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I first encountered the term “NPC” years ago under unhappy circumstances. A friend had dragooned me into attending a soirée at someone’s house. Shortly after I arrived, he notified me that he would be late (he never showed up), but assured me that he hoped I would have fun regardless. I did not. It was one of those parties where everyone knew everyone else, where the atmosphere of closeness served to heighten the sense of distance for anyone outside the convivial circle. The boredom was mutual. I don’t recall much else, except that partygoers kept mentioning Nantucket, which had been the site of shared and cherished experiences for their coterie, and to which all talk, much to my disappointment, eventually rebounded. I have never been to Nantucket, although I would like to go one day.

After my third drink and seemingly umpteenth stillborn conversation I needed to pee, and so I inquired where the restroom was. Down the hall and to your left. Occupied. Whoops, I’m sorry. Is there another restroom? Upstairs. OK, thanks.

I ascended the staircase and wandered about a corridor, still unsure where to go. The sound of hands clacking away at a keyboard emanated from a nearby room whose door was open. I walked over and peered inside. The room was dark, illumined only by a monitor and the light from the adjacent hallway. A young man about my age sat in an oversized chair on the far side of the room.

“Hi, I hate to bother you, but where is the restroom?”

“There’s one downstairs”

“I know, but that one is occupied. Is there one up here?”

“It’s the next door over”

“Thanks”

The computer hummed. Glancing at the screen, I could see an array of fantastical characters: orcs, trolls, and what looked like a zombie in clerical vestments.  

“What are you playing? Is that The World of Warcraft?”

“Yeah, but it’s just ‘World of Warcraft.’ There’s no ‘The’ in the name. Also, people usually call it WoW.”

“Right. It’s a Massively Online Multiplayer…” Gaming was not my bailiwick, and moreover, it was getting late.  

“It’s an MMORPG”

“Yes, that’s the word. So are those your friends, then?” I gestured towards the figures peregrinating across the monitor.

“No, those are NPCs. They’re not real people”

“But isn’t the whole point of the game to play with real people?”

“Yes, but people aren’t always around. This is an empty realm. I don’t play on it much anymore. I’m not sure why I play. It’s just me.”

“But that’s so SAD!” I blurted out.

“Umm, I guess.”

I realized I was being intrusive on several registers. Nature was still calling, so I backed out the doorway and went into the restroom. As I returned downstairs, I noticed the door had been shut, although I could still hear the clacking of hands on the keyboard.

Flash forward many years and “NPC” is making memetic ripples, this time on right-wing Twitter. For the uninitiated, a brief genealogy is in order.

“NPC” is an acronym for “Non-Player Character.” Its origin is shrouded in the mists of pen and paper tabletop gaming, especially perennial favorites like Dungeons and Dragons. As the name implies, NPCs are counterparts to the Player Characters (PCs), the protagonists controlled by most of the participants. NPCs, by contrast, are the dramatis personae played by the game master, the person charged with running the game. They exist to facilitate the narrative’s flow and — if the gamemaster is any good — give it a sense of immersion and verisimilitude. Despite this supporting role, the nature of tabletop gaming requires an active, human agency “behind” all the characters, whether PC or NPC. What this means is that in principle the variety of interactions, dialogues, and stories that can occur are limited only by the fertility of the group’s imagination. However, tabletop gaming was and remains a relatively niche hobby. It was through video games that the term entered popular imagination.

But the transposition to video games brings profound changes. Phenomenologically speaking, the experience of the “world” shifts from one of dynamic creativity, mutually mediated between free subjects (the player and the gamemaster) to a static, uniform one mediated between subject and objects (the player and the code composing the game). Likewise, the game itself, once generated and sustained through the player’s unique, internal processes of continual imagining, becomes an impersonal product, everywhere the same, and a commodity meant for passive consumption. Other people optional.

Within this digital space, the player may still exercise choice, but whatever freedom he possesses is circumscribed by the rules of the game. The player controlling Mario may elect to jump on or over the Goomba, or even lob a fireball in his direction, but he cannot attempt to persuade him to help overthrow Bowser’s monarchy.

NPCs are far worse off. If PCs are human agents, albeit ones constricted by code, then NPCs are unthinking expressions of the code itself. Before the game even begins they are utterly predetermined. Their words and actions are not their own. Behind the polygons, there is no proverbial “there” there, just the simple script given to them by the game designers, which defines them entirely and precludes all but a handful of predictable movements. They continue their old function of making the player’s journey come to life, but now in a negative sense: their absolute unfreedom veils his diminished freedom, their one dimensionality fabricates the illusion of depth for two dimensional heroes.

These things considered, it is easy to see why NPC lends itself as a pejorative. To be called an NPC is to be called an automaton, someone (or something) superficially present yet critically absent. Moreover, it is to suggest someone is a vessel for received opinion, that they have been programmed by convention, as actual NPCs are programmed by the game designers. It is to say their thoughts and beliefs are accreted clichés absorbed through a passive, unconscious process of cultural osmosis, and not through rational deliberation or genuine seeking.

It is even easier to see why for certain segments of the right, in particular the online far right, the NPC has become the cathexis du jour. When one consistently stands outside the scope of normative (normie?) belief, the general feeling is more often one of exhaustion than exhilaration. Infantile as it may be, there is a measure of solace to be found in imagining that the great mass of others, whether they are conservatives, liberals, leftists, whatever, are running on automatic. That their internal monologues -to the extent they exist — are echoes of the dumb slogans one incessantly hears on MSNBC or VICE or the latest Netflix special.

This sentiment finds visual representation in the meme. There are many iterations, but the basic template is Wojack (muted “straight man” to the livelier Pepe) whose already deadpan features have been abstracted beyond recognition to a point of minimalist stolidity. The accompanying text, spoken by “NPC-Wojack”, has many variants but the common denominator is common opinion (often with a parodical spin). “Did you catch the big game?” “I listen to everything except country and rap”. “The future is female.” “Ben Shapiro is a stellar intellect.” “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” “The Big Bang Theory is extremely me.” “The Democrats are the real racists.” “Reality has a liberal bias.” “I am excited for Disney-Marvel tentpole production #2881.” And so on. The thematic unity is unrelenting emptiness — the vacuity of the text mirrors the vacancy of expression which in turn mirrors an inner void. One feels that beneath the surface strata of mockery and contempt is frustration, even despair. Do not be deceived, this is gallows humor.

Predictably, the meme has met with derision. The criticisms come naturally, and almost make themselves. There is the usual temptation, present whenever one analyzes memes spawned in the digital id of the far right, to suggest they arise from poor socialization. What kind of maladjusted freak takes issue with pop songs or superhero flicks, anyway? One who spends far too much time online marinating in toxic, anti-social subcultures. Clean your room. Go outside. Make a friend. And go find some empathy while you’re at it (loser). There is also the familiar impulse to reduce NPC-posting to pure ressentiment. You’re just upset because your desires have gone unfulfilled, that others have rudely thwarted your wish to absolutize the self. You’ve mistaken the source of your frustrations to be other people, in truth your own inadequacies are to blame.

Alternatively, some critics have adopted a different approach, seeking to neutralize the meme by encasing it within a higher degree of ‘meta’ awareness (this is the internet, after all). Doesn’t such reflexive non-conformity ossify into equally constricting forms, ‘resentment-scripts’ that in the final analysis are just spiteful, inverted copies of the original? Is the person who parrots bromides from the political and cultural fringe really freer than the one who parrots bromides from the center? Maybe mocking NPCs is indicative of being an NPC. How clever.

What are we to make of all this? There is more than a kernel of truth to the criticisms. Indubitably, the right is often a cesspool of dysfunction, bitterness, unoriginality- and that may even be uncharitable towards cesspools. But it would also be uncharitable, and gravely mistaken, to believe that these criticisms fully explain the meme and exhaust its significance.

The far right can be profoundly intuitive creatures, who feel more deeply than cursory glances suggest. The NPC meme is a response to something real, something that snarky liberals, and even leftists, increasingly fail to notice. In short, it is a tragicomic acknowledgment that things are not OK, that we are all NPCs (to one degree or another) because we are all in bondage. Despite our apparent freedom, it wryly suggests, we are in fetters. It is on these grounds that the denizens of the online right find strange concordance, and even vindication, from what some would consider a most unlikely source: the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School.

Spend enough time on the internet’s outer reaches and invariably the Frankfurt School will come up. The story is always the same. Once there was normality (middle-class suburban life refracted through the prism of 1950s Coca-Cola advertisements) until a perfidious cabal of “cultural Marxists” (Jews) transvaluated all values and turned society upside down. Thus, feminism, anti-racism, LGBT activism, and any other bête noire of the right find their genesis in alien conspiracy. The story is bogus, but it flatters prejudices and acts as a substitute for anxious people who are unable or unwilling to engage in serious analysis. Yet there is a sublime irony to this, because if one looks at the actual writings of Frankfurt School theorists, it is readily apparent that they share many concerns with those on the right.

We should be wary of treating the Frankfurt School, or critical theory in general, as a unity. The writers had divergent interests, analyzing topics such as fascism, the efflux of meaning from traditional categories and concepts, cultural criticism, and aesthetics. But if we are to venture that there is common a thread running through their disparate works it would be that the Frankfurt School theorists had an overriding concern with the psychic life of man under capitalism. Whereas Marx (mostly) wrote about the material oppression wrought by capitalism — the brutal process of primitive accumulation, the lengthening of the working day, the intensification of labor — the Frankfurt School explores how under the capitalist yoke we find ourselves in more subtle manacles.

For example, consider this passage from Max Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason, a work that investigated the decay of rationality in industrial-capitalist culture:     

Today the idea of the majority, deprived of its rational foundations, has assumed a completely irrational aspect. Every philosophical, ethical, and political idea – its lifeline connecting it with its historical origins having been severed — has a tendency to become the nucleus of a new mythology, and this is one of the reasons why the advance of enlightenment tends at certain points to revert to superstition and paranoia. The majority principle, in the form of popular verdicts on each and every matter, implemented by all kinds of polls and modern techniques of communication, has become the sovereign force to which thought must cater. It is a new god, not in the sense in which the heralds of the great revolutions conceived it, namely, as a power of resistance to existing injustice, but as a power of resistance against to anything that does not conform. The more the judgment of the people is manipulated by all kinds of interests, the more is the majority presented as the arbiter in cultural life. It is supposed to justify the surrogates of culture in all its branches, down to the mass deceiving products of popular art and literature. The greater the extent to which scientific propaganda makes of public opinion a mere tool for obscure forces, the more does public opinion appear a substitute for reason. The illusory triumph of democratic progress consumes the intellectual substance on which democracy has lived.  

The convergence with rightists who create and circulate NPC memes is evident. What is the majority principle if not the “code” impressed upon and introjected by the masses? Beyond that, it is clear Horkheimer and right wing meme makers both identify this homogenized idiocy not as a trivial annoyance. Rather, it is experienced as a titanic, even totalizing, social-noetic current that oppresses, by sheer weight and breadth, anyone moving counter to it.

The effects of this domination do not end at an impoverished conceptual life. Christopher Lasch argued that the material configuration of late-capitalist society shapes the architecture of our personalities, engendering narcissistic formations. Critical theory holds that it obliterates personality itself:

For one man who is able to differentiate between truth and reality, as the chief religions and philosophical systems have always done, there are thousands who have never been able to overcome the tendency to regress to their mimetic and atavistic urges. This is not simply the fault of the masses: for the majority of mankind, civilization has meant the pressure to grow up to an adult state and responsibility, and still means poverty. Even rulers have not escaped the mutilating effects by which humanity pays for its technocratic triumphs. In other words, the overwhelming majority of people have no ‘personality.’ Appeals to their inner dignity or latent potentialities would arouse their distrust, and rightly so, because such words have become mere phrases by means of which they are supposedly kept in subservience. But their justified skepticism is accompanied by a tendency to treat their own ‘inner nature’ brutally and spitefully, to dominate it as they have been dominated by ruthless masters.

In other words, NPCs just don’t understand. And what’s worse, any attempt to expose the hollow forms that structure our lives is itself met with suspicion – even critique is received, fair or not, as cliché.

Or consider the domain of cultural consumption. The NPC meme lampoons our tendency to consume the products of mass culture precisely because they are easy to process, requiring neither personal effort nor prior learning. Indeed, one can only enjoy trash like How I Met Your Mother or YouTube clickbait effluvia after “checking out” and entering a drone-like state. This is not to say online rightists are devotees of high culture (Bowsette erotica does not count), but does suggest that there is at least a recognition that mass culture is draining. There is an awareness, however dim, of a paradox identified by Jürgen Habermas in his book, The Structural Transformation of The Public Sphere. Habermas notes that while serious cultural engagement requires focus, it nevertheless has a rejuvenating effect; whereas the passive consumption of mass culture leaves us more enervated than before:  

To the degree that culture became a commodity not only in form but also in content, it was emptied of elements whose appreciation required a certain amount of training — whereby the “accomplished” appropriation once again heightened the appreciative ability itself. It was not merely standardization as such that established an inverse relationship between the commercialization of cultural goods and their complexity, but that special preparation of products that made them consumption-ready, which is to say, guaranteed an enjoyment without being tied to stringent presuppositions. Of course, such enjoyment is also entirely inconsequential. Serious involvement with culture produces facility, while the consumption of mass culture leaves no lasting trace; it affords a kind of experience which is not cumulative but regressive.

We find a sinister explanation for this phenomenon in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s masterpiece Dialectic of Enlightenment. One of the text’s more profound theoretical insights is that the drudgery of work prefigures the drudgery of leisure (or what passes for it) and vice versa:

Entertainment is the prolongation of work under late capitalism. It is sought by those who want to escape the mechanized labor process so that they can cope with it again. At the same time, however, mechanization has such power over leisure and its happiness, determines so thoroughly the fabrication of entertainment commodities, that the off-duty worker can experience nothing but after-images of the work process itself. The ostensible content is merely a faded foreground; what is imprinted is the automated sequence of standardized tasks. The only escape from the work process in factory and office is through adaptation to it in leisure time. This is the incurable sickness of all entertainment. Amusement congeals into boredom, since, to be amusement, it must cost no effort and therefore moves strictly along the well-worn grooves of association. The spectator must need no thoughts of his own: the product prescribes each reaction, not through any actual coherence — which collapses once exposed to thought — but through signals. Any logical connection presupposing mental capacity is scrupulously avoided.

Therefore, both the factory line and the movie theater are sites of discipline, and within each capital stamps our minds with the indelible mark of sameness. The relentless monotony of the latest sitcom, same as the old sitcom, is the monotony of the office (this identity realizes its apotheosis in video games, where after work players continue to “grind” their life away in what are ultimately glorified spreadsheets). To be entertained is to give consent. The superficiality of mass culture finds its reflection in the superficiality of social relations under the corporate gaze. “Honey, I’m home” is “welcome to Walmart.” This stultifying logic of uniformity, originating in the capitalist mode of production and ensuring its continuation, seeps into every facet of our lives. It hijacks the human drive towards mimesis, we become our own impostors. The alienated subject is reproduced, the NPC emerges.

Critical theory is an emancipatory project. Whether critiquing positivism, the culture industry, or the various authoritarianisms of the twentieth century, the hope was always that a wider horizon of liberty could be discovered. In this capacity, perhaps more than their reliance on Marxian analytics, the Frankfurt School possesses a deep affinity with Marx, for whom the possibility of liberation was also the lodestar.   

In the third volume of Capital, Marx famously bifurcates our world into the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom. The realm of necessity is where socially necessary labor takes place, where energy must be expended to perpetuate an existence commensurate with our level of civilization and technical mastery. The realm of freedom, by contrast, is that sphere in which we pursue other ends. A shared aim of both Marx and the critical theorists was to see the latter realm ever expanded. Herbert Marcuse delineates how these doctrines are understood in classical Marxism:

Human freedom in a true sense is possible only beyond the realm of necessity. The realm of necessity itself forever remains a realm of unfreedom, and the optimum that can be achieved there is a significant reduction of the working day, and a high degree of rationality and rationalization. Now this conception epitomizes the division of the human existence into labor time and free time, the division between reason, rationality on the one hand, and pleasure, joy, fulfillment on the other hand, the division between alienated and non-alienated labor. — The Realm of Freedom and The Realm of Necessity: A Reconsideration

As the passage suggests, there is a duality immanent within the realm of freedom. On the one hand, it is constituted by the freedom without. This is freedom in the common and physical sense. It is the freedom to lift weights, to build a treehouse for your children, to travel (including, presumably, to Nantucket), etc. But on the other hand, it is constituted by the freedom within. This is freedom spiritualized. It is the freedom to be creative, spontaneous, to live authentically, to not be assailed by ugliness and banality, to cultivate a rich inner life, to embrace oneself, one’s fellow man, the world — and be embraced in return. In short, it is the freedom to be fully human and dwell among others who live likewise.

Properly understood, the realm of freedom is not an empty realm. It brims with potentialities, some joyously realized, countless others eagerly awaiting their birth. No matter how bleak life becomes our yearning for it remains ineradicable. In fact, the deeper our misery, the higher it soars in our mind’s eye.  

Perhaps this solves the riddle of the NPC meme. Beyond mere cynicism, beyond a bitter proclamation of estrangement, it expresses – however covertly, however unconsciously — that abiding desire for genuine freedom. Upon closer inspection, reactionary memes are also der Seufzer der bedrängten Kreatur.