capitalism

“The Illusion of Choice”: Forced Freedom in Mr. Robot and Late Capitalist Society (30 October 2015)

I experience a fleeting feeling of freedom whenever I go to the grocery store.  It offers me a reprieve from the stress and anxiety that creeps up on a daily basis as I worry about deadlines approaching or what I’ll do next after I finish graduate school. And then there’s always the peripheral flutter of unending concerns about issues that most people are able to accept as out of their control––rampant deforestation; rising PH levels in the ocean; increasingly endangered coral reefs, polar bears, and countless other species; the 50 million people in the U.S. who experience food insecurity; the factory workers in third-world countries without decent rights or wages making my clothes; the innocent victims of wars perpetuated by military-industrial complexes; the staggering racial injustice of the U.S. prison-industrial complex…the list literally could go on forever.

It’s no wonder that I get in a rut sometimes as I encounter more staggering statistics and tragic stories. I tend to feel debilitated in these moments when I must confront the fact that I’m just one individual who does not have the time, talent, or resources to combat all evil at once, and so it will be time calm down.   So I go out of doors and, when it’s too cold to appreciate nature, I will go to a grocery store looking for comfort food, clearing my head by distracting myself with, ironically, more stacks of stuff.

It’s not a habit I’m proud of and that I want to remediate, and so the first thing I have to do is understand it.  It seems to me that what is tantalizing about the experience of shopping is the ability to exercise some kind of control through the act of consumer choice.  Perhaps as someone who constantly feels like her life is barely under control, the ability to swipe a card to pay for stuff somehow is empowering, inevitably stemming from the sordid allure of ownership.  But of course it’s only a temporary feeling.  Once the chocolate bar is gone, it’s back to square one, and I then realize I don’t own the things that I buy:  the things that I buy own me…

*

It’s not very often that one can turn to a network television show in order to illustrate just how vice-like global capitalism’s grip is on everyday life, at least in any way that’s meaningful, yet this is exactly what I have recently discovered in USA’s new show Mr. Robot.  Its main character, Elliot, is a genius hacker who suffers from social anxiety and craves world revolution.  Although he works as a techie at a cybersecurity firm to pay the bills, in his free time he hacks into the various accounts of people he suspects to be petty criminals and, like a digital Batman, anonymously tips the police or blackmails the evil-doers into righting their wrongs if he stumbles across illegal or immoral conduct.  But what the entirety of the show is predominately about is Elliot and a group of other hacker individuals known as “fsociety” who are attempting to do the impossible:  completely overthrow the corporate overlords, redistribute the wealth entirely, and usher in a new era freed from the systemic acts of injustice perpetrated by the greed of the excessively wealthy.

robot1 It would be impossible for me to summarize here even just the main plot points of the first season, and at any rate what I want to talk about is the second episode in particular in which Elliot grapples with the question all progressively-minded millennials like yours truly battle with daily: Do any of our choices really matter?  At this point in the show, Elliot has already been inducted into fsociety but remains timid and wary of the revolutionary candor of its leader, Mr. Robot, who has proposed that their next exploit involve blowing up a facility where all of the crucial servers for E Corps (also derogatorily referred to as “Evil Corps”) are located.  The problem with the plan, like so many violent acts of rebellion, is that the destruction from the blast would also inevitably entail the deaths of many people in the town adjacent to the facility, something Mr. Robot insists is merely a price they have to pay for the revolutionary cause. Elliot refuses to endanger the lives of innocent civilians.  Mr. Robot rolls his eyes.  He tells Elliot that in life, like in computer code, there are people who are “ones” and people who are “zeroes”––people who act vs. people who don’t; heroes vs. cowards. Elliot shrugs him off in the moment but clearly remains vexed as he attempts to return to a normal life. While sitting through a therapy session in which he usually remains silent, when asked how he’s feeling Elliot uncharacteristically decides to oblige his therapist’s request for specifics by launching into a slow, melancholy monologue:

How do we know if we’re in control? That we’re not just making the best of what comes at us and that’s it and trying to constantly to pick between two shitty options… Coke and Pepsi. McDonald’s or Burger King. Hyundai or Honda…It’s all part of the same blur, right? Just out of focus enough.  The illusion of choice.  And half of us can’t even pick our own cable––our gas, electric, the water we drink, our health insurance.  Even if we did, would it matter?  Our only option is Blue Cross or Blue Shield.  What the fuck is the difference?  Aren’t they the same? Nah, man… Our choices are prepaid for us.  A long time ago…

What’s the point, right?  Might as well do nothing.
This is not an unfamiliar attitude; articles are written about millennial malaise more and more these days as moments of activism like Occupy Wall Street rear their heads for an exciting moment only to dissipate and the status quo continue.  Scholars have weighed in on the cause of hesitation among young people like Elliot who know that injustice exists but nevertheless believe there’s little to nothing they can do about it.  There are many explanations, primary among them the fact that fear and anxiety is at an all-time high for millennials for whom “student debt is at its highest” with a “fear of unemployment and poverty” as a result.  It’s no wonder America’s youth is afraid of challenging the establishment when what they’re worried most about is putting food on a table for one.  I myself have suffered from similar fears, although my own therapy via career counseling has begin to allay some of my anxiety about entering soon into “the real world”––but the fact that I, and so many others, need reassurance is telling in itself.  My counselor has told me time and again “I wish you would be more confident.” I wish I could too.

robot2

Enough said.

What Elliot expresses above and continuously throughout Mr. Robot is an implicit awareness of existing within what the critical theorist Jean Baudrillard called “simulacra”–– that is, when “reality” disappears as it is subsumed by the models or maps that seek to not only represent reality, but to overtake it, in effect becoming “hyperreal.” What was once the representation of reality becomes reality, and this then means the two cannot be separated nor distinguished from one another.  We no longer travel, for example, without consulting Google Maps. In fact, we locate ourselves in relation to this digital representation of streets and addresses to the point that we can no longer navigate without it; the little red pin on the map and the actual place are one and the same.  When Elliot laments that the choices we make are “illusions” already predetermined for us, he is expressing the anxiety of living within simulacra wherein “we are confronted with a precession of simulacra; that is, the representation [that] precedes and determines the real.”  How many of us choose to deviate from the path determined by GPS or feel anxious when we seemed to have taken the wrong turn?  We only go where maps will lead us. Ergo, Elliot’s comment that, in reality, our options are limited and so is our power, which is the reason why Elliot concludes that one “might as well do nothing.”

Yet because we are implicated in a system, there is no choice that can be made that will not impact another person somewhere in the world. If Elliot decides to “do nothing” and let the corporations continue to exist with impunity, he will likewise have agreed to others’ lives be negatively affected when he had the option (as his therapist reminds him) to do something. Contrary to Mr. Robot’s dismissal of his moral compass, Elliot’s fear of hurting others in the pursuit of revolution is a real fear that should be taken seriously, for it is the quintessential dilemma for people of conscience throughout the world who are painfully aware and wary of the fact that their actions will inevitably affect someone, somewhere, somehow.  For example, in the election season right now, though I am a die-hard supporter of Bernie Sanders’s campaign, I nevertheless wonder what might happen if we tax Wall Street speculation so ruthlessly.  Will they move their operations elsewhere to countries whose government’s have abysmal labor laws, thus exploiting potentially even more third-world workers than we already do now? The answer seems to me to be, honestly, “Maybe.”

In fact, there are infinite possibilities when it comes to the consequences of our actions, which is what makes the precautionary contemplation of worst-case scenarios cease to be useful after a certain point, especially when it inhibits further action.  In Absolute Recoil, Slavoj Žižek discusses the notion of “radical acts of freedom,” which he insists “are possible only under the condition of predestination” wherein we “know we are predestined, but we don’t know how we are predestined, i.e., which of our choices is predetermined,” and yet paradoxically it is in “this terrifying situation in which we have to decide what to do, knowing that our decision is decided in advance, [which] is perhaps the only case of real freedom, of the unbearable burden of a really free choice––we know that what we will do is predestined, but we still have to take a risk and subjectively choose what is predestined” or, if considering the “simulacra,” what is predetermined (68).

robot3

Oxymorons are popular in critical theory, as is staring gravely into space.

The beauty of Mr. Robot and critical theory is that it forces us to see our incessant anxieties about the efficacy or consequences of our own actions as ultimately ones that come from fear of our own freedom.  To run in the other direction, to “do nothing,” or to do what is safe or neutral, inevitably perpetuates the violence that, today, is mostly hidden from us as the simulacra distorts the reality lying just underneath its veil.  The question of whether or not anything we do actually “matters” often comes from the fearful question, as it does for Elliot, that what we will do will matter in harmful way.  While the simulacra may predetermine the parameters of our reality, it does not mean we are without power to intervene.

Which leads me back to my own initial questions for my blog series as I wrap up my time with Metathesis this month:  Do they “matter,” the messages popular culture send us? Do we need to spend our time deciphering texts or television shows for hidden ideologies?  Why should we keep English departments around? Why bother with critical theory?  With the help of Mr. Robot, I’ve come to the following conclusion: To be able to decipher cultural “codes” is itself a kind of hacking.  It is a project that when done seriously, and with the intention of changing the world, has real power just as Elliot does so long as he chooses to recognize it.  There is one crucial difference though: Whereas not all of us have the gift of deciphering code and understanding complex data, we do have the gift of thought and critical thinking.  The most tantalizing belief of our global capitalist, “post-modern” world is that our choices do not matter, a belief that prevents thinking too much out of fear of futility––i.e., “What’s the point, right? Might as well do nothing…”

But if there’s one thing critical theory teaches us it is that what is “true” is not objective, nor is it relative, nor is it a given.  What is “true” is tied to power relations and therefore to systems that create logics.  If all there is, then, is power, and if we are here to empower the disempowered, then that must mean we have to begin to interrupt the program to bring a more important message and, most importantly of all, not be afraid to.  We are in control of more than what we choose to eat or wear, maybe more in control than many of us want to admit. But if that’s the price we pay for our freedom, might as well do something.


Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms.  When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.

Changing The World From Within to Without: My Take on the Importance of Critical Theory (9 Oct. 2015)

The fact that there is a so-called “crisis in the humanities” is old, though persistent, news, with many theories behind its impending demise.  The main culprits are understood to be funding cuts at the state and national level as well as an overall cultural shift toward valuing professional degree paths in the private sector, spurred by conservative thinkers’ critique of the humanities as a degree that leads to “nothing but unemployment.”[1] It’s an ironic position, given the fact that coexisting with this concern regarding practical employment is another dilemma the business community has recently brought to the public’s attention: a general lack of sophistication in critical thinking skills among recent college graduates, as reported recently by Doug Belkin of The Wall Street Journal.

“General lack” is probably not the best way to put it given Belkin’s mention that, according to a survey of business owners by American Association of Colleges and Universities, “nine out of 10 employers judge recent college graduates as poorly prepared for the work force in such areas as critical thinking, communication and problem solving”––a rather staggering statistic. While critical thinking skills are not only found in English or History classrooms, no one would dispute the fact that the crown jewel of an education in the humanities is the extensive training in critical thinking, whether fostered through in-depth textual analysis or in developing the argumentative prowess of a PoliSci major.  The powers-that-be would do well to reflect on this.

image1

“They’ve redesigned the logo in the wake of funding cuts.”

Yet in terms of the humanities, even amongst those sympathetic to its aims, the popular perception of the “real” reason the humanities exists comes down not to critical thinking, but to passion––the fact that some of us have come, through the process of time, to be enamored with the great ideas of the past (and in fact, the term “humanities” emerged out of the intellectual turn from “scholasticism” to humanism in the 15th century).   As Adam Gopnik has succinctly put it, “The best way we’ve found to make sure that everyone who loves to talk about books have a place to do it is to have English departments around.”  History majors love history, philosophy majors love philosophy, and so on and so forth.  In defense of the existence of English departments, Gopkin stresses that love of literature is the raison d’etre of studying English and if there is a reason to continue supporting and not axing English departments it’s because

No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.

Because we are human and because we need to feel pleasure – this is why we should continue to teach English (and philosophy and history too), not because, as Gopnik puts it, “they will produce shrewder entrepeneurs or kinder C.E.O.s.”

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And also this reason.

But why not have our cake and eat it too?  Is it possible that the humanities can offer all of the above? Practical skills, attention to moral and ethical concerns, as well as plain old fun?  In fact, for centuries literary endeavors were to follow the Horatian Ode and do just that“to delight and to instruct.” In an era in which deep-reading is also as much in crisis as deep critical thinking skills, it’s important to engage with both literature and critical theory, two areas that are in fact at the core of the humanities.  Although opposites in their intentions and aims, they also complement one another.  While art and literature seek to unabashedly put forth entrancing new ideas that hope to transform its viewers/readers and their world, critical theory seeks to analyze it to pieces and, in some cases, debunk it.  As the adage goes, “Opposites attract.”

Critical theory is not the only way to teach critical thinking, but it is, in my opinion, one of the most important, given its attention to analyzing and critiquing the assumptions a society makes.  As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy more specifically puts it, “Some of [critical theory’s] core issues involve the critique of modernities and of capitalist society, the definition of social emancipation and the perceived pathologies of society,” critiques that inhere in traditional Marxist philosophy interested particularly in Hegelian dialectics.”  (Don’t worry if you don’t know what the hell I mean by “Marxist philosophy”––we’ll get to that later…)

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What she said.

For the month of October though, I’m not going to go into the history of critical theory or solely summarize the concepts of some of its most influential thinkers (You’re welcome.)  Instead what I want to talk about and to demonstrate is the importance of critical theory, not for academics or undergraduate students, but for people, plain and simple––that is to say, critical theory on a personal, rather than purely “academic,” level.  Why? Because I believe the most exhilarating power of critical theory is its ability to allow us to discern the structural forces that act upon us as individuals, its ability to reveal the inner workings of life and destruct the monolithic force of our everyday understanding that things are “just the way they are.” It has the incredible ability to cultivate the power of discernment––to look at the world and see through its most tantalizing lies and insufferable cajolements.  And it has the same capacity to help one see through oneself, to understand the assumptions our perspectives come packaged with.

Real people, as people, not just professionals or academics, need these skills.  Not because it will help you get a job or make you more erudite, and not even because it’s “fun,” but because, in the end, it is empowering; it can change and liberate your perspective.  As Marx famously put it, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” And to be or not to be the change we want to see in the world––that is the question.

[1] Many critics and scholars have noted that there are other factors to consider when it comes to the “crisis in the humanities” too. Heidi Tworek argues in a December 2013 issue of The Atlantic that the humanities technically lost favor in the 1980s and simply haven’t gained back its relative influence is primarily due to the increasing opportunities for women to major in subjects outside of the humanities, an attractive option for those with an eye toward gaining employment in more lucrative careers they were formerly unwelcome in.


Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms.  When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.

Sex on the (Game) Table (18 Sept. 2015)

I’m going to pivot here from the past two weeks, away from 2000 word theoretical arguments and critical close readings to something a little bit looser. In the process, I also hope to turn away from the world of video games for a little while and towards the cardboard world of the table top. If you’ve been into your local Barnes & Noble on any given day in the past few years, you may have noticed the sudden appearance of board games where before there were only college application guides and Moleskine notebooks. This, I promise, is not just indicative of B&N’s own post-codex marketing strategies. They say we are in the middle of a board game renaissance, a golden age of plastic figures, complicated rulebooks, and wooden cubes, and that makes me one happy little nerd.

Incidentally, it also makes me one happy little student of sex and gender politics.

For scholars of gender and sex in a society like ours that has, for much of its history, depended on the institutions of marriage and family to generate a dominant source of individual and corporate identity, understanding the way these institutions work, their social effect, and the conditions under which they break down is essential. This goes doubly true for those who have been marginalized or harmed over and over by these deeply engrained institutions. If you were a film scholar with an interest in sex and gender politics, you’d likely spend time examining the visual representations of familial love, coded femininity, or censored scenes of illicit sexuality. Likewise, were you to take Victorian literature as your subject, you’d probably reading all of Foucault, historicizing sexual practices of the 19th century British subject, while close reading Dickens for signs of the emerging middle class family unit.

Rather, games are machines, encapsulated collections of rules that produce incredible pseudo-fictional experiences when activated by players. Games are adept at modeling the social and political systems in which we already live. This is as true of board games as video games, and it is why the resurgence of board games ought to excite anyone with even a passing interest in the operation of sex and gender in Western culture. Where films and books represent gender and sex ideologies by conventions of narration, image, and characterization, board games offer up for examination the very systems within which these ideologies circulate. This allows players to discover, interact with, and even enact models of those systems, opening institutions like marriage and the family up to a different and (dare I say it?) fun kind of analysis.

So, as both an indulgence of my nerdy enthusiasm for tabletop gaming and an instance of the capacity of board games to represent the dynamics of gender, sex, marriage, and the family, I offer below a few examples for your consideration.

agricola

Photo Credit to Board Game Point of View on boardgamegeek.com

Agricola

Agricola is an intimidating beast of a game to the uninitiated. It’s a quintessential example of the “Euro” style board game: relatively little direct player interaction, multiple paths to victory, heaps of victory points to be won, and copious wooden blocks. In this game, players take responsibility for small 17th century farmsteads, competing with each other to establish the most diverse, fruitful farm. On their turns, players place one of two “workers” from their farm board on one of the action spaces in the shared, central board. Being a 17th century farm, the labor is pre-industrial which means your “workers” are actually husband and wife. This is a case of pure abstraction in terms of representation; the agrarian couple are in fact nothing more than flat wooden discs. They have no visible gender difference, nor are they functionally different with respect to the kinds of actions each one can take. If they are a heterosexual couple as the game’s rulebook assures us they are, there are no representational markers to support such a case. However, as a game of Agricola plays out, two new action spaces open up, each called “Family Growth.” Here, players can assign one of their workers (presumably the wife) who then returns home to the farm bearing a third wooden disc – a child. The arrival of a new child is one of the most exciting events Agricola can offer players, not however because of the miracle of childbirth, but because it means that player now has one more worker that can be sent into the fields, giving them a tremendous competitive edge over her opponents. This wooden child seems to verify that yes, indeed, the first two workers were indeed man and wife, but after the child’s arrival, all three workers once again melt into interchangeability. These bodies are as abstracted, as ungendered as you might imagine – and yet the game’s mechanics testify to the sex that is nevertheless always at the core of a winning strategy. Agricola then offers players a family unit rooted in heterosexual marriage, but radically flattened of sexual difference by the demands of production. Agricola strips marriage and sex down to its most basic, agrarian, function: securing resources, staving off starvation, and producing enough surplus to overshadow your neighboring farms.

Village

Photo Credit to Chun Yian on boardgamegeek.com

Village

Village is another game set in the pre-industrial past, as well as another example of a Euro game with an emphasis on the family unit. However, where Agricola explores the relationship between familial fertility and productivity, Village explores the relationship between family legacy, death, and cross generational ties. More mechanically complex than Agricola, Village makes use of some similar ideas: players have a homestead board from which they place family members onto a central action board and it’s possible for players to “have babies” in order to generate more workers. However, these workers are each labeled with a number, 1-4, indicating to which generation they belong. Players place their workers onto the various actionable spaces of the main board, and in many cases, leave them there, for the spaces are occupations that their workers hold until they die. Say you’re playing Village and you need to make a wagon to sell at market. You could pay a hefty price in various resources and gold or, if you have a worker at the wainwright location, you could simply spend a bit of time, the game’s third spendable commodity. As players spend time, however, workers from the older generations begin to die off. Workers, on the occasion of their deaths, are sent to graves that match their lifelong occupation and in this way are committed to the village’s book of records, memorialized forever after. However, should the limited number of places for a worker’s given occupation be filled up, they are sent unceremoniously into an unmarked grave, forgotten forever and, crucially, giving the player no points. Rather than incentivize the growing accumulation of labor as Agricola does, Village encourages players to look forward to the proper memorialization of death, for it is in this memorialization that the legacy of their family is secured against those of their opponents. Tellingly, the rulebook calls the score “Prestige Points.” It is expressly for the garnering of that prestige that the family unit exists in the world of Village.

consentacle

And now for something completely different…

Consentacle

In a very sharp turn away from the pastoral, picturesque worlds of Agricola and Village, I’d like to introduce you to Consentacle, a game by designer, Naomi Clark that is, as of yet, still unpublished. Unlike the previous two games which you can order right off of Amazon, Consentacle was never intended to be a mass market game. This game takes as its subject the erotic encounter between a young, “Curious Human” and a rather expressive “Tentacled Alien.” Consentacle is all about the complex negotiation of sexual consent as players work together to generate Trust, gain Satisfaction, and hopefully, build Intimacy between their wildly disparate characters. Visually, the Curious Human and Tentacled Monster are as different as can be, though any potential sense of horror that you might expect is mitigated by a charming, Jet Set Radio Future, comic-y art style. Mechanically, this difference is reinforced by limiting communication between players as they work toward a common goal, encouraging a sort of blind, tentative play style. On their turns, players simultaneously play cards like “WINK,” “BITE,” “STROKE,” or “ENVELOP,” trying to create combinations that lead the Curious Human and Tentacled Alien into a memorable erotic encounter. I say memorable because the goal of the game isn’t solely to achieve Satisfaction but to transmute that Satisfaction into something more. Satisfaction is actually only the middle step along the road, a sort of exchange gate through which Trust must pass in order to become Intimacy. This alchemy whereby Satisfaction transforms Trust into Alchemy is the key to Consentacle’s representation of sex, not as an end to itself, nor as the component of some larger, marital or familial institution, but as a crucial form of relation that bridges the wide gulf between individuals. In a representational fiction that draws explicitly from an erotics of difference that is often figured as inherently violent (feel free to Google tentacle porn if you’ve missed the allusion), Consentacle removes the power inequities that seemed to be inherent in an encounter between ingénue and monster and replaces them with the erotic frisson of cooperative consent. In other words, sex is fun! And, when sex is properly fun, it is egalitarian, given over to a free exploration of difference, and the magical reagent that brings Intimacy where before there was only solitude.

and then we held hands

Photo credit to Andrew Tullsen on boardgamegeek.com

…and then we held hands

I’ll wrap up with another cooperative game where players must cope with limited communication and blind play in order to achieve a relational end. In …and then we held hands, two players take on the roles of lovers who have reached a point of crisis in their relationship. The nature of this crisis is left to the imagination, but in order to resolve it, players must navigate their pawns across colored spaces on a board arranged in concentric circles. As players discard emotion cards from either their hand or their partner’s, they gradually try to move toward the center of these circles, achieving balance and resolving their relationship in the process. …and then we held hands, is a quiet, deeply abstracted game, unlike Consentacle, and yet an intensely evocative one. The emotions in the game are represented by one of four colors that make up the board’s spaces as well as the emotion cards in player’s hands. Discarding the emotion cards suggests the emergence of feeling in the course of discussion or argument between two lovers and, correspondingly, it affects the position of the player’s pawn. If players handle each other’s (and their own!) emotions appropriately, they slowly make progress toward each other – but should they ignore the feelings in play they risk running their pawn into an impossible corner, unable to move within the context of that relationship anymore. Again, like in Agricola, …and then we held hands, seems gender agnostic, though it also seems to invite players to approach the game as a couple, extra-diegetically. And indeed, the game has been discussed in various contexts online as a “couple’s game”. However, the absence of representational gender here suggests, like Consentacle, an egalitarian sort of cooperation, one that requires sympathy, the reading of body language, and careful consideration of your partner’s state of mind. Where Consentacle is all playful eroticism, however, …and then we held hands plays more like a meditative, couples’ therapy session. The mechanics here are simple and though abstracted, clearly linked to ideologies of egalitarian coupling. It is exactly that abstraction, however, that renders …and then we held hands so open to projection. This is a game, it seems, in which players are invited to invest their own relational crises and contemplate for thirty minutes how they can better cope with the complex roil of emotions that come with the sexual territory.

And that’s it for now! This was just a very cursory overview of how board games offer small windows on the way our society has conceived of sex, marriage, and gender. So much more could be said about each of these games and the many others that I don’t have room to mention. If we really are in the middle of a board game renaissance, I hope we can recognize their value as microcosms of our own social lives as gendered, sexual bodies.


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games, sexuality, and queer theory. He lives with two cats and is terrible at side scrolling games. Go Bills.

Nightcrawler: Not the Satire You Think It Is

On its most basic level, Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014) is a heavy-handed satire that indicts the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality and the normalization of violent and gruesome images on television news. Since images of the Vietnam War made their way into people’s homes via television screens, there have been debates about how much is too much, and what one can and cannot show, ethically, on television.

However, Nightcrawler also contains a much more interesting satirical thread in the figure of its ruthless entrepreneur Lou Bloom,* played by Jake Gyllenhaal, a young man who films accident and crime scenes and sells the footage to the news. The film satirizes the discourse of bootstrapping and “job-creating” entrepreneurism that rose (from its continual background presence) to particular visibility during the 2012 presidential campaign.

The last campaign may seem like a distant memory for many, particular given our 24-hour news-cycle mindsets. My students this semester didn’t even remember “binders full of women.” Remembered or not, the Romney/Obama campaign cycle focused heavily on how to lift the country out of the Great Recession. For Romney, that meant eliminating the minimum wage, increasing unpaid internships, and stimulating private-sector entrepreneurs to create the jobs and reduce unemployment. He was skewered by liberal and mainstream media outlets for depicting himself as having bootstrapped his way to riches (“Everything that Ann and I have, we have – we earned the – old fashioned way. And that’s by hard work”), for advising college kids to start businesses by borrowing a little money (like, $20,000) from their parents,** and for his now-infamous 47% remarks. Discursively, Romney was framed as a man who didn’t care about the average American, or the average employee, and who promoted a broken and ruthless brand of entrepreneurial capitalism that would serve to make the rich richer without improving the lives of “average” people.

ironing
Image source: Mitt (Greg Whiteley, 2014; available on Netflix)

Nightcrawler takes the ideas espoused by the Romney campaign, and the discursive fashioning of that campaign by an unsympathetic press, to their logical extreme. Lou starts the film unemployed; he has turned to stealing manhole covers and copper wire from abandoned buildings to make money. But he’s also self-educated; he combed the wealth of the internet and imbibed all of the employment advice and entrepreneurial common sense he could find. Early in the film, as he tries to weasel his way into a job at the scrap yard where he is selling his ill-gotten goods, Lou gives his elevator speech:

“Excuse me, sir. I’m looking for a job. In fact, I’ve made my mind up to find a career that I can learn and grow into. Who am I? I’m a hard worker. I set high goals and I’ve been told that I’m persistent. Now I’m not fooling myself, sir. Having been raised with the self-esteem movement so popular in schools, I used to expect my needs to be considered. But I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations.”

Lou’s words appear benign. Who among us doesn’t want to think they are a hard worker who sets goals and has persistence? And Lou seems humble, actively countering the anti-millennial discourses that indicts that generation for its entitlement and narcissism. He’s a go-getter, what critic Anthony Lane calls “an entrepreneur, in a fine, self-improving American tradition.” But Lou is also ethically blind—he cannot understand that the scrap yard owner won’t hire a thief.

creepy
Also, he’s super creepy looking.

Lou’s hard work, high goals, and persistence eventually lead him to blackmail and sexual exploitation. After selling one short clip to a news channel for a few hundred dollars, he begins to tell people he runs “a successful TV news business.” He hires an unpaid intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), continually promising a promotion and a wage that he never intends to deliver. When he tells Rick that “Good things come to those who work their asses off,” it isn’t a motivational truism but a thinly-veiled physical threat. Lou is a capital creator and brand creator (with his company’s name, Video News Production), but not a job creator, and certainly not a nice-guy bootstrapper who plans to pull others up with him.

so stable

Like the high-profile white collar professionals who brainstormed the subprime mortgage fiasco that contributed to the Great Recession, Lou exhibits a reckless disregard for ethics and the well-being of others, and this recklessness leads him to financial success. Some critics have taken Lou for a sociopath or as suffering from some other mental illness. However, pathologizing the character undercuts the film’s satire and denies the pervasiveness of this sort of mindset within corporate America. Lou’s “sociopathy” is just everyday corporate practice, and his big break delivers a stinging satirical bite: Lou makes his break while exploiting an affluent white family. The second set of footage he sells to the news networks to conclude the story makes him enough money to expand his operation by investing in several vans–and several more unpaid interns. His big break shows that no one is safe from his unethical entrepreneurism, regardless of class or economic status, cementing the film’s reactionary liberal satire of the sort of values that Romney embodied and promulgated on the campaign trail.

 

 

*Yes, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Leopold Bloom resonates here as well, the wandering man drifting through his city.

**This incident, while still definitely indicative of class and economic privilege, was pretty overblown by some media sources. Romney was telling the story of Jimmy John, the sandwich shop owner and franchiser. Romney said, “We’ve always encouraged young people take it, take a shot, go for it. Take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents. Start a business.” In this story, though, he also said that Jimmy John, “said he borrowed $20,000 from his dad” to start a restaurant, and it didn’t seem to occur to Romney at the time that a pretty high percentage of American parents cannot give their child $20,000 because they’re living paycheck to paycheck, or are underwater on their mortgage.


Lindsey Decker is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate studying Film and Television in the Department of English.  Her dissertation examines questions of transnational cinema in self-reflexive British horror films.