Thursday, February 20, 2014

Language and Power

Language and Power                                
                 A dark gray ceiling, zoom out, light flickers on, camera moves – a patchwork of white and gray tiles, glass walls seal in a tight room, flowery elevator music plays in the background. My finger finds the arrow keys – no movement. My finger finds the “w” key, the screen lurches forward. I walk into each of three pieces of furniture in the room, and just as I think I missed some important key to playing the game, a nasally, robotic voice comes to my rescue. “Hello and again welcome to the Aperture Science Enrichment Center.” Above a cement section of the cube that seals me in, a clock furiously winds down. “For your own safety and the safety of others please refrain from…” The woman’s voice cuts out, returns in a foreign language, speaks gibberish. “The portal will open is 3…2…1.” An oval opening encased by an orange flame appears in the far corner. I immediately slide through, ahead of me another player moves out of their glass cube into the cement-laden architecture of the game.
            From the very beginning of the game, the female narrator asserts herself as a source of information and guidance. In doing so, she asserts her power and control over the player. When her voice cuts out after “please refrain from” the player questions what might happen if he or she engages in certain game play. This immediate need for more information forces the player to be reliant upon the narrator. In later chambers, the narrator tells the player that the level will not be monitored, or that stepping into the brown sewage that bubbles from the ground level will cause death and a mark on the final scoring record, or that the level was made to be purposefully impossible, the player should just give up. It would be interesting to see how players generally responded to this narration. Do players give up because the narrator tells them to or, like me, do they complete the chamber anyways? I remained in the mindset that I was playing a game and that every game is meant to be beaten; with the knowledge that there is an award-winning Portal 2, I figured there was probably some satisfactory ending. But even after the narrator admits she was lying, there was still a part of me that continued to believe everything she said. The narrator-player relationship in Portal parallels the congressmen-citizen relationship described in Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. Marcuse argues that language is a primary source of power, control, and manipulation. He specifically describes how governments and politicians use language to obscure information, blur connotation, and distort the politician-citizen relationship.  He writes, “Magical, authoritarian and ritual elements permeate speech and language. Discourse is deprived of the mediations which are the stages of the process of cognition and cognitive evaluation. The concepts which comprehend the facts and thereby transcend the facts are losing their authentic linguistic representation” (Marcuse 85). Marcuse recognizes that language in mass media is manipulated to convey certain messages; usually language is used to distort or alter meaning. He goes on to explain that people, or the player in Portal, recognize deceit in the language of their superior, but they continue to accept what he or she says. “Relatively new is the general acceptance of these lies by public and private opinion, the suppression of their monstrous content. The spread and the effectiveness of this language testify to the triumph of society over the contradictions which it contains; they are reproduced without exploding the social system” (89). One final point Marcuse makes about language and power is the superficial personalization that language allows for. He writes, “The same familiarity is established through personalized language, which plays a considerable role in advanced communication. 11 It is “your” congressman, “your” highway, “your” favorite drugstore, “your” newspaper; it is brought “to you,” it invites “you,” etc.” (92). I analyzed the degree of personalization I felt with the narrator. Despite the woman’s voice being highly robotic, and despite the fact that her voice came to me through a loudspeaker and not another character, I still found that there was a high degree of personalization. As I continued playing the game I realized that because I, as the player, was so isolated, I formed a more personal relationship with the narrator; she was my tour guide. It was the exact effect that Marcuse explains as psychological and social control.

Works Cited:
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012. Kindle Edition. 


Kurt Wichman said...

I love your opening paragraph. The style at which you describe the opening sequence of the game is detailed and exactly how I reacted. The way you connect Marcuse's writing to Portal is alarmingly true. Although I didn't complete the game, it is a scary thought to think of congressmen as Glados in Portal seeing how the game ends.
The passages from Marcuse perfectly connect to your argument. It would have been interesting if you had brought in the idea of how Marcuse critiques politicians for using abbreviations. In Portal we don't necessarily see Glados use abbreviations, but we also aren't given an exhaustive description or explanation behind what we are doing/being forced to do.

Adam said...

Your discussion of Portal is maybe too long-winded. The narrative component isn't a bad idea, but maybe you don't need as much of it in a short essay.

Your grasp of Marcuse on language seems good, and your initial application of that aspect of Marcuse to Portal also so seems good, if brief. What I really wanted to see - and what would need to be at the heart of a revision - is a movement beyond the initial analysis.

You are observing, in some detail, that Glados does a lot of the things with language which, Marcuse argues, are central to our society. But what does that observation *mean*? Does that help us understand Portal's purpose? Does that help us understand our world? What do you do, in other words, with that observation?