Grand Theft Auto and the extinction of being
by Sam Kriss
More like Geworfenheit Theft Auto amirite
In Rostov-on-Don, a provincial city in the south of Russia, two men had an argument in a supermarket. There’s no footage of it, but we can imagine the scene. The squeaky lino floors, the tinny sound of pop music. The strip-lighting, buzzing as it casts a dreary mundane pallor on the rows of produce, scrubs the shadows from the faces of the disputants, and eventually drains all colour from the flecks of blood. The other shoppers look on first in exasperation, then in horror: the argument devolves into a fistfight until its frenzy reaches a point where one man pulls out a gun and fires several rubber bullets into the other’s head. So it goes. What’s brought this dull event to the world’s attention is the fact that the two men were reportedly arguing about the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The international press has treated this story with a kind of wry amusement: it’s perfectly normal to shoot someone in an argument over sex or money or football; it’s pretty weird (and kinda funny) to shoot someone in an argument over the nature of the noumenon. Going by the experience of history, this isn’t really the case. For a good part of the 20th Century, a philosophical debate (or at least something that claimed to be a philosophical debate) about the degree of contradiction between the material dialectic and humanist values got so out of hand that for a quite while it looked like the only way to properly resolve the issue was through the mass slaughter of every human being on the planet. Disputes over the mysteries of the Holy Trinity saw swarms of horsemen turn fields into hellish seas of mud under their hooves and reduce cities to blood-drenched ruins under their swords. Aristotle’s doctrine of virtuous moderation allowed his protégé to send a moving line of fire and bloodshed that swept from the Aegean to the Indus. You haven’t really made it as a philosopher until you’ve stacked up a decent body count.
Even Kant, shy and gentle, punctiliously pedestrian, isn’t exempt from the violence of philosophy. Presidente Gonzalo, the leader of the Peruvian Shining Path, had a secret identity: Abimael Guzmán, mild-manned professor of philosophy at San Cristóbal of Huamanga University. As the group’s notorious massacres in peasant villages show, he had a lot to learn about the proper implementation of Mao Tse-Tung Thought; nonetheless, his Kantian credentials are impeccable. If anything, transcendental idealism handily lends itself to a certain kind of will to destruction. Like most very clever people, Kant had something of a nasty smug streak. In his What is Enlightenment?, he describes the unenlightened condition of humanity as a ‘self-imposed nonage’: if other people are stupid, lazy, and cowardly, it’s only their own fault; leaders and tyrants only channel this mass stupidity rather than imposing it. This is why he can write that ‘freedom need not cause the least worry concerning public order or the unity of the community.’ Against those who try to stifle argument, Kant proposes the dictum ‘argue as much as you like – but obey!’ Enlightened argument can only proceed towards a singular truth, and if a ruler is himself enlightened, then any argument that challenges his rule is by definition invalid, with no place in a liberated discourse. Kant’s enlightenment admits no contradiction. There’s a very short line from his veneration of Frederick’s Prussia to a man being shot in the head in a Russian supermarket. The shooter was applying the categorical imperative perfectly: if everyone who dares to be so clearly and obstinately wrong about philosophy gets a rubber bullet to the head, then proper reasoned argument can begin, to the benefit of all humanity.
One man shooting another because they disagree about the fundamental nature of reality is a funny human interest story. Someone pretending to shoot a virtual prostitute is grounds for a moral panic. Every iteration of the Grand Theft Auto series of games seems to raise the same clamour: it’s an awful, violent game in which you, the player, can fuck a prostitute, kill her, and then take your money back. It’s a strangely specific complaint – after all, you can do a lot of terrible things in GTA, your basic mode of existence in the game is that of a spree killer. This might have something to do with the level of intent involved: the game is ‘open’ to the extent that you can walk into a shop, stand in line for a while, and then shoot another customer in the head, but you can’t (yet) have a steadily escalating argument about Kant with him beforehand. The prostitute scenario is different; you have a reason to kill her. Ultimately, I think there’s more to it than that. The real object of horror isn’t the murder, it’s the retrieval of the money. What’s being dramatised is a violation of the laws of exchange, those in which – as Marx puts it in Volume I of Capital – ‘the owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power.’ By taking your money back, you’re breaking a contract, dispelling the comforting illusions of the marketplace, turning the covert oppression of the trade in bodies into its overt expression in violence.
The question of violence in video games is based on the horror of the uncanny: it’s about the power of images of things to come alive, the potential for onscreen violence to turn into actual violence. What’s apparently certain is that these games have some primordial connection to humanity’s intrinsic cruelty. Depending on whether you believe the dessicated pinch-faced puritans or the sloppily hirsute misogynists that make up video gaming’s core user base, this relation is either one of normalisation, in which representations of violence bring our animal natures out from the fragile cloak of civilisation – or one of release, allowing an expression of this violent nature that helps us function normally in the real world with only minimal loss of life. The case of the argument over Kant in Rostov-on-Don shows that it’s a little more complicated than that. Violence doesn’t proceed only from violence but from something quite different; there’s nothing more shatteringly, existentially violent than the infinite stillness of a Rothko multiform or the fragile sorrow of Chopin’s nocturnes. I’m not going to question whether or not human beings are existentially violent; at root the question is what it means for us to be violent, or, more fundamentally, what it means for us to be – and, as Heidegger shows, our being is inseparable from the world in which we exist.
Heidegger’s innovation is not only to ground ontology in actual existing beings instead of some grand unifying principle (as in Spinoza’s substance or Leibniz’s monads) but to stress the situatedness of the ontological object. His term for the human mode of existence, or that ‘which, in its very Being, comports itself understandingly towards that Being,’ is Dasein – literally ‘being-there.’ Awareness of your own existence is a matter of experience rather than a solipsistic Cartesian introspection; Dasein is a being-in-the-world rather than a being that just so happens to find itself inhabiting something vaguely world-shaped. This world isn’t just a set of beings, or the spatial framework in which they are dispersed: in Heidegger’s definition, ‘the world worlds, and is more fully in being than the tangible and perceptible realm in which we feel ourselves to be at home.’ Non-human beings, meanwhile, are encountered in two modes: as present-at-hand (in which they’re an object of detached contemplation) and as ready-to-hand (in which Dasein is absorbed in their use, with the categories of subject and object falling away into the undifferentiated process of work). Against much previous philosophy, which considers entities in terms of their properties and attributes, Heidegger stresses the primacy of the ready-to-hand. On perceiving a hammer, we don’t think about its abstract composition but how we can use it. The world is filled with equipment; useful, handy things.
It’s a nice way of thinking about things, but you get the feeling that for all his talk of handiness and equipmentality Heidegger would still have trouble with an Ikea wardrobe. Beyond that, Heidegger’s system runs into some problems when we’re forced to confront beings that aren’t handy or useful to us. True to form, he has his own word for this: Unzuhandenheit, unreadiness-to-hand. The unready-to-hand tool is something broken that doesn’t fulfil its function properly; it inhabits a grey phantom zone between the absorption of the ready-to-hand and the distant appraisal of the present-at-hand. We become aware of the thing as an object, but at the same time Dasein is engaged with it in the search for a solution. What happens, though, when we come up against something which is working in perfect order, but whose being is directly adversarial to ours? It’s an important question, because these things have come to dominate our lives.
Scholars of Heidegger tend to dispute the exact nature of Dasein and its relation to what we think of as the human being (there haven’t been any recorded fatalities yet, but there’s still plenty of time). Graham Harman and other advocates of object-oriented ontology attempt an ‘anthropodecentrism,’ in which the status of human beings as those beings that move towards their own Being is deprivileged. In a way, they have it right. Under industrial capitalism, an understanding comportment towards Being isn’t something that occurs on the level of the human, but on that of the firm. Humans are instrumentalised, first through their labour-power, and again through their position as consumers, becoming tools used in the production process. Capital-producing institutions are Dasein, reaching out towards an authentic existence; we are Zuhandenheit, the equipment used. The immense wealth of commodities produced is useful, but not for us. There are few consumer items that are used to solve our problems; our new technologies impose themselves as the solutions to problems that didn’t even exist before their arrival. Tools bear the stamp of their owners; now the tool is the stamp. The new iPhone has a fingerprint scanner, the new Xbox has an always-on camera. At the same time, it’s these same things that are used to stage our response: a steady, furious crusade against everything useful and handy, a purging of our own usefulness. Our violence is the violence of a being-in-the-world whose ability to understand that Being is under threat of extinction.
Watch someone playing GTA – not going through the storyline missions, but really playing, tearing at random through the vast cityscape, mowing down pedestrians, ducking down alleyways to avoid the cops. The landscape is littered with useful things, but rather than being absorbed in their use, we discard and destroy them. Get out of one car, steal another, over and over again. What distinguishes Grand Theft Auto is the sheer destructibility of the environment; we are the equipment through which the world’s destructibility is realised. In a world where the relation between humans and tools is inverted, the game offer us another reversal. Heidegger describes the condition of the individual human as one of thrown-ness, a state that goes beyond its Sartrean reformulation in the precession of existence over essence to encompass the position of having-to-be-open. We’re tossed into a world we don’t understand; to make sense of it we have to open ourselves to other beings. Through GTA, the world is thrown into us and has to be open to us. We’re faced with the infinite usefulness that’s lacking in reality. And so, of course, we have to destroy it.
PS: Incidentally, this is why video games can never be art. Art discloses the world; by giving us a world thrown into us, video games enframe it. They’re technology, and also a waste of time.
PPS: I haven’t actually played the new GTA, but they’re all basically the same, aren’t they?