This is a structured series of notes on the book to give an overview of its contents and its main arguments. I don’t have any problems with the book, and consider it a well written, entertaining and provocative book that I will no doubt re-read and recommend. Never before have I encountered any analysis of any kind with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City interwoven with James Joyce’s Ulysses. Truly bizarre, yet it works, because of the ‘unit operations’ active in both mediums.
The complaint that computer games are ‘not the real world’ is as unconvincing as the idea that reading is ‘pure escapism’. When we watch movies or television, read book and listen to radio we are not somehow disconnected from the world and vaulted into a virtual reality beyond out own, one which is less valuable serious and meaningful than the everyday world of our concern. When we do these things we are engaged with ‘unit operations’. Bogost’s book is an important comparative textual study that considers any modus operandi encouraged by any medium to be worthy of the same level of textual analysis. Using examining video games, movies and literature at the level of its unit operations, Bogost can illustrate the core meaningful units of expression these mediums demonstrate. I believe this to be a valuable book, as it places disparate mediums onto an equal level of intellectual importance and thus undermines medium specific elitism.
The ‘unit operation’ is contrasted with the term ‘system operations’. A unit is a building block, a materiel element that makes up a system or is autonomous as a system itself. It can be any object, human or non-human (just like Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy) yet also “encompass the material manifestations of complex, abstract, or conceptual structures such as jealousy, racial tension, and political advocacy” (p.5). “An operation is the means by which something executes some purposeful action”. Together the ‘unit operation’ is a powerful measure of meaning that is necessarily universally applicable, which bypasses the form/content problem by unfolding at every level.
“Unit operations are modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems” (p.3). Unit and system analysis can encompass a wide selection of fields such as “software technology, physics and cybernetics”, but most interestingly, unit operations are also applicable to literary theory, as unit operations “interpret networks of discrete readings” while “system operations interpret singular literary authority”. Systems are still needed, but they are no longer rigid deterministic structures: they are the “spontaneous and complex result of multitudes rather than singular and absolute holisms”. Bogost gives the name ‘unit analysis’ to the type of practise based upon the “discovery and exposition of unit operations at work in one or many source texts” (p.15).
A distinction is needed between systems that are controlled at the level of of units, which “derive meaning from the interrelations of their components” and from systems which “regulate meaning for their constituents”. Works of literature, economies and anatomies are all system assemblages of units, but are not held rigidly in place by a deterministic totalizing structure. Systematization is an explanatory process that Bogost wants to banish from unit operational analysis. Systematization represents the quest for “stability, linearity, universalism, and permanence”, it is problem of Gestell (enframing) that Heidegger saw as the fleeing from being into technological determinism, as everything would be ordered to stand by for our calculated use (p.6). In contrast to this, Bogost asserts the important of complex systems over deterministic systems, as they open new possibilities and formations, rather than limiting them. We cannot escape from systems, just as we cannot escape from technology, thus instead of fleeing from it we should look to the “possible reconfiguration of its elements” (p.7). This reminds me of the Malabou’s notion of plasticity derived from her Hegelian-deconstructive approach to neuroscience, where the brain is a closed system yet the subject has a certain plasticity in its ability to morph into new formations.
It is evident that Bogost’s comparative literature background has had a profound impact on his work. Rather than specializing or undermining in one area, he opens up credible and well thought analyses in the areas of movies, literature and gaming that cuts across each other to reveal the unit operations that sustain them as meaningful worldly mediums of engagement. To get to this stage, however, Bogost takes us through a mini history of the systems bias in literary theory, computation and media analysis, but one that is challenge by his ontology which is is influenced by Spinoza, Badiou, Deleuze and Harman. The systematization of Levi-Strauss’ cultural myths and the predefined windowless monads structured through divine order of Leibniz are rigid deterministic systems in contrast to the open universe of Spinoza’s nature=God and the set as multiplicity of multiplicities of Badiou’s set theory ontology. The set is never a unity and thus underscores the problems of configuration at the heart of all kinds of structures. Bogost understands the ‘set’ in his terms as a ‘unit’, where he acknowledges the ‘count as one’ as “closest extant philosophical concept” to what he calls unit operations: “an understanding largely arbitrary, certainly contingent, of a particular situation, compared and taken as a whole” (p.13). It is this counting mechanism that configures the set as a distinct unit. The mathematical representation draws in computational as well as philosophical and cultural analysis together, springing the potentiality of a comparative procedural criticism.
It is important to note that the unit operation is not just a critical tool we can wield in front of any text. It is an intrinsic part of the texts themselves. Unit operations have a textual and critical existence. It is the job of the critical analyst to examine how these unit operations work with each text, whether computer game or literary classic. For example, Bogost analyses the unit operations of Spielberg’s The Terminal, with Tom Hanks. He draws the conclusion that ‘uncorroborated waiting’ is the main unit operation of the film. A unit operational analysis is based on the procedures that medium is demonstrating, not on any narrative structure. Unit operation, as a procedure measure of meaning cuts across mediums and exhibits their main message, whereas narrative, as Bogost will later examine, is not quite so simple to define. Therefore, his film analysis succeeds, as he thinks the film does, not because of its aesthetic or narrative attractions, but on the importance and profundity of waiting as a procedure part of the viewers watching experience. The point of the film is not the story, as such, but the unit operations that are demonstrated and held together by the “glue” of the story.
Bogost goes on to examine linguistics, post structuralism and the work of Slavoj Zizek in order to show how the relationship between unit and structure cannot be determined entirely from above or below. For instance, Levi-Strauss distinction between langue (structure) and parole (content) of language focused upon the systemic structure that gives shape and meaning to what is articulated through signs. The structuralism of Levi-Strauss examined myths at a structural level, grouping them through their units of meaning, rather than their contingent content. The post-structuralist used the parole/langue understanding of meaning but placed emphasis not on its systemic stability, but on the instability of meaningful sign systems, and the stability of supposedly universal unit operations. Deconstruction’s emphasis on the polysemic was aimed to perpetually destabilize totalizing systems, yet deconstruction itself could be said to be a closed system of the eternal recurrence of the same system: of fundamental instability prioritized over stability. Badiou thus characterized Derrida as an anti-philosopher of polysemic deconstruction which results, critically, in “polyvalance over truth” (p.25). Instead of prioritizing instability, Badiou’s sets, as well as Bogost’s unit operations place system and unit operations on a non-hierarchical plateaux by defining the unit/set as a unity defined as a multiplicity of multiplicities.
To be continued