Avalon: illusions of the higher order


You might say that Avalon is about addiction to MMO games which forces people to get lost in virtual reality because they are dissatisfied with their lives, and there is no principal difference between the perception of reality and illusion. But author's name (Mamoru Oshii) tells us that the movie should be a little bit deeper, and it indeed is. The guide to its depths is the legend of Avalon, a mysterious island where king Arthur had found his final resting place. It leads us through the chain of illusions which goes beyond the virtual reality and touches themes of some fatal flaws of certain social orders along with the place of art in them. But let's look at the virtual reality first.

The story: Ash is a pro-gamer in the illegal military MMO game called "Avalon". The game is created by a group of mysterious programmers named "The Nine Sisters" after the nine sisters of the legendary Avalon. Ash also is a former member of the player party called "Wizard" (this name may be a reference to Merlin). Wizard was disbanded because its leader - Murphy has secretly escaped to the hidden level inside Avalon which is called "Class Real". In his real world (let's call it "Class Grey") he has become an "unreturned", an unconscious patient who needs constant medical care. Ash had become a solo player since then, but she runs into a yet another former party member and learns that she may get into Class Real by hunting down a ghost, ghosts are considered as bugs in the program. A ghost appears when a game mission is completed by a party which includes a level-12 bishop-class player. She is lucky because such a bishop is looking for upper-class players to offer them to join Avalon's inner circle - a group of skilled players who control missions and fine tune game mechanics. Ash forms a party with the bishop and successfully gets into Class Real where she eventually finds Murphy. Just after the arrival, the bishop says that the only way to get out of there is to kill an another unreturned, after that she will be able to become a member of the inner circle. Ash successfully accomplishes the mission by killing Murphy, who is frustrated by the illusion, thinks that Class Real is the true real world and wants to convince Ash in this. Being an addict who is not interested in reality, at the end she returns back to Avalon. Avalon became her whole life.

The unreturned - a sarcastic depiction of MMO-addicts which, however, shows that addiction to Avalon is a real social disaster.
It's easily possible to understand Murphy, because the world of Avalon is a damn frustrating place. It's absolutely not possible to say which reality is true there, and the following three interpretations of this world are equally valid (some other interpretations also might be legal):

 

The interpretation a) implies that all we see is a part of some computer-simulated social experiment, and there is only virtual reality; the variant b) implies that Murphy is right and Class Grey is a simulated reality (it uses the same coloring scheme as the Avalon itself); the variant c) implies that Avalon somehow allows to travel between the worldlines of a hypothetical multiverse, and the coloring of Class Grey is just an artistic device needed to deepen the atmosphere of depression. It's not important which interpretation is correct, the only important fact is that the nine sisters are somehow have influence on every world, including Avalon.

 
Although glowing persons in white robes are not uncommon in hospitals, it seems that the girl besides the lift has the same appearance as the ghost. The later incident with Ash's dog shows that this is more than a mere coincidence, and the nine sisters are the residents of all the worlds shown in Avalon. The ghosts may be their avatars.
A couple of great hints on the Avalon's world is contained in the foreword shown in the Avalon sequel [a sort of, it tells about the another MMO game - Avalon(f)]. It seems that this foreword was the whole point of that movie, and Oshii has specially made it to provide hints on Avalon. According to it, the society we see in Class Grey may has tried to solve the problem of the constant growth inherent to the collapsing free-market economy by diminishing the production of material goods down to the "medieval" level. This should imply a sacrifice of freedom and relative prosperity for the relative social justice and longevity. Thus, this should be a "rational" society which produces only the essential goods and does not waste resources to fancy packing or advertisements. It also seems rational to save valuable resources that are wasted by different vendors which develop and produce different kinds of the same thing separately. But because this deprives this social model of the competition, people satisfy their ambitions in a virtual world by participating in illegal military MMO games.

There are computers without cases, no portraits of Marx on the walls or fancy labels on the bottles of water sold in the diner. A rational society should definitely produce things like these, isn't it?
But something wrong with this society. It seems, that there is a deficit of food and also a rude cook who sells fresh food from under the counter for extra cash. This must be indeed a socialist society.

The deficit and presence of a rude black-marketer cook are the sure signs that you are dealing with a socialist society.
There were some in-depth analysts of socialism besides the founders of Austrian Economic School, whose criticism may be generally expressed in the following points:
  • The top-bottom large-scale planning is ineffective because it does not take sensitive local (bottom-level) circumstances into the account as the free market does, so the resources are used not rationally as the result.
  • There are no real market prices and no easy way to investigate supply and demand, this makes the correct economical calculations impossible.
  • An employee has a little choice in the field of activity and salary in a state-directed economy.
  • Socialist society often results in totalitarianism to keep people under the plan and the corresponding economical regime.
  • Equalisation and state-owned property in socialism impedes the competition and division of labor making the economy inefficient.
So, we see that practical radical socialism does not look like a rational social order at all, but does this mean that a social order which utilizes the free market will eventually result in a rational society?

A proponent of the free market would say that this is the most rational and efficient system ever possible, but the truth is that nothing implies that it should be rational. The free market just utilizes economic equilibrium which is equivalent to the minimum energy state that any unconstrained system would naturally seek for. Opponents of the free market believe that this may lure the system into the traps which it could not avoid by itself. This means that an "energy supply" (for example, in the form of governmental intervention) would be necessary to put the system into any other state or to help it to avoid a trap. The question is, are there any such non-totalitarian configurations in which the system will remain relatively stable, but at the same time the impact of the free-market issues would be reduced for some reasonable price? The proponents of mixed economy believe that there are, but the advocates of the free market say that government just creates bubbles of imbalance between the available resources and money supply by intervening in the economy.

The practical free market is a not completely rational system which has its own well known problems, such as monopolies or broad social inequality which socialists tried to fight by force. But there are also some utilitarian problems which we may see on the streets of Class Real: the aggressive marketing and uncontrolled impact on the environment.

Traffic jams and freaky advertisements of poisons are sure signs that you are dealing with a capitalist society.
The aggressive marketing which eventually results in consumerism may be regarded as a form of induced illusion which associates the idea of happiness or status with some products and makes you to believe that you're buying not the product itself but the associated happiness or status. This illusion, which would make envious even Morgan le Fay, allows to sell things (such as poisons) that people initially don't need. The constant race for the profit results then in low-quality goods which are intentionally made fragile to maximize their overall circulation. This, in turn, may produce a huge irreversible impact on the environment, such as the depletion of resources. The free market sacrifices environment and rationality for freedom and relative prosperity.
Although these are the common points in criticism of the free market, if you ask a proponent of it about how she intends to solve the problems which may lead the system to a collapse, she will fiercely call you a socialist and say that you should be happy with all this. Even more, she may even throw a chair at you. This psychical phenomenon is caused by the lack of humanity's experience in harsh global ecological disasters along with the habit of the free-market advocates to denounce as a leftist anyone who points at the flaws of capitalism. Because everyone is interested in growth, and the analysis of the data from ecological surveys is still a very controversial matter, humanity tends to act as if it produced a sustainable impact on the environment, believing that this situation will last forever. But in the long term, this may be not true if the growth will continue.

In addition to themes of the flaws of practical social orders, Oshii also puts emphasis on the place of art in them.

The posters of Avalon. In Class Grey this is a call to stop the social disaster caused by the game, but the only way to achieve this is to eradicate its cause - the lack of competition in the society. In the Class Real this is a poster of the opera concert where Ash's dog is starring. Although it looks a little bit strange, it's not a problem for a bunch of wealthy hackers to organize a concert for their own needs, using such a strange poster as a special sign for Ash. And no one will give a fuck.
If we consider art as a yet another form of illusion, it seems, that Oshii tries to tell us which kind of illusions a given social order will tend to produce. It's possible to summarize this in the following way:


Does all this mean that a "rational" society will produce addictive illusions to compensate the lack of competition and entertainment, and a "liberal" society will support reflective illusions to fight another illusions created by the competition on the free market and by entertainment? Maybe Oshii just wants to tell us that there are another ways to deal with consumerism (along with other illusions) rather than the creation of a rational society, and art is the one of this ways? May this mean that the attitude to art in a given social order may be a measure of changes in the overall social value system? Or our game with the symmetry of the ideas about illusions we find in the movie and their connection through the legend of Avalon is too far-fetched? The author definitely intended to say us something on that topic, although it's unclear what exactly.

While the rational society withdraws illusions from the real world, the liberal society induces them.
 All the information on the legend of Avalon is withdrawn from the Class Grey as well.

The both types of entertainment: the MMO game and the opera are connected through the legend of Avalon. In contrast with the trams above, while the illegal game induces illusions, the art reflects on them.

In Class Grey the most of the objects of art are broken, since a rational society would not fund such insubstantial matters under the severe resource constraints. There are more broken sculptures in Class Grey and Avalon.

As it was noticed by Murphy, the silver streak which gave Ash her nickname is absent in Class Real. This means, that Class Real may be something more than a hidden level in a MMO game.
But our Ash can only be happy within the virtual reality. In a contrast, Murphy considers his native world a nightmare and is happy in a consumerist society [no wonder], although in his world such a society has collapsed into some form of radical socialism. Do you feel the deconstruction now? Ash may be a more prescient person who considers Avalon as a refuge which is not affected by the oscillations between the forms of the real social orders, despite the fact that Avalon does not solve any social problems in the real world and introduces additional ones, such as addiction and shadow economy.

It turns out, that people use art in intricate ways to compensate some flaws of their social systems, not always successfully though. But is a reasonably rational social order principally possible? Or may it be that our society is doomed to oscillate between the ideas of social prosperity and social justice (driven by the flaws of the both) until the depleted environment extinguish these fluctuations?
The one thing is surely certain: in order to build a reasonably rational and open society which exists in balance with environment, on average, we would have to sacrifice more than we sacrifice in any other social system. And because the more you have, the harder it is to sacrifice, in the modern society the transition to such social system is hardly possible without a collapse, after which anyone would have nothing to lose or sacrifice at all.

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