Master of allusion

When a philosopher creates a video game about Vegas, the payoff is fascinating but elusive.

Published August 18, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Mark C. Taylor, a professor at Williams College best known for his work combining Derrida and radical theology, may be the first American philosopher to embed his thought in a computer game.

Last year, in conjunction with Taylor's "Hiding" -- a collection of essays on the surfaces, mysteries and depth(lessness) of postmodernity -- the University of Chicago Press released a CD-ROM titled "The Real." A fusion of post-apocalyptic sci-fi with Las Vegas kitsch, "The Real" is set in 2033, with the gambler's paradise completely buried in sand -- except for a dilapidated motel, presided over by a melancholy figure known as the Janitor. While installing the game on your C drive, you learn from the packaging that the Janitor is Professor Taylor, who created "The Real" in collaboration with designer Jose Marquez (identified therein as "Cabin Boy").

So how do you play a philosophical computer game? Patiently. The skills acquired from Donkey Kong avail you nothing in "The Real." Once signed into the motel "guest book," the player is presented with a slot machine. A handwritten message appears on screen: "Pick up the token below and deal it or tip it and pass the time away. If you get tired, give it up." Dropping a blue chip into the slot and pressing "tip" causes a pensie or koan to scroll by on the Times Square-like message board at the top of the screen -- one apothegm per chip: "How to build a void without avoiding building?" "If image is the materialization of desire, desire is immaterial." "The real has become our illusion."

A red chip gets you something more visual, if no less cryptic. The face of the slot machine fills up with material from the Janitor's scrapbook. Music (ranging from country to rock to the faintly Giorgio Moroder-ish) and occasional voice-overs pour from the computer speakers. The 52 sections of the scrapbook contain an anecdotal history of everyday life before the desert took its revenge on the casinos: There are articles from newspapers ("Liberace Impersonator Eats Baby Piano") and narratives (an Algerian grad student at Brown gives up on writing a dissertation and becomes a clown in Vegas) and gloomy, murky collagelike images aplenty.

At the end of each segment, you get two more chips, one red, one blue. Sometimes they dematerialize as you go to pick them up. Even so, you get another "page" and another Jenny Holzer-like "tip" to contemplate -- for example, "Vegas is the culture of death brought to life." There are no points to score, no reflexes to test -- and messages scrolling past sometimes make fun of the player. "Staring at the screen is less productive than staring at a mirror," the screen says. Or, "The time has come for you to go outside."

If winning is not the name of this game, losing certainly is. The Janitor's scrapbook is a documentary record of loss: death, disappointment, shady real estate speculation. And in notes for the project (available, with much other documentation, at its Web site), Taylor quotes Edmond Jabes: "You do not go into the desert to find yourself but to lose yourself."

"The Real" did leave me musing solemnly over Being and Time (as in, "Well, that's two hours of my life I'm never getting back"). Nor was it quite clear how the CD-ROM interfaced with Taylor's book, "Hiding," which ends with a manifestolike chapter on how networks serve to deconstruct the metaphysical oppositions between system and subject, chance and design, stability and volatility. How did that relate to the book's discussion of Vegas as the locus classicus of postmodernity?

This confusion was, perhaps, an effect of how I had read "Hiding": in none too linear a fashion, absorbed (yet distracted) by its abundance of fashion advertisements, sidebars and reproductions from 19th century treatises on phrenology.

And so, perplexed, I contacted Taylor -- via e-mail and telephone, naturally. "'Hiding' was designed to be as close to the experience of multimedia and hypertext as possible, while still being a book," he explained. (Logging in to the text at random suddenly seemed perfectly justified.)

Given this fusion of medium and message, it was surprising to hear Taylor deny any particular interest in the work of Marshall McLuhan. "He was never formative for my own thinking," he stated, "though I did reread him after starting this work. No, everything I do evolves out of an interest in Hegel and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and later, Derrida. That's where I came from, and what I keep going back to."

That applies to "The Real," as well -- and at least partly explains its relation with his most recent writing. "My argument in 'Hiding' includes the idea that Las Vegas is the logical culmination of what began in the late 18th century, at the University of Jena, where Hegel taught, and where Schiller wrote 'On the Aesthetic Education of Man,'" he explained. "The Romantic thinkers shifted the axis of the world from theological transcendence to the creative activity of man, especially in the artwork."

Continuing this trend, one current in the 20th century avant-garde (from the Russian Constructionists through Andy Warhol's Factory) sought to efface the distinction between the work of art and its mechanical reproduction. The apotheosis of this trend appeared in the deserts of Nevada: a neon oasis, filled with great big signs. "Las Vegas is where reality and image have converged," Taylor says. "It's virtual culture on display in its most spectacular form." Hence the postapocalyptic setting of "The Real": one step beyond the collapse of reality into image, an adventure among the ruins of the virtual.

Taylor's impromptu lecture (with me on the other end of the phone as his sole audience) was vigorous, engaging, a bit dazzling. I got a feel for why the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching named him Professor of the Year for 1995.

His CD-ROM is, Taylor notes, dense with allusions: "Hegel, Lacan, Baudrillard -- it's all there, but invisible, or at least transformed. The humanities are going to have to confront and embrace the possibilities of multimedia and hypertext. This project is carrying the notion of writing as performative to the next level."

A provocative thought! Somehow it makes me want to go reread "Hiding" -- maybe even from start to finish.

By Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee, a contributing editor at Lingua Franca, writes regularly for Salon.

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