Staying With the Trouble in Transistor
Israa Khalifa | Video Games | Posthumanism | July 29th, 2019
SPOILER ALERT: (This analysis will go into full spoilers for Transistor)
CONTENT WARNING: This post discusses the theme of ‘suicide’ in Transistor, which some might find triggering.
Considering that the video game industry is often directed toward a young male demographic, it is not surprising that the ending of Transistor (2014) has been often interpreted as a hetero-romantic one, where the female protagonist, Red, ends her life to join the man she loves. This is a problematic narrative that not only feeds into the patriarchal, hetero-normative perception of love and feminine sacrifice for men’s affection but also one with no sufficient evidence.
To avoid putting this heteronormative gaze at the center, I abstain from countering or dismantling this narrative. Instead, this post focuses on offering an alternative interpretation, one in which I use Donna Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, in order to showcase the consistent posthuman narrative throughout the game. In other words, I argue that Red’s action to end her life when she is given the chance to rebuild Cloudbank is a positive process of deconstructing the Anthropocene within the context of the game. I showcase this process of deconstructing the Anthropocene by interpreting the posthuman narrative through understanding Red’s character and embodiment, as well as her actions in the game narrative. This posthuman narrative allows for a tentacular transformative time to slowly take place, in which human exceptionalism is unthinkable.
Living and dying on a damaged earth: Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble
A few months before Haraway’s published her book, journalist Frank Bruses published Dispatches from the Ruins in which he attempts to make sense of our obsession with post-apocalyptic fiction. Bruses argues that the human influence on the world has become so utterly complex that an apocalypse has become the easiest alternative to imagine. After claiming that the problems posed by the Anthropocene–the term given to the contemporary era where human impact on the Earth’s ecosystems dominates– can not be fixed on the individual level, he concludes that people cannot imagine where to start this process of fixing. Therefore, people imagine an apocalypse instead of solutions. Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble offers a form of imagining the alternative, the much-needed responses, against the rapid dictates of the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene.
Haraway argues that we must remain focused to make trouble and settle
Contrary to making
The first cutscene in Transistor, “Last Night,” features Red’s song “We All Become” and players learn that Red’s voice is absorbed into the Transistor after an attempted assisnation launched by the Camerata. Red sings “when you speak I hear silence,” preceding “every word a defiance,” followed by “I can hear.” It is undeniable, whether these lyrics are dedicated to the Camerata or Mr. Nobody, that the lyrics reveal Red’s perspective and aspects of her character. Troubled with the Camerata’s and Mr. Nobody’s approach to the troubles within the city, Red does not focus on their stated goals because she could only hear it as “silence.” However, the only condition under which she can hear these aimless goals is when taken by her as “defiance.” In other words, Red rejects the Camerata’s and Mr. Nobody’s goals, making her an influential political figure in Cloudbank. Red’s influential role is affirmed to the players through her attempted assassination at the very beginning of the game. Cloudbank is emphasized, throughout the game narrative, as a troubled place as a result of democracy. Citizens of Cloudbank are able to vote democratically on every decision made in their city. The Camerata believed that they are incapable of allowing any concrete change within the city, as the will of the citizens’ changes too quickly. The Camerata launches an attack on Red and proceeds with a plan to take over Cloudbank. In other words, one could say that Red embodies the role of a symbiotic creature that brings troubles and change in troubled autopoiesis systems.
The meaning behind the song lyrics, understood in relation to the message the game emphasizes, showcases that Red is making a political statement of her rejection to the political ideologies of the Camerata and Mr. Nobody. This objective is conveyed through the opening cutscene of the game. Players comes to realize how Red grew conscious of her ability to influence people, for she can now hear the troubles within the city. Red’s actions and decisions are thus an enactment of her political influence and embodied ideologies.
Integrating this understanding of Red’s character aligns with Haraway’s ideas on autopoiesis and sympoiesis systems, which allows for an alternative, nonconforming narrative of Transistor. We could interpret Cloudbank as a troubled, overstressed demoractic system, which manifests itself in the high level of order which eventually lead to a breakdown in the city–a characteristic of autopoiesis systems. Red comes, as an influential political figure with her music, to symbolize the process of becoming– that of living and dying in the ruins on a damaged place through her character and her actions.
The song continues with Red declaring that “Think I will go where it suits me, moving out to the country.” A common metaphor for death, “the country” also refers to the no-place inside the Transistor where the Cloudbank citizens go to when they are absorbed into the object. This statement serves as a foreshadowing of Red’s intention to enter “the country” of the Transistor at the end of the game.
Red’s actions, as part of the game rhetoric, aligns with some of Haraway’s ideas on cultivating response-ability. Haraway makes the claim that urgently confronting the arrogance of a static perspective of the self is another aspect of what constitutes staying with the trouble. This confrontation, in turn, gives rise to the entanglement with a system through a process of becoming response-able with other multi-species. Haraway elaborates that this process of cultivating response-ability is “is also collective knowing and doing, an ecology of practices. Whether we asked for it or not, the pattern is in our hands. The answer to the trust of the held-out hand: think we must” (34).
Red cultivates response-ability for the overstressed autopoietic system of Cloudbank. For example, once aware of her influential role, Red starts to not only act upon it but also take response-ability for it. She takes response-ability for surviving an attempted assassination as a politically influential figure by refusing to look away from the problems, instead of cultivating the capacity to respond to it. In acquiring the Transistor and embarking on her journey, Red chooses to confront the urgency within troubled Cloudbank.
In her fight against The Process, autonomous robots killing Cloudbank citizens, Red is confronted with unexpected forms of collaborations, noticeably collaborating with the Transistor throughout the gameplay and with Camarata member, Royce Bracket. The game begins with the implication that Red is fighting all members of the Camerata; however, as the game progresses, players are aware that this is not the case. The final fight scene is an encounter between Royce and Red after she agrees on collaborating with him to stop the process. Both characters have been temporarily absorbed into the Transistor equipped with identical fighting functions that would determine who gets to leave the Transistor and use it as a tool with which to rebuild Cloudbank.
This is an unexpected collaboration.
“Staying with the trouble requires making oddkin; that is, we require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles. We become with each other or not at all” (Haraway, 4)
Unexpected collaboration defies any mode of binary thinking and logic. Haraway argues that, in the process of reconsidering the post-Anthropocene, unexpected forms of collaboration and connection gives rise to Tentacular Thinking⁴. Tentacular Thinking is refusing to think life in binary terms, instead choosing to see the tangled webs of connections (43). This way of thinking further complicates our responsibilities hence a rise in Response-abilities of multiple entangled species. Red’s decision to cooperate with Royce could, thus, be understood as a provocative performance of Tentacular Thinking in this ongoing process of Response-ability, evident through her bodily practice in the gameplay combat. For example, agreeing to collaborate with Royce leads players to believe that Red’s actions and thinking are operating with a collective paradigm in mind and not solely as a revenge for her attempted assassination. In other words, Red breaks away from binarism by remaining true to her tentacular task in a troubled place. This is one of
“The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response” (Haraway, 1)
She returns to Cloudbank, precisely where Mr. Nobody’s body was left at the beginning of the game (see image above). The last OVC terminal’s message appears, where Red states: “As I stand here on the eastern perimeter awaiting the inevitable, I am surrounded by my community, and I am at peace.” Red describes what she went through as “the inevitable day,” as revealed in the last OVC terminal’s message, which in turn aligns with what was foreshadowed at the very opening cut-scene of the game regarding “going where it suits [her], moving to the country.”
Mr. Nobody asks Red about her plans of repairing Cloudbank, however she proceeds to kill herself with the Transistor against the will of Mr. Nobody leaving to the Country (see image to the right). Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble is critical in attempts to interpret Red’s decision. For at the heart of Haraway’s argument, is the possibility of flourishing through learning to stay with the trouble of living and dying in a troubled or damaged place. A core element for staying with the trouble is abandoning any attempts “to retrieve or repair a proper human vision; nor should we think, too easily, that we have abandoned human myopia once and for all” (24). This opens up our interpretation as to why Red did not use the Transistor as “the brush to canvas” and rebuild Cloudbank. Red joins the rest of her community in the Transistor, abandoning an attempt to fix Cloudbank. For Red, this ending is “inevitable,” as stated in the last OVC Terminal message. Following the same line of thinking, it is evident that Red performs the consequences of what she embodies as a political figure, a citizen of Cloudbank, a survivor of an attempted assassination, someone with entangled relations with people absorbed in the Transistor, and most importantly as someone in relation to and with the Transistor throughout the game. For example, Red performs the consequences of embodying the role of a political figure through her influential songs. In killing herself after her challenging journey, Red performs the ultimate rejection of human exceptionalism and bounded rationality.
“The wise man should live as long as he ought, and not as long as he can⁵”
From Moral letters to Lucilius by Seneca/ Letter 70
Haraway, influenced by the work of anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, believes that “it matters what ideas we use to think other ideas” (12). It matters what ideas we use to think ideas in classrooms, on the streets, in video games, etc. It matters if we think Transistor with a fixated, gendered, patriarchal ideas, feminist ideas or philosophical ideas, etc. It matters for they, in turn, give rise to different ideas and meanings that have different consequences on the way we think about and interpret other ideas. It matters for as feminist scholar Sara Ahmed would say “the more a path is used, the more a path is used.” The more a gendered interpretation is used, the more a gendered interpretation is used. For Ahmed, “without use a path can disappear, becoming overgrown, bumpy; unusable.” This helps me remember that the good thing about meanings and ideas, is that they exist only with our consent. It is thus within our capacity to change them by using other paths.
¹A chthonic metaphor of Cthulhu, the fictional monster by H. P. Lovecraft in “The Call of Cthulhu.” Haraway relates it more to
³ For more, check chapter 3 on Sympoiesis: Symbiogenesis and the Arts of Staying with the Trouble.
⁴ For more, check chapter 2 on Tentacular Thinking.
⁵ “Seneca rejects the fear of death and says that what’s important is not to keep living, but to live well, so suicide is morally permissible whenever the story of your life has reached its natural