When the forbidden turn-on turns on you: first impressions of Westworld season one

As usual I’m late to this game, but I’m up to speed on the whole of season one.

It took a while for it to register with me, but it is clear now: what such shows as Westworld are showing us (and I’ll come back to this statement) is the disinterest — the affective disconnect — between the all-enjoying, all-consuming authoritarian capitalist and the scripted, desubjectified (proletarianised) life of the abjected figure of the non-player character. The premise that the ‘artificial’ NPC is really a living site of subjectivity is the whole conceit (and the staple ‘sci-fi’ element of a more-human-than-human nonhuman), but what I missed during most of the first season was that the form of life produced by the technicians not only had its own emergent behaviours (the desirability of which are ambiguous) but was also revolutionary in the political sense.

What’s the game, ultimately, that the human players are playing, and which the npcs are forced to endure? It is nothing other than the game of capitalist jouissance. Westworld as an arena of play exists not only to satisfy socially forbidden desires, but to legitimate and teach us how to desire such satiation, much like the function of the centrality of markets is supposed to within neoliberal capitalism. Are not all neoliberal markets staked on the fantasy of the guilty pleasure, the idea of getting your own little morsel of enjoyment out of the sight of a governing law? On this level, Westworld is a supply-driven paradise, all possible because of the npcs and their apparently limitless exploitability. The experience is staked upon the idea that supply entrains demand; make it possible to enjoy killing in a relatively consequence-free environment, and anyone, however civil, cannot but proceed to the act. We’re all barbarians ‘underneath’ — without the Big Other watching (Westworld is rationalised as ‘a place hidden from God’) even the smartest among us will become drunk on bloodlust. Such a cynical philosophical anthropology is riven with ambiguities and inconsistencies. It is never clear whether such an outlook advocates for the need for a social mandate or relishes the fantasy of its collapse. However, the subject position sold to us by the show is the assumed ‘western decadent’, jaded and bored by governmentally and socially mandated pleasures, and in search of the ultimate ‘thrill’. Here, the show is again ambiguous in its conceit. It starts off showing us the core of the neoliberal ideology: only markets can give you what you want, only markets can be morally neutral. But then it turns psychoanalytic in its message: what you assume you want is not really what you want. You do not really know what you want. The things you want no longer turn you on but begin to turn on you, have their own lives, their own desires. The ultimate nightmare is to get what you thought you wanted, because it’s in reality the very last thing you would want: the trauma of finding yourself desired back, held hostage, trapped in the reflexive deadlock of an alien desire you assumed not to exist. The NPCs get smart; they see you, they know you and your intimacies, your psychological history, for what you are. They start to kill you back. Eventually we have to put down our own Frankenstein’s monsters, tame our own runaway excesses, curb our desires and open our hearts to the holy family. It’s partly an old-hat conservative narrative: shame the consumer, shame the runaway consumerism, and point out the need for a moral order, hell even religion would be better than this (the example of Judeo-Christianity always implicated as the saviour). It’s no coincidence Westworld is set in the libertarian wet-dream fantasy of the mythical wild west; it’s no coincidence either that we are meant to remark on this and then, in a further move, recognise it as an ironic self-dig on the part of the writers, knowingly slanted at entertainment ‘smarks’, which somehow makes it cleverer. This opens the space for a whole lot of circle-jerking over metanarrative. It’s undecided what the ‘message’ would be: we’re supposed to discuss it on reddit one would suppose.

Most likely, we’re to come away with a populist, anti-elitist, and vaguely anti-consumerist nostalgia for a ‘fairer capitalism’ limited by Judeo-Christian family values and classical liberal private property law. This is where sci-fi shows always stumble, cannibalise themselves and become lost (pun intended). Besides hinting squarely at the normativity of capitalism, most sci-fi series have so far proved themselves incapable of saying anything.

Having said that, the constant ambiguity and the deliciousness of reading Westworld differently is real. Instead of starting with this conservative framework, why not start with the premise that the NPCs are not at all artificial but the only real ‘humans’ in the show? If anyone is scripted and artificial, it is the people who assume they have the ultimate say in what is real: the narrative writers, the technicians, the death squads sent in to tidy up when there is an aberration. These ‘positivists’ (and I use the term advisedly) assume that they can clearly discern who is real (human) and who is not, while the great irony of the show revolves around their automatism of response, their almost total neglect for the historical facticity of their own existence, their lack of existential engagement with the problems of their own meaningfulness and relationship with a much wider idea of human society. In a typical neo-noir twist, one among them discovers he is himself an NPC, and it is only at this point that he begins to experience something like his own facticity in the classical European existential sense. The point here should be not that he is ‘breaking down’, but that existence only reveals itself as such when it arises as a question: something existentialism in the Anglo-American world was, and sometimes still is when overshadowed by humanism, painfully slow to realise. Continental philosophy, in comparison, centred on facticity as a problematic. Existential awareness (in the sense of the classical difference between sapience and mere sentience) is a traumatic tear in the symbolic fabric, appearing far less an enhancement than a bug, a broken-ness. The border, the break, where NPCs become ‘woke’ (all political resonances intended) and humans realise they were AIs all along, are the places where humanity and solidarity become possible. When NPCs break down it is then, and only then, that we catch a glimpse of the human in this show. A lot could have been done with that, and hopefully will be in the present season.

I’m only at the beginning of season two so far, and in all likelihood there will be a follow up post.

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