Spectacle, Space, and Production of (Alternate) Reality

Below, I’ll try my best to represent the scattered thoughts I have at the moment for potential paper topics. Bare with me, as, in hindsight, I meander in the middle sections (or maybe everywhere), as I’m still working through many of these ideas. But, I think that, by the end, I do consolidate these threads into a larger, if still imperfect, research question. As far as help, general suggestions on further readers for keywords mentioned below is always helpful. As the draft comes together, clarity of terms and context is always a concern when I talk about unfamiliar media.

One metaphor that several of the writers this semester have employed uses spatial language to describe our collective relationship to media and mediation. I first recognized it in Benjamin, with his mention of closeness, a section of text that I featured heavily in a blog post on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”–and a post where Anne called into question my reading of the term as a positive concept (i.e. that being “close” to objects and their representations is a good thing for the proletariat in Benjamin’s view). As I still haven’t figured out how to read this “close”-ness, I feel the want to explore it more.

Early in the first section of Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, he focuses on the separation of reality from a part of lived life to “unfold[ing] in a new generality as a pseudo-world apart, solely as an object of contemplation” (Thesis 2). Upon reading this, I was immediately reminded of Benjamin’s “close,” but not necessarily because it seems to be as opposite as close and separated might seem to imply. (Again, I’m in need of revisiting Benjamin.) One way “into” a concrete discussion of these ideas might be to analyze one of the concepts the Debord ties to this spectacular separation: the manifestation and perception of reality.

This is where my interest in alternate reality games forces itself onto the screen. Debord goes on to write that “the spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production. It is not something added to the real world… it is the very heart of society’s real unreality” (Thesis 6). This paradoxical “real unreality” encourages me to analyze the ARG as a type of spectacle, or, moreover, as a genre that resonates with some because it can be situated into a society of the spectacle. The connection is more than the convenience of the term “real unreality” or Debord’s continual use of the word “reality” early in his book; I see this pull between “close” in Benjamin and “separate” yet “unified” in Debord as potentially leading to some understanding of immersion–a relationship between humans and media that Jane McGonigal argues to be one of the key features of the ARG genre. While Debord and Benjamin do not explicitly address immersion as such, the ubiquity of images in the mechanical and post-mechanical economy and our ability to distinguish between original and reproduction (and the perhaps artificial distinction between the two categories) are of key concern to both. And, as Paul Virilio argues in The Information Bomb, the predominance of images, especially those mediated by digital networked technology, create an immersing effect of overlapping virtual realities.

Furthermore, the tansmedia forms and aesthetics of ARGs speak to Debord’s assertion that the “spectacle is the chief product of present-day society” formed by “an ever-growing mass of image objects” (Thesis 15)–a system of production that sees increased specialization and a “generalized separation of worker and product [that] has spelled… the end of any comprehensive view of the job done, as well as the end of direct personal communication between producers” (Thesis 26). In transmedia production, there is perhaps an even greater focus on separation of skills than found in traditional media production (such as television), due to the production of image across multiple media: video, text, animation, digital text, graphic arts, audio, etc. However, Henry Jenkins, in Convergence Culture, argues that successful world-building in transmedia does require a high degree of communication between producers. Furthermore, transmedia offers a few potential lenses to view the nuances of production and isolation of labor on at least two levels: an examination of the Writers Guild of America 2008 strike to gain compensation for the transmedia distribution of content and narratives, the adoption of the Transmedia Producer credit by the Producers Guild of America (PGA) in April 2010, and the establishment of the Transmedia Artist Guild (TAG) around the same time. The second lens might consider the relationship between producers and players, an at-best blurry distinction in the world of ARGs, where the interpretive and puzzle-solving labor of the players moves the game in sometimes-unplanned trajectories. Admittedly, I’m probably less interested in these approaches.

Furthermore, the fact that most ARGs are produced specifically as marketing pieces to support entertainment products leads to several opportunities for dialogues between Debord and ARGs with respect to the commodification of reality and the spectacle as image of the total production of this commodification. Transmedia, in a sense, uses most available modes of media production in order to sell the experience of a product (usually another media artifact, such as a film or television program). Or, as Debord states in Thesis 67: “Waves of enthusiasm for particular products, fueled and boosted by the communications media, are propagated with lightning speed.”

Buried in all of this rambling about potential pathways is a central concern about how the spectacle mediates reality and how the ARG mediates reality, and if these two mediations are interrelated. If they are or are not, what might each reveal about how our relations (both between each other and to media) are influenced by the proliferation of representations transmitted through a nearly ubiquitous networked digital technology–a cultural situation that precipitates discussions of the real and the virtual (with an option for “real and fictional”) and, furthermore, if those categories are discernible.

To be sure, there are many potential “papers” in here. As of this instance, I’m most interested in examining immersion through Debord, Benjamin, and Caroline Jones (“Senses” from CTMS), incorporating McGonigal and Virilio and published reflections from players of ARGs, most likely The Cloudmakers, as they have a well-documented archive. I could see myself reaching for some Baudrillard, as well. In here might also be taking up the idea of metareflexivity and infrareflexivity, as this seems to be one of the ways through which I’d like to understand the immersion of some ARG players, as well as a way that the genre itself asserts its particular aesthetic (“this is not a game”). For this, I’d have to incorporate Latour and would probably seek to move in some paratextual studies of ARGs by Jonathan Gray.

Another potential examination could centered on labor and the ARGs tie to advertising. This would involve Debord, McGonigal, Jenkins, at least, and a look at several ARGs and other outside readings on media production, the TAG, PGA, and SWG strike.

2. What ideas do you have about how we can use online resources (as well as the other resources of class) to support you in writing the most kick-ass (or insert otherwisely appropriate adjective here) seminar paper of which you are capable?

Of course, I have ideas! One idea would be to try to mimic the transmedia aesthetics of the ARG in the representation of the argument. This could involve using print, web, video, audio, graphic art, spatially-distributed clues, codes, etc. But, that would be time-consuming. 🙂 As many ARGs have some sort of digital archive of the experience and even sometimes the game artifacts, a hypertextual product might be appropriate as well, linking to these elements when discussing them. But that’s just a remediated footnote, I suppose…

2 thoughts on “Spectacle, Space, and Production of (Alternate) Reality

  1. anne

    Ah, Jay, you have laid out many good possible directions here, and there’s no question that you can develop any of these into fine papers.
    Here are a few concerns/responses I have:
    1) No matter what you do with Debord and ARGs, I’d like you to avoid arguing that ARGs are simply examples of spectacle as Debord defines it, because that will back you into a corner of having to argue either that ARGs are as deeply problematic as spectacle is for Debord or that spectacle needs to be reconsidered… and neither of those directions seems to me as fruitful for you as other of the directions you propose (such as the spatial metaphors at work throughout these analyses). Is there any reason why your interest in *immersion* cannot be woven into this?
    2) When you speak of the “separation of skills” in Debord, I think his understanding of “separation” is different from yours. He is speaking of the alienation of labor, and hence of the separation of workers from the ability to shape the use and circulation of what they make (see the contextualization I wrote for the Debord reading) — and not of how differing tasks require people to come together, bringing different abilities to share. I do not know (but am now curious about) writings that approach this from the Marxist perspective, but there seems to be here potential for discussing how transmedia might enable there to be enhanced relations between groups of people and their work.
    How about for your alternate project that will come out of your seminar paper (this alternate project is not yet well described in the course calendar but will be soon, once I finish revising the calendar for the last half of the semester) you experiment with the ARG possibilities? That would keep you grounded in the solidity of your writing…

  2. Kara van de Graaf

    Hey Jay!

    I sure do miss having my CW media buddy around campus. Hope you’re not too tuckered out from your new job and that all is well on the homefront!

    I anticipated that you would have a really excellent idea for a seminar project and, of course, you do. Anne’s comment about Debord seems so smart and helpful, I hope that I could briefly suggest some ways that other readings could be useful to you as well. It strikes me that, in the world of ARGs, there are very often capitalistic and market forces driving and shaping the scope of the game. Many of the most widely known and participated in ARGs are also linked, as viral marketing, to commodities. AI, Halo 2, television shows like Dexter, and even DIY projects like LonelyGirl15 all have ties to potential financial gain. And, even as it remains possible to make an ARG that doesn’t have corporate sponsorship, the extent that these games engage with “real life” often makes some funding and capital pretty darn handy. I mean, what if you need to register a phone number, a PO BOX, etc?

    So, I guess I’m thinking about the ways that this element of ARGs can tie back into some of the Marxist approaches from people like Adorno and Horkheimer. Do ARGs still count as part of the culture industry? Are there transgressive potentials for ARGs (ala Baudrillard for this week?). And, if so, how can we engage with the ways that capitalism co-opts such projects?



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