A Line in a Cyclone

Daniel Joseph is a PhD Candidate in Ryerson and York’s University’s Joint Program for Communication and Culture. He is currently finishing his dissertation, an investigation of the qualitative collapse between work and play, and the politics of distribution platforms like Steam.


“If ‘to dust’ is ‘to kill’, ‘dust to dust’ is to render into nothingness.” – Hyperstition Laboratory

Dubai is surrounded and entangled by demons. Thousands of humans are dead. They have starved, been shot, or consumed and blasted apart by sand. You, the leader of a US Army Delta Force special forces team, are tasked to walk into Dubai and find out what happened.

This is the premise of Spec Ops: The Line, a third-person shooter that on first glance appeared to be a run-of-the-mill military gung-ho type thing, and has ended up being so much more. It is a video game not just about “dusting”, or killing the locals, the insurgents, or the rogue US Military division stranded in Dubai. It is also about literally reducing everything to dust, back to the desert from which it came. The rendered skyscrapers in disrepair, the discourse of US military exceptionalism, the expectations of the player, the black/white ethical dichotomy, the silicon in our CPUs – all are, metaphorically, exploded back to dust. It’s one of those video games that does what it can to subvert the genre that birthed it. So, in a sense, The Line is an abomination, a demon child retched up from the video game industry.

It is fortuitous that when I played this game I had been reading Reza Negarestani’s (2008) Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials after watching media theorist Jussi Parikka give a lecture titled “Dust Theory” as the keynote of the Canadian Communications Association annual meeting in 2012. Parikka’s work has always been weird in the best way possible. He wrote Insect Media (2010), showing how media and insects are more alike than we thought. Parikka’s most recent work has focused on the concept of media archaeology – the idea that we can look at and understand media in the same way that archeologists dig into the ground. Archeologists are aficionados of dust. As Parikka shows, media is beholden to real dust. Dust is media, and it’s hopelessly entangled with us, with waste (our computers decomposing in heaps dotting the Global South), with cancer (dust flowing through lungs), with life, and with death and decay. In a sense, Parikka’s political economy of dust shows how media isn’t a part of either culture or nature – it is both, because the pole (nature/culture) itself is broken. Instead it is a melange of bodies and atoms: human beings, inert matter, messy ethics, productive forces.

One slide in Parikka’s presentation (later written up as “Dust and Exhaustion: The Labor of Media Materialism” (2013)) caught me: an image that I will never forget. It is a picture of an aluminium fire, and the heavily suited people tasked with putting it out. The fire is raining down dust and soot. It burns bright. It looks like the most beautiful of snowfalls, but instead it is metallic dust that burns. It was here that Parikka juxtaposed a passage from Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: “Each particle of dust carries with it a unique vision of matter, movement, collectivity, interaction, affect, differentiation, composition and infinite darkness — a crystallized data-base or a plot ready to combine and react, to be narrated on and through something. There is no line of narration more concrete than a stream of dust particles.”

There is another image that I’m not sure I will ever forget. It is the one in The Line where I used a mortar to lob white phosphorus shells at American soldiers. White phosphorus is a weaponized form of burning metal. The last time it really made the news was in Operation Cast Lead, the most recent major Israeli incursion into Gaza. More recently, the US used it in Iraq fighting ISIS. Like the aluminium fire of Parikka’s slides, it is also beautiful when it detonates. But it operates like other forms of artillery, so instead of shrapnel, it releases burning pieces of phosphorus: a death-bringing firework that shoots downward. This phosphorus, white flakes of fire, burns hot.

In The Line I didn’t really have a choice when I used this terrible weapon. I used it because it was presented as the only option to move the narrative forward. A large opposing force was standing between me and the objective, so I used this mortar and lobbed hot death on them. When I went down to street level I realized that I had turned the battlefield into a literal hell. I had reduced this part of Dubai back to dust.

Years ago it was somewhat fashionable to get “speculative” about existence and life. Why bother looking for life on other planets when we have created non-human forms of life here? These alien, nonhuman intelligences go by names like “corporation”, “government”, “army”, “institution”, etc. The frightening thing is that, just as it is very difficult to communicate with dolphins, we have little ability to communicate with these institutional others, much less control them. Yet we are deeply entangled with them. Ian Bogost made the case in Alien Phenomenology that every day we are confronted with alien beings. Rather than coming from far-off stars, the alien is the proasic. And to better make sense of the world, to change the world, we should try to understand the world from the perspective of these non-human things.

Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia goes one step further. It begins with the disappearance of an obsessed Iranian archeologist – Dr. Harmid Parsani. He writes in his notes that “The Middle East is a sentient entity – it is alive!” An entire region, one whose boundaries are disputed, its culture diverse, its history ancient: alive! Parsani’s thesis is that undergirding its life is one thing: oil. When Parsani’s notes are discovered an online collective of enthusiasts and academics known as Hyperstition Laboratory (an actual, now defunct online community) begin to piece through his work, developing a fiction to make sense of it.

It’s vague and hard to pin down. It’s about things like “blobjectivity” and “erathication”. But it is very careful, too, trying to find a new language to describe what seems bigger than the categories that once described this stuff. Objectivity made pretensions to “the view from nowhere”, what Donna Haraway called “the God trick.” Instead, the Blobjective sees the world from the perspective of the oil itself, which, instead of the all-seeing qualities of the monotheistic deities of the Abrahamic faiths, sees oil as an outer god for sorts: an Elder God, beyond the comprehension of people.

Cyclonopedia is, in its own way, a horror story. The “full fledged sogginess” is an oily sogginess, a dark, stinking, wet thing that rises up out of the earth as a Cthulhu-esque other, enveloping dry dust and turning it black and wet. But instead of the tentacles of Cthulhu, the tentacles are the oil pipelines that span the Earth. Imagine the flyover photography of the Tar Sands in northern Alberta, where monstrous dump trucks mingle with the black slurry of the Earth’s blood.

But Alberta is not where the insurgency against the Sun’s “solar capitalism” begins – it is in the Middle East – the place that first comes to mind when we say the word “insurgency”. Maybe the insurgency is better imagined as the burning oil derricks that became central to the first Gulf War, vomiting up their jet black contents. In The Line survivors of the massive dust storm in Dubai have been categorized as insurgents, to be dealt with appropriately by the US military. It’s obvious from the outset, though, that the insurgents are the citizens of Dubai. This is their city. They are insurgents in their own land, set upon by dust of unimaginable proportions. From a blobjective point of view, this war can only be understood if we look into “the oil that greases its parts and recomposes its flows; such consideration must begin with the twilight of hydrocarbon and the very dawn of the Earth.”

Dubai is a city built on a desert (of dust), the start of an oil pipeline that spreads over the globe. Parsani says, “Dust particles can only settle together and unite once they are moistened by one substance. Only oil can settle the dust of the Middle East.” Oil settled Dubai. Oil underwrote the labour (often cheap, non-permanent immigrants from South Asia) which built the tallest structures known. Oil settled it, made it stable.

And in The Line oil summons demons to tear it down. Dust consumes it.

In this game there is no mention of oil, narratively or otherwise. The Line speaks about water and sand, two components central to the oily blob. Water drives the main character forward, as he becomes increasingly concerned about the survival of those left in Dubai. Water is life. Sand (dust), on the other hand, is death. The gameplay consists of hiding behind things (cars, boxes, concrete embankments) and shooting various people with small arms. You can interact with the environment in two ways: by shooting explosive boxes of ammunition or propane tanks, or by manipulating the ever-present sand. Most of the time this dust-based mechanic manifests itself in opportunities to shoot out gigantic panes of glass holding back a torrential flow of sand.

Without a doubt there is terrible beauty in destruction, and numerous video games have based their aesthetic decisions on it: Gears of War and Bioshock come to mind. F. T. Marinetti recognized its aesthetic draw when he penned the “The Futurist Manifesto” after crashing a car into a ditch. Take, for instance, point 9: “We want to glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for women.” Futurism and fascism realized that in destruction there was perverse beauty, and in that beauty there is a glory which can be employed in the movement of the masses. Think of Gamergate revelling into the chaos of memes while they harassed women. Or the “deplorables” of the Trump election that delight in railing against strictures of “PC” culture, when in fact they are just racists and assholes: being on the outside, breaking social norms, and finally, enacting violence upon the signifier of one’s enemies (real or imaginary). That’s the logic at play here.

Mainstream games similarly feed off of the pleasures of violence, but approach it as a kind of ludo-affective strategy. Ludically, a player interacts with the game-world through their weapons and avatars, moving it about, and in the process, destroys it, imposing agon-like dominance over other players. Beyond the ludic component, though, is the affect of these actions. It’s not enough to manipulate and destroy the world. It has to “feel” good too. Shoot an enemy’s leg, and they should limp in pain. In  Metal Gear Solid 2, shoot a watermelon, and watch the melon explode into pieces. In the The Line your guns rip enemies to shreds. Sand flows over them. Blood pools. It is nothing if not a titillating trip to the darkness of the world.

Several years ago Tom Bissell wrote an essay on Spec Ops where he addressed the contradictions that exist, almost happily, in the genre. He has often wondered how the creators of games like Call of Duty and Battlefield sleep at night – do they make the world a worse place? And yet Bissell himself loves these games. I have a similar relationship: I play almost every single one of these games, no matter how cheeseball or borderline fascist the stories get. I play their single player campaigns with an intense seriousness that many of my friends do not. It’s a weird feeling to be so invested in a genre that promotes all of the worst aspects of militarism.

In The Line you play Captain Martin Walker, who starts off thinking nothing of dusting people with his assault rifle, not because he’s a sociopath, but because that’s what he was trained to do. He keeps shooting. And shooting and stomping and crushing and burning. It’s literally built right into the game – a mechanic to execute your fallen foes. If you think about the game as a shooting puzzle, there’s really no reason for this mechanic to be here. They don’t get up, they just die slower. You kill them for the affect of execution. Sometimes the people manage a quick “No!” before you stomp on them. Walker increasingly is brought to confront the void in himself – the void that he attempted to fill with duty and honour and service. As the demons swirl in what Hamid Parsani calls a “feedback Spiral”, civilians are set aflame and Walker’s mind begins to come apart, psychologically reduced to dust. This soldier is unable to come to terms with the alien life he is entangled with, just as we often pull ourselves apart in frustration at the alien life speculative philosophers were talking about: corporations; militaries; governments; institutions.

The curious draw of Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia and The Line is that they both are full of holes, inconsistencies, and failures. Cyclonopedia is intentionally a mash-up weirdo tome – a narrative that hardly makes sense at the best of times. It is not easy to read. It’s the kind of thing you sit and underline and take notes on and contemplate. It wasn’t until playing through The Line that its oily narrative began to surface in the world around me. The Line is a clumsy game. Its success is in the dust that swirls through it – in how its mechanics and aesthetics drove me towards thinking about a video game’s narrative in a new way, connected with the real as much as with the virtual. This is because the mechanics are expected of these games now, neither remarkable nor broken. While I hid behind boxes and blown-up cars all I could think of is how I have been doing the same thing in third person shooters since 2003’s Killswitch: a game about hiding behind boxes and blown-up cars.

When I thought of this, I wondered if oil has much to say about cover-based shooters. Similarly, what would a dust-oriented political economy of cover-based shooters look like? As Parikka showed in his political economy of dust and electronics, it’s all over these games. The game itself is just one piece of dust’s media landscape. It’s in the plastics that undergird the Imperialist war in Syria. It’s in the power that runs my computer. It’s what powers the trucks that carry the coltan out of the Congo for my CPU. I can’t rid myself of it. You can’t either.

Speculative realism, when it was more in vogue, was accused of a lack of ethics or a atomization of being that leaves us, as humans with very political and practical problems, unable to act: distant from ourselves and our world. A question that often gets asked is where does this contingency leave us, especially when there are things that seem so out of our control?

I would argue that powerful and effective political action begins with the acceptance of our subjectivity and a belief in the world. Some call this realism. I call it materialism.

It’s a kind of empiricism that leaves room for gods and demons, ideologies and dust storms. Cyclonopedia offers the map through time and space to make sense of the Middle East on its own terms and a militaristic game like The Line can provide a window into our relationship with the material world, and how our actions towards particles of dust are just as political as they are towards people. It is capitalism and people that use oil. Oil follows its own materialist logic: it forms over millions of years through the decay of carbon, making it a highly effective (and portable) fuel.

Might we think about where that oil goes, where it’s extracted, and how it gets there? Where do we cut the tentacles, the dark veins of this oily insider? What does a world look like when there aren’t wars fought over oil or water? Do we still have games like Spec Ops: The Line?

Works Cited

Bogost, I. (2012). Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (2/18/12 edition). Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Negarestani, R. (2008). Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. Re.Press.

Parikka, J. (2010). Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Parikka, J. (2013). Dust and Exhaustion: The Labor of Media Materialism. Ctheory, 55.

The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2016