Bright Lights Film Journal

Toys and Amateurs: On the Ideology of Games and Killers

“Those denied redemption, obviously, cannot raise the ascending tower, and embrace their brokenness with a furious energy that smiles only in clumsy destruction.”

How can you trust someone who has not — and continually does not — dream of being a criminal? The indecent romance of murder had been among existentialism’s most alluring chimeras — the postwar mind could not conceive of itself as modern without dreaming slaughterously or adopting a de rigueur doctrine of private apocalypse. “A civilization exists and asserts itself only by acts of provocation . . . Once it begins to calm down, it crumbles,” says E. M. Cioran in The Temptation to Exist. Armed with a mandate for provocation, it is easy for him to claim that “[a]lmost all our discoveries are due to our violences, to the exacerbation of our instability.”1 And yet what do we discover in our violences, save the perverse satisfaction of having pretended to master insecurity, of learning how to enjoy being swallowed whole by history as we try to bite it, bit by bit? Perhaps we should be satisfied living in history’s stomach, conquered by time — such a life is unavoidable. But then Cioran’s speculation wanders too far into nebulous individualism, and his bile betrays a residue of naiveté: “The only minds which seduce us are the minds which have destroyed themselves trying to give their lives a meaning.”2 Here the provocation is too unequivocal, too convenient in its untenability — has the lure of self-destruction been elevated so prematurely from religion to philosophy, from corrupt aesthetic to corrupt reality? Of course, postmodernism eventually told us “no,” as it impiously diluted humanity into an unusable soup, into a swamp in which philosophy was just another bad religion.

If murderers thus cannot be postmodernists, only the game of apocalypse, of delectable criminality, remains for the “modern” provocateur — this burlesque is as true for us as it was for Marinetti and Cocteau. Yet febrile artists are never the criminals they surreally dream of being — they are poseurs, reveling in caustic insincerities and sly formalisms. The true criminal may at times be a dilettante, but he is no joker.

There have always been two classes of criminals, however, those whose overt violence is immediately reviled and punished (killers, rapists, thieves) and those whose implicit violence is either sanctioned or celebrated outright (bankers, fraudsters, dictators). The authorized crimes of capitalism, then, do not qualify as true crimes, regardless of legal definitions; as a result, the latent iconoclast pursues not criminality per se — for “criminality” has been tainted by the bourgeoisie — but a declassed antisociality in which the dream of justice bristles. The juvenile shoplifter, urine-soaked vagrant, pedophilic priest, and street-smart crack whore rightfully claim a sovereign dignity alien to the drunken bureaucrat, bailed-out banker, pilfering autocrat, and everyday swindler. Perhaps pariahs have little choice but to embrace failure, for their crimes are reactionary and their heresies inherited; nevertheless, in our reveries we are more likely to imagine ourselves extraordinary murderers or destitute scum, precisely the two stereotypes most endemic to contemporary cinematic myth.3 If the nation state’s historical, “rational” role has been to monopolize the privilege of violence, it is no accident that the thrashing serial killer emerges as our oblivious hero of subjectivity.

There is nothing ideologically “weak” or apologetic about sympathizing with the criminal who has suffered a traumatic and dejected life. One need only be objective and, admittedly, slightly more generous than conservatives who mechanically spout neo-McCarthyite ad hominems and balk at self-criticism. Consider B. F. Skinner’s appraisal of the selflessness and antipathy underlying attitudes about the shame and punishment that shape the outcast’s despondency:

Compare two people, one of whom has been crippled by an accident, the other by an early environmental history which makes him lazy and, when criticized, mean. Both cause great inconvenience to others, but one dies a martyr, the other a scoundrel. Or compare two children — one crippled by polio, the other by a rejecting family. Both contribute little to others and cause trouble, but only one is blamed. The main difference is that only one kind of disability is correctable by punishment, and even then only occasionally. It is tempting to say that one person in each case could do something about his condition, but should we not say that we could do something besides blaming him?4

We weigh both morality and rationality only according to what we perceive as correctable — yet if our conservative dictate is to blame everyone but our “exceptional” selves, we will see few problems as correctable even with the greatest punishment, and in our pessimism embrace a manufactured cold-heartedness we pretend is as natural as it is inevitable.

Psychoanalysis assumes the criminal, unrepressing his unconscious, extracts pleasure through his antisocial actions; the media and law, on the other hand, care only for the pleasure of a vengeful society incapable of controlling the criminal impulse. The mass murderer Jared Loughner, the latest in our national string of overachieving profligates, was unanimously declared insane by a media culture afraid to admit that the psychotic abyss can harbor a rational moment of political (albeit violent) dissent, or that anesthetized Americans are even capable of ideological violence; bloody protest is the sacred playground of beleaguered Tunisians, Egyptians, and Afghans, not white folk addicted to surplus gadgetry, emasculated by a two-party system, and, at root, always scared to death.

That Loughner’s victim, Giffords, was a conservative Democrat who battled tea party hooliganism complicates reductive left-right associations. While Loughner’s garden-variety paranoia mirrors the outrage of tea-party xenophobes, he was also an atheist who complained of rampant illiteracy — a fan of Animal Farm and Brave New World, he should have been branded the darling of freshman English teachers, not an inscrutable nut. Protruding from the clichés of his conspiratorial belief system was a now-famous and perfectly reasonable question earlier posed to Giffords at a public “Congress on Your Corner” question-and-answer session: “What is government if words have no meaning?” Giffords, to her intellectual discredit, had no answer to what is essentially the same question posed by Chuang Tzu in A Discussion on Making All Things Equal, by Plato in the Protagoras, by Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, by decades of deconstruction, and by practically every philosopher worth his salt. The disturbed Loughner’s simple question is so universal, in fact, that it could be ascribed to Platonists and Sophists alike.

The madman’s hardly novel or quixotic thesis that “words create reality” somehow shocked journalists who’ve learned to disbelieve the jaded rhetoric of their own vocation. In a January 2011 Time magazine cover story, David Von Drehle referred to Loughner’s rational question as “nonsensical,” presumably because it was ensconced by admittedly hackneyed, passive, post-9/11 paranoias. Drehle (like all other journalists) was then obliged to laud moderation as his cultural panacea, as if timorousness were the solution to chaos, as if anesthesia, rather than the surgeon’s knife, would extract the cancer. “He told anyone who would listen that the world we see does not exist, that words have no meaning — and that the only way to derive meaning was during sleep,” a classmate remarked in a January 11, 2011 Yahoo News article. We are supposed to be amazed by such proclamations, I suppose, until we recall that Breton and Buñuel cavalierly used to say the same thing — and they never had the courage of their convictions. Of course, what they also had was age — real-life killers must be too young to doubt themselves.

An Associated Press article of January 9, 2011, meanwhile, regaled the masses with a priceless headline: “Shooting Suspect’s Nihilism Rose with Isolation.” Within hours, Yahoo News reported the word “nihilism” on its top-ten list of “trending now” terms for the vocabulary-impaired suburbanite; that the nihilist, sated in his vacuum, annihilates not people but ideology was apparently beside the point or misunderstood altogether. Nihilism became here a dysphemism for quotidian depression, for a pseudopathology that ossifies the status quo and mutes the perfidious voice of the beloved villain.

As with all taboo subjects, the massacre could only be labeled by the press a “tragedy,” a word that magically annuls all other interpretations and renders the death of innocents at once sentimental and suprahuman. Yet Giffords had no tragic flaw, except for her inability to answer Loughner’s “deconstructionist” question. Just as nihilism becomes undone by the journalistic jargon that Loughner rightfully feared, “tragedy” is transformed from an historical aesthetic into a jingoistic code word, as journalists told us repeatedly that “Christina,” the youngest of the shooting victims, was born on Sept. 11, 2001 — as if the murder of a child born on that day must signify something fateful, something hopeful, something miraculously ineffable.

Loughner’s civilian alienation, however, is precisely what soldiers are expected or encouraged to experience in the hallowed insanity of combat. According to Daniel Edge’s documentary The Wounded Platoon (2010), 20,000 American soldiers in the Iraqi field were taking antidepressants with the army’s blessings, despite the drugs’ propensity to augment either aggression or suicidality. Ambien, a drug of choice, was exploited specifically for its alternately euphoric and soporific effects. Thirty-six shell-shocked Fort Carson soldiers have committed suicide already, and Edge’s account cites members of the 506th Infantry’s First Battalion who have murdered unarmed civilians upon returning home. What Loughner and homecoming PTSD-ridden soldiers share, obviously, is not merely a crisis of alienation but one of masculinity: failing to conform to the archetype of the successful white male, the killer succeeds in conforming instead to the terrific myth of the vile conqueror, as reactionary aggression replaces the impossible dream of wealth and privilege. As McLuhan says, “A fundamental and almost innocent ‘aggressivity’ informs every act of being alive — and thus also of being playful [. . . ] ‘almost innocent’ because in man acts of reciprocal interference soon lead to experiences of frustration and rage, shame and guilt.”5 It is said often and wrongly that Japan is a society of shame and America a society of guilt, but no one who has lived in America can truly believe this. Every murder is spawned from personal shame and public apathy, and American murderousness is exemplary, not exceptional.

Our growing list of mass killers, no longer populated only by the Caucasian alienist, is now enriched by a multicultural rainbow of disgruntled minorities: to the teenaged assassins of the Columbine generation we have added Virginia Polytechnic killer Seung-Hui Cho, “black rage” subway shooter Colin Ferguson, Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, and so on, all taking up the redemptive gun when careerist avenues to masculinity fail. Cho, harboring animus toward the upper crust of Virginia and uniting McLuhan’s “lively aggressivity” with the self-sacrifice demanded of the depressive state, acted out fantasies normally the province of celebrated pilots who carpet-bomb civilians. That he knew some of his intended victims makes his actions more rational, however, than those of programmed soldiers and opportunistic mercenaries who kill anonymously and without malice. Above all these killers floats the great Zardoz-head, long ago divested of its irony by the NRA but still echoing its mantra: “the gun is good . . . the penis is evil.” The delicate pacifism of Chaplin’s Great Dictator — wherein Big Bertha is an impotent paper tiger and the phallic machinery of war is reduced to child’s play — is no match for the petrified spirit of the Second Amendment, the final reiteration of our national dignity.

The killer, believing himself the romantic hero of a Manichean fairy tale, wishes to criticize everything, yet the murders of his guerilla theater always delegitimize his critique and desecrate his resentment, provoking only sterile and circuitous outrage. That Ho railed against the class system with bullets instead of ink means that class disparities either never existed or should be removed to parlor room discussion. The killer’s “tragic” flaw is not his confusion of symbols for reality (for we are all confused in this way), but his inability to sublimate — Loughner and Ho’s failing, psychologically speaking, was that they were very bad artists. Their masculine games modeled too literalistically on received cultural tropes, they replicated rather than created, and merely participated in the myth of society when society itself was unavailable. Had they a talent for painting, sailing, or the bass tuba, they might have only fantasized about the gun; had they kept their sufferings to themselves, they’d have become candidates for beatification. The rules of the received, murderous game attract the killer because they liberate him from the dire freedom and responsibility of the artist. As his self-hatred becomes a hatred of the others who shame him, the killer’s necessary suicide — his game’s final decree — conflates the winner and loser, even at the expense of the concept of victory. Loughner, losing the game by somehow avoiding his well-earned suicide, becomes a rare if not especially telling exception to the apocalyptic code.6

Women, we know, are taught to internalize their violences into suicide, yet the self-destructive cul-de-sac into which killers retreat is a divinity, not a feminization, so long as the killer takes with him a sufficient number of victims. There were, certainly, a few female killers, including the female biology professor who responded to her tenure denial by fatally shooting three professors at Louisiana Technical College in Baton Rouge. There is, too, the website, which extols the cult of lighter, “pink” firearms and inelegantly claims that “Guns don’t discriminate and shooting is an equal opportunity endeavor.” Here one finds the Browning Ladies Gold Sporting 12 Gauge — for the woman hunter — and ham-fisted celebrations of Jodie Foster in The Brave One (2007) and Angelina Jolie in whatever trash she happens to make; ironically, women who actually can fight (say, Cynthia Rothrock) are ignored in favor of rank, long-haired Hollywood fabrications.

If the killer’s ideas are as stylized as his stolen postures, the increasing stylization of the cinema further empties his head and homogenizes his romantic ambition. The now infamous, “cinematically” inspired stock photo of the gun-wielding Ho never ceases to make me cringe: this pariah daydreaming of nocturnal gangsterism might as well be a boy believing that he swings from trees or walks on the moon. The banality of the serial killer’s dedication to cultural style mirrors, not coincidentally, how utterly boring film overstylization has become. In a film such as 9 (2009), complexity (or even literacy) is no longer an issue, as extraordinary technological ingenuity is placed in the service of apocalyptic chestnuts, monosyllabic dialogue, and, amazingly enough, scenes of characters pursued by animated fireballs. The hero now dreams not of selling out but of becoming the myth that became a cliché. Endless decoration no longer titillates: Frank Miller’s The Spirit (2008) is an exercise in ennui, in a visual triumph that can never hide inept performance. In terms of stylization, it is the opposite of a cult film like Forbidden Zone (1982), suffused with Jewish and queer burlesque, endearingly ugly, and polished by a tight budget. The camp of Forbidden Zone paradoxically results in a genuine pathos for which Miller’s dull prettiness can never strive — his game is too perfect. The mass killer’s messy game, though deadly serious in his own mind, likewise strikes us as campily deficient, childlike, and naively fumbling.

The stylization of heroism collapses into a stylization of death that in the most nakedly commercial spheres ascends to a splenetic, humiliating futility. Consider the home page advertisement for Disaster, a company that deals in body bags: “Our world presents new challenges everyday — readiness requires products with a history of reliability [ . . . ] The BodyVUE [body bag] uses a clear liner system that allows for viewing of the deceased without the risk of contamination, fluid leakage, or odor.” By any stretch of logic, the pun “VUE” (which does not seem to be an acronym) is superfluous and not really a pun at all (though it may be infantile). Yet the copyrighters felt the urgent need to play the conventional game of using a homonymic displacement, perhaps to euphemize the plain “view” one has of the deceased, but mainly to engage in the stylization demanded of advertising and death.

Of course, toys imbue us with style, gender, social roles — all our unwilled affectations — long before the mass media do. McLuhan’s offhand remark that “for fun and games to be welcome, they must contain an echo of workaday life”7 reveals how commonplace violence is in our “workaday” experience, given toys’ inordinate emphasize on militarism. The rational child acquiesces quickly to society, even if rationalism is itself a self-fulfilling product of socialization. The standard-issue child understands the world through rule-bound games, which, as McLuhan continues, “can get into action only if the players consent to become puppets for a time . . . [f]or individualist Western man, much of his ‘adjustment’ to society has the character of a personal surrender to collective demands.”8 Yet the terrorist, unable to sublimate his frustrations safely or Darwinistically adapt to his environment, believes he is reversing the rules of the game, making puppets of his victims and submitting society to his ego. This is the madman’s richly deserved fantasy; we, rejecting his call to suicide, know that culture ambivalently models games more than games confidently model culture, and have learned to fetishize, either restlessly or contentedly, our electronic colonizations.

In Toys and Reasons, Erik Erikson speaks of an awkward child who, undergoing a mental crisis, has a transformative experience playing with blocks. Completing the construction of a tower, the satisfied child “represents a dancing gesture of locomotor self-assertion” as she overcomes her earlier trauma; while earlier she feels “uneasiness over the reconciliation of bodily expression and mental discipline,” after assembling her blocks “the recapitulation of a possible doom is turned into promised renewal through playful mastery in the present: maybe one will grow up to be whole, and there is a chance of growing up loving and lovable. Such an implicit formula . . . causes the unforgettable smile on the face of many children . . . when they declare their construction to be ‘all done.'” Erikson essentially describes the overcoming of alienation through the victorious manipulation of the subject’s outer world: for the traumatized child who is given a chance at redemption, the smile signifies the ability to reconcile the interior world of play with the external world of toys, to fuse desire with action, to create (or at least sublimate) successfully. Those denied redemption, obviously, cannot raise the ascending tower, and embrace their brokenness with a furious energy that smiles only in clumsy destruction.

It is hardly surprising when the traumatized child (or adult) cannot build a simple tower of his or her own will. Wandering through a Toys R Us, one immediately notices that nearly all Lego blocks are designed to construct prefabricated arenas, much like circumscribed movie sets. “Neutral” Legos, from which one can construct anything, are now rare or placed on the highest shelves, beyond the toddler’s viewpoint. Contemporary Lego products coerce the child into accepting the most ineffectual and fraudulent postures of legal authority, as uniformed officers hunt grimacing, petty ATM thieves rather than, for instance, well-groomed white-collar criminals. Another Lego setup unintentionally exposes rampant police inefficiency and municipal mismanagement, as it apparently requires a police blockade and a presumably expensive tactical mobile command center — equipped with radar, computers, and an anachronistic magnifying glass — to apprehend a single thief within arm’s reach. The grotesquely plastered smiles on the policemen’s faces will hopefully inspire some children (traumatized or not) to identify with the overmatched thieves, and thereby create a narrative subverting the manufacturer’s intent.

The more absurd artifacts of the militarization of childhood, such as the GI Joe WolfHound Missile Launcher or GI Joe Cobra Pogo Ballistic Battle Ball, are less alarming than the admonition that accompanies the Nerf Maximum Ammo Storage Strap: “To Avoid Injury, Do Not Modify Darts.” Here, we are a given a toy not with rules but with a prescription that must be disobeyed, for the child’s overriding rule is that rules must be adjusted to fit other rules. We must revolt against the command not to modify the darts as impulsively as the hero of The Stranger must violate the golden rule. Yet irony becomes redundant when outright contradiction appears, as the packaging for the Nerf Recon CS-6 Blaster implores us to “modify for any mission,” an instruction children will likely believe also includes the darts, which might be tipped with cleaning chemicals, rat poisons, and other domestic treasures.

Despite our presumed multicultural enlightenments, toys are still primarily categorized according to their utility for socialization, that is, according to age brackets and (heternormative) gender. On the Toys R Us website, “gender” is in fact the first search term available. Browsing through each age demographic, an alien observer could well glean a decent picture of American values, preconceptions, and dispositions. The 3- to 4-year-old category offers along with fluffy toys, bucolic barnyards, and urologically active dolls the Just Like Home Dirt Devil Junior Upright Vacuum, to instill within young girls the obsessive-compulsive habits vital for their future domestications. The 5-7 age bracket is suddenly festooned with movie tie-ins for Star Wars and Iron Man, precisely at the age when the nascently self-conscious child must be suppressed with inane and parochial mythologies. At ages 8-11, boys are dazzled with the Nerf N-Strike Maverick Blaster and Nerf N-Strike Bandolier Kit (as if cushioned belligerence will make them quaint revolutionaries), while girls receive further domestication with inevitably pink Easy-Bake ovens. At 12-14, the toy guns previously advertised to boys 8-11 reappear, for the playful militarism of previous indoctrinations forestalls the need for any further evolution.

I admit, however, that the most disturbing of socializing tools can appear ungendered. Play-Doh’s Cake Makin’ Station features both young girls and boys joyously manufacturing polyurethane donuts and internalizing Fordist ideology. The Little Tykes Cozy Coupe, a tiny plastic wagon the child must propel by pushing his feet along the ground, offers a simultaneity of interdependence and illusory freedom: the “coupe” acts as a molded cage for the child, who remains sedentary and awkward in his limbs, rather than running wild like a real organism. Other products, I confess, are less intentional in their social misguidedness: the Go Diego Go Kid Tough Trike supposedly represents Latino interests and identity allegiances, though the child pictured on the cover is clearly Asian American. Meanwhile, the Spongebob Comfy Throw, a body-length smock endlessly emblazoned with the psychotic naif’s pasted smile, becomes like a Byzantine cloak preparing the wearer for the frozen visage of monastic ritual. I will applaud, however, the ungendered sexuality of Radio Flyer’s Inchworm, whose advertisements profess obviously phallic applications for either gender, alternately portraying a young girl’s loving embrace and a clueless boy’s happy bouncing.

The issue of childhood socialization should not seem a digression from discussing the impulse to murder or the plagues of alienation and paranoia. One need only consider Realnet’s Spy Net Snake Cam — whose packaging features a preadolescent boy sneaking through an abandoned building and enjoying the electronic apparatuses of hegemony — to understand how media now condition us for the continually surveilled life. The Spy Net Snake Cam asks pubescent boys to take the initiative in the pursuit of their voyeurisms, as childhood experience becomes transmuted through an invasive, intestinal, mock-organic lens.

Our problem, perhaps, is that there remains little to problematize in mediated relationships in the wake of McLuhan’s prophecy, Skinner’s rational sympathy, or even Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. Pauline Kael’s original review mercilessly criticized Network for its didacticism, for treating us as “sheep” who’ve forgotten how to love. Yet if Chayefsky-Lumet is to be criticized, it is not for correctly assuming that we are conditioned sheep, but for supposing that we ever could love. Did bellicose Trojans, bloodthirsty Jacobeans, Victorians in their diseased corsets, and your slaveholding ancestors really know how to love better than you, fixed in front of a computer screen, buried under your toys, with ads, news, and porn glumly reflected in your eyes? No, love was never forgotten — it was simply never defined.

  1. Cioran, E. M. The Temptation to Exist. Trans. Richard Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968, p. 34. []
  2. Ibid, p. 45. []
  3. I understand that romantic comedies continue to be popular, yet this genre is not myth — it is pure ideology. []
  4. Skinner, B. F. About Behaviorism. New York: Vintage Books, 1974, pp. 215-16. []
  5. McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Ed. W. Terrance Gordon. Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press, 2003, p. 256. []
  6. Several years ago, prompted by Iraqi terrorist bombings, the American media attempted to de-romanticize the martyrdom of suicide by redubbing “suicide bombings” as “homicide bombings,” as if the two were mutually exclusive categories. That the attempt was largely unsuccessful speaks, one supposes, to suicide’s deathless romanticism. []
  7. Ibid., 257. []
  8. Ibid., 258. []