Review of Hummingbird Salamander: the vastness of everything

Hummingbird Salamander is a 2021 science fiction / ecological thriller written by Jeff VanderMeer. In the course of this review I will be talking about elements of the plot including its conclusion. As this is a brand new book, if you have not had an opportunity to read it yet and feel like surprise is integral to your enjoyment of fiction I’ll put up front that it is an excellent book which I would strongly recommend reading.

VanderMeer’s prose is lyrical and carefully crafted and his use of a carefully developed palette of related metaphors demonstrates a singular artist. VanderMeer is principally known as a weird fiction author. I wrote about his work previously in my discussion of the New Weird, a term he was instrumental in coining. However this book is not a weird fiction book per say. Rather than being a book about a presence that should not be this is what Mark Fisher would describe as a book about the eerie. It’s a haunted book, one in which the question of agency looms large and where the agent is most generally marked by their absence.

This is a book that tries to engage with difficult questions regarding the impact of humanity on the global environment and how humanity is impacted by anthropogenic climate change. It is a book narrated by a deeply unreliable narrator and one that confronts hauntological questions both at the level of eerie agency and also at the level of how a person can be haunted by their personal history. It is, in fact, a book that attempts to collapse the distinction between the personal and the grand by demonstrating how both the little moments in a little life and world-shattering epochal changes are both equally haunted to the point where the question of agency between the two becomes indistinct.

If you read this review further please consider yourself forewarned that I will be discussing plot details throughout.

Hyperwhat?

There are two concepts from philosophical theory that are absolutely critical to an understanding of Hummingbird Salamander: Hauntology and hyperobjects. Of the two, the more conceptually difficult one is the hyperobject. The speculative realist Timothy Morton first presented the concept of the hyperobject in his 2010 book The Ecological Thought. This is a category of objects (in the philosophical sense of the word) that Morton believes to be distinct from other objects on the basis of several criteria. The central criterion is that hyperobjects must be, “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” The category describes things with scopes so vast that they become hard to sense. We live in the thick of them and their scope is far greater than fits comfortably into a human mind.

One of the central characters in Hummingbird Salamander is Silvina, the daughter of an Argentinian billionaire. He runs his (ostensibly family) business as an empire so vast and distributed that Silvina is able to steal substantial resources from him over an extended period of time without him ever noticing. His empire is too vast in scope for even he, the emperor, to fully grasp. Silvina carves her plan out of the crannies that he doesn’t see. Silvina is presented as somebody who doesn’t have the normal limits on perception. Lights are too bright, sounds too intense. She sees everything and it terrifies her. She flees into the wilderness to escape that intensity, becomes nomadic. Jane follows her on this path and she too becomes nomadic, flees the intensity of the thriller to hike in the back-country while the world falls apart in the background. There’s a sense that this nomadic retreat is a response to seeing too much – that the mind cannot tolerate being shown undifferentiated extremity.

In Sartre’s Nausea, Roquentin remarks, “I must not put in strangeness where there is none. I think that is the big danger in keeping a diary: you exaggerate everything.” Diaries and memoirs are central to Hummingbird Salamander. Jane pursues Silvina through her diary, which she later learns is only a fragment, a sanitized version of a much vaster thing curated for the consumption of an audience with a particular viewpoint. But Jane’s recollection, too, is a diary. There’s a chance we could interpret these accounts as exaggerations. Certainly we cannot trust Jane nor can we ever fully trust Silvina. But this exaggeration permeates everything. Everything becomes too big to take in all at once. Jane is as occluded from a relationship with her daughter as she is from the plot of taxidermied animals and bioterrorism she finds herself entangled in, as she is from the green-gray haze that is filling the sky. It is all too big. The memoir, written at the end of it all, also has an effect of making the times expand and contract in strange ways. A day might get a hyper-detailed recounting. Five years roll by in a haze as if the times were too big to perceive properly. Here we begin to see what appears a critique of Morton in VanderMeer’s book. Yes, some objects are too vast to comprehend. All of them in fact. So what makes something a hyperobject? Are we not just describing an object?

Morton continues describing hyperobjects in the book, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and ecology after the end of the world, saying, “They are viscous, which means that they “stick” to beings that are involved with them. They are nonlocal; in other words, any ‘local manifestation’ of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject. They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. In particular, some very large hyperobjects, such as planets, have genuinely Gaussian temporality: they generate spacetime vortices, due to general relativity. Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time. And they exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects. The hyperobject is not a function of our knowledge: it’s hyper relative to worms, lemons, and ultraviolet rays, as well as humans.”

There are legitimate questions that can be raised to the extent to which any one of these categories is distinct from a more typical conception of the object. In particular, a use of the conception from Being and Nothingness of an object as comprising an infinite series of appearances makes any given object non-local. The appearance of the absence of the object is as much part of the object’s existence as any other given appearance of it. “Nothingness can be nihilated only on the foundation of being; if nothingness can be given, it is neither before nor after being, nor in a general way outside of being. Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being-like a worm,” as Sartre says. If we can consider an absence of an object to be part of the being of the object then all objects are non-local. This-rock-here isn’t the complete object of the rock. I pick up the rock and throw it out of sight and it’s still the rock even though it is no longer this-rock-here. This-rock-here and that-rock-thrown-out-of-sight are both the same rock. Morton seems to be seeking an essence behind the existence of the hyperobject for its nonlocal appearances to be separated from it but I don’t think he ever really gets there.

As I said previously, Hummingbird Salamander is a haunted book. We are tortured by the thought of all the paths we didn’t walk and the choices we didn’t make. Power always exists off the edge of the page. As such everything is non-local. We have touchstones, the bag (Shovel-Pig) that Jane drags around, the eponymous hummingbird and salamander taxidermies, the ghost of Jane’s brother and her grandfather. But at the same time that she carries these everywhere they’re mostly marked by their absence. She hides the hummingbird in her gym locker then worries it’ll be missing. It is. And the absence of the object becomes as obsessive as looking at it ever was to her. The hummingbird is present in its absence, its nothingness is a component of its being.

Viscosity turns up a lot in Hummingbird Salamander. Jane finds ideas stick to her. She can’t escape her obsession with the mystery of the hummingbird and Silvina’s journal. She carries the death of her brother and her murder of her grandfather, who she wrongly blamed for the death, everywhere she goes. Jane sticks to her husband and even after she abandons him, he pursues her if only to get some closure, to understand why he became a ghost to her while the ghost of Silvina was so real. All of this takes the character of compulsion. It’s not that Jane wants to be reliving the dissolution of her first family as her second family too dissolves. It doesn’t ever seem that she really consciously desires the mystery of Silvina. “I am not a spy. Not a detective. Not caught and lost in some tangle or maze. Not lying against the mud and leaves watching over my brother’s body,” Jane says. But she can’t say what she is. And despite protesting that she isn’t a spy or a detective, despite protesting that she is not caught, she is precisely that. Caught in the tangle of Silvina’s life, her brother’s life, work and family and the family that was.

Ultimately we are left with two significant quality of a hyperobject that is not reducible to merely a subset of regular objects: its spatio-temporal vastness and that it its ontologically indifferent. Morton proposes that a hyperobject contains the qualities that make it different from ordinary-order objects regardless of the subject.At this point it might be valuable to address the nature of the hyperobject that is under examination in Hummingbird Salamander in the form of anthropogenic climate change. Climate change was one of Morton’s initial targets when he coined the concept and as much as he might be seen to have attempted to demonstrate a category of objects, a charitable interpretation of Morton’s works is that he was attempting to create a framework through which to understand why climate change is so hard to grasp and why that matters.

Hummingbird Salamander starts five minutes in the future. Pandemics happen, people wear masks, life goes on. The protagonist, Jane, carries on her life flying to conferences, failing to communicate with her family and avoiding work with only the slightest hint of anxiety projected over the narrative. As I mentioned earlier, this story is revealed to be something of a memoir or a confession Jane is producing at the end of it all and it’s unclear throughout the narrative how much of the anxiety in the early scenes of the book, when society is still sound and the wheels still turn with just marginally more grit, how much of her anxiety is what she felt in the narrated moment and how much is projected back from the moment of narration. “Somewhere along the way, for reasons I misremember, I bought a go-bag,” she tells us. She speculates what might have been the reason she got this thing before landing on her family, “I think I just wanted to protect them – from the thought, the impetus, the raging landscapes of the nightly news. Protect them from the idea I believed such a future might come to pass.”

Of course, by the time Jane says this to us, this future has come to pass. She has not adequately protected her family, has, in fact, abandoned them. Even her post-hoc speculation as to why she might have bought the go-bag contains a hint of delusion. She cannot even see herself clearly, how can she possibly see the problems facing her world. Jane is a terribly unreliable narrator. She tells us she changes details in her recounting. “You’ll never get their names,” she tells us early on. She says, “The moment I type their names, they’ll be lost to me, belong to you.” Every character in this book has an alias assigned them. We don’t see them clearly either. There’s an immediate sense in Hummingbird Salamander that everything is too big to see all at once. A secret hidden in the eye of the smallest taxidermied hummingbird contains a clue as vast as a mountain. People cannot be grasped in their contradiction or complexity. Is Silvina a billionaire’s heir playing games of power? A revolutionary? A terrorist? A sick woman working through her illness? Is she just a ghost? Perhaps she is all of these things. Jane spends chapters and chapters chasing across the country on a quest that turns out to be nothing but an apology letter from a stranger: a neighbour whose family drama impacted Jane’s life in ways far too circuitous to possibly predict. And yet in the end it is all just a single room – a missed detail – that contains the key to everything. The quest was superfluous in that Jane could have solved the mystery without it. But the reality is that she couldn’t have solved the mystery because she didn’t have the eyes to see it.

Hauntology

Hauntology is a concept that originally derives from the work of Jacques Derrida although much of the significant academic work on the topic was undertaken by people who followed after him such as Fisher. To be haunted is to be aware of the objects that are absent, the spaces left for unfulfilled potential, the choices unmade. This sense of haunting is deeply tied into the literary mode of the eerie, that Fisher describes as art that asks, “what happened to produce these ruins? This disappearance? What kind of entity was involved? What kind of thing was it that emitted such an eerie cry?” In Nausea, a pregnant woman remarks, “There… There… The seagulls.” Roquentin tells us that there are, in fact, no seagulls. The cry may just be something creaking. This is where the discomfort of the eerie lives, and it lives, too, in every facet of Hummingbird Salamander.

Throughout the story there is a deferral of revelation of agency. Silvina haunts Jane. Jane pursues her despite all the evidence suggesting she is dead, that her mystery is absurd and goes nowhere. Silvina’s father, as an antagonist, is always off-stage. He erases digital tracks, he hides behind goons who are mostly nameless. He appears once, via webcam, and later Jane is told that the man she saw was an actor, not the agent at all. And yet there is agency. People are run over by cars. People are shot. Warehouses are burned down. Evidence is stolen and witnesses are silenced. In his absence, Silvina’s father is everywhere. And so is she.

Jane is also haunted by her past. She had an abusive grandfather and an ineffectual father. They had a farm and she says it was struggling and yet Jane goes to university. She fumbled her way into a criminology degree, failed upward into a cybersecurity job. She lives in the suburbs and has a nice house in an expensive city. She flys first class but she always tells us that she grew up feeling poor. Jane had a brother who she loved and he died. They said it was drowning. She tells us her grandfather used to drown livestock and so she believed her grandfather had murdered her brother. She murdered her grandfather.

And Jane is haunted by the words she doesn’t say. She has a daughter she professes to love but cannot talk to. She has a husband she professes to love, but she cheats on him at conferences. Has cheated before, will again given the chance. Much of the text isn’t occupied by the things Jane has done so much as her reflection on the things she didn’t do, the conversations she didn’t have: ships passing in the night.

The climax of the book makes clear this idea of agency obscured. Jane returns to the place the mystery started, believing she will be able to find resolution there. There are two men who have been involved in the various twists of the plot previous who both also arrive in this place: the (likely former) government agent she only knows as Jack and a sometimes revolutionary, sometimes dealer in contraband animal products Langer. Jane previously nearly killed Langer and she previously nearly slept with Jack but in this moment neither are her friends. She is ascending the mountain in a fog. Langer approaches her and they have a gunfight where neither can see the other. “Then a furious fire from my right, through the fog, bullets snapping into the roots, into the trunk, as I slid to the ground, unhurt.”

Jane is eventually shot but she finds Langer in the fog. She attacks him and says, “it was brief and brutal,” of the encounter, claiming that Langer had no experience fighting close and she overwhelmed him. But as she recounts the story of the fight it becomes clear it was a close thing. Both of them are injured. Langer just a fraction more-so. And Jane doesn’t kill him. Instead a bullet out of the fog does Langer in and Jack captures the injured and fatigued protagonist. They find nothing on the mountain. He lets her go and disappears from her life.

Jane disappears too, abandoning the narrative to wander the wilderness and ignore the world. It’s all too much. She abandons the quest and any attempt to make sense of it all. Eventually the increasing dissolution of the US interferes with her retreat into primitivity and she decides to go home but roadblocks and disasters prevent her from getting home. She ends up instead back at the storage “palace” where she first found the hummingbird. The lights are out in the building but one light remains on and this is when Jane discovers that the solution to the puzzle had been there, in the room, the whole time. She just hadn’t had eyes to see it.

She finds Silvina dead in a hidden bunker along with Ronnie, another person who had been tied into the conspiracy, and realizes that the ghost she’d been chasing had been alive when she was questing but is not now.

The terrible thought. The unthinkable.
That as Hellmouth Jack and I searched and searched and searched for this place atop the mountain... that Silvina had been down here, watchin us. Observing us through the pebbles at our feet.
That she had still been in the world the. That if only I had been smarter, more savvy, more observant, I would have come up those steps into her secret place to find her alive.

It appears Silvina and Ronnie both died from an injection. Silvina’s grand project wasn’t a bio-weapon but rather an attempt to engender a new and trasformative relationship between people and the world.

In front of her like an altar, that odd medical station, which had three tubes for syringes held within a clear polymer container, radiated the cool hum of climate control. Two were missing. One of the two lay cracked on the floor beneath Silvina's dangling hand. It took no imagination to guess that Ronnie had taken the second.
Whatever it was, Silvina had thought it would change the world. Each was a different "approach," according to the documentation. Each promised radical transformation. Each promised contamination until you would see the world so differently. And as you walked out into t he world what had captured you would capture others and they, too, would be transformed. "We must change to see the world change."

An antidote to indifference

In the Denma Translation of the Sunzi, Kimmer Smith and James Gimian talk about the significance of perspective to understanding the ancient text. They start by describing how the Sunzi details complexity, how it demands the impossible, “because all things are interconnected, you must know each one, and how each one affects each and every other.” They describe a world where, “everything is in touch with everything else, always in movement.” They believe this dynamic and interrelated view of reality was the metaphysical basis of classical Chinese thought but they posit that different schools addressed it in different ways. Confucians focused on ordering the chaos. Taoists with riding its flows and breaks like a surfer. But Sunzi was mostly interested in an ontological response to complexity. “We must measure it from where we ourselves are standing. Here is a seemingly trivial example from a recent Chinese children’s book, in which a squirrel is trying to figure out whether it is safe to cross a stream. To him, it is a raging current, and he will drown there. But the stream is only up to the fetlocks of a horse.”

This perspective treats ontology as being positional; much like our relativistic idea of time, what is revealed and what is occluded depends on point of view. Jane returns to the mountain in a fog and finds nothing. She returns again in a blackout and finds the key to the secret. Silvina prepares three drugs to change perception. One produces a sense of ecstasy and then death. The second produces a sense of “completion” and then death. The third might transform the world. Or it might not. And it might depend on Silvina’s ark to repopulate the world. It’s left ambiguous. We cannot know because Jane’s memoir, her confession, ends there. We cannot know because we don’t have the point of view to see that end.

In the end there’s no such thing as a hyperobject. Everything that makes a hyperobject unique falls away, one by one, until you’re merely left with the infinity lurking behind every single object and the sense of ontological indifference – that rarefied nihilism enjoyed by the speculative realists that posits that every perspective, that of the person that of the stone and that of the air through which the thrown-stone flies, is essentially equivalent.

Except this isn’t true at all. As Hummingbird Salamander tells us again and again, perspective is highly contingent and our ability to grasp an object, the parts of an object that can be revealed to us, are intrinsically dependent on a form of subjectivity, and specifically one that can change. As Sartre discusses in Being and Nothingness, a person would only be aware that a friend was not in a restaurant if they first knew to look for the friend there. That absence is an appearance of the being of the friend that is revealed by a consciousness directed to the task of seeking out the face of the friend. All consciousness is consciousness of something which means that it will, by necessity exclude other things. However we can direct consciousness to be of one thing or another. If we are observing an army we can read its grain manifests, its marching orders and the faces of its soldiers or we can stand back on a hill and see that army all as one thing. We may occupy a position where climate change seems too big, where we can’t see it for its vastness. We might be a frog in a slowly heating pan of water unaware of the temperature change. We might be haunted by the decisions we didn’t make. “We must change to see the world change,” but of course the world changes all the time. As Jane abandons her co-workers, her family, the ghosts of the family she abandoned before, her ties to conspiracies, even her quest, she changes and in her transformation things become clear. Her grandfather never killed her brother. He was an awful man but he was ultimately just a fading old shell murdered for nothing. Her brother wasn’t a martyred saint. He was a poacher who died because he saw crimes he shouldn’t have. Silvina was never a bioterrorist; she might have doodled bombs in the margins of her journal but her ultimate plan was to give people the tools to see the change in the world.

Everything is too big when you really look at it. We are bound in subjectivity and as such we will always miss things. We will gloss over things, change names, allow things to go out of sight. We’ll decide problems are too big and refuse to look at them. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can move to a different position. We can look with different eyes. The fixity of ontological indifference is a mistake: a surrender to inevitability and apologia for inaction. We must change how we see. We must change to see.

The problematics of the Matrix sequels

Me, dismissing the haters

This is not a defense of the Matrix sequels. A lot of ink has been spilled trying to argue that The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) were good, actually. In fact, so much effort has been made to disprove the detractors that the question of what exactly the Wachowskis were attempting to accomplish in these movies has been left fallow when compared to the endless stream of essays regarding the themes and ideas underlying the first Matrix movie.

So we are going to start from the position that the Matrix sequels, which I will be treating as a single text, are good, actually. The question is not, “can we vindicate our fondness for these strange films,” but rather, “what were the Wachowskis trying to say with these strange films?”

The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix Reloaded presents a series of problematics around a central theme. We encounter the original setup for these problematics first when Neo talks with Councilor Hamann early in the film. His dreams are keeping him awake. “These machines are keeping us alive while other machines are coming to kill us,” Hamann says before digging into what it means to control something. Neo wants to suggest control is the power to destroy a thing.

Hamann disagrees, believing that control isn’t so simple. Sure, Zion could destroy the machines that keep it alive. But that would destroy Zion too. Is it self-control to smash the machinery of state or is it self-control to keep it running? Hamann doesn’t present any answers, in fact he’s very clear he doesn’t have the first clue how to answer that question. But he does manage to establish a linkage between three associated topics: the nature of control, the nature of choice and the nature of time. These are interconnected because it becomes evident as the story goes forward that an understanding of time is as fundamental to understanding volition as volition is to understanding control. As such, a failure to understand time creates an obstacle for understanding control.

Time is funny in this movie. The film starts in Neo’s dream in which Trinity in all her alien glory drops out of the sky in the midst of an act of beautifully outrageous violence divorced from any context. He experiences a disjunction depicted as a flow of code between two surfaces and then witnesses Trinity falling backward out a window somewhere elsewhere, pursued by an agent and in the midst of a gunfight. She is shot in the gut and he awakens.

However this is in tension with a structural formalism to the film that establishes a temporal cycle of violence and discourse. In the matrix there will be a moment of action. This action will lead Neo to a new place where he will have a conversation on those three topics: time, control, volition. Then there will be another outbreak of action and a transportation to a new location. It is likely this strict and anti-realist structural motif is largely responsible for the tepid audience reaction to this film. It’s as if William Burroughs used an action manga and a copy of Intelligence and Spirit to create one of his infamous cut-ups.

The Rave

The moment of action in Zion that leads before Neo’s dialog with Hamann is particularly interesting in its difference from the others. While his future forays into this recursive cycle of talk and action take the form of violence, in Zion the cathartic action that moves Neo into the discussion comes in the form of religious ritual. I think the Zion “rave scene” is perhaps one of the most centrally misunderstood moments in the trilogy of films. Specifically it is misunderstood as either a party, (and we know that Lana Wachowski likes filming parties so we can perhaps forgive this position) or as an orgy (which again we can link forward to Sense8 and its deployment of the orgy motif.) But it’s not precisely either, or rather, while it is a moment of orgiastic intensity it is so in a specifically Dionysian context of religious ecstasy.

Of course this hints at a kind of a pagan relationship to ecstasy and the transpersonal. A lot of the framing of the dance part of this scene frames people incompletely. We see bare feet on stone and sand. We see a roiling mass of bodies rising and falling to a percussive beat from a distance. Back to close-up panning across chests – clothes translucent with sweat.

In these scenes Zion is transformed into a single transpersonal being. The ego of any given person is absent the second Morpheus’ prayer ends. Instead there is just the community – and Neo and Trinity apart from it. Because we should consider that they leave. They make love as Zion makes love to itself, as Zion commits its act of worship, but they are apart from it. They’re framed distant, alone together. Just the two of them. The film doesn’t have to say that Neo feels disconnected from Zion but that he feels connected directly to Trinity; but later the Architect will draw attention to this difference while failing to recognize the significance of that change between a generalized sense of goodwill to one’s fellows and an intense love shared with another.

The Oracle’s compatibilism

The action sequence that bridges the Zion portion of the film with Neo’s visit to the Oracle isn’t particularly revelatory other than reminding audiences that Yuen Woo-Ping was still involved in blocking the fights and thus establishing some of the strangeness that will follow in the action of the film as being in the realm of choice rather than incompetence. Of course Yuen has been clear since that he was unhappy working with non-fighters and working with too much CGI and this vocal dissatisfaction was one of the things that soured audiences to the Matrix sequels. Notwithstanding his discomfort with elements of the Hollywood system, it’s clear when Neo fights Seraph that he stayed involved.

Seraph, for his part, only says that you can only truly know somebody by fighting them. This hints at Seraph being an agent of a dialectic understanding and primes the audience to treat the Oracle’s discourse as being fundamentally compatible with Hamann but this is a grace note more than a contribution to the discourse.

And here’s where things get interesting because the Oracle has some strong words on the nature of choice.

Neo: D’you already know if I’m going to take it?
The Oracle: Wouldn’t be much of an Oracle if I didn’t.
Neo: But if you already know, how can I make a choice?
The Oracle: Because you didn’t come here to make the choice, you’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it. I thought you’d have figured that out by now.

the Oracle tells Neo he’s already made a choice and that what matters is that he understand why he made it. She will later tell Neo a bit about the boundaries of her ability, that she cannot see past choices she doesn’t understand but the important thing is that she believes Neo can (and in fact does) possess something of her prophetic ability. This is because the Oracle is very interested in time.

I’ve talked before about Minkowski and the idea of a geometric understanding of time. To recap briefly, Minkowski and Einstein’s General Relativity concept of space time treats time as being a fundamentally positional relationship. All things that have an will happen coexist; the boundaries of being enclose time. In such a case every decision that you can make has always already been made. The Oracle is very clear that this is her position on time, telling Neo, “You have the sight now, Neo. You are looking at the world without time,” to describe his prophetic visions. Neo cannot see if Trinity dies because, “We can never see past the choices we don’t understand.”

Essentially the Oracle is introducing two problematics into the question of control, and they’re problematics that work very well with Hamann’s past arguments about interdependence. She’s pointing out that decisions are made but they’re made outside of a specific frame. A person always already has made every choice they will. However just as time is positional so is understanding. Neo from the position of the present cannot understand why he made/will make the choice he has/will made/make. This raises interesting problems for the question of will. Specifically, there’s the question of where choice is inserted into a process. If a choice has always already been made and the only question is understanding the circumstances that give rise to that choice is that a freely made choice? This is why proponents of absolute free will are uncomfortable with these fixed concepts of temporality. Creating a positional temporality as opposed to a flowing temporality challenges the ability of people to act freely. But the Oracle is clear choices have been made by subjects. In the conclusion of The Invisibles, Dane McGowan breaks the fourth wall and says “There’s no difference between fate and free will. Here I am; put here, come here. No difference. Same thing. Nothing ends that isn’t something else starting.” This is essentially the position the Oracle is taking, has to take as a result of the intersection of her opinion of time and her opinion of choice. There’s no fundamental difference between destiny and choice. A person chooses, has always chosen. They are fated by their choices because all the choices a person makes can be seen laid out, inscribed across the dimension of time. The relevant question is not, “did I choose this?” nor is it “what will I choose,” but rather “why did I choose this?”

In the previous discourse, Councilor Hamann says, “There is so much in this world that I do not understand. See that machine? It has something to do with recycling our water supply. I have absolutely no idea how it works. But I do understand the reason for it to work. I have absolutely no idea how you are able to do some of the things you do, but I believe there’s a reason for that as well. I only hope we understand that reason before it’s too late.” Ultimately for Hamann the question of “why?” is the principal question, the one that keeps him awake at night. The Oracle explains that this is because in understanding why you also produce an understading of what and how. The why contains these other questions.

The Oracle ends the conversation in a hurry. She gives Neo the location of the Merovingian and warns Neo the Merovingian just wants power. “What do all men with power want? More power,” she says before expressing her belief in Neo and escaping before the arrival of Smith.

The Burly Brawl

Smith: Our connection. I don’t fully understand how it happened. Perhaps some part of you imprinted onto me, something overwritten or copied. That is at this point irrelevant, what matters is that whatever happened, happened for a reason.
Neo: And what reason is that?
Smith: I killed you, Mister Anderson, I watched you die… With a certain satisfaction, I might add, and then something happened. Something that I knew was impossible, but it happened anyway. You destroyed me, Mister Anderson. Afterward, I knew the rules, I understood what I was supposed to do but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was compelled to stay, compelled to disobey. And now here I stand because of you, Mister Anderson, because of you I’m no longer an agent of the system, because of you I’ve changed – I’m unplugged – a new man, so to speak, like you, apparently free.
Neo: Congratulations.
Smith: Thank you. But as you well know, appearances can be deceiving, which brings me back to the reason why we’re here. We’re not here because we’re free, we’re here because we’re not free. There’s no escaping reason, no denying purpose – because as we both know, without purpose, we would not exist.

Smith is the ultimate paranoiac machine. This is a term from Anti-Oedipus. It describes the reaction of the Body Without Organs – a state of 0-intensity, of undifferentiated potentiality – against the attempts of “desiring machines” (the material process of desire) to penetrate it. Michael Hardt says, “While the schizophrenic follows desiring-machines everywhere on its errant walk, the paranoiac is hypersensitive, it suffers from desiring-machines, and wishes it could turn them all off. Desiring-machines are torment to the paranoiac,” in his reading notes on the book. Smith has always been distinguished with his revulsion for humanity. He “can’t stand the smell.” He has to disconnect from the Matrix and take out his earpiece to describe all the ways in which he cannot tolerate humanity. His progression from agent of the system to free-floating virus is one of continuous refusal to tolerate, of pushing back against desires, of refusal.

Smith’s multiplication of himself is the paranoiac screaming of, “Yes me. Me, me, me!” His hatred of freedom, of desire, of the movement of humanity off in all directions, is to push back, to homogenize and level everything out. He wants to make everything into Smith because that would give him some relief from the stink. Of course this anti-desire arises as a form of desire too. Smith wants because he wants an end to wanting. But Neo is not ready to understand his conflict with Smith, nor has Smith been positioned for his own resolution yet so their conversation is cut short and they have their first fight.

The Burly Brawl, the fight that results from this, is the moment that a lot of audiences believed the Matrix sequels lost the plot. The fight escalates and escalates to a bizarre degree as Neo and smith go from wrestling, boxing and rugby scrum to increasingly unlikely movements and behaviours. Neo’s appearance becomes increasingly digital, the artificiality of the scene becoming increasingly clear.

The initial read a person might give here would be to propose that the Wachowski’s reach exceeded their grasps. Remember that 2003 was the same year that Ang Lee’s Hulk came out. Spider-Man was one year old and its sequel would not come out for another year. Live-action comic book movies with CGI action sequences were in their infancy and the Wachowski sisters, in their hubris, attempted to put together a fight where a person with all the power of Superman has a martial-arts brawl with hundreds of identical clones of his nemesis. An attempt of a fight scene with this scope of digital manipulation didn’t become a significant part of the visual lexicon of action cinema until nearly a decade later. The idea of the empowered hero battling off waves upon waves of identical enemies may now be something of a cliche – but that is more a testament of Marvel to run a good idea fully into the ground than of any sort of extended history. However, despite the reasonableness of this proposition regarding the Burly Brawl this doesn’t quite fit with the action.

There’s a moment in the Burly Brawl when Neo pulls a signpost out of the ground to use as a staff. It comes out with a huge cap of concrete attached to it and this whole moment is fully a break from the real. There is no way a person could rip a pole out that way, there’s no way a person could do so especially with a neat cylinder of concrete ready to shatter in a special effect. Once Neo takes the staff up his motions become uncanny. This is the moment where the fight seems to go off the rails. But it also represents an increasing escalation in the action. More smiths. More flying. More slow-mo. More everything. The fight gets excessive to the point of cartoonishness quickly enough, and then keeps going, even inserting the infamous bowling pin noise into the audio when Neo uses one Smith to knock over a crowd of other Smith.

Neo’s increasingly unnatural movement, the way his clothes fail to act like clothes in the scene, all of this could be written off as the limits of CGI in 2003. But that sound? It’s a tell. And characterized by Neo literally uprooting a signpost at the start of the uncanny sequence seems too obvious a tell to disregard. We should perhaps view this fight instead through the lens of what the Oracle told Neo in the scene prior. The question isn’t did the Wachowskis choose to make this fight deliberately artificial so much as why was this fight so artificial?

I think the Wachowskis are trying to do, with Smith, what Seraph does with Neo in the fight prior to the Oracle conversation and identify the person in the fight. You don’t truly know somebody until you fight them Seraph says. This is a trap for Neo because Smith in the sequels is categorically not the Agent Smith of the first film. Neo might think he knows Smith but until they fight he would be wrong. And Smith is uncanny – he fits into Fisher’s definition of the weird. He is an unexplained presence, a presence that should not be present. Making Neo’s interaction with Smith so explicitly uncanny is a reinforcement of the impact he has on the world. Smith makes the world feel wrong, reality warps and bends around him because of his wrongness. This echoes the Matrix Revolutions when we see the following exchange regarding Smith’s impact on the Matrix:

Sparks: Yeah, that’d be swell. You can clean the windshield while you’re at it. Uplinks are in place, I’m bringing her back online. Looking good, except, uh… something wrong with the Matrix feed.

(Hammer: main deck)
AK: No, there’s not. You’re looking at what we’re looking at.
Sparks (v.o.): What the hell’s going on in there?
Link: Whatever it is, it can’t be good.

This sense of unreality doesn’t just pervade the fight between Neo and Smith though. It’s present throughout Neo’s depictions within the Matrix. His clothes never move quite right, they seem more like the idea of clothes than like actual clothing. This strange costuming extends to Morpheus and Trinity. Trinity looks alien throughout these two films when she’s within the Matrix. As a person in the real, she’s got emotion, passion, humanity. But her residual self-image is not this. She has a static blank-faced expression, severe, calculating. Her glasses are too big and too dark, her leather outfits too reflective. Morpheus also becomes a reflecting surface with clearly CGI-enhanced patterns constantly gleaming off his sunglasses. This strangeness clings to these three and does not infect the other rebels. Niobe, her crew and all the rest seem human within the Matrix. Neo, Trinity and Morpheus do not. They seem out of place. This seems to hint at a kind of gnostic sense of reality, as if proximity to the One is contagious. If Smith has become Weird it is in part because Neo is.

The Merovingian

The Smith fight acts as the transition to the meeting with the Merovingian. This is the powerful man who wants more power – he is a program who presents himself as a king, a gang boss, a god of death. His wife is Persephone. He owns two properties: Le Vrai (The True or, in a Baudrillardian sense, The Real). The Merovingian challenges the idea of choice in his discourse on the issue, saying:

 Choice is an illusion, created between those with power, and those without. Look there, at that woman. My God, just look at her. Affecting everyone around her, so obvious, so bourgeois, so boring. But wait… Watch – you see, I have sent her dessert, a very special dessert. I wrote it myself. It starts so simply, each line of the program creating a new effect, just like poetry. First, a rush… heat… her heart flutters. You can see it, Neo, yes? She does not understand why – is it the wine? No. What is it then, what is the reason? And soon it does not matter, soon the why and the reason are gone, and all that matters is the feeling itself. This is the nature of the universe. We struggle against it, we fight to deny it, but it is of course pretense, it is a lie. Beneath our poised appearance, the truth is we are completely out of control. Causality. There is no escape from it, we are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the `why.’ `Why’ is what separates us from them, you from me. `Why’ is the only real social power, without it you are powerless. And this is how you come to me, without `why,’ without power. Another link in the chain. But fear not, since I have seen how good you are at following orders, I will tell you what to do next. Run back, and give the fortune teller this message: Her time is almost up. Now I have some real business to do, I will say adieu and goodbye.

The Merovingian remains close to the Oracle in his position. He positions understanding of “why” as the root of power. Where he mostly differs from the Oracle is in his understanding of time. There’s a cyberneticism to his idea that positions everything as a causal sequence of events. If you can disentangle the cause of one of these causal chains you have power. Without that knowledge of the cause you are powerless – simply another step in the sequence. The Oracle recognizes that, materially, the Merovingian has power. He controls buildings, he controls people, programs. He collects useful things. He wills things and they are done. But because the Merovingian doesn’t understand time he misses the significance of understanding. Instead he divides the world into the powerful and the unimportant. The Merovingian’s causal mono-directionality might allow for feedback to occur – we see that in the games he plays with Persephone – but that’s all volition can ever be: the games of the powerful.

Neo gets trapped in one of these games as Persephone promises to help him get the Keymaker in a minor act of vengeance for the Merovingian’s manipulation of the “beautiful woman” – who he’s manipulated into a sexual encounter via his example of control. Persephone is also a powerful person. She understands exactly why she is helping Neo. She’s doing it to anger her husband. This works on multiple levels in the story, both acting as a reinforcement of the Merovingian’s thesis on control, advancing the action of the plot and introducing a commentary on the games that the powerful play with the lives of the powerless. It’s not entirely untrue that Neo doesn’t have power when he approaches the Merovingian. The Oracle has explained that Neo doesn’t understand why he has always already decided whether to save Trinity and that he must come to that understanding to progress. The Merovingian merely denies Neo will ever have the opportunity to understand; he creates a form of class privilege on understanding wherein only power can attract power.

The Architect

The final discourse on control, choice and time comes between Neo and the Architect. There is another action sequence prior to the conversation. It admirably shows us that Morpheus has grown as a person – that he has become more like Neo by being with Neo. It also gives us the opportunity to see the Wachowskis realizing cliches like the katana that can cut through a tank (or at least an SUV).

This action scene also brings us back to the initiatory action from Neo’s dream: we see Smith interfere with the plans of Neo and his team and we see Trinity forced to descend like an alien in black leather to the situation that will lead to her possible doom. With Trinity thus engaged in her fated moment, Neo opens a door and encounters the Architect.

Before we talk too much about the Architect I think it’s important to clarify a misconception about his discourse: The Architect is textually wrong. Every prediction he makes is incorrect. By the end of The Matrix Revolutions he is thoroughly repudiated and as such I don’t think we can take anything he says, about the capability of the Machines, the history of the world, any of it, as absolute truth. The Architect exists to be wrong. But Neo doesn’t know that when he first meets the program. The Architect is deeply focused on the inevitability of determinism and everything he says is viewed through that lens. While the Architect’s argument is important to the story, and is significant, the significance of it lies in Neo’s rejection of it. I believe what caused the misunderstanding of the Architect’s role has to do with a conversation Neo has later in the film:

Morpheus: I don’t understand it. Everything was done as it was supposed to be done. Once The One reaches the Source, the war should be over.
Neo: In 24 hours it will be.
Morpheus: What?
Neo: If we don’t do something in 24 hours, Zion will be destroyed.
Link: What?
Trinity: How do you know that?
Neo: I was told it would happen.
Morpheus: By whom?
Neo: It doesn’t matter. I believed him.

The first thing to keep in mind is Neo’s qualification, “if we don’t do something.” What he believes is that the Machines have the capacity to destroy Zion and have made a choice to initiate the destruction of Zion. However if Neo believed in the determinism of Smith or the Architect then there’d be not talk of doing anything. The die would be cast. It would be destiny.

However I think it’s also important to remember that Neo is not a character who operates as an authorial insert. There isn’t any one character in The Matrix who exists to address the audience on behalf of the author. Because The Matrix Reloaded is structured as a series of discourses in which Neo talks to a person and learns something, even expository characters are complicated here. We have Hamann, the Oracle, Smith, the Merovingian and Persephone and we have the Architect. Each of these characters (much like Rama Kandra, Sati, the Oracle, Trinity and Smith in The Matrix Revolutions) contributes to the audience’s understanding and to Neo’s understanding simultaneously. Neo may be checking in with the audience here to encourage the audience to believe the Architect in the moment but he has no authority to make the claim. He’s learning, just like us.

So the question becomes what wrong-path is the Architect leading us down, and why might he be leading us in this direction?

Architect: Denial is the most predictable of all human responses, but rest assured, this will be the sixth time we have destroyed it, and we have become exceedingly efficient at it.
The function of the One is now to return to the Source, allowing a temporary dissemination of the code you carry, reinserting the prime program. After which, you will be required to select from the Matrix 23 individuals – 16 female, 7 male – to rebuild Zion. Failure to comply with this process will result in a cataclysmic system crash, killing everyone connected to the Matrix, which, coupled with the extermination of Zion, will ultimately result in the extinction of the entire human race.
Neo: You won’t let it happen. You can’t. You need human beings to survive.
Architect: There are levels of survival we are prepared to accept. However, the relevant issue is whether or not you are ready to accept the responsibility of the death of every human being on this world. It is interesting, reading your reactions. Your 5 predecessors were, by design, based on a similar predication – a contingent affirmation that was meant to create a profound attachment to the rest of your species, facilitating the function of the One. While the others experienced this in a very general way, your experience is far more specific – vis a vis love.
Neo: Trinity.
Architect: Apropos, she entered the Matrix to save your life, at the cost of her own.
Neo: No.
Architect: Which brings us at last to the moment of truth, wherein the fundamental flaw is ultimately expressed, and the anomaly revealed as both beginning and end. There are two doors. The door to your right leads to the Source, and the salvation of Zion. The door to your left leads back to the Matrix, to her and to the end of your species. As you adequately put, the problem is choice. But we already know what you are going to do, don’t we? Already, I can see the chain reaction – the chemical precursors that signal the onset of an emotion, designed specifically to overwhelm logic and reason – an emotion that is already blinding you from the simple and obvious truth. She is going to die, and there is nothing you can do to stop it.
Hope. It is the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength and your greatest weakness.

The Architect experiences choice as the remainder of an unbalanced equation. However he also believes that the function of the One is to bring that equation to balance. The One is “both the beginning and end.” We can see that in the infectious artificiality that surrounds Neo. Trinity and Morpheus aren’t just stronger, faster and more capable of superhuman feats than they were before. Morpheus fights an upgraded Agent to a stand-still during the highway chase and what Trinity does when she engages her doomed raid is straight-up impossible. But it goes beyond their capabilities and into the way their residual self images have become more abstract. When Neo first awakens in the Matrix, he becomes coated in mirror-stuff but Morpheus and Trinity have become like mirrors in their appearance. There’s a reflectivity to them – Trinity’s leather suit gleams, Morpheus’s glasses are far more reflective than they should be. This digitally affected costuming echoes the abstraction of Neo’s almost-clerical garb.

Notice how the second costume is like an abstraction of the first.

That these changes are most evident in those people who are closest to Neo, his lover and his mentor, is important here thematically. But it goes beyond this – it is increasingly hard for the sleeping people of the Matrix to remain ignorant of the artificiality of their world when Superman in Jesuit drag is rocketing around all the time. Harder still once Smith starts his campaign of assimilation. But the Architect attempts to resolve this via a rigid dialectical negation. Neo will do these things because he must. The only choice presented is to allow the lover to die or to risk extinction one day later. The logical decision is obvious.

And Neo doesn’t make it. Instead he reinserts himself into the Matrix without obeying the Architect and he rescues Trinity.

Trinity: I’m sorry.
Neo: Trinity. Trinity, I know you can hear me. I’m not letting go. I can’t. I love you too damn much.

Neo is not able to make the logical choice the Architect expects because he loves Trinity. And he explicitly says that he cannot. Not that he doesn’t want to: he can’t let go of her. This idea, that Neo is constrained in his choices by love will become a very important key to how the Matrix Revolutions addresses the problematics laid out by The Matrix Reloaded.

All in all the structure of the Matrix Reloaded as a series of dialogs presents us with a clear matrix of ideas regarding interlocking themes: choice, time, control, consequence, love and hope are forced into a series of interactions. Is time a sequence of actions and reactions or a geometric substrate to being? If time is this or that what does it mean for choice? What is the nature of control, is it a relationship of domination and subjugation, or is it something of a mutual relationship? How does love affect choice? Is there reason to ever hope? This film can be seen as frustrating because it ultimately defers the answers. There is a line of compatibility that ties Hamann to the Oracle, that ties the Oracle to the Merovingian, that ties the Merovingian to the Architect and the Architect to Smith. Certainly we see where our alliances are supposed to lie – there is a variance in the hostility of the dialogs that goes from the mutual fondness Neo and Hamann hold for each other, the tenuous regard Neo and the Oracle have for each other, the grudging respect the Merovingian and Neo hold for each other through the threats Neo and the Architect trade to the outright violence of his encounter with Smith. But the multifaceted nature of the dialogs makes it difficult to say, “this is the right answer to this problem.” This is what leads to the confused interpretations of the conclusion of the film wherein audiences side with the Architect and believe him, as Neo does, of the existential threat that faces Zion. But ultimately we don’t know. We cannot know. We’re provided with a lot of opinions but no textual answers. You cannot look at the Matrix Reloaded as any more complete a film than Alita: Battle Angel. The only difference is that the Wachowskis, unlike Robert Rodriguez, had the opportunity to finish the movie when they released The Matrix Revolutions.

The Matrix Revolutions

At the end of The Matrix Reloaded Neo tells Morpheus that the One is just another control mechanism. This is largely derived from his encounter with the Architect who is persuasive in his argument that Neo is just that on the basis of a snooty attitude and Neo’s own doubts about what the Oracle is really attempting to do. We’ve established throughout the first two films in the series a few interconnected concepts: in the first film Trinity helps Neo survive being killed by Smith through her declaration of love. In the second, Neo saves Trinity because he loves her, with a declaration of that love, even though this might be dooming the human race to extinction within a day.

We have also established that there were at minimum one One prior to Neo and possibly as many as five depending on how willing we are to accept the narrative of the Machines over that of Zion. We have established that the Machines have decided to destroy Zion even though doing so would likely destroy the machines when the Matrix failed thanks to the meddling of Neo and Smith in it. It is worth noting though that the situation established at the start of The Matrix Revolutions calls back to Hamann’s problematizing of control in the first film. Certainly Zion could smash the machines that run the city but it would kill everyone. The Machines could kill Zion knowing that the Matrix is failing, but it would kill everyone, including the Machines.

The machines expect an eternal recurrence – that the One will arise, that the One will obey the Architect and reset the Matrix but now Neo has done something different. Furthermore the presence of Smith is, “not exactly,” how it went before. Neo discovers his abilities to interact with the code of the Machines has bled out of the Matrix. His encounter with the Architect has given him access to “the Source” – the central network of Machine communication distinct from the Matrix. But his use of the Source to destroy a Sentinel renders him unconscious and he awakens in a subway station in time for yet another piece of the discursive buildup to the conclusion of the Matrix movies.

Sati

Sati and her family are one of the most perplexing additions to The Matrix Revolutions. Her father, Rama-Kandra, is briefly seen leaving Le Vrai in The Matrix Reloaded but he’s a fleeting presence, a background character.

He’s waiting in the subway station with his wife Kamala and his daughter Sati. They expect a servant of the Merovingian, the Train Man, to come for them soon and Rama-Kandra explains that this was why he was speaking with the Merovingian in the previous movie. His daughter is a program created without a purpose. Lacking a purpose, she will be deleted and escape into the Matrix is the only way he can prevent the destruction of his daughter, who he loves.

Neo: I just have never…
Rama-Kandra: …heard a program speak of love?
Neo: It’s a… human emotion.
Rama-Kandra: No, it is a word. What matters is the connection the word implies. I see that you are in love. Can you tell me what you would give to hold on to that connection?
Neo: Anything.

For Rama-Kandra, “the power plant systems manager for recycling operations,” Neo’s love is a plain and visible fact. And he sees love not as an emotion but as a symbol implying connections, ties that bind. It’s unnecessary for Rama-Kandra to feel emotions as a biochemical response for him to understand what love is because he understands that the connection love represents matters and he will take lengths to protect it. Neo continues talking with Sati and her family and Rama-Kandra remarks that the Train Man is uncharacteristically late. Neo speculates that it might be something to do with him and we get the second significant part of this dialog:

Neo: You know the Oracle?
Rama-Kandra: Everyone knows the Oracle. I consulted with her before I met with the Frenchman. She promised she would look after Sati after we said goodbye.
Neo: Goodbye? You’re not staying with her?
Rama-Kandra: It is not possible. Our arrangement with the Frenchman was for our daughter only. My wife and I must return to our world.
Neo: Why?
Rama-Kandra: That is our karma.
Neo: You believe in karma?
Rama-Kandra: Karma’s a word. Like ‘love.’ A way of saying ‘what I am here to do.’ I do not resent my karma – I’m grateful for it. Grateful for my wonderful wife, for my beautiful daughter. They are gifts. And so I do what I must do to honour them.

When he announces that he does not resent his karma, that he is instead grateful for the things in his life, including his wife and daughter, Rama-Kandra explicitly ties purpose, previously tied to fate, determinism and causality directly to love. He doesn’t hate his fate – it’s a gift to honour. And yet the object of Rama-Kandra’s love is a being without purpose in Sati. It’s clear that a choice has been made, but it’s a choice that paradoxically venerates doing what one ought.

In The Joyful Wisdom (often also known as the Gay Science), Friedrich Nietzsche said, “I shall thus be one of those who beautify things. Amor fati: let that henceforth be my love! I do not want to wage war with the ugly. I do not want to accuse, I do not want even to accuse the accusers. Looking aside, let that be my sole negation! And all in all, to sum up: I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yea-sayer!” This concept, Amor Fati, literally means love of fate. Nietzsche believed that in an infinite time span all things would eventually repeat an infinite number of times. In his view we were each fated to live out the same life an infinite number of times – to make the same choices and to do the same deeds. It was not that we were compelled by a creator to do this. It was simply a property of the endless expanse of the universe, the endless bounds of time. This has much the same consequence as the Infinite Improbability Drive of the Hitchhiker’s Guide stories except extrapolated farther. Not only is the specific improbability of a sequence of events something that never will reach ∞ but also as that improbability will always be finite within an infinite universe its frequency thus become ∞ too. Faced with such absurdity the best hope one has for sanity is to affirm that one lives the life one has. After all you’re going to be living that life in exactly the same way over and over again anyway. You might as well enjoy it.

But let’s return to Rama-Kandra’s dialog because his love of his fate isn’t sufficient to resolve the paradox of a program without a purpose if Rama-Kandra’s satisfaction with existence is Amor Fati how can a being without a purpose contribute to that. Is she not without a fate?

We could consider the possibility that Sati has a purpose and that Sati’s purpose is to be an object of love but considering the role she plays at the end of the film I don’t think that’s right. After the action of the movie is all over Sati is there at the end and she repaints the sky of the Matrix, replacing the overcast green haze with a glorious technicolor sunrise. Sati has a purpose and that purpose is to inject change.

This is a consequence of Nietzsche’s eternal return that plays interestingly with the Oracle’s compatibilism. Because if the universe is infinite and this is the basis for the infinite repetition of the same life, there will also be an infinite number of recurrences that are different. We are fated to live the same life over and over and also every one of its possible variations. This time Sati paints the sky.

An accompanying concept to the eternal return and to Amor Fati within Nietzsche is the Will to Power. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche says, ” philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual Will to Power, the will to “creation of the world,” the will to the causa prima.” The will to the causa prima – the first cause. Will to Power is for Nietzsche a natural condition of living. It’s the basis from which Deleuze later proposes an affirmative difference. The will to power is the emergence of being out of nothingness. It is the first mover before all other causes that creates itself.

And if this is what Sati represents – this cause – then we are binding love not just to love of fate and resignation but to causation. With Sati we see the first hint of a solution to the questions of choice, determinism, and understanding from the prior film. Perhaps these connections, these manifestations of love, are what arise timelessly to initiate causal chains. Perhaps there hasn’t been one prior One nor five. But an infinite chain of Ones stretching forward and backward in all directions, bound to their fate to awaken humanity and to destroy humanity by the tension between love of fate and the will to power.

Zee and Link

Zee: They’ve called for volunteers to hold the dock.
Cas: *to the kids* Kids, you stay here. *to Zee* I know how you feel, Zee, but you can’t do that.
Zee: I have to.
Cas: Why?
Zee: Because I love him. [I love him the same as] he loves me. And if I were out there and he were here, I know he would be doing the same thing.
Cas: But you’re gonna get yourself killed. It’s crazy, Zee.
Zee: Maybe it is. But ask yourself, if it were Dozer, and you knew the only chance you had to see him again was to hold the dock, what would you do?
Cas: Make shells.

Zee is similar to Rama-Kandra in that she is another character who existed on the edges of The Matrix Reloaded. She was more present than him, the home and hearth to which Link returns for a painfully brief respite, a chance to understand who he is and how he connects to the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar. But, along with Link and Kid she becomes a central character in The Matrix Revolutions. Zee remains behind when Zion is evacuated. She makes shells. Then she serves as the loader in an infantry team – plugging the shells into an rocket launcher for Charra to fire. She’s the one who loads the shells that fell the digger mech and she’s the one who survives when sentinels finally kill Charra. Zee is animated by the singular goal of love. Everything she does: staying on the dock, rescuing Kid, opening the gate, is for the chance to be reunited with Link.

Zee has no deep philosophical dialog with Neo. There’s no moment where her opinions are put into a point and counter-point model. But even so her purpose in the story is clear. She is a living and breathing exemplar of the will that underlies love. Zee isn’t a warrior. She doesn’t serve on a rebel ship. She has no special training in combat. She goes into a meat grinder of a battle that kills countless people. We Charra and so many other infantry soldiers carried off by sentinels, impaled or cut to pieces. We see Captain Mifune and his squad of power-armor anti-materiel units cut to pieces. There is so much death. And yet Zee is untouched. She is propelled by her love, armored by it.

Zee demonstrates precisely how powerful the Wachowskis see love in the context of this discourse just by her lived example. Rama-Kadran and Sati might be able to comment on what love means but Zee shows how it feels. And it isn’t all good times. She’s reunited with Link at the end of the world. All her fighting, all the trauma she goes through, seeing Charra die, seeing the fall of the dock and the vast army of the Machines it’s all so that she can die together with the man she loves instead of apart. It’s all so that she can see him one last time. And she does! And they live! But imagine being Zee in that moment. Imagine seeing all that horrible monstrosity arrayed against you and knowing you were very likely not going to live another day. Imagine, despite all that, spitting in the face of despair and carrying on because even the smallest time with the one you love is worth the whole world. There’s an echo of Amor Fati here too. As Camus said, “What else can I desire than to exclude nothing and to learn how to braid with white thread and black thread a single cord?” Love exposes one to terrors and opens one up to pain. Zee lives not for herself but for Link. She throws herself into the face of death because she loves him. All that terror and pain is a black thread that she must bind to the white thread of her love. She can exclude nothing. If her only chance to see Link again, even just to see him a last time, is to make shells and hold the dock then she will make shells and she will hold the dock.

Trinity

Trinity: You want to make a deal, how about this? You give me Neo, or we all die right here, right now.
Merovingian: Interesting deal. You are really ready to die for this man?
Trinity: *cocks gun* Believe it.
Persephone: She’ll do it. If she has to, she’ll kill every one of us. She’s in love.
Merovingian: It is remarkable how similar the pattern of love is to the pattern of insanity.
Trinity: Time’s up. What’s it gonna be, Merv?

Trinity loves Neo. If there is one thing the Matrix trilogy is universally consistent about, that is never doubted and never challenged then it’s that Trinity loves Neo. Cypher saw it when he commented that Trinity never brought him dinner during the second act of The Matrix. Trinity affirmed it moments before Cypher is shot by Tank, whispering that, yes, she believes Neo is the One, fully aware that the Oracle told her she would, “fall in love, and that man, the man that I loved, would be the One.” Trinity’s enunciation of her love is what allows Neo to awaken into his power and defeat Smith. Love is a connection of course and so the reciprocation of that love, Neo’s love for Trinity is why he rejects the Architect’s instructions and returns to the Matrix to save her.

So it’s no surprise when Neo announces his suicide mission that Trinity insists on coming too. ” I know. You don’t think you’re coming back. I knew it the moment you said you had to leave. I could see it in your face. Just like you knew the moment you looked at me that I was coming with you.” There’s no doubt there. Like Zee, Trinity needs to weave the black thread and the white together into a single cord. The Merovingian calls love something like insanity. It’s an irrational choice but it is a choice that Trinity makes again and again, it is a choice that Neo makes. It’s the choice that Zee makes and this choice, this decision to love, to open oneself to love in all its beauty and terror is both the resignation to fate and the causa prima of all choice. The will to love is an irrational choice to bind yourself to another no matter the cost.

Trinity dies in the mission to the Machine city. But before she does, she sees the sun and it’s beautiful. As she lies dying she gives her final words to Neo:

Trinity: Do you remember… on that roof after you caught me… the last thing I said to you?
Neo: You said: “I’m sorry.”
Trinity: That was my last thought. I wished I had one more chance, to say what really mattered, to say how much I loved you, how grateful I was for every moment I was with you. But by the time [I knew I’d] said what I wanted to, it was too late. But you brought me back. You gave me my wish. One more chance to say what I really wanted to say… Kiss me, once more. Kiss me.

As in the case of Rama-Kandra’s dialog about love, karma and gratitude, Trinity talks about how grateful she was to have the chance to tell Neo what she really wanted to say. She follows her love into a death that she sees coming but she’s grateful because she was doing it out of love. Love is simultaneously a power that moves mountains, that paints the sky in many vibrant colours and a surrender. Kierkegaard understands love as a surrender, in Works of Love he says, “The emotion {love} is not your own expression but belongs to the other; its expression is his due since you in your emotion belongs to him who causes the emotion.” And so Trinity gives herself over to Neo in her love. Zee gives herself over to Link. When Nietzsche or Camus talk about Amor Fati – this affirmation of the life you have lived and will live – love fits within this perfectly in its form as surrender.

All the travails that Zee and Trinity go through are given over to another. One lives the other dies but neither has reason for anything but gratitude: not to a god, Kierkegaard might have sought that but Nietzsche and Camus did not, but to the object of love – the beloved person. Trinity gives herself over to Neo in love – but doing so is her choice. It will always already be her choice to surrender to love because she loves Neo. Love then becomes a principal expression of the Will to Power – the causa prima – that is eternally inserted into being and in doing so creates the possibility of difference within the tyranny of the infinite.

Smith

Smith: The great and powerful Oracle. We meet at last. I suppose you’ve been expecting me, right? The all-knowing Oracle is never surprised. How can she be, she knows everything. But If that’s true, then why is she here? If she knew I was coming, why didn’t she leave? *sweeps plate of cookies off table* Maybe you knew I was going to do that, maybe you didn’t. If you did, that means you baked those cookies and set that plate right there deliberately, purposefully. Which means you’re sitting there also deliberately, purposefully.
Oracle: What did you do with Sati?
Smith/Sati: Cookies need love like everything does.
Smiths: *laugh*
Oracle: You are a bastard.
Smith: You would know, Mom.
Oracle: Do what you’re here to do.
Smith: Yes, ma’am.
Smith/Oracle: *laughs maniacally*

Smith doesn’t understand love. He mocks the Oracle when they come face to face about love, about the Oracle’s statement to Sati that cookies need love. His way of showing that he has taken Sati and made her like him too. “Yes me, me, me, me,” is all Smith knows and because of that inward look he fails to understand love even to the extent of the Merovingian. The Merovingian, obsessed with causality, is unable to see the irrationality of love as being the cause at the root of things, and so it looks insane to him. To Smith even that level of awareness is impossible. There’s just that paranoiac reaction against sensation, against desire. Paranoiac machines are the producers of anti-production, the reaction against the injury desire does to the surface of potentiality. Love is bound up in desire, in the tangle of lives. The stink of the human is all over love and he can’t stand it. Smith is incapable of self-love any more than he is of loving another. Love demands surrender and there’s nothing of surrender in Smith, just the monomaniacal desire to level everything out, to make things quiet, to get rid of the smell.

He confronts Neo twice in the film. During the first confrontation he is wearing the rebel Bane:

Bane: Yes.. That’s it, Mr. Anderson. Look past the flesh, look through the soft gelatin of these dull cow eyes and see your enemy.
Neo: No.
Bane: Oh yes, Mr. Anderson.
Neo: It can’t be.
Bane: There’s nowhere I can’t go, there’s nowhere I won’t find you.
Neo: It’s impossible.
Bane: Not impossible. Inevitable. Goodbye, Mr. Anderson.

His hatred of flesh and his obsession with inevitability continue to define him. Neo is shocked to see Smith wearing flesh but the code within is all too clear to him. He sees Smith. But Smith cannot see Neo. Not really. He can’t understand him just as he can’t understand the Oracle. The Merovingian tells Trinity that the eyes of the Oracle can only be given, not taken by force. And yet when the Oracle tells Smith, “do what you’re here to do,” he doesn’t blink. He just takes without considering why what he took might have been given. Because Smith cannot understand love, because desire is injurious to him, he cannot ever become the prime mover. The Paranoiac machine is a reactive apparatus. So while Smith is able to remark that this time is different, he is unable to be the mover of change. The Merovingian sees those with power as being those who understand the first cause of a chain of events and Smith, absent an understanding of love, cannot come to that understanding. Smith cannot see past the decisions he does not understand any more than Neo or the Oracle could. As such his iron-clad certainty in inevitability is missing the complex topography of fate and choice for the trees.

Smith falls into total nihilism as a result of this fundamental failure of understanding. “The purpose of  life is to end,” he says, but he is ignorant of the other side of the equation of the eternal return: that all death leads to life. Bone meal helps flowers grow. Nothing is ever still and the paranoiac machine will eventually be syphoned off by another machine that will in turn link back to desire. It’s cyclical – a revolution of a different sort in the turning of a wheel. Smith and Neo fight and Smith believes with iron certainty that he will win. He’s seen it: “we already know that I’m the one that beats you.”

But even so Neo keeps fighting. No matter how often Smith knocks him down, Neo gets back up.

Smith/Oracle: Why, Mr. Anderson, why? Why, why do you do it? Why, why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something, for more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is, do you even know? Is it freedom or truth, perhaps peace – could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson, vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself. Although, only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson, you must know it by now! You can’t win, it’s pointless to keep fighting! Why, Mr. Anderson, why, why do you persist?
Neo: Because I choose to.

Here at last Will to Power is laid bare. Neo makes the choice to get back up. He takes the pain and the fear, the love and the striving, the beauty and terror of the world, he takes it all and he chooses to affirm it. He will not say no. He will be only a yea-sayer. Choice arises out of the facticity of our situation. We may be fated to make the same choices again and again across the aeons but now, within this frame, we can choose. We have that terrifying freedom to irrationally disregard the bars of our cage and say, “yes.” Neo’s last line in the Matrix trilogy is, “You were right, Smith. You were always right. It was inevitable.” He denies nothing. He affirms everything: the choice and the inevitable, causality and irrationality. All of it is true, all of it is compatible. It is an absurd resolution to an absurd premise but it is also an inevitable end. The Matrix trilogy describes the Oracle making a great wager against the Architect – that the human and the irrational matter: that there is purpose in the purposeless. Sati is the future for the machines. She’s created without a purpose and so she creates her own. She creates beauty out of love. A gift for Neo. Sati asks if Neo will return and the Oracle says she suspects so. She doesn’t know. The eternal return exists and we must learn to love fate in order to make any sort of peace with our facticity but that’s not the whole story. People make choices, difference arises. The same infinity that demands the eternal return also demands transformation. The wheel of being turns but we are not crushed beneath it. We can choose to get up, to affirm it all, to weave our cord of white and black thread and have gratitude for our surrender to love.

Nice Strawman Ben

The conviction of Derek Chauvin in the extra-judicial execution of George Floyd has led to a moment with regard to prison abolition. Of course one of the principal attacks levied at prison abolitionists is, “Aha! Surely that means you think Derek Chauvin shouldn’t be in jail.” This is an old and favourite rhetorical tool of conservatives, liberals and all other people who want to oppose transformative change within society. Let’s look at one of them.

Ben Burgis opposes prison abolition. Mr. Burgis is a lecturer in philosophy at Georgia State University Perimeter College who writes for Jacobin and Quillette (yes that Quillette) and who writes books of political philosophy directed toward responding against conservative rhetoric through the use of formal logic. However it appears he forgot that the strawman is a failure of logic because he has constructed a remarkable one in his (ugh) Socratic dialog with the prison abolitionist.

The central position he takes is that prison abolitionists want to defer the moment of abolition into the future – that we are furthermore happy to see prison used now – and that any program to abolish the prison must be fully articulated before we bring out the wrecking ball. He does this through a cringe-inducing dialog script that I would expect from a C-graded undergraduate rather than somebody holding a doctorate. However in making his argument against prison abolition into a fiction he has moved it into my territory as an art critic. So let’s examine some of these lines:

Me {Ben}: “So, for example, you don’t think Derek Chauvin should be put it in prison? Because it seems to me that locking up murderous cops would be a really good first step toward correcting some of the crazy power imbalances between cops and ordinary people we’ve got right now…but if you’re an abolitionist about prisons, I assume you disagree?”
PA {Prison Abolitionist}: “No, don’t be ridiculous. I still want to lock up Chauvin. It’s not like abolitionists want to let everyone out of prison immediately. That’s a caricature.”

Here Ben establishes the parameters of the argument. The argument must center around the immediate task of what is to be done with this specific delinquent. The argument must further center around whether the prison abolitionist is fully consistent in their views when confronted with our protagonist. He has situated this within the genre of the Socratic dialog, positioning the Prison Abolitionist as one of Socrates’ interlocutors, and himself as the Gadfly of Athens. Charming.

Of course Ben misses the point here. I don’t want Chauvin locked up. Nor do I want him executed. I want Chauvin to never have been. And as the past is inaccessible to me, my principal objective, and the principal objective of most prison abolitionists is to bring about the world where no more Chauvins arise. Since Ben is well-versed in philosophy, I’m going to call this bad faith in a very specific meaning of the word. Ben’s argument is a flight from the position of his freedom. He’s free to imagine a world without Derek Chauvins, free to imagine somewhere beyond the prison. But he runs from it because the ambiguity of the situation terrifies him, and Ben cannot tolerate ambiguity:

Me again later: “Hmm. I still love Angela Davis but the only part of that book that was relevant to this discussion was pretty bad. The last chapter was the only one about alternatives to prisons and it was just astonishingly hand-wave-y.”
PA: “What do you mean?”
Me: “Well, for example, she talked about ways to reduce crime in the long term but she never exactly said whether she believes interpersonal violence would ever literally be reduced to zero, and if not what should be done with remaining offenders.”
PA: “You probably would have been just as dismissive about the movement to abolish slavery in the 19th century.”
Me: “Excuse me?”
PA: “You heard me. People can never imagine what radical change will look like until it’s happened.”
Me: “You don’t think 19th century abolitionists knew about wage labor when they were talking about abolishing slavery?”
PA: “Maybe they did. But what as socialists you and I agree is the next historical step after that — abolishing wage labor? Didn’t Marx say that we shouldn’t write detailed recipes for the cookshops of the future?”
Me: “Marx was wrong. He was right about most subjects but he was wrong about this one. When you don’t write those detailed recipes, the people you’re trying to convince will be understandably skeptical about whether they’ll have anything to eat in that future. The good thing, though, is that lots of people have written recipes. I wrote a quick one here. Bhaskar Sunkara wrote a more detailed version in the first chapter of his book The Socialist Manifesto. David Schweickart wrote a super-rigorous book-length one you can read here and…”

I cannot look at this section as anything other than an expression of fear. He’s terrified that, in Davis’ vision of the future, there would not be a perfect solution to violence but let’s be real here: there is not, now, a perfect solution to violence. In fact, in the United States, one of the greatest vectors of violence is the police force. Burgis, in this dialog, demands perfection of the critic before he will countenance the destruction of the established system. And furthermore, he acts as if no proposals had been put forward. This is categorically untrue. And I don’t even need to go to communism to find strong arguments for abolition. I don’t need Marx to make this case.

Me: “So why do you call yourself an ‘abolitionist’?”
PA: “Because I want to abolish prisons.”
Me: “BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?”
PA: “It’s not my job to educate you.”

I suppose, since your protagonist in this little play wants to play dumb, that it is my job to educate you about what it means to be an abolitionist, and I know you’re a philosophy instructor. You’re published in zero books so I’m going to assume you read Fisher. I mean with how extensively your book borrows from Exiting the Vampire Castle I would assume we could skip the 101 stuff. Even so, I’m a bit apprehensive by the weakness of your Socratic dialog so, just to be safe, let’s talk about Foucault for a second.

“This delinquency, with its specificity, is a result of the system; but it also becomes a part and an instrument of it. So that one should speak of an ensemble whose three terms (police-prison-delinquency) support one another and form a circuit that is never interrupted. Police surveillance provides the prison with offenders, which the prison transforms into delinquents, the targets and auxiliaries of police supervision, which regularly send back a certain number of them to prison,” he says in Discipline and Punish. Foucault demonstrated in this book how the carcerial is constructed of an interlocking system of power relations that both create the police officer and that create the delinquent – the lens through which we view the subject who undertakes crime. As this is an uninterrupted system, the abolition of one depends upon and must necessarily be constructed of the abolition of all three. Chauvin exists because the carcerial exists. So to say that the carcerial must exist so that Chauvin may be punished is circular logic. Chauvin is a product of the carcerial just like every cop and every criminal processed through its ministrations. Doubly so being a delinquent-police officer. I want to tear down the prison because it creates Derek Chauvins.

Furthermore your “prison minimalism” has another word: Reform. And Foucault rightly points out that efforts to reform the prison began immediately upon the formation of the prison. The effort to reform the prison is, in fact, a principal vector of its functioning. And so we cannot reform. That will merely perpetuate the carcerial and all the cruelty it creates.

Tiqqun understood the stakes. In Theses on the Terrible Community, they said:

Evasion is like the opening of a blocked door: initially it gives an impression of not seeing as far: we stop looking at the horizon and begin putting into place the details for getting out.
But evasion is only a simple escape: it leaves the prison intact. We must have desertion, a flight that at the same time obliterates the whole prison. Properly speaking, there is no individual desertion. Each deserter takes with him a little of the group’s fighting spirit. By simply existing he is an active challenge to the social order: and all the relationships he enters are contaminated by the radicality of his situation.

We must have a mass desertion of the prison. Not tomorrow. Not in the future. Today! This very minute! Right this second! We must vacate the cells, pull down the police forces, smash the prison and end its panopticism, we must break the cycle of arrest-delinquency-release-collaboration. You might say I’m being a revolutionary firebrand (I am) you might say I’m being unrealistic (I am not). And I don’t need to depend on revolution to declare the prison obsolete. In fact I can look to one of the most famous critiques of Discipline and Punish to do just that. So let’s turn our attention to what Deleuze had to say about the episteme we occupy.

On prisons, and other disciplinary institutions, he said, “everyone knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their expiration periods… These are the societies of control which are in the process of replacing the disciplinary societies.” Deleuze is explicit in his postscript that the days of the disciplinary societies that gave rise to the prison are ended and that we already have new epistemic tools for dealing with such problems.

“Controls are a modulation,” he tells us and he proceeds to describe Guattari’s keycard-controlled city: the nightmare whereby at any arbitrary moment access to this place or that could be withdrawn like an unwanted module of a complicated machine. Of course this is a nightmare, but is it a worse nightmare than the one we want to wake from? The nightmare of the panopticon and the cellular instruction toward docility that mark the carcerial? I think not. But you are so incurious in your dialog that you imagine there is no alternative.

Of course it sometimes seems to be that this is true and there is no alternative. It’s terrifying to imagine yourself so radically free that the prison could be deserted. And there will almost certainly be violence. Only less so once the guns have been taken from the police and the prison guards. Less so when the social field has been reordered such that the people who would use violence to impose their will upon another do not have the sanction of a state and its monopoly to prop them up.

“The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again,” Fisher said, and this is a kernel of revolutionary optimism we revolutionaries cling to. I have shown you it’s possible to imagine the world without the prison, and if it’s a nightmare I have given you it is at least a gentler one than the nightmare we are all currently live within. It is the duty of all of us to break out, this minute, all at once. And so long as people remain trapped in this nightmare, we abolitionists and revolutionaries will call for the wrecking ball. Release the terrified grip you have on the devil you know: freedom, real radical freedom, is terrifying. I know. It scares me too. Heavens knows it scared Sartre. But what frightens me far more is the idea that people would rather this familiar cruelty than the possibility of anything better.

About where certain authors should fuck off to

The Hugo awards have provided us a few controversies. There is, of course, my quixotic quest to turn a consumer culture against one of the principal sellers of cultural product. However there have been a few other things brewing below the surface. And these have mostly been questions about whether certain prickly works deserve to be included. On all but one of these issues I’d rather remain silent. This is because, in all but one of these issues, I have not yet read the work in question.

I have read George R.R. Martin Can Fuck Off Into The Sun, or: The 2020 Hugo Awards Ceremony (Rageblog Edition) and it’s…

Well…

It’s art criticism.

Now I’ll precis this by saying first that it isn’t good art criticism. And I wouldn’t be voting for this blog entry to get a Hugo award. But if it did somehow win the Hugo (something that is more likely thanks to reactions such as calling for Worldcon to censor the title) it still wouldn’t even be the worst rageblog to ever be given a Hugo for best related work. Not by a long shot.

I’m calling the Fuck Off Into The Sun blog art criticism because I’m treating award ceremonies as art works. Luhrs certainly makes an honest attempt at critique when she says, “The proper role of an awards show host is to keep the audience entertained between awards and get the fuck out of the way of the people being honored. Martin did neither.” And this blog does not read like a grievance letter about Martin’s poorly organized loser’s party but rather a systematic attempt to look at the tone of the awards ceremony, its adherence to the tropes of the genre, its ethical and aesthetic characteristics, and the messages it communicated. That’s art criticism and that makes it an appropriate nominee for a best related work Hugo. That it wasn’t very good is neither here nor there.

But, of course, things have gotten silly. I read the blog on the strength of its amusing (if somewhat over-long) title when the Hugo nominees were announced. When I told some co-workers who aren’t tied to the “fandom” scene about the Hugos this essay was the one they wanted to know more about. Even normies have heard of George R.R. Martin and it isn’t surprising that they wanted to know about why someone wanted him to fuck off into the sun – or that they wanted to know why this opinion would be popular enough to be nominated for an award. And I laughed. I told them there’s a long tradition of such silly entries in the Related Work category because not that many “fans” care about it and it’s easy to slip something onto a ballot with even a small kernel of support. Let’s not forget the minimum threshold for entry onto the Related Work ballot this year was 31 votes.

I said there wasn’t a chance in hell it’d actually be the winner. I mean even that Bronycon video was a better critical work. And there was that tantalizing translation of Beowulf; there was a highly rated book of critical analysis about Octavia Butler for goodness sake – related work has an embarrassment of riches this year. But this idea of subjecting a nominee for an award to scrutiny for a supposed ethics violation of the convention that is hosting the award for which she was nominated is some next-level childishness.

I’ve talked before about the defensiveness of the consumptive fan – the idea that even the weakest criticism (and this is weak criticism) is met with extreme hostility because the associated identity as a fan is so fragile that it cannot suffer anything that might harm the reputation of the product the fan has invested meaning in. It’s been pointed out already that the calls to censor the title of this nominee have come from fans of George R. R. Martin including one who runs a fan website that is not affiliated with the author. Of course this will almost certainly end up as an example of the Streisand Effect and frankly, if by some unlikely circumstance the Fuck Off Into The Sun blog wins the Hugo it should be presented to Luhrs by the administration of the Westeros site – after all, they will be the ones who have given it to her. This is, as I said before, all very silly. Thin-skinned fans can’t bear the thought of their favourite TV Producer / occasional novelist being criticized for being an old, white, wealthy American who acts like an old, white, wealthy American. They have constructed so much of their own identity with their affiliation with the Game of Thrones brand that her criticism, which was pretty obviously a surface level criticism wherein Martin was being used as a stand-in for a series of systemic grievances that are hard to get at in a blog post and thus not exactly a thorough evisceration of his oeuvre, was too much for them to take. It was as if Luhrs’ act of criticism was an assault upon the fans. This sort of fan behaviour is, as I’ve harped on about many times, to the detriment of the arts.

Then there is the bit of legalistic wrangling that has become the lynchpin of the complaint of these disgruntled fans: “Comments directly intended to belittle, offend, or cause discomfort including telling others they are not welcome and should leave…” This is honestly kind of laughable coming from the same concom that took several days to debate whether to retain a GoH who was the administrator of a forum that included Trumpist Insurrectionist discussion. We need to seriously consider whether a person who administered a safe-space for hate speech is an appropriate guest of honour but we wouldn’t want anybody to feel unwelcome. And this cuts to the heart of the problem I raised during the Baen’s Bar imbroglio. There is no way to make everybody welcome. A welcoming space for a bigot will be, by definition, not a welcoming space for the subject of bigotry. Now I am not calling Martin or his fans bigots, nor am I suggesting that Discon III should be unwelcoming to Martin – who is something of an establishment at the Hugo awards notwithstanding how he may have succeeded or failed as a presenter. Rather I’m saying that the idea of censoring the name of a Hugo nominee in order to avoid the risk that Martin or, more importantly, Martin’s fans might get their feelings bruised is childishness. So no. George R.R. Martin Can Fuck Off Into The Sun, or: The 2020 Hugo Awards Ceremony (Rageblog Edition) should not win a Hugo. But it has earned its place on the ballot and the fans who are lobbying to censor it should take a deep breath and learn to cope with a world where some people may have bad things to say about popular old rich men.

Hugos: Have we forgotten Disney Must Pay?

Yesterday the 2021 Hugo Award nominees were announced. There’s a lot of interesting stuff on it. Harrow the Ninth and The City We Became are both high up my to-read list. Aliette de Bodard is one of my favourite authors in general – I’ve previously written about her books and I’m very tempted to dig up “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” soonest for all of the Hugo nominated print fiction on offer this year.

I am also very excited to read Beowulf: A New Translation, by Maria Dahvana Headley Moving out of print work, dramatic presentation, Long Form, includes the best comic book adaptation to come out in the last few years with Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and another very strong contender within the category with The Old Guard – a movie I enjoyed perhaps not as much as Birds of Prey, but would still consider one of the best genre entries of 2020.

Short-form dramatic presentation has strong contenders with the series finale of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which is a possible contender for a future Kid’s Stuff essay and with the series finale of The Good Place, for which I have a lot of affection. All in all this slate of finalists looks far better than the painful slates we suffered through during the tumultuous Sad Puppy years. And yet I’m not happy.

Because it seems like the entirety of SFF has forgotten that, as of the time of writing, Disney still has not paid Alan Dean Foster. Disney’s insufferable expression of unadulterated brand-as-entertainment, The Mandalorian, is nominated in short-form dramatic presentation not once but twice, and the Pixar movie Soul is nominated in long-form dramatic presentation. I have never felt even the slightest whit of interest in The Mandalorian as I consider the entire enterprise almost entirely lacking in artistic merit. On the other hand, Soul may very well be a very good cartoon. I don’t care. It’s shocking that the genre “fan community” would show so little concern for the material conditions under which artists labour as to heap fan-accolades upon the Mouse that Eats.

Recently Disney bought and shuttered a minor competitor of Pixar in Blue Sky Studios. This is on top of their widely-covered acquisitions of Fox, Marvel, Lucasfilm and Pixar that have marked its monopolistic quest to control all of entertainment over the last fifteen years. In my opinion there is no greater threat to artistic expression, in the world, than Disney. Not even Amazon is as harmful. Disney has now begun using its streaming service to directly supplant cinema as a result of the 2020-21 COVID-19 pandemic, charging exorbitant mark-ups to access feature movies like the Mulan reboot in which Disney attempts to cement its ownership of a poem older than even Beowulf and Raya and the Last Dragon. There is no reasonable frame in which Disney’s corporate maneuvers, their acquisitiveness and their monopolism can be divided from their art.

Disney’s rapid acquisition of genre properties should be of grave concern to genre fans. It has a long history of homophobia, colonialism and racism. It is a four-quadrant obsessed producer of massive tentpole films in which people don’t fuck or swear, queers exist in subtext alone, and where violence is safely PG-13. It is deeply in bed with the US military. Disney’s vast acquisitions have the effect of flattening and circumscribing the imaginations of audiences who have very few options that aren’t the Mouse. And this also plays into the construction of consumer communities that reduce the act of engaging with art to merely being an unpaid amateur brand ambassador. And so I’m pleading with fan communities to remember that Disney doesn’t care about artists. It just cares about hoarding art and treating it as a revenue stream. If we’re fans of art and not of brands we must show Disney as much distain in 2021 as we did to the Sad Puppies in 2015. The risk to art from Disney is far greater than the risk to art ever posed by the Puppies.

So please do not vote for any Disney owned artworks at this year’s Hugo awards. And spread the word.

Fanishness, Consumption and Desire

I like The Good Place.

Shock, right? The weird nerd who can’t shut up about Deleuze and Guattari, Sartre and de Beauvoir, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche likes the show that is literally a sit-com actualization of famous ethical problems.

But memes like this one drive home that there may be… other… reasons why I enjoy the show. There is a language-of-community that traces lines between media properties and identities. In the case of queer identities these are often representational. Eleanor Shellstrop is an out bisexual. The simple fact of her enunciation of attraction not just to Chidi but also to Tahani was probably sufficient to earn The Good Place a fair number of fans among what we might loosely describe as the Bisexual community just by dint of being able to see our experience of desire articulated even in such a basic way.

The same pattern holds through for a whole ecosystem of media; similar memes appear for Brooklyn 99 – another show with an out bisexual protagonist. But these go farther; “every bisexual likes Brendon Fraser’s 1999 adventure film The Mummy.” In this case it is entirely driven by aesthetic indicators that aren’t even subtext. Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, Arnold Vosloo and Patricia Velasquez didn’t play bisexual characters; but the use of gaze sexualized these four principal characters to almost the same extent and this, combined with the likelihood that it was a formative movie for a lot of millennial adolescents in the late-1990s has made it into something of a “bisexual fave.”

Of course, not-said is that in the 1990s, when many bisexual millennials were adolescents, there wasn’t much in the way of out-bisexuality on screens. The hints of subtext in queer-coded cartoon villains and in the gaze-decisions of adventure films were often all that they had to build an understanding of their desires around. And these weakly-representative media, or the non-representative media that has been post-factually coded as representative media, has become very important to a generation of bis such that a lot of my fellows will get quite defensive of the importance of such representation in its function to rendering the bisexual experience intelligible to straight audiences. I mean can’t you see the corollary of desire between Evy and Rick? Isn’t it obvious how being able to show the way in which the camera allows us to look at Rick and the way in which the camera allows us to look at Evy are similar? Doesn’t this relatable bit of nostalgia allow me to be seen?

We all want to be seen and understood at some level. And this desire, to use media to create a matrix of understanding that another can use to see you, is a central one underlying most fannishness. But this leads to a more insidious process whereby the desire to be understood via a thing becomes an internalized self-understanding via the thing. “I felt more bisexual after I got this haircut,” cue Twitter drama.

This provides a valuable lever for marketers. People aren’t, after all, that picky about what identities they form, and any given group of people will be as likely to form an identity around a product or sequences of products as they are to assign a correlation between product and an implicit and existing identity. This is how you get trekkers, how you get the post-ironic Jedi church, and how you get formations like the Sad Puppies.

Remember the Puppies?

Friend-of-the-blog, Camestros Felapton has been working on a detailed history chronicling the Sad Puppy movement at their blog which I would recommend to get a sense for the major players in this fraught period. If you are interested in learning how the Sad Puppies arose, how they relate to other online reactionary movements, what they did and for whom, the Debarcle series is an incredible resource which I would recommend highly.

I’m not so interested in this case in looking at the specifics of major figures such as Vox Day or Larry Correia except in-as-far as they operated as marketers with a product (their books) to sell. To put it simply, these authors were very successful in mobilizing a fanbase to move copies of their books, to attract attention to their personal brands and to develop a position as a sort of thought-leader within the broader “fandom” community. What is interesting is the way that they essentialized consuming a product (buying a certain type of science fiction and fantasy novel) as the principal activity of a fan.

It’s these fans I’m principally interested in. Not any given fan as an individual, mind, but the great breadth of the fan culture that the Sad Puppies inculcated. Because they were, in a lot of ways, not dissimilar from other genre fan groups such as the Browncoats.

In both the case of Browncoats and Sad Puppies we saw groups of fans whos identity was centralized around their consumption of a specific type of media. Note that while some Browncoats may have been fan artists (fic writers, cosplayers, etc.) this was not a central part of Browncoat identity. What was central was an open, public and emphatic love of Firefly signified largely through the use of linguistic signs and occupation of shared spaces. The same happened with Sad Puppies. Being a Sad Puppy didn’t preclude being and artist (as many of its ringleaders were authors) but being an artist was not an essential part of the Sad Puppy persona. Instead it was the adoption of a certain rhetorical position, the use of a shared vocabulary and occupation of shared spaces all with the aim of celebrating their love for a specific marketing category of art.

And we can observe how this identification with a product turns sour in both cases. In the case of Browncoats there was an ongoing sense of ressentiment toward the cancellation of Firefly and a constant effort to maintain Firefly as a significant part of the cultural lexicon of the broader genre-fan-communities. Browncoats often acted as evangelists, attempting to persuade other people who entered into their shared spaces not only to show politeness toward the idea of loving the show but also to become Browncoats themselves. This evangelistic aspect of behaviour seemed to be an attempt to act upon, and thus mitigate the ressentiment that they felt over the show’s perceived poor-treatment by its parent network and subsequent cancellation.

For the majority of Sad Puppies, this connection between ressentiment and evangelism also holds true. They had a belief that the category of product around which they’d developed a shared identity was being maligned. They acted upon this by evangelizing, attempting to persuade others that they were a legitimately aggrieved party, and also in ultimately useless attempts to brigade an award nomination as if assuming that award would undo the negative light under which their preferred marketing category was viewed.

This is ressentimental in character because both Browncoats and Sad Puppies were impotent. Despite the occasional success of fan-writing campaigns to save at-risk shows, it was never particularly likely that the Browncoats would succeed. As time went by, these odds reduced even further. However what they did succeed in doing was in identifying themselves to marketers as an easy audience for secondary products: cosplay artifacts, signed actor-photos, tie-in fiction, tie-in games, branded glassware, keychains, posters and other décor items, etc. The Sad Puppies, for all their sturm und drang, were likewise impotent. Even if they had succeeded in brigading the Hugo Awards, it would not have marked a significant change in the regard the general public had for their right-wing inflected pastiches of Heinlein juvenilia. But they made themselves very easy to identify by marketers who were all too happy to sell them books and the other various cultural signifiers that they could use to signify participation in this identity.

There is an impotency to the consumptive fan. This impotency is built into the conflation of me and mine. A consumptive fan has staked his own self-recognition on a series of identities he can try on. He is a Browncoat, a Sad Puppy, a science fiction convention attendee, a Hugo voter, a Marvel fan, a metalhead. He seeks himself in these product identities and ultimately finds nothing. Of course Sartre argues that being-for-itself must haul itself whole-cloth out of nothingness, but the consumptive fan does this by just pointing at this or that object and saying, “that is me, and that, and that.” But how can one be for one’s self when all one can imagine being is a series of brand markers, projected by another, with the intention of becoming nothing more than a consumer of product?

Gates and walls

When a person has thus staked their identity upon the impotent demand to consume another imperative arises. Because we can’t forget that capitalism is a deterritorializing force par-excellence. It creates the ‘interpassivity’ and a subjugation via interaction and participation that Fisher warns of in Capitalist Realism. If capitalism is going to be everything and sell everything it creates a problem for the person who has built their identities around consumption of various products. Deleuze and Guattari describe a subject who, “spreads itself out along the entire circumference of {a} circle, the center of which has been abandoned by the ego.” This consumption-as-identity is ultimately more scizo than the fan is comfortable with; by making themselves nothing more than a series of marketing categories, they risk dissolving into all those dividual bits from which they’ve constructed their being back into nothingness. If Firefly is forgotten where is the Browncoat?

The solution is to harden the shell. The consumptive fan must construct a binary, an inside and an outside that doesn’t exist except within their own hearts. There are us, the Sad Puppies, and them, those horrible commie pinko science fiction snobs who don’t like Heinlein or two-fisted action adventure stories. There are us, the Browncoats, and them, the people who think Firefly wasn’t actually very good. The consumptive fan must build a wall around the camp of their fannishness in order to retain the cohesiveness of such a threadbare identity as the one they’ve formed. But the fan is also an evangelist, so they must construct gates through these walls. Those gates take the form of sharing behaviours – whether that’s Easter-egg hunting in an MCU episode, using Whedonesque patois, or putting watch gears on a pair of goggles. A person can signal that they are to be let within the walls by demonstrating sufficient commitment to the consumer-culture of the in-group.

But when you have a wall and you have a gate you have guards. And gatekeepers are always watching to catch people who slip up – who demonstrate insufficient loyalty to the identity. The weaker the tie there is between these consumptive identities and some implicit identity, the more fiercely the guards will protect it. Introspection is dangerous, if you look too closely at an identity built around being a fan it begins to crumble under the weight of scrutiny, but panopticist inspection of your fellows is not only expected: it is necessary for the maintenance of the identity. See, a fan must always be watching out for imposters because any devaluing of the product consumed is a devaluing of the fan’s own being. If I have built an identity around loving The Good Place and then somebody comes along and points out that, just maybe, the philosophy presented is a little trite, perhaps the actors aren’t quite the paragons of kindness the marketing makes them out to be, maybe Eleanor Shellstrop’s bisexuality is merely a bit of performative winking to attract an easy mark in recognition-starved bis, that wounds me.

Any violence to the object of devotion becomes violence to the subject who is devoted. “When you said my show was bad it was as if you kicked me,” “how dare you defile the good name of Firefly by pointing out its racism,” “the authors I like deserve awards more than those gay communists.” The sense of injury is real even if the injury itself is not.

Desire

We must treat desire not as a response to a lack but as rather a site of production. It is, in fact, one of the principal machineries by which the Sartean paradox of being-for-itself arising out of nothingness can be resolved, as the action described in Anti-Oedipus of desire attempting to penetrate the potentialities of the surface of the Body Without Organs and the repulsive production that happens in response maps the flows by which a being is able to create itself. As such, desire is intrinsic to being. Don’t think cogito ergo sum but rather cupio ergo sum. Desire creates the object of desire, and Deleuze in Guattari are quite clear in Anti-Oedipus that this is a real creation. If a desiring being is prevented from acting upon that desire materially they will create the object of desire in their minds nonetheless. The schema of desire proposed by Deleuze and Guattari involves an ever-complexifying network of machinic processes. Each step of this process involves a machine that couples to another, syphoning off the output of the former. And each machine in turn becomes the input to subsequent processes. Through this network of machinery, a great roiling fabric of desire can be seen and this arises both in the personal field and also through the social field, with the inscription surface, the Body Without Organs of the social field being described as a socius.

This is the basis for which I am describing some distinction between those desires that arise within a being and those desires that arise at the prompting of pressures of the desiring machines of the socius. There is a common mistake made by dialectical materialists of assuming that all desire is imposed from without – with their distaste for the power relations inscribed upon the socius, they reduce each being to a naked pool of nothingness, reduce the self to the mere hammer of history. But of course all this is doing is assigning a kind of essentialism to bourgeois desire, as if capital were so powerful and so intoxicating that an entire false-consciousness could arise that would stamp out any sort of desire that arises within a being.

It is never so simple as such binaries. Rather, as desire represents a dynamic flow, it is generally a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic sources acting upon a subject. Talking about Proust‘s depictions of sexuality within In Search of Lost Time, Deleuze and Guattari suggest, “everyone is bisexual, everyone has two sexes, but partitioned, noncommunicating; the man is merely the one in whom the male part, and the woman the one in whom the female part, dominates statistically.” If everyone is, in fact, bisexual, then my bisexual desires almost certainly have an intrinsic rise. But the ways in which I engage with that bisexuality – the norms that tell me when I should simply pass as straight, the deliberate preference of certain media in order to present that matrix of understanding to the world, how I style my hair or the language I use, what walls I watch and upon whom I engage in scrutiny – these are a decidedly mixed bag.

I liked The Mummy just fine, but it wasn’t part of my matrix of personal understanding; in 1999 The Matrix was much more formative to my sense of desire, as was Eyes Wide Shut. And yet, as other Bisexuals don’t talk about Eyes Wide Shut, I rarely do either, what’s the point? It wouldn’t become something I could use to form a position of recognition in others. Continuing on the topic of bisexuality, Deleuze and Guattari put forward, “in contrast to the alternative of the ‘either/or’ exclusions, there is the ‘either… or… or…’ of the combinations and permutations where the differences amount to the same without ceasing to be differences.” We cannot reduce these differences down to nothing but media consumption. We cannot assume every person is just a little nothing – a blunt instrument of historical force – with no real differentiation even when we recognize the insidious way in which the desires of others can shape our own wants.

Ultimately the consumptive fan is not a totalizing identity. A person can be now a fan, now an artist, now a critic. On a day when I’m feeling tired or isolated it can be fun to lose my self in the fantasies of Neo, the slick leather and gleam of dark glasses in seedy underground clubs speaks to me at a deep level. I can create those dangerous virtual spaces as a reaction to the desire to be different among others. Or it can be fun to lose myself in Eleanor Shellstrop: a disaster of appetite and ego – the learner whose hunger to learn is as much a product of her appetites as everything else about her. And in those moments I might point at those objects and say, “this is me, and this and this.” As such we shouldn’t be too hard for people just for becoming trapped in the desires of others. Deleuze put it bluntly, “If you’re trapped in the dream of the other, you’re fucked!” And for many people who occupy the role principally of the consumptive fan, this is entirely what they are. We should pity such people and help them to find liberation where they can. Art arises from the intrinsic desire; it is the waste-output of the construction of being-for-itself, and it is a desiring machine. We insert this machine into the sequence of our own desires because that is how desire works.

But this doesn’t mean we cannot tend our gardens. We can recognize that there is a difference between, “this is mine,” and, “this is me,” and do the work of bringing the desiring machinery of the art we engage with to the point of breaking down before recursively returning it, newly imbued with our own being. As much as every artist has the potential to be the consumptive fan, so too does every consumptive fan have the potential to be an artist. And as we smash walls and dismantle systems of panoptic surveillance, so too must we help to situate these beings closer to the wellspring of their sense of being-for-themselves.

Revisiting the Invisibles

I wrote about The Invisibles in 2016 in an article that was something of a test-balloon for the style that I’ve more recently adopted in this space. At the time I focused mostly on King Mob and argued for a Hegelian read of the character as a unification of opposites and a movement toward unity.

King Mob is attractive in that manner. King Mob as a character basically exists to depict permutations of a dialectical search for recognition from within the self. The images King Mob presents exist as a nested series of negations. The lynch pin to this series of self-negations comes in a flash-back in Volume 2. This incident relates back to a time when King Mob and Jolly Roger – another Invisibles cell leader – had studied together in a monastery.

Their instructors had trained them:

 6: "Have we yet come even close to a full description of it?
Did we even mention that several hundred years ago it wasn't a chair but a tree? Where is it now, here? Or in memory?"
E:"We cannot even fully describe a chair and yet we say, 'I am.' 'I am...'
Understand there is no, 'I am.'
Nothing, 'is.'"
"Try to describe all that you are"
"Simultaneously discern the logical flaw in what I've just said."
"Now!"
"Feel the White Flame"

This meditation becomes a method of resisting mind-control within the text of the story as it is a lesson in escaping the bounds of self that mind control is posited as manipulating but while this describes a dissolution of self it does so in a specifically unifying way. The identity of the chair is negated in the identity of the tree – the difference is negated in the temporal unity between tree and chair. There is no self because all things unify in the sufficiently idealistic white flame – a generative moment of pure intensity that cannot possess a self because it is all things at once.

King Mob elaborates on this later when he describes reality as being the holographic interaction of two overlapping meta-universes – these he describes in totalizing terms – “healthy,” and, “terminally sick, deranged.” This hologrammatic metaphor is something Morrison sustains for so long that an inattentive reader might actually believe this is what their story was saying. But this is the ultimate unifying metaphor – all that exists does so because the many were subsumed into unity. This collision of the healthy and the deranged meta-universes is the collision of two carefully defined objects in such a manner that they blur into each other and become, in the devastation, one.

But of course King Mob isn’t the protagonist of this story. And the Invisibles, for all it might wink at the idea of being in service of transcendent unity, cannot sustain this illusion. In the end, one of the principal targets of The Invisibles wrath is Thelema. Sir Miles, the primary antagonist of the story, is repeatedly referred to as a highly initiated Thelemite and the idea of the, ‘Satanistic Tory,’ “an existentialist who just wants to feel guilt,” is baked into the climax of the story – with the perverse coronation of the Moon Child. And, if you wanted to propose a totalizing and unifying read of the Invisibles then this deployment of Thelema as the antagonistic ideology proves problematic. Thelema divides history into epochal aeons built around a set of opposing ideological values. These transformations are imbued with a sort of historical determinism that might almost echo Marx albeit absent the materialism that undergirds dialectical materialism. Thelema is almost entirely a species of idealist belief – as above so below – and Crowley’s aeons have a kind of Fichtean dialectical character to them – each aeon arising in response to the problems presented by the one before – and this sort of idealistic grounding makes for a strange basis for the antagonists of the story – should we really read The Invisibles as an internecine dispute among the German Idealists?

And the actual protagonist of The Invisibles laughs straight in the face of this absurd proposition. He laughs and boasts that he’d be a great messiah – would give kids a day off school. Dane McGowan identifies the trap in the unity of the white flame as early as his confrontation with the King of All Tears in the House of Fun. He stays with the Invisibles and constantly acts like a counter-weight to King Mob during dialog scenes. It sometimes becomes easy to forget, with King Mob’s bluster, his tragic relationship with Ragged Robin, and his use as a vessel of authorial insertion, that the story is actually about Dane. He’s the one we meet on page one of the first volume and he’s the one who pronounces, “our sentence is up.” on the last page of the last volume. King Mob’s holographic universes are a fake-out. Robin’s all-now comes closer but is ultimately one final trap. There is something lurking around the edges of the Invisibles story – a thing that is dismissed when Sir Miles asks about it – but it is the central concern of the story. And that thing is the universe attempting to be born and its placenta.

The magic mirror of The Invisibles is a perfect example of a Body Without Organs in art.

Where King Mob and the other dialectical characters of The Invisibles are correct is that this story is about getting past the barriers of self. But the holographic metaphor which unifies two meta-universes into a transcendent whole acctually miss the mark about what’s happening here. Instead we have to look past the climax of the story, wherein Dane McGowan eats a god and then travels with the Blind Chessman to the AllNow, and into the 2012 coda. Here we see that Invisibles, under Dane’s leadership, have moved away from these unifying dialectical understandings of self toward the Memeplex – a fragmentary and disjointed understanding of being as a series of becomings. Much like Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the Scizo in Anti-Oedipus – the being composed of machines each interrupting the last and each breaking down, being taken out of its series or socketed into some new series in turn – the Memeplex denies a totalizing identity for any given self. If a self dissolves not into the white flame of unity but rather into the writhing and worm-laden flows of the Body Without Organs, and from there into the disjunctive froth of the machinic, of pure affirmative difference, then this rather takes away from the idea of two meta-universes pressing close and forming the illusion of the universe as the holographic boundary between them.

But this brings in the thread of The Invisibles characterized by De Sade and his little utopia of the pornographer, and the references to Wilhelm Reich and Stanislav Grof that are brought along with it. And what do these three very disparate figures share in common?

Sex.

Sade

Of course there is the Marquis de Sade. I want to start by situating the Marquis and sadism within the context of the use of his thought in dialectics. Here, Deleuze becomes handy. In Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty, Deleuze says:

Sade and Masoch are not merely cases among others; they both have something essential to teach us, the one about masochism and the other about sadism. The second reason why Masoch's fate is unjust is that in clinical terms he is considered complementary to Sade. This may indeed be the reason why people who are interested in Sade show no particular interest in Masoch. It is too readily assumed that the symptoms only have to be transposed and the instincts reversed for Masoch to be turned into Sade, according to the principle of the unity of opposites. The theme of the unity of sadism and masochism and the concept of a sadomasochistic entity have done great harm to Masoch. He has suffered not only from unjust neglect but also from an unfair assumption of complementarity and dialectical unity with Sade. 

Despite sadomasochism being one of the most widely discussed dialectics within sex, Sade and Masoch strain against each other. While each had his lessons, they were not easily situated into a dialectic. The contradictions between their views of reality are intrinsically irreconcilable. Deleuze reads Bataille’s interpretations of Sade to suggest that Sade’s work is, “paradoxical,” that the description of torture can only arise from the victim and that, as such, the victim-subject of Sade’s work is the viewpoint to understanding Sade’s cruel libertines.

For his part, Bataille imagined a revolutionary Sade. In The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade (An Open Letter to My Current Comrades), Bataille attributes a sequence of values to Sade. His argues that Sade is attempting to tell the audience that:

 It is high time that human nature cease being subjected to the autocrat's vile repression and to the morality that authorizes exploitation. Since it is true that one of a man's attributes is the derivation of pleasure from the suffering of others, and that erotic pleasure is not only the negation of an agony that takes place at the same instant, but also a lubricious participation in that agony, it is time to choose between the conduct of cowards afraid of their own joyful excesses, and the conduct of those who judge that any given man need not cower like a hunted animal, but instead can see all the moralistic buffoons as so many dogs.

This cautionary reading of Sade – this idea that Sade is speaking from the position of the victim in order to demonstrate how morality provides the framework for the exploitation of the libertine takes on a very clear representation in the film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom which situates the libertine excesses of Sade’s text during the final days of Italian fascism.

This film treats Sade’s work in much the same way that Bataille does – not as an apologia for the lust of the torturer but rather as a warning and a call to revolution. Sade grabs you by the face and demands you don’t look away from the consequences of the moral system we have normalized within our culture. The libertines of Sade’s books expound at length on their beliefs but, Deleuze says, in contrast to the characters of Masoch’s writing, they teach nothing. There is no instruction for the tortured.

It is worth noting that, when the Invisibles retrieve the tulpa of Sade from the past in the first volume of text, they must bring him through 120 Days of Sodom specifically. As the narration of the bleak story of abjection reaches its climax, Morrison’s Sade says, “The revolution came and I saw the weak become strong and do in their turn what the strong have always done to the weak. I was sickened.” King Mob rolls his eyes and suggests that the only thing they can do is “try to see the funny side.” After all, the libertines of Sade’s stories have nothing to teach in their pages and pages of exposition. They are, for Morrison as for Deleuze and Bataille, a critique of the cruelty of men in power to exploit that power.

As such, Sade makes a fitting character for the ideological wing of a rebel group but still an odd fit for a group with an explicitly dialectical objective of the dissolution of the self into oneness. After all, Sade doesn’t unify cleanly with Sacher-Masoch. His libertines are not fully unifiable with the cold and cruel teachers of Sacher-Masoch. While the libertines blab on and on about their beliefs, they teach nothing, they have no desire to teach anything to their victims. And we, for our part, are given the perspective of the victims within Sade’s work. If we cannot even unify sadism into oneness with masochism, why would we use him to move toward unity?

Furthermore, Morrison does not deploy Sade in this manner. Instead, Morrison, who is openly non-binary now though they were not out at the time, uses Sade to create a third gender in the non.

At the time The Invisibles was written, terms denying a gender binary were in their infancy. The term non-binary, in relation to gender, had been in use for four years in explicitly queer spaces, but it would not achieve widespread understanding until it was popularized by the internet sometime after the publication of The Invisibles. And yet here we are, observing Morrison miraculating, “a new gender; cruel and poised, beautiful and self-contained,” denying one of the most fundamental binaries. However we cannot consider the non a unification of male and female – Thierro says they desire sexlessness, not to be both sexes. The non is, rather, a third term introduced into the interactions of gender. There remain men and women. There are also non. Now Morrison presets Sade as obviously arrogant and willing to take credit for many absurd things. We don’t need to believe Sade is the architect of the non. But when he recruits Thierro at the end of the first volume we get narrative from Thierro’s perspective:

He tells me I have left the houses of the dead and entered the land of the truly living. I am to be no particular age, no particular sex. I am to be fluid, mercurial. He tells me I must slogh my name and my past as a snake sheds its skin. 
He pins a blank white badge to he collar of my jacket. I sit in my seat, nameless, invisible, untouchable, breathing blue smoke. I ask him what I should call him. 
The engine starts up. 
I settle back in the leather seat, becoming weightless and transparent. There is no more time. I close my eyes.
And in y mind I see the sun rise on a new and better world.

While Thierro seems quite happy to have shed their past gender in favour of this brave new future, we see the fingerprints of Sade’s instruction in the narrative. But of course Sade isn’t a teacher. Sade’s works deny the idea of instruction as anything more significant than the powerful talking for themselves. So what are we to make of Morrison’s Sade, teaching strangers against his own inclinations, introducing disruptions into supposedly harmonious systems, creating chaos? Sade creates a utopia of sex and while this utopia does try to decouple reproduction from desire the reality is that Edith’s tour of Sadeland shows very clearly that an outcome of sex, even in Sade’s utopia is children. However mostly what Sade does in his little utopia is play around. And as such Edith’s visit to his compound serves as foreplay to the climax of the story.

And children are the definition of the introduction of a disruptive third term into a dualistic system. One last note before we leave Sade: while in Sadeland, Edith is shown a giant Orgone accumulator. It appears to be having an impact over the weather and she predicts that Sadeland will be nearly at the point of achieving something when time begins to warp around Sadeland.

And this might seem strange. Time and weather being shaped by sex acts. But there are few 20th century psychologists stranger than Wilhelm Reich – and as we depart Sadeland the next step to understanding the anti-dialectical character of The Invisibles is Organon.

Reich

Wilhelm Reich was an early Freudo-Marxian psychoanalyst. He was educated by Sigmund Freud in Vienna, becoming a doctor in 1922, and had a… storied… career which included several affairs with his patients, a search for a material basis for consciousness that provided much of the prefiguring groundwork for the career of Felix Guattari, he became one of the earliest proponents of preventative reproductive health, attempted to bring mental health to the masses, coined the term “sexual revolution,” wrote one of the earliest texts discussing why people would support their own subjugation (The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933)), developed a psychiatric practice that involved massaging naked patients, fled the Nazis to the United States, attempted to make weather-control machines, got in trouble with the FDA for advocating miracle boxes, began chasing UFOs, had even more affairs with even more patients, was imprisoned for fraud for continuing to advocate for miracle boxes against FDA orders, and died in prison. The FDA burned many of his books during this period which led to a posthumous history of conspiracy theories, accusations of pseudoscience and Kate Bush music videos.

It should be obvious from this description that Reich was rather pre-occupied with sex. Rather specifically he was preoccupied with orgasm. Orgiastic potency was one of Reich’s earliest ideas. He saw this not only in the vulgar sense of being able to achieve sexual release, but in the more general terms of being able to “achieve full resolution of existing sexual need-tension,” which, considering the Freudian bent of his work, in turn underpinned many elements of sexual health.

However it must be stressed that Reich was very much unlike his near-contemporary Carl Jung in that he was an arch-materialist. It may be that Reich’s materialism that led him to first consider a Marx-Freud synthesis. Regardless, he had become something of a communist, if a strange one, by 1927. Reich continued his work on attempting to find a material cause of consciousness, first looking at phenomena such muscular tension as possible sources. However in 1937 he changed the direction of his enquiry becoming, for the time, one of the leading figures in light microscopy with work on cancer cells leading him to believe he’d identified a substance called a bion which he believed to be a bridge between living and non-living materials. Experimentation with these materials allowed him to provoke the production of tumors in tissue cultures and led to his devising of the idea that he’d discovered…

I mean I don’t know how else to say this.

Reich thought he’d found midi-chlorians. Reich conceived of an energy force which he called orgone and which he believed permeated existence. He believed this to have several material effects, including the facilitation of consciousness, the maintenance of cellular health and even the colour of the Northern Lights. He thought these bions were the receptors that allowed the collection and use of orgone by living systems. In all of this, Reich was attempting to undertake a serious scientific inquiry into fundamental, still unresolved, questions. That he came up with an answer that has the totalizing trappings of pseudoscience – one weird trick that explains everything -shouldn’t be held too strongly against him. (This isn’t an attempt to downplay his obviously compromised ethical compass, but rather to situate that, strange as Reich was, he wasn’t entirely off his rocker.) Reich tied this cosmic energy to the Freudian concept of Libido. A more refined variant of a simmilar attempt to understand consciousness can be found in the work of fellow-Freudian Melanie Klein in her work on partial objects and in Deleuze and Guattari, who devote some considerable effort to a kind critique of Reich and Klein in Anti-Oedipus with the formation of the idea of desiring-production. This concept, unlike Klein’s partial objects but (to a certain extent) like Reich’s bions and orgone had far-reaching metaphysical implications.

Regardless, following his flight from Europe in 1939, as Europe was increasingly a bad place for a left-wing intellectual with strange ideas about sexual liberation at the time, Reich settled in the United States where he devoted the remainder of his career to studying, and theorizing on, orgone. He eventually founded a rural retreat and observatory which he dubbed Orgonon. (This is the place the narrator of Cloudbusting still dreams of.) Derived from his prior experiments with tumors in Oslo, Reich became convinced that orgone would allow for the curing of cancer in patients. He persisted in tying orgone to the moment of orgasm and to libido in general. He furthermore became convinced he’d developed a methodology for creating orgone-rich environments. These took the forms of enclosed boxes called orgone accumulators. And Reich could not shut up about orgone accumulators with all their sexual innuendo fully on display. It didn’t take long for Reich to discover that the United States in the 1940s was as hostile to a sex-obsessed Marxist academic as Europe had been. By 1954 the FDA obtained an injunction prohibiting Reich from transporting orgone accumultors or writings about orgone and orgonomics (the study of orgone) across state lines.

Reich disregarded this injunction, and was charged and convicted for contempt in 1956 to a two-year prison sentence. While he was imprisoned, the FDA destroyed as much of his writing on orgonomics as they could get their hands on. He died of heart failure shortly before he would have been eligible for parole.

In the Invisibles, Sade is a perfect figure for foreplay before sex. Our opposites come together, come so closely together their boundaries blur, and then all kinds of scandalous things occur. With contradictory, cruel, revolutionary, cynical Sade we can represent the whole possible breadth of such liberating scandal and also situate the critique of it.

Reich then comes after – he comes, again not to put too fine a point on it – at the moment of orgasm. The awkward and spasmodic life of Reich is not text in the Invisibles. He’s only present in the extent of the regard Sade serves him in Sadeland, and in how Edith hints he is the path forward from Sade. It’s a brief moment – a few pages, a side adventure in the last volume before the fun of god-eating and knight-hanging gets underway – but it forms a bridge between the foreplay of Sade and the resolution of the story. The invocation of Reich just before the climax of the story drives home what is being done when the Invisibles kidnap Sir Miles and then subject him to a torture which is textually juxtaposed against an Invisible initiation ceremony (the Jack Flint initiation) that is structurally almost identical. By juxtaposing Sir Miles facing ego-death while dosed on Key-23 to Jack Flint also experiencing ego-death while dosed on, yes, Key-23 administered by the exact same people the text is all but shouting at us that what Sir Miles is undergoing isn’t torture. It isn’t revenge. It certainly isn’t an interrogation. What they’re doing is an initiation. In the kidnap of Sir Miles, the Invisibles are taking a parcel of thought, of energy, and they are firing it into the body of the opposite. This moment certainly seems dialectical when taken alone but it isn’t the final resolution. Rather it is the fulcrum between coming together and coming apart again. This isn’t a collapse into unity, it’s the piston-movement of a sex act.

In the end, this is what the principal text of The Invisibles is. I mean King Mob, acting as authorial insert, gives this away in the final pages when he says the story is, “a thriller, it’s a romance, it’s a tragedy, it’s a porno, it’s neo-modernist kitchen sink science fiction that you catch, like a cold.” It’s a porno. It’s right there – the Invisibles describes a highly abstracted metaphysical sex act. If the two meta-universes have collided it isn’t in the manner of the titanic and the iceberg but in the manner of lovers coupling. And if you are going to introduce such a clear metaphor for sex into a narrative about the fundamental nature of reality can you really be surprised to find a Freudian waving back at you from the subtext?

But ultimately Reich is insufficient. “He denounced, in the final resignation of Freudianism, a fear of life, a resurgence of the ascetic ideal, a cultural broth of bad consciousness. Better to depart in search of the Orgone, he said to himself, in search of the vital and cosmic element of desire,” Deleuze and Guattari say of him (emphasis mine). Morrison, too, is seeking a cosmic element of desire in the Invisibles but while Reich can get us to the orgasm, he can’t get us to the finish line, he can’t get us away from a dialectical collapse into oneness. For that we need to turn to an even stranger figure of psychoanalysis in Stanislav Grof.

Grof

To get to Grof, and how he plays a role in the Invisibles we should first situate where Grof is in comparison to other figures we’ve discussed. Stanislav Grof is a leading figure in the field known as transpersonal psychology, a branch of psychology interested in movement away from self both in forms of healthy ego-transcendence via mystical experience and in forms of unhealthy breaks from the ego via mental illness. Transpersonal psychology largely focused on the idea that consciousness was not something that operated only in a specific state. Focusing on subjects including the use of drugs, meditation, shamanic activities, mystical practices and near-death experiences, transpersonal psychologists sought to map a psyche that was broader and more complex than the self.

As such, they do draw back to many of the same origins as Guattari and Reich – principally via Freud and Bataille. On the topic of Bataille’s relationship to the development of transpersonal studies, Harry Hunt says, “part of the importance of Bataille today may be in his extreme and pointed articulation of these genuine ambiguities that remain largely implicit within a ‘human sciences’ transpersonalism or a contemporary ‘science of consciousness.'” Grof came out of a Freudian education before pivoting toward an interest in birth and death experiences. In 1974 he joined the Esalen Institute – known largely for the participation of Aldous Huxley, Abraham Masow, and for the formation of Gestalt Practice. Much of this led to attempts to incorporate Buddhism into western psychotherapy and ontology, though these efforts have been criticized within Buddhist circles.

Grof is unique among the subjects brought to bear by Morrison within the Invisibles of being alive in 2021, and his current work remains concentrated on psychic exploration facilitated by breathing practices and the use of entheogenic agents. However most of Morrison’s interest has to do with Grof’s concept of perinatal matrices. Grof believes that physical, chemical or emotional trauma at various points in the development of a fetus between the moment of conception and that of birth lead to various patterns of psychological manifestation that leave a mark despite being repressed. (Note the essentially Freudian notions of symbolic exchange and repression. We still haven’t escaped Freud here.) These matrices are referred to by a system of numbering thus: Basic Perinatal Matrix I (BPM I) associates with trauma experienced in-utero prior to the beginning of labour. BPM II corresponds to trauma that occurs between the onset of labour and entry to the birth canal. BPM III corresponds to trauma that occurs during movement through the birth canal and BPM IV corresponds to the trauma of the moment of delivery.

We can see, in some of Grof’s detailing of BPM I experiences a movement toward Melanie Klein’s idea of partial objects – albeit one that extrapolates from this concept in a significantly more mystical manner to the biomes of Reich or the desiring-production of Deleuze and Guattari. Nobody could make the mistake of calling Grof a materialist. Grof is cited repeatedly and explicitly within the concluding volume of The Invisibles, his presence in the text is far more substantial than that of Reich, but there’s a specific page I’d like to focus on:

This page comes not from the climax of the story (which properly belongs to Reich with his Bions and his UFO hunting) but from the denouement. “‘The King-of-All-Tears withdraws in a rain of colored cubes,’ goes the story — the ‘Archons’ are clearly BPM 3 Grof condensations — inevitable signs that universal larval development is proceeding towards self-awareness and birth.” In this fiction, the King-of-All-Tears is one of five Archons of the Outer Church, the most active one at that as it is the one who tempts Dane at the House of Fun and who attempts to disrupt Ragged Robin’s time travel experiment. Renn Butler, a disciple of Grof, says abut the BPM 3 matrix that it, “is based around the dynamic stage of labor, with the corresponding activation of powerful biological energies. The cervix is now open and the infant is slowly forced down the birth canal by uterine contractions that range between between fifty and one hundred pounds of force, a struggle for delivery that pits the mother and fetus in a synergistic effort to end the often excruciating suffering inflicted on each other.” From the perspective of the structural view of what this story is trying to do in this moment it is thus clear that the sex-act metaphor of the climax has been followed by a time-jump of some significant gestational period and has thus led to the moment of birth. There is additional metaphorical material to be mined from Morrison’s invocation of Grof – returning to Butler, “The transpersonal side of the experience includes sequences of temptation, sacrifice, purgatory, and Judgment. Individuals also confront or identify with deities such as Shiva, Kali, or Hercules performing his Labors, or with dying-reviving figures such as Persephone, Christ, Osiris, or Dionysus. The experiences in this matrix culminate in a type of intense driving arousal that transcends pain and pleasure, which Grof referred to as volcanic or Dionysian type of ecstasy.”

Of course Grof was hardly the first person to speak of Dionysus in such ecstatic terms and as you can draw a thread back through time from Grof to Bataille, so too do you eventually encounter Nietzsche who framed the Dionysian such in the Birth of Tragedy:

...all this, as also the unconditional will of Christianity to recognise only moral values, has always appeared to me as the most dangerous and ominous of all possible forms of a "will to perish"; at the least, as the symptom of a most fatal disease, of profoundest weariness, despondency, exhaustion, impoverishment of life,—for before the tribunal of morality (especially Christian, that is, unconditional morality) life must constantly and inevitably be the loser, because life is something essentially unmoral,—indeed, oppressed with the weight of contempt and the everlasting No, life must finally be regarded as unworthy of desire, as in itself unworthy. Morality itself what?—may not morality be a "will to disown life," a secret instinct for annihilation, a principle of decay, of depreciation, of slander, a beginning of the end? And, consequently, the danger of dangers?... It was against morality, therefore, that my instinct, as an intercessory-instinct for life, turned in this questionable book, inventing for itself a fundamental counter—dogma and counter-valuation of life, purely artistic, purely anti-Christian. What should I call it? As a philologist and man of words I baptised it, not without some liberty—for who could be sure of the proper name of the Antichrist?—with the name of a Greek god: I called it Dionysian.

Dionysus – an Antichrist, an intercessory-instinct for life. And it would seem as if we’ve reached another dialectical impasse in establishing the King-of-All-Tears as an antichrist to the Christ-figure of Dane Mcgowan. Except that Dane rejects such notions. People variously try to frame Dane as Christ, as Maitreya, as an avatar of the Aeon of Horus, and he rejects every label. Dane, getting well beyond the idea of such singular identities, tells an old mate who he comforts at the end of the world, “Remember it’s all just a mirror we made to see ourselves in. And when the archons come and it all turns inside out with scary miracles. It’s only all the things you left outside when you were building your little house called, ‘me,’ ey.”

Dane does want to collapse the boundaries of self – but look at the tense shift: it’s a mirror WE made. It’s the things YOU left. The monsters come from the singular – the magic mirror, which we’ve previously examined as being a representation of the Body Without Organs comes from US. From the many.

Minkowski space and the eternal

Hermann Minkowski was an instructor of Albert Einstein and the person responsible for the General Relativity conception of four-dimensional space-time. His work posits a perception of time that allows every moment to have always already happened. The work of Einstein and Minkowski overturned the “Presentist” view of time – that past and future don’t exist but instead an ever-moving moment of now – and instead posited time more as a direction or a dimension with a relationship to other dimensions such that it is only really useful to measure relationships between objects. We exist not as individuals moving through a river of time but as the worm-trail of change across the surface of some impossible substrate. In typical fashion, The Invisibles characterizes this substrate as being a cosmic crystal however the specifics of the substrate are less significant than the consequences: that every act has always already happened in full – that the universe is ultimately an object in which our subjective experience of change is one of positionality alone.

This is certainly something we see textually when Dane goes behind the walls of the world with the Blind Chessman and sees his own worm-trail through life. The same visual motif occurs during the denouement when Ragged Robin returns from her journey through time now transformed into an avatar of the AllNow. Within our universe, that holographic projection of two meta-universes, time is a block. There is no need to worry about causality beyond the loop of narrative causality that winds through The Invisibles because everything that ever has or will happen exists simultaneously within the substrate of being.

Before I inferred that Ragged Robin got closer to the truth than King Mob – with all his transpersonal dialectics. Robin’s block time contains all of difference inscribed upon its surface. It is an ever-complexifying topography of difference. But it is, despite this, still reducible to a single thing in the form of the Infinite. And so we make a final turn, now to Sartre.

The infinity of being

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre argues for a very specific understanding of what being is – specifically he denies the idea of an essence beneath the appearances of being. Instead Sartre posits that being exists of an infinite series of appearances each of which is representative of the object. The object is the infinite totality of those appearances.

Returning to the White Flame Meditation, Mr. Six says, ” Have we yet come even close to a full description of it? Did we even mention that several hundred years ago it wasn’t a chair but a tree?” This infinite series of appearances – the tree, the chair, the shattered ruins of the chair after Elfayed destroys it with a hammer, these are all appearances of being – where Sartre differs from Six and Elfayed is in saying that there is no white flame behind all of them. There is nothing. “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm,” Sartre says. And Sartre’s conception of being becomes thus worm-like – an ever expanding sequence of appearances stretching off into past and future alike. From this Sartre first collapses every binary – every possible approach to the dialectic – down to just this: the binary of the finite and the infinite.

But this is problematic. “If the series of appearances were finite, that would mean that the first appearances do not have the possibility of reappearing. which is absurd, or that they can be all given at once, which is still more absurd,” Sartre says. If the universe of The Invisibles is to be seen as having a unitary being then it is, in fact, constituted of an infinite series of all its own appearances. All these figures, Jack Frost and King Mob, Ragged Robin and Mr. Six, the Marquis De Sade and Edith are rescued from unification in a white flame by dint of each being part of that infinite sequence. Each becomes the site of a little pool of nothingness at the heart of being. Each achieves at least being-in-itself in the process of being an appearance of the universe that you can point to and say, “there is a thing.”

Sartre attacks the Kantian basis of Hegel’s idealism, by arguing for the visceral being of the appearance, “If the essence of the appearance is an ‘appearing’ which is no longer opposed to any being, there arises a legitimate problem concerning the being of this appearing.” There’s no need for noumen lurking behind. This led to Deleuze praising Sartre above all others in “He Was My Teacher,” and championing him as taking the first tenuous steps toward a philosophy affirming difference. The nothingness curled in the heart of Sartean being lies just the other side of the membrane of the Body Without Organs.

And here we finally can begin to talk about how Morrison, too, despite their protestations to the contrary does the same.

We have discussed at some length how The Invisibles uses the metaphor of the sex-act to demonstrate the true-movements of the meta-universes at its core. With the Marquis de Sade we see the coupling. All sorts of scandalous things transpire, many of which are cruel and shocking. Others are hauntingly beautiful. This reaches its crescendo in an act of coitus that initiates the aeon-dominated idealist monster Sir Miles into the truth of freedom and that climaxes in a grail full of tears and the promise of resurrection. There is a disjunction in time and we see the results of this: the arising of the Memeplex, the dissolution of self not into Grof’s transpersonal unity but rather into the disjunction of the machinic. The birth of the universe.

A birth is ultimately a process where one thing becomes two things. There is a mother. There is an organ growing within her – it starts off merely a few cells but over time it begins to change. By the time it reaches the stages of Grof’s Perinatal Matrices, it has begun to divide and then there are two beings. A child cannot be dialectically reduced back to their parents. Take away everything that was the father and everything that was the mother and you will still have something, some unique element of being, remaining and that being multiplies to infinity. Every being becomes a universe in itself.

In No Exit, Garcin remarks that, “Hell is other people.” Sartre, however, was the ultimate champion of freedom. He recognized the infinite potential of a person to be and to be different than they were before. In the Memeplex we see a conception of that freedom. We see echoes of this in King Mob’s dialectical quest for self-recognition and in Lord Fanny’s careful and magic-infused play of gender and identity. And by reminding us that we construct an Other from those things we choose are not US, Dane sees this freedom too. In the last page of The Invisibles, Dane recounts one last lesson from Elfayed (who is one of the two instructors of the White Flame Meditation), “‘We made gods and jailers because we felt small and ashamed and alone,’ he said. ‘We let them try us and judge us and, like sheep to slaughter, we allowed ourselves to be… sentenced. ‘See! Now! Our sentence is up.”

This is the central renunciation of the dialectic. Ultimately there is a ‘us’ a multitude who can no longer be made to endure hell in other people. The universes multiply and the new, the self-aware new arises in a multitudinous “us” away from unity and toward an affirmative difference, toward some great and unknowable future which isn’t a block of predestination. The fixity of Minkowski space-time end at the edge of the universe being born and whatever exists beyond that is something new, something different. The multitudinous many froths out of potential wherever the one is. Each appearance of a being has a being-in-itself in turn, each being is an infinite series of appearances. We can try to dialectically collapse the many into the one all day but ultimately the recursive infinity of difference wins through. If the Invisibles ended in oneness it would be bleak. The final victory of the Outer Church that hates difference, that wants a universe unchanging forever. This is not the ending we achieve. Instead it is far stranger – a recognition of the infinite in every being hiding behind the semblance of idealist unity – but what else but strangeness should we expect for the conclusion of this strange book?

Milton, Blake and Lil Nas X and the eternal recurrence

Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

--- John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I

Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling.

And being restrained, it by degrees becomes passive, till it is only the shadow of desire.

The history of this is written in Paradise Lost, and the Governor or Reason is called Messiah.

And the original Archangel or possessor of the command of the heavenly host is called the Devil, or Satan, and his children are called Sin and Death.

But in the book of Job, Milton’s Messiah is called Satan.

For this history has been adopted by both parties.

It indeed appeared to Reason as if desire was cast out, but the Devil’s account is, that the Messiah fell, and formed a heaven of what he stole from the abyss.

--- William Blake, the Marriage of Heaven and Hell - The Voice of the Devil

I'm not fazed, only here to sin
If Eve ain't in your garden, you know that you can

Call me when you want, call me when you need
Call me in the morning, I'll be on the way

--- Lil Nas X - MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)

Permit me a moment of algorithm chasing because apparently the Satanic Panic is back! This time, the terrible satanist who is corrupting the morals of the youth and turning people away from the frigid restraint of the Christian God is the American musician Lil Nas X.

See Lil Nas X has been playing around with Milton in his latest video:

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

This video is roughly divided into three principal scenes. In the first he is Eve in the garden and is seduced by the serpent. He is also the serpent, seducing.

A transition shows us some Greek text burned into the tree of life. Greek is not one of the languages I can read but with some digging it appears to be a quotation from Aristophanes’ description of the division of the ideal forms in Symposium, AKA the best thing Plato ever wrote:

For the rest, he smoothed away most of the puckers and figured out the breast with some such instrument as shoemakers use in smoothing the wrinkles of leather on the last; though he left there a few which we have just about the belly and navel, to remind us of our early fall. Now when our first form had been cut in two, each half in longing for its fellow would come to it again; and then would they fling their arms about each other and in mutual embraces

Next he is a rebel being led in chains to the center of a marble auditorium. He is also the guards guiding him and the spectators watching. The gender coding in the visuals is simultaneously explicit and scrambled. The guards wear denim and their clothes and hair are blue, but they also wear large rococo (womens’) wigs and ostentatious (womens’) jewelry. The pink-coloured rebel has a more masculine hairstyle and wears a (masculine) loincloth and a fur sash over one shoulder. He makes his plea, but the judges of the auditorium are either critical reflections of himself or they are rigid and leering statues.

In the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake engaged in an extended critique of the theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was a theologian and a natural philosopher whose work centered around the concept that the account of Genesis was a description of the moral and spiritual evolution of man away from the material and toward a form of purely spiritual being. Swedenborg was deeply Manichean in his view, rigidly dividing spiritual good from material evil. However Blake saw in Swedenborg a form of frozen fixity that would lock humanity as rigid as statues, saying:

Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys reason; Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Good is heaven. Evil is hell.

Blake believed that this unification of these dual opposites was necessary to advance humanity in knowledge and grace. (Being something of a gnostic meant that knowledge and grace were largely the same thing to Blake.) However we can see this reflection of unity of opposites both looking back in the direction of Aristophanes in Symposium and forward to Lil Nas X’s interpretation of Milton. Because let’s not put too fine a point on it – in this scene the Rebel is Lucifer, and these rigid frozen statues, mere reflections of his own glory, are the angels loyal to a God who appears only as a bejeweled statue in the background. However just like the captors and the Rebel God is yet another reflection of Lil Nas X.

The statues pelt the Rebel with stones and he Falls but at first his fall seems an ascent. He drifts toward a heavenly light. An angel in silhouette appears above him and seems to be beckoning him toward the light. Then a stripper pole descends from the sky and the Rebel grips it willingly and dives head first into Pandaemonium. And in hell we finally find an actual Other in the form of Satan. Our Rebel walks confidently to the throne of the Devil and gives him a lap dance. But the seduction is a trap; at the conclusion of the song, Lil Nas X snaps the devil’s neck and assumes his crown, growing black wings as his eyes glow with heavenly light. Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n, right?

So we have in this video a clear engagement with two principal texts: Milton, from whom the majority of the imagery engaged by the video descends and Symposium in which the idea of a division of the ideal (multi-genedered) form into incomplete male and female halves is served as the context of a form of Fall from a state of grace.

Blake had two principal missions in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The first was to continuously dunk on Swedenborg. But the second was to propose that the fall from grace could only be overcome by a return to unity – that a rejection of the base, the energetic and the terrible would stall any hope of progression and leave people nothing but apes groping after Aristotle among the refuse of their own cannibalistically cleaned bones. Blake exhorted people to overcome their internal divisions and saw that unity in Milton, proclaiming, “Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Of course, Blake was well aware that Milton saw Satan as the antagonist of Paradise lost. He rejected that authorial intention in favour of fusing the expressed purpose of exhorting God’s glory with the loving render of the Fall of Lucifer. As such, the video for Call Me By Your Name becomes a recursive return of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Recursion and Return

In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze talks about Plato’s conception of difference, saying:

 In his case, however, a moral motivation in all its purity is avowed: the will to eliminate simulacra or phantasms has no motivation apart from the moral. What is condemned in the figure of simulacra is the state of free, oceanic differences, of nomadic distributions and crowned anarchy, along with all that malice which challenges both the notion of the model and that of the copy. Later, the world of representation will more or less forget its moral origin and presuppositions. These will nevertheless continue to act in the distinction between the originary and the derived, the original and the sequel, the ground and the grounded, which animates the hierarchies of a representative theology by extending the complementarity between model and copy. 

It behooves us to look at the relationship between MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as being something like an original and a sequel as this deployment of Platonic unity to challenge a dualistic and Aristotelian theology, combined with such a clear and textual response to Milton unites the two. However this situates these two works in a moral relationship that we should look askance at. Although we can look at the former as the ground upon which the latter arises, we should not assign a moral direction to it – neither Plato’s favoring of the ideal or original nor Blake’s revolutionary futurism should be used to assign a moral weight to Lil Nas X. This is in part because the repetitive aspect of this work cannot be pried loose from the differences that suffuse it.

The narrative frame of Blake’s poem is something akin to Dante touring hell and heaven. In his case, his guide to the afterlife is an angel representative of the frozen theologies he believes to be dead ends. Blake problematizes this narrative by taking command of the tour and instead guiding the Swedenborgian angel into a vision of the cosmos that can progress into the future. With Lil Nas X, instead, we get a deeply personal interrogation of queer relationships and distance in the time of COVID-19. However these differences in subject are in turn supportive of the way in which both use Plato to unify a divided being. For Blake the divided being is humanity itself. For Lil Nas X it is the divide he feels within himself – between the presentation he has to show the world and the lived experience that represents the totality of himself. Lil Nas X describes a division against himself which is healed in the assumption of the mantle of satanic sovereignty. Blake describes a division within humanity which is healed in the assumption of a satanic bible. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze discusses Hume’s idea that a repetition is that which creates no change in an object but, through the sequence of returns creates a change in the observation of the subject. After a series of AB AB AB AB A we come to expect that B will follow. This sort of recursive repetition is thus something we can observe in these responses to Milton. When Milton’s satanic protagonist is deployed, can platonic attempts to resolve duality not be expected to follow? In this way, this artistic project continues to be the iterative repetition upon which new art is forever remaking itself on the bones of the old as clearly here as it is when The Hu rearrange Sad But True. And just as these two elements call to each other, we expect that repetition to return a revolutionary frission that overturns orthodoxy. Blake roared into the void of popular theology in hopes of overturning a dead, static, frozen faith. Lil Nas X displays a fluid sense of gender and a deeply queer sexuality that is equally revolutionary within American music – a space that has previously been hostile to men playing with gender this way.

Deleuze says, “In its essence, affirmation is itself difference,” In asking, “is it this thing?” and announcing, “yes it is this thing!” we engender a difference. This repetition of themes asks us to affirm the revolutionary. Just as Sad But True asks us to affirm how every return to the garden of life and death may allow us to make different and meaningful choices, so too does Lil Nas X affirm that there remains revolutionary potential in the image of Satan just as there was in Blake’s day. In fact, while Blake toiled in obscurity, Lil Nas X managed to incite furor of the multitude with a dance and a pair of expensive shoes. A monstrous offspring of Hume and Kant, Deleuze’s philosophy of difference still recognizes that one iteration of a series cannot arise until the past has ended. The process of difference is a violence, a destruction, and one that is necessary. He praises Nietzsche for his cruelty and love of destruction because it is only through those vectors that we can approach a reasonable understanding of difference within recursion.

And this revolutionary understanding is ever-necessary as we continue fighting the same fights. The satanic panic is back! And of course anybody who lived through the homophobia of the 1980s or the bi panic of the 1990s can see the recursion, albeit with difference, in the transphobic panic of today. In such circumstances, a queer man demonstrating the unity of the masculine and feminine within him through the old formula of Blake and Milton is revolutionary. One last time to Deleuze. He says that, “there are two ways to appeal to ‘necessary destructions’: that of the poet, who speaks in the name of a creative power, capable of overturning all orders and representations in order to affirm Difference in the state of permanent revolution which characterizes eternal return; and that of the politician, who is above all concerned to deny that which ‘differs’, so as to conserve or prolong an established historical order, or to establish a historical order which already calls forth in the world the forms of its representation.” In the satanic works of the poets: Milton, Blake and Lil Nas X we have then the first of these forms. And it is, of course, opposed by those who would deny that which differs. There are a multitude of politicians and politically minded people who would prolong the historical order that denies the unity of masculine and feminine that lives within every person. There exists a multitude of politicians and politically minded people who see nothing but menace in the fires of Pandaemonium and the throne of Satan, who see nothing but threat in a pair of black sneakers marked with the pentagram. It is, perhaps, a small revolution to dance on Satan’s lap and steal his crown. But in this little act of revolution, Lil Nas X has announced a change in the sequence of the world and the minds of the subjects who observe him. And for that he deserves to be lauded.

(Not exactly) Kid’s Stuff: A Wizard of Earthsea and the question of being

Alone among authors in the 20th century, only Ursula Le Guin could have possibly written a book like A Wizard of Earthsea. Technically it’s a children’s book.

And I mean, on the surface, there’s certain qualities that A Wizard of Earthsea shares with children’s lit that make the categorization almost fit. It’s a short novel, barely 56,500 words long, and the edition I read (with the cover featured as my image) features large, clearly printed type to aid in ease of reading.

It’s a novel that focuses on a single subject and with a very minimal cast of characters. Le Guin is, excepting one notable adventure, very parsimonious with her deployment of characters, and very few figures of note arise in the first half of the book who don’t play a role in the second. While told in third person, the narration is very centered on Ged and we understand the story almost entirely from his singular point of view.

And, of course, it is a coming of age story. Although here we see Le Guin’s restlessness with convention as she pushes against the Campbellian structure of the coming of age story, featuring a protagonist who never refuses a call and who returns home half-way through his quest only to leave again.

However, despite these hallmarks of children’s fictions, this is a book with a density of theme and topic that could prove challenging for an undergraduate university student to fully disentangle. While I have positive things to say about some of the very inventive structural and pedagogical things done in modern children’s lit, for instance, Elizabetta Dami‘s use of modified type to emphasize key words is a very interesting artistic choice, and one with an obvious pedagogical benefit, I don’t think there’s a single voice in children’s literature in the 21st century who would tackle the very abstract topics like the ones that are at the center of Le Guin’s book. Because instead of taking readers on an exciting adventure, of creating a mystified simulacrum of a child’s social milieu, Le Guin digs into central ontological questions: What is the significance of a name? How do we address the being of death? What, ultimately, is it to be?

Perhaps we can say that Le Guin has more trust in children to grapple with problems that are difficult to hold. Or perhaps Le Guin, aware as she was of her singular intellect and talent, was arrogant enough to say that a Le Guin Children’s book shouldn’t deal with small, concrete, things but should rather aim in the same direction that any work of powerful literature does: toward the ineffable. Perhaps these things are inseparable, and Le Guin’s certainty in the ability of kids to keep up comes directly from her own intelligence, and the pride and will that come with it. Regardless, we can say, with certainty, that A Wizard of Earthsea presents a powerful standard against which much of children’s literature cannot compete.

The question of being

Since no thing can have two true names, inien can mean only "all the sea except the Inmost Sea". And of course it does not mean even that, for there are seas and bays and straits beyond counting that bear names of their own.

Le Guin comes to the question of being via the name. This is integrated into the story at a fundamental level. Names are important to people. They have a name they are given in childhood. This name is then discarded in a ritual during which a figure of ritual significance (in the case of Ged it’s his master Ogion the silent) will give a person a true name which is known only to them, their namer, and anyone they choose to tell. Such a disclosure is considered one of the greatest signs of trust a person can confer to another, as a person’s true name allows a magic user to do some pretty frightening things to a person. For general use, characters will have use-names: effectively nicknames that don’t carry the metaphysical tie to being that a true name has.

All this matters because a true name is a fundamentally unique thing and it is through the inhabiting of this unique address that a being is differentiated from all other beings. This largely derives from the thread of Taoist metaphysics that runs through the book. And this helps inform some of the limits of magic. A wizard can use the true name of a category of animal to transform themselves into that animal. This being is seen as false, or at least as not true, as it is a form of being assumed, the placement of a mask upon the unmediated being of the wizard. But this falsehood is in tension because wizards work their spells in the Old Tongue with which men can only speak truth. If a person says truthfully, “I am a hawk,” to become one his true being and the assumed being of the hawk are in tension. This leads to the risk that one could become lost in the transformed form. A wizard who transforms too often into a dolphin might end up becoming one in truth and not just in seeming. Of course this raises the question: if “I am a hawk” is a true statement but if it is also not true being, what differentiates the character of true being from that of assumed being? The text provides an answer, suggesting that true being lies in the continuous flow of identity, the process of a life lived taken whole. Or, as Ogion says:

At the spring of the River Ar I named you, a stream that falls from the mountain to the sea. A man would know the end he goes to but he cannot know it if he does not turn, and return to his beginning, and hold that beginning in his being. If he would not be a stick whirled and whelmed in the stream, he must be the stream itself, all of it, from its spring to its sinking in the sea.

And so we get this idea that being is an enunciation of difference, signified in a name, but that this isn’t all of being. Rather this is the shape of being. But what gives it thickness or truth is that it is a whole thing. Of course this is tricky because the nature of what constitutes a whole thing is vague. When Ged takes the form of a hawk he doesn’t become, in truth, this or that individual hawk. He becomes Ged, the hawk. The being he shares in when transformed is the category of being a hawk. But the category of hawk is not an individual category. It can be split into species of hawks. Families of hawks. Individual hawks. The wing of a hawk. the feather of a wing. Just as the name of an entire ocean must consider the name of every bay within it, so too is being fractal unless it’s given a final shape. It must have limits. One limit is when a thing begins, and the text is very clear about where things begin. “Years and distance, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together.” Every true name is, to Ged, a syllable of the great word and as such is spoken in turn. But just as the syllable of a word has a definitive start, so too must it have an end. And, of course, that means that death is a definitive cutting off of being. To know one’s self is to understand every moment of a life between being named and the extinction of that name in death.

But names persist in memory, and so a thread of being exists even in death. This dialectically introduced ambiguity, which refuses to fully deny being to the dead in the same stroke that it refuses to fully define the being of the living, creates the central tension of the book. Because Ged is much like Le Guin: sharply intelligent, deep in lore, powerful and arrogant.

Death

In Human All-Too-Human, Nietzsche provides a genealogy of revenge. He categorizes two principal forms of revenge one can commit. The first is an act of self-preservation in which the only thought is to escape from a source of harm. The second form of revenge, rather, is a premeditated one in which the person seeking vengeance doesn’t care even if they are harmed so long as they are able to do harm to their target. Nietzsche describes it thus:

This is a case of readjustment, whereas the first act of revenge only serves the purpose of self-preservation. It may be that through our adversary we have lost property, rank, friends, children—these losses are not recovered by revenge, the readjustment only concerns a subsidiary loss which is added to all the other losses. The revenge of readjustment does not preserve one from further injury, it does not make good the injury already suffered—except in one case. If our honour has suffered through our adversary, revenge can restore it. But in any case honour has suffered an injury if intentional harm has been done us, because our adversary proved thereby that he was not afraid of us. By revenge we prove that we are not afraid of him either, and herein lies the settlement, the readjustment. (The intention of showing their complete lack of fear goes so far in some people that the dangers of revenge—loss of health or life or other losses—are in their eyes an indispensable condition of every vengeful act. Hence they practise the duel, although the law also offers them aid in obtaining satisfaction for what they have suffered. They are not satisfied with a safe means of recovering their honour, because this would not prove their fearlessness.)

While Ged is at school he has a bully. This bully isn’t as clever or as talented as Ged and both of them know it. But the bully is older than Ged and has access to higher level instruction. The bully is also from a wealthy family, while Ged is quite proudly a rural goatherder. Ged resents the bully for his unkind barbs and provocations and things come to a head one night when Ged tells the bully quite straightforwardly that he is a superior magic user to the bully. Ged and the bully (Jasper – a precious stone, but not too precious) agree to a duel of magic power and Ged asks Jasper to set a task for him. “Summon up a spirit from the dead, for all I care!” Jasper tells Ged, and Ged replies, “I will.” As Ged and Jasper proceed to the place where Ged will summon a ghost, the text tells us, “Jasper was far beneath him, had been sent perhaps only to bring him here tonight, no rival but a mere servant of Ged’s destiny.”

What Jasper offends is Ged’s honour. His presence, his ability to, on the basis of wealth and age, lord anything over Ged is an affront to Ged’s dignity. And so he takes his revenge and he does so in a way that is deeply harmful to himself. Ged, in this act, unleashes the gebbeth, and suffers terrible wounds that take the better part of a year to recover from physically. The spiritual injury of this moment represents the principal conflict of the book. Ged is telling Jasper, by taking up any challenge Jasper can propose to him, that he has no fear of Jasper, and he is restoring his honour in this self-destructive act of revenge.

Ged succeeds in calling forth a ghost – that unifying thread that dialectically ties death to living and that gives the dead just enough being to still be differentiated from all the other things that can be named is enough for him to grasp on and bring forth the being that is named. But in the process something else comes through. The nature of this other thing then becomes something of a central concern of the book. The Archmage speaks to Ged after his recovery and says, “Evil, it wills to work evil through you. The power you had to call it gives it power over you: you are connected. It is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast. Has a shadow a name?”

And of course, the Archmage is correct and gives Ged good council here, but Ged hasn’t the understanding of himself to see the answer there. So later when a dragon and when Ogion both insist that the shadow has a name, Ged treats this information as at odds to his teacher’s instruction. But here’s the thing. In Nietzsche’s genealogy of revenge, he ultimately concludes that the two modes of revenge cannot be disentangled from each other. In the judicial act of punishment, a public desire of social self-preservation is combined with a private desire to see honour restored. Sometimes these competing modes of a thing get bound up with each other, entangled in complicated ways. The archmage tells Ged that the shadow wants to inhabit Ged and do evil so he runs from it and in running he gives the shadow power. Eventually Ogion tells Ged that his flight gives the shadow power so he hunts it and in hunting he weakens it. Ged is tied up with the object created by his revenge in such a way that he cannot be disentangled from it. But how he knows it and what he knows of it help to define it. It is gebbeth – nameless – a shadow – his shadow – named – him.

But we get ahead of ourselves. There are two incidents that come before the flight and the hunt. In the first, Ged fails to save a child from death by sickness. In the second he kills five dragons and mortally wounds a sixth. Le Guin handles this juxtaposition easily. Ged is able to bring an ending to the stories of these wyrms simply. He binds their wings and pulls them from the sky. He transforms to a dragon himself and burns them to cinders. He binds the eldest dragon with its true name and commands it not to threaten the settlement under his protection. The whole encounter has an uneasy sense of ease about it. It is narrated in a way that makes it seem easy. But to outsiders this looks hard. The smallest dragons are the length of a forty-oar boat.

Before he kills the dragons he fails to save the child. The kid is the son of a fisherman who Ged befriends. Ged works together with the fisherman, his neighbour, regularly. He casts spells of protection on the fisherman’s boat and in return the fisherman teaches him how to sail without magic – a talent that will serve Ged well later. The child falls ill with a fever and Ged tries to save him but he’s too far gone before Ged arrives – his spirit is slipping into death. Ged is so concerned for the wellbeing of his friend’s son that he follows the child’s spirit into death and barely escapes himself. The shadow is waiting at the wall between living and death and finds Ged there. This is the incident that sets in motion Ged’s need to flee it.

Ged flees and the shadow becomes powerful. He is manipulated, in the fear of his flight, into a perilous adventure and barely escapes, having to flee again, pursued again. He returns home, and there learns from Ogion what he needs to know. That he never should have run from it.

Completeness in being

Ged chases the shadow and it weakens.

He catches up to it and it tricks him into a shipwreck. He rebuilds his ship and continues his chase and he catches it – it has begun to look more like him. He tries to grab hold of it but it’s a shadow and there’s nothing to hold. “The body of a gebbeth has been drained of true substance and is something like a shell or a vapour in the form of a man,” we are told, and like vapour the shadow slips through Ged’s fingers. Later he encounters rumours that he passed by before. People he meets see him as an uncanny doubling – they’re troubled by this man who fled across their lands and who afterward chased himself.

Ged chases the shadow until it runs out of world to be chased through. He finds himself in an abstracted plain where the sea has turned to sand but which is also still the open sea. There he finally catches up with the spirit.

Aloud and clearly, breaking that old silence, Ged spoke the shadow's name and in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying the same word: 'Ged.' And the two voices were one voice.

Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shadow, of the black self  that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined and were one.

The archmage was right that the gebbeth is the shadow he casts. Later in Human All-Too-Human, there is a dialog between the Wanderer and his shadow. In it, the Wanderer says, ” Now I see for the first time how rude I am to you, my beloved shadow. I have not said a word of my supreme delight in hearing and not merely seeing you. You must know that I love shadows even as I love light. For the existence of beauty of face, clearness of speech, kindliness and firmness of character, the shadow is as necessary as the light. They are not opponents—rather do they hold each other’s hands like good friends; and when the light vanishes, the shadow glides after it.”

Ged is the arrogant young man who seeks revenge when his honour is slighted by a man he sees as inferior. Ged is the man who wades into death to save a child and fails. Ged is the man who drags dragons from the sky and who gives a well with clean water to two mute exiles on an abandoned sandbar far from home. Ged is the light and the darkness and the only thing that gives his shadow power over him, the only thing that allows his shadow to harm him, is his unwillingness to face it. In the world of A Wizard of Earthsea every thing that is is that which can be announced to be different from all other things. The gebbeth lacks a name because that cannot be announced – it is merely a part of Ged as surely as the feather on the wing of the hawk – and it waits for Ged patiently at the boundary between life and death because one of the aspects of the shadow is death.

Ged is the wellspring of power that rises out of the primordial origin of all things. He is the doer, the agent of action in the story. The gebbeth is the un-doer, the reactive, the end of things. Ged, to come into an understanding of himself, must see his end as clearly as his beginning. He must be as aware of the ways in which he un-does as the ways he does. Unexamined, Ged’s shadow-self seeks revenge against Jasper and it is let loose, it rampages. It kills. It hounds Ged from crisis to crisis. But when faced, when Ged points to his own darkness and calls it with his name, it comes; it becomes; it comes into being. But by coming into being it is done away with because it becomes nothing but the awareness Ged has of his own potential toward death. There is no other here. There isn’t a wanderer and his shadow – there is a river, all of it, from its spring to its sinking in the sea.

Sense8: An escape plan from capitalism

And with one image I ensure that any homophobes who missed my relentlessly bisexual bent rage-quit my blog.

Sense8 is perhaps the most Wachowski thing ever created.

I suppose after putting this forward I should present my bonafides. There are only two Wachowski feature films or TV shows I haven’t watched: Speed Racer and Work in Progress. The latter I found out about while researching this article. I would even be willing to defend Jupiter Ascending as a work of art. Unironically.

So when I say that this strange television show represents the clearest iteration of the concerns that have haunted the Wachowski’s work since at least when they started work on Bound, I’m not entirely talking bullshit.

Sense8 deals with the themes of self-doubt and identity that fueled Jupiter Ascending and the Matrix movies. It addresses the concerns about the corrosive impact of capitalism that cast a shadow over every Wachowski project arguably as far back as Assassins. It addresses ideas regarding found family and particularly found family in queer contexts such as what we see in The Matrix and in Bound. And it’s a crime story. And a Science Fiction story. And it’s a story about a small group of people trying to fight against a vast and oppressive system they have to dismantle. This is all well trodden ground for the Wachowskis. And while all of these thematic concerns appear in greater or lesser extents within other Wachowski films, it is in Sense8 that they find their fullest and most complete realization. And in the process what the Wachowskis give us is nothing short of a proposal – a plan – a line of flight out of capitalism.

The modular self

Modularity of knowledge in the Matrix

The idea that people are modular, or dividual, arises in the Matrix quite a lot. Neo sits in a chair and he knows Kung Fu. Neo is not The One – until he is. Neo is Thomas Anderson – until he is not. Neo knows kung fu. The Matrix engaged freely with the idea that self could be disrupted; it suggested that self was plastic and could be shaped by external pressures.

I have talked before about how self can be seen as a product of external force and in the Matrix this is shown clearly as Morpheus and Smith each try to shape Neo into the form they desire. The Matrix also hints at the requirement that this loosening of the Cogito, this rejection of individuality qua that which cannot be divided, depends on an idea of plasticity of the self that requires external forces acting upon the subject.

But where the Matrix saw this in a very cybernetic way, both in the sense of mechanical intervention and in the sense of Neo’s changing self-perception being the direct response of a close feedback loop mechanism, Sense8 takes a somewhat different approach. Neo is given the “kung fu” module, but its integration depends on him showing Morpheus. He becomes The One as a feedback response to getting shot by Smith, with his ability to come to this self-knowledge predicated on every event that happened to him before. Each step in the shaping of Neo’s self follows the other. The sense of self of the Sensate cluster is exploded when they have their second birth but the knowledge and skill they need, the change to how they see themselves, arrives at need. Leto has to protect Daniela and so Wolfgang is there. Both Neo and the Sensate cluster experience a plasticity of self. But Neo’s is one made of interlocking parts that must follow some logic. The sensates self-image is fluid. Furthermore Sense8 interrogates the idea of modularity-of-self as being affected by an aware external agency. Whispers attempts to force specific being upon other sensates (atomization, marginalization, otherness) but he is thoroughly repudiated. He cannot force these behaviours because the nature of the sensates, is fluid, it responds to his pressure not by being reformed into some new solid shape but by flowing around and away from the source of pressure.

Throughout the extended period where Will and Riley are hiding from Whispers, they fluctuate between a conspiratorial anti-ocularity and deliberate visibility in order to manipulate Whispers. Whispers expects them to run and hide, to use blockers and to remain conspiratorial. Instead they entrap him with the gap between what he sees and what he believes. Will assumes the identity of the junkie, of the broken man, and he and Riley sell this assumption to Whispers as if it was really what they were and not, instead, a shell hiding the true movement of their conspiracy into a different direction.

Morpheus hands Neo a red pill and he goes down the rabbit hole. Later Neo is implanted with skills and knowledge. The sensates are born together, twice, and grow into being together. They are plastic but they are plastic in the way of a vine always climbing toward the sun, not the way of a bonsai tree, carefully shaped by a commanding will. We see this fluidity arise too in the way that Sense8 treats sex and sexual desire. When we meet the sensates, we see each as having specific and delineated desires, sexualities, sexual identities. Leto is gay. Nomi is a lesbian. Kala is straight.

But there are cracks in these boxes. The first appears when Will and Riley look in the mirror and each sees themself as the other. Other cracks come from outside the sensate cluster. Daniela’s insertion into Leto and Hernando’s carefully private life is disruptive, but the entire thing is built upon a sincere and mutual desire. They enjoy her gaze as much as she enjoys gazing. The problems only appear when others look at the triad and become judgmental. Slowly, the desire of the cluster becomes more polymorphous. We get those psychic orgies that made Sense8 famous, and it’s worth noting that most of these orgiastic moments involve the participation of people from without the cluster, whether Hernando, Amanita or someone else.

Of course Sense8 was not the first time the Wachowskis played around with the power of the orgiastic – the orgy in the Matrix: Reloaded remains one of the most memorable scenes in the film but in Sense8 it wasn’t just, “look at this beautiful field of hot, wet bodies.” It was, instead, “look at how the boundaries of desire dissolve, look at how these people melt and flow into each other.” The orgies in Sense8 are these pressing and claustrophobic scenes of abstraction: hands and asses, breasts and necks all pressing inward, a writhing mass of desiring flesh that often obscures faciality. This deployment of sexuality demonstrates how, in their desire, the sensates transform and flow into and around each other.

When looking at Sense8 as an escape plan, it’s essential to understand that it asks us to be sensates. We must be able to flow freely between conspiratoriality and a deliberate sort of visibility. We must be plastic like the vine climbing to the sun. We should deny being bound within specific labels, sorted and essentialized to be sold to, but should instead be able to mingle freely, to flow and to transform ourselves such that we are able to be who we need to be in any given moment.

But it’s not enough to be like water or like a vine. It isn’t enough to recognize the plasticity of our condition and to lean into it, to gain power through amorphousness. Because, as we’ve already described at length, the other essential part of dividuality, of the idea that the self can be divided and added to, is that the boundaries of the self extend beyond the skin of a person and into the community. Returning to that Mbiti quote, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”

Community and conspiracy

Let’s turn our attention away from the sensates for a moment and instead look at the people around them. Because Sense8 does something over and over again with the people who aren’t living a life of total plasticity in each others heads that is very surprising. It shows them willingly becoming accomplices. Of course the easiest example of this is the role that Daniella plays in Lito’s life. Even though her presence, and her telephone, complicate his life, Daniella is always a willing conspirator, an accomplice to him. She gives of herself freely and he does so in return. There is nothing but will that binds Lito to Daniella. In fact, his willing of her into his life is a little surprising at times considering the risk of complication she constantly presents. And yet she stays and gives of her talent. When we see her taking over as his agent, making calls, using her connections to book Lito into events there’s no thought of renumeration. When he rescues her from her abusive ex-husband it is equally not a matter of transaction but of community. She does what she does for Lito because they are community. He does what he does for her because they are community. It isn’t debt and obligation; it is recognition that they are one and the same.

The show does this again with the gradual, fumbling and stuttering seduction of Rajan. There are moments where the poor dork is framed as if we expect a turn toward betrayal, or of failing to understand Kala’s increasingly complex life, or of some other sort of conflict that doesn’t arise. Instead, he gives everything to her. And when we think Rajan has no more to give, he gives more of himself still. And again Sense8 drives this idea home with Bug.

Bug: Where's Mike?
Nomi: It's me. I'm Mike.
Bug: Oh, shit. Fuck. Right, totally forgot. I'm a fucking idiot. Of course it's you, buddy! Course it's you. Not you like the old you. Like a new hot version of you. Shit, Mike. You're a total fox! I would do you! I would. I would totally - I mean, not like, not in a degrading way like that sounded, but total compliment.

Our introduction to Bug isn’t very hopeful. While he’s open to Nomi and her changing circumstances, he still manages to deadname her because Bug is a bit of a dumbass. But he’s a dumbass with a trunk full of very hard-to-get computer gear that he just straight-up gives away. When Nomi needs somewhere to hide she turns to Bug and he’s enthusiastic to help. And again and again when she needs somebody to help her with the tech end of the sensate conspiracy, Bug is right there, willing to help, willing to listen, and what we initially take as a kind of creepy horniness from him turns out to be simply the awkward way that Bug expresses his selfless love for Nomi. Bug is never the sort of sexual partner to Nomi and Amanita that Daniela is to Lito and Hernando and I think that’s important. The show subverts our expectation of that mirroring with Bug’s kind of off-putting initial reaction but then shows us a validation that community, while grounded in desire, is grounded in desire to be a community and not just in the desire to fuck. Note carefully that the desire is to be the community, not to be an individual within it because that distinction is, perhaps more than anything else, what Sense8 is trying to drive home. A community exists not when “men, originally separated, get together,” as De Beauvoir put it but rather when people recognize that they desire to be together. And it’s important first that this desire to be together is complimentary. Each person within the community brings their talent to the fold but it is not lacking in redundancy: Nomi and Bug are both hackers; Wolfgang and Sun both know how to fight; Capheus and Will are both diplomats. But each gives freely to the members of their community and each, in turn, is given to freely: willfully and without thought of remuneration.

On enemies

But you can’t win on love alone and that’s also something Sense8 understands. Being a community is necessary to escaping capitalism but likewise it is necessary to be a conspiracy. And one thing a conspiracy must understand, intimately, is the eye of the counter-insurgent who watches for them. Whispers is the panopticon manifest and is a far more chilling antagonist than Smith in the Matrix for the singularity of his gaze.

Smith hates the smell of humanity so much that he blinds himself. He takes out his earpiece so he can conspire with Morpheus. Whispers never looks away – he is ever-watchful.

And so the sensates conspire against him. They surveil him in turn; they discover who his masters are, they allow him to lead them to his masters and then they blow every one of the bastards up with a rocket launcher. This is somewhat of a Chekov’s rocket launcher, this tool of broad, cacophonous, destruction appears before when Wolfgang needs to dispose of his more personal enemies. Sense8 is a show built on bones of love and desire, and it isn’t a show that is happy about violence. Sun is haunted by her violence. Capheus is forced into situations of violence and pretty obviously hates it. Will rejects the mantle of state-sponsored violence. Nomi flees it. But for all that these people don’t want to be violent, for all they don’t want to have enemies, they are willing to be ruthless to remove them. Sun deploys ruthlessness like a sharp claw against her awful brother and in any other show Wolfgang would probably have ended up dying in order to achieve absolution of his sins.

Instead Sense8 is very comfortable saying that while we might not choose our enemies, we can choose to be done with them. And how does an insurgent group, just eight ring leaders each operating with the collaboration of a small cell of accomplices, overthrow a far bigger enemy? With conspiracy, cunning and a willingness to do literally anything to end the threat of the enemy. Sense8 reminds us of how important it is to recognize the possibility of a different world. The last scene of the series, after the delightfully self-indulgent wedding at the Eiffel tower which I may be the only extant fan of, tells us perfectly well where the sensates want to be and what they want to do with their time.

Bataille’s accursed share must be used for something and if it isn’t waging war, it’s going to be towering works of art and vast and indulgent exercises in debauch. Better the latter than the former, says the end of Sense8. But to get there, to get to the big party where everybody revels in their plasticity to become anything, to discover the sensual limits and to explore the possibilities of being, we have to fight. And we must remember that too. The Tiqqun collective reminds us that, “evasion is only a simple escape: it leaves the prison intact. We must have desertion, a flight that at the same time obliterates the whole prison.” And obliteration of the prison – be that the prison of Whispers’ panopticonic gaze or the imaginary bounds of the capitalist-realist condition, will require the sort of conceptual violence that obliterates our bonds as fully as Wolfgang obliterates that helicopter. If there were no enemies there’d be no need to talk of liberation. We could all go and have a party on the Eiffel tower.