BioShock and Philosophy

A funny thing happened in 2015: people began reading this blog. More specifically, people began reading this blog and sending me free books in response to what I’d scribbled here. The result by year’s end was a pillar on my desk which in gratitude I feel some obligation to read and discuss. Here’s the first.

BioShock and PhilosophyBioShock and Philosophy
Luke Cuddy, ed.
Wiley Blackwell (180 pp, $17.95, June 2015)

My relationship status with Ayn Rand is It’s Complicated. On one hand, I’ve never been able to progress deeply into, let alone finish, any of her books; her heavy and mechanical prose is what a robotic arm on a Detroit assembly line would write upon gaining sentience. Her ideas, which she believed novel, were better articulated by others. For example, Rand criticized progressive taxation as punishing success and innovation, and believed it was motivated by envy of the rich rather than logic. I agree. But these weren’t new ideas: a century beforehand, Frederic Bastiat concluded that tax policy is less about paying for roads and bridges and more about the political class rewarding its friends and punishing its enemies, while Nietzsche observed that under Judeo-Christian slave morality, poverty and the hatred of wealth is virtuous (Mark 10:25, Matthew 19:24). You would never know these two existed if you listened to Rand or her followers — to them, these thoughts sprang like Athena from her head alone; I might have more respect for Rand if she had occasionally included some footnotes and a bibliography. There is also the sneaking suspicion that Rand was a manipulative so-and-so who used rhetoric to rationalize her bad behavior, and that the main draw for Objectivists today is simply to justify theirs.

On the other hand, I can’t deny Rand’s influence on 20th-century political thought. This one time, at Ithaca College? A classmate mentioned Rand and our professor — who was the chair of the philosophy department — rolled his eyes and dismissed her. It’s amazing that I was awarded a four-year degree in philosophy and yet that incident is the entirety of my formal exposure to Rand. Love her or hate her, for good or bad, Rand’s name is thrown around too often today to be rejected with a shruggie.

It may be a little surprising to learn that a book titled BioShock and Philosophy isn’t cover-to-cover Ayn Rand. Instead, editor Luke Cuddy presents 16 essays that use the BioShock games for a variety of philosophical entrances, from Oliver Laas’s exploration of the characters’ free will to Simon Ledder’s introduction to transhumanism through plasmids and vigors. In fact the closest we get to an Objectivist tour of Rapture occurs via Rand’s aesthetics on art, whereby author Jason Rose concludes that Objectivists — who generally don’t like the game — should feel redeemed by it because Andrew Ryan is a bad Objectivist (to be fair, Cuddy may have approached hardline Objectivists for contributions but was probably rebuked with insults, accusations of irrationalism, and demands to sleep with Cuddy’s wife).

For me the strongest appeal of the BioShock games was their theme of utopianism, and because of that I have to thank Rick Elmore for my introduction to Carl Schmitt’s theory of political foundation. Schmitt believed that nations or political communities are founded in opposition to some other assemblage, that group identity coalesces through hostility to another group — it’s us versus them. It’s sort of like Nixon’s quip,¬†only writ large, that voters vote against the candidates they hate, not for those they like. Elmore uses Schmitt’s theory to explain the utopian experiments of Andrew Ryan and Zachary Comstock. Both create new societies that are antagonistic to others: for Ryan, it is parasites and socialism, while for Comstock it’s sinfulness and a disturbing lack of faith in white supremacy. This idea is relevant today and explains a great deal why nations inflate threats (America’s fear of Muslim terrorism) or constantly vilify other countries (the pathological obsession the Iranian and North Korean governments have with the US). The flames must be stoked long after the inciting spark has burned out, and defining group identity as being at war with another does exactly that. Schmitt also happened to be an unrepentant Nazi who used his theory to substantiate the Third Reich — which is again appropriate here, considering Hitler’s dream of utopia collapsed as surely and completely as Ryan’s and Comstock’s.

BioShock and Philosophy is not without some misses. A repetitive, vapid essay on Marxism and the Vox Populi revolution — written by two Ithaca College grads, natch — rehashes the game to make no-shit-Sherlock conclusions; the ink would have been better spilled on, say, analyzing Columbia through the lens of Edward Bellamy’s utopian socialism, or a Marxist/leftish critique of the Fraternal Order of the Raven and real-world Lincoln demonization (particularly by paleolibertarians). Absence of a thing is not a valid criticism of that thing, but along those lines I was surprised that neither BioShock 2 nor the Burial at Sea DLCs are mentioned much; BioShock 2 reimagines Rand’s feud with BF Skinner, while Burial at Sea apparently negates the ending of Infinite (something that would undoubtedly intrigue Scott Squires and James McBain, who didn’t care for Infinite‘s deterministic universe). Including that content would have provided richer interpretations to some of the essays.

CC BY Omarukai
CC BY Omarukai

The fact that I have invested waaaay too much time and thought into the BioShock games is a testament to how immersive they are. I never played the games in order; I was first sucked into BioShock Infinite primarily on the basis of a trailer, and immediately became absorbed by its mashup of steampunk with Colonial Revival architecture, quantum physics and all its implications, themes of American Exceptionalism and evangelical millennialism, and its leitmotif of guilt, penance, and absolution. Also, there were the parts where I could swing around on skylines and blow up zeppelins. Later I became intrigued by the setting (and not so much the game itself) of the original BioShock, and I only wish I could have submitted an essay to Cuddy on the historical utopianism of man-made islands and undersea habitats (because from Jules Verne to the Neolithic crannogs of Britain and Ireland, the idea of a better society has very often been wedded to water). No doubt contributor Laszlo Kajtar feels me. As he points out, it is not the book that matters so much as the reading of it; it is not the painting but rather our viewing of the painting that affects us. Like all art, games are necessarily subjective — it is our experience with them that provokes and seduces. And some of them, like a syringe full of EVE, get under the skin.

Short News, Altering the Past Edition

Danaus plexippus
CC BY Thomas Bresson

Down the Memory Hole. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, the only proper response for historians toward Hillary Clinton is a loathing both total and complete. The Clintons’ contempt for government transparency and the work of anyone who has ever stepped foot in an archives shouldn’t have come as a surprise even before she admitted using a personal server for her emails as Secretary of State or her lawyer’s confession that — surprise, surprise — said server was later wiped clean. Some of us have memories long enough to remember Sandy Berger’s plea bargain (and $50,000 fine) for stealing and destroying documents from the National Archives that dated to the final years of Bill Clinton’s administration — an action I’m sure Berger did at his own instigation, right?

No Gods or Kings, Only Matzo. Unlike BioShock Infinite, which was a slice of awesome no matter which way the cake was cut, the first two BioShocks were mediocre games buoyed by their amazing environmental graphics and a superb backstory. Creator Ken Levine revealed in a recent interview how the Jewish heritage of a number of BioShock characters — a Soviet refugee, a Holocaust survivor, New York doctors and artists — was integral to driving the storyline. To me it’s a great example of weaving together 20th-century history and experience to develop a very authentic alt-hist world.

Short News, Inebrious Fourth Edition

Ritmeier's C.W. Bitters, c. 1906.Bracing Tonics. A CRM excavation at the site of a former Manhattan beer garden unveiled a trove of 19th-century bitters bottles. Bitters — tonics that combined herbs and spices along with a hefty dose of alcohol — were used as digestives and medicines at the time, even by otherwise abstinent teetotalers. From the relief writing on the bottles (which today are highly collectible), the archaeologists were able to track down the original recipes, which they then recreated and shared. Also worth noting: in the comments, an author plugged this apothecary recipe book.

Flipping my Lid. Speaking of cocktail books, I recently downloaded food writer Corin Hirsch’s Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England, which includes recipes I intend to inflict upon our guests this July Fourth. I’ve always wanted to try flip. I’ve had switchel before, but didn’t care for it.

Columbia Uber Ailes. And in not-so-alternate-history news, Fox News reached through a tear and stole the logo for BioShock Infinite.

Image of Ritmeier’s C.W. Bitters, c. 1906, on display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison, Wisconsin.

News

HL Hunley. Archaeologists have discovered the Confederate submarine was still attached to its Housatonic-sinking torpedo when the device exploded, which in turn probably caused Hunley to founder. Previously, most believed Hunley stuck the torpedo into the Union ship and released it before reversing and detonating it from a distance.

Coyotes. A Connecticut wildlife biologist says “a map of where coyotes were sighted in 2012 compared to 2011” reveals “the number had mushroomed.” This doesn’t necessarily mean the population is up — we don’t know because the state hasn’t conducted a census — but I think that’s a reasonable inference. In any event, while the biologist did inform his audience that we’re probably not dealing with coyotes but rather coywolf hybrids, the implications of this didn’t seem to be fully understood. Prescriptions for hazing and other prevention techniques used west of the Mississippi may not be germane to our situation here in the northeast.

Grand Central Terminal. My favorite building turns 100.

BioShock Infinite. I never played the original BioShock game but the verisimilitude of this trailer for the alt-hist sequel — set in 1912 — produced in the style of an early ’80s In Search of… documentary show is outright amazing.