kentucky route zero and the failings of white leftism

i wrote this to be legible & meaningful to anyone who hasn’t played kentucky route zero. no real spoilers..it’s not really a “spoilerable” game. also if you don’t feel like reading this, you should still scroll down to the end for the recommended reading. those works are incredibly important, far beyond the scope of this post and this game, and you should read them regardless.

thank you for reading!

(cw: mentions of anti-Black racism, slavery, anti-indigenous violence, death.)

considering how many games have gotten much less critical attention, i really didn’t want to write yet another essay on krz, but i did anyway for two reasons. 1: i’ve given too much thought to it, and i just need to be done with it and move on! 2: i knew i wanted to write something different from the other thinkpieces swirling around this game.

to begin with, i’m bored at how krz has been universally lauded by games writers. the critical reception of the game–if not of its aesthetics, then definitely of its philosophy, its ethos and ethics–has been uncontroversial. at least, the collection of writings that i’ve seen seems to highlight the lack of friction with which “good art” is celebrated, institutionalized, and canonized. the dearth of structural or thematic criticism/critique/questioning is…frustrating, and damning. what i haven’t really seen is people interrogating what krz is and what it does, its philosophy, its narrative decisions, its representation of people and histories. and i don’t really have the wherewithal to do that thorough interrogation right now–i’m focusing mainly on a few aspects–but that spirit of interrogation/inquiry feels…important, necessary. if you’re not asking difficult questions of the work, probing at the limits/limitations of its ideas, simply accepting what it’s trying to do, and celebrating it, then what function does your criticism really serve?

~

anyway, let’s talk about krz. in february a piece came out whose thesis was that krz captures the experience of “millennials of color.” with respect, i emphatically disagree with that sentiment. one of my largest critiques of the game is precisely its lack of thoughtful or substantial dialogue with respect to racism, racialized violence, and white supremacy as being inextricable from capitalist oppression.

from the outset, it bears mentioning how much the text’s influences and references are overhwhelmingly…white. conversations, names, and images are richly littered with allusions and homages to a pantheon of nearly all canonical, white, and overwhelmingly male authors, artists, scientists, and other well-known figures with irl buildings named in their honor: robert frost, samuel coleridge, percy bysshe shelley, walt whitman, samuel beckett, tom stoppard, peter shaffer, arthur miller, rene magritte, david lynch, andrei tarkovsky, will crowther, john conway, william chamberlain, claude shannon, warren weaver…to name a few.

what is the implicit message of art that celebrates and pays homage to almost exclusively “lauded white male artists and thinkers”? is there no ounce of tension between the game’s large debt to canonical white art and the game’s largely nonwhite cast, or the game’s attempt to memorialize the struggles of oppressed people(s) in this country’s history through the words of frost or whitman? 

the game’s relationship to its reference material tacitly suggests to me that referencing, emulating, and discussing white western schools/traditions/legacies is somehow interesting, worthwhile, or meaningful. it’s the opposite of radical, it’s so… fucking boring. i object to the game’s exploring the meaning of and drawing overwhelmingly from forms of white western art and knowledge production that have always been used as colonialist/imperialistic bludgeons to justify white intellectual, artistic and cultural supremacy.

~

the mere existence of nonwhite characters in its main cast is not a shield from criticisms about whiteness. if anything, the game’s inclusion of nonwhite characters feels more like a liberal “we’re all in this together” multicultural depiction of oppression. 

in a few separate instances, the game does try to reckon with race separately from class, most notably in “the entertainment,” which has Black characters in it, and in act v, with its references to “the outsider” (perhaps an immigrant laborer) who was murdered because of racism/xenophobia. but these examples, few and far between, don’t do nearly enough to convey the deeply entangled, co-productive relationship between racism/white supremacy and capitalism in amerika. this impression feels substantiated less by what the game actually says but what it fails to say, the stories that it excludes. 

~

one of krz’s central themes is about the importance of memorializing and remembrance. the game inherits from postmodernism this deep feeling of loss when it comes to the past. its characters mourn that they are “too late,” always “after,” at “the end of history”; they mourn that their lives and their freedom were lost to them before they were even born. in act ii, a preacher memorializes the victims of the haymarket riot. in act iv, conway and shannon discover a monument of miners’ helmets, for the workers who were killed by the consolidated power co’s negligence. the end of the final act of the game is a funeral. krz argues that this mourning is important, that the work of memorializing is valuable because it reminds us of this loss. 

but the game also makes decisions about which histories it chooses to memorialize and which people it makes its monuments to. and these decisions matter deeply in a historical and political context where some histories have always been more visible than others, and where some figures, like “the worker,” are more “innocent” and less racialized and therefore easier and more comfortable for white leftists to rally behind than, for example, the incarcerated. this is a place where krz reveals its limits as a political work.

~

let’s take a more concrete example. one of the central spaces in kentucky route zero is mammoth cave: it’s a place you return to again and again in act iii, because it houses the xanadu computer, donald, and a few other characters who worked on xanadu.

in fact, mammoth cave is a real place. its first claim to “historical importance” was as a source of saltpeter during the war of 1812. 400,000 pounds of it were mined and converted into gunpowder for amerikan soldiers to use against the british, and the indigenous peoples who allied with the latter. those responsible for extracting the saltpeter were enslaved Black people.

there was money to be made from the cave, and gratz and wilkins set about making it. they had the capital and physical assets – in the form of nearly 70 slaves – to mount a considerable enterprise underground. the slaves began to construct the apparatus which would leach the nitre out of the soil, under the watchful eye of overseers, by the light of dim and smoky lanterns. (x)

after the war was over, mining operations declined, but interest in mammoth cave was partially revived for different reasons: namely, the unearthing and display of native people’s bodies.

[mammoth cave] became a minor side-show when a desiccated indian mummy was found nearby, sitting upright in a stone coffin, surrounded by talismans. in 1815, fawn hoof, as she was nicknamed after one of the charms, was taken away by a circus, drawing crowds across america … she ended up in the smithsonian but by the 1820s the cave was being called one of the wonders of the world, largely due to her posthumous efforts. (x)

i’m including this passage too, because it makes my stomach turn… (cw. misgendering)

like the bodies found before him, he was traded among various cave owners and displayed to the public with many fanciful stories of his death. represented to the public for many years as a young indian girl or an indian princess, later examination of the body clearly indicated that this individual was a boy. (hobbs et al)

in other words, mammoth cave first became a place of note through the violence of Black chattel slavery as well as the violent spectacle-making of indigenous people’s bodies. some of these bodies were unceremoniously destroyed; the others were assigned english names and genders, and paraded around the country as a source of profit for the white settlers who “owned” the land and “owned” these bodies. 

much of the labor of mining and mapping the cave’s tunnels, in order to make it accessible in the first place, was also forced onto enslaved Black people, like Stephen Bishop and Mat Bransford. through their labor, the caves were opened to the public, but for decades, Black visitors were barred from entering these spaces. “prior to the civil war, only white travelers could afford to visit mammoth cave,” and after the war, Black travelers “could not stay at the mammoth cave hotel; cave manager albert janin insisted it was ‘exclusively for white people.’ he allowed Blacks in the cave, but enforced segregation” (hobbs et al). 

on that note, when i hear people talk about “wonder” and “mystery,” it’s hard for me to ignore how wonder and mystery have historically been manufactured, not only through the othering of non-white/non-normative people and cultures, but moreover, through the violent eradication of those people and cultures. this eradication is what allows white settlers to live out their dreams of exploration and discovery in an “uncharted,” “unsettled” land; makes their claims to ownership and mastery possible; and gives their ownership “legitimacy” and “naturalness” forever after. through the exploitation and subsequent removal of Black and indigenous people, mammoth cave became a playground for white tourists to play out their own adventurous fantasies to this day, to fulfill their yearnings for the mystic and unknown and untamed.

~

my point, in all of this, is that the continuing legacies of Black chattel slavery and the genocide of indigenous people are not separate stories from the ones krz tells; rather, they are the underlying, undergirding stories that makes krz’s possible. what is it about these people that makes them less suitable subjects for memorialization than miners or beloved white writers? 

krz is lauded as an anticapitalist work because of how its narrative explores themes of debt and ownership, exploitation and dehumanization. but it expresses these themes through historicizing, memorializing, and empathizing with unracialized figures like “the worker,” “the miner,” “the truck driver” (conway). it ignores the obscured but just as, if not more, thematically relevant and vital histories of Black chattel slavery and violence against indigenous people that not only continue to shape the modern world but also literally shaped the very caves in which the game’s characters are standing and talking.

~

there’s more i wanted to say but i think i’d just be talking in circles… and anyway, nothing i’ve written here is 1/100th as insightful, compelling, or necessary as the work by Black, indigenous, queer, decolonial writers and thinkers that you should be reading instead. i don’t mean this self-deprecatingly, but as a testament to how important that work is. i included a very, very brief list of readings for anyone who’s more interested in what i tried to discuss in this essay. 

to close, i wanted to include this passage from “introduction: on colonial unknowing,” by manu vimalassery, juliana hu pegues, and alyosha goldstein:

colonialism cannot be dismantled through acts of recovery, remembering, reconciliation, or more inclusive regimes of colonial knowing. rather, we learn from indigenous feminists that decolonization is necessarily a process of questioning, contemplation, play, and study, specifically, indigenous study. we understand indigenous study as a practice of thinking with, not as a process of overcoming or mastery (especially in an academic field sense), but instead as a process in perpetuity, a process of becoming that is also an unbecoming, always entangled in the shaping and relational violences of imperialism.

i take my cue from these writers in clarifying that my goal is not to argue merely for more inclusive, enfolding, and thereby “more perfect” histories. these anti-Black, anti-indigenous violences cannot be undone, nor can they be redressed through mere inclusion within the fabric of the amerikan nation-state. but you also cannot work toward their redressing if you continue to ignore and erase and disavow them. as long as white leftists aren’t ready or willing to reckon with the ongoing violence of settler-colonialism as such, krz’s final note of “solidarity” is meaningless.

RECOMMENDED READING:

  • Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place and “In History”
  • Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being
  • Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection and“Venus in Two Acts”
  • Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism
  • Manu Vimalassery, Juliana Hu Pegues, and Alyosha Goldstein, “Introduction: On Colonial Unknowing”
  • J Sakai, Settlers
  • Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition

other citations:

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