Spirits, Cyborgs and Bones

17May07

The recently released computer game Prey is not a great addition to the grossly unwieldy amount of first-person-shooters, it is a fairly entertaining and (fairly) original game. Gameplay features heavy use of dynamic portals (seamless, randomly appearing, neat looking), rooms with complex gravitational configurations (walking up walls, flipping the floor and ceiling etc.) and some stunning looking visuals allowed by the game’s story.

In Prey you play Tommy – a Cherokee garage mechanic working on a reservation in Oklahoma. At the start of the game you are trying to convince your girlfriend Jenny to leave with you. But after beating up some drunk whites who try to harass her (they call her Pocahantas and talk favorably about her rump) aliens abduct you, her, and your grandfather Enisi.


Tommy, Prey‘s protagonist

You (as Tommy that is) find that you’re aboard a large Dyson sphere like (though much too small) object in Earth’s orbit, and that the aliens on board are harvesting humans for food and various objects (cars, buildings etc) for construction. You are liberated by a strange person (later revealed to be one of ‘the Hidden’ who are natives taken from Earth long ago) and watch your grandfather die before set off in search of Jenn. Early on in the game, after having a ‘near-death-experience’ you are brought to the land of your ancestors and Enisi teaches you to take your spiritual form. This is done despite your (Tommy’s) resistance to ‘Cherokee bullshit’ as it puts it. You also start to receive the assistance of Talon, your spirit guide, who is in the form of a phantasmal eagle. (One could do a whole entry on just the stereotypes in Prey, but that’s for another time).


Fodders attacking

Tommy’s spirituality provides an interesting gameplay twist in that, by assuming spirit form, you can pass through forcefields, walk across unseen bridges etc. But what is interesting, looking at Prey as a text, is how spirituality is intertwined with the material. Everything in the Sphere is cybernetic: arachnid monsters emerge from bleeding wound-like apertures jammed between metal bulkheads, cybernetic hunters leap out of portals, large fungal growths and tentacles hang wriggling from steel corridors, your entire arsenal writhes: centipedal structures wrap around energy coils, a cannon contains living ammo that scratches at its confinement and so forth.

Now while cybernetic races in video games and sci-fi are prevalent almost to the point of cliche, Prey makes the concept more interesting through its relationship to the spiritual dimension. Donna Haraway’s treatment of the cyborg is interesting in light of the concept of spirit. She discusses it briefly: “Pre-cybernetic machines could be haunted; there was always the spectre of the ghost in the machine. This dualism structured the dialogue between materialism and idealism that was settled by a dialectical progeny, called spirit or history, according to taste” (Simians, Cyborgs and Women, 152). How much of a dualism is actually here though?


or Geist in the Skull

While part of the game is Tommy grudgingly accepting his roots, the gradual increase of spirituality can take on another meaning. At the beginning of the game the Land of the Ancients, seems like a non-place, a kind of heaven where you go to receive training and advice from your recently perished grandfather. This separation is backed up by the fact that when you die in the game, instead of restarting from your last save point (as is fps tradition), you enter the Death Realm where you shoot, with a bow and arrow, the disgraced spirits of the dead to get your health back and come back to life.

But the fallen spirits soon enter the material world, possessing captured children and attacking you. In one of the more tense moments of the game, as you are about to undergo your final set of training, the ‘dark ones’ (aliens) invade the land of the ancients and start to destroy, what up to that point, seemed like the non-material after life.

Spirit (in the religious sense) becomes more and more like spirit (in the revolutionary sense). Looking at this reduction of the space between the material and the spiritual we can bring in the quote from Hegel that Žižek is so found of – “the spirit is a bone” from Phenomeonology of Spirit.


Good ‘ol GWF

Žižek takes the meaning of Hegel’s enigmatic phrase to be indicative of the passage from representation to presence. The bone, the skull in particular, is the objectification of a failure, the failure of the subject’s being (The Sublime Object of Ideology, 208). The duality then, between the spirit and the machine, or between the stupid meat of the brain and the occurrence of thought, is not simply a duality, but, in Žižek’s terms, one of looking awry or of parallax.

How is this complicated by the role of tradition or, maybe as Haraway puts it, history. What might we say the difference is between history and tradition? It seems like that of a formal difference of presence based on formal choice. Put another way we could say that tradition is history imbued by the power of its own presence, its value is because of its own presentation as tradition whereas the force history does not necessarily have this impact. Tradition may very well take into account the weight of history presenting this weight as such. Much like the State re-presents (re-counts) the situation, the basic facts by placing them into groups (in Badiouian terms) we might say that tradition re-presents the presentation of history.

Is tradition the history that demands to be repeated through the tautological presentation of its presence? It seems so. But what then can we make of the pure negativity of spirit (in the Hegelian sense) it relation/contrast to the spirit of tradition? Is history the bone of tradition, the rendering positive of the negative, of the vulgar empty skull of history?


Z and B

No, let us not make that mistake.

In the Badiouian sense spirit is detached from history and tradition. Spirit is the pure negativity of the void, or the ‘night of the world’ in Hegelese. The tautological (re)presentation of tradition displays its own failure – the tautology, in the end means that we obey tradition because it is imposed, because the fact that it is pushed on us. This is in fact the opposite of ‘the spirit is a bone’ for Žižek. The rendering positive of a negative through opposition (spirit and bone) is opposite to the re-doubling, or double positive of tautology (history redoubled as tradition) which exposes the negativity of imposing. So while the synthetic and the flesh meld so well, the spirit remains as both the radical core of one’s being ($), completely separated from the vulgar there-being (material being) of the biological as well as being completely distinct from the mechanical parts but, at the same time, informing cybernetics in that the very notion of innovation is propelled by spirit.

The passage from the organic to the cybernetic should be seen in the sense of the Hegelian doubling of reflection. Biology functions as the ‘posited reflection’ – its appearance, and then the synthetic functions as the external reflection – one becomes an object and determinate reflection is when these two reflect on each other (metaphorically) in the form of the cybernetic. The first reflection or positing implies that the speaker recognizes themselves as different from, but having a relation to the second reflection. The reflection of the two on each other creates something (determinate reflection) that covers over the negativity of being.


Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror

Looking back at my entry on Love the same process takes place in regards to Lacan’s discussion of the hand reaching towards the burning fruit. We act towards an object, the object acts back, and the relation covers over the negativity of our being.

That is the spirit at work.

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