Failure events and the loss of the self
Neither stuplimity nor flow can properly be described as experiences of the technological sublime. The latter, I suggest, is a function of a collapse of control and meaning, and it is felt when gameplay is brought to an abrupt halt by a failure of the interface. Failure events in video games can take the form of minor hardware malfunctions like bugs, glitches, slow running, poorly designed AIs, and so on. Such ‘flow entropies’28
may disturb a flow state temporarily; more serious flaws on a macro level (defective core mechanics, plot arrangement, level of difficulty and progression) may mean a game simply fails to engage the player. Other, more catastrophic failures like crashes, random memory corruption, or irrecoverable hardware failure, however, bring about a different and more serious kind of breakdown.
Catastrophic failure events involve a loss of control and meaning and a consequent loss of self. Playing a video game involves a kind of Faustian bargain with the technology, a handing-over of real-world agency in exchange for agency within the gameworld. We exist in reduced form in the gameworld, our senses dulled, our choices and actions limited, and we are bound to the terms of engagement of the interface as a visual system and a material artefact. In exchange, the game offers a different reality, one of spectacular scenography, enhanced abilities, and more or less eternal life. The job of the interface is to maintain this alternate reality by supporting a perceptually coherent gameworld. A properly functioning interface ‘humanises’ the technology, acting as an extension of the body and enabling the technology to function as an affirmation of reason. It sustains a subjectivity that is ‘posthuman’ in Hayles’s sense of the term: that of a subject that is seamlessly articulated with an intelligent machine.29
When the interface fails, however, the envelope of perceptual experience is ruptured, and the subject is disabled and dispersed – no longer part of the gameworld, its virtual capabilities have no meaning and no effect in a real-world context. Such events shatter the bond between player and technology, disrupting the flow of the game, leaving the gamer powerless, and foregrounding the complexity of the underlying technology, its distance from the human. The sensation experienced by the gamer at this point is not a logical, reasoned perception. This initial affective charge is a visceral response that exceeds the powers of reason – an estimation of magnitude through intuition, a subjective rather than an objective determination. In place of a meaningful game form, the player is confronted by an inexpressive intelligence, a pure, depersonalised power, a technological other. Failure events, in other words, introduce a sense of the incommensurability of technology with the subject’s own powers of reason.
In a failure event, the unimaginably large, extroverted, operatic sublime – which many video games attempt to simulate visually – is replaced by an unimaginably complex ‘introverted’ sublime that is incapable of presentation to the senses. Here, sublime sensation incorporates some of the complexity to be found in Kant’s use of the term:it is not the object that is the source of sublime sensation, but our inability to comprehend its inner workings. Sublime sensation is both mathematical (in the sense of the extent of code) and dynamic (in the sense of the dissolution of self in the face of a ‘higher power’). Here, however, the terms of the dynamical sublime are inverted in a manner similar to that of the American technological sublime – nature, rather than a generative matrix, is staged as a representation emerging from a matrix of data. In a further reversal, the realism of this representation of nature is typically measured against a theatrical and/or filmic paradigm.
Earlier formations of the sublime resolved the negative affects that initiated the process of sublime sensation by compensating with various forms of affirmation – of the superiority of the self, of a welcome dissolution, or of a realisation of the power of humanity to subjugate nature. As it is experienced in here, however, the initial disruption of perception is followed by a breakdown of meaning that is neither relieved nor overcome. In failure events, both the game and the technologically enabled ‘post-human’ self cease to exist as such. Instead, the now-powerless subject is confronted with a technological artefact – a featureless surface with no relationship to the unimaginably complex workings that it conceals. Contemporary technology lacks the capacity for representation that allowed nineteenth-century artefacts to function as sources of awe in and of themselves. Contemporary technologies are throwaway objects destined for obsolescence, their production driven less by a wish to celebrate human ingenuity than by the late capitalist imperative of novelty and innovation. They are designed not to signify, but to disappear into functionality; the computer’s outer shell, as Jameson argues, ‘has no emblematic or visual power.’30
Here, the terms of the technological sublime are, ‘blank and static activity, intelligence without gestural expression, encoding without inflection or irregularity, pure measurement, and pure power. It is found in machines which resist personification but nonetheless interact with the human.’31
Once the functional bond – the interface – between the subject and the game is broken, the subject experiences a momentary glimpse of technology as an inhuman other. At the same time, however, the subject is faced with a sense presentation, which demonstrates neither awesome power nor infinite magnitude. Here, the process of sublime experience is emptied of the transcendence that the term originally comprised; the initial glimpse of technology-as-other is followed by nothing more elevating than frustration. Frustration is an emotional state that is born out of the tedium of the everyday; it signals a kind of brute return to a world where bodies and artefacts share in a mute and mundane – but fundamentally dissimilar – materiality. As a source of frustration, the video game is no longer the ‘locus of a being with which humans interface’32
but a consumer object embedded in daily life, and as resistant to meaning as any other mass-produced artefact. The dissolution of the technologically enabled self is both catastrophic and utterly banal: marked by a profound sense of rupture and loss, situated in the mundane reality of the post-human everyday.
As sociologist Bruno Latour, philosopher Andy Clark,33
and others have argued, the empire of the human has always been implicated with that of technology. Technological artefacts have evolved alongside the human brain, and have been ‘enrolled’ into cognition by human subjects throughout history, contributing in an active way to the processes of consciousness. Latour views technology as a mode of existence, a ‘particular form of the exploration of being.’34
Nonetheless, we live in a time when the boundaries between the human and the technological are becoming less and less distinct. Gamers often speak of a sense of being completely at one with the technology; as such interfaces grow more sophisticated and more ubiquitous, this kind of fluid union with complex digital machines will become a commonplace. And as we incorporate ourselves more and more completely into the technologies we use, the consequences of their failure become more personal, more potentially detrimental to our sense of self.
Ngai argues that the sublime and the banal are collapsed into a single sensation, that of ‘stuplimity’.In the case of the technological sublime, however, these two affects are not collapsed into one another but continue to exist, in tension, as discrete categories. The experience of the contemporary technological sublime, as it is outlined above, depends upon a merger with the artefact that can be described as ‘post-human’ in Hayles’s sense of the term – a seamless bond between the technology and user. It is also contingent upon the breaching of this bond, and a return of the technology to the realm of the banal. Mutually embedded in one another but held apart – the banality of the artefact as a mass-produced consumer object, and the sublimity of its distance from the human – the sublime and the banal are linked here not by their essential nature, but their existence as effects of capital.
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe writes that ‘the sublime becomes identified with the idea and image of technology ... at the point ... where the technological is seen to have become the origin of ... a kind of thought and a kind of body which wasn’t there before’ ... and that this identification cannot take place outside of the context of capitalism as ‘the surprised beneficiary of technological production at the same time that it’s the source.’35
It is clear that here we are dealing with a subtly different kind of post-human than that described by Hayles, who conceptualises the post-human as a condition in which embodiment is downplayed
in the constitution of the human subject. For Gilbert-Rolfe, the post-human describes a condition where technological objects ‘have achieved a certain distance from their original identity as extensions of the body and in that invent other bodies which become models for the (model) human body.’36
Here, embodiment is not a supplement, but an effect
of a throwaway technology. In and of themselves, contemporary electronic artefacts are both impenetrable and ephemeral – the fruits of human labour and ingenuity deployed in the form of aesthetic objects designed to entertain, and then to be discarded.