A Mapping of The Bottom Dimension On the Agents’ Ethical Question
Philosopher, artist and activist, Denise Ferreira da Silva performs a tarot reading through Gabriel Massan’s video game, Third World.
I play the game many, many, many times. I play to become familiar with its environment and characters. I play because I need to figure out how to avoid traps. I need to figure out how to use tools and powers. I play but refuse to kill anything/anyone. I play because I can’t stop. Sometimes it feels lonely. Sometimes, as I return to the game, it is as if I encounter a familiar place – a dreamworld? A nightmare. Third World! The Bottom Dimension.
You, the player, can only enter that world as an Agent.
It starts at the Headquarters where Agents receive their instructions, that which they need to keep living, to keep moving as they try to complete the mission.
All you need to do to complete the mission is to keep living, to keep moving.
What do you need to keep living? What do you need to keep moving?
What if there were no difference between living and moving?
What if there were no difference between living and moving or between everything and nothing because there was no difference between living and dying?
Whether you’ve just arrived or have always already been there/from there, whether you are on a mission or just trying to get by, regardless of whether you do all that you are told to do, take all that you are instructed to take, even if you give up and decide never to try again, ending the game means death, for you or/and everything else in that world. Which world? This world.
At the end, and throughout the game, the Agent is nothing more than another inexhaustible resource, one that can be replaced, that is always replaced – every time one restarts the game. Each and every time the game starts, some other possibilities also come into the horizon.
I refused to fulfill the mission, to gather the two elements – the Bag of Infinite Seeds and the Air Artifact. I know I didn’t play all possibilities. It does not matter because, in the end, it happened only once – once is enough – the Agent dies. The Agent always dies. The story, however, continues. You know why. It is how it has always been. The Headquarters will send another one to replace it. Every time you or some other player starts the game.
Yet, at the same time, we do not know what happens to Agents when they die. The inhabitants of Igba Tingbo, we know, become energy crystals. But, since the kind of energy found there is different from what is found everywhere else, and Agents are foreigners, there are only two options: either the Agents’ energy does not accumulate in Igba Tingbo, it vanishes; or, it mixes with the energy of the ‘locals’, which means that each time an Agent dies there, Igba Tingbo itself changes fundamentally. Yet, because as Agents move and especially as they run, they release energy – and we don’t know if this is the energy they brought or acquired from the crystals in Igba Tingbo – their very presence, even if they don’t take anything, transforms the place at a fundamental, energetic level.
Nothing is how it was supposed to be from the moment the first Agent arrived. Even the Agents’ place(s) of origin is/are not the same because, once Agents go to Igba Tingbo, their energy no longer returns to their place of origin. For even if they survive, their energy would have been modified, combining with Igba Tingbo’s energy, every time the Agent gathers crystals.
Even before anything happens, before the Agent learns of the first memory, or sees the first local inhabitant, as soon as the Agent touches its ground, neither Igba Tingbo nor the place from where the Agent comes from remains the same. That event transforms past and future at the same time, because what would have been possible and actual in the Agent’s place of origin had they never left, and in Igba Tingbo had they never arrived, will no longer be.
If that is the case, even if Agents refuse to extract and expropriate, everything has already transformed.
As I play the game, I can not avoid arriving at what I will call the Agents’ Ethical Question, for which I have done the tarot reading which follows:
What then would be the best basis for a player’s actions and decisions once it is acknowledged that, in becoming Agent, the player is already involved in the obliteration of the place where they were yet to arrive?
Reading for the Agent’s Ethical Question
Mapping as performed here is not so much a notation of the reading of something as it is a speculative exercise precisely because what it gathers are the elements of a reading for something. Among other things that are not relevant here, such a mapping does both, while it encloses (as a unit within the borders it ascribes), it divides by breaking what is read into several components, depending on how the question, the one for which the reading is done, is formulated.
Reading, in this manner, involves neither interpretation nor determination: it is not about determining the question qualitatively (what renders it different from something) or quantitatively (how much of a given unit of measurement it carries or conveys). It’s not about what something means, but about how it means and why it means. What matters is how the question touches both itself (each of its components) and everything else (all other existents) – that is, its inflexion (its tone or frequency). For this reason, it is not about determining what it is – in absolute or relative terms – but about describing how it exists. Neither essence nor presence but existence is the context for considering the question; hence this procedure stays at what can be called the descriptive level, and for this reason I call it a reading.
This mapping of Gabriel Massan’s The Bottom Dimension has already started with the first and crucial move, that is, in the very formulation of the question to be read. Following is a write-up of the reading itself, which is basically an opening up of the question, in which I identify its different components – an internal map of the question, so to speak. For this reading, I use the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck to open a modified version of the classic tarot spread, the Celtic Cross, which includes two cards placed outside the cross. In this reading, I divide the positions in the Celtic Cross into what I call four moments. These refer to (I) how the answer for the question approaches, (II) how it emerges, (III) how it expresses, and (IV) that with which it contends.
If you have any practice and know how to read the tarot, feel free to read the spread however you want.
I. how it approaches
The first moment of the reading concerns how the question approaches, what is in place before it arrives, and that which it brings: a significator, something that gauges the meaning and the importance of anything, whether relative or absolute. This moment has three components: how the question resonates (the significator), its domain (the context), and what precedes it (the past).
The significator is a component added to the Celtic Cross which allows for an approach to meaning not in terms of identity and difference but in terms of resonance, similarity. When reading for something – distinctions such as interior and exterior, relative or absolute, as well as others that have been so crucial to modern knowing, are not relevant. When seeking to grasp and track how something exists, in its singularity – that is, to pinpoint its inflexion – we are really trying to figure out how it echoes everything else.
Here, in the case of the Agents’ Ethical Question, I find that it echoes abundancy which is given by an image of creativity (Queen of Pentacles). Rather than in the figure of the one who accumulates and then distributes, abundancy instead appears in the figure of the one who generates, proliferates, and shares. What this indicates is that each and every component of the Agents’ Ethical Question resonates abundancy as generous generativity or generative generosity. Expectedly, I should say. For a surprising characteristic of The Bottom Dimension is how the in/existence of each and everything is the condition of possibility for the actual existence of anything, including Agents.
From the outset, when considering the context, it is also important to recall that the Agents’ Ethical Question ‘makes sense’ generally; that is, it resonates beyond The Bottom Dimension, beyond the game itself. This is because it reflects (on) the global political circumstances within which Gabriel Massan has designed the game, and under which we play the game. But because it is formulated, because it is asked, the question also figures another context: one which only exists with regards to the question. Had the question not been formulated, such context would remain virtual; it would not come into actuality, even as a symbol. When considering both the actual and the virtual context in which the Agents’ Ethical Question arrives, on which it lands, I was surprised by how it figures what it troubles.
The context (Four of Pentacles) shows an isolated, lonely person holding on to their material possessions with their feet, hands, and head. While it gives a sense of equilibrium, of a situation that is literally under control, it is not difficult to gather a certain apprehension, as the figure is alone, far away from everyone and everything else, holding their possessions , without a shelter, or any other protection from what lies under their feet. The keyword here is security, which can be read as something provided by the context or is what is at stake. Given the other components of the reading, I’m inclined to interpret it as indicating the latter: that when the Agents’ Ethical Question is raised, it brings with it a sense of scarcity that presents a concern with material insecurity, even if this only makes sense in light of abundancy.
That combination, that contradiction, the fact that through the question abundancy resonates while scarcity permeates both the virtual (digital) and actual (global) contexts, is the general theme of The Bottom Dimension. This becomes evident when one plays the game as I did: when one refuses to fulfill the mission, decides not to kill and risks losing the ability to move, to remain functioning, alive in the game’s world. In the virtual world, that decision meant that I had to play the game several times until I was able to move faster and more directly, which allowed me to function with just the energy crystals available. If I didn’t, I would have had to kill the human-looking inhabitants of Igba Tingbo. What about the actual world? What if ‘Agents’ (colonisers of the past, settlers of always, and those of us who descend from the coloniser, the colonised, the settler, the natives as well as those who worked as enslaved and indentured laborers), what if we refused to extract, expropriate and exterminate, and also rejected that which renders these possible? How would we move in this (actual) world? Would it also require several rehearsals? Or would it be enough to sense abundancy, to trust that there will always be plenty, to acknowledge that through the energy needed for moving and living in the colony (as everywhere) one is enough implicated in that place which – even before one’s arrival – had already ceased to be what it would have been as well as what it could have become.
Among the components that precede the question for which this reading is done, there is one that registers what has prepared its arrival. This could also be seen as a referent of the past – of what may have happened, what may have been felt, or might have existed that rendered the question unavoidable. However, I choose to consider the component of what has prepared the question’s arrival as an intrinsic element of the question itself, precisely because the latter would not be there had the former not occurred.
That pleasure (Six of Cups) is the image for this component is again surprising – can pleasure be that which connects or mediates between abundancy and scarcity? It is also to be expected because the question follows from something (that had to be) pleasurable: playing the game.
I add the parenthetical qualifier because, as my account of the delimitation of the question suggests, I did not manage to become a character in the game. Not, at least, as far as total violence (shooting at some characters) was concerned. All I did as an Agent was to keep moving and existing in the game’s virtual world without taking anything other than the energy crystals. This is the minimum requirement for playing, for enjoying, or participating in the game. Nevertheless, because the crystals are a different presentation of the energy that constitutes everything existing in the game’s virtual world, the pleasure that precedes the Agents’ Ethical Question, which is also my pleasure, can only take place due to the energy that becomes available when other inhabitants of the game’s world perish.
It is important to note here, as indicated earlier, how I arrived at the formulation of the question that orients this mapping of The Bottom Dimension. The Ethical Question became unavoidable because I realised that no matter how much I refused to ‘play the game’, to extract and expropriate, the very possibility of becoming an Agent and playing the game already transformed Igba Tingo. The fact that I refused to interfere while I was playing the game does not undo the possibility of interfering – and more importantly, interfering or not only becomes a choice because that world, or any world from which something can extracted and expropriated, can never return to what it was and to what could have become before that possibility comes to mind.
The other three moments of the question – how it emerges, what it expresses, and what it contends with – further elaborate on what is already presented in this first moment.
II. how it emerges
When considering how the question for which this reading is done emerges, we attend to three moments of the reading: the issue and its delimitation, what is manifested, how it is perceived. Looking at the issue and its delimitation at once, first we find both abundancy and scarcity in the same image (Six of Pentacles), each of which are also figured twice: as extremes (a rich person and two poor persons) and in balance (as the scale of justice) and secondly, the idea of balancing of extremes is undermined by what delimits it, namely, indeterminacy, here represented by Hermaphroditus (The World).
How to articulate this as the answer for the Agents’ Ethical Question? The only possible re-presentation of this answer would gather inseparability and indeterminacy. Inseparability renders extraction and expropriation (the unique energy the Agents are supposed to extract) both desirable and possible; indeterminacy, however, seems to be an added dimension of the situation, because it is not played out in the game.
In the game’s virtual world, every character and everything has a place, even if it is only as background. I don’t recall one moment in which I, the Agent, was indistinguishable from other things in the world. The energy crystals are the only indicators of indeterminacy. We don’t know whose energy is stored in them. But that is part of the play of inseparability. For this reason, I find that indeterminacy emerges as an initial presentation of the answer for the question of what should or could be the ethical basis for Agents’ decisions and actions.
The other two moments of the question’s emergence – what it manifests and how it is perceived – are also telling given that both figure trouble. On the one hand, what it manifests is a moment of confrontation with one’s own demons (Seven of Cups), when the major challenge is not only figuring out what one wants and what one does not want, but that which is so terrifying that one cannot even give it a name. This is that which has been buried repeatedly so everything else could take place.
On the other hand, the card indicating how the question is perceived shows a situation in need of some adjustments (Five of Wands). Everything is in place, everyone needed to perform the task is there, but there seems to be a lack of agreement regarding how to proceed.
It is very difficult not to read this perception and manifestation together. Indeterminacy may appear individually as an anxiety (considering what cannot be named) or collectively (such an anxiety leading to an incapacity to collaborate).
Returning to the question, which is about the basis for the Agents’ actions and decisions, it is important to note that, if the inherently destructive character of their conditions of possibility is taken into account, the appearance of indeterminacy seems to suggest that the position of the Agent itself is what needs to be questioned. Perhaps this is what the security imagery of the moment of context is all about. The problem is that actions and decisions require Agents. Indeterminacy indicates that, along with everything else, it is impossible to ascertain what or who is an Agent. By asking the question about the basis of the Agents’ Ethical Question, we call into question the game itself, which, as a tool of formal efficacy, is all about decisions and actions – that is, determinacy.
III. how it expresses
Not surprisingly, this moment, which is about how the answer is expressed, brings an image that does not even include a human figure or a full scene. It shows fast moving energy symbols (wands) reaching their destination (Eight of Wands).
Like lightning bolts. To ask the question is to render Agents and the colonial enterprise of death they re-present untenable. The very formulation of the question – what then would be the basis for Agents’ actions and decisions once it is acknowledged that, in becoming Agents, even before their arrival, they are already involved in the obliteration of the place where they had yet to arrive? – all must go. Not only Agents but the whole apparatus – the Headquarters! And that, in the actual world, would include the computers, the game itself, and the conditions that render playing it possible. All must go. Now!
IV. that with which it contends
Without determinacy – that is, without that which is the quality of decision – something like an Agent makes no sense. It is absorbed by the very ethical question it animates, just like the energy crystals in the game. Instantaneously. Lightning bolt. That, however, does not mean that the asking and the reading of the question, like this mapping of The Bottom Dimension, has or claims any efficacy. The question, as noted before, emerges at the crossroads of two worlds, the virtual (created by Gabriel Massan and collaborators) and the actual (the one in which its creation occurs). Both worlds have their impact upon the question, both come into its confection, but only one, the actual world, can actually confront it. This is so because the game’s world has been constructed by a number of decisions that established the number of possible situations and outcomes for each and every step or moment within the game. Now, in the actual world, the game resonates with a few circumstances in which determinacy does not apply and in which, when one attempts to determine, things tend to go terribly wrong.
Of such circumstances, both in the virtual and the actual worlds, this moment within the mapping of the Agents’ Ethical Question considers, under the heading of what the question contends with, how one comes to the question, where it lands, what it brings to the fore, and what it makes thinkable. How one comes to the question is about how the one or ones raising the question got to the point of even considering it, or being concerned with something that leads to it. In this case, I asked the question.
So, the figure appearing on this card is about how I came to the question. Now the image here suggests a decision of sorts, which is a choice between focusing on what has been lost (feeling sad and possibly guilty for the loss), or looking back at what remains and finding something one never knew was there – whether that thing was never noticed, or has just been placed there, or has always been there but was forgotten (Five of Cups).
In a way this image unfolds naturally from the ones next to it: what manifests (a confrontation with one’s demons), and the context (a concern with security). Whether the image registers actual loss or the fear of losing doesn’t matter. What matters in this image is the affect: profound sadness or unmitigated guilt. One could see both of these as the outcome of a decision or an action – of becoming an Agent and realising that, even before doing so, the possibility would lead to destruction. Both of these affects could become the reason why the question is even considered.
Now, this is only a possibility because of where the question lands – the environment – which may play different roles, as what requests that the question be asked, or resents the fact that the question was asked, or needs the question to be asked. Whatever role it plays impacts how one comes to the question. Here, the figure that appears in the environment seems to be suggesting that the question comes in support of another beginning (The Fool).
Not as the seed for something else, but as the announcement that the slates are clean, that something else, some other story, perhaps even something like a new game, is both possible and needed. What it is, however, is not given. It might be even that whatever is needed, whatever the question announces and invites, is precisely this: that we re-turn to that moment before the beginning.
That which can be the most desired and the most feared of the possibilities haunts the whole process. This is precisely because that which the reading exposes has remained hidden for such a long time that one does not quite know where to place it, how to make sense of it. Here, what I find – unexpectedly, I have to say – is the very figure of decision-making, the foremost image of determinacy (King of Swords), which appears as authority (the king) over the intellect (swords).
Of course, it makes sense that this card appears here. Of course, this is a question about agency (the games’ Agents), which are but minor representations of the figure of the ruling authority. From the point of view of Agents, this is the figure that is hoped for, the one that should prevail; from the point of view of those who will have perished even before a particular Agent arrives, this is the figure to be feared, the one that will instruct the Agent to kill in order to keep moving and living and fulfilling the mission.
The final component of this moment, which is the final one of this mapping, simply shows what became possible once the question was asked and mapped. And here we have the image of abundance again (Ten Pentacles), in the image of a joyful collective celebrating their plenitude.
As if in a combination of images of the significancy (the figure of abundancy) and the issue (abundancy and scarcity, both as extremes and in balance), the image here is one in which everyone is enjoying everything. There is no division. There is no movement. There is no holding on to anything. The signs of abundance float in the air. What does it mean as a component of the mapping of the Agents’ Ethical Question? Because of the image of a new beginning where the question lands, and because of the image of regret in how one comes to it, I cannot but read this image of abundancy as the basis for formulating an ethical question in a circumstance where Agents and their mission no longer exist; where the Agents’ Ethical Question has no import. For now, in this actual world and in the game’s virtual one, this can only be envisioned through the blind clarity of a lightning bolt.