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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

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[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. Below Professor Kevin Hamilton's (New Media) response to the lecture.]

Playing the "State of Injury"
Written by Kevin Hamilton (New Media)

I am thankful for many things about Jodi’s paper, and this opportunity to discuss it, but I want to focus on just two in my comments here. One is somewhat disciplinary, the other more institutional. Both concern the rather urgent question of how to play in a way that casts light on the conditions that make play possible.

Bioshock Infinite's Columbia

On the disciplinary front, I see in Jodi’s paper a welcome intervention into technology and software studies, a field that at times seems overly-focused on the task of uncovering and translating obscure or opaque technological processes. Through taking on both the examination of a particular sociotechnical object – that of the game Bioshock Infinite – and a critique of a popular critical frame for examination of such objects – that of Object Oriented Ontology – Jodi has made here a crucial contribution to a growing and vibrant field. I will return to this in a few moments.
But first I want to express some thanks for how this paper and its presentation here addresses an institutional question – namely, the question of what we are to do when critique, a primary tool for most of us as scholars, teachers and persons, not only meets with lack of response, but is characterized as injury.

I speak here of the space Jodi’s paper launches from - a set of conditions enacted in multiple instances across online and physical worlds in which state power "enacts a state of injury that feeds on itself to simultaneously hail the necessity of its own existence to adjudicate that injury on the one hand and to hermetically seal off critiques of structural injustice as injurious in and of themselves." I see this as a kind of loop, and I think Jodi does too, aided in part by Bioshock Infinite’s own looped narrative.

This description certainly captures the loop I've walked around puzzling about here at Illinois for some time - both about our campus' specific conflicts and the larger white hegemonies on which they depend. This "state of injury," and its attendant rendering of critique as source of such injury, in many ways fulfills Audrey Lorde's admonition about the Master's Tools. It turns out that not only will they not do to dismantle the Master's House, but the Master incorporates even their misuse by revolutionaries into his own imperial regime. There is no salvation in mere tactics.

We should not be surprised at this utter lack of creativity on the part of power, given that no order of death can originate life. But still, this seeming futility stymies, stifles, and suffocates. It sucks out life through the rage and hopelessness it leaves behind. And in the case of the particular spaces Jodi is describing, its injury stems from how it also deflects or defers address of other, older aggressions. When historical settler colonial violence barely registers as a reality, where are one's hopes to go for address of the settler colonial present?

I've thought all year that more answers or escapes from the loop of state claims to injury must lie waiting in our own scholarship, our strengths as not only a critical community but an originary, creative one. Jodi's paper finally answers this for me by doing the necessary work of critique, but not stopping there. She moves past critique to name the conditions that make this loop possible, and manifesting through her own performance a way out. This research, from Jodi’s playthrough of Bioshock Infinite through the act of inscription through which she thought about it, to her delivery of that inscription into this space and this community, constitutes a performative act of seeing, writing, and speaking, an act of play itself. As such, it activates a space that in recent times has seemed to many of us especially scripted, deathly, airless and sealed.

How did she do this? First, through approaching critique through inhabitation – she played the game, subjected her own senses and subjectivity to it. Because her scholarship never lets go of the critical question of what is revealed through the presence and subjectivities of her particular body, Jodi’s inhabitation also called out the game’s hidden dependencies, the bodies missing or present that shore up narratives and contribute to the production of affect necessary to propel the shooter on his mission. But most importantly for me, Jodi then thought through this process while holding other worlds present and simultaneous with that of Columbia and Bioshock’s gamespace. Like you, no doubt, I too couldn’t help but compare Columbia to this campus, given their common heritage in Chicago but also their common loops of state-claims of injury. If as a player Jodi was always both herself and Booker, the space she played through the performance of this research was always both Columbia and Illinois.

As a result, the paper constructs and enacts critique on other terms than those expected by the discipline or the loop of state injury claims. And to explain what I mean by this, I want to turn back to this paper’s contributions to the emerging fields of software studies and gaming critique.
The paper’s path here begins in Jodi’s critique of "the material turn" as manifest in Object Oriented Ontology. If much OOO seeks to grant agency to the non-human, it does so, at least in Jodi's analysis (and one I share), while leaving intact an understanding of difference and definition that precludes any possibility of a "vibrant matter."

In OOO - at least as I understand it - the rabbit is never defined by the wolf that eats it, nor the wolf by the rabbit. Eating rabbits is just an inherited action of the abstract class "wolf," which comes with properties like sharp eyes and sharp teeth. The grass interacts with the sun but remains separate from it, joined by actions, but not by atoms. Contrast this with, for example, the materiality of islands in the work of Epeli Hau'ofa (which I learned about through the work of Jodi's colleague Vince Diaz (Anthropology/American Indian Studies/Asian American Studies/History)). Islands here are not isolated objects inheriting properties from an abstract class called "island," but collections of material in constant flux, moving through volcanic flow, continental drift, tidal surge and the gullets of seabirds from one place to another. No island ever ends or begins. I might also think here of Medieval European or Arabic approaches to light, which in different forms imagined the sun as traveling as "corpuscles" of matter and joining with those of your eye to constitute sight.

OOO, which like any area of discourse I readily admit is a space of argument and far from unitary, might still be characterized as an imagining of the world composed of interactions and relationships between highly differentiated and autonomous objects. Action into this space must take place in ways that leave the objects themselves intact - they join as assemblages only by the bonds of their interrelated actions. In fact, in an Object-Oriented frame, it is not only unnecessary to know anything about the human or non-human object with which one is interacting; it is inefficient to do so. To act with agency within such a space is to act on knowledge not of an object, but of its actions, and the web of conditions that call up these actions in scripted form. Mastery and power consists of efficiently learning and storing how these actions manifest as a result of contingent processes and properties. To command an object-oriented world is to enact and know elaborate algorithms. But objects themselves have no standing - they follow along, dragged by the net of orchestrated (or accidental) programs of actions. Once they are set in motion, the objects themselves are largely missing from OOO, and life becomes a race to uncover, map, and wield the algorithms of control.

Jodi brings OOO to the picture here, as I understand it, not as a definitively descriptive analysis of either Bioshock Infinite's gameplay nor the "state of injury" that Columbia’s political narrative manifests. She's not pulling back a curtain to critically reveal the "real" politics of OOO or of Columbia, any more than Elizabeth's "tears" in Columbia reveal a more real state of that city. Rather, taking advantage of the fact that Bioshock itself likely relies on an object-oriented code structure, Jodi calls our attention to a kind of rhyme or homology between OOO's missing objects, Columbia's missing Indians, and the missing victims within contemporary "states of injury." She wields critique not as a form of revelation, nor as defeat of a script through mapping its total contours. Instead, she casts the conditions of play into light through stubborn insistence on the copresence of worlds.

In a state where power relies on mastery of operations among a flat hierarchy of objects, it becomes all the more important that critique not start and end with mere description of operations. If as critics in the face of violent systems, we are content with the staging of heroic unveiling of what goes on inside hegemony’s black boxes, our protests will always be subsumed within hegemony’s logics. The critic stepping outside a system to critically account for its effects and affects will likely find herself inside another system. The power of the “state of injury” relies on an expectation that critique ends with mere explication, a description of previously invisible processes that leave the objects on which they depend unseen.

Jodi’s work presented here today represents another approach. Her conclusions about Bioshock Infiinte, OOO, and the “states of injury” on which contemporary settler colonialism depends are the result not of her mapping a state of operations, but of her inhabiting a world of matter, reporting for us for how it acts on her, and acting back. Jodi did great work on our behalf by simply playing this game, getting her senses and reflexes into the flow of a large-scale technosocial operation. By playing Bioshock Infinite she let it into conversation with her other experiences, and physically invited others in as well, through last week’s gaming sessions at the Unit.

Though we need video game criticism and software studies at this institution, what we need more are scholars who are not only willing to get themselves emeshed and enmired in such systems as these, but who can do so from a perspective of heightened attention to the external conditions and bodies that make these experiences possible. And we need them to be supported, every day, through a plenitude of tangible resources – fulfilled hires, reliable spaces, brilliant students, and importantly, statements of support that go beyond mere operations to effect what bodies and what stories we see and hear in our everyday spaces.

Seeing the invisible objects and bodies on which our institution’s operations depend will require the disciplined cultivation of our senses – in other words, it will require play. In light of the highly proscribed nature of speech as a domain to do this work of late, perhaps play will offer a space where we can work more mindful of the conditions on which our operations depend. If so, we have a lot of playing to do. So let’s get to work.


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