In the opening scene of Final Fantasy VII, a black sky fills the screen as the camera pans across numerous individual stars and their constellations. Each star moves in conjunction with the other to give an impression that the space-scape is three dimensional and the point of view enmeshed with the tiny luminous objects in vision. The movement of the camera drifts aimlessly around and throughout the vast dark space of pixelated light sources slowly yet curiously. Some stars move quickly as if closer to the observer, some move very little giving the impression they are farther away, and the screen sways in empty space allowing these stars to express their relative distance. The whole scene is indeed wondrous and enchanting – one feels absorbed in this vast world, yet more actively attending to it. One’s gaze is in constant motion but at an uneven pace; without a clear direction any point of light in this cosmos can be attended to, yet none catch the camera’s interest in particular. So we are left wandering through the mere specs of light in the otherwise emptiness of outer space.
Suddenly a flower girl’s polygonal face appears and the music kicks in (go find it: ‘FF VII Opening Bombing Mission’, I can think of no better intro music to an epic story). She walks out from a dark alley carrying flowers into a busy city street where cars rush pass blowing smoke out their tail-pipes amongst neon signs, ominous buildings, and other characteristics of a modern industrial slum. The camera retreats for a full look at the gigantic city surrounding a massive energy reactor towering above. You will learn soon that the city is Midgar, the dominant one on a fictional planet that harnesses the life energy of the planet to power it’s industry. Midgar’s influential mega-corporation Shinra utilizes this power from the “lifestream” to produce “mako” energy which then fuels its war machine; an obvious allusion to fossil fuel burning and the extraction of oil from the dead organisms of earth’s past. The planet is called Gaia(!) and it is in peril. Though clearly a fantasy world (it’s in the game’s title) the setting parallels the “reality” of our world offering a simplified version of the single most important process that drives the global economy into (very disproportionate) human prosperity at the cost of the planet: turning oil into energy. The basic premise of Final Fantasy VII is that while this lifestream is the source of all living beings, it is getting excessively tapped by industrial machinery angering the planet and stealing the source of its sustenance. This control of enormous amounts of energy allows a particular nihilistic villain named Sephiroth to attempt to bring about total annihilation on the planet, eradicating the impure humans who he dissociates himself from. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After the panorama of Midgar, a train is zoomed in on then stops at a station. Out jumps resistance fighters from the rag-tag insurrectionary group AVALANCHE who engage Midgar soldiers as they make their way to destroy an energy reactor – and one of them is you. You will kill many of these soldiers in this story (along with monsters, demons, hostile animals and the RPG like) being yourself once a member of this army now turned into an ecological guerrilla warrior. This is the beginning of your adventure: thrown into a sabotage mission as a mercenary you will reveal the dirty secrets of Shinra, travel the world with a rouge group of the best fighters from diverse corners of the world, and attempt to avert a grand apocalypse triggered by those who have consolidated enormous quantities of this magical energy without the best interests of the planet and it’s inhabiting organisms in mind.
This is a video game. A *game* which you *play* as an actor in the story making tactical battle decisions as you guide the lead character and his party through a bevy of threats, eventually saving this *fantasy world* from total destruction. This video-game, however, was made by the people at Squaresoft in mid-1990’s Japan and is trying to tell its players something. It’s not exactly imploring an audience to any action in the real world via a moral code, it’s forcing players into action inside a fictional scenario. In order to get to he end of this narrative, one must play it as a decision maker utilizing the various options in battle and exploring the world as it becomes more available. The story and the game mechanics have been crafted well before anyone gets to play the finished product; the made-up world is crafted before one picks up the controller. Progress in this story hinges on one’s participation inter-actively though and making good choices is crucial to finishing it. The strategizing becomes more complex and difficult as the game progresses along with the plot details, and though in an alternate and deliberately false world these games give players a sense of beings a vital part of a grand story. The peculiarities of these fantasy worlds provide a cover to persuade gamers into a certain style of thinking which must be uncovered in the translation from fantasy to real decisions: the player becomes the medium between worlds which gets to select the ideas which resonate with her/him.
One of the many things I love about Final Fantasy VII, (along with perhaps many of the millions of fans who profess to its grandeur as “the greatest game ever” – aside from the enchanting soundtrack of Nobuo Uematsu), is the first scene in which the player is dropped immediately on an attack against a corrupt corporation controlling the largest city on the planet effectively operating as a parasite on that planet. It begins like all epic poetry: it places you right in the middle of the struggle. The justification for the actions are filled in along the way of the mission (and they are strong), but the battle is on and you had better act fast – the world is counting on you. The game goes from an abstract cosmological wandering gaze to the smokey squalor of the slums to action! fighting! attack! Of course such an aggressive concept of action is dangerously simple and will need to be challenged itself. Between the cosmic perspective of the first shot and the forced raid that begins the action lies a vast chasm – as well there should be. This is after all a blog post of words and ideas (to get all reflective on you), and so far we’ve only gotten to a single fantasy world where one’s health and experience is measurable in numbers, battles are fought by taking turns selecting magic spells and ‘limit break’ special moves, and preparation is done by management of your character’s statistics.
The gulf of worlds that is maintained in fantasy literature and gaming allows for a message to be sent between them by way of metaphors, exaggerated and stylized characters, and clearly explicable scenarios. Keeping the setting in an ‘other’ place, the constructed story does not order or command a decision from the reader/player outside of the game but gives advice in the form of an example to be deciphered and translated. The freedom to strategize inside of this made-up world serves as practice though for implementing whatever ideas are of interest in the real world – but perhaps it should be called the non-fictional world. The fictional worlds offered up in stories found in texts, films, serialized t.v. shows, comic-books, and video-games resemble myths that require active interpretation of theme and meaning. Fantasy video games, especially those with epic stories, are a unique blend of strategy, storytelling, morality play. They send messages without dictation from a world that is not ours but nonetheless can inspire action in non-virtual worlds through hints and metaphors – once the audience has allowed the message to get through by engaging with it.
Fantasy worlds are not real. Anyone can see this – even those heavily attracted to them. Fantasies extract elements from daily life and place them into an ‘elsewhere’ adding magic and other strange entities that have had a constant allure to people throughout history. Simply saying “but it’s not real” is not enough of an indictment to stop people from involving themselves with them: fantasy basks in the illusion and takes it as far as the imagination will allow. This is a blessing not a curse when trying to illustrate a problem or evoke a sentiment – the preaching is executed by example not by dictation.
I’d like to shift gears and outline a certain way of thinking, a style, or tradition if you will that does not seek a bridge over the chasm of theory to action, illusion to reality, falsehood to truth, surface to core, nor the reverse direction but does not throw away the conceptual distinctions either. A theorizing that does not prescribe or dictate actions on the one hand, while on the other hand positively cautioning against theories that do rally and persuade its audience (and the leader/follower dynamic is required for those theories) that to act in a certain way is necessary or inevitable. As if the writer/creator had somehow discovered a formula for fate, the irresistible attractor, the end goal that will be arrived at eventually that now only requires the attention of good or rational subjects for an assured consent. This would be something like scientific certainty derived from the enormous success of the scientific method which, to be sure, has produced a great many truths. But while this method has given those who learn and experiment using it remarkable conceptual insight into material processes – from repeated of patterns human relationships to the interaction of elements at the core of stars – this success is thanks to the model’s, equation’s, and concept’s ability to predict future phenomena in controlled experiments. There is a particular philosophical disposition attached to scientific naturalism that is not exclusive to it which is under scrutiny here, not the practice of science itself.
While debates between naturalism and religion might circulate upon someone questioning science as the greatest bearer of truth and order in the world, I want to claim that the theoretical pretenses of some scientific programs of research are but one tradition that typify a tendency of theories to *explain* and so *rule over* or *settle* all phenomena in a domain commonly called *the* world in the singular. This means that scientific truths can fall in line with mystical and dogmatic truths upon forgetting its utilization of controlled environments and prediction. It is only by delimiting an experimental space separate from the world, abstracted from it as it where, that such a position with the entire world in view becomes possible. Modern European science always had the security of God as the ever present being holding together the world its laws and fundamental forces explained. Quantum physics has shattered that picture, and we still have not recovered.
Physical naturalists and religious mystics have a common impulse that we would do well to examine. The quarrels over who best represents the reality of the cosmos are like so many evil kings vying to become emperor – there is a problem common to them all. There is a reactionary tendency to dismiss scientific experiments that get the same results every successive time they are performed because science as a whole is “just a theory”. But if every-thing has a fictional partner and theory cannot be broken free from as soon as these questions are asked, then a different criteria for what counts as a valuable theory besides total causal certainty must be sought. A particular philosophical interpretation of recent work in physics and cosmology backs up the skeptical pluralism I advocate, and I merely claim that scientific truths (and any truths for that matter) contain or require a fictional/mythical supplement that need not be opposed to those truths but haunt them always.
Yeah, *merely* claim…
There will be time for these issues to come up later, but by way of this introduction I would like to describe a basic style of thinking, a *way* or Tao, made most explicit in the dense volumes of philosophy from Hume to Nietzsche to Deleuze (though also found elsewhere) which is an indispensable driver of the scientific method (if there exists such a method). Though often difficult to grasp and intentionally bewildering, the books critical theorists and/or philosophers leave for us can illustrate an extremely important operation that is at once a movement within formal theories and the material bodies they describe. A movement that does not overload either side of a binary opposition or take positions ’for’ where what it is ’against’ is seen as integral to the field or situation that such a position takes part in. Unsatisfied with option ’P’ or ’~P’, a restlessness shifts the perspective demanding an ’elsewhere’ or oscillating between them to stay vigilant for when that ’elsewhere’ appears.
This movement is actually as ”natural” as the physical laws claiming to represent Nature (in the sense that everything is supposed to be a part of nature) at a fundamental level though I humbly acknowledge that it is inexpressible without non-material signs and symbols. Nature in this theory escapes formulation by laws and using this critical theory entails inhabiting a place of constant tension in the nature-culture or natural-artificial divide; where motion is prolonged even when stuck in the middle of a conceptual distinction so as not to be captivated by any one. This movement won’t settle long enough to be articulated in the singular – a *being* – it remains elusive when positions, explanations, and conclusions are delimited. Emphasizing the intricate internal elements of a wholistic being or the larger environment outside a being instead of capturing the essence of said being shifts the focus to an ever wider or ever smaller perspective. This implies that ’nature’ as a word for what our laws, equations, and stories are “about” is inadequate. Deploying ’nature’ and the ’laws of nature’ takes the bait that it is *the* world we are doing research on, rather than that research being tightly woven in with it ecologically. This is the side-effect of accepting an equality between a thing and world: the cohesion we express denoting a ’thing’ becoming ’world’ results in a fantasizing of worlds.
Whatever laws or consistencies found in the structure of physical objects, the closer and closer their parts are observed as well as the more and more their surrounding environment is accounted for the more differences and dynamic relationships replace definitive beings and enclosed worlds. Quantum physics brushes up against these conceptual difficulties: the role of the observer in these isolated experiments must be examined itself in perceiving the object, or, the relationship between thing and its environment becomes the non-thing thing under examination. Far from a relativist or subjective force contrasted with objective analysis, this movement of relation is inscribed within and along with the concept of being itself: being as object, subject, essence, existence, God, or whatever. Nothingness accompanies beings wherever they go and however they manifest. The void both within and between beings forces us to focus on relations that are always in motion, change, and flux; relations can be systematized and observed but cannot be totalized. The critical movement characteristic of much philosophy and fantasy always demands an escape from such a totality – escapism contains an elemental force just waiting to be tapped into.
This has tremendous consequences for the way we *think* about scientific findings and the pretenses held by many hard scientists, yet does not stifle research or hinder experimentation in the scientific community. In fact, this movement is performed by scientists themselves throughout history as they challenge status quo, traditional dogmas, creating new models and formulas better at predicting an increasingly vast observable field. What is under attack is the dream, and I don’t hesitate to call it such, that the universe can be explained in complete form by a single theory or a single being. Both reflect a monistic concept that tries to subsume or overtake their other, their opposite, and so inhabit the place of the center in relation to the rest outside of it. A bid for power is at play here, one that goes deep into the structure of certain beliefs and rejects the charges of skepticism and pluralism. I shall endeavor to uproot these power plays in hopes that a different way of thinking about these concepts and practices can have a meaningful impact beyond fantasy.
It’s when a strict naturalism, reductionism, and/or representationalism come into the picture that the critical movement is lost. This does not banish these buzz words from general usage; it is when a theory and its posited thing, substance, and force become absolute wholes – central to *all* beings in *the* world – that the pressure against the fantastic mounts. This means a tension should be stimulated by mentioning ’reality’, ’nature’, and ’world’ – instead of an easing calm. These words should inspire curiosity and wonder, pushing one further and further on a quest for wisdom which may never end. These big words are all too often invoked to crush deviancy and bring people back to safe, familiar places that do not challenge common practices, no matter how questionable or destructive they may be. The universe is not static, if it still makes sense to speak of it as if from *outside of it*, it moves and self-organizes while the laws and theories we come up with do not. As good as we have gotten at predicting phenomona, isolating behaviors, and observing patterns, a persistent movement resists. The shortest way to describe this movement would be the movement of the question, so long as this question is joyfully baffling and without an answer in the time at which it is posed.
Why start with Final Fantasy VII before moving on to critical philosophy and science? What could fantasy possibly have to tell us about such theoretical musings? Fantasy in contrast to naturalism, reductionism, and representationalism internalized its own nothingness – it does not reject the empty gap separating it from “reality” but assumes it and in so doing becomes wonderfully creative. Its worlds are deliberately false but affirmative and very educational for the attentive reader, viewer, or player that interprets the message, adding a layer of enticing mystery that most realisms wish to cover up with *the* truth.
Of course it’s not true. Those fascinated by fantasy and mythology understand this much and to pass them off as mere flights of fancy misses something not just about the richness of language and the imagination but material world as well. Of course there is the risk of addiction, as with many habits, signaling a greater issue of excess not exclusive to interests in fantasy. I see the prospect of addiction as getting stuck inside one world common to many undertakings which would hinder a critical movement. We must remember that alternate worlds are meaningful and provocative in relation to each other, in connecting them via an inter-mobility. Seeking out new lands and territories with vigorous energy and a passionate motivation would eventually find its expression in literature given the right opportunity. The restless movement that seeks to both discover and escape covering can be gleaned from fantasy.
Okay, but why FF VII in particular?
While the battles are intense and the thrill of acting out an attack on an energy sucking power plant are a joy, neither the Shinra Corporation nor the city of Midgar are the ultimate enemy in this story. The strongest warrior on the planet is Sephiroth and he becomes so disillusioned and angered over the grotesque experiments with mako energy (extracted and condensed from the lifestream) and Jenova cells (gathered from a meteor of ages ago) that he turns on the planet and the humans altogether. Both he and the main character Cloud are a result of these experiments but Sephiroth falsely interprets himself to be the son of Jenova and sets out to bring the meteor crashing down to Gaia destroying the planet. At that moment the clash of Gaia’s lifestream and the meteor would be absorbed by Sephiroth so that he may become as powerful as a god, leaving behind the impure planet and its corrupted people to achieve a new existence. With his exceptional power as the greatest warrior, Sephiroth seeks only more power, this time transcending the category human and the planet from which they came.
In this story the enemy that must be fought to save the planet is a very powerful force in the form of a single villain that upon learning that he is a puppet for an evil empire and the product of a mad scientist’s experiments comes to reject the entire people and planet he was brought up with and devote himself to becoming one with a greater being – Jenova. Jenova is not of Gaia, she came from outer-space and knows only destruction – the “calamity from the skies”. This is but one way of coping with the prospect of a dying planet and being apart of (a major part in Sephiroth’s case) the process: reject the relationship with the planet and seek out a greater power, one transcending the environment and reaching a god’s existence – a god’s eye point of view.
Sephiroth does not care much for the cries of the planet. Seeking higher existence, one that leaves behind the others to their destruction and goes above and beyond them is one possible response to nihilism. Nihilism is more common today that we would like to acknowledge. How we deal with nihilism is perhaps the most crucial aspect in keeping us moving forward. When traditional values no longer can sustain hope for the future, there is a tendency to withdraw, let the world burn, a seek comfort in a more pure life form. We are caught in a trap of nihilism preventing a healing in the relation between us and the planet: Nietzsche’s last man, the final fantasy. An adequate response to the nihil is to allow it to accompany us wherever we go rather than cast it away for a perfect world. All worlds, the many worlds of pluralism, have a tinge of nothing. Worlds are a kind of fantasy.
The protagonist Cloud must wrestle with false memories, a delusion that he created for himself by assuming the life of his friend Zack. He then finds that he was created from a lab experiment of the same corrupt Shinra Corporation as Sephiroth, but his origin is much worse. Cloud is a failed copy of Sephiroth! Meant to duplicate his powers and become another super-soldier, Cloud chooses instead to fight Shinra and, more importantly, the one he was intended by his creator to become: Sephiroth. Cloud’s response to the nothingness of his illusory past is to forge a life amongst his new friends assembled together from the farthest reaches of Gaia and save it from destruction. Instead of reacting to the fakeness from which he came, the illusion of his origin story, he affirms the quest in the company of friends to avert a catastrophic future for Gaia. He is essentially life-affirming in accepting the nihil of his story before the game begins. Everything he thought was true about himself turned out to be a lie… but he makes a new life with friends gathered together by a common urgent problem.
The motive for extracting of the message from this fantasy story should be obvious.
The strategy I am employing involves finding what is critical in these fantasies – critical in the multiple meanings of the word – so as to inspire and provoke the reader in a way that finding the true meaning (with universal laws or codes) of the world could never do. By moving between worlds instead of ordering just this one world in perfect harmony, one can accept nihilism and pass through its stifling difficulties in a joy ever mindful of the an-nihilation that attaches itself not just to us but every being – Being itself. Fantasy fiction is capable of broaching this negativity and passing on something for us to learn from it outside of its worlds. In the transition from one world to the next, the interpretation is sharpened when the actor moving between worlds must select what is pertinent from one to the other. Making such connections and moving in and out of worlds can make one all the more critical of attempts at unification and totalitarian logic. In fantasy we can find the means to escape the logic of certitude, of completion, of tyranny – provided we stay in motion and use our ‘limit breaks’ wisely.
The attempt here is to get situated in an intense place between two nothings. The project is a further enhancement of Simon Critchley’s double meontology from ‘The Faith of the Faithless’. It is the difficult task of steering between poles that are both hazardous: the nothing of possible futures where one can place one’s hopes in and the nothing of a historical narrative at once political, subjective, and fantastic. When maneuvered well, with style and craft, this can lead to a creative outburst that avoids both excessive passivity and activity. I believe that it is in this weird space between two nothings that not only new expression becomes forged but expressibility becomes possible.