On Pokemon Go and Bodies Under Discipline: Belated, Scattered Observations from Going Outside

23 March 2019 // 843 December 2016

  1. I'm not sure what it is about push notifications that makes the process Althusser called interpellation 1 so compelling, but "Treecko will appear more frequently" is enough to put 200+ human bodies in a city block to play a mobile game that is widely considered abandoned. The subsequent presentation of a "five-star raid" to capture a Dialga was enough to corral most of these people into a space no bigger than the parking lot of my apartment complex, huddling together, forming groups, frustratedly tapping away until their specific instance fo Dialga was beaten into submission and (for some lucky few) captured. After a few minutes, the crowd disperses, and we march around the small park we have congregated in, capturing imaginary geckos so that they can be harvested, converted into imaginary candy used to increase the strength of our imaginary geckos. Is this the simulation of hunting, abstracted so far away from the real act that all that remains are people, walking around, flushing out creatures that do not exist until an arbitrary goal is met, at which time we all go home and revel in our trophies? The frustrating thing about this vulgar Baudrillardian reading of Pokemon Go is that it doesn't let us go much further than this: Pokemon is the simulation of hunting for sport, a bloodless "decaffeinated" version of an otherwise bloody pursuit2.
  2. One recent (at least, in the historical sense) use of parks and other commons, has been as a gathering point for protest movements; during our afternoon sojourn/digital gecko hunt, I remarked on how easy it was for Niantic to get so many people to go outside for the same reason, and in response, my spouse took the time to remind me that #OccupyWallStreet was another time during which hundreds (or thousands) of people would gather in a single common area with one purpose. Hillary Clinton was roundly mocked during the 2016 presidential election season for encouraging young people at a rally to "Pokemon go to the polls," a remark which was (and is) widely read as a weak attempt to pander to the interests of young people in the service of seeming relatable to them. But what if it was an oddly prescient plea? Or the advent of a new verb, "to pokemon-go", to gather with common purpose on short notice, as if called (hailed?) by the presence of a shiny Gyarados? In this reading, pokemon-going is a way of being in the world collectively, something which is anathema to the individualized, atomic neoliberalism represented and espoused by Clinton and others, but also very much needed in order to respond to the other hegemonic collective energy in endless-2016: fascism. When one pokemon-goes somewhere, one is being with and for others in the world without doing so under the direction of/with the permission of fascist powers-that-be. The form of pokemon-going creates a communal space, where the shared discourse and practice (the "pokemon" part) collapses barriers between subjects, reducing the impulse to behave as though we are atomized individuals. In essence, we cannot "pokemon-go to the polls," because voting is an atomized, individual expression of political will.
  3. The state of play in late capitalism means that Niantic gets to use this tool that can create presences of mass embodiment much in the way that, under less capitalist modes of social and political organization, political movements and figures can compel the attendance of masses of people to demonstrate (usually in support of existing political arrangements, such as in the final public appearance of Ceausescu). Nicolas Maduro can get PSUV cadres in the streets to demonstrate against the power-grab of Juan Guaido; Niantic can get teams Mystic, Valor, and Instinct in the park to drive up active user numbers on a "community day" (the name itself, in any other situation, would sound almost too on-the-nose for any leftist movement/party to use!). The ANC would have fallen if Julius Malema could make armies of red-shirted Squirtles appear in Tshwane; and even in DA (read, "white") strongholds, how could John Steenhuisen Mmusi Maimane compete with double-XP and stardust and the People's Bae, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi? (Granted, the EFF have no problems gathering people in place, and we shall see in a few weeks how that plays out electorally.) The cynic in me is considering the idea of Pokemon-go-as-a-service; pay Niantic a fee, and suddenly, seemingly coincidentally, starters and shinies start popping into non-existence right where the buyer wants to create the appearance of a mass of bodies. Knowing such a tool could exist - and perhaps already does - is a troublesome prospect for those whose political action leans on the rhetoric of mass public embodiment. A pessimist could say that it calls into question the very idea that the presence of bodies in a place means anything; however, this would be a pessimistic view that fails to take into account the history of mass action, and the orthoganal tension of the concurrent history of "astroturfing." Essentially, mass demonstrations are always already vulnerable to the suggestion that they are artificial and, therefore, illegitimate. How to respond to this charge is, and has been, an exercise for practicing political organizers, not for people who want to write about taking a walk in the park as if it were a political act.
  4. Maybe amateur-hour cultural studies musing is an inappropriate framing for this event. After all, in my experience, I am a person, who took a walk in the park while playing a game I enjoy. Looking at my lived reaction to the walk I took, I can genuinely say I had a good time, that it helped me shake off a terrible depression flareup I've been working through for a few weeks. Being outside, in the sun (or dense cloud cover, today) and being among friendly, like-minded people was a refreshing change of pace. The time between writing the last two sentences was occupied by checking the status of that same game, to see what imaginary creatures lurk in my own domestic space. In an odd sense, turning my own critical gaze upon myself is less rewarding; I'm not a useful subject of my own analysis, mostly because I know myself simultaneously too well and not nearly well enough.

1. Googling "interpellation" gives the Latin root pellere, meaning "to drive"; the undergraduate professor I had who was responsible for the bulk of my theory education (who shall, for his own sake, remain nameless for now) suggests "to beat" is closer to the sense meant by "drive" in the translation Google provides for pellere. I tend to agree.
2. Zizek, Slavoj. "A Cup of Decaf Reality." Lacan.com Accessed 23 March 2019. Consider, specifically, the following: "Virtual Reality simply generalizes this procedure of offering a product deprived of its substance: it provides reality itself deprived of its substance - in the same way decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like the real coffee without being the real one, Virtual Reality is experienced as reality without being one. Is this not the attitude of today's hedonistic Last Man? Everything is permitted, you can enjoy everything, BUT deprived of its substance which makes it dangerous. Today's hedonism combines pleasure with constraint - it is no longer the old notion of the 'right measure' between pleasure and constraint, but a kind of pseudo-Hegelian immediate coincidence of the opposites: action and reaction should coincide, the very thing which causes damage should already be the medicine."