Being and Subversion – Ready Player One
‘Ready Player One’ (2018) is a must watch if you are wondering what the future holds in store for the pod men of the 21st century. This vision is preached by people across the political divide – from fully automated luxury communists or euphoric technocrats to crypto enthusiasts like the founder of Superfarm 2021 or even BAP-style accelerationists who seem to have embraced the pod life. They all agree there is no escape from the virtual reality of ‘The Oasis’; the only aspects in which we will have a say will be about its ownership and humaneness.
The film is definitely gripping and touches all the right emotional pedals. Just like ‘The Fifth Element’, it uses the retrofuturist language to evoke a world exploring the grey limit between utopia and dystopia. We fucking love the 80s, with their neon techno aesthetic, their bleak punk-rock chunes, the suprisingly reactionary synthwaves, cyberpunk flicks and comic books. But what is most enticing about that aesthetic is a lack of leftbrained self awareness; the genres that are now reaching Biden levels of senility and choreography were, then, in their teens; full of daring euphoria, creative energy and perceptiveness. Last but not least, people still managed to write decent love stories.
Since then Pop Culture became gradually worse. As the old punk movement started taking itself seriously, it traded creative exploration for political activism and puritanical virtue signalling, reaching new lows in the post-Gamergate era. In 2021 you can cut the tension with a knife as every aspect of our lives has become political, all shit matters and every actor is scared to death of being unpersoned. This is why the film’s fixation with the 80s seems so refreshing. You’re the melancholic 33-year old doomer revisiting the adventurous youth you never had; fully aware that the pop culture of the era was already rotten by the soixante-huitard ideology that was always present in the background, mixed up with neoliberal individualism and reactionary intimations that things are going to get gradually worse in [post-]modernity.
“My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night
But, ah my foes and oh, my friends
It gives a lovely light!
Safe upon the solid rock
The ugly houses stand
Come and see my shining palace
Built upon the sand ”
‘Ready Player One’ is a classic example of postmodern intertextuality. The virtual reality of ‘the Oasis’ was the creation of a genius – James Halliday, whom everyone loved and worshipped like a god. Growing up in the 80s, being socially awkward and never fitting in, Halliday is a typical glorified nerd, representative of the pop culture rehabilitation of his kind that started in the 70s.
HALLIDAY AS GOD – AQUINAS’S PARTICIPATION METAPHYSICS
But Halliday cannot be reduced to this subverted trope. Spielberg is a master storyteller and through a series of very effective brush strokes, he makes it clear that the nerd genius is a Christ figure in a classical Thomist sense. In Thomas Aquinas’s participation metaphysics, the world we live in is composed of two opposite principles: 1) being – ‘esse’ – that which unites living creatures in the hierarchy of existence. That which makes all dogs part of ‘canis familiaris, or animals part of ‘regnum animale’. That which unites all virtuous people; all great works of art, all truthful knowledge and so on. The second principle, known as 2) contingency or ‘essence’, is what gives uniqueness or difference to every individual specimen. What makes Socrates unlike any other member of the human race. Aquinas considered that both principles originated from God, but the 1st one is an innate characteristic of the Divine Mind (which is the ground of reality and being itself), whereas the 2nd is a lower order principle which, when not subordinated to the Divine Will, can sever us from the hierarchy of being and cause our death. A cancer is a good example of a contingency or accident altering the being of an individual, causing their premature death. In spiritual terms, if I become too attached to that which separates me from God (or Reality), I sever myself from all the other living entities, wither away and die.
Since ‘esse’ was God’s own quality (interchangeable with Truth, Goodness, Beauty, which are different ways of expressing the same idea – that God Exists, or that Reality is Real), the fact that mortals possessed it to some degree had pantheistic implications. To avoid this, Aquinas created an intermediary category which he called ‘the image of esse’. The timeless atributes of ‘being’ which we all share in are, in fact, only a creation, a mirror image of the eternal attributes of the Mind of God. This Cosmos is only a painting made by God; or a musical tune that he is playing. Thus, we are always dependent on his active support (if he stopped playing the tune, we would cease to exist) while at the same time remaining ontologically separate from his Mind and its attributes.
If you managed to read through this, you realised that Halliday is precisely this God of Medieval Scholasticism. ‘The Oasis’ represents the icon he painted or the tune he performed; it was so wonderful and awe inducing, that everyone was participating in that virtual reality; and since the real world was no longer interesting or welcoming, people were more attached to their identities within The Oasis than anything else.
Since Halliday was such a cult figure and everyone worshipped him, they were obssessed with every detail of his life; every bit of biographical trivia. Parallel to the Oasis, there existed a virtual library where the gamers could spend hours browsing through visual representations of his memories. That explains the fascination with the pop culture of the 80s and the postmodern intertextuality of the entire film. Since Halliday had chosen to hide a series of easter eggs inside the game, things that were supremely meaningful to HIM, he decided to offer the entire fate and ownership of The Oasis to the player who first managed to crack the puzzles and find ‘the hidden egg’. The Thomistic aspects of the story are clear – our world is but a shadow of the Mind of God; by knowing the latter, one sees beyond the veil of this painting and finds enlightenment.
THE MODERN SUBVERSION
Beyond this alusion to Thomistic metaphysics there lies, however, a subversive element characteristic of modernity in general. Renee Guenon hit the nail on the head in his book, ‘The Crisis of the Modern World’, the chapter titled ‘Individualism’. I will be quoting a long pargraph in the lines below but I strongly urge the reader to check out the entire chapter for a clearer picture.
“Individualism implies, in the first place, the negation of intellectual intuition – inasmuch as this is essentially a supra-individual faculty [‘esse’] – and of the knowledge that constitutes the true province of this intuition, namely metaphysics understood in its true sense. That is why everything that modern philosophers understand by the word metaphysics – if they admit the existence of anything at all under this name – is completely foreign to real metaphysics; it consists indeed of nothing but rational constructs or imaginative hypotheses, and thus purely individual conceptions, most of which bear only on the domain of ‘physics’, or in other words of nature.
Even if any question is touched upon that could really belong to the metaphysical order, the manner in which it is envisaged and treated reduces it to the level of ‘pseudo-metaphysics’, and precludes any real or valid solution. It would seem, indeed, as if the philosophers are much more interested in creating problems, however artificial and illusory they may be, than in solving them; and this is but one aspect of the irrational love of research for its own sake, that is to say, of the most futile agitation in both the mental and the corporeal domains. It is also an important consideration for these philosophers to be able to put their name to a ‘system’, that is, to a strictly limited and circumscribed set of theories, which shall belong to them and be exclusively their creation; hence the desire to be original at all costs, even if truth should have to be sacrificed to this ‘originality’: a philosopher’s renown is increased more by inventing a new error than by repeating a truth that has already been expressed by others. This form of individualism, the begetter of so many ‘systems’ that contradict one another even when they are not contradictory in themselves, is to be found also among modern scholars and artists; but it is perhaps in philosophy that the intellectual anarchy to which it inevitably gives rise is most apparent.
In a traditional civilization it is almost inconceivable that a man should claim an idea as his own; and in any case, were he to do so, he would thereby deprive it of all credit and authority, reducing it to the level of a meaningless fantasy: if an idea is true, it belongs equally to all who are capable of understanding it; if it is false, there is no credit in having invented it. A true idea cannot be ‘new’, for truth is not a product of the human mind; it exists independently of us, and all we have to do is to take cognizance of it; outside this knowledge there can be nothing but error: but do the moderns on the whole care much about truth, or do they even know what it is? Here again words have lost their real meaning, inasmuch as some people – for instance contemporary pragmatists – go so far as to misappropriate the word ‘truth’ for what is simply practical utility, that is to say for something that is quite foreign to the intellectual order. The logical outcome of the modern deviation is precisely the negation of truth, as well as of the intelligence of which truth is the object. But let us not anticipate further, and on this point merely say that the kind of individualism of which we have been speaking is the chief source of the illusions about the importance of so-called ‘great men’; to be a ‘genius’, in the profane sense of the word, amounts to very little, and is utterly incapable of making up for the lack of true knowledge. […]
More than this: individualism inevitably implies naturalism, since all that lies beyond nature is, for that very reason, out of reach of the individual as such; naturalism and the negation of metaphysics are indeed but one and the same thing, and once intellectual intuition [right brainness] is no longer recognized, no metaphysics is any longer possible; but whereas some persist in inventing a ‘pseudo-metaphysics’ of one kind or another, others – with greater frankness – assert its impossibility; from this has arisen ‘relativism’ in all its forms, whether it be the ‘criticism’ of Kant or the ‘positivism’ of Auguste Comte; and since reason itself is quite relative, and can deal validly only with a domain that is equally relative, it is true to say that ‘relativism’ is the only logical outcome of rationalism. By this means, however, rationalism was to bring about its own destruction: ‘nature’ and ‘becoming’, as we said above, are in reality synonymous; a consistent naturalism can therefore only be one of the ‘philosophies of becoming’, already mentioned, of which the specifically modern type is evolutionism; it was precisely this that finally turned against rationalism, by accusing reason of being unable to deal adequately, on the one hand, with what is solely change and multiplicity, and, on the other, with the indefinite complexity of sensible phenomena.“
What Guenon is telling us here is that modernity traded right brain ways of knowing for the precision of language characteristic to the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere’s contextual perception of a world that is alive and unified has been rejected in favour of the mechanical Frankenstein. And since there is an infinity of ways in which focused attention can be employed to zoom in on aspects of the world (according to McGilchrist, attention is value-charged and always changes the outcome of our research), this leads to an infinite number of naturalistic theories that can never be reconciled with each other at the level of left brain multiplicity.
This is what the Enlightenment did to our world, and it resulted in two seemingly opposite philosophical attitudes, which in reality are the flip sides of the same coin: Anglo-Saxon empiricism on one hand (the so-called ‘view from nowhere’, the depersonalised gaze of the naturalistic scientist, or the surgeon, or dr Mengele) and German Idealism on the other (the fascination with the Mind, the all-powerful intellect, the genius). As all paradoxes cease to be paradoxical when we transcend the left brain way of knowing, so does Modernity when we discover that both these attitudes are the result of the same gestalt or broken metaphysics. The illusory infinite will of the mad genius always coexists with his view from nowhere; the modern intellectual constantly oscillates between empirical helplesness, in which he sees himself as a puppet of the mechanical forces of the universe, to Promethean titanism, which makes him spew all the grandiose dopamine-filled rubbish you find on blogs like Oxygen2.
This perversion is fully present in ‘Ready Player One’, where the god-like creator of The Oasis is a Romantic genius, a misunderstood dreamer who managed to manufacture the Cosmos by delving into his own inner tenacity and will power. This is merely another example of the pseudo-metaphysics of modernity and its relativism which deifies contingency and demonises being (‘esse’). In the film there is no Reality (Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Nobility) beyond the contingencies of pop culture; of James Halliday’s idiosyncratic memories. In other words, not virtues, but the accidents and peculiarities of his life are what made him God (or Real). We are supposed to look into pop culture with the same reverence with which Roger Scruton regards ‘the Western Canon’ and the high culture of our ancestors.
The reasons are entirely different. In Scruton’s view, high culture is valuable because it was shaped by perceptual congruity, elevation and truthfulness – criteria that selected for the divine attributes. The Western Canon is valuable to him because it holds the keys to the Mind of God; because those who wrote it were faithful servants who hid the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven inside those works of art.
In pop culture, there is no such unifying principle at work; the most obvious selective criteria for all this artistic material are usually frowned upon by thinkers across the political spectrum; leftists loathe consumerism and capitalism; conservatives loathe the desecration and glorification of contingency characteristic of pop culture. Are we supposed to build our entire sensemaking aparratus, our economic systems and our heroism on the idiosyncrasies of a frustrated nerd who grew up in the 80s? The final speech of Parzival is clearly a nothingburger; the ragtag gamers are all rebels without a cause.
I don’t have to write extensively on the glorification of the Nerd in pop culture. Dave ‘The Distributist’ made an excellent youtube series analysing it. Sillicon Age Renegade also wrote a great chapter capturing the essence of Nerd Culture – nothing other than glorified left brain consciousness. The Nerd is a spiteful mutation; a Promethean attempt to map out life in mechanical language; of simulating it through AI and algorithm; of drawing ever smaller tangents to a circle, without fully reaching it. McGilchrist called them for what they are, and unlike BAP, he put it in scientific terms. Once you peel through the outer layers of their augmented game avatars, you will find a wounded tearful child, trying to freeze time and space in order to prevent the repetition of his own hurting. The rejection of LIFE, with its suffering (but also its rewards) in favour of SIMULATION with its safety and predictability.
The ending of the film is ambiguous and muddy, and it cannot be otherwise. The pseudo-metaphyiscs of [post]modernity cannot fix itself from within more than a submarine can start flying by incremental technological updates and patches.
We are left with the fundamental task of rethinking technology on entirely different premises. Indeed, we are no luddites; technology and toolmaking were always part of our world and will continue to be so. Not so much the subversion of metaphysics. No one forces us to put THESE modern destructive selective filters on our technological products. It is NOT inevitable to force the right hemisphere to be the left brain’s servant. The usurper was always meant to be a tool of the master and it must, once more, be brought into submission.
Beware the dopamine-filled siren call of ‘The Oasis’. Beware the betrayal of Promethean influencers, corrupted by Nolan Sorrento or his successor, Parzival, through wealth and credits INSIDE the wicked game. We don’t need a pink haired revolution of the Oasis; what we need is Urbit, or an entirely new platform which values and rehabilitates the things butchered by modernity. If we were born geeks, we must become geeks under Grace, like the makers of ‘Blasphemous’. If we used to larp as in-game blacksmiths, we must become real world craftsmen. If we used to immerse ourselves in the ‘atmospheric’ qualities of Skyrim, we must instantiate real world communities (augmented by technology, no doubt) which share in the Divine attributes and recognise contingencies for what they are.
“Steep is the path, and strewn with stones:
The work of giants and their kin-
Who left behind a blinding labyrinth,
A maze of shadows and false leads. ”