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Surplus Rebellions

 

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Note from the author: Riot. Strike. Riot.: The New Era of Uprisings follows the repertoire of collective action in the west, deciphering at its heart the sequence riot-strike-riot prime stretched across the overlapping periods 1347-1830, 1790-1979, and 1965-present. What are the continuities and what are the breaks between riot and riot prime? The fundamental continuity is the domination of circulation (distribution, exchange, and consumption) over production in these eras. Bracketing the industrial revolution and its economic expansions, we might compare the early era of merchant capital and mercantilism with the cybermercantilism of the present: capital leaping into circulation in a zero-sum struggle for profits absent the real accumulation of production-centered capital. The book thus matches up riot-strike-riot prime with circulation-production-circulation prime. But there is a real distance between the bread riot of 1740 and the racialized uprisings in Newark and Detroit, Clichy-Sous-Bois and Tottenham, Ferguson and Baltimore. The “race riot” once indicated white violence against Asian-Americans, Latinos, African Americans. Now it names the compulsory episode wherein cops or their proxies kill a young black person: riot ensues, and another when police impunity is again affirmed. We might simply say the return to circulation comes earlier for racialized populations: uneven deindustrialization first displaces black workers into informal economies and market struggles, people who now confront extreme policing, hyperincarceration, and the lived experience of being surplus to the needs of the economy. These are the exemplary subjects, but not the only subjects, of riot prime — of a global recomposition of class within which the riot of surplus populations is not a likelihood but a certainty.

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Using Life: Instructions for Play

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Today marks a “Day of Blogging” for Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, who is serving two years in prison: guilty of having written the playful, language-rich, genre-crossing novel Using Life, he will be given the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, today, in absentia, in New York City. When Naji was charged with “violating public morals” for an excerpt of his novel published in a journal, he initially won his case, but lost an appeal and has been in jail since February 20.

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seems to see playfulness as a growing challenge. Three years for a cartoon portraying the president in Mickey Mouse ears, the Fan al-Midan (Art is a Public Square) festival has been effectively shut down, the cartoonist Islam Gawish was jailed in February, and just last week, prosecutors extended the detention of the “Street Children” comedy troupe. 

The criminal excerpt can be read online in English translation by Ben Koerber.

Below, Ben Koerber reflects on the play in using life.

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…The mother that reads a story to her child: this is resistance. Building a small house: this is resistance. Singing at night is resistance. Having sex is resistance. Resistance is not just bearing arms; it is also the ability to adhere to the virtue of play, and to pursue–promiscuously, and with an eye to passion and pleasure–methods for using life…

I recall Bisu saying something to this effect some ten years ago.

July, 2006: Lebanon had been invaded again by the Israeli army after clashes with militants from Hizballah. A debate was raging in the Egyptian blogosphere on strategies for solidarity with the ordinary Lebanese citizens caught in the crossfire. “Resistance” was the rarefied term that Hizballah used to refer to the bullets and rockets it fired randomly southward. Bisu, blogging from somewhere in or around Cairo, had a different understanding of the word.

Like most people, I knew Bisu before I knew Ahmed Naje. The former was for a time the trickster-protagonist of the blog “Wassa’ Khayalak” (“Widen your Imagination”), and was known for his devastating parodies of state-sponsored intellectuals, producers and consumers of kitsch, religious hypocrites, as well as other bloggers who took themselves too seriously. (The name “Bisu” is explained as a pseudo-diminutive form of Iblis or “Satan”; before knowing any better, I sometimes imagined him as sprightly little smug-faced sanfur – Arabic for “smurf” and an occasional topic of Bisu’s posts). That was all back during the heady days of what Ahmed Naje, in his history of the Egyptian blogosphere, refers to as the “Diluvian Age”: a period of glorious cyber cacophony that lasted, roughly speaking, from the suppression of anti-Mubarak protests in 2005 to the draining of writers away from blogs to Facebook and Twitter a few years later. Sometime in late 2009, Bisu transformed, or molted, or something, into someone called “Ahmed Naje,” which also happened to be the name of a journalist, editor, and novelist in real life. There was no great “coming out” ritual here, only a courteous nod of admission to what many readers had already begun to suspect.

Fortunately, little else changed, and the blog stayed true to its slogan, “Live like you’re playing.” Bisu’s ludic imperative about the virtues of play were with me when I began to translate Ahmed Naje and Ayman Zorkany’s novel, Using Life, in late 2015.  Something I had read in graduate school by Roland Barthes about interpretation as “play” seemed to recommend itself in my efforts at self-justification, but I was happy that Bisu’s sporadic use of the term was possessed of a more immediate vitality, and beckoned with the warmer and more inviting ontology of the nonce-concept. Barring some orange-haired apocalypse in November, my translation of Using Life is on schedule to be released by the University of Texas Press early next year. But though it may serve as the original work’s primary representative in the English-speaking world, I would urge we consider it as just one “play” on the book written by Ahmed Naje and illustrated by Ayman Zorkany.

The English-language play on Using Life has been preceded by many others, in different idioms and media.

There are Ayman Zorkany’s illustrations, which both complement and “translate” the text written by Ahmed Naje. Some of these may also be viewed on the Arabic book’s Facebook page.

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As a book, Using Life follows a number of recent experiments in graphic fiction in Egypt and the wider Arab World, such as Metro (El-Shafee, 2008; trans. Rossetti, 2012) and The Apartment in Bab el-Louk (Maher, Ganzeer, and Nady, 2014); as a literary-graphic hybrid, it resembles most closely Hilal Chouman’s Limbo Beirut (beautifully translated by Anna Ziajka Stanton; available from the University of Texas Press in August).

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Looking further back in the Arabic tradition, one may contemplate the uncanny resemblances between Zorkany’s illustrations and the monstrous hybrids of Zakaria al-Qazwini’s 13th-century Wonders of Creation manuscripts.  

Curiously, while moral panics surrounding comics in the United States have historically targeted the genre for their graphic content, the illustrations in Using Life have not featured prominently in the recent legal controversy; perhaps this is because Zorkany’s images, while seemingly grotesque, are only so to eyes not accustomed to the realities of urban decay in contemporary Cairo.

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There is also “The Last Dance of the Blue Anus-Fly,” a film by Ayman Zorkany. Based on an illustrated section of Using Life, the animated film was recently screened at the Institut Français d’Egypte and other venues.

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There is Using Life merchandise.  The book’s publication in Egypt coincided with an exhibit held at the Medrar artists’ collective in downtown Cairo (Nov. 24 – Dec. 1, 2014), which featured Zorkany’s drawings in a variety of printed formats, including T-shirts, hoodies, pins, coasters, and coffee mugs.  These items were available for sale until recently at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, which has been subject to raids, closures, and partial demolitions by various state agencies.

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There are interpretive dance performances. The cultural center Darb 1718, in Cairo, hosted one in late 2015, which, though I attended, cannot now find a trace of on the interwebs.

There are critical reviews. An important context for playing with Using Life and understanding the surrounding controversy are several not-yet-translated articles by Egyptian artists and academics. Some appeared in a recent issue of the Cairo-based literary review ‘Alam al-Kitab (“Book World,” no. 94/95, Nov.-Dec. 2015); for example, the intriguing essay by poet Ahmed Nada compares the trial of Using Life with that of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a poem which has been translated into Arabic by Yusuf Rakha (in his recent novel, The Crocodiles, itself translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger), and before him by the inimitable Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus.

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Lastly, or rather primarily, Using Life (Istikhdam al-Haya in Arabic) is itself a translation, in textual medium, of the aesthetic and architectural work that has conspired to design contemporary Cairo.

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One of the great ironies of Naje’s imprisonment is that such direct and draconian displays of state power are largely peripheral to the critical concerns expressed in his novel. Instead, Using Life directs the reader’s gaze at the more subtle mechanisms of repression and constraint at work in contemporary Egypt: the perfidy of friends and lovers, the “kitschification” of culture, and, most importantly, conspiracies wrought in the realm of architecture and urban planning. The book is a play, in the first place, on the utterly unlivable state of today’s Cairo – “a miserable, hideous, filthy, rotten, dark, oppressive, besieged, lifeless, enervating, polluted, overcrowded, impoverished, angry, smoke-filled, simmering, humid, trashy, shitty, choleric, anemic mess of a city,” according to the protagonist, Bassam Bahgat.

Let the reader be aware that among the city’s current residents, Bassam’s feeling is far from unusual. Cairo’s decades-old crises in housing, electricity, waste management, and traffic (to name a few) have left the city both physically and psychologically scarred, and have remained unresolved amidst the waves of revolution and counterrevolution unleashed since January 25, 2011. The intervention of the security services into urban planning has disfigured the city even further: un-breachable metal sidewalk fences, forcibly depopulated public spaces, and huge, concrete block walls constructed in the middle of major streets are now familiar sights around the capital.

Yet as parts of Cairo have shut down, new aesthetic practices have emerged over the last decade to open new spaces for expression, as well as to re-purpose old ones. Graffiti artists have laid claim to the city’s walls and barriers.  Comedians and cartoonists have attracted cult followings through YouTube, and bloggers have emerged from the obscurity of their bedrooms to pioneer new literary genresIn fashion, advertising, and graphic design, independent artists have made spectacular interventions in fields traditionally dominated by foreign brands.

In Using Life, Zorkany and Naje have managed to synthesize many elements of this resurgent urban culture into something that, together with its “translations,” may serve as a guide-book of sorts for playing Cairo. All of these “plays” of/on Using Life – which, incidentally, were all performed or published before Ahmed Naje was sentenced to two years in prison – not only constitute forms of translation more inventive than the linguistic plays of professional interpreters, but that they also offer models for those contemplating solidarity in a manner suggested by the playful work itself.

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The Ego’s Death Trip

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Recent neuroscientific findings have lent new credence to a fundamental Freudian psychoanalytic concept and to the therapeutic use of psychedelics in dealing with it

ONLY recently has “ego death” escaped the shopworn tropes of an appropriated Eastern spirituality. The ego’s association with LSD dates to 1964 (if not before) with publication of The Psychedelic Experience, the indispensable acid-trip guidebook penned by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Ram Dass (né Richard Alpert). With the recent renaissance in vetted studies on psychedelics, which has come after a decades-long dark age of Schedule 1 classification, “ego death” has gained new meaning altogether.

Having only ever taken psilocybin mushrooms once, I set about attempting to understand ego death by consulting Hamilton Morris, psychedelics expert and resident pharmacopoeia correspondent for Vice. He described ego death as “a very complex and strange thing that involves, at least, loss of consciousness, like washing away into a black ocean of unconsciousness, then coming back and not really knowing where you were or what happened. You could just as easily call it being reborn, but you don’t need to call it anything. There is no word to describe it — who knows what it is? It’s a pharmacological fact and no language will ever describe what it is accurately. It’s a neurochemical change.”

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Namaste Inc.

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Greatly influential on Western impressions of India, the ancient greeting namaste has since been exploited by that country’s tourism industry for the purpose of attracting Western visitors, who have been sold on the idea that their impressions will be made real by compliant natives

ORIGINALLY a Sanskrit greeting, namaste had long been used among diaspora Indians, who spoke it as they bowed to each other in respect. In today’s India it has almost vanished from popular use. You rarely, if ever, hear it. It feels to many Indians antiquated, overly formal, and out of place. You’re much likelier to hear the more direct, informal greeting, “Kaise ho?” (“How are you doing?”). And that’s only if you’re hearing Hindi, which is but one of 122 major languages spoken in the country.

This present cultural fact of course runs contrary to Western imaginings.

And, curiously enough, Western imaginings have breathed new life into namaste: The word now greets a global market as a slogan of health, fitness, and hospitality ideals born with the 1960s New Age movement and revived with current trends. Whether embodied in a product or service, namaste acts to conjure a sense of welcome extended to potential, almost invariably Western, consumers’ minds, evoking embedded values of another culture and thus conferring a degree of authenticity to the product or service in question. In the case of India it is the culture’s psychospiritual ideas and practices — yoga, Ayurveda, and so on — which are coopted and adapted to forms Westerners find palatable.

Yet, as fate would have it, a recent bid for control over these alienated, Western-friendly forms has come from an unlikely source: India’s own Ministry of Tourism. This largely owes to the Ministry’s project of attempting to manage perceptions of India by foreigners in order to boost tourism. The Ministry promoted not only local attractions; it also presented a carefully constructed image of the country and its culture. For example, a promotional campaign featuring renowned Bollywood actor Aamir Khan’s popularized use of Athithi Devo Bhava (“The guest is akin to god”) and other Sanskrit phrases from ancient Hindu texts. A television spot appealed to foreign tourists and Indians alike, urging the latter to adopt such values as would dispose them to treat their guests as gods. It’s probably no accident that the foreign tourists in these ads are always white.

The campaign aimed to dispel the cliché notion that Indians — travel guides and shopkeepers, particularly — are out to dupe unsuspecting Western tourists by demanding exorbitant prices. Another spot encourages Indians to be warm and hospitable to their foreign guests. They are to be proud of their culture, and not simply for the knowledge that theirs is such a rich heritage. Their pride must also serve to show foreign guests a degree of authenticity that is sufficiently welcoming. What Indians are meant to take away from the Ministry’s campaign is this: Welcome foreign guests with namaste and maybe put vermilion on their foreheads. But don’t be too aggressive or try to show how much you covet their dollars, pounds, and euros.

The Ministry’s campaign appears to have succeeded. Tourism in India has boomed.

In a globalized context, however, the warm and hospitable images of India promoted by the Ministry clashes with images reflected back at Indians by Westerners as the latter appropriate traditions in fervent bids for contact with cultural authenticity. Western ears may tend to hear in namaste a note of subservience. And Western conventions dictate that, no matter how bad a day a worker has, she must always put the needs of customers before her own. These conventions also inform proper customer-service etiquette, in which prevail such beliefs as service personnel who refuse to smile are rude and customers are always right.

In customer-support call centers outsourced to India, the ability to speak English without an accent is valued highly. Training centers in India offer accent-concealing English crash courses to newly graduated high school students. As you may expect, these courses are incredibly popular. The injunctions attending such training are clear: Smile when you greet a caller. Remove any traces of your natural self before you speak a language that isn’t your native one. Avoid hinting at more authenticity than your caller might welcome.

Those training centers strip students of possibly unwelcome aspects of Indian identity. To the support center’s customers, authenticity is, well, a bit too Indian.

Yet too Indian is how many Indians themselves may come to feel in certain circumstances. Of the thousands of Indian youth who move to the United States each year, some learn to fake an American accent. Often they do this by watching Hollywood films. They believe speaking “American English” enables them to blend in better. It may ease their lives in their adoptive country. Yet these youths may well also come to sense that, in a globalized world, authenticity isn’t something that can simply be owned. No crash course magically confers it. And it certainly isn’t something that any ministry of tourism can claim for a culture it’s busy branding.

At any rate, pursuit of authenticity becomes irrelevant when parts of your own cultural identity seem destined to remain too foreign to be appropriated and marketed.

Authenticity depends, rather, on the power of cultural narratives to shape current perceptions. When the West appropriates namaste and the impression of the warm, welcoming country the word conjures — an impression that, more importantly, India’s Ministry of Tourism so aggressively markets — it becomes the first word in an emergent narrative of subservience. Marketing palatable, welcoming authenticity means forcing Indians to constantly seek to prove their own: Either you are not Indian enough (you need to learn to welcome tourists with namaste) or you are too Indian (you need to take a crash course in order to eliminate your accent). By promoting India almost exclusively to white tourists, Indians have lost ownership of the images of their culture and their country. Indians might try to regain control of them. Yet control always lies with power. Conflicts over authenticity will therefore remain unequal in such an asymmetrical, globalized context.

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Future Games

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Stardew Valley provides the missing piece in a linear account of human history that traces our decline from pastoral paradise to the sterile postcapitalist desert

FROM The Walking Dead to Fallout, the gaming industry is currently obsessed with apocalypse. Long a staple of TV and cinema screens, the zombie has become even more prominent on PlayStations and computers. Added to zombie games are reams of other dystopias, from indie games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and the already-cult classic Soma to big-budget productions like the BioShock series. As critics like Frederic Jameson, Slavoj Žižek, and Mark Fisher have all variously pointed out, such images of dystopian futures promote the dangerous idea that only capitalism separates us from a barren wasteland.

But these aren’t quite the only gaming options available to us. Visit the game-downloading site Steam today and among the top sellers you’ll find a game that bucks the trend. Rather than future dystopia, it offers the opposite: a return to the pastoral past. Stardew Valley, an indie-produced farming simulator, or “country-life simulator” as it’s even been called, has racked up a half million sales since February and has overtaken high-profile titles such as Grand Theft Auto 5 and Counter Strike. It might be easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but easier still, it seems, is imagining the resumption of pastoral serenity.

At first glance, one might see Stardew Valley as a reincarnation of Zynga’s FarmVille, the Facebook sensation of 2010 that has now, thankfully, largely left our screens. That game offered the chance to nostalgically harvest crops from our computers, but as with other games made by Zynga, such as Words With Friends and Mafia Wars, the real product being harvested is our Facebook friends, whom we put to use to increase our in-game scores (and then to seek approval for those scores). These so-called social games show us a pretty dystopian present in which (as Heidegger suggested) people themselves are as much our raw materials as crops are.

But Stardew Valley is quite different and has much more in common with Harvest Moon, first released on Super Nintendo in 1996. Like its forerunner this game is individual, practically impossible to share or even discuss with friends, and has no multiplayer feature. Far from connecting us to social and technological media, it’s an offer to escape from the modern computer society — one we can indulge in from in front of our computer screen.

So how has Stardew Valley, ostensibly the opposite of current trends, achieved its rise to the top? Though it seems to have little in common with gaming’s apocalyptic portraits of the future, it and other bucolic farming simulators actually provide a necessary counterpart. The gameplay in farming simulators involves organizing people, animals, and the natural environment, planting crops in systematic patterns and experiencing a routine life while playing a key role in a small community. Their picture of a lost era of tightly knit villages where humans lived in organic harmony with nature complements prophesies of a dystopic future in which humans are regimented components of a remorseless capitalistic machine. Farming simulators placate a need for a collective and organized past as an alternative to contemporary chaos.

This may make Stardew Valley seem like a criticism of modern capitalism, but in fact it does little to critique the supposed inevitability of capitalism. Instead it provides the missing piece in a linear account of human history that traces our decline from pastoral paradise to the sterile postcapitalist desert. The best we can do is take comfort in memories and in the fact that we are not further along the inescapable path of destruction.

Stardew Valley offers only the consolations of nostalgia, described by Svetlana Boym in The Future of Nostalgia as “the search for collective memory, a longing for continuity in a fragmented world.” In the past of Stardew Valley we can escape to a world where we are once again “free” to be “human.”

The game’s 16-bit pixilation doubles up this nostalgia, evoking a lost age from the more recent past as well, when video games themselves weren’t as complicit and prefigurative of our coming doom — at least in people’s memory of them. It incorporates elements of Zelda, Pokémon, and other ’90s games that are evocative of a gentler past when games, we imagine, were more “pure,” “organic,” and uncorrupted. It was a time when games really were seen as an escape from the political and social world — an argument that seems defunct today, when games seem to more overtly reflect or distill sociopolitical conflicts.

This ambiance of escape sets Stardew Valley’s in contrast with FarmVille. Whereas FarmVille was fully symbiotic with Facebook, seizing on Facebook’s technological affordances to propagate itself even as it seemed to soften the social network’s neoliberal edges, Stardew Valley is more ambivalent about its medium. Its opening scene, a 16-bit reworking of the opening of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), presents a bird’s-eye view of a regimented contemporary office space, a cubicle farm in which workers are conjoined to computers that are presumably in the process of supplanting them.

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Trapped in gray walls beneath remorseless fluorescent lighting, these workers are cut off from nature and “real” life, but the game offers us a way out via a faux old-timey letter (obviously not an email) inviting us to return to more authentic work tilling the soil.

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Of course, this pastoral escape itself demands immersion in a computer simulation.

Stardew Valley addresses this apparent conundrum differently than FarmVille. While FarmVille is nothing more than a masked version of social-capital building, Stardew Valley seems to want to ironize and distance itself from its simulator nature, using retroness as an alibi to make it seem something other than another contemporary extension of computerization deeper into our lives. In presenting itself as a kind of meta-game, Stardew Valley confronts players with the bizarre paradox that a return to the past is at once imaginable and impossible. Ultimately, the game’s demonstrative awareness of its paradoxical position instantiates Octave Mannoni’s idea of Freudian fetishist disavowal: “I know very well, but even so…” Stardew Valley knows very well that it is impossible, but let’s dream of pastoral serenity anyway.

 

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While Mark Fisher might be right when he recently pointed out that dismissing things as “nostalgic” can be a pretty useless gesture, what we need is further analysis of the peculiar kinds of nostalgia specific to our particular moment. In the case of Stardew Valley, its romanticization of the past serves only to solidify our fear of the future. It teaches us to deal with contemporary alienation through wistful backward glances at an irretrievable past. Though it seems innocuous enough, it resonates with Donald Trump’s calls to “make America great again,” as well as with various European dreams of exiting the E.U. to return to some prelapsarian national serenity in isolation.

As the game’s Joja Corporation — a blend of Wal-mart, Coca-Cola, and Google starts its inevitable takeover of your peaceful village economy, Stardew Valley‘s nationalistic indictment of internationalism becomes unmistakable. This is no left critique of corporate globalization but a call for isolationist retreat. Stardew Valley’s image of small-scale self-sufficiency draws from the same impulse to erect walls at borders and seek local salvation through exporting immiseration. Tellingly, the village in Stardew Valley has a bus stop but the bus has broken down, severing the connection between it and the rest of the world.

Stardew Valley’s popularity reflects the difficult political position of the left today. The fact that internationalism is understood as synonymous with the iniquitous capitalist disaster of globalization is preventing the development of solutions on a broad enough scale to address global crises. The task for future games is to posit genuine alternatives and succeed at doing what conservative artifacts like Stardew Valley fail to do. In the new Existential Gamer magazine, a publication that asks gamers to “review themselves” in order to explore the connection between gaming and subjectivity, I argued that Supergiant’s latest game Transistor might offer something like a tech-positive way to revolt, inviting us to embrace ourselves as technological beings.

Such ideas may be comparable with ideas of those such as Erik Olin Wright, whose Envisioning Real Utopias pointed out that it was not so long ago that both the left and the right could easily imagine alternatives to capitalism. Like Varoufakis and Srećko Horvat, whose new project DiEM25 is at least a concrete example of internationalist alternative organization, video games could do something other than dream of national serenity through isolation.

But the problem is not that we have only dystopia and no utopian alternatives. Rather Stardew Valley’s popularity suggests that both dystopia and utopia have been appropriated by the right to make capitalism appear the only alternative. We can dream only of tempering its destructiveness. We are still waiting for the video game that offers real hope rather than a nostalgic return to the past.

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