Issue #189: Red light, green light

In Alenka Zupančič’s Odd One In (2008), she opens the chapter “The Ego and the It” with a humorous reflection on a polite question:

In many languages there is a splendid and constantly used form of polite question. In English the question is: How’s it going? The greatness of this formula resides in the fact that the usual answer (Very well, thank you) leaves wonderfully intact the ambiguity of this question, its two possible “subjects.” In order to see this, it is enough to shift the accent a little and to emphasize the “it” in “How’s it going?” What I have in mind is that the full answer to the question How’s it going? might very well be something like: It is going very well. But me—well, that’s another matter. I’m tired, I’m depressed, my back aches.... (63)

Clever and theoretically illuminating as this bit is, I think it’s fair to say that both “it” and “me” are doing extremely poorly.

Over the weekend I watched two episodes of the new Netflix series, Squid Game. I thought about them for a while. And then I wrote about them.

The Nature of Desire in Squid Game

Squid Game (2021), a new “death game” live action TV show from Netflix, has been generating a lot of excitement. Having watched the first two episodes, I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit.

The show is deliberately paced, different from the breakneck plot progression of its most immediate comparison, Alice in Borderland (2020). It follows Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a destitute and recently divorced father who has a gambling problem. Like a more ostensibly sympathetic Howard Ratner, or a more easygoing Kaiji, Gi-hun’s aspirations at buying his estranged daughter a nice dinner and birthday present go up in smoke at the race track and at the UFO machine.

The compulsive nature of his behavior is clear even as his more altruistic side regularly emerges. He helps a woman who picks his pocket for his trouble (Kang Sae-byeok played by Jung Ho-yeon) and, once he’s entered the game (along with Ho-yeon, of course) he looks out for an elderly player, Oh Il-nam (Oh Young-soo).

But the question of avarice and desperation still remain. To test his psychological predisposition to playing games for money that could result in his death, a mysterious man confronts Gi-hun and offers to play ddakji with him — a game similar to American pogs where, using two folded squares of paper, one player tries to flip the other player’s folded square. Every time Gi-hun wins, he makes 100,000 won. But every loss means a firm slap in the face. He loses a lot. In fact, when Gi-hun finally comes out on top, he almost forgets himself and swings out his arm to slap his opponent.

In this moment, we see the extent to which Gi-hun plays the game for its own sake. There’s a childishness to him, a quality the show highlights with its opening — a reminiscence about the titular squid game.

Thus, Gi-hun joins a game to make the money he desperately needs but plays for more than just the money. This is the exact paradigm that structures his gambling addiction. If he simply wanted to make money, there are methods that are more reliable. But it’s the game itself to which Gi-hun is addicted; and not just because he wants to make money, but because he wants to be a winner.

Gi-hun is eventually kidnapped, along with 455 other participants, to play the mysterious “Game” that makes up the majority of the show’s action — a game in which losers are killed. In their first competition, red light green light, a motion sensing robotic girl in the style of the Big Boy Restaurant statue commands machine guns to finish off those still moving when she declares “red light.”

The propulsive forward movement of the game evokes the Lacanian death drive. One’s life is on the line and the trajectory through the game is dictated by a refusal to give up one’s desire. That desire, of course, is not always oriented toward money as its objet a facsimile but something more symptomatic which serves as the stand-in for that object-cause. But the true circumstance that begins to resemble the drive is the fact that the ostensible forward movement doesn’t get anyone everywhere. They are equally trapped in the symbology of arrested development playing a children’s game as they are in the Game itself, which returns them to their starting point once it has concluded. The players are only incrementally closer to a prize of obscene wealth, but it is safe to assume nobody is going to win it.

If my Lacanian readings sound harebrained as ever, consider the fact that the man himself is visible in Squid Game.

For as much longer as I am in position to be a partisan of Lacan (and I stress the uncertainty of this point), this is a good thing. The appearance of this book in Squid Game does more for Lacanian theory than this newsletter ever could. And it also further substantiates my reading. Desire’s janus-faced nature, oriented toward the objet a but ostensibly toward money and victory both, is revealed as contradictory in Gi-hun. He believes his participation in various games of chance and the Game of the show will lead him to wealth. But it’s precisely through his need for victory that he will be forced to relinquished his wealth. It’s a variation of the false choice, “your money or your life.”

The categorical imperative, though, is just as important to Gi-hun as desire. The examples of his altruism suggest a cosmic calculus. If Gi-hun has been “paying it forward,” his investment pays off as Abdul Ali (Tripathi Anupam) saves him in the course of the deadly game of red light, green light.

Shows in this genre are often as cynical and nihilistic as one can imagine, but between Abdul, Gi-hun, and Il-nam, this is a cast of characters fit for a young adult novel. Despite their foibles, desperation, and desirous nature, these three heroes are ultimately good guys in the most ideal sense. Rather than flattening moral and symbolic complexity, this heightens it. Even the best of us are subject to desire and the abyssal drive. A doting father can’t disentangle what is done for love and what is done for jouissance. In the end, Gi-hun can only award his daughter with a stand-in for the violence of his own despair.

The gun-that-is-actually-a-lighter mirrors the complexity of the Game. Despite how things may appear, everything that happens within the Game’s compound is a designed and intended outcome by the game masters. Disentangling the mystery of the Game itself — its purpose and who organized it — remains difficult after the show’s first two episodes. But understanding Squid Game’s characters and philosophical concerns is far easier. To where will desire lead Gi-hun? Only time will tell.

Weekly Reading List — Despite being 21 years old, old enough to drink, Nancy Fraser’s “Rethinking Recognition” reads as a timely and detailed exploration of the emphasis on representational politics and the separation from material interests and class unity that this shift has occasioned in some contexts. She lays it all out in the piece, of course. A riveting essay.

After stumbling on Accented Cinema’s Tony Leung video, I’ve gotten pretty interested in their work. This new video provides an interesting avenue of approach to Shang-Chi (2021).

And I’ve got some music for you.

Until next time.