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.

December 30, 2011

Worlds and their subjects supposed to feel, or not

This post isn’t really about Christopher Hitchens either, or not entirely. On the recent wave of encomia to Hitchens and their necessary erasures—and the felt need to dissent from a kind of miniature Christmas effect in reverse, by saying, The death of an Iraqi does not mean less than the death of a man who defended, encouraged and discursively enabled a war that killed Iraqis in the hundreds of thousands—I don’t have anything to add to Anthony Alessandrini in Jadaliyya, or Glenn Greenwald and Aaron Bady in Salon, or, more briefly, a few tweets by @abubanda. (See also: Dani Nayyar on Christmas and being shot in Baghdad.) But I was thinking about these sentences from a post by Corey Robin, quoted by Alessandrini, titled “Yes, But”:

[T]hat people can so quickly pivot from Hitchens’s position on the [Iraq] war to his other virtues—and nothing in this or my previous post should be construed as a denial of at least some of those virtues—tells us something about the culture he helped create and has left behind. It’s a culture that has developed far too easy a conscience about, and sleeps too soundly amid, the facts of war.

My own “yes, but”: while I agree with most of this, honestly, I’m interested in denying some of the other virtues, or in attending to other reflections of “the culture he helped create” that are disturbing. After a few conversations with people who wanted to defend the legacy, I was trying to figure out how I’d feel even if it were possible to block out imperial war in just the way Robin calls into question (and which so many writers seem to think it is anyway): if, say, we were trying to talk abstractly about a public intellectual who was a former Marxist and a prominent atheist. More specifically, the kind of atheist who commits all energies toward a fight against religious faith that’s seen as the essential fight, because religious faith, as such, is the essential enemy. And so I was remembering some other thoughts I’d had about The Invention of Lying, a movie by one of Hitchens’s most vocal pop-cultural disciples, Ricky Gervais … which I hated maybe as much as any movie I’ve ever seen, but which I think is arguably a useful text insofar as it stages a kind of central misprision or denial at the heart of “New Atheism.”

I saw the movie more than a year ago, and I’m not going to watch the whole thing again, so my memory of it isn’t perfect. I also haven’t gotten very far looking online for the symptomatic readings that other people must have written, because most of the Google results for [“the invention of lying” + “capitalism”] only reflect that Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story was released in the same year, 2009. But what it comes down to for me is that The Invention of Lying—which, importantly, wants to be seen not just as a minor comedy but as a comedy of radical ideas—could have been called Existing Social Relations: An Apologia. Gervais plays an American citizen in an alternate world where no one lies or tells stories, where human beings “haven’t evolved” the ability to speak anything other than “the truth”—a world which is, perversely, identical to the world we know, except that on the level of day-to-day interpersonal interaction we’re meaner to each other. Gervais’s character has money trouble, because capital exists, and, early in the film, he’s talking to a bank teller and the magic moment arrives: he’s bowled over by the realization that he can tell her (and gender is not irrelevant) that there’s more in his bank account than there actually is, and that she’ll believe him, because she’ll believe anything. Suddenly the scene feels haunted by the ghost of a more subversive movie it could have come from, one that might have been written by David Graeber: the foundational lie is patriarchal (a man lies to a woman) and it is also the creation of credit; it is (by extension) debt; it is money.

At which point the movie stops thinking about money, and moves on to “comedic” scenes like one in which the newly powerful Gervais lies to another woman who can’t process lies, so as to have sex with her, and nearly does that. I remember the movie’s trailer stopping at the suggestion that he had; which would have been rape. (The movie itself celebrates him for relinquishing his power over her. In these scenes, Gervais’s conception of “the (man’s) lie” is like a perfected version of Hitchens’s famous conception of “the (man’s) joke,” the joke that the ugly but funny man tells the unfunny but beautiful woman in order to produce a state of eroticized helplessness. Not only do I think most women, non-binary folks, and men are actually funnier than Christopher Hitchens—his paeans to the “involuntary […] mirth, “shocked surprise,” and “sweet surrender of female laughter” unsettle me deeply.) Finally, after those scenes, I remember the movie shifting into a second and third act in which, as you may know even if you haven’t seen it, Gervais the liar accidentally invents religion, a “man in the sky.” The satirical target becomes the pathetic childish gullibility of anyone who believes in God. (Don’t they know better?)

And this move out of the bank and into the church—this submission to an inchoately grasped capitalist realism, so that the task becomes, not radically restructuring the world on material grounds, but rather “liberating” the world solely by getting it to stop believing in the immaterial—this move which is crucially underlain by effectively unquestioned, coercively maintained white male privilege and domination of people who are not white men—maybe I’m being irresponsible, but this feels to me like a rough but adequate sketch, if not of Christopher Hitchens’s career, then certainly of the New Atheist program of which he was one of the most visible faces.


Having said that, I want to talk about the grimaces.

The arrogance of Gervaisian atheism in The Invention of Lying is also what allows the movie to achieve some poignant moments in spite of itself. After I saw it with friends, one of the things we bonded in annoyance over was the boring inattention to any possible distinction between “unable to tell a lie” and “unable to stop yourself from blurting out rude shit, unprompted.” But it’s not only that: in this movie people say whatever’s on their minds, and Ricky Gervais alone, because he’s (explicitly) the future inventor of lying and (implicitly) the atheist who’s smarter and more sensitive than everyone else, is hurt by it. The people he runs into tell him that they think he’s ugly, stupid, incompetent, whatever; and, instead of reacting the way someone would react who had been raised in a world where everyone said this to everyone else all the time, he responds exactly as Ricky Gervais would respond. Even before he invents lying, we look at his face and see that he knows what lying is, because it’s what he wants from sociality. And I was reminded of this by a bad video that Grant shared on Facebook a while ago—another unfunny comedy and another failure to found an alternate reality, in this case “a world of true equality between men and women.”

[“A Feminist’s Dream Date,” from YouTube. Transcript coming soon.]

Again: beyond wanting to show one boy relating to one girl in the spirit of “true equality,” this video wants to be a document from a world of “true equality”; and it wants to convince us that such a world is undesirable. (One of the “related videos” on YouTube, when I watched it, was a clip titled “Christopher Hitchens versus Feminism,” in which Hitchens tells a stunned female TV host, “They’re called the gentler sex for a reason […] I’m here to take care of them.” Of course Hitchens insultingly misread Judith Butler in the New York Times, and presented his misreading as a critique. Of course he did.) But what this video does instead, exquisitely, is to show the kernel of malignant meaninglessness in antifeminist “chivalry.” It shows us the kind of privileged American white guy who hates feminism because he believes in chivalry (which depends on inequality); and all it can think to do is subtract chivalry from the equation, revealing that, without chivalry, the guy will treat the girl he’s dating, not as a friend, a comrade, or someone who deserves a bite of popcorn or the most basic courtesy, but rather as an effectively nonhuman object in which he has no interest. And—again—what makes the video so interesting isn’t just that he treats her this way; it’s that she, too, breaks the rules the video thinks it’s following, by knowing it, and flinching in ways that bespeak expecting something else.

Like The Invention of Lying, this is an aspiring picture of a parallel world whose laziness is betrayed by winces, glimpses of a kind of lived affective archive that could only have been accumulated in this world. Not coincidentally a world where men like Christopher Hitchens and Ricky Gervais will defend to the death their right to offend you. I’m not sure if it would be all too precise, or not precise enough, to say that these characters who wince are like Sara Ahmed’s affect aliens, “unseated by the table of happiness”—they’re more like affect ambassadors, whose half-intended role is to show us the strangeness of a new world by acting, impossibly, as our surrogates in it. And, as much as I dislike and distrust the texts they come from, in some way I welcome these figures. Heading into a new year, inside a moment that at least seems to accommodate more and more thinking in public about the new worlds that people might actually want to inhabit, I think the fact that so many of us actually are ambassadors like this—inevitably bearing the imprints or scars of the world we want to see left behind—is worth keeping in mind.

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