Objectivity and Modernism

by Luke

However, he also displayed a personal dislike of critics: ‘I cannot abide people whose only job is to criticise what others do.’ As Reich chancellor he prohibited all art criticism in the press and decreed that only ‘contemplations of art’ and reports be allowed.

(Brigitte Hamann, Hiter’s Vienna: A Portrait of the Tyrant as a Young Man (London/New York, 2010), p. 81.)

I know it’s in poor form to bring up the Nazis, but I’m doing it anyway.

The idea that game reviews should be ‘objective’ has been dissected and ridiculed sufficiently. Less clear, perhaps, is the extent to which the persecution complex of ‘geek culture’, embodied in the inability of some to distinguish between subjectivity and ethics, is a very old tune. Consider the following quotes, mined from 4chan by Liz Ryerson in response to the most recent eruption of histrionic internet misogyny:

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Compare:

This politically overheated atmosphere in Vienna led to veritable press battles between the two large camps: the ‘Jewish press’ on the one hand and the ‘anti-Semitic press’ on the other, the ‘wholesome opinion of the people’ pitted against ‘Jewish modernism’. Using the very lingo of the anti-Semitic press in Vienna, Hitler said as late as 1942: ‘By virtue of art reviews which one Jew scribbled about another, the people, which believes anything it reads black on white, was indoctrinated to a view of art which regards everything that is altogether kitsch as the latest artistic perfection.’

(Ibid.)

I don’t want to overdo the comparison; angry internet nerds are (usually) not Nazis, and there is a strong sense in which this recent unpleasantness, directed at a woman game developer by a group of trolls and hackers, was overdetermined by the usual slut-shaming, body-policing nonsense that women frequently have to endure — though I should note that the gender politics of Hitler’s milieu were eerily similar to those of so-called ‘men’s rights activists’ and other contemporary misogynists. In fact, ‘men’s rights’ was the name given by the proto-Nazi occultist, eugenics advocate and professional lunatic Lanz von Liebenfels to his plan to reduce women to the status of cattle. (Ibid, p. 218.)

Anyway. Implicit in all of this is the idea that cultural challenge in art will lead to the annihilation of previous art forms — diversity simply does not enter the equation. I suppose you could say that the totalising ideas of early 20th Century Austrian conservatives  — and 4chan pond scum? — naturally lead them to see any criticism of or deviation from their preferred art as a threat. It would be a trifle unfair to leave it there, though.

While no-one is trying to ‘take over’ or ‘ruin’ the preferred games of the muttering classes, there is still a sense in which we are witnessing a battle for hegemony, in the Gramscian sense of the word. Questions about the representation of race and gender and the purpose of games entering the critical discussion; an explosion in the quantity and diversity of games and artists; formal experimentation —  the anonymous internet trolls are seeing their hegemonic ideas about games, criticism, the industry and the world challenged by a kind of videogame modernism, and, like Austrian conservatives faced with scandalous modernism and libertinism, popular unrest and something called ‘feminism’, they are deeply uncomfortable and very, very angry. An anonymous poster, quoted above, implicitly acknowledges this challenge when they call for the creation of a self-conscious ‘romantic/traditional school’ of games. I expect this kind of self-consciousness will become more widespread the less hegemonic its Weltanschauung becomes.

For this reason, I don’t think there is anything to be gained from disavowing conflict. I for one absolutely hope that the kind of ugly reactionary nonsense that is built into mainstream games shrivels up and dies post-haste. The salty tears of weeping nerds sustain me. This is not the same thing as advocating censorship or conformity — I just hope that the ‘common sense’ of the industry (and the world) changes so that we can start arguing about something else, which is the main point of analysing things like gender in videogames in the first place. For the same reason, I’m not quite as sanguine as Liz Ryerson, who writes, in her excellent post, that the trolls are simply the ‘last gasp of desperation from the weak and empathy-deficient against the inevitable turns towards progress’. They may be pathetic, but the denunciations of Viennese modernism were just as shrill. Just because misogynistic trolls feel impotent and persecuted doesn’t mean that they actually are. The tiny world of the game industry has become a microcosm of much larger issues.

 

[update: edited slightly for clarity]