I say this without having actually seen it, but James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) is an interesting film. This is because its success has had the same effect upon film critics and cultural commentators as pissing on an electric fence… people are sore, jittery and annoyed at pretty much everyone, themselves included.Consider, for example, the Guardian’s film blog. Since the release of Avatar it has been flooded with articles stressing the relative importance and beauty of the works of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. It is as though, disgusted at current trends in popular culture, the critics have retreated into an atavistic belief in some form of higher culture quite separate and distinct from the rubbish fed to the plebs. “You watch your warring smurfs; meanwhile, I’ll be over here musing on the evolution of Japanese social values during the post-War occupation period,” they sniff.
Some commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that the distinction between high culture and low culture has some basis in the brain. Consider, for example, this piece by the neurobiologist Athena Andreadis. The piece argues that special effects-driven blockbusters work by activating the fight-or-flight reflex and stimulate parts of the brain that lead to the “mental and emotional debasement” of the audience. As Andreadis puts it:
“People who crave such entertainment turn into mobs far more readily than those who demand less crude fare and will not abandon the prerogative of critical thought. The primitive worldview fostered by such abusive spectacle diverts people from trying to solve problems rationally, making it easier to belittle knowledge and expertise, cede rights and liberties and scapegoat marginalized groups and the unlucky – which by now include much of what was once the middle class.”
This vision of low culture as somehow inherently Other and potentially toxic is also one of the ideas that underpins the later works of J. G. Ballard. In Ballard’s last novel Kingdom Come (2006), the residents of a London suburb find their intellectual lives entirely dominated by a local shopping centre. This empty consumerist existence soon leads to the formation of gangs of thugs who brutalise immigrants in Camusian attempts to give their lives meaning. Attempts that culminate in torch-lit rallies. Out of low culture comes fascism.
I was reminded of these ideas during my first play-through of Hideki Kamiya’s Bayonetta (2009).
Bayonetta is a game with deep roots. It is the latest step in the evolution of one of the most venerable genres in video game history, namely the side-ways scrolling beat-them-up. All throughout the late 80s and 90s, games such as Double Dragon (1987), Final Fight (1989) and Vendetta (1991) slowly gained in sophistication, adding characters and weapons until one could quite happily play them purely for the thrill of discovering new ways to smack down your opponents. During the same period, successive waves of Street Fighter II (1987) games (and their clones) came to focus their game-play more and more upon moves that were technically difficult to pull off. However, it was only when these gaming traditions were combined with traits from action/adventure games such as Resident Evil (1996) that Bayonetta’s template would fully emerge.
The template for Bayonetta was originally fashioned by the Devil May Cry series, which was also created by Kamiya. Devil May Cry fused the frenetic action of the beat-them-up with the exploration and problem solving of the action/adventure game and equipped it with a combat system so baroque and spectacular that playing the game was less a question of tactical efficiency than it was of aesthetic self-expression. One did not play Devil May Cry in order to beat the game as quickly as possible; one played it in order to master all of the moves and kill monsters in as spectacular and cool a fashion as possible. This aesthetic also informs Bayonetta.
Playing Bayonetta is rather like having someone insert electrodes into your visual cortex. Mash the buttons one way and the character (a witch with the body of a stripper and the pole-dancing skills to match) will spin around firing bullets out of her high-heels. Mash the buttons a different way, however, and you pummel your enemies into the ground before allowing your hair to form into a giant fist you then use to smash them to pieces. As you play through Bayonetta you collect power-ups allowing you to unlock even more spectacular moves and weapons, cranking up the electricity arcing through your brain until the screen is nothing more than an impenetrable swirl of colours, flashes, numbers and shapes. Bayonetta makes the fight sequences from Michael Bay’s Transformers look not only coherent but psychologically profound. When you are not being assaulted with raw, unprocessed sense-data, the game is subjecting you to terribly acted and interminable cut scenes in which the main character poses, pouts and gyrates, while info-dumping at a rate that would make even the most talentless science fiction writer blush.
In other words, Bayonetta is everything that people who hate video games think of when they talk about how low-brow gaming is. It is a game so profoundly cretinous that it would not surprise me if my brain had spontaneously developed a tumour in order to punish me for subjecting it to such senseless dross. It is a game so dumb that it makes a weekend spent masturbating and sniffing glue seem like an animated discussion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). If Bayonetta were a film its tagline would be “Titties and Kicking Ass RULE!”.
As I drooled and pounded the control pad with my fist, I wondered why Bayonetta had received such positive reviews. If Avatar and Transformers appeal by stimulating the so-called reptile brain, might it not be feasible that people who enjoyed Bayonetta had somehow been hypnotised by all of the pretty colours and swaying hips? Had they been forced into what Andreadis calls a trance? I decided to investigate.
The history of hypnotism is a battleground of tainted metaphysics and broken models of the self.
Modern day understandings of hypnotism are grounded in the pioneering work carried out by the Scottish surgeon James Braid. Braid built upon the work of Franz Mesmer, but instead of positing the existence of some spectral magnetic fluid, he argued that his techniques allowed him to affect the physiological state of the brain and spinal chord. Braid’s work proved to be hugely influential upon the early writings of Sigmund Freud, from whom we get the idea that hypnosis is a way of by-passing the conscious mind in order to communicate directly with the subconscious. However, even contemporary neurological studies of hypnosis run up against a basic philosophical question : Does being hypnotised amount to being in a different mental state or are people who have been hypnotised merely playing along with / obeying the orders of the hypnotist? This brings us back to the arguments of Ballard and Andreadis.
Humans exist as caged subjectivies. We experience everything subjectively, and yet we are forever kept separate from the subjectivities of the people we interact with. As a result, we have no real way of knowing that other people feel or think the same way we do. We can only guess and assume; we cannot know for sure. Because of this unhappy situation, we are prone to explaining away the opinions of people we disagree with: people who enjoy consumerism are slaves to social pressures; people who enjoy blockbusters are having their reptile brains stimulated, people who enjoy Bayonetta are hypnotised by the colours and shapes. There is never room for someone to have a different opinion. We never speak of the social pressures that make us become writers or the neurological processes that allow us to subjectively enjoy art house films or reading books or going to art galleries. This tendency is elegantly explained in Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound (2007). Brassier notes that while decades of cognitive neuropsychology have shown us the inadequacy of our existing way of speaking about ourselves (“belief”, “knowledge”, “emotion”, “self”), we nonetheless cling to it because to let it go would be to surrender all of our values and systems of meaning. Indeed, what value is there in courage if there is no free will? What value is there is standing up for what you believe in when there is no such thing as a belief? One manifestation of this failure to accept the best scientific thinking is our tendency to use scientific explanations only to explain away the opinions of people who disagree with us : I take pleasure in watching Ozu whereas you gurgle contentedly as Avatar stimulates your reptile brain. I drink in the heady realism of GTA IV whereas you are hypnotised by Bayonetta.
So how are we to explain the popularity of such ‘low brow’ cultural artefacts as Bayonetta and Avatar? It turns out that the history of hypnotism provides us with an interesting suggestion.
One of the most influential opponents of the ‘special state’ theory of hypnosis is the American psychologist Ted Sarbin. Sarbin argues that far from being forced into a trance or semi-coma, people who are hypnotised are actually playing out an unusual social role, namely that of a hypnotised person. Sarbin’s role theory states that people rely upon their perceived position in society in order to make decisions. If the social group you are in turns to you to make decisions then you take on the role of leader. If you are expected to be the dumb-but-funny guy then you will take on that role and make it yours. We drift into these roles because we anticipate rewards in return for our conformity. When it comes to the appreciation of cultural artefacts such as films, games, books and plays, the same pressures apply. If the social group you are in is responding positively to the hype surrounding a particular film then chances are that you will enjoy that film. You assume the role of the person who takes pleasure from the likes of Avatar and Bayonetta.
Of course, the converse is also true. If you are a part of a social group that is defined by its opposition to the aesthetics of a particular work of art then the chances are that you will not enjoy it. In fact, you might hate it; your group might instead value Ozu and so, when you go to the cinema to see Ozu, you take on the role of the person who takes pleasure from Japanese New Wave cinema. Role theory even allows for people who do not fit into any social group as that suggests that you have assumed the role of someone who has a strongly independent aesthetic sensibility. You may like some films, you may hate others but you take pleasure from standing out from the crowd.
So just because I would rather read Wittgenstein than play Bayonetta it does not mean than I am any less of a conformist stooge than you are. Regardless of how intellectual our tastes may be, we are all sheep.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.
Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.
[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]