Jun 10, 2010


I call myself a post-modern, but I've never really known what Modernity is or was. I still don't fully know - I don't think I ever fully know anything. For this post I'm talking about modernity as Fr. Robert Barron defines it - i.e., modernity as subjective and rationalistic, "privilege of the self" approach to seeking Truth (Descartes' "I think therefore I am" ground and ratification of truth) and the Nietzschean "categories of power" paradigm by which we view and evaluate the world. These concepts are way above me, so I won't even try to address them directly. I'm better at stuff like video games. ;)

As luck would have it, there's a video game that has addressed these issues. I watched a series of playthrough videos for a game called BioShock. The whole thing took at least 8 hours to watch; here's the 5m intro:

Andrew Ryan represents a modernity as articulated by Ayn Rand - individualistic, anarcho-libertarian capitalism. Unfortunately, IMO, too many contemporary Christians lean towards, if not fully embrace, this kind of political and socioeconomic attitude. BioShock does a fantastic job exploring natural consequences of this kind of ideology. Furthermore, it presents and demonstrates how modernist fundamentalism corrupts other related human endeavors; it does so with a smart use of characters and their interpersonal conflicts.

Brigid Tenenbaum is a genetic scientist who moves to Rapture (Ryan's underwater Utopian city) and discovers a kind of genetic super-stem-cell called ADAM that allows people to rearrange their cells however they wish (including some wicked super-powers that you use while playing the game). When the commercial research centers refuse to fund her research, she turns to a mob-boss, Frank Fontaine, who directs her research towards manufacturing ADAM as an addictive drug. The population of Rapture demands more and more ADAM, and Tenenbaum devises a way to mass produce ADAM using the bodies of young girls - Little Sisters as they are called in the game.

Dr. Steinman is a surgeon in Rapture who uses ADAM to treat patients. You find his personal journals which perfectly portray the descent down the modernist slippery slope from theoretical to abominable:

  1. Ryan and ADAM, ADAM and Ryan... all those years of study, and was I ever truly a surgeon before I met them? How we plinked away with our scalpels and toy morality. Yes, we could lop a boil here, and shave down a beak there, but... but could we really change anything? No. But ADAM gives us the means to do it. And Ryan frees us from the phony ethics that held us back. Change your look, change your sex, change your race. It's yours to change, nobody else's.

  2. ADAM presents new problems for the professional. As your tools improve, so do your standards. There was a time, I was happy enough to take off a wart or two, or turn a real circus freak into something you can show in the daylight. But that was then, when we took what we got, but with ADAM... the flesh becomes clay. What excuse do we have not to sculpt, and sculpt, and sculpt, until the job is done?

  3. I am beautiful, yes. Look at me, what could I do to make my features finer? With ADAM and my scalpel, I have been transformed. But is there not something better? What if now it is not my skill that fails me... but my imagination?

  4. When Picasso became bored of painting people, he started representing them as cubes and other abstract forms. The world called him a genius! I've spent my entire surgical career creating the same tired shapes, over and over again: the upturned nose, the cleft chin, the ample bosom. Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could do with a knife what that old Spaniard did with a brush?

  5. Steinman: Four-oh silk and ...done.

    Nurse: The nose looks terrific, Doctor Steinman ...Doctor?

    Steinman: You know, looking at her now... I didn't realize how much her face sags... Scalpel...

    Nurse: Excuse me?

    Steinman: Scalpel!

    Nurse: Uh, doctor, she's not booked for a face lift...

    Steinman: Let's just come in here and... *starts whistling*

    Nurse: Doctor... Stop cutting... Doctor, stop cutting... Get me the chief of surgery! Get me the chief of surgery NOW!!!

  6. Not only are those little girls veritable ADAM factories, they're nearly indestructible. They regenerate any wounded flesh with stem versions of the dead cells. But their relationship with the implanted slugs is symbiotic... if you harvest the slug, the host will die. "So you see, it's not like killing," Tenenbaum said. "It's more like removing a terminal patient from life support."

As Rapture's population increases, botanist Julie Langford is recruited to create an oxygen-producing garden. She is so fixated on her plants and her task that she doesn't even notice the whole population of Rapture falling into madness. The artist Sander Cohen is similarly impassive to the deaths and suffering of others. He worked closely with Ryan to recruit people to Rapture. Like Steinman he's driven insane by plasmids and by a self-obsession with his own art. Which leads me to why I enjoyed this game so much, and am writing so much about it.

While BioShock is categorically a Sci-Fi First-Person Shooter, it tells a story that, in my opinion, levels a sharp and brilliant criticism against modernity. Whether it's Ryanism, Fontaine's hedonism, Steinman's perfectionism, Langford's environmentalism, or Cohen's subjectivism, they all fundamentally privilege the self(-interest) over and above the other. Ethics, morality, temperance, compassion - all are subjective to the individual. We see this everywhere in our contemporary modern world - from unabridged capitalism, to unrestrained scientific research, to indulgent lifestyles, to moral relativity. BioShock warns most strongly against the modernist approach to genetics, but the whole of modernity stands appropriately exposed for its dangerous potentialities.

What's more the game forces the player to make an objective moral decision through-out the game. It stands in such stark contrast to the subjective chaos of the rest of the game, that when I saw it the first time I cringed inwardly at the thought of it; something that would be hard to do with a book. I would put BioShock right up there with 1984 and Brave New World as an engaging, critical, and prophetic assessment of modernity.