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Reviewed: The Scientists by Marco Roth

Young Americans.

The Scientists: a Family Romance
Marco Roth
Union Books, 208pp, £14.99

In the autumn of 2004, Marco Roth wrote an obituary (he called it an “autothanatography”) of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida for n+1, the New York-based literary magazine he founded with three friends. The critic and literary theorist Edward Said had also died the year before. With the deaths of Derrida and Said, we were witnessing, wrote Roth, the passing of the “last great generation of intellectuals”.

The fashion for “theory” in the United States, Roth thought, had been the expression of a “hope for the future of thinking and education” on the part of “intelligent, angry and alienated Americans” – Americans not unlike Roth himself. However, despite the patina of political radicalism it acquired when it crossed the Atlantic from Europe, theory wasn’t going to change the world. Yet it could and did, Roth insisted, “change individual lives”, redeeming the “discomfort some people felt about subject and object, language and self”.

Roth develops this thought in his memoir, The Scientists, his first book. He was, he tells us, one of those awkward, unsettled young Americans who found, if not solace exactly, then a kind of negative affirmation in theory – ratification of their sense that the world is largely indifferent to human projects and that we live at the mercy of vast, impersonal forces (“language, desire, economics, evolution”) over which we have no control. (In one of several deftly handled comic set pieces, Roth describes an undergraduate friend of his letting his hands glide, with a mixture of “salaciousness and pedantry”, over a copy of Paul de Man’s The Resistance to Theory, a work in which theory’s unconsoling truths were refined to a sort of icy perfection.)

For Roth, the lessons of theory were as much spiritual (though Derrida and de Man would have hated the word) as they were intellectual – theory offered a way of reconciling oneself to the ineluctability of “ordinary human misery”. From an early age (he’d been a precociously adventurous reader as a child), he writes, “It [had] seemed perfectly natural to me that . . . literature was a kind of mirror of the self.” Roth is too intelligent, however, not to see that this habit could appear theoretically suspect. He recalls later, when he was in graduate school, confiding to an acquaintance that he was working on a book about the relationship of literature to life and being told that the project was “deeply disgusting”.

After graduating from Columbia in the mid-1990s, Roth went to Paris with the intention of “apprenticing” himself to the “master”, Derrida. Things didn’t work out quite as he’d hoped. He arrived in the French capital in late summer but Derrida didn’t begin his seminar until mid-November and was frequently absent on teaching trips abroad. And when Roth secured a slot to deliver a presentation to the great man, he got the date wrong.

The Scientists is not just an intellectual memoir, a memoir of reading, however. It is also a memoir of Roth’s father. He had travelled to France on what he wittily calls the “Eugene Roth Jr Memorial Scholarship Fund”, in reality a reasonably substantial chunk of the money he inherited when his father died from Aids. Eugene, a scientist, was infected when his son was 14 – he was working on sickle-cell anaemia and was pricked accidentally with a used needle. The young Marco was made to keep his father’s condition a secret from all but the family’s closest friends.

Characteristically, Roth’s anatomy of his relationship with his father is also an inventory of the books that Eugene gave him when he was a teenager. By his father’s graveside, Roth summons a list to mind: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons – books about families, certainly, designed to soothe the unruly feelings of an adolescent but also artefacts of a central European, liberal, upper- middle-class culture on the brink of destruction. This was a culture that Roth’s parents had sought to preserve in facsimile on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, regularly throwing open their apartment on Central Park West to chamber recitals and poetry readings. Roth’s elegy for his father, therefore, is also an elegy for a New York Jewish intellectual milieu that has all but disappeared.

One of the things Roth learned from theory was that most human lives don’t describe a satisfying narrative arc. The stories we tell about ourselves are assembled from fragments and there is nothing settled or definitive about the way pieces are put together. He received a rather brutal reminder of this truth when his aunt, the novelist Anne Roiphe, published a memoir that seemed to suggest that Eugene had not told his wife or son the whole story. When he learned of his aunt’s insinuations about his father’s sexuality, Roth feared “becoming what a French literary theorist would call ‘the narrated’ . . . [a character] in someone else’s drama”. To his credit, he has managed to make the story his own.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture