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“misjudged utility”: addiction and narrative

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Christopher Caldwell writes about on-line video games this week in his column in the Saturday FT. The piece takes as its occassion the following harrowing story:

Kim Yoo-chul and Choi Mi-sun had been on the run for months – allegedly for doing something unspeakable – when they were arrested last week in Gyeonggi province in South Korea. Mr Kim, 41, and Ms Choi, 25, were ardent internet users. They met online. They had a baby. But becoming parents did not temper their computer habit. They grew fascinated with an online game called Prius, which allowed them to raise a virtual “child” called Anima. In the interests of their virtual child they neglected their real one. Last September they returned from a 12-hour session at an internet café to find their baby dead of starvation.

Caldwell procedes to consider the reasons why such games are so addictive by seeing them through the lens of developments in video gambling:

If we consider the matter neurologically, raising a virtual baby can in some ways be more “rewarding” than raising a real baby. You get points. You get to undo your mistakes. Like art, video games can seem better than life.

The problem is that, unlike art, video games are increasingly sophisticated and subtle. A lot of recent academic research has focused on how video gambling machines take advantage of the predictable vulnerabilities of problem gamblers. Many non-gambling games are built the same way. They are designed to trick the reward centres of the brain through a variety of techniques: “near misses”, delayed rewards, illusions of control. In other words, they induce the same sort of misjudgment of utility that leads a crack addict to neglect his job. Designing machines to be pleasurable or useful is one thing – designing them to be addictive is quite another.

The phenomenology and false economies of the crack addict, yes, but also of the reader caught in the rhythms and deliberate temporalities of narrative. I am definitely not the first to see, say, in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary a performative diagnosis (even a deconstruction) of the relationship between the logic of addiction and narrative organization. But Caldwell’s piece (and other recent thoughts about parallel forms) leads me to think that perhaps the right way to conceive of the recent history of narrative is in terms of a split, a fissuring of narrative elements into two sectors.

On the one hand, new(ish) forms such as pornography, advertising, video games, and gambling, have taken up the neurological tricks long resident in narrative and brought them right to the profit-generating center of the works produced. On the other hand, literary modernism and its aftermath seems in this light a movement in fiction centered on the disavowal of the technologies of narrative addictiveness: a resistance to the traditional rhythms of plot is combined with a diminishment of the sense of authorial (and thus vicarious readerly) control. The phrase “misjudgment of utility” maps crookedly though provocatively onto, say, Adorno’s discussions of modernism’s uselessly utopian attempts at autonomy. Modernist fiction is that fiction that does not tease you into thinking that you can win. Which is of course better than video slots, but also… perhaps politically pernicious in a deeper sense.

At any rate, I am thinking this morning that I’m starting to understand a bit more clearly a turn that I’m taking in my own work. I’ve finished (though not yet sold – Christ is the process slow) a book about modernism and the temporality of its plots. And I keep telling everyone that I’m done with literature for awhile – that the next thing is going to be about stuff like education and advertising and pornography and the like. “Oh, so you’re going into ‘cultural studies’?” they ask with an unavoidable sneer. I am never sure what to say about that – it certainly doesn’t feel like that’s what I’m doing. “Cultural studies” is not quite right – maybe what I’m interested in is the persistence of narrative in a culture whose best literary works have long since disavowed it, the fault lines that run between this disavowal and the profit-driven enhancement of narrative in other forms.

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March 14, 2010 at 10:45 am

6 Responses

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  1. Gambling has been around at least as long as narrative, I think, and it’s suspect to conflate the two, or to divine some “telos” by which the former is the “end” of the other.

    Otherwise: your blog est magnifique. I very much appreciate the consistently high level of commentary you provide.

    And, tangentially: crack is, although a stimulant, not particularly amenable to literary pursuits, given the brevity of its effects; amphetamines, however, and I’m thinking of its users like Sartre, Kerouac, etc., etc. etc., here (there are so many when you really start digging), are, perhaps minus their tendency to outrageously decompose the individual’s sanity (or perhaps not), a near perfect “match” for contemporary literary *production* or “textuality”. Or perhaps I’m a somewhat biased (and maybe recovering) schizo and amphetamine addict.

    Maxwell Clark

    March 16, 2010 at 2:48 am

  2. building off Maxwell Clark’s point, pornography has a long and storied history as well.

    interesting ideas here … and I just have to jump in and defend poor old cultural studies, unloved by everyone in this day and age *sniff* … they are closing HistCon and I think someone told me they already closed CCCS over on your side of the pond?

    Hmm, I don’t know if that’s proof of cultural studies as a fad or that it was actually effective in scaring the powers that be.


    March 16, 2010 at 6:56 am

  3. Maxwell,

    Agreed about the long history of gambling. I should have caveated more heavily than my “ish.” I guess I just think that these very old forms, due to their new instantiations on the internet etc, have acquired new and ubiquitous life… And that they are in a sense pulling some of interest that narrative forms used to receive. But it is a bit loose, my argument.

    On amphetamines: that story about Koestler / Sartre / Beauvoir that I linked to recently actually ends the next morning with JPS having to go give some lecture or another without having slept… But he just downs a handful of pep pills and was good to go. You have no idea how enticing that idea is, given the way my mornings often go… But I’ve got enough problems as it is I think…


    Yeah, I shouldn’t knock CultStuds. It’s just… Dunno, it means something when someone “accuses” you of doing it, doesn’t it? And I’d like to keep using my formal toolbox. Complicated question… As is the one about the killing off of departments / fear of their effectiveness.


    March 16, 2010 at 12:26 pm

  4. Totally. Plus the political critique of cultural studies was by and large _not_ imported into the us when us scholars started looking seriously at consumption studies and reception theory and Radway and the fan studies stuff and all that. There were a lot of articles in the early 90s pointing out how British cultural studies got transformed in the US into rah-rah consumption studies, where self-making and consumption were lionized and even seen as subversive … what’s interesting is that the recent reception studies stuff doesn’t even cite those critiques and make a half-hearted apology for them any more, so something important has been completely elided from the history of this discipline.

    Ok, done ranting…


    March 20, 2010 at 8:23 pm

  5. Very well put – I think that’s just right…


    March 20, 2010 at 8:42 pm

  6. I know I’ve said this before, but if you’re interested in addiction and narrative I think it really would be worth reading Roussel, whose writing is, in my view, geared around a compulsive need to construct and relate stories, to constantly set up narrative complications and find their resolutions. As the work progresses the compulsion takes greater hold: the narratives are constructed and related at an ever greater pace, becoming so dense and concise that in the later books they read like summaries of themselves. It may be no accident that Roussel, a morphine addict, died of an overdose.


    March 31, 2010 at 10:54 pm

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