Obscenity, Deathly Exchange and the Real-Haunt of Bodily Labour

Introduction: The Mythic Resurrection of the Social

“We will not oppose the beautiful to the ugly, but will look for the uglier than ugly: the monstrous.”

—Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies

There is something uncanny about media. From books, to films, to games, many texts present entire worlds of their own, seemingly hermetic constructs that contain their own logics apart from our world, and yet can only be understood intertextually. Identity too acts much the same, appearing One, yet comprehensible only against and through the many others that surround it (Zupančič 2017, 169-170). What distinguishes any being from another is the multiplicity that constitutes it, making it irreducible to a single essence. Identity is an assemblage of elements, that over time become reified as One; and it is to this One—which is not One—that the concepts of authenticity and normality arise and become the traps of disciplinary power and all other forms of liberal actualisation (Foucault 1995, 24, 177-184). Through the myth of One, potential assemblages are lost at the horizon of thought; assemblages that become illegitimate, incomprehensible or false. The One becomes a totalising godhead towards which all must strive to reach their full potential.

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At the turn of the twenty-first century, postmodern concepts such as multiplicity and fluidity were applied to the internet. If the medium is the message, then the internet, with its decentralised networks and flows, would surely reconfigure ontology to match (McLuhan & Fiore 1996, 9). Turkle’s (1997, 73-75) investigation of MUD, IRC and other early internet technologies explicated an emancipation of the self from the reified One. With the advent of digital windows, multiple, parallel lives could be lived out, autonomous from one another. The haunt of facticity could be shed for the infinite potential of virtuality. Wynn & Katz (1997, 308-312) contest such a utopian and individualistic selfhood—all assemblages, after all, are a multitude of elements in relation to one another, and therefore, socially-constructed (Deleuze & Guattari 1983); and it is at this interface between Self and Other that regulatory apparatuses come into play (Foucault 1995, 177-184). Power constitutes freedom, even if that power is emergent and horizontally-organised; out of chaos arises the complexity of organisation, and with it, rules and boundaries. As Bauman (2006) puts it eloquently, a flow is shaped by what surrounds it.

The MMORPG is an interesting case study for thinking through identity, for it presents a simulation of disciplinary power (hierarchy, training and examination) simultaneous with that of seductive power (spectacular consumption), coming into existence just as the Keynesian welfare state was transformed into the neoliberal corporate state. Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote “there is no such thing as society” became true insofar as neoliberal policy dismantled decades of social welfare that had once existed across the liberal-capitalist states. Much like television’s myth of the global village (Spigel 2002, 328-329) (a desperately needed myth as masses of rural proletariats flooded into industrial centres around the world), the MMORPG (along with the internet in general) became the mythical resurrection of a social no longer here. However, this simulated social was not interested in civic duty, but rather, the self-same neoliberal striving (levelling up) that had become omnipresent across the capitalist nations of the world. Additionally, through mechanisms of repetitive, alienating labour (grinding) and conspicuous consumption (cosmetic items), class lines were re-established. This social then, was nothing but the repeat of its original death—a compulsive iteration to seal up the wound it itself reproduces with each loop (Zupančič 2017, 164-167, 171). In actuality, the MMORPG replicated everything but the social—which followed only as haunt, nostalgia, empty set.

Through an analysis of MapleStory, a free-to-play anime-styled MMORPG, I argue that the malleability of postmodern identity leaves it vulnerable to the structures and systems that constitute its formation—structures and systems that, ironically, constitute a hyper-reflexive agent, but one that is narcissistic and consumerist, incapable of dialogic exchange, and therefore, empty in form. I specifically operate within a poststructuralist critical theory logic, using Baudrillard as my foundation of critique, whilst also drawing upon Horkheimer & Adorno, Debord, Foucault, Bauman and Lacan.

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I begin with an exploration of MapleStory’s CASH SHOP, linking the phenomenon of virtual, interchangeable cosmetic goods with that of post-industrial consumerism and identity construction, the pseudo-individualisation that Adorno & Horkheimer explicate in The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. I connect this to MapleStory’s MVP system, which ranks players according to their monthly spendings, and consequently grants those at the top the ability to display their private exchanges as public spectacles. I draw upon Debord and Baudrillard to argue that, rather than the content of the message, it is access to the means of communication (without allowing response from the audience) that has become valued. I then connect both CASH SHOP and MVP system to REWARD POINTS, to show how virtual and actual labour converge in MapleStory. I argue that MapleStory’s simulation of classlessness reinstates class all the more powerfully, however, as pure sign value, consumption and display unto obscenity without any interest in the content of what is display; and that virtual identity can never escape the haunt of actuality—the material forces that structure and open paths into and through the virtual. I finish with a consideration of crypto-fascism in the age of ecstatic communication and the consequences that free speech, voided of critique, has for identity.

Poststructuralism and Critical Theory

“in degrading spontaneous, free activity to a means, estranged labor makes man’s species-life a means to his physical existence.”

—Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

Firstly, a primer on some of the more important thinkers and concepts I will be using. Of particular interest for me is the movement from Marx to Baudrillard, and the reworking of concepts such as alienation and reification in a postmodern world.

In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx (2009) argues that alienation under capitalism arises due to the unequal economic relations between the propertied bourgeoisie and the propertyless proletariat. Because the bourgeoisie own the means of production, the proletariat must sell their labour capacity on the market; that which is produced during the working day is thus claimed by the bourgeoisie. The proletariat is alienated fourfold: 1) from their labour product (which is taken away), 2) from the labour process itself (which is dull and repetitive), 3) from their own creative input (which is unnecessary for mass production), and 4) from other human beings (who become interchangeable elements in the circuit of capital) (Marx 2009). The proletariat is instrumentalised unto the reproduction of a social order that is of far lesser benefit to them than to the bourgeoisie—the owners of the means of production.

Moving to Horkheimer and Adorno, we see a shift in focus from production to consumption. In The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception Horkheimer and Adorno extend Marx’s theory of alienation to the phenomenon of mass consumption. They argue that through mass consumption, standardised patterns of interaction form between the consumer and the commodity—a circuit of predetermined reactions engendered through a range of superficially different, but ideologically identical, commodities (Horkheimer & Adorno 2002, 97-101). This is pseudo-individualisation. Alienation in the sphere of consumption mirrors alienation in the sphere of production, for both are characterised by dull, repetitive acts. Ironically, pseudo-individualisation is the draw of consumption, for to know the script and to perform it appropriately is to attain mastery—a mastery that appears multiple (e.g. ‘I have seen all the Marvel films’) and that extends beyond the object into the realm of the social (e.g. ‘I am an expert on Marvel’) (Horkheimer & Adorno 2002, 110). While such a pleasure may address authentic desires to belong, it also constricts their expression to that which is inscribed through the commodity form by the culture industry. The same bourgeoisie who estranged the proletariat of their labour, then, also estrange the proletariat of their leisure.

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Moving toward Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, the virtual becomes increasingly important towards understanding why capitalism has survived for so long. Debord (2005, 4) states that “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.” In other words, the spectacle is a set of virtual drives, produced through visual technologies—advertising, news, television, etc.—by the culture industry. Consequently, dead images stand in for living beings and contemplation is prioritised over activity (Debord 2005, 8, 10). Time and energy is invested into the appearance of a unified, autonomous world, in lieu of our actual lived reality, which, consequently, stays fragmented, solitary and gruelling (Debord 2005, 2-3). In addition, the one-directionality of mass media messages reconstitutes actual communication as one-directional—lacking conscious, dialectical exchange (Debord 2005, 26).

Baudrillard (1981, 81) enters a decade later with his (in)famous statement “More real than the real, that is how the real is abolished.” He saw how the postmodern reaction to modernist alienation was a reconfiguration of communicative technologies towards exchange with the spectator, however, an exchange that produces “more and more information, and less and less meaning” (Baudrillard 1981, 79) for it acts as a simulation of participation, a hyper-participation where the intensity of signs becomes representative of how successful communication is, regardless of its content. In this proliferation, the sign becomes obscene, a pointless multiplication no longer standing in for anything, but sought after precisely for the ecstasy it produces in the subject (Baudrillard 2008, 25-29). Use value, to exchange value, to sign value; play for the sake of play without any possibility of transgression, for no longer is there content or any norm to transgress, only a process that devours itself in ecstatic disappearance.

Tying all this together is Bauman’s claim that we have moved from a disciplinary society to a seductive one (Bauman & Haugaard 2008, 111). Caught in affective flows, in the ephemeral ecstasy of the sign, all stability is pulled out from under us (Bauman & Haugaard 2008, 125). We are pulled and pushed by desires that never linger long enough to become grounded. Constant redevelopment, precarity and entrepreneurial ruthlessness wrack our career paths (Bauman & Haugaard 2008, 117). Whilst such a state may be thrilling, it is also anxiety-inducing. Against such an uncertain world, compulsive mechanisms ignite, birthing hyperconsumerism and hyperproductivity—attempts at reconstituting a secure ontological position, in an increasingly meaningless world, but because of the ever changing state of both productive and consumptive spheres, one is never sure if one’s position is stable (Bauman & Haugaard 2008, 115, 118).

Finally, we arrive at Lacan. Thrown into the facticity of capitalism, the compulsion of consumption could be seen as an attempt to master capitalism’s traumatic founding; however, because capitalism is the excess that constitutes modern consciousness, its traumatic excess is reproduced with every compulsive repeat; thus, the anxiety that initially drives one to repeat is reproduced, indefinitely (Zupančič 2017, 164-167, 171). Under the spell of anxiety (alone) one cannot escape capitalism’s eternal return.

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MapleStory

I spent the better part (?) of a month in the world of MapleStory, testing the limits of identity construction on a shoestring budget of $0. I selected the predefined Hero class Mercedes, which granted me the expansive customisation options of either a cool or gentle elf face. I specifically chose a class with limited customisation options, as I was more interested in what subsequent avenues of identity construction the game would offer (again, on a budget of nothing). Firstly though, I had to find the social. Identity, after all, means nothing in an empty world. If all identity is a performance that is judged as either tasteful or tasteless, authentic or inauthentic, convincing or unconvincing, then there must be an audience, out there somewhere, who would act as the arbiter to my true identity (Bourdieu 2010, 8; Lawler 2008, 107). However, as I wandered the world of MapleStory, I became increasingly disturbed by the vast nothingness that confronted me. I’d entered this world, hoping to find towns packed with other players, glorious in their displays of wealth, bursting with bodily signifiers whilst riding mounts the size of city blocks. I’d hoped to stand dumbfounded as a party of forty heroes charged towards that fabled raid. Instead I entered a desolate world, with nary a trace of life. The first player I met stood vacant. They had pink hair, a glowing rainbow tail, a lollipop in their mouth, shooting stars falling around them, and four name tags sandwiching their avatar (I had but one). I bobbed up and down to elicit a reaction, but none came. The vast difference between our appearances, however, was a step towards understanding the spectacular, individualised subject position that is constructed by a combination of MapleStory’s CASH SHOP, MVP ranking system and REWARD POINTS.

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CASH SHOP: The Dead Spectacle of Consumption

“For the consumer there is nothing left to classify, since the classification has already been preempted by the schematism of production. . . . To confirm the schema by acting as its constituents is their sole raison d’etre.”

—Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment

I entered the CASH SHOP, an extra-diegetic space accessible through a button at the bottom right of my screen. I was greeted with an excess of commodities, pages and pages of hats and pants; faces and eyes; pets and pet accessories. Special items were “HOT.” A special sale was “coming soon.” A panel at the top of the page showed me what other “Maplers” were wearing from the CASH SHOP. I’d found Goffman’s backstage (Lawler 2008, 105), but a backstage that displayed actual examples of who I could become; a world of dress-up, of self-expression as self-alienation, the attainment of someone else’s labour product as my identity. Not an identity performed, but rather, an identity worn; a dead performance, an unchanging “Sky Blue Goggled Beanie” that would arrest the eyes of the other on me as a spectacular being (Debord 2002, 1-2). The commodity market funnelled the spontaneity of identity construction into predetermined pathways, lifestyles purchased and displayed rather than experienced and lived (Debord 2002, 1, 4; Horkheimer & Adorno 2002, 98-99). Any semblance to a referent faded in the cacophony of signs, in the integral reality of “Sky Blue Goggled Beanie,” ski gear in a game with no skiing; and with this redundancy of use value came the redundancy of authenticity—its signification no longer possible nor desirable. Truth, as a dialectical process, was replaced by the empty form of obscenity, the acceleration of signification unto itself (Baudrillard 2008, 25-28). Virtual hats that simulated not even warmth, but rather, their own vacuous form, empty precisely so they could be filled with meaning after production, as interchangeable signs with all other hats; flat ontologies, like that of currency, the same real world money used to purchase “Sky Blue Goggled Beanie” in the first place.

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The CASH SHOP in MapleStory operated much like the digitised storefronts of the internet, extra-diegetic elements free-floating apart from one’s material reality; incorporeal insofar as they provide the same virtual store to all connected to the internet. Copies and copies of the same website loaded onto a potentially infinite number of computers, regardless of their location across space and time. All transactions tied to a credit number and the weightless, ephemeral click of one’s finger (Sobchack 2004, 154-155). Immediacy, accessibility, and the feeling of a transcendent, omnipresent market to meet every desire and need—all without an embodied, ethical engagement with the Other (Sobchack 2004, 154-156, 158). All engagements in identity construction are deferred from the dialectic of Self-Other, unto the obscenity of a Self that has absorbed all the energies of the Other—a Hyperself—extended into the dead spaces left in the social’s wake, to become the new social (Baudrillard 2008, 25-28).

MVP: The Fascination of Obscenity

“The spectacle thus reunites the separated, but it reunites them only in their separateness.”

—Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

The next feature I investigated was the MVP system. As I hopped my way through the world, a giant flashing banner would occasionally appear at the top right of my screen, half of it taken up by the word “MVP” and the other half by a stranger’s avatar standing next to, what was seemingly, their banal message to the world. Some examples of these messages were “Chips<3333333333333333333333333333333333” and “HEY LADY! Cant find your pantie[s]? /fine SoundFury”. When I reached level 20 a tutorial popped up finally explaining to me how the MVP system works. Each month, customers of the CASH SHOP are ranked according to their spendings, with those at the top of the ranking system obtaining MVP status. Various bonuses include the MVP banner, which I came to realise was an exclusive, spectacular chat box for the MVPs of that month. What’d been displayed in the MVP banners were not messages to us unranked masses, but rather, messages to other MVPs, who would respond with their own banners. The masses existed to watch the MVPs speak amongst themselves.

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The CASH SHOP then, did not exist solely for the construction of one’s identity through virtual commodity consumption, but also as a means towards MVP status, which would grant one the ability to display to all one’s newly crafted identity. Not only that, one’s private messages to friends could then also be displayed for the entire world to see. I finally understood. Rather than discipline, this world existed upon fascination (Baudrillard 1990, 46). There was no panopticon in the typical sense for the gaze had been inverted (Bauman & Haugaard 2008, 111, 124-125). Rather than fear the (singular) gaze, we adored the (manifold) gaze; desired its penetration into every banal aspect of our lives; every pixel of our avatar had to be seen, every vapid message to our friends made into a spectacle that was utterly nonsensical to the millions of other players not embedded within the same discourse (mannerisms, in-jokes and cultural references). The gaze did not exist to punish idlers, but to affirm idolators and their idols; a gaze not of judgement, but silent awe.

This was the social I’d been looking for, but failed to recognise—the replacement of the public sphere with the private sphere made public. Because of its private nature, however, it was a tightly-regulated social—a one-way delivery system like that of mass media (Debord 2002, 12). One is expected to simply watch as the spectacle presents itself, every few seconds, at the top right of the screen. Identity without exchange as the narcissism of the void; gazes hollowed of meaning, sought purposelessly to increase one’s own standing. Like the quantification of approval through systems such as liking and hearting, this was affirmation without content, sign value that affirms its own viral assemblage into a self-same, vibrating mass (Debord 2002, 14; Baudrillard 2008, 27-28). The MVP system cares not for what is purchased or said, simply that things are purchased and said. Identity as One is disassembled for a multiplicity that is utterly empty, and thus, an empty set, another One no longer even in pretence to its own worth. Without use value, everything returns to One, for nothing is capable of differentiation. Everything becomes interchangeable—equivalent—and therefore, profitable.

And what could drive the obscenity of the spectacle other than our inability to reciprocate; our reduction into purely terminal ocular-aural creatures; our disembodied, withered sense of belonging? Surely, the obscene functions as a fetish for the Other, a pseudo-social delivery machine, that devours affect as much as it delivers representations of affect; always the Other’s scene, the scene elsewhere, the MVP joyously discoursing over panties, as you yourself wander a desolate world, your own chat filled with spambots, your own clothes hopelessly attained in-game, diegetically.

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The Traumatic Realisation of Class

“Ecstasy is a quality proper to any body that spins until all sense is lost, and then shines forth in its pure and empty form.”

—Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies

Where is your jouissance? Over there, outside of your reach—for there is no possibility of facing the trauma at the heart of consumption within MapleStory, simply because, there is no possibility of class struggle. A new (revolutionary) signifier cannot arise, for the habitus of MapleStory is one defined by a social field totally-administered by its developers, Nexon and Wizet (Marcuse 1991, 8-10; Zupančič 2017, 175-177). The haunt of market forces leaves traces along the contours of our identities, invisible pressures that mould us into certain ways of being. We did not create this social, after all; rather, we entered into an already codified realm, incapable of reconfiguration. Compulsive consumption as a means towards social affirmation then, could be seen as an expression of MapleStory’s traumatic founding, an event none of us actually experienced, and yet structures all that can be experienced (Zupančič 2017, 164-167, 171). MapleStory as original lack, consumption as its unconscious iteration, that brings something into being, out of nothing. Whereas the repeat of production under capitalism engenders alienation (and the possibility of overthrow), the repeat of consumption, engenders fascination (the ecstatic play of empty forms). Production, in MapleStory, becomes the totality of developer input, and what we are left with is a world where (effective) class consciousness becomes an impossibility.

MapleStory, thus, simulates classlessness, by interpellating us all as consumers (Althusser 1970). We see this in mechanisms such as the CASH SHOP’s monthly reset of its MVP ranking system. While such a system signifies fairness and equality, it also resurrects discipline as endless—a striving towards an obscene ideal, which is always temporary (Bauman 2008, 117-118, 124-125; Deleuze 1992, 5). No one is ever at the top for too long and it is only through real money spending that one remains there. MapleStory’s simulation of classlessness, therefore, reinstantiates class. Here the material base surges forth, not to (finally) return us to some pre-simulated world, but rather, to reinforce the fact that simulation is an artefact of capitalism. One can only become MVP, after all, if one has a disposable income. Through economic capital, one obtains cultural capital, as the spectacularisation of social capital (the MVP banner that terrorises all subjects, regardless of their class position). Rather than own the means of production (Marx & Engels 2000), or perform tastefulness (Bourdieu 2010, 7-8), the bourgeoisie of the virtual exhibit obscenity—display for the sake of display; an act freed from its content, seeking only power, in an attempt to excite senses long deadened by the process itself (Baudrillard 2008, 27-28; Debord 2002, 14). One buys oneself (from the CASH SHOP), to sell to others (through the MVP system), their own chance of being bought. Commodities as interchangeable signs through the CASH SHOP; the bourgeoisie as interchangeable signs through the MVP system; identities formed not through what we consume, but how intensely we consume, so that we may finally be consumed ourselves, in a glorious, wasteful bout.

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REWARD POINTS: The Eclipse of Production

“Labor’s realization is its objectification.”

—Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

So far I have described the CASH SHOP and the MVP system, whose approximate real world equivalents are the commodity market (as fashion industry) and the televisual spectacle (as celebrity industry). Both of these elements have been apart from the diegesis of MapleStory. However, the final element to this tripartite system bridges the extra-diegetic with the diegetic. REWARD POINTS are generated through participation in in-game events, raids and bosses, though they must be claimed within seven days in the CASH SHOP, or else they expire. They act, essentially, as coupons, providing discounts for CASH SHOP items.

Through REWARD POINTS virtual labour converges with actual labour, a simulation of thrift, the careful management of a sparse pool of resources as one ekes out every potential discount across a range of flyers, receipts and coupon books. For those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, survival coincides with the hyperregulation of a life ever on the brink of collapse; a hypervigiliance to the arbitrary price changes of a market beyond one’s control. Reconfigured through MapleStory, thrift becomes an activity unto prestige, for through the grind of in-game events, one may lessen the grind of actual labour needed for the attainment of this or that CASH SHOP item, and thus shrink the distance towards MVP status. Through REWARD POINTS, a subject position of destitution is transformed into one of neoliberal potentiality, where one’s worth is determined by one’s individual efforts, regardless of socioeconomic position.

However, the virtual subject of MapleStory cannot escape the haunt of bodily labour. No matter the effort spent towards the attainment of REWARD POINTS in-game, real world money drives MapleStory’s circuit of exchange. The virtual subject—as audience, consumer and spectacle—exists only insofar as the actual subject is already a docile body under liberal-capitalist (re)production (Foucault 1995, 136-138). History remains tied to simulation, not as signifier-referent, but as real-haunt, as an invisible presence that moulds simulation’s expression; and simulation, in turn, siphons living labour out of the actual, to freeze as dead labour within the virtual. Labour flows thrice-removed from its original expression: first as remuneration through wages, second as expenditure through exchange, third as fascination through obscenity. We are all haunted by capitalism’s recurring crises; by a falling rate of profit that cannot be stabilised by overproduction or debt, only delayed, and after its apocalyptic crash, deferred onto everyone but those responsible.

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Crypto-Fascism and the Exchange of Nothing

“all individual reality has become social . . . allowed to appear only if it is not actually real.

—Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

Let us consider the consequence of all this. We are left in an interesting predicament in regards to communication. If The Society of the Spectacle outlined an era of (spectacular) one-directional communication, then Simulacra and Simulation outlined an era of (ecstatic) excessive communication. With one-directional communication, fatality and singularity are asserted; with excessive communication, anomie and multiplicity. Where similarities arise in both modes of communication is the death of meaningful exchange and, therefore, democracy. Either a standard is presented where we are not granted the ability to respond, or no standard is presented, leaving us unable to respond critically. Communication as the foundation of democracy suffocates under both sparsity and excess. There is something deeply fascistic about both cases. Clearly, a single unchallengeable narrative brings to mind the white nationalism of the twentieth century, however, the libertarian nihilism of our time carries traces of the former as well.

For John Stuart Mill (2011), free speech meant a dialogic exchange, specifically voiced in the public sphere so that it would be open to critique. At the foundation of free speech then, was the dialectic—the coming together of opposites, to reconcile the contradictions in both. Rather than this outcome, however, we find in MapleStory (and across society) a great disdain for free speech, masquerading as free speech. Thoughts expressed without the desire for response, with the catch-all disclaimer “its just my opinion,” the erasure of exchange for the narcissism of the sign, all negations negated. The great mouthpieces of modern-day free speech become the very censors they abhor, derogating all anti-hegemonic responses as political correctness or social justice, as if critique itself were the enemy of free speech, rather than its foundation (since, oh, Athens 2500 years ago). In this topsy-turvy world, those who advocate for liberty the most become its worst enemies, the abject remnants of fascism reconstituted into a mirage of democracy—cryptic in both senses of the term (hidden and dead)—unaware of their own censorship of a social they themselves have murdered, will murder and continue to murder.

In this narcissistic sphere of non-exchange, agency appears infinite, but it is an agency that moves towards nothing; that dissipates in the face of contact, and therefore, fails to (ex)change anything. The irony of such a libertarian perspective is that the self may as well not exist for it is incapable of engaging with anything beyond its own mirror-image, and if the self is an assemblage of interactions, then the libertarian mirror-image is an empty form. What we are left with is the seat of western masculinist rationality as potentially anything—an empty signifier at the mercy of power. Agency then, for all its pompous fervour, is all the more trapped in ideology (Althusser 1970).

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Conclusion: Identity without Identifiers

Core to my thoughts about MapleStory have been the relationship between the actual and the virtual; the shift from use value to sign value in the construction of identity; the continuing relevancy of class; and the interplay between spectacular and ecstatic communication technologies. I chose the MMORPG as my case study as it arose in the wake of neoliberalism, simulating a multitude of liberal-capitalist logics, such as discipline, seduction and the social as a public sphere. What became immediately clear to me was that the social in virtuality was no more a civic forum than the one in actuality, for it was geared towards consumerism—private exchanges spectacularised upon the body as dead signs. What was uniquely Baudrillardian about MapleStory was that it did not seem too matter what signs one wore. Bourdieu’s (2009) conception of class as tied to distinct tastes fell apart as I investigated MapleStory’s MVP system, which granted players prestige and status through the quantity, rather than the quality, of their consumption. The most absurd aspect of this system was the prestige it granted—a spectacular banner, used to convey messages to other MVPs, for everyone in the game world to see. Prestige was the public spectacularisation of one’s private exchanges; and because no one could reply except other MVPs, it was a forced spectacle, a one-way delivery of excessive information—a sort of democratisation of Debord’s spectacle as Baudrillard’s ecstasy of communication. Whilst all this took place within the virtual, it was clear to me that class was as important as ever, for only those with expendable income could utilise these privileged means of communication. Simulation can never escape the real-haunt of bodily labour. Where this leaves identity is as a non-entity, but a non-entity that is strived for through actual labour, for this non-entity is still valued. The nothingness of sign value is precisely its charm, for it can be filled with anything; however, without any standards of judgement, it is also a fleeting, dissatisfying joy. One is free to be anything, but nobody cares. Identity becomes pointless in a world where it is done for its own sake, and so too does the social. This is the end product of MapleStory and the multitude of other social sites that replicate its logic, because in the narcissism of the mirror, there can be no affirmation beyond one’s own—and all who strive to reach such a subject-position may as well have never existed at all.

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