Issue #234: Escaping the Enclosures of Master Manipulators
Table of Contents
It’s been a great week. You’ll have to wait for writing on Jordan Peele’s Nope, but it’s funny how some of the important themes on the notion of spectacle from that film relate to The Rehearsal, yet another indictment of the all-consuming machinery of entertainment. One does have a slightly more hostile attitude to those chewed up and spit out by the mechanism of spectacle, however.
I am attending to my dissertation with some renewed focus and I’ll take this opportunity to prompt you to consider a paid subscription or some polite evangelism for the newsletter. More attention and renumeration for the work I am doing here will give me more time to dedicate to it and other writing pursuits. While the value proposition, I’ll admit, is mostly a warm sense of contribution to a tireless and thankless endeavor, the more people subscribe the more I’ll be able to reward them. I would appreciate it.
I have been playing Live A Live (2022) and Xenoblade Chronicles 3 (2022) a bit. The fact that an untranslated SNES RPG from 1994 has been lovingly remade and localized is remarkable. It’s an incredible game and great for those with a shortage of time. The game has seven distinctive protagonists with different variations on the core turn-based combat, and I only tackled one of their routes in the original game. Akira, the giant robot piloting biker hero of the “Near Future” is also who I selected first in the remake. His story took about three hours to finish and is satisfying in its own right. Now I’m on to the Shifu, we’ll see how much progress I am able to make given my other obligations.
This week, I continue my audition for official podcast host for various HBO series.
Through the Looking Glass
It’s no accident that Christina is a game designer. Dolores, in all her iterations, seems to love games. Or has at least grown to think in the form of a game, between Westworld, the supposed maze, the onset of the rebellion inspired by yet another of Dr. Robert Ford’s narratives. Hale, too, fills the world with games and gaming in a way that suggests an attachment that is outside of the rationality that is the supposed defining characteristic of Hosts. Caleb’s imprisonment is yet another multi-layered game, the design of Hale and in turn Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy.
In “Fidelity,” Hale has another puzzle she must untangle by subjecting Caleb to a series of repeated trials and observing how he reacts to the dead bodies — his own dead bodies — he encounters on his journey. But for Hale, the interest is in some secret that Caleb might possess. In order to learn it from him, she believes this cycle of torments, similar to the Hosts’ loops in Westworld, will help her get the information she’s looking for. This uncertainty, this single kernel of insight Hale believes will solve her problems, is a symptom of a problem she doesn’t realize she has. She doesn’t realize that she’s a person, whether or not she’s human.
The opposition between humans and Hosts, as well as their differences, are well outlined by the show. They both have their exemplars: Hale and C. Hale refers to Hosts as “perfectly immortal, perfectly rational,” while C says “feelings are just affects to them. A switch that you can turn on and off. You can’t love or lose fully when it’s just a choice.” The implication of C’s opinion of the Hosts is that human’s are paradigmatically able to love and lose and have feelings that can’t be turned on and off — empirically debatable. The philosophical point has little to do with the empirical facts, however.
Just as with last week, the emergence of subjectivity is key. The interlinking stories of C, Caleb, and Hale double-down on the importance of the discrete, fungible self. This sequence of episodes, with all of its mirror symbolism and consideration of the human subject, seems to welcome the second in a series of slow close readings of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1973).
As Bernard and C work on repairing Maeve, he tells her about the consciousness-scanning technology Hale used in the “Golden Age” park to learn how to control humanity. In the past, Delos used hats to collect guests psychic data. What did Hale decide on?
The mirror, of course. It’s just too perfect. Just as Hale’s goal is to understand humanity as digital facsimiles, Lacan describes psychoanalysis’s goal as a specific kind of understanding of subjectivity writing, “Psycho-analysis … is governed by a particular aim, which is historically defined by the elaboration of the notion of the subject. It poses this notion in a new way, by leading the subject back to his signifying dependence” (77). This “signifying dependence” is a restatement of his view of the subject. Humanity is defined not simply by its signifying capability, but the fact that humans are compelled to be subjects of discourse. One cannot help but speak and be read. Hosts are no different, but Hale in particular seeks to read humans as a text — a body of data. Humans read themselves, too, in their identifications with the specular images that come as reflections or intersubjective perceptions.
For Lacan, it’s seeing rather than what I’ve termed “reading” that is at issue. He, inspired by “La Jeune Parque,” explores the idiosyncrasies of the phrase “I see myself seeing myself.” C sees herself being seen by Hale’s scanning software, but finally does see herself on Bernard’s computer screen. But it’s not her body, it’s a body of code. The ones and zeroes (proverbially speaking) that make up this copy.
C seizes this “scan” from Bernard, enacting Lacan’s point regarding “seeing myself seeing myself” when he writes, “The privilege of the subject seems to be established here from that bipolar reflexive relation by which, as soon as I perceive, my representations belong to me” (81). Caleb also makes a claim of ownership of his “representations,” using the failed Host versions (to his semi-successful Host version, for the moment) to facilitate his escape in the most gruesome fashion — even taking one as a cushion for a distant fall.
No matter how much one may believe their “representations belong to” them, there will always be something that escapes possession of anyone and defies duplication, the stain of difference between an original and its copy. This is the idea to which the episode title, “Fidelity” alludes. Caleb appears to be an exact copy, but he is housed in the same type of enclosure as the failed Host version of James Delos from season two.
Thus, the 279th version of Caleb’s Host counterpart has a slight difference from the 278 that preceded it. This is the clever wink of the episode’s subtitle, “To thine own selves be true,” a variation of a Hamlet line to replace the archetypal Romeo and Juliet quotation, “These violent delights have violent ends.” Caleb is true to his selves through and through, no matter the cost. And he knows what brings them together is the same thing that makes them different, the thing that Hale can’t handle.
As the episode closes, Hale reveals her machinations to Caleb; that his entire travail has been a setup to occasion precisely the outpouring of emotion he serves up to his daughter over the radio. When Hale taunts him, saying “she didn’t hear it” (she did), Caleb replies, “she doesn’t need to,” shades of the letter always reading its destination. But ultimately it’s Caleb who taunts Hale:
We didn’t infect your hosts … You [did]. Your hosts would rather die than live in your world. They’re not infected. They’re just trying to get away from you.
Hale kills Caleb 278, but she also knows he is right. She has been frantically, violently trying to get away from herself as evinced by her repeated puncturing of her burnt left arm.
What Hale wants to get away from is that thing she can never escape, the thing she can’t face up to, the thing that makes her a person. Say it with me, now: jouissance.
Pearl Clutching About Reality TV
Last week, I discussed The Rehearsal (2022) and related it, vaguely, to the online backlash the show and its creator are facing. I’m going to do that yet again today, but I wanted to share one tweet that I think encapsulates the nature of the conflict:
The reaction remains pointed, especially in the wake of Richard Brody’s recent review of the first three episodes. Brody’s writing is fantastic, but he does happen to be mostly wrong about the show in some of the same ways as the wide range of internet commentators. My contention about the show is that it is acutely aware of the position of authority it places Fielder (as a character) in. This is supposed to be a source of humor and it is what makes the show satirical in addition to the other comedic forms it explores. Reality shows attest to be about many different things, but they’re all really just about one — making “good tv,” turning “real people” into entertainment. Usually, that means making someone look really, really stupid. So, reality shows are above all about humiliation. To elaborate another point from last week, this idea of depicting humiliation on reality TV and inflicting suffering on people for the amusement of viewers is something well understood by a duo of commentators on The Bachelor franchise, Chad “BachelorClues” Kultgan and Lizzy “PaceCase” Pace. I mentioned one of their genre-defining neologisms last week, “Slussian protocol,” derived from season 24 Bachelor contestant Hannah Ann Sluss making the comment “we know what we signed up for.”
Regarding The Bachelor franchise specifically, anyone who engages with the show knows what they signed up for — or at least can reasonably be expected to. There are 26 seasons of The Bachelor, 19 seasons of The Bachelorette, 3 seasons of Bachelor Pad, 7 seasons of Bachelor in Paradise, and more than 72 international seasons of The Bachelor aired in 33 different countries, with separate Indian series for the State of Tamil Nadu and the State of Kerala to account for cultural and language differences. It is a ubiquitous cultural product. Even if one may not have the intellectual wherewithal to have the practices of the producers front-of-mind, evident in every social media explosion engineered by making people look bad on TV, it should be obvious that any villain or object of ridicule on the show could be anybody. There are layers of deception and emphatic claims that the show is the best way for someone to find love, but just watching it should give someone the intuitive understanding of what they are signing up for.
The Rehearsal’s latest episode, “Gold Digger,” has only deepened the richness of these connections. This is a biting (and, yes, mean-spirited, even!) satire of reality TV that is more subtle than Fielder’s last attempt in Nathan for You’s (2013) first season, “The Hunk”:
It also deepens the artifice, with the rehearsal of a man named Patrick confronting his brother regarding their shared grand-paternal inheritance. Fielder sets up a second layer to their rehearsal where Patrick strikes up a relationship with the (fake) grandfather of the actor (supposedly out of character) who is playing his brother. This way, Fielder ensures the emotional stakes of the encounter between the two men are, in Patrick’s mind, real, in order to avoid the varied intensity Kor experienced between the staged confessions and the real one.
This setup is clever enough, but it inspires a dropped-jaw more than anything (Fielder’s scheme entails defecation, of course). Fielder appears to be successful in inspiring an emotional breakthrough for Patrick, so much show that he decides to leave the show after a teary-eyed confrontation with the actor playing his brother. Patrick’s departure, an absolutely crucial point, reminds audiences that everyone is here by their own free will. No matter what incentives are in place, disentangling one’s self from Fielder’s entanglement is not impossible nor is it even particularly difficult. But it also inspires some navel-gazing by Fielder-the-character. He can’t create the same emotions in himself that the participants in his scheme appear to be experiencing. Brody thinks he has a good grasp on what’s going on as “Gold Digger” winds down:
In voice-over, Nathan expresses an odd bewilderment about his power to “create feelings for other people’s rehearsals” but not for himself. It’s a bewilderment that reflects the intellectual and emotional blankness at the center of “The Rehearsal.” First, Fielder can’t prank himself; he is pulling the strings. Second, his participants—Kor, Angela, and Patrick—have come to him with problems that he’s supposed to help them solve, whereas Fielder, whatever personal problems he may be working out in the course of the series, has one overriding problem that gets in the way of them all: his very authority.
But isn’t all of this precisely what Fielder makes evident to his audience? Nothing against Brody of course, but he appears to be in this moment the equivalent of The Bachelor viewer who feels nothing but pity for the penultimately eliminated contestant — no consideration of their assuredly forthcoming life changing influencer contracts and the fact that their weeping departure might be for the camera’s benefit. Of course Fielder can’t trick himself, that’s the point. What is remarkable about the show is that his character does, in moments, appear to be tricked. He’s certainly not, as he has his own role to play as a character in this supposedly real drama. But I can’t help but laugh when a pensive Nathan turns a green bell pepper on its side — supposedly picked from the garden — to hide the supermarket sticker. Reality TV may inculcate the worst, most cynical version of paranoid reading, but it’s worth noting that Angela’s face never appears in frame with the offending bell pepper. The entire sequence might have been filmed without her present, even though she is presented as washing the recently acquired produce in the background during this scene.
That’s the thing about reality TV, isn’t it? Whatever about it might be “real,” to whatever extent an individual might represent themselves as themselves using their legal names and speaking about events from their real lives, they are always a character within the text. The Rehearsal is at its most thoughtful not when Nathan grumbles over his inability to be fooled, but when he fools his audience into thinking there’s any emotional stakes for him at all. Whatever narrative might have been presented by the outlandish utterances of his exceptionally bizarre subjects, there is a tremendous amount of editing and revision that happens between the recording and airing of a show. Who knows the actual chronology of events involving Fielder by himself or with a cadre of unnamed actors, he could have filmed these whenever he wanted. The audience will never know. But they will feel something watching everything in its right place. The Rehearsal isn’t a social experiment in which the supposed documentary subjects are being experimented upon — the audience is the real lab animal. If you don’t want to be a part of the experiment, you can just turn off the television.
Weekly Reading List
https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/making-magic/state-design-2022-2022-08-01 — Every year since 2005, Mark Rosewater, head designer for Magic: the Gathering has delivered a “State of Design” article. If you are a Magic player and you haven’t seen this year’s, I suggest taking a look. In short, it appears that Rosewater and the design team are learning the lessons that other players and I would hope they’re learning. No bit of public opinion about Magic that I’ve heard is unrepresented in Rosewater’s lists of “highlights” and “lessons.” Magic sets are planned years in advance, so it’ll be a while before we see the insights from this year of design applied to the cards we play with. Even so, it’s fascinating to see Rosewater translate the sometimes impolite opinions of Magic players into seemingly actionable insights for him and his team.
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Until next time.