Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Best Defense is Probably a Cup of Tea and a Kitty (Caveman Games, Championship Bowling)

In video games, as with any nerdy pursuit, one is eventually forced to confront the odious reek of masculinity. Rising like the mix of stale beer and Old Spice off of a frathouse, it stains the discourse - that kind of unmentionable and unfathomable stain that, when it appears on a sofa, means that you just chuck it and think no more of it. Even in the most marginalized frontiers of geek culture, this stench exists, without question the same awful fumes that exist in the frathouse.

By masculinity I specifically mean the aggressive components of male-associated western culture. It is an enormously broad ideology that has seeped deep into the carpet of our collective unconscious. Its primary features, however, all come down to a teleology based entirely on the exertion of force out of no motivation save for the exertion of that force. From beer cans crushed on the head to date rape, from NASCAR to Matthew Shepherd, its manifestations are more or less the only diverse thing about it.

Caveman Games exemplifies this attitude in a way I cannot entirely make heads or tails of. It is a humorous game - this much is clear. But its humor is toothless. No. Not even toothless. That would imply that it is fruitlessly gumming upon its target. Caveman Games lacks even a target, simply yucking into the void. Ostensibly it could be taken as a mockery of athletics - the sports twisted into Caveman forms being revealed as exercises in savage brutality. But if that is our interpretation, the issue is not even toothlessness. The joke, after all, is not some destabilizing revelation of the morally bankrupt core of sporting events. If anything, the joke is that these Caveman versions of sporting events obtain a purity that the modern equivalents lack.

When one of the events is Mate Tossing, the hammer throw with women instead of hammers, the unseemly nature of this joke is laid bare. Sure, there is a female character, Crudla. But the joke there is her utter lack of femininity - the fact that she is just a reskinned male. Indeed, in mate tossing, she throws a woman just like the boys. (Even if we do take this as anything other than programmer laziness, it comes down to a crass "lesbians are men" joke.)

I should pause here and note that I am differentiating masculinity from other aspects of maleness. I am male, and at least marginally comfortable with this fact. And many of the traditional views of male energy are ones I am comfortable with, if not entirely comfortable with its association with the phallus. I am not offering this as a critique of men, nor even of male privilege (although I am in no way fond of that.)

No - masculinity is not mere privilege, though that is its most upsettingly common manifestation. What is maddening about privilege is its lack of self-awareness. If you find yourself thinking a lot about white privilege, you're probably either an academic or not white. But while privilege is exercised with blithe indifference, masculinity, distinct even from other forms of sexual privilege, is exercised with active antipathy to the very notion of its own self-awareness.

For my part, masculinity forms an irritating part of my psychic landscape. It is difficult, perhaps impossible to fully reject masculinity as a male. Alternative modes of discourse can be embraced, but a signifier cannot be fully decoupled from its signified. Sex signifies gender, and when that gender is male, masculinity is signified. That bell cannot be unrung. You can embrace alternatives, but all you can hope to do with the essential signifier is negate it - embrace non-masculinity. The problem is, all this gets you is three extra points in Scrabble, and even that won't survive a challenge.

With other ideologies this negation, though not a cure-all, at least progresses measurably towards improvement. Some ideologies you can make an entire intellectual or artistic career by tacking a "post" or "neo" at the head of them. Try that trick with masculinity and it will spill its beer on you, then pass out while humping your leg. This is because the central move of masculinity is blithe rejection of any broader order. This rejection goes well beyond the bounds of mere anarchism into a sort of wholesale rejection of the concept of signification and meaning. In its final form, it is as near to nihilism as any ideology that is actually held, ultimately finding value only in the exertion of its own will to power.

Ironically, the single most masculine figure in contemporary American culture is a woman, namely Sarah Palin. This is in part because of her success in rocketing to the head of a particular conservative movement that is based on masculinity. The modern conservative movement's dependence on the strategy of simply baldly lying whenever it is more convenient than the alternative is quintessentially masculine. When these tactics are tied to gay panic and capitalism - both natural allies in masculinity - the result is terrifying. Sarah Palin's genius is to hide these factors in an ostensibly feminine, indeed an ostensibly feminist packaging.

(An interesting analogue - there was a small movement among women's studies professors in the 80s that claimed that it was inaccurate to think of Margaret Thatcher as a woman.)

Bowling, as in Championship Bowling, has no essential reason to be masculine. And yet it is. Case in point, the bizarre fascination with Obama's poor bowling performance in the Democratic primary season. The reason this story took root was that it tied directly into the question of whether Hillary Clinton was more masculine than Obama, and thus better suited to the mechanisms of power. (The end result, born I suspect from a combination of Clinton's bizarrely self-negating inept embrace of masculinity and a momentary outbreak of sanity following the disastrous masculinity of Bush, was an active decision to pick the less masculine option, a decision Obama has run from consistently since then)

The end result is a bland game featuring essentially no content. A blank slate of a bowling simulation that says and does nothing. Its sole role is as a casual game, a simulacrum of actual activity and content. It is not a game that it is easy to imagine anyone playing, though this is true of many NES games. More than anything, it is a return to the recurrent theme of video games as a bland, narcotic background hum of popular culture.

This hum serves masculinity well. Essential to masculinity is the complete rejection of the idea of the Other's interiority. Masculinity focuses entirely on the individualized exertion of power. The world, in this case, amounts to nothing more than objects upon which power can be exerted. The fundamental flaw in this ideology is most clear when applied to capitalism. Certainly the maniacal excesses of corporate America are a logical endpoint of capitalism and its ethos that a corporation's sole responsibility is to deliver maximal profit to shareholders. But these excesses necessitate a vast class of have-nots. Wealth is a finite commodity. To exert power through aggregation of it, it is necessarily the case that you take away from some other person's wealth. This is subjugation, and the narcotic hum of depressive gaming serves it well.

Then what of my own place in this madness? I have no love of masculinity. Indeed, as my tone likely shows, I mostly despise it. And yet empiricism indicates otherwise. I've made some kind of peace with the capitalist system. And I'm perfectly willing to wade into the unnerving depths of geekdom. I consume superhero comics, fetishization of violence and all. The better angels of my nature are drowned out by the din of masculinity's endless ascent.

You could be subverting the patriarchy. You could be tearing down the walls of consensus reality. You could be making the world a stranger place, and in doing so making it hostile to masculinity.

You are reading a blog.

I could be doing these things.

I am writing a blog.

Why do we shy away from the salvation of aesthetic extremism?


  1. So, I don't see the extra-three-points in Scrabble. Both W (WO+MAN) and F (FE+MALE) are four points apiece, plus the necessary one-point vowel to accompany them. Are you playing some odd version of Scrabble with the reverse of the "One, Two, Five, Three Sir, Three" Promo Fluxx card in effect or, much more likely, am I missing something?

    Also, I am not quite sure I agree that bowling is masculine as much as bowling is targeting masculinity. Think about it quite simply and basely - we have these phallic objects, and the target is to knock them down with a round object containing a few (often three) holes.

  2. You are missing something - I'm talking simply about the prefix NON - three points. Appending to MASCULINITY thus gets you three extra points, but the word is, I am fairly certain (though I did not check) not SOWPODS.

  3. Fair enough.

    You *would* use SOWPODS (;

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  5. Hi Phillip,

    I just wanted to say two things, first I was sorrry to see the discussion going towards the scoring system in Scrabble, but anyway. Second, one little observation on your take on Capitalism, it seems you are using the commonly used definition for the word, which in my view is inaccurate because Capitalism is not about corporations running amok, but about people looking after their own best interests and that way creating wealth in free environment, it is really a beautiful thing, but demonized of late by liars and hypocrites, and also by ignorance. Just to be clear I really enjoy reading your posts, and hope to enrich however slightly to your exploration in thought. Keep it up!

  6. I appreciate the comment, Pablo. I agree that there is a model and vision of capitalism that is quite idyllic, and avoids the criticisms I level here. However we require a word of some sort that describes the corporatist ideology that drives much of the Western economy. "Capitalism" is an imperfect word for this - if I was really being technical I'd use the Marxist phrasing of "late capitalism" to capture this idea. But my commitment to high-context jargon that my readers will have to look up is sporadic. Still, when and if I revise this entry, I'll use the more precise term.

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