Roland Barthes Reviews Pac-Man.
In the video arcades of Paris’ young quarter, one realizes a contradiction: the rear projection that naturalizes itself with an appearance of frontality—the exposed “full frontal” view that tells us, mistakenly, that we are the voyeurs of the birth of a New France. The Fourth Republic projects an image of the traditional family over the Fifth: Ms. Pac-Man assumes her husband’s phantoms, and Jr. Pac-Man in turn inherits the burden. Jr. Pac-Man is born fractured, his fears and self-doubts already manifest in the apparitions that haunted his parents. One is informed by way of allusion that the holistic identity he seeks is, in fact, a spectre in itself.
Two hierarchies enmesh themselves in the routine of consuming pellets and hunting phantoms, producing a single myth. The first is familial, the patrilineal logic that tells us Pac-Man and his partner, who we know only by her relation to Pac-Man, should bear a son in the image of themselves and in the image of modern France. The sign of Jr. Pac-Man communicates by way of exclusion that the future France will, too, descend from Charlemagne. Our magazines advertise that France abides “three colors, [but] one empire,” while silently assuring the Gaulois bourgeoisie that the face of Pac will be the singular face of the multivalent state.
The second hierarchy is located within the home, where Pac-Man defers his workplace anxieties. The pressure placed upon him to “produce” becomes the pressure for Ms. Pac-Man to bear him a son, to produce the face of the New France. One concludes that Junior, too, will perpetuate the cycle in turn.
Paradoxically, every level is presented as the only level: the only level that was, and the only level that will be. None acknowledges the previous or the next, masking the linearity of the narrative. Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man tell us that there is no escaping: they make a run for the left, and reemerge, miraculously, at the right hand side of the screen. Jr. Pac-Man promises a new type of mobility, allowing us to move back and forth between screens, and yet he will reach a boundary, too.
The irony reveals itself: the phantoms, no matter how often they are captured, will reemerge, but our Pac-Man will inevitably expire.
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