Race and Culture Essay
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Mar 9, 2012
Race and Culture Essay
From its inception, Marx's base and superstructure distinction has vexed theorists. The continued development of production technology and ever-expanding space of consumer products and services has made it difficult to differentiate which human activities constitute base and which make up the superstructure. Marx in his original context used the distinction pessimistically to show how certain supposedly cultural behaviors and institutions whose autonomy was taken for granted were in fact involved in the perpetuation of an economic base whose success and enlargement everyone toiled to achieve but benefitted only a small section of society, whom he called the bourgeoisie. These days the base and superstructure distinction no longer carries the weight of class antagonism but instead is most often deployed as a statement as to how even our most mundane and non-economic activities are conditioned by the ideologies and imperatives of trans-national capitalism. It is in this context that I will explore the relationship between economic necessities and the remarkable phenomenon of electronic gaming competition, through the prism of the competitive Starcraft scene.
Marx was so positioned in the history of ideas that he needed to resolve the intellectual schism between idealism and materialism. Marx's response was a Hegelian synthesis that culminated in his concept of a living praxis that was neither idealist nor materialist. Rather praxis was the nigh-on instantaneous response of the individual both to his own physical necessities and his practical will. Marx used his concept of practice to highlight the importance of man's labor in shaping his world. For Dupre, Marx advances a theory of praxis as social change that is neither a pure materialism nor a pure idealism. The result is that pure contemplation that is distanced from practical concerns like physical needs is impossible. Dupre however believes that in order for theory to maintain its human dimension, that is, for humans to maintain a level of control that betrays more mechanistic views of human activity, there must be something like a pure theoretical, distanced, objective space in which humans can plan action without the interference of immediate physical needs. Dupre modifies praxis in this way to restore a more Hegelian conception of ideology that, while not totally idealist, is also not totally dominated by practical concerns.
Along with Dupre's remarks on Marx's theory of praxis, we have the related concept of cultural superstructure found in Terry Eagleton. Eagleton argues that although practical matters set the tone for cultural activity, this activity always transcends practical concerns. Humans have always acted to satisfy their practical needs through rituals that expand the realm of human needs to create 'synthetic', cultural needs that can only be satisfied through the practice of such rituals. Indeed, that our cultural practices are necessitated by some kind of material production on some basic level is neither surprising nor revolutionary. As Eagleton puts it, material pursuits are "both supremely important and utterly banal" (232). Yet the object concerning us with the base and superstructure distinction is whether and in what ways material production (or, modern capitalism) necessitate that cultural practices take the particular forms that they do. Some definitions of culture are wide enough to include all human activity, but here we will limit ourselves to a definition of culture that includes those human behaviors that are not strictly necessary from the standpoint of human survival. Now, with the complexity of modern society it is difficult (and perhaps this holds true only for rich countries, and for the rich sections of poor countries as well) to delineate exactly which activities are necessary for our collective survival and which are, in this mode, superfluous. One might simplify the matter by designating the collective factories in China as being the sector of humanity that is strictly concerned with human material well-being, while the rest of human economic activity is only tenuously so, concerned as it is with flighty notions of 'service', 'science', or 'progress'. Yet even these more flighty pursuits have some pretension to improving human material well-being. Culture, then, is defined as those activities that lack this pretension. Art, sport, philosophy are obvious examples that satisfy non-economic criteria. Yet what do we make of the 'foodie' movement which is certainly a cultural phenomenon, based as it is around our very basic material need for nourishment?
The point of this is that culture is rarely if ever isolated from material pursuits. But this does not mean that there is no such thing as culture at all. Vulgar Marxists hold the antiquated view that economic imperatives directly condition cultural expression. But a softer argument is that our material situation sets boundaries for cultural pursuits which, oftentimes, express a desire to escape their particular material situation! In this way, economics and culture are distinct while at the same time intimately related. As Eagleton says, we are presented with more and more complex forms of culture, that is, seemingly autonomous culture, only when we are presented also with a situation of material surplus (235).
If we define culture, as does Eagleton, as those pursuits that do not have an ultimate economic goal, then we can begin to situate our current dilemma. In the following I will examine Marx's base and superstructure trope with respect to the burgeoning field of electronic sports (e-sports). E-sports are based on computer and console video games. E-sports competitors use these video games to test their in-game skill against each other in competition resembling that of more traditional sports. Young as it is, e-sports has taken up relatively recent commercial ties through sponsorships, etc. These sponsorships allow gaming teams to send their players to star-studded international competitions. The PC strategy game Starcraft II, released late in 2010, has had a meteoric rise in terms of the enlargement of its competitive scene and also in the casual fan base that supports it. So how does the importance of sponsorships affect the way that e-sports has developed and will continue to develop in the future?
The success of the original Starcraft game in South Korea is something of a phenomenon. Prominent teams in Korea are sponsored by big name corporations in that country such as global media company Gretech and food manufacturer CJ corp. These mainstream corporations have banded together to form a regulating umbrella for the Starcraft 'industry' which stipulates how players are to be paid and under what conditions they must train, etc. Korean 'progamers' are well-known for their grueling practice schedules of 12 hours per day or more. Korean Starcraft competitions are broadcast on two dedicated television channels, and Starcraft competition is recognized in mainstream Korean society, although it has the prestige level of a niche pursuit not unlike that of American-style pro-wrestling.
Of course Starcraft originated as a game played in the home individually for entertainment purposes only. Only after the game had been on the market for upwards of five years did the competitive scene in Korea reach something like the developed state that it is in today. With the release of Starcraft II, competitors based outside of Korea (called 'foreigners' within the Korean scene) have begun to emulate their more skilled Korean counterparts in seriousness and form. Foreign teams are multiplying, and the richer teams are signing contracts with hot players much like professional sports organizations have done for decades.
Together the Korean and foreign scenes combine both in international and 'online' tournaments to compete for cash-prize pools. The largest tournaments typically have substantial corporate backing, and this backing supplies the prize pools for which players compete. One of the largest tournaments is the Intel Extreme Masters, which is a global brand which sponsors numerous tournaments in large cities centered primarily in Europe. The United States analogue to the Intel Extreme Masters tournament is hosted by the tournament organizing company Major League Gaming, based in New York City. Major League Gaming draws on sponsorships from snack food and soft drink brands like Pepsi-Cola and Hot Pockets.
So from its roots as a niche game played by individuals for fun, Starcraft is making a play to become serious business. Recently there was a controversy involving a frequent 'commentator' of Starcraft II matches. The commentator, who goes by the screen name 'orb', was accused of making racist remarks during one of his personal ladder matches. Orb had been recently contracted to commentate a series of Starcraft II team league matches that were to be broadcast as part of the team Evil Geniuses-organized tournament. Evil Geniuses is an e-sports team with wide involvement not just in the Starcraft II e-sports scene, but also in a number of other hugely popular console-based scenes. As such, Evil Geniuses has a large public following with a number of contracted, salaried star players and big sponsors including the computer chip maker Intel. In the aftermath of the controversy involving Orb, Evil Geniuses CEO Alex Garfield issued a statement on a prominent e-sports community website detailing his decision to cancel Orb's contract to cast games for the organization. In his post, Garfield cites his collegiate studies in 'Sociology and Social Justice' as reasons for his sensitivity to racism. At the end of his post, Garfield urges fans who had gone out of their way to contact Evil Geniuses sponsors to voice their dissatisfaction to re-consider in light of his statements and indicate their satisfaction at his handling of the situation. Garfield ended his post by saying, "It's hard enough to bring sponsors into e-sports as it is - we as an industry don't need angry...mobs making that task any more difficult :)." (Garfield).
As a team CEO in the thick of the business of e-sports, Garfield's statements represent the meeting of what was once a niche hobbyist pursuit with a business sensibility intent on 'bringing the nerds into the light' so to speak. The disconnect involved in this racial incident is one involving, to use the antiquated terms, two consciousnesses which to now were operating independently of one another. Use of language considered by mainstream bourgeois to be racist, sexist, and homophobic is rampant by Starcraft II players, professional and casual alike. These factors illustrate how real and perceived commercial pressures are poised to shape the Starcraft II e-sports community going forward.
In an interview conducted after a major gaming tournament, Garfield emphasized the difficulty of gaining and keeping sponsors. For revenue the team relies not only on sponsorship money, but also on revenue gained from advertising on player internet streams. These streams consist of well-known competitors publicly displaying their practice games via internet streaming sites. One such site, Twitch TV, has been formed specifically for the purpose of showcasing e-sports matches in the west. Twitch TV itself is an offshoot of the wildly successful video streaming site, Justin.TV. Players earn money for their teams by 'running' advertisements (much like television ads) between their matches and after a streaming session. Yet the income earned is very small and is only significant when a stream has multiple thousands of viewers. Teams earn a much greater margin on team branded merchandise such as T-shirts and the like.
In his "Base and Superstructure Revisited", Terry Eagleton writes, "perhaps...culture is itself superfluity; that which is surplus to biological need" (236). Before its impending commercialization, e-sports was a model of superfluity. It is true that players could expect cash prizes if they were to win big tournaments, but these payouts were hardly enough to sustain any kind of modern lifestyle on their own, even for the serial winner. Yet after e-sports had developed in Korea, complete with massive corporate investment, players were able to survive off of their salaries and winnings alone, if they were good enough at the game. It seems that in order to classify the current e-sports scene under the heading 'culture', we might alter our definition of culture to include 'that which is superfluous yet still integrated into material exchange'. As players and teams continue to find creative ways to charge people for their 'services', that is, the entertainment value of their instructive playing of the game, the more the pursuit of e-sports resembles all of the old services on offer at your local megastore, yet in ethereal form. As a player transitions from someone who plays the game out of sheer enjoyment to someone whose livelihood depends on his success at the game, the nature of his endeavor also changes. On its own, the performance of the game is materially superfluous, in the sense that the game in and of itself does not provide for anyone's material well-being. Yet once a commercial value has been placed on such a performance, the game is all of a sudden capable of acting as economic base after all. What was once superfluous, niche, 'delight in sensuous powers for their own sake', has become integral to the system of exchange and is thus a direct mode of the economic base.
Such a shift in the significance of a particular human activity is paradigmatic of what Fredric Jameson and other neo-Marxist-Hegelians call 'dialectic'. The performance of Starcraft matches began its life as pure superfluity and enjoyment, and has established itself to an extent as to be integral to the web of economic activity. What, in other words, began as a contradiction between base and superstructure, namely, how to survive materially while at the same time devoting all one's effort towards developing skill at a useless art, has become a case of cultural superstructure taking on the outward appearance of economic base. Jameson quotes Marx, "the further development of the commodity does not abolish the [base and superstructure] contradiction, but rather provides the form within which it has room to move" (42). Indeed, players are very much made aware of their obligations to generate revenue for their teams; when granting interviews, all contracted players are required to thank sponsors. As well, players are responsible for choosing to run advertisements during their streams, thus providing funds for their team through direct ad revenue and also through self-exposure and the enlargement of their personal reputation or brand.
The pursuit of commercial viability has already begun to shape the behavior of all those who participate in Starcraft related e-sports. Evil Geniuses CEO Alex Garfield has highlighted the ways in which e-sports organizations are aggressively pursuing the old market tropes of 'monetization' and 'commercial viability'. In short, the future of e-sports seems inextricably linked from its prospects as a legitimate business. There is a group of perhaps 100 foreign Starcraft II players internationally who subsist completely on their e-sports related earnings. We have seen that, far from illustrating the independence of economic base and cultural superstructure, the competitive Starcraft scene is an example of the fluidity of meaning inherent in these concepts. The current Starcraft scene perhaps resembles the example of the famed Russian conservatories of music, whose participants were left to toil endlessly toward musical perfection without having to bother with their material needs. The difference is that Starcraft progamers are acutely aware of their status as not only expert gamers but also as community figures, with the incumbent responsibility to 'grow e-sports', that is to say, to earn cash.
Louis Dupré (1980). "Marx's Critique of Culture and Its Interpretations." The Review of Metaphysics 34 (1):91 - 121. Jameson, Fredric. Valences of the Dialectic.
Eagleton, Terry. "Base and Superstructure Revisited." New Literary History. 31(2). Garfield, Alexander, perf. Kingston HyperX at MLG Orlando: Ten Minutes with EG CEO Alex Garfield.
Garfield, Alexander. "Orb Dismissed from Evil Geniuses Broadcasts." ottersareneat, Online Posting.
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