TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of sexual assault
I finished Grand Theft Auto V this past weekend. I’m not sure if this post is really about that game, but it is certainly about the circuit of culture that creates legions of fans who will defend a game to the bitter end against any and all criticism.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the defense of Grand Theft Auto V that goes something like this: “Yes, we are aware that the representations of the game are bad and/or harmful, but don’t you understand that GTA has always been satire? Therefore, it is being critical of capitalism, sexism, violent crime by presenting us with a satirical take on contemporary, media-obsessed life.”
I stand by what I wrote in my previous post. That’s all bullshit.
On the other end, however, I am curious the desire to read “irony” or “satire” into a work in order to absolve it of any cultural wrongdoing. If I accept that Grand Theft Auto V is at-face satirical, it is roughly equivalent to calling someone a horrific slur and following it up with “just kidding, lol.” It is the internet troll’s defense. It is the rhetorical equivalent of pushing another kid down on the playground, looking at his scraped knees, and saying “it was a joke!” In short, the rhetorical position is deeply nihilistic.
I wouldn’t have written anything about this if the game didn’t put it into my head. During a play session this past weekend, I did the Michael mission called “Parenting 101.” In this mission, Michael has to save his son Jimmy (a hate-spewing, videogame-playing, Jonah Hill-knockoff caricature of an entitled rich millennial) from kidnappers. As we learn through a phone conversation, the people who have kidnapped Jimmy are constant victims of his trolling. To defend himself, Jimmy says:
It’s just an online persona. It was satire, or parody, or something! I didn’t mean it!
That’s the perfect defense of GTAV‘s inherent criticism of what is replicating if I have ever seen it. Jimmy, a metacharacter who actively comments on videogame and Grand Theft Auto tropes throughout the game, is clearly grasping at straws to defend trolling and his defense is the same that GTAV fans jump through hoops to provide. It gestures at some reflexivity on Rockstar’s part–with a character like this, surely they know what they are doing with everything else.
Then the rest of the conversation occurs:
Kidnapper: Shut up, troll! You gave up your right to free speech when you insulted a celebrity on the internet!
Jimmy: It was a couple of comments. Some colorful language.
K: It was harassment.
J: You’re the comedy writer. Deal with the heckle.
K: I blocked you. You started another account. I blocked you again, you started another. But what you didn’t count on was me having the money and the resources to trace your IP.
J: I counted on you having better things to do.
K: Well, I don’t. I’m a lonely man and social media is my life. It’s given me the recognition I’ve been denied my whole life. I can make snarky comments, and glib pronouncements, and lap up the adulation, banishing any form of dissent. I’m a king, and Bleeter [GTA version of Twitter] is my kingdom.
J: Okay. Umm, that’s pretty sad.
K: Don’t lose sleep over it. When I’m done, the only Bleeting you’ll be doing is actual, like, bleeding cause then you’ll be in pain. (laughs)
As you can see, the writers at Rockstar pull their infinitely predictable move. They present both “sides” of the issue of trolling and then make both of those sides appear equally ridiculous. If Jimmy’s initial comment about satire could have been understood as being reflexive, the following conversation ensures that that reflexivity was fleeting if it existed at all. Trolling is yet another feature of contemporary life that Rockstar is interested in showing (and making it the core of a number of jokes between Michael and Jimmy) and then absolving themselves of having to deal with.
What do we do with Jimmy’s flailing, though? Why would Rockstar include this seemingly aware moment before a the inevitable Rockstar move?
Maybe a better question: what kind of work does the irony/satire duo perform in the contemporary media culture?
Though it was quite fashionable to claim that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 marked “the end of irony,” I would propose a more straightforward explanation: the irony trend simply exhausted itself. The exhaustion hypothesis has the advantage of actually explaining what followed “the end of irony”: not, as the 9/11 fetishists would have it, a culture-wide turn toward earnestness and patriotism, but rather a reemergence of the awkwardness that I have claimed as the “default setting” of American culture since the 1970s. As we will see, 90s-style irony even today remains an important part of many people’s defense against awkwardness, but it is now mainly a temporary expedient rather than an all-encompassing lifestyle choice. In the cases where something like irony has played a dominant role, it has tended to shade into a more obvious sociopathy, as in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which can be understood as a radical reworking of Seinfeld for a post-irony era. 
Kotsko’s argument is simple: irony (and I would add satire) are rarified in the contemporary media landscape. You can find them in pockets, but those pockets are deeply entrenched, cannibalistic, and over the top so much that it is indistinguishable from what it is criticizing: to commit to satire in the now is, as Kotsko writes, “sociopathy.”
The dual commitment that satire/irony necessitates has become a solidly two-faced enterprise: you have to become a monster that disavows all monstrosity. That’s the trap and the source of almost all satire in the contemporary world. Where is the dividing line? Who gets to decide?
These aren’t abstract questions posed merely to be debated. For instance, there is the recent case of “Matthew,” the now-former Social Chair of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity at Georgia Tech. A week ago a number of websites ran a story with the text of an email that he sent out to his fraternity members to teach them how to talk to women at parties or, as he writes, “lure rapebait.”
The email is everything you would expect, so I’m not doing any kind of long reading of it here. The interesting part is the apology that he published a couple days after his email went viral. It is mostly unremarkable–this kind of horrific things come out enough that this is basically a genre of writing at this point–but there’s a part in the middle that caught me.
Misogynistic behavior is everywhere online and unfortunately, my attempt to ridicule it in an immature and outrageous satire backfired terribly and in a manner I mistakenly underestimated.
And here we have it, what I will forever call “the Grand Theft Auto Defense,” written into the social once again. At best, it is aggression rewritten as an olive branch; sociopathy presented as empathy.