Cyberpunk 2077 is an upcoming role-playing game developed by the Polish-based studio, CD Projekt Red, known for their critically acclaimed The Witcher series. The game follows the cyberpunk handbook and takes place in a dark future where society has broken down, with violent gangs running rampant and megacorporations functioning as the only true rule of law. You play as V, a cyberpunk wanting to make it big in the world, who you lead down whatever path you choose in the world of Night City. With its release slated for December 10, it is important to reflect on the current status of cultural production that other “rebellious” or “revolutionary” genres have been influenced by, ones that may have influenced Cyberpunk 2077, and what it reflects on our contemporary society.
For those who may not know, cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction whose themes deal with the impacts of post-industrial capitalism; advanced technology, cyberspace, income inequality, cybernetics, the rise of corporate power, rampant crime, globalization, glocalization, and so on. In short, cyberpunk narrative contrasts a world of “high tech” with the “low life” of its denizens. Its aesthetic traditionally draws from Japanese and American culture in the 80s and 90s, with neon lights, anime, dated visions of cyberspace, old video games, action films, East Asian street life, and a whole lot of rain. The genre was a product of its time and viewed the world’s material conditions through an anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian lens without necessarily articulating solutions. When it is stated, it is often libertarian such as with The Matrix or Johnny Mnemonic.
The early left-wing accelerationists, cyber feminists, and cyberspace utopians with their Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace viewed cyberspace as a gateway for 'new lines of flight' for human liberation from capitalism and, or nation-states.
Well, the year is 2020. The headlines and the pictures today look like they were ripped straight from a cyberpunk novel. Rising right-wing authoritarianism, nationwide unrest in America, AI, corporations having unfiltered access to private information, 5G, advancing VR, a global economic recession, deepfakes and fake news bringing us into a post-truth world, the ascension of a high-tech China, corporations using technology to crush dissent. Oh, and a global pandemic. Yet, cyberspace is not an avenue for liberation as it was expected to be. Instead, it has become a corporately controlled and sanitised zone for addictive escapism and depressive inactivity, while still being a panopticon to instil self-discipline in the interest of constant productivity.
So what happened?
Part I: Cyber-Territory
We have to go back to the 1970s to meet the two French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, with their book Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. In it, they argued that capitalism acts as a 'deterritorializing force' that progressively increases as a historical process. That is, capitalism displaces or eradicates previous socioeconomic, political, or cultural systems of a population. For example, a previous system that was deterritorialized by capitalism were the communal farms in Europe, which became privatised as the early modern period came about. A more violent example was the Native American tribes throughout continental America that were displaced or eradicated. Now that deterritorialization has occurred in cyberspace and the realm of the dark future is dominated by business, information is controlled and funnelled through the banal, corporate pre-approved color schemes. The worsening social ills are distributed on the “bright blue and whites of Facebook and Instagram” to quote YouTube channel, Cuck Philosophy.
Deleuze and Guattari’s theory can also be applied to culture as well, in its production and depictions, including revolutionary culture. Cultural production, according to the theorist Raymond Williams, comes from the idea of cultural materialism, which states that the conditions that culture is produced in will create cultural meaning. So, as the modes of cultural production become more dictated by corporate schemas and market influences – rather than an expression of art by the artisan or artisans, as it was in the past – cultural meaning becomes increasingly defined by capitalism.
Moreover, it becomes victim to what British philosopher Mark Fisher calls 'Capitalist Realism,' written in a book of the same name, when describing capitalism's 'massive desacralization of culture'. This phenomenon is part of a larger superstructure of Fisher’s idea of the Capitalist Realist, the hegemonic ideology that capitalism is the natural status quo system for humanity, or 'just the way things are,' so much so that it becomes impossible to imagine any alternative .
With that comes the trends of Deleuzoguattarian re/deterritorialization, with Fisher arguing that culture, unlike finance, is subject to reterritorialization. This is no accident, it is a feature of postmodernism. American theorist Fredric Jameson argued during the time of the post-cold war “End of History” with the victory of neoliberalism, ‘the failure of the future was constitutive of a postmodern scene which… would be dominated by pastiche and revivalism.’ One could no longer see any alternative to capitalism by looking into the future because, to use Fisher’s language, the future was being cancelled. So, we begin to look backwards.
Part II: Nothing New Makes It Out Of the Future
Revivalism and reproduction of previous styles and aesthetics are trends that you are probably aware of. Whether it is reboots of blockbusters of the 80s and 90s, the carbon-copied formats of popular music, films dedicated to references or homages, the reusing of trite and cliché themes and tropes, and the constant output of sequels, reboots, prequels, and spin-offs of even the most recent franchises. This is not a moral judgment on people watching or enjoying the mass-produced popular culture. It would be hypocritical and unproductive to do so. Yet, there is a clear and continuing practice of a certain lack of cultural creativity within this corporate hegemony over culture production, which has become more and more dominant. You probably have had the sense that nothing seems new anymore, a view also held by some film journalists. The old modernist themes and motifs that were adopted in the pop-culture of the 80s and 90s, income inequality or the power of the state, for example - have become nothing more than frozen and empty symbols, neutered of any revolutionary or subversive potential. This is the process of capitalist recuperation (or incorporation) of culture.
However, we are now facing a new phenomenon, “precorporation,” in which capitalism no longer needs to neuter the subversive potentials of media. Instead, it now does 'pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations, and hopes by capitalist cultures,' meaning that material from the get-go is lacking any subversive or revolutionary potential. They are, in a way, born sterile. Mark Fisher examines this phenomenon by using the case of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Despite their style being “alternative”, they were still very much inside the mainstream and in fact could be designated as the mainstream alongside other “alternative” or “independent” artists in the 90s, as Fisher explains. He continues by commenting that, 'Cobain seemed to give a wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought, and sold before it even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV.'
The same phenomenon applies to cyberpunk, with the upcoming piece of its canon being Cyberpunk 2077,and the developers playing the same themes, tropes, and motifs of the genre. Despite displaying those aspects in a fun, engaging, and well-produced format (one that I am excited to break the bank to play), it still has two key flaws as a medium of art in line with what I have been discussing; Firstly, it most likely will not say anything new, and secondly, it will lack any revolutionary or subversive potential to make us critically consider the actual Cyberpunk future that I assert we are careening towards, at an accelerating pace.
Part III: Back to the Future
Cyberpunk 2077 will most likely not say or provide anything new about the subgenre based on what has been shown in the trailers and promotional materials. One example of this is the recycling of the standard cyberpunk tropes, but I would like to go deeper to discuss its allusions and references that the designers use for content. One such allusion that echoes William Gibson’s Count Zero is the use of Haitian Cyberpunks. An in-game gang, the 'Voodoo Boys' have their association with AIs existing in Cyberspace, akin to wildlife existing in their habitat, but viewed in a religious light by them. Everything that I have listed in the backstory and descriptions of them derives directly (or indirectly with its first usage in the original tabletop game) from Count Zero. This is not an accusation of CD Projekt Red (the developers) for plagiarizing, just criticism for their lack of originality. However, I honestly believe that there will be some original concepts or ideas in the game, such as discussions on transgenderism and LGBTQ+ issues, but from my avid consumption of the trailers and gameplay clips and new reviews, I find it to be wanting, since it relates to what Jameson said earlier about the prevalence of “pastiche and revivalism” in culture, or how there is nothing new.
My second point is that the game itself will also lack any revolutionary potential. Evidence suggests the game will not provide an alternative to the brutal system of megacorporate feudalism, or the exploitation and violent tribalism of the gangs in Night City. I do not see V (your character) and Johnny Silverhand going to establish a better or new system and uniting the exploited cyborg proletariat in a popular uprising against Arasaka and Militech. But why is this the case? Well, I argue that precorporation only satisfies our anti-capitalist desires, while paradoxically being presented as apolitical, both of which do nothing to critique or challenge the status quo of capitalist realism.
Firstly, anti-capitalist art thrives under capitalism. Whether it is the ecological side of things as presented in Avatar and Wall-E, or having CEOs and corporations be the bad guy, such as Umbrella Corp in the Resistant Evil Series, Weyland-Yutani from the Alien franchise, or Nolan Sorrento in Ready Player One. Robert Pfaller calls this phenomenon, “interpassivity,” in which a piece of media performs our anti-capitalism for us, 'allowing us to continue to consume with impunity' (Capitalist Realism). Pfaller was talking about films in his case, but in the case of video games, it is even more interactive than the passive silver screen. This even translates to the very score of 2077 with it using the 'weakest' and least impactful songs by the punk band Refused, demonstrating their precorporation just like Nirvana. So much so that I call it “masturbatory politics”, indulging in the fantasies of a particular ideology without even having to leave your room.
Part IV: Fuck Off, I’m Gaming!
Secondly, the status quo is maintained by making media with neutered or sterile “revolutionary” themes, so much so that it appears to be apolitical. This can be found in the discourse surrounding politics in video games. Since the 2010s, there has been an effort by a community in online video game discussions (particularly on YouTube) to 'keep politics out of video games,' most notably with the 'GamerGate' controversy, with its muddy and toxic discourse. However, these “politics” – in actuality, discussion of games through a cultural-political lens – are almost always derided for being done by 'crazy far-left radicals,' 'triggered SJWs,' 'radical feminazis,' and so on, whether it is having minority representation or looking at a game through a lens of queer or feminist theory. The assumption is that a game is apolitical and the discussion or demonstration of politics, real or imagined, is framed as leftists trying to corrupt the game by inserting their own politics and undermining the essence of the game, and so makes it not fun.
With this in mind, let’s go back to Cyberpunk. We already discussed the politics behind the themes and tropes of it, and how it is an anti-capitalist critique. Despite these depictions, discourse around 2077 is still about how it is apolitical. Their beliefs were supposedly confirmed back in June when Quest Designer Pawel Sasko was asked whether the game would say anything about the recent BLM protests. Sasko responded by saying that the game 'is not a political statement.' The article lacklustrely points out the incongruity of this by noting the depictions of economic inequality in the game. But some fans, video commentators, and cultural figures in online video game discourse were elated and praised the developers for not making the game political or how the company 'REFUSES To Bend The Knee' to BLM, as the title of TheQuartering video goes.
Why is this the case? The game has obvious anti-capitalist depictions and depictions that even the anti-political proponents acknowledge and accept that they are there. However, any overt mention of left-of-centre contemporary political discussions is considered unacceptable, even as a discussion through a lens that is used in academic and critical analysis of art and culture. Why? This links directly back to recuperation/precorporation . The “revolutionary” elements are not able to challenge the capitalist status quo. If it cannot be a challenge, then it is inside of the status quo, and people consider things inside the status quo “apolitical” because they are not aware that by not engaging in political change they are accepting the status quo. These calls for 'apolitical games' are acts that are driven by, in the words of Slavoj Žižek, the 'pure ideology' of a right-wing status quo, wilfully ignorance, or an active avoidance of the real questions from the left that society must answer.
Framing of Cyberpunk 2077 as apolitical, both for the specific case of BLM and the wider political themes and their implications, is cynical. CD Projekt Red absolutely does not want to alienate any wallets, so framing it as apolitical is a matter of "covering their asses" and not being the target of any potential negative PR from online communities. Additionally, they are a billion dollar corporation who have been responsible for abuses against their staff. They do not want to give the idea to their fans about how 2077 plays into our reality, who controls power and what to do with them. It is possible that this is even an unconscious effort, because of how ingrained into superstructure cyberpunk and various other anti-corporate themes in media have become. The game in which you roleplay as a rebel against the evil corporate and violent gang system, without providing an answer as to what a society without them would be, screams interpassivity – or again, masturbatory politics – indulging in fantasies without actually doing anything to change the system. This is exactly how the superstructure survives in the cultural space, by having you continue to talk and posture toward an anti-capitalist revolution from your couch or armchair.
As I have said, Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that I am personally excited to play. However, looking at the cultural production of the game, I hypothesize that the “revolutionary” themes will be lacking of any potential to influence or critique that capitalist superstructure. The hyper-capitalist superstructure that cyberpunk sought to initially critique seems to have been unable to escape becoming embedded into it. In order for us to develop cultural pieces to critique neoliberal capitalism, which is slowly sucking the life out of the world’s working class, we must initiate a cultural insurgency. We must create enclaves of creative thought to develop appealing aesthetics that strike out against superstructure. We have to balance the liberty of unorthodoxy and avoid ideological dogmatism, but also be vigilant against the parasitism of the encompassing superstructure. Lastly, we must not be reliant on the aesthetics and cultural material of previous revolutions, nor seek refuge in fantasy. We must expand outward to unite and to embolden the downtrodden of the Earth. For the future may be cancelled, but a created future we shall make.
Image from Cyberpunk.net
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