Thursday, February 28, 2013

Blog 5 - Is Bioshock "High Culture"?


“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor. No, says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God. No, says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone. I rejected those answers. Instead I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose…Rapture. A city where the artist would not fear the censor. Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality. Where the great would not be constrained by the small.” Bioshock’s Rapture, built by Andrew Ryan, was originally constructed as an escape from government control. On the surface, it would appear as though this massive underwater city embodied the idea of The Great Refusal, however, Marcuse might not believe this video game to be “high art.” After looking deeper, I think there are aspects that at least try to engage in “the protest against that which is,” but ultimately I think it fails to really be what Marcuse would consider high culture.

Without going too far into plot details, the city of rapture has been torn apart by class struggle. What was supposed to be the ideal utopia has been turned into a crumbling dystopia, mainly because of the use (and abuse) of the plasmid ADAM. ADAM gives the user super-human like abilities and the ability to obtain it separated the rich from the poor. What was supposed to be a community, free from government control, has now turned into a dictatorship with Andrew Ryan at the controls. He hoards the ADAM supply (“little sisters” embedded with the sea slug that produces it) and carefully protects it with the “big daddies” (heavily armored killing machines). This totalitarian control over Rapture would lead Marcuse to say that Rapture has not fulfilled its mission statement of remaining free from government control and thus, does not reject the established order. There is, however, an uprising from the lower class, led by a man named Atlas. He wants to take the power away from Ryan so that the power (ADAM) can be distributed among the masses, thus leveling the playing field, so to speak. He uses Jack, the protagonist of Bioshock to kill Andrew Ryan. This is, at least, trying to upset the order of Ryan’s control and rebel against the established order. But wait! Atlas is really the mob boss, Fontaine, who, along with a Dr. Tenenbaum, discovered ADAM and its source but was defeated by Ryan when he tried to seize power from Ryan earlier. He really uses Jack as a mind controlled tool to carry out his bidding. It seems as though all opposing forces in this story aren’t trying to end the order of governmental control but merely trying to steal all the power for themselves.

In addition to the goals of all the characters to seize power and control, I there are a few other important ideas from Marcuse that solidify my stance on Bioshock not engaging in the Great Refusal. Marcuse says, “Now this essential gap between the arts and the order of the day, kept open in the artistic alienation, is progressively closed by the advancing technological society... the other dimension is absorbed into the prevailing state of affairs.” The society that was created to stimulate the artists and scientists has made all of the art and technological advancements commonplace. The ADAM even becomes controlled by the leader of Rapture and is used as a form of governmental control. It has become a part of the one-dimensional society rather than break away from it. I think one other interesting point is seen with the character J.S. Steinman. He is an ADAM obsessed plastic surgeon that tries to create perfection in his patients. In one of the diary entries scattered about the levels, you hear him aspire to be like Picasso. “When Picasso became bored of painting people, he started representing them as cubes and other abstract forms. The world called him a genius! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could do with a knife what that old Spaniard did with a brush.” By trying to emulate one of the “classics” as Marcuse would say, “they come to life as other than themselves; they are deprived of their antagonistic force.” Once again, by trying to go against the standard practices of his plastic surgery, he still fails to engage in the Great Refusal of that which is. 

2 comments:

Taylor Hochuli said...

Great way to start out your essay. That quote is what introduces the player into the world of Bioshock and is also best used to introduce your reader to this world (and my personal favorite). You also summarize the plot very well in the second paragraph. The story is very complicated and you got the major plot points that are important to understand what is going on. However, for an essay limited to 2-3 pages, your summary takes up quite a bit of room. It might have been better to focus in on specific parts for your analysis rather than spending a paragraph summarizing. Such can be seen with your example of J.S. Steinman. You set up who he is in Bioshock and define him as a character with a one-sentence description and a quote from him. This allows you to quickly define him for analysis to help prove your point. In your revision (if you choose this one to revise), the extra room would allow for this summary and help placing where the characters/events fit into the story and help you analysis.

Your main argument is also kind of muddled. Your title suggests that you will analyze whether Bioshock is higher culture, but part of your essay leans toward arguing whether Bioshock participates in the "Great Refusal" of Marcuse. I think your essay would be stronger pursuing the latter of these theses since you analyze it well with Dr. Steinman. You could even make it more specific and say that the antagonists of Bioshock participate in the "Great Refusal" like Dr. Steinman (including such people as Atlas, Sander Cohen, and Andrew Ryan who are visionaries, but this is undermined by the fact by they are antagonists and, well, crazy on ADAM). That's only one way you could take it though for a revision. Little areas like that could be easily extended from this very thorough first draft. Now excuse me as I return to playing Bisohock on Steam because, well, I miss Rapture.

Adam said...

One thing absent from the beginning is what *you* think. Explaining how Marcuse would react to Bioshock might have inherent merit, but I hope you don't maintain this stance of neutrality. This is an opportunity to question either the widespread belief that Bioshock begins a new stage for video games, or to question Marcuse.

I haven't played Bioshock myself, but everyone always writes about it as being a critique of Ayn Rand, which your second paragraph surely would support. I'm surprised that you don't mention that element of the game at least in passing, especially since Marcuse (as a figure basically of the far left, if eccentrically) might have a particular interest in a critique of Rand (a figure basically of the far right, if eccentrically).

Someone starting with the point that *Bioshock* is in part an extended satire of Objectivism would probably then ask whether a satire can be "The Great Refusal", or whether there are elements within *Bioshock* that move being satire into the beginnings of a portrayal of a true alternative. Also note that to people (possibly including the creators of Bioshock?) who believe that we are moving toward a Objectivist dystopia, a rejection of Rapture may function at some level as a rejection of *our* world.

This could have benefited from either a more extensive interaction with Marcuse, or through an acknowledgement of some of the *intellectual* content of *Bioshock*.