Category Archives: Interview

An interview with Jennifer Rhee

On Thursday, April 5, 2018, Jennifer Rhee (Virginia Commonwealth University) delivered a lecture titled “Drone Warfare, Drone Art, and the Limits of Identification.” This follow-up interview with Rhee, author of The Robotic Imaginary: The Human and the Price of Dehumanized Labor, was conducted by Max Larson, then doctoral candidate in English and predoctoral fellow at the Penn State Center for Humanities and Information (now postdoctoral lecturer in English at Penn State), by email during spring 2019.

Zakiyyah Iman Jackson powerfully critiques posthuman calls to move “beyond the human,” which only reaffirm the narrowness of this category, particularly in relation to race. The stakes of interrogating the purportedly universal human are nothing short of life and death in its many forms: slow death, social death, death in life.

ML: Since The Robotic Imaginary is a book about robots, readers might expect to find theoretical discussions of the post-human, non-human, trans-human, or some other turn away from anthropos. From the outset, however, you explicitly state that you want to retain the human as an analytical concept, and you draw upon Édouard Glissant, Sylvia Wynter, and other thinkers who examine humanization and de-humanization as co-constitutive processes. While The Robotic Imaginary is largely a work of media studies, thinkers such as Glissant and Wynter are not usually regarded as media theorists — at least not in the way that post-humanists such as Katherine Hayles or Friedrich Kittler have been canonized as media theorists. What do you see as the current status of the human and the post-human in media studies? Do media scholars need to re-think their approach to humanism?

JR: I see the category of the human as a productive site of contestation in media studies. I’ve learned a lot from theorizations of the posthuman and the nonhuman, particularly Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Part of what I find so useful about Hayles’ engagement with the posthuman is that it opens up the category of the human for interrogation. Karen Barad’s posthumanism is also incredibly productive; for Barad, the posthuman designates the constructedness of the category of the human and the power relations that shape and police this construction (my version of media studies also draws significantly from feminist science studies, which you may have gleaned from my citing Barad here).1 So, while my book insists on “staying with the human,” to paraphrase Donna Haraway, I don’t see discourses of the human and of the post-human in media studies as necessarily oppositional. I’m interested in what a work opens up. I’m particularly interested in work that opens up further conversations about the power relations and the dehumanizing erasures and exclusions that produce the category of the human. Some of this work has been done under the name of the post-human, some under the name of the human. For example, Hayles and Bernard Stiegler place the human at the center of technology and media studies in ways that I find very useful, because they demonstrate the fundamental elasticity of the category of the human.2 Wendy Chun’s important media studies work also offers an incisive interrogation of the human, particularly as it’s been constructed through race. Chun’s scholarship refuses the human as an ahistorical and universal category, but instead offers the human as a category whose history and present are enmeshed with race, racism, colonialism, and capitalism.3

This may seem counterintuitive, but my turn back to the anthropos in The Robotic Imaginary finds common cause with [Françoise] Vergès’ turn away from the anthropos and “the anthropocene.”

In addition to what a work opens up, I also like to think in terms of the possibility of shared stakes. Zakiyyah Iman Jackson powerfully critiques posthuman calls to move “beyond the human,” which only reaffirm the narrowness of this category, particularly in relation to race.4 The stakes of interrogating the purportedly universal human are nothing short of life and death in its many forms: slow death, social death, death in life. In thinking about these stakes, your question brings to mind debates around the term “anthropocene,” which I’m thinking about for my next book on digital counting technologies and race. In addition to examining the racial biases of digital counting and big data, from digital redlining, biometric surveillance technologies, and predictive policing software, I’m also looking at the environmental costs of digital counting. As numerous thinkers observe, for example Françoise Vergès and Jason Moore, the term anthropocene turns on the concept of a universal human; in doing so the term erases the unevenly distributed harms of climate change and environmental pollution, which largely affects poorer communities in the Global South that are also the least responsible for these environmental harms.5 Thus the term anthropocene, in presuming an undifferentiated and universal human as the agent of this new geological era, erases important racial, geographic, and economic differences when it comes to environmental harm, responsibility, and possibilities for repair. Vergès offers instead the term racial capitalocene to note the unevenness of the environmental harms and to situate contemporary environmental shifts within larger historical and socioeconomic contexts. This may seem counterintuitive, but my turn back to the anthropos in The Robotic Imaginary finds common cause with Vergès’ turn away from the anthropos and “the anthropocene.” Following scholars like Sylvia Wynter, Éduoard Glissant, Chun, and Jackson, as well as Franz Fanon and Lisa Lowe, who identify the construction of the modern human through the dehumanization, exploitation, and violent erasure of enslaved, colonized, and indigenous people, my book underscores the history of differentiated claims to the human. In this way, I understand the concept of the human as itself a technology of racial and gender differentiation.

Your thoughtful question also points to the richness of media studies’ interdisciplinary possibilities and the broader discussions that these interdisciplinary conversations engage. My engagement with this interdisciplinarity looks to feminist science studies, feminist and gender theory, and critical race and ethnic studies as a way to rethink and critique the human from within media studies. I’m really excited about the scrutiny that the concept of the human is under in media studies. Here, I’d like to point to Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora’s excellent new book, Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures. Their scholarship on robots, AI, and race has been really important to my thinking, and I’m eager to continue thinking with their work. And Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness is just an exemplary work of scholarship in many ways, including in its insistence on a broader historical and political scope when thinking about technology and race.

For me, it was important to examine the ways robots emerge from longer histories of dehumanization without further inscribing this dehumanization.

ML: I’d like to turn the previous question onto its head. As I already suggested, some of your main theoretical touchstones, such as Glissant and Wynter, are not usually regarded as media theorists. Instead, these thinkers examine processes of dehumanization through the experiences of actual, living, historical persons. In The Robotic Imaginary, you convincingly argue that humanoid robots — which are not human, but are modeled upon humans — also provide an important site for interrogating processes of dehumanization. While the analytical value of the “robotic imaginary” is clear, I’m wondering if you can make a more comparative claim. When we study dehumanization, what is the difference between studying robots as opposed to studying actual living persons? Are there any particular challenges or benefits?

JR: I’m delighted that you found the robotic imaginary’s analytic value to be clear! For me, it was important to examine the ways robots emerge from longer histories of dehumanization without further inscribing this dehumanization. Lived experience, in many ways, makes all the difference. Christina Sharpe’s powerful discussion of the ongoing dehumaning of Black lives in her book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being is particularly illuminating in this context. While I think the figure of the robot can productively reflect whose lives are valued in society, there’s obviously no comparison between the lived experience of politically marginalized people and robots. This is why my book, and my concept of the robotic imaginary, is not at all in dialogue with ongoing conversations in robot ethics about whether robots should have rights (for example, in 2017, Saudi Arabia granted a robot named Sophia legal personhood). My book, as I mention in my introduction, is first and foremost about the human. Specifically, I’m concerned with the centrality of dehumanizing practices in defining the category of the human. The human is nothing without dehumanization. Robots across technology and culture reflect and reinscribe these dehumanizing practices in salient ways, and there’s an urgency to attending to robots and AIs in this context, especially considering the rapid and ongoing growth of AI and robotics technologies which maintains, if not exacerbates and accelerates, these dehumanizing logics and projects.

What I hope I’ve done is to make clear that the robot in art and technology is useful as a reflection of societal values of human lives, without effecting a collapse where we lose sight of the humans whose lives are materially affected by their historic and ongoing dehumanization and devaluation. Not taking seriously the ways that the cultural imaginary heavily shapes how technologies are developed, applied, and used risks reinscribing these values, with all of their biases, through these technologies. For example, in literature, the robot often operates as a metaphor for politically marginalized and disenfranchised people, particularly in relation to race, gender, and sexuality. This is, to hint a bit at my response to your fourth question, part of why literature is so important for me methodologically for this project. Fictional robots operate as metaphors, which can powerfully reflect larger societal issues with great nuance, and yet as metaphors they are always metaphors for something else or someone else. This is an incredibly important and useful insight to have when analyzing technological robots, in part to remind us that these technologies, and the cultural narratives that inform them, are enmeshed with devastating dehumanizing projects that have historically (though not just historically) governed and policed who is considered human and who isn’t.

ML: The cover of your book contains an arresting image of Nam June Paik’s Robot-K456. At the end of the first chapter, you discuss Paik’s performance piece, The First Accident of the 21st Century, in which a taxi cab crashes into Robot-K456 on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue. The Robotic Imaginary contains many examples similar to this one, where robots are designed to challenge our typical relationships with anthropomorphized technologies. Most of these examples, however, seem to be confined to the world of robotics laboratories and performance art. What about our more quotidian, day-to-day interactions with mass-produced technology? For instance, most of my own personal experiences with humanoid robots have been with Siri and Alexa. What would an ethics of care, opacity, and vulnerability look like in this context — not at an art exhibit, but at Amazon or Google, on our iPhones and our smart speakers? Under conditions of global capitalism, is such an ethics possible?

JR: My answer lies in your concluding query, “Under the conditions of global capitalism…” While art is no less embedded in global capitalism, it is embedded in very different ways than are Siri and Alexa, which are products designed not just to serve the consumer in very gendered ways, but are also, as has been increasingly revealed, tools of data surveillance for Apple, Amazon, and the state agencies these corporations share this data with. That doesn’t mean that people can’t have important, meaningful interactions with these technologies. Artist Stephanie Dinkins has talked poignantly about this possibility with Alexa. But these individual meaningful encounters are also set against the backdrop of these technologies’ (perhaps primary) purpose as data surveillance and capture for corporate profit and policing purposes. And these corporate and policing purposes overwhelmingly disadvantage or threaten those people already disproportionately targeted by the police and the government, including Black and brown people, queer and trans people, and undocumented people. When juxtaposing these multiple scales of operation, questions of who owns these technologies and who is owned through these technologies, come starkly into relief.

Another way to approach this question is to look at the difference between Siri and Samantha, the fictional operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her. As I discuss in my chapter on care labor and conversational AI, Samantha works in the multiple ways your question lays out: meaningful personal interaction, corporate surveillance, and data capture. I read the film as ultimately unable to imagine an ethics because of the narrow scope of the narrative, which focuses pretty exclusively on the romantic relationship between Samantha and one of her owners, Theodore. Samantha is both owned commodity and romantic partner (though these two positions are complicated in productive ways that point to the ways heteronormative relationships have historically worked in the service of capitalism). And the central conflict in the film is about the purported untenability of these dual positions, as embodied in Samantha. However, I argue that the film’s focus on Samantha and Theodore’s romantic relationship reveals the dangers of a narrow scope that erases the significant complexities of what a technology is. To think ethically about a technology requires inhabiting multiple scales and temporalities. The relation between individual user and technology is, of course, an important scale, but staying only at this scalar register, as the film does, erases the multiple and overlapping urgent stakes around ethically about technology.

As my students and I discuss, technology is not reducible to a single technological object or a single application or function. Technology also includes the materials used to manufacture and support the technology, the environmental costs of manufacturing, sustaining, and disposing of a technology (from mineral mining to managing e-waste), and the often exploitative and toxic conditions of human labor concentrated in the Global South that go into producing and supporting the technology. For me, an ethics of care and shared vulnerability would include this expansive conceptualization of a technological object. In global capitalism we’re very interconnected. Here I’m thinking about a concept of interconnection that explicitly places our capacity to harm and be harmed by each other at the center of ethical considerations, something akin to Wendy Chun’s incisive writings on the “leakiness” of social media as the starting point for rethinking our ethical relations with these technologies and with each other.6 Part of what I’m pointing to here is something that the humanities is expert in: embracing and navigating complexity. Specifically, thinking about our relationships to technology in all their complexities. Our technological objects imbricate us even further with other humans, for example, the humans who make possible these technological objects and who often do so in horrific and toxic conditions, as the suicides at Foxconn factories demonstrate. In thinking about technology, somewhat analogous to thinking about global capitalism, the question of ethics is one of how to apprehend ourselves and others simultaneously in multiple temporalities, relations, and geographies.

In engaging these themes, literature foregrounds the ethical dimensions of how and why some humans are separated from other humans; for me, this is an important starting point for interrogating AI and robotics technologies.

ML: Can you say something about the role of interdisciplinarity in your work? I’m thinking in particular about your clear commitment to literature. Why is it important to consider novels alongside — to borrow some examples from The Robotic Imaginary — robots, AI expert systems, and the United States drone program?

JR: The broader answer to your question lies in the co-evolution of culture and technoscience, which take place in and are shaped by shared social, economic, and political contexts. In terms of your specific question about the importance of literature in my project, my commitment to literature in part stems from robot fictions’ early and ongoing significant contributions to shaping the robotic imaginary. As I mention in my book’s introduction, the word “robot” first appeared in Karel Čapek’s influential play R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920). The word “robot,” suggested to Čapek by his brother Joseph, is derived from the Czech word rabota, meaning forced labor or drudgery, and from robotnik, the Czech word for serf. And the word “roboticist” first appeared in Isaac Asimov’s short story, “Strange Playfellow” (1940). Roboticists themselves identify childhood encounters with fictional robots as important formative moments that connect to their technological work. Isaac Asimov, whose work I don’t examine closely in my book, was an incredibly important early thinker of robots. Asimov’s influential robot stories, like Philip K. Dick’s android stories and novels, are preoccupied with robots’ similarities to humans, particularly robots’ similarities to humans who are marginalized and dehumanized by society. Asimov, Dick, as well as Čapek’s influential robot imaginings offer the robot not as innately different from humans; rather, the differences between humans and robots come down to their treatment by other humans and by society, particularly in relation to issues of labor and freedom. In this way, as Isiah Lavender and Despina Kakoudaki have insightfully argued, robots have been linked to enslavement from their fictional origins.7 In engaging these themes, literature foregrounds the ethical dimensions of how and why some humans are separated from other humans; for me, this is an important starting point for interrogating AI and robotics technologies.

Also, as my chapter on emotional robots and Philip K. Dick’s android novels demonstrates, literature doesn’t just reflect what’s happening in technology. Drawing on metaphor, narrative, and other literary devices and techniques, literature possesses a unique aesthetic capacity to depict significant complexities and nuances about technology, such as how a technology reflects existing social norms and biases, and how a technology can be reimagined to work against these norms and biases. I’m making an argument here for writing and reading literature, which are practices that I value very highly. I’m also making an argument for the related practice of literary analysis, the close reading of literary texts joined with the deep study of their historical and political contexts in all their complexities. As my students demonstrate so impressively every semester, literary analysis allows us to apprehend important complexities: to analyze them, to present them clearly, cogently, and without reduction or distortion, and to develop new knowledge from within these complexities. So, for example, it’s not just about how Philip K. Dick’s novels influenced the robotic visions of many roboticists, but also how these novels bring to the foreground the exclusionary power relations in which humans and robots alike operate. And practices associated with literary analysis provide an important means of identifying, analyzing, and communicating the centrality of power relations in producing the human and the dehumanized as depicted in Dick’s works.

1 Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” Signs 28.3 (2003): 801-831.

2 I’m drawing on Diana Fuss here, who defines the human as “one of our most elastic fictions.” Diana Fuss, “Introduction,” in Human, All Too Human, ed. Diana Fuss (New York: Routledge, 1996), 1.

3 Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Race and/as Technology,” Camera Obscura 24.1 (2009): 7-34.

4 Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, “Outer Worlds: The Persistence of Race in Movement ‘Beyond the Human’,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21, nos. 2–3 (2015): 215.

5 Françoise Vergès, “Racial Capitalocene: Is the Anthropocene Racial?” in Futures of Black Radicalism, eds. Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin, (New York: Verso, 2017); Jason W. Moore, “Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism,” in Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, ed. Jason W. Moore (Oakland: PM Press, 2016): 1-13.

6 Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 103-128.

7 Isiah Lavender III, Race in American Science Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 60–62; Despina Kakoudaki, Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2014), 115–72.

An interview with Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux

On Thursday, October 12, 2017, Stephanie Boluk (University of California, Davis) delivered a lecture titled “From Metagames to Moneygames.” This follow-up interview with Boluk and Patrick LeMieux, co-authors of Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames, was conducted by Rebecca Cheong and John Seabloom-Dunne, graduate students in the Department of English, by email during spring and summer 2018.

In the book we write “prepositions are to parts of speech as metagames are to games: they anchor games in a time and place” (11) but we could also say it a different way: history matters, context matters, play matters.

RC and JSD: Metagaming, as a scholarly project, takes up the oft-discussed radical and subversive potential of games as a critical apparatus within the context of their present use. In the introduction, you locate this potential “in, on, around, through, before, during, and after” videogames as a historical practice rather than the relatively common emphasis that scholars place on a future “speculative horizon” (4). Is there a disciplinary risk to this investment in the present, and what purchase might its wide adoption find on the particular domain of Game Studies and the broader field of the humanities? Does the idea of “the metagame” help anchor this present focus?

Also, although the book is a scholarly one and situated within a scholarly domain (in its approach to its topic, its delivery of arguments, etc.) it is also anti-disciplinary in a sense, insofar as it doesn’t make concrete conceptual distinctions, or at least there isn’t a clear zone of distinction you have carved out between metagame and game. In some ways, you appear to resist the reification of video games as object. Writing a scholarly book with an anti-disciplinary disposition seems to be a risky move. It begs the question of what is at stake for this project in the scholarly world. How would you position the book within the discipline of game studies or the broader humanities, and what are some disciplinary risks a study like this one faces in the present?

SB and PL: First of all, thank you for the interview! Metagaming has been out for about a year in print as well as online at University of Minnesota’s new Manifold open access publication platform where we’re continuing to update the software and add video figures. It’s exciting to get a chance to reflect a bit on the project with you!

There’s a lot to unpack here but Metagaming begins with a simple question: what do players mean when they say metagame? This word pops up again and again in live commentary and forum discussions around speedrunning, esports, competitive fighting games, massively multiplayer online games, and virtual economies as well as in conversations around collectible card games, tabletop role-playing games, and board games. So we started by wondering if metagame referred to a specific technique, a historical practice, a personal preference, a community culture, or just play in general? Does it mean the same thing across different gaming discourses or is it dependent on context? Is it a productive lens for thinking about videogames or does it pose a challenge to the ways we talk about technical media? And the answer is, as you might imagine, a bit of all the above.

After considering both the longer history of the term—from its etymology as a kind of ur preposition in Ancient Greece to Nigel Howard’s cold-war game theories attempting to solve the Prisoner’s Dilemma in the 1970s to Richard Garfield’s game design philosophy for Magic: The Gathering in the 1990s to its increasing use within the streaming services, social media platforms, and digital storefronts that attend videogames in the 2000s—we found that the word metagame itself operates like a kind of language game. Broadly speaking, metagaming is both a general signifier for the things happening in, on, around, and through games in general as well as a mark of how specific people play a specific game in a specific place at a specific time. It’s both a diffuse category of attitudes, experiences, relationships, and exchanges related to games as well as a precise articulation of how we play. In the book we write “prepositions are to parts of speech as metagames are to games: they anchor games in a time and place” (11) but we could also say it a different way: history matters, context matters, play matters. We find the things people do with videogames are often more suprising, inspiring, and troubling than when imagining the game as an isolated object and whenever we write about a given game we always try to include who (or what) is playing. If you are talking about games and are not naming specific players, something is probably wrong! So we started exploring the diverse array of things—some good, some bad, and many we are ambivalent towards—that happen when we play with videogames.

What is at stake is precisely the history, materiality, embodiment, and economies of play that a more narrowly focused study of software, code, platform, and object might overlook.

As such, Metagaming participates in a disciplinary shift from imagining games as encapsulated technical objects to a consideration of the diverse things people do with games (a shift that includes new work by scholars like Adrian Shaw, Bonnie Ruberg, Brendan Keogh, Darshana Jayemanne, Aubrey Anable, and many others). To speak directly to your question, this is not necessarily a presentist approach focused on the now, but, following the work of expert players like Narcissa Wright, Richard Terrell, and Dan Stemkoski, we offer a way to document and delve into traces of play. And as anyone working on speedrunning can tell you, the present always changes! New techniques are discovered, new categories of play are invented, and old records are broken. In fact, while copyediting the book, we had to return to every discussion of world records to historicize them because they had all been beaten while we were writing! In Metagaming we’re explicitly interested in what this kind of media studies methodology—in which we perform a medium specific analysis of the evidence of play—reveals about technology and culture in the 21st century.

But you’re right that Metagaming was also responding to a specific conversation occurring in game studies around the potential of games and play to produce political change. Although the book engages philosophical accounts of games and play occurring in other disciplines like anthropology, sociology, and history (i.e., Huizinga, Caillois, and Suits) as well as some of the first books dedicated to the study of videogames and culture (i.e., Aarseth, Juul, Ryan) the work of many theorists and designers in the mid-2000s imagined the critical, political, and material implications of videogames. Books like Gaming by Alexander Galloway, Gamer Theory by McKenzie Wark, Critical Play by Mary Flanagan, and Games of Empire by Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter all emerged around the same time (and were deeply influential to us in graduate school). One thing we noticed in that moment was the ways in which these projects imagined a future where games produce cultural change. For its part, Metagaming begins by looking back to the work of player communities in order to find evidence of the radical potential promised in these books.

What is at stake is precisely the history, materiality, embodiment, and economies of play that a more narrowly focused study of software, code, platform, and object might overlook. We wanted to find a way to talk about what games do, not just what they are. And to think about play in this way we found ourselves investing in the work of scholars like Lisa Nakamura, T.L. Taylor, James Newman, Henry Lowood, Raiford Guins, Doug Wilson, and Laine Nooney whose research methods carefully and thoughtfully attend to cultural histories alongside gaming technologies. Ultimately, the point of establishing this contrast is to try to articulate and analyze the phenomenological gap between our embodied experience of technical media and the speed and scale of mechanical, electrical, and computational processes operating outside the register of human consciousness. As we write at the beginning of the book, we think metagames are the “material trace of the discontinuity between the phenomenal experience of play and the mechanics of digital games” (9) and throughout Metagaming we attempt to study these traces in order to come to terms with what we can and can’t know about contemporary technology.

From considerations of anamorphosis and graphics to disability and control, seriality and history, as well as economics and esports, the chapters of Metagaming investigate and intervene on videogames as a paradigmatic site for thinking about our relationship to technical media in the 21st century. And this is why we characterize play as a form of practice. When speedrunners discover an exploit and produce new categories to race they are designing games. When esports teams research their opponents to counter a popular strategy, they are creating new forms of play. In this sense, practice is a primary category for us and is also one of the reasons we wanted to make our own games alongside each chapter. In fact, an early subtitle for the project was “Videogames and the Practice of Play”!

RC and JSD: In the opening chapters of Metagaming, you discuss the presence and popularity of various indie games that, to some extent, fall within Andy Baio’s concise definition of “playable games about games” (29), a definition many people coming to this work for the first time might have. You are careful to expand your own understanding of metagames beyond the characteristics of self-referentiality and remix, but games about games nonetheless still play a role in the framing of this work. Take for instance, your own metagame, 99 Exercises in Play, which draws material from World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. What do you see as the relationship between these “games about games” and the wider understanding of metagaming that you explore and interrogate?

SB and PL: This is another great example of the flexibility of language! Andy Baio’s use of the word that comes closer to the way humanities scholars talk about metafiction or metafilm than the way the word functions in game theory to discuss strategy and technique don’t immediately seem to speak to one another, but even then we found moments of overlap.

Although the specificities of play are often ephemeral, private, or often overshadowed by the histories and stories of software, even game design can operate at the level of a metagame. Preferences, attitudes, beliefs, and ideologies about play are often captured within videogames themselves. Although franchises like Mega Man or Street Fighter mark time by manipulating a shared codebase or underlying game engine, other games like The Stanley Parable or Kentucky Route Zero make metagames through asset development, level design, or narrative references. We wrote about a few of our favorite examples in Metagaming like John Romero’s bonus levels in Wolfenstein 3D which recall Pac-Man or the Donkey Kong-inspired level of Braid, but if you look for it you’ll start to notice games are often about other games. Ian Bogost summarized this point in a recent article where he wrote “More often than not, games are about the conventions of games and the materials of games—at least in part. Texas Hold ’em is a game made out of Poker. Candy Crush is a game made out of Bejeweled. Gone Home is a game made out of BioShock.”

And, as you mentioned, the definition of metagames as “games about games” aligns with other media genres like metafiction and metafilm. Readers approaching the book from literary or film studies backgrounds might be familiar with this particular kind of play but we found that this meaning is actually the least used by player communities. Usually the metagame refers to a particular strategy, playstyle, preference, or fashion used by specific players at a specific time and place (which is why we focus on the metagame as an index of the history of play.) So speedrunners might use it to refer to the current route or category definitions, whereas esports players might refer to the acronym META: Most Efficient Tactics Available. The original games we designed alongside each chapter of the book attempt to deploy both of these forms of metagaming by bringing together references to specific software while suggesting alternative forms of play.

99 Exercises in Play, for example, is a game about Super Mario Bros. in the sense that it attempts to simulate World 1-1 of Miyamoto, Tzuka, Kondo, and Nagako’s game (which turned out to be a much bigger challenge than we initially thought!) Following Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, our game offers a series of variations in order to imagine the diverse and unexpected ways in which people might have played Mario. Play the game upside down, right to left, in slow motion, sped way up, with a time limit, without touching the ground, with multiple Mario’s, and on and on. We currently have 30 variations in the game and are planning to add the other 69 (as well as enemies and power-ups!) sometime this year. Crucially though, in 99 Exercises in Play we never change the metrics of Mario’s relationship to his environment. If he jumps twice as high, the level also grows twice as tall. We wanted to make sure that the game still bears a resemblance to how people play on the Famicom and Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s like a cookbook featuring different recipes for metagaming Mario while, in the process, revealing the noisy history of World 1-1. Super Mario Bros. is not a throughline from pressing START to the flagpole—it’s a cloud of potential play.

RC and JSD: In chapter 6, during your discussion of Anita Sarkeesian and the harassment that she has experienced, you draw a parallel between Mark Hansen’s idea that media constitute an “environment for life” with metagames’ function as an “environment for play” (276). You pose the question of what happens when this environment becomes increasingly “unliveable.” How does this uninhabitability contribute to the calcification of methods and techniques of play, and what might an understanding of metagaming offer in response?

Additionally, as a final question, if you don’t see the radical creative potential of videogames in the future, what do you see there instead? The final chapters “Turning the Tide” and “Breaking the Metagame,” you consider the rise of “a vectoral regime” where divisions between play and labor are untenable, and the “standard metagame” regiments and restricts diverse forms of play. What place, if any do metagames have in this future?

SB and PL: Whereas the solidification or calcification of a given metagame can occur through the policing of standards and norms (whether via Nintendo and Valve’s corporate strategies of enclosure or the toxic violence of gaming communities), players also constantly resist these forms of control. Communities come and go, audiences ebb and flow, sometimes hibernating for years only to be revived a decade later. The discovery of old forum posts, new technical exploits, new ways of thinking about or engaging with a game, or a new group of people discovering a game can reinvigorate a metagame. Both because and despite attempts at enclosure (like targeted harassment campaigns or cease and desist notices), the metagame moves, migrates, and mutates as players respond to their environments of practice. And although patching software to be more inclusive, accessible, and open is always important, technofixes cannot produce change without broader cultural shifts also occurring. Change the metagame—whether through hiring practices, in-game representations, or fostering more diverse player communities—and you change the game. (And of course the converse of this is also true, which is what we’ve all had to contend with as toxic fandoms and conservative consumer groups actively fight to shore up their borders.)

From idle games and cryptocurrency, virtual economies and grey market gambling, crowdfunding and speculative finance, the financial relationship between sports and esports, and even the tight circuit between entertainment media and US politics, money and games are becoming harder and harder to differentiate.

The practices we describe in Metagaming are both radical as well as reactionary and our next book is starting to look like the Empire Strikes Back as it will focus on some of the darker aspects of playing videogames. It’s tentatively titled Money Games and picks up where Metagaming left off: with the ways in which videogame corporations expropriate and enclose diverse forms of play; the ways in which players commodify their time and attention on social networks like Twitch, YouTube, and Steam; the ways in which money operates not for profit but to signal and measure value (be it in the office or at home); the gamblification of games and larger move from wages to wagers under computational capitalism; the ways in which both virtual economies and finance capital operate according to technical mechanisms of digital media. Here we’re looking at how money functions as a game mechanic and how game mechanics function as money—money as a medium of exchange, a medium of trust, a medium of communication, and, of course, a medium of play. From idle games and cryptocurrency, virtual economies and grey market gambling, crowdfunding and speculative finance, the financial relationship between sports and esports, and even the tight circuit between entertainment media and US politics, money and games are becoming harder and harder to differentiate.

In 2012, game designer and researcher Eric Zimmerman wrote a manifesto declaring that we are living in a “ludic century.” The manifesto makes the bold and hopeful declarations that “there is a need to be playful,” “information has been put to play,” and “gaming literacy can address our problems.” We vividly remember how promising games felt in this moment and how it did indeed seem that they were the ideal expressive medium for dealing with the problems of increasingly abstract, inaccessible, and systemic problems—global warming, financialization, racism, international politics, bureaucracy, and computation itself. Games seemed uniquely positioned as tools for managing complexity. And he wasn’t alone in this utopian rush towards gaming. Zimmerman published this manifesto around the same time as the ethnographer Edward Castronova’s Exodus to the Virtual World and the games researcher Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. In the early 2010s, buzzwords like gamification were being thrown around in corporate board meetings and game labs were springing up across academia. But after the financial collapse in 2008 and the emergence of a gig economy with Uber, AirBnB, Bird, and WeWork, it seems we’re actually living in an age of precarity where our wage is increasingly a wager and our games are always gambles.

Rather than thinking about how games can counter this logic, we think it’s time to consider how the metagame already influences and impacts daily life and, when necessary, how to stop playing.

Once the dust settled in the second decade of the 21st century, it became clear that the game is rigged. Reality may be broken but it’s the model of a rational, disembodied, ahistorical, meritocratic gamespace that helped get us here. And Zimmerman was totally right! But instead of a Suitsian utopia of fun and games, we got the dystopian version of the Ludic Century. Information has indeed been put to play, but it’s so much so that Trump—a man who made a living from toying with brands, hosting game shows, buying golf courses, and gaming social media—can comfortably dismiss journalism as fake news and alternative facts while promising constituents they’ll “win so much they’ll be tired of winning.” Rather than thinking about how games can counter this logic, we think it’s time to consider how the metagame already influences and impacts daily life and, when necessary, how to stop playing.


Boluk, Stephanie and Patrick LeMieux. 2017. Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, MN.

Bogost, Ian. 2017. "Videogames Are Better Without Stories." The Atlantic. April 25.

Zimmerman, Eric and Heather Chaplin. 2013. "Manifesto: The 21st Century Will be Defined by Games." Kotaku. September 9.

An interview with Matt Tierney

On March 31, 2016, Matt Tierney delivered a lecture for the DCMI speaker series in Critical Media and Digital Studies titled “Critical Cyberculture in the Large World House.” This follow-up interview was conducted by John Schneider, the DCMI’s graduate assistant from 2014–2016, by email between June 7 and June 14, 2016. The interview covers topics including media studies’ critical lexicon; the logic of the “post-” in “post-45”, “postwar”, and “post-politics”; interdisciplinarity; and the disruptive possibilities of negativist aesthetics.

In What Lies Between, I put together an archive of texts that say no to their present, and that may still say no to ours. Void aesthetics is only one way that technical knowledge can become haunted by the specter of its limits; it’s one way to deny received political narratives and images without making up new narratives and images that may be just as naïve, or optimistic, or technocratic or nostalgic.

John Schneider: In What Lies Between: Void Aesthetics and Postwar Post- Politics you mention media studies’ “terminology problem.” Both the book and your recent special issue of Postmodern Culture (edited with Mathias Nilges) seek to address that problem through the excavation of certain key concepts in the field of media studies, e.g. “medium” and “mediation.” You argue that these concepts are too often obscured by the field’s tendency to relate everything back to the “computational present” (61). In particular, What Lies Between brings out the literary aspects of these concepts. There, you return to the critical recovery of Melville and Whitman at the middle of the twentieth-century in order to shed light on the aesthetic and political valences that a term such as “medium” loses when it refers only to a material or technological substrate. How is the critical lexicon of contemporary media studies limited by its preference for the technical over the aesthetic? And might media studies have something to learn from literary studies in regards to addressing political questions?

Matt Tierney: This distinction between technical and aesthetic means a couple of things for me. From a practical standpoint, it captures a separation between discrete disciplinary approaches. When we look at literature as a distribution of feeling or meaning, we conceive of it aesthetically, more or less, and when we look at it through the ontology or history of print, we’re looking at it technically. It’s a distinction in broad strokes, but it’s not unhelpful. It demonstrates how two inquiries into the ostensibly same object might in fact, if their lexicons or critical priorities vary widely enough, not concern the same object at all (as a film that is seen as an artwork among artworks, say, is not the film that is seen as an instance of indexical technology in a history of indexical technologies). Disciplines produce their objects, and they produce their objects differently.

From a more general standpoint, the words technical and aesthetic are ready-enough labels for two kinds of question that I hear asked about the objects of humanist scholarship. On one hand, I hear questions about what an object is made from and what it is designed for; that is, questions about its being, invention, and use. On the other hand, I hear questions about how an object looks or sounds or feels, how it might work otherwise than by design, how it might not work at all, how it might be dug up later and misrecognized, or how it might be broken; that is, questions that are all about practice and protest, possibility and imagination and afterlife. When I talk about aesthetics in the book, and when I describe the contributions that literary study might lend to media study, I mean that I want to ask these latter questions: the ones about process and possibility. I don’t pretend that the two sets of question are the only sets, or that they can be parsed any more easily than the categories of aesthetics from the categories of technology. But I say whatever, parse them anyway, because there is a difference between them that matters.

So, the genres of writing about technology — pop futurism from McLuhan to Musk, the history of technology, and so on — can concern themselves with how we live, have lived, and probably will live: the definable conditions of humans and machines among the plants and animals and rocks and stars. By this path, we learn to say yes, and affirm that the way things are is the way things are, that the future can be surmised from the past, and that the rules and histories of the material world can be listed and cataloged. Yet these genres will contrast to the stories and images of novel and criticism and movie and poem, and it is by this path, the path of literature (or call it art or theory, it probably doesn’t matter in this case), that I think we can learn to say no. This other path offers a kind of refusal that is antithetical to technical expertise, and yet this refusal is also a kind of knowledge. Any understanding of the present is an active assembling and disassembling of inherited bits and pieces, and by acknowledging this fact, we can learn to refuse the positivist alternative. Any understanding of the future is augury at best, or advertising at worst, and with this in mind we can learn to deny both the techno-utopian and techno-apocalyptic forms of prediction. In What Lies Between, I put together an archive of texts that say no to their present, and that may still say no to ours. Void aesthetics is only one way that technical knowledge can become haunted by the specter of its limits; it’s one way to deny received political narratives and images without making up new narratives and images that may be just as naïve, or optimistic, or technocratic or nostalgic.

John Schneider: Could you provide an example?

Matt Tierney: You mention the stuff on medium in my book and in the issue of Postmodern Culture. This is a good example of what I mean. When people agree on what a word means, as the meanings of the word medium are often agreed upon in media studies, that word can then be shared. Thinkers can join together to hoist the word up as an umbrella concept, accommodating diverse categories of machine and various tools of art and culture, to form a discipline. But the literary history of the term intrudes on this apparent agreement, and risks breaking the consensus, and that’s what interests me. In Whitman, for example, a medium isn’t something that exists before it is used toward political ends. Instead, in Whitman, it’s the worldly form that political thought can take. The medium is the poet, the poem, the polis, the politician, and the pen, all at once: it’s defined by its capacity to cut “gaping wounds in mighty empires.” For the modernist Waldo Frank, another example from my book, a medium is not the device by which to introduce art into a social field. Instead, a medium is the social field itself. It’s the roiling setting for the activities of art, where art can either lend itself or not lend itself to political organization. Whitman’s and Frank’s ideas of medium are very different from each other, but they nevertheless resemble each other more than either of them resembles the word’s most frequent use in media studies, where a medium is an object, or a category of objects, that can be known.

This pluralization, not of media but of the terms of media studies, is in part what I’m working toward. In unfixing a central term, is there a risk of interrupting the flow of ideas among scholars? Sure. But it’s worth an interruption, if we can get thinking about media, as Whitman and Frank do, as political in their inception and mis- and disuse, and not only in their designated or predictable use.

The postwar period, if we absolutely have to keep using that phrase, has to be seen as a continuing reconfiguration of the terms of war, a phase in an ongoing war with differing fronts but many of the same vested interests as are seen in prior phases. Something similar can be said of post-politics, which is just a phase in politics.

John Schneider: I’d like to ask about the relationship between “post- politics” and the “postwar” period. You refer to these two terms as “fictions,” but they nevertheless structure your argument. Although you write that “post-politics” today looks different from its emergence at midcentury, What Lies Between suggests that the cultural history of the last half- century or so has been shaped, in various ways, by claims that “politics is ostensibly gone and dead, already post-” (4). You explore several occasions where politics comes into question during this period: from postwar liberal consensus to McLuhan-esque fantasies of technological connectivity to contemporary dreams of being “postracial, postfeminist, postqueer, [and] nearly postgender” (1). How do you understand the relationship between these distinct forms of “post-politics” and the cultural period of the “postwar”? What has kept Americanists and post-45 scholars from addressing this discourse as a major cultural thread of this period?

Matt Tierney: To my mind, neither of these terms, post-politics or postwar, can be pushed to make good sense, in the way that Gramsci uses that phrase. Both instead are common sense. Both are motivating terms of periodization, insofar as they set off the present from the past so that the present will look like an improvement. Make no mistake, there are many people who can walk the world in safety who could not have done so in the years before 1945, and this is certainly an improvement. But there are many people who still can’t walk the world safely, and it is with this in mind that political and textual thinking should proceed. So we have two options: either we stop using the terms that everybody else is using, because they don’t make good sense, in the hopes that they stop making any sense at all, or just go away; or else we demonstrate that these words make perfectly common sense, by signifying exactly the opposite of what they purport to signify.

If the postwar must name a historical period, then it can’t name a period that is after war, because war has never ceased. That period doesn’t exist. There are still wars between and among nations, wars that involve non-national groups, wars in the streets, invisible wars, and wars by remote control. The postwar period, if we absolutely have to keep using that phrase, has to be seen as a continuing reconfiguration of the terms of war, a phase in an ongoing war with differing fronts but many of the same vested interests as are seen in prior phases. Something similar can be said of post-politics, which is just a phase in politics. We’re not beyond identity politics, for instance. We’ve just reached a point in the history of politics when some feel that they can discard identity as a critical concern. This is the privilege of those whom consensus has always served, i.e., those who can walk the world without fear.

I have an article coming out next year in Cultural Critique, where I speculate at length on your last question about possible disciplinary blind spots. In short, when a field is held together by common interest in an object of study, it can certainly critique that object, but it can’t really displace it. Just as media studies can’t really afford to unfix the definitions of medium, post-45 Americanist literary studies can’t really afford to unfix the terms of its own disciplinary self-identification. If 1945 marked a transformation of the terms of war, and not the end of war, then what does the designation “post-45” mean? If there is not one America but many Americas, and if the nation-form itself is in constant process of deformation as well as reformation (in a way that Deleuze and Guattari might name de- and re-territorialization; or Van Wyck Brooks would label “unfinished and already half in ruin”), then what does “Americanist” mean? These questions have surely been asked, but any answers to them must ensure the possibility that work can continue afterward. In what kind of space, then, can the work proceed but with all its terms unfixed or under erasure? A space like literature or like theory, probably, which is to say a space where one may play what Paul de Man calls an anti-philosophical “wild card”: reading.

Definitive judgement of what a text is or means, once and for all, accomplishes little when compared to its modeling of a negativist sabotage against the legitimating architecture of the status quo. This is the work that the texts in my first book perform: Richard Wright or Kara Walker disrupting without denying the social reality of race, Paul Goodman disrupting without denying the social reality of consensus, and so on.

John Schneider: On a perhaps related note, I’m wondering if you see “post- politics” extending into academic discourse itself. While it’s unlikely to find serious literary scholars embracing, for example, the post-race discourse in exactly the way it unfolds in the news media, there’s a sense within some corners of humanities work that the politics of criticism are in need of rethinking. We might see this in current debates around methodology, e.g. post-critique, quantitative methods, object-oriented ontology, etc. Since What Lies Between doesn’t shy away from the negativist figure of the “void,” I’m wondering to what extent your development of this critical lens addresses an academic or theoretical “post-politics” within the fields of media and literary studies.

Matt Tierney: It’s true that we won’t find MLA or SCMS conferees shouting, as one finds cable news pundits shouting (or did before the events of the past year or two), that misogyny doesn’t exist or that racism doesn’t exist. But I have certainly been at conferences where one can hear a cavalier promotion of so-called “post-feminism” and, under the sign of a liberal analytic of language, an abuse of the n-word. More widespread, however, one finds all kinds of effort at “post-” periodizing. Think of the recent efforts toward a post-national American studies by Wai Chee Dimock, Laurence Buell, and others. Think of Kenneth Warren’s use of the past tense, in the title of his bracing What Was African American Literature?, or of the emphasis on class, to the exclusion of other categories of social difference, in the work of Walter Benn Michaels and others. These are all Left discourses in literary studies that do purport to have put something behind “us” so that “we” might proceed beyond them together. I am in heavy debt to these scholars, and to these particular texts, but I do worry about the periodizing logic of the “post-.” Some of the terms and questions and identities that have outlived their usefulness are also pernicious re-configurations of common sense. I tend to see them more as the latter, and believe that all these dwindling forms — nation, gender, human, race, disciplinarity — are not dwindling at all, but changing shape in a way that calls for vigilant study.

With regard to the other critical methodologies you name, I suspect it’s too soon to know where they fit. Post-critique may surely be aligned with post-politics, that’s entirely possible. But then again, it also may be a rewriting of the the old suspicion toward suspicion, which echoes from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick back to Paul Ricoeur and indeed much further than that. As for object-oriented ontology and quantitative method, they differ from one another, but both bend too much toward affirmation and certainty. Sitting among my objects, which are books and movies in the main, I don’t know what good it would do for me to affirm them. Definitive judgement of what a text is or means, once and for all, accomplishes little when compared to its modeling of a negativist sabotage against the legitimating architecture of the status quo. This is the work that the texts in my first book perform: Richard Wright or Kara Walker disrupting without denying the social reality of race, Paul Goodman disrupting without denying the social reality of consensus, and so on. If I affirm these texts, and maybe I do in a way, then I only affirm their negative values, which is not much of an affirmation after all.

John Schneider: What Lies Between threads the disciplinary needle between history and theory, literature and film, literary and media studies — and in that way performs truly interdisciplinary work, exposing the rifts between fields as well as mapping where they might productively interact. What makes for intellectually valuable interdisciplinary work in the humanities? What possibilities are there for productive interaction between often-separated disciplines?

Matt Tierney: The question of interdisciplinarity is a tricky one. I have two answers, one skeptical and the other impossible. The skeptical answer is that interdisciplinarity is itself a post-political myth. It gives permission to imagine the autonomous movement of thought, as ideas are freed from their disciplinary shackles, but it also opens the door for universities and colleges to reduce cost by cutting departments. Why put up with all the disciplinary misunderstanding and bureaucracy that goes on across departments in a College of the Humanities, when ideas might instead move unfettered through one large and undifferentiated Department of Humanities? I’m sure that would be lovely, right up until austerity hits, or is said to have hit, and that single department is shrunk down or deleted. The walls of departments do impede the sharing and extension of ideas, and many of them should be ignored or tunneled through. But each of those walls can also serve as a shelter for ideas, as well as a bulwark against attack — these are load-bearing walls, worth retaining.

With this in mind, my second answer, that interdisciplinarity is a necessary but nearly impossible enterprise. It is a demand to know all the things from all the fields, and not just the ones that intersect in the argument that one happens to be making. All the debates, all the core texts, all the driving interests must be known, but then, of course they can’t all be known. Even if they could all be read and understood, they won’t square with each other, but will more likely lead to confusion and contradiction. This is where you and I started our conversation, in the seemingly unfathomable distance between technical and aesthetic approaches to culture. Yet even though no scholar can assimilate and reconcile all the debates that are pertinent to an inquiry that crosses disciplines, that scholar should try to do so anyway, if only to grasp the range and import of the questions that can be asked and have already been asked. There’s a bright side to this, though. When you know that you can’t possibly read all the things that you know you should read, you start noticing what else has gone unread, and you give yourself permission to take up material that more disciplinary projects have neglected. My next book is built almost entirely from encounters with this kind of material. There is no good reason for any study of contemporary culture to ignore experimental prose, anti-racist philosophy, queer trash cinema, activist poetry, techno-critique, non-narrative film, or feminist science-fiction novels, and yet (perhaps because each of these already occupies a small subfield) such work is ignored all the time. I’d just prefer not to.

John Schneider: Could you speak about the connections between What Lies Between and your current book project, A World of Incomparables: Interruptions of Communicative Globalism? From the word “interruptions” in the title, as well as from the content of your recent DCMI lecture, I gather that this project continues to narrate a counter-history of contemporary cyberculture, moving from the “post-politics” of the immediate postwar period into the Sixties and Seventies. What do the intellectuals and artists’ of this moment have to teach us about the “arrival of unfamiliar machines”?

Matt Tierney: Each of the two books is built around a way of thinking that Althusser might call an “underground current” that threads its way through diverse forms of cultural expression, both canonical and sub- canonical, as against the prevailing common sense of its moment. Each of these currents, in turn, practices a kind of anarchism of ideas. Whereas What Lies Between is about texts that destabilize the rickety myth of consensus but don’t offer any positive vision in its stead, A World of Incomparables is about texts that destabilize the myth of a fully communicative and technologically shrunk planet. Calling these arguments counter-historical makes sense. You could also call them, in an old-fashioned way, counter-ideological or counter-memorial. When I spoke at DCMI, I described a project in critical cyberculture that precedes the world of cellphones and laptops for which we currently use that same word, cyberculture. I situate that term at the center of a pacifist and anti-racist assault on the myth of resource scarcity, and I show how the terms of this assault extend quite directly into late-Sixties poetry and science-fiction, the Marxist feminism of Shulamith Firestone, and the anti-imperialism of Martin Luther King, Jr.

But why even do this recovery work, when there’s no chance of making an alternative definition of cyberculture the dominant definition of the present? I have two reasons. First, these are really tremendous texts. They are written in a transformative language that correctly and radically diagnoses several problems of the late 20th century. They therefore deserve patient attention — at least as much attention as any of the tacitly normative fictions that fill so much of our criticism. Second, if these older ideas can’t fully be read or activated, this in itself is worth confronting. I don’t know how to be a negativist in the way that the thinkers in my first book knew how to be negativists, and I’m not sure that it’s possible now. I don’t know how to interrupt communicative globalism either, and I’m not even sure what a successful interruption would look like in this moment. But if it’s too late now for these disruptions, what makes it so, when it seemed possible before? And in case it’s not ever possible to build a global “brotherhood,” as King would have us do through anti-racist technocritique, what then can be built? And what destroyed?