Thursday, February 26, 2009

On Masochism

One of Theodor Adorno's central ideas is that our cultural activities dramatize our attitudes towards the existing social order. The crabby German critical theorist was fixated-cum-obsessed with the formal qualities of modern music for this very reason-- he thought that the interplay of material and form in a given composition constituted an ethical stance towards political and social reality. While music offered the most abstract representation of these attitudes, Adorno thought the governing logic of a given society was manifest in the most innocuous artifacts. He even wrote an ingenious and scathing little book, The Stars Down to Earth, analyzing the authoritarian tendencies of the astrology column of the Los Angeles Times.

Adorno's analysis of capitalist culture-- the "culture industry"-- in The Dialectic of Enlightment, twins this stance towards the social significance of culture with Freudian analysis. On his veiw, there is a distinct psychopathology manifest in modern cultural forms, a tendency to masochism.

Genuine aesthetic pleasure is a threat to technical society because it offers an alternative-- call it an escape, or as Proust put it, “a promise of happiness”-- to the routinized degredation of industrial capitalism. The job of the culture industry, is to manufacture entertainments that reinforce the underlying logic of capitalist society and blunt the potentially liberatory potential of art. And this is where Freud's theory of masochism comes in. A key to understanding the culture industry, on Adorno's view, is to see that its pleasure is a delight in our own impotence. Adorno has manifold examples to back up this thesis-- titillating-yet-prudish films made under the eye of the Hayes board, slapstick comedy, even Donald Duck. (An example which I used once in class is the classic TV series “I Love Lucy.” Every episode Lucy dreams of stepping outside the household and playing with Ricky's band, and in every episode these aspirations are humorously punished. The spectator is meant to enjoy the pain visited on her due to her aspirations after transgression.) The goal of the culture industry is to dull the anarchic force of pleasure by encouraging the spectator to revel in their own impotence. (NB this is all gross oversimplification of Adorno's Byzantine views on these issues, but is not actively misleading to my knowledge)

Though I've never put much stock in this thesis as a diagnosis of modern culture as a whole (it's freighted with more Freudian commitments than is wholly sensible), it does have a way of explaining some things. For example, it's got a lot of explanatory payoff when it comes to golf. It is difficult to explain the staggering injustice of golf to a layman. It is perhaps the most arbitrary and maddening form of leisure ever devised. You see, golf is a game in which you have a very very slight margin for error. The ball is so small that very minor faults in your swing the thing can cause things to go horribly wrong. I've been playing golf since I was 12 or so, and I can still completely miff shots-- knock them with the blade of the club and send the ball dribbling 2 feet to the left. Even when I'm doing hitting the ball squarely, I have some insidious, ingrained element of my swing mechanic that imparts a spin on the ball, curving it ever rightward.

It makes you want to smash up the implements you use to play the game, because they're the closest you can get to smashing golf itself. Back during my caddy days I witnessed grown men throw clubs into water hazards and trees, and though I was embarrassed on their behalf my heart was with them. On what else can you wreak revenge?

I say: here is a game that neatly captures the masochism of late capitalist culture. For eighteen holes your life is prey to the whims and malicious and arbirary forces, forces made all the more hateful by your sense that you should be directing their course. Every once in a while, seemingly at random, your efforts towards competence seem to pay off (sometimes you'll string a few decent shots together), but this is just another turn of the screw. Golf is life under the thumb of an inscrutable corporate overlord.

Which brings us to Halo. I'm crap at Halo. And yet every few months I'm mysteriously driven back to it. Despite my stack of unplayed and unfinished games, games that do not require interfacing with horrible racists, I keep playing Halo every time I sit down with the controller in my hand. I'm not sure why. It causes me actual dismay to keep throwing myself against the limits of my own competence. At least golf is outside. Golf courses are picturesque and varied, which is something I can't say of team slayer on Guardian. And yet I'm always coming back for more, lured by the illusory promise of that one decent game.

Aside from my basic puzzlement at my own motivations it occurred to me that frustration-- frustration of the controller-throwing sort-- is a disturbingly common emotion that when it comes to games. Especially the beloved games of your youth: those games were insane and difficult and arbitrary. There was always some ornate enemy behavior or finicky jump or boss battle that made you want to swing your NES controller above your head and launch it into the nearest water hazard. What does this say about us?


Anonymous said...

I was at a conference the other day and there was an Xbox360 with Halo 3 and four controllers provided for the participants use during downtimes. The compere (is that what you call the bloke who speaks between the main presenters?) quipped that "xbox is the new golf", though I'm guessing not in the way you suggest in the post.

Nels Anderson said...

Well, golf was also invented by the same people who created curling and haggis. The former involving throwing tremendously heavy rocks across thin ice in the dead of winter, the latter being a dish that consists almost entirely of offal. Granted, I love both of these things (golf, not so much), but I don't understand why a rational person would enjoy them.

In seriousness, I cannot stand straight-up online shooters a la Halo or Counter-Strike. I'm not at all interested in then, which means I'm totally crap (or vice versa). Not sure why there's an appeal for you (and lots of others). I understand the feeling of mastery after finally beating something really difficult (Ninja Gaiden), but when it's almost absolutely futile? No idea. This maybe be a bit of an explanation, but yikes, it's kind of scary if that's accurate, eh?

Anonymous said...

>> The ball is so small that very minor faults in your swing the thing can cause things to go horribly wrong.

This effect is like a lens that magnifies the meaning of your actions. Small changes in the initial conditions explode exponentially into enormously different outcomes. A Golf club is a simple machine that magnifies physical force. The game of Golf is a simple machine that magnifies cause and effect itself.

>> here is a game that neatly captures the masochism of


Iroquois Pliskin said...

@zmachine: Ha! well, I didn't get into it here but I think what they mean is that golf is a great social game. You hang out with some friends, enjoy the day, have some beers. The pleasure's really in the fringe benefits rather than the activity itself. (playing halo with friends is a vastly more pleasant experience than playing on line)

@nels: it is crazy, because just learning these online shooters involves getting your ass handed to you big-time. This is no particularity of shooters tho. any game you play competitively online like starcraft and whatever have the same dynamic. hell, it even extends to playing local Lumines live against the ladyfriend.

Anonymous said...

When I read this post's title, I thought it was going to be about Street Fighter IV -- which has the most infuriating final boss I've come across in years.

Why do I keep going back to it? It's possible that the satisfaction of overcoming this tremendous challenge wipes away all the frustration that came before, perhaps instilling the pleasant delusion that I'm getting better at the game.

(Spoiler: I'm not.)