Content Warnings and Censorship: What is the duty of the artist?

The recent acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk has led to a centering of several interrelated discourses regarding online speech and social media. Many of these conversations have to do with the intersection of free expression and community safety. Now in part this is because Musk, prior to and during his court-enforced acquisition of Twitter, talked a lot about how his motivation for acquiring the social media platform was to foster freer speech on Twitter. This largely seems to have been taken as a rallying cry for right-wing voices who ran afoul of Twitter’s hate-speech moderation policies to return to the site although, in the chaos following Musk’s acquisition, it appears that many of the reactivated right-wingers were promptly banned again as many of these content moderation policies remained in place after the start of Musk’s chaotic tenure.

However this brings in a second thread. Because the period of Musk’s onboarding has been incredibly chaotic: marked by mass firings and haphazard policy decisions that seem to have been cooked up on the fly by the incoming owner. In all this chaos many users have looked to alternatives and one stood out as appearing, on the surface, close enough to Twitter to attract attention: Mastodon. Now, of course, many of these similarities are skin-deep. There are massive structural differences in that nearly anyone can host a Mastodon instance and nearly anyone can register on a Mastodon instance and communicate with others on that instance.

However the biggest social grouping within Mastodon is the Fediverse: a series of interconnected (federated) Mastodon instances that allow cross-communication and that agree to certain shared content moderation standards. The Fediverse, as with most large social websites, has a highly distinct culture and one element of Fediverse culture is widespread use of content tagging. And when I say widespread I mean it’s considered, within the Fediverse, good form to provide brief descriptive content warnings for a vast panoply of potential media from things you might expect (such as discussions of sexual assault and suicide) to those that might, on the surface, seem more benign (such as food photos).

This is largely an emergent property of a system that was an early adopter of content warning tagging and a culture very interested in users being able to customize their social media experience. The culture of Mastodon does not view content warnings merely as a tool to alert users to material that might cause a trauma response but also simply as a tool to allow users to opt into what sorts of things they see and engage with as opposed to Twitter’s more opt-out system of blocking and muting. Many Twitter users accessed Mastodon only to be confronted with a wall of (TW: Food), (TW: Nudity), (TW: specific-type-of-body), etc. and found this disconcerting to say the least. And many Twitter users have reported back to complain about this cultural difference on Twitter where this discussion of content warnings has found ample attention within the writing community.

Within this community there has been a recent flurry of discussion regarding whether authors have a duty to provide explicit content tagging in their books. The opposing views here on one hand are that this will allow readers to make informed decisions about the sort of material they read, allowing them to avoid books that engage with subjects that are likely to retraumatize them. On the other hand some people, including myself, have been quick to point out that content warnings may be fine as a voluntary provision but should not become an industry standard, citing examples such as film rating systems and parental advisory warnings on music as having had a significant censorious impact that was particularly born by marginalized artists including people of colour and LGBTQ+ artists. A third group largely consists of racists who want to be able to say slurs online but we can disregard them from this conversation because, frankly, neither side of the argument I care about here has anything good to say about those sorts of people. However this discussion ends up at something of an impasse when one assumes both that content warnings serve a purpose for protecting readers who have experienced trauma and that standardization of content tagging will lead to censorship.

As such, in order for this conversation to progress it behooves us to ask a few questions.

  1. Do content warnings have a positive impact on the reading experience of traumatized readers?
  2. Do content warnings lead to censorship?
  3. Do artists have a moral duty to furnish content warnings?
  4. Can artists meaningfully create effective content warnings that can serve traumatized readers?
  5. Are content warnings really for traumatized readers at all or do they serve some other function?

Now before we dig into these five questions there’s a few questions that will not be entertained. These include whether freedom of speech, as an abstract principle, is more important than the safety and access of any marginalized group and whether it is morally permissible for authors or classroom instructors to voluntarily disclose content that they deem might give their audience problems. Frankly there is nothing wrong with a teacher, upon assigning Lord of the Flies to schoolchildren, telling the schoolchildren that certain material is contained within the book. In fact it is somewhat critical to do so in order that the children can be made alert to this content and how it communicates the themes of the book. In other words disclosure of content is positive in a classroom setting because it allows for anticipation of content and attention to content rather than because it allows for avoidance. A student who is studying a text should anticipate material in it so that they can learn how to identify components of the text that might not be as obvious as the plot.

And as for authors: if an author wants to disclose this sort of material voluntarily, as the academic research we will review later supports quite clearly, this isn’t likely to be overly harmful to anyone and may be helpful to the author in marketing. I think it’s important to set these limits up front because while this discussion will explore some discursively fraught questions it will not at any point be saying that authors must not include content warnings nor that instructors should not disclose information about a fraught text to their class.

But what I will be doing here is ultimately asking the question of what content warnings do and who they serve.

And a good place to start that is in the academic literature on content warnings. Now I will start by referring to a paper from within the class of research called meta-analysis. Meta-analyses are a form of research paper common in medicine and social science: fields of research that are both highly dependent on statistical analysis of data to make conclusions and that also suffer from systemic limitations on sample size and composition. These papers will do a survey of extant research on a topic and will seek out recurring methodologies, themes and limitations. Having established, using these points, that disparate studies are exploring the same topic they will then conduct a statistical analysis of the results of findings across studies to ascertain the replicability of findings. The study I will be working with most here is, “A Meta-Analysis of the Efficacy of Trigger Warnings, Content Warnings, and Content Notes” by Bridgeland, Jones and Bellet.

Now the first thing I want to do is to focus on their discussion of limitations because Bridgeland et. al. raise a very important point here that we will be returning to. “Although the current study provides evidence that trigger warnings are broadly inert as applied writ large, it does not provide information on whether trigger warnings have differing effects in specific subpopulations or contexts.” This is because, due to both reasons of access and ethics, most studies of trigger warnings do not consist of people who have experienced traumatic events nor of people suffering from PTSD. Instead they mostly draw from a general population. This makes the findings of the majority of academic work on the topic inapplicable to our first question. Do content warnings have a positive impact on the reading experience of traumatized readers? Honestly, according to this analysis we don’t really have strong evidence one way or the other.

However what we can say is that content warnings do almost nothing one way or the other to people who don’t have mental health needs surrounding trauma. In fact Bridgeland et. al. found only one measurable category in which content warnings did anything statistically significant at all: “trigger warnings appear to reliably increase anticipatory anxiety about upcoming content. This finding is supported by both subjective (e.g., rating scales) and objective (e.g., psychophysiological measures) markers of distress. Moreover, this finding appears to be consistent across the different trigger warning types used across studies, attesting to the robustness of this effect.

In theory, this anticipatory period could indicate that forewarned individuals are bracing themselves for a negative emotional experience. However, as discussed in the section on response affect, whatever bracing might occur during this anticipatory period is apparently completely ineffective.”

Of particular note here are the psychophysiological measures used for anticipatory anxiety: heart rate, respiratory rate and skin conductance. These measures were used in only one study and represent the most statistically significant variance from the general support of the null hypothesis found in almost all studies.

But those of us who engage with horror media know about this sort of anticipatory anxiety all too well. It pretty closely maps to the tension one might feel during a stalking scene or some other moment of peril before a horrific event occurs. It’s something horror artists actively court, building mood in order to entice the audience to become anxious and it’s an affect the audience of horror generally seeks out. People who don’t like being scared don’t generally like horror.

But what this does, when read in light of Bridgeland et. al. comments on the limitations of these studies, is point to the fact that we cannot do a straightforward read of, ‘content warnings increase anxiety and therefore are bad,’ because what they do is give non-traumatized audiences a taste of the forbidden pleasures to come. Far from being a tool for avoidance, “cw:incest” allows a reader to anticipate that they will be reading a book that contains incest and it’s worth noting that this anxiety could actually sweeten the reading experience for them in much the same way that a horror fan enjoys a kill better when it’s been built up properly (I’m thinking of the perfectly executed build-up to the kill of Wes Hicks in Scream (2022) as an example.)

So this now points us not toward an answer to our first question but rather to our fifth. Are content warnings really for traumatized readers? Certainly they aren’t just for traumatized readers although the advocates of them rarely seem interested in pitching them as a tool for marketing and discovery it does appear that, when not engaging with a traumatized audience but rather with a general audience, that this is just about the only thing content warnings do at all.

But if we want to look at the impact on traumatized readers in particular we have to turn our attention to a different study. “Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals with Trauma Histories,” by Jones, Bellet and McNally is one of a very small number of studies that actually looks at the effect of content warnings specifically on traumatized populations. Now again we should start with limitations here as it’s very important, when working with academic research, to be alert to the scope of the research. In this case the principal limitation is a methodological weakness of depending on self-report for all participants. While steps were taken to ensure subjects had experienced trauma there does not appear to be much the authors could have done to prevent a person from providing misleading information regarding their past experiences. However a clinical study, which might have validated the trauma experience of subjects more cleanly, would certainly not have been able to achieve the sample size of n=600 that this paper managed.

Further limitations, however, included a dependence on English fluency and a requirement for US residency that should not be overlooked as challenges to replicability. However, at the end of the day, the paper came to conclusions that very closely mirrored Bridgeland et. al. saying, “For individuals who met a clinical cutoff for severity of PTSD symptoms, trigger warnings slightly increased anxiety. Trigger warnings were not helpful for individuals who self-reported a diagnosis of PTSD. Perhaps most convincingly, trigger warnings were not helpful even when they warned about content that closely matched survivors’ traumas. That is, when considering only the passages which participants reported as reminding them of past trauma, trigger warnings were still unhelpful.”

Perhaps more damning still was the confirmation of the information Bridgeland et. al. had found regarding anticipatory anxiety, saying, “We found evidence that trigger warnings increase the narrative centrality of trauma among survivors, which is countertherapeutic (Boals & Murrell, 2016). We also found that trigger warnings increase anxiety for those with more severe symptoms of PTSD. Although these effects were preregistered and found in a large sample, the size of the effects were small and have not yet been rigorously tested across multiple studies.” Now the authors are quite right to point out that this impact was small and that replication is required so I think it would be hasty to say that content warnings are actively harmful to people who meet the clinical cutoff for PTSD (among people who do not meet that requirement the null hypothesis was observed).

And so we can now answer the question of whether content warnings have a positive impact on the reading experience of traumatized people – they don’t. According to the best research available, for most people who have undergone trauma, content warnings do nothing much at all. For those people whose suffering is particularly severe there is even a small risk a content warning might harm more than it helps. We can also say with certainty that authors cannot meaningfully create content warnings that will serve a traumatized audience because the reality is that, to the extent content warnings serve anyone at all, they serve non-traumatized audiences and authors best via their use as a discovery tool and for the deliberate assumption of anxious affects in the course of engaging with material that touches on taboo subjects.

But all this talk of null hypothesis means this does become a question of personal taste and courtesy. You can be assured that you won’t much hurt a person by omitting a content warning but courtesy certainly goes beyond avoidance of explicit harm. It doesn’t harm someone to eschew “please” and “thank you” but if you never use either phrase people still might rightly call you an asshole.

This is where our second and third questions are still relevant. Having established that content warnings have nearly no clinical impact on traumatized populations our next question is whether content warnings might in fact be harmful to marginalized audiences. For this we might want to visit the advent of the parental advisory label on music.

The response from the record industry has been that it, much like content warnings, had very little impact at all. It was useful as a marketing tool both for albums with it and albums without. For example, manager Danny Goldberg pointed out that while the sticker did allow stores like WalMart to brand themselves as “family-friendly” by declining to sell any album with a PA label most children had very little difficulty acquiring material that was marked as parental advisory. Overall the stickers didn’t much effect record sales one way or the other.

This was less the case in film where the Hays Code and subsequent film and television ratings systems inordinately targeted queer narratives, largely driving LGBTQ+ artists and themes out of cinema. Now books are not movies nor are they records. But in both cases we see how ratings and advisory systems have been deployed as a method of exclusion. Unsuccessfully in the case of music, where the exclusion of “PA” content by WalMart was countered by the willingness of record stores to sell “PA” material and successfully in the case of cinema where the ratings system created a series of economic incentives for self-censorship. As such those people who have concerns about systematic industry standards in content reporting leading to censorship have a point. While the attempts to censor material based on industry-set content warnings has been haphazard and has certainly not been universally successful the use of industry standard content warnings has, in other artwork, been used to censor that art.

This then finally establishes the full framework for commenting on an author’s moral responsibility. Content warnings are useless for traumatized people to manage trauma reactions but useful as a discovery tool among general populations. They may lead to censorship but it’s not clear the extent to which such censorship would be effective. Certainly there has been a lot of proactive attention from reactionaries on book censorship of late and giving these reactionaries extra tools with which to discover books to ban would be counter-indicated. But the advocates of content warnings like to point out a key outlier circumstance as a justification for the moral argument: the deployment of sexual assault in fiction. Now they’ve certainly got a point that if some inconsiderate person runs around shouting “rape” we would consider that rude, immoral, and alarming behaviour. And we cannot just handwave away every deployment of sexual assault in fiction as being beyond reproach. There are boundless examples of rapes that were included to titillate and, even among those works with something critical to say about sexual assault, there’s no guarantee that these themes will be approached well by the author. If I had a nickel for every book or movie that tried to deconstruct some concept only to reify it out of incompetence I’d be a wealthy man.

Giving people a heads-up about this might, then, be a gesture of common courtesy. And that would suggest it is, at least, the polite thing to do to provide content warnings for this (along with other broadly questionable content). Except we need to recontextualize this call for courtesy in light of some of the academic findings about content warnings. Specifically: there is no indication that people who read a content warning are any more likely to avoid that content but again we need to bring up that increase in anticipatory anxiety. We cannot count on people to use this courtesy to decide to read something else. Academic research suggests they probably won’t – at least in aggregate – but we can count on people to get excited by it. Their heart rates rise, they breathe faster. This then raises an opposite question: is an author morally responsible to tell people that their kinks are in a book? I mean it’s a bit of a silly question, isn’t it, because if I’m an author writing kink I want an audience who want to read kink to find it. But is that a moral imperative or is it just good marketing? Any regular reader of this blog will be aware that I’m quite apprehensive about assigning moral imperatives to art. The aestheticization of morality is a dangerous tool and a favourite one of reactionaries. People generally have a hard time separating out, “this is beautiful” from “this is good.” It’s quite easy to look at the deployment of something in a work of art, such as a sex assault, and say, “wow that was ugly and no good.” But ugly is not the same as evil and I think it’s important for critics and artists, especially, to learn to differentiate between an ugly work of poorly executed art (like a Dresden Files novel) from an evil work of propaganda (like the Turner Diaries).

Bring libido into the picture and it becomes even more of a landmine. Because once you go from “this is beautiful” to “this excites me” moral questions immediately become far more tangled. After all, who doesn’t likely feel shame about their own arousal in some form? This is especially so if we’re dealing with darker erotic themes. While I can certainly understand that some readers might prefer not to interrogate that it seems unlikely that content warnings will actually help them with that.

In the end I think part of the problem is one of form. The advocates for content warnings want short, broad, concise tags at the front of a book. This is excellent for marketing and discovery because it’s very algorithm friendly. I would propose a more graceful method is to actually use back-flap space to describe what a book is about rather than reserving it for blurbs. I don’t think anybody benefits from reading The Story of the Eye without understanding what they’re in for ahead of time. But I think that a clinical, “CW: Masturbation, Rape, Dubious Consent, Violent Orgies, Necrophilia,” doesn’t particularly do justice to the affect being pursued. Context matters and should be communicated in such a discussion. But an exploration of the context being one about Bataille grappling with the interplay of sex and death in European thought, expanding upon the legacy of Sade (of whom he was a principal scholar) and raising questions of limit experiences and madness isn’t going to give you that easy-to-search list of tags they prefer.

But what it does is improve discoverability. Ultimately there’s no sincere debate about whether it should be possible to find out what a book is about. The question is one of form: should this look like a voluntary and often community-driven process of resource sharing or should it be a system of brief and concise tags an author is supposed to put on their book.

Certainly tags share a few benefits: They’re good for marketers and for censors for precisely the same reason – they make it easy to find content you’re looking for. But this is where the benefit ends. The preference for context-driven back-cover notes and third-party disclosure (such as instructors discussing challenging material prior to reading in class and community driven efforts to surface potentially upsetting content) is less friendly to marketing efforts and raises the risk that things might be missed but it does provide the necessary context to identify the difference between a work that deploys charged material for libidinal reasons from those that do the same for critical reasons – something tagging systems are necessarily mute on.

And so, here at the end, we have our answers:

  1. Content warnings have nearly no impact on traumatized readers.
  2. Content warnings may or may not lead to censorship but do lead to increased discoverability which is a useful tool both for marketers and censors.
  3. Artists do not have a moral duty to make work more discoverable. But if they want to find an audience to sell their work to it’s probably not a bad idea. Furthermore it’s good from a critical readership perspective that context concerning the content of a work be known prior to reading so that a reader may be alert to it.
  4. Because content warnings do not meaningfully serve traumatized readers artists cannot meaningfully create content warnings that serve traumatized readers.
  5. Content warnings appear to increase anticipatory anxiety but not avoidance among non-traumatized populations, making them effective for getting a person excited for upcoming material. This, combined with the concise and tag-like method preferred by advocates make them excellent marketing and discovery tools.

So in the end who do content warnings really serve? The people who want to read that content and the writers who want to sell it.

See you in December

I’m writing a lot this month but it’s all fiction. That’s right – I’m doing NaNoWriMo again this year. As of the time of writing I’m at 5,035 words in-month and it’s day 4. Anyway the blog is on hiatus until the end of the month so I can concentrate on the novel manuscript. With that said I do have two articles out in the world that might come out soon so keep your eyes peeled. Other than that see you in December where I’m planning to put up my review of Ken Liu‘s bulging theory-fiction fantasy novel The Wall of Storms and a piece on Stranger Things, D&D and ludo-narrative.

Revisiting the House of the Dragon

At the start of the season I reviewed the first episode of House of the Dragon. At the time I anticipated a story that explored dynasticism, social change and the process of historicization.

This proved to be mostly accurate. Certainly the ten-episode season fixated on the question of dynasty and on what constituted a family. Lord Corlys’ insistence that history books remember names rather than blood opened a fascinating dialectic regarding the nature of bastardry. While Rhaenyra’s two eldest sons certainly didn’t look like their father – a gay man who the show informs us tried and failed to sire legitimate children for his wife – the acceptance of their grandfather prioritizes historical record as being the principal significance of the dynasty. It won’t matter, after all this is over, what his heirs looked like, only that they carried his name and that they did these deeds.

Ultimately Corlys ends up being the carrier of the principal discourse concerning the nature of dynastism and how an orientation toward dynastic goals might impact one’s political decisions. His willingness to bite back slights to blood – such as Daemon’s beautifully gory decapitation of his brother for treason – in order to preserve the historical position of his house ends up saying far more about what a dynasty is about, as a political unit, than Viserys’ constant ruminations on prophetic dreams and the significance of heirs. But there was another key theme regarding power that was established in the first episode of this series and that I entirely missed: the question of what power does to the body.

Of course we can see this most obviously in two key examples: the physical decomposition of Viserys throughout the season and the multitudinous deaths that occur as a result of pregnancy.

Let’s start with Viserys as his example is perhaps the least-subtle. Our good-man king is uneasy on the iron throne. The barbs and blades of it cut him and these cuts become infected. As the show progresses and the child-characters of Rhaenyra and Alicent age into their adult performances Daemon, Corlys and most of the initially adult cast remain basically the same. But not so for Viserys as Paddy Constantine becomes increasingly smothered in makeup and special effects depicting the steady disintegration of a man. We can only see this as being quite explicitly the physical toll of power. It is the throne that does this to him and yet he sits upon it. By the time Viserys spends the last of his life desperately attempting to persuade Rhaenyra and Alicent to bury the hatchet despite the worm-tongued whispering of Otto Hightower and the impulsive violence of his brother and son-in-law Daemon he’s already half a corpse, barely able to walk, missing digits, missing an eye.

The loss of an eye is something of an obsession of this text. Not only does Viserys display the terminal signs of decay via a skull-like orbital cavity but also the eye is the price Aemond pays for power. He loses his own eye immediately after he claims Vhagar: the largest of the dragons. In the finale, Aemond’s desire to make Lucerys pay for this with an eye of his own precipitates the manslaughter of Rhaenyra’s son and becomes the first blow in the war which will occupy the future seasons of this show. Lucerys demurs to lose an eye and is barred from power.

It would be easy to treat this as an Odinic metaphor – Viserys loses an eye to sip from Mimr’s well – but this doesn’t fit comfortably as Aemond has no particular wisdom. Rather, Aemond represents nearly the opposite: vast power with all the restraint one would expect of a violently disfigured adolescent. Instead it is an indicator of the toll power takes upon the body.

This idea of power as something physical that eats up its carriers is bound together with the dynastic discourse via the wages of birthing heirs. Of course the death of Aemma was a principal focus of my review of the first episode. But this is echoed across the season. First we see it through the death-in-childbirth of Laena Velaryon. Laena finds herself in the same position as Aemma however, unlike Aemma, Laena takes agency over the matter of her death. Aware that Daemon will be faced with the same decision as his brother – to kill the wife to possibly save the child or to watch both die – she chooses to die, commanding Vhagar (who was her dragon at that time) to immolate her. In this case two sources of power: the power to bring about life and the power to destroy it both take a toll on her body and leave her nothing but ash. Finally, in the last episode of the season we have a third horrific childbirth as Rhaenyra’s discovery of her father’s death and Alicent’s treason seems to precipitate a miscarriage of her fifth child. She survives and, in a truly horrific scene, pulls the still-born baby from her own womb with her own hands, refusing to let the doctors or maids assist her. All the time she is undergoing labour she commands her sons to prevent anyone making decisions in her absence. The childbirth scene then becomes a reflection of Rhaenyra’s willingness to accept the physical toll of power. In this case those powers of life and death at play in the death of Laena are inverted – still-birth and an ascension into a position of command.

But of course all this inter-tangling of childbirth into a discourse around legitimacy (as Otto is quick to point out legitimacy is largely a symbolic affair), dynastism and the position of blood cannot help but touch on the elephant in the room – the incestuous relationship between Daemon and Rhaenyra. Certainly there is plenty to chew on here about blood and its relationship to power in how Daemon slowly seduces Rhaenyra over the years, eventually plotting with her and her husband to fake the latter’s death in order to clear the path for him to wed his niece after the death of Laena. On the topic of incest Freud quotes Frazer, saying, “the law only forbids men to do what their instincts incline them to do; . . . Instead of assuming, therefore, from the legal prohibition of incest that there is a natural aversion to incest, we ought rather to assume that there is a natural instinct in favor of it.” Thus a straight Freudian reading might argue that the incestuous marriage is another method of showing power: Daemon and Rhaenyra can choose to overcome law with their power and thus achieve something desired.

But Deleuze and Guattari are skeptical of this Freudian reading of incest, saying, “By placing the distorting mirror of incest before desire (that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?), desire is shamed, stupefied, it is placed in a situation without exit, it is easily persuaded to deny “itself” in the name of the more important interests of civilization (what if everyone did the same, what if everyone married his mother or kept his sister for himself? there would no longer be any differentiation, any exchanges possible).” This sarcastic response to the Freudian read of incest and the right of kings leads them to say, “Although we can see social production’s interest in such an operation, it is less clear what makes this operation possible from the point of view of desiring-production itself.” In other words: what does it matter to the formation of the self whether a desired object is a mother, a sister, a niece, an uncle?

They relate the incest prohibition (via the work of Clastres) to prohibitions among the Guanyaki people against a hunter eating his own kill. This circulation of spouses then becomes a pro-social act that helps to distribute power and keep its twin, desire, flowing. In this case the issue with incest that leads to its inscription as a taboo becomes not one of power over law but rather of selfishness over pro-sociality and as one online commenter pointed out House of the Dragon is a show about incredibly selfish people – “as if each of the Kardashians had a nuclear-capable F-22.” So perhaps we can treat Daemon and Rhaenyra’s romance as being an indicator of the same sort of selfishness that might lead a person to drive a continent into a war that Rhaenyra says would create a kingdom of fire and ash over the grief of two dead children.

But even this doesn’t quite cut to the heart of it. Turning again to Deleuze and Guattari, later discussing the work of Claude Levi-Strauss they say, talking specifically of the distinction between mother-son incest on one hand and uncle-niece incest on the other, “the mixing of the generations in the son-mother case has the same effect as their correspondence in the case of the uncle-sister, that is, it testifies to one and the same intensive germinal filiation that must be repressed in both cases. In short, a somatic system in extension can constitute itself only insofar as the filiations become extended, correlatively to lateral alliances that become established.”

This then situates the incest prohibition again in the position of power. Why is incest prohibited? Because it closes the door to political marriage. And boy howdy but there’s a lot of political marriage in this story. Both of Daemon’s first two marriages and Rhaenyra’s first marriage are purely political. The same can be said of Alicent’s marriage to Viserys and of every other marriage barring that of Rhaenyra to Daemon. In all these cases marriage exists to spread the net of power, to secure advantage, to maneuver through the process of alliance. These children become markers of alliances as clear as the green and black clothes of the two factions. What this says, then, of Daemon and Rhaenyra is that their political marriages have accomplished the extent of what they believe they can do. Principally this has been to entangle the Velaryon into the Blacks. We have seen, from Corlys already, that for many of the characters in this show names mean far more than blood and they have tied the name of Velaryon ever tighter via their inter-marriage. This then situates the Hightowers as having played a different game, insinuating Alicent into a marriage to achieve power but then spreading the children and grandchildren that arose from this family among many families in order to achieve more power, more influence.

Otto Hightower believes that power is a matter of symbols and trappings – a crown, a sword, the cheers of the masses, and of marriages. But Rhaenyra and Daeamon know that power is something else: the ability to give and take life. The birthing bed and the fire of the dragon. Having secured all of that power they thought they needed why not let their taboo desires flow?

The Polymorphous Perversity of Hellraiser (2022)

One of the chief thematic touchpoints of the fifth Scream film, released this year under the title Scream, is the concept of the requel.

This is a format of horror cinema that exists between the reboot and the sequel. According to the film-buff victims and killers of Scream this generally involves a handoff between legacy characters and a new generation, an exploration of the life-long impact of traumatic events on the protagonists and, in general, a contention with the consequences of horrific circumstances.

Key examples of the requel that have arisen recently include the 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Halloween / Kills / Ends trilogy. However there is an element of the requel that Scream somewhat elided and, in exploring how Hellraiser fits into its respective series, it’s an important one: the requel often is an admission of the diminishing quality of sequels. I mean I think nobody needs persuasion that Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers wasn’t a good movie and while I have a personal fondness for the camp of Jason X it is also not exactly a piece of cinema that operates at the same level as the original two Friday the 13th movies. The requel format usually resolves this problem by ignoring that the middle movies exist. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a direct sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The films between 1986 and 2017 just aren’t relevant. Likewise the recent Halloween trilogy picks up from Halloween in much the same way that the previous requel attempt (H20 & Resurrection) did from Halloween 2.

I think it’s important to look at this element because while Hellraiser could easily be viewed as a straightforward reboot I think it makes nearly as much sense to consider it in light of the requel. I say this not so much because of any connections of plot or lore but rather because of the way this film, sometimes deftly and sometimes less so, is in dialogue with Hellbound: Hellraiser 2. We cannot possibly call this a reboot of Hellraiser 2. That film was far too tied, at the plot and character level, to the original Hellraiser. But we also cannot deny both that nothing within this film would preclude the events of Hellraiser 2 from happening – the recasting and redesign of the Hell’s Priest and the creation of a host of entirely new Cenobites to accompany her more than accommodate the deaths of the Doug Bradly iteration of the character and his associated compatriots (RIP Butterball you were too beautiful for this earth) – and this movie is exploring many of the same questions as Hellraiser 2: where do Cenobites come from? How do they come and for whom?

In order to explore this theme we’re introduced to Riley, a struggling multi-addict who is attempting recovery, played with exceptional depth and sensitivity by Odessa A’zion. Riley is having a rough go of it. She’s been clean for a while but she’s had trouble finding a job. She lives with her brother, his boyfriend and their roommate and none of them quite approve of her current boyfriend, Trevor, who she met in her 12 step program. These misgivings prove founded as Trevor seduces Riley into both aiding him in a crime (stealing the unknown contents of a safe that appears to be abandoned) and into sliding off the wagon. The contents of the safe: the Lament Configuration.

There is a change to the puzzle box in this outing and this change represents one of the largest structural weaknesses of the film. In this version solving the box will expose a hidden blade. The Cenobites will take whoever is cut by this blade, not necessarily whoever solves the box. This creates a tension from the statement in Hellraiser 2 that, “It is not hands that call us. It is desire.” At its silliest this leads to a scene late in the film in which a Cenobite is cut by the box and is ripped apart by its fellows but it also leads to several of Riley’s room mates being taken, or threatened, by the Cenobites despite not having expressed any desires that might have called the Cenobites to begin with.

A lot of this is a script problem. There is a ghost of a solution to this issue within the film through the depiction of Riley’s conflicting desire. There’s a scene when she’s been kicked out of her brother’s apartment. Preparing to drive into the night she packs all her things into a car and she discovers some pills. She opens the bottle, almost eats them then throws them on the ground. After a beat she then crouches down, picks the pills back up from between the cobblestones and eats them all. What does Riley want here? She wants to be rid of her addiction. She wants to throw away her pills. She also wants very much to take them. Riley isn’t a unified arrow of desire; her libidinal investments shoot off in all directions and at all times. If people are packets of conflicting desire then sure anyone might desire to call the Cenobites.

But the other characters are insufficiently fleshed out to carry this message home. Riley’s brother Matt has a hint of this same conflicted desire – he kicks his fuck-up sister out of his home and then almost immediately goes running into the night looking for her on the premonition she’s come to harm – but he dies far too quickly (off-screen) for us to ever really know him well enough to understand the conflicts within his heart the way the story would require. If we’d seen some contact between Matt and the Hell’s Priest (played with wonderful aplomb by the exceptional Jamie Clayton in one of the most inspired recasting choices I’ve ever seen) we might have been able to buy that Matt’s desires called the Cenobites to him. Instead he’s just the poor sucker who got poked by the wrong knife.

Eventually it transpires that Riley, Matt, Trevor and all the rest are dancing on the strings of the demented occultist Roland Voight – a disappointing downgrade from Phillip Channard or, especially, Frank Cotton. Voight previously solved the final configuration of the puzzlebox and was rewarded a wish by the Cenobites. For baffling and poorly explained reasons he chose “sensation” (who would ask Cenobites for that gift if others were available) and the Cenobites responded by creating an instrument that winds his nerve fibers around cranks at random intervals, allowing him to persist in everlasting torment. Voight has some buyer’s remorse.

Honestly Voight represents the other manifestation of the weakness in the script of this film. His plot makes little sense and only works, at all, because of the direct intercession of the Hell’s Priest and / or the accidental miss of a knife to Riley’s hand. Furthermore, his Cenobite-trap home makes for a beautiful baroque set but also leads to some of the silliest slasher antics of a movie that is desperately trying not to be just another slasher. Finally Goran Višnjić simply doesn’t deliver a performance that is even in the same genre as those of A’Zion and Clayton. They’re going for subtlety and depth; he’s chewing the sets. A protagonist as good as Riley deserved a better villain than Voight. But at least this film understands what all Hellraiser movies barring the first two failed to: the Cenobites aren’t the villains of the piece. As a result the Cenobites are a delight. Their motivations may be muddied with the business with the knife in the box but what we get as a result is a host of terrible angels: truly inscrutable cosmic horrors who can do anything, appear anywhere, shape reality to their whims and are entirely inhuman. The creature design in this film is top-notch. I’ve mentioned that Jamie Clayton is excellent in her performance as the Hell’s Priest but she also looks absolutely stunning. A perfect reimagining of the iconic monster. The new Cenobtes are equally delightful to behold.

That being said it does seem strange the extent to which this film shies away from gore considering its subject matter. Scenes of explicit gore are used sparingly and this combined with the slow-burn pacing, the dramatic characterization of the protagonist and the angelic design of the Cenobites leaves this film feeling almost staid. For better and worse this is not Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth. What we end up with is an imbalanced movie. It is far better than the vast majority of Hellraiser movies. I’d even hazard to call it the third-best in the franchise. But with two of the best performances in the franchise and the beautiful reimagining of the Cenobites it shows potential to have been so much better than third-best.

Unfortunately David Goyer was twenty years past the point in his career where he might have been up to the task of writing the script this film needed and the film was marred by an underwhelming villain. However this lopsided story of the tangled contradiction of desire remains a better movie than Hellraisers 3 through 10 and clearly demonstrates how jettisoning the chaff of poor quality sequels can still breathe new life into tired franchises. And, honestly, the only one of these franchise requels to have served better as a stand-alone film was Scream 2022. So perhaps we should be a little satisfied with an okay film featuring two excellent performances when it could have been so much worse.

On Authority and the Author

I think Engels is sometimes unfairly maligned. There was long a tendency, and it has not ever fully ended, to treat Engels as if he were the author of every failure and error in Marxism. And perhaps the work most responsible for cementing his position as the sin eater of Marxism is On Authority.

This text is, on the surface an aggressive repudiation of an Anarchist tendency to want to obliterate hierarchy, level all power differentials, and leave everybody equal. This sort of flat equality had never been the objective of Marxism and Engels is critical of it as lacking an understanding of the depth of power. “Everywhere combined action, the complication of processes dependent upon each other, displaces independent action by individuals. But whoever mentions combined action speaks of organization; now, is it possible to have organization without authority?” He asks.

And yet I think the greatest problem with On Authority is the number of readers of Engels who stop there and who never develop the necessary introspection to turn a later statement at themselves or the heads of state they admire, “These gentlemen think that when they have changed the names of things they have changed the things themselves.” And yet, for many readers of Engels the decision is to do just that!

It’s the people’s jail; completely different from a regular prison. And the prison is important here because I think a more productive read of On Authority would be to see it as an anticipation of Discipline and Punish. Engels quite rightly points out how the technologies that existed in the late 19th century helped form an authoritarian subjectivity. He demonstrates that a factory worker or a steam ship operator must, by necessity, create a form of authority in order to accomplish their tasks.

This, in a way, echoes Foucault’s suggestion that the epistemological shift that created the conditions for the prison was far vaster than a mere building of stone and steel. Engels diagnoses the problem of authority in much the same way Foucault diagnoses the problem of discipline. The principal difference is that Engels, in the 1870s says, we cannot abandon this yet, while Foucault, a century later, says, we should have abandoned this long ago.

Engels is arguing that the power relationship of authority, the idea that one person could subordinate the will of the other to achieve a collective aim, is necessary for conducting the violence of the revolution. ” Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois?” And he’s not entirely wrong. He almost comes to a profound understanding: the problem of authority is not that it exists but rather that it persists. Tari comes to this realization when he points to the example of Subcomandante Marcos who dissolved back into the anonymity of the people after his role as a spokesperson for the Zapatistas was no longer needed. “Authority and autonomy are relative things whose spheres vary with the various phases of the development of society.” Engels says and this suggests an understanding that authority is, and must be, contingent.

The problem that arises is that this authority congeals into an institution and this, like the prison and the disciplinary society it is a part of, continues long after the moment it should have been struck down.

And so, you can see, we can construct an Engels who speaks against Lenin, Stalin and all the authoritarian Marxists who follow in their wake from the very essay from which they build their case for the people’s jail.

But this raises the question of whether this is an authentic Engels. Certainly I’m reading into the text things that simply could not be there. Engels assumes inevitability and yet I demand he sees contingency. I divide him against himself.

There are certain people who might shrug at this and suggest that whether Engels saw authority as an inevitable product of a productive society or as a contingent phenomenon tied to a vast network of other contingencies is irrelevant to how an audience receives a text. And in doing so they take my divided Engels and split him fully: we have the Engels of the inevitable and we have the Engels of the contingent. This situates the discursive power of the text fully in its interpretation. A message is only as strong as the receipt of it.

But, of course, there is another possibility ignored by this very dialectically divided Engels. And that is that both of these divided figures occupy the same space. We can start by stepping back and asking whether I divided Engels in the interpretation or if these contradictions were there in the text, equally present but irreconcilable. It is a misunderstanding of contingency to suggest it is flat. In a fully contingent universe even contingency is contingent and we must expect to see the accretion of consistency.

From within a domain of consistency that consistency likely seems inevitable. It occludes the contingency on the horizon. But this is only ever metastable. After all: the consistency is contingent. Transformation may occur at any moment. When they have changed the names of things they may not have changed the things themselves but a transformation of a thing will also require a transformation of its name. And yet none of this is erased. No matter how much I unfold destitution out of On Authority the inevitable Engels of Stalin remains too.

This is the nature of authorship. We cannot erase intent; it will always be there in the text. However we cannot assume intent is singular. Intent changes; intent becomes other to itself. Even the dead Engels can change his mind when contradictory thoughts exist on the page. This is not to say that there is a unity between my destituent Engels and the Engels of the inevitable. Such an encounter is, to paraphrase Deleuze, as absurd as an authentic encounter between a sadist and a masochist. And so we cannot simply re-unify Engels into one who contains both. He is already fragments. As are we all. But these fragments can coalesce too; new consistencies can be achieved that are wholly alien to the ones before. These remain metastable and contingent, of course, and this is why the work of liberation will never be done. Even if we perfected society we could not assume it would stay perfect. But it’s precious to remember, in the aftermath of a disaster especially, that destitution and constitution are dynamic processes that never reach unity but also can never achieve totality. The marks of the past will always be upon us. But we don’t live there. And over the horizon is something different.

Preliminary notes on a disaster

It’s Sunday night. We’ve been without power two days. The cat is over-nigh at the emergency vet after a bout of stress cystis nearly killed him. We’re sitting at the kitchen table lit by a single camp lantern. Its LED is an intense white light but it mostly just casts shadows. We’re trying to play a board game to keep our minds off of the destruction. We choose games about building things, growing things. We couldn’t handle something driven by more explicit conflict but a lot of our traditional faves are out of the question – the lantern isn’t enough light to read the cards by.

The tedium is one of the things stories about disasters never touch on. You are living in a condition of the other shoe having dropped. The storm has passed but the clean-up is all still ahead and you have to sit in your fear: what if the lights never come back on? What if you run out of water? It’s possible you could go buy water. But there are line-ups at the doors of every open grocery far worse than those from the early days of COVID. Water is a hot commodity. You need to balance the ticking clock of a draining reserve against the opportunity cost of standing in the rain for an hour just to discover the people ahead of you cleared out the shelves.

The reduction of the world to one lamp and a few dim candles changes your subjectivity. Before the storm evenings were free time. We would read or play games or watch a show but we would do so comfortable that whatever we wanted to do we could. Now you stay near the lamp or you sit in a darkened room. We begin following each other around the house – our schedules slowly click into a kind of simpatico brought about by the constraint of available light.

It’s Friday night. The platonic dark and stormy night. I’m watching a horror movie on my couch alone after my family has gone to bed. I figure it might be my last chance for a while (and I’m right). The rain is pressing against the window on our north wall so hard that the glass is bowing. I’m a bit afraid to go to bed because of the old walnut tree next to the house. If it fell it would fall directly on my room. The power stays on long enough for me to finish my movie and the stress of the storm coupled with the anxiety of a tense film has left me tired enough to sleep. I lie in bed listening to the noise outside. Eventually the lights die but I don’t notice because I’ve already turned everything off. I will get my confirmation in the morning when my toilet stops flushing.

It’s Tuesday morning and I’m driving to work. We heard a rumour that the lights were back on at our office building downtown and maybe even internet? It’s worth the fuel to come in from the countryside. And anyway, there’s water to be had in town. When we arrive we discover the lights are on but the internet is out. Work has become another warming center – albeit one locked behind a key card. After a half hour of fiddling I manage to jury-rig the internet to work and get to doing my job but the attempt to restore normalcy breaks me open and tears begin to flow. I keep myself off camera for calls all day, claiming I’m conserving limited bandwidth but it’s because I don’t want my colleagues to see me cry. I don’t even really know why I’m crying now. The cat is back from the hospital. He’s alive but he’s rough and hiding a lot. We still don’t have water at home but our house survived the storm unscathed so at least we’re warm and dry.

So many people aren’t that lucky.

It’s Saturday afternoon. The storm that had been screaming outside all day has finally begun to subside – drifting off to expend its fury on Newfoundland where it will wash the town of Port aux Basques into the sea. We emerge from the house and examine the damage. Our greenhouse is miraculously undamaged but our solar panels are gone. We walk around some more and find them face down in the field next to the struts they stood on. We don’t know if they’re insured or not. In a few hours we will discover that our cat is sick but there are four trees down across our driveway and the wind and rain are still too high for me to safely cut us out with me being a green novice with the chainsaw. We decide to wait until the morning and reassess. By morning the cat is nearly dead but a neighbour, unaware that we were even home, brings his chainsaw and clears the path to the road. We cling desperately to the belief he just saved a life.

Time loses meaning in all this. We still have clocks but they’re not relevant. We do daylight things in daylight; we do night-time things in the dark. Most of our activity is geared just to keeping us going and alive.

But not all of us survive.

It’s Wednesday afternoon. A beautiful day. My cat dies in my arms. The vet kept him overnight, made sure he was able to pee on his own. The vet loves the cat; he’s so friendly and playful. Just a perfect little kitty. They were almost sorry to see him go but he seemed to have recovered and we wanted our friend, our family member, home. But things quickly start going wrong. He doesn’t want to touch his new food. He doesn’t drink. He fights against his medicine. He spends his last days hiding under my daughter’s bed or sleeping next to her at night. Wednesday he seems lethargic and drowsy. We hope it’s a side effect of the medicine and he’s still peeing – but he seems to be incontinent. We call the vet and they give us monitoring instructions. My wife takes a vacation day to look after him. There’s electricity at work again so we’re both supposed to be back. I go in. She calls me in the midst of a meeting telling me that we need to get the cat back to the vet quickly and I rush home – hindered by a vast traffic jam caused by the needs of road crews cutting trees out of power lines along the highway. The vet tells us he’s blocked again. His electrolytes are out of balance again. We’re back to square one. They can do everything they did before all over again but they aren’t observing the crystals they’d associate with stress cystis in his samples and the truth is they don’t know why his bladder and kidneys are shutting down. They cannot promise even the most heroic efforts would let him recover. They don’t say it but we are thinking it: the storm has killed my cat; it’s just taking a while to finish the job.

He dies in my arms knowing he was always loved. He’s only one year old. I don’t sleep well that night. I keep waking to the sound of feet scampering in the attic but they stop as soon as I’m awake and alert. I don’t know whether these liminal footsteps are an animal or if they’re just the remnants of dreams of a missing friend. I’m too tired to look.

Depictions of disaster in popular art are neat and tidy. They focus on the moment of crisis – the sharp fear of devastation and the bright excitement of survival. But the truth is that this is not the true nature of the disaster. Time breaks down around you. There’s a heavy grief that occupies you for lost friends, lost possessions and the shared pain of a community struggling to reconstruct itself amidst the ruins of the event. Bataille’s inner experience captures the fragmented nature of thought at the edge of what a person can tolerate. Sentences break down. Time sense becomes confused as the pain of the past, the doldrum of the present and the blank grey fear of the future all crowd together. I was in a meeting when I got the call from the vet to have that talk. All I could manage to get out for the longest time were fragments: “I just…” “I can’t.” Eventually I managed to force out, “I have to go,” but still I lingered to the end of the call – as much as I couldn’t stand to be in the present moment I also couldn’t stand the idea of moving toward that awful future I could anticipate ahead of me.

The truth was that in the anticipation of that moment I was already there, in that future time, living through it. There is still a future for us. Those of us who remain. And there are still routines that need to be served. Work needs to be done. Livestock needs feeding. We have another cat and a dog who we love and who can’t understand why their third companion is gone and won’t come back. There still isn’t electricity at home. There’s still no running water. So I’m sitting in my office: my actual office that I normally never go to since I work from home most every day, trying to work and lose myself in routines but it’s not enough and my sense of time remains unmoored. I’m still living in Friday night watching the storm push in my windows. I’m still living in Saturday afternoon, surveying the destruction of my farm. I’m still living in Wednesday afternoon, in a comfortable but impersonal room watching my cat die between my tears.

Disasters shatter time. So many things are broken: landscapes, properties, lives but, in the aftermath, it’s the breaking of chronology that cuts to the soul. You are pulled in a thousand temporal directions – unable to grieve properly because you’re still at the start, anticipating the terror to come an at the middle, struggling to understand and at the end, trying to pick up the pieces all at once.

Ghost of Ned Ludd in the Shell

“Ned Ludd Smashes a Loom” via an AI Art platform.

With the total collapse of the NFT market the financiers whose grift involves the full financialization of art has had to look to different tactics. Happily they have found just such a rhetorical tool in the emerging field of, “AI Art.”

AI Art, much like NFTs, has been around for a while but has had a recent influx of attention and cash from the tech sector. Google Deep Dream was likely the first exposure people had to this medium and it has been around since 2015. However recent iterations of the software have become more controllable than Deep Dream. The training sets have “improved” as long as one’s yard stick for improvement excludes exploitation. The result is that it’s easier to get aesthetically unified results from a prompt than it had been previously where you’d mostly just get animal chimera jammed into input images like distortion patterns.

There is currently a debate ongoing regarding AI art which asks a few questions:

  1. Is AI art actually art at all?
  2. Is AI art theft?
  3. Should AI art be resisted.

I will principally be discussing the third point here but I do want to address the first and second points to say the proponents of AI art are mostly correct in that what I’ve previously called Will Toward Art can be found in the cycles of prompt and iteration undertaken by an AI Artist. The automation and mediation by machinery present in AI art is just as present in photography. One is shot framing and selection from a field of material objects. The other is shot framing and selection from an iteration of an algorithm. As such it would be disingenuous to say that AI Art is not art.

Now that doesn’t mean it’s any good and the majority of AI art is at best, by the very nature of its iterative selection process, parodic and derivative. The algorithmic basis of AI art is to take a catalog of extant works related to the prompt keywords and to shuffle through them seeking out similarities in order to output a result. You cannot but create a parody of extant works when you are using such a basis for creation.

But parodic art is still art and insofar as difference can arise out of the affective change brought about by repetition this art can, in theory, lead to the arising of the new via that process.

This then brings about the question of whether AI art is theft and I don’t think it’s possible to say anything other than that it is. As AI art is entirely predicated upon the iterative sampling of extant images it is, fundamentally, a theft. But then I’ve been clear in the past that such iterative cycles are a part of art and that this criminality is inseparable from the artistic process. What’s the issue here is that AI art automates this theft.

A counter-example of art being theft in a non-automated manner would be to look at the upcoming Zach Snyder film Rebel Moon. Snyder’s project started off as a Star Wars film but, when that fell through, he went on trucking, iterating upon the ground Star Wars laid. I suspect the parodic character of the final product will be effectively self-evident. Certainly everything I’ve seen about it anticipates this likelihood.

However, in order to do this act of replication, Snyder had to produce a whole $83 million film project employing a few hundred people, including many, many artists, each of whom will be bringing their own ideas and influences into the fold. An AI art program does this with the literal push of the button.

We can make similar statements regarding iteration and the use of samples in music. While music that samples other songs clearly is taking from that art it requires labour to do so. This then is the crux of the problem with the automation of AI Art: the complicated and organic process of iteration has been handed over to a machine that automates it, making it far easier for artists and non-artists alike to produce a result that is, at the very least, reminiscent of artwork.

And that raises the third question: Should this be resisted?

Now I have seen some proponents of AI Art conjuring the specter of the Luddites to argue against resisting the arising of AI art. However most of them couch this within the idea that automation was inevitable and Luddites were fools to resist. “AI art is coming for your job regardless so you better be prepared.” And of course this is nonsense.

Let’s start by looking at one of the most rigorous nearly-contemporary accounts of the Luddites.
“Factory legislation, that first conscious and methodical reaction of society against the spontaneously developed form of the process of production, is, as we have seen, just as much the necessary product of modern industry as cotton yarn, self-actors, and the electric telegraph. Before passing to the consideration of the extension of that legislation in England, we shall shortly notice certain clauses contained in the Factory Acts, and not relating to the hours of work. Apart from their wording, which makes it easy for the capitalist to evade them, the sanitary clauses are extremely meagre, and, in fact, limited to provisions for whitewashing the walls, for insuring cleanliness in some other matters, for ventilation, and for protection against dangerous machinery. In the third book we shall return again to the fanatical opposition of the masters to those clauses which imposed upon them a slight expenditure on appliances for protecting the limbs of their workpeople, an opposition that throws a fresh and glaring light on the Free-trade dogma, according to which, in a society with conflicting interests, each individual necessarily furthers the common weal by seeking nothing but his own personal advantage! One example is enough. The reader knows that during the last 20 years, the flax industry has very much extended, and that, with that extension, the number of scutching mills in Ireland has increased. In 1864 there were in that country 1,800 of these mills. Regularly in autumn and winter women and “young persons,” the wives, sons, and daughters of the neighbouring small farmers, a class of people totally unaccustomed to machinery, are taken from field labour to feed the rollers of the scutching mills with flax. The accidents, both as regards number and kind, are wholly unexampled in the history of machinery. In one scutching mill, at Kildinan, near Cork, there occurred between 1852 and 1856, six fatal accidents and sixty mutilations; every one of which might have been prevented by the simplest appliances, at the cost of a few shillings.” Marx says at the start of Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 15, Part 9 – framing the conflict between milling machinery and workers like the Luddites not in the abstract realm of the dangers of automation but rather in the physical toll these factories put to workers and, this being important, the power relations that allowed for that toll. Marx is clear that it is, in fact, the vague wording of laws and the penurious behaviour of factory owners that led to factory casualties rather than the intrinsic character of the factory.

Marx pivots to discussing technological change more directly, saying, “The only thing, that here and there causes a change, besides new raw material supplied by commerce, is the gradual alteration of the instruments of labour. But their form, too, once definitely settled by experience, petrifies, as is proved by their being in many cases handed down in the same form by one generation to another during thousands of years. A characteristic feature is, that, even down into the eighteenth century, the different trades were called “mysteries” (mystères); into their secrets none but those duly initiated could penetrate. modern industry rent the veil that concealed from men their own social process of production, and that turned the various, spontaneously divided branches of production into so many riddles, not only to outsiders, but even to the initiated. The principle which it pursued, of resolving each process into its constituent movements, without any regard to their possible execution by the hand of man, created the new modern science of technology.”

And of course it’s immediately evident to see the process by which automation is now doing to the mysteries of the arts what Marx was demonstrating in his discussion of potters and weavers. As such we have to re-situate the Luddite movement, even based on the strength of these establishing statements alone, as not one of a class against machines but rather as a battlefield of antagonisms between two classes: the craftsmen who were undergoing a process of proletarianization and the owners of machines who wished to suck their blood. As Marx says, “We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of modern industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous.” This is precisely the ‘inevitable’ future, brought about solely by technology, that these advocates of AI demand artists content themselves with. Marx’s final word on the Luddites comes down to this, “It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used.” And it’s necessary, when deciding if AI art is to be resisted, to ask this same question: is the problem the machine or the hand that controls it?

Certainly this automated art stealing from and iterating upon a vast catalog of images posted online, has the capability to supplant illustrators, advertisers and other such artists. But this supplanting is not a matter of the tool but rather the mode in which it is used.

And this, then, is where we must begin asking for whom these tools have been made and to what ends. There is a tendency, within capitalism, to attempt to mystify the machinery of it. If the problem is that the eternal system of capitalism creates externalities it’s easy enough to shrug it away. It wasn’t on purpose that the machine crushed illustrators; it was merely their time to be automated into obsolescence.

But, of course, this assumes far too much. Who owns this machine is a far more pressing question and, in the case of OpenAI whose Dall-E tool is one of the most popular, the ownership question points back to Elon Musk and Sam Altman. Musk eventually departed leaving the “capped profit” limited partnership, registered in the tax haven state of Delaware (natch) under the control of Altman and Greg Brockman. This is not a tool owned by artists nor for artists. It’s a commercial asset of the financial class. And this, then, demystifies the nature of the struggle. Altman, Brockman and the rest of the tech-startup-venture-capital crowd would prefer that they be paid for illustration instead of little artists. Craftsmen find their work copied by a black-box machine and their jobs supplanted by an AI that can produce ugly illustrations on demand for the low-low price of $15 for 115 prompts. So much more efficient than hiring a craftsperson.

So, yes, AI art should be resisted. It shouldn’t be resisted because it copies images and iterates on them but rather because its application is yet another attempt of tiresome tech bros, the self-same ones who tried to sell the world on NFTs, to suck the blood of working artists. Smash the fucking things to the ground.

Fantasy and history

Recently Amazon released the first few episodes of the new tv show about the second age – The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

This ensemble cast fantasy show is set in the second age of Tolkien’s world (the events of the Lord of the Rings happen some 3-5,000 odd years later at the end of the third age). It explores the creation of the rings of power by the elven craftsmen under Celebrimbor‘s leadership and the tutelage of Sauron in his guise as Annatar, “the Lord of Gifts.”

However this Lord of the Rings show has become a center of controversy, along with the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon and the Disney live action remake of the Little Mermaid for casting choices that gave major roles to non-white actors.

The argument from certain (bigoted) corners of the internet is that the inclusion especially of black characters in this setting is damaging to the historical accuracy of these stories. But of course this is patently nonsense.

Now the easiest way to demonstrate this is nonsense is to point out that Rome had significant African holdings and that, as early as 19 BC Roman explorers had crossed the Sahara and made contact with Sub-Saharan cultures. Furthermore from the 8th until the 15th century much of what is now Spain was occupied by an African aristocracy after the invasion of Tariq ibn Ziyad. This is all information that would have been readily available to Tolkien as a philologist and literary scholar. But, of course, for that to be relevant you would have to contend that fantasy exists to reproduce history. And that’s just not the case.

While fantasy books may have a deep interest in history fantasy, by its very nature, is uninterested in producing an accurate simulation of history. This would be more properly historical study – or, if we’re being generous, historical fiction. Fantasy, as speculative literature, is unlikely to have much to say about a careful reproduction of history.

Where fantasy lives instead is in the area of meta-questions regarding history: what is the relationship between history and the present? How does history inform a person’s position in the world? Can history be escaped? What is the weight of history?

And these sorts of questions depend not on reproducing history but on disrupting it. The flooding of Beleriand and later of Numenor is thus informed, not just by Atlantis, but also by the flooding of Doggerland – which flooded across two periods: one in which an island was left and a second in which the island remnants were washed away, likely by a tsunami. The events in Doggerland are prehistorical ones discovered via archaeological labour and happy accident. The people of Doggerland were a mesolithic culture which we can say very little of. Certainly it would be difficult in the extreme to trace the occupants of that flooded land to any modern nation.

Throughout the Lord of the Rings the heroes are forever passing through the ancient ruins of abandoned kingdoms. Orthanc and Osgiliath, Amon Sûl and Khazad-dûm, Minas Morgul and Amon Hen are all remnants of three thousand years of history. The weapons of the Barrow Downs are likewise ancient, coming from kingdoms extinguished 1,500 years previous.

History, in Tolkien, is the ruin within which the present moment walks. How can we possibly speak of accuracy in its depiction when there has been so much clarity provided by the text that it believes history to be an incomplete and fragmentary account? This is reinforced metatextually via Tolkien’s appendices which provide fragments of historical record: selected charts of lineage, some linguistics, notes on things forgotten.

Frankly I do have some complaints with how Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power handles history because the show seems intent on compressing 3,000 years of the second age into a period the length of a human lifespan. Events that should be separated by centuries and people who lived many lifetimes apart are walking shoulder to shoulder so that the show can maintain a consistent cast. I worry that this takes away some of the most interesting things Tolkien’s work has to say about history and that it, more than anything else the show has done, grounds his elves and transforms them from the semi-angelic beings they are into just guys with pointy ears and ninja powers.

However, if we are going to do away with the argument that Lord of the Rings, or fantasy more generally, is trying to accurately reproduce history then the obvious presence of people of African descent throughout the last 2,000 years of European history is also not available as an apologia. However textual accuracy becomes important. And frequently it’s an examination of textual references that displays the poor reading comprehension of many bigots. After all, fantasy and science fiction is filled with non-white characters whose depictions have either been white-washed without any furor (Ged in the execrable Earthsea mini-series) or whose accurate depictions led to outcry from racists who were too poor at reading comprehension to recognize what they were reading.

Now the truth is that I don’t believe any apologia is necessary to diversely cast fantasy stories. They’re fantasies. We can do what we like with them. But if we absolutely must cling to questions of reproductive accuracy the question should at least be, “were there people of colour in the text this show is based on?” And the answer to that is yes. Fortunately Tolkien straight up tells us that some hobbits, in particular, are not white. Let’s examine some quotes:

“In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast.”

Here it’s important to remember that this couldn’t possibly be referring to Sam being tanned from working outside for so long. This scene happens just outside of Mordor after both Frodo and Sam had been travelling for six months.

Now I know a lot of the people complaining about race depictions in fantasy never leave their parents basements but take it from this weirdo farmer that it takes significantly less than six months for a tan to come in and yet Sam is described as brown and Frodo as white. They’ve been together six months, living outdoors for much of it, they’ve had the same opportunity to tan. If Sam’s skin colour, in this scene, is depicted as different from Frodo’s it’s because he had different coloured skin. This is not the only time that we see reference to Sam’s skin colour either. Sometime later, during the fight with Shelob, the story says, “As if to do honour to his hardihood, and to grace with splendour his faithful brown hobbit-hand that had done such deeds, the phial blazed forth suddenly, so that all the shadowy court was lit with a dazzling radiance like lightning; but it remained steady and did not pass.”

Sam is also described as having curly hair and brown eyes. Frankly casting Sean Astin in the role was whitewashing a character who was clearly written as not white. What’s more Tolkien says this is a characteristic of the largest of the hobbit clans, from whom Sam descends. “The Harfoots were browner of skin, smaller, and shorter, and they were beardless and bootless; their hands and feet were neat and nimble; and they preferred highlands and hillsides.”

The hobbit clan depicted in Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power are the Harfoots and while efforts have been made for diverse casting throughout the show it is among the Harfoots we see the greatest concentration of non-white actors. So frankly, while no apologetics are necessary to justify diverse casting, we have multiple clear references to Harfoots, such as Sam Gamgee, being brown-skinned, brown-eyed and curly-haired. How much clearer does this have to be spelled out?

But let’s give authorial intent the final word because Tolkien addressed race and segregation, contextualized within his youth in colonial South Africa, very clearly. And here’s what he said: “I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.”

Review: House of the Dragon Episode 1 – The Heirs of the Dragon

House of the Dragon is a 2022 HBO show set in the fictional history of Westeros leading up to the events called The Dance of the Dragons as depicted in background exposition of A Song of Ice and Fire, in various Westeros set short stories an in Fire & Blood. It stars Paddy Constantine as King Viserys I, Emma D’Arcy & Milly Alcock as his eldest daughter Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Matt Smith as dollar store Elric of Melniboné Daemon Targaryen, the king’s younger brother.

This show sets up the principal action of the series by establishing that Viserys I assumed the crown in a bid to avoid a secession crisis. The previous king’s two sons had both predeceased him and his choices were between his eldest grandchild – Princess Rhaenys Targaryen or her younger cousin, Viserys. The king retains stability by choosing the younger man over the older woman.

We then advance forward in time. Viserys I has ruled over a prolonged peace within Westeros. He has a daughter approaching adulthood and his wife is pregnant with a child who, according to the king’s supposedly prophetic dream, will be a male heir. Due to the precedent set by his grandfather his presumed heir is Daemon – his younger brother, a scoundrel and all-around failson who has been tossed into a job as commander of the city guard largely to keep him out from underfoot after he demonstrated no capacity for any other position of authority. As the commander of the guard he operates with extreme and callous brutality – a thirst for violence we see again when he enters a tournament on the day the queen is supposed to give birth.

Although Constantine delivers a good performance as Viserys I the heavy lifting among the actors is being done by Smith who establishes himself as a villain’s villain almost immediately and who definitely seems to understand what’s expected of him in a role that is 50% skulking in shadows being creepy and 50% being a violent brute who happily kills and insults just because he enjoys doing so. Real grade-a villain performance from Smith here and honestly I’m not sure I’ve seen him deliver a better performance. Certainly he was never this good as Dr. Who.

This show is a delight aesthetically as the production team has taken to heart some of the complaints with the original show, making significant changes to both the set design of the Red Keep (particularly the Iron Throne) and Harrenhal which have been revised to be more faithful to their depictions in the books. The CGI of the dragons is passable, more so for not being over-used, and the costuming is excellent. I, for one, am not really bothered by half the cast members wearing white wigs although I know I may be in the minority on this one.

The show establishes early on that queen Aemma is having a hard time with her pregnancy. Rhaenyra dotes over her mother, running late for other obligations as a result, and a lot of the action of the episode is reflected through Rhaenyra’s anxiety about being a woman in a viciously unequal world and balancing her ambitions against the social expectations on a woman of the royal house. Aemma tells Rhaenyra, who wants to be a warrior on the battlefield, that the birthing bed is their battlefield, a metaphor which is reified in a very heavy-handed but still effective piece of montage later as her struggles to give birth run contemporaneously to the tournament devolving into bloodshed.

Aemma has a breach birth and the king’s incompetent doctors propose a c-section despite not being at all good at them. Faced with the choice of the likely death of both wife and heir or the chance of salvaging the heir King Viserys chooses to allow the operation and his wife dies in the process. The child survives the birth but dies later the same day. Daemon celebrates the death of the rival heir with his guards in a brothel but is spied upon doing so and the king is so shocked by his callousness that he banishes Daemon from court and names Rhaenyra his heir, going against prior tradition and establishing the circumstances for the war of secession that his grandfather avoided.

Now, obviously, the death of Aemma has become a key discursive theme following the airing of the episode and two, equally wrong-headed, camps have formed. It seems people either defend the inclusion of this incident as being “historically accurate” or decry it as being a glorification of violence against women. These are both nonsense. Regarding historical accuracy it is necessary to point out that the relationship between the work of George R. R. Martin and history is a bit more complicated than is generally considered. His writing is certainly informed by history but, more than that, it largely explores the process of historicization and its differentiation from myth. Westeros isn’t England. It isn’t Europe. It’s a vast continent marked by long, extreme, seasons. It contains dragons and ice monsters and giant wolves. Its populace are plagued by prophetic dreams which often lead them toward doom. The use, in A Song of Ice and Fire, of historical military conflicts to develop the setting is the insertion of a ready-made historicity rather than to make the work accurate. This allows us to observe how these actions, within an intelligible cycle of dynastic history, interact when they’re confronted with the mythic register of the legend of the final winter in which humanity will be extinguished by supernatural and inhuman foes. The mythic register is actually as carefully created as the historic one with exposition regarding Bran the Builder, Lann the Clever and all the other denizens of the Age of Heroes. This mythic register is, in A Song of Ice and Fire, initially occluded so that the impact of its reinsertion into and disruption of an historic cycle will be felt more forcefully.

Frankly, with the ways in which Martin establishes and then undercuts the historical in Westeros throughout his works, the best thing to say about these stories and their relation to history is that they’re profoundly skeptical of historicization and want to lay bare the way in which history is created after the fact to make sense and give pattern to the chaos of being. With that being said the people who think this show is somehow valorizing or aestheticizing forced childbirth and abuse of women in the name of bearing children need to look again at what is depicted. Viserys I follows the advice of incompetent doctors who tell him his choice is either to lose the queen and the child or to save the child at the expense of the queen.

In light of this terrible choice he decides, if his wife is doomed regardless, he should save the son, secure the secession, and achieve something he cares about. He doesn’t consult his wife in this matter and her death, if maybe inevitable, is likely more terrifying and abrupt than it otherwise might have been.

But it turns out terribly. The king’s decision does not save his heir. The boy dies within less than a day. It breaks his family, forming a dangerous rift between himself and his brother Daemon, and it leads to his epiphany that he should have named his daughter heir all along: a refutation of the very thing that led him to this awful decision. Depiction is not condonement and that’s never been clearer than here. I think, instead, people should be more ready to approach this show on its terms: neither as historical fiction nor a direct commentary on the contemporary politics of the United States but rather as a fantasy that explores the processes of dynastism, social change and historicization more broadly.

Everything Everywhere All at Once and the limits of the multiverse

Everything Everywhere All at Once was one of my most anticipated movies of 2022. It almost beat out Crimes of the Future for the title of the film that got my pandemic-anxious backside back in cinema seats and the only reason I ended up waiting for the digital release was because it got very few screens in PEI (one) and the only showing was not at a time I could readily get to. Perhaps this is for the best because, although Everything Everywhere All at Once is far better than other multiverse-themed media I’ve seen this year, it would have been a let-down compared to my level of anticipation of it.

Now, I do want to be fair, this movie is well put-together. We get a good performance from Michelle Yeoh as the protagonist, Evelyn, a middle-aged Chinese immigrant struggling to keep her laundry business afloat as her family drifts apart. I should note that this is far from her best performance; she evinced neither the scenery-chewing glory of her turn on Star Trek Discovery nor the under-stated dignity that fuel her excellent performances in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny or the various dramatic roles she performed throughout the first decade of the 2000s. However Yeoh is a talented performer and even when not delivering her best work she is still very talented – if slightly up-staged by the delightful and unexpected range demonstrated by Ke Huy Quan as Waymond and the deranged scenery chewing of Jamie Lee Curtis who is very much on her A-Game here.

The Daniels deliver the exact kind of fast-cut music-video affected dadaist absurdity we would expect of them in a manner that delivers some excellent costuming and blocking and some perfectly passable set construction and Paul Rogers shows some excellent editing with an especial nod to the inventiveness of scene transitions in the second half and to an excellent rapid-fire montage at the climax of the film.

There are problems at the script level. Particularly the resolution of Evelyn’s material problems in our principal continuity are entirely subsumed into her cathartic revelation regarding her relationships. It seems somewhat pat the extent to which the conflict surrounding her tax bills just kind of smooth away in the conclusion just because our protagonist experienced a revelation concerning inter-general trauma and empathy. And these problems cannot be eased out regardless of how many strong performances are delivered and no matter how clever the editing.

Furthermore Stephanie Hsu seemed unable to deliver the emotional weight necessary for her role as Joy. It’s publicly known that the role was originally written for Akwafina but that she was unable to fill it due to a scheduling conflict – perhaps the expectation was that the role would be played funnier? But what we get is a rather dry and straightforward read of a character who should be anything else. Ultimately this may come back to problems with the script.

Now looking at what story the script is trying to tell what we see is a use of the multiverse to set up a conflict between two different existentialist perspectives: absurdity and ambiguity. Evelyn must learn to differentiate the absurd from the ambiguous such that she can save Joy from self-annihilation which is said to be intrinsic to a true appreciation of the absurdity of existence. Because alpha-Joy discovers the absurdity of a life in which any possible set of conditions might apply, which takes on any possible permutation of options, she becomes despondent, seeing what Kierkegaard would call the “levelling scythe” of dialectics collapsing into oneness. And it’s not surprising to see other critics using Kierkegaard in order to situate Evelyn’s arc as being one of identifying the need for a leap of faith but I personally think Beauvoir is a better lens here. Consider, “To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won.” This statement from The Ethics of Ambiguity, more than anything else I’ve ever seen, sums up the core conflict of the film. Joy believes that existence is absurd. Evelyn discovers it’s truly more ambiguous – that in each moment one can attempt to build a meaning via one’s community. And I think it’s important that the resolution doesn’t just involve the oedipal triangle of Evelyn, Joy and Waymond but a broader community that includes customers at the laundromat, extended family and even Deirdre Beaubeirdre, an IRS inspector and antagonist to Evelyn who contains unexpected depths. I like that they made this choice because if this film had collapsed everything down to “family is meaning in the face of the absurd,” it would have been a far weaker movie.

However I do think that this film suffers both from too great an attempt at subtlety and nuance and also from the intrinsic limitations of the multiverse as a storytelling model. Specifically I don’t think many people, even in the art-film audience, are likely to care enough about nearly century-old internal disputes among existentialists to particularly identify Kierkegaard here, Camus there, Beauvoir here. And, honestly, I think that the Daniels interpretation of absurdity is also lacking. I have seen other critics suggest that they would have been better off if they’d read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race or some other anti-natalist literature when fleshing out Joy’s character but, honestly, it’d probably be helpful if it had been clear they’d even read and understood The Myth of Sisyphus. Expecting an antagonist informed by Ligotti might be a stretch when dealing with scriptwriters who seem to have missed key points of Camus’ work considering how heavily Joy leans on Camus for her ideology.

Part of the problem here is the multiverse and, gosh, but if there’s a concept I’d like Hollywood to forget quickly that is it.

First off let’s be clear that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is not really the one preferred by physicists, cosmologists or philosophers of science. Multiverses are not a provable part of our reality sufficiently to make them an inevitability in art – part of a material basis to contend with. In fact, prior to Michael Moorcock, they weren’t really part of the genre fiction landscape much at all and only really achieved prominence when DC realized they could use the concept to lampshade continuity errors within their catalog of comic stories. And so we must treat multiverses not as an emergent property of fiction but rather as a deliberate narrative conceit.

Multiverses invite reflexive passivity in that, like we saw in the inferior Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it’s very easy to tease out a demand that you be satisfied with your lot in this universe because of the inevitable progression of an invisible hand composed of the aggregate decisions of history. By showing us the infinity of possibilities and then insisting upon a root universe to tether the audience to the multiverse actually constrains freedom. We can’t have the liberation of Beauvoir’s ethics within ambiguity because everything is purely deterministic.

This determinism is a problem in Everything Everywhere All At Once which posits every minor decision a person makes causes a bifurcation of reality. In this universe you had always already made that choice. The universe becomes clockwork – and that lack of agency is not something that arises in the debate between Joy’s absurdism and Evelyn’s ambiguity. Both seem resigned that they are slaves to the past.

I honestly think this fatalism represents a limit of the multiverse as a narrative conceit. If you introduce this arborescent pattern of decisions fanning out from some root such as a subjective sense of self you’ll end up with a fatalistic story. And this fatalism is at odds with a Beauvoirian read. Evelyn wants to tell Joy that we can win meaning out of the immediacy of our lives, that we can fight for the people we love and bring them back from the edge except she says this from a position of absolute inability to truly act. She must become aware that every decision she might have made has, in fact, been made and that the consequences of the same are fully mapped out. She must commit fully to a view of a multiverse of clockwork just to get the the point of being able to contend with Joy.

Pretty bleak.

Beauvoir built her ethic around an expectation that freedom, true radical freedom, wasn’t just something that could be achieved. It was, in fact, an emergent property of the world. Every person is, at all times, a font of infinite potential. But this is what a multiverse movie misses – that font of potential doesn’t arise out of failure. It simply arises. What a person can do is either recognize that freedom and foster growth of that recognition in others or succumb to a kind of mystification that obscures freedom via the antinomies of action.

This is the thorn this film gets caught upon and it leaves us with something that is, unsurprisingly, similar to a music video: stylish, surely. Well performed too. But ultimately empty and a little trite. That this is probably the best we could expect from the multiverse as a form should hopefully be sufficient to put a nail in the coffin of this narrative conceit but I won’t hold my breath.