November 6, 2003

Pay No Attention to The Man Behind the Curtain

I guess I have to go see “The Matrix: Revolutions” this week, but I can’t say that I’m feeling very enthusiastic about doing so (in contrast to “The Return of the King”: yes, I have a ticket to the December 16th showing of all three films, and no, you can’t have it).

My dissatisfaction with “The Matrix Reloaded”, once I finally saw it, was pretty similar to the common disgruntlement. I don’t fault it for the philosophical content, and in fact, I think the centrality of the question of choice was potentially interesting and highly appropriate to a speculative fiction concerned with machines, simulacra and human destiny.

The problem really was that it often chose to tell rather than show. It was a movie with footnotes. This is what sometimes happens when creative people do more than selectively nibble a few tidbits from the smorgasbord of contemporary academic thought in the humanities. When they start to dine in earnest from that table, they usually end up the ones being swallowed. I knew that “Reloaded” and the Wachowski brothers had been so devoured when Cornel West made his cameo appearance.

There are films and television productions that use contemporary academic thought or motifs to jumpstart a clever creative engine, to be sure, most especially productions that draw on the postmodernist or poststructuralist aesthetic to create disjunctive, uncertain or unreliable narratives and characters, to play games with representation: Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovitch”, for example.

When a singular work starts to consciously craft itself as within the discursive space of academic conversation, or when a continuing television series begins too earnestly to respond to the clusters of cultural studies scholars beginning to infest its body, the results are usually not very good.

This is not a new problem—the tension between the work of criticism and the work of creativity runs deep. The conflict is more sharply drawn and permanently antagonistic when it’s Frank Rich versus Broadway, for example. When it’s cultural studies and Chris Carter or Joseph Campbell and George Lucas, the seeming sympathetic resonances between the work of criticism and the work of creativity can lure both sides into imagining they are engaged in one big happy project together. Which often leads to shit like “Willow” in the worst case scenario, and to hampered, sodden, takes-itself-too-seriously if still halfway decent stuff like “The Matrix Reloaded”.

The problem is particularly acute on the academic side of things. By now, I’d say most humanities scholars are acutely aware of the shortcomings of the concept of a “social construction”, or of viewing everything as “text”. But these are plagues from Pandora’s box, unleashed upon the world, irreversible. Once you think about all of the world as a social construction—and of course, it always is, or at least your knowledge of the world is—to actually engage in the labor of constructing, of creating, feels inauthentic, clumsy, manipulative. You find yourself always in the position of the Wizard of Oz, revealed as the man pulling levers: you are stuck on the repeated trauma of everyone pulling back the curtain and exposing your magic tricks. Small wonder we’ve seen latter-day bits of gussied-up vanguardism like “strategic essentialism” wind their way through critical theory: it’s about trying to drop back into a naturalistic stream of cultural production.

If you want to serve as a critical handmaiden to the work of creativity, then I think that requires a frankly utilitarian approach, a conscious desire to render service at the points of absence or frustration in ongoing cultural projects. That is certainly what lies behind my own writing about computer games: I am not interested in being seen as an academic specialist in computer games, and legitimated as such, but as an academic whose scholarly experience bootstraps an experience of games to being productively engaged in the act of game design. I want to work within a consciously middlebrow critical practice, like Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen do in their recent book Rules of Play. I mostly share Intelligent Artifice's feeling about academic game criticism: there is no real reason for anyone in the game industry to look at the vast bulk of it.

If you're actually doing creative work yourself, and trying to get from academic thought to creative output, you can’t think your way there, any more than a baseball player who has lost his swing can, any more than Austin Powers could find his mojo by formally studying mojoness. To actually create requires not strategic essentialism but strategic amnesia. It’s cool for the Wachowskis to do their homework, and its cool to make a densely philosophical work of action science-fiction, but actually getting to that point requires a Zen forgetting of the road travelled, an erasure of the footnotes. It means you have to leave Cornel West on the cutting room floor.