This piece assumes some story knowledge. You’ll be fine even if you don’t always follow, but explications are available in the last three posts on Owlboy and DOOM. Check them out!
In case you aren’t especially into it, American politics and global politics as such have been a bit fraught lately. With the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the US and the near-constant stream of Executive Orders that have followed from that ceremony, the American people have been reorienting themselves and their once-comfortable relationship to their country on the fly. Globally, shows of solidarity and resurgent action against creeping austerity politics (most damagingly in the Global South) and proto- or outright-fascism have picked up. It’s an exciting moment and a terrifying one, and, well, I haven’t been writing about it at all.
This is in large part because I just…don’t write about politics casually. I’ve spent the better part of the last 14 years writing about aesthetics and the ways they relate to politics, particularly with reference to Marxian lines of thought and analysis and contemporary American capitalism. It was and is (still in some small part) my day job and I never really thought of it as something that I wanted to do online. I don’t — as you might think I’m about to say — feel some sort of obligation to speak up now. There are tons of people writing compelling stuff about politics right now; throw a rock, you’ll hit something. No, I just kind of saw a connection and figured I’d stop fighting it.
This post is about history and authenticity, but it’s also about repetition. My past couple of posts have been about repetition in some form or another, specifically my second post on Owlboy, in which I suggested the narrative of the game followed a Deleuzian tangent in its theorizing of repetition and return. Today, I’m turning to something a bit closer to home, particularly Marx and Hegel’s vision of repetition, as a dialectical return based on contradiction and resolution. As Hegel writes in the “Preface” to the Outlines of the Philosophy of Right,
One word more about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy, in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it. As the thought of the world, it appears only when actuality has completed its process of formation and attained its finished state…When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the falling of dusk.
This long passage might be more succinctly (but less satisfyingly) shortened to say: Philosophy as a heuristic can only look backward, explaining what has already happened. As Hegel writes elsewhere, we live in the midst of the ruin without knowing our society is already dead. As Walter Benjamin writes, the angel of history flies forward but looks backward. And as Karl Marx, citing this Hegel in part, argues, history occurs first as tragedy, and then as farce. Each of these philosophers holds the same theory of social knowledge, namely that we as thinkers can only ever diagnose what has come before, making small sense of the inchoate and immediate actions people, groups, and nations make to survive and move forward past their own historical contradictions. Philosophy is of course important! But philosophy is not futurity: it is history.
So, I hear you asking, when do we get to the fireworks factory? When do we talk about games? Well, both Owlboy and DOOM take on the same view of knowledge as do Hegel, Marx, and Benjamin. Owlboy in particular brings this lesson into its form, as the secret content of the game (unlockable by finding and placing several secret coins in their secret altars) is a museum of elder owls explaining not exactly the plot of the game (that’s still pretty mysterious), but the history behind it: their motives, methods, and reasoning. And yet, all you can do is look backward at their confessions and view them as a bystander, with no way to fix what they’ve broken. You witness the tragedy of the owls, as it were, in the falling of dusk.
But is the Owl museum an example of tragedy or farce? Certainly the tragedy of the owl world is that the learned attempt to undo the “loop” the owls found ended up in the destruction of their world entirely. But prior to the actual destruction, the obsession over the Loop claimed one of their brightest minds before he was able to finish the formula that would free the owls. Unsurprisingly, his best friend (pictured above) took over, but, far less gifted, was unable to make the machine work. In the moment of farce echoing the tragedy of knowledge unchained, the friend lies to his fellow owls and attempts the experiment anyway, breaking the world in the process.
And perhaps we can find another sort of dialectical resolution — as we see between genius and inadequacy above — between a legendary past (e.g. the Owls represented in their museum) and a banal present (as we see in Otus and Company’s existence). The world of Owlboy is rife with figures — like Otus’ mentor; his friend who takes to the sky to try to stop the Loop; even Otus himself — who don’t quite live up to the avatars they take on. And so the tragedy of the owls is followed by the farce of the gameworld itself, both beginning to look more and more alike as the hopelessness and depth of their crises are revealed.
In DOOM on the other hand, repetition is always a meta-narrative. The tragedy, we might say, is the Doom Prime game, our first entry into the world of DOOM, in which our space marine avatar has a face, a story, and, put simply, humanity. He and his friends are put into unreasonable, unexplained danger, and he has to simply try to stay alive (as his friends have not). DOOM (2016) is a repetition of this as farce, then, as well as a resolution of the human/divine contradiction. The Doom Marine in our 2016 iteration is a figure of legend, brought to life to kill and only to kill until all demons are gone. Removed from any motivation that we might recognize as human, the 2016 Doom Marine is a farcical monster, a shambolic golem who simply exists to destroy in the same way terrified parents and Senators claimed the original Doom Marine was. Blood for the sake of blood.
Or we might understand the tragedy to be the UAC’s decision to dig into the Martian landscape looking for the resources that people had (realistically) squandered on Earth. This is an eco-critical reading that becomes deeply untenable once the UAC finds their energy (Argent Energy) in Hell itself, but it’s not so unreasonable to suggest that the farcical turn is in this all-too-on-the-nose metaphor. As one cheeky hologram says in-game “The road to Hell is paved with Argent Energy.” Again, we’re left with a dialectic resolution once again between material and ideal — the actual material tragedy produces a largely metaphorical irony, and eventually the distinction between the two falls away entirely.
But in both Owlboy and DOOM, I think it’s too pat to say that we’ve seen tragedy into farce. I think Marx himself implies a progression past farce as well, and certainly Hegel’s Owl of Minerva doesn’t stop in the present, nor does Benjamin’s Angelus Novus. Indeed, all three philosophers see something past farce, and if we take these games seriously, the “what’s next” appears to be “resemblance.”
For Owlboy, this is a formal cue as much as a narrative one. The game resembles old platformers, but insists upon a knowing glance, a postmodern analysis that privileges the underlying melancholy of such games over and above their more typical heroism and exploration mechanics. In terms of plot, the game insists that this world you travel through has been abandoned by owls, but throughout you play as a character who is somewhere in-between — not quite boy or owl — and you meet owl-like characters throughout. Similarly, pirates are robots, but not quite automata as they have emotions and drives. Twig, your spider companion, is a stick-bug in disguise, and the dark owl who follows you through the game ends up being someone play-acting the ancient, now-extinct Owls that destroyed the world in the first place. Every turn is another reflected signifier.
Similarly DOOM is a clear repetition of its older Doom Prime forebear, as the game’s throwback speed, violence, and intensity might suggest. But it goes further past the resemblance point, commenting ironically as Owlboy does on the conventions that lead it to its gameplay. The brutal Glory Kills you can do, in which your character rips a demon limb from limb or chops them up with a chainsaw only to get powerups, are almost winking commentaries on the violence that got Doom Prime attention to begin with. In today’s market, you do not need to amp up gore to sell a videogame; but in taking on its ancestor’s ideas, DOOM reproduces them faithfully and then plays with them, twisting them past a farcical hyper-violence, the kind you’d see following the tragedy of the hyper-violent 70s and the bland and dangerous apotheosis of the Reaganite 80s.
Even moreso, the Doom Marine himself repeats, ironically, with a difference, as we go through the game. The absurdity of having to fetch a sword from Hell to defeat the demons when you have been using high powered future guns the entire game is not unintentional. The repetition demands the relic even when, and especially when, it is rendered totally obsolete.
In the end, we might refer our inchoate thoughts on resemblance and history to Jacques Derrida, who, in one of his more salient moments, wrote the following on signatures in his Signature, Event, Context:
By definition, a written signature implies the actual or empirical nonpresence of the signer…[but] in order function, that is, to be readable, a signature must have a repeatable, iterable, imitable form; it must be able to be detached from the present and singular intention of its production.
A signature, in other words, must represent a singular moment of consent and intention — eg writing a bank note or signing a birthday card — but in order to be a signature (that is, recognizable by others and repeatable by its writer), it must also be totally removed from that context by definition. My signature looks no different when I am signing a dull check for heat from when I am signing a confession to a crime. Nor will it look different if a skilled forger does either — that’s literally the point of the signature.
But in each instance, each forgery, each new intention, whatever, there is some mark of the moment. We may repeat things as often as we wish, but our lingering intentions cloud the repetition and make it (as Deleuze would insist) into vulgar resemblance. Following Derrida, though, there is nothing to be disappointed about in resemblance — resemblance represents a pressure point for change. Just as Owlboy produces formally interesting moments by shifting in slight and meaningful ways from the resemblance to older games it produces, the signature shifts its meaning in small but outsized ways based on context. And just as DOOM politicizes its resemblance by its over-enthusiastic attempt at imitation, our current political moment may be entering a crucial moment of resemblance itself.
Much has been said about Donald Trump and his rise as a fascistic ruler, and I don’t wish to contradict any of it. It’s right: Trump is a fascist, fair and square. But, the metaphysical moment, to me, is not a moment of tragedy nor is it exactly farce. It’s tempting to think of the Third Reich as a kind of tragedy and Trump as the farcical repetition, equally dangerous. But the Nazis themselves, outsized and stylized, seem farcical in their own way. And the American experiment, through Vietnam and into Reagan, Clintons, Bushes, and Obama, represents a sort of farcical (because unwitting) repetition of some of the worst sins of fascism. Austerity, forced rule, and immigration control mark the American Century as indelibly as Naziism marks 1939–1945 in our World Memory. In this way, Trump is yet another instance, but a pale shadow, repeated with small differences.
But these small differences — the vulnerability to critique; the unconvincing grandiosity; the insistence upon immigration controls in a world economy that simultaneously insists upon free movement of capital — are cracks in the veneer of the confidence scheme that is late capitalism. As videogames can represent formal incongruities as productive differences, so too can political analysis recognize — even before the Owl of Minerva has arrived! — the ways in which small differences in historical resemblance have the potential to produce massive upheaval and change.
And I’ll leave it vague like this because, as Hegel might say: we’re no good for predictions in this end of the knowledge producing world. But if history goes through tragedy and farce — and, let me say, I believe it does and I believe it is not intentional so much as it is deeply instinctual in these games’ design — then where it comes out after the embarrassment of late capitalist farce should be of our utmost interest. Though, as I’ll say again, we won’t be able to write the story any time soon: that’s what art is for.