Boris Groys, Ernst Jünger, Agent 47: Identity and the Hitman Franchise

I recently finished Boris Groys’ Introduction to Antiphilosophy, which I enjoyed quite a bit. It is a collection of essays that Groys wrote at various times; as he says in the introduction, they were not written to be read together, but when juxtaposed they form an interesting kind of assemblage. The heart of Groys’ work, as I have read him, centers on the archive as a way of understanding new movements and the avante garde in politics, art, and everything else. For Groys, the maintenance of a good archive is important–completion is a fundamental form of that.

This entails a praxis of rescue. A good bit of Groys’ writing is about making sure that forgotten philosophers can be seen, particularly Russian ones–there is a long period of expatriate Eastern European philosophers fleeing to Western Europe, influencing the intellectual sphere heavily, and then being promptly forgotten by history. So the process of remembering the past, and the ideas that had heavy weight there, seems to be really important for Groys.

That was a digression that I didn’t mean to make, but I wanted to make sure that the idea behind Groys’ writing was clear. In Introduction to Antiphilosophy, he performs a reading of Ernst Jünger and his theories of the total destruction of the individual in the wake of technological progression. Instead of individuals, we are left with infinitely replaceable, infinitely serial human beings–for Jünger, this was combined under the figure of the worker.

Groys writes about Jünger’s theory: “The technological and serial nature of modern experience has a certain effect on human subjectivity (which is itself a sum of those experiences): it renders the human subject exchangeable and replicable.” If the value we place in experience is not in the actual experiencing, but rather in the serial nature of those experiences, then human subjectivity becomes serial rather than unique; we become a mob defined by proclivities and monocultural desires.

For example, lets think about the Call of Duty franchise. They are all defined by their serial gameplay: the same mechanics, the same ideology, the same kinds of levels. And we want those things, as consumers; as the producer who was anonymously interviewed at Kotaku said, “ don’t spend [their] money on new IPs”. Jünger’s examples are contemporary for him–film is his technological devil, but the sentiments are the same. As a species, we like the repeatable. In civil life, this is called safety; economically, this is job security. We desire tropes in every aspect of our lives. 

For Jünger, there is an infinite seriality that comes with modern technological life, and Groys reads an additional step into that: immortality. If every worker or soldier, every cognitariat in Bifo’s words, is replaceable and absolutely nonunique, then the single is totally eroded into the multiple. Any time the multiple rears its head, the same is invoked; everything lives forever. We are already comfortable with this idea as a concept. Movie Tropes exists to fulfill this very function, to prove to us that there is nothing unique in the world, that we are serially living through experiences that come from before–everything is an evocation of the prior.

Groys writes:

To this extent, then, Jünger considers both the soldier and the worker to be immortal. In order to survive in a technological civilization the individual human being must mimic the machine–even the very war machine that destroys him. . . . The machine actually exists between life and death; although it is dead, it moves and acts as if it were alive. As a result, the machine often signifies immortality. It is highly characteristic, for example, that Andy Warhol. . . . also desired to ‘become a machine’, that he also chose the serial and the reproducible as routes to immortality. (135)

Which takes us to Agent 47.

The Hitman games are marked by a couple things: large, elaborate levels and mimicry. As Agent 47, a killer clone hitman who is “the best in the business,” the player is shown a target and given a number of mission conditions and told to go complete them in whatever way the player desires. This can be as stealthy as impersonating a waiter and delivering a bomb to a target in her dinner tray or as violent as rolling into a residential neighborhood and shotgunning through everything between player and target.

Of course, you are rewarded by the game for doing things in as stealthy a manner as possible–diegetically, Agent 47 is the best because he can mimic anyone and do anything. He is bald, of average build, and wears a nondescript suit; he is also a perfect clone, a combination of all the best genes that humanity has to offer. Aesthetically and ontologically, Agent 47 is the everyperson.[1]

My claim here is that the Hitman games are the perfect example of the way that Jünger’s thesis can play out. Each level is its own little clockwork world with its own serial repetitions. The very nature of scripting behavior as a method of game creation means that patterns emerge–this policeman always walks by that trash can where you can easily store his body. This also means that the game is repeatable; any player of Hitman knows that you have to start a level over and over again so you can test out every possible combination of events that ends with the best possible success for the mission. The game’s ability to run a program over and over again, to mimic a set of conditions serially, both allows for every player to have the same experience and for the single player to play the same conditions over and over again. The connection to Jünger is apparent–the individual experience of the game doesn’t matter so much as the reproducibility of conditions that enable gameplay to happen. Of course, there are experiences–the way I solve a level is different than the way that someone else solves it. But these experiences don’t matter because they can always be overwritten. There isn’t a possibility for beautiful mistakes or uniqueness in the game. Instead, there is overwriting of the personal in favor of the machinic.

There’s a problem with the way I’m characterizing this: isn’t this how all games work Well, yeah. That’s sort of why Jünger is so easily applied here. But there is something else that makes the Hitman games so appropriate to talk about from Jünger’s theoretical viewpoint: mimicry.

Agent 47 is successful in his missions because he can easily, and convincingly, mimic anyone. He can put on a new set of clothing, carry a weapon, and literally become another person. There is a level in Hitman: Blood Money where Agent 47 has to infiltrate a rehab clinic. A possible solution is walking in, stealing clothes from the head therapist, and walking around as him. 47 walks past a number of guards, security cameras, and orderlies who deal with the head therapist every day, but none of them ever become suspicious. None of them yell out that the therapist has a beard and 47 does not.

The central thesis of the Hitman series mimics Jünger: all humans are infinitely replaceable. Agent 47 can be any person because, to other people, aesthetically mimicing is being. On a technical level, 47 changes; he takes on properties that prevent processes of alert and violence from occurring. 47 is infinitely polyvalent. He is one state change away from any subjectivity.

And what is the cause of this thesis? What makes it rear its head in this game? Is it because a key developer thought, like Jünger, that the modern period was characterized by the elimination of the individual in favor of the matted-down Same? More than likely, no. A likely point, though I have no evidence of this, could be the way that games are forced to handle assets because of memory limitations. It is more resource efficient to display a single element and apply it to a number of different positions on the screen–having to create fewer elements is a material motivation from the roots of animation, and the application to video games makes sense. So we see the same backgrounds, the same storefronts, the same rock models.

But we also see the same character models. We see the same people, repeating infinitely, filling up the screen.

A final example: a large street party in New Orleans. The streets are filled with copies, mostly only differentiated by skin color or a hat or a glowstick necklace. It saves system resources, surely, and makes technical sense. But it is more than that? Is it a meditation of replaceability, on immortality, and of the collapse of the Many-Possible into the One-That-Is?

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1. He is also white and male, which means that the “perfect human” is really just a combination of everything fucked up in the world. I recognize everything wrong with this; that discussion just doesn’t fit into the scope of this blog post.

Groys, Boris. “Ernst Jünger’s Technologies of Immortality.” Introduction to Antiphilosophy.

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