Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nonary for the People

Whenever Roger Ebert pops up into the news, my little corner of the social imaginary grumbles anew about his failure to acknowledge videogames as an art form, which is apparently an important thing. In the midst of the grousing, examples are inevitably put forth, and the irritating people--in the past, we'd have called them "ludologists"--point out that the examples don't count, because they're notable for plot elements that rely on narrative (i.e. non-ludic) conventions. In short, movies are art, whereas videogames may not be, because the examples of arty videogames are actually short films. Which are art. Or they're not. I dunno.

Anyway, it's refreshing to see games that openly embrace the syncretic, and 9/9/9 identifies itself quite openly as being a mystery novel with graphic adventure "escape" scenes. It takes some getting used to, and I certainly ground my teeth a bit during the stretch between the opening escape and the four/five dilemma, but in time, and with the help of several extra-literary devices, it works very well.

Initially, the seeming sluggishness induces an odd sense of displacement, which is actually pretty appropriate, all things considered. As a player, I never seemed to see what I expected to see when I was reading about it, and the displacement faded only when I accepted that 9/9/9 really wasn't going for film as its fallback medium, but the novel. Just like it said in the damn manual.

So, it's mostly reading. The visuals are haunting, but more a series of illustrations than anything else, more for style and mood than action. As for said action, the prose is competent, and at times loving: never before have I read such a thorough description of what would happen to a human body should an explosive be detonated in his or her small intestine.

Which brings us to the plot, which is, well, spoilery, really. The genre kind of demands a lack of info. For our current purposes, it's worth mentioning the end structure. 9/9/9 has six categories of endings, if the save screen is to be believed, and when the game is completed, the player may restart with the (heaven-sent) option to speed-scroll through text already read, and with the choices already made highlighted for easy reference. The result is a system that encourages players to rapidly replay similar events, an area in which games happen to excel.

One of the few entirely unique affordances of the videogame medium is the ability to conceal rules from the player: the first goal of the game is to figure out the second goal, etc. The repetition of plot elements fits into the game's narrative very well (think Eternal Darkness), and it's genuinely unnerving when a character you find sympathetic and vulnerable kills you with an ax. It casts a strange light on your next time through the game, with the future ax-memory breeding with the previous one. And while any non-linear text of this type allows for differing futures, I'm personally unclear on whether even the past is stable: if something is true in the 5-7-1 path, can we be certain it's similarly true in 4-8-6? Even if it happened before any of us showed up on this damn boat?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Objectivist Ethics III

By now, Rand has established her categorical imperative--"survive, goddammit!"--and toward its maintenance, suggested a first principle of government:
The only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect man's rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence--to protect his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to his own property and to the pursuit of his own happiness. Without property rights, no other rights are possible.

One is here tempted to wonder where property comes from, if it is to be synonymous with human life in our political values. Elsewhere, Rand's answer is similar to Locke's: "property," the concept by which materials cannot permissibly be taken from an individual to whom it "belongs," is created when said individual mixes his labor with it. Work, mentally and bodily, creates property from gross earth.

The trouble with this conceit is that it reeks of the mysticism she so defiantly claims to reject. Nothing in the laws of nature, to which Objectivism claims to owe its origins, corresponds to property. Life and death, troublesome concepts that they are, seem to exist objectively. The empirical evidence toward this conclusion is overwhelming. We can examine plants and animals in any number of ways and determine, physically, whether or not they are alive.

We cannot do this with property. No force field surrounds my car, protecting it from thieves. A physicist examining the car would not be able to determine any essential change in the car were I to sell it while she were examining it: she would not suddenly look up, a puzzled expression on her face, and mutter,"I sense a disturbance in the force...a document changing rates getting higher..." (In this example, the physicist in question is a Star Wars fan, and the car has been sold to a 17-year-old boy in another state.)

What protects the car from thieves--so far--is not a metaphysical fact but a social agreement to establish documentation of "ownership," and to maintain a persistent threat of violence toward those who would seek to challenge the authority of said document. The car ceases to be property when the community ceases to treat it as such. Under feudalism, we are entirely comfortable saying that property is created by soldiers, and you own what you are willing to expend resources to defend. Rand seems to believe that, faced with solidifying borders, technological improvements, mass production and international trade, humans suddenly discovered an a priori law of property that had always been there, written in the very eros of our being, and that it had no relation whatsoever to that earlier, fake "property" concept that had been developing and adapting to changing conditions since prehistory.

Rand treats property as a deontological law, as brutal and uncompromising as the God of Abraham. It must be followed because it must be followed. And because it must be followed, violence that preserves the law must be morally legitimate, whereas violence that threatens the law is forbidden. Rand prefers to express this concept in the form of a mugging--"A holdup man seeks to gain a value, wealth, by killing his victim; the victim does not grow richer by killing a holdup man."

In the interest of being needlessly pedantic and snarky, I would suggest that a "holdup man" is probably hoping to avoid killing his victim, which is why he goes to the trouble of the "holdup" instead of flat-out murdering a stranger and looting their corpse. I am also unclear on whether or not it is strictly correct to call the person who kills the holdup man a "victim," given that only one of them is still breathing. Rand does herself a rhetorical favor by putting this parable in a readily recognized situation, and one that takes place in a society several orders of magnitude more complex, and interdependent, than the noble savage groove she's been rocking so far. It also conceals any essential difference between a wallet held by clothing affixed to the body and a patch of land in another country, or the right to translateFinal Fantasy V into English at some point in the future. It also makes property-defending violence perpetually secondary, despite the fact that the laws of physics give equal claim on any object to anyone. "Objectively," the mugger's seizing of the wallet is no less moral than the "owner's" decision to carry it around in the first place. The distributed threat of violence to protect the social construct, in addition to providing the mugger with an incentive to leave his victim alive in the first place, is primary. The decision that any action is forbidden, and must be deterred with violence, precedes any violence the decision might forbid.

This distinction matters because elsewhere, Rand is keen to note that slavery is not a properly "human" state, and mere survival is not sufficient to rational living. On the contrary, nearly suicidal behaviors can be considered rational if the "life" one risks is one of servitude, terror, and uncertainty. It is difficult to argue with this point, and every moral system acknowledges that there are different kinds of life, and different kinds of death, and one need not act on akrasia to choose the final death of the rebel over the living death of the slave. Rand is in agreement with nearly everyone here. She just happens to have added the caveat that this does not apply to countries with strong property laws, in which case those unable to procure "rational," "independent," "human" survival by their own ingenuity and labor are morally obligated to suffer and die, intentionally remaining in lives of danger and want, even if they could improve their long-term chances of survival by seizing the property of another. They must die, so private property can live.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Objectivist Ethics II

Previously on "The Objectivist Ethics": "an organism's life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil."

Righto. So, surviving? Good! And here we have the first common mischaracterization of evolutionary theory we so commonly see in pop culture: that of brutal, unending competition, for survival is a goal that can afford no compromises. Which, I suppose, makes for a fine moral philosophy. The only thing that could really threaten it--and I'm going way outside the box here, so bear with me--would be the repeating failure of certain cells to reproduce perfectly, leading to an utterly unavoidable ceasing of all life functions that nobody could escape, under any circumstances, ever.

So unless the highest moral state of man is that of an invalid sucking oxygen through a mask in a state of shrieking terror as his brain function becomes ever more tenuous, there has to be more to value than the life of the individual.

Moving on, Rand pays homage to Bentham's twin sovereigns, pleasure and pain. She tells us that such sensations begin the process of developing consciousness:

Consciousness--for those living organisms which possess it--is the basic means of survival. [...] The simpler organisms, such as plants, can survive by means of their automatic physical functions. The higher organisms, such as animals and man, cannot: their needs are more complex and the range of their actions is wider. The physical functions of their bodies can perform automatically only the task of using fuel, but cannot obtain that fuel. To obtain it, the higher organisms need the faculty of consciousness. A plant can obtain its food from the soil in which it grows. An animal has to hunt for it. Man has to produce it.

But Man, it turns out, is a tricky biscuit. Because it turns out that bipedal primates can, in fact, get by quite well by hunting, assuming by "hunting" we mean "gathering and scavenging." We did so for a good long time. In fact, "hunting" itself wasn't something we were particularly good at until speech enabled us to enlarge our social circles and transmit knowledge more effectively, alongside such wonderful developments as traps, throwing weapons, and the porting of the popular "wolf" into a more consumer-friendly format. By going oddly Platonic in her tripartite "plant/animal/Man" hierarchy, Rand seems to hope we don't raise our hands and ask exactly what this Man thing is.

Homo sapiens clearly isn't sufficient, and it's unclear where exactly "producing" picks up from previous fuel-acquisition technologies. Man, the productive being, might begin with subsistence farming, or he might begin with Adam Smith's pin factory. But any sub-masculine homo sapiens is certainly capable of grabbing what he finds in his environment, even if he did not produce it. Why wouldn't he, if it helped fuel his survival? Rand and I, surprisingly, have different answers, which shall be covered in the next post, in which Rand tries to sneak a heaping pile of deontology into her theory without her audience noticing the glaring contradiction it creates.