culture: Gary Kleck, Point Blank: Guns And Violence In America (Transaction Publishers) (2005).

[25] Margot A. Susca, “Why We Still Fight: Adolescents, America’s Army, and the Government-Gaming Nexus”, Global Media Journal, 12 (2012), p. 1–16; compare David B. Nieborg, “America’s Army: More Than a Game”, ed. by Thomas Eberle and Willy Christian Kriz (presented at the Transforming Knowledge into Action through Gaming and Simulation, Munchen: SAGSAGA, 2004).

[26] Marc Ouellette, “‘I Hope You Never See Another Day Like This’: Pedagogy & Allegory in ‘Post 9/11’ Video Games”, Game Studies 8:1 (September 2008), http://gamestudies.org/0801/articles/ouellette_m, date accessed 22 February 2017.

[27] Trent Cruz, “’It’s Almost Too Intense’: Nostalgia and Authenticity in Call of Duty 2”, http://docplayer.net/30795749-It-s-almost-too-intense-nostalgia-and-authenticity-in-call-of-duty-2.html, date accessed 28 February 2017.

[28] See Fred L. Borch, “Comparing Pearl Harbor and ‘9/11’: Intelligence Failure? American Unpreparedness? Military Responsibility?”, The Journal of Military History, 67:3 (2003), pp. 845–860.

[29] See Geoffrey M. White, “National Subjects: September 11 and Pearl Harbor”, American Ethnologist, 31:3 (2004), pp. 293–310.

[30] Marc Ouellette.

[31] Ken Silverstein, “Soviet-Designed Weapon Is Still Guerrillas’ Choice”, Los Angeles Times, 6 July 2003, http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jul/06/world/fg-rpg6, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[32] See Robin Andersen, Marin Kurti, “From America’s Army to Call of Duty: Doing Battle with the Military Entertainment Complex”, Democratic Communiqué 23:1 (2009), p. 56.

[33] See Debra Ramsay, American Media and the Memory of World War II (Oxford: Routledge) (2015), p. 170.

[34] Tanine Allison, “The World War II Video Game, Adaptation, and Postmodern History”, Literature/Film Quarterly 38:3 (2010), pp. 191.

[35] Holger Pötzsch, “Selective Realism: Filtering Experiences of War and Violence in First- and Third-Person Shooters”, Games and Culture 12:2 (2007), http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1555412015587802, date accessed 9 February 2017.

[36] See James Campbell, “Just Less than Total War: Simulating World War II as Ludic Nostalgia”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. by Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008), p. 186.

[37] Espen Aarseth, “Doors and Perception: Fiction vs. Simulation in Games”, Intermédialités 9 (2007), p. 38.

[38] Espen Aarseth, s. 43.

[39] Jay David Bolter, Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press) (1999), p. 15.

[40] James Campbell, pp. 187–188.

[41] Eva Kingsepp, “Fighting Hyperreality With Hyperreality: History and Death in World War II Digital Games”, Games and Culture, 2:4 (2007), pp. 367–368.

[42] Eva Kingsepp, “Immersive Historicity in World War II Digital Games”, Human IT: Journal for Information Technology Studies as a Human Science, 8:2 (2013), p. 64.

[43] Andrew J. Salvati, Jonathan M. Bullinger, “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past”, in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, ed. Matthew Wilhelm Kapell, Andrew B.R. Elliott (New York: Bloomsbury) (2013), pp. 153–167.

[44] For example, in the Soviet campaign of Call of Duty, there is a mission in which the player defends a strategic object known as Pavlov’s House during the Battle of Stalingrad. Whereas the real defense lasted two months before the arrival of supporting Soviet forces, the in-game defense could be easily completed in 15–20 minutes. The historical events are condensed to fully immerse the player in the battle that could not be as intense as on screen.

[45] James W. Creel, “Failure Is Not An Option: WWII, Video Games, and the War on Terror”, in The Game Culture Reader, ed. by Jason Thompson and Marc Ouellette (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2013), pp. 175–187.

[46] Kristan Reed, “Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway”, Eurogamer, 2008 http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/brothers-in-arms-hells-highway-review?page=2, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[47] Brian Crecente, “Video Games Bid Adieu to World War II”, http://kotaku.com/5555349/black-opsvideo-games-bid-adieu-to-world-war-ii, date accessed 24 February 2017.

[48] Seth Schiesel, “In This Electronic War, Momentum Shifts to the Underdog”, The New York Times, 4 July 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/arts/television/08battle.html?nytmobile=0, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[49] Adam Rosenberg, ‘Zombies Don’t Belong in Call of Duty — so How the Hell Did They Get There?’, Digital Trends, 2015, https://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/zombies-dont-belong-call-duty-hell-get/, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[50] Cade Onder, “Randy Pitchford teases new Brothers in Arms game”, http://www.gamezone.com/news/randy-pitchford-teases-new-brothers-in-arms-game-3453060, date accessed 11 July 2017.

 

Moving Image as Political Tool: The impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare

Bethany Crawford

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 21-36.

Bethany Crawford

Dutch Art Institute

 

 

Moving Image as Political Tool:

The impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare

Abstract

This research critically examines the interrelation of neoliberalism, the moving image, and postmodern warfare with the intention of determining the impact of the neoliberal influence on the increasingly important role of the moving image in postmodern warfare. Through analysis of a selection of contemporary films, this research attempts to decipher how neoliberalism is pervading culture, both in the West and abroad, and why this is important in the context of postmodern war. As image and screen-based technologies are a dominant element in contemporary culture, it is vital to understand the extent of societal manipulation delivered via these platforms to perpetuate potentially harmful political economic agendas and military incentives.

Key words: neoliberalism, post-modern warfare, warfare, moving image, moving image technologies

 

 

Introduction

 

This paper intends to evaluate the ramifications of the Western political establishments’ conformation to the politically applied neoliberal ideology on the utility and increased dependence of moving image technology in the arena of postmodern warfare, as both a weapon and a societal tool. With a focus on the modern wars that have been the consequence of the neoliberal agenda, this paper will consider the function of the moving image within this political context, with particular emphasis on cultural control. This will allow for comments on the counteractive capacity of artists’ moving image and the necessity of activating an engaged spectatorship in the face of increasingly immersive technologies and manipulative images. The intricate interrelation of neoliberal ideology, war and the film industry is a complex subject of study, as each factor facilitates and necessitates the other. Each element is historically and developmentally interwoven, with political and economic issues being a direct effect and result of motivations in conflicts and industry, and contrariwise. Due to the impact of neoliberal ideology, it has further become increasingly difficult to distinguish between these aspects in order to study their relation, as the resulting oligarchical control has amalgamated government, war and film into one indistinguishable, powerful businesses.

American hegemonic domination of the international film industry and the country’s presiding role over modern global politics and warfare certify the importance of examining the role of Hollywood and mainstream American cinema when investigating the neoliberal impact on moving image within postmodern warfare. As the U.S. government launched the post-9/11 ‘Global War on Terror’ to initiate invasions and substantial military campaigns in various locations in the Middle East, filmic endorsement was necessary in order to mobilise public support and maintain the advantageous governmental position over a society seized by fear. Two examples of films conforming to the contemporary propagandised depictions of the recent American military endeavours in the Middle East are Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2013) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012). American Sniper details the exploits of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle during his four tours of Iraq, as he accumulates the 160 confirmed kills that earned him the honour of ‘America’s deadliest sniper’. The CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan is portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty through the motivations of a young, female CIA operative, Maya. The delivery of these war films in the slick narrative characterised by mainstream and Hollywood cinema exemplifies the passive consumption and neutralisation of on-screen violence that is arguably promoting a dangerous complacency of conflict in contemporary society. The inactive spectatorship encouraged by such narratives allows for a governmentally valuable platform for simultaneously administering glorification of both neoliberal values and the military violence that comes with it. Critical evaluation of American Sniper will focus on the film’s portrayal of Arabs and Muslims as a form of mobilising and maintaining public support for military action in the Middle East through fear and misrepresentation. Examination of the characterisation of gender in American Sniper will allow study of the definition and promotion of the ‘neoliberal man’ in relation to a neoliberal state. This will lead into analysis of the function of the female protagonist in Zero Dark Thirty and the production’s associations and appropriations of feminist rhetoric. Zero Dark Thirty will further provide the basis for a dissection of the film’s formal arrangements in regards to invalidation of the impact of on-screen violence, and the resulting consequences on its commentary of militarised torture.

The neoliberal ideological model supports a process of globalisation in order to internationalise economic structures and embrace a global free market. An idealised impact of international subscription to neoliberalism would ensure a globally competitive market, increased international productivity and consumerism, and minimisation of state controls on trade and economy. This economic and financial motivation is the foundational incentive of contemporary warfare in the neoliberal age. Other than allowing for the implementation of a plunderable economic structure, globalisation has proven a valuable vehicle for delivering a dominating cultural paradigm through the international export of American film, known as ‘soft power’.[1] The impact of the cultural imperialism of globalized American cinema, in tandem with the enforcement of political and economic neoliberal ideologies, is exemplified in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014). Both films focus on the aftermath of the Western-backed Indonesian coup d’etat led by General Suharto in 1965–66, which directly resulted in the deaths of over one million people. The Act of Killing thematically centres on the influence of American cinema on a group of gangsters unrepentantly responsible for a multitude of the genocidal killings as they re-enact the massacres through various cinematic genre conventions. The Look of Silence acts as a contextualising counterpart that follows the family of one of the victims of the genocide as the younger brother utilises his role of optometrist to confront the perpetrators. Analysis of the content and formal arrangements of The Act of Killing, with notes on similar methods used in The Look of Silence, will allow for considerations on Oppenheimer’s self-reflexive deconstruction of the role of film as mode of delivery for ideological sentiments and cultural reinforcement of military and economic force, in a direct critique of the impact of globalised American cinema. Character analysis of key participants in The Act of Killing will allow the examination of the ramifications of neoliberalism on a societal level and question the rewarded personality traits under a neoliberal regime.

The increasing internationally globalised interrelation of Western political aggression with Hollywood and American mainstream cinema has necessitated calls for a counteractive utility of the moving image to provoke a politicised dissidence in spectators. As militarised screen-based technologies are rapidly evolving and leading to eventual implementation as culturally accessible technology, society is becoming progressively more dominated by screen culture and advancing immersive and interactive moving image technology which multiplies the effectiveness of passive consumption. Experiential participation in simulated and immersive visual technology allows a situation in which the penetrative ideological impact of images pervades the mind at a deeper cognitive level.[2] Through these technologies, such as video games and virtual reality, the brain is being trained to function in conjuncture with neoliberal anticipation. The pre-emptive nature of the neoliberal state, such as anticipatory military action exemplified in the invasion of Iraq, is beneficial for an Orwellian governmental control over citizens through the perpetual threat of war and constant fear.[3] These passively engaging modes of moving image utility open dialogue for an inverted employment and critique of these technologies which is represented in the provocative works of the German artist filmmaker Harun Farocki, with specific focus on Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988) and Serious Games I–IV  (2009-10). Analysis of the formal arrangements of both Images of War and Serious Games will establish effective techniques of provoking spectator engagement with moving imaging works in direct remedial response to the encouraged passive consumption of contemporary image-based technologies. This will lead to investigation into methods of self-reflexive deconstruction of the moving image in the modern theatre of war in both Images of War and Serious Games I: Watson is Down.

 

American Sniper and Establishing the Enemy

 

Following the recent military endeavours in the Middle East, there has been an increase in anti-Islamic sentiment and Arab vilification within recent Hollywood war productions. The Arab world has assumed the role of the terrorist ‘Other’, a position formerly held by communists during the years of the Cold War. This cultural establishment of the Arab enemy beneficially maintains public support for the continuing military involvement in the Middle East. This trend is exemplified in American Sniper (2013) and will be illustrated through an analysis of the film’s use of sound and visual form.

The film sonically opens with the Islamic call to prayer eventually obscured by the mechanical sound of a military tank; this is confirmed visually as a tank appears rolling through a burned-out Middle Eastern town. The very outset of the film provides the initial connotations of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ rhetoric, the call to prayer not just providing a locational signifier (as there are mosques all over the globe), but when coupled with militarised images establishes an emotive connection between Islam and war. This is thematically continued through the duration of the film with consistent visual references to the Iraqi fighters as Muslim and the American soldiers as Christian, establishing a wrongful context of a war of religion (e.g. the scene featuring a quick cut to a suicide bomber’s lifeless hand falling whilst clutching prayer beads). The call to prayer is again used as sonic accompaniment to a climactic moment of tension by which the audience is first introduced to the main antagonist, the Iraqi sniper ‘Mustafa’. This scene further commemorates Mustafa’s first on-screen killing of a U.S. soldier, continuing the demonising association of Islam through sonic suggestion. The character of Mustafa is a cartoonish depiction of a villainous Arab, complete with an ominous, deep and throbbing leitmotif that intensifies his caricaturised evil persona.

American Sniper is punctuated throughout with a series of point-of-view shots through Kyle’s rifle viewfinder, as he tracks potential enemies in the deadly crosshairs. These shots are effectively subjective, implicating the spectator in the position of Kyle, strengthening emotional identification with the protagonist whilst simultaneously alienating and vilifying the subjects in shot, nearly always Iraqis. In one instance, after the audience is introduced to Kyle in the beginning of the film, he lines up a nefariously behaving hijab-clad female with her young child. Tracked through Kyle’s rifle viewfinder the child runs forward carrying an RKG grenade, passed to him by his mother. Not only is this sequence subject to the criminalising effect of the viewfinder POV, but the shot then quickly cuts to a scene of Kyle as a young boy shooting his first deer. This rapid transition infers a moral relation between the shooting of a deer and that of an Arab, effectively animalising and dehumanising the ‘Other’.

 

American Sniper and the Neoliberal Man

 

Eastwood’s American Sniper successfully advocates contemporary neoliberal-influenced prescriptions of gender. The attributes of the idealised self-disciplined individualism of the neoliberal man easily fulfils the ‘Hollywood hero’ prototype that Kyle profitably conforms to—a design unchanged since the early days of Hollywood that reinforces the conservative notions of gender and masculinity. Corresponding to these traditionally masculine character criteria is valuable in maintaining multitudes of young men signing up for armed service with aspirations of achieving similar cinematically hyper-masculine heroics. Kyle’s character is fundamentally a microcosm of the model conservative, neoliberal American state. He emphasises the desirable qualities of a neoliberal subject—exhibiting resilience, a constant pre-emptive anticipation, and an individualised self-reliance—that are admirable character traits necessary to thrive under neoliberal implications.

The film is an unadulterated celebration of masculine violence and individual merit within its very premise—a production solely dedicated to heralding the heroic sacrifices of ‘America’s deadliest sniper’. This congratulatory stance concerning ‘honourable’ violence is established early in the film through a sequence depicting an incident from Kyle’s youth. As a young Kyle and his family sit around the family table, his authoritative father delivers an analogical lesson on good and evil through the categorisation of an individual into a sheep, a wolf or a sheepdog. He refers to sheepdogs as “those who have been blessed with the gift of aggression and the overwhelming need to protect the flock” whilst condemning his young sons to turn out as anything other than a noble and protective sheepdog, and ultimately congratulating young Kyle on finishing a fight. This in essence is the summation of American Sniper’s attitude to violence, and eludes to the violence in Iraq as being a justifiable retaliation (a potentially dangerously misinforming connection of the invasion of Iraq to 9/11.)

Kyle embodies the impulsive and enterprising self-confidence rewarded under neoliberal individualism. On several occasions in the film, he instinctively recognises the correct course of action, even breaking rank in order to follow his intuition. The pinnacled climax, in which Kyle finally kills his nemesis Mustafa, is one such occasion. Kyle is repeatedly told to hold fire so as not to give away their position, under the commanding officer’s assurance that the distance between Kyle and Mustafa would render it an impossible shot. Kyle, however, is confident of his gifted marksmanship and takes the shot anyway, to great success. His character further displays the resilience desired in a prosperous neoliberal subject, an ability to speedily re-cooperate which negates any danger of dependence on anyone or establishment other than the self. This is illustrated in his ability to return immediately to the battlefield moments after his close friend ‘Biggles’ is shot, and his lackadaisical attitude to his girlfriend’s infidelity and their consequential breakup early in the film.

 

Neoliberal Women and Feminism in Zero Dark Thirty

 

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was widely commended for its depiction of a dynamic female CIA agent accountable for arguably one of the greatest U.S. military victories in post-9/11 conflict. Some have even hailed the production a ‘feminist epic’—a claim that typifies current assumptions of female representation being the centrally significant issue of the feminist struggle, over endeavours for redistribution of power.[4] Aspirations for female representation over redistribution are commonly understood as a prerogative of post-feminism, arguably defined as a neoliberalised feminism.[5] Zero Dark Thirty provides exemplification of the current trend of appropriating feminist rhetoric to provide credibility to the contemporary military agenda.

Zero Dark Thirty’s gender representations within its central character, Maya, largely comply with the postfeminist ideal. She epitomises individualism, manifesting as a deeply driven ‘lone wolf’ character that is utterly devoted to her career. She is single-mindedly motivated to ensure the death of Bin Laden, which becomes an individually driven pursuit as her superiors move on to more imminently demanding issues of national security. This crusade eventually comes to fruition with Maya reaping the rewards of her dedicated individual labour, through the killing of Osama bin Laden at the hands of the navy SEALS under her direction. Early in the film, Maya is complimentarily referred to as a ‘killer’ in her field. As men primarily dominate this field of expertise, this statement resonates as an empowering accomplishment for her as a woman, but the violence of the term ‘killer’ provides potential insight to her success as a consequence of adopting traditionally masculine traits. Her aggressive ambition and quickly learned immunity to brutal violence align her with conventionally understood aspects of the ‘alpha male’. This encouraged female adaption to a more masculinised archetype in order to succeed in the workplace is a negation of foundational aspects of the feminist struggle and is characteristic of post-feminism. Maya’s character exhibits the self-surveillance and regimented self-discipline expected of an efficient post-feminist woman. Her slender and well-groomed appearance confirm that however engrossed she is in her vocation, she is still attentive to her physical presentation. Throughout the film she maintains an emotionally restrained persona, only exhibiting an aggressively emotive response when her superiors impose obstacles to the fervent pursuit of her goal. She appears to be constantly monitoring her own behaviour, contrastingly highlighted next to the relaxed and natural demeanour of her male co-agent. Maya’s unswayable individualism and inherently capitalist temperament is confirmed through the competitive acquaintance between her and her fellow female CIA agent, Jessica. Their initial meeting is an icy exchange, which later develops into a guarded friendship. This lack of establishing a sense of sisterhood or even a natural friendship is testament to the postfeminist severance of the necessity for a socialised unification of women that was prevalent in second wave feminism.

 

Neutralising Violence and the Brutality of Torture in Zero Dark Thirty

 

The narrative of Zero Dark Thirty presents a confirmation of the constructive outcome of employing enhanced interrogation techniques (“EITs”, commonly known as torture.) The director, Kathryn Bigelow, and the writer, Mark Boal, worked closely with the CIA to ensure a ‘realistic’ interpretation of the CIA manhunt for Osama bin Laden, leading many critics to decry it as pro-torture propaganda. Not only does the film provide justification for the military use of torture through the storyline, it further nullifies the brutality of the violence depicted through specific methods of camera work and structural form that increase viewer identification with the perpetrators of the violence and dampen the impact of its cruelty.

The entire film is shot with a minimum of four cameras for each scene, allowing the final product to provide a fully immersive exposure of the viewer to the characters, narrative, and location. Each scene cuts relatively quickly amongst the differing angles of the various cameras, with one camera delivering an active, seemingly handheld perspective. This shot appears almost as POV and forms an informal viewpoint that provides a subjective platform for the viewer. The resulting mode of experiential presentation strengthens viewer empathy with characters and gives the viewer a sense of their own personal presence within the narrative. This method acts as an effective vehicle to fortify the validation of state-sanctioned violence that is established in the plot through the spectator’s enhanced feeling of camaraderie with the characters performing the violence.

The diluted effect of the violence depicted in the film’s early displays of torture can further be contributed to discerningly utilised camera work. The scenes mostly deliver abstracted images of the imposed brutality—an example of another advantageous employment of the active, handheld camera perspective. The constant transition between the camera angles also provides a manipulating distraction from events unfolding within the narrative and ensures they don’t always stay in shot. In the opening scene, in which the detainee is water-boarded, there are frequent cuts to the shot of Maya as the passive witness. These interruptions in the representation of the torture mitigate the director’s claim of a ‘realistic’ and ‘unbiased’ exploration of the use of EITs in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

 

The Globalised Impact of American Cinema

 

The Act of Killing provides testimony to the globalised influence of the passively consumed American cinema, detailed in the previous section, and the impact of cultural imperialism both through its filmic structure and its narrative political content. The premise of the film encompasses a selection of perpetrators to re-enact their involvement in the killings, through performative conformation to the American movie genres that they adulated. This construct establishes a surreal reflective critique as the killers talk about learned killing techniques from these American films that they then feedback into re-enacted imitations adhering to those specific genre conventions. The idolised violent heroics portrayed in the Hollywood films they admire act as reconfirmation of their own heroism. This can be exemplified in the previous study of American Sniper, Kyle being celebrated for his abundance of valiant assassinations as they were all justifiable kills due to the victims’ undeniable status of ‘bad guys’. The Indonesian perpetrators are similarly convinced of the undoubtedly villainous nature of the ‘communists’ they killed, thus they are heroes worthy of filmic commemoration also.

The Act of Killing utilises a self-reflective employment of screens throughout the production which act as a visual exposition of the critical historical and current involvement of film within the events depicted.[6] Throughout the production there are scenes of Anwar re-watching the re-enactments on a television set. This provides an opportunity for objective viewing of his actions, but yields little emotional response. The distancing and de-contextualising impact of screen-delivered images is highlighted in a scene that features the main character’s participation on a National television talk-show. The sequence cuts between formats, altering the perception of the viewer. Some frames are from the talk-show production itself, implicating the spectator in the position of a member of the Indonesian public watching the show on their televisions. Other shots return to the cinematic format of the film, which depicts the interview taking place and the studio cameras capturing the action. The most interesting frames refer to the previously mentioned method of featuring the images on a television screen within the frame.  One instance of this method that is particularly provocative features many different small screens depicting the image of Anwar as he talks on the show, as the footage is viewed by the programme operators. The shot zooms in a small screen showing a black and white image of Anwar as he speaks with the host, and a larger coloured screen with the same image. The visual impact of the dual television screens provides a comparable image of Anwar, perceivably far more sinister in the small black and white screen than on the larger, coloured screen. This comparative framing of the differently formatted images is resonant of the previously shown extracts of the anti-Communist government propaganda film that was essential viewing for all school-aged children and portrays the evil deeds of the communists in the same effectively vilifying black and white. The shot illustrates the power of framing in altering content and further alludes to the thematic considerations of time central to both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. The viewer apprehends the same image of Anwar in the antiquated format of black and white and again in modernised full colour, thus referencing past and present and highlighting that although many decades have elapsed since the genocide, neither Anwar nor his rhetoric have altered.

 

Neoliberal associations with Psychopathy

 

The central characters in The Act of Killing illustrate not only the neoliberal ideological impact on personality development, but also, critically, the personality traits rewarded under such conditions. The gangsters and paramilitary personnel that perpetrated the genocidal killings in the mid-60s are shown to have risen to positions of political and economic power due to their active role in the massacres. As this was a western-backed coup d’etat with neo-imperial motivations, those who helped facilitate the overthrow were rewarded capital power in the newly established highly corporate and international-business-friendly state. The characters in the film exhibit the psychopathic features that excel under neoliberal regimes—traits that are comparable to the desirable modern attributes of successful corporations and businesses.[7] The cut-throat emphasised individualism that propels a successful neoliberal subject has habitual connotations to psychopathic behaviours that are exhibited strongly in nearly all the characters featured in The Act of Killing, although analysis will be streamlined to focus on the characters of Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry.

Anwar Congo provides the foundational character in the film and is responsible for directing the narrative production that re-enacts the differing methods of killing under various Hollywood genre conventions. The arc of the film follows his journey of altering moral awareness, from the unrepentant pride of his direct role in the killings to his seemingly empathetic epiphany. This is highlighted in a scene near the beginning of the film in which he dances the cha-cha on the rooftop where he used to kill ‘communists’—a post re-enactment of his murderous actions. This location is then revisited at the very end of the film, where this time Anwar violently retches as he describes again his killing of ‘humans’. It can be argued that Anwar Congo is representative of learned psychopathic behaviour, perpetrating violence and brutality that was continuously rewarded with the implementation of the new regime and therefore never explicitly considering the implications of his actions. Throughout the film it is evident that Anwar is lacking in any form of self-awareness; his inability to grasp the situation is frustratingly highlighted formally, with punctuations in the film of Oppenheimer playing back the footage of the re-enactments for him. The viewer is able to watch Anwar’s reaction to the footage—often frowningly studious—which alludes to a potential moment of realisation, only for it to conclude with a voiced disapproval of his clothing or inauthentic acting. In the film, he confesses to being plagued by nightmares, even dedicating a scene in the re-enacted production to his night terrors, but he doesn’t seem to have the emotional depth to fully understand the cause. Anwar’s unadulterated conviction in his behaviour during the genocide is arguably the result of his ability to deflect responsibility by imitating some of his favourite on-screen gangsters and military heroes, illustrated in his learning of some basic empathy through the same filmic language.[8] In this line of reasoning it is feasible that Anwar learned these desensitised, psychopathic traits as a survival tool which he has continued to manifest through its beneficial recompense in the proceeding administration.

Adi Zulkadry appears a third of the way through the film and features in the narrative re-enactments of the killings. A character analysis of Adi beneficially provides comparative understanding of Anwar’s potentially ‘learned’ psychopathy through establishing Adi’s inherent and firm character correspondence to traits understood to be undeniably psychopathic. Adi exhibits a clear understanding of the immorality of the ‘65–‘66 genocide. At one point during a re-enactment he attempts to coach his fellow perpetrators: “Listen, if we succeed in making this film it will disprove all the propaganda about the communists being cruel and show that we were the cruel ones…it’s not about fear, it’s about image. The whole society will say…they lied about the communists being cruel.” His intellectual capacity seems to be greater than that of Anwar in his ability to perceive the moral injustice of his actions and understanding of how this film will be perceived. This awareness fortifies the fact that he possesses the psychopathic ability to feel no remorse or empathy; this is further highlighted in a scene in which Adi and Oppenheimer are talking in a car. Oppenhiemer clarifies that under the Geneva Convention the Indonesian genocide is definitively classified as war crimes. Adi defensively replies that the definitions of right and wrong in war are susceptible to change, further arguing that war and mass killing is just part of the organic behaviour of people and always has been. This talent for intellectually manipulating concepts of justice to comply with his own individual agenda is a further example of psychopathic behaviour.

 

Active Spectator Participation in Artist Moving Image

 

Passive consumption of the moving image and the inactive spectator participation encouraged by mainstream cinema maintains film as the definition of a capitalist ‘product’. The emancipation of both film and the viewer from the capitalised process of production and mass consumption is arguably exemplified in artist moving-image works that endeavour to actively engage viewers, thus ensuring the film is realised through the mutual labour of both filmmaker and spectator-turned-producer.[9] This collaborative intellectual provocation of active spectatorship counteracts the neoliberal influence within mainstream and Hollywood cinema, detailed previously. Instigating active engagement with moving-image works can be achieved through formal considerations in both the moving-image work and the environment in which a viewer is exposed to the work. These constructive modes of deliverance are demonstrated in the works of the German artist filmmaker Harun Farocki, illustrated through formal analysis of Serious Games I–IV and Images of the World and the Inscription of War.

Serious Games comprises four moving-image installations, each detailing varying facets of the interrelationship between video game technology and the military. The installation is intended to be spatially experienced, allowing an immersive and participatory active engagement with the work and space, in direct contention with the virtual and video game technology depicted in its content. This environmental encouragement of movement ensures the spectator maintains a level of corporeal awareness whilst engaging with the moving-image works, which arguably functions as a form of Brechtian distanciation.[10] The spectators’ autonomous engagement with both the form and content of the installation provides a platform for an individuated apprehension of the work. This self-determining perception of the work further develops the installation to be experientially comparable to an expanded model of ‘montage’ and undoubtedly exceeds the limitations of a singular work in ensuring the participatory role of the viewer. The coupling of images in this manner is a technique Farocki described as ‘soft montage’; it allows the spectator to develop and question ongoing associations, informing “a general relatedness, rather than a strict opposition or equation.”[11] The impact of the ‘soft montage’ requires the spectator to assimilate the images and engage in a process of spatial editing, implicating the viewer as collaborative producer.

The activating method of montage is evident in the majority of Farocki’s work, including his seminal film essay Images of the World and the Inscription of War. This single screen work utilises a more conventional linear mode of montage, reminiscent of early montage methods employed by filmmakers such as Eisenstein, using cut up and re-appropriated archival images delivered through a thematic and rhythmically repetitive image track. This technique provokes the viewer to infer significance from between the images and successfully nullifies the potential didacticism associated with political film or the documentary genre. The laboured viewing required of the spectator in Images of the World encourages a broader contextual consideration of the images.[12] Another process utilised to certify spectator engagement with Images of the World is in the soundtrack, featuring a neutral female voice over. The objectivity of the narration negates the possibility of emotive manipulation of the viewer when apprehending the images, instead behaving symbiotically with the images to inspire a greater degree of autonomously produced questioning in the viewer.

 

Using the Form of the Moving Image to Deconstruct the Relationship of War and Images

 

In ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Getino and Solanas call for revolutionary filmmaking to harness the communicative power of the moving image in order to counteract the “culturally penetrative” neo-colonial and consumerist films generated by the ‘System’.[13] This form of filmmaking would mobilise the spectators into being the reactionary, active citizens necessary to implement radical changes and a self-determining culture of the people, in contrast to the oppressive, neo-imperial culture of capitalism that caters solely to the ruling classes. This mode of revolutionary filmmaking is embodied in the works of Farocki. His moving image critiques on the increasingly dominating role of technology in contemporary society—importantly in the modern theatre of war—provide a vital self-reflexive filmic discourse. Through transitions in the formal deliverance and content of his work, Farocki’s development as a filmmaker and artist have reflected and symbiotically evolved with the technologies he scrutinised. His introspective and deconstructive examinations of image-making technology in contemporary warfare are centrally thematic to Images of the World and Serious Games I: Watson is Down. Analysis of these works will provide insights to the advancements of these technologies within the timeframe of each work and the effectiveness of artist moving image in intellectually disseminating the medium’s role in modern warfare.

Images of War utilises found photographs and documentary footage articulated into a film essay that references issues of aesthetics, visuality, and deception in the context of postmodern warfare. Farocki focuses on contemporary warfare’s fundamental endeavour to omnipotently see all, whilst simultaneously remaining hidden. It questions the problematic role of images in the theatre of war—centrally photography—and the implications of the techno-surrogate perception of the lens in terms of framing, perception, and context. Farocki utilises reoccurring motifs and sequences in the form of montage, frequently revisiting images and contextually rearranging them, thus highlighting the ease of altering the content of an image through reframing. A sequence that features repetitively in the film depicts photographs of Berber woman from Algeria, unveiled in order to photographically document their full appearance for the purpose of identity cards. When introduced to the full frame images of the women, the viewers are informed that only at home and with close family would they normally be without their veil. This implies the questionable veracity of an image portraying an already reframed facial identity of the photographed subject. As this sequence is revisited later in the film, the viewer is exposed to the same images of the women, albeit from the pages of a photography book as it’s flipped through by an on-screen reader. This alteration of context converts the content of the images, reframed once more from an operational image purposed for surveillance to a commodified image of pleasure. When the photographs reappear later in the film they are reconstructed once again, this time reframed by the hands of the on-screen reader, who alternates between covering the eyes and the mouths. As he covers the mouths of the women, only their eyes are visible, therefore revealing a more accurate portrayal of the real-life appearance of the woman through replicating what would be visible when veiled. This layered study of image de-contextualisation and restructuring highlights the deceptive nature of photography and imaging technologies.

As the military interrelation with image-based technologies has intensified and rapidly advanced, the functional capacity of these technologies has broadened. The participatory virtual worlds now utilised by the military for both training and rehabilitation purposes are the subject of Farocki’s multi-screen video installation Serious Games I–IV. In these works, Farocki explores how these immersive techniques potentially blur the spectator–participants’ distinction between fiction and reality and further the relationship of their physical body with the computer-generated images. The participant is neurologically receptive to video game imagery in a far more penetrable manner than of images perceived in films and photographs.[14] This ability to control the conscious level of comprehension of a soldier is beneficial in ensuring a highly effective desensitisation, dehumanisation of the enemy, and subconscious response in the field. This is highlighted in the first work of the series, Serious Games I: Watson is Down, a split screen installation showing an army unit involved with a video game purposed for training. Although the split screen images alternate and cut between images in conformation of the ‘soft montage’ method, they predominately subscribe to a format of one channel presenting the video game as it is played, while the other is fixed on the soldiers as they are playing. This assimilation of images—correlated with the language used by the soldiers—underscores the video game’s deconstruction of bodily and conscious separation from the on-screen virtual world. The soldiers converse with one another and refer to their avatar characters on-screen as ‘you’ and ‘I’. This hyper-subjective connection with the game is provocatively contrasted with the encouraged objective viewing of the spectator through Farocki’s activating use of both soft and spatial montage. As a soldier states “Watson just got killed”, we simultaneously see the computer-generated Watson fall from the tank and be left behind as the tank drives away and the real-life Watson lean back in his seat with a defeated sigh.

 

Conclusion

 

The research in this dissertation concludes that the most potent impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare is the augmentation of its societally manipulative function. Through promotive representation of ideals that perpetuate the neoliberal agenda, such as attaching false morality to military campaigns or valorising particular character traits and gender subscriptions, the moving image is a vital tool in maintaining a weak, fragmented and conformable society. This is reinforced with the encouraged consumerism of the neoliberal era, which manifests in an abundance of personal screen-based possessions that maximise exposure and alter engagement with the moving image. Oversaturation of information and images of war and violence ultimately normalise the suffering of others through establishing a desensitised society.[15]  Persistent exposure to these images preserves the perception of constant, unstoppable war, which leads to a dangerous apathy. The influence of the internet and the democratisation of image-making technology has led to a multitude of platforms to access informative content and beneficially communicative moving image, but this inundation of information exacerbates distractibility and obscures qualifiable veracity. The distancing effect of perceiving images of war and violence on screens has enhanced alienation and decreased empathy with the civilians on the receiving end of the military aggressions of the Western powers. The separating effect of the screen, combined with the effective ‘Otherising’ in largely circulated productions such as American Sniper, sustains indifference to the suffering of those fictionally perceived as enemies. This perpetuates the neo-imperial north–south divide that is maintained by the cyclical relation of neoliberal globalisation and the hugely funded technologically advanced weaponry of the wealthy Western nations.

As distinction between government, business, and industry has dissipated into a multi-corporate, neoliberal miasma, it has become increasingly difficult to discern the invested motivations of moving images in any given context. Artist moving image is not immune to prejudiced funding through gallery ownerships and private cultural funding bodies that boast corporate and political affiliations. With neoliberal privatisation, more and more aspects of society are becoming corporately sponsored, from the images and information consumed daily to educational establishments and hospitals. This fully penetrative impact of neoliberalism has arguably lead to a self-fulfilling, cyclical momentum of the applied ideology facilitated by the power of the image, comparable to the notions in Guy Debord’s ‘The Society of the Spectacle’: “for what the spectacle expresses is the total practice of one particular economic and social formation; it is, so to speak, the formations agenda…the spectacle is essentially tautological, for the simple reason that its means and its ends are identical. It is the sun that never sets on the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire globe, basking in the perpetual warmth of its own glory.”[16]

 

References

 

Boal, Iain A; Retort (Organisation), Afflicted powers: capital and spectacle in a new age of war, (London: Verso) (2005).

Boddy, Clive et al, ‘Extreme managers, extreme workplaces: Capitalism, organisations and corporate pyschopaths’, Organization 22:4 (2015).

Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books) (1994).

Elsaesser, Thomas, Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) (2004).

Elwes, Catherine, Installation and the Moving Image, (London & New York: Wallflower Press)(2015).

Farocki, Harun & Silverman, Kaja, Speaking About Godard, (New York: New York University Press) (1998).

Fraser, Nancy , Fortunes of Feminism:  From Sate-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, (London: Verso) (2013).

Getino, Octavio & Solanas, Fernando, ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Cineaste 4:3 (1970-71).

Gill, Rosalind, ‘Postfeminism Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility’ European Journal of Cultural Studies 10:2 (2007).

Halle, Randall, ‘History Is Not a Matter of Generations: Interview with Harun Farocki’, Camera Obscura 16 (2001).

Kapur, Jyotsna & Wagner, Keith B. Ed, Neoliberalism and Global Cinema: Capital, Culture and Marxist Critique, (New York: London: Routledge) (2011).

Michalski, Milena& Gow, James, War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing contemporary conflict, (London: Routledge) (2007).

Nayman, Adam, ‘Find Me Guilty: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing’. Cinema Scope Magazine. http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/24-find-me-guilty-joshua-oppenheimers-the-act-of-killing/ , date accessed 10 February 2016.

Oppenheimer, Joshua & Ten Brink, Joram ed., Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence, (London & New York: Wallflower Press) (2012).

Ranciere, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, (London: Verso) (2009).

Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, (London: Penguin Books) (2003).

Väliaho, Pasi, Biopolitical screens: image, power, and the neoliberal brain, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press) (2014).

 

Filmography

 

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014).

Images of the World and the Inscriptions of War (Harun Farocki, 1989).

Serious Games I-IV (Harun Farocki, 2010).

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenhiemer, 2012).

The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenhiemer, 2014).

Zero Dark Thirty, (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012).

 

 

[1] Kapur & Wagner, p.23.

[2]  Väliaho, Pasi, Biopolitical screens: image, power, and the neoliberal brain, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press) (2014) p.82.

[3] Boal, Iain A; Retort (Organisation), Afflicted powers: capital and spectacle in a new age of war, (London: Verso) (2005) pp.101-102.

[4] Fraser, Nancy, Fortunes of Feminism:  From Sate-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, (London: Verso) (2013) Part II, 6.

[5] Gill, Rosalind. ‘Postfeminism Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility’ European Journal of Cultural Studies 10:2 (2007) pp.147 – 166.

[6] Michalski, Milena& Gow, James, War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing contemporary conflict, (London: Routledge) (2007) p.46.

[7] Boddy, Clive et al. ‘Extreme managers, extreme workplaces: Capitalism, organisations and corporate pyschopaths’, Organization 22:4 (2015).

[8] Nayman, Adam, ‘Find Me Guilty: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing’. Cinema Scope Magazine. http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/24-find-me-guilty-joshua-oppenheimers-the-act-of-killing/ , date accessed 10 February 2016.

[9] Ranciere, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, (London: Verso) (2009) p.66.

[10] Elwes, Catherine, Installation and the Moving Image, (London & New York: Wallflower Press) (2015) p.146.

[11] Farocki, Harun & Silverman, Kaja, Speaking About Godard, (New York: New York University Press) (1998) p.142.

[12] Halle, Randall. ‘History Is Not a Matter of Generations: Interview with Harun Farocki’, Camera Obscura 16 (2001) p.55.

[13] Getino, Octavio & Solanas, Fernando. ‘ Towards a Third Cinema’, Cineaste 4:3 (1970-71) p.1.

[14]  Väliaho, p.41.

[15] Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, (London: Penguin Books) (2003) p.84.

[16] Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books) (1994) p.6.

 

 

The Concept of War without Casualties: The Influence of the American Taboo of Death on the Perception of the Events of 9/11

Kaja Łuczyńska

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 37-49.

 

Kaja Łuczyńska

Jagiellonian University

 

The Concept of War without Casualties:

The Influence of the American Taboo of Death

on the Perception of the Events of 9/11

 

 

Abstract

The article focuses on the paradoxical phenomenon of modern war and attempts to bring together the two absolutely opposite approaches of trying to be successful and victorious whilst also being completely non-lethal. As the author emphasizes, this problem is very much related to the general modern attitude towards death, which has been almost eradicated from everyday life. It has become shameful, forbidden, private and seemingly non-existent. Therefore, modern war could not gain public support if it did not try to adapt to this general tendency. The article presents ways that are used nowadays to obtain public endorsement for military conflicts and examines phenomena such as casualty aversion, body-bag syndrome, and non-lethal weapons. It also relates all these elements to the wide-spread problem of terrorism, which completely contradicts the modern urge to eradicate death from everyday life.

Key words: death, war, casualty aversion, terrorism, 9/11

 

Introduction

 

War means violence and death. But does it really? In the film Eye in the Sky (2015), directed by Gavin Hood, Helen Mirren plays the role of a UK military intelligence officer, Colonel Katherine Powell, who is hunting down a group of terrorists who are currently hiding in Kenya. Using drones and high-tech military equipment, her team manages to locate the criminals and can, at any moment, assassinate them using precise bombing. However, there is an obstacle—a young girl appears near the target area and would likely be killed in an attack. The team has to go through the entire chain of command and make sure that they are still authorized to conduct the strike, which is getting more and more essential as the terrorists are preparing for a suicide attack in a village nearby. Things get more and more complicated. One of the British officials sums it up accurately: “Frankly, politically I’d rather point to Al-Shabaab[1] as murderers of 80 people shopping than have to defend a drone attack by our forces that kills an innocent child”.

The situation described above has also another less direct meaning. The urge to eradicate mortality from the public sphere is the widespread desire of many modern communities and it also entails areas traditionally associated with violence and death. As will be shown in this paper, this paradoxical desire is doomed to fail, partially because of the violent phenomenon of suicide terrorism that will be described later, based on the unprecedented events of 11 September 2001.

 

The Eradication of Death

 

It would be safe to say that death is no longer a part of contemporary life. Such exclusion is a part of a bigger phenomenon that is wide-spread in modern countries and might derive from profound changes which have been gradually occurring since the second half of 20th century. Medical development and living standards have minimized people’s direct contact with death and altered it in many ways. According to Gary Laderman, the author of “Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America”, these changes, called the “mortality revolution”, started in the USA in the early twentieth century:

Life expectancy, infant mortality, cause of death – these and other variables in morality tables all point to the same conclusion: the presence of death in the early decades of the twentieth century looked quite different than any other period of American history. There are a variety of explanations for these dramatic changes in demographic patterns, with most focusing on breakthroughs in medical sciences and technologies, improvements in sanitation and personal hygiene, effective public health reforms, and healthier eating habits. While the repercussions of these social transformations have been analyzed from a number of perspectives, one of the most common observations is that a completely new kind of relationship with the dead emerged in the early decades of the century. [2]

This new place of death in our daily lives has become one of the main topics of death studies, also known as thanatology. Many researchers from that area are interested not in the death rituals of indigenous people that have preoccupied anthropologists for many years, but the reactions to death displayed by members of modern, often secularized societies. Apparently, modern communities also strive to deal with this imminent element of everybody’s life and even medical development and higher life expectancy does not solve this issue entirely. There is a general tendency to try to get rid of death and move it away from the public eye. This evolution of our attitude toward death has been very well described by Philippe Ariès in his work “Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present”. According to this French historian, although our “attitude toward death may appear almost static over very long periods of time (…); changes occur, usually slow and unnoticed changes, but sometimes, as today, more rapid and perceptible ones”.[3] A lot has definitely changed since the time when death was a public ceremony, “a ritual organized by the dying person himself, who presided over it and knew its protocol”.[4] Nowadays, “death, so omnipresent in the past that it was familiar, would be effaced, would disappear. It would become shameful and forbidden”.[5] Although efforts to get rid of death from public discourse may seem ineffectual, modern societies such as the USA still try to eradicate it from every aspect of everyday life.

 

A Convincing War

 

It is safe to say that military conflicts are a standard element of human activities through the ages. The famous Prussian general and military theorist Claus von Clausewitz believed that war was an “eternal human social phenomenon”[6]. In his book, he also added that:

We are not interested in generals who win victories without bloodshed. The fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make us take war more seriously, but not provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity. Sooner or later someone will come along with a sharp sword and hack off our arms.[7]

Surely Clausewitz would be surprised by the contemporary image of modern war. When describing it, it is important to emphasize that when talking about war every word counts and even the term “war” is no longer acceptable—at least in the classic sense, because there have been quite a lot of unconventional wars, especially aimed at narcotics (“War on Drugs”). In the case of military conflicts, the term has been substituted by more subtle equivalents, such as “humanitarian intervention” or “stabilization mission” (both anchored in UN laws[8]). The same method is used in the case of torture, which that is absolutely unacceptable unless named differently. Michael L. Gross, the author of “Moral Dilemmas of Modern War”, gives following examples of such practices:

Thus, torture morphs into “moderate physical pressure,” assassination becomes “targeted killing” and civilian bombing is defensible when directed against “associated” civilian targets, that is, civilians who take some part in the fighting and who bear a measure of responsibility for armed conflict.[9]

However, ideals and sublime phrases are not always enough. Society is also very sensitive when it comes to casualties and the public opinion’s role is crucial in the case of wars conducted by the USA:

public opinion became a key factor in all three wars [Korea, Vietnam, Iraq], and in each one there has been a simple association: as casualties mount, support decreases. Broad enthusiasm at the outset invariably erodes[10].

What then can be done to gain people’s support? There are two basic approaches: creation of an alluring and exhilarating rhetoric around the conflict or accommodation of the image of the modern war to people’s expectations. As shall be shown below, both strategies are being used nowadays.

 

Undoubtedly, people are torn because of their attempts to reconcile the need to conduct military conflicts in certain cases and their aversion toward casualties and death in general.[11] War is a tremendous challenge to their morality and sense of justice. Fortunately, politicians and military commanders are striving to disburden them from those efforts. Every war needs a persuasive narration built around it which is strong enough to persuade people that the risk is worth taking. In 1955, Edward M. Collins wrote that:

Democratic nations can enter wars only when public opinion favors this course, since democracies are by definition and in fact responsive to public opinion coherently expressed. (…) This appears also to be the case with the British population, although it is perhaps less true of the British than of the United States. Both these populations, however, are influenced by a number of idealistic, abstract ideas regarding good and evil, fair and foul, and the virtues of their form of government in contrast to that of other countries. It is usually on the basis of these stereotyped concepts, rather than on the actual concrete issues involved, that they can be most effectively motivated toward war, and it is most often to these images rather than to reason and judgment that the press and other media and political leaders appeal in seeking to lead public opinion toward war.[12]

These “idealistic, abstract ideas” which convince people to accept a certain military conflict might not be commonly acknowledged as “propaganda”, but they work in a similar way. In “Propaganda and Persuasion”, Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell define propaganda as: “(…) the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist”.[13] All these features can be found in the rhetoric built around recent military conflicts, such as The Iraq War (2003–2011). George W. Bush Jr. and his administration have put great effort into persuading Americans that the Iraq invasion was not motivated by an urge to gain control over important oil deposits, but rather by a general sense of justice and a desire to help an oppressed nation.

According to Murray Edelman, a political scientist and the author of “Politics as Symbolic Action”, public opinion needs guidance—someone who would explain the complex reality, especially during challenging times.[14] After 11th September 2001, national confusion in the USA increased to a hitherto unknown level. This confusion was very rapidly transformed into a need to act, to take revenge for the horrifying destruction. This transformation was accomplished by the well-aimed rhetoric of politicians, especially George W. Bush Jr. In one of his most famous speeches (the State of the Union address delivered in 2002), Bush asserted:

Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror.  The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade.  This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens—leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children. This is a regime that agreed to international inspections then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world. States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.  By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.  They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred.  They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.[15]

The brilliant expression “the axis of evil” reminded people of Ronald Reagan’s term “the evil empire”[16] and thus became one of the most symbolic terms of Bush’s War on Terror. As New York Times journalist Elisabeth Bumiller wrote:

Nobody ever remembers much from State of the Union speeches, but one thing they do remember is the “axis of evil” formulation that President Bush brandished in last year’s address to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Like Ronald Reagan’s description of the former Soviet Union as an “evil empire”, the axis of evil is a leitmotif that will follow Mr. Bush beyond his presidency.[17]

 

A War without Casualties

 

They are many ways in which the USA tries to accommodate the image of the modern war to people’s expectations. One way is taking into consideration the phenomenon of “casualty aversion”—public unwillingness to accept casualties in military conflicts. This controversial idea is described by many as a pure myth. This is an opinion shared for example by Lieutenant Colonel Richard A. Lacquement, Jr., who states in the first words of his paper:

There is no intrinsic, uncritical casualty aversion among the American public that limits the use of U.S. armed forces. There is a wide range of policy objectives on behalf of which the public is prepared to accept American casualties as a cost of success. Squeamishness about even a few casualties for all but the most important national causes is a myth. Nonetheless, it is a myth that persists as widely accepted conventional wisdom.[18]

Myth or not, the idea of “casualty aversion” definitely shapes the way modern wars are depicted. During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, The American Army used the body count as its dominant indicator of strategic assessment. It has since become the index of progress and the measure of success in anomalous wars “without front lines and territorial objective”.[19] Wars nowadays are very different. They should have a specific goal, be limited and preferably be a kind of a “military intervention”: short, successful, and using precise high-tech technology. A role-model for this kind of military conflict is the First Gulf War that took place between 1990 and 1991 and began with the attack and occupation of Kuwait by The Iraqi Army. The media coverage of the war depicted it as technically advanced and precise. It was broadcast as a kind of pure fiction—a TV miniseries about war that looked almost like a perfectly prepared product, ready to be sold to public opinion.[20] In his essay “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”, French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard even asked if that war really happened at all and determined it as a kind of a “simulacra”[21] and “madness”.

The idea of a clean war, like that of a clean bomb or an intelligent missile, this whole war conceived as a technological extrapolation of the brain is a sure sign of madness. It is like those characters in Hieronymus Bosch with a glass bell or a soap bubble around their head as a sign of their mental debility. A war enclosed in a glass coffin, like Snow White, purged of any carnal contamination or warrior’s passion. A clean war which ends up in an oil slick.[22]

The idea of “casualty aversion” has also shaped popular culture and has become an inspiration for many films. A popular slogan: “Leave no man behind” influenced the plots of Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985, George P. Cosmatos), Missing in Action (1984, Joseph Zito), Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg), Behind Enemy Lines (2001, John Moore), Black Hawk Down (2001, Ridley Scott), The Great Raid (2005, John Dahl), Behind Enemy Lines (2001, John Moore), and Lone Survivor (2013, Peter Berg). What is more, the searches for soldiers lost in action, such as Pvt. Jessica Lynch[23], were media events watched by millions that had enormous potential to build morale. The aversion toward casualties in the US Army and the unimaginable power of the images of dead American soldiers was especially visible in case of the story told by Ridley Scott in Black Hawk Down. The film was based on the events of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu and Operation Restore Hope in Somalia (1992–93), which was terminated after the broadcasting of certain disturbing images:

Retrospectively, the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia has been widely understood to have been caused by the public response and subsequent pressure to withdraw following the publication of negative representations of the conflict by the media. This public pressure is claimed to have influenced members of Congress who subsequently forced an early withdrawal. The event which culminated in congressional pressure to cease operations in Somalia was the publication of images which depicted dead U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.[24]

The tragic events in Somalia affected US foreign policy for many years and were one of the reasons America has become very reluctant to risk casualties and reduced its involvement in many future conflicts. The so-called “body-bag syndrome” (or “body-bag effect”) that “describes a situation where the public is confronted with images of their dead soldiers and consequently asks the government to withdraw its forces from abroad”[25] has become an important factor in the decision-making process.

(…) any pressure to intervene with troops was always held in check by the fear of taking casualties, the so-called ‘body-bag effect’. To put this bluntly, policy makers, as much as they might feel compelled to respond to media pressure to ‘do something’ about a humanitarian crisis, were also aware that risking the lives of troops could ultimately backfire and generate negative media and public reaction when casualties were taken.[26]

The body-bag effect was noticed not only by media and the government, but also by the military itself, which gradually tried to adapt itself to the expectations of public opinion. This is precisely why they emphasize the use of non-lethal weapons (NLWs) in military conflicts—they help to keep the casualties on both sides to a minimum. These weapons use “optical and acoustic means, energy wave devices, and chemical agents to cause disorientation, discomfort, severe nausea, or temporary unconsciousness to incapacitate opposing forces and minimize collateral harm to non-combatants”[27]. NLWs either:

(…) repulse an enemy and thereby avoid direct encounters, others temporarily incapacitate an enemy so that the enemy can be overwhelmed and disarmed. In both cases, NLWs provide a force continuum, allowing a wide range of options between using high explosives and doing nothing. Properly deployed, nonlethal weaponry offers advanced military organizations the possibility of temporarily incapacitating enemy forces, controlling crowds, or conducting rescue missions without the need to endanger large numbers of noncombatants.[28]

Besides, all weapons nowadays emphasize the aspect of safety. In their thorough analysis of armament advertisements (“The Vision of War without Casualties: On the Use of Casualty Aversion in Armament Advertisements”), Niklas Schörnig and Alexander C. Lembcke point out that “weapon designers (…) have done an incredibly good job in protecting those who use these weapons in war and have reinforced this impression by actively promoting it via advertisement and lobbying.”[29] It is very clear that the aspect most commonly emphasized in those commercials is the safety of soldiers. For example, one of the ads quoted in the article (for the new Boeing X-45A) states “aircrews will no longer have to be put at risk to complete the most dangerous of missions” and promises “a more secure future for our country and the brave men and women who serve”[30]

 

The Opposite Usage: The Case of the 9/11 Attacks

 

Unfortunately, all the aforementioned means cannot eradicate tragedies which result in deaths of both civilians and officials. Sometimes the real fight moves from the battlefield to civilian areas and becomes a very asymmetric conflict. This is definitely the case of the current fight against terrorism that perpetually affects cities all around the world. “The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan are among the best-known recent examples of asymmetric warfare: conflicts between nations or groups that have disparate military capabilities and strategies”, summarizes the RAND think tank on its official website.[31] But the 9/11 events were much more than just an example of asymmetric warfare: they were an unprecedented act that caused trauma for the whole nation. 9/11 was also an illustration of the change that occurred in terrorism itself:

9/11 brought about a fundamental change in the nature of terrorism (…), especially because these attacks seem too inherently entwined with 21st century technologies and media to compare easily to other instances of large-scale terror.[32]

It was a new face of terrorism that was not reluctant to use modern technologies and combine them with the biggest symbolic weapon of great power: suicidal death and disdain for life which is so different from the usual American avoidance of death—a contrast that definitely empowered the 9/11 attackers and enhanced their actions. As Jean Baudrillard stated in his famous essay “The Spirit of Terrorism”:

(…) the terrorists have ceased to commit suicide for no return; they are now bringing their own deaths to bear in an effective, offensive manner, in the service of an intuitive strategic insight which is quite simply a sense of the immense fragility of the opponent—a sense that a system which has arrived at its quasi-perfection can, by that very token, be ignited by the slightest spark. They have succeeded in turning their own deaths into an absolute weapon against a system that operates on the basis of the exclusion of death, a system whose ideal is an ideal of zero deaths. Every zero-death system is a zero-sum-game system. And all the means of deterrence and destruction can do nothing against an enemy who has already turned his death into a counterstrike weapon. ‘What does the American bombing matter? Our men are as eager to die as the Americans are to live!’ Hence the non-equivalence of the four thousand deaths inflicted at a stroke on a zero-death system. [33]

This kind of clash of value systems had already been seen before World War II, when another group powered by radical ideology sacrificed their lives in order to severely harm the enemy. The suicide attacks of Japanese Kamikaze pilots had a profound impact on the Allied soldiers[34], who could not understand these attackers’ behaviour, which was motivated by extreme dedication to the cause and the samurai bushido code that places honour before anything else. Suicide terrorism is “the most aggressive form of terrorism”[35] and does not expect the attacker to survive. As can be seen in the case of the events of 9/11 and more recent attacks, “suicide terrorists often seek simply to kill the largest number of people”[36] and at the same time create an atmosphere of fear, suspicion and constant danger. What is especially striking is the logic hidden behind these seemingly irrational attacks. “Even if many suicide attackers are irrational or fanatical, the leadership groups that recruit and direct them are not”[37] writes Robert A. Pape in his profound analysis “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”.

 

Conclusion

 

Cold calculation is probably the most shocking element of suicide terrorism. Both its originators and perpetrators are often aware of the symbolic power of their gestures, which stand in complete contrast to the American or even “western” mentality. Our constant attempts to eradicate death from the public sphere and everyday life peter away when faced with public acts of ideologically motivated suicide. When thinking about the influence of the 9/11 attacks and the trauma it caused for American society, it important to remember that the strength of the attacks was definitely stronger because of the explicit contrast between the two attitudes towards death described in this paper. The American people gathered around TV screens had to face imminent symbols of death and destruction and observe people trapped in the Twin Towers that chose to jump rather than die in the flames or collapse. Even though the media censored the traumatic images and did not show the bodies of the casualties, the American viewers were very drastically reminded of their mortality. Death, formerly excluded from everyday life, came back and called for attention.

The perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and all the recent examples of suicide terrorism were aware that because human victims are seen as unacceptable in modern wars and death is a taboo topic in the every-day life of many countries, their acts would gain additional power and meaning. In a way, an attack on the whole new “western” way of life would come about. Obviously saying that a change of our attitude toward the phenomenon of death would scare off the terrorists and discourage them from conducting more violent acts is an inappropriate oversimplification. However, a more moderate approach toward death might be a positive influence on our everyday lives. Traumas and dramas might be smaller or even non-existent if we could find the right way to talk about the one and only imminent element of our lives: death.

 

References:

 

Ariès Philippe, Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) (1975).

Baudrillard Jean, Simulacra and Simulation, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press) (1994).

Baudrillard Jean, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1995).

Baudrillard Jean, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays, (London: Verso) (2002).

Bellamy Christopher, “War without Casualties”, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/war-without-casualties-1323022.html, date accessed: 6 April 2017.

Bumiller Elisabeth, “White House Letter; Axis of Evil: First Birthday for a Famous Phrase”, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/20/us/white-house-letter-axis-of-evil-first-birthday-for-a-famous-phrase.html, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

Chomsky Noam, 9-11, (New York: Seven Stories Press) (2001).

Clausewitz Carl von, On War, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2007).

Collins Edward M., „Clausewitz and Democracy’s Modern Wars”, Military Affairs, vol. 19, no. 1 (1955).

Daileda Colin, „The Military History of ‘Leave No Man Behind’”, Mashable, http://mashable.com/2014/06/14/bowe-bergdahl-are-american-military-soldiers-ever-left-behind/#ehQa.pP_bGql, date accessed: 7 June 2017.

Danto Arthur C., „On Moral Codes and Modern War”, Social Research, vol. 45, no. 1 (1978).

Donn Katharina, A Poetics of Trauma After 9/11. Representing the Trauma in a Digitalized Present, (Oxon: Ruthledge) (2017).

Fershtman Chaim, Gneezy Uri, Hoffman Moshe, „Taboos and Identity: Considering the Unthinkable”, American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, vol. 3, no. 2 (2011).

Foley Robert T., Griffin Stuart, McCarthey Helen, „Transformation in Contact: Learning the Lessons of Modern War”, International Affairs, vol. 87, no.2 (2011).

Galdorisi George, „Why We Leave No Man Behind”, CNN, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/09/opinion/galdorisi-leave-no-man-behind/, date accessed:7 June 2017.

Gartner Scott Sigmund, Edson Myers Marissa, „Body Counts and “Success” in the Vietnam and Korean Wars”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 25, no. 3 (1995).

Gross Michael L., „Medicalized WEAPONS & Modern WAR”, The Hastings Center Report, vol. 40, no. 1 (2010).

Gross Michael L., Moral Dilemmas of Modern War, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (2010).

Jowett Garth S., O’Donnell Victoria, Propaganda and Persuasion (London: SAGE) (2012).

Lacquement Richard A. Jr,  „The Casualty-Aversion Myth”, Naval War College Review, vol. LVII, no.1 (2004).

Laderman Gary, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America, (New York: Oxford University Press) (2003).

Mack Andrew, „Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: the Politics of Asymmetric Conflict”, World Politics, vol. 27, no. 2 (1975).

McSweeney Daniel, „The CNN Effect and Somalia”, E-International Relations Students, http://www.e-ir.info/2011/08/11/the-cnn-effect-and-somalia/, date accessed:7 June 2017.

Mral Brigitte, „The Rhetorical State of Alert before the Iraq War 2003”, Nordicom Review, no. 27 (2006).

Mueller John, „The Iraq Syndrome”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 84, no. 6 (2005).

Nlabu Sascha, „Body Bags without Effects”, The Heptagon Post, http://heptagonpost.com/Nlablu/Body_Bags_without_Effects, date accessed:7 June 2017.

Overton Iain, Dodd Henry, „A Short History of Suicide Bombing”, Action on Armed Violence, https://aoav.org.uk/2013/a-short-history-of-suicide-bombings/, date accessed:7 June 2017.

Palgi Phyllis, Abramovitch Henry, „Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective”, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 13 (1984).

Pape Robert A., „The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”, American Political Science Review, vol. 97. no. 3 (2003).

Robinson Piers, „Media as a Driving Force in International Politics: The CNN Effect and Related Debates”, Global Policy, http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/08/10/2013/media-driving-force-international-politics-cnn-effect-and-related-debates, date accessed:8 June 2017.

Schörnig Niklas, Lembcke Alexander C., „The Vision of War without Casualties: On the Use of Casualty Aversion in Armament Advertisements”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 50, no. 2 (2006).

Strachan Hew, „Essay and Reflection: On Total War and Modern War”, The International History Review, vol. 22, no. 2 (2000).

The White House, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

Voices Of Democracy, http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/reagan-evil-empire-speech-text/, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

 

Filmography:

 

Behind Enemy Lines (2001, John Moore)

Black Hawk Down (2001, Ridley Scott)

Eye in the Sky (2015, Gavin Hood)

Lone Survivor (2013, Peter Berg)

Missing in Action (1984, Joseph Zito)

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985, George P. Cosmatos)

Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg)

The Great Raid (2005, John Dahl)

 

 

[1]  Jihadist fundamentalist group based in East Africa linked with Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.

[2] Gary Laderman, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America, (New York: Oxford University Press) (2003), p. 2.

[3] Philippe Ariès, Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) (1975), p.1.

[4] Philippe Ariès, p. 11.

[5] Philippe Ariès, p. 85.

[6] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2007), p. ix.

[7] Carl von Clausewitz.

[8] Michael L. Gross, Moral Dilemmas of Modern War, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (2010), p. 11.

[9] Michael L. Gross, p. 4.

[10] John Mueller, “The Iraq Syndrome”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 84, no. 6 (2005), p. 44.

[11] Michael L. Gross, p. 21.

[12] Edward M. Collins, „Clausewitz and Democracy’s Modern Wars”, Military Affairs, vol. 19, no. 1 (1955), p. 17.

[13] Garth S. Jowett, Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion, (London: SAGE) (2012), p. 7.

[14] Brigitte Mral, “The Rhetorical State of Alert before the Iraq War 2003”, Nordicom Review, no. 27 (2006), p. 47.

[15] The White House, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

[16] Voices Of Democracy, http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/reagan-evil-empire-speech-text/, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

[17] Elisabeth Bumiller, “White House Letter; Axis of Evil: First Birthday for a Famous Phrase”, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/20/us/white-house-letter-axis-of-evil-first-birthday-for-a-famous-phrase.html, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

[18] Richard A. Lacquement Jr, „The Casualty-Aversion Myth”, Naval War College Review, vol. LVII, no.1 (2004).  p. 39.

[19] Scott Sigmund Gartner, Marissa Edson Myers, “Body Counts and “Success” in the Vietnam and Korean Wars”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 25, no. 3 (1995), p. 377.

[20] Encyclopedia of the New American Nation, http://www.americanforeignrelations.com/O-W/Television-The-persian-gulf-war.html#b%23ixzz1uKXkqB1I, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

[21] See: Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press) (1994).

[22] Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1995), p. 43.

[23] Jessica Lynch was serving as a unit supply specialist was ambushed in Iraq on 23 March 2003 and seriously injured. She has become the first successful rescue of an American prisoner of war since War in Vietnam and the first ever of a woman.

[24] Daniel McSweeney, „The CNN Effect and Somalia”, E-International Relations Students, http://www.e-ir.info/2011/08/11/the-cnn-effect-and-somalia/, date accessed:7 June 2017.

[25] Sascha Nlabu, „Body Bags without Effects”, The Heptagon Post, http://heptagonpost.com/Nlablu/Body_Bags_without_Effects, date accessed:7 June 2017.

[26] Piers Robinson, „Media as a Driving Force in International Politics: The CNN Effect and Related Debates”, Global Policy, http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/08/10/2013/media-driving-force-international-politics-cnn-effect-and-related-debates, date accessed: 8 June 2017.

[27] Michael L. Gross, p.7.

[28] Michael L. Gross.

[29] Niklas Schörnig, Alexander C. Lembcke, „The Vision of War without Casualties: On the Use of Casualty Aversion in Armament Advertisements”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 50, no. 2 (2006), p. 206.

[30] Niklas Schörnig, Alexander C. Lembcke, p. 205.

[31] https://www.rand.org/topics/asymmetric-warfare.html, date accessed:8 June 2017.

[32] Katharina Donn, A Poetics of Trauma After 9/11. Representing the Trauma in a Digitalized Present, (Oxon: Ruthledge) (2017), p. 3.

[33] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays, (London: Verso) (2002), p. 16.

[34] Iain Overton, Henry Dodd, „A Short History of Suicide Bombing”, Action on Armed Violence, https://aoav.org.uk/2013/a-short-history-of-suicide-bombings/, date accessed:7 June 2017.

[35] Robert A., Pape, „The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”, American Political Science Review, vol. 97. no. 3 (2003). p. 345.

[36] Robert A., Pape.

[37] Robert A., Pape.

Technology and the War on Terror: Film and the Ambivalence of Transhumanism

Tatiana Prorokova

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 50-61.

 

Tatiana Prorokova

Philipps University of Marburg

 

Technology and the War on Terror:

Film and the Ambivalence of Transhumanism

 

 

Abstract:

 

The War on Terror declared by the U.S. government after 9/11 resulted in the two most technologically equipped invasions the country has ever launched: the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War. American soldiers were provided with newly designed uniforms and weapons, with the best defensive armour and night-vision equipment, off-road vehicles, helicopters, and tanks. These enabled them to dominate the enemy technologically and guaranteed success in combat, minimizing the risk of injury and death among Americans. Film responded to these changes, playing with the issue of technology in war. In analysing Bigelow’s war drama, The Hurt Locker, which focuses on U.S. military actions in Iraq, and Favreau’s sci-fi Iron Man, which raises the problem of Afghan terrorists and thus implicitly deals with the Afghanistan War, this article looks over the role of technology in war and investigates the blurred boundaries between humanity and machinery in the era of technology. Additionally, the article examines Bay’s Transformers and its sequels to see whether war machines possess humanity.

 

Key words: The War on Terror, technology, machine, transhumanism

 

 

Introduction: Film and the War on Terror

 

The terrifying terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the consequences they entailed have made the opening of the twenty-first century frightening and disquieting for the whole world—specifically for the United States. The U.S. government’s War on Terror has resulted in multiple military operations, the longest of which are the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The two wars in the Middle East can be considered a continuation of the long military history of the United States but, undoubtedly, they are especially noteworthy due to the novel techniques used in the conduct of warfare. The Afghanistan War and the Second Gulf War turned into the two most technologically advanced wars the United States has ever launched. Indeed, the variety and abundance of newly-designed uniforms, arms, equipment, gadgets, and vehicles strikes one’s imagination. The U.S. demonstrated its indisputable readiness to fight the enemy, thus avenging the deaths of thousands of innocent people on 9/11 and protecting the country’s foundational values of freedom and democracy. Whether these interventions were successful or worth it are complex questions, but one can say without demur that the United States counted on their soldiers’ obvious technological superiority over the enemy for the success of these military intrusions. As James S. Corum aptly puts it, “At the centre of modern U.S. military culture lies a belief in technological determinism: that technology is a central factor in warfare and that the country with the best technology is bound to win”; in terms of military planning, such an attitude is perhaps, as the scholar himself puts it, ‘wrong’.[1] Nevertheless, this idea vividly illustrates the so-called American cultural belief in the unconditional power of technology to guarantee unreserved superiority and dominance to its possessor.

American cinema is teeming with examples of this faith in technology—in its unlimited power and ability to defeat the enemy—no matter how strong, ruthless, and insidious that enemy may be. Whether one distinguishes between films about wars that actually took place and science-fiction films that depict endless fights between humanity and aliens, robots and monsters, or whether one considers the two genres together, taking war films in general as one broad media category, one can find multiple cinematic examples that appeared long before the War on Terror that deal with the issue of technology in war. There is obviously a long chain of sci-fi films: from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) to James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) to Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). Additionally, Hollywood dwelled on the importance of technology in films about real wars, which became especially prominent from the era of the Vietnam War onward, from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) to David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999).

Technology has become an integral part of war: the battlefield is no longer considered the territory of humans as machines have started to play a significant role there, too. The two recent interventions in the Middle East, however, have clearly foregrounded the leading role of technology that, in turn, explains the impulse of the cinema of the War on Terror which unites films about the two wars with the sci-fi films that were released in the era of the War on Terror and to various degrees either explicitly or implicitly reflects it, showing the grotesque capabilities of technology in the twenty-first century. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008), Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor (2013), Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), along with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (2013), Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), and Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), Shawn Levy’s Real Steel (2011), Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), Peter Berg’s Battleship (2012), and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) constitute a cluster of films that celebrate the new warfare and the era of new military technology.

The reason for this overt interest in technology and its role in war that action films and war dramas demonstrate is stipulated by the transformed nature of war. The ‘new’ war of the twenty-first century is peculiar due to the existence of the so-called faceless enemy which has been an impossible target for the U.S. and its allies since 9/11. It is thus unsurprising that when dealing with the problem of the global war, cinema vehemently attempts to present possible solutions for winning the war and eradicating terrorism. What 9/11 films have explicitly demonstrated is that the enemy is so elusive and strong that to win the war U.S. soldiers have to be technologically transformed. In other words, humans can never win the war on their own—in the twenty-first century we particularly strongly need advanced technology. Advancing this idea, action, sci-fi, and war films challenge the concept of the human body, suggesting that the ‘normal’ body is no longer needed, for it is not capable of successfully performing a military task. While terrorists are portrayed, in some way, as ‘freaks’, which ‘assures spectators that terrorism can be overcome’,[2] positive characters frequently, literally or metaphorically appear as superheroes who have to ‘com[e] to terms with their abilities, powers and bodies.’[3] Andrew Schopp makes an interesting observation, claiming that 9/11 induced the belief that “risk must always be managed, even if at some level we know that such management is impossible”.[4] One, therefore, might argue that the new, technologically advanced soldier skilfully turns the ‘impossible’ mission into a real one and, what is even more important, an accomplishable task.

The cinema of the War on Terror thus proposes an intriguing shift that war demands: the transformation of human participants into machines. Being overtly transhuman in their nature, these films not only approve of ‘cyborgization’, i.e. the ‘process of changing a human into a cyborg’,[5] but they see it as the only option that is available for the military today. The demand for a so-called transhuman, i.e. ‘a being which due to technological augmentations boosts its body and mind abilities far beyond the standards’,[6] foregrounds the power of technology and sees it as the only means to win the War on Terror. Some more explicitly than others, the cinematic examples that this article analyses demonstrate a crucial shift in the image of a soldier/fighter, thus overtly commenting on the problem of humanity and machinery that exists in times of war. But most importantly, they question the ability of humans to defeat the enemy, celebrating the power of machines.

 

The Rise of Technology

 

When one talks about the predominance of technological progress in the twenty-first century, one should of course realize that technology appeared much earlier than in the time of the War on Terror. Significantly, starting from primitive technologies from the far past and finishing with the high technologies of today, technology has always given privileges to its owner, facilitating social, political, economic, and educational development. Thomas J. Misa draws attention to ‘the several technologically marked historical epochs, such as the Bronze Age . . . [and] the Iron Age’.[7] Indeed, technology emerged when the first metal tools were created and widely applied. With the lapse of time, technology was improved and refined to such an extent that it now defines the status of its possessor and dictates the order in the world both in terms of military and economic domination. Richard Li-Hua claims:

 

Technology means state power to both developing and developed countries. Technology is regarded as a strategic instrument in achieving economic targets and in the creation of wealth and prosperity in developing countries, while technology is taken as an important vehicle to get large profits in developed countries. The effective use of technology is perhaps the most important issue faced by both developing and developed countries, and will undoubtedly become even more critical in years to come.[8]

 

Technology is therefore equated with power, and vice versa. Analysing Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, Mark Lacy underscores a crucial observation made by the scholar:

 

Society is transformed by technologies that allow military leaders, police and policymakers to see the enemy before they arrive at the castle walls, before enemy ships arrive on the beaches, before the bombers arrive over our cities, before the terrorist arrives at the airport terminal.[9]

 

Daniel Sarewitz pinpoints the characteristic of technology as a manipulator and argues that “Power is the projection of human intent over other people, animals or things. Technology magnifies intent and makes it more reliable”.[10]

Yet, when considering the role of technology in war and its influence on modern warfare, it becomes clear that technology has stimulated progress on the battlefield, which allows one to define the war of the twenty-first century as a new, technologically advanced war that is more difficult to predict and at the same time easier yet harder to fight. Still, Sarewitz accentuates the ambivalence of the use of technology in war and the ultimate guarantee of superiority, accepting the idea of the ‘absolute supremacy in military technology’ of the U.S. as demonstrated in the Iraq War, but foregrounding the ambiguity of ‘the technology-power nexus’ and claiming that ‘the proximal objectives enabled by a technology—killing a soldier or destroying a building, for example—say little if anything about the power of that technology to facilitate broader outcomes, for example the compliance of one society to the will of another.’[11] Indeed, noticeable technological superiority on the battlefield may not and does not guarantee the same status in the political arena, yet it arguably plays in favour of the better-equipped side.

How does technology modernize war? Using the example of visual technology, Jose N. Vasquez contends that it ‘chang[es] the experience of war in dramatic ways’.[12] With the help of technology, soldiers are able to control the territory of the enemy and are more capable of protecting their own; they are able to fight at any time of the day and night, and they can reach the enemy from nearly every position—a feat which was hardly imaginable decades earlier. Vasquez speculates that “Conceptualized as ‘cyber warriors’, ‘cyborgs’, and ‘digital soldiers’, the futuristic war fighters once thought of as purely science fiction are gradually becoming reality”.[13] This fascinating observation prompts me to address the issues of humanity and machinery as well as their relations in the modern times of technology and war. Is the widespread dependence on technology in the army a sign of technological self-enslavement, and can this tendency be characterized by the assumption of Antoine Bousquet that the development and improvement of technology is “nothing less than an attempt to insulate the system from uncertainty by creating a perfectly controlled and perfectly stable . . . artificial world”?[14] Do soldiers turn into machines, thus becoming science-fiction superheroes in the real world? Can we speak about a phenomenon such as ‘human machines’ or does humanity remain important even in perhaps the most unattainable, unimaginable, equivocal, and savage state—in war?

 

Humans or Machines? The Hurt Locker and Iron Man

 

Who are the soldiers of the twenty-first century, humans or machines? And whose victory is ultimately expected? Film provides a detailed and fascinating overview of the issue. I would like to focus on Bigelow’s war drama The Hurt Locker, which deals with the actual war in Iraq and Favreau’s action film Iron Man, which touches upon the issue of the war in Afghanistan.

The opening scene of The Hurt Locker, which immerses the audience into the world of a technologically advanced war, is the most memorable. Spectators are forced to see the action through the eyes of a robot driving through a street in Baghdad. As the picture is distorted, we realize that it is not a soldier but a robot that provides the overview of the locality. The camera moves and reveals a unit of soldiers arriving and taking their positions and then returns to the robot, thus making it evident that the mechanical character is as important to the operation as the human soldiers. The picture is distorted several times more before the director reveals that the robot is operated by a soldier. With the help of the robot, the soldiers find out what kind of bomb is planted nearby, and therefore are able to plan their further actions. They fasten a small cart to the robot and send it back to the bomb but, dramatically, the cart breaks on its way, demonstrating the imperfection of technology, and a sapper has to continue carrying out the operation. The audience observes Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) being dressed in a special suit designed to protect him from the blast wave. The camera lingers for an instant and, as soon as the helmet is on and carefully fixed, the soldier is ready to perform the mission. The scene is fascinating as it arguably raises the issue of the human and robotic characteristics of the modern soldier. The suit makes him look rather unnatural, as if he himself is another technological innovation of the U.S. army. As he raises his head to see a helicopter, the audience is forced to see through his eyes and although the picture is not as heavily distorted as it was in the scene filmed through the robot’s camera, there is still something that disturbs our vision, i.e. the helmet’s transparent plastic visor; although the visor allows us to see everything, it makes the picture blurry enough to realize that we are looking though a barrier and there is a black frame around our field of vision. The soldier, therefore, represents a human being locked inside a technological product; he becomes part of that technology—a robot that breathes. What makes the ‘robot’ ultimately a human is his dramatized death as the bomb is activated by one of the locals. Trying to escape the fatal ending, the soldier runs as fast as the suit allows him, but he is finally caught by the blast wave. As he falls down in slow motion, spectators notice the transparent part of the helmet covered with blood from the inside.

The soldier is substituted by a new sapper, which is a rather regular case in the army as newcomers take the places of those who die. However, such a ‘conveyer belt’ system allows for another interpretation, namely that just as a robot, machine, or gadget can break down and then be substituted, so can a human being, with the crucial difference that unlike a technological product, a human-being cannot be repaired. There are multiple scenes in the film where a new sapper deactivates a bomb, but I would like to underscore their importance to our understanding of the issue of humanity and machinery. The changing scenes—from the normal human interaction to the transformation of a soldier into a sapper who visually resembles a robot—are disturbing. Additionally, they reveal the ambiguity of the main character’s (Sergeant First Class William James, played by Jeremy Renner) nature. His fearlessness and calmness that often resemble indifference elevate him beyond an average human-being, thus hinting at his supernatural or hi-tech abilities that will allow him to stay alive, no matter what happens. At the same time, his care for a local boy as well as the presence of his wife and baby at the end of the film show James as a rather conventional human who has feelings. The film’s ending, however, contradicts this characterization as we observe smiling James in a sapper’s suit walking towards his next mission in Iraq, which he has volunteered for. He therefore gives up his ‘human’ life, choosing one enabled by technology. Thus, Bigelow’s words that The Hurt Locker reveals “dehumanising and humanising aspects of war” can, indeed, be interpreted in terms of the war and its constituent parts’ (one of which is undoubtedly technology) ability to not only control but also suppress the human side, turning soldiers into machines, both psychologically and physically.[15]

The story of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the main character of Iron Man, is somewhat reminiscent of the story of the sappers from The Hurt Locker. Considering the issue of the Afghanistan War and American participation in it, Iron Man is an apt example of an action film that explicitly deals with the duality of a war participant. Tony Stark, a wealthy businessman, creates an iron suit that he puts on every time the world is in danger. At the beginning, the film makes the story as plain as possible: there is a human-being inside of a highly technological, practically indestructible iron suit that accurately resembles the shape of a human body. Every time Tony communicates with somebody, he uncovers his face so that the audience is always aware that it is a human that interacts, takes decisions, argues, smiles, in short, performs all the actions that are typical of people. However, there is a nuance that is not to be neglected, namely that the suit is bonded to Tony (or is Tony bonded to the suit?) with the help of an electromagnet that was installed in Tony’s body when he was captured in Afghanistan, and later improved into a powerful reactor by Tony himself. What at first looks like Tony’s hobby later turns into an addiction that connects him and the suit so tightly that both the audience and Tony himself have difficulty distinguishing when Tony is a human and when he is a powerful superhero. Tony, whose high-tech weapons have guaranteed power and dominance to their possessors and fear to the ones at which they are targeted, now himself turns into such a high-tech weapon. Indeed, in the course of all the three parts of the film, Tony fights terrorists, criminals, and other bad guys, posing danger to them only when he is reincarnated as Iron Man.

In Iron Man 2, Tony goes as far as declaring: “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one”.[16] Tony’s general condition, however, worsens as the suit negatively influences his health and it becomes clear that if Tony does not stop being Iron Man, he will simply die. The generator that is mounted right in his chest and that figuratively stands for the heart of Iron Man, is slowly killing Tony and, thus, Tony’s powerful second self. Therefore, the question of whether to remain as Iron Man or to return to ordinary life should be rather easy to settle in such a situation; Tony, however, tries to figure out a way to continue being a superhero. Although Tony’s human qualities (such as devotion, his desire to protect his dearest ones, his ability to love, his patriotism, and his decision not to speculate and purely gain profit from his arms business, but to care for the well-being others) construct Tony as a human superhero; his robotic side also gets a lot of attention. We often find him in his laboratory where he creates all kinds of technologically advanced gadgets and robots. The laboratory is literally the place where Tony feels at home, surrounded by all the iron constructions and creatures that communicate with him. Tony, therefore, is presented as someone who gets more and more involved in the world of technology, inevitably alienating himself from the world of humans.

Tony’s addiction to the iron suit strengthens in Iron Man 3, where virtually at the beginning of the film he feels a physical and emotional bond to it, suffering from ‘anxiety attacks’[17] any time he does not wear it and feeling comfortable and protected each time he is inside it. One can speculate that the reason for his fear of vulnerability is virtually a consequence of the events of The Avengers (2012), in which he was very nearly killed. Tony becomes even more involved in the world of machines that are, indeed, living creatures for him. Thus, we observe him placing the uncharged suit on the sofa in a way that he thinks the iron suit would find comfortable; showing compassion in the scene where a boy breaks off the suit’s finger, assuming that the suit can actually feel the pain. Tony stops sleeping, which represents his inconceivable physical endurance; he acknowledges that his suits are ‘part of’[18] him and, indeed, this is how he is finally perceived by his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who, although struggling to accept the technological self of her boyfriend, upon finding the helmet, holds it close to herself thinking of Tony, as she assumes this is the only bit of him left after the brutal fight.

The Iron Man trilogy, therefore, is an important work that raises the questions of machinery and humanity in war. Unlike The Hurt Locker, however, it provides a radically different answer to the question: who wins? Tony Stark’s humanity apparently wins over the technological, mechanical self of Iron Man as, at the end of the third part, we observe Tony throwing his generator into the ocean, thus demonstrating his acceptance of humanity and rejection of the robotic side for good. The same happens to the U.S. army (that with Tony’s help became largely equipped with iron suits, turning into the most frightening army on the planet) when Tony takes the decision to liquidate all the robots that he created. Iron Man, therefore, makes a clear appeal to the audience: it is easy to fight against the enemy with the help of technology; however, it can also become our enemy as it deprives us of our humanity, turning us into machines that are not able to enjoy the privileges of human life.

 

Transformers: Humanity in Machines

 

Investigating the transformation of humans into machines, I inevitably address the opposite issue, namely whether machines in war can possess humanity. To examine the problem, I have chosen to analyse a recent series of films that are primarily concerned with machines, demonstrating the flourishing of the technological era and, as a result, of technological progress; the film series in question is Michael Bay’s Transformers and its sequels.

The four films released so far can and should be treated as one story of relations between robots and human-beings. The film’s most apparent message is that technology today is much cleverer, less biased, and somewhat more humane than humans themselves. The Autobots are arguably represented as the only truly good characters in the film (perhaps with the exception of a small group of people that includes Sam (Shia LaBeouf) and his friends). Their reason for being on Earth is to protect the human race from the evil Decepticons. They exist as a small group of robots that resembles a family in which everyone is ready to help, protect, and care for each other. More than that, their desire to save people (who in the course of the film do not seem to be very thankful for this, preferring to exploit the robots rather than treat them as equals or accept their technological superiority) stands for the robots’ ability to feel love, devotion, responsibility, and compassion. There are a number of scenes in the film when, by means of contrasting a robot and a human, the director shows a tremendous difference between the two, accentuating humanity in robots and a certain inhumanity in a humans. For example, in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, we witness an Autobot pining because his friend Sam has to leave him to go to college, whereas later in the scene, Sam fails to say, ‘I love you’[19] to his girlfriend, which provokes a tense dialogue between the two. Thus, it is easier for a robot to express emotions rather than for a human.

All the robots in Transformers and its sequels represent a specific race—a race of ‘intelligent mechanical beings’[20], as they call themselves. Indeed, their intellect and thinking abilities are striking, but what is more fascinating is their uncanny resemblance to the human race. First, the robots look very similar to humans: they have a body, limbs, a head, and a face. The robots are not clumsy despite their huge size; when they fight, they can literally feel pain; when they get a punch in the face, they spit out liquid that looks very much like a mixture of blood and spit; as mentioned earlier, they can cry; they also can propagate, as we witness in a scene in which multiple cocoons are revealed; finally, robots grow old and suffer from typically human health problems. Their inner qualities are peculiar too: the robots are humanly superior, as unlike people they all possess moral qualities and very often are shown judging humans, making them behave and act better. “It’s inhumane is what it is!”[21] complains a robot that Sam locked outside in the rain. Indeed, according to Transformers, these are machines that possess humanity, whereas human beings do not.

This interpretation, however, may change dramatically if we consider Terence McSweeney’s suggestion that Transformers is a vivid projection of 9/11 in which the Decepticons stand for real terrorists.[22] In this case, the Autobots represent humans who fight against terrorists. But then it remains unclear who the real people in Transformers are. Therefore, I propose examining the film not as a pure metaphor of the world after 9/11, but in terms of its treatment of technological progress. In this case, the film sends a clear message that machines could develop into such highly intelligent creatures that they will become more perfect than humans in all aspects.

 

Conclusion: Humans. Or Machines?

 

In a time of high-tech wars, the question whether humanity and machinery have become equal or whether one prevails over the other remains a complex issue. Despina Kakoudaki interprets “the tendency to imagine the artificial body as a mechanical, rather than organic, entity” in terms of neutralization of ‘human vulnerability’.[23] Arguably, this is a pivotal aspect to consider when dealing with the issues of humanity and machinery. Vulnerability, or perhaps also victimization, therefore, are not to be treated as purely physical aspects (although they are, indeed, here); as The Hurt Locker, the Iron Man trilogy and the Transformers series illustrate, emotions are one of the most crucial characteristics that define humanity. Thus, those who can feel are considered humane whether or not they are humans or machines. Technological progress, indeed, changes humans. While technology develops into more and better products, humans transform as well. The complexity of the issue will hardly ever allow anybody to provide a single answer to the problem of humanity and machinery. The analysed cinematic examples, however, do not give up on the human race, but underline the difficulty of remaining true humans in the era of technology.

 

References

 

Bousquet Antoine, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (London: Hurst & Company) (2009).

Corum James S., Fighting the War on Terror: A Counterinsurgency Strategy, (St. Paul: MBI Publishing and Zenith Press) (2007).

Holden Lisa, and Fran Pheasant-Kelly, “Freak-Show Aesthetics and the Politics of Disfigurement: Reconfiguring the Cinematic Terrorist in the Post-9/11 Era”, in Reflecting 9/11: New Narratives in Literature, Television, Film and Theatre, ed. Heather E. Pope and Victoria M. Bryan (New Castle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2016).

Iron Man (Jon Favreau, Paramount Pictures) (2008).

Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, Paramount Pictures) (2010).

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures) (2013).

Kakoudaki Despina, Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press) (2014).

Lacy Mark, Security, Technology and Global Politics: Thinking with Virilio, (London: Routledge) (2014).

Li-Hua Richard, “Definitions of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

McSweeney Terence, The ‘War on Terror’ and American Film: 9/11 Frames per Second, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2014).

Michalczak Rafał, “Transhuman and Posthuman – On Relevance of ‘Cyborgisation’ on Legal and Ethical Issues”, 25th IVR World Congress Law Science and Technology, Paper Series 084: C (2012).

Misa Thomas J., “History of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology. ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

Purse Lisa, Contemporary Action Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2011).

Sarewitz Daniel, “Technology and Power”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

Schopp Andrew, “Interrogating the Manipulation of Fear: V for Vendetta, Batman Begins, Good Night, and Good Luck, and America’s ‘War on Terror”, in The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond, ed. Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill (Madison: Rosemont Publishing) (2009).

Tasker Ivonne, The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film, (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell) (2015).

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, Summit Entertainment) (2008).

Transformers (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2007).

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2009).

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2011).

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay,Paramount Pictures) (2014).

Vasquez Jose N., “Seeing Green: Visual Technology, Virtual Reality, and the Experience of War”, in An Anthropology of War: Views from the Frontline, ed. Alisse Waterston (New York: Berghahn Books) (2009).

 

 

[1] James S. Corum, Fighting the War on Terror: A Counterinsurgency Strategy, (St. Paul: MBI Publishing and Zenith Press) (2007). p. 117.

[2]Lisa Holden, and Fran Pheasant-Kelly, “Freak-Show Aesthetics and the Politics of Disfigurement: Reconfiguring the Cinematic Terrorist in the Post-9/11 Era”, in Reflecting 9/11: New Narratives in Literature, Television, Film and Theatre, ed. Heather E. Pope and Victoria M. Bryan (New Castle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016), p. 200.

[3] Ivonne Tasker, The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film, (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell) (2015). p. 180. My italics.

[4] Andrew Schopp, “Interrogating the Manipulation of Fear: V for Vendetta, Batman Begins, Good Night, and Good Luck, and America’s ‘War on Terror”, in The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond, ed. Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill (Madison: Rosemont Publishing, 2009), p. 261.

 

[5] Rafał Michalczak, “Transhuman and Posthuman – On Relevance of ‘Cyborgisation’ on Legal and Ethical Issues”, 25th IVR World Congress Law Science and Technology, Paper Series 084: C (2012), p. 2.

[6] Rafał Michalczak., p. 4.

[7] Thomas J. Misa, “History of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 9.

[8] Richard Li-Hua, “Definitions of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 18.

[9] Mark Lacy, Security, Technology and Global Politics: Thinking with Virilio, (London: Routledge) (2014), p. 79.

[10] Daniel Sarewitz, “Technology and Power”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 308.

[11] Daniel Sarewitz, pp. 309-310.

[12] Jose N. Vasquez, “Seeing Green: Visual Technology, Virtual Reality, and the Experience of War”, in An Anthropology of War: Views from the Frontline, ed. Alisse Waterston (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009), p. 87.

[13] Jose N. Vasquez, pp. 88-89.

[14] Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (London: Hurst & Company) (2009), p. 11.

[15] Quoted in Lisa Purse, Contemporary Action Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2011), p. 162.

[16] Iron Man 2 (2010, Jon Favreau).

[17] Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black).

[18] Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black).

[19] Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009, Michael Bay).

[20] Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay).

[21] Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay).

[22] Terence McSweeney, The ‘War on Terror’ and American Film: 9/11 Frames per Second, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2014), p. 139.

[23] Despina Kakoudaki, Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press) (2014), p. 69.

Unseen war? Hackers, tactical media, and their depiction in Hollywood cinema

Marta Stańczyk

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 62-77.

Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Unseen war? Hackers, tactical media, and their depiction in Hollywood cinema

 

 

The geeks have emerged in politics.
(Tim Jordan, Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society)

The feelings of vulnerability, fear of the unknown, and embarrassment that feed the hysterical reaction to hackers also lead to the fetishizing of hackers in popular culture.
(Tor Ekeland, Hacker Madness)

Abstract

 

Emerging controversies about WikiLeaks’ contribution to Donald Trump’s electoral triumph and the ongoing persona-non-grata status of Edward Snowden highlight the notion of hacking in the modern world. Hackers used to be dualistically stereotyped on one hand as black hats, criminals and cyberpunk/cypherpunk hidden figures, and on the other as whistle-blowers, open access activists and hacktivists whose actions are potentially subversive. Film coverage of hackers and their tactics shows a paranoid and militarized vision of the world, with grey eminence often depicted either as a threat, or as survivors. Hence, from WarGames (1983, John Bedham), TRON (1982, Steven Lisberger) and Hackers (1995, Iain Softley) to The Fifth Estate (2013, Bill Condon), Live Free or Die Hard (2007, Len Wiseman) to Jason Bourne (2016, Paul Greengrass), hacking seems to have emerged as the avant-garde of militarized social space—as its main weapon and fundamental defence. Pop culture feeds itself with this ambiguity as long as it accommodates the dualistic needs of its receivers: a countercultural anti-hero becomes a scapegoat while a general sense of insecurity predominates. Distrust in technology and underground experts is simultaneous with redemption narratives about disclosing corporate/state/elite conspiracies and is heavily influenced by current non-cinematic events. This paper is an examination of hackers’ cultural impact and their connection with tactical media through subversive actions. It becomes essential to decode their manipulated or simplified public image, especially with ongoing progressive politicization of hacking and its significance.

 

Key words: electronic civil disobedience, hack, hacker, hacktivism, tactical media

 

 

Introduction

 

Surfacing controversies about WikiLeaks’ contribution to Donald Trump’s electoral triumph, the commuting of Chelsea Manning’s sentence, or the ongoing Edward Snowden’s persona-non-grata status highlight the notion of hacking in the modern world. Hackers were stereotyped as black hats, criminals, and cyberpunk hidden figures for a long time, until the media and popular culture emphasized the potential subversiveness in their actions as whistle-blowers and free software and open source (FOSS) activists. Nowadays, on the one hand, they more often tend to be depicted as the last men standing; maybe antisocial, but driven by the virtuous ideological motives of a desire for justice, patriotism, anti-globalist protests, a sense of freedom, etc. On the other hand, with their excellent coding abilities, they are a part of information warfare (IW), threatening the inner harmony of social life and protecting citizens’ privacy. Film coverage of hackers and their tactics redistributes a paranoid and militarized vision of the world, with hidden figures often depicted either as a potential threat, or as survivors; either as a weapon in the fight against plutocracy, or as a technocratic nightmare.

“Hackers induce hysteria. They are the unknown, the terrifying, the enigma. The enigma that can breach and leak the deepest secrets (…). You feel vulnerable and it feels as though what happened is black magic”[1]; this quotation shows that the elaborate nature of hacking practice can cause its pathologization and even demonization. Rejecting such a perspective, this paper tries to locate hackers in a more neutral, objective discourse and to decode the biased opinions which fuel cinematic depictions of programmers pushing back the frontiers of technology. My case studies of movies together with real events and their media coverage are influenced especially by Tim Jordan’s research on hacker culture, community, ethics, and political agenda. He describes hacking as the act of computer intrusion, but he simultaneously accentuates that this intrusion does not have criminal motivations—its core is a tech-savviness. A good hack is original and autonomous; an activity is more important than the results, it extends the regular computer usage and is made in a joyful atmosphere, but “[h]acking has become associated in the mass media with illicit computer intrusion rather than with innovative uses of technology. This has led to the definition of cracking, a term many hackers use to refer to unwanted entry into computer systems by explorers or criminals”.[2] This differentiation has led Jordan to distinguish three fundamental notions about hacking: “there is the hacker who breaks into computer systems; the hackers who write software; and hacking as the essence of twenty-first century creativity”.[3]

Today hacking is often more of a cultural than a technological asset; it “is the way of understanding what is possible, sensible, and ethical in the twenty-first century”[4], therefore it becomes essential to decode its manipulated or simplified public image, especially with the ongoing progressive politicization of hackers and their significance. First of all, they are treated as a threat to social and private security due to the state engagement of hackers in cyberwar, IW and the sabotaging of other countries. Secondly, their actions are legally prohibited. Thirdly, hacking is by nature political due to its subversive use of media and reversing of power relations. And finally, hackers increasingly frequent collaboration with social activism has initiated hacktivism; hacking “turns into a form of ‘warfare’ (…) hackers engage in to advance their political agendas”.[5] Jordan describes hacktivists as “political activists, most often associated with the alter-globalisation movement, who utilize hacking techniques to create grassroots activist political campaigns. Hacktivists produce both ephemeral electronic civil disobedience actions (…) and try to create infrastructures of secure anonymous communication often to support human rights workers”.[6] So, hackers can be both agents of difference and change, and criminally-inclined “black hats” or crackers. Moreover, Hollywood cinema accentuates the tension between cyberterrorism and hacktivism; narratives fluctuate from these taking advantage of the militarization of cyberspace and paranoiac spirits (especially since 9/11) to redemptive ones that disclose corporate/state/elite conspiracies. Hence (cinematic) hacking seems to emerge as the avant-garde of militarized social space, its main weapon, and a fundamental defence. Pop culture feeds itself with this ambiguity as long as it accommodates the dualistic needs of its audience—a countercultural anti-hero becomes a scapegoat while a general sense of insecurity predominates.[7]

 

They’re stealing the Internet![8]

 

Hacking culture emerged in the 60s within American universities, but only two decades later did cinema find a formula for depicting computer geeks. In the 80s—with its hi-tech excitement, youth culture, and popularity of the IBM PC and other technological gadgets (e.g. the fetishized Power Glove[9])—the faith in information technology’s limitless potential and the sense of overriding fun were all-pervading. Although in Superman 3 (1983, Richard Lester), a hacker constructed a supercomputer in order to defeat the protagonist, coding had previously been used primarily as a tool of entertainment for movie characters (Revenge of the Nerds [1984, Jeff Kanew]; Weird Science [1985, John Hughes]). In TRON (1982, Steven Lisberger) Master Control’s predatory needs were justified by the real-life villain’s greed and in Electric Dreams (1984, Steve Barron) the PC and the protagonist were rivals over a woman. Even in WarGames (1983, John Badham) a military central computer appeared to be not maleficent but wrongly programmed. However, these optimistic narratives simplified hacking itself, presenting it as a movie gimmick rather than a process requiring professional skills. Depictions of hacking in 80s Hollywood cinema were often misunderstood and misleading. Repeating a random command such as “Access database” seemed to be sufficient for breaking into any system, thus making coding skills redundant.[10]

In the 90s modern angst emerged. There were still some gimmick hacks (as in Jurassic Park [1993, Steven Spielberg] or Universal Soldier: The Return [1999, Mic Rodgers][11]), sci-hack flicks (the absurd The Lawnmower Man [1992, Brett Leonard]) and genre recreation of hacking motives (for example, the corporate thriller The Net [1995, Irwin Winkler], comedy Office Space [1999, Mike Judge], and heist movie Sneakers [1992, Phil Alden Robinson]), but some Baudrillardist movies were indicative of the sense of paranoia: Johnny Mnemonic (1995, Robert Longo), The Thirteenth Floor (1999, Josef Rusnak) and especially The Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003 and 2003, The Wachowskis). Hackers began to be perceived as a threat for common citizens whose lives were affected by information technology to the point where it became an immanent element of their day-to-day reality. The Ashley Madison data breach,[12] the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack,[13] Silk Road’s embezzlement,[14] or Celebgate[15] all are scandals which undermined cybersecurity and net neutrality.

Hackers—although they should be called crackers for their criminal inclinations— occurred as hidden figures thinking only about their profits and capitalizing on their digital supremacy by preying on the malfunctions of omnipresent technology. Moreover, cybercrime gangs and state-backed hackers[16] joined the information warfare (which is defined as a “conflict or struggle between two or more groups in the information environment”[17]). In the case of cyberwarfare particularly, computers and networks are main targets and are struck by cyberattacks, espionage (depicted and revealed in Snowden [2016, Oliver Stone] or Jason Bourne [2016, Paul Greengrass]), sabotage (the disruption of equipment which is shown in Live Free or Die Hard [2007, Len Wiseman] among others), or DDoS attacks (the Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks that finds their most iconic representation in Hackers [1995, Iain Softley]). In 2009, President Barack Obama declared America’s digital infrastructure to be a “strategic national asset”.[18] On the one hand, cyberwar is often safer and reduces losses in people and infrastructure, as was the case of the American attacks on Iraqi communications networks in the Gulf War. On the other hand, it encourages illegal actions. During the aforementioned war, Dutch hackers stole information about U.S. troop movements from U.S. Defense Department computers and tried to sell it to the Iraqis, who thought it was a hoax and turned it down. Nowadays such an offer would be taken more seriously. Other threats are for example viruses and worms such as the infamous Stuxnet, “the world’s first digital weapon”,[19] which installed a rootkit on Windows OS. This was later believed to be an effect of American-Israeli cooperation against Iran’s nuclear facilities.[20] As Eugene Kaspersky, founder of Kaspersky Lab, said, “[t]he term ‘cyber-war’ is used by many to describe the situation, but that term—which implies that there are two equal, known enemies duking it out—is outmoded. With today’s attacks, you are clueless about who did it or when they will strike again. It’s not cyber-war, but cyberterrorism”.[21]

The threat seems ominous; therefore, in this situation hackers have commonly been criminalized, especially after the September 11 attacks, when the sense of paranoia became predominant. “Since 9/11, however, many liberal democratic states around the world have adopted legislation that ‘…paves the way for a far more permissive environment for electronic surveillance…’, and the online surveillance of activist communities as a way of policing social movements and stifling political protest is a growing concern for activists under traditionally repressive regimes and in Western democracies alike.”[22] The persecution of hackers, for example Fidel Salinas[23] and Jeremy Hammond[24], or Barack Obama’s attitude towards Edward Snowden show a state-based hysteria about any hack regardless of its motivations.[25] But whistle-blowers and hacktivists undermine the social trust in law and order, exposing state and media misuses: infiltration, invigilation, gatekeeping and hacking itself.[26] Moreover, as is written on the “Exposing the Invisible” webpage, “[p]eople are newly empowered to uncover hidden information, expose corruption and bring the truth to light”,[27] taking advantage of their anonymity and subverting power relations.

 

Hack the planet!

 

Hackers are often more socially accepted, as represented by the popularization of hacking conferences (H.O.P.E., DefCon), makerspaces, Hackathons and the Internet Protection Movement. There are even training courses for hackers that end with the certificate of Ethical Hackers.[28] FOSS’ flagship products—Firefox and GNU/Linux—“have both significant symbolic effects (in providing the ability of FOSS methods to create complex, stable programs) and market effects (providing significant alternatives of quality and freedom to commercial dominance)”.[29] Hackers engage themselves in fighting for social change not only through free software and open source principles The threat posed on the digital freedom was an inspiration for acts of electronic civil disobedience (ECD).[30] More and more social activists appropriate the tactical media manifesto written by Geert Lovink: “Tactical media are media of crisis, criticism and opposition. This is both the source [of] their power, (‘anger is an energy’: John Lydon), and their limitation. Their typical heroes are the activist, nomadic media warriors, the prankster, the hacker, the street rapper, the camcorder kamikaze; they are the happy negatives, always in search of an enemy. (…) [C]onsumers use the texts and artefacts that surround us (…) ‘tactically’. That is, in far more creative and rebellious ways than had previously been imagined.”[31]

Hacktivism can be understood as “activism! running free in the electronic veins that enliven our 21st-century, global socio-economies”.[32] Digitally-founded social actions are “a qualified form of humanism”[33] and they aim to create the space for “netizens”,[34] nevertheless hacking is conducted mainly by people with excellent coding skills who try to inspire social change by translating political thought into code. The most notorious groups in the United States are Anonymous and LulzSec. Julian Assange has been posting classified documents on WikiLeaks to call for “privacy of the weak, transparency for the powerful”.[35] In 1996, the Critical Art Ensemble recognized the politicization of cybersphere. In 1998, the Electronic Disturbance Theatre shared FloodNet, which was a tool enabling acts of (electronic) civil disobedience. And in 1999, the CULT OF THE DEAD COW (cDc) launched the Hacktivismo group, whose main goal was fighting for access to information as an expression of human rights. The group explained their mission in “The Hacktivismo Declaration” and “The Hacktivismo FAQ”. A few paragraphs from the latter should be evoked here as a representative of hactivists’ goals and hacker culture:

Q: What do you mean by the word “hacktivism”, then?

A: The provenance of hacktivism winds back to Omega – a longstanding member of the cDc – who started using it as a joke to describe on-line protest actions. Oxblood appropriated the word and began using it with a straight face; then many journalists, fading stars of the Left, and eventually script kiddies picked up on it, all claiming to know what hacktivism meant. It has been a noun in search of a verb for some time now. Oxblood once defined hacktivism as “an open-source implosion”, and now he’s added “disruptive compliance” to its range of description.

Q: What the hell are you talking about? I’m just looking for a simple answer here.

A: Hold your kimono, cupcake. O.K., hacktivism is the use of technology to advance human rights through electronic media.[36]

This short excerpt from cDc’s FAQ emphasizes not only the mission and motivations of Hacktivismo and similar groups, but also their slightly anarchistic, ironic style, anonymity linked with peer recognition and alternate, partly hidden communicating platforms such as IRC. It is the “performance of technology”[37] that interested the movie industry. Hacking has an allure which spread not only among whitehats involved in cybersecurity or computer geeks, but also film producers. However, hackers are still stereotyped and treated as public enemies because of their abilities, common illicitness and anonymity symbolized by Guy Fawkes’ mask.

 

Hollywood OS: bio-digital jazz[38]

 

“Most hackers do it for the challenge, thrill, and social fun. (…) [I]t [hacker culture] reconfigures technology and social relations by subverting the rules, laws, and social norms regarding the use of technology. It works in opposition to monopolistic, capitalist, statist regulation and perception of the new technologies.”[39] Hacker culture, while maybe not as cyberpunk or cypherpunk as in Hackers, has risen from a vivacious cleverness and striving for intellectual challenges amongst students, especially from MIT. The Social Network (2010, David Fincher) is a contemporary movie that redistributes that sense of adventurous experiments with emerging technology. Hackers have their ethics inspired by the notions of information sharing, freedom of inquiry, unlimited availability of (digital) tools and democratic ideals, in sheer opposition to cybercrimes, cracking, and all black hat activities.[40] Simultaneously, media depictions of hacking are frequently unjust, although not always deliberately.

As Cory Doctorow from MIT Media Lab points out: “[t]he persistence until now [until the premiere of Mr. Robot, 2015–, series – M.S.] of what the geeks call ‘Hollywood OS,’ in which computers do impossible things just to drive the plot, hasn’t just resulted in bad movies. It’s confused people about what computers can and can’t do. (…) The worst thing about WarGames [in which a teenager broke into NORAD’s mainframe, nearly causing a nuclear escalation – M.S.] – and its most profound legacy – was the reaction of panicked lawmakers. (…) The CFAA took an exceptionally broad view of what constitutes criminal ‘hacking,’ making a potential felon out of anyone who acquires unauthorized access to a computer system”.[41] Stephanie Schulte says that “the release of the film ‘WarGames’ helped merge Cold War anxieties with those involving teenage rebellion”.[42] Relatively soon after its premiere, public opinion, IT specialists and lawyers were surprised by the so-called Morris worm (1988), but this was cinema itself that strengthened law related to cybercrimes, causing penalisation (and even criminalisation) of young programmers—as was evident during the Obama administration—and had its peak in Aaron Swartz’s suicide after he was charged with thirteen felonies, the result of using his own script to download files from the JSTOR repository.[43]

Swartz’s story was depicted emphatically in The Internet’s Own Boy (2014, Brian Knappenberger). Modern documentaries are actually very committed to legitimatising hackers’ actions, but mainstream Hollywood cinema is still abundant in iniquitous representations. Hack flicks distort the image of hackers, their personality and hacking itself, which is reduced to fast typing and simply playing a game (Hackers, TRON, or Masterminds [1997, Roger Christian]). Hackers use multiple windows whose abundance is representative of the hacker’s skills; they talk with personified viruses,[44] they give nonsense explanations in which they merge random parts of IT vernacular[45] when locked in their mother’s basement with a myriad of screens, wires and bobbleheads (provoking wisecrack comments from the old guard, like John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard). The sole process of hacking is compressed and reduced to erratic typing from which multidimensional visual data or Nmap graphics emerge in order to cover the boring truth about the nature of coding. Hollywood representations eliminate not only the wearisome writing of lines of illegible code, but also software and hardware parameters or social engineering that are necessary to gain access to most accounts. Hackers are not modern sorcerers, although their depictions show the contrary. One of the most frequent and absurd sentences in hack flicks is “Hack the mainframe!”[46], hackers have supernatural computer intuition (as Stanley in Swordfish [2001, Dominic Sena]) and they are often vindictive masterminds (which is the case of Skyfall [2012, Sam Mendes], Untraceable [2008, Gregory Hoblit], GoldenEye [1995, Martin Campbell], Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol [2011, Brad Bird] and so on). And even if they are shown in a more psychologically-motivated way, filmmakers annihilate realism with a high level of aestheticization. For example, in Takedown (2000, Joe Chappelle) the process of hacking is shown through multiple exposures in which the protagonist is merely engulfed by code. Similar poetics are used in Hackers, in which film characters’ faces are changed into screens with mathematical equations on them. The film adds to that the transformation of New York into optical fibres and an embodied virus that is a half-naked man with long hair. And while Blackhat (2015, Michael Mann) tries to show code’s architecture through a simple figuration of links, wires, optical fibres and electrical impulses, TRON and TRON: Legacy (2010, Joseph Kosinsky) create autonomous worlds on the grid where duels, races and power games take place. No wonder Mr. Robot, with its social engineering, legitimate use of IT tools and jargon (ShellShock bug, onion routing, tor networking, rootkit, etc.), or accurate representations of hacker culture (more realistic and down-to-earth than the cyberpunk universe developed in Hackers) has gained words of approval not merely from critics, but also from programmers, cybersecurity professionals, and even Anonymous.[47]

The image of computers as black boxes or magical crates is dangerous [48] and leaves viewers awed when confronted with someone who recognizes deep technological structures, especially in the age of total digitalization and web 2.0. Hackers could be depicted in an even more “analogue” way—as they are in heist movies (Sneakers, The Italian Job [2003, F. Gary Gray], Swordfish, or Coin Heist [2017, Emily Hagins]), where they are often only a small part of crooks’ operations—but the black hat image remains. Hackers as antisocial, alienated, predominantly male[49] hidden figures seem to threaten society with their menacing invisibility and immanence (related to technological immanence itself). People’s privacy is identified as being most vulnerable to cyber activity; hence the popularity of ghost hacking’s motive has risen, resulting in such movies as Ghost in the Shell (1995, Mamoru Oshii, and 2017, Rupert Sanders), Inception (2011, Christopher Nolan), Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones) or even The Lawnmower Man and Johnny Mnemonic. The whistle-blowers’ activities which exposed many state or corporate abuses of privacy were a turning point in the social image of hackers, or rather hacktivists. Their pursuit of their own vision of justice, patriotism (as shown by Oliver Stone in Snowden) and freedom has gained them support as watchmen and as the last men standing.

Hackers with their subversive potential have become pop cultural icons, as is apparent in their biopics and cameos. Steve Jobs and Silicon Valley’s moguls are not the only epitome of information technology because filmmakers depict net activists juxtaposing the open source movement[50] with the corporate establishment. Takedown tells the story of Kevin Mitnick. Although based on a book by Tsutomu Shimomura, Mitnick’s main antagonist in real life, the hacker is shown ambiguously. This more understanding perspective was inspired by another book, The Fugitive Game by Jonathan Littman. Shimomura and Mitnick are shown as equal in skills and means, but with different goals. The first works for big corporations as a cybersecurity specialist, while the latter, although intrusive and invasive to the privacy of others, fights for freedom of information. The real Mitnick refused to acknowledge his crime as cracking and rather think of it as the effect of social engineering. He is now a white hat, a security consultant and pop cultural icon (appearing in Emmanuel Goldstein’s documentary Freedom Downtime (2004) and Werner Herzog’s documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016) or as the inspiration for the main protagonist of the comic book Wizzywig). Edward Snowden (Snowden, Citizenfour [2014, Laura Poitras]) or Julian Assange (Australian Underground: The Julian Assange Story [2012, Robert Connolly], The Fifth Estate [2013, Bill Condon]) are other heroes of public interest who are followed by (for the time being, only in documentaries) stories about such hacktivists as Jeremy Hammond, Aaron Swartz and so on. Even without any real characters, movies recreate Zeitgeist, conspiracy theories, the sense of living in a tech-illusion, or just a deep contempt for the unseen mechanisms elaborated by corporations or states. It remains valid regardless of narrative structure. Popular types of characters include programmers and hackers working in big, exploiatative companies (e.g. Antitrust [2001, Peter Howitt]),[51] disadvantaged rebels using computer skills as their only weapon against elites (e.g. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011, David Fincher]), people treated as a tool in cybermanipulations and living in dystopias blurring the line between reality and VR (e.g. The Matrix trilogy but also the less obvious One Point O [2004, Jeff Renfroe, Marteinn Thorsson] and the already mentioned TV series Mr. Robot[52]).

Another popular narrative arc is old versus new, in which the old guard that can be called ‘a Timex watch in a digital age’, is confronted with digital era challenges. But this conflict is artificial and maybe even vaguely compensating. Popular culture has begun to acknowledge the omnipresence of hacking and put it in the context of warfare. Unseen war is not only the set of tactics related to IW: nowadays hackers are a synecdoche of socio-political conflicts and predominant power dynamics.

 

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[1] Tor Ekeland, “Hacker Madness”, Limn 8 (2017), https://limn.it/hacker-madness/, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

[2] Tim Jordan, Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, (London: Reaktion Books) (2002), p. 120.

[3] Tim Jordan, “Hacking and power: Social and technological determinism in the digital age”, First Monday, 14:7 (2009), http://firstmonday.org/article/viewArticle/2417/2240, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

[4] Tim Jordan, Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism, (Cambridge–Malden: Polity Press) (2008), p. 1.

[5] Annika Richterich, Karin Wenz, “Introduction: Making and Hacking”, Digital Culture & Society 3:1 (2017), p. 8.

[6] Tim Jordan (2009).

[7] This article describes Hollywood cinema and American cases of hacking due to the range of the phenomenon, but other countries with notorious hackers recreate their stories in pop culture, e.g. 23 (1998, Hans-Christian Schmid) and Who Am I. No System Is Safe (2014, Baran bo Odar) succeeded in German box office and Deutschland 83 (2015–) is a national TV hit due to the fame of Chaos Computer Club and Klaus Koch.

[8] Jerry Holkins, Mike Krahulik, “Penny Arcade”, http://pennyarcade.wikia.com/wiki/July_16,_2007, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[9] Kung Fury (2015, David Sandberg), an homage to the 80s poetics, had a wide web advertising, for example video Kung Fury: Hackerman – How to Hack Time in which we can find grid, computer disk (“First off you need a lot of ram… at least 256 kb” which is commented: “But remember – with great processing power came great responsibility”) and even the Power Glove, a pre-haptic accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEkrWRHCDQU, date accessed: 1 April 2017).

[10] One of the YouTube users commented accurately the compilation of the 80s hack flicks: “The fast track method to become an 80’s computer hacker. You’ll need… 1) – A can of Pepsi 2) – A poster of Michelle Pfeiffer on the wall 3) – A pair of Walkman headphones around your neck 4) – A nervous friend looking over your right shoulder 5) – A desk lamp …Now type the words ‘Access database’. Wait for the response ‘Access denied’, and simply reply with ‘Override’. Congratulations, the world is now your oyster.” 97channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUGQHdYUIEo, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[11] In Universal Soldier: The Return alleged supercomputer creating its army has a rather primitive way of communicate his rebellious nature: “Hello Dr. Cortner. I’m ready when you are. But, on the other hand… fuck you!”

[12] S. Kumar, “How Ashley Madison hack hurt everyone, not only cheaters”, Fortune, http://fortune.com/2015/08/20/ashley-madison-hacks-cybersecurity/, date accessed: 1 April 2017. The case was mentioned in Mr. Robot by Michael whose wife asked for divorce after his romances had been disclosed.

[13] Andrea Peterson, “The Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, explained”, The Washington Posthttps://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2014/12/18/the-sony-pictures-hack-explained/?utm_term=.b7f9226e319d, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[14] Nicole Hong, “Silk Road Creator Found Guilty of Cybercrimes”, The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/silk-road-creator-found-guilty-of-cybercrimes-1423083107?mod=WSJ_hp_RightTopStories, date accessed: 1 April 2017. The scandal and other abuses connected with Dark Web were depicted in documentary Deep Web (2015, Alex Winter).

[15] Jason Meisner, “Chicago man plead guilty to ‘Celebgate’ photo hacking”, Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-celebrity-photos-hacking-plea-met-20160927-story.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[16] Danny Palmer, “What’s the difference between state-backed hackers and cybercrime gangs? Nothing at all”, ZDNet, http://www.zdnet.com/article/whats-the-difference-between-state-backed-hackers-and-cybercrime-gangs-nothing-at-all/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[17] Isaac R. Porche III, Christopher Paul, Michael York, Chad C. Serena, Jerry M. Sollinger, Elliot Axelband, Endy Y. Min, Bruce J. Held, Redefining Information Warfare Boundaries for an Army in a Wireless World, (Santa Monica–Arlington–Pittsburgh: RAND Corporation) (2013), p. XV.

[18] The White House, Office of the State Secretary, Executive Order on Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/02/12/executive-order-improving-critical-infrastructure-cybersecurity-0, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[19] Kim Zetter, “An Unprecedented Look at Stuxnet, the World’s First Digital Weapon”, Wired, https://www.wired.com/2014/11/countdown-to-zero-day-stuxnet/, date accessed: 8 April 2017. The cyberattack was depicted in documentary Zero Days (2016, Alex Gibney).

[20] Ellen Nakashima, Joby Warrick, “Stuxnet was work of U.S. and Israeli experts, officials say”, The Washington Post,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/stuxnet-was-work-of-us-and-israeli-experts-officials-say/2012/06/01/gJQAlnEy6U_story.html?utm_term=.920c5dae260b, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[21] David Shamah, “Latest viruses could mean ‘end of world as we know it,’ says man who discovered Flame”, Start-up Israel, http://www.timesofisrael.com/experts-we-lost-the-cyber-war-now-were-in-the-era-of-cyber-terror/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[22] Sonja Hohenbild, Shahriar Khonsari, Heather McMullen, and Kalea Turner-Beckman, “The Internet protection movement”, New Media Activism, http://wpmu.mah.se/nmict11group4/the-internet-protection-movement/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

[23] Andy Greenberg, “Hacker claims feds hit him with 44 felonies when he refused to be an FBI spy”, Wiredhttps://www.wired.com/2015/02/hacker-claims-feds-hit-44-felonies-refused-fbi-spy/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

[24] Jeremy Hammond, “Jeremy Hammond’s Sentencing Statement”, Indymedia UK, http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2013/11/513761.html, date accessed: 8 April 2015. His case and political agenda were shown in The Hacker Wars (2014, Vivien Lesnik Weisman).

[25] Jeff Mason, Mark Felsenthal, “Obama Disses Snowden, Says No ‘Wheeling and Dealing’ Or ‘Scrambling Jets To Get A 29-year Old Hacker”, Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/obama-not-scrambling-jets-to-get-29-year-old-hacker-2013-6?IR=T, date accessed: 1 April 2017. China, not especially legitimate for respecting human rights itself, called hypocritical – Joe Mullin, “Obama says he can’t pardon Snowden”, ArsTechnica, https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/11/obama-says-he-cant-pardon-snowden/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[26] One of the latest leaks applied to revealing CIA hacking tools: “VAULT 7: CIA Hacking Tools Revealed”, WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/ciav7p1/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[27] Exposing the Invisible, https://exposingtheinvisible.org/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[28] Rebecca Slayton, “The Paradoxical Authority of the Certified Ethical Hacker”, Limn 8 (2017), http://limn.it/preface-hacks-leaks-and-breaches/, date accessed 22 July 2017. Slayton writes that CEH “sought to appropriate the technical savvy associated with hackers and the U.S. military and intelligence agencies while distancing itself from the untrustworthy and morally suspect image of hacking” but she also quotes Swartz’s statement about CEH “alumns”: “Some ‘IT pros’ may find a few techniques to secure against well-known attacks, but the underground is always 10 steps ahead.”

[29] Tim Jordan (2009).

[30] Critical Art Ensemble, Electronic Civil Disobedience & Other Unpopular Ideas, www.critical-art.net/books/ecd, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[31] Geert Lovink, “The ABC of Tactical Media”, nettime (1997), http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9705/msg00096.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[32] Tim Jordan (2002), p. 119.

[33] Geert Lovink (1997).

[34] The paradigm of DIY is substituted with DIWO – Do It with Others – which emphasizes common goals and inclusive operations.

[35] Julian Assange, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, (New York–London: OR Books) (2012), p. 7.

[36] CULT OF THE DEAD COW, The Hacktivismo FAQ, http://www.cultdeadcow.com/cDc_files/HacktivismoFAQ.html, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

[37] Douglas Thomas, Hacker Culture, (Minneapolis–London: University of Minnesota Press) (2002), p. xx.

[38] “It’s a bio-digital jazz, man” is a quote from TRON: Legacy.

[39] Pramod K. Nayar, An Introduction to New Media and Cybercultures, (Malden–Oxford Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell) (2010), p. 100.

[40] At least in their literal, official meaning because hacktivists describe legal system as biased, corrupted, and serving elites.

[41] Cory Doctorow, “Mr. Robot Killed the Hollywood Hacker”, Technology Review, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603045/mr-robot-killed-the-hollywood-hacker/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[42] Stephanie Ricker Schulte, Cached: Decoding the Internet in Global Popular Culture, (New York–London: New York University Press) (2013), p. 28.

[43] Declan McCullagh, “From ‘WarGames’ to Aaron Swartz: How U.S. anti-hacking law went astray”, C-Net, https://www.cnet.com/news/from-wargames-to-aaron-swartz-how-u-s-anti-hacking-law-went-astray/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

[44] In the 4th episode of Mr. Robot’s season 1, few members of society watch Hackers which is criticised by Romero: “Hollywood hacker bullshit. I’ve been in this game 27 years. Not once have I come across an animated singing virus.”

[45] For example, in CSI: Cyber (2015-2016) there is a very absurd dialogue: “I’ll create a GUI interface using Visual Basic. See if I can track an IP address.” “I’ll distract her. You ping her IP.” See also: Nick Cannata-Bowman, “Why ‘CSI: Cyber’ Fails in Terms of Accuracy”, The Cheat Sheet, http://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/why-csi-cyber-fails-in-terms-of-accuracy.html/?a=viewall, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[46] “You won’t find the nuclear launch codes hidden in anything attached to Defense.gov” (Robert Evans, Caleb Eldon Brinkman, “5 Hacking Myths You Probably Believe (Thanks to Movies)”, Cracked, http://www.cracked.com/personal-experiences-1262-5-hacking-myths-you-probably-believe-thanks-to-movies.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[47] Chancellor Agard, “Why USA Network’s ‘Mr. Robot’ Is The Most Realistic Depiction Of Hacking On Television,” International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/why-usa-networks-mr-robot-most-realistic-depiction-hacking-television-2020213, date accessed: 9 April 2017. Sam Esmail hired many consultants (for example Michael Bazzell and Kor Adana) to help screenwriters with technological details. It can be seen in television that showrunners give much more attention to programming “anthropology.” There are still TV series as CSI: Cyber or Scorpion (2014–), but next to them we can observe shows that depict computer environment with reverence – Halt and Catch Fire (2014–), Sense8 (2015-2018), Person of Interest (2011-2016), and so on.

[48] The sense of insecurity is fuelled by narratives about the machines’ rebellion – as in The Matrix Trilogy, TRON and TRON: Legacy, WarGames: The Dead Code (2008, Stuart Gillard) or Storm Watch (2002, Terry Cunningham) – and almost omnipotent antagonists who use advanced technological devices in simplified way – for example in Live Free or Die Hard the villain left all country in despair with two clicks, in Eagle Eye (2008, D.J. Caruso) the offender used an everyday technology to trace and monitor her victims, and even in Sneakers characters had an ultimate weapon for hackers – a universal key which can break into all software.

[49] The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on first part of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, can initiate a new trend.

[51] Geert Lovink called them “the Army of Software” and appealed to them for rejecting Finazism (see: Franco Berardi, Geert Lovink, “A call to the Army of Love and to the Army of Software”, Net Critique, http://networkcultures.org/geert/2011/10/12/franco-berardi-geert-lovink-a-call-to-the-army-of-love-and-to-the-army-of-software/, date accessed: 8 April 2017).

[52] Elliot’s mental illness emphasises the schizoid character of modernity which is best depicted in the last episode of the first season – Elliott is standing in front of neon American flag in Times Square full of society supporters after talking with projections of his mind.

Emergent International Humanitarian Law in the Context of Cyber Warfare

Ivory Mills

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 78-99.

 

Ivory Mills

Northwestern University

 

Emergent International Humanitarian Law in the Context of Cyber Warfare

 

Abstract

Over the last decade, actors throughout the international community have begun to engage in information operations (IO)—the use of information technology such as computer network attacks to influence, disrupt, corrupt, usurp, or defend information systems and the infrastructure they support. Current international humanitarian law fails to address the challenges that arise from technological advancements, often lacking consideration of the many non-state actors actively involved Additionally, and arguably most importantly, it is unclear whether cyber-attacks constitute the use of force put forth in the UN Charter. Examining recent changes in technology, the increased presence of non-state actors, a decade’s worth of cyber-attacks, and recent developments in domestic and international law, it becomes clear that the existing legal framework is inadequate and necessitates further consensus building and negotiation across the international community.

Key words: cyber war, international humanitarian law, information operations, information technology, cyber attacks

 

 

Introduction

 

As the development and pervasiveness of information and communication technologies (ICTs) continues to increase, individuals, organizations, and nations continually find new, unanticipated, and often unlawful ways to use them. Over the last decade actors throughout the international community have begun to engage in information operations (IO) or cyber-attacks. “Information operations are the integrated employment of electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, military deception, and operations security, in concert with specified supported and related capabilities to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp adversarial human and automated decision-making while protecting [y]our own”.[i] Computers control most infrastructure, including telecommunication networks, water supplies, electrical grids, oil storage and transport networks, banking and financial systems, and emergency services.[ii] Given their widespread capabilities and scope, such computers and technological networks are ideal for use as weapons and targets of information operations.       

Because the technology is mostly inexpensive, widely available, and deployable from virtually anywhere, cyber-attacks are highly attractive to state and non-state actors. Moreover, their threats and consequences are disconcerting, as they have the potential to disable a country’s infrastructure, destroy financial systems and data, and disrupt national communications systems, amongst other things. But the technologies and their uses have dramatically outpaced the laws and policies that govern them in international conflict. As such, national and international governing bodies have struggled to adapt and integrate existing laws and practices to this novel phenomenon. There is continued disagreement about if and how international humanitarian law governing the use of force, jus ad bellum, applies to information operations. This paper explores emergent international humanitarian law (IHL) of information operations, highlighting how new technologies, recent events, and multiple stakeholders have complicated the understanding and application of IHL in this context. It discusses the opportunities and threats that have emerged and details the considerations that must be made to establish adequate and effective law to regulate cyber war in the modern, globalized, multistakeholder regulatory environment. Finally, utilizing a constructivist approach to IHL, it posits that its existing laws are inadequate for the current international system and puts forth an interdisciplinary approach necessary to address the complex challenge of developing a rule of law to govern cyber war in the international community that binds the relevant actors with mechanisms that the vested stakeholders will abide by and buy into.

What’s new?

Technology

 

The threat of cyber war is the result of the growth and development of the information society. Perhaps, the most significant aspect of the information society is the rapid and expansive development of information and communication technologies (ICTs). These technological advancements provide continuous access to information and data and unprecedented interconnection across all aspects of society. Given the history of the internet (initially developed for and by the U.S. military), it is no surprise that military organizations continue to take advantage and often lead the charge in developing and advancing ICTs, and utilizing these technologies in their strategic and tactical exploits to further national security. Additionally, cyberspace has become a critical battleground due to the economic and geopolitical implications of increased access and connectivity, and the pervasiveness and vulnerability of the technologies.

In 1969, the US military developed ARPANET, a program to facilitate communication between the Department of Defense, its contractors, and universities. As ARPANET evolved into the internet, it quickly spread to industry and the consumer public, utilizing increasingly available telecommunication mediums, such as telephone lines, microwave relays, and satellite uplinks. And as fibre optic cables, transistors, and microchips were developed, the internet and ICTs rapidly diffused throughout the world. Consequently, multiple actors (individuals, states, corporations, non-state actors) gained access to create and deploy programs, code, or mechanisms that influence, disrupt, corrupt, usurp, or defend information systems and infrastructure. Recognizing the threats resulting from these technologies, states began developing offensive and defensive cyber war technologies.

In this new battlefield, cyber weapons are classified into three categories: syntactic attacks, semantic attacks, and mixed attacks.[iii] Syntactic attacks acts modify the logic of computer operating systems to introduce delays and or make the system act in unpredictable ways.[iv] Examples of syntactic attacks include malicious code, denial of service, and hacking. Malicious code is a programmatic language designed to damage or infiltrate computer files and programs. Sometimes it replicates system files and has the potential to cause huge economic damage by crashing the entire host system. Viruses are files that enter a computer system and, once opened, they corruptand destroys computers, sometimes to the point of making the entire computer inoperable.[v] Lastly, hacking is breaking into a computer and altering its operating system by bypassing the security functions.

In contrast, semantic attacks target the accuracy of information the user has access to, which appears to the owner/operator to work be working normally.[vi] Semantic attacks can utilize the infiltrated systems to control the information contained on government and military sites, and cause serious problems on connected systems. They have been used to feed false data to industries and infrastructural operations, causing a shutdown of electrical power, air traffic controls, and emergency response systems. Such disruptions on a wide scale basis could cause panic and unrest.

The isolated and combined use of syntactic and semantic attacks, which disable critical operational systems and feed disinformation, could result in numerous destructive social, political, and economic scenarios, including but not limited to critical public and private critical national infrastructures.[vii] The use of new technologies in this emergent battlefield not only has significant economic and political consequences, but also the potential to cause widespread physical destruction and social unrest.

Events

 

In addition to, or in light of, the development of these new technologies, actors throughout the international community have found novel and often unanticipated ways to utilize the technologies in social and political realms. Consequently, as history has demonstrated, law has emerged because of a series of unfortunate events. In this case, governments, individuals, organizations, and other non-state actors have employed ICT technologies in information operations. And while there have not been any insurmountable or global cyber-attacks to date, there have been some which—for the victim states—were significant.

Israel-Hezbollah “July War” of 2006

 

In February 2005, Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated, resulting in mass protests.[viii] Based on speculation that the new government would demilitarize Hezbollah and rumours that Israel would strike Lebanon, Hezbollah took pre-emptive action, killing three and kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and launching several short-range rocket attacks against Israel. Israel responded with a massive attack, damaging a significant amount of Lebanese infrastructure and killing over 1,000 civilians, but failing to demilitarize Hezbollah. Throughout the course of these ground and air attacks, both sides used cyber war tactics to support their kinetic efforts.

The Israelis conducted denial of service attacks on Hezbollah’s television station, while Hezbollah hackers allegedly gained access to the networks of Israeli Defense Force units at the Lebanese border.[ix] Additionally, Hezbollah integrated a “cyber psychological operation” (CYOP) into their military strategy. CYOP is the use of cyber operations to directly attack and influence the attitudes and behaviours of soldiers and the general population.[x] With this strategy, the attackers used credible political and military power to get attention and project information power, thus shaping the information environment of the conflict.

In response to Hezbollah’s CYOP, many of Israel’s Western allies banned Hezbollah’s websites. Unable to utilize their legitimate site, Hezbollah hijacked IP addresses of corporations around the world to ensure that their messages were successfully transmitted to the intended recipients—the general public, the Israeli public, and anti-Hezbollah individuals, organizations, or states.[xi] IP hijacking transmits information from one location to another through a series of routers. This strategic manoeuvre of utilizing non-combatant IP addresses allowed Hezbollah to maintain the communication of their strategic message.

This instance creates unique and timely challenges for understanding the role of international humanitarian law in cyberwar. These attacks by Hezbollah raise the question of whether or not nonstate actors could commit acts of war?

Estonia 2007

 

On April 27, 2007, the Estonian government completed long-held plans to relocate a national monument. Initially installed by the USSR in 1944 to honour Soviet soldiers who died during WWII. Significantly opposed by the Russian population of Estonia, the relocation sparked a series of protests in Tallinn. Thus in 2007, Estonia became the first state victim of an overt and coordinated assault on its telecommunications networks.[xii] At the beginning of the protests, there was an internet post in a public forum, giving instructions for participating in a distributed denial of service attacks against Estonian government systems.[xiii] While the riots and protests in the streets of Tallinn had subsided, on the internet there was an ongoing, multifaceted campaign of denial and disruption.

For three weeks, Estonian websites were flooded with data requests from thousands of computers in increasingly larger waves. The requests first knocked out government websites, including, but not limited to those of the Prime Minister and the President, the Justice Ministry, and the Foreign Ministry.[xiv] Eventually, the attacks spread to daily newspapers, broadcast television, internet service providers, hospitals, banks, universities, and public service providers, disabling emergency phones for fire and paramedic services for an hour.[xv] Over a million computers were infected with botnet viruses.[xvi] Eventually, Estonian officials produced evidence suggesting that the Russian government was involved in these attacks. But there was little recourse for Estonia in the international community via diplomatic or legal avenues.

Iran (Stuxnet) 2010

 

In 2010, a 500-kilobyte computer worm was discovered as it invaded computers around the world. The virus was especially sophisticated, including a specific attack vector limited to certain computers.[xvii] Now commonly known as Stuxnet, the virus was used to infect at least 14 industrial sites in Iran, allowing its creators to spy on the systems and causing the machines on site to tear themselves apart, despite the efforts of their human operators.[xviii] Stuxnet was very precise, inflicting little to no damage on any person, place, or system other than the target, a rarity in the context of war. Like other modern ICTs, the perpetrator’s identity remains anonymous (despite continued speculation and suggestion that the United States was responsible). These distinctions are especially important when trying to understand the role of IHL in regulating cyber-attacks. Like new war technologies of the past, cyberwar technologies challenge the common notions and understandings of battle: if the perpetrator remains anonymous, who is the attack attributed to? If the attack travels around the world before reaching its target, who has jurisdiction? Because these attacks can be more precise than other weapons, do the responses have to be as exact to meet the necessity and proportionality requirements of IHL?

These attacks represent a few particularly significant instances of information operations, but are not, by any means, representative of the scope, scale, or number of attacks that have occurred.

New Stakeholders: Non-state Actors

 

Because of the nature of information operations, non-state actors are now empowered to exploit and undermine IHL because they make it impossible to compartmentalize the battlefield and single out with sufficient clarity who the military targets are. The law of war and the use of force have traditionally governed conflict between nation states. With the insertion of hacktivists, terrorists, and other non-traditional actors in war, it is unclear how victim states respond, who is responsible, what the consequences can and will be. There are some arenas in international law that recognize the importance of non-state actors; however, in the perpetually unresolved regulation of information operations, no such policy statements have been made by international bodies. Instead, non-state actors responsible for cyber-attacks are often considered cyber criminals, in violation of domestic cybercrimes, or even less justiciable, as nuisances.

For example, Anonymous is a collective, politically motivated hacking group with a core of highly skilled IT personnel that has demonstrated its willingness to conduct operations against government and military-affiliated Web sites.[xix] The collective is featured in the media nearly every week for claiming to be or being found responsible for cyber-attacks against governments and corporations.[xx] Anonymous has led efforts to publish sensitive national security information contained by government and government-contracted private actors.[xxi] For example, the term “anti-security” refers to a movement to counter government efforts to increase cyber-security. Such information operations by individuals, hacking groups, and terrorist organizations have proven especially difficult for victim nations and corporations, since international humanitarian law applies to states and the perpetrated attacks often occur in multiple jurisdictions, by multiple people, and may not cause as much damage as the international community would deem necessary to constitute a use of force.

Resultant Debates & Issues

 

These technologies, events, and new actors involved in information operations have dramatically altered the regulatory landscape. They have resulted in a variety of opportunities and threats, as well as debates about utilizing, altering, or developing international humanitarian law in the context of cyber war.

Attribution

 

The technologies and non-state actors in the context of information operations gives rise to a long-held debate about attribution. Attribution in IHL is “the means by which responsibility for illegal acts or omissions are attached to the state”.[xxii] There are concepts of both direct and indirect responsibility when determining attribution. Under direct responsibility, states are liable if their direct acts or omissions led to harm, if the actor acted on behalf of the state or state agent, or if the state has control over non-state actors.[xxiii] Indirect responsibility, on the other hand, finds states liable when there is no underlying link between the actor and the state, and is often applied in the context of terrorism.[xxiv]

International humanitarian law governs state action, and state responsibility depends on attribution. But cyber-attacks challenge the notion of attribution because the wrongful act appears to be ascribed to a computer by location; and if not the computer, then by the non-state actors, who are beyond the legal scope and definition of a state. According to the Tallinn manual, the fact that a cyber operation has its source in governmental infrastructure is not sufficient to attribute these acts to that State, but instead it constitutes an indication that a State is associated with the cyber operations.[xxv] In contrast, international law scholars Shackelford and Andres argue for a more flexible standard of responsibility for cyber-attacks because it is so difficult to prove the identify of attackers. These ongoing debates and the changes that shaped them lead to more questions and conversations that must be addressed legally and practically.

In determining to whom attribute a cyber-attack, security analysts look at from where (from what IP address) the software/attack came; how, when, and by whom the software was constructed; and what the software was designed to do. But answering these questions is much more challenging than it may seem, not only because the internet is so expansive, but also because cyber attackers work diligently to hide information about the origins of an attack. Even if an analyst could reverse engineer the software, the IP address could be faked or could have been rerouted through many different physical locations. Moreover, the source IP may contain malicious software that could prevent tracing or that could infect an analyst’s computer, completely disrupting the investigative process.[xxvi] Thus, victim states, corporations, and individuals can rarely, if ever, be sure that they’ve correctly determined the source of an information attack. Thus, unless the attacker claims responsibility, it is nearly impossible to determine with 100% certainty who is responsible for a cyber-attack.

In the Estonia case discussed above, attribution was a critical challenge to IHL and a very early demonstration of its limitations as currently conceived. The Estonian government claimed that they were victims of a cyber-attack—a novel and unregulated type of warfare by Russia; however, the international community responded with little urgency. Despite the U.S.’s position that cyber warfare is a top priority and ‘fair game’ in international politics, its officials wrote of the events in Estonia as a “cyber riot”. Similarly, NATO’s response to Estonia’s calls for assistance from the international community was limited and did not provide any recourse. Besides the claims from Estonia, no state actor vocally placed blame on Russia, be it for evidentiary or geopolitical reasons. Eventually, NATO assembled a group of legal scholars and lawyers to create the Tallinn Manual to interpret how existing legal principles applied to cyber war. Nevertheless, it remained unclear to the Estonian government and the international community whether the cyber-attacks endured were regarded as an act of war that warranted a proportional response (kinetic or otherwise).

Authority

 

Another critical challenge in the context of modern information operations is that of authority. Essentially, the question that emerges is whether international humanitarian law has legitimate governing purview to make and impose laws in cyberspace. By definition, authority is the sense in which a person who has power can get others to act in particular ways. Practically speaking, a state is considered to have authority if it maintains public order and makes laws that are generally obeyed by its citizens.[xxvii] While it has been widely accepted that international humanitarian law governs, is less clear how legitimate and effective its authority is on states. This becomes even less clear when looking at the undeterred and even emboldened nature of non-state actors involved in conducting cyber-attacks, as well as in the failure of the international community to come to a consensus on its modus operandi regarding information operations conducted by states against other states.

In the Israel-Hezbollah case discussed earlier, Hezbollah’s hacking of the Israeli Defense Force units and their use of CYOP to shape the information environment by utilizing non-combatant IP addresses to gain credible political and military power highlights the challenges of understanding authority in this context. While Hezbollah is not a legitimate state, it has historically exercised widespread and significant military, economic, and political authority. Furthermore, it repeatedly engages in kinetic warfare. Nevertheless, as it adapts to the emerging landscape that includes cyber weapons, it still is unclear whether its (or any other terrorist organization) actions are governed by IHL. Some might argue that they have the authority to be considered a state, but many others would staunchly disagree. These debates and their continued negotiations are represented in the existing international and domestic laws detailed in the following section.

Existing law

 

The dynamic nature of this issue has a variety of implications and draws influence from both national and international laws and practices that lead to the development of legal norms, which—at best–continue to be ineffective and incoherent.

International law

 

The biggest conflict in the debate of IO regulation is whether a cyber-attack constitutes an armed use of force. This question shapes the emergence of international law and practice because it determines if the conduct of an information operations rises to the thresholds described in the UN Charter, which in turn determines how states can act and react.

Use of force derives its meaning from the UN Charter. Article 2(4) states, “[a]ll Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or [armed] use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”.[xxviii] Subsequently, Article 51 articulates that “[n]othing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations”.[xxix] It is generally agreed that Article 51 carves out an exception to Article 2(4)’s prohibition of force. With respect to IO, these provisions raise several questions. First, are there certain cyber-attacks that constitute a use of force as articulated by the Charter? If so, what is the distinction? Second, could a cyber-attack provide the victim state the right to use kinetic force in response, and still meet the necessity and proportionality requirements of IHL?

The Charter Articles acknowledge that national sovereignty underscores international humanitarian law.[xxx] When a State’s conduct rises to the threshold, the law of armed conflict applies. As such, an unlawful armed use of force justifies countermeasures. But even before technology existed to facilitate information operations, not all aggressive acts would amount to an unlawful use of armed force. It is also widely acknowledged that Article 51’s “armed attack” is a narrower category of actions than “use of force” and typically requires some sort of physical damage to persons or property.[xxxi]

Customary law, guided by the Nuclear Weapons Advisory Opinion issued by the International Court of Justice, suggests that Article 2(4) applies to “any use of force, regardless of the weapons employed.[xxxii] Additionally, Article 36 of Additional Protocol I articulates that states that develop new weapons or methods of warfare have an affirmative duty to determine if its use would be prohibited.[xxxiii] Thus, it is argued that IO can be governed by analogy to existing international law of war. Despite all this, it remains unclear if, when, and how these concepts apply to information operations for a variety of reasons, including attribution, imminence, and geography.

As mentioned above, in response to the ongoing confusion, NATO formed an International Group of Experts, which set out 95 non-binding black letter rules in the Tallinn Manual on International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare.[xxxiv] The manual examines how extant legal norms apply to this new form of warfare, detailing the ways international customs, as understood by these scholars, apply to cyberwar.[xxxv]

While the manual is not a binding legal authority, its comprehensive nature does provide an authority which demonstrates how customary law could apply and provides the framework for a legitimate binding agreement. Whether it becomes enacted as law or not, it is undisputed that the jus ad bellum principle could apply to information operations. However, when and how it applies gives rise to another historical divide over the UN Charter’s interpretation and demonstrates the challenges to building international consensus.

In addition to trying to understand the applicability of jus ad bellum to cyber war, it is important to understand how and when it applies. The dominant view among scholars is that if the effects or consequences of state-sponsored cyber intrusions are sufficiently damaging, international humanitarian law should govern and recourse to armed force may be justified against states responsible.

Professor M.N. Schmitt argues, “as the nature of a hostile act becomes less determinative of its consequences, current notions of “lawful” coercive behaviour by states, and the appropriate responses thereto, are likely to evolve accordingly”.[xxxvi] He highlights the areas of uncertainty and disagreement in the legal analysis, but asserts that “attack” is a term of prescriptive shorthand meant to address the consequences.[xxxvii] The provisions of the UN Charter seek to shield protected individuals from injury or death and to protect objects from damage or destruction, so the consequences are sufficient if they cause significant human suffering, not merely diminished quality of life. U.S. policy advisor, Howard Koh, takes a similar stance, asserting that international law principles apply to cyber war and, under some circumstances, can constitute a use of force within the meaning of Article 2(4).[xxxviii]

National Laws

 

While international law continues to be a contentious topic and its application to cyber war is unresolved, the division over the Charter’s interpretation becomes increasingly clear in the development of national policies and practices. Many states have developed policies for information operations that in one way or another determine when another government’s cyber operations constitute an armed use of force and legally justify a response. In 2012, the UN Institute for Disarmament Research found that 114 of 193 states have developed national cyber-security programs.[xxxix] Of these programs, 47 include a role for the armed forces, with 12 of the 15 largest spenders having or developing cyber warfare units and 10 developing offensive cyber warfare capabilities.[xl]

These policies and practices serve as important sources of law for the individual states, but also help shape the emerging international response since repeated practices over time can form customary international law.[xli] Thus, the strategies these state actors employ in their development and implementation drives the development of law. “Strategy generates reappraisal and revision of law, while law itself shapes strategy”.[xlii]

Unites States

 

Historically, the US and its allies have understood Article 2(4)’s prohibition of force and Article 51’s right to self-defence to apply to military or armed violence.[xliii] However, the emergent US views lie in the middle of the traditional debate, as they try to account for the destructive potential of cyber operations without dramatically expanding the Charter’s scope.[xliv] There are obviously a variety of interests competing for prevalence in the US approach: military capabilities, civilian infrastructure, the private sector, intelligence collection, and international cooperation.

In efforts to balance these interests, the US Department of Defense’s (DoD) Law of War Manual XVI details its national approach and understanding of existing international principles. This document asserts, “as a doctrinal matter, DoD has recognized cyberspace as an operational domain in which the armed forces must be able to defend and operate, just like the land, sea, air, and space domains”.[xlv] Further, it articulates the following policies, which seemingly interpret and integrate customary international law into domestic law:

“When no more specific law of war rule or other applicable rule applies, law of war principles provide a general guide for conduct during cyber operations in armed conflict.”[xlvi] The DoD claims that the law of war anticipates technological innovation, including cyber operations so cyber operations may in certain situations constitute a use of force within the meaning of Article 2(4). It defends this position by analogizing the effects resulting from information operations to those of kinetic operations. Essentially, if the effects of cyber operations are regarded as a use of force if resulting from kinetic warfare, it can be regarded as a use of force.[xlvii] Additionally, a state’s right to self-defence, recognized in Article 51, may be triggered by cyber operations that amount to armed attack or imminent threat thereof.

Furthermore, the U.S. is considering a cyber-security strategy that may include anticipatory cyber-strikes, designed under certain circumstances to knock out adversaries’ computer systems and networks perceived as hostile. This strategy suggests that in addition to the more traditional military defence and deterrence strategies just described, the U.S. government may also be considering legal interpretations flexible enough to permit its own offensive cyber-operations below a certain threshold or against inchoate hostile cyber-activities.

In addition to these policies, the U.S. has demonstrated its interest and priorities in practice by militarizing its response to cyber-attacks through Cyber Command, bringing together the cyber components of the Navy, Marine Corp, Army and Air Force into a unified command structure.[xlviii] These policies and practices highlight the national interests—interests that will undeniably shape emergent international law since the US is working internationally to clarify how these principles apply to information operations. As described by Robert Keohane and other liberal institutionalists, this is an example of powerful states creating laws that suit their interests and attempting to set an international agenda that aligns with said interests. However, because there is no single hegemonic nation in the world (despite the pervasive military capabilities of the US), to date there has not been sufficient buy-in to make this effective and legitimate law or practice.

European Union

 

Almost all European Union member states have adopted a national cyber security strategy or mention it as an aspect of their national security strategy, putting structures in place to deal with cyber threats.[xlix] Fifteen member states include a military perspective of cyber defence, but only a few admit to investing in cyber war technologies. In 2011, cyber defence was included among the policy priorities of the European Defence Agency and, in 2012, member states agreed to using the military to lead cyber defence efforts.

In Denmark’s Defence Agreement for 2013–2017, it establishes a Centre for Cyber Security and strengthens its cyber warfare capabilities to be able to execute both offensive and defensive military operations in cyberspace.[l] In 2013, Finland announced that it would develop cyber-defence weapons, create comprehensive cyber defence capability, and establish a cyber defence unit.[li] France’s 2011 strategy contains strategies to become a global power in cyber defence, safeguard its ability to make decisions through the protection of sovereignty information, strengthen the security of its critical infrastructure, and ensure security in cyberspace.[lii] Furthermore, France has developed offensive and defensive capabilities and has units within its armed forces focused on both cyber war and defence.[liii]

Russia

 

Strategically, Russia has asserted its interest in cyber warfare, stating that “by using information warfare methods to attack an adversary’s centres of gravity and critical vulnerabilities it is possible to win against an opponent, military as well as politically, at a low cost without necessarily occupying the territory of the enemy”.[liv] Its Military Doctrine of 2010 notes the importance of information warfare during the initial phase of a conflict to weaken the command and control ability of the opponent and in the form of an information campaign during the actual battle to create a positive view within the international community.

China

 

According to Chinese scholar, Li Zhang, the Chinese stance is that the current UN Charter and other existing laws of armed conflict apply in cyberspace.[lv] But how to apply jus ad bellum may require the creation of new rules or the revision and clarification of existing international rules so that they can apply in cyberspace. China highlights the novelty of the technology and the trends of the international community in its considerations.[lvi] Furthermore, China has invested in personnel and information infrastructure for cyber warfare. Moreover, in addition to People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) operators, PLA’s Unit 61398, there is a large network of volunteer Militia Information Technology Battalions, or ‘net militia units’, recruited from civilian talent pools.[lvii]

This discussion highlights the varied perspectives and approaches nations are taking to deal with this new issue. Some of which are limited to national law, while others reference, translate, or disavow IHL. These policies and practices demonstrate the interests and actions of individual nations, but also shape international humanitarian law through diplomacy and international relations. Still, there is no rule of IHL or consensus across nations that provides recourse and enforcement for acts of cyber war that have, and will continue to occur.

Towards a Legitimate IHL

 

Both scholarly debates and responses to recent events suggest existing international humanitarian law does not adequately regulate information operations: they do not fit the phenomenon, their translations create uncertainty, and they lack enforcement mechanisms. Most notably, however, the existing laws are inadequate because they don’t definitively identify a rigidly defined problem based on consensus building and negotiation across the international system. These failures make it impossible to determine what the law is, when actions can constitute a use of force, and what the legal response is.

The Role of Law

 

Developing effective and legitimate IHL to govern cyber warfare seems nearly impossible when considering the history of international law, the complexities that have arisen in the current system, and the characteristics of the internet. Despite this however, there is a necessary void that IHL must consider and fill, based on the role of law as a social construction that is larger than existing liberal institutions, and that must adapt and evolve as necessary.

Law is manmade. It is a social construction that serves the needs and desires of those who make it.[lviii] It is a mechanism of control and a tool of social organization, allowing the community to which it belongs to express what is just and right and to punish and/or criminalize what is wrong, unwanted, or unacceptable.[lix] It determines the way its constituents behave and details the minimum standards of behaviour of an individual in his/her interactions with others in the community.[lx] It works to support human and societal desires for certainty, security, predictability, and stability by providing rigid and defined standards[lxi]; however, it is also malleable, able to be adjusted as morals, values, needs, and times change within the realm that it serves.

International law consists of the rule of conduct for states in their relations with other states. Most notably, in distinction from national laws, it is only binding if nations accept it because the notion of sovereignty implies freedom from control and irresponsibility for action. In international law, there is no centralized authority or control over the entire community, so “in too many cases, both international law and international legal procedures are either ignored by states or are distorted by the parties to further their own interest”.[lxii]

In the context of cyber war, the role of law seems to get lost in conversations about all that is new and changing. First, in this context, which has always lacked stability and clarity, the law can serve to establish standards. Throughout history, law has served as a guide for minimally acceptable behaviour. While the various stakeholders involved in cyber war prevention and enforcement all work toward the same goal, because there is no widely accepted or binding agreement of what constitutes cyber-attacks, they are all working from different starting points and with different understandings. By establishing a standard, law can harmonize the terminology used across the international community, as well as the efforts and foci of enforcement. To date, several nations have worked to set an agenda for regulating cyber war and information operation for the international community, as liberal institutionalists would argue must occur. None have succeeded. Until there is consensus between these disjointed national approaches that thoroughly identifies and legitimizes the problem, the novelties of the technologies and the actors will continue to limit the efficacy of IHL.

In addition to establishing standards for behaviour and harmonizing terminology across the international community, the next most crucial component of an effective IHL response to information operations is compliant state action. As demonstrated in the discussion of national laws in part III, states have already begun to put forth their understanding of how IHL applies in the context of cyber war; as states continue to make policy statements and respond to threats and challenges, the scope and scale of IHL will become clear.

Compliance with the Law

 

In addition to states putting forth their customary practices and policy statements, one more concern within this discussion is whether states will comply with this emergent international humanitarian law. According to Louis Henkin’s How Nation’s Behave, “almost all nations observe all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time”.[lxiii] In addition, scholars of international law and relations have substantiated this claim using empirical studies, which tend to confirm “not only that nations obey international law most of the time, but also that, to a surprising extent, even the noncomplying gradually come back into compliance over time with previously violated international legal norms”.[lxiv] Even as the international community has dramatically transformed, international customs are still largely obeyed.[lxv]

Scholarship suggests that despite the changes, developing technologies, and broadened scope of stakeholders, compliance is still likely because it results almost entirely from the functional benefits it provides; most agree that a functioning and peaceful international society is much more beneficial than a belligerent one. Harold Koh’s exploration of why nations comply with international law includes discussion of changing landscapes, actors, and technologies.[lxvi] He suggests that in transnational legal processes, public and private actors interact to make, interpret, internalize, and enforce rules of transnational law, concluding that compliance with international law is more than likely to occur, even as everything around it seems to change. Thus, once consensus building occurs and the national and international communities agree, IHL will be more legitimate, more efficacious, and the community will be more likely to comply.

Conclusion

 

New technologies, recent events, and non-state participation have increasingly complicated the understanding and application of IHL in the context of cyber war. It is these new developments—coupled with international and national policies—that work collectively to negotiate emergent IHL and to determine whether, to what extent, and in what instances information operations constitute a use of armed force and how IHL applies. While this emergent law will come into being in contentious fashion (as consensus building often does), it will be binding and legitimate, encouraging most, if not all, to eventually comply.

 

References:

 

Brenner, Susan W., and Marc D. Goodman. “In defense of cyberterrorism: An argument for anticipating cyber-attacks.” U. Ill. JL Tech. & Pol’y (2002): 1.

Center, Joint Warfighting. Joint Task Force commander’s handbook for peace operations. Books Llc, 2012.

Charter, U. N. “Charter of the United Nations.” June 26 (1945): 59.

Cirlig, Carmen-Cristina. Cyber Defence in the EU: Preparing for Cyber Warfare?. European Parliamentary Research Service, 2014.

Dunlap Jr, Charles J. “Perspectives for cyber strategists on law for cyberwar.” Strategic Studies Quarterly 5 (2011): 81.

Eichensehr, Kristen. “Cyberwar & International Law Step Zero.” (2015).

Emerging Cyber Threats and Russian Views on Information Warfare and Information Operations (2010).

Finland National Cyber Security Strategy (2013).

Foltz, Andrew C. Stuxnet, Schmitt Analysis, and the Cyber Use of Force Debate. Air War College Maxwell Air Force Base United States, 2012.

Grosswald, Levi. “Cyberattack Attribution Matters Under Article 51 of the UN Charter.” Brook. J. Int’l L. 36 (2010): 1151.

Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Preamble, Oct. 18, 1907, 36 Stat. 2277, 1 Bevans 631.

Hathaway, Oona A., et al. “The Law of Cyber-Attack’(2012).” California Law Review 100: 817.

Henkin, Louis. How Nations Behave. 2d ed. (Columbia University Press) (1979).

Henkin, Louis. “International human rights as rights.” Cardozo L. Rev. 1 (1979): 425.

Hoffmann, Stanley. “International systems and international law.” World Politics 14.1 (1961): 205-237.

Hollis, David, Cyberwar Case Study: Georgia 2008, Small Wars Journal (2008).

Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-13 Information Operations (2012).

Jonasi, Lucky. “A critical analysis of the applicability of international humanitarian law in the context of cyber warfare.” (2014).

Kaiser, Robert. “The birth of cyberwar.” Political Geography 46 (2015): 11-20.

Kelsey, Jeffrey TG. “Hacking into international humanitarian law: The principles of distinction and neutrality in the age of cyber warfare.” Michigan Law Review (2008): 1427-1451.

Keohane, Robert O. “International institutions and state power.” Essays in International Relations Theory, Boulder, Colo (1989).

Keohane, Robert O., and Lisa L. Martin. “The promise of institutionalist theory.” International security 20.1 (1995): 39-51.

Kerschischnig, Georg. Cyberthreats and International Law. Eleven International Publishing, (2012).

Kirchner, Stefan. “Distributed Denial-of-Service Attacks Under Public International Law: State Responsibility in Cyberwar.” IUP Journal of Cyber Law 8 (2009).

Knake, Robert K. Internet Governance in an Age of Cyber Insecurity. No. 56. Council on Foreign Relations, (2010).

Koh, Harold Hongju, International Law in Cyberspace (2012), http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5858&context=fss_papers, date accessed 28.09.2017.

Koh, Harold Hongju. “Why do nations obey international law?.” (1997): 2599-2659.

Lacewing, Michael. Authority and Legitimacy. (Routledge) (2013); http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/alevelphilosophy/data/AS/WhyShouldIBeGoverned/Authorityandlegitimacy.pdf. date accessed 28.09.2017.

Priyanka R. Dev, “Use of Force” and “Armed Conflict” Thresholds in Cyber Conflict: The Looming Definitional Gaps and the Growing Need for Formal U.N. Response, 50 Texas Int’l L. J. 2, (2015).

Quigley, Kevin, Calvin Burns, and Kristen Stallard. “‘Cyber Gurus’: a rhetorical analysis of the language of cybersecurity specialists and the implications for security policy and critical infrastructure protection.” Government Information Quarterly 32.2 (2015).

Reich, Pauline C., et al. “Cyber warfare: a review of theories, law, policies, actual incidents–and the dilemma of anonymity.” European Journal of Law and Technology 1.2 (2010).

Rho, Jennifer J. “Blackbeards of the twenty-first century: Holding cybercriminals liable under the alien tort statute.” Chi. J. Int’l L. 7 (2006): 695.

Richardson, John. “Stuxnet as cyberwarfare: applying the law of war to the virtual battlefield.” J. Marshall J. Computer & Info. L. 29 (2011): 1.

Schmitt, Michael N., ed. Tallinn manual on the international law applicable to cyber warfare. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Shakarian, Paulo, Jana Shakarian, and Andrew Ruef. Introduction to cyber-warfare: A multidisciplinary approach. Newnes, 2013.

Tallinn Manual on the international law applicable to cyber warfare 2013. (2013).

Tsagourias, Nicholas. “Cyber attacks, self-defence and the problem of attribution.” Journal of Conflict and Security Law 17.2 (2012): 229-244.

UNIDIR, The Cyber Index: International Security Trends and Realities (2013).

US Department of Defense law of war manual: an update. (2015).

Waxman, Matthew C. “Cyber-attacks and the use of force: Back to the future of article 2 (4).” (2011).

Zhang, Li. A Chinese Perspective on Cyber War, International Review of the Red Cross (2012).

 

 

[i] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-13 Information Operations (2012).

[ii] Jennifer J. Rho, Blackbeards of the Twenty-First Century: Holding Cybercriminals Liable under the Alien Tort Statute, 7 CHI. J. INT’L L. 695 (2007).

[iii]Jennifer J. Rho, p.139.

[iv] Jennifer J. Rho, p.139.

[v] Jennifer J. Rho, p.139.

[vi] Jennifer J. Rho, p.140.

[vii] Susan W. Brenner & Marc D. Goodman, In Defense of Cyberterrorism: An Argument for Anticipating Cyberattacks, 2002 U. ILL. J. L. Tech. & Pol’y 1, (2002), pp. 40-41.

[viii] Paulo Shakarian, Jana Shakarian, Andrew Ruel, Introduction to Cyber-Warfare: A Multidisciplinary Approach (2013).

[ix] Paulo Shakarian…, p.78.

[x] Paulo Shakarian…, p.79.

[xi] Paulo Shakarian…, p.81.

[xii] David Hollis, Cyberwar Case Study: Georgia 2008, Small Wars Journal (2008).

[xiii] Paulo Shakarian…, p.50.

[xiv] David Hollis, p.1025.

[xv] David Hollis, p.1025.

[xvi] Bots and Botnets – A Growing Threat, http://us.norton.com/botnet/ , (2016). A “bot” is a type of malware that allows an attacker to take control of an affected computer. Also known as “web robots,” bots are usually part of a network of infected machines, known as a “botnet”, which is typically made up of victim machines that stretch across the globe. Since the bot infected computer does the bidding of its master, many people refer to these victim machines as “zombies.” The cyber criminals that control these bots are called botherders or botmasters. Some botnets might have a few hundred or a couple thousand computers, but others have tens and even hundreds of thousands of zombies at their disposal. Many of these computers are infected without their owners’ knowledge.”

[xvii] John Richardson, Stuxnet as Cyberwarfare: Applying the Law of War to the Virtual Battlefield. J. Marshall J. Computer & Info. L. 1 (2011-2012), p.29.

[xviii] John Richardson, p.3.

[xix] Paulo Shakarian…, p.135.

[xx] Paulo Shakarian…, p.160.

[xxi] Paulo Shakarian…, p.167.

[xxii] Levi Grosswald, Cyberattack Attribution Matters Under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, 36 Brook. J. Int’l L. (2011), p. 1154.

[xxiii] Levi Grosswald, p. 1154.

[xxiv] Levi Grosswald, p. 1154.

[xxv] Tallinn Manual on the international law applicable to cyber warfare 2013. (2013).

[xxvi] Paulo Shakarian…, p. 32.

[xxvii] Lacewing, Michael. Authority and Legitimacy. (Routledge) (2013); http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/alevelphilosophy/data/AS/WhyShouldIBeGoverned/Authorityandlegitimacy.pdf. date accessed 28.09.2017.

[xxviii] U.N. Charter art. 2, para. 4.

[xxix] U.N. Charter art.51.

[xxx] Priyanka R. Dev, “Use of Force” and “Armed Conflict” Thresholds in Cyber Conflict: The Looming Definitional Gaps and the Growing Need for Formal U.N. Response, 50 Texas Int’l L. J. 2, (2015).

[xxxi] Priyanka R. Dev, p.385.

[xxxii] I.C.J. Reports 1996, p. 226.

[xxxiii] Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Preamble, Oct. 18, 1907, 36 Stat. 2277, 1 Bevans 631.

[xxxiv] Michael N. Schmitt, Tallinn manual on the international law applicable to cyber warfare. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[xxxv] Michael N. Schmitt.

[xxxvi] Pauline C. Reich, Stuart Weinstein, Charles Wild & Allan S. Cabanlong, Cyber Warfare: A Review of Theories, Law, Policies, Actual Incidents – and the Dilemma of Anonymity, 1 European Journal of Law and Technology 2, (2010), p. 23.

[xxxvii] Pauline C. Reich…, p. 23.

[xxxviii] Harold Hongju Koh, International Law in Cyberspace (2012), http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5858&context=fss_papers, date accessed 28.09.2017.

[xxxix] UNIDIR, The Cyber Index: International Security Trends and Realities (2013).

[xl] UNIDIR, The Cyber Index: International Security Trends and Realities (2013).

[xli] Priyanka R  Dev, p. 381.

[xlii] Matthew C. Waxman, Cyber-Attacks and the Use of Force: Back to the Future of Article 2(4), 36 YALE J. INT’L L. 421, 426–37 (2011).

[xliii] Matthew C. Waxman, p.427.

[xliv] Matthew C. Waxman, p.427.

[xlv] The US Department of Defense law of war manual: an update. (2015).

[xlvi] The US Department…, p.996.

[xlvii] The US Department…, p.998.

[xlviii] [xlviii] Carmen-Cristina Cirlig, European Parliamentary Research Service, Cyber defence in the EU Preparing for cyber warfare? PE 542.143 (2014).

[xlix] Carmen-Cristina Cirlig, p.6.

[l] Defence Agreement for 2013-2017.

[li] Defence Agreement for 2013-2017.

[lii] France’s Information Systems Defence and Security (2011).

[liii] Supra note 54, p.7.

[liv] Emerging Cyber Threats and Russian Views on Information Warfare and Information Operations (2010).

[lv] Li Zhang, A Chinese Perspective on Cyber War, International Review of the Red Cross (2012).

[lvi] Li Zhang, p.804.

[lvii] Supra note 54, p.5.

[lviii] Supra note 54, p.117.

[lix] Supra note 54, p.117.

[lx] Supra note 54, p.118.

[lxi] Supra note 54, p.118.

[lxii] Supra note 54, p.127.

[lxiii] Louis Henkin, How Nations Behave. 2d ed. (Columbia University Press) (1979), p. 47.

[lxiv] Harold Koh, Why Do Nations Obey International Law? Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 2101, http://digitalcommmons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/2101,  (1997).

[lxv] Harold Koh, p. 2601.

[lxvi] Harold Koh.

Knowledge is for Cutting: Waging War on the Human Terrain

Sandra L. Trappen

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 100-116.

 

Sandra L. Trappen

City University of New York

 

 

Knowledge is for Cutting:

Waging War on the Human Terrain

 

Abstract:

The notion of war as a social problem is derived from a troubled legacy in the social sciences. Whereas the discipline of anthropology has a multifaceted and comprehensive record of engagement with war studies, sociology’s efforts have been less robust and critical. Previous work in anthropology looks at the history of military anthropology studies and area studies within counterinsurgency operations. This article builds on that critical work as it presents observations and findings from research conducted while the author worked with the U.S. Army Human Terrain System (HTS). The research was conducted using traditional participant-observation methods to document how HTS conducted research operations. Findings and analysis draw from the critical tradition to consider what HTS research practice might tell us about what Bruno Latour referred to as “science in the making” and to shed light on a contemporary social phenomenon—the problem of “alternative facts”, “fake news”, and “fake science”.

 

Key Words: Human Terrain System, military anthropology, covert ethnography, war science

 

 

Introduction

 

The notion of war as a social problem derives from what might be termed a troubled legacy in the social sciences. Whereas the discipline of anthropology has a multi-faceted and comprehensive record of engagement with war studies, sociology’s efforts have been less robust and critical. War studies in sociology in the present day continue to comprise a small sub-discipline within the social sciences, as they continue to privilege applied approaches to problem solving. Such studies tend to be restricted to a small group of well-funded specialists, many of whom work with think-tanks that continue the focus on public policy and the problems of the military as an institution.[1] Previous work in anthropology that looks at the history of military anthropology studies and area studies within counterinsurgency operations has been more critical..[2] This article builds on that critical work as I present observations and findings from research conducted while working with the U.S. Army Human Terrain System (HTS).

 

Critical Theories of War and Science

 

Critical approaches owe a debt to C. Wright Mills, the only major sociologist to ever seriously consider the problem of war in society. Often at odds with peers like Merton, Mills focused on institutions, whose interpenetrating influence he wrote about prolifically in works like The Power Elite. [3] The languishing of Critical Theory in our contemporary period poses a contrast with the robust, albeit negative, critique that typified the mid-century period. I locate my work and situate observations of HTS within these frameworks, where I draw from the critical tradition to consider the more specific problem of HTS research practice; this problem shares resonance with contemporary social phenomena that are garnering attention of late—the problems of “alternative facts”, “fake news”, and “fake science”. I address these issues in addition to other debates through discussion and analysis of findings obtained from my covert ethnographic study. Data are drawn from my time spent working for HTS.

Grounded in the tradition of the sociological imagination that situates everyday life in the complex structures of history and social power, my work helps extend debates in the social sciences about war beyond a mere focus on institutions and policy. This focus on HTS research practice is undertaken to understand how military ideas influence knowledge-making practices. In taking this approach, I make a case for the reinvigorated application of critical theory to study the problem of war in contemporary times. Consequently, instead of asking questions like “Is it ethical for social scientists to conduct this type of research?”, I ask, “What are HTS researchers doing as a matter of practice?”  Rather than the question “How does HTS support or fail to fulfil the aims of the COIN (counterinsurgency) doctrine” I ask “What kinds of knowledge might be produced by these encounters?”

 

Methods and Data

 

This research was conducted using traditional participant-observation methods. Fieldwork focused on one organization, HTS, where I document how they conducted research operations. I entered my field site in Leavenworth, Kansas after being hired by BAE Systems, which during this time held the U.S. government contract to provide HTS with social science research personnel. While employed there, I obtained a secret-level security clearance which enabled me to examine different forms of textual document records (classified and unclassified). As many of the research reports were classified, I do not reproduce report excerpts here. Other documents that I reviewed included job descriptions for social scientists, research protocols, survey instruments, descriptions of data collection methods, and military manuals that contained protocols for report writing. At no time were human subjects (employees of HTS) studied.

Although I did not conduct field research operations with HTS in Afghanistan as I originally intended, I participated in three months of extensive pre-deployment social science research operations. Field experience consisted of working 12+ hours a day, during which I assumed the role of a social scientist on one of the operating teams. The HTS team members with whom I was associated were distributed across two different class cohorts comprised of approximately 70 individuals. Our days were spent learning how to implement HTS practice guidelines within the context of conducting field research operations. We prepared reports, designed survey instruments, conducted rehearsals, participated in language training, and provided daily briefings to HTS staff members. My role as a social science researcher likewise provided access to team members who were previously deployed with field research teams in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For purposes of full-disclosure, I think it is important to note how this research is a product of my own reflexivity. It is informed by more than 15 years of professional and academic work experience as a U.S. Army Captain working as a Signals Intelligence and field service officer and as a social scientist; I hold three advanced degrees from accredited academic research institutions, including a Ph.D. in sociology. I currently hold a full-time lectureship with a U.S. public research university, where I teach Field Research Methods and Critical War Studies. This combined experience informs my approach to problem solving and ability to interpret study data. In taking this qualitative approach, I am of course aware of the standard criticism levelled at ethnographic social science research. Qualitative research (ethnography in particular) has historically been subject to critique for reasons that it is not generalizable, falsifiable, or that it lacks validity and other quality control measures.[4] However, the strength of this approach in the current context cannot be overstated—there was no other way to access this information. Discovering, as I did, that HTS was a military intelligence operation—not a social science research operation—is a finding that could not have been obtained using statistical methods of inquiry. This finding forms the basis of an important conceptual shift that I distinguish in my critique and analysis, which looks at the pattern of institutional deception to ask not only questions about “how” but also “why?”

All research observations were made on site at HTS’s field operations office; however, where they lie within the spectrum of covert to overt observation, I cannot exactly say. My identity as a researcher and institutional affiliation were fully disclosed, though I did not disclose the intent to write about my experiences. The combination of intelligence and academic research credentials positioned me to gain entry to an organization that was known to be suspicious of traditionally trained academic applicants. Thus, while I fit the description of a traditional academic, my previous military intelligence background most likely had a favourable impact on my hire. Lastly, I should note that my observations are particular to the time and place they were made. In September 2014, shortly after my tenure with the organization ended, HTS was disbanded.

 

The Human Terrain System

 

For those not be familiar with the original controversy surrounding HTS, I offer this short overview. HTS was social science research support program that was set up in 2006 under the United States Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), headquartered at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Founded by Colonel Steve Fondacaro and Montgomery McFate, the program was managed jointly by the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps and in partnership with its original contractor, BAE Systems.[5] HTS employed researchers that represented the full range of social science disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, area/regional studies, and linguistics. The stated mission of HTS was to provide military commanders with socio-culturally informed research. The operations’ areas of focus were primarily Iraq and Afghanistan. Discussions were underway during my tenure about plans to broaden the scope of operations, including places such as Africa, Syria, and Mexico. Although officially disbanded in September 2014, it remains a matter of speculation as to how/if their operations might be replicated and incorporated into different organizational elements within the U.S. Defense Department. [6]

Previous estimates of the efficacy of HTS research operations are mixed. While constituents internal to the U.S. Army have spoken highly of the program, going so far as to state that the Human Terrain Teams helped to keep soldiers alive by mitigating tribal rivalries and correspondingly reducing violence.[7] Others, like David Price and Hugh Gusterson, are more critical.[8] Significant efforts were undertaken at academic professional conferences, where debate focused on HTS and the issue of whether or not professionally affiliated social scientists should be engaged in military research operations. While the American Anthropology Association (AAA) did not rule out the engagement of its anthropologists with the military, they ultimately issued prohibition guidelines that stated work with HTS was not compatible with ethical anthropology practice.[9]  Unfortunately, while the AAA’s prohibition was admirable and perhaps necessary on ethical grounds, I want to point out that it produced the unfortunate effect of discouraging or precluding professionally trained social scientists from undertaking first-hand observations of HTS. The prohibition precluded informed critique because it forbade “ground truth” observations.

 

Discussion

 

Although it has been a few years since controversy regarding HTS peaked, the findings here share a dynamic relation to current events, in which there is a privileging of “alternative facts” that approximates “fake science”. This section highlights select findings and suggests that HTS research practice, as a form of what Latour called science in the making, represents a systematic effort to, more or less, “fake it and make it”.

In offering here what is mostly a negative review, I want to state my personal biases. Prior to entering the field, I was aware that the institutional environment for women at HTS was reported as being especially problematic. I did in fact experience and observe problematic encounters between men and women in the program. My bias, however, does not undermine the textual evidence upon which this report is based. Moreover, I want to emphasize that this research does not make claims of “representativeness”. The fact that I did not find evidence of institutional competency during my tenure with HTS took me by surprise. I entered the field open to the idea of potential benefit being served by having trained anthropologists assist decision-making in military operations and that this might, as HTS claimed, offer some level of protection to civilians from violence.[10] Unfortunately, in addition to the much-cited ethical problems, there were structural barriers that precluded success. Credentialed experts (specifically, those with extensive training at research universities) were viewed as suspect by HTS. The institutional social context of HTS was not, given the events I witnessed and experienced, tolerant of criticism. Voiced criticism guaranteed quick dismissal from the program. I opted to withhold personal criticism because I wanted to remain with HTS as long as possible in order to make observations; however, over the long-haul this proved unsustainable.

 

Observations and Findings

 

This section reviews select observations from my field work. Admittedly, balancing my role as both an HTS team member and researcher was difficult and required careful management of social interactions. All my work with HTS was conducted within the confines of a communications-secure facility. This imposed operating restrictions, which meant no photography, no zip drives, and no removing of reports from the premises of the facility. To overcome this, I kept detailed notes in a daily journal. While there is no consensus for evaluating qualitative research, professional practice guidelines emphasize research methods and reflexive interpretation.[11]

HTS group research operations were set up in such a way as to maintain geographic proximity to the Fort Leavenworth Kansas military base, although our work site remained strategically separated from the base operation: we were located in an unmarked facility under a Mexican restaurant within the town of Leavenworth. It is interesting to note that at one point during my security screening process, active duty Army personnel candidly admitted to me that HTS was denied permission to operate on the military base due to the poor reputation of the organization and its personnel.

One of the general takeaways of my observations was that the research competency of HTS was not only lacking—it appeared to be fully absent. This assessment, of course, is based on my own observations and findings, which are consistent with others who have written about the poor quality of the research.[12] Not only was HTS producing research of dubious value, they were using science as a shield to produce military intelligence reports, which they in turn marketed to constituent users as social science research. My own training, certification, and work experience handling intelligence reports informs this finding that HTS research and data collection methods were indistinguishable from methods common within military intelligence organizations. Put differently, HTS was not producing research in a manner consistent with the protocols that distinguish professional academic research. Rather, what they did instead was produce a form of “fake science” that was passed off as research. They were, in other words, performing science.

These performative aspects of conducting social science research were on full display during my work with HTS: I found that what HTS called “research” was not guided by empirical ethically informed research methodology. By this I mean there was limited or no use of hypothesis generation, systematic sampling, and triangulation; there were no defined audit procedures, nor were there tests for validity. Comparison studies were similarly not in evidence. Operating in place of the standard research methods that form the basis of rational inquiry and the ethic to do no harm was a discernible military logic that was informed by an ethic of violence: the aim of study was to produce sufficient knowledge of people and populations to bring them under military control. As such, violence served as both method and epistemology. The resulting fake/pseudo-science was not produced as a result of hapless failure; it was an outcome that indicated intentional practice and strategy.

My evaluations of report-based evidence, which I document in personal journals, revealed that the formatting and content of research reports as well as in the data collection protocols gave the indication that they were not, nor were they ever intended to be, research products; they were always military intelligence products that were produced and marketed to the constituents of HTS (units within and outside the U.S. military). When I evaluated their research reports (N = 60), I found the methods, practices, and protocols did not reflect even the slightest modicum of adherence to professional research standards and practices. A clearly written protocol is typically the first indicator of a professionally conceived research plan. Likewise, professional reports will often contain clearly defined concepts and definitions. Literature reviews, including the incorporation of relevant studies into research, were not typically addressed by field research teams, but were instead handled by a remote research team, located in Kansas. This team with whom I worked was further destabilized by logistical and staffing turnover problems, which were evident during my tenure; this fact precluded their efficacy and inhibited the performance of work of teams in the field. Briefly put, the basic recognizable quality indicators of research products were missing in every case that I evaluated.

One of the key goals of qualitative research is rich/thick description in addition to interpretation and explanation of social practices. To be fair, this was sometimes accomplished in reports that I reviewed; however, the research was almost never guided by explanatory hypotheses. As for quantitative research, HTS admitted it was not well-equipped to conduct quantitative research; they struggled in their efforts to produce multivariate research. A common failure in surveys that I reviewed was that they failed to clearly articulate research questions and tie them to instrument questions. Analysis was similarly bereft of substance and reflected common inference errors (i.e. ecological fallacies, overgeneralization, faulty reasoning). Noteworthy was a general tendency for research protocols to evidence confirmation bias; in many cases, question wording demonstrated the cultural biases of the researchers that wrote them. Research questions were sometimes proposed in such a manner that they would inevitably produce data that would confirm pre-existing bias. Study findings, not surprisingly, did not evidence causal connections among social phenomena and were more often predicted by study designs. Data collection efforts thus tended to produce the information researchers sought to “empirically” acquire.

Specific research methods employed by HTS researchers comprised standard interviews, surveys, and participant-observation methods; this included the infamous and deservedly ridiculed “windshield ethnography” that was performed as a standard battlefield research practice. For those uninitiated and not familiar with this critique of HTS, the term refers to the practice of driving through research operations field sites, at which point team members conducted remote visual surveys, looking through the windshields of moving vehicles. Though the practice was widely criticized, I found it to be somewhat emblematic of the failures of the HTS organization as a whole.

Team members were given daily tasks to complete what were called “Baseline Assessments”. This framework constituted the basis for the research plan. The acronyms (ASCOPE and PMESII), which are commonly used by military field personnel to analyse operations environments, guided report preparation.[13] These operations assessments, of course, bore no resemblance to social science research protocols. The differences between the two products—an intelligence product vs. a research product—were measurably different.

Research practice failures were not only limited to the research products that were produced. The research credentials of HTS researchers, I noted, were markedly different from researchers practicing in the disciplines. This occurred in spite of HTS’s extensive (and expensive) outreach efforts to recruit credentialed researchers. Researchers possessed the requisite degrees and credentials (M.A., Ph.D.); they were not specialists. Many that I came to know did not have active research agendas, nor were they affiliated with professional research organizations. Professionalization was further suspect, as evidenced by normative failures to publish and attend professional meetings. These findings, in my estimate, outweigh previous findings of deficit with regard to language skills, which I can confirm were, likewise, weak if not entirely absent. As both Gusterson and Connable have noted, the Human Terrain Teams have been challenged in their efforts to employ trained anthropologists.

Previous scholarship and professional meetings documented at length the problem of ethical conflicts with HTS. Equally problematic, however, are my observations that confirmed evidence of an overlooked dimension of the problem: researchers exhibited a profound lack of critical reflexive awareness in their approach to research. By this, I mean that I noted a wide-spread lack of awareness of how their embeddedness as social actors not only compromised their role as researchers, but also the integrity of research outcomes. This failure to acknowledge their situated role and what in ethnographic research is widely known as the Hawthorne Effect (by which a researcher’s presence can distort findings) was, in my estimate, a significant failure.[14] A similar failure occurred to the extent that researchers failed to acknowledge role conflict, particularly as this pertained to working alongside armed soldiers. The researchers’ failures to address such conflict and potential bias in their reports did not, in my estimate, occur due to wilful indifference; rather, it reflected what is perhaps best described as simple ignorance. To illustrate the point, one social scientist told me, beaming with pride no less, about a field research method he improvised in Afghanistan: he zip-tied the hands of interviewees when he conducted surveys in order to give onlookers the impression that they were not cooperating with the Americans. This was, he explained, his way of helping to ensure the safety of human subjects.

Finally, I should add here, weak attempts were made to organize field-appropriate ethical research protocols (i.e. external review). Debate on the problem of vulnerable subjects was documented in the AAA meetings as well as the in published literature that has been critical of HTS.[15] Despite the near constant refrain of protest from HTS, who argued they were working toward establishing a field IRB, HTS continued as late as 2012 to operate without oversight from an external IRB authority.

 

Analysis: Why Did They Do It?

 

Previous critics attributed HTS failure to a variety reasons, including poor management, fraud, misbehaviour, and contractor failure.[16] All of these problems were demonstrated in the time I spent working with the organization. Turmoil among the staff and research teams was, moreover, found to be normative and not exceptional. Researchers confided to me that conflict and poor working conditions typified their experience of working for HTS on deployment. HTS staff members openly voiced frustration that they were having difficulty finding follow-up assignments with the government as their contracts all approached termination. Consequently, while my observations support these criticisms, such an assessment stops short and belies more comprehensive explanations revealed to me during my tenure with HTS, as I noted there was a discernible institutional failing by design—a failing that implicated both the institutional culture and leadership of HTS. But instead of focusing on individual-level failure, I looked to the organization itself as I questioned why, for example, such a well-funded organization would tolerate such a low level of institutional competency?

The reasons for this, I will argue now, were purposive and functional. Despite HTS declarations that they aimed to produce social science research, their actions betrayed an organization that never aspired to accomplish this on a practice level. This explains why there was such a high tolerance for researchers with a deficit of skills and credentials. Rather than attribute research shortcomings to a combination of the above-cited failures and benign ignorance, I observed that some of these things appeared to be meticulously cultivated. To this end, critical voices in my research cohort, a number of whom possessed professional-level research credentials, were all terminated within weeks of their arrival for training at the Kansas facility. In my own case, I managed to remain with the group for three months, a reprieve that was temporary and purchased with silence. Once I determined there was no “science” in the HTS approach to social science, it was the act of asserting a critical voice that secured my exit from the program.

One functional advantage secured by employing credentialed (but not necessarily practiced/trained) researchers was that it furnished the Army and the U.S. government with an imprimatur of sorts—one that could be used to advance “truth” claims to support operational needs that were already determined. Worthy of note was that there was an outsized representation of credentialed economists represented in my research cohort, many of whom had been employed by the failed coalition provisional authority in Iraq; no one in this group demonstrated more than a passing familiarity with social science field research methods (though all appeared to be accomplished, even skilled, government institutional actors).

Hiring poorly trained researchers conveyed another distinct advantage: such individuals were less likely to register ethical complaints when conducting field research. This had the added benefit of minimizing role conflict and concern for human subjects because these particular individuals lacked professional/ethical social identities. In other words, they would not conventionally self-identify as researchers. Such individuals could be trusted to operate outside the boundaries of professional research practice guidelines, especially when working with vulnerable populations.

For the record, HTS researchers did not indicate to me that they were acting unethically in a wilful sense; many were simply ignorant of what constituted ethical research practice. Nevertheless, despite these professional lapses and failures, HTS researchers operated as effective accomplices to the extent that they worked to produce the “fake science” that was ultimately sold as research. In this case, I find social science research methods and discourses were used by the Army and HTS to “de-operationalize” what was always a military intelligence mission. The language of science here worked as an effective cloaking device insofar as it helped to conceal the organization’s real intelligence gathering mission. But here again one must ask, Why?

One need only reflect back to examine the U.S. Executive level strategy that was implemented in the days pre-dating the launching of the Iraq War. During that time, research and intelligence data were produced by the Office of Special Plans as part of an effort to justify an interventionist foreign policy—war to put it bluntly—that might be sold to the American people. HTS fit this model, even as it played a small but important role. Operating under the pretence of methodological positivism in conducting research operations, HTS researchers satisfied the “appearance” of possessing expertise, despite not producing research of substance. This in turn helped impart a veneer of respectability to HTS, whose data constituted the substance of reports provided to U.S. military clients and other constituents distributed across the government and beyond—to all stakeholders who stood to benefit from data that supported the political agenda to perpetuate ongoing war.

In light of this, I argue that what occurred with HTS is not isolated to the organization itself; as my observations demonstrate, the social dynamics that came to define HTS were operating across public as well as private institutional boundaries: government, military, and private/commercial. In other words, the problems associated with HTS are indicative of multi-level institutional phenomena; they potentially demonstrate a potential shift in broad-scale knowledge-power dynamics across different institutional sites, many of which are operate under the aegis of providing “good governance”.

To this end, the HTS case illustrates how war is bound up in efforts to shape ongoing understanding of concepts of knowledge, objectivity, evidence, and truth. No longer simply attuned to the control of land and resources, war shapes the scientific knowledge-making process as evidenced in how it performs research practice. In what is shaping up to be a “post-policy” and “post-truth era” of politics, groups like HTS are merely functioning nodes in a chain of organizations engaged in similar work to produce battlefield intelligence for the U.S. government and its military. As it turns out now, the trend of hybrid public/private entities, including corporations like the one that hired me (BAE Systems), operate as part an assemblage of intelligence providers, including others more recently like WikiLeaks and Cambridge Data Analytics, all of whom are vying for leverage in efforts to gather human intelligence data to engage in politics, policy, and war by other means.[17]  Like HTS, these organizations operate on the periphery, virtually, and otherwise, in social spaces dispersed far beyond the limits of ethical scrutiny. They remain invisible to the public eye as they set about the process of making “truth” and what is essentially secret fake science.

To summarize, the findings from my field work support a claim that the research products produced by HTS were never intended to conform to the guidelines of ethical empirical research in the traditional sense; their fundamental approach to research revealed they were always producing a military intelligence product. And so it follows, the credentialed degree holders hired by HTS were never expected to conduct research operations; they were hired to be role-players who were tasked to perform science in the making. These findings further demonstrate how individual and institutional actors, working cooperatively, if not always in a coordinated fashion, with counterparts in the U.S. Army, government, and private corporate sectors, operated to benefit their mutual interests, as these were articulated within a classified, closed, self-referential, information loop. Taken together, my findings suggest that HTS failures constituted a success at a military intelligence strategy level.

 

Conclusion

 

In a speech to Rutgers University in 2016, the former U.S. President Barak Obama said, “The rejection of facts; the rejection of reason and science—that is the path to decline”.[18] This political backdrop offers a basis for reflection, as it provides context for problems unfolding in the contemporary period. Evidence-based fact and truth are increasingly being rendered unstable by efforts to substitute “alternative facts” and “fake news”. I argued that HTS was producing “fake science” to the extent that what they claimed they were doing and what they were actually doing were not the same. The purpose of the organization was not, as HTS stated, to produce “socio-culturally informed research” for military commanders and staff; rather, the aim was to collect military intelligence data to support an interventionist foreign policy strategy. Put another way, HTS is what happens when rationally performative social science is given access to weapons and a budget. Through the act of subverting research methods, they upended conventional research practice to produce social facts that fit a pre-determined war strategy. As such, they rendered questionable the knowledge produced by their efforts. The impact HTS had on academic debates should not, furthermore, be underestimated. To be sure, there may be long-lasting implications for how the academic disciplines themselves might be shaped by wartime knowledge-making practices. When we consider that military and defence funding, unlike traditional academic funding, is potentially more resilient (if not entirely impervious) to the market influences and political whims that have come to typify the neoliberal takeover of universities, it is not inconceivable that the insurgent “expert” of the future might not be an expert at all.

The HTS research program, it was noted, ended its operations. The findings presented here remain relevant, nonetheless, as they offer a window into understanding ongoing developments in regard to knowledge-making practices; they call attention to how HTS, even if it is judged to be a “failed” research organization, managed to succeed in ways that may be relevant to understanding the current political moment. The HTS research model, for all of its flaws, is symptomatic of larger social, political, and economic problems. As a model, I have argued that it presented us with a disruptive counterinsurgency model for doing research. Boundaries were blurred and things were not as they seemed. Far from demonstrating that unethical “bad” science was produced, I argued that HTS was performing research, which is a qualitatively important distinction. As such, the HTS example illustrates how war and militarism work together to reconfigure knowledge-making practices. The result was “fake science” produced not as matter of ineptitude, but through purposive design. In this respect, the HTS descent into pseudo-science lies within a continuum of developments in which the contrived performance of empirical research becomes normative in efforts to “make” and “un-make” the factual registers of military research operations.

To summarize briefly, ethical empirical research methods were not incorporated in HTS’s approach to conducting research. They did not, based on my observations, possess the technical knowledge or ability to incorporate competent ethical research methodology into their field research practice. My situated observations of the culture of the organization—that is, the social context within which research was produced and where I worked and produced reports—do not support findings that there were intentions to produce this type of research. To be clear, this is not to say that the organization was not capable of producing a descriptive field report that contained value. I am simply stating that I did not observe evidence of this. Furthermore, using untrained field researchers who possessed neither the technical research acumen nor, for that matter, the appropriate reflexive, tactical, or situational awareness to assure their own safety and the safety of their subjects was a despicable practice. The researchers themselves, although many seemed not to know it, were in my estimate expendable assets. Deception and to some extent “self-deception” appeared to be hard-wired into the group’s organizational culture, which operated as a small unit functional elaboration of the larger deception upon which the entire political project of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East continue to be based. One area in which HTS did excel was in efforts to maintain the appearance of doing research. This was, in my view, accomplished to the detriment of conducting effective, substantive, ethical research operations.

As for the issue of whether or not social scientists should embed themselves with armies conducting military operations, I think the ethical question is settled. The original AAA mandate—that professionally identified social scientists should not affiliate with these operations—was in my estimate both appropriate and necessary. The problem is that HTS research operations were never intended to function as stated; they were always a military intelligence operation. And so on that basis, I concur with findings that suggest military Civil Affairs units and Psychological Operations units operating within the Army’s Special Operations Command are organizationally better equipped to conduct intelligence research operations to meet the needs of the military.[19] Notwithstanding, I think there is a legitimate liminal zone that can be carved out where academic researchers working from critical paradigms might conduct ethnographic research within organizations like HTS, recognizing there are access issues and other limitations (security clearance and document classification restrictions), all of which impact publishing. To this end, it is the duty of scholarship to engage with these organizations, if only to bear witness, so they might render visible social phenomena that governments, armies, and corporations would prefer to remain occluded from observation. Forsaking these realms of inquiry—leaving them to be solely occupied by military researchers—guarantees that military methodologies driven by epistemologies based on ethics of violence will prevail, for they alone will regulate access and determine what counts as knowledge on the battlefield.

HTS reminds us that where there is a public display of performing research, power too is on display. The group’s research activities constituted an expression of political power, in which the power to produce “research” functioned to confirm the status of researchers as the “real” knowledge experts. With that, the real power of HTS research lies in how it effectively undermined the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable empirical research practice. In doing so, it operated outside the techno-mechanical process of collecting data; they challenged the boundary of what academics like to think of as the institutional “inside” that defines research practice. Power and research methods worked together in this manner through the modulation of affect to create a research spectacle—a veritable theatre of war, or what Clough (2012) refers to as “a becoming obscene of the social”, where there is a “technicalization or socionormalization of violence that resets the limits of obscenity in a redesign of the scene of the social that is resonant with ongoing war”.[20] Not empirical certainty, but ambiguity, indeterminacy, and the modulation of affect are the predictable outcomes of research based on a counterinsurgency model. Such a model is arguably incompatible with the pursuit of knowledge to advance human understanding.

 

References

 

CEAUSSIC (2009) Final Report on the Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program. 14 October, http://www.aaanet.org/issues/policy-advocacy/CEAUSSIC-Releases-Final-Report-on-Army-HTS-Program.cfm   date accessed 4 April 2017.

Clough P.T., “War By Other Means: What Difference Do(es) the Graphic(s) Make?” In: Karatzogianni, Athina and Adi Kuntsman (eds.) Digital Cultures and the Politics of Emotion (London: Palgrave) (2012).

Connable Ben, “All Our Eggs in a Broken Basket: How the Human Terrain System is Undermining Sustainable Military Cultural Competence,” Military Review, (March-April 2009): p. 58.

Gentile Gian, Think Again: Counterinsurgency, ForeignPolicy.com, (January 13, 2009), https://foreignpolicy.com/2009/01/13/think-again-counterinsurgency/ Date accessed 19 June, 2017.

Gentile Gian, Michael Linick, and Michael Shurkin, The Evolution of U.S. Military Policy from the Constitution to the Present, (Rand Corporation) (2017).

Glenn David, “Program to Embed Anthropologists with Military Lacks Ethical Standards.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 December, 2009, http://www.chronicle.com/article/Program-to-Embed/49344/ Date accessed 3 April 2017.

Gonzalez Roberto, Anthropologists in the Public Sphere: Speaking Out on War, Peace, and American Power, (University of Texas Press) (2004).

González RJ, Gusterson H and Price D, Introduction: War, culture, and counterinsurgency. In: Network of Concerned Anthropologists, The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual, (Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press) (2009).

Griffin M., An anthropologist among the soldiers: Notes from the field. In: Kelly JD, Jauregui B, Mitchell ST and Walton J (Eds.) Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press) (2010).

Gusterson Hugh, “The U.S. Military‘s Quest to Weaponize Culture.” The Bulletin Online, June 20 (2008), http://thebulletin.org/us-militarys-quest-weaponize-culture Date accessed 3 July 2017.

Gusterson Hugh, “Project Minerva and the Militarization of Anthropology”, Radical Teacher 86:4-16 (2009).

Gusterson Hugh, “Do Professional Ethics Matter in War?”, The Bulletin Online, March 4, 2010, http://www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/columnists/hugh-gusterson/do-professional-ethics-matter-war

Gusterson Hugh, “The Cultural Turn in the War on Terror.” In: John Kelly; et al. Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency (University of Chicago Press) (2010) pp. 279–298.

Gusterson Hugh, Is Resistance Futile?, Paper presented at workshop on Capturing Security Expertise, Copenhagen, June 16-17, 2011.

Kassel Whitney, “The Army Needs Anthropologists,” Foreign Policy (2015) https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/28/the-army-needs-anthropologists-iraq-afghanistan-human-terrain/  Date accessed 18 June, 2017.

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[1] Segal, David and James Burke, Military Sociology, (Sage Publications, Volumes 1-4) (2012); Gentile, Gian, Michael Linick, and Michael Shurkin, The Evolution of U.S. Military Policy from the Constitution to the Present, (Rand Corporation) (2017).

[2] Price, David, Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, (Duke University Press) (2008); Gonzalez Roberto, Anthropologists in the Public Sphere: Speaking Out on War, Peace, and American Power, (University of Texas Press) (2004); Lucas GR Jr, Anthropologists in Arms: The Ethics of Military Anthropology, (Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press) (2009); Kelly John, Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency. (University of Chicago Press) (2010); González RJ, Gusterson H and Price D, Introduction: War, culture, and counterinsurgency. In: Network of Concerned Anthropologists, The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual, (Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press) (2009); Griffin, M., An anthropologist among the soldiers: Notes from the field. In: Kelly JD, Jauregui B, Mitchell ST and Walton J (Eds.) Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press) (2010).

[3] Mills, C. W. The Power Elite. (Oxford University Press) (1956).

[4] There is a tradition in the social sciences dating back to the time of social psychologist George Herbert Mead that more recently includes others like Michael Burawoy, Norman Denzin, and Mitchell Duneier, who advocate for the importance of journal writing, self-conscious reflection, and interpretation when making observations. Situated ethnography as such has found increasing support in the literature, in which researchers are encouraged to incorporate active measures; they essentially operationalize reflexivity by systematically documenting how their personal experiences influence the research process. Thus, while quantitative methods value prediction, the replication of research methods, and the social distancing of researchers from subjects, qualitative work promotes the closeness of researchers to subjects, where inter-subjectivity and epistemological reflexivity are understood to be assets and not liabilities. See Burawoy, Michael. “The Extended Case Method”, Sociological Theory, Vol. 16, No. 1, Mar. (1998), pp. 4-33; Denzin, Norman K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln, The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (3rd edition) (2005); Duneier, Mitchell, Sidewalk (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) (2001).

[5] Gusterson, Hugh, “Project Minerva and the Militarization of Anthropology”, Radical Teacher, 86:4-16 (2009); “The U.S. Military‘s Quest to Weaponize Culture”. The Bulletin Online, June 20 (2008); and Is Resistance Futile?, Paper presented at workshop on Capturing Security Expertise‘ Copenhagen, June 16-17, 2011; Montgomery McFate, “Cultural Knowledge and Common Sense”, Anthropology Today 24(1):27 (2008).

[6] Kassel, Whitney, “The Army Needs Anthropologists,” Foreign Policy (2015).

[7] Whitney Kassel (2015).

[8] Price, David, Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State. (Counterpunch: AK Press) (2011); Gusterson Hugh, “Project Minerva and the Militarization of Anthropology”, Radical Teacher 86:4-16 (2009).

[9] Glenn, David, “Program to Embed Anthropologists with Military Lacks Ethical Standards”. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 December, 2009.

[10] This logic constituted the basis for how the program was originally sold to the U.S. government/military by the group’s founders, Colonel Steve Fondacaro and Montgomery McFate.

[11] Salzman, P.C., “On Reflexivity”, American Anthropologist, 104(3), pp. 805-813; see also Hsuing Ping-Chun, “Teaching Reflexivity in Qualitative Interviewing”, Teaching Sociology,(2008): 36(3), pp. 211-226.

[12] Whitney Kassel (2015).

[13] ASCOPE:  Areas, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, and People, Events; PEMESI: Political, Economic, Military, Social, Infrastructure, and Information. See military field manuals FM 6-0, “Mission Command: Command and Control of Army Forces.” and FM 3-24, “Counterinsurgency.”

[14] Lee R.M, Unobtrusive Methods in Social Research (Buckingham: Open University Press) (2000).

[15] Schrag, ZM, Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965–2009. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press) (2010).

[16] Whitney Kassel (2015).

[17] Von Clausewitz, Karl, On War, trans. Col. J.J. Graham. New and Revised edition with Introduction and Notes by Col. F.N. Maude, in Three Volumes (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & C., 1918) (Vol. 1. Chapter 1: What is War?).

[18] Keynote address given at Rutgers University’s commencement, May 15, 2016.

[19] Connable, Ben, “All Our Eggs in a Broken Basket: How the Human Terrain System is Undermining Sustainable Military Cultural Competence”, Military Review, (March-April 2009): p. 58.

[20] P.T. Clough, “War By Other Means: What Difference Do(es) the Graphic(s) Make?” In: Karatzogianni, Athina and Adi Kuntsman (eds.) Digital Cultures and the Politics of Emotion (London: Palgrave, 2012),    p. 28.

The nuclear technology debate returns. Narratives about nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japanese films

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 117-131.

 

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

Jagiellonian University

 

 

The nuclear technology debate returns.

Narratives about nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japanese films

 

 

Abstract

The presented article revolves around the widespread debate on the Fukushima catastrophe in Japanese cinematography and the artists’ responses to the incident. They give the viewers clues on how to understand the reasons and results of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well as how to perceive nuclear technology after the catastrophe. The author analyses the chosen post-Fukushima films, points out the recurring depictions, and deliberates on the ways of presenting nuclear power. The analysis starts with a brief comparison of post-Hiroshima and post-Fukushima cinematography. The author then focuses on activists’ art in the form of anti-nuclear agitation (Nuclear Japan, 2014 by Hiroyuki Kawai) and pictures that can be classified as shōshimin-eiga: Kebo no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) and Leji (Homeland, 2014). The third part of the article puts emphasis on the description of the catastrophe as a “new beginning”, as Takashi Murakami presents it in Mememe no kurage (Jellyfish Eye, 2013). The debate on nuclear technology also appears in the remake of the story about the best-known Japanese monster, Godzilla, reactivated by Hideaki Anno in the post-Fukushima film Shin Gojira (New Godzilla, 2016). The last part of the paper presents the Western point of view and covers analysis of films such as Alain de Halleux’s Welcome to Fukushima (2013), Doris Dörrie’s Grüße aus Fukushima (Fukushima, My Love, 2016) or Matteo Gagliardi’s Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015).

Key words: Fukushima, nuclear power, post-Fukushima film, Japanese cinema, catastrophe

 

Introduction

 

The widespread debate on the Fukushima catastrophe, the future of the Japanese reactors, and the suffering, fears, and social problems the nation has to face have also influenced Japanese cinema. The artists’ responses to the incident and the aftermath that is still felt have resulted in a cinematic wake that happened surprisingly quickly after the catastrophe. The narrations about nuclear power, even though considered as a taboo that should not be violated while the memories of the tragedy are still alive, are constructed so as to face social fears; they give the viewers (also around the world) clues on how to understand the reasons and results of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well as how to perceive nuclear technology after the catastrophe.

The recurring pictures that can be found in most of the post-Fukushima films are depictions of the off-limits exclusion zone, guarded by the government because of high-level radiation. The artists also underline the contrast between the silence in the zone and the hustle and bustle of the temporary houses and schools occupied by the victims. Nuclear power itself is presented in two ways: neutrally, for example in Leji (Homeland, 2014) by Nao Kubota or Kibō no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) by Sion Sono, or in the form of activist art and anti-nuclear agitation (Nuclear Japan, 2014 by Hiroyuki Kawai). It is almost impossible to find positive commentaries about nuclear power in post-Fukushima films; however, the catastrophe can be described as a “new beginning”, as Takashi Murakami presents it in Mememe no kurage (Jellyfish Eye, 2013). The debate on nuclear technology also appears in the remake of the story about the best-known Japanese monster, Godzilla, reactivated by Hideaki Anno in the post-Fukushima film Shin Gojira (New Godzilla, 2016).

The primary purpose of this paper is to analyse the narrations about nuclear power in Fukushima-related Japanese films in the context of the directors’ personal points of view on the issue and the impact of their works on Japanese society. As can be perceived, observing the catastrophe through subjective lenses is almost unavoidable as the authors of the aforementioned films are not only distant observers. They combine personal experiences with the national trauma they are part of. Due to this fact, the presented article aims to deliberate on the problem of how Japanese filmmakers have presented nuclear technology since 2011, while linking their works to the films that emerged after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Another point of focus presented in this paper is how the audience understands the aforementioned films about the tragedy and why they are gaining popularity in Japanese society. Moreover, it is also worth focusing on the impact the pictures may have on collective memory, as will be discussed later. The examples of the films presented in this article were chosen because of their popularity and significance for the development of the nuclear technology debate.

 

From Hiroshima to Fukushima

 

The massive and immediate destruction caused by nuclear energy and the fact that the source of this annihilation is human-made traumatizes the collective memory beyond any measurable limits. What is significant in the case of nuclear disasters is the fact that its results function in two visual orders. On the one hand, pictures of untouched landscapes juxtaposed with sudden, total destruction bring to mind apocalyptic visions of the End of Times which are known from Western depictions. On the other hand, the invisible radiation and lack of immediate results (or, in other words, “immediate victims”) have no simple visual representations; this traumatizes the imagination the most[1]. The visible effects of the destroyed surroundings of these catastrophes are extended in time by the menace of nuclear contamination that will also affect society in the future[2]. The impact of the nuclear catastrophe on the Japanese nation, happening twice in a relatively short period, put the filmmakers in a situation in which they try to present on the screen a tragedy that is impossible to understand. David Deamer observes that “Each atom bomb film overcomes the spectre of impossibility in its way; each in its own way creates a singular encounter with the nuclear attacks […]”.[3]

Visions of the apocalypse derived from Western culture influenced the rise of the post-Hiroshima subgenre of Japanese cinema: hibakusha. Narratives which can be classified under this term introduced the topic of the atom bombs and explored the meaning of “Hiroshima” for the post-war generations[4]. The critical potential that characterized the hibakusha films, the emphasis on the sociological context of the catastrophe, and the variety of other genres combined with the determinants of the subgenre allows it to be connected to the post-Fukushima cinematic wake. It should be pointed out that the earliest on-screen depictions of the destruction caused by nuclear power were dominated by the three genres which also appear most often in the case of the March 11 incident: contemporary drama, monster movies, and documentary[5]. For example, analogies can be found between Ito Sueo’s Hiroshima Nagasaki ni okeru genshi bakudan no eikyō (The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,1946) and Hiroyuki Kawai’s Nuclear Japan (2014) documentary films, both of which are described in the next part of this article. Both films use original footage and capture with scientific precision the tragedy of the Japanese nation. However, when Kawai restrains himself from providing a plethora of drastic pictures of mutilated bodies, Sueos’s footage shows the drama without euphemisms. The second part of the very first post-bombing documentary[6] devoted to Nagasaki presents narrations about the tragedy of particular people which can also be found in the film from 2014. The post-Hiroshima style of producing dramas, like Shindo Kaneto’s melodrama Genbaku no ko (Children of Hiroshima, 1952) or Shohei Imamura’s Kuroi ame (Black Rain, 1989), both of which emphasize sentimentalism and focus on the emotions of particular people, can be found in Kibô no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) by Sion Sono. It should be underlined that the differences found in the films mentioned above are intangibly connected to the nature of the two catastrophes: genocide in the case of the World War II events and a tragedy initiated by an unfortunate series of natural factors.

In terms of the impression on American society, March 11, 2011 is also compared to the events of 9.11[7]. It was Takashi Mikuriya who first suggested that the sengyo (the long post-war period in Japan) ended with the Fukushima disaster. Furthermore, Mikuriya proposed another term, saigo (literally: next, after), to describe the time “after the catastrophe”.[8] The new era, in the opinion of the Japanese researcher, has the potential to become more democratic, thus a period full of hope and peace[9]. Barbara Geilhorn and Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, deliberating on the artistic pursuits related to the nuclear disaster of March 11, point out in their publication that “Fukushima forced artists across the genres to reconsider the relationship between art, representation, and live experience”.[10] The experience of the disaster and the analysis of the emotions accompanying the traumatic events appeared not only in film but also in literature and performing arts. Here, it is worth mentioning the artistic pursuits on the grounds of Japanese theatre and the plays of Oriza Hirata and Toshiki Okada: the former, in his play entitled Sayonara (Good bye, 2011), uses a female android as a metaphor for the failure of the human-technological understanding which resulted in the Fukushima disaster[11]. On the other hand, Okada’s theatre, defined as “musical theatre with ghostly apparitions”[12], aims to criticize Japanese cultural norms, society, and politics. His Jimen to yuka (Ground and Floor, 2013) performance “depicts a group of people experiencing an intense post-Fukushima malady”,[13] which metaphorically comments on the failure of the Japanese political system[14].

 

Activist art or searching for the ultimate solution

 

The controversy arising around the catastrophe that appeared due to the social accusations of the negligence of the government resulted in the emerging activist movement. While searching for the ultimate solution to the problem, both in the West and in Japan, the filmmakers strive to answer whether it is necessary to rely on nuclear energy in future technological development. It should also be underlined that the activists define nuclear power as unequivocally wrong and postulate that its use should cease.

One of the most publicly visible activists who uses film as a medium to communicate his postulates is Hiroyuki Kawai[15]. This professional lawyer who decided to become a documentary filmmaker was born in Manchuria, China, but he mentally tied himself to Japan after he graduated from the University of Tokyo in the 1970s. His interest in lawsuits against nuclear power plants reached its peak after Fukushima, but even before the tragic events of March 2011, he was deeply involved in the fight to eradicate nuclear power from Japan[16]. Kawai admits that his main purpose is to protect the environment, especially from the tragic nuclear disasters that have long-term effects on natural habitats. Analysing how to reach a wide audience and not satisfied with the number of people attending his lectures, the activist realized that explaining his objectives with a movie would be the best way to popularize his ideas.

Nuclear Japan, released in 2014, was to answer the question that had been asked by the director many times: Has nuclear power brought happiness to the Japanese nation? The documentary goes back to the seven hours before the catastrophe and the camera’s eye accompanies a group of firefighters. They accomplish different tasks, from looking for missing people after the tsunami, to the disposal of radioactive materials. However, their efforts are only presented to underline the message conveyed by the author. At every step, he stresses that if it had not been for the nuclear disaster, many more lives could have been saved[17] and, consequently, he accuses the Japanese government for its faulty decisions. In his work Kawai combines footage illustrating the efforts of the public services and the pain of civilians with interviews with experts (e.g. Tetsunari Iida, the director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies) and, as he refers to on his website, “facts and evidence”.[18] Moreover, the documentary offers a wealth of technical information on how the reactors function, nuclear policy in Japan, and safety regulations[19]. However, even though the author tries to present his findings in the most objective way possible, he cannot help avoiding subjectivization of the matter.

Kawai presents only a one-sided point of view, demonizing nuclear power and providing the ultimate solution to the problem: “to halt nuclear power plants all over Japan[20]”. The director perceives his movie as a tool that helps to convey his ideas and bring them to a wider audience, not only to those in academia. It should also be underlined that thanks to the complexity of the presented issues and the unique footage of the testimonies provided by the victims, the film was considered as evidence during the trials related to the catastrophe[21]. Even though the event has an obvious tragic meaning, the message Kawai tries to convey can be read as a positive look at the future of the nation. He observes that “the Fukushima disaster has increasingly forced the courts and the judges to expose the lies of the government and the nuclear industry, as well as take responsibility for the huge damage caused[22]”. Kawai creates an analogy to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, comparing the government reactions, commentaries, and actions taken. It is visible that the director has a feeling that the catastrophe, paradoxically, helped to raise the tabooed issue of the post-nuclear trauma. Consequently, Kawai perceives himself as a representative of a new movement that will shed some light on the safety of nuclear energy in Japan.

 

Screening the zone, preserving the memories

 

The catastrophe and form of post-Fukushima societal order in Japan are also vividly presented in dramas. In this category, under the label of the shōshimin-eiga[23] genre, there is a plethora of poetic pictures that aim to not only show the destruction, despair, and lack of hope, but also the preservation of collective memories, as well as on the discourse on the future of the nation. The lightly fictionalized narrations, depicting the tragedy of particular families, are designed to challenge viewers’ emotions and, in the case of foreign audiences, make them familiar with the problems of Japanese society. It can be observed that the message proposed by the authors of the post-Fukushima dramas conveys more neutral meaning than in the case of Kawai’s documentary. Under the genre of drama, it is the story of the suffering and pain that matters the most, not the strict anti- or pro- nuclear point of view of the author.

One of the first post-Fukushima drama films, and, at the same time, one of the most appreciated by foreign critiques[24], is Kibō no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) directed by Sion Sono. The picture received the NETPAC Award for Best Asian Film at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival. The author focuses on presenting the histories on two families uprooted from their home cities, who strive to fight back for their lost safety by adjusting themselves to the new reality. Sono pays great attention to showing what has happened to the mental condition of the protagonists since the traumatic experiences and the extent to which it is possible to overcome the trauma. The feeling of the constant danger of radioactivity causes the families to develop neuroses, compulsive behaviours, and anxieties. For example, Izumi Ono (Megumi Kagurazaka), the wife of Yoichi Ono (Jun Murakami), is obsessed with protecting her body from contact with radioactive objects or places. When she realizes that she is pregnant, Izumi not only covers her whole house with aluminium foil, but also compulsively checks the radiation level on a Geiger counter—everything to protect her unborn child. By showing three generations of protagonists fighting for survival, the director undertakes a discourse about the future of the country[25]. Even though it is a farmer Yasuhiko Ono (Iaso Natsuyagi) and his wife Chieko Ono (Naoko Otani) whose fight is depicted in the most dramatic way, it is the child yet to be born that will bear all the consequences of the situation. The actions taken by Izumi to protect her child, depicted in an almost humorous way, show the desperate attempts the Japanese people undertook to preserve their health. In this case, Sono demonstrates that it is impossible to escape the fate and every desperate attempt seems to be grotesque in the face of the inevitable consequences of the radiation.

Leji (Homeland, 2014) by Nao Kubota is another film about the results of the Fukushima catastrophe that was mostly appreciated abroad. Even though the director has more documentary pictures than fictionalized dramas on his account, he made a feature film to discuss the post-catastrophe issues. However, the critics observed that Kubota’s film differs from the aforementioned Kibō no kuni in terms of the presentation of emotions. The critics accused the director of creating a narrative which “perversely refuses to engage on a dramatic or emotional level, or to look its unavoidable political context in the eye”.[26] The picture, screened in 2014 at the Berlin Film Festival, mostly explores the toxic relations between the characters, thus resembling Shohei Imamura’s narrations about the dark blood ties that led to the tragedy in the rural, apparently idyllic setting[27]. Kubota focuses on the topic that returns in almost every post-Fukushima drama: the ancestors’ attachment to the land. Here, the Japanese concept of furusato, a mythologized picture of a traditional birthplace situated in the beauty of nature, appears as a lost part of Japanese culture. The characters are trapped in the world between—it is impossible to return to the cradle because the furusato is lost and, at the same time, they cannot start new lives. Their longing for the lost safety leads them to transgressive behaviour, as in the case of Soichi (Seiyo Uchino), who spends his days loitering around the entertainment district, unable to find a new job[28].

Manifesting a literal-minded approach to constructing a plot that resembles documentary films, the director especially focuses on the daily routines of the people influenced by the catastrophe[29]. Paradoxically, the most striking scenes in the film are not those presenting the dynamic actions of the characters, but the ones depicting rural labour or food preparation. There, Kubota emphasizes the attempts of the protagonists to maintain social order, even though, together with the houses, the bonds of the family have been destroyed.

 

Monsters reactivated

 

Cultural anxiety about radiation and the fear of nuclear fallout appeared on Japanese screens right after World War II. Among the science fiction films featuring a variety of monsters, mysterious creatures, and physically changed people, the greatest popularity was won by Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla series. Except for its similarity to Ryūjin—the deity of the sea that appears in the scriptures of the ingenious Japanese religion, Shinto—the dragon-like creature that emerged from the ocean symbolized the fears of the sudden development of deadly technology and the results of its use in warfare[30]. The appearance of the monster emerging from the water was described in the first film of the series, Gojira (Godzilla, 1954), as the result of the H-bomb experiments[31]. What is more, Honda’s films, especially the first one, bring together unnamed fears of a mystery that comes from ‘the outside’. As Toni A. Perrine observes in her publication concerning the cultural anxieties of the nuclear age, both the appearance of nuclear energy and the cinematic Gojira can be perceived as acts of “transformation of matter into an unimaginable destructive force”.[32]

It is not surprising that the rubber monster came back to screens again after the Fukushima catastrophe and its symbolic connections to the destructive power of nuclear energy were reactivated. Shin Gojira (New Godzilla, 2016), directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, at the same time breaks with both the familiar schemes from the previous productions and the references to the canonic appearance of the monster. However, what is most significant in terms of researching the ways in which the Fukushima disaster is depicted in Japanese film is that Gojira is no longer a result of nuclear experiments. It comes with a tsunami wave, earthquakes and radiation, but the origins of the creature remain unknown. Furthermore, the role of the Americans in the narrative has changed: in the newest production, they are the most important allies in the deadly fight[33]. It is also worth mentioning the focus on the reactions of the catastrophe victims presented in Anno and Higuchi’s film. As happened on the streets of Japanese cities, in Shin Gojira the people measure the radiation and share information on social media websites. Also, the bitter portrait of the government and the news resembles real life: the officials, under the burden of bureaucracy, are unable to cooperate and the transmitted meetings are filled with clichés and jargon[34]. The nuclear debate in the newest Gojira film is concluded with optimism: even though severe damage was done to the metropolis and uncountable deaths resulted from the officials’ reluctance, the monster is finally defeated. It turns into a concrete monument, remaining in the heart of the city as a testament to the victims of the tragedy.

It is also interesting yet surprising that the appearance of a monster in post-Fukushima narration can be found in Takashi Murakami’s film Mememe no kurage (Jellyfish Eye, 2013). The director’s debut, although kept in the light comedy tone, raises a question that was overlooked in other productions: how can children’s trauma after the catastrophe be minimized? Even though the tragedy that hit Japanese society is not explicitly named, the viewer realizes that the young Masashi Kusakabe’s (Takuto Sueoka) father died because of a catastrophe somehow related to nuclear power. Together with his mother, the youngster moves to a rural area—escaping both the damaged environment and the painful memories. However, soon it turns out that the children in the village are obsessed with a smartphone app that allows them to control fantastic (animated) pet monsters and organize ‘dog fights’ between the creatures. Here, the director uses comedy to tell a story about mysterious scientists who study how to control catastrophic forces by manipulating students’ emotions[35]. The pets, called F.R.I.E.N.D.S., are vessels that transmit the feelings of their little masters to the control centre. The fact that the children put a lot of energy into the game leads to the birth of a huge monster that tries to destroy the area.

The film was negatively reviewed and the ending was considered naive; it was also dismissed for its camera work and ragged special effects[36]. It was also observed that the coming-of-age story mixed with philosophical themes of fighting with trauma, evil, and self-limitations was incomprehensible for younger viewers and too infantile for adults[37]. However, Murakami’s film resembles his artistic pursuits: as a contemporary painter and sculptor, he is recognized for combining high art with pop-cultural aesthetics[38], which is also visible in the visual style and plot of his debut. The author tried to introduce a fresh style of talking about the Fukushima catastrophe—a remedy for the children’s trauma hidden under a layer of family cinema. Even though it was too soon to combine the painful memories with cute animated characters, Murakami’s film remains a unique and thus creative and brave way of presenting the catastrophe in Japanese cinema.

 

From the Western point of view

 

Fukushima-related narrations and the nuclear technology debate since 2011 have appeared not only in Japanese cinema. A critical comment on the catastrophe also comes from Western directors, among who should be mentioned Alain de Halleux’s Welcome to Fukushima (2013), Doris Dörrie’s Grüße aus Fukushima (Fukushima, My Love, 2016) or Matteo Gagliardi’s Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015). Through their works, these filmmakers from abroad share their compassion and feelings of being greatly moved by the tragic events. It is worth mentioning here that Doris Dörrie, the author of Kirschblüten – Hanami (Cherry Blossoms, 2008), was motivated by the fact that she felt a strong connection with the Japanese nation. She visited Fukushima right after the tragic events and almost anthropologically gathered the testimonies of the victims, which she later used in constructing the plot of her film. Dörrie’s Fukushima revolves around the problem of mutual understanding between Western and Japanese culture, which was also a central subject in Kirschblüten…. In the post-Fukushima narrative, the relation that emerges between a young German woman, Maria (Rosalie Thomass), and the elderly geisha, Satomi (Kaori Momoi), casts new light on the collective experience of an entire generation of Japanese people who suffered the catastrophe and the fear of radiation[39]. When the women protagonists by chance move in together to the Satomi’s partly destroyed house in the closed Zone, a subtle bond develops between them. Depicting Maria’s struggle to understand a different culture while trying to be helpful in rebuilding the retired geisha’s life, the director aimed to emphasize how difficult it is for foreigners to cope with unfamiliar traditions. In one of the interviews, Dörrie admits that her main purpose was to answer the question: Can the Westerner, who does not understand Eastern mentality and culture, in any way help Japanese people?[40] Even though the narrative revolves around the post-catastrophe trauma, the central part of the film is the relations, based on the author’s autobiographical references, between women symbolizing disparate cultural backgrounds.

Documentary insights can also be found in the films presenting the catastrophe from the Western point of view. Here it is worth mentioning the pictures by Alain de Halleux and Matteo Gagliardi, who combine their original footage with scientific explanations of the causes of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and personal commentaries. The first author visits the city of Minamisōma, situated 25 kilometres from the reactor, in order to present the everyday struggle of the population of that area. Many of the inhabitants want to be evacuated, while others wish to stay in their homeland and rebuild the city; this results in increasing conflict within the community. Moreover, the Tepco company, which is financially responsible for compensation, refuses to pay their fines; this forces the victims to search for funds globally[41]. The author uses the contrasting Eastern characters of a Zen master and a samurai as a metaphor of the two attitudes towards the rebuilding of a new social order after the tragedy. From this perspective, the victim can choose the course of action in Halleux’s film: he can either accept his fate and stay in his furusato, or fight for a better future for the next generations. The purpose of Halleux’s film was to present the problem to international viewers to encourage financial support from the worldwide community.

However, while the Belgian director restrains himself to the presentation of interviews with victims that were mostly recorded two years after the incident, it is Gagliardi who demonstrates a greater diversity of cinematic techniques. In his film, this Italian filmmaker combines footage recorded when the events started with animated sequences, fragments of TV programs, and experts’ commentaries. Gagliardi balances the need to remain objective against the personal emotions and assessment of the journalist Pio d’Emilia, who experienced the fear of being in Japan during the catastrophe. The Italian Sky TV reporter decided to leave Tokyo the day the earthquake struck and move to the areas affected by the tsunami with the intention of being the first foreign observer to document the tragedy[42]. Except for an unreleased interview with the former Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, which casts new light on the government’s actions[43], Gagliardi’s film also offers a unique approach to the understanding of the viewer’s perception. The animated manga-style sequences are used to make the material more comprehensible and visually attractive.

Taking into consideration the examples presented above, it can be observed that a post-Fukushima current also appeared in the West and these foreign filmmakers have added new insights into the discourse about nuclear power. The narrations provided by Western filmmakers could also be starting points for further academic research, such as comparisons of films by authors from distinct cultural backgrounds, analysis of the approach to nuclear energy, as well as the techniques and genres chosen to cover the issue.

 

Conclusion

 

The nuclear power debate that returned after the Fukushima catastrophe has not faded in film-making. Even though the Japanese films concerning the issue seem to be more appreciated abroad, filmmakers such as Takashi Murakami and Hiroyuki Kawai consider deliberating on the problem to be part of their artistic missions. Possible answers to the questions of whether the Japanese nation should rely on nuclear energy in the future are presented by the directors in documentary or family cinema form, thus aiming to give the viewer a way to understand the complex causes, results, and political issues related to the tragedy. Others, such as Sion Sono and Nao Kubota, try to show the problems of particular members of the traumatized society to a wider audience and, as Doris Dörrie has done in the West, focus on the emotions accompanying the loss of the homeland. What is more, monster films such as the aforementioned Shin Gojira, also play a key role in presenting the problem on the screen, albeit in symbolic form. Therefore, no matter the motivation of the individual artists, it should be emphasised that there are many voices and sides in the discussion about nuclear energy. In this case, films help to express the points of view of the directors and communicate their findings to a wider audience.

As Małgorzata Sadowska observes, Fukushima deprived the Japanese people of the illusion they could use to think about atomic energy. Since 2011, it has no longer been possible to recognize atomic energy as simply bad (the bomb) or good (the power plant), as it was the latter that brought about annihilation[44]. For the people who survived the catastrophe, as well as those who observed it on TV screens abroad, cinema can become not only a source of information (in the case of the documentary productions), but also a medium that helps in understanding the influence of the catastrophe on the inhabitants of Japan.

 

References

 

Artnet, http://www.artnet.com/artists/takashi-murakami/, date accessed 17 April 2017.

Broderick Mick (ed) Hibakusha Cinema : Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film, (London, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, http://www.cnic.jp/english/?p=3424, date accessed 16 April 2017.

Cinergie.be, http://www.cinergie.be/webzine/welcome_to_fukushima_d_alain_de_halleux, date accessed 4.06.2017.

Deamer David, Deleuze, Japanese Cinema, and the Atom Bomb: The Spectre of Impossibility, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).

Eckersall Peter, “Performance, Mourning and the Long View of Nuclear Space,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 7:2 (2015).

Fukushima A Nuclear Story [official website], http://www.nuclearstory.com/, date accessed 4.06.2017.

Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, Fukushima and the Arts: Negotiating Nuclear Disaster, (London: Routledge, 2017).

InteriaFilm, http://film.interia.pl/wywiady/news-doris-dorrie-hold-dla-kobiet-fukushimy,nId,2347171, date accessed 5 June 2017.

Loska Krzysztof, “Tożsamość traumatyczna w filmach o bombie atomowej” [Traumatic identity in the films about the atomic bombing], in Poetyka filmu japońskiego [The Poetics of the Japanese Film], ed. Idem. (Kraków: Rabid, 2009), pp. 349 – 375.

Mikuriya Takashi, Sengo ga owari, saigo ga hajimaru [Sengo era ends, saigo era starts] (Tokyo: Chikura Shobō, 2012).

Miyamoto Yuki, “Gendered Bodies in Tokusatsu: Monsters and Aliens as the Atomic Bomb Victims,” The Journal of Popular Culture 49:5 (2016), pp. 1086 – 1106.

Nuclear Japan Official Site, http://www.nihontogenpatsu.com/english, date accessed 18 April 2017.

Nornes Abé Mark, Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

Perrine Toni A., Film and the Nuclear Age: Representing Cultural Anxiety, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).

Sadowska Małgorzata, “Fukushima, moja miłość” [Fukushima, My Love], Kino 2: 2017, p. 79.

The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/life_and_entertainment/2016/08/07/1-japans-latest-godzilla-movie-draws-on-1954-original-fukushima-nuclear-disaster.html, date accessed 18 April 2017.

The Hollywood Reporter, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/land-hope-film-review-406354, date accessed 7 April 2017.

The Hollywood Reporter: Jellyfish Eyes, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/jellyfish-eyes-mememe-no-kurage-727224, date accessed 19 April 2017.

The Japan Times, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/04/12/national/flamboyant-lawyer-kawai-fighting-fukushima-victims/#.WPyZEcakJhE, date accessed 5 April 2017.

The Japan Times: Culture, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/03/06/films/film-reviews/ieji-homeland/#.WQeCrsakJhE, date accessed 9 April 2017.

The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/movies/review-jellyfish-eyes-a-childrens-film-from-takashi-murakami.html?&_r=1, date accessed 21 April 2017.

Yoneyama Lisa, Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Variety, http://variety.com/2014/film/asia/berlin-film-review-homeland-1201109899/, date accessed 19 April 2017.

 

Filmography

Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015, Matteo Gagliardi)

Gojira [Godzilla] (1954, Ishiro Honda)

Grüße aus Fukushima [Fukushima, My Love] (2016, Doris Dörrie)

Kibō no kuni [The Land of Hope] (2012, Sion Sono)

Leji [Homeland] (2014, Nao Kubota)

Mememe no kurage [Jellyfish Eye] (2013, Takashi Murakami)

Nuclear Japan (2014, Hiroyuki Kawai)

Shin Gojira [New Godzilla] (2016, Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi)

The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1946, Ito Sueo)

Welcome to Fukushima (2013, Alain de Halleux)

[1] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, Fukushima and the Arts: Negotiating Nuclear Disaster, (London: Routledge, 2017), p. 2 – 3.

[2] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 3.

[3] Deamer David, Deleuze, Japanese Cinema, and the Atom Bomb: The Spectre of Impossibility, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 31.

[4] See: Broderick Mick (ed) Hibakusha Cinema : Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film, (London, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

[5] Deamer David, p. 31.

[6] Loska Krzysztof, “Tożsamość traumatyczna w filmach o bombie atomowej” [Traumatic identity in the films about the atomic bombing], in Poetyka filmu japońskiego [The Poetics of the Japanese Film], ed. Idem. (Kraków: Rabid, 2009), p. 352 – 353.

[7] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 3.

[8] Mikuriya Takashi, Sengo ga owari, saigo ga hajimaru [Sengo era ends, saigo era starts], (Tokyo: Chikura Shobō, 2012).

[9] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 3.

[10] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 10.

[11] Eckersall Peter, “Performance, Mourning and the Long View of Nuclear Space,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 7:2 (2015), p. 4.

[12] Eckersall Peter, p. 6.

[13] Eckersall Peter, p. 6.

[14] Eckersall Peter, p. 6.

[15] Nuclear Japan Official Site, http://www.nihontogenpatsu.com/english, date accessed 18 April 2017.

[16] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[17] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[18] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[19] Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, http://www.cnic.jp/english/?p=3424, date accessed 16 April 2017.

[20] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[21] Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.

[22] Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.

[23] Shōshimin-eiga is a Japanese film and TV genre which aims at depicting of the everyday existence of the working class people.

[24] See: The Japan Times: Culture, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/03/06/films/film-reviews/ieji-homeland/#.WQeCrsakJhE, date accessed 9 April 2017. As it can be observed, Sono’s film was mostly appreciated by the foreign critiques, because the Japanese ones stated that it was too soon to for a fictional treatment of the national tragedy.

[25] The Hollywood Reporter, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/land-hope-film-review-406354, date accessed 7 April 2017.

[26] Variety, http://variety.com/2014/film/asia/berlin-film-review-homeland-1201109899/, date accessed 19 April 2017.

[27] Variety.

[28] Variety.

[29] Variety.

[30] Perrine Toni A., Film and the Nuclear Age: Representing Cultural Anxiety, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), p. 77.

[31] Perrine Toni A, p. 77.

[32] Perrine Toni A., p. 84.

[33] The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/life_and_entertainment/2016/08/07/1-japans-latest-godzilla-movie-draws-on-1954-original-fukushima-nuclear-disaster.html, date accessed 18 April 2017.

[34] The Columbus Dispatch.

[35] The Hollywood Reporter: Jellyfish Eyes, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/jellyfish-eyes-mememe-no-kurage-727224, date accessed 19 April 2017.

[36] See: The review written by Roberta Smith, a co-chief and critic of the NY Times. The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/movies/review-jellyfish-eyes-a-childrens-film-from-takashi-murakami.html?&_r=1, date accessed 21 April 2017.

[37] The New York Times.

[38] Takashi Murakami’s profile on Artnet: Artnet, http://www.artnet.com/artists/takashi-murakami/, date accessed 17 April 2017.

[39] Sadowska Małgorzata, “Fukushima, moja miłość” [Fukushima, My Love], Kino 2:2017, p. 79.

[40] InteriaFilm, http://film.interia.pl/wywiady/news-doris-dorrie-hold-dla-kobiet-fukushimy,nId,2347171, date accessed 5 June 2017. The interview with Doris Dörrie was conducted by Piotr Czerkawski during the 68th Berlin International Film Festival in 2017.

[41] To read more about Halleux’s film, see: Cinergie.be, http://www.cinergie.be/webzine/welcome_to_fukushima_d_alain_de_halleux, date accessed 4.06.2017.

[42] See: Fukushima A Nuclear Story [official website], http://www.nuclearstory.com/, date accessed 4.06.2017.

[43] Fukushima A Nuclear Story. In the interview Naoto Kan admits that Japan avoided a bigger catastrophe not because of the planned government actions but thanks to sheer luck.

[44] Sadowska Małgorzata, p. 79.

War rape in the face of heroic narrative. The case of Polish cinema

Magdalena Podsiadło-Kwiecień

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 132-149.

 

Magdalena Podsiadło-Kwiecień

Jagiellonian University

 

 

War rape in the face of heroic narrative.

The case of Polish cinema

 

Abstract

War rape seals the status of women as passive victims and excludes them from heroic narratives. Despite women’s suffering and their active resistance against the invaders, film representations reduce their subjectivity through a narrative of shame based on silence, exclusion, or the removal of women from the real course of events, all of which dominate in Polish cinema. Phenomena that are highlighted in the text—talking about rape on one’s own terms, using it as self-defence, bearing resulting offspring, active resistance or creating an approving community—may become a way to the empowerment of heroines and reformulation of the traditional symbolic field.

 

Key words: rape, abject, Polish cinema, oral history, women

 

 

 

Piotr Zwierzchowski, in his book on heroic death, writes that “the death of a hero is decidedly a male motive. This is no different in contemporary cinema; it is men who are awarded the right to be heroes and perish in a way full of pathos. The final moments of Thelma and Louise are among scarce exceptions confirming the rule”.[1] On the one hand, it seems highly unfair that the author—in his over 200-page-long deliberations dedicated to heroic deaths—acknowledged just one film with female protagonists. On the other, the disproportion between male and female representation signals difficulty in associating heroic narrative with female experience.

Even in wartime narratives in Polish cinema, which are seemingly predestined to discuss heroism, the presence of women is troublesome, although “the participation of women in resistance against invaders was much more significant here than in the West”.[2] Natalia Jarska points out that, in most cases, the female experience does not appear in dominating narratives on war. Even if women are mentioned, these stories are stereotyped and their true experiences often left untold.[3] Especially resistant to historical narrative are experiences related to gender, the effect of which is the tendency—both among witnesses and researchers—to bypass the gender category, supposedly to guarantee the universal image of wartime events. “The symbolic allocation and social evaluation of both features («personal» to women; «objective» to men) is not random”[4] and, as a result, leads to the bypassing of the specifically female experience.

However, it is impossible to attribute rape—the most gender-determined form of wartime violence[5]—solely to the personal sphere, even from the perspective of traditional historical narratives focused on events from the battlefield. On the one hand, rape touches the private realm, while on the other, it is a manner of conducting military operations. “Rape cannot be understood as «just» a deplorable side-effect of war provoked by soldiers’ sexual frustration. Rape is, literally, a weapon of war”.[6] Hence, according to researchers, it is not only sexual violence, but also sexualized violence, for which satisfying one’s desire is neither the key nor the sole goal.[7]

Treating rape as a tool of war does not mean, however, that this traumatic women’s experience finds its place among heroic narratives. Generally sexual violence reinforces the division into active aggressors symbolically annexing new territories through women, and passive victims colonized by the invaders. Moreover, as noticed by Yana Hashamova: “the predominant Western scholarship on war rapes explores the victimisation of women”.[8] Marzena Sokołowska-Paryż adds that the reflection of academics corresponds to attempts at remembering rape victims by artists. Examples of artwork analysed by her are representations that show “the woman’s suffering visually subjugated by male aggression. The victim [is] completely dominated by [a] towering soldier figure”.[9] This method of placing emphasis shows women as passive victims of violence and thus excludes them from heroic narratives usually dominated by active battle.

Perceiving rape as a weapon, however, allows us to focus on its double-edged character. Naturally, this does not signify analogous revenge that female protagonists could take on their oppressors, but it means rape as a tool for protecting your loved ones or yourself. In most cases, film representations do not present women as passive victims devoid of agency, but as active subjects who, in a critical moment, attempt to fight and defend themselves with the means available to civilians and women. Just a glance at the film representations of war rape in Polish cinema allows us to allege that most female protagonists—due to the lack of other means of conducting war—use rape as a way of doing battle. In the films How to be loved (1962, dir. Wojciech Jerzy Has), The Columbuses (1970, dir. Janusz Morgenstern), The Ring with a Crowned Eagle (1992, dir. Andrzej Wajda), Sekal has to die (1998, dir. Vladimír Michálek), Deserter’s Gold (1998, dir. Janusz Majewski), Joanna (2010, dir. Feliks Falk), Rose (2011, dir. Wojciech Smarzowski), Manhunt (2012, dir. Marcin Krzyształowicz), and Life Taken [Zerwany kłos] (2016, dir. Witold Ludwig), the female protagonists not only fight to save their own lives but act much more heroically—they attempt to save others by scarifying themselves. In this manner, they protect their daughter (Rose), a Jewish girl (Joanna), a loved one (How to be loved, The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, Deserter’s Gold, The Columbuses), a sister (Manhunt), their family (Sekal has to die), their father (Life Taken). The female protagonists decide that the rape to which they consent is a lesser tragedy than the death of a loved one.

Paradoxically, however, the raped women, by the very fact of using rape as a tool of battle or survival, do not fulfil the principle desired in the traditional historical narrative of the “ideal Other”, or a victim as a passive subject whose “role comes down to actually being a suffering victim. The system will take care of her and make sure she remains such a victim”.[10] The female protagonist who does not accept full victimisation—not only by the oppressor but also by the dominating national narrative—chooses her own salvation or that of her loved ones above chastity, and does not fulfil the role of the “good Other”. In traditional patriotic narratives, this type of sexualized agency disagrees with the status of the unblemished victim and requires further interventions to render it again a symbol of the suffering subject. The acceptance of rape as a form of salvation is problematic in the Polish context as it contradicts the postulate of chastity. Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska mentions this when writing about forced prostitution related to rape presented in A Year of the Quiet Sun (1984) by Krzysztof Zanussi. The researcher shows that, in common opinion, “women chose work in the puffs willingly, and were not victims”,[11] hence they were undeserving of compassion. Bożena Karwowska writes about this phenomenon in a similar way when describing female camp testimonies. The authors of recollections negatively mark all sexual behaviour and expect prisoners to behave in a way incompatible with the inhumane camp conditions in which, according to them, “women should remain modest and possess a sense of shame”.[12]

Using sexuality as a weapon brings to mind the figure of the biblical Judith, “the heroic liberator of the non-heroic oppressed”,[13] whose horrendous nature was the result of a scandal consisting in the merger of such contradictions as traditionally female attributes and the ability to commit murder. However, the raped protagonists do not murder their enemies like Judith but, similarly to her, use their sexuality as a weapon. Meanwhile, as Małgorzata Czermińska argues: “in the tradition stemming from Polish romantic thinking, the victim is morally and not cognitively privileged”.[14] Thus, does the female protagonist consenting to rape remain a morally privileged victim in this dominant model of thinking about history?

The impossibility of experiencing rape, surviving, and simultaneously remaining a dignified victim is presented ostentatiously in the 2016 film Life Taken, which is dedicated to the blessed Karolina Kózkówna and is clearly addressed to a Catholic audience. In 1914, a Red Army soldier murdered 16-year-old Karolina during a rape attempt. After her death, the girl was announced a martyr, she was venerated and later pronounced blessed. The fictional story compares the fate of Karolina with the story of her pregnant neighbour Teresa, who was excluded from the community precisely because of rape. She is simultaneously the victim of a Red Army soldier and of her co-residents who persecute her and consider her to be a slut, as proven by her pregnancy. The film, whiling aiming to show the magnanimity of Karolina leaning over the victim, accidentally reveals an irreconcilable dichotomy. The title protagonist was blessed because she kept her “virgin’s purity”, defending it desperately until death. Teresa is condemned because she survived the rape, which means that she was not sufficiently determined in her resistance. Hence, the film excludes the innocence of a rape victim, especially one who survived, thus sentencing her to ostracism.

This manner of thinking about sexual violence may be related to the difference between the contemporary understanding of shame and guilt. “Shame […] pertains to a trait or feature of the person, whereas guilt pertains to an act”,[15] hence only the latter is subject to punishment. “In other times and places, things were not so: religious minorities, heretics, and people with «deviant sexuality» were punished by public shaming without a conviction for any criminal act”.[16] Even though Teresa’s behaviour can hardly be considered a crime, she is punished by public shaming, from which the film distances itself only partially.

Even though not all images of film rape bear such a clear-cut nature, most of them in fact become a story about shame which does not correspond with the heroic narration. “The narrative of the dignified victim and the narrative of shame owing to the victim’s condition are contradictory, their co-existence is almost impossible since they cancel one another out”.[17] Shame characterized by Hanna Gosk refers to complicity, which in this case is reserved for the rape victim as such who experienced it and survived. The female protagonists who use rape as a survival strategy place life above the chastity of victims, thus rendering them accomplices. The elimination of shame as a feature and not an act may take place solely through death, which in turn means absence, thus excluding the possibility of redefining the traditional heroic narrative. Hence, paradoxically, instead of becoming a testimony to heroism, film depictions of rape are a sign of its impossibility both in film diegesis and in social awareness. On the one hand, they show the renouncement of ethical norms and, on the other, incompatibility with traditional historical narratives.

 

Oral history

 

Ewa Domańska, when analysing the status of a victim who escapes the role of the “ideal Other”, shows that the victim resists victimisation when she has a chance to speak for herself.[18] Owing to their actions as well as to their survivor status, the raped protagonists do not give in to total victimisation, which at least potentially allows them to tell their story.[19] Bożena Karwowska, when writing about the figures of the victim and the survivor, indicates that only the latter has a chance to speak. The author adds that “This is also related to the complex passivity of the victim manifesting itself, for example, in her inability to (rationalize and) verbalize the experience, and thus to the fact that the victim remains mute. Regaining a voice is a survivalist gesture and thus the victim never speaks; only the survivor can speak”.[20] By remaining alive, the protagonists have a chance to speak about their experience and build a type of diegetic oral history, which—as Paul Thompson puts it—“can be used to change the focus of history itself and open up new areas of inquiry. [Oral history] can give back to the people who made and experienced history, through their own words, a central place”.[21] Ordinary citizens are called on as witnesses, various positions are presented, and this is a way to tell stories outside of dominant historical discourse. “Witnesses can now also be called from the under-classes, the unprivileged, and the defeated. It provides a more realistic and fair reconstruction of the past, a challenge to the established account”.[22] This perspective makes it possible, inter alia, to hear women’s voices and stories concerning their specific experience.

Activity based on speaking about one’s experiences restores agency and dignity to the films’ protagonists, and sometimes helps transform traditional historical narratives. Felicja from How to be loved attempts to speak, but does not do so publicly. When answering a question about wartime asked by a random co-traveller to Paris, Felicja involuntarily turns to banality—an easy lie—as if used to the fact that her testimony is usually questioned, as has indeed been the case. First, her friend did not believe her, then the underground movement, then the post-war peer tribunal, and finally “those who considered her a whore”, as disclosed to her with full cruelty by Rawicz, whom she had saved. Meanwhile, the man encountered while travelling does not hesitate to speak directly about the defeats suffered. Teresa is also a film survivor—the raped protagonist of Life Taken. The piece begins and ends with her story, which the protagonist—the witness of Karolina’s holiness—tells (which is important) in a locked house. It would seem that this is a woman’s voice about a woman, presenting the common experiences of both protagonists. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her story is followed directly by a commentary—the words of a supra-narrator—explaining how a simple girl like Karolina Kózkówna became the Church’s blessed, revered by many followers. There is no more overwhelming contrast than this between the raped Teresa, who tells her story alone, enclosed within the four walls of her house, and Karolina, who “saved her virginity” and became blessed and praised by the official voice of the Church. Teresa not only does not speak of her own traumatic experience but—similarly to Felicja from How to be loved–—is subject to trial by the community, which questions her version of events relating to the rape.

A kind of a female film story is also the voice of the protagonist of The Gateway of Europe (1999), a film by Jerzy Wójcik that is based on the autobiographical recollections of Zofia Wańkiewiczówna.[23] The protagonist, Zosia, keeps a journal in which she records the events related to her service in a military hospital during WWI. The motive of rape was added to the film by the director, which helps to deprive the protagonists of the status of soldiers for the benefit of the image of victims.[24] What seems significant, however, is the choice of a protagonist who would experience rape. The division of between the silent victim (Ira) and the one who gives testimony by writing it down (Zosia) is maintained by the director. The raped one is depicted as a passive victim, and the activity that is writing does not correspond with her status. Zosia, who is appointed the heroine of this story, must remain pure.

The remaining protagonists remain silent. The mother from the series The House (1980–2000, dir. Jan Łomnicki), who lives with her adult son, the fruit of rape, does the same. Mietek Pocięgło knows about his origins but hides this information, along with his mother, from his uncle. Joanna (the title protagonist of the film by Feliks Falk) also remains silent, accused of intimate relations with a German, and condemned by the community to which she belonged. Her loved ones will never learn that the rape on the protagonist was the price for saving a Jewish child. The discretion, which was to protect the family from the consequences of hiding a Jewish girl, is replaced by shame, excluding the protagonist from both the family and the national community. It is important that it was not the rape itself, but the feeling of shame caused by the condemnation of the community with which Joanna identified that pushed the protagonist toward suicide.

The raped nuns from the Polish-French co-production titled The Innocents (Les Innocentes, 2016, dir. Anne Fontaine) also remain silent due to the trauma they experienced and the fear of social degradation. Maryśka, the only one to know about the rape of her sister, is forced into silence by the protagonists of God’s Lining (1997–1998). Anusia dies of diphtheria, but in her family’s memory she must remain untouched: good, profoundly religious, and pure. Immediately after the rape, Anusia forces her sister to remain silent precisely due to the expectations of the community, saying: “Say nothing to anyone or I will cut out your tongue”. Right after that she surprisingly abandons her role of victim by adding: “Don’t tremble like that. You won’t die from it”. Hence, what proves more important than the rape itself is the seemingly justified fear of its discovery by the family. When, following her sister’s death and against her will, Maryśka attempts to speak about the rape, she is told off by another sister, Józia: “You invented all of the dirty and disgusting story. Don’t breathe a word of this to our parents. She was pure and she died pure. Like a saint”.

The obligation to remain silent means that the experience of rape becomes neither a heroic narrative nor an alternative narrative in the face of traditional male depictions. Even when, in How to be loved or Life Taken, the protagonists speak for themselves, they do so in isolation, thus making it impossible to include these experiences in a shared narrative. Despite the support in Has’s film for the silent heroism of Felicja, this image also becomes a representation of secrecy and experience of shame, which in fact excludes a dignified victim. Even though the protagonists do not submit to passive victimisation—they battle and survive—they are finally punished for that three times: by the oppressor, by the film community, and by the inability to exist in the national heroic narrative. The silence seals their status as victims and thus repeats the gesture of the oppressor.

 

Children of war

 

A visible sign of the said silence is the lack of representation of the progeny originating from war rapes, survival prostitution, or even illegal relationships with the enemy. In its extensive comments on events related to the 20th century wars, Polish cinema very rarely tackled the subject of the consequences of forced sexual relations. This inability was visualized in the film The Innocents, in which the trace of rape in the form of pregnancy is erased by a prioress in subsequent acts of child murders, which represents in caricature the aforementioned principle that chastity is more important for society than human life. As argued by Yana Hashamova, maternity is not only the area in which the activity of raped women is revealed, but also a chance to overcome victim status by “taking control over their lives”,[25] hence the absence of this topic makes the objectification of victims easier.

Even though intimate relations between the invaders and the invaded were a part of everyday life during the war, according to Maren Roger: “predominantly German–French intimate war relations exist in Europe’s historical awareness”.[26] This topic has been particularly poorly elaborated by historians in reference to Poland, exacerbated by serious restrictions threatening both men and women in the case of breaching of the race-mixing ban. Polish women deciding on prostitution in order to survive risked more since, for such acts, “they could receive both serious punishment from the invaders and experience ostracism from compatriots”.[27] The effect is a lack of testimonies, historical research, and images dedicated to these types of relations and their consequences, i.e. war children.

Aside from the aforementioned series (The House), war children were presented in two films: the religious Life Taken and The Innocents, both of which are removed from the Polish context. In the first film, maternity is reduced to an almost surreal fantasy. Teresa, a raped single mother excluded from the community, watches a rosy, well-fed child playing in a plush illuminated room. The child born from rape was reduced to a pathetic poster promoting maternity without any regard for social context. The film avoids answering the question of social ostracism, the poverty of the protagonist, her loneliness (Teresa is an orphan), and the psychological consequences of the sexual violence she experienced. It confirms the isolation of the mother and child, showing the protagonist enclosed within the walls of the house. Even after Kozakówna’s intercession, Teresa (as she is impure) keeps at a certain distance from other mourners forming the funeral procession.

The Polish–French co-production The Innocents shows the progeny of rape whose identity, nevertheless, remains secret. The film is divided into the French perspective, i.e. represented by the main protagonist Mathilde Beaulieu, bravely fighting for the partial opening of the convent to the world to save the pregnant nuns and the children being born there. The protagonist risks her life and is close to rape, but is spared since this fact would not correspond with the heroic narrative reserved for her. The Polish perspective equals silent Polish nuns, who are ready to sacrifice their lives and the lives of their children in order to contain the shame within four walls. On the one hand, the film introduces themes absent in Polish cinema, such as war children; its title emphasizes the fundamental problem the victims struggle with, it supports life (not sexual purity) and, above all, it includes the children of nuns in the social tissue. The nuns are freed from the burden of shame with a trick: hiding the progeny of rape among war orphans taken in by the convent. In the final scene, the children, the nuns, and their families create an idyllic community, although once again it is at the price of silence. On the other hand, rape and its consequences in the form of maternity concern only Polish women, placing them on the side of silent victims. They are freed by an active French heroine from the Red Cross who, like the director, Anne Fontaine, breaks the silence. Thus, the film consolidates the stereotypical division of almost colonial character into the passive, submissive, silent, “raped” East, and the active, heroic West.

The lack of images of maternity resulting from rape stems from the tendency to eliminate the suffering of women from authentic history by taking away their specific future—the actual continuation of their lives—for the benefit of symbolic representations. This tendency corresponds with the phenomenon that Elżbieta Ostrowska wrote about when analysing the death of women on screen. The protagonists described by the author are removed, in film, “from the realm of historical experience into the realm of the mythic”.[28] The second reason for the reluctance to represent war children is the consolidation, through their presence, of abject relations. Julia Kristeva defines abject as something that “disturbs identity, system, and order that does not respect borders, positions, and rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite”.[29] In the war child, the line between what belongs to the national symbolic community and what threatens its identity becomes blurred. Moreover, “perverse interspace”[30] combines with the feminine, the woman’s body, fertilized by the enemy, which constitutes a threat to the symbolic order of the father.

The child remains a trace of abject contamination, and its status is emphasized by the conviction of inheriting the biological features of the enemy. Even though Mietek Pocięgło. the protagonist of The House series is an oppositionist dedicated to Poland, as a rape child from the era of the Warsaw Uprising he becomes an exceptionally talented Germanist as if he’d been genetically determined and inherited the linguistic competence of the unknown father in his DNA. The protagonist’s origins are in fact the reason for his inferiority complex; he considers himself a foundling even towards those whose fathers are communist dignitaries.

As Danish researchers note: “War rape aims to devalue the women and thus the wealth of the men. A precious object is turned into an abject”.[31] The authors point out that expelling the raped woman from the community becomes a necessity, for she threatens the order of the community she belonged to.[32] “He spoiled my woman” is what the protagonist of Rose says about his raped wife, on the one hand indicating the irreversible impurity attributed to the protagonist and, on the other, thinking of his raped wife as an object. The heroine becomes guilty twice: according to ethical principles (through the loss of sexual purity), and in relation to social norms (because she divided the community).

When defining “abject”, Kristeva refers to Lacan’s psychoanalysis and points out that it is precisely “on account of that Other, a space becomes demarcated, separating the abject from what will be a subject”.[33] As discussed above, the decision of the heroines to remain silent is an act of submitting to the requirements of Lacan’s Otherthe Law, the Name of the Father—and adopting an attitude that will remove the troublesome abject from the field of view. In the films discussed, the distracted observing gaze of the Big Other takes the form of constant control over the characters by “their own people”—by members of their community. Hiding in their homes, Joanna (Joanna) and Felicja (How to be loved) are continuously bothered not only by the Germans, but also by the gaze of their neighbours, family, representatives of underground organisations, and peer courts, which become an emanation of the power of the Other.

The recalled abject dimension was perversely emphasized in the film by Has, How to be loved. Felicja’s experience is juxtaposed with the heroic fate of the man encountered on her journey. During the war, as a pilot he flew high, as opposed to the “mundane” battle of Felicja who—as she claims—was not made to fly. Moreover, the contrast between sublimity and dirt is emphasized by the man’s profession: he is an epidemiologist, a specialist in the prevention of contagious diseases.

 

Erasing

 

Erasing offspring is solely a consequence or side effect of removing abject protagonists and cleansing the historical narrative. The disappearance has either a symbolic (in the form of silence or isolation) or physical dimension (death), which is also subject to the principle of absence since, according to Elżbieta Ostrowska, cinema avoids representations of women’s deaths on screen.[34] Joanna (Joanna) dissolves in the Tatra mist, where she will surely freeze to death. Biedronka (Warsaw ’44) and Niteczka (The Columbuses) die out of frame. Rose disappears: first she is moved to the private sphere where Tadeusz takes care of her, and later she dies.

The abject is expelled beyond the symbolic and social order that is responsible for identity and order and becomes subject to the law of the symbolic Other.[35] Its principles are reproduced through depictions and methods of describing historical events in which the given community recognizes itself. Rape, as an abject, while seeking its position in the symbolic order, becomes part of this order under two paradoxical conditions. The first of these corresponds to Lacan’s order of metonymy, i.e. striving to evade the forbidden object (abject) and multiply its depictions as if in its stead. The metonymy principle, which remains outside of symbolic depiction, corresponds to absence, concealment, and lack. Another mode of expression is transforming the unwanted object into a metaphor. In historical narratives, which are strongly subjected to a patriarchal dictate, this figure is responsible for the disempowerment of women and of the deprivation of their agency. They are thus limited to metaphors: instruments that humiliate the national community, means of the symbolic castration of its male representatives or, at best, symbols of the tortured homeland. For all these reasons, women are reduced in the symbolical order to the role of passive, disempowered victims.

The order of metonymy multiplies representations according to the principle of adding or speaking “instead of”, because “the Other (…) continues to resist the speaking subject, throws a spanner in its works”.[36] Metonymical multiplication characterizes Life Taken as it depicts the fates of two women of which only the suffering of one deserves holiness, while the other is isolated and stigmatized with shame. As Felicja from How to be loved says, the protagonists who have suffered trauma “hide behind the decorations” so their place can be taken by those who possess features more appropriate for the collective narrative. Rose saves her daughter from rape; she will marry Tadeusz at the altar and give herself into his care. Zosia from The Gateway of Europe remains pure, solely becoming a witness to Ira’s suffering. In Manhunt, the sexually abused Pestka, betrayer of the insurgents, saves her younger sister, a 16-year-old imprisoned by the Gestapo for distributing leaflets. According to Nancy Isenberg, “the creation of true womanhood is always contrasted to the countervailing notion of female vice: submission is contrasted to superiority, piety to heresy and irreligion, purity to pollution, and domesticity to disorderly public behaviour”.[37] Thus, the traumatized female body is replaced with one that guarantees the retention of national order and community.

The metonymical replacement also allows us to replace the image of the raped with the image of a suffering man or his heroic act. In Rose, the death of the protagonist and the rapes she experiences become the reason for Tadeusz’s suffering and stimulus to show his indomitable attitude. In Life Taken, despite the martyr’s death of Kózkówna and the rape of Teresa, it is the suffering of the blessed’s father that takes the central place in the film and is exposed in its final sequences. In The Columbuses, Niteczka sacrifices herself for the boy called Kolumb and, in order to keep him alive, pursues the rapist. After a montage cut, Kolumb, woken from delirium, crawls up the stairs to escape the basement in which Niteczka had hidden him. Instead of her suffering we have a scene reminiscent of the path to Golgotha, at the end of which the protagonist finds the girl’s dead body. The rape scene (or rather its suggestion) in Warsaw ’44 has a similar structure. Following the scene in which a repugnant pervert, a member of the Dirlewanger brigade, inspects Biedronka from head to toe, there is a cut to the part dedicated to Stefan’s escape across the destroyed city and his dramatic reaction to the girl’s death. The story ends with the vision of the boy (who likely survived) recalling the image of the already dead protagonist. We can also find similar metonymical theft in The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, in which the rape of Wiśka leads to the death of one of her defenders. Instead of the protagonist’s story, we are presented the story of the impact of her sacrifice and indomitability on her beloved, while she herself appears as Marcin’s vision and a prick of conscience. In Sekal has to die, despite the film’s criticism of the degeneration of the patriarchal system, it is the suffering of Sekal, who is in love with Agnieszka, that is exposed—not the suffering of the girl who is raped upon his orders behind closed doors.

 

Metaphor

 

The figure of the metaphor, consisting in intensification and juxtaposition of sense, includes the female protagonists in the symbolic order, i.e. the traditional historical narrative. They are reduced to a symbol; they disappear in the allegory taken from religious repertoire. According to Hans Mayer, “Theological allegoresis and allegorical meaning relegate history. (…) Allegorisation means the annihilation of the individual”.[38] Protagonists subjected to metaphysical transgression and religious purification are transformed into religious allegory (The Gateway of Europe, Joanna), or the desexualized figure of a mother (The Ring with a Crowned Eagle). In Joanna, the protagonist actively fights for survival, but her sublimity is ensured by the final scene (stylized as the Assumption)[39] in which the protagonist becomes a victim—silent, hounded, disappearing into the whiteness of the clouds. Ira from The Gateway of Europe is returned to her friends on a horse after the rape, clothed in a red robe. On the one hand, the red of the coat reminds us of a courtesan’s clothes, on the other, of the scarlet coat of Christ insulted by Jews.[40] In both films, the protagonists are reduced to victims and disarmed, but in the religious context their images hide a certain contradiction: apart from her sublimity, Joanna is also a suicide, and Ira’s naked breast becomes the source of her shame and degradation.

The same religious context is also offered to raped protagonists by purification through desexualisation and transformation in the allegory of maternity. This principle works, among others, in The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, Life Taken, or The Columbuses, as often noted by researchers analysing the presence of women in historical narratives.[41] The escape from sexuality, however, makes it impossible to deliberate upon sexual violence and pushes it into the sphere of silence.

At the same time, however, the films discussed here present a feminine version of heroism that, in spite of the aforementioned operations, does not merely realize the victim model. At the centre of the cited stories are women who are heroic, active, and who resist the enemy, marking their presence in the historical narrative. This aspect is often overlooked due to the aforementioned strategies that downgrade female protagonists as part of the community story. Analysing the masochism of female protagonists (and potential female viewers) that dominates in film melodramas, Linda Williams pointed out that it is possible to interpret films in this genre oppositely to the victim pattern inscribed in them. According to the researcher, the pathos contained in the films does not merely lead to identification with the victim and her masochism, but is also an encouragement to “a complex negotiation between emotion and thought”.[42] War narratives with women in lead roles also welcome critical reception rather than simply identifying oneself with the position of a victim. The resistance that the female protagonists of traditional historical stories put up in spite of everything may end up forming an introduction to their taking a place in the heroic narrative, provided that the symbolic field of these stories is reformulated.

 

Without shame

 

In one of the scenes from How to be loved, the German officer shows the café employees a wanted notice which threatens anybody hiding a fugitive with the death penalty. Special words addressed to Felicja are “I would like to emphasize that, according to what is written here, you are also a person”. This short exchange underscores the relationship between subjectivity and agency. As much as the protagonist maintains her subjectivity, the context in which she has to act brings her—as she says—respect in her eyes only.

The analysed films rarely present a semblance of community which would also enable privileges from the creators of collective memory. In The Gateway of Europe, it is the group of sympathetic nuns who wash their raped friend together. We can perceive this simply as a symbolic ritual, or as an emphatic community that is unhindered by shame. In The Innocents, the women create a support group with various opinions and life goals, which—as the film suggests—allows them to abandon their traumatic experience and find acceptance in the group. Also, Felicja appeals to the community, reaching a wide audience each week through her radio program. She works on social awareness, correcting on her own the radio drama scripts by referring to her personal experiences. Instead of condemning an illegitimate child (as in the script), she points to the common nature of such events. Another voice addressed to the public is the memoirs of Ola Watowa concerning her exile to Kazakhstan during WWII, which were adapted by Robert Gliński in All That Really Matters… (1992).

Surpassing the story of shame is the condition for heroic narrative and hence the need for the creation of an alternative collective memory based on an accepting community which would award heroines instead of seeking religious redemption for them. Thus, the victim status would not degrade female protagonists and would not mark them with shame. In the Polish symbolic field, a raped woman is subject to very strong victimisation; hence, it is impossible to avoid analytical thought focused on this particular aspect. At the same time, it is worth paying attention to the elements that give empowerment and agency back to the victims: using rape as self-defence or with the intention of saving a loved one, active participation in the battle, talking about the rape on their own terms, bearing offspring, creating an accepting and empathic community, or even the status of the abject, which undermines the dominant symbolic narrative. All these aspects fail to meet the criteria that traditional historical stories require of women, hence the problem with their expression in the aforementioned depictions. In spite of victimising and disempowering film strategies, the presence of the abovementioned motifs—even if only partial—may show the direction for future depictions. Leaving the sphere of privacy, referring to the authenticity of experience, or accepting agency free from punishment: all are a path toward appreciating the specifically female experience. The process of co-creating the story of the past, in which sexual violence would not degrade its victims, is a long one because it assumes the evolution of all actors involved in the undertaking, which is involved in building a collective memory.

 

References

 

Czermińska Małgorzata, “O dwuznaczności sytuacji ofiary” / “On the ambiguity of the victim’s situation”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością. Polski dyskurs postzależnościowy – konteksty i perspektywy badawcze / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011).

Diken Bülent, Laustsen Carsten Bagge, “Becoming Abject: Rape as a Weapon of War”, Body & Society 1, vol 11 (2005).

Domańska Ewa, “O poznawczym uprzywilejowaniu ofiary (uwagi metodologiczne)” / “On cognitive privileges of the victim (methodological remarks)”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, ed. Hanna Gosk, (Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa) (2008).

Dybel Paweł, Urwane Ścieżki. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan / Broken Paths. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan, (Kraków: Universitas) (2000).

Gosk Hanna, “(Nie)obecność opowieści o wstydzie w narracji losu polskiego” / “The absence of the story of shame in the narrative of Polish fate”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… /  Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011).

Hashamova Yana, “War Rape: (Re)defining Motherhood, Fatherhood and Nationhood”, in: Embracing Arms: Cultural Representation of Slavic and Balkan Women in War, ed. Helena Goscilo, (New York: Central European University Press) (2012).

Isenberg Nancy, “Second Thoughts on Gender and Women’s History”, American Studies 1, vol. 36 (1995).

Jarska Natalia, “Women and Men at War. A Gender Perspective on World War II and its Aftermath in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Maren Röger, Ruth Leiserowitzn (review)”, Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość. Pismo naukowe poświęcone historii najnowszej 2 (2014).

Karwowska Bożena, “«Kult ofiary» w oczach polskich pisarek emigrantek a «kult ocaleńca» w refleksji krytycznej na temat dyskursów wyzwoleńczych” / “«The cult of the victim» seen by Polish migrant female writers and «the cult of the survivor» in critical reflection on liberation discourses” in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… /   Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011).

Karwowska Bożena, “Zatarte sensy prozy łagrowej: Seweryny Szmaglewskiej «Dymy nad Birkenau» wtedy i dziś” / “The blurred senses of labour camp prose: Seweryna Szmaglewska «Smoke over Birkenau» then and now”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, ed. Hanna Gosk, (Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa) (2008).

Kristeva Julia, Powers of horror. An essay of abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York: Columbia University Press) (1982)

Laplanche Jean, Pontalis J.-B., Słownik psychoanalizy / Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, trans. Ewa Modzelewska, Ewa Wojciechowska, (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Szkolne i Pedagogiczne) (1996).

Mazierska Ewa, Ostrowska Elżbieta, Women in Polish Cinema, (New York: Berghahn Books) (2006).

Mayer Hans, Odmieńcy / Outsiders, trans. Anna Kryczyńska,  (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Literackie Muza) (2005).

Morstin Agnieszka, “Mocne filmy i głębokie kompleksy. Róża Wojtka Smarzowskiego wobec Jak być kochaną Wojciecha J. Hasa” / „Strong Films and Deep Complexes. Rose by Wojtek Smarzowski compared with How to be loved by Wojciech J. Has”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 77-78 (2012).

Morstin-Popławska Agnieszka, “Ziemie odzyskana – życia utracone. O Roku spokojnego słońca Krzysztofa Zanussiego” / “Reclaimed land – lost life. On  A Year of the Quiet Sun by Krzysztof Zanussi”, in: Kino polskie wobec II wojny światowej / Polish cinema and WWII, ed. Piotr Zwierzchowski, Daria Mazur, Mariusz Guzek, (Bydgoszcz: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Kazimierza Wielkiego) (2011).

Nussbaum Martha C., Hiding from Humanity. Disgust, Shame, and the Law, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2004).

Ostrowska Elżbieta, “Invisible Deaths: Polish Cinema’s Representation of Women in World War II”, in: Embracing Arms: Cultural Representation of Slavic and Balkan Women in War, ed. Helena Goscilo, (New York: Central European University Press) (2012).

Ostrowska-Chmura Elżbieta, “Polka – dumny przedmiot pożądania” / “Pole – a proud object of desire”, in: Ciało i seksualność w kinie polskim / Sexuality and the Body in Polish Cinema, ed. Sebastian Jagielski, Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2009).

Röger Maren, “(Nie)codzienność podczas niemieckiej okupacji w zachodniej i wschodniej Europie: prostytucja, stosunki intymne i «dzieci wojny» we Francji, Belgii i w Polsce” / „(Not)everyday life during German occupation in Western and Eastern Europe: prostitution, intimate relations and “war children” in France, Belgium and Poland”, trans. Katarzyna Chimiak, in: Okupowana Europa. Podobieństwa i różnice / Occupied Europe. Similarities and differences, ed. Waldemar Grabowski, (Warszawa: IPN) (2014).

Sokołowska-Paryż Marzena, “War Rape: Trauma and the Ethics of Representation”, in: Traumatic Memories of the Second World War and After, ed. Peter Leese, Jason Crouthamel, (New York: Springer International Publishing) (2016).

Thompson Paul, The Voice of the Past. Oral History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1988).

Zwierzchowski Piotr, Spektakl i ideologia. Szkice o filmowych wyobrażeniach śmierci heroicznej / Spectacle and ideology. Sketches on film conceptions of heroic death, (Kraków: Rabid) (2006).

Williams Linda, “Melodrama Revisited”, in: Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. N. Browne, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (1998).

 

[1] Piotr Zwierzchowski, Spektakl i ideologia. Szkice o filmowych wyobrażeniach śmierci heroicznej / Spectacle and ideology. Sketches on film conceptions of heroic death, (Kraków: Rabid) (2006), p. 184.

[2] Natalia Jarska, “Women and Men at War. A Gender Perspective on World War II and its Aftermath in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Maren Röger, Ruth Leiserowitzn (review)”, Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość. Pismo naukowe poświęcone historii najnowszej 2  (2014), p. 505.

[3] Ibid., p. 510

[4] Bożena Karwowska,  “Zatarte sensy prozy łagrowej: Seweryny Szmaglewskiej «Dymy nad Birkenau» wtedy i dziś” / “The blurred senses of labour camp prose: Seweryna Szmaglewska «Smoke over Birkenau» then and now”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, ed. Hanna Gosk, (Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa) (2008), p. 253.

[5] We rarely encounter war images that present the rape of men (Kornblumenblau, 1988, dir. Leszek Wosiewicz). In Polish cinema, we can indicate homosexual or heterosexual survival prostitution (Kornblumenblau, 1988, dir. Leszek Wosiewicz) (Down Carrier, 1983, dir. Stefan Szlachtycz and Warsaw: Year5703, 1992, dir. Janusz Kijowski) that is related to this experience.

[6] Bülent Diken, Carsten Bagge Laustsen, “Becoming Abject: Rape as a Weapon of War”, Body & Society 1, vol 11 (2005), p. 112.

[7] Natalia Jarska, op. cit., p. 506.

[8] Yana Hashamova, “War Rape: (Re)defining Motherhood, Fatherhood and Nationhood”, in: Embracing Arms: Cultural Representation of Slavic and Balkan Women in War, ed. Helena Goscilo, (New York: Central European University Press) (2012), p. 235.

[9] Marzena Sokołowska-Paryż, “War Rape: Trauma and the Ethics of Representation”, in: Traumatic Memories of the Second World War and After, ed. Peter Leese, Jason Crouthamel, (New York: Springer International Publishing) (2016), p. 223.

[10] Ewa Domańska, “O poznawczym uprzywilejowaniu ofiary (uwagi metodologiczne)” / “On cognitive privileges of the victim (methodological remarks)”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, op. cit., p. 32.

[11] Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska, “Ziemie odzyskana – życia utracone. O Roku spokojnego słońca Krzysztofa Zanussiego” / “Reclaimed land – lost life. On A Year of the Quiet Sun by Krzysztof Zanussi”, in: Kino polskie wobec II wojny światowej / Polish cinema and WWII, ed. Piotr Zwierzchowski, Daria Mazur, Mariusz Guzek, (Bydgoszcz: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Kazimierza Wielkiego) (2011), p. 223.

[12] Bożena Karwowska, “Zatarte sensy prozy łagrowej…” / “The blurred senses of labour camp prose…”, op. cit., p. 263.

[13] Hans Mayer, Outsiders, trans. Anna Kryczyńska,  (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Literackie Muza) (2005), p. 75.

[14] Małgorzata Czermińska, “O dwuznaczności sytuacji ofiary” / “On the ambiguity of the victim’s situation”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością. Polski dyskurs postzależnościowy – konteksty i perspektywy badawcze / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011), p. 94.

[15] Martha C. Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity. Disgust, Shame, and the Law, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2004), p. 229.

[16] Ibid., p. 176-177.

[17] Hanna Gosk, “(Nie)obecność opowieści o wstydzie w narracji losu polskiego” / “The absence of the story of shame in the narrative of Polish fate”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past…, op. cit., p. 90.

[18] Ewa Domańska, op. cit., p. 24.

[19] Agnieszka Morstin compares Rose by Wojciech Smarzowski with How to be loved by Wojciech J. Has; she emphasizes the role of the subjective narrative used in the latter film as a strategy for abandoning the victim status. See: Agnieszka Morstin, “Mocne filmy i głębokie kompleksy…” / “Strong Films and Deep Complexes. Rose by Wojtek Smarzowski compared with How to be loved by Wojciech J. Has”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 77-78 (2012), p. 206.

[20] Bożena Karwowska, “«Kult ofiary» w oczach polskich pisarek emigrantek a «kult ocaleńca» w refleksji krytycznej na temat dyskursów wyzwoleńczych” / “«The cult of the victim» seen by Polish migrant female writers and «the cult of the survivor» in critical reflection on liberation discourses” in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past…, op. cit. p. 327.

[21] Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past. Oral History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1988), p. 26.

[22] Ibid., p. 28.

[23] The recollections of Zofia Wańkowiczówna were used by her grandson, Melchior Wańkowicz, to create the short story titled Hospital in Cichinicze. Based on this story, Jerzy Wójcik made the film The Gateway of Europe.

[24] Elżbieta Ostrowska writes in detail about the adaptive changes and femininity under the rule of nationalist ideology (Elżbieta Ostrowska-Chmura, “Polka – dumny przedmiot pożądania” / “Pole – a proud object of desire”, in: Ciało i seksualność w kinie polskim / Sexuality and the Body in Polish Cinema, ed. Sebastian Jagielski, Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2009), p. 139-153).

[25] Yana Hashamova, op. cit., p. 235.

[26] Maren Roger, “(Nie)codzienność podczas niemieckiej okupacji w zachodniej i wschodniej Europie: prostytucja, stosunki intymne i «dzieci wojny» we Francji, Belgii i w Polsce” / „(Not)everyday life during German occupation in Western and Eastern Europe: prostitution, intimate relations and “war children” in France, Belgium and Poland”, trans. Katarzyna Chimiak, in: Okupowana Europa. Podobieństwa i różnice / Occupied Europe. Similarities and differences, ed. Waldemar Grabowski, (Warszawa: IPN) (2014), p. 77.

[27] Ibid., p. 87.

[28] Elżbieta Ostrowska, “Invisible Deaths: Polish Cinema’s Representation of Women in World War II”, in: Embracing Arms…, op cit., p. 56.

[29] Julia Kristeva, Powers of horror. An essay of abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York: Columbia University Press) (1982), p. 4.

[30] Ibid., p. 16.

[31] Bülent Diken, Carsten Bagge Laustsen, op. cit., p. 117.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Julia Kristeva, op. cit., p. 10.

[34] See Elżbieta Ostrowska, “Invisible Deaths…”, op. cit., p. 30.

[35] Jean Laplanche, J.-B. Pontalis, Słownik psychoanalizy / Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, trans. Ewa Modzelewska, Ewa Wojciechowska, (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Szkolne i Pedagogiczne) (1996), p. 317.

[36]  Paweł Dybel, Urwane Ścieżki. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan / Broken Paths. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan, (Kraków: Universitas) (2000), p. 268.

[37] Nancy Isenberg, “Second Thoughts on Gender and Women’s History”, American Studies 1, vol. 36 (1995), p. 99.

[38] Hans Mayer, op. cit., p. 74 and 77.

[39] The vertical direction can be found also in such films as: The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, The Columbuses, Life Taken.

[40] Elżbieta Ostrowska describes this scene as “a feminine allegory of Poland”. See: Elżbieta Ostrowska-Chmura, „Polka – dumny przedmiot…” / „Pole – a proud object…”, op. cit., p. 148.

[41] See Ewa Mazierska, Elżbieta Ostrowska, Women in Polish Cinema, (New York: Berghahn Books) (2006), p. 15-54.

[42] Linda Williams, “Melodrama Revisited”, in: Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. N. Browne, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (1998), p. 49.

Eat like a Republican and you won’t get AIDS – a conversation with Barbara Hammer

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 150-160.

 

Andrzej Pitrus

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Eat like a Republican and you won’t get AIDS

– a conversation with Barbara Hammer

 

 

Andrzej Pitrus: In 2009 I had the honor to speak to Jonas Mekas. Many people consider him the father of American avant-garde. Do you agree?

Barbara Hammer: I don’t agree. Should I tell you why?

Yes, sure.

I think Jonas Mekas did a lot to contribute to avant-garde film in the United States and internationally, but in terms of American avant-garde, I think we have to look to Maya Deren, and even before – to James Sibley Watson, his Fall of the House of Usher in 1928. His Lot in Sodom was shown,—I was shocked to read this—in Times Square in 1933 without any censorship at all.

Before Mekas there were many American experimental filmmakers, but he was a person  promoted their works. Of course I asked Jonas: “Do you feel more Lithuanian or American?” He answered “No, I’m not American, I’m from New York. When I go outside the city, I’m a foreigner again.”

I also asked him for his definition of experimental film and he said: “There’s no such thing! Scientists make experiments, I don’t really believe that there’s something like experimental film”. It was a difficult conversation in a way. I wonder if you agree with him?

I definitely think there’s something like experimental film. In Sanctus (1990), which is composed of moving x-rays of a human body that Dr. James Sibley Watson showed in the 50s, my experiment was to try to put a halo around the body, the skeletons, and to use secondary colors, like orange, lavender, turquoise, not red, blue and yellow. I wanted a subtle celebration of the bones and organs with these muted colors. If you look inside the interior of the body, which is mostly water, and see organs floating around, it seems very quiet and meditative. I wanted to celebrate the body, not the way we usually see it. That was an experiment, I had to do many trials, and fail, and try again, to get everything the way I wanted it… So I think there is experimental film, yes.

I was quite ‘disappointed’ with his answer, because what I do for living is teach experimental film. Should I quit my job?

Mekas replaced this idea with a notion of ‘cinema of the authors’. He said, “I’m an author, I’m a person, who, in a way, uses a camera like a pen”.

He is speaking for his own kind of cinema. He doesn’t see his work as experimental. After all, I don’t know what the word is in English… ” a writer of images”.

How do you see yourself in the tradition of the American avant-garde? In your early career you made a film on Stan Brakhage. Unfortunately I haven’t seen it. Then, you made another film about his wife, so I wonder if Brakhage is important for you and in which way?

Thank you for that question. I was very drawn to international film. When I was just 30 years old, I saw Bergman’s movie with subtitles and I thought, “Oh, here’s intellectual cinema”. Then, I went to Cinematheque in San Francisco and I saw Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man (1961-1964), in which he walks up a mountain to cut down a tree. It’s more than 60 minutes long, I think, and it changed my world view. When I left the cinema theatre, I saw the street around me, the lights, the trees growing, the pavement differently. That was fascinating to me. I also was taking a class where we saw everything Brakhage made up until then. An early film dedicated to Brakhage is The Song of a Clinking Cup (1972). It’s not ever been transferred from 8mm, so there’s no way you could probably see it. I’ve never shown it.

Yes, it is very hard to find.

Jane Brakhage was my thesis film, and it only exists in 16mm. We are writing some grants to get money for digitizers so it can be made available. Another film that hasn’t been released is an interview I did with her parents asking about her relationship with Stan, as well as herself of course, and this exists as a video transferred to DVD, but it hasn’t been edited, so I want to go back and work on it. I think I will call it Jane Brakhage, too or Jane Brankhage Two.

Speaking about Brakhage… Maya Deren, who’s certainly important for you, once said that his film about his baby being born was too much. I wonder if you agree with it?

This is amazing, because Window Water Baby Moving (1959) is exactly why I made Jane Brakhage, but I never knew Maya Deren had any commentary about it. Where did she say that?

I am not sure, but I have found these words of Brakhage himself: ‘It was Maya Deren’s contention that the film was a blasphemy… because it permitted men to see what they’re not supposed to see’. 

In Window Water Baby Moving he shows childbirth in a very explicit way.  And it was made in the late 50s when it wasn’t that common not only to share images of childbirth on film, but also for a father to participate in it.

We can thank him for that film and for another, when he went to the morgue to capture The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I really objected to that birth film, especially after I met Jane Brakhage, because he shows her as an earth goddess: you see her in a bathtub with her pregnant belly and she’s celebrated as if she was on a pedestal, as if she was extraordinary in terms of mythology. So I decided I wanted to meet her. We invited Stan and Jane to the San Francisco State University, where I was a graduate student. She was so not a goddess; she was a very practical person. She collected seeds from trees in San Francisco when we were walking to the school, and she was going to plant them and see if they would grow. I made my thesis film on her and I went to Colorado, high up in the mountains in Rollinsville, and I found the most amazing woman. She wrote an alphabet of dog language. She could play on her recorder songs to the birds and they would answer her. She put out the laundry and then opened her hand without any food in it and birds landed on it. She took a walk through the snow—I was there in January—and her donkey and goats, besides her dogs, followed us on the walk. She was an extraordinary woman, who was abused in a way by Stan Brakhage.  He talked all day, she had to sit there and listen to him.

And also she had to be in his films!

And she didn’t get credit! Who shot him when he was cutting down the tree? It was Jane Brakhage, she told me.

There was a problem with his second wife, who didn’t want to be filmed. So he started making non-camera films, painting and scratching, and once he said that this was because his second wife didn’t really want to be shown, especially giving birth or having sex with him…

Well, I think he was being clever, because he did make Mothlight (1964) a year before which is a cameraless film though not hand painted or scratched; it’s a wonderful film. He takes moths and takes their wings and puts them on celluloid—16mm film—and then has it re-photographed in a lab, so you are seeing moths ‘flying’, bringing reality into projection in a way nobody had done before.

We’ve just watched Dyketactics (1974). It was made when the approach to explicit sex on the screen changed. On one hand, there’s your experimental film, and on the other there’s Deep Throat (1972), a mainstream porn flick and a feature film at the same time. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the sex in Dyketactics is said to be staged, so there’s no pleasure involved. How it is to stage a sex scene?

I think it’s wonderful to perform… In my opinion, when you’re shooting sex, it’s always staged, it’s always a performance. In terms of shooting sex without performance I guess you could put a camera on the wall and let it run for a week, and maybe you would forget it. But I think there’s pleasure in performance and there can be pleasure in a stage set, but you’re very aware of the camera being there, and besides, with the Bolex you only get 19 feet, so it’s going to stop. You can giggle and then wind it again. Anyway, I’m in the film and I’m directing it, so I know it was staged, I know it was pleasurable. I had the idea that the best shot in the film is the most intimate. The Bolex can run by itself, so you wind it and you put it between the two bodies and you just take your hand away. It shoots the scene of the two women pulling their hands up along the body. You have three-dimensionality, depth, sensuality, hand touching. If I may interject, my cinema is about connecting touch and sight. It was perfect to make the screen a sexual haptic experience, so I hope the audience feel in their bodies what they see with their eyes. My research shows that we all touch as infants before we see. For two months your eyes don’t focus. That’s why I have 110 images in these four minutes, and every image has a sense of touch in it.

Dyketactics was certainly a breakthrough and probably the first arthouse film in which an explicit lesbian sex scene is shown. But obviously, before that there were many pornographic films with both heterosexual and homosexual scenes. This was a very important and interesting moment, because in the 70s porn films went mainstream, and at the same time, there were also people who wanted to use pornography in a different way. Do you believe it is possible to use pornography in a decent, proper way and make some kind of value out of it?

When you say “a proper way”, do you mean for pleasure, for sexual arousal?

Actually no… Mainstream pornography is an exploitation of mostly female bodies and female sexuality made for men’s pleasure. But there were feminists who wanted to redefine pornography. I’m asking this question, because your film is certainly not pornography in a proper sense, but it is as explicit as some well-known, soft-core pornography films. The borderline is really obscure.

This is a fun question. We could probably talk about it for hours. I have no objection to people being stimulated in whatever way they want: visually, texturally, with their imagination or with the real thing, but I think I was very concerned that my work would not be possible to voyeur. So when you come to some other films, like Nitrate Kisses (1992), when you have four different couples making love throughout the feature documentary, I make sure that I interrupt the film. There’s the rupture, not only to show the loss of gay history, which was my intention, but also to say that this film was not made for sexual pleasure and stimulation, although it’s ok with me if you are stimulated. The whole film is about censorship of queer history, but when I looked at my own community I had to ask: what are we censoring? We’re censoring the sexual practices of old women—we never see them on the screen—or black and white couples, or young women who shave their heads and tattoo their bodies. We’re censoring sadomasochistic sex practices—this was at the time of the sex wars in the feminist community. I wanted to say: “hey, we’re not holier than you,  we have our own censorship”.

I really enjoyed your Menses (1974), because it’s so affirmative. In many films or feminist performances the problem of menstruation was shown as a kind of a curse. I don’t really know much about it, I wish I could…

I encourage students and filmmakers to make work that is gender specific.  For example, many times when I’m teaching I have young Caucasian men in my class… I haven’t seen a film of a wet dream yet! There are different expressions that our gendered bodies have, so I’m happy to tell you about menstruation.

The girls who are buying massive amounts of tampax and stuff… It is funny and affirmative. This is a kind of radical happening, but like nothing else on the subject.

I made that film because I had seen Walt Disney films. When we were children, the girls were separated from the boys to see films about menstruation. It was all about flowers, it wasn’t at all about the experience of dripping blood between your legs. There are some serious points in Menses. For instance, I researched menstruation in history. I had a slumber party and I shared my research with the young women who are in the film, and one of my sources was from the Roman author Pliny, who said that if a woman is menstruating and she touches a pregnant horse, its milk will go sour. Historically, women have been banned in different cultures during menstruation: you have to go to a house outside the village. That the impetus plus my own personal history with my mother telling me about menstruation—which she didn’t—that made me make that film.

Another film made in the 70s, Superdyke (1975), is also funny. It shows girls attacking institutions and taking over. But I wonder if experimental or avant-garde cinema is the best ‘weapon’ for an activist? Once a German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder said that he had realized the audience he wanted to address really enjoyed melodramas and Hollywood film rather than his revolutionary works. So, in a way, his avant-garde and experimental cinema made very little sense. People he wanted to reach preferred mainstream culture. You make experimental films, and you are probably seen as an activist…

I’m functioning as a visual artist.  I can make what I want if I’m self-funding my films. I think I made my films out of my own pocket for 15 years at least. So I have to be giving myself pleasure, I have to be doing what I want for the reasons that I have, and they don’t necessarily have anything to do with activism. My audience is the same as Fassbinder’s: they want a narrative, they want a lesbian happy ending. In the 70s or the 80s, the queer audience wasn’t used to experimental film any more than the straight audience. I can’t say that my films were always well attended. Sometimes they were, when my name became known or if there were a celebration and we could dance afterwards. The times were different then. The thing is, Fassbinder isn’t alive today, and I am. So I’m wondering about his change of direction. You see what I mean? If we don’t do what really pleases us, maybe we get depressed and choose an ending.

What killed him was drugs and alcohol…

But we can ask – why the drugs and alcohol?

In Women I Love (1976) you used slightly different imagery. In the early films you were explicit, and I think at that time it could be quite shocking to some people. Then, in Women I Love you opt for Georgia O’Keefe-style imagery, more metaphorical and poetical: fruits and vegetables evoking sexual organs.

You could say that the film Women I Love was in 1976, just two years after Dyketactics, and then in ‘93 I’m showing explicit sexuality again. In History Lessons in 2000 I’m showing pornography of lesbians made by men. I don’t think there’s some adverse reaction that I was having toward sexual expression. I was interested in animation, and also these were six or seven of my lovers that I had no intention of making a film about. When I started, I was just shooting our relationship without intention to put it in a film for others.  Then it seemed to me on one rainy day, when there was nothing to do but make a film, that each woman could represent a different fruit or vegetable. I only had that material that I had shot to work with, and that became Women I Love.

You mentioned lesbian pornography made by men. I wonder why it is so popular among men to watch lesbian pornography.

Well, I have to ask you that! But let me talk about History Lesson, if I may. I made three feature documentaries about ideas rather than a person or persons. These are essay films. They’re all about queer history. After Nitrate Kisses (1992), I made a post-postmodern autobiography called Tender Fictions (1995), and that was followed by History Lessons (2000). If you look for lesbian cinema when I started making film there wasn’t any and I felt that we needed to have a foundation to build our culture.  My plan was that I would take what was already there: medical films made about lesbians, educational films—‘oh, don’t let your daughter get to close to her schoolmate’—and pornography made by men. Going back to the 1920s, I found pornographic film and made a comedy out of those. My idea is that these manmade negative or fantastical ideas of what lesbian sex was like could be our history—and that became very queer as I took something that already existed, turned it around, made it malleable and flexible, and reclaimed it. That’s making queer cinema space, and I didn’t have that language for it when I made it, but I knew I wanted to make a foundation of what was there and I could do it through being humorous.

Heterosexual men would never go and watch homosexual pornography with males, but on the other hand many of them would enjoy lesbian scenes in pornography. Why?

Because if they watched male homosexual sexuality, that might implicate them, but a woman—soft, gentle and a lesbian? Maybe they could convince her to have sex with them. It isn’t threatening, it doesn’t threaten their masculine construction. You and I were brought up by our parents, school and educational system. You and I could have exactly the same feelings if we were brought up in a non-sexist environment. I think it’s possible and I think young people today are experiencing that. It’s not about me changing the world, it’s about the world changing.

Today your visit is really important. You probably know that in 2015 Poles elected a new government. Quite a disaster, I think. Our new minister of higher education once said that we had ‘to do something’ with all those gender studies, because they are not a real academic subject. I am quite concerned since I am an academic and I do deal with gender studies a lot.

Just a few days ago, there was a huge conflict over abortion. You probably know that the Polish law is quite restrictive at the moment, but there was a fight in the Polish Parliament over the right to abortion. The party called Prawo i Sprawiedliwość that has a majority there wanted to ban it completely. Even if the child is an effect of a rape or is dead, not able to live, or has severe medical issues, you cannot abort. You said once that we still have to fight for feminist issues; if we win, then feminism is not necessary. How do you see Poland in this context?

On one hand it is shocking what the government is prescribing in the legislature, and on the other hand it is amazing to the world to see the activism of the public, 24,000 on the streets, men and women. Men can be feminists too. I know more demonstrations were planned, because my Polish friends are directly involved in that. The power of the people on the streets can immediately change the minds of mostly men in the legislature to reconsider. And it did! I think it’s very successful. Feminism is certainly still necessary and not only in Poland, but in every country on this small planet. We haven’t arrived. Certainly you know that.

I think it’s successful, but on the other hand I also have some doubts about it. Maybe they really didn’t want to change the law in the first place, but just played it to make people come to the streets and protest. Abortion has always been a ‘replacement topic’ in Poland. Now they can say, “Well, we are listening to you! You will have what you want”.

I don’t think they’re that smart.

They’re not too smart in one way, and very smart in another. Well, I’m not sure if they are listening, but if they are, they are going shut Mocak down pretty soon.

That really surprises and shocks me and it’s the first time I’ve heard that so I don’t know what to say, except to listen to you and be open. Maybe that’s possible, but I have the feeling that if the legislature hasn’t changed and they really haven’t fixed the law—yet it is too soon to see—that it could become a global imperative, that people from all over Europe, Australia, the southeast Asia, the US, South America would be come to Poland to protest. I had this vision. I think it will happen if things aren’t changed.

Let’s hope so. I think that the people who protested were really honest, but the government knows the statistics: over seventy percent of Polish society does not expect change in the abortion law. They support the status quo. Yet, some Polish people are more progressive and they want abortion on demand. But only some of them.

My next question is related to a film that I really like. It’s called Pools (1981) and it’s really different, since it does not seem to have a feminist subject. But underneath there’s something, because actually it’s a film about a female architect who designed this strange palace for ‘Citizen Kane’. In this film you manipulate the film stock. What made you interested in the very substance of cinema?

I began to identify as an artist when I was 27 and when I was 30 I was taking a painting class. I thought I’d be a painter. My teacher came up to me and said, “You are more interested in movement than you are in putting the paint on the canvas”. Our subject was a woman on a motorcycle. She came right into the studio and I painted her with four arms and four legs. I’d never seen Duchamp, I didn’t know that much about art at the time. In any case, that’s what he told me and he brought in some clear film without any image on it and a projector, and he told me I could paint on the film, so I started painting and projecting the painted film onto the canvas. Then I started painting with fluorescent paint and used a black light that I would turn on and off during projection so the images would flicker. I think he was right: I used to paint all the way around the room.

In Pools though it was a different technique.  I made the film with Barbara Klutinis whose work as a still photographer who hand painted her photographs I appreciated.  We took stills during the shoot at the swimming pools at the Hearst Castel and we filmed with stop motion our hand painting of the printed black and white photographs later in my studio.  Of course, this led to some abstractions of the original photographic image.

Do you feel attached to this tradition of abstraction?

I love abstraction, but I don’t feel attached to it.

I was thinking about Stan Brakhage. His handmade films were like Jackson Pollock’s paintings in miniature…

Yes, I love many of those films. But societal injustices often pull me back from abstraction.  For example, in Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS (1986), I’m talking about media and how it has distorted the truth. For instance, I found bumper stickers in the United States that say “Eat like a Republican and you won’t get AIDS”… Really crazy things. “Don’t let your hairdresser sneeze on you”. Full of stereotypes. In 1985  I turned to a critical cinema that was led not by my body, but by my mind. There are stages in the entire body of my oeuvre and I think those changes should be considered  when an idea is addressed.

Sanctus (1990) is based on x-ray film. You discovered it in Rochester, in George Eastman House.  Before you were showing the surface of the body; here you go deeper. In a way it is a manipulated found footage film, but you use it to understand something very substantial. What was so interesting in those x-ray films to you, and why did you want to interact with stock itself?

I am using images of the basic body structure and it was intuitively right to work with the basic physical structure of film. Theme and process made a handshake. The fact that film is chemically based I love and exploit:  it can burn, you can drop acid on it, you can make the most beautiful circles just with water drops, you can throw salt on it which is a crystal formation that creates facets of light. I’ve taken film and put it through the sewing machine, then re-photographed it in Endangered (1988), where I talk about life on the Galapagos Islands being endangered and really all of us, because it is a material form.  That’s the reason, and because—approaching it as a painter originally—I want to put my hands on film stock and move it around, but now it’s digital.

The next film I want to discuss is one of my favorites: Nitrate Kisses from the early 90s. There is some kind of relationship between Sanctus and this one. In this film you combine two subjects: cinema that passes away, and lesbian sensuality and its memory. What is the link between them? The film is about something that we lose in terms of cinema, its material aspect, and also in terms of memory of lesbian history.

Both films are about loss. In Nitrate Kisses (1992) I am working with the loss of lesbian and gay history whereas in Sanctus I am interested in the loss of the healthy body due to medical practices. I was really influenced by Roland Barthes’ and Walter Benjamin’s studies of history. Benjamin says that you can understand a culture by its fragments. This is what made me think that the fragments of queer history can be brought together and made into a whole. We don’t need to have the entire bottle here to understand it. It could be broken and if we have one piece of glass, we can understand that this culture was based on heat, perhaps coal. We can surmise a lot about the culture from the fragment. Also, I like the audience to become the archeologist of the cinematic fragments. They have to make the meaning rather than me spoon feeding them with my ideology.

In A Horse is Not a Metaphor (2008) you relate to your experience with cancer. The film is very personal, so I wonder if you made it to break another taboo or just for yourself?

I think about all my films going back to Dyketactics and even before (for example, a film called A Gay Day (1973)) are to make what is not seen visible. I have never seen a film or read a book about going through chemotherapy; that’s why I made that film. And also because people don’t know about ovarian cancer, which is the kind of cancer that I have, and I wanted to share the knowledge and experiences I’ve had.  Ovarian cancer is often misdiagnosed. If you knew what the symptoms were, you would be able to survive it if you caught it in the first few stages. At the end of the film I mention the symptons: bloating, frequent urination, back pain and so on. There are many doctors who have misdiagnosed ovarian cancer saying: ‘oh, you have gastrointestinal issues’, they don’t go and take a scan where they could see that there’s a tumor growing on the ovary, remove it and go through a complete hysterectomy, which is required if you’re going to survive. I learned these things during my cancer, because I had frequent urination, but I was in Cambodia, hiking up the temples, thinking “oh, I’m drinking a lot of water, that’s the reason”. If I knew the symptons perhaps I would have caught the cancer earlier. I never thought I’d make a film on that, I didn’t mean to shoot it. My friend and fellow filmmaker Barbara Klutinis shot all the footage of me with a bald head and walking nude in the forest, my spouse shot me in the waiting room and getting the chemo dripped. Then, the last day of treatment I decided to take the camera myself because the light was so beautiful, coming through the chemistry that was hanging by the window in all those bags. That is how I got the footage. It was only maybe a year or two later that I decided to make the film. People said to me right away, ‘You’re gonna make a film about it, aren’t you?’, and I said ‘no” never thinking I’d show something as awful as going through chemotherapy.

You said that Maya Deren is a key figure in American avant-garde cinema? In what way is she still important to you?

She’s important for all of us! Back in 1972 I’m taking a film history class. I hadn’t heard of Truffaut etc. During the semester class every film shown was made by a male director. I couldn’t believe it! This class was almost over and we hadn’t seen a woman director. Suddenly on the screen there was this 15-minute black-and-white film. I knew it was made by a woman, because the images were entirely different from what a male would shoot and because she was working from the inside out. She was showing her emotions through her directing the enigmatic imagery.  I thought, “Aha! I’m sure I should make cinema now”. If they don’t show anybody for the entire year except for this one short film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1945) by Maya Deren, there’s a blank screen in terms of women cinema, and in terms of lesbian cinema, there’s absolutely nothing. Later when I studied Maya Deren I learned  she was much more than a filmmaker. She showed her films at universities, she set up lectures and screenings, she wrote theory that is just as valid and relevant  today  as when she wrote it, and she set up a distribution system, so that people could rent the films. This was really remarkable. She made films, she lectured, she distributed. What a powerhouse of a woman! I never met her. She died before I even began to think about film. If you read her writings, they continue to inspire, and as for her work, it’s incredible what she’s left us.

I also think she was very powerful, because technically the film was not only directed by her, but also by Alexander Hammid, who was her husband at that time. Whenever I discuss it with my students, they always say it’s Maya Deren’s film, they never mention Hammid. I think it shows her power. I always use The Meshes of the Afternoon as an example of great avant-garde cinema, and how to make it.

But if you look at her other works—it’s not as strong as her first work and I think that is due to  Sasha Hammid’s contribution. He was schooled in cinema in Czechoslovakia. Maya had never shot with a camera before. He was very experienced. One can only conjecture today, but I think she would talk about her ideas, what she wanted, and he would have an idea of how it could be filmed. She learned from that, but then they divorced, so she worked with a female cinematographer in her other films. They are a little bit stagey, not as fluid as Meshes. She lost more than her husband when she divorced.

Thank you very much for the conversation.

 

“Let everybody love me”. The transnational body of Elżbieta Czyżewska

Sebastian Jagielski

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 8-22.

Sebastian Jagielski

Jagiellonian University

 

“Let everybody love me”. The transnational body of Elżbieta Czyżewska[i]

 

Abstract

The ways to create a star personality in the Polish People’s Republic are closer to the strategy of creating stars in the Soviet cinema, where the star had to function as an power engine, as an incentive to action, than to the Hollywood system (star system). It is well illustrated by the career of Elżbieta Czyżewska: not only was she the most fascinating actress of her generation but she was also quickly transformed into a star. Czyżewska’s body used as a screen on which first the (socialist) desires and then (socialist) fears were projected, was placed – almost from the beginning of her career – in transnational contexts. She crossed borders not only on the screen: in 1965 Czyżewska married The New York Times correspondent, David Halberstam, and left for New York, or rather was forced to leave. The star’s previously ideal body suddenly appeared to be – not for “strangers” but for “us,” not outside the national community but inside it – a transgressive (since openly transnational) anti-body. This article explores (1) the phenomenon of a star in the Polish People’s Republic (“socialist star system”), (2) transgressions of Czyżewska in the West, (3) and, above all, their Polish reception.

Key words: Polish cinema, Elżbieta Czyżewska, communism, transnational, stardom, body, affect

In the state-owned film industry of communist Poland, expressing the dominating ideology was more important than fulfilment of audiences’ expectations. It was not pleasure that was important, but the educational goal; not entertainment but social involvement. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the authorities in the Polish People’s Republic were not interested in the creation of stars.[1] Even more so, since in the official discourse such a phenomenon was associated with the “degenerated” bourgeois West. Hence, there was no place for Hollywood-style stars, but there was for socialist ones (especially in the 60s, when the authorities decided to use the persuasive power of film genres for their own purposes). Their image was not supposed to be—as in the Hollywood “star system”—based on the relation to the market (star system as the sale of goods), but—as in the Soviet Union—on the relation to communist ideology. It was the stars (and film genres) that proved at the time to be the most effective carrier of ideology, especially as the public longed for somebody exceptional and unique. The socialist stars—even though just like Western ones, they shaped the behaviour of Poles, told them how to dress, behave and be—did not exist in the “blue firmament”, but “fraternised” with people, ate at milk bars, and met people in village clubs.[2]

Elżbieta Czyżewska fulfilled these contradictory expectations of the public and authorities with bravado. Not only was she the most fascinating actress of her generation (“she was visible. (…)”, Andrzej Kostenko used to say, “in our [actors’ – SJ] environment one could feel her peculiarity”[3]), but she was also quickly transformed into a star (“the only actress after the war who in such a short time achieved so much”[4], said Leon Łochowski). In the years 1960-1966, she never left the set, appearing in a few films per year and performing in theatre and TV. Everybody wanted to work with her: directors of the auteur (Wojciech J. Has, Tadeusz Konwicki, Jerzy Skolimowski) and popular (Stanisław Bareja, Tadeusz Chmielewski, Stanisław Lenartowicz) cinema. The audience loved her: in a poll by Express Wieczorny for the most popular TV actor, she won the Silver Mask twice, in 1963 and 1964, and the Golden Mask in 1965. It seems, however, that Czyżewska’s fairy-tale career did not come from nowhere. On one hand, talent, bravado, “go get it” energy, charisma and authenticity, and on the other, the embodiment of the “socialist” star type. The latter was defined—as in the Soviet Union—by social and national identity and opposition towards “bourgeois” Western identity.[5] Neither the decadent, eccentric, and sexy Kalina Jędrusik, nor the aristocratic and supercilious Beata Tyszkiewicz, and not even the delicate and mysterious Ewa Krzyżewska could have been promoted as “socialist stars”. Czyżewska, whose beauty and background were emphasised as proletariat and Slavic, was to become the ideal embodiment of the “socialist object of desire”. Czyżewska’s body—used as a screen on which first the (socialist) desires and then (socialist) fears were projected—was placed almost from the beginning of her career in transnational contexts.[6] On one hand, it was the body of a lively Soviet woman soldier (Gdzie jest generał?/Where is the General?, 1963, Tadeusz Chmielewski), on the other, a Jew in love (Niekochana/Unloved, 1965, Janusz Nasfeter), a body for a Soviet pilot (Przerwany lot/Interrupted Flight, 1964, Leonard Buczkowski), an Italian (Giuseppe w Warszawie/Giuseppe in Warsaw, 1964, Stanisław Lenartowicz), and an Australian (but of Polish decent (Żona dla Australijczyka/Wife for an Australian, 1963, Stanisław Bareja)). Czyżewska, however, crossed borders not only on the screen: in 1965, she married The New York Times correspondent, David Halberstam, and left for New York, or rather was forced to leave. The star’s previously ideal body suddenly appeared to be not for “strangers”, but for “us”, not outside the national community but inside it: a transgressive (since openly transnational) anti-body. It is true that the corporeality of transnational stars can sometimes be defined as foreign, since it causes fascination and/or fear, but these are the emotions we usually deal with—unlike in Czyżewska’s case—outside the countries of their origin.[7]

“A modern girl”

Encouraged by the success of the contest for the lead actress in the comedy Ewa chce spać/Ewa wants to sleep (1957, Tadeusz Chmielewski), in 1958 the magazine Film, together with Zespół Autorów Filmowych, announced the action Beautiful girls to the screens, aimed, as critics at the time claimed, at fulfilling the shortage of young and beautiful girls on Polish screens.[8] When the filmmakers and journalists were looking for the Polish Brigitte Bardot, a popular teenager magazine Filipinka conducted a survey among its readers: Are you a modern girl? According to Małgorzata Fidelis this image reflects the “attempts to define the national and socialist identities in the post-war Polish society” and to “build a positive image of modernity in the communist version”.[9] The genesis of the image of the “modern girl”[10] promoted by the media and officially supported by the party activists, similarly to the calls for a uniquely Polish film star, may be found in the political thaw that was accompanied to some extent by the social thaw.[11] Elżbieta Czyżewska was the result of this search. Aspiring “modern girls”, Filipinka readers—who in this figure saw a young woman who preferred foreign travel to marriage, listened to rock’n’roll and was up to date with the fashion trends[12]—could identify with the disobedient, dynamic, sarcastic and ironic girls played by Czyżewska. Young Poles took her roles—Hanka from Wife for an Australian, Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, or Joanna from Małżeństwo z rozsądku/The Marriage of Convenience (1966, Stanisław Bareja)—as their dream self-portrait. In fact, however, the star image of Czyżewska, which the girls copied so willingly, was full of contradictions. It could not have been any other way since they were trying to merge communist propaganda with the influence of Western pop culture. This “magical synthesis” of opposite values, on the one hand, reinforced and consolidated the system, and on the other undermined and destabilised it.[13]

Czyżewska’s enthusiasm and charm were used to create the ideal “socialist object of desire”. This image was set to serve the ideology in two ways: firstly, they tried unsuccessfully to transform Czyżewska into a Soviet-style star; secondly, she embodied Polish-Soviet love when acting in Polish-Soviet romances. According to Oksana Bulgakova, female stars such as Lyubov Orlova in the Soviet Union “were burdened with the promotion of behaviours appropriate for men” (“crosswise identification”).[14] Female characters were considered both a visual attraction, the object of glances, and the active “ideal ego”. The splendour and charm typical of female characters in classical Hollywood cinema were in the Soviet cinema transformed into activity and social optimism, and sexual energy, as in classical sublimation, was translated to work. “Not being either a pin-up star, or Madonna, the star has to function as an energy engine, a stimulus to act”.[15] By analogy, Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, a resistance activist for whom the Cause will stop at nothing, is unlike her brother Staszek, who does not care about the war at all. Both he and Giuseppe, a fugitive from the Italian army, are very good in the kitchen while the girl bravely fights the German enemy. Thus, both female and male spectators could identify with Czyżewska’s brave characters. As Iwona Kurz wrote, Czyżewska’s characters—Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, Marusia from Where is the General? and Hanka from Wife for an Australian—fulfil the romantic model of “knight-lover who places his homeland above love”; however, this model in the new political situation was to serve the socialist education.[16]

Some films with Czyżewska that praised Polish-Soviet love by merging the national and sexual discourses had a propaganda function. In the melodrama Interrupted Flight, which is set in two periods, during WWII and 17 years later, her character, Urszula, falls in love with a Soviet pilot, Vovka, whom she gives a medallion—a valuable token of Polish national mythology. This prop becomes a symbolic confirmation of the friendly relations between the Poles and the Soviets. However, this friendship is clearly streaked by Polish inferiority: the educated and handsome Russian is an elegant pilot while “Sokół”, whom Urszula marries after the war, is a neglected postman-alcoholic who for years has hidden from his wife the letters from Vovka. The superiority of the Russians and the inferiority of the Poles are also visible in the comedy Where is the General?, in which the Pole is impulsive, carefree and likes to booze, while the Soviet female soldier, Marusia, is charming, hardworking and reliable. Even though the Pole calls her a “witch” and “gendarme worse than Hitler”, she will still love him. The film ends with their long kiss, which is observed with enthusiasm by the soldiers of both friendly armies.[17] It could seem that the Polish-Soviet alliance was written on the actress’s body.

Importantly, Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, Marusia from Where is the General?, and Hanka from Wife for an Australian do not resemble the female “machines full of energy and optimism” from the Soviet films or Polish socialist realistic films. Paradoxically, they are closer to Doris Day’s “girls from the neighbourhood” who eagerly fulfil their duties. First, they fight the “parasites” in order to fall in love with them finally. For example in the film by Bareja, a rich Pole from Australia comes back home to buy a wife. However, Hanka, who he falls in love with, kidnaps, and holds prisoner in a villa (seen by Poles as a consumerist heaven), not only is not an easy trophy (intelligent, ironic, rational), but convinces the prodigal son to stay in Poland after the marriage. Initially, like Day’s characters, she is unsentimental and factual but later falls prey to the advances of the “erotically obsessed” “parasite”. She throws away the costume of the Mazowsze Group where she sings and transforms into a chic dame from a “bourgeois” film: low-cut fitted dress, white gloves, high heels, and a flower in her hair.

According to Miriam Hansen, the popularity of American cinema on foreign (Soviet) ground was not about “what these films showed, what they brought into optical consciousness, as it were, but the way they opened up hitherto unperceived modes of sensory perception and experience”[18]. The comedies with Czyżewska, these escapist and compensatory fantasies, proved to be so attractive for audiences not only because they offered an antidote to the sombreness of the period of “little stabilisation”, but also because they showed new energy, new corporeality and sensuality, provided guidelines how to be modern in the modernising (socialist) reality. Her girls recalled the emancipating “new woman” from the 30s, in the West symbolising “the deepest fears related to modernity”.[19] Marysia, Hanka, or Joanna from The Marriage of Convenience will initially find their emancipation as “modern women” in tight blouses and short skirts, in activity and freedom (mixing of sexual roles), in playing with their corporeality and sexuality. Marysia, in order to get the Italian’s gun, will not hesitate to use her sex appeal; hence, she is taken for a prostitute, first by Giuseppe and then by the Germans.

However, the authorities’ support for the image of “the queen of the 60s”[20]—to recall the words of Andrzej Łapicki—falls to pieces when Elżbieta Czyżewska marries an “American with a Pulitzer”. In April 1965, Halberstam published in The New York Times a text about common and state-supported anti-Semitism in Poland. A few months later the same newspaper published his article about Poland as an “exceptionally pro-Western” nation, about alienated Polish society and the communist party which “even 20 years after the war, when it was established in the country by the triumphant Red Army, is weak internally”.[21] The reactions were quick to come: texts condemning Halberstam first appeared in Kultura, Zycie Warszawy, Trybuna Ludu, and Stolica, and at the beginning of 1966 he was placed on the list of restricted persons. After her husband left, Czyżewska was questioned and continuously followed. In the end, the authorities decided that her stay in the country “was impossible”[22], even when she decided to divorce the journalist. In 1968, in order to act in Wszystko na sprzedaż/Everything for Sale (1968, Andrzej Wajda), Czyżewska came from the United States and became a victim of an anti-Semitic witch-hunt even before filming started.

In the press she was attacked as a “traitor” (“(…) why does our outstanding Polish actress betray our crucial, Polish interest?”[23]), as the wife of a “Jewish imperialist”, wife of the author of “horrible lampoons about our country” who “slandered (…) our nation”. Moreover, in April 1968 Włodzimierz Stępiński published an open letter to Andrzej Wajda in Walka Młodych demanding Czyżewska’s removal from his film.[24] “Disgusting” texts by Halberstam caused Halberstam himself to become “disgusting” and he later infected his wife, since what is “disgusting” is sticky and viscid.[25] Sara Ahmed argued, “to name something as disgusting (…) is a performative. (…) But to say something is disgusting is still to «make something»; it generates a set of effects, which then adhere as a disgusting object”.[26] Since the actress was called a “traitor” and was associated with what is “disgusting” (for the “Polish nation”), she had to recognise her social definition: “recognise her place in the position of subordination”.[27] It was precisely the refusal to accept this position of subordination from which Elka from Everything for Sale was born, a film in which Czyżewska—benefiting from the protection of the film’s fiction—“is” herself.

In Wajda’s film the actress acts like never before. She is hysterical, theatrical and at the same time authentic. As in the legendary scene of the dance at the banquet, in which she bites her lower lip and continues in lonely abandon. The director saw this dynamic dance at a Warsaw party—the dance being her “protest against the entire company—and decided to include it in his film.[28] This dance is a protest and “the intention of the protest is (…) «to disturb the spectacle» played, metaphorically speaking, on the main scene, to introduce to the field of vision the new performative language which disturbs and damages the previous one”.[29] Czyżewska’s performance, being an act of disobedience and insubordination, an act of freedom, can be seen as a narrative excess. It is delivered for the public gathered at a banquet (and in the screening room). The director emphasises the performance, on the one hand, by recording envious glances, faces and grimaces from the drawing room, and on the other, by using zooms—popular at the time—thanks to which the actress’s face can suddenly get closer (desire) and move away equally fast (rejection). The movement of the lens reflects something from the group’s reaction to Czyżewska’s unreserved expression: they revel in the fascinating and exciting images (“she looked great (…), at the time between the West [and] Poland there was a precipice, it came like from another world”[30]), and at the same time isolate, mock, exclude and stigmatise. Wajda’s film, obviously, does not mention “Halberstam’s case”, thanks to which the audience’s entire attention focuses on the film and theatre circles, since Czyżewska was ostracised long before she left Poland. As one Security Service informer reports, already in mid-1965 “in theatre all actors and employees surrounded her with a wall of condemnation. They do not speak about her otherwise than «this bitch»”.[31] Just as if Halberstam was merely a pretext for revenge for the fact that “she overshadowed (…) other actresses”.[32] Andrzej Wajda let her take symbolic revenge in his film. At dawn, a drunk and jolly elite goes on a carousel started by Elka. With satisfaction, she watches as the “artists” shout, curse, and then freeze like dummies. They become living corpses.

Due to the smear campaign in the press, even before the end of filming Everything for Sale, Czyżewska received a warrant to leave Poland immediately. What is more, at the airport she had to undergo a humiliating body search. She was treated as (transnational) waste expelled by the national body, excluded beyond its borders. She symbolised everything that in the period of the “March events” proved to be politically most suspected: she married an American of Jewish origin, thus becoming part of the anti-Zionist and anti-American obsessive propaganda of 1968. She also became suspicious as a symbol of a “modern girl”, which at the time had become politically involved, associated with the consumerist culture of the capitalist West (“the era of bust ended, (…) of bust according to Lollobrigida’s standards”, wrote a critic in Walka Młodych[33]). It is important that the attack on Czyżewska in Walka Młodych was preceded by the publication of the text Who we do not want to be, which mocked the Beautiful girls to the screens action and condemned the promoters of the “modern girl” notion. “Slowly, the criticism of misunderstood modernity”, wrote Małgorzata Fidelis, “transforms into an attack on intellectual and artistic elites which allegedly were responsible for the promotion of Western trends among the young”.[34] From here, it is only one step to the so-called anti-Zionist campaign since “similarly to the supporters of the modern girl, also the Polish Jews—the alleged Zionists plotting against the socialist Poland—were slandered (…) as agents of Western imperialism”.[35] In the image of the “modern girl”, nobody looked any more for what was socialist, but what was foreign and threatening for the socialist reality (consumerism and sex).

However, this no longer referred to Czyżewska. “Our” girl, who not long ago had embodied Polish-Soviet love, chose the West, “a Western imperialist”. We are dealing here with the “erotic betrayal of authority”. The authority seems to be a jealous lover who punishes the faithless for infidelity. It comes as no surprise when we realise what role the stars played in the Soviet Union where “the relation between the stars and authority were a part of the traditional patriarchal model”. Tatyana Okunevskaya and Zoya Fyodorova were sent to camps for flirting with foreigners. After the screening of Volga-Volga (1938), Stalin was to warn Grigori Aleksandrov, the director and husband of Orlova, “he will lose his head if anything happens to these legs”.[36] The legs of Orlova, of course. Jean Baudrillard in Seduction asks, “Is one only seeking to avenge the spell that the other exercises over you?”[37] Elżbieta Czyżewska had to pay for flirting with authority and the audience; the latter is always happy to watch the falls of those who charmed it.

The loss of aura

The American stage of Elżbieta Czyżewska’s career became sexualised and associated with destrudo. In the 60s, she offered the will to live, refreshing irony, and distance; however, since the 80s she has been associated solely with general decline, defeat, decomposition, and weakness. First, excess (of energy, talent, and success); later, a lack (of energy, talent, success). Her body—damaged by alcohol and drugs—is transformed both by the actress and by the audience of her shows into body-scandal, body-excess. Two memories illustrate this diagnosis well.

(1) In a documentary about Czyżewska, Aktorka/Actress (2015, Kinga Dębska, Maria Konwicka), Adam Holender describes an event that took place when she was still married to Halberstam: during a lavish party taking place at their house the actress “undressed completely in the kitchen and ran through the crowd of friends. Everybody was speechless. Everybody understood it since it was at the time in Vogue, but nobody knew that something like this could happen in a living room. David really enjoyed it”. From Holender’s perspective, we are not dealing with a non-conformist performance, but indecent albeit interesting excess. Excluded from acting, Czyżewska transforms her life in transgressive theatre; however, the living room—especially from a Polish perspective—is not an appropriate place to stage (and undress) oneself.

(2) The memories from the time when Czyżewska was already divorced are even more marked with sexuality on the one hand, and bourgeois indignation on the other:

She did things (…)—said Dorota Stalińska who met Czyżewska on set of Debiutantka/Debutante (1981, dir. Barbara Sass)—unworthy of a woman, actress, artist. Everybody froze with fear. And it was like this was what she wanted. She wanted to be the centre of attention at any price. Passionately stripping her wrinkled body in public (…). I was terribly embarrassed by this behaviour (…)[38].

Stalińska speaks about Czyżewska’s old “wrinkled” body even though the actress was only 43 at the time. The recollections of her compatriots about Czyżewska on emigration share one thing: embarrassment.[39] Shame is the reaction to her exhibitionism, her open corporeality. As in the scene from the banquet of Debutante: drunk architect Maria (played by Czyżewska) gives herself to a random man before the guests and Ewa, who is embarrassed for the woman, tries to separate them, causing Maria’s hysterical spasms and aggression. Monika Talarczyk-Gubała noticed that this scene resembles Elka’s rebellious dance from Everything for Sale (in Sass’s film, as in Wajda’s, the actress dances in the presence of the Master, played again by Andrzej Łapicki). That dynamic and rebellious performance, however, contained freedom and resistance, while here in the author’s opinion we are dealing only with “embarrassing masochism”. Wajda watched Elżbieta with admiration while Sass’s look is cold, ruthless, without a shadow of compassion.[40] It seems that this look is only full of sadistic satisfaction derived from exposing a female body, distorted in hysterical spasm, for public view (spectators during the banquet and in the screening room). However, Czyżewska’s performances in life and in the cinema cannot be easily frozen. Ignoring one’s embarrassment embarrasses the spectators (Holender, Stalińska, Ewa, the character in Debutante), imposing on the embarrassed woman the position of subordination (lascivious lunatic, alcoholic ending up in gutter, vulgar hysteric, etc.). Czyżewska’s performances might be an attempt to reverse the traumatising mechanisms of embarrassment. They may also be an attempt to turn the shame into power. As in the masturbation-related episode of the popular series Sex and the City (1999, Daniel Algrant), where Czyżewska played the role of a sexologist in her 60s lecturing by the sweat of her brow on the secrets of tantric sex, she masturbates her husband and the emancipated New Yorkers dutifully take notes.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank, when analysing the works of Silvan Tomkins, noted that there is no shame and disgust without a positive, pleasant affection:

these affects produce bodily knowledges: disgust, as when spitting out bad-tasting food, recognizes the difference between inside and outside the body and what should and should not be let in; shame as precarious hyperreflexivity of the surface of the body can turn one inside out—or outside in.[41]

The affection of disgust and shame that were a reaction to Czyżewska’s transnational body emphasise the closeness of the body that was rejected, “vomited”. According to Sara Ahmed, vomiting “involves expelling something that has already been digested, and hence incorporated into the body of the one who feels disgust”.[42] This mechanism characterises well the encounters between her compatriots and Czyżewska in New York: from closeness to distance. What was close becomes problematic, unsafe, disgusting. Hence, one has to move away. As did Janusz Głowacki after the Broadway success of the play Hunting Cockroaches on which he worked with Czyżewska; Agnieszka Osiecka after publication of White Blouse inspired by her letters; Joanna Pacuła and—a moment later—Yurek Bogayevicz.

Nobody doubted that the title character of Anna (1987) by Bogayevicz “was” Elżbieta Czyżewska. Neither the film’s scriptwriter, Agnieszka Holland, the actress’s friends (“the main character is exactly like Elżbieta”[43]), the author of The Real “Anna”: The Truth Behind the Hit Film, nor Czyżewska herself admitted that the director “stole her life”.[44] The actress told Bogayevicz the story of her meeting with Joanna Pacuła, and he promised her that she would play the lead role in the film based on this story. Czyżewska was probably hoping to repeat and expand the strategy from Everything for Sale: again, she would be herself before the camera. The director, however, quickly backed out of his promise, casting Sally Kirkland as the main character who won the Golden Globe for this role and an Oscar nomination.[45] She plays the former greatest star of the communist Czechoslovakia, Anna, who played in almost all films produced there. However, in New York, where she went—or in fact, like Czyżewska, was forced to go in 1968—nobody remembers her former successes. This situation is quickly noticed by a young Czechoslovakian actress, Krystyna, who goes there without money or a place to stay, but with Anna’s photos from the times of her greatness. The latter, living in a tenement house in Manhattan and playing episodes on Broadway, takes the girl in and helps her find her way in this new reality. Krystyna quickly becomes successful, “borrowing” Anna’s dramatic life story (childhood in orphanage, political reasons for emigration, etc.) as well as her boyfriend.[46]

The film mostly seems important due to one short, surprising, and disturbing scene. After Krystyna’s “betrayal”, the disappointed and frustrated Anna appears in the cinema in mourning clothes: a black scarf on her head and dark glasses hiding her tearful eyes. In the cinema, the atmosphere is quite different: they are just showing a comedy with Anna in the lead (a black and white film that seems to be stylised on Where is the General?). The woman confronts her own reflection, as if she were looking in the mirror, and she cannot take her eyes off the screen. The location of the projector, audience and screen, the darkness in the screening room and the stream of moving images cause the spectator to fall “into a trance-like state”[47]. Anna is enchanted by what she sees. She identifies with her own (lost) reflection, and this is a source of narcissistic pleasure. “She dissolves” in the image because this image allows her to retrieve her own subjectivity which was taken from her, appropriated by another actress. The body of Anna-the-spectator that is reflected on screen (idealised) gives a settling sense of calm and safety; however, this affective moment does not last long. From the state of illusion—a narcissistic trance caused by the soothing images—the protagonist is woken by the sight of her huge face (close-up) eaten by fire. The narration freezes, and we, the spectators, watch the frightened face of the actress and her celluloid, disappearing copy. Especially disturbing is a brief—as from a horror film—close-up of the actress’s silent scream, as if she were already dead.[48] This is the moment of the dramatic crack: Anna, who is still looking for mirror reflections, her own doppelgangers (Krystyna being one, the one who managed to escape), thought she had found herself again in the cinema (narcissistic satisfaction). However, the reflection on the screen appears to be a phantom, an apparition that disappears at the same time, thereby revealing the emptiness.

“At the height of her success in Poland the actress stopped being «Elżbieta Czyżewska»”, wrote a critic in Film.[49] Bogayevicz aptly caught what was the essence of her American period: the loss of star aura and the refusal to accept it, already indicated in Everything for Sale. The greatest star of the Polish cinema of the 60s says directly to the camera, “Why nobody loves me? (…) Let everybody love me”. In Wajda’s film, however, we see the star’s splendour, but in Bogayevicz’s only despair. In the both nostalgic and sadistic cinema scene from Anna there is, on one hand, satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness stemming from peregrinations on time lost, and on the other, pain, alienation, lack, and loss. Unfortunately, no magical process of finding oneself, coming back to oneself, is going to take place here. The actress’s celluloid face consumed by fire symbolises the end of her star aura, and the close-up of her silent scream helps to “arrest time’s flow on the edge of its waterfall’s onrush to trauma”.[50] Richard Dyer, in analysing Judy Garland’s loss of glamour that constituted her image, noted that this loss means defeat, primarily in playing one’s sexual role, in the field of femininity.[51] For that reason, perhaps, Elżbieta Czyżewska “needed to feel a star [so much]. She had to know that she had been a star in Poland”[52], even though in her own country—as a journalist of The New York Times wrote after her death—she was not welcome.[53] The national body transformed into a transnational one, which does not accept the position of subordination imposed on it by its compatriots, becomes disgusting in order to become expelled beyond the borders of the national community. Thus, the transnational body becomes marked as anti-body even though—or maybe because—not long ago it was worshipped and loved.

Translated by Amalia Woźna

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Kurz Iwona, “Między chrztem a samospaleniem. «Teatra polskie» drugiej połowy lat sześćdziesiątych” / “Between baptism and self-immolation. «Polish theatres» of the second half of the sixties”, Didaskalia 126 (2015).

Kurz Iwona, Twarze w tłumie. Wizerunki bohaterów wyobraźni zbiorowej w kulturze polskiej lat 1955-1969 / Faces in the crowd. Images of the collective imagination protagonists in the Polish culture of 1955-1959, (Warszawa: Świat Literacki) (2005).

Mazierska Ewa, “Train to Hollywood: Polish Actresses in Foreign Films”, in: Polish Cinema in a Transnational Context, ed. Ewa Mazierska and Michael Goddard (Rochester-New York: University of Rochester Press) (2014).

McHugh Kathleen, „The World and the Soup: Historicizing Media Feminisms in Transnational Contexts”, Camera Obscura 24: 3 (2009).

Negra Diane, Off-White Hollywood. American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom, (London-New York: Routledge) (2001).

Skwara Anita, “Film Stars Do Not Shine in the Sky Over Poland. The Absence of Popular Cinema in Poland”, in: Popular European Cinema, ed. Richard Dyer and Ginette Vincendeau (London: Routledge) (1992).

Stępiński Włodzimierz, “Do reżysera Andrzeja Wajdy list otwarty” / “An open letter to the director Andrzej Wajda”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 6 (1994).

Szarłat Aleksandra, Celebryci z tamtych lat. Prywatne życie wielkich gwiazd PRL-u / Celebrities of the past. Private lives of great stars in PPR, (Kraków: Znak) (2014).

Talarczyk-Gubała Monika, Wszystko o Ewie. Filmy Barbary Sass a kino kobiet w drugiej połowie XX wieku / All about Eve. Barbara Sass’s films and women’s cinema in the 2nd half of the XX century, (Szczecin: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu Szczecińskiego) (2013).

Wajda Andrzej, Autobiografia. Kino i reszta świata / Autobiography. Cinema and the rest of the world, (Kraków: Znak) (2013).

Weber Bruce, “Elzbieta Czyzewska, Polish Actress Unwelcome in Her Own Country, Diesat 72”, The New York Times 10.06.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/18/arts/18czyz.html?_r=0,dateaccessed: 21 March 2016.

Notes

[1] See Anita Skwara, “Film Stars Do Not Shine in the Sky Over Poland. The Absence of Popular Cinema in Poland”, in: Popular European Cinema, ed. Richard Dyer and Ginette Vincendeau (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 220-231; Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie. Wizerunki bohaterów wyobraźni zbiorowej w kulturze polskiej lat 1955-1969 / Faces in the crowd. Images of the collective imagination protagonists in the Polish culture of 1955-1959, (Warszawa: Świat Literacki) (2005); Ewa Mazierska, “Train to Hollywood: Polish Actresses in Foreign Films”, in: Polish Cinema in a Transnational Context, ed. Ewa Mazierska and Michael Goddard (Rochester-New York: University of Rochester Press, 2014), pp. 153-173.

[2] Zbigniew Cybulski, “W stronę gwiazd” / “Towards the stars”, interview by Stanisław Janicki, Kino 1 (1966), p. 47.

[3] Iza Komendołowicz, Elka, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie) (2012), p. 149.

[4] Ibidem, p. 87.

[5] Oksana Bulgakova, “Gwiazdy i władza” / “Stars and authority”, trans. Tadeusz Szczepański, Kwartalnik Filmowy 49-50 (2005), p. 49.

[6] Elizabeth Ezra, Terry Rowden, “General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema?”, in: Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader, ed. Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (New York: Routledge, 2006); Kathleen McHugh, „The World and the Soup: Historicizing Media Feminisms in Transnational Contexts”, Camera Obscura 24: 3 (2009), pp. 111-151; Will Higbee, Song Hwee Lim, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010), pp. 7-21.

[7] Diane Negra, Off-White Hollywood. American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom, (London-New York: Routledge) (2001), pp. 55-83; Dale Hudson, “Just Play Yourself, «Maggie Cheung»: Irma Vep, Rethinking Transnational Stardom and Unthinking National Cinemas”, Screen 47:2 (2006), pp. 213-232.

[8] Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie…, pp. 119-126.

[9] Małgorzata Fidelis, “Czy jesteś nowoczesną dziewczyną? Młode Polki a kultura konsumpcyjna w latach 60.” / “Are You a Modern Girl? Consumer Culture and Young Women in 1960s Poland”, trans. Anna Rogulska, Teksty Drugie 2 (2015), p. 306, 321.

[10] According to Iwona Kurz, the term “girl” was commonly used in everyday speech in the 50s. This word drove out the more popular terms as “miss” or “friend” (Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie…, p. 125).

[11] Ibidem, p. 119.

[12] Małgorzata Fidelis, pp. 303-306.

[13] Richard Dyer wrote about the Hollywood “star system” that the star images recalling the social meanings and values reveal, solve, integrate or disguise the ideological contradictions present in a given society and culture (Richard Dyer, Stars, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (1998), pp. 20-32).

[14] Oksana Bulgakova, p. 47.

[15] Ibidem, p. 56.

[16] Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie …, p. 139, 142.

[17] Allegedly Elżbieta Czyżewska was ashamed to have appeared in this film (Iza Komendołowicz, p. 143).

[18] Miriam Bratu Hansen, “The mass production of the senses: classical cinema as vernacular modernism”, in: Reinventing Film Studies, ed. Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (London: Arnold, 2000), p. 344.

[19] Małgorzata Fidelis, p. 321.

[20] Iza Komendołowicz, p. 30.

[21] Filip Gańczak, Filmowcy w matni bezpieki / The filmmakers in the snare of the Security Service, (Warszawa: Prószyński i S-ka) (2011), p. 75.

[22] Ibidem, p. 88.

[23] Aleksandra Szarłat, Celebryci z tamtych lat. Prywatne życie wielkich gwiazd PRL-u / Celebrities of the past. Private lives of great stars in PPR, (Kraków: Znak) (2014), p. 272.

[24] Włodzimierz Stępiński, “Do reżysera Andrzeja Wajdy list otwarty” / “An open letter to the director Andrzej Wajda”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 6 (1994), p. 225 (Walka Młodych 14.04.1968, p. 1, 10).

[25] According to Sara Ahmed “it is not that an object we might encounter is inherently disgusting; rather, an object becomes disgusting through its contact with other objects that have already, as it were, been designated as disgusting before the encounter has taken place” (Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2004), p. 87).

[26] Ibidem, p. 93.

[27] “We do things with language, produce effects with language, (…). Language is (…) both «what» we do (…), the act and its consequences” (Judith Butler, Excitable Speech. A Politics of the Performative, (New York-London: Routledge) (1997), p. 8).

[28] Andrzej Wajda, Autobiografia. Kino i reszta świata / Autobiography. Cinema and the rest of the world, (Kraków: Znak) (2013), p. 119.

[29] Iwona Kurz, “Między chrztem a samospaleniem. «Teatra polskie» drugiej połowy lat sześćdziesiątych” /  “Between baptism and self-immolation. «Polish theatres» of the second half of the sixties”, Didaskalia 126 (2015), p. 4.

[30] Iza Komendołowicz, pp. 222-223.

[31] Filip Gańczak, p. 63.

[32] Ibidem, s. 71.

[33] “Jakimi nie chcemy być” / “What we do not want to be”, Walka Młodych 28.01.1968, p. 8. Quoted after: Małgorzata Fidelis, p. 318.

[34] Małgorzata Fidelis, p. 318.

[35] Ibidem.

[36] Oksana Bulgakova, p. 56.

[37] Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, trans. Brian Singer, (Montréal: New World Perspectives) (1990), p. 124.

[38] Iza Komendołowicz, p. 235.

[39] Meryl Streep who – as a student – performed with her in Demons directed by Andrzej Wajda sees a completely different shade of Czyżewska’s excesses: “this creature [Czyżewska] seemed to me the most fascinating woman I have ever met. She had this European style that I have not known since I grew up in New Jersey. This was femininity aware of itself, truly seductive (…), a style unknown to women in the 70s.” (soundtrack from the film Actress).

[40] Monika Talarczyk-Gubała, Wszystko o Ewie. Filmy Barbary Sass a kino kobiet w drugiej połowie XX wieku / All about Eve. Barbara Sass’s films and women’s cinema in the 2nd half of the XX century, (Szczecin: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu Szczecińskiego) (2013), pp. 193-198.

[41] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Adam Frank, „Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins”, in: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling. Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, (Durham-London: Duke University Press) (2003), p. 116.

[42] Sara Ahmed, p. 94.

[43] Iza Komendołowicz, p. 198.

[44] Ellen Hopkins, “The Real Anna: The Truth Behind the Hit Film”, New York Magazine 4.01.1988, pp. 24-29.

[45] According to Agnieszka Holland, Czyżewska herself was the reason why “this film could not have been done with her.” She behaved like Anna, she was self-destructive, aggressive, plunging into an alcohol delirium, as if aware that “the film was stealing her life” (Iza Komendołowicz, p. 269).

[46] Joanna Pacuła already in 1983, i.e. only one year after coming to New York played the lead role – thanks to Roman Polański’s recommendation – in Gorky Park (1983, Michael Apted) for which she was nominated for the Golden Globe. Those who witnessed the meeting between these two actresses claim that “Elżbieta was jealous, mainly because Pacuła was young, very energetic and quickly successful” (Ibidem, p. 198).

[47] Thomas Elsaesser, Malte Hagener, Film Theory. An Introduction through the senses, (New York-London: Routledge) (2010), p. 68.

[48] Paul Coates wrote about the relation between the close-up and suffering: “[…] the close-up, whose most common form picks out the face, isolates as suffering does” (Paul Coates, Screening the Face, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) (2012), p. 46).

[49] Krzysztof Demidowicz, “Elżbieta Czyżewska: kochana niekochana” / “Elżbieta Czyżewska: loved unloved”, Film 6 (2001), p. 93.

[50] P. Coates, p. 52.

[51] Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies. Film Stars and Society, (London-New York: Routledge) (2004), p. 163.

[52] Statement of Kinga Dębska comes from the materials promoting the documentary she co-directed: “Actress”. The premiere of the film “Actress” (documentary about Elżbieta Czyżewska), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLPPAMFyBNM,dateaccessed 21 March 2016.

[53] Bruce Weber, “Elzbieta Czyzewska, Polish Actress Unwelcome in Her Own Country, Diesat 72”, The New York Times 10.06.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/18/arts/18czyz.html?_r=0,dateaccessed: 21 March 2016.

[i] The paper was delivered during the international conference Polish cinema as a transnational cinema organised by the Department of the History of Polish Cinema at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts of Jagiellonian University (Kraków, 26-28 November 2015). The article in its extended version will be published in the volume edited by Magdalena Podsiadło and Sebastian Jagielski (Universitas 2017).

Sebastian Jagielski is an assistant professor of Film Studies at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts at Jagiellonian University. He is the author of Maskarady męskości. Pragnienie homospołeczne w polskim kinie fabularnym/Masquerades of Masculinity. Homosocial Desire in Polish Cinema (Kraków, 2013), and co-editor of the volume Ciało i seksualność w kinie polskim/Body and Sexuality in Polish Cinema (Kraków, 2009). His papers have been published e.g. in Studies in European Cinema, Studies in Eastern European Cinema, and Kwartalnik Filmowy. His research focuses on Polish cinema, queer cultures, queer theory, affect film theory, and star studies.

 

Reading ABC. An experiment

Andrzej Pitrus

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 23-33.

Andrzej Pitrus

Jagiellonian University

 

Reading ABC. An experiment

 

Abstract

The article discusses an experiment with the participation of a group of foreign students, who visited Cracow in 2015. It is not a research study in a proper sense, although it was based on methods used in questionnaire and focus group research.   The purpose of the experiment was simple: to determine how young people with little or no knowledge about Polish history and culture are able to undestand a film focused on „being Polish”. A short documentary by Wojciech Wiszniwski was shown to two groups of students: the ones who had just arrived in Cracow, and the ones who had participated in several courses on Polish culture.

Key words: documentary, cultural competence, Polish cinema, Wojciech Wiszniewski

Study or experiment?

The inspiration for this short paper came from my teaching experience as a professor of film and media studies. For almost twenty years I have been working with foreign students, most of them from Europe (Erasmus and Erasmus Plus exchange students), but also from the United States, Canada, the Far East, and Australia. My first English-language experiences were occasional lectures and seminars on Polish cinema; a few years later I started my own regular course called “Contemporary Polish Film” (split into two parts, 45 teaching hours each). The course discussed Polish cinema after 1989, with an introduction to the most important post-war movements. Last year, another course was introduced: “Masters of Polish Cinema”.

The article is by no means a research study in a proper sense, although it is based on methods (mentioned later in references) used in questionnaire and focus group research. Instead, I present and discuss the outcome of an interesting experiment conducted with the participation of my foreign students. This experiment could encourage further research; however, in this form it only helps to formulate questions and possible research directions. The purpose of my experiment was simple. Working with foreign students in a natural way makes an academic teacher question the possible influence of their teachings. Does the cultural competence of foreigners substantially change in just a few months? Simple observation obviously suggests answers. Informal conversation with student also helps, but I wanted a more systematic approach in order to see what the outcome of my efforts really is.

Surprisingly, my experiment, which was designed as a kind of “test” for a possible long-term study, concluded with unexpected observations of a more general nature.

Participants of the experiment

I am fully aware that the group of people who took part in my experiment is not representative on a large scale[1]. Yet, I was only interested in examining a particular group of people representing foreign students willing to actively learn about Polish culture and participate in it for a period of time. To observe the change, I decided to choose a “micro-readings approach” and so-called time-series design with single intervention in multiple groups (in this case, two)[2] .

The majority of participants have no previous experience in film studies. Most of them study humanities or social sciences, with some rare exceptions. In recent years, only a maximum of 15% of students declared any kind of Polish background, and even less were able to speak Polish (B1 level or above). Occasionally, some Polish students interested in cinema (but not enrolled in film studies) join the group. The study was carried out with two groups of students. One of them consisted of 20 people who spent a semester in Poland and participated in several courses on Polish culture, including ‘Polish Contemporary Film’ (June 2015). The other was comprised of 23 students who had just arrived in Poland and signed up for a ‘Masters of Polish Cinema’ course (October 2015). Two different groups were chosen to comply with the research strategy mentioned above.

Background and previous experiences

The aim of the aforementioned courses is to introduce participants to Polish film in the broader context of national culture. During the classes, several movies are shown; all with an introduction and some with live commentaries. Moderated discussion always follows the screenings. We focus on topics, characters, political and social context, and only occasionally comment on style, film form, and genre. Students from different cultural backgrounds offer their opinions and interpretations of Polish movies. Some of them are truly original and exciting, as they are based on fresh and unencumbered approaches. For example, most of the political metaphors are not easy to apprehend, as students know very little or nothing about the recent history of Poland. Yet, most of the students do try to understand the movies they watch. Instead of trying to discover the intended meaning, they look for more universal aspects of the stories.

Juliusz Machulski’a Sexmission (Seksmisja, 1984) is a very good example of this creative ‘misunderstanding’. When the movie premiered in Poland, it was considered a metaphor for a totalitarian society, and as such was drastically censored. A state without men, in fact ruled by a disguised male dictator, stood for eighties’ Poland. For today’s foreign students, Machulski’s comedy has a different meaning. Most of the students agree that it is an antifeminist satire, and some of them see the movie as a critique of political correctness.

Subject of the experiment. Criteria for selection

The experiment had to be conducted in class (2 hours and 15 minutes). Thus, a short film had to be chosen for discussion and analysis. Its focus on a Polish-oriented subject was essential. I also opted for a film that communicates with images rather than words. Although alternatives certainly exist, after few discussions with my academic colleagues I decided to choose a film in which Polish identity is thoroughly discussed. The film is also very “dense”: with only 9 minutes of running time it encapsulates many references to Polish history, culture, and language (although there is almost no spoken dialogue, and very little off-screen commentary, which makes it even more challenging).

Both groups watched the same film: a short experimental documentary, ABC (Elementarz, 1976) by Wojciech Wiszniewski. The film is recognized[3] as one of the most outstanding achievements of Polish documentary and a major influence on a generation of younger filmmakers[4]. More information on Wiszniewski and his short can be found in the booklet with commentaries written by Mirosław Przylipiak[5] that accompanies the DVD edition of the work.

Method

Students received questionnaires (more detailed description follows), and afterwards participated in a focus group. For this part of the experiment, a so-called “creative approach”[6] was applied. During the discussion and while working with questionnaires, the participants are fully aware of the purpose of the experiment. This approach is based on a “brainstorming” effect, in which a group of people who are all interested in the subjects of the study tries to “solve” the problem together. The discussion in the focus group was obviously moderated.

The film was shown three times. After the first screening students received questionnaires, and all questions were explained. Then they watched the film again and answered questions from section A of the questionnaire. Section B referred to the third screening, during which the film was freeze-framed nine times, and students were asked to comment on what they saw on the screen.

Shown below is section A of the questionnaire with some comments in italics (not included in the original questionnaire) which refer to my instructions or tips given to the students during the experiment.

Your nationality:

Do you have any Polish ancestry (parents, grandparents)?

Do you speak Polish (at least B level)?

Describe briefly the main topic of Wojciech Wiszniewski’s „ABCs”

(no more than two sentences)

Students were asked to go beyond the story, and identify “deeper” and more general meanings of ‘ABC’.

Who are the people depicted in the portraits on the walls (beginning of the documentary)?

There are pictures of Polish kings hanging on a wall in a dark corridor.

How would you describe the people in the first part of the documentary (letters A – D)?

Who are they?

First letters of the alphabet are spoken by four different individuals in four different rooms.

What is the first sentence that Polish children learn?

The sentence “Ala ma kota” (Alice has a cat) can be seen briefly in a book.

What is the first sentence children learn in your country? Write it in your own language and translate it into English.

Katechizm polskiego dziecka by Władysław Bełza  (1900)

— Kto ty jesteś?              (Who are you?)
— Polak mały                  (A little Pole)
— Jaki znak twój?            (What is your emblem?)
— Orzeł biały                  (The white eagle)
— Gdzie ty mieszkasz?   (Where do you live?)
— Między swemi            (Among my people)
— W jakim kraju?            (In what land?)
— W polskiej ziemi.         (The Polish land)
Czem ta ziemia?       (What is this country?)
— Mą ojczyzną.             (My homeland)
— Czem zdobyta?                  (How did they fight for it?)
— Krwią i blizną.          (With their blood and scars)

— Czy ją kochasz?           (Do you love it?)
— Kocham szczerze.       (I love it dearly)
— A w co wierzysz?        (What do you believe in?)

— W Polskę wierzę!      (I believe in Poland)
— Coś ty dla niej?        
(Who are you for your country?)
— Wdzięczne dziecię    (A grateful child)
— Coś jej winien?         (What would you do for it?)
— Oddać życie.             (I would give my life)

Some parts of the poem (in bold above) were omitted in the documentary.

Could you explain why?

Fragments of the famous poem were used in “ABC”. They are recited line by line by a group of children.

Name characters and situations that you identify as typically Polish.

Section B refers to nine tableaux (titles come from the author, tableaux briefly explained in italics)

Picture

A picture by Artur Grottger from the series “Polonia” can be seen briefly. A scene from 1863 January Uprising is depicted.

Group of men

Group of Polish soldiers in uniforms in an informal situation.

Group of men, women, and children

Large, multi-generational family.

Two men in a room

A Christmas priest’s visit.

Women in a passageway

Countryside women selling food in a city.

Four men

Coal merchants.

Couple

Newlyweds. This tableau resembles traditional posed marriage photographs.

Three young people in white shirts

Members of the Youth Organisation in white shirts and red ties. A white eagle without a crown can be seen on the wall.

Two boys in the countryside

Two adolescent boys in a typically Polish countryside landscape with willow trees.

The outcome

After the questions had been answered, the students participated in a moderated discussion. Some of the problematic questions were explained, others were clarified by a lecturer. Students willingly participated in conversation.

Although there were a few persons with Polish background in the October group, only two were able to speak Polish. All students identified Wiszniewski’s documentary as strange, hermetic, and difficult. Almost all tried to indicate the main topic of ABC; only a few left this question with no answer. Ten people claimed that the documentary refers to the Polish system of education, with some noticing that the director criticises stereotypes. Eleven participants of the experiment discovered a more general meaning, saying that the main topic of the film was “Polish identity” or the “Polish way of life”.

Only one person (a student from Poland) was able to recognise the pictures in the opening sequence. Others answered, “I do not know” or tried to guess (key figures from Polish history, Józef Piłsudski[7], etc.). All foreigners had problems with questions requiring actual cultural competence; for example, nobody was able to indicate the famous ‘Ala ma kota’ phrase as one of the first sentences learned by children in Poland. On the other hand, most of the participants described characters from the first part of the film (persons declaiming letters A-D) as typically Polish. In an open question about typical Polish elements present in ABC, most of the students gave no relevant answer. Some of them referred to stereotypes that in most cases were not related to the film, while obvious elements (Polish symbols, colours, references to Polish history) were generally left unnoticed, with the exception of students with a Polish background and/or the ability to speak Polish. Most of the students tried to answer the question about Bełza’s poem. While some gave no relevant answer, others referred to the nationalistic tone of the omitted fragments.

Members of the October 2015 group had serious problems with section B of the questionnaire. Only four people (including a Polish student) tried to give answers that are more detailed, while others described characters in the tableau in a very casual way. In both cases, very rarely was the true context of the scene identified.

Wiszniewski’s ABC is an example of experimental documentary. Its meaning is inherently open and somehow blurred, even for those with proper cultural competence. Yet in discussion, students did not complain about its complex form. They enjoyed its episodic and associative structure, but in most cases were not able to identify the basic components that are usually quite self-evident for Polish audiences. I was not surprised with the answers, as many participants of the class had no previous contact with Polish culture. Some of them decided to come to Krakow because of a pre-existing interest in Polish issues; however, the majority had different reasons such as curiosity or low accommodation costs, while some considered Krakow an attractive hub to visit Central Europe.

The structure of the June 2015 group was similar: it contained one Polish student, three with Polish ancestry (but limited language skills), and one who spoke Polish fluently but had no Polish family whatsoever. Obviously, it was very interesting to see if just one semester in Poland was enough to overcome the barriers of cultural competence. The expectations were high and somewhat justified as students were active participants in academic life. Most of them had learned the basics of Polish and had contact with students from Jagiellonian University. They obviously attended other courses related to Polish history, politics, contemporary issues, culture, and participated in excursions and other educational events. After the course, all students had basic knowledge about post-war cinema in Poland. They also researched the subject individually to prepare a final project: an essay on a Polish film of their choice.

The outcome of the experiment with the June 2015 group was quite surprising. Again, students identified the overall meaning of the documentary as related either to the system of education, or ‘Polish identity’. Yet, this time only four persons claimed that the meaning is more general, while 15 tried to discuss the subject of education and its manipulative influence on the younger generation. Additionally, two of the persons who saw ABC as a metaphor of national identity gave very casual answers consisting of isolated words or very short phrases rather than sentences or entire paragraphs. In one case, the reason was poor command of English. In another, an unexplained lack of involvement from an English native speaker who usually gave only single words answers or very short sentences.

The interpretations provided by other students were in many cases quite complex, while answers to other questions were not significantly ‘better’ than the ones given by the members of the October 2015 group. Some of the students were able to identify more images properly, but their general competence was no different.

Where then do the differences in the general understanding of the film come from? It seems that they were biased by what students had learned during their stay in Poland. Many movies discussed in class were made before 1989, others often related to the communist regime. Obviously, they were often discussed in a political context. Students also learned that many institutions, which they considered as politically neutral, were in fact tools of oppression in communist Poland. This new knowledge was ‘used’ to interpret the film, which otherwise seemed hermetic. The process is called ‘confirmation bias’:

Creating and testing hypotheses represents a crucial feature not only of progress in science, but also in our daily lives in which we set up assumptions about reality and try to test them. However, the lay scientist stands accused of processing his or her hypotheses in such a way that he or she is biased to confirm them. “Confirmation bias” means that information is searched for, interpreted, and remembered in such a way that it systematically impedes the possibility that the hypothesis could be rejected—that is, it fosters the immunity of the hypothesis. Here, the issue is not the use of deceptive strategies to fake data, but forms of information processing that take place more or less unintentionally[8].

My discussions with Polish students show that for Poles, Wojciech Wiszniewski’s ABC does not really deal with education. Although I had no chance to conduct a similar experiment (no questionnaires were used, only moderated conversation), none of the Polish viewers saw the documentary as a metaphor of education, and especially manipulation. They all tended to interpret the film as an experimental essay about Polish icons, symbols, and stereotypes.

Falski’s “Elementarz” as a matrix of understanding

A famous learning aid by Marian Falski (Elementarz) that inspired the filmmaker was originally published in 1910 and is still available and sometimes used in education. Although it may be criticised for its conservative approach to family, social roles, etc., its author was able to introduce innovative[9] and highly effective methods of education. Falski did not focus on the structure of the language, but instead tried to employ natural cognitive preferences of children. He used images and simple words to teach them how to read and write. He also replaced printed letters with handwriting. Many of his innovations were revolutionary, at not only the beginning of the 20th century, but also many years later.

In a way, Wiszniewski employs Marian Falski’s ideas. He intended his documentary to be ‘read’ in an analytical manner, just like the words and simple sentences in ‘Elementarz’. The director also seems to go beyond words: the only linguistic components of the film are the letters of the alphabet and Bełza’s poem. Instead, he proposes a complex kaleidoscope of images: a visual aid supposed to teach us to ‘read’ Poland.

Foreign students who were still not able to identify all components tried to comprehend the text as such with their limited and fragmented knowledge of Poland and its institutions. The result was an ‘improper’ reading of the film, probably dissonant with the intention of the filmmaker. Although the ability to identify typically Polish characters, situations, and symbols was similar, there was one other important difference between both groups: members of the June 2015 group answered the questions in section B of the questionnaire in more complex and elaborate ways. The reason seems simple: for most of them (students who were not English native speakers), studying in Krakow was their first chance to use English in academic discussions. Not only did their linguistic skills improve, but they also became more confident and self-assured. I assume they also had more willingness to understand a text that seemed so demanding not only because they wanted to really apprehend the text itself, but to legitimise themselves as individuals participating in Polish culture. Their biased understanding of the text resulted from the limited ‘tools’ they could use in the process of interpretation:

 A true confirmation bias seems to occur primarily when the hypotheses tested are already established, or are motivationally supported. In general, we may say that the confirmation bias consists in favouring expectancy congruent information over incongruent information. This may happen in different ways: (a) memories congruent with the hypothesis are more likely to be accessed than memories that are incongruent with it; (b) undue weight is given to the importance of congruent information, possibly because of the concentration on the hypothesis, and the neglect of alternative explanations; (c) those sources with information that could reject the hypothesis are avoided, provided that the person knows a priori the opinion of the source.[10]

Conclusion

Let us try to ask some questions. Did the students really learn anything about Poland? Were their opinions and judgements about our country manipulated or falsified? Is it truly possible to understand the Other (in this case Poland and Poles)? Although the cultural competence of the June group was almost no different than that of the October group, I profoundly believe that those few months the young people from all over the world spent in Krakow make deep sense. My simple experiment proves the obvious: it is not possible to fully understand the Other after just a few months. Nevertheless, it also suggests that meeting the Other is equally valuable:

there is a zone of mutuality pre-predicatively given to ‘us’: we confront each other in a situation which then permits the exchange of ideas. My fellow man is encountered as ‘within hailing range’ or within ‘speaking distance’, as available for an intimate chat, as open to a face-to-face encounter. In all of these possibilities, the Other is taken as ‘confront-able’, as ‘hail-able’, as essentially capable of approaching me in closer and closer relationships. He is already in the world moving toward me. Horizons of proximity and distance undergird the possibility of our meeting. The Other who is friendly toward me is said to be easily ‘approachable’; the Other who is rather cold, difficult to relate to, is spoken of as being ‘distant’. The communicative zone involves avenues of withdrawal outward as well as engagement inward. To communicate is to be already involved in a world whose situations are built out of such eidetic possibilities[11].

When I presented my paper based on the experiment discussed in this article at a conference, I suddenly realised that it was more of a political statement than a proper academic address. I have recently returned from Neukölln, a borough of Berlin where people of 147 nations live. Were they Others, or was I the Other? I left for Berlin in early October 2015, and returned in late November 2015. Poland had changed dramatically[12].

I revised this article in Berlin again (November 2016). Berlin had also changed: struggling with a shift in public opinion, the refugee crisis, and more (than ever) support for radical political forces.

Will Poles and Europeans still be able to meet the Other, ‘misunderstand’ them, ‘misinterpret’ them in a world with no eidetic possibilities?

References

Biocca, Frank, Prabu David and Mark West, „Continuous Response Measurements (CRM). A Computerized Tool for Research on the Cognitive Processing of Communication Messages” , in Measuring Psychological Responses to Media Messages, ed. Annie Lang (New York and London: Routledge, 2014) pp. 15-64.

Glass, Gene V , Willson, Victor L., Gottman, John Mordechai, Design and Analysis of Time-series Experiments, (Charlotte: Information Age Publishing ) (2008).

Kuc, Kamila, Michael O’Prey, The Struggle for Form: Perspectives on Polish Avant-Garde Film 1916-1989, (New York: Columbia University Press) (2014).

Merton, Robert K. , Fiske, Marjorie, Kendall, Patricia L., The Focused Interview. A Manual of Problems and Procedures. (Glencoe: The Free Press) (1956).

Oswald, Margit E. , Stefan Grosjean, „Confirmation Bias”, in Cognitive Illusions. A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases inThinking, Judgement and Memory, ed. Rudiger F. Pohl, (Hove and New York: Psychology Press,  2004).

Strauss, Erwin W. Straus, Maurice Natanson, Henri Ey, Psychology and Philosophy, (New York: Springer Verlag) (1969).

Tes, Urszula, „Declaration of Immortality – Inspirations Derived from Creative Documentaries by Wojciech Wiszniewski”,  Images , vol. XV/no. 24 (2014), pp. 145-154.

Wroczyński, Ryszard, Marian Falski i reformy szkolne w Rzeczypospolitej, (Warszawa: PWN) (1988).

Notes

[1]The problem is discussed among others by: Frank Biocca, Prabu David and Mark West, Continuous Response Measurements (CRM). A Computerized Tool for Research on the Cognitive Processing of Communication Messages [in:] Annie Lang (ed.) Measuring Psychological Responses to Media Messages, New York and London: Routledge 2014, pp. 15-64.

[2] See: Glass, Gene V. Willson, Victor L., Gottman, John Mordechai, Design and Analysis of Time-series Experiments, Charlotte: Information Age Publishing 2008.

[3] See for example: Kamila Kuc, Michael O’Prey, The Struggle for Form: Perspectives on Polish Avant-Garde Film 1916-1989, Columbia University Press 2014, p. 78.

[4] See for example: Urszula Tes, Declaration of Immortality – Inspirations Derived from Creative Documentaries by Wojciech Wiszniewski, “Images” 2014, vol. XV/no. 24 Poznań 2014, pp. 145-154.

[5] Wojciech Wiszniewski in a series Polska Szkoła Dokumentu, Warszawa: Polskie Wydawnictwo Audiowizualne, 2007.

[6] Merton, Robert K. , Fiske, Marjorie, Kendall, Patricia L., The Focused Interview. A Manual of Problems and Procedures. The Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois 1956.

[7] Józef Piłsudski (05.12.1867 – 12.05.1935) was a Polish politician; first Marshal of Poland (since 1920), and actual leader (1926–35) of the Second Polish Republic.

[8] Margit E. Oswald, Stefan Grosjean, Confirmation Bias, [in:] Rudiger F. Pohl (ed.), Cognitive Illusions. A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases in Thinking, Judgement and Memory, Hove and New York: Psychology Press 2004, p. 79.

[9] See. for example: Ryszard Wroczyński, Marian Falski i reformy szkolne w Rzeczypospolitej, Warszawa: PWN 1988.

[10] Oswald and Grosjan, op.cit., p. 93.

[11] Erwin W. Straus, Maurice Natanson, Henri Ey, Psychology and Philosophy, New York: Springer Verlag 1969, p. 101.

[12] In October 2015, right wing populist party called “Prawo i Sprawiedliwość” won the elections. Since then the liberal course of Polish economy and politics has been systematically negated.

 

Andrzej Pitrus once used to be a Patagonian cougar. Yet, now he is a media and film professor hoping to restore his true identity. He teaches at Jagiellonian University. His articles and books focus on experimental cinema, media art, and video games. In 2015, his book on Bill Viola was published. Currently Andrzej Pitrus researches German contexts of Nam June Paik’s art. He does not smoke, plays bass guitar and drinks a little too much Primitivo.

 

Rinko Kikuchi in Space: Transnational Mexican Directors’ Global Gaze

Jane Hanley

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 34-50.

Jane Hanley

Macquarie University

 

Rinko Kikuchi in Space: Transnational Mexican Directors’ Global Gaze

 

Abstract

Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro are contemporaries and compatriots who have charted different paths in their careers as makers of major international releases. Between Babel’s realist network narrative and the science fiction spectacle of Pacific Rim, the actor Rinko Kikuchi offers one connecting thread which can provide us insight into different transnational visions of the global. Pacific Rim establishes the typical global stakes now a cliché in expensive blockbusters, which increasingly depend on international markets for profitability and cannot incorporate too much locally specific experience incomprehensible to non-U.S. audiences, however del Toro’s particular vision suggests a more complex reading of subjectivity in transnational space than the humanity vs. aliens plot may initially suggest. In this context, the figure of Kikuchi’s Mako Mori is arguably the central character in terms of the narrative despite the film apparently being framed around Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket. On the other hand, Kikuchi’s performance as Chieko Wataya in González Iñárritu’s Babel is at the centre of one story in the geographically dispersed but intersecting meditation on the relationship between the locally specific and global systems, with the Tokyo setting emphasising the alienation experienced by the character. Ultimately, Babel reproduces a sense of isolation whereas del Toro’s global aesthetic and speculative world-building underpin transgressive intersubjective, intercultural, human-machine and human-monster communions.

Key words: del Toro; Iñárritu; borders; alienation; liminality; science fiction film.

 

Introduction: Transnational Themes in Transnational Productions

 

Films which encompass transnational issues and endeavour to engage global audiences must necessarily situate themselves differently from films which cleave closely to a specific culture or subculture, co-located with the film’s projected audience. One aspect of this is the approach transnational films take to their central characters. How can their relationship to their environment be understood by different audiences, and how does this spectrum of legibility mesh with the thematic preoccupations of the film? Films provide one medium for exploring the way globalised experiences and connections produce contemporary subjectivities. This idea frames the interpretation of the characters played by Japanese actor Rinko Kikuchi in two quite different but related transnational films: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013). Del Toro and 2015 Academy Award winner Iñárritu are two of the so-called Three Amigos, along with 2014 Academy Award winner Alfonso Cuarón.[1] (The awards are worth mentioning for the way popular reception and generic conventions frame characters for the audience.) The three directors are at the centre of a recent perceived boom in Latin American cinema, a construct related to select Spanish-language works finding an international audience. All three have also made successful well-financed English-language films, though quite distinct in terms of material and reception.

While the directors are important in each other’s careers and share the same cultural moment, speaking of their work as Mexican is to apply an artificial categorisation related to an outdated concept of nationally-based film production. Their cinematic works are quite distinctive, as Peter Hutchings has pointed out.[2] Their shared context is of interest however for the ways in which their professional trajectories are informed by both their origin and aesthetics, and how these inflect their portrayal of the global. All three have been acclaimed, but Cuarón and Iñárritu have been lauded for a higher degree of perceived seriousness. In comparison, Del Toro’s most lauded cinematic achievements are positioned in opposition to his supposedly more commercial works that explicitly belong to the genres of horror and science fiction, especially when these works are in English. Hutchings remarks on this fetishizing of non-English language films, noting that in del Toro’s Spanish Civil War films the specificity of Spanish history and memory anchors the content in a national cinema, making palatable categorisation easier.[3] Of course, this Spanishness is complicated, since both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth engage more with displacement than with belonging.[4] The former in particular is informed by Mexico’s own reception of Spanish Civil War exiles, and was originally conceived as a Mexican Revolution narrative. Neither film tells a story bounded by a particular national moment; both break barriers between the real and unreal and between memory and imagination.[5] Audiences—especially international audiences with less awareness of the particular transnational features of both the Spanish Civil War itself and the ways it is represented in these films—can more easily fit the films into the Spanish national mould. In contrast, del Toro’s English-language films with their more recognisable genre elements supposedly ‘lack significant ex-generic referents to endow them with “cultural heft”‘.[6] Geek culture may rule the twenty-first century box office, but it convinces critics and juries only rarely. Yet both films fit into del Toro’s career trajectory in its fundamental unpredictability of genre and aesthetic. Del Toro is ‘the imperfect mimic, the perpetual outsider who imitates more or less successfully but who is also an awkward, troubling presence who moves back and forth across national borders and cultural distinctions without becoming assimilated’.[7] Davies similarly identifies all del Toro’s films as ‘gleefully impure’.[8] A breadth of influences mingle together, horror merges with art, refusing genre classification. Pacific Rim’s action science fiction grew out of cult monster movies, but the narrative structure, according to del Toro himself, is essentially of a sports film.[9]

Babel and Pacific Rim

Both Babel and Pacific Rim have a transnational crew and cast, notably in their significant focus on characters played by Japanese actor Rinko Kikuchi. This is not coincidental, since Kikuchi asked Iñárritu to put her in contact with del Toro to arrange an audition after hearing that del Toro was seeking a Japanese actor for a project.[10] Nor is she the only cast or crewmember the two films have in common, reflecting the ongoing cross-fertilisation in production conditions between the three Mexican contemporaries, drawing on their long acquaintance. In addition to these transnational material conditions, various features of the stories reflect an encompassing transnational vision of a sometimes confused sort. Many performances in both films require degrees of cross-cultural roleplaying, with Babel aiming for but sometimes missing greater verisimilitude, speaking to the challenges and potential compromises involved in putting together a work of this nature. Kikuchi contends with the least of this compared to other major cast members, as she is not performing a national origin different to her own in either film. Nevertheless, her characters in both films do still suppose forms of doubling in their positioning for a global audience both in terms of aesthetic and the pairing of language and culture.

In Babel Kikuchi plays Chieko Wataya, an adolescent girl with deafness. Her performance therefore is sub-national but still cross-cultural in her portrayal of a teenager in the Japanese deaf community. Chieko is the main character in one of the four interlocking stories of the network narrative. The film switches between Morocco, Japan, the U.S. and Mexico via the plot device of the accidental shooting of a U.S. tourist (played by Australian Cate Blanchett).  Chieko’s story is the most narratively disconnected from the other three, which all pivot around the family of the U.S. couple at the core of the film whose story is the only one that reaches traditional resolution. The Japan sequences are designed to serve the film’s central themes of miscommunication and the capacity or incapacity to overcome differences via empathy. These resonances, as encoded via Chieko’s grief after her mother’s death, her general feeling of alienation, and her use of minority language (Japanese Sign Language), are only connected to the rest of the plot itself through the contrivance of her father having left in Morocco the gun involved in the shooting.

Pacific Rim is a typically explosive CGI-heavy action/sci-fi blockbuster featuring pilots of giant robot-suits (jaegers) defending Earth from invading monsters (kaiju). It was explicitly conceived and designed in tribute to mecha (the robot-suits) and tokusatsu/kaiju or monster-based Japanese cultural products. The film’s aesthetic deliberately references the effect created by such films’ live action performances in monster suits, despite relying heavily on current technology to generate the action.[11] This aesthetic and narrative DNA is obviously significant for the film’s engagement with Japanese culture and the portrayal of Rinko Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, the only Japanese character with a substantial presence in the film. Mako is a pilot candidate for the jaegers, raised by military marshal Stacker Pentecost after losing her parents in a kaiju attack on Tokyo. The trauma occasioned by this event is the principle obstacle to Mako realizing her heroic role as a pilot via the ‘drift’, the film’s conceit of two or more pilots uniting telepathically via their memories in order to jointly control their jaegers. Both the presence of a significant female protagonist in an action-focused narrative and the exploration of linking or fusing with other people and with technology are common features in certain genres of manga and anime.[12]

Along with creating robot and monster designs that principally refer to existing popular texts, the places in which the narrative unfolds are similarly imaginary and play more on science fiction cityscapes than real contemporary cities. The shatterdome from which the Jaeger launch, the cinematic future city version of Hong Kong, and the Tokyo of Mako’s memories (informed by the Tokyo of the director’s memories of past kaiju-film urban destruction) are intertextual inventions. Future cinematic Hong Kong, in particular, where most of the action unfolds, is a purely imaginary space, the defining referents being other urban images from popular culture, even though in some instances they might imposed over real-life Hong Kong terrain. Humans do not traverse Pacific Rim Hong Kong and shape it with their bodies; it has been designed to be broken through and brought down by the destructive enormity of the kaiju. The fragments of the city respond to the future-imaginary of need and desire for both creators and audience. While Pacific Rim’s specific referents are from Japanese cultural products that achieved cult status outside Japan, the orientalising of the future has been normalised in Hollywood cinema since Blade Runner[13], and in some sense is what audiences expect from portrayals of the future. To better understand Chieko Wataya’s interaction with and situatedness within the much more realist aesthetic of the Toyko of Babel, it helps to frame this city, in contrast to Pacific Rim’s Hong Kong, as a Foucauldian heterotopia.[14] In the particular consideration of transnational cinema with varied audiences, it is useful to follow Raussert’s lead in extending Foucault’s concept via Massey’s exploration of place-as-process wherein places are discursively rather than geographically bound, existing ‘within consciousness rather than physical borders’.[15] This facilitates the application of the heterotopia not just to the theatre and the interaction of screen, experience, fictional space and real space, but also to the multiplicity of ways the spaces portrayed in film are experienced by both the characters and the audience.

Babel-Tokyo mirrors Tokyo-as-lived (with the mirror being one of Foucault’s examples, alongside the theatrical stage, both with obvious resonances for film). The cinematic reproduction of Tokyo, however, takes it out of specific time and place, and creates an unstable and constantly mutating function underscoring both the radical absence of Tokyo and the absence of the viewer themselves as they are transported into each other. Babel’s Tokyo has both intertextual referents and real referents, and a shifting significance both diegetically, for the inhabitants portrayed, and non-diegetically, for the film’s diverse viewers.

Asia as Global Space

The analysis of Chieko Wataya and Mako Mori draws together different critical threads. The first is the projection of global space in transnational films in relation to the Mexican directors’ trajectory. Deborah Shaw has extensively explored the function of the transnational in both the production and the reception of these directors’ work, noting that ‘culture is rarely, if ever, “pure” and that there is no neat distinction between “Western” and non-Western: transnational movements of people and ideas must be considered’; and that it is false to categorise films as ‘Latin American’.[16] If Mexico is having a moment, partially thanks to these three high profile directors, it is only understood as such by defining the cultural spectrum from an Anglo-American centre, since their work both in English and Spanish (or multiple languages, in this case) is understood in the Spanish-speaking world according to different definitions of mainstream film production. Shaw still sees value in contrasting directors and works that share production characteristics, even if only to highlight differences in intent and effect. It would be equally artificial to declare Pacific Rim and Babel incomparable because of their disparate apparent genres. Indeed, genres have provided as incomplete a set of working categories as national cinemas. It is productive to explore not only the divergences, but also the parallels of different kinds of cinematic space.

The second major critical thread is the analysis of Hollywood images of Asia and Asian people, drawing on Jane Park’s concept of oriental style, which reinforces Shaw’s assertion of the impossibility of a pure national or ethnic product. Cultural creation and reception are all fissures.[17] Park and Marchetti both describe the emergence of post-modern pastiche as a prevailing aesthetic mode for global blockbusters, in which Asia becomes, in Marchetti’s words, ‘an imaginary construct of past representations from other mass-mediated sources’.[18] Park makes the additional critique that the ironic mode of using racial signifiers detaches race from the history of power and actual inequality, drawing on Nakamura’s concept of cosmetic multiculturalism.[19] This charge can be levelled at Pacific Rim, but with caveats that become clear through further analysis of the film’s multicultural characters.

Some existing critical approaches to the representation of Asia, particularly Marchetti’s, start from a standpoint of considering films within the context of consumption by U.S. domestic audiences. The transition Park described in its early stages is now complete: contemporary mega-blockbusters have to make their money back in the international market. This market constraint can either further or limit creativity, and certainly produces interesting effects in terms of the varied legibility of character and space in different markets. This constraint applies even for Babel and other films at the art film end of mainstream Hollywood. Despite their more limited financial expectations, spaces in these films must nevertheless be intelligible to an extremely diverse projected audience.

In Babel, Iñárritu tries to tell a situated but global story, both accessible and inaccessible at the same time. It explores the limits of communication but allows multiple entry points for different audiences to engage with the narrative. The film pivots around a single temporal point (the shooting) that represents a crisis occasioned by and occasioning violence. The strategy is the same as in the director’s breakthrough Amores perros.[20] However, with connections between the different characters even more dispersed than in the class-variegated Mexican setting of the earlier film, the use of a dramatic pivot point is less effective. As a result of tensions between the thematic ambitions and projected global audience of the film, the images of Chieko and her movement through Tokyo are neither truly local nor disruptively specific. Shaw’s discussion of the global gaze agilely critiques Babel’s use of a tourist perspective in contrast to the art film signifiers of Carlos Reygadas’s Japón.[21] The tourist gaze provides an organizing function. Iñárritu and cinematographer Prieto’s production designer Brigitte Broch portrayed Tokyo through a pink-purple palette representing the ‘diluted blood of futuristic essence’ in contrast to Mexico’s primary red for ‘straightforward Mexican passion’, with the overall aesthetic distinctions between locations geared at enhancing, according to Prieto, ‘the experience of feeling like you are in different places geographically and emotionally’.[22] Tokyo is the now-cliché site of hyper-modernity (versus Mexico where emotions are supposedly unmediated). It is a prevailing image of that city, with the small benefit of partially disrupting the ‘classic Orientalist spectrum of progress’ which situated Asia in the past.[23] Shaw suggests that Babel’s Tokyo responds to the demands of the international art film genre and its intended audience via employment of ‘familiar and expected locations and types’, in which ‘Japan is hyper-modern, featuring the latest mobile phones, cool clubs, trendy cafés, and impressive neon-bright cityscapes’.[24] Early in the Japan sequences the film presents now-stereotypical elements of urban Japanese adolescence, such as pop music videos and arcade games.

Rinko Kikuchi’s Globalised Body

Chieko herself, and her frustrated desire for a human connection and a way to physically express her grief and guilt, partly embodies the alienation associated with technologized modernity and the failure of technology to replace human contact. She uses technological aids for the deaf to assist in interacting with her environment and communicating with people. However, here these aids do not symbolise the Asian future’s technological erosion of the human, but the character’s intimate reality, an important difference. In critiquing Babel’s reinforcement of global images of Japan, Chieko’s specific experience notably disrupts some established readings of spaces, because they are intermittently silenced as the film shifts into her sensory point-of-view. Hearing members of the audience are required to make a cognitive leap to understand the difference in Chieko’s experiences of space. She perceives only part of what the hearing viewers do. In that partial perception, non-Japanese hearing viewers may also approximate something of the partiality of their own comprehension and the spatial experiences that are opaque to those outside the deaf community.

It is also interesting to consider, following Isabel Santaolalla’s analysis of the figure of the mute woman in cinema, the connections between Chieko’s relationship to language, her physicality and her sexuality.[25] Then 25 year old Kikuchi plays a teen girl who seeks power or reconnection through sex. Babel reproduces, among other tropes, a sexualised schoolgirl as the natural vessel for situating ‘urban Japanese teenage angst’.[26] However, Chieko’s sexual agency is presented without any kind of erotic charge geared at viewers. It emerges from her feelings, initially mysterious to the viewer and only gradually revealed as her sexual gambits intermingle with other seemingly aberrant behaviours to present a panorama of performances of confusion, guilt and pain. Analyses suggesting Chieko’s character functions as a sexually available version of the classic Orientalised woman who cannot reply and is presented purely for scopophilic consumption are unconvincing. Her relationship to both language and sex is more complex. Santaolalla has outlined the close association in certain films of the normalisation (the achievement of communication, especially speech) of the mute woman with social and sexual control—even, often, sexual violence and rape.[27] At the same time, Santaolalla is careful to underline the complexity of the interrelationship between body and silence/language, allowing that both, together or apart, may offer sites of resistance and challenge. In a key moment in Babel after a flirtation is derailed by the boy’s realisation of her deafness, Chieko signs that the hearing ‘look at us like we’re monsters’, and describes her vulva as the ‘hairy monster’. Sex is an attempt to reframe her own position in the eyes of others, to challenge their assumptions, and transform her experience of her own monstrousness (her guilt over her mother’s death) into something active.

The complexity of the body-language relationship also links to the tongue’s role as the instrument of speech. Chieko does not have audible speech, but uses her hands, the instrument of touch. Her tongue, meanwhile, becomes an instrument of touch in ways that unsettle the expected pathways of communication: she licks her dentist, and later she sucks on the policeman Mamiya’s finger. The written word, which provides an alternative channel for language, is only semi-legible to viewers. It is ultimately completely obscured when her final note to Mamiya, tucked into his hand, is concealed from the audience, contents unknowable. Chieko’s physical, emotional, and auditory isolation is the ultimate form of sovereignty, but she is desperate to breach it, to connect, to be human.[28] Entanglement and messiness are pathways to community. However, ultimately Chieko does not achieve this horizontal community, and certainly not on the terms by which she sought it.

The positioning of women’s bodies as sites for performing power goes beyond the narrative to extradiegetic features. The Babel team explicitly marked futuristic Tokyo with a pink-purple palette and gave the actor purple streaks in her hair to match the colour design. Del Toro similarly marked Mako through blue and also gave Kikuchi blue streaks in her hair.[29] However, in Pacific Rim, the blue is Mako’s own grief and trauma, the ongoing influence of her memory of loss, whereas in Babel the purple is remote from Chieko’s individual trauma and merges the character with the city. If Chieko’s image stands in for the future metropolis, it is vital to consider Chieko’s physical relationship to inside and outside spaces. Bringing together the disruptive opacity of her silent experience of space and her positioning in tension with the stereotypical sexualized Japanese schoolgirl are her public and semi-public nudity and partial nudity, for example, as well the intersection between the audio and the visual, and Kikuchi’s performance oscillating between disruptive monstrousness and other forms that suggest the cultural encoding of speech and body.

Shaw has also noted that to be effective a text must recognise its own limitations and the impossibility of universalism.[30] Babel relies on emotion for audience empathy rather than interrogating the function of class in a global system in determining the range of possibilities for its characters and its viewers. Empathy for supposedly universal human emotions leaves the audience mournful, perhaps, but also helpless. This emotional universalism tends to undermine the estrangement provoked by the moments in which the character’s experience remains resolutely illegible to an “outsider” (hearing and non-Japanese in the case of Chieko) viewer. Death, grief, and familial love are legible, but they are not human experiences that provoke action out of solidarity. If Chieko finds some solace or connection at all, it is through the closeness of death in the film’s flirtation with suicide and, perhaps, the reestablishment of a family unit—order—in her father’s embrace.

Mako, in contrast, has a conventional hero narrative, as can be seen in her triumph over trauma and realization of vengeance for past losses. The film is at least equally Mako’s, and del Toro describes her story—and her childhood memory—as the film’s heart (Pacific Rim director’s commentary). The male protagonist Raleigh and his brother Yancy are the initial heroes. Raleigh is framed as an impetuous youth who audiences expect will be tempered through undergoing some drastic trial, based on conventional Hollywood narrative. Hunnam is a large white man to put on posters and do English voiceover during battles. While the story of the U.S. couple (Blanchett and Brad Pitt) clearly propels Babel, despite the prologue of Pacific Rim showing the backstory of Raleigh rather than Mako it is her story that anchors the film. After Yancy’s death and Raleigh’s departure from the program, we discover that the Beckets’ jaeger (Gypsy Danger) was drastically altered by Mako, who is also shown to have technical skills and jaeger-combat abilities surpassing those of any other pilot candidate. Mako adds to Gypsy Danger a massive sword, allowing her to enact a samurai’s revenge for the loss of her family and community as she thrusts it through the body of a kaiju in the climactic battle. In another move with shades of Babel—unexpected in a film positioned in the action blockbuster marketplace—Mako speaks mostly Japanese. Her farewell to Pentecost—sensei, aishitemasu—is untranslated.[31] The full significance of a moment easily milked for sentiment is restricted to a knowing audience.[32]

In contrast to Babel, in which a known figure—the Japanese schoolgirl—is both used to make Japan swiftly legible to global audiences and disrupted by Chieko’s relation to sexuality and to language, the character of Mako draws on types perhaps less familiar outside Japan. Del Toro said of Mako that ‘She’s not going to be a sex kitten, she’s not going to come out in cut-off shorts and a tank top, and it’s going to be a real earnestly drawn character’.[33] To the extent that the Mako-Raleigh relationship has any erotic component, it is in her gaze on his body. In contrast to the nudity Chieko uses as part of her arsenal of challenging behaviours, Mako Mori is very clothed throughout. ‘As a means to, even the substance of, a commutable persona, clothing as performance threatens to undercut the ideological fixity of the human subject’.[34] This performative element of the subject, however, is also read differently by different audiences. Chieko’s nudity and Mako’s clothing/armour link to the audience’s reading of their characters as Japanese, or more generically as Asian women.[35] Inside Japan, both characters correspond to or subvert particular aesthetic traditions (principally from manga), whereas outside Japan this intertextual reading may be less obvious. Images of Asian women outside Asia are less nuanced; they do not draw on the full spectrum of female figures from all areas of cultural production as is naturally the case inside Asia. Instead, racial and gendered characteristics are often linked together in reductive essentialism. Shingler has outlined the way this expectation requires Asian stars to vacillate between stereotypical and universal subjectivity.[36]  In terms of Asian women performing opposite white men, Marchetti described the way ‘interracial sexuality’ and the use (and generally domination) of Asian women to confirm the heterosexuality of the hero had become a part of the ‘stylistic mélange’ of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking.[37] Charlie Hunnam is an imposing physical presence in the film; however, his character’s relationship with Kikuchi’s does not unfold along these lines. He is intermittently shirtless and Mako—and the audience—look at him, but despite the film’s projection of a jocular macho environment among male jaeger pilots and support staff involving the casual objectification of women, Mako herself is not sexually objectified either by the camera or by any character, including Raleigh, within the film. This environment contributes rather to the locker room effect of the male-dominated sports world, with Mako seamlessly assuming the role of untested but talented rookie.

The two characters, rather than potential lovers, are mirrors, with matching and converging narratives. In the choreography and the mise-en-scène Raleigh and Mako, when appearing together, are framed as physical counterparts, in balance with each other.  At their first meeting, Mako awaits him on an airstrip at the Shatterdome, and the two look at each other, each holding a black umbrella. (Umbrellas are prominent visual and narrative elements in manga and anime, although the constant rain also triggers comparison to Blade Runner). This initial encounter is bookended by the final shot of the two together in the film, their heads inclined towards each other, foreheads touching, and bodies in compositional symmetry as they kneel atop a life raft at sea. Between these two framing images there are many other instances of the two characters physically mirroring each other as they converge.

Among the most significant of these are the hand-to-hand fight choreography, supposed to indicate their elite combat capabilities but also, more importantly, their combat compatibility, and the subsequent sequences of them piloting Gypsy Danger side by side, clamped into synchronised interfaces. There is a dual doubling at work, with each other and with the machine, taking to a new level science fiction’s fascination with the limits of the human and the appeal of the non-human, especially where the non-human serves as the human’s double.[38] While the first and last shots of the two together suggest their joined character arcs, the choreographed mirrored sequences support Pacific Rim’s central concept of the drift, the memory-based telepathy allowing two (or more) compatible pilots to jointly control their jaeger.

Isolation versus Fusion in the Global Gaze

The experience of the drift serves as a motif of communion in terms of contrast to the individual isolation and alienation of Babel, an important point of contrast for the two films’ presentation of globalised subjects. The fusion of characters in Pacific Rim, the ways in which they are relational and intermingled even in how they experience their memories of their own past selves, is a more challenging concept of subjectivity than that put forth in Babel, which ultimately reinforces the integrity of the individual self and the obstacles in the way of transcending our isolation. This difference is not that surprising considering their different genres, with Babel in the realist art-film vein taking emotion—emanating from the self and building on the specificity of individual experience—as its centre, whereas Pacific Rim, in the way of science fiction, engages with the limits of the human.[39] Both films use central characters—notably Kikuchi’s Mako and Chieko—to show aspects of the human response to trauma and our capacity to understand the emotional components of our reaction to external threats on a global scale.

In the context of thinking about the interconnection of threat and trauma, it is relevant to analyse the two films’ treatment of the security apparatus that is supposed to reinforce our sense of integrity against an external force. The connections between borders and enclosure and the relationship between security and exclusion in Babel are obvious, but there are several ways in which Pacific Rim‘s engagement with these concepts is more disruptive. Babel shows the profound incapacity to communicate or transcend barriers. Its representation of unequal power and its relationship to global networks has already received a great deal of critical attention, which its explicit engagement with the consequences of globalisation positively invites.[40] Pacific Rim, in contrast, has one very obvious critique of the politically-motivated folly of building a wall that cannot hold, and the central plot of coming together to face a common enemy is a simplistic cliché. To consider this cliché in the context of the critical question of global visions in contemporary transnational film, the coming together of diverse characters may represent ‘the apotheosis of the transnational qualities so often associated with del Toro, with the giant robots dependent on the support of a racially and ethnically mixed group of human beings who can interact very effectively across national differences’.[41] In practice, however, beyond these clear representations of two different immediate responses to outside threats, the ways that both bodily and cultural boundaries are represented in Pacific Rim is more interesting.

Park relates Morley and Robins’ ‘techno-orientalism’ and Hollywood’s use of Tokyo as the ‘quintessential postmodern metropolis’ in which Japanese people are machine-like, suggesting that the self-hatred of modernity is displaced onto Asia.[42] Fear of modernity as symbolised by alienation in techno-mediated Tokyo is perhaps evident in Babel. In Pacific Rim, however, the prevailing mode is technophilia. Walls are not the solution. Fusing with technology is the solution. Even fusing with and loving the enemy is the solution. Boundaries, which are comforting illusions, must be transgressed. This transgressive tendency is one of the benefits of the genre. ‘Borders and markers in the science fiction film are seen as extendable—and their contents as spilling over into each other, possibly merging’.[43] From the film’s beginning, we see that the jaeger is as much a fantasy protection as the giant coastal wall, for Yancy Beckett is ripped out of Gypsy Danger’s skull—and ripped out of Raleigh’s mind—with ease. It is clear from that moment that jaeger fighting kaiju, though the film’s primary spectacle, cannot offer a solution. Only fascination as a starting point for becoming/assuming the cloak of the kaiju can liberate humanity from its coming destruction. The jaeger alone is imperfect, incomplete and penetrable. Similarly, the human characters are imperfect, incomplete and penetrable. Mako herself loathes the kaiju. But as del Toro explains, the characters in Pacific Rim are limited types that are really all one character. The characters move through different positions in a series of dyads of love/hatred, fascination/fear, technophilia/xenophilia, reason/instinct, obedience/rebellion, and arrogance/self-sacrifice. These, however, must somehow be fused or collapsed together for humanity to overcome its obstacles.

This is not to overstate the case the film makes for fusion as a mechanism for overcoming the alienation of contemporary human subjectivity, as Pacific Rim remains a story essentially about violently expelling aliens. In Babel, crossing boundaries and understanding the other, while nearly imp