Tilting Kiss: An Allegory of Things

Scot Barnett
Indiana University

I didn’t see my first video game arcade until I was a teenager. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the experience--not just by the incredible number and variety of games, but by the music and noise as well--the strange, almost otherworldly mix of button mashing and tinted rock music blaring from the seemingly endless rows of armoire-sized cabinets. This was a far cry from the places where I first learned to play video games--not in these cyberspace clubhouses but in the more quotidian spaces of my Connecticut hometown, places like the A&P, or the 7-Eleven, or the Pizza Hut where my brother and I frequently played the cocktail cabinet version of Ms. Pac-Man. In all, there must have been fewer than a dozen arcade style games in my hometown, and I played all of them as often as I could. All of them accept one, at least. At the 7-Eleven on the road to Norwich there was one game I could never bring myself to play: the KISS pinball machine. While I loved pinball games even at that age, my aversion to this particular game had nothing really to do with pinball (or so it seemed). This was 1983, and I was seven years old. And frankly, KISS scared the shit out of me. Even though the band’s image had lightened considerably in the late 70s and early 80s, I somehow missed the cartoon version of KISS that was beginning to appear on lunchboxes and in comic books. To my mind at least, the band existed somewhere between Black Sabbath and professional wrestling (which, you should know, I also believed was real). Maybe it was the outfits or the makeup or Gene Simmons’s bloody tongue routine, but something about KISS struck a nerve for me as kid. And so I avoided the KISS pinball machine, even though doing so meant I had one fewer game to play in town.

Over thirty years later, I’m again thinking about that KISS pinball machine. Of course, video games have changed enormously in that time, going from the arcade to the living room to the mobile phone. However, with a few notable exceptions, pinball remains much the same as it was in 1983. Pinball games today still rely on much of the same hardware that powered tables thirty years ago, and players still pull a plunger to launch a ball and manually control flippers scattered across the playfield. Perhaps this explains pinball’s lasting appeal, especially in this age of new media and the digitization of almost everything. Unlike many recent video games, where immersion in the digital is the name of the game, pinball remains stubbornly committed to the analog, to gears and wires, mobility and tactility. These are games with substance, games with an undeniable bulk and weight that lends them an unmistakable presence and materiality in the world. In short, a pinball machine is thing, both in the mundane everyday sense of the word and in Martin Heidegger’s more poetic notion of a thing as something that is “self-sustained, something that stands on its own” (164).

Across the humanities, the past decade has witnessed a surge of interest in “things” and “objects.” From political scientists and historians to philosophers and digital theorists, researchers in a wide range of disciplines have collectively turned their attentions (back) to the everyday things of the world. The reasons for this return to things are numerous and complex. But mainly they reflect an increasing skepticism among humanists of the past century’s emphases on language and social structures as the principal determinants of reality. While the so-called “linguistic” and “social” turns of the 20th century helped challenge objectivist notions of truth and knowledge by introducing a healthy and productive sense of contingency and relativism into our thinking about the world, over time the more orthodox forms of these arguments became increasingly expansive such that everything, from gender and race to nature and gravity, could be explained away as simply a construction of human language and thought. With capitalist consumer culture, computer technology, and global environmental threats and disasters increasing in prominence at the same time, however, it eventually became clear--even to us humanists!--that human beings are not (and never have been) the sole architects of reality. There are some things that aren’t simply reducible to our thoughts or perceptions of them, but that nevertheless wield significant influence in the world, and that at times even shape our ways of dwelling in the world. For humanist in the 21st century, such things have become the objects of new theories and new research programs. Along with language and issues of human subjectivity, humanists today are just as likely to ask questions about animals, physical spaces such as monuments and museums, ancient and modern writing technologies, and digital media, including hardware and material storage devices. While the turn to things in many ways seeks to decenter the human’s privileged status in the world, much of emerging work on things ultimately champions the importance of inclusivity--of including in our theories and research methods all of the relevant actors and stakeholders, be they human or nonhuman.

When I first began to think about my contribution to the MLArcade, Pinball and KISS seemed to me the perfect metaphors to explore the weird vibrancy of things. Like the objects explored by object-oriented theorists such as Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, and Ian Bogost, pinball machines are constituted by a strange duality between an essential nature or substance (what makes this machine a pinball machine and not something else) and a shifting profile of surface qualities (the countless themes that are characteristic of pinball). For Harman, who develops his object-oriented philosophy out of a speculative reading of Heidegger’s famed tool analysis from Being and Time, objects are “far from the insipid physical bulks that one imagines.” More than simple clods of matter, objects “are already aflame with ambiguity, torn by vibrations and insurgencies equaling those found in the most tortured human moods” (Harman, Tool-Being 19). As Harman explains, the object’s ambiguity emerges out of the tension between its withdrawn essence or tool-being and its more manifest aspects or qualities. These qualities are akin to profiles or attributes that shift and contort accidentally as we--and indeed other things--come into relation with them. When I observe a house, for example, I typically perceive it as a unity, as a singular thing. The house is a real object, in other words, something I immediately recognize as a house. At the same time, however, it is also a shifting play of contingent qualities. While the house has an essence that makes it this specific house and not another, this essence withdraws from my perception, leaving me to contend with its more immediate qualities, such as its redness, colonial style, or the way it appears bathed in shadow in the dusk of a late summer evening. The house, then, is both a real object whose reality is never fully exhausted by the multiplicity of its profiles and a sensual object that actively engages me and other beings in the world.

Like the house, a pinball machine is a thing torn between its essence and its shifting atmosphere of qualities. Since the game is always basically the same, pinball machines are defined and cherished largely for their qualities. The Mechanical Bride of Pinbot, Stern’s 1978 Ted Nugent, Bally’s 1979 Star Trek--all essentially the same game, but all distinct from one another as well based on the unique qualities they project. As a band, KISS seemed to me an equally perfect embodiment of this tension between essence and qualities, substance and style (and perhaps why their music and imagery fit so well with pinball’s aesthetic). As a band best known for its lavish costumes, Kabuki-like makeup, and cartoonish live performances, KISS is itself a thing to be reckoned with. As rock critics have repeatedly lamented over the years, KISS seems to represent the ultimate triumph of style over substance. As one reviewer writes of the typical KISS concert, it is “an ultra-experience, the hottest in stupid, uncontrolled, brash, loud, vulgar, proletarian rock’n’roll” (http://starling.rinet.ru/music/kiss.htm). There is an essence to KISS to be sure, some irreducible KISS-ness that serves to distinguish the band from Black Sabbath, AC/DC, or any number of 70s era hard rock bands. But there is also that notorious style, which is sometimes said to have a life of its own. Like pinball and all things generally, KISS embodies, and indeed proudly flaunts, the peculiar tension between essence and surface-effects: “I’m sorry to have taken so long / It must have been a bitch while I was gone / You mind if I sit down for a while / You’ll reacquaint yourself with my style” (KISS, “100,000 Years”).

Perhaps my initial aversion to the KISS pinball machine was an effect of encountering (perhaps for the first time) a thing that “seem[ed] to be a ghostly power exceeding any of its lists of properties, one that animates those properties from within by means of some ill-defined demonic energy” (Harman. Speculative 137). What is a pinball machine, after all, but a duality between substance and style, hardware and theme? This is the question at the heart of my project, and one that in my view is also at stake in all of our encounters--playful and otherwise--with things.

In exploring pinball machine as a thing, I don’t mean to diminish the fact that pinball machines are made objects, or that their primary purpose is to entertain human players. All of this is true. However, if we only understand pinball as what it means for us--the human ones--then we miss an important opportunity to consider what pinball itself does--how a pinball machine, like Heidegger’s example of a jug, is both a made object and a thing that stands on its own. A focus on the thingness of pinball, then, does not in itself exclude the human being (the designers, players, etc.) from our thinking; rather, it helps attune us to other ways of imagining human beings and their relations to things. As the literary critic Bill Brown says, “The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation” (4). When we acknowledge the vibrancy, otherness, and agency of things, we begin to see how we are affected by things and how things in turn are affected by us.

As a kid, I was certainly affected by KISS and the KISS pinball machine. In Richard Marback’s terms, I was “vulnerable” to the band and the game. While my openness to KISS as a child was not necessarily intentional (or even desired), Marback argues that a renewed sense of vulnerability in our dealings with things holds the potential to inform more inclusive rhetorical actions. “Vulnerability to the moment of a rhetorical event is more than openness to circumstance. Vulnerability is an activity, a making do in the conjoined mental and physical worlds of embodied expression” (Marback 60). To allow oneself to be open to an other, to be vulnerable, requires effort and commitment; like being persuaded, being vulnerable is something we do rather than something that happens passively to us (see Garsten). In many respects, then, this project was an attempt to practice being vulnerable, to explore what it might mean to finally “make do” with a thing I first encountered over 30 years ago.

Works Cited

Brown, Bill. 2001. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28(2): 1-22.

Garsten, Bryan. 2009. Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Harman, Graham. 2002. Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Chicago: Open Court.

---. 2010. Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures. Winchester, UK: Zero.

Heidegger, Martin. 2001. “The Thing.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper Perennial.

Marback, Richard. 2008. “Unclenching the Fist: Embodying Rhetoric and Giving Objects their Due.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 38(1): 46-65.