In this interview for the TCS Website, James Ash interviews Pasi Väliaho about his recent article on video games, and his recent special issue (co-edited with Julian Henriques and Milla Tiainen) on rhythm (Body & Society, 20.3-4).
James Ash: Your work is part of an important shift in game and media studies for thinking about the politics of video games. Where previous work has done a good job of critiquing how particular people or places are represented in a negative or stereotypical way by video games, your work seems to point to a kind of corporeal or neuropolitics, in which video games materially alter how we think about and act in the world. Here you define the political as ‘the shaping and reshaping of corporeal capacities and textures of experience that characterize contemporary society’ (2014 p117-118). Could you reflect on your political project a little? With this in mind, what do you think first person military video games such as Call of Duty tell us about contemporary society or regimes of governance?
Pasi Väliaho: My initial inspiration for the work on video games came from Harun Farocki’s four-part video installation Serious Games (2009-2010). Farocki studied how video games and virtual reality platforms are employed by the US military in the training of soldiers as well as in the treatment of psychic traumas caused by warfare. It’s disturbing to watch, especially to witness the operational conflation between the action-images of games and the reality of war. In the project’s synopsis, Farocki stated: ‘Video games are the single most important medium to shape collective imagination.’ And he continued to speculate how in 50-60 years, when today’s players are about to die, they will not be remembering their childhood sleigh, like Citizen Kane did, but the virtual environments and avatars of their childhood video gaming worlds. Citizen Kane’s sleigh can be seen as a metaphor for cinema. And now this sleigh has been replaced by a completely different kind of imaginary.
Why these images and/or new types of imagination now? This was the question I wanted to pursue. Of course, there are many ways in which the question can be approached. But for me, the issue was how video games imagery gives expression to the socio-political reality in which we (in the West) live at the moment. One way to think about images, or rather ‘types’ of images, is to consider them as diagrams in the sense that Gilles Deleuze, reading Michel Foucault, defined it: expressions of relations between what we can see, think and do at a given historical moment. What kinds of capacities of perceiving and doing are we to map video games imagery as our guide, and when focusing on action games and/or first-person shooters in particular (which I see somehow paradigmatic of the ‘newness’ of the medium)?
From this viewpoint, I wasn’t interested in the politics of representation in video games. When it comes to action video games, I think that they actually undermine the kind of perceptual and cognitive engagement with images which concepts like representation have been developed to account for. The modality of ‘seeing as’ (which for Ludwig Wittgenstein combined visual images with the activity of thinking), for instance, seems to me to be virtually missing in the experience of the video game’s action-images. These images are rather about doing, indeed ‘clicking’, than about ‘returning the gaze’ or anything like that. Like Kane’s sleigh, first person shooters, for instance, suck the player into a circuit of fluctuating affective thrills and predominantly corporeal, even visceral experiences. Hence, my emphasis is on the body, and the politics thereof. For me, any video game, however ‘entertaining’, works in principle like the ‘serious games’ used by the contemporary military apparatus: to produce and deploy certain corporeal capacities. This is a matter of ‘training’ to cope with the current socio-political reality, similarly to what Walter Benjamin noted about the cinema at the heyday of industrial capitalism. Richard Grusin talks about how ‘affect attunment’ in video gaming experience works to that effect. Playing is a drill.
I saw the first person shooter as paradigmatic in distributing and standardizing the kinds of perceptual, affective and cognitive capacities that today’s society is based on. A game like Call of Duty, especially in its online multiplayer mode, immerses the player into an environment of combat, competition, looming threats and recurring catastrophes, and the player’s engagement with the screen events is primarily anticipatory and pre-emptive by nature (Where is the enemy? How can I catch them before they catch me? How can I prevent them from getting ahead of my step? I haven’t played Call of Duty for a while, but I can still revoke the uneasy feeling, deeply engrained in the memory of my nervous system, of not knowing whether there is an enemy sneaking behind my back…). In this way, the game crystallizes, albeit in a simplified form, how power – following Michel Foucault, I mean power as subjectification – works in our neoliberal era: how we are being turned into atomistic and competitive individuals who are simultaneously fearful of an impending economic crisis or terrorist attack. The future promises ultimately nothing but the continuation of the ‘game’ or death. Or, if you think of finance and military (the two key concentrations of power after the waning of democratic institutions), they operate according to this weird pre-emptive logic, seeking to ‘securitize’ the future and to empty it of contingency and potentiality.
I wanted to work on these homologies between video gaming experience and current socio-political reality, which are more than mere coincidences. I think video games, particularly the action-images of first-person shooters, ought to be seen as kinds of corporeal adjustments into this reality, especially in terms of the distribution of the affective mood of fear and a model of pre-emptive cognition. This is their power. I call it ‘neuropower’.
JA: The notion of rhythm is key to your Body and Society piece on Call of Duty. In the piece, you link the notion of rhythm to concepts of affect, plasticity and the unconscious workings of the brain. You argue video games such as Call of Duty encourage particular rhythms of thought and motor action which minimise the ‘capacity to reflect’ (2014 p129). What do you see as the problem with these forms of cognition? Is minimising a capacity to reflect just a negative thing, or could such a capacity open up potentially liberating modes of being or thinking?
PV: I am working with an apparent dualism here – between affect and reflection, or movement and thought – which should be considered merely as an analytical distinction rather than an actual matter of fact. In a sense, the critique I present resonates with writings on film at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, when the cinema apparatus was a new phenomenon. Several critics and theorists pointed out the importance of rhythm to the aesthetics of film as well as to its social and political power. Among others, Benjamin linked the rhythmic experience of cinema to the general experiential framework of industrial capitalism, from inhabiting new urban environments to the so-called rationalization of work (in Taylorism, for instance).
But why rhythm, in relation to video games? As you point out, I am using the concept of rhythm here to unravel the ‘pre-noetic’ dimension of video gaming experience, trying to figure out how the feedback loop between the screen and the player works. Rhythm becomes a critical concept to unravel processes of individuation in this context. In this regard, as I already suggested, the player can be seen as resonating with the neoliberal ideal of the homo economicus. But I don’t want to subscribe to any sort of essentialism here. It is not necessary that video gaming experience produces these but not other kinds rhythmic ‘entanglements’ and individuations. I am simply focusing on selected forms (particularly, first-person shooters) that have emerged at a particular historical and political moment. The medium itself can of course develop into various kinds of directions, depending on how it becomes differently configured in the contexts of entertainment, military and artistic experiments. We don’t know what kinds of forms we will be dealing with in 20 or even 10 years.
If you allow a further comparison to cinema, I understand our situation as critics and theorists is somewhat similar to early critics of cinema. With video games, we are dealing with a very young medium (compared with the ‘deep time’ of writing, for instance), and our analyses are obviously limited, not least in terms of historical depth. To take an example, in the 1960s and 1970s Andrei Tarkovsky developed a different aesthetics and conceptualization of rhythm in cinema from those of the early 20th century, one that emphasised the image’s capacity to give rise to a ‘pensive’ frame of perception. We should note that this was before video, which changed the whole picture (images reflecting on images, etc.). It was the same old celluloid cinema but the medium’s potentials became differently understood and employed. Accordingly, something else can of course emerge from the prenoetic rhythms of first-person shooters: action may at some point give rise to critical reflection, affective thrills to a ‘pensive player’.
At the same time, I have to say that, in theoretical terms, I am suspicious of recent celebrations of the liberating, even revolutionary powers of the affective and the pre-reflexive per se. In my understanding, subversive gestures begin with the critique of dominant frames of being and perceiving. That is to say, the political problem to me is how conceptual understanding can develop from affective experience, what kinds of critical imaginations can emerge from our mediated embodiments. Politics of media can be seen as a question of counter-rhythms: two or more rhythms coming together on the screen’s surface so as to give rise to critical awareness. I think we are even today cognitively so attuned to cinematic forms that the technique of montage – which compares one image with another, either temporally or spatially (as in video installation works) – still has the best potential to accomplish such effects. But the situation can (and will) change, of course. What we need is more (artistic) experimentation with the potentials of video games, which ‘restores’ the medium to alternative uses.
JA: Does the notion of rhythm you develop link in any way to your recent book ‘Biopolitical Screens’? I am thinking in particular here of your discussion of the neoliberal brain. Could you explain what that means and how the concept can be used to understand video games or culture more broadly?
PV: ‘Neoliberal brain’ is a term – perhaps an oxymoron – I developed to account for contemporary models of subjectification. I already touched upon the neoliberal individual above; how we are made to feel ourselves and experience the world around us in terms of competition, struggle, crisis and fear. I also link the neurosciences to this problematic. As we know, the neurosciences have during the past 30 years or so developed into a dominant model of conceptualizing who we are, or should be. Nowadays, in popular discourses in particular, there’s ‘neuro’ this and ‘neuro’ that. We are our synapses, to paraphrase one neuroscientist. There is also a particular visual culture that supports, and perhaps even legitimizes, these articulations, which I talk about briefly in Biopolitical Screens. I mean visualizations of the brain by means of fMRI and other techniques that are often meant to demonstrate the biological basis of our emotions, thought processes, and so on. Interestingly, from a historical viewpoint, there is a link here to cinema, which was developed, among other places, in Etienne-Jules Marey’s experimental physiological laboratory in the 1880s to visualize physiological processes and, by implication, the workings of the nervous system. But Marey never went so far as to talk about emotions or the ‘self’.
In my approach, I follow the type of critique, developed by Catherine Malabou in particular, that seeks to unravel the politics of neuroscientific knowledge. As we know in the humanities, objectivities (or ‘truths’) are context-dependent. Malabou points out a connection between neuroscientific ideas of plasticity and self-organization and the socio-economic imperatives of our times: the readiness to constantly adapt to new situations, to modify ourselves according to demands and risks, as well as to ‘respawn’, if you will, after catastrophe. In a sense, one could argue that the neurosciences provide the discourse through which these imperatives become partly objectified and even made ‘real’ at the level of individual experience.
From this angle, I treat the ‘neoliberal brain’ as an image of thought that contains some of the key concerns of current political reality. Above all, it is a conceptual image that represents the individual produced at present-day intersections of science, economy and entertainment. The video game player (as framed by first-person shooters) comes across as one type of instantiation of the ‘neoliberal brain’. The ‘neoliberal brain’ accounts for the player, who competes, adapts, anticipates, pre-empts, and fears – a model of subjectivity we alternatively encounter in much of the literature that has been written on neuroscientific theory. Likewise, the drone operator represents one dimension of the ‘neoliberal brain’, as does the patient suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and treated with virtual reality therapy. I don’t mention bankers directly in Biopolitical Screens, but I should have.
JA: In your research, you draw upon work from neuroscience and cultural theory that has been influenced by neuroscience. However, there has been some critique of accounts of embodiment and media that use this work. These critiques suggest that models of the body based upon notions of the neurological and the somatic unconscious are too deterministic and almost return to an out-dated model of direct media effects, in which bodies are unconsciously manipulated by media technologies and so appear as powerless to respond to these technologies. How would you respond to this kind of critique? For example, how might notions of the neoliberal brain or the cerebral subject complicate these kinds of critique?
PV: I think the critique of using neuroscientific theory to explain embodiment, or cultural processes more generally speaking, is well grounded. In my work, I have not (at least consciously) tried to apply neurosciences to the analysis of video games in any straightforward manner. That is to say, my aspiration hasn’t been to show how neuroscientific conceptualizations could be taken as a valid theoretical framework in the analysis of media and culture. Rather, my epistemic preoccupations are somewhat different – let me try to explain.
There is a strong influence of Friedrich Kittler in my work, especially his notion of the ‘discourse network’ (Aufschreibesystem). Even if I’m not looking for medial aprioris, this notion appeals to me as it potentially brings articulations from different areas of culture – science, arts, politics, etc. – onto the same drawing board, so to speak, without any essential separations between them, and seeks to reveal how they come to work together at a given historical moment. However, unlike Kittler, I give a lot of analytical and epistemic weight to the concept of image. And by ‘image’ I don’t simply mean visual images, but also verbal and/or conceptual images, affective images, and so on – both ‘internal’ and ‘external’ images. At any given moment in culture, one could argue, particular kinds of images come to form a network or a system, and to dominate our understanding of who we are and to regulate our perceptions and actions.
In Biopolitical Screens my aspiration was to analyse what kinds of images matter to our lives at the moment; what are, at least partly, the images we ‘live by’. To unravel these, I wanted to bring various kinds of images – video games, neuroscience, economic rationalities, military strategies – into a constellation within which these images would start to reflect on as well as refract one another, to explain and even transform each other. Thus I brought the temporal logic of action video games to bear on the neuroscientific understanding of the brain’s fundamental anticipatory functions, for instance, or the idea of the neurological unconscious to resonate with the video game player’s affective excitements. The main point behind these perhaps abrupt montages is that they bring up the workings of power in society. The movements and rhythms between and within images come to form an operative ‘system’, which dominates, to paraphrase Jacques Rancière, what makes sense and what does not, what is visible and what is not. Within this system, images shine in their positivity and objectivity. That is to say, they hold the power to speak for the real and act in the name of truth as long as the system is operative. In this sense, we, indeed, ‘are’ our brains. From this perspective, it makes no sense to me to try to show how one image (for instance, the idea of the neurological unconscious) is false. Rather, we should to try to expose its connections with other images and the operative logic animating these connections.
Of course, the power of one set of images to speak for the real is only temporary. And it is easier to unravel particular ‘systems’ of images from temporal distance. Again, a historical example: in 1916, psychologist Hugo Münsterberg wrote the first ‘scientific’ book on film. He was a student of Wilhelm Wundt’s at Leibzig, established the first experimental psychological laboratory at Harvard University, and used his theories to explain the aesthetics of the movies and film spectatorship. Münsterberg’s ideas have long been considered ‘outdated’, but we can see a very pertinent connection between his chapter on attention and the iris shots in Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), for example – a connection that speaks of the mechanization as well as commodification of perception in science and entertainment during the early twentieth-century, among other things. But when we focus on contemporary matters, things get more difficult. Nobody takes Münsterberg very seriously anymore but the scope and value of neuroscientific theories are currently under much debate as well as developing all the time. That is perhaps why it is difficult to take a more ‘distantiated’ and contextualizing look on them.
My aspiration has not been to get involved in those debates in perhaps any other way than by trying to make the picture somewhat more intricate with the notion of the ‘neoliberal brain’ and the complex interaction and ‘knots’ between different and seemingly distant areas of reality this notion seeks to point out. Of course, this image can be challenged by other kinds of (conceptual, visual, etc.) images. Mapping the life of images and producing counter-images is precisely the task of critique.
JA: Are there any other articles, book chapters or books that you have written that readers who are interested in exploring these themes in more detail could look at?
PV: I have written one short piece on visual power and drones. It touches on the themes of militarization of perception and pre-emption. But I’m currently focusing on my next project (‘Kingdom of Shadows’), which will go way back in history, to the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. I am looking at the early days of the magic lantern and the form and notion of the projected image that the technology afforded. It was during the Baroque era that what Vilém Flusser calls ‘shadow gods’ first appeared on an illuminated wall. And it was then that a generalized and unprecedented ‘assault’, by means of direct technological capture, on our dreams and imaginations began – an assault we have globally felt inside our skulls ever since the birth of the movies. It is this genealogy of projection, power and imagination that I am interested in at the moment.
 Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (Paris: Minuit, 2004), 42–46.
 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (2nd version)’, in Selected Writings, vol. 3: 1935-1938 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 108.
 Richard Grusin, Premediation: Affect and Mediality after 9/11 (London: Palgrave, 2010).
 Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do With Our Brain? (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009).
 See Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).
 Hugo Münsterberg, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (New York: D. Appleton & Co.).
 Pasi Valiaho, ‘The Light of God: Notes on the Visual Economy of Drones’, NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies, Autumn 2014: http://www.necsus-ejms.org/light-god-notes-visual-economy-drones/
 Vilém Flusser, Gestures, trans. Nancy Ann Roth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 87.
Pasi Väliaho teaches and writes on theory and history of film and visual media. He has a PhD in Media Studies from the University of Turku, Finland, and is Senior Lecturer in Film and Screen Studies at Department of Media & Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Biopolitical Screens: Image, Power, and the Neoliberal Brain (MIT Press, 2014) and Mapping the Moving Image: Gesture, Thought and Cinema circa 1900 (Amsterdam University Press, 2010). His articles have been published in journals such as Theory, Culture & Society, Space & Culture, Discourse, Parallax, Theory & Event and Symplokê.
James Ash is a social scientist working at the intersections of media, cultural studies and human geography. He completed his ESRC funded PhD in Geography at Bristol University in 2009 and now lectures at Newcastle University. James’ main research interests revolve around understanding how technology is designed and used in practice through the lens of phenomenology, post-structural theory and ethnographic methods. In his PhD and subsequent publications these themes were explored in relation to videogame design and video gaming. Subsequently he is developing concepts to theorise digital interfaces and how they mediate our experiences of everyday life.
Readers may also be interested in some of the following related material:
The Special Issue on Rhythm
Edited by Julian Henriques, Milla Tiainen and Pasi Väliaho
Body & Society, September & December 2014; vol. 20, 3-4
‘Video Games and the Cerebral Subject: On Playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3′
- Pasi Väliaho
Body & Society, September & December 2014; vol. 20, 3-4: pp. 113-139.
‘Rhythm Returns: Movement and Cultural Theory’
- Julian Henriques,
- Milla Tiainen,
- and Pasi Väliaho
Body & Society, September & December 2014; vol. 20, 3-4: pp. 3-29.
‘Affectivity, Biopolitics and the Virtual Reality of War’
- Pasi Väliaho
Theory, Culture & Society, March 2012; vol. 29, 2: pp. 63-83.
‘Attention, Videogames and the Retentional Economies of Affective Amplification’
- James Ash
Theory, Culture & Society, November 2012; vol. 29, 6: pp. 3-26., first published on November 5, 2012
‘Technologies of Captivation: Videogames and the Attunement of Affect’
- James Ash
Body & Society, March 2013; vol. 19, 1: pp. 27-51.
‘Special Issue: Cultural Techniques’
Edited by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Ilinca Iurascu and Jussi Parikka
‘E-Special Issue on Friedrich Kittler’
Edited by Jussi Parikka and Paul Feigelfeld
As well as the following Open Access material on the TCS Website
James Ash on Affective Transmission:
Interview with James Ash on Videogames, Attention and Affect:
And a range of other pieces on the subject of Affect: