Sunday, September 7, 2008


How Competition and Communication Transport the Living into Haptic Space

“Know with certainty that the secrets of the visible world are veiled from the souls which are defiled by love of the world and most of whose energies are fully absorbed in the pursuit of the present world.” – Al-Ghazali

The landscape of the Gulf is one of ‘haptic’ space and it’s history plays like a 3-D animated intro to a world-building game, built on novelty and fantasy. It is a desert of alienation and absence obsessively mapped out on GPS grids. The architects or creator/spectators who preside and watch this space via their jawals are akin to gamers who begin to lose all touch with the real landscape which they are absent from. The difference between the ‘exodus from reality’ apparent in the Gulf as in the rest of the world is that in the Gulf, most people caught on and began using the cyber-conductive technology within a small space of time thus rendering it (the mirage of ‘haptic’ space) less apparent and almost invisible to those involved. Instead of becoming alienated by this technology or rejecting it, the Gulf (already in a state of massive economic/spiritual flux) simply shrugged, maintaining an indifference without viewing the riches, the towers, media-city or the jawal as sensational or spectacular. The sudden saturation of the culture with the jawal allowed it to disguise itself and it’s add-ons as everyday while it was still technically a novelty. The gaps in communication were patched up and became non-distances and some of these gaps even collided to form microscopic black holes of understanding which in turn created time warps out of the boredom of reality. “The non-distance between point in time, the promiscuity of points in time, the instantaneousness of real time. Boredom. The indifference of space: the televisual, remote-controlled contiguity and contamination of all points in space, which leaves you nowhere. Political indifference; the superimposition, the proliferation of all opinions in a single media continuum.” These are all descriptions that apply not only to the television addict or gamer Baudrillard is referring to but the jawal addict who obsessively records and transfers his reality onto the collectively built plane of speculation which becomes more solid every day. This ‘haptic’ promise-land where reality is entirely constructed by the individual and the collective is very easy to reach in the technology saturated Gulf.

Why has this time warp opened up over the World Archipelago in Dubai and not over neon lit Akibara in Tokyo? Although it’s certainly true that East Asia has the Gulf beat on many tech-saturation levels, the Gulf’s trajectory from nothing to everything was steep enough to open a hole in time. It is through this historical moment, a light-sucking hole in time that the fantasies and realties depicted on the jawal are sent as colonizers of the new area of perception beyond us.

Time is fleeting, and nobody mourns it in the Gulf. The speed with which the shining international cities of the oil states erected themselves all but negated western ideas about historical movement and laws of time. This is where the temporal warp opened its jaws and the Gulf became conscious of time, devoting itself to negating the leaden weights strung to progress and organizing time around themselves rather than rowing along with the current in the endless rapids of cyclical time.
Elements of this time model are reminiscent of an obstacle course or better still of a video game. Considering the fact that we can watch the Gulf’s rise and inevitable fall like a time-lapse photography series, it is remarkably similar to playing a game of the SimCity complete with drag races and fight clubs amidst all the industry and movement. It is a society aiming a roundhouse punch at itself. Just press Up-Up-Down-Down-Left-Right-Left-Right-B-A-Start and we have a time warp through which an entire region can disappear.

The disappearance, or the rapture SFW is witness to was in some ways a coup, an overthrow of reality masterminded by everyone and no one involved with the jawal. Just as all other givens are eventually supplanted by an opposing, rival force, so did the past become dethroned by the future in the Gulf with no present to lighten the blow. Baudrillard discusses these polar shifts by giving example of previous ‘irruptions’ and transcendences: “It is the irruption of biology, that is, of the science of life, which marks this irruption of the non-living, marks an end to the transcending of the non-living by the living. Just as the irruption of psychology marks the end of the transcendence of the soul and its supplanting by an analytic deconstruction of the inner world. Just as the irruption of anatomical science marks the end of the body and death as metaphor and its entry on the scene as biological reality and fatality. I write ‘enter on the scene’ advisedly – the scene of objective truth, where the confusion by default between the human and inhuman, the living and non living, sex and the unsexed is playing out. Whereas on the other scene the scene of illusion and of forms – which is radically different from that of objective truth is played out the transfiguration by excess of the human by the inhuman, of the living by the non living of sex by the unsexed.

The unsexed assassins of the 11th century Alamut group of Hashashin are potent examples of the creation of virtual realities and often emerge in Sci-Fi and pop-culture as ninja-styled bad-asses. According to legend, both western and eastern, uninitiated assassins were subjected to various mystery cult rights, disoriented and made to believe they were in grave danger, these initiates were drugged in order to simulate dying. When they awoke they found themselves in a paradisiacal garden, transported to another planet or heaven with Hassan I Sabbah playing the splendidly outfitted role of Sun Ra. After this mind-bending experience the supplicant believed himself to have risen to the akhira (the next life) and passed through the seven jeweled gates to jena (heaven). Hassan-i Sabbah would stand before them, glittering with jewels and masked by an eerie, potent smoke, representative of divinity on orders from Allah.

The Hashashin became infamous fighters employing a grappling technique called Janna rather than using traditional weaponry. In game-culture the Hashashin pop up repeatedly in Role-Playing-Games, computer and card games. Assassin’s Creed recreates the world of the 11th century Middle East and both Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars and Medieval II: Total War use the advocates of virtual reality as elite infantry in the virtual re-envisioning of an uncompromising history.

So here we find ourselves back in the fluorescent lit marble floored and cushioned living room of the typical Gulf household, the tacky luxury of the Nuevo riche glinting in every glass coffee table and jewel-encrusted tissue box. Two young boys lay sprawled on the floor, a Filipina maid clearing up the nest of crisp-bags and spilled Cola surrounding them. They pay no attention to her, not because they view her as lowly but because they are completely enthralled in their screens. The older boy is Bluetoothing porn videos onto the plus-sized Plasma screen while the younger plays Snake III on a chrome-Nokia 8800 Sirocco. Time shifts around them, Maghreb prayer comes and goes, night falls, morning dawns, they still remain in their spots in the men’s majlis (sitting room). Unmoving as the maid periodically checks up on them. The boys become fat before our eyes, flesh expanding as the intricate networks between gadgetry and each other multiply invisibly. At 9 and 11 they’ve reached an unhealthy state of bodily zen while their brains accelerate. The boys spar virtually but don’t engage in the wrestling or horseplay of the olden days.

“To counter the acceleration of networks and circuits the world will seek slowness, inertia. In the same movement, however, it will seek something more rapid than communication: the challenge, the duel. On the one side, inertia and silence. On the other, challenge and the duel. The fatal, the obscene, the reversible, the symbolic, are not concepts, since nothing distinguishes the hypotheses from the assertion. The enunciation of the fatal is also fatal, or it is not at all. In this sense it is indeed a discourse where truth has withdrawn (just as one pulls a chair out from under a person about to sit down.)“

Fighting games have always had an edge over adventure games due to the relative lack of skill needed to press buttons quickly at random and produce totally awesome abilities like invisibility, disappearance and time-reversal. Such ‘vs.’ play is merely a pairing off, a head-to-head, a collision. Where adventure games promote strategy and resourceful thinking, ‘vs.’ games are more akin to the mindless collision of atoms causing black holes at Cerne or the past and future colliding to produce time warps in the Gulf.

But these boys, who have no sense of time, or memory or history are of a generation and a region who have ceased to participate in the ‘species-wide sense of remorse’ Baudrillard speaks of. The Gulf before the collapse had been a place where the loss of the thread of memory was expected, where history and literature were transmitted exclusively via voice. “All the relics, all the traces which were shrouded in the greatest secrecy and which, by that token, formed part of our symbolic capital, will be exhumed and resuscitated: they will not be spared our transparency; we shall turn them from something buried and living into something visible and dead; we shall turn their symbolic capital into a folkloric, museum capital.” The bittersweet poetics of desert amnesia and soul-travel like Mohamed’s Night Journey are all but lost on these boys who have no idea what they’ve lost to sedentary life and who have little place in reality but the role of body-bound sociopath.

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