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.


Jeff said...


Saint said...

Wait a second... you're commenting against Ayn Rand and unbridled capitalism? This isn't the Luke I know... :P

The story sounds like something Philip K Dick might have written. That is, it runs in the same vein as many of his books. Granted, I always defined much of that, the view the self defined reality and relativism, as being post-modern. Modernism I've always understood to be more under the stroke of existentialism. So to apply Nietzsche is correct, in regards to his statement concerning the old moralities and ways are dead and that the self has become God. But I would say that Sartre and Ayn Rand are more of the prophet of modernism, and they didn't quite go to the extreme of relativism or reality creation that post-moderns do. Modernism is, I would say, an obvious and necessary step to post-modernism, if one at all decides to define the two movements separately.

What needs to occur is a rejection of the idea of the subjective truth, or the user defined reality. Reality is what exists in God's View. We might not get the full picture, but simply because we don't on an individual basis, or simply because we only get little glimpses from time to time, doesn't mean the full picture doesn't exist, or that we're right in defining it. Many post-modern Christians want to define Christianity by themselves, that is to say, using the little glimpses that they get of the Truth (ie their subjective truth, or in Colbert's term, "truthiness"), that they can identify the main and Objective Truth. Relativism, whether perpetuated through moral and cultural relativism, or through Christianity, can be a poison all the same.

Ah, /endrant

luke said...

Not the Luke of 8 years ago, that's for sure. ;)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_philosophy categorizes Nietzsche as postmodern. But all these terms are still fuzzy to me. Maybe modernity carries more of the subjectivity - "*I* think, therefore *I* am." and post-modernity is an extension of that towards relativity - "Truth is whatever *anyone* thinks it is." ?

I agree postmodernism is a mere extension or progression of modernity.

BioShock exaggerates subjectivity for sure. Every major and minor character is totally absorbed in their own reality, and when *their* reality encounters something or someone else, the "other" is invariably subjugated to it. All the characters represent a subjective idealism - Ryan in his markets, Steinman in his surgery, Langford in her environmentalism, Cohen in his art. As the story progresses, the mob boss Fontaine becomes the main antagonist. Fontaine is essentially subjectivity without ideals - he plays all the other characters with and against each other for his own profit. He is, IMO, postmodernism - as the "natural spring" of modernity ("fontaine" means "natural spring.") I.e., when ideal is subjective to self, self becomes ideal.

I agree with you a million percent that we need to abandon the mindset of subjective truth. I've read some talking about what's next - an "integral" age (http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/kosmos/excerptA/intro.cfm/) in which we employ both structuralism of modernity and the diversity of postmodernism in a synthesis approach to seeking truth. I can't tell yet if "integral" proponents are still rooted in the mindset of subjective truth but I'd rather be an "integral" than a postmodern at least.

Saint said...

I'm telling you, I think you'd really enjoy Philip K Dick. I know you already enjoy the movies they've made from his stories (Bladerunner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck...).

I think you dinged the modern/postmodern relationship. As for Nietszche, I think most people misunderstand him (and of course, I understand him perfectly, haha, yes I know the irony/arrogance of that statement :P). But what most people read of Nietszche is a promotion of that mindset, and when I read him, I read from a warning and prophesy of that mindset taking over the cultural view at large. I think the primary difference is that people read Nietzsche as though he were a contemporary philosopher rather than a 19th century philosopher. I'm not alone in that debate though. The problem with reading Nietzsche is he contradicts himself more than John Kerry. But I think his primary goal is to get the reader to THINK, rather than to necessarily agree with anything he's saying.