Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

A good line

August 23, 2013

The writing in Fredric Jameson’s cinema books is notoriously bad.

The chief problem isn’t that it’s unclarifiably obscure or difficult to construe, in the way of much academic bullshit. (G.A. Cohen: ‘For the record, I do not believe that Hegel was a bullshitter, and I am too ignorant of the work of Heidegger to say whether or not he was a bullshitter. But I agree with my late supervisor Gilbert Ryle that Heidegger was a shit.’) It’s that too; but above all it’s just syntactically wacky.

But this line Jameson’s The Geopolitical Aesthetic is rather good, I think:

[It] would be comical to wish the social burden of bourgeois respectability and elaborate moral taboo back into existence merely to re-endow the sex drive with the value of a political act.

Doesn’t such comedy describe the (spuriously ‘subversive’) activities of countless ‘radical’ activists and identity politicians?


Learning to see like Maya: brutalizing the audience

December 17, 2012

Criticism has been voiced of the new film Zero Dark Thirty for its apparently lengthy and vivid depiction of torture.

A character is strung up by a rope, waterboarded, dragged around by a dog collar and stuffed into a cramped box in an attempt to extract information concerning a terrorist network. The viewer witnesses ‘animal-like howls of anguish’ and ‘unintentional defecation.’

Such scenes are part of a familiar revenge narrative in which the good guy’s (and audience’s) righteous motivation is established in the early scenes and the baddie is eliminated, exhilaratingly and bloodily, at the end.

A fan of the movie describes it approvingly:

[CIA counter-terrorism officer] Maya (Jessica Chastain), looks on — it seems to be her first “enhanced” interrogation. We see [tortured detainee] Amar’s treatment through her eyes, and though she appears troubled at first by what she’s witnessing she’s also fighting off any feelings of revulsion. “I’m fine,” she says, in response to doubts from the more seasoned interrogator who is running the show. During a subsequent torture scene, Maya is left alone with Amar. He begs her for mercy; she tells him, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” Now we know for sure that she has steeled herself to be cold and hard—that she’s consumed with tracking down Osama Bin Laden and is willing to do whatever it takes to find the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks (which have been evoked hauntingly during the movie’s opening moments).

When Amar is led around by a dog collar and then finally, horribly stuffed into a tiny wooden box, we recoil at this treatment and feel Amar’s pain—but we also feel Maya’s sense of urgency. At the end of the interrogation scenes, I felt shaken but not morally repulsed, because the movie had successfully led me to adopt, if only temporarily, Maya’s point of view: This treatment is a legitimate way of securing information vital to U.S. interests.

Critics have deplored this as ‘endorsement’ of torture.

In response, some Democrat bloggers, posing as sophisticated aesthetes, have accused such critics of Zhdanovite philistinism, of ‘aesthetic Stalinism’ and of behaviour befitting ‘Bill Donoghue and the Catholic League’. (Nobody yet has applied the ‘moral panic’ label, whose use I described here.)

These bloggers identify themselves as liberals who would never support torture but who know how to appreciate a good film when they see one.

Meanwhile, according to film critics, the ‘morality brigade’ has failed to appreciate how the film’s hero is portrayed as ‘morally compromised’. The torture scenes are ‘squalid, vivid and brutally protracted’, and they generate a ‘horrible sense of complicity’ among the audience ‘when we realize we want the guy they’re interrogating to spill the beans and get it over with’:

There can’t be much question that the filmmakers mean this to be distressing and tarnishing, not something to cheer for.

Another film critic, seeking to rebut the pro-torture accusation, solemnly declares: ‘fleeting shots of Maya clenching her jaw, crossing her arms, and looking away, should leave no doubt as to where the filmmakers stand on the issue.’

Whether a film openly ‘endorses’ torture, or whether it styles itself as a Funny Games-type ‘critical examination’ of cinematic and real-world violence, is not irrelevant.

(Of course, in making Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, a former ‘embedded’ reporter who wrote The Hurt Locker, were granted ‘top-level access’ to White House, Defense Department, and CIA sources, as well as assistance from a commander of the Navy SEAL team that executed Osama bin Laden. Pentagon officials described their wish to ‘shape the story’ of the film, and expressed their satisfaction that Bigelow and Boal were using ‘White House-approved talking points’.)

To focus on this question is, however, to miss the deeper point.

What does it mean when world-weary film critics accuse Glenn Greenwald of interpretive incompetence, of failing to evaluate the torture scenes using aesthetic criteria rather than judging them on political or good-taste grounds?

When watched by a ‘naive’ or novice viewer, ‘graphically intense’ on-screen violence elicits a stress response. Activation of the HPA axis leads to increased heart rate, galvanic skin response, dilated pupils, uncontrolled breathing, and sometimes trembling, clenching, nausea and other physiological symptoms of arousal.

Attending to such unfamiliar and unpleasant symptoms (and to associated emotions) makes demands upon the viewer’s scarce cognitive resources and thereby distracts him from the film. (Put differently but equivalently, focusing on the non-violent aspects of the film requires effort rather than happening automatically.)

With the experienced viewer, who has become accustomed to doses of cinematic violence, this stress response is inhibited. Rather than triggering anxiety or overwhelming distress, such visual and auditory cues (gaping wounds, blood, screams) generate a manageable kind of excitement, heightened attention or amusement.

Familiarity thus allows what is known as perceptual fluency – in which ‘easy’ processing, born of repeated exposure, enables a favourable affective response to a presented stimulus.

The positive evaluative judgements of film critics are underpinned by their familiarity with the visual material and the consequent ease with which they process it. Repeated exposure facilitates liking of a stimulus, generating a positive appraisal of what initially may have been neutral or even aversive. (Thus the manipulation of consumers by advertisers pursuing brand recognition: familiarity enhances product preference.)

Indeed, viewers of mainstream films, TV and video games undergo a kind of stress inoculation. Having been exposed repeatedly to doses of horrific brutality, and having become habituated to them, the cinematic adept or initiate is imparted with a newly found tolerance during subsequent encounters. He or she gradually acquires resilience – an attenuated stress response – because it’s all been seen before.

This adaptation to aversive stressors also describes the kind of ‘hardening’ undergone by the character Maya. What initially are novel and unpleasant stimuli (the sights, sounds and smells of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’) rapidly become familiar, and she can ‘steel herself  to be cold and hard’ (although developing this sort of emotional resilience in its recruits is something imparted by training and by self-selection of Washington’s military death squads and CIA torturers).

To be capable of appreciating films that expose viewers to realistic violence, audiences and critics must (like Maya) have ‘steeled’ themselves.

Only once this state has been reached, i.e. after they have been brutalized by repeated exposure, can viewers appreciate what they are seeing on other levels or derive pleasure from it. Thereafter violence can be enjoyed in several ways.

What is required from the audience of a Quentin Tarantino film is self-conscious savviness: getting the allusion, generic reference or cinematic in-joke. (This is what allows such films to function as a signal of the audience’s quality – acquiring competence, being able to appreciate them, requires a costly investment of time, effort or money that cannot easily be faked. Self-congratulation is one of the rewards of such films.)

Violent ‘anti-violence’ films such as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and ‘deconstructed’ shooter games such as Spec Ops: The Line, which hope to ‘implicate’ the viewer or player, also demand a ‘competent’ audience, i.e. one that can appreciate it on the ‘right level’, get the message or appreciate the style without being distracted by their repugnance or feeling too sick to watch. (Haneke has said that his ‘ideal scene’ would impel members of an audience to look away because they are ‘panicking’.)

And, viewed with enough aesthetic distance, Zero Dark Thirty‘s ‘squalid, vivid and brutally protracted’ torture scenes, its ‘morally compromised’ protagonist, the blood, bestial howls and involuntary defecation, and the ‘horrible sense of complicity’ generated among its audience, can be understood, like The Hurt Locker, as some sort of nuanced critical statement on ‘the moral, psychological and even spiritual price’ of war, the ‘sacrifices and costs of keeping America safe.’

In other words, the aesthetic and commercial ambitions of these films depend upon, just as the films themselves help create, an enormous oversupply of media violence. The latter produces ‘literate’ viewers of the required sort.

This desensitization of audiences has broader social correlates and consequences. By brutalizing consumers of media and entertainment products, it is helping to encourage a shift in social norms, internalized preferences and individual tastes.

Increasingly, perpetrating lethal violence or enjoying it for entertainment purposes does not lead to ostracism or sanction, but is positively rewarded (c.f. Bigelow and Boal’s reverence for the armed forces, the CIA and the ‘American triumph, both heroic and nonpartisan’, of killing Bin Laden).

Over time, this mix of incentives and cultural influences is causing a shift in the population distribution of attitudes to violence and the psychological traits needed to undertake it.

For the average person, this general shift is scarcely observable: it merely makes the median viewer more resilient (i.e. less prone to negative emotional states) when horrific violence appears on the movie screen.

But a rightward shift in the tolerance for violence will also increase the number of people at the sparsely inhabited tail (i.e. the extreme upper range) of the population distribution: those psychological outliers with the capacity to kill people and undertake torture while remaining composed, emotionally stable and task-oriented.

This outcome is functional for the US ruling elite, which for the past two decades has advanced its strategic objectives through belligerence and lethal violence. The state leadership’s policy of military aggression is facilitated by population-wide habituation to violence.

The likes of Bigelow and Boal are thus participating in a war drive. So too are the countless film critics, writers, bloggers, academics and paid ideologues whose own set of professional incentives leads them to apologize for her work and other products like it.

Tarantino, of course, has always disclaimed any extra-aesthetic relevance for the torture and sadism shown in his films. They are just movies. Few have bothered to challenge this line over the past two decades, even as sinister musings on torture by Alan Dershowitz became publicly acceptable fodder for ‘liberal’ editorial columns, and the creative efforts of John Yoo were taken on as policy by the US Justice Department.

Now, with his Django Unchained due to be released one week after Zero Dark Thirty, will its torture scenes be judged worth of comment? Will critics note the resemblance of Tarantino’s various sadists to Bigelow’s interrogators (and to the real-life versions working in Bagram, Cairo, the West Bank, the basements of Mogadishu, etc.)?

If so, will this be thought to mean anything, or will any such suggestion be dismissed as embarrassingly unsophisticated?

Common dreams

April 6, 2011

The Joint Fires and Effects Training System, created by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), has received some attention for using what its makers describe as ‘the creative talents of Hollywood and the game industry’ plus ‘movie-industry effects’ to mix simulation with ‘story-driven content’.

The ICT was established in 1999 as a defence-affiliated research lab following a report published in 1997 as ‘Modeling and Simulation: Linking Entertainment and Defense’.

ICT has since also produced UrbanSim, a game that trains in ‘complex counterinsurgency and stability operations’, and Full Spectrum Warrior, an entertainment game that grants users tactical command of a light-infantry platoon.

The JFETS trainer is one of many dismounted forward-observer simulators that allow users to practice calling for indirect fire (artillery and close air support). Similar generic products are freely available online for entertainment purposes.

The more broad trainers, ‘synthetic battlespace rehearsal systems’, are themselves modified from off-the-shelf commercial games. Virtual Battlespace Systems (VBS) 1 and 2 were based on a commercial game called Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis, adapted by Bohemia Interactive Australia and distributed worldwide by the Florida defence contractor Coalescent Technologies.

Meanwhile all four branches of the US armed forces, together with the DoD, Homeland Security and other government agencies, have pooled training-systems resources and commands in a ‘unique military collaborative alliance supplemented, supported and augmented by academic and industry leaders in the modeling and simulation, human performance, and training domains.’

This sixty-year-old alliance between defence contractors, universities and military is now called Team Orlando, and is based in the Central Florida Research Park.

The latter is home to the National Center for Simulation. It also contains the headquarters of IDEAS, a subsidiary of entertainment giant Disney, an ‘innovation studio’ that produced products for the US Navy’s ‘Revolution in Training’. Lockheed Martin (which produces a series of games under the DARWARS programme) has its regional office there, as do Boeing, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems (the world’s largest military contractor) and videogames companies EA and n-Space.

Another resident firm, AVT Simulations, lists as a key activity its adaptation of commercial game engines to meet the training requirements of military customers.

Each year Team Orlando holds and participates in events like I/ITSEC (the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference), GameTech and Otronicon.

These are intended, firstly, to facilitate cooperation between armed services, government agencies, academia and private firms in developing military training products and services. They are also supposed to showcase ‘how some artists are crossing over from military to entertainment to military applications’, and to attract ‘current and future gamers to add the defense industry as a career option.’

At last year’s GameTech Will Wright, creator of the Sims series of games, gave the keynote speech; this year the honorary address was delivered by the head of game-development firm Zombie Studios. The 2011 event was held during the same week in late March at the same Orlando hotel as the Army Games for Training Conference.

Indeed, insofar as the US Defense Department and the various armed-forces agencies take a serious interest in games and virtual simulators, it almost exclusively is as training instruments that can meet much the same needs as do live exercises.

Altogether, the US Army’s Warfighter Training Alliance, led by military contractor Raytheon, integrates three kinds of training: Live, Virtual (‘immersive’ simulations, operated by Computer Sciences Corporation) and Constructive (game-driven simulations, administered by General Dynamics).

Wright, in his keynote address to GameTech 2010, listed a bunch of trendy topics (network theory, complex adaptive systems, cellular automata, power-law distributions, chaos theory, nested hierarchies, etc.) in which, he claimed, the concerns of games design and those of counter-insurgency planning intersected.

But Wright’s talk was followed immediately by some quick words from Frank C. DiGiovanni, Director of Training Readiness and Strategy at the Pentagon’s Office of Personnel and Readiness. DiGiovanni is the policy coordinator and overseer of training for all four branches of the US armed forces; his office was the co-sponsor, together with Team Orlando, of GameTech.

DiGiovanni oversees development of Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiatives.

ADL emerged during the Clinton administration as an attempt to ‘support geographically unconstrained training’ in a future operating environment of ‘persistent conflict.’ The ADL website asks: ‘Why is the DoD putting so much effort into advanced learning technology?’

The increased rate of deployments of the DoD’s forces in recent years, which often involve rapid, unplanned movements to locations around the world, highlights the need to provide training on demand to individuals and units deployed worldwide. Accordingly, because of more demanding deployment criteria and other time-sensitive constraints, the DoD recognizes that yesterday’s framework of “right time, right place” learning, with its use of set times and places, may not meet future requirements. It also recognizes that providing “anytime, anywhere” instruction is essential to maintaining military readiness in the information age; future forces and their support activities must be highly adaptive to address threats effectively and rapidly.

The Pentagon’s 2010 Strategic Plan for the Next Generation of Training declared that one of the two training revolutions to have occurred in the previous 40 years was ‘the development of large scale ranges that allowed large force exercises and high fidelity conflict simulation in the late 1970s, early 80s.’ This referred to the giant National Training Centre at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert.

But this site was no longer adequate. Parts of it had recently been leased out for solar thermal and PV installations, and as a fixed location it no longer met strategic needs, which tended towards military expansionism and global power projection. This would leave hundreds of thousands of US soldiers and marines deployed in combat zones and stationed at overseas garrisons, rarely rotated back home:

Not only are U.S. forces deploying more often, they are experiencing an increasingly diverse range of missions when they do…As current operations, major materiel acquisitions and personnel related expenses continue to consume an increasing portion of defense budgets, funding for training will face significant budget pressures. Training facilities and other resources may often be underfunded, especially in relation to the increased demand described above. Meanwhile, competing demands for air, ground and maritime maneuver space, the growing reach of sensors and weapons, and environmental constraints on the use of existing ranges and maneuver areas increasingly challenge our ability to conduct live training, especially on a large scale….The long-term objective is to produce an immersive training environment… This environment must be…globally accessible 24/7…Because DoD is a global enterprise, access to that environment should be persistently available via the Global Information Grid (GIG) to the full range of users.

The 1999 DoD Strategic Plan for Advanced Distributed Learning put it thus:

In tomorrow’s dynamic threat environment, America’s forces may have to deploy on a moment’s notice…They must continuously learn, simulate, and rehearse, whether they are in school, at home station, at home, en route to, or in the theater of operations…While yesterday’s right-time, right-place learning paradigm met yesterday’s military requirements, it can not meet future requirements based on more demanding deployment criteria and other time-sensitive constraints…[Meeting] the more complex readiness needs of the future will require the Department of Defense to re-engineer its ability to deliver learning to an anytime-anywhere objective.

DiGiovanni thus made clear that the ‘strategic trends and pressures’ turning military instructors towards games and simulation were ‘high demand on our live-training resources’ from ‘competing demands.’ In such circumstances, games and simulations were a direct subsitute.

So just to be clear: what ultimately has prompted the Pentagon’s turn towards games and simulations as ‘distributed’ trainers? What lies behind the growth of institutional, funding and personnel links between armed services, giant defence contractors and private entertainment firms in the area of modelling-and-simulation R&D? (There are, of course, countless other examples of broader integration between entertainment firms and the DoD, from recruiting tools like the Army Experience Center and America’s Army, to the Catalyst workshop for aspiring screenwriters.)

According to the policymakers themselves, it is less the demands of network-centric warfare than the state of US grand strategy.

The latter was described two weeks ago by the Harvard International Relations theorist Stephen M. Walt on the Foreign Policy blog: ‘Most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has become addicted to empire, it seems, and it doesn’t really matter which party happens to be occupying Pennsylvania Avenue.’ As much has been clear at least since the Clinton Administration, the first to openly proclaim the territorial sovereignty of other states to be a revocable licence, granted by the “international community” (for which read Washington and whatever alliance it saw fit to cobble together) and enjoyed only at the latter’s pleasure.

The active citizens of the US polity – the business class, the political class itself, the Security State, the echo-chamber of thinktanks and journalists – are committed to the establishment and retention of military protectorates over the world’s energy resources, sealanes and other zones of strategic importance as a means to prevent the emergence of peer competitors, maintain the position of US firms, preserve the dollar’s privileged position, etc.

In such conditions, the dispersed masses of US ‘Warfighters’ – hundreds of thousands of them penned in fortified garrisons or engaged in combat operations around the world – can no longer be assembled reliably and periodically at home bases or live training ranges. They must find new tools by which to learn and retain their skills.

The US Army’s Research Institute for Behavioral and Social Sciences (ARI) undertakes research into training and personnel matters; its mission is to ‘maximize individual and unit performance and readiness to meet the full range of Army operations.’ Much of its recent work explores the worth as combat training exercises of games, virtual ‘immersion’ and simulation.

The psychology department at the University of Central Florida (UCF, part of the research cluster together with Team Florida) has also devoted itself to such questions. Psychomotor combat performance (marksmanship, shoot/no shoot decisions, etc.) is known to diminish with the application of stress (noise, sleep deprivation, enemy attack). Increased heart rate, sweating, shallow breathing and higher cortisol levels may lead to ‘unpleasant or intrusive physical or emotional reactions’: tunnel vision, auditory blocking, distraction from task-relevant stimuli, muscle tension and rigidity, and ultimately freezing and non-execution of the task itself.

According to research published in the journal Military Psychology in 1989, based on studies of Israeli veterans of the 1982 Lebanon invasion, the strongest predictor of combat stress reactions (which manifested clinically as compulsive crying, sleep disturbances, screaming, vomiting and diarrhea, numbing or levelling of affect, trembling, paralysis, withdrawal from surroundings etc.) was the sight of death (whether that of a comrade, enemy or officer).

Given that inflicting enemy casualties is the basic measure of combat proficiency, this presents a problem.

According to research from UCF psychology professor Eduardo Salas and James E. Driskell from the Florida Maxima Corporation, ‘the primary purpose of stress training is to prepare the individual to maintain effective performance in a high stress operational environment.’ The first way of inoculating against stress reactions, and thus making combat skills resistant to stress-induced degradation, is to ‘enhance familiarity with the target environment.’ This will render an ‘aversive event…less novel and unfamiliar.’

Familiarity is provided by preparing the trainee with the relevant sensory information in conditions that realistically approximate, to a reasonable degree of fidelity, the task/stress environment. The second way is by ‘overlearning’ the relevant skill or task, so as to make it a routinized habitual response to the context or stimulus.

Various DoD training outlines have emphasized that simulations, games and immersive trainers must produce ‘realistic stimulation of sensors, replication of visual cues’ and ‘stimulation of more than one sensory capacity’.

Predeployment stress inoculation is one purpose of the ‘mixed-reality’ Infantry Immersion Trainer at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendeleton, and of the Future Immersive Training Environment at Camp Lejeune. The latter uses both head-mounted displays and suits equipped with sensors, enabling projected avatars to replicate the movements and actions of the participants. Rifle shots are wirelessly relayed to a receiver which incorporates the firing data into the virtual environment.

At these and similar sites, trainees are exposed to high-fidelity simulations of the ‘visual, auditory, haptic, and olfactory elements of the operational environment’: ‘sudden explosive impact, loud ambient noise, depiction of casualties, post-event chaos, presence of insurgents, and other stimuli’ including weapon signatures and ‘virtual characters [responding] realistically to being hit by small-arms fire.’

This is designed to produce an acute stress response from the infantrymen. Stress-response profiles are gathered by administering salivary-hormone tests that measure adrenal (cortisol) and alpha-amylase secretions, and by monitoring heart rates.

According to an evaluative report presented at I/ITSEC 2010, ‘exposure to realistic stressors may provide a degree of inoculation to the stress of the environment before it is experienced in theater, leading to better performance under stress’. This will, according to another I/ITSEC paper on the effect of training on mitigating stress, increase ‘the ability of forces to deliver the outputs for which they were designed’.

Such research retains the preoccupations described by former West Point psychology professor Dave Grossman in this blog’s previous post (i.e using repeated realistic drills to overcome the resistance towards killing of ‘warfighters’). But it translates the old behaviourist language into an up-to-date cognivitist account of how lethal behaviour can be learned then later elicited with ‘increased speed, increased accuracy, immunity to environmental stressors, and greater retention’.

The trick is to save (scarce) processing capacity by making automatic what would otherwise be a deliberate, consciously-willed action:

Controlled processes are those strategic processes required for novel tasks or those tasks requiring the devotion of attention. Controlled processes have been considered serial in nature and are carried out in a stepwise fashion. They have also been thought to be carried out much like a recipe, do this- then this, etc. Controlled processes have been described as being performed more slowly and under the explicit control of the individual. After much consistent practice, some tasks no longer require the devotion of attentional resources and are performed to completion in the presence of the initiating stimulus unless there is a conscious effort to inhibit them. Automatic processes are characterized by this decrease in the cognitive/attentional resources allocated for these tasks…An automatized motor-skill may operate at a level not associated with awareness, or not directly under conscious control…[Automatic] processing…is difficult to alter, to ignore, or to suppress once learned…An automatic sequence will tend to reoccur in response to the previously trained initiating stimuli.

And further:

[If] a person consistently chooses to pursue the same goal within a given situation, over time that goal structure becomes strongly paired with the features of that situation. After this consistent pairing of the situation with the intended goal, eventually, the goal itself is activated on the perception of features of the situation in a preconscious analysis…Performance improvements will occur in situations where stimuli are responded to in a consistent manner across exposures…Contextual cues should be used to mimic the effects of consistency and may activate automatic sequences of behavior…Training to levels of automaticity will also make performance reliable under environmental stressors such as alcohol, fatigue, heat, noise, and so on…In some cases, consistent practice can lead to direct memory access, such that the execution of the recipe or algorithm is no longer needed.

In short, ‘repeated experience is the best way to train decision-making skills so that a required cognitive process that might initially be analytic and labored can become more intuitive and automatic.’

UCF, alongside other institutions in the Team Orlando orbit (e.g. ARI and Lockheed Martin), has declared positive findings on the usefulness for this purpose of games and simulation. They make familiar to the trainee what would otherwise be novel and highly aversive sensory environments (i.e. all the perceptual information involved in killing another person in combat). And they allow behaviour modification via the same well-worn neuroendocrine pathways that are engaged during close-combat training and repetitive markmanship drills.

Visual-attention tasks are known to stimulate cholinergic release and thus allow rapid perceptual learning. People who engage in such repetitive, high-stimulus activities for extended periods are known to experience visual and auditory hallucinations that accurately replay the activity as they fall asleep (hypnagogic imagery, or the so-called ‘Tetris effect’). Such images are not limited to sleep onset but intrude during wakening; there is a lag between sensory stimulus and hallucination. This is known even to affect amnesics: those with deficits in conscious declarative memory.

Those kinds of training that elicit some instrumental motor response from the trainee or player (in a virtual environment, desktop computer, console or head-mounted display) are usually also designed for constant feedback and engagement of the user’s reward system, allowing proprioception and self-correction. In their most advanced form, such media gather precise activity data via click-stream logs, track sequences of decisions, detect anomalies or failure, and build behavioural profiles of the trainee or player.

Perhaps most importantly for training purposes, the user is desensitized by repeated exposure to high-fidelity depictions of physical violence against other humans: photorealistic vision of gruesome deaths, directional audio including ‘human distress noise’, scent machines, haptic feedback, wind, heat, and motor control over the action.

The boundary between processing of visual (and to a lesser extent auditory, tactile etc.) information and planning of movement is fuzzy. It seems likely that the primate brain’s comprehension of observed behaviour (say by an avatar) involves performing a ‘covert rehearsal’ of that activity in the parietal and premotor cortex. The evidence of facial imitation and automatic prereaching by human neonates shows a link between visual information and motor movements at the very outset of development, i.e. immediately after birth. But the learning of older children and adults also involves involuntary imitation and emulation of the perceived actions and gestures that are performed by those around them.

These are the biological correlates of the conditioning and social-learning process by which military recruits are made into technically proficient killers.

So, just as with the post-WW2 innovations in live marksmanship drills and operations training discussed in the previous post, some of the useful features of virtual battlefield simulations and videogame combat training (from the viewpoint of the instructors) are those that overcome a resistance to killing that otherwise incapacitates frontline ‘warfighters’.

But this raises an obvious point. Many or all of these features are also shared by popular visual-entertainment products: TV, movies, and interactive media including videogames.

These, taken as a whole and on any reasonable measure, expose users to an extraordinary barrage of realistically-depicted violence. Consequently their audience judges acts of violence against people to be less novel, aberrant and repulsive than they would do otherwise.

The ubiquity of salient and vivid mental pictures of aggression prompts people (by the availability heuristic) to overestimate the frequency of such events (in reality, though not at the cinema, homicide occurs less often than suicide). But this is a self-fulfilling judgement. If an individual fearfully supposes he is engaged in a perpetual Hawk-Dove game (a reasonable conclusion to draw from the entertainment media’s p0rn0graphy of violence), and that other players are likely to have chosen an aggressive strategy, then his best response too is to be aggressive rather than meek. The result is a breakdown in cooperation.

Of course, adopting such a strategy and executing it are two distinct things (there’s also a difference between signalling aggression, i.e. making credible threats of inflicting damage, and actually following through with violence).

The latter only occurs, as the above military research shows, when violence is made automatic and reflexive by instense and persistent brutalization. Such a programme can over-ride the social and natural barriers that otherwise keep conspecifics (including fellow humans) from killing each other, even when instrumental rationality tells them to do so.

Conflict between animals of the same species is commonly described as ‘limited war’, involving insufficient force, ritualized tactics, withholding of offensive weapons, and seldom causing serious injury to the participants. ‘Escalated fighting’ is generally absent from intraspecific battles, e.g. snakes merely wrestle each other.

But, to judge by skyrocketing rates of aggravated assault in most industrialized countries over recent decades, humans are trying to kill each other rather a lot more than they used to. All this is suboptimal, to say the least.

But is it just another regrettable case of market failure: a poor aggregate-welfare outcome resulting from individual firms each trying to make a buck, whichever way they can? Or does it serve some functional purpose?

The year in pictures

January 2, 2011

I wonder what my old cultural studies lecturers are saying about Alejandro?

June 28, 2010

I want to initiate some audience participation. Give me your best cultural studies “lecture” on Lady Gaga and Alejandro in the comments below! An H1 will be awarded for the most cultural studies-ish rant.

Here’s what I came up with:

“Feminist reading this. Psychoanalysis Freudian abject body that. Lacanian “I”, subverting the dominant gaze. Queer aesthetic, inverted homoeroticism. Heteronormativity etc. History of cinema this, evolution of MTV that. Proto-Madonna, celebrity. Arbitrary question about what Gaga is “actually doing” that no one really cares to think about? In conclusion, postmodernism. Class dismissed.”

National guilt

May 28, 2010

Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption describes how luxury goods or services (yachts, private aircraft, fowling pieces, Fabergé eggs eggs, Gucci handbags), because of their expense, are a badge of class membership. Their purpose is the signalling of status, adherence to a collective tradition or identity, or display of credentials, intelligence and good taste.

The middle classes lack the purchasing power for such displays, but their private consumption choices and leisure activities do often serve the purpose of signalling good taste and discernment (in the manner satirized by Stuff White People Like).

The more exacting the better, as Adorno described in Minima Moralia:

The high life aspires to be the beautiful life. It affords those engaging in it ideological pleasure gains.

Because the formalization of life becomes a task requiring the adherence to rules, the artificial preservation of a style, the maintenance of a delicate balance between correctness and independence, existence appears endowed with meaning, so appeasing the bad conscience of the socially superfluous.

The constant injunction to do and say what exactly befit’s one status and situation demands a kind of moral effort. By making it difficult to be the person one is, one gains the feeling of living up to a patriarchal noblesse oblige.

Thus are life’s common activities, the everyday routines of consumption, transformed into exercises of style (what Kojève called snobisme, using the example of Japanese tea ceremonies that survived as a kind of postmodern ritual adornment without content or substance).

‘You must change your life,’ ran the injunction issued to bourgeois audiences by Rilke’s archaic torso. Today’s middle-class public is likewise encouraged to shed its complacency. But postmodern art, more gratifying, presents itself to readers and viewers as lifestyle supplement, rather than revision. It offers a means to decorate their lives, adorning, adjusting and embellishing themselves with the finest appurtenances and soundest thoughts.

Members of the liberal professions (certified academics, architects, lawyers, accountants, etc.), together with civil servants and other members of the skilled professional salariat, imagine that the income premium they command, and other privileges, are due to their ‘different genius’ (as in Adam Smith’s parable of the philosopher and the street porter).

Their relatively high earnings (compared to the wages and salaries earned by employees generally) are understood as a just reward for talent. According to the prevailing economic ideology, the level of payment they fetch in the labour market (or receive as proprietorship or partnership income) is set by the worth of what they contribute as an input to production.

The latter capacity is held to derive either from intrinsic characteristics of the person themselves (superior cognitive skills), or from a provident and well-calculated investment of time and effort in education — foregoing earnings for several years of additional study, bestowing upon them a stock of human capital.

These qualities (so it is believed) also manifest themselves in good taste and discernment in consumption, e.g. the best food, clothes, cultural products, etc.

Products marketed at this audience thus often contain deliberate signs of ‘quality’, difficulty and seriousness. These are a kind of screening device: consumption of such products is a reliable signal of the consumer’s underlying ‘type’, since it requires a costly investment (e.g. of effort, time or money spent acquiring the taste, knowledge or capacity for appreciation) that most cannot afford (due to lack either of resources or motivation).

Through these products, consumers can thus signal their correct thoughts, depth, sophistication, possession of good taste, and status as a Serious Person.

Alexander Cockburn described such consumer behaviour in his article on the ‘Conscience Industry’:

Today, at the level of symbolic action, a person of progressive temperament can live in a bubble bath of moral self-satisfaction from dawn to dusk…

For every decision in the liberal day, there’s a certificate of good behaviour being flaunted by some of the most disgusting corporations on Earth.

His examples came from fair-trade coffee and similar speciously ethical products.

When it comes to products like art and periodical publications, such markers of quality include the latest bienséance: the ideological badges of decorous respectability, intellectual fashion and contemporary right-thinking.


Middlebrow arthouse cinema is one example, draped like ‘literary fiction’ with obvious badges of ‘seriousness’ that are designed to distinguish it from mainstream filmic dross (which it dwells happily alongside as a complementary market segment, in peaceable and mutually constitutive coexistence).

Such middlebrow products today include an especially deplorable sub-genre: a filmic variety that, dramatically incoherent and gesturing limply towards political ‘topicality’, gels utterly with liberal-progressive ideology. The latter now includes various tenets of identity politics, and has abandoned any attempt to think seriously about imperialism, racism, sexism, etc.

Instead there is the posturing and demagogy of ‘collective guilt.’

When it comes to novel and film publicity, any promise to ‘explore’ the theme of collective guilt is a fairly reliable warning of middlebrow vacuity to come: of portentous and dramatically specious attempts to fuse ‘psychological complexity’ with political ‘topicality’.

More than this: for a particular social layer, these art products are a kind of positional good, in Veblen’s sense.

Auteuil and Binoche - Caché

In Michael Haneke’s Caché, for example, Daniel Auteuil’s adult character is haunted by a nasty lie he told as a six year-old boy, which turned out to have terrible consequences for an Algerian boy.

This seems intended as an allegory for France’s colonial legacy. Here the secret of overdrawn individual culpability (for who could blame the man for the child’s petty fib?) lies in national guilt. Auteuil’s character is culpable not for what he personally did, but, as a Frenchman and by virtue of that alone, for colonialism.

Even more representative of the genre is Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader, which received Oprah’s seal of approval and was made into an Oscar-winning movie.

In this story, a young German man feels guilty because, as a fifteen-year old, he had a sexual relationship with a woman who later turned out to have been an SS camp guard.

At the novel’s beginning, his parent’s generation, which ‘had been been served by the guards and enforcers, or had done nothing to stop them, or had not banished them from its midst as it could have done after 1945, was in the dock’.

Eventually, though, the main character learns of his ‘accrued or inherited responsibility’:

I was guilty of having [unwittingly, as a child!] loved a criminal… [Perhaps] we are responsible even for the love we feel for our parents… [My] love for Hannah was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate [das deutsche Schicksal].

Here a person, by virtue of national origin, has acquired responsibility for something he wasn’t directly involved in. And, in a step beyond Caché, he wasn’t even born in time to see the crime.

Schlink has since expanded on his theme.

Last year Queensland University Press published a group of his essays called Guilt about the Past. Schlink can be watched addressing the Melbourne Writers Festival on how ‘individual guilt becomes collective guilt and is passed on to the next generation.’

Collective liabilities, he says, are founded on ‘communities of solidarity, such as ‘a family, an association, an organisation or institution and even a people’. Nations are like kinship groups, in which the ‘web of guilt… is high and wide’. If a member of my group offends against morality, I can only achieve absolution by severing the ‘ties of solidarity’ between us — ties that ‘exist by default’.

Guilt thus extends not only to ‘perpetrator, inciter and accessories to the crimes’, nor merely to ‘those who were perfectly capable of resistance but did nothing’. It ‘entangles an entire generation and even casts a shadow over later generations’, so long as the criminals aren’t ‘cast out’.


Here Schlink has borrowed — his Australian audience no doubt remains ignorant of the transaction — from Max Weber and Otto Bauer’s description of the nation as Schicksalgemeinschaft, or ‘community of fate.’ The intellectual pedigree is impeccable.

Yet its origins in the early-twentieth century empires of Wilhelmine and Habsburg Europe ought to give pause. Stripped of Schlink’s piety and examined coldly for its consequences and internal logic, the notion of assigning guilt to an individual on the basis of group membership or ascriptive characteristics (racial or ethnic identification, language, religion, etc.) is bizarre, incoherent and sinister.

It’s the precise analogue of the idiotic demands, regularly made over the past decade, for ‘moderate Muslims’ to disavow or condemn every terrorist attack committed by other Muslims (Daniel Dennett adds an extra layer of responsibility: ‘if we non-Muslims do not speak out, we too must share in the blame.’) And Schlink’s notion of trans-generational guilt, acquired by ‘a people’ then transmitted via consanguinity, creepily mimics that old anti-Semitic saw, by which Jews are forever condemned as Christ killers.

Is there a Jewish or Muslim ‘fate’ (Schicksal), along with a German one?

Underlying the idea of collective guilt is a vision of ‘the nation’ (or the ‘race’) as a collective personality, a supra-individual actor that can perform actions and incur liabilities (and culpability for wrongdoings) just as a natural person does.

This entity (the nation) is understood to have an existence distinct from that of the individuals who constitute it: like a limited-liability corporation, with its ‘perpetual succession’, the nation endures after the departure of its original members. The nation is considered to act vicariously through the agency of (some or all of) its members. A government, especially, is said to act ‘on behalf of the nation’, either as its mandated representative, or in holding jurisdiction over the territory in which members of the nation reside. The consequences of actions undertaken ‘by the nation’ at one time may fall upon subsequent members, just as an individual is assigned responsibility for actions he has performed during earlier periods.

The nation is a kind of moral agent, which entails that its members, having jointly committed a collective wrong, may justly be subjected to collective sanction.

The appallingly reactionary origins and implications of this line of thinking hardly need to be stated.

The idea of national guilt collapses the distinction between a territorial state, its population, and the imagined community that ideologically binds part of the population (the in-group) into a ‘nation’ (or ‘community of solidarity’, to use Schlink’s term).

Among other things, this confers a whiff of legitimacy on the targeting of civilians in times of war. After all, by signalling their membership of the enemy out-group — by saluting the flag, singing the national anthem or speaking the national language — they become, on this view, responsible for the state’s actions like any member of the ruling elite: the Kaiser, police chief or army general.

Once deemed collectively culpable, they may — why not? — be susceptible to collective punishment.

This last argument, it will be recognized, was used to justify the murder of ordinary people in New York’s World Trade Center. And Schlink’s book, in turn, reads like the fictional equivalent of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

The adherence of avowedly ‘progressive’ people to such ideas (they are expressed not just in middlebrow cinema but in bien-pensant organs of opinion) testifies to the deep intellectual and political confusion of the ‘liberal left’ in the present era, and to the deep contempt felt for the broader population among members of the skilled intelligentsia and middle classes.

Beyond the reality principle

April 15, 2010

Slavoj Žižek interviewed by Cahiers du Cinéma, as described in the LRB blog:

Following up on a piece he wrote about Avatar, reprinted in the March issue of Cahiers, he confesses to his interviewers that he hasn’t seen the film; as a good Lacanian, the idea is enough, and we must trust theory. Žižek promises that he will see the film and then write a Stalinist ‘self-criticism’.

The good Lacanian goes on to inform the Cahiers editors that he wrote about The Talented Mr Ripley before seeing it, and that although he has seen Psycho and Vertigo (the interviewers sound quite jittery by this point), there’s a long chapter on Rossellini in Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out and, no, he hadn’t seen the films when he wrote it. Out of respect for Lacan? Not this time: ‘As a good Hegelian, between the idea and the reality, I choose the idea.’

No doubt many onlookers, accustomed to such ‘revelations’ but somehow not yet bored by them, will find this quite funny.

Compare Lyotard’s own cheerful admission to an interviewer: ‘I made up stories, I referred to a quantity of books I’d never read, apparently it impressed people, it’s all a bit of a parody… It’s simply the worst of my books, they’re almost all bad, but that one’s the worst.’

Earnest indignation leaves such characters untouched; censorious judgements are similarly unavailing, allowing the seer and his followers to pose as irreverent pranksters, scandalizing the pious, thickheaded, credulous and tradition-bound.

For Žižek’s adherents and others, there is compensation to be found, and the appearance of worldliness to be conveyed, in post facto professions that one was in on the joke with him ex ante.

Such sources of solace merely consent to the inevitable: the guru would, of course, do it anyway.

So I struggled to decide whether this is worthy of comment: Žižek has been playing the same stale game of épater for 20 years, a heliotropic pursuit of media and publishing market that has succeeded quite nicely. ‘Scandals’ of this sort merely add to his undeserved reputation for transgression; it’s probably best just to ignore him now.

But surely it’s a kind of dark minatory sign when this kind of figure, and others like him, can find success in a wing of the humanities.

For some high-status subset of society to proclaim its open disdain for reality, evidence and truth  well, that’s bound to catch on, with unpleasant consequences.

Thus the best antidote to Žižek is not mere excoriation. However richly deserved it may be, it is  like approval  just an impotent, futile bid to console oneself.

His absence of intellectual probity is, after all, merely one individual’s response to incentives not of his own devising. There are few penalties and plenty of rewards to be won: facing such a payoff structure, and unconstrained by scruple, he behaves predictably.

Moralism is misapplied to what is not an individual aberration, but a symptom of our times. Žižek is the merest spray flung off by a vast swell of intellectual regression that has rolled in during recent decades.

Better for all to consider: who or what summoned Žižek to the stage? What historical developments led us to this grim impasse? How might we escape from it?

My inevitable Sex and the City post

December 24, 2009

I don’t know much about the Sex and the City series, or the film, so feel free to get your opinions elsewhere. But, watching the newly-released trailer for Sex and the City 2, I was struck again by one of the brand’s notable features: its portrayal of theme-park New York. It’s an old claim, from Robert Fitch to The Suburbanization of New York, that urban renewal and real-estate shonkery has altered Manhattan’s physical and social makeup. Small-scale craft, manufacturing and retail were replaced with upmarket boutiques and art galleries, ethnic neighbourhoods supplanted by bond-trading yuppies, and exciting public spaces were cleansed to make things safe for tourists.

Films, meanwhile, have been portraying disneyfied simulacra of London, Paris and Chicago for at least the last decade (and of Los Angleles for ever). They’re beautiful tourist postcards, culturally rich, and just the sort of place you’d pay to visit. Sex and the City seems the first, or at least the most explicit, to re-imagine New York as this sort of place. Of course many films, not least Manhattan, have presented audiences with seductive, loving shots of the city’s tourist landmarks. But Woody Allen, urban chauvinist that he is, sought to portray NYC as an actual city, with actual public spaces, physical proximity, ethnic heterogeneity etc. Theme-park New York, on the other hand, shares only visual references with the real city, which it turns into a glamorous backdrop for upscale consumption. 

Of course, Carrie’s world is self-conscious of its fairytale elements, and that’s part of the brand’s appeal. But that still doesn’t explain why anyone should actually want to make a fairytale about an ethnically homogeneous, crassly stylised New York. It merely admits that they did.