Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series: Jodi Byrd, "The Beast of America: Sovereignty and the Anarchy of Objects" Response by Nicholas Cragoe

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

posted under by John Moore
[On April 22, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the latest installment in its 2014-2015 Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series, "The Beast of America: Sovereignty and the Anarchy of Objects." The speaker was Jodi Byrd, Associate Professor of English, American Indian Studies, and Gender & Women's Studies. Professor Kevin Hamilton (New Media) responded. Below are reflections on the event from graduate student Nicholas Cragoe (Sociology/American Indian Studies).]

Written by Nicholas Cragoe (Sociology/American Indian Studies)

In her introduction to Monday's lecture, Trish Loughran (English) lauded the far-reaching and integrative interdisciplinarity of Jodi Byrd’s (English/American Indian Studies/Gender & Women’s Studies) work, saying that “variability is the constant in Jodi’s work.” The description of a scholar’s work as “variable” might in some cases mean that the scholar studies a broad range of different subjects. In Professor Byrd’s case, however, the variability appears in her ability to find overlapping terrain spanning everything from coding and video game programming, to critical theory, to queer studies, to indigenous studies. Byrd’s lecture, “The Beast of America,” brought together modes of analysis and topics of concern from game studies, political science, cultural studies, and philosophy, bringing these diverse perspectives to bear on the complex machine of representative racism, sexism, colonialism, and imperialism that is the recent video game phenomenon, Bioshock Infinite. Her method of personally immersing herself in the game environment as a player, applauded by her introductory and responding speakers, is even reminiscent of a kind of postmodern, digital take on classic anthropological ethnography.




For a brief bit of background, Bioshock Infinite is a video game produced by the now-defunct Irrational Games under the direction of head writer, Ken Levine. The game is the third installment in the Bioshock series, and takes the player out of the grimy, Randian dystopia of the first two games, and into “Columbia,” a setting modeled on the gleaming, racist utopianism of the “White City” of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair Columbian Exposition. The player controls the main character, Booker DeWitt, the inevitable white, masculine anti-hero (with ties to numerous symbols of American state violence including Pinkerton union-busting, and the Wounded Knee massacre, which is rebranded a “battle” in the game setting), trying to obtain a clean slate by rescuing a girl held captive by the racist and xenophobic Comstock contingent representing the power of the state in Columbia. The system of order embodied by Comstock is contrasted with the anarchist movement called Vox Populi, and it is against the backdrop of the struggle between chaos and order that the player (as Booker) plays out the narrative of the game. Byrd points out that it is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the game that the anarchist struggle for liberation is in many ways made synonymous with American imperial ideology, with Levine and the writing team seeming to believe that imperialism is dangerous but no more so than class liberation.



As Byrd noted during the Q&A following the lecture, many people playing a video game like Bioshock Infinite would be too focused on the mechanics of gameplay in this first-person-shooter (FPS) to notice the complex array of historical and political symbols that the game developers have drawn upon to create the world in which the player acts. Just below the structure of gameplay, Byrd explains, lies a vast system of historical references that put the player in a position to experience the illusion of agency and choice (including anti-racist/anti-imperial choice), while never allowing the possibility of any real challenge to the systems of power and historical violence around which the game is constructed. The lecture addressed a wide range of issues, including the colonial racism of the game’s rewritten history of the massacre at Wounded Knee, and the contemporary influence on video game discourse of ongoing attacks by organizations like “Gamergate.” However, throughout the lecture and the subsequent Q&A session, Byrd returned periodically to the central touchstone of her argument: the logic of the game, in both the content and the gameplay experience, is rooted in the emptiness of player agency – individual choice is possible, but does nothing to crack the sense of inevitability created by the unwavering systems of control. She anchors the point in a metaphor from the game: a coin-flip in which the result is always “Heads,” representing the presence of two choices but the inevitability of the single outcome.

Propaganda from Bioshock Infinite

In the course of her analysis, Byrd uses her reading of Bioshock Infinite to critique Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), a philosophical perspective that refutes the idea that the human being and human subjectivity lies at the center of reality and posits instead that humans are simply part of the array of existing objects which no more or less reality than other objects. OOO argues for a “flat ontology” in which not all objects exist equally, but in which all equally exist. Although she never phrases it as such, Byrd’s critique of OOO analysis seems to strike most strongly at the apparent attempt at apolitical understanding of human relationships and history. In the case of Bioshock, Object-Oriented Ontology could be used to explain the approach that the programming team employed in the creation of the game. However, the critique of OOO can, in response, be used to understand that same approach as one that treated American racist and imperial history as a grab-bag of discrete apolitical events to be employed for effect without consideration of consequence or context. Bioshock Infinite uses a flat ontology to create an egalitarianism based on an equality of objects that displaces and paves over the inequality of human actors, placing events of violent conflict like the Wounded Knee massacre in a necessary, inevitable, and “objective” historical progression.


During the response from Kevin Hamilton (New Media), as well as in the Q&A that followed, the discussion revolved first and foremost around the possibilities for encounters between technology and humanities work in the realm of video game studies. On the UIUC campus, Byrd notes that there is a sense of stark divide between these two worlds, and video games offer a ripe area for finding overlap. Such an opportunity for interdisciplinary dialogue becomes especially clear when we consider the experience of playing a game like Bioshock Infinite, in which both the content of the game and the act of play involve the integration and interaction of the human and the machine. Other questions from the audience touched on a variety of topics including gendered constructions and masculinity in video gaming, the conflation of anarchy and indigeneity in the Bioshock Infinite universe, and the challenges and possibilities involved in teaching video games in the classroom.


In many ways, the Bioshock series including Infinite has attempted to, as Byrd puts it, defy Roger Ebert’s declaration that video games cannot be art, presenting the player with opportunities to explore visually and emotionally stimulating engagements with social and political controversy. And with its heavy reliance on reimaginings of historical events, Bioshock Infinite runs headlong into the debates at the intersection of game studies and philosophy, which provides rich opportunities for interdisciplinary work. In these respects, the game has a great deal of value for players, scholars, and scholars as players. In her closing statement, however, Byrd reminded us that while the game provides a dense source of data for diverse scholarly work, the path made available to the player remains nihilistically narrow. What remains unanswered at the end of the game is whether the coin landing on “Tails” would make any difference at all.

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