Have a Good Time

February 20, 2012

After Space Invaders


Like many others, I was both taken aback and intrigued by Mark O’Connell’s essay on Invasion of the Space Invaders, Martin Amis’s disavowed 1982 guide to early arcade games. But I seem to be drawn to the subject for different reasons than many of these other readers and commenters, or even O’Connell himself—because I’m not, as O’Connell professes to be, “an Amis fancier,” and because honestly I wish Amis-fancying weren’t still as widespread as it is. One detail O’Connell identifies as a probable reason for Amis’s desire to keep the book out of print is that its catalogue of all the weirdo types supposedly visible at arcades in the early ’80s includes “[q]ueasy spivs, living out a teen-dream movie with faggot overtones,” which is supplemented by a definition in the glossary at the back—”Faggot: gay.” But that isn’t even what I’m interested in, really. Though as a queer teen I would have loved to live out that movie.

What interests me is the gesture O’Connell makes toward situating this book within Amis’s career, which I think is worth briefly extending. Having quoted one of Amis’s thorough, matter-of-fact instructional passages on actually playing Space Invaders—”The phalanx of enemy invaders moves laterally across a grid not much wider than itself. When it reaches the edge of the grid, the whole army lowers a notch. Rule one: narrow that phalanx“—O’Connell ends the essay with some notes on the structural and thematic importance of games to Amis’s work as a novelist and public thinker. O’Connell’s way of describing Amis’s phobic, martial hostility toward perceived commonness of thought—his “war against cliché,” with its proudly explicit anti-democratic elitism (and its attendant, eternal fetishization of an unbelievably limited definition of “talent”)—is to say that Amis seeks “new ways of narrowing the ever-descending phalanx of cliché.” All value judgments aside, I think there’s something strikingly apt in this picture of the way a writer like Amis conceives of his vocation. And if (like me) you see Amis’s brand of aestheticism-at-the-barrel-of-a-gun as inseparable from, I don’t know, his concern that “feminism has cost us Europe,” or his regret at feeling unable to complete a novella about an “Islamist terrorist” named Ayed who “scour[s] all the prisons and madhouses for every compulsive rapist in the country, and then unleash[es] them on Greeley, Colorado”—if, in other words, you see Amis’s war as a war in defense of extreme cultural privilege, against a feared encroaching otherness, based in an imperial nostalgia which in the last decade has evolved into virulent Islamophobia—then it’s especially interesting to find, thirty years back in Amis’s own work, a proto-allegorization of the figure of the writer who’s literally engaged in the unending task of fending off the alien(s).

My aim here isn’t to make any simplistic claim about the cultural meanings of an artifact like Space Invaders, or to say that such a game can be read only in one way. (I’m sure folks who are better versed in game studies could offer many other points about this—but, for instance, see Sianne Ngai on the zany aesthetic of early arcade games as a model for post-Fordist precarious subjectivity.) I would only suggest that it’s worth setting the existence of Invasion of the Space Invaders (its jokey title implicitly asking, “What else would you expect space invaders to do?”) alongside, say, Amis’s current habit, when he’s pressed on the subject of Islamophobia, of talking about creatures from outer space. (Amis in the Guardian in 2007, in an article titled “No, I am not a racist,” denying he had defended the discrimination against Muslims that he had defended: “I would like London to be full of upstanding Martians and Neptunians, of reputable citizens who came, originally, from Krypton and Tralfamadore.” Amis to Margaret Wente, two years later: “I adore multiracialism. There can’t be enough immigrants in this country for my taste. I’d like to see immigrants from Mars or Jupiter. But multiculturalism, I believe, is a fraud.” This is Martin Amis’s way of saying, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, yellow, purple or green.” He doesn’t care if someone comes from the Middle East or from a made-up planet that no one would come from, because it’s made up: all he wants is to keep terrorists out of the phalanx!) And it seems worth adding that Amis and his lifelong comrade Christopher Hitchens (whose presence as “a friend, a hard-drinking journalist” O’Connell detects in one passage from Invasion) wrote, in effect, the same paragraph, about, respectively, the introduction of Space Invaders and the destruction of the World Trade Center:

The main innovation of Space Invaders was as follows: it gave you real drama on the screen. Who cares whether you can eliminate dots with an electric tennis ball? So what if you can knock down ten plastic cowboys on a shooting range? Who gives a toss when a toy car skids on a patch of toy oil? After Space Invaders, we were defending Earth, against monsters, in sublunar skies. Here they come again…

[from a PDF excerpt from the book, via a comment on O’Connell’s article]

On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, [my reaction] turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy—theocratic barbarism—in plain view. All my other foes, from the Christian Coalition to the Milosevic Left, were busy getting it wrong or giving it cover. Other and better people were gloomy at the prospect of confrontation. But I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.

[from the December 3, 2001 issue of The Nation]

Granted, Amis’s own immediate reaction to the attacks didn’t have Hitchen’s undisguised glee, his “exhilaration” at knowing he would now be able to stave off boredom forever, as if he actually were blurbing an arcade game. (Amis may even have been one of the “better people” Hitchens was taking a swipe at for feeling “gloomy” about watching the Global War on Terror kick into gear.) But it’s difficult for me not to interpret the image of a young Martin Amis self-consciously slumming it in a video arcade in 1982, and taking a sharp satisfaction in the new responsibility of “defending Earth,” as an eerie prefiguration of the way Amis, Hitchens, and so many of their generational peers would seize on “the struggle against Islamism” as the revitalizing force that would give new meaning to their lives and their countries’ lives. Here was a chance to start defending the West—finally, here was real drama on the screen.



  1. bell hooks ends ‘Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center’ by discussing this quote from Susan Griffin in her essay, “The Way of All Ideology:”

    A deeply political knowledge of the world does not lead to a creation of an enemy. Indeed, to create monsters unexplained by circumstance is to forget the political vision which above all explains behavior as emanating from circumstance, a vision which believes in a capacity born to all human beings for creation, joys, and kindness, in a human nature which, under the right circumstances, can bloom.

    When a movement for liberation inspires itself chiefly by a hatred for an enemy rather than from this vision of possibility, it begins to defeat itself. Its very notions cease to be healing. Despite the fact that it declares itself in favor of liberation, its language is no longer liberatory. It begins to require a censorship wihtin itself. Its ideas of truth become more and more narrow….


    The language at the end of the first paragraph made me wince at first (why? oh why do I wince at everything!), but I’ve thought about this a lot since reading it, and I do think it’s onto something.

    I read that Amis piece you linked about the decline of talent in literature, and I found the invocation of the spirit of young men doing literary criticism outside academies to be kind of nice, in its own way—literary criticism as a kind of competitive indie rock band practice. I was also amused by the sentence where he writes, “I am also struck by how hard I sometimes was on writers who (I erroneously felt) were trying to influence me: Roth, Mailer, Ballard.” I feel like this is him being dimly aware of his paranoid stance towards writers (and aliens and terrorists and space invaders). (Everyday I think about Paranoid Reading v. Reparative Reading!)

    I have this sort of half-formulated thought about how people who react really violently and aggressively to things are still, somehow, absorbing them. Like it means that the other thing has somehow felt powerful. But I don’t know how to get past the zone of thinking it’s an enemy to the zone of trying to learn from it or accommodate it or listen to it or whatever.

    Comment by Debbie — February 21, 2012 @ 7:30 pm |Reply

  2. Thanks, Debbie! This is such a helpful comment.

    Paranoid reading, I guess: it took me a while to figure out that you meant you had winced at the language in the first paragraph of the hooks/Griffin passage, rather than the first paragraph of the post. (I think that’s what you meant, right?) Because that language still makes me wince! Some combination of “defuse the slur by shrugging it off” and “defuse the slur by embracing it” is what I was going for, optimistically. But I’m sort of interestingly bad at making either of those moves. I mean I want to be excited about Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s new book Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?, for example, I mean I am excited about it, but I’m also still not very good at not wincing at it.

    And it’s funny how paranoid the post itself is. (Or how invested in paranoid reading my recent writing here has tended to be?) Mark O’Connell exposed something from Martin Amis’s past that Amis would prefer not to be exposed, and then I took that exposure and said, “Look, maybe the way to think about this isn’t just as a book from Amis’s past that’s embarrassing to him because it’s about arcade games and he performs ‘seriousness’; what’s important is how, in looking at it, we can bring to the surface the worst things about Martin Amis which, on some level, it interestingly represents or anticipates.” And this relates to part of what I think I was getting at, when I mentioned my mixed feelings to you the other day—I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t think it was worthwhile, but, at the same time, writing a post that was all about not liking Martin Amis made me feel a little bit more like Martin Amis and I’m not sure how to get past that either.

    Space Invaders just seems to work so well as a figure for a stance, the paranoid stance against “circumstance”?, the stance of being embattled. I was about to write “There’s no way to play it reparatively” and that seemed ludicrous and I laughed. But in a sense that’s what makes Amis’s paragraphs about it remarkable—how he goes out of his way to dismiss the games that could be said to be more about play as such? “A toy car skids on a patch of toy oil.” No “monsters”: boring.

    Another thing that was at the back of my mind, writing this, was Battlestar Galactica, which I recently started watching and telling Daniel about. And which is such an interesting show, because it allegorizes “The War on Terror” as a struggle against space invaders and it’s literally a show with the word “Battlestar” in the title but it also really, really wants to be, you could say, thinking reparatively? Or at least thinking about circumstance. Tavia Nyong’o wrote a really amazing post recently exploring how it deals with the circumstance of “race.”

    …And it’s totally a competitive indie rock band practice! The reason I like that analogy so much is that I can see a group of young men playing music in a garage, and one of them looks like this, and the music is probably beautiful, but then maybe a friend of theirs who’s a girl comes into the garage and says “Can I play with you guys?” and that guy gets really uncomfortable and says, “I’m sorry, I just really don’t think you have the talent.” Then she thinks, “Well, fuck those guys” and starts a riot grrrl band.

    Comment by JR — February 21, 2012 @ 9:23 pm |Reply

  3. […] doing if not reading Natalia Cecire (see her post on Nate Silver and puerility) and J.R. Martin (here on homophobia, islamophobia, immigration, and more). They’re two of the most intelligent and generous minds on the […]

    Pingback by Best Web Writing 2012 – The Bygone Bureau — September 13, 2015 @ 4:42 am |Reply

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