Dialectic of Pokémon Go: A Metacritique

For R.M. and W.J.

One of the most important and striking statements in Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia comes early on. In aphorism 7, he writes: “Those who are at a distance are as entangled as those who are actively engaged […] That is why every impulse towards self-withdrawal bears the marks of what is negated.” Those who denounce Adorno as an elitist, a snob who sneered at the America which provided him shelter from Nazism, neglect this aspect of his work. Like all Marxists, Adorno knew that the idea of escaping society, of somehow standing above it in an untainted place from which one could mount an objective critique, is an ideological fiction. We are embedded in the social fabric and depend on it for everything, which is why our attempts at critique are both so acute and so difficult. This is part of the reason Minima Moralia rings with such profound melancholia; if Adorno really harboured the kind of superiority complex he is sometimes said to have, surely he would not have been so concerned about the workings and implications of mass culture? Surely he could have left the ignorant masses to play with their toys? A true snob could never be so emotionally engaged in the object of his critique.

Spurred on by the work of Adorno and the Frankfurt School, the British New Left made cultural criticism central to the work it conducted. One of its most beloved figures, the late Stuart Hall, was instrumental in establishing the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University under Richard Hoggart, which became a shining light of social analysis even as the traditional socialist left in Britain declined. It is no coincidence that Hall was among those who stood fast to a radical political vision even as his colleagues drifted towards Blair and New Labour; his analysis of the intersections between mass media and politics meant that the limits of Third Way politics were clear to him from the outset, despite the slick public image machine early New Labour functioned as. Cultural studies, at its best, is one of the great threads running through the fractured world of post-war British leftism.

Which is all to say, I have a problem with Pokémon Go. The game is unquestionably a cultural phenomenon, commanding space on social media even as Britain acquires a new Prime Minister and the most popular socialist in American history concedes the Democratic nomination. People who were never involved in the original wave of Poké-mania are playing it. Scores of think pieces have been written about the app in the small amount of time it has been out, with takes concocted from every conceivable angle. Something this big quite simply demands analysis. There is a need to understand why Pokémon Go has been such a hit, what it is about it that makes it so appealing to so many people. Someone might say, “it’s just fun”; sure, but a lot of fun things couldn’t carve a place in a news cycle otherwise dominated by some of the most significant upheavals in recent political history. Somehow, the summer of Brexit is turning into the summer of Pokémon, and it’s no crime to ask why.

But that’s my problem. I don’t know why. Sam Kriss’ article in Jacobin yesterday, discussing the prescriptive nature of the game and raising the (I think, worthwhile) point that it subjects the mechanics of childhood play – the mapping of fantastical worlds onto the real – to corporate centralisation, has been poorly received to say the least. Kriss is probably used to being called a pretentious pseudo-intellectual snob, but I’ve never seen him slated like this before (I won’t quote examples, feel free to peruse Twitter if you really want them). Aside from that ubiquitous signifier “pretentious”, prevalent is the idea that this sort of critique is ‘humourless’ (missing, in this case, the fairly obvious humour in all of Kriss’ writing) and ‘sucks the fun’ out of innocent, apolitical diversions. People might agree that capitalism is soul-sucking and unjust, but surely Pokémon Go is providing some relief, some escape from the drab, repetitive life of labour we all endure?

This is another of Adorno’s difficult lessons, and one he puts bluntly. “There is nothing innocuous left.” It’s a distressing thesis, all the more distressing the more you ponder it. But it’s the unavoidable counterpoint to what we’ve already discussed. If there’s no way of escaping ideology, if “every impulse towards self-withdrawal bears the marks of what is negated”, this must extend to all forms of culture, even the most apparently inconsequential. Even Pokémon Go.

In fact, I am not as unilaterally opposed to the game as my namesake. I’m ambivalent about it, in the old sense of the term. Adorno and Horkheimer’s “dialectic of enlightenment” proposed that “Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology”. In this way, the pair problematised any Manichean thinking about the processes of truth and knowledge within the ideological space of modernity, any idea of a strict cut called ‘the Enlightenment’ that transformed mankind’s method of self-reflection and relation to his surroundings. Perhaps I might propose a more modest dialectic of my own, then: a dialectic of Pokémon Go.

On the one hand, the fact that businesses can buy incentives to lure Pokémon hunters into their establishments means the game is, in some sense, another strand of the interminable corporate efforts to turn workers’ leisure time into instances of consumerism. Man’s double identity under capitalism – employee/consumer – is reaffirmed. More broadly, there is something undeniably strange about a sensual relation to the world mediated through a screen which is supplemented by the presence of cartoon creatures meant to be captured and pitted against each other, in the digital equivalent of a dog fight. Adorno and Horkheimer wrote that, “What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings.” Is it the case that, now that nature is thoroughly subdued by man, he must invent a new nature to overlay onto the real, to subdue again, in a new reality collapsed into virtuality? Baudrillard spoke of “derealizing (dematerializing) human space, or transferring it into a hyperreal of simulation”; ‘augmented reality’ is a weird fulfilment of this vision. No longer do we have a real world and a virtual, videogame one; the distinction is elided, the map and territory become coterminous.

On the other hand, there are obvious responses to both these criticisms. It is not as though we ever have the opportunity to escape the injunction to direct our non-labour time towards consumerism; such has been the case for decades. Another method of advertising doesn’t make much difference when we are already saturated with it in our daily lives; people will take their business somewhere, and as we all know, there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism. Moreover, just because something is strange doesn’t mean it’s bad. Lacan argued that all relation to reality is mediated through fantasy: is it really so harmful if this fantasy includes digital animals? More important are the material effects the game is having. There are people with anxiety and depression for whom the game has become a reason to leave the house; as someone who has had to take SSRIs in the past, I can’t ignore this. People are interacting with their neighbors because of it, against the trend of the modern crisis of neighborhood. When Adorno discussed Kierkegaard’s notion of the neighbor as social critique, he wrote: “The neighbor no longer exists. In modern society, the relations of men have been ‘reified’ to such an extent that the neighbor cannot behave spontaneously to the neighbor for longer than an instant.” If Pokémon Go is even the smallest antidote to this depressing reality, it is worthwhile. Kriss worries that within the game, “all routes are already set, all eventualities accounted for, all points of interest marked and immutable”. He misses one of the implications of his own critique: stressing that the game runs up against social realities to which it is “indifferent”, he doesn’t account for the fact that, precisely because the real world is not eliminated, one of the side-effects of Pokémon Go is the necessity of a ‘real’ relation with one’s surroundings. A friend of mine says, “I have discovered so much more of my neighbourhood than I ever knew before.” It is exactly because the game cannot account for the contingencies of the real process of walking around urban areas that it might – in a way entirely transverse to its intentions – act as the frame for a renewed experience of the city.

Whether these spontaneous Poké-relations engender long-term bonds remains to be seen; like all fads, the game will decrease in popularity fairly soon, and it will be up to the hunters to uphold, and to continue to create and recreate, their new correspondences with their environment and their neighbors. Much more interesting than Pokémon Go is what people do with Pokémon Go. The app itself is undeniably another piece of consumerist ephemera, designed and marketed for profit, but there is a surplus here, the part the app couldn’t account for, which is the very contingency of real interaction, of intersubjectivity. If the left harbours any optimism at all, it has to in some small part be in places like this; in the spontaneous creation of unlikely links between workers, in the unpredictable, all-too-human social interactions which might somehow bear the promise of an escape from the mire of alienated capital relations. As always, a better future exists in the margins; apps won’t bring social revolution, but they can be used to illustrate where these margins might lie. This is, I think, why cultural analysis – as obtuse, clumsy, uncertain and irritating as it might sometimes be – has a permanent place in our work.

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