Toying with the famous hermetic aphorism, “As above, so below,” I begin to tell a story in my head of a protagonist who comes to regard his consensus reality as the ontological equivalent of a matrix or gameworld. Most of the occupants of the gameworld are split subjects. They know themselves only in light of what we might call their “this-worldly” guise, each person’s identity fully sutured to that of its gameworld avatar. This process of identification causes the person to forget its additional role as player. This is where our story begins: for our protagonist has arrived at a thunderous realization. Together, he realizes, these two components — this-worldly avatar and otherworldly player — form the Janus faces, the days and nights, of a single consciousness. This realization arrives at a particular moment; certain technological capacities have to be reached — or so I imagine. But when have civilizations ever lacked their chessboards and labyrinths? All of the ancient myths featuring these objects remain active and relevant in the time of our protagonist.
I witness evidence of the world renewing itself, sprucing itself up in preparation for new rounds, new chapters, future happenings, life proceeding on its way. Birds tend a lovely little nest, tufts of grass sprouting from a neighbor’s rain gutter. A glance at Zillow, however, and the day takes a turn toward the absurd: surrealist homes splintering apart at Cabinet of Dr. Caligari angles. Zillow allows users a networked, Sim City interface for “playing” the local real estate market. After exploring a few neighborhood listings, I shake my head in mock bewilderment and close the browser. As I do so, my eyes flash on my brother-in-law’s Warhammer 40K screensaver. Warhammer features a fascinating mythos: fantasy and far-future sci-fi fused into a single, deeply pessimistic, supernatural clash-of-alien-civilizations cosmology. My sister-in-law and her husband spend a lot of their time in gameworlds. They play Pokémon and Warhammer — and lately, they’ve been playing Zillow. Like Pokémon, Zillow presents the user’s city — sensed remotely, filtered through a game interface. Real estate markets have been aggregated and gamified, reality routed through the “Warp” into the wired weird of digital capitalism. (The Warp is Warhammer’s version of what Borges called “the Aleph,” a magical orb granting sight of all points in space in a “single gigantic instant” [Borges 26]. It’s also like access to the real-time evolving collective unconscious rendered as visionary dream-state.) Or so I gather from conversation over the course of the afternoon. What desire-structures, I wonder, drive my countrymen to want to fashion themselves members of an “Imperium of Mankind” besieged by hostile aliens and malevolent supernatural beings? Where is the delight in that? Why would one want to go to such extreme lengths to estrange oneself from nature? Instead of communing with the weird and the wild, Warhammer enthusiasts project themselves into a cosmos riven by antagonism, humanity locked in struggle with hallucinated forces of chaos. As if in answer to my query, my nephews arrive later in the day. One of them rushes toward a swing set and to his brother shouts, “What the heck are these bugs? When the girls come, let’s hide.”
What if we read “tree” metaphorically, assuming as its referent something like “gameworld” or “branching narrative”? The Eden narrative locks us away in an arborescent totality, events arranged in a unidirectional sequence. Perhaps the way to leave is to re-conceive the totality as a rhizome.
Thought seeks an object suitable to its aims as the one who thinks departs from procedure amid distractions posed by others. How best may I advance my cause? Perhaps by listening to “Session Add” by Skee Mask — a track that evokes IDM of the kind promoted around the turn of the century by labels like Mille Plateaux.
The track puts me in mind of some relatives of mine visiting from out of state — probably because these relatives happen to be “digital natives” obsessed with the game Pokémon Go. Upon their arrival a few days ago, these relatives immediately invited me to tag along with them as they met up with fellow players IRL in order to conduct a “raid.” Because I’d never played Pokémon Go before, the relatives had to explain to me that a raid is an event where players gather in public and collaborate with one another to take down powerful “boss” characters. Intrigued by what I consider to be the as-yet-unrealized potential of augmented reality games, I assented to the invitation. I’ll play Tom Wolfe to these Pranksters, I told myself. I’ll fashion myself for an hour or so as a kind of amateur ethnographer. And so, there I was, watching as a diverse group of strangers came together in the streets, a bit like a smart mob or a local chapter of the direct action cycling group Critical Mass. Unlike the latter, however, “raids” and “community days” offer little by way of direct action’s collective pursuit of demands, given the profoundly indirect, cellphone-mediated nature of players’ interactions with one another. Minus a few references to how many times players had seen the new Avengers film, conversations at the event I witnessed revolved almost exclusively around the game itself. “How many points have you earned?,” players asked one another. “How many creatures have you captured?” This on a day when, elsewhere in the country, students were being gunned down in their classrooms by a self-described “incel,” or “involuntary celibate.” So much for new media and its promise, I thought to myself on the drive home afterwards — at which point, as if in reply, Spotify’s algorithms selected for me the old Bad Religion song, “Fuck Armageddon, This Is Hell.”
Life is an insubstantial thing, an élan vital, wearing all substances as its veil. Minutes pass. The gameworld, operating in “neighborhood” mode, supplies the subject with new inputs, and with those inputs, new decision-trees. I walk a path and savor ambient soundscapes filled with interacting wind chimes. Small birds root among dead leaves, then perch atop a chain link fence. When I close my eyes, the sounds intensify. As one ages in the game, one advances in level. The alien is all-present: a coherent totality, the “all but me.” I relax some of my defenses and, through receipt of found or “gifted” sense-data, attempt to learn its language. I imagine beneath me hundreds of little concreted over creeks and streams. The unconscious: earthen, mythic center of being. It dreams us, and then we run away, reinvent ourselves, project ourselves into mind-made constructs. Dual time-tracks, time-sense surrendered to serial eternal presents peppered with patterns discoverable among arrangements of images and sounds.
Operators were warned early in the game that their minds would one day melt under the pressure of neoliberal operant conditioning dispersed across the gameworld through takeover of the phenomenon known as work. Foreknowledge of a danger lacks consequence, however, when one is powerless to change one’s course. Several well-received monographs have already been written on the subject. Yet here we are—integrated into the narrative despite ourselves. An enterprising young cartoon skateboarder rolls up and says, “Feel free to customize the pipes on your virtual persona!” Practicing a few simple laws, our overseers have grabbed and conquered. “Just like that,” says the skater, fingers snapping. His friends arrive and line up beside a food truck. “Welcome to Biscuit Town,” mutters one of them. We roll our eyes and look grimly upon the scene ahead. To a rhythmic interplay of xylophones, triangles, and cowbells, they tie us up, they weigh us down. Their employer, from another hemisphere, gives a command like so. Push/pull. A scuffle. “Nobody move,” shouts a man in a mask, “it’s a stick up.” And like that, they rob us blind.
The current year already seems crueler than the one prior. Late capital downloads and installs updates while subjects sleep. The system reboots itself each morning with an ever thinner sense of its past, a few more artifacts sold off, a few more disciplines abandoned, imagination channeled instead into complex games of strategy and cunning. The problem with consciousness is that one only ever acquires it amid these games. And in the absence of any observable outer limits to these games, what can one do but play? We too often reduce ourselves to mere decision-making machines. Like the entities at the ends of men’s magazines. Food lions caught in predator-prey relations. Energy divided, individuated, and pitted against itself, turns life into the Parable of the Tares. Better to step back and contemplate silent immensities. Life, having taken many forms, evolves toward one form. Rhythmic breathing of the individual engenders trails of thought, mental approximations of planetary biorhythms. The return to the body can be dizzying.