Ciarán Ó Muirthile is an Irish video game essayist who owes it all to Deus Ex. You can follow him on Twitter or on Real Life, he’s great conversation on both.
Many commentators and reporters have ascribed the downfall of BioShock‘s Rapture – the Adam addicts, the horrifying cruelty and the shocking race towards self destruction – to the game’s desire to satirise the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. GameSpy summed it up entirely when, in a preview, Li Kuo said “To fully appreciate the storyline of BioShock, you may want to read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.” Despite this quick conclusion few, if any, reporters or columnists give any serious thought as to exactly how Rapture falls. The answer, as often as not, boils down to some synonym of greed, selfishness or avarice (Khalil “BioShock Ayn Rand”). Rapture is a place of “philosophies, ideologies, and excess” as described by Aaron Linde of Destructiod with a “relentless desire for more” (Reed “BioShock”). However, in the words of Ken Levine:
“[BioShock’s] not an attack on Objectivism, it’s a fair look at humanity. We screw things up. We’re very, very fallible. You have this beautiful, beautiful city, and then what happens when reality meets the ideals? The visual look of the city is the ideals, and the water coming in is reality. It could have been Objectivism, it could have been anything.” (Remo “Ken Levine On BioShock: The Spoiler Interview”)
What is not discussed in the associated media is the more complicated notion that BioShock is a broader piece in its scope, and requires a greater application of criticism than the simple comparisons to Ayn Rand ultimately deliver. In an effort to genuinely describe the process of Rapture’s fall into hell and war, Bertrand Russell’s celebrated lectures, published in the wake of the Second World War and the rise of the nationalisation of British institutions in 1949, offer a method to explain the complex relationship between Rapture, Ryan and the residents of the underwater city. Russell’s lectures begin with a question: “how can we combine that degree of individual initiative which is necessary for progress with the degree of social cohesion that is necessary for survival?” (Russell Authority and the Individual 1). If nothing else this accurately sums up the issues which building Rapture causes in the period of its collapse before BioShock’s story begins. Bertrand Russell, in writing his philosophy about the balance between state and person, between organisation and individual, between authority and anarchy, provides an effective lens through which Rapture’s collapse into the hellish bubble city of BioShock can not only be tracked, but can also be explained in a detail which was ignored at the time of its release.
Lutz, Tenebaum, & The Individual
As stated, the media considers Rapture to be based on the idealist rational individualism of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. This ideology places reason as its sole means of navigating all facets of life as “Reason… is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge” (Ayn Rand, as quoted in Ubik’s BioShock’s critique of Ayn Rand & Objectivism). Andrew Ryan’s ‘great city’ shuns moral and emotional barriers in the pursuit of artistic, scientific and industrial greatness. But, as Russell explains repeatedly throughout his lectures, those impulses, which he describes as irrational or emotional, can only be suppressed for so long before a type of coiled spring effect occurs, and a violent, shocking return to natural equilibrium–in the case of BioShock this is a state of emotionality or irrationality–occurs. “We now know that a life which goes excessively against natural impulse is one which is likely to involve effects of strain that may be quite as bad as indulgence in forbidden impulses would have been” (Russell 8). Ryan, in building Rapture, built an escape from the impulses which, he felt, restricted growth in the facets of human development important to him. But in doing this he forced other elements of natural human instinct and society to be quashed in the spirit of individualist freedom. The most obvious of these is featured in the creation and usage of the Little Sisters.
The Little Sisters, used throughout the game as hosts for the ‘sea-slug’ which produces Adam, are taken from their families (or taken from the Little Sister’s adoption services) to further the scientific achievements of Brigid Tenenbaum. The character of Tenenbaum, who worked with “kindred spririts” in Nazi experiments during the Second World War, is seemingly a perfect match for the amoral, intellectual, progress-driven ethic of Ryan and Rapture, and yet it is her story which shows the dramatic change that Russell outlines above:
“These children I brutalized have awoken something inside that for most is beautiful and natural, but in me, is an abomination… my maternal instinct.” (Brigid Tenenbaum, ‘Maternal Instinct’, Arcadia area, BioShock)
Tenenbaum can be considered a personification of all that Ryan has prepared Rapture for: its intellectualism, and its suppression of the ‘social ills’ which stifle scientific endeavour. Tenenbaum’s own research leads to the discovery of the connection between young girls, Adam and the sea-slug. As she makes plain in the Audio Log quoted above she is the leading figure in the manipulation of the children. Yet her constant repression of her emotional core leads to the coiled spring effect, and later the player discovers Tenenbaum’s true feelings: “I feel… hatred, like I never felt before, in my chest. Bitter, burning fury. I can barely breathe. And suddenly, I know, it is not this child I hate.” BioShock presents her turn from being the intellectual, progress driven being of rationality to becoming a mother, a creature of emotion, of spiritual connection, as an about-face. The damage which this causes Ryan’s city is in keeping with Russell’s own summations as outlined above. Tenenbaum, by the beginning of the game, has come to embrace her ‘anti-intellectual’ side, the side of her which Ryan sought so desperately to keep out of the underwater city. The social bonds, the ties between adult and child within a society, the traditionalist maternal bonds the game presents, come to block Rapture’s raison d’etre in the character of Tenenbaum. After this Tenenbaum becomes a saviour of the children of Rapture, determined to undo the pinnacle of her life’s scientific work and condemns the city outright in her communications with the player/Jack, the game’s protagonist.
The intellectual need for the usage of young girls, to further the growth of Adam research in Rapture, has effects on the families of the children as well. BioShock, in keeping with its theme of mind overriding heart, offers Mariska Lutz’s story as another example of the suppression of ‘irrationality’ which, while giving Rapture life, turns against the underwater refuge. Mariska’s daughter, Masha, is taken in for implantation, to further the scientific uses of the sea-slug; to “save the city” according to one of her Audio Logs. Mariska is expected to, and indeed does, suppress her instincts and her emotional drives in favour of Rapture’s ethos. For the good of the dream, of Rapture and science, Mariska and her husband make a sacrifice ultimately neither can live with. The spring is compressed until the destructive force of the tension is unleashed and the player/Jack discovers their corpses early in the game’s story. BioShock does not present any other examples of Little Sisters being taken or ‘adopted,’ or of other families, so it is fair to assume that Mariska and Masha’s story is representative of a greater part of the families in Rapture. In barring the emotional, ‘unreasonable’, side of their minds Rapture’s inhabitants are just as destructive as Ryan feared “the man in Washington” might be. This example is also symptomatic of another issue Russell describes as preventing the stabilisation of a nation, state or city: the gap between the management and the worker, and the lack of a uniting purpose.
Rapture, The Authority
Rapture is built on the idea of individual endeavour, the “sweat of… [one’s] brow” being one’s own. As the disparate groups of people from different surface nations, cultures and languages arrive in Rapture this is the only thing they know about their new abodes. This is the only thing that can be identified as being Rapture’s own. In triumphing individualism, individual endeavour and a constant competitiveness in all facets of daily life, Ryan has effectively built a shell, devoid of symbols which can bring these people, of vastly different backgrounds, together. Rapture is a clean slate for the intellectual elite and yet for it to function as a successful city state it needs to create what Russell calls the “uniting purpose” (Russell 42).
Andrew Ryan knows why Rapture exists, he knows why it must exist under the waves–“It was impossible to build it anywhere else” (Andrew Ryan, ‘Impossible Anywhere Else’, ‘Hephaestus’ area, BioShock)–but these revelations are not decreed in public broadcasts, or painted onto posters, they are given to the player/Jack through private Audio Logs. These personal musings were never meant to be found, or heard, by anyone else. The Audio Logs are diaries, and Ryan’s knowledge of Rapture’s purpose, his knowledge of the purpose of every single person’s life in this new city, is private. This means that, while the likes of Bill McDonagh may claim to understand Rapture, it is Ryan who holds the knowledge. It is his city. The conflict between building a community and allowing complete individualism is what ultimately causes the first cracks to appear. As Russell would put it, both Ryan and the other people in Rapture are creating a product, a paradise of individualism and excellence. However the divorce between “management and the worker” (Russell 43-44), that is the top level and the lowest level, means that the product becomes less and less of interest to those who don’t share the vision of the management. The uniting purpose, the social bonds so crucial to the development of a stable society, are denied a chance to grow: Rapture, in the end, remains an empty seashell rather than a city.
Even without this internal uniting purpose, a sense of community, of camaraderie, is not impossible. In referring to the period of the Blitz several years prior to speaking, Russell states that “People do not, at most times, love those whom they find sitting next to them in a bus, but during the blitz they did” (Russell 7). The sense of a shared struggle, of being alone and yet together, created a social cohesion utterly impossible in any other circumstances. Such cohesion can, Russell posits, pull and hold a disparate group of strangers together in bonds of family and togetherness. A glance at Rapture, and its founding ethos, shows that Ryan, almost accidentally, made this togetherness impossible. Rapture was built underwater, away from the “man in Washington,” etc., because it was the only place that Rapture would be allowed to exist. It was the only place where those who felt restricted by societal norms and values could escape and be free. Rapture, in short, no longer has any enemies.
Throughout the Audio Logs found in the game, no mention is ever made of external spies or agents infiltrating the city. Even at the worst moments of the civil war Ryan makes no propagandist inference that Atlas/Fontaine could have descended from the surface to sow discord and disrupt Rapture’s natural state of intellectual progress. During the first contact that the player has with Ryan (during the ‘Welcome to Rapture’ area) accusations are made towards Jack that he may be an agent of the U.S.S.R. or U.S.A, come to pick the bones of the city, which implies that Jack must have been the first unscheduled, and unwelcome, guest to descend. Lacking, as they do, this external threat to their existence it is easy to draw from Russell’s point that a “world state, if it were firmly established, would have no enemies to fear, and would therefore be in danger of breaking down through lack of cohesive force” (Russell 7). The very same idea applies to Rapture. Shorn of both an external presence, and lacking any inherent cultural touchstones on which to bind the menagerie of cultures and individuals, Rapture was always doomed to rust. Its isolationism, a keystone for its success, is also one of the largest cracks in the sea wall.
Rapture’s collapse, as an idea and a society, was not down to simple greed as some reviewers and commentators have put it, but due to a complicated series to breakdowns. The strict emphasis on ‘rational’ thinking, as BioShock presents it, and the rejection of social mores and morality creates individuals willing to sacrifice children for the ‘greater good’. The corruptions of both Mariska Lutz and Brigid Tenenbaum show both the breakdown of society through the emphasis on logic over emotion (Mariska), and the creation of a society through the breakthrough of emotion over cold Rationalism and intellectualism (Tenenbaum). Russell’s Authority and the Individual provides a guide to viewing the repression of Ryan’s unnatural, of the emotional, in favour of a objectivist style Rationalism. Russell’s philosophy of society, with its need for uniting purposes and external pressures, highlights the broader issues facing Rapture’s existence from the very beginning of its existence. Rapture’s residents, arriving from across the world, each with their own culture, ideas and societal baggage, are dropped into the ocean together, with a limited understanding of each other. Each person is there for themselves and their discoveries. Every action is driven by Ryan’s belief that Rapture exists for itself, that their is no overarching narrative: no history or past on which to build, and no mythical future or promise to reach forward to. Rapture is. But that does nothing to create social unity amongst its disparate inhabitants.
As outlined in the lectures, the final puncture to Rapture is delivered in its isolationism. Russell’s theory on world government’s inevitable collapse stands true to the lonely Rapture. Lacking enemies outside, in short lacking a Them, the people find no common cause, and no common ground with each other. They remain individuals, and, to a destructive degree, isolated. Far from the quick and simple assumptions of many reporters and reviewers Rapture’s fall is a result of many factors and Bertrand Russell provides a valuable framework for the study of BioShock with Authority and the Individual.
BioShock (Irrational Games, 2007)
Russell, Bertrand Authority and the Individual (USA, Routledge, 2010)
Roger Travis is an Associate Professor of Classics in the Department of Literatures, Cultures & Languages of the University of Connecticut, as well as the Director of the Video Games and Human Values Initiative. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in classics from Harvard College, as well as a PhD comparative literature from the University of California, Berkeley.
Ciarán, I’m really excited to attempt a reply to your excellent piece. My excitement, I think, comes first and foremost from my gratitude to you for bringing a new philosophical methodology to bear specifically in pursuit of the aim to free BioShock-criticism from the narrow focus on Objectivism that you so rightly note. I’m also really grateful to be reintroduced to the work of Russell, who deserves I think a great deal more credit, and use in cultural criticism, than he has tended to get. As a scholar who has sought to bring Plato to bear upon BioShock in a broadly similar way, I want just to begin by saying that it’s great to have a comrade like you.
I think you’re spot-on about the cultural effect (or, if you like, the meaning) of Rapture. I imagine you won’t have a problem with me saying that Russell’s philosophy serves in itself as a critique of Objectivism, and so the dialectic you set up in your piece ends up having a broader implication for the game and its relationship to modernity. But I also think you’re absolutely right to focus on the direct relationship of Russell’s philosophy to Rapture, the better to illumine how embracing a construct Rapture is, both inside BioShock‘s fictive world and in our own (fictive, I would say, as well, but why argue that point right now?) world.
The elephant (Big Daddy?) in the room, of course, is the ludic. What a great place to start further discussion! Perhaps we could begin with the problem of ADAM and the way it presents an apparent ludonarrative dissonance? Tenenbaum lies at the very heart of that dissonance: I’ve argued that the Harvest/Save “dilemma” results in equivalent ludic results precisely as an illustration of the kind of inevitable corrosion you identify through your application of Russell. Deal?