Posthumanist Ethics in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Delivered to the Far West Popular Culture Association Conference on 25 February 2018
As is so often the case with conference presentations, these 15 minutes comprise a snapshot of what should be a broader project; there are several papers to be written about the posthumanist ethic that infuses this game. I’m going to focus on The New Colossus’s use of non-human animals as ethical conduits, but first I want to make a brief case for taking this game’s political engagement seriously. Many of you probably remember that when the trailer for The New Colossus was released in early October of 2017, there was some backlash on social media from people who felt personally implicated by the tagline “Make America Nazi Free Again.”
Tension in the aftermath of the Charlottesville white nationalist rally in August remained high, and to avoid further antagonizing the grumblers, Bethesda could have distanced itself with the old standby “it’s just a game” or even “it’s just a game that has always been about killing Nazis.”
Instead, though, Pete Hines, the studio's vice president of marketing and PR, refused to disavow the game’s active anti-Nazi stance: "We aren't going to shy away from what the game is about," he told GamesIndustry. "We don't feel it's a reach for us to say Nazis are bad and un-American, and we're not worried about being on the right side of history here." And then, emphatically, "This is what our game is about. It's what this franchise has always been about. We aren't afraid to embrace what B.J. stands for and what Wolfenstein represents," Hines said. "When it comes to Nazis, you can put us down in the 'against' column."
So I want to talk about how a posthumanist reading of the game’s animal characters helps reveal what it is that B.J. “stands for.” The term posthumanism has some categorical flexibility. It is conflated at times with transhumanism, for example, and its interest in augmented human bodies, also found throughout The New Colossus, as your first person character, the aforementioned B.J. Blazkowicz, starts the game as a wheelchair user and ends up with a biomechanical body—not to mention various augmented characters like Caroline (power armor), Fergus (mechanical arm), and Wyatt (hallucinogenic drugs). The definition of posthumanism I’m interested in for this analysis has less to do with transhumanist augmentation and more to do with what Pramod Nayar calls “critical posthumanism”: “Posthumanism as a philosophical approach involves a rethinking of the very idea of subjectivity because it sees human subjectivity as an assemblage, co-evolving with machines and animals. It also calls for a more inclusive definition of life, and a greater moral-ethical response, and responsibility, to non-human life forms in the age of species blurring and species mixing. Posthumanism therefore has a definite politics in that it interrogates the hierarchic ordering—and subsequently exploitation and even eradication—of life forms” (8).
As part of establishing this political attitude, the first moment of active gameplay in New Colossus appears in the middle of a cutscene childhood flashback in which your abusive racist father orders you to shoot your dog. The abrupt shift from passive cutscene viewing to ergodic culpability emphasizes the defining nature of the scene. If you are playing this game, chances are you are there to adopt the character of this guy—the buff, tough Nazi-slayer—
But you cannot proceed in the game without shooting, either at the dog or away from the dog, in which case the dog will be shot in front of you by your father. Donna Haraway argues that animals “have a special status as natural objects that can show people their origin, and therefore their pre-rational, pre-management, pre-cultural essence” (11). Childhood functions in much the same way, and here the primal, originating experience of B.J. as character and you as player, of the traditional and the ergodic narrative at once, aligns a helpless innocent non-human animal with a helpless innocent human child, and forces the latter into the role of executioner of the former.
It is implied that Max Hass has undergone failed attempts by Nazi scientists to turn him into a super soldier, but he is repulsed by violence and refuses to witness or perform it, so in a sense he is no more useful to the crew of a warship planning a violent revolution than Rosa. Yet the player also may perform a side mission to find toys for Max’s collection. If Bombate is correct that slaughtering Rosa for food represents “the natural order of things” could one not also argue that impressing a large strong body like Max’s into military service is inevitable? One assumes he can put away a fair amount of potatoes himself. Should he not earn them? Yet B.J. treats them both kindly, and the player is encouraged to expend gameplay effort to sustain and support them, utility or no, further signaling the game’s anti-hierarchic posthumanist ethic.
Thus, the game’s approach to Nazism is more thoughtful than merely providing guilt-free targets of violence for first person shooting. The text encourages us through its critique of the legitimacy of hierarchic ordering to recognize the perversity of Nazism at every level. It’s no coincidence that the Nazi version of a companion animal looks like Liesel rather than like Bessie, or that there’s a terrible Stanley Milgram-esque vibe to Bessie’s death scene, with the all-powerful father, the ultimate authority figure, towering over you growling “SHOOT HER” until you pull the trigger. This critical event in the child Blazkowicz’s psychological development, and I would argue in the player’s orientation to the game, points us toward a posthumanist answer to what B.J. and the game “stand for.” Nayar posits posthumanism as a critique of not just “the connections between traditional humanism’s exclusionary strategy and women, races or ethnic groups, but also animals, being kept out as slaves, monsters or mere providers of meat, entertainment or labour. It is in the exclusionary definition of the human that we can find the origins of sexism, racism and other exclusionary practices” (9). In other words, it is often noted that racism and sexism necessitate “dehumanizing” the Other, but if we shun cruelty toward non-human creatures as well as human ones, if we expand Kant’s human-centered imperative to disallow the use of any living entity as means to our own ends, the distinction between human and not-human ceases to function as an excuse.
Several other animals appear in the game to underscore this reading. One is the rat, commonly viewed as a pest to be eradicated. We see the first rat in another childhood flashback appearing later in the game, when adult B.J. returns to his childhood home in Texas:
Crucially, the bucket rat memory occurs as part of the game segment in which you confront your father and discover that since you left home he has begun working with the Nazis, including turning in your mother as a Jew. You do get to kill Dad with a hatchet, which is pretty sweet even for a pacifist like me, but he manages to get a call through to Nazi authorities that causes you to be captured and decapitated by Frau Engel, which leads to your resurrection as a pseudo-cyborg, with your head atop an augmented body. Juxtaposing the bucket rat rescue with confronting the betraying father connects B.J.’s dawning moral education in childhood to his subsequent separation from his paternal legacy as well as his biological humanity. This connection allows the game to reject Nazism’s obsession with ethnic purity and genetic heritage but also humanism’s exclusion of non-human life from moral consideration; in effect, B.J.’s empathy for the drowning rat presages his empathy for all oppressed groups and his commitment to ethical use of power.
The second rat appears as part of a side mission the player can complete on the u-boat:
Note the repeat of “little guy” to emphasize the connection between the two scenes, with the adult Blazkowicz demonstrating that, after a lifetime of violence and war, what he has internalized is that while it is your fault if you’re a Nazi, and he will kill you over that, it’s not your fault if you’re a rat and thus he claims no moral authority to interfere with your right to exist, a simplistic but effective dramatization of posthumanism’s “greater moral-ethical response, and responsibility.”
Haraway also argues that the cyborg exists outside “…the plot of original unity out of which difference must be produced and enlisted in a drama of escalating domination of woman/nature” and that in the post-cyborg context “nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other. The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polarity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world” (151). Removed from the perverse narrative of a prelapsarian racial paradise lost to genetic dilution and weakness, Blazkowicz achieves a moral clarity that allows him to retreat from what Haraway identifies as “…the marketplace that remakes all things and people into commodities” (9) and turns “escalating technological domination” into an “alienated relation to nature” (22). This posthumanist refusal to commodify living creatures manifests in B.J.’s interaction with another animal: Rosa, the pig who lives on the u-boat. In one scene Bombate, a member of your team, makes an argument for slaughtering Rosa for meat but is backed down by Max Hass, the game’s Groot/Hodor character who, due to a childhood brain injury and Nazi experimentation says nothing but his own name:
When you interact with Rosa as the player/B.J., you do not support Bombate’s position; in fact, your action when you choose to “interact with pig” is to scratch her under the chin and trigger a side mission in which you search the ship for potatoes to feed her.
Another illustrative animal appears in my favorite chapter of the game, your trip to Venus to audition for the part of yourself in a Nazi propaganda film. In part, the Venus segment functions to reestablish B.J.’s identity. He is officially dead—publicly executed in front of the Lincoln Memorial—and the Nazis do not know that Set Roth resurrected him by attaching the decapitated head to a Nazi super soldier body. The mission is to retrieve a tech code by infiltrating Hitler’s Venusian stronghold in disguise to audition for the part of “Terror Billy” in a film, a false version of B.J. constructed by the Nazis who murdered his body and now seek to rewrite his legacy. Like Odysseus returned to Ithaca disguised as a beggar, B.J. competes in a contest in which the prize, in a sense, is being declared the most legitimate stand in for himself. The contortion of that self is such that he cannot remember the lines he is supposed to recite for the audition—they have no connection to things the real B.J. would say.
Following the audition, B.J. purges his rage with a round of Nazi-stomping violence, much as Odysseus purges his by cutting his wife’s suitors to pieces to reclaim his identity and his position in his home. But while Odysseus begins his transition from war back to the sphere of the domestic by going to bed with Penelope, B.J. powers down through an animal encounter:
As a Ph.D. in English with a specialty in 19th century British literature, I confess to reflexively identifying a man alone in the ocean with a sea bird as Coleridge’s ancient mariner. I find the comparison informative, though, in that B.J. is unlike the cursed mariner in the most critical way: His attitude toward animals to this point establishes him as a responsible steward of life and death. By the time he encounters this gull B.J. does not have the mariner’s need to propitiate nature, nor sins against it to expiate. He feeds the bird and speaks to it, a post-battle reassertion of moral centeredness that prepares him to reconnect with his community on the u-boat because, though violence is part of his daily existence in this fallen world, he does not accept that the world cannot be restored, and he intuits what the mariner learns too late: living things have their own beauty, and recognizing and respecting that beauty aligns us with instinctive, uncorrupted love. B.J.’s “You like that? Bird?” may not scan quite like the mariner’s “O happy living things! no tongue / Their beauty might declare: / A spring of love gushed from my heart, / And I blessed them unaware” (Coleridge 283-86), but his love and blessing resonate all the same.
Briefly, the concept of hybridity also informs the posthumanist reading of The New Colossus. For postcolonial theorists, hybridity destabilizes colonialist certainty in hierarchical purity and inevitability. Posthumanists identify a similar function, in that species hybridity—including biological and non-biological versions—“threatens human exceptionalism” (Hix 276). This game embraces two versions of this hierarchy disrupting hybridity: Shoshana, a cross species hybrid of cat and spider monkey created by Jewish scientist Set Roth and of course, ultimately, Blazkowicz, a human and bioengineered machine hybrid also created by Set Roth. Shoshana’s transplanted head foreshadows and mirrors B.J.’s. In the center image of the slide below, the player’s view is from the inside of a jar, post-beheading and pre-surgery, with Shoshana peering back at you like a reflection:
As with Rosa, when you encounter Shoshana on the ship you can pet her and B.J. will speak to her. Here we see her curled up at B.J.'s feet.Shoshana’s place in this rare moment of peace reinforces the game’s positive attitude toward hybridity, and there are layers of duality represented in the image: Shoshana, both cat and monkey but also neither; B.J., with his not-quite-human body and his mixed parentage; and even perhaps Anya, pregnant with twins, serving in this war like B.J. as both preserver and destroyer, nurturer and soldier.
Through its depiction of non-human animals as sites of moral agency, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus engages tenets of posthumanist theory that privilege inclusivity, hybridity, and expanded ethical responsibility. Narrative and gameplay alike urge characters and players to be wary of all systems of empowerment that rely on disempowering Others, and the game title co-opts Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” as a general warning against not merely Nazi extremism but the exclusionary potential of Western humanist hegemony. Perhaps the next episode of the Wolfenstein series will introduce the new-new colossus, neither the “brazen giant” of Rhodes nor the “mighty woman” of America.
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Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The English Romantics: Major
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Haraway. Donna J. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991.
Hix, Harvey. “Hybridity Is the New Metamorphosis.” Comparative Critical Studies, vol. 9, no.
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