Asceticism

Curator's Note

Robbie Cooper’s photographs (and here, video) offer austere glimpses of gamers’ faces. Cooper has done more than simply capture "just how focused young video-game players can be," as the NYT’s caption reads. He has also revealed the close connection between immersion and asceticism.

 

At first blush, comparing the extravagances of computer game play to the spare quietude of monastic—even hermitic—life seems counterintuitive. Indeed, some games are downright riotous in their visual, acoustic, and kinesthetic excesses. For the purposes of immersion, though, it makes no difference. Every game has the potential to inspire players to renounce food, sex, lucre, and conversation like an ascetic monk. "Askesis"—the ancient Greek term from which "ascetic" comes—means "practice," and within religious paradigms has come to signify in particular the disciplined practice of an intense mindfulness of God—so intense, in fact, that the uncountable distractions of life are effortfully pared away until only the essentials remain, bathed in Light.

 

Twelfth century ascetic Peter of Celle wrote a treatise on this subject, though his focal point for catalyzing immersion was not computer games, but a new medium of his own day, the book. In "On Affliction and Reading" he writes "After having been troubled all year with painful and unrelenting problems, I am thirsting mightily for the modest silence of my room as a desirable haven. I draw deeply from the silence now granted. My mind finds a more expansive rest by being within these four walls than by traveling around outside to the four corners of the earth. In fact, the smaller the place, the more the mind stretches, for when the body is held in check, the mind rises up; curbing the body brings expansion of the mind." Having framed-in his body with the comfortable smallness of his cloister cell, full engagement with his reading commences, an experience Peter tellingly refers to as "a paradise for the mind."

 

For the medieval ascetic, this paradisical transmigration was more than a welcome escape from the ennui born of a life dedicated to "ora et labora"—prayer and work. Rather, proposes scholar of medieval memory Mary Carruthers, such an immersive mental journey is "not only a therapeutic but an epistemological one, having to do with the pursuit of truth. For Peter, reading is an act not so much of soul-therapy as of rational inquiry and making new knowledge." His immersion into the worlds of his few and precious books opened up to Peter of Celle the peace and concentration necessary to learn from the manifest content of the words and visions immediately before him. At the same time they sparked those more subtle connective processes that immersion—any immersion—always seems to make possible, the inexplicable cryptogrammatical ones that make knowledges and fashion beliefs in ways that offer no clear resemblance to the pressing phantasmagoria.

 

For the sake of argument, I’ll say that new media immersions are similarly epistemological, that they produce knowledges on multiple levels of consciousness, and that the truths pursued therein are not merely rational but revelatory, unveiled as they are by ascetic renunciations. What paradise is dawning behind the gamer’s face? And what madness?

 

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the practice of play

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There is also, of course, the practice of play itself, the developing and sharpening of skill through repetition and articulation. It’s a practice every bit as bound by the comforting geometry of enclosure as Peter of Celle’s asceticism, with screen, couch, ergonomic controller, and unyielding game rules replacing the four walls of the monastic cell. These too produce a “modest silence,” albeit after play is done (i.e., the post-game period of surreality during which the player slowly returns to the sights, sounds, and rhythms of everyday life). Here most certainly is where a great deal of “rational inquiry and making new knowledge” takes place—in-game performance is analyzed, strategies are concocted, and ludic and narratological connections forged and broken. Gaming as prayer, work, meditation, and “the pursuit of truth”—seems about right.

Rachel Srubas's picture

From the S. in Ken S. McAllister

Redbooking. Just gotta share this vaguely relevant bit from Tim Farrington’s A Hell of Mercy:

"Unprepared to abide in stillness and sacred silence, and still whacked-out by social and sensory deprivation and the asceticism of macaroni and cheese, I …went through a phase of hearing voices, including one that identified itself as Jesus as an old man. I’d been reading Ferlinghetti’s marvelous poem "Christ Climbed Down" and was primed for the notion of a renunciation of the crucifixion—wishful thinking, I see now, but certainly worth a try. A cross is a bad career move, spiritually speaking. It’s agony, not edification—involuntary, humiliating, and ultimately ruinous—and anyone with any sense of choice in the matter will dodge it if they can."

 

 

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