We are all sheep: Avatar, Bayonetta and the hypnosis of low-brow culture

Jonathan McCalmont @ 03-02-2010

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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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.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan 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. ]

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20 Responses to “We are all sheep: Avatar, Bayonetta and the hypnosis of low-brow culture”

  1. Andy Havens says:

    Everyone I know loved Avatar. I hated it. All the gamers I know who have played Bayonetta loved it. I love it. It’s lowbrow, but brilliantly executed. It couldn’t be anymore “that which it is” than it is. The problem I have with Avatar is that with a few script changes, it could have truly been special. At it was, it was a cheap story with limited internal consistency in the guise of many pretty, flashy lights.

    In short… I don’t mind being hypnotized, as long as it’s to do something fun or funny. If you’re going to hypnotize me and make me sit in a dentist’s waiting room… bad show.

  2. Heidi Cautrell says:

    Interesting idea, but you’re still insulting people who don’t have the same tastes as you. Obviously that is your opinion, but if you truly wanted to make a point to say you’re just as much of a sheep, you probably should have written the examples in a way that wasn’t insulting to other people’s taste in entertainment. You spend so much energy pointing out how ‘low brow’ these things are that when you finally round it off by saying that you’re a sheep as well, I honestly don’t believe that you believe that’s true.

  3. Jonathan M says:

    “Where I sit determines where I stand”

    A lot of my tastes flow from the image I have of myself. The values I prize in myself (or aspire to) are the values and ideals I prize in the media I consume. I am a sheep because I happily inhabit a certain kind of role. Just because this role means that I like Ozu it does not make me in any way more authentic or less slavish than someone who happily enjoys whatever the multinational corporations are selling this week.

    Bayonetta is low-brow. Ozu is high-brow. What’s better? Depends upon where you stand. Depends upon how you see yourself. That’s the point of the piece.

    The only way in which I may be insulting people with different tastes to me is if they think that playing Bayonetta and watching Blockbusters is a high-brow way of spending your time. “Browness” isn’t about quality but about status relative to certain groups and as some of the pieces I linked to demonstrated, Avatar is definitely not valued by the groups currently occupying the high-brow position.

  4. Jonathan S says:

    You lost me when GTA IV became high brow.

  5. Athena Andreadis says:

    Interesting article, Jon, and thank you for referring to mine! I don’t actually split culture into low and high. Homer and Shakespeare were not high culture in their era; they were crowd pleasers, and for good reason. I think my distinction is the quality of the experience — what it engages, what it arouses and what it suppresses.

  6. Jonathan M says:

    Athena — “quality of the experience” is just a different way of splitting cultural experiences into the legitimate (Shakespeare + Homer) and the illegitimate (video games + Avatar). I don’t think that that’s a distinction that says anything about the subject matter. It’s simply a statement of your (or mine, or anyone else’s) values.

    Ozu : Hooray!
    Avatar : Boo!

  7. Athena Andreadis says:

    I think I may have worded my first response too poetically, thereby muddying my point.

    The distinction I make is not between legitimate and illegitimate. It is not subjective, it has nothing with values, personal or collective. It has to do with which portions of your brain are activated by an experience. We can now pinpoint this with various non-invasive tests. The fight-or-flight reflex bypasses conscious control, it’s triggered without the intervention of conscious volition. The cortical emotions, which are all except the four Fs, do not: they have to go through “approval by committee”.

    Plenty of “low culture” can elicit cortical emotions. Examples in the two domains that you chose: all Myst, King’s Quest and Gabriel Knight games; Charlie Chaplin and Marx Brothers films (versus, say, Three Stooges, that rely very much on the reflex).

    So you are correct in saying it has nothing to do with the subject matter per se. However, it has nothing to do with values, either.

  8. Jonathan M says:

    If you are simply stating facts then fine. Media A stimulates brain part X, Media B stimulates brain part Y. I’m fine with that.

    The problem is when the fact/value dichotomy is breached and one tries to magic into existence some kind of aesthetic hierarchy. In your original article, it seems to me, you are clearly disapproving of the works that stimulate the reptile brain. You even go so far as to suggest that people who favour those forms of entertainment might be more prone to mob violence.

    For me, all values are social in nature and so are arbitrary. The distinction between high and low brow culture is arbitrary. The suggestion that one kind of cultural experience might be more worthy than another is equally arbitrary. Those kinds of judgments say more about the values we hold as individuals and the groups we belong to as members of society than they do about the cultural artifacts themselves.

    If you want to step back from your talk of primitive worldviews then that’s fine by me but I think, in your original article at least, you are falling into the same trap as the Guardian journalist who thinks that one either loves Ozu or one loves Avatar.

  9. Adam Roberts says:

    “…makes a weekend spent masturbating and sniffing glue seem like an animated discussion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).”

    Of course, it’s possible to spend your weekend doing both.

    This is a great review.

  10. Athena Andreadis says:

    Jon, I never made a distinction between high and low culture in my article (nor do I do so in life). I made the distinction between entertainment that triggers the fight-or-flight response and entertainment that does not. Neuronal responses can be strengthened or weakened by repetition. It’s called brain plasticity. If people constantly have their fight-or-flight response triggered, it changes their brain chemistry. Now, unless you want to argue that brain biology is divorced from behavior, you will have to agree that constant exposure to assaultive special effects will have a repercussion on social outlook.

    So it seems to me that you misread that portion of the article. I agree the divisions of aesthetic hierarcy are arbitrary and context-dependent. My division has nothing to do with that. It is based on biology.

  11. Jonathan M says:

    Adam : Glad you enjoyed 🙂

    Athena : I absolutely do reject the idea that watching action films and playing video games makes you more likely to engage in mob violence. I also think you’re being disingenuous as the entirety of the article linked above is positively dripping with disdain for that kind of cultural artifact. You talk of ‘primitive worldviews’ and ‘behavioural conditioning’ as well as calling gamers members of an ‘Xbox gang’ who are apparently passive and being bilked by film makers who are only interested in making money.

    It’s pretty clear to me that you’re stepping beyond the science and into political and aesthetic value judgements.

  12. Abigail says:

    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.

    To be fair, this tendency runs both ways. An Israeli film blogger I like spent a significant portion of January trying to explain away negative reactions to Avatar and its script: people who complain about Avatar are snobs and cynics; people who complain about Avatar are just doing it so they can look like nonconformists, people who complain about Avatar have been brainwashed by the Hollywood blockbuster machine into expecting plot-driven entertainment and can’t accept Avatar for the holistic, non-linear visual experience that it is. He’s generally a sensible guy and it’s been both terrifying and hilarious to watch him undergo a mini nervous breakdown as he makes his slow way to the realization that some people might genuinely not love the film.

  13. Jonathan M says:

    I think if you’re invested in a certain set of aesthetic values then you will, sooner or later, wind up doing this kind of thing. I do it all the time. “Ah but if you read X you’d know how this type of thing CAN be done!” 🙂 “Have you seen Y? It is FAR superior”.

    Nonsense of course. there’s no reason why someone should have to read X or see Y in order to get enjoyment out of something. It’s almost a geek social fallacy on the level of assuming that the cheerleaders are stupid because they spend all their time worrying about their popularity and looking good.

  14. Nicholas Tam says:

    I haven’t played Bayonetta, nor will it be within my means anytime soon even if I wanted to, but this review is very interesting in light of some of Hideki Kamiya’s previous games. You mentioned Devil May Cry (which I’ve also never played), but before it became defunct, Kamiya’s Clover Studios had a sterling reputation for the video-game equivalent of arthouse entertainments. Viewtiful Joe and Okami (both of which Kamiya directed) are two of the most aesthetically attentive games I’ve ever seen.

    Both are also hyperkinetic sensory kicks in their own way, but they had a relatively sophisticated appeal. They weren’t highbrow in the sense of cutting to the moral pulse of the human spirit or anything like that, but highbrow in their awareness of the conventions of the medium that are taken for granted, and how the fourth wall can become the interface itself: the screen as canvas in Okami, the flow of time as a controllable physics model in Viewtiful Joe. (And the former’s popularization of Japanese mythology was refreshingly mature – far above the typical token swordplay of “here’s a legendary katana – go!”) Going by your review, Bayonetta sounds like a serious regress in every aspect but the visceral.

  15. Jonathan M says:

    Nicholas — I had forgotten about Viewtiful Joe and while I didn’t much enjoy it at the time, I had quite a bit of respect for its art direction. Bayonetta is a much more mainstream concoction. It has flashes of viewtiful Joe’s aesthetic anarchy but it is packaged within a much more traditional beat-them-up package.

    Compared to Devil May Cry it is more visually impressive but that visual power comes at the expense of gameplay (something I also found to be true of Viewtiful Joe to be honest). Bayonetta is full of endless cut scenes in which the characters fight cool fights and do cool things while you sit waiting to take control.

    As far as film is concerned, I have a good deal of time for visual impact (in fact, part of my motivation for writing this column was attacking the idea that visual style comes at the cost of intellectual heft) but when it comes to video games I do think that gameplay remains important. Back in one of my early video game columns I wrote about the difference between the game itself (what you do when you play) and the way in which the game is aesthetically framed (cut-scenes, back-story, setting). Bayonetta is nothing but aesthetic framing.

  16. Athena Andreadis says:

    Jon, I will leave aside the issue of biology credentials, or lack thereof. Beyond that, all art is political. Anyone who argues otherwise is either clueless or dumb. Additionally, you have done something that is fairly common — namely, taken for granted that your definitions of “high” and “low” art/culture are the same as mine, and projected your values and judgments accordingly. But that’s all to the good. It motivated me to articulate my own definition explicitly.

  17. Viewtifulzfo says:

    I would say, quite frankly, that you missed the point of playing Bayonetta at all.

    Hideki Kamiya has one game philosophy in mind – “overcoming challenges”. The game, on normal,is less a game and more a training mode for Hard and Non-Stop Infinite Climax Modes, both of which test skills gained in the previous difficulty. Kamiya wants to challenge the player to “master” the game.

    The game also has a scoring system. This is because your scores in the “verses” – or battles of each level – are ranked by time, combo, and damage (avoiding it). Obtaining these conditions nets you a rank from Bronze to Pure Platinum; it’s a tangible way of noting how well you did, basically. The combos do not merely exist to “look cool” – variety in your combo usage nets you more points, and thus gives you a higher score. It is, thus, in your best interest to learn the combos, as well as those combos which raise the combo modifier the quickest. However, there is one more thing to note – the giant fist, or “Wicked Weave” attacks, as they are called, have a special function in that they reset the decreasing modifier – the more attacks in a sequence, the less they are worth, but Wicked Weaves allow the multiplier to reset to whatever it is at currently.

    In addition, getting Platinum medals on every level in Normal difficulty unlocks Jeanne, who changes the game by 1. Allowing for infinite dodges (Bayonetta only get 5 in a row by default) 2. a higher combo modifier and 3. the inability to activate witch time unless you dodge at the absolute LAST frame of an enemy attack (it might not be that precise, I’d have to check). You can even unlock one more character who change the mechanics in other ways.

    All of this is a roundabout way of saying: you are dead wrong, and demonstrably so. Yes, the game has a lot of visual information, but one can easily cut through the clutter and understand that there is a system underlining the game. It just takes time to learn it, in order to dominate the game. It has nothing to do with hypnotism, with my brain being provoked into some sort of “low culture” state or something to that effect. The aesthetics are just a cover for what is a great game system that has so many intricacies that I can’t even relate them here without making your head spin.

    You might want to try again.

  18. Jonathan M says:

    Sorry Viewtifulzfo… I was aware of all the unlockable stuff and of the scoring system but I still found it dull. I have never been able to give a shit about scoring systems in-game and have never felt the desire to get to 100%, unlock all characters or pass every test at platinum level. I engage with the games I play on my own terms.

    I don’t care about the stuff you care about. I don’t see it as adding anything to the game-playing experience. This is called a difference of opinion.

  19. Viewtifulzfo says:

    Well, if you don’t care to play the game it’s meant to be played, that’s your fault, not mine.

  20. Athena Andreadis says:

    The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art
    http://www.starshipnivan.com/blog/?p=2128