The Culture Wars of Neo-Liberalism: On GamerGate and the Author

Leaders of GamerGate
Leaders of GamerGate

“It has been understood that the task of criticism is not to re-establish the ties between an author and his work or to reconstitute an author’s thought and experience through his works and, further, that criticism should concern itself with the structures of a work, its architectonic forms, which are studied for their intrinsic and internal relationships . Yet, what of a context that questions the concepts of a work? What, in short, is the strange unit designated by the term “work”? What is necessary to its composition, if a work is not something written by a person called an “author”?

                                                                                                Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’

 

One of the most fascinating aspects of the rise of a digital and interconnected literary ecology is the furthering of the established theoretical idea of the absent author. Stemming from Roland Barthes seminal essay on the Death of the Author, textual analysis and critical attention need no longer focus on discerning intention but on discursive analysis. With the rise of the internet comes a plethora of new mediums of communication that do not depend upon the traditional conception of a singular “author.”

Rather, what is noticeable about internet ‘texts’ is the acceleration of a point explored by Foucault in the essay from which the quote above comes. The author is not a single person, but a specific set of functions in the mediation of particular discourses. This is perhaps easiest to see online, where the potent combination of anonymity and multiplicity of identity has made the concept of “the author” almost laughably anachronistic. To see this in practise let us turn to GamerGate, that loose amorphous body of texts that has demanded increasing attention within the last two months. For hopefully obvious reasons I won’t refer to GamerGate as being constituted of people, or ‘authors’ – after all, with sock-puppet accounts, anonymity and multiplicity of identity the “who” of GamerGate is much less obvious (and less interesting) than what their tweets, vlogs etc. reveal about the discourse GG operates within

Despite the pseudo-ethical claims various texts make about itself the movement is not at all concerned with ethics or integrity outside of a strict interpretation of what those words represent. “Ethics” and “Integrity” for the GG movement seems to consist of two things; firstly, a rigid demand for conformity to a pre-existing standard of normative behaviour and two, a deep and abiding hostility to those who dare deviate from it.

On even the most superficial level, the claims Gamergate makes to any kind of ethical superiority are laughable to the point of parody – what seems implicit in the posturing is not any kind of re-engagement or intervention with internet ethics but a coercive desire to place the behaviour of others within their own normative framework. Those who dare challenge the hegemonic norm, be they feminists, women, trans or simply not fulsome enough in their praise of a specific game are to be humiliated and expunged from existence.

Despite the claims to a new kind of ethical standard and the accompanying radical rhetoric I would suggest that this normative ethical system as well as the seemingly bottomless devotion to publishers and large game corporations positions GamerGate as a trend squarely within neo-liberalism. Patriarchal, hierarchical and, as fulsomely demonstrated, dangerously misogynistic it is also a discourse deeply invested in capitalist success. The GamerGate obsession with disrupting the finances of opponents (closing down Patreon anyone?) and desire to protect publishers from poor scores from reviewers for fear of financial penalties is another clear sign of where sympathy lies. The frequently invoked rhetoric of ethics is a tool to disapprove of insufficiently regulated exchanges of capital, or more dangerously, female sexuality – the two great fears of late stage capitalist patriarchy. It would seem then that “ethics” to GamerGate is a discourse that can only exist with the wider conceptual framework of late stage capitalism. With this in mind, it should be no surprise that an emancipatory critical school such as feminism attracts such venom.

One of the most compelling narratives on the left in the wake of the financial crash and recession is that neo-liberalism as a discourse was finished, yet what this misses is that neo-liberalism was not merely an economic set of policies. Neo-liberalism functioned across spheres of life, from the economic, to the political to the cultural. Rather than dying out, it simply moved location. Where the 60s saw the beginnings of a culture war in the states between secular and evangelical visions of capitalism, GamerGate reveals the new culture war that neo-liberalism desperately wants to win.

Seen as the fringe of neo-liberal discourse GamerGate begins to cohere on a theoretical level. The constant recitation and resistance to any kind of perceived ‘ideology’ or ‘agenda’ whilst allegedly maintaining GamerGate as a non-ideological force actually does precisely the opposite. This insistence upon non-ideology is the cultural mirror of the economic discourse that ‘we’re all middle class now,’ and that ‘discussion of class is un-American.’ In short, the more GamerGate desperately proclaims itself as non-ideological the more clearly it reveals its own ideological biases – it is a discourse that loves “The Gamer” it all of its homogenized mediocrity, it just doesn’t seem to care for individual people. Much as politicians will speak of the “hard working families”, their policies are there to defend without necessarily having any idea of what actual families are actually like.

Gamergate loves the gamer. Unless you are a women. Or a journalist who thinks differently. Or a developer who has different ideas. Or anyone else who thinks that a specific normative vision of “the Gamer” is outdated, unworkable and, happily, now irrelevant. The mythical Ur-figure stereotype of “The Gamer” no longer exists, as Kate Edwards, executive director of the International Game Developers Association puts it “the entire world around them has changed, whether they realize it or not, they’re no longer special in that way. Everyone is playing games.”

Collectively we have lived through the continuing wreckage of economic neo-liberalism and it has turned into a place where diverse, marginalized and creative voices have found a small space to begin to speak. Through new media, through new culture and through new forms of authorship perhaps an alternative discourse can be created, using the tools of the digital landscape to engineer new oppertunities for a genuinely liberating cultural space. Though as GamerGate shows, whatever gains can be made from the behomoth of neo-liberal control it will not be without staunch opposition.

 

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