Kentucky Degree Zero

what characterizes these spaces is that their nature cannot be explained in a simply spatial way. They imply non-localizable relations. These are direct presentations of time—Deleuze, Cinema II.

I’ve recently been replaying the now well-known adventure game Kentucky Route Zero in preparation for the recently-released final act (for those unfamiliar, the various acts of the game’s stories have been released incrimentally since 2013). As always, it’s a strange and wonderful experience: the sound design, visual characteristics and atmosphere are superb and accentuates the action—a fragmented voyage into a surreal and desperate version of nighttime Kentucky—perfectly. For all the oddities and magical realism that make up Kentucky Route Zero, there is something oddly familiar about it all, especially for someone like myself who lives out in the state’s rural boonies. Small towns and roads I’m familiar with make appearances or are referenced: 31 W, Cub Run, Munfordville…

The story of Kentucky Route Zero follows Conway, an aging, ex-alcoholic haunted by memories of the past on his final delivery for an antique shop on the verge of closing down. The destination is a house on the mysterious Dogwood Drive, a location that everybody seems to have heard of but knows little about, and the hunt for place—which requires a journey on ‘Highway Zero’, a mythical pathway that breaks the linearities of space and time—comes to include a TV repairwoman with ghosts of her own, a couple of ‘whisperwave’ musicians with an inclination for nomadism, and a small boy whose friend is a giant eagle. Along the way they encounter massive ineffectual bureaucracies engaged in gentrification projects (the ‘Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces’), a ragged band of literary-minded computer scientists dwelling deep within the recesses of Mammoth Cave, a town that has been relocated, residents and all, into a museum (the ‘Museum of Dwellings’), and a tugboat that makes deliveries up and down an underground river.

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While the game was first released in 2013, the Kickstarted campaign for the project was unveiled in 2011, right when the shadow of the Great Recession was calling forth a particular mode of stagnation consciousnessa terrain that is necessary, in my opinion, for understanding everything that has happened from 2015 onwards. And indeed, the grim reach of economic catastrophe underpins much of Kentucky Route Zero‘s narrative. In the opening act, Conway visits Equus Oil, a gas station in debt to the aptly-named “Consolidated Power Company”. Joseph, the owner-operator of Equus, sends the delivery man to deliver a television set to a woman who is living in—or haunting?—a family farm that has been seized by the bank. There’s a visit to a coal mine, where Kentucky’s long history of indentured servitude to coal companies, is revisited—and the same dynamic is resurrected in modern form through the oppressive business tactics of the Hard Times bourbon company. Elsewhere, entire families flee to depths of a mystical forest to forge out communities in exile.

Everywhere one turns, a sense of despair and loss—real and palpable in this state, not only in its current moment but across its history—confronts the player. Kentucky Route Zero flirts with the ghost story genre in the specific turns of its story, but the grand stage where the action unfolds is one of a broken, splintered society haunted by something that it cannot recognize. The ghost story is generally defined in terms of presence, the encounter with the otherworldy entity (even if it is not confronted head-on)—but here, the ghost and collective memory are the same thing. And while literal ghosts, or perhaps quasi-materialized memories, might appear from time to time in overt form, they are overshadowed by a sense of absence.

In The Shape of Things to Come, Greil Marcus describes how prophecy is intrinsic to American identity, and the stories that it tells about itself. The future promise of the “city on a hill”, a phrase lifted from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount by the John Withrop before his small band of colonists set sail for Boston in 1630, serves as the cornerstone for Marcus’ minor history, and he tracks the motif through the oratory declarations of President Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan. Each time the fabled ‘city on a hill’ comes back again, it is in slightly different form; it gains new characteristics, it becomes projected further into the future or drawn back closer to the present. It comes to shimmer. But what happens when the city fails the materialize—and it always fails to materialize. The absence becomes a question mark hanging over a landscape no longer new and promising, but ancient and alien. This is the absence at the heart of Kentucky Route Zero, which constantly mixes the cliched iconography of the genteel ‘bluegrass state’ with what it had been known as prior to the days of white settlement: a “dark and bloody ground”.

Marcus, too, recognizes this dynamic as the inevitable underside of the prophecy of the city. The utopian promise of America is always matched by its shadow side, and these should not be thought of in strictly oppositional terms. The two run together, sharing a common surface, twisting and turned in an arcane topology. Marcus quotes D.H. Lawrence: “At the bottom of the American soul was always a dark suspense”.

[and Xenogoth, on Lawrence: “Lawrence proclaims to know the American intimately, because he knows that he himself represents what the emigrant European hoped to get away from. In remaining anchored to that point of egress and following the American out into the desert — he spent most of 1922 in New Mexico — he felt he had a perspective on their nation that the New Americans had forgotten. He was the phantom of old consciousness coming back to haunt the frontier, and yet he was also on the frontier of a new European consciousness himself, that has reflected on modernity and transformed itself anew”]

Playing through Kentucky Route Zero, I’m reminded of Marcus’ better known book, The Old, Weird America, which dragged up from the buried past a cast of bizarre characters more fit for myth than reality (and myth they became, through the spectral reflection of their lives in the form of folk music—resurrected literally through Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and then again in Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes). The various character encountered throughout of Kentucky Route Zero—tugboat captains, old dogs wearing straw hats, the lonesome guitar player who refuses money, so on and so forth—aligns perfectly with this tendency, which is itself nothing other than the mist-filled expression of the American unconscious. Or, in the words of Franklin and Penelope Rosemont: “vernacular surrealism”, a surrealism interwoven through the fabric of the everyday.

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At the same time, through the game’s rendering of this surrealist tapestry in a situation of escalating calamity, I’m also reminded of Michael Lesy’s cult classic Wisconsin Death Trip. What Lesy had discovered was that, over the span of years in the late 1800s, a slow-motion apocalypse rolled across Jackson County, Wisconsin. Famine and plague took hold in the midst of an immense economic downturn, and a bizarre whirlwind of madness, murder, suicide, and religious revelation battered the land and its inhabitants. Lesy’s careful excavation came through the examination of newspaper records of the time, which he paired with Charles Van Schaick’s photographs of the people in this same place and time. The frozen black and white images and the historical record form perfect doubles; the photographs are just as strange, if not stranger, that the events themselves. They open a doorway to a completely forgotten America, one unrecognizable to almost all popular memories.

It was filmmaker Todd Haynes, in his 2007 experiment biopic of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, who sensed the deep affinity between what Lesy had dug up and the vernacular surrealism sketched by Greil Marcus. The sections of the film where Richard Gere plays Dylan as a fictional outlaw named Billy McCarty, hiding from the law in the town of Riddle, Missouri, are a tribute to both. Riddle is falling to pieces (an event linked by Gere in a monologue to the ‘end of the world’) in a manner similar Jackson County, Wisconsin. Various elements found in Wisconsin Death Trip—the sorts of clothing worn by the region’s inhabitants, the unsettingly ornate staging of the dead—are recreated by Haynes, but he tips it over into ever weirder territories by drawing on the dream-like environs of Marcus’ ‘Invisible Republic’. Kentucky Route Zero, in many respects, seems like the updating of this encounter from the 1890s to the 2010s.

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What, then, of the titular ‘Route Zero’? The mysterious highway appears as if it moves underground, underneath the web of roads, interstates and by-passes the link every point in Kentucky to every other point. Yet at the same time, it defies this odd-but-easy logic. Circulating through the Zero requires reversals and trips, as its own form is ever-shifting; likewise, in the ‘surface’ world, access to the Zero is constantly mutating. At one point it requires fixing an old television set, and at another, tuning a radio station to a proper channel. In yet another episode, a group of scientists descend to the Zero via a large pit in the middle of a forest. It’s also clear that while Zero has an affinity with the Kentucky’s expansive cave system (as illustrated by the voyage down Echo River, located in real life within Mammoth Cave), the two are not identical.

Route Zero ends up bearing an uncanny resemblance to the treatment of Zero found in Deleuze’s work: Zero is never treated as a void or lack, but the degree zero of intensities, a space of pure potentiality. In The Logic of Sense, it appears as the ‘absolute surface’ (the mingling of sense and non-sense at the level of this surface is, I think, essential to grappling with ‘vernacular surrealism’), while in A Thousand Plateaus it is explicitly linked not only with the Body without Organs, but with the ‘intensive spatium’ described in Difference and Repetition:

A BwO is made in such a way that it can be occupied, populated only by intensities. Only intensities pass and circulate. Still, the BwO is not a scene, a place, or even a support upon which something comes to pass… The BwO causes intensities to pass; it  produces and distributes them in a spatium that is itself intensive, lacking extension. It is not space, nor is it in space; it is matter that occupies space to a given degree—to the degree corresponding to the intensities produced. It is nonstratified, unformed, intense matter, the matrix of intensity, intensity = 0; but there is nothing negative about that zero, there are no negative or opposite intensities. Matter equals energy. Production of the real as starting as an intensive magnitude starting at zero.

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We are told in the early moments of the game that the “‘The Zero’ is not real”—but this shouldn’t be understood as unreal in the strict, colloquial sense of non-existent or fictional. In the world of Kentucky Route Zero, all these polarities or binaries are scrambled up, or in the language of Deleuze, folded into one another. If the Zero is not real, it is because it is what is productive of the ‘real’, enwraps the real, ruptures into the real at every point. In one way, maybe we can understand it as intensive zero of the highway system: in the United States, highways, interstates, and state roads always begin at “1”. In another—yet related—way, it’s the voyage towards Zero itself, the ur-motif of the initiatory journey as involution. 

‘Absolute surface’, ‘spatium’ ‘folding’… Deleuze consistently engages with this matrix through the language of topology. The result is a troubling of the very distinction between the inside and the outside. The inside as the folding of the outside; “The entire content of internal space is topologically in contact with the content of external space”; various things bring the outside into the inside (fabric, for instance), while other things (such as weaving) carry out the inverse. Across the differential manifolds, these all intermix in strange and unexpected ways: it is tempting to think of the smooth space as empty, but it is itself multiplicitious.

The undermining of the hard distinction between the inside and the outside is also central to Kentucky Route Zero. At one point, the player is confronted with the question ‘are we inside or outside’? The possible range of answers includes both:

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During the episode that takes place within Mammoth Cave, the cave system itself is treated as impossibly big, almost a world unto itself (and here the game taps into forgotten Kentucky-based folk mythology like John Uri Lloy’d 1895 novel Etidorhpa). Another episode involves a ‘whisperwave’ concert in a dingy bar (in an obvious homage to the synth-pop soundscapes of the Roadhouse of Twin Peaks) called “The Lower Depths”. The Dante-esque name refers to Maxim Gorky’s novel The Lower Depths, which takes place within “[a] cellar resembling a cave”. Here we’re invited to a mild confusion between the ‘surface world’, with its shops, houses and bars, and the subterranean world—but the folding of surface and depth, inside and outside, becomes more acute over the course of the concert, and the ceiling disappears to reveal the vast expanse of the cosmos, illuminated by stars and the occasional streak of a meteorite.

Media, too, has its own role to play here. In a collapse of dimensions, it appears as if the first time Zero is accessed it is through the screen of an antique television. Later, within the endless caverns of Mammoth Cave, Conway and his friends work through a simulation on a computer known as ‘Xanadu’; the simulation perfectly mirrors ‘reality’ up to the point where it catches-up with ‘real’ time. In a way, maybe, media artifacts themselves can be thought of presenting a troublesome topology that undermines the inside/outside distinction. McLuhan, after all, defined technology as an ‘extension of man’—the inside into the outside—that are capable of rewriting the outer and inner life of the human (even to the point of impacting the central nervous system, in a curious return to Freud).

The media technologies of Kentucky Route Zero take on each of these forms. The whole world of certain characters revolves around fixing and tinkering with media, while some of the most overt hauntings in the course of the story are experienced through the mediation of some particular screen (a television, a security camera, etc). Zero, then, appears tightly wound with media technologies, but as that which is beyond the screen—not the particular content that the dance of electrons represents, but what envelopes the electrons, the representation, the screen itself.

But this is also an interrogation between media technological and historical time. If Kentucky Route Zero is in part a story of the haunting absence of the ‘shining city on the hill’, the ghosts are the expression of what was once anticipated but never came to be (this is reinforced by the fact that many characters are haunted as much by what could have been than what has been lost). The narrative, however, isn’t left dangling in the nihilism of non-history (and it is precisely the crisis of this kind of nihilism, the sudden resurgence of pursuits for alternatives, or at least meaning, that I think emerged in 2011, the same year the game was announced). Route Zero presents itself not an alternative, but as strange new terrain of marginality where discoveries can happen again, alliances can be built, and reflection can be carried out.

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It’s interesting that the archive plays a predominant role in Kentucky Route Zero, especially where media technologies are concerned—email inboxes, the ramshackle filing system of the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, the computer Xanadu and its simulation-space, VHS tape collections, etc. The form of the archive itself is intimately woven together with the question of time; Boris Groys, for example, writes in his book In the Flow that the archive is an attempt to subtract something from the ‘flow of time’ and situate it within ‘eternity’. With the rise of digital archiving—his prime concern is the digitalization of the museum, which takes on a new resonance in the era of coronavirus—it isn’t the object itself that is placed within the eternal, but their aura (in Benjamin’s sense of the word). The aura is pure texture: spectrality, the ghost. “Technology has made us all ghosts”.

Another relationship between the archive and time is outlined by Lloyd Pratt in his study of American literature, Archive of Amerian Time. Central to Lloyd’s theory is that American history—the history of the first wholly modern country—cannot be reduced to a single temporality, but must be understood as the conflicts, tensions, and weaving-together of a multitude of different temporalities that encounter one another in space (spatium?) of the ‘new world’. Here, literature and genre themselves become archives, not necessarily in pursuit of the Groysian eternal per se, but of multiple temporalities that are rapidly vanishing. The dialectical archive:

…nineteenth-century literature amounts to much more than a history of the progress of progress—the history that we can find described in the pages of Bancroft’s writing. It is not ‘‘made in the image of the present.’’ It is an archive and an agent of an unlikely modernity that is and was no less real for having been so. To the extent that this literature can imagine impossible experiences of time while also participating in the self-reflexivity of modernity—to this extent the modernity that this literature describes has in fact already happened.

In Kentucky Route Zero, the archive can be seen in both positions, albeit framed in slightly different registers. In this world of ruins and ghosts the goal of the archivist is the grasp this ungraspable Thing—even to the point of penetrating into the odd surfaces of Zero. But the archive is also constantly undermined. The Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces exists in state of disorder, resulting as much from its own bureaucratic morass as from the parade of compounding ambiguities and coincidences. Xanadu, likewise, reaches its limits in the movement of time itself. The archive expands, but it can never catch up, never insert into its index the real heart of the matter. Because Zero is immense.

2 thoughts on “Kentucky Degree Zero

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