Brian Morsberger in a moment of reflection
The word is cathexis. Freudian terminology for the process by which we invest value or desire in some object or end. Like falling in love, falling in like, pacman fever, new summer songs that tingle the spine— and really, any newfound fascination or any shift at all in our aesthetic, heart, or sensibilities. This includes what Giambattista Vico said about the highest end of poeticization as “bestowing emotion on insensate things”— the intertwining of solid matter and human heart. This is cathexis.
Cathexis is our secret weapon in the struggle against the Lull, in the sense of the Lull as the “desire for desires.” And with most of our elemental needs met in the twenty-first century West, boredom is fast becoming a cultural fact. If the trend stays true, boredom will one day spread to all four corners of the planet Earth. And I truly believe that the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth will be ushered in with a long, stircrazy, posthistorical Boredom.
To counter the mixed feelings and groundless despair that might greet such an era, we need to get there first; to invent new desires, to solve the problem of boredom and meaninglessness by our wits and good looks. To find suitable replacements for the ultraserious issues of a dying era; something besides Life and Death and brute economic issues. When paradise dawns, I expect things to be far less serious, in the way that superbowls are less serious than tribal bloodbaths, culture wars are less serious than world wars, and videogames are less serious than manmade disasters— they are, though you wouldn’t know by our reactions. You wouldn’t know it because they are all very successful, very seductive forms of cathexis. They get us really worked up, to the point where we forget the differences between cosmic and personal significance.
In the bloodpumping heat of Miss Pacman, I need that powerpellet more than I need air to breathe and a good woman to love. And why? What do I get out of it? I get points, I get to eat ghosts, but beyond that Miss Pacman seems to create desire ex nihilo; that is, out of nothing. The big secret— the thing that leaves so many of the locals uneasy— is that all desire is spun from nothing. And upon entering our long, stircrazy, posthistorical boredom, the cynics and the spoilsports are going to be the first to point this out. But they’ll be lamenting. Lamenting that these desires are ultimately spurious and unserious; that hooking all these cosmically pointless desires into some greater reality is as futile as hooking the human purpose into some greater reality; that one is just more transparently futile than the next. They’ll christen it an “Age of Nihilism,” or something like that…Something moody. For this reason, it is the social responsibility of us troublemakers to spin new forms of cathexis— to really finetune the art— again, before the new epoch arrives. Let people know that there is no reason to hook our needs and desires into some greater reality in the first place; that it’s okay for mankind to be cosmically pointless and enjoy it. We can just take the dynamic of cathexis— the spinning something from nothing— and run with it. My personal utopia begins the day this wisdom is a commonplace.
This is also why games have always loomed large in my vocabulary. They create desire in a snap of the fingers, by pure fiat. Not just as a flashy distraction— as most people think of them— but with real, fierce, redblooded passion. Even the silliest, most spurious among them. A tic-tac-toe match among the students in my English-as-a-Second-Language class turned a room full of normally amicable Brazilians, Poles and West Africans into a bloody massacre. Brother versus brother. Sister versus sister. Koita versus Mamadou. As I sat and saw the match unfold, I was overawed by the visceral strength of the desires stirred by a game which, by any uninvolved viewpoint, would be deemed insignificant, silly, and pointless. What I was witnessing was the perverse and seductive genius of The Game, just that.
The problem with most games, however, is that they are insular, almost wholly self-contained, activities. That is, chess stays on the chessboard and bridge stops at the gates of the countryclub. Games that do not, games that bleed into everyday life, we call “lifegames.” Lifegames take the stuff of experience— sleep, food, job interviews, Nature, the social grammar— and rework their meanings into the shape of a game. Examples include: easteregg hunts with litter and hypodermic needles, reckless games in the aisles of the supermarket, glass bead games, invisible games played under the noses of employers, and competitions in funfilled arenas of life like nausea, insomnia, bleeding, and the unemployment office.
I let most of my lifegames go to the wind; finding it better many times when they flower and die in the same span, the same situation. Reborn again only when perfectly opportune; as a perfection of that moment. These games are something that, like egg nog, Cadbury eggs, and other seasonal egg products, must be appreciated in and for their ephemerality. Catching leaves as they helicopter down from the trees in October, for instance; the great Plinko game of the natural cycle. Here is a lifegame that flows with the passage of time, a lifegame that is Taoishly tailored to the moment, a lifegame that exploits what Henri Lefebvre calls “the absolute sovereignty of the Instant.” There is no final product that can be bought, sold, or reviewed in Brooklynite scenester magazines. Only the deep-drinking sensation of experience as an immediate medium.
Once upon a time, Dick Davis and I were both overcome on a leaf-catching expedition on the way back from New Orleans one memorably glorious fall. Punchdrunk and hungry, we pulled over in Podunk, Tennessee to scout the perfect locale, and were not disappointed. The exit ramp twisted this way and that before delivering us onto the doorstep of a veritable leaf-catching stadium, with cloudhigh oaks instead of floodlights and soft, sinking grass in the place of real Astroturf. The sunflooded bowl of the valley meeting the vault of the sky. We caught and counted for hours, accumulating a year’s worth of good luck in one afternoon, and honing the game into a true martial art. We had blown life into dead things— “bestowed emotion on insensate things.”
Lifegames do not have to be games in the strict sense, with distinct winners or losers, points and shit-talking and so on. So long as they involve some object or parameter, and so long as they hijack old realities with new desires. Even something as simple as wagering on the outcome of stupid events— the winners of peewee baseball games, the course of water trickling through the streets, the accomplishment of some self-endangering feat— can break up our indifference to the Passage of Time and give greater arc to our cosmic pointlessness. It may seem to killjoys, to the Serious, like just another egobattle, but I fail to see how I could distill any ego from things like “checkout line races” whose outcome depends more on the blood alchohol level of the clerk than anything else. The agon, in such situations, only serves as a spur.
Some intersections of life simply beg for lifegames. Large swaths of time that add or accomplish little but simply must be done, like the morning and afternoon commute. I’m thinking, in particular, of the Metro system, whose timetables and Parcheesian geometry seem to me like a readymade lifegameboard. Once upon a time, when I was being courted by a fancypants consulting firm seeking “edgy creativity,” I was asked to dream up media stunts to play in our soulless capital city. Among my many, varied, fucked-up responses were a few games best played on the Washington Metro, including a keeper dubbed “Marion Barry, the Game.” It was very much like a Parcheesi game where one races to various rainbowed stops against various players; only I added numerous twists from elements of the “assassin” genre. It was a decent game but hopelessly derivative. Marion Barry, the Game, did not map isomorphically (look it up) onto its surroundings. It could work just as well, if not better, in other environments. What I wanted— then and now— was a strategy game that can be played on the metro and only on the metro; with the lines and objectives interlocking as tightly as Chess, that must be played in the “labyrinth of experience rather than the pyramid of concept.”
This perfect game still eludes me to this day— which is why I turn to you, the public— friends and unknowns— for stimulus and collaboration. Together, we can design a worthwhile little game that can redeem time lost to empty necessities. Metro Games, like the popular and mythical Morning Crescent, do thrive. But they are not, as I’ve said, played phenomenologically, in the flux of experience. I would also prefer a strategy game rather than a crapshoot or simple race. Truly, truly, I would die happy with such a game in my curriculum vitae. Something for the Ages. Something that regenerates a little more meaning for Humankind.