I’m back?

So it’s been a minute.

I’m kind of back. At least, I’m writing essays again, if nothing else, and, well, I have a blog, so… I might as well put them here.

Some of you might be wondering what happened to me that I went basically dark for three years. A lot of my readers are close friends, so they know a lot of this. But I have got to the point where I feel ready to talk about it. The wounds are basically closed. I want to make this really clear, I don’t want and am not seeking sympathy. I don’t want or need pity or concern. I’m fine. Really. But to get to how I got to fine I kind of need to walk through when I wasn’t and what that meant to me.

So let’s start in 2016. In 2016 I suffered from a pretty serious bout of depression. It wasn’t politically related – I’m susceptible to depression, I had a young child and was living in a slummy apartment in a city that I felt was chewing me up. On paper life was really good. My daughter. I had the best job I’d ever had to date. My novel had been published a year ago, and I was as successful as an artist as I’d ever been. But I felt kind of trapped and really miserable. I tried to change things up. I went back to school, I did another post-graduate professional certification, studied for and sat an incredibly difficult exam. And then nothing really changed except I experienced extreme burnout.

My depression led to me making some bad choices – I tossed in my job for one that paid more but was doing work I was neither morally comfortable with nor really properly trained for. I got it on the basis of my hard-won professional certification but then found that it wasn’t the work I had studied to do. And the burnout wasn’t getting better. I lost my job.

At the same time I lost my job, we were moving out of the slummy apartment and into a condominium my wife and I had put a lot of money into pre-construction. Only, we couldn’t secure a mortgage with me on EI and were looking at potentially being on the street once the apartment closed. Closing kept getting pushed back by the developer and I was just…

Broken.

Completely broken. This was spring 2018.

We made the hard decision to leave Toronto. I found work subcontracting for an IT company and working for the Federal Government. I moved out to Charlottetown and stayed with my best friend while we sorted out the housing situation. We got a beautiful house on the edge of town adjacent a horse farm. The pace of life slowed. I buried myself in family, and started healing from those psychic wounds that I’d accumulated over the last two years.

But I started getting headaches when I tried to read.

I hadn’t been reading much during my depression. It’d been a symptom of my depression, and as these things often are, this symptom fed back into those painful feelings and left me paralyzed. Having come out the other side I kind of wanted to start reading again. But I was walking (and later driving or being driven) to and from work instead of taking transit. My daughter was growing and made more demands on my time. I was working. And when I tried to read I would feel tired quickly and there were those headaches.

Eventually it came to pass that I discovered I needed glasses. It was 2019 and I was 40. These things happen.

However I was still struggling to read. Fiction wasn’t clicking with me. “Show, don’t tell,” had gone from a piece of craft advice to a stone in my boot. Having healed I was getting more concerned with politics again beyond a sense of unending despair, but I felt a sort of anxious urgency to speak and be spoken to clearly and without dissembly. The contradictions inherent in fictive text had bugged me for a while. I was writing about that in 2016, a few months before I burned out and fell into depression, and I’d talked about it depth at the 2015 Spec Fic Colloquium a year previously when I’d dug into the concept of, tabula rasa rebellion as a form of ideological neutering. But what was a nuisance in 2015 just grew and grew until it made it very difficult for me to enjoy anything but the most strident and didactic books. I turned to works in translation largely because people outside the anglosphere were more likely to say what they meant and mean what they said in their fiction.

These days I mostly read French books. So that “works in translation” thing kind of stuck I guess. But I’m learning French too so a few of those book aren’t in translation and that’s really cool. But I’ll get to this.

Ok, so we’re into the home stretch here. Things were definitely on the up-swing for me. I had glasses, I was working, had a beautiful red house that was mine in a nice neighbourhood with a whole bunch of little girls near my daughter’s age with whom she made fast friends. My wife had finally found a position worthy of her talents and she was working and happy too.

I’d left the Federal Government job – it’d always been contract – but I’d moved seamlessly into another position. I had a direct report who I’d the best relationship since the good job I’d left at the start of my depression.

I was traveling for work a lot; and reading on flights. I read a couple of science fiction novels but the confused ideology of books like The Expanse series – books that wanted to be about radical, transformative, paradigmatic shifts in technology and culture but that couldn’t imagine a universe more different than what we have now, only with basic income for some – just didn’t gel with me. I was enjoying Ian M. Banks. And I was enjoying non-fiction.

I read Julie Watson’s Ghost Stories and Legends of Prince Edward Island. This was effectively a work of anthropology – a mythography discussing the stories my new home told about itself. I adored it. I also read my old, dear, friend Vanessa Brown’s true crime book about the Forest City Killer. I don’t generally read true crime, and only did read it because of who wrote it (Vanessa is one of my two oldest friends). But in these books I found what I’d been missing; I found that the clarity of conversation I was struggling with in fiction was present in these books that said what they meant and meant what they said. My return to reading came in fits and starts, but it was a start. So I suppose I should thank Vanessa for helping me overcome a pretty severe obstacle in my life last year.

It was February 2020 and I was mostly worried about my cousin who lives in Tianjin and my in-laws who live in central China. My boss, the one I liked, left my employer, and things were getting tense as COVID-19 crept over the horizon. I was in Texas in early March, when the travel ban came in. I returned home the same day that mandatory 14 day self-isolation periods for international travel were established. Soon after schools closed and we went into lockdown. Unable to travel for work, and with my American clients in disarray, work was going poorly, and somebody needed to give greater attention to our daughter, who was going a bit feral, and who was not really learning French despite being in French immersion.

My wife and I knew one of us were going to have to step away from work, and my employer offered me an out. We came to an agreement that they would lay me off, but unlike the time before when I lost my job I actually felt great. It wasn’t like I was the only person out of work in April 2020, and it meant I could be there for my daughter. I became her French tutor, and started learning French a bit myself to keep up. Eventually the lockdown eased in PEI and my daughter started going to ballet again. The weather was nice, and I really didn’t want to spend time indoors. COVID precautions precluded watching her dance, so I got in the habit of getting a coffee from the shop across from her dance studio and taking it to a picnic table, I’d drink coffee and play with my phone, read news about COVID, read about politics. Sometimes I’d pinch wifi and watch Youtube videos. I’d become fond of a few channels that talked about philosophy but I’d noticed that most of them were very entry-level. (This isn’t actually all that true, but the stuff I found first via politics focused Breadtube types was.)

I’d always loved philosophy.

If you go into my back-catalog you know I was writing about Hegel in the article about rebels. I talked about Nietzsche in another article, but it’d been years since I’d read him (my Nietzsche reading having been between 1999 and 2004) and I don’t think I fairly represented him in those writings so I’m going to leave off the link. I’d been getting pretty involved with radial leftist discourse online and was frustrated by the ML/Anarchist conflicts – which I largely saw as arising out of miscommunication and century-old bad blood.

It was by then getting to be about mid-September and I was also painfully bored. So I decided to fill one of those gaps I saw in Youtube philosophy content and start putting out some videos specifically targeted at leftists presenting ethical problems within leftist discourse and using a largely materialist-existentialist frame to address good ways of approaching these problems while hopefully side-stepping the sectarian divisions that bothered me. So I decided I should brush up on my philosophical reading.

I’d loved that stuff in university.

Fifteen years ago.

But hadn’t read much since I’d returned from China in 2007. So I eased into it by picking up The Present Age by Kierkegaard – he’d been my fave in university. Honestly I think a lot of people going into philosophy at the undergraduate level found him a bit opaque, but I’d been interested in theology as a precocious child and by the time I met Kierkegaard in university I was already well-situated to understand him. I’d found writing essays about Kierkegaard was a good way to get good grades in philosophy classes so… I stuck with that.

And when I returned to philosophy I started there and with Simone De Beauvoir – who I adore for her successful efforts to secularize Kierkegaard’s ethics and whose ethical sense underpinned my planned project. I started researching for my first video. It was getting to be the American electoral season again, and leftists were arguing about whether leftists should vote and if so how. I decided to do a video about that and read Sartre, Adorno and Horkheimer to round out my reading list. (And, of course, Marx.)

I planned to do a second video about whether a state could be ethical, and picked up Foucault. I had encountered him in university but had been generally unimpressed. I wasn’t well situated to see much profundity in him then, and he’d never been a difficult author for me so I just saw him as being another overrated postmodernist. This was a position that I rapidly erased upon reading Society Must Be Defended, which is an exceptionally easy to read and engaging series of lectures regarding the relationship of the discipline of history to the structures of state power that surrounded them. In this book I found the lynchpin to the questions about the state I wanted to ask. And between these two books, I rediscovered my ability to read for pleasure.

The flood gates opened. I started grabbing up books as fast as I could learn about them. In November and December of 2020 I read Mark Fisher, Frantz Fanon, I started in on another Foucault book (Discipline and Punish), started re-reading my favourite graphic novel (The Invisibles) and also reading Valerian L’Integrale volume 2 in French, my literacy in that language having improved sufficiently to handle it since the start of 2020. I read Gilles Deleuze, whose essay, Postscript on the Societies of Control, is possibly the most singularly influential thing of the lot of my Q4 2020 reading. When you occasionally see me reference, “the search for new weapons,” I am quoting this essay. I also started listening to podcasts, particularly Acid Horizon, and through them learned about a host of other philosophers (Felix Guttari, of course, but also Simondon, Lyotard and Bataille). I revisited Derrida and Nietzsche and found my opinions on them had, in fact, shifted since university. Bataille’s The Solar Anus was nearly as influential for my recent WandaVision essay as Fisher or Adorno were, albeit more for the stylistic freedom that I felt in it. And I should note that this massive glut of books, essays, poems and commentaries was all stuff I was reading and listening to between October 2020 and now. At the end of November I found another job which is operating fully remote, and I set up a home office that has come together as a very comfortable space to work, create, read and have a good think in.

I am reading again. And eventually my reading overflowed into writing. I’m not sure I can write fiction where I am right now. If I do, it’ll have to be a pretty substantial break from what I wrote before. But Adorno and Deleuze, Bataille and Fisher have reignited my fondness for criticism and I have more reading on deck as I’m set to read Anti-Oedipus, The Weird and the Eerie, The Rebel (you can see hints of Camus peeking out of my recent review of Star Trek Discovery Season 3) and Critique of Dialectical Reason vol. 1 after I finish with Discipline and Punish.

My research specific to the question of the state is almost done and has left me more certain than ever that the main things separating modern state Socialists from Anarchists are semantics over the definition of what a state actually constitutes. I am excluding various online malcontents from this discussion. Frankly I think most Marxists would do well to tell Stalinists and Gonzalo Thought proponents to jump off the nearest pier just as I think most anarchists should remain on guard against eco-fascist entryism. There will be a Youtube video for the ethics of the state in pan-leftist discourse at some point.

And that’s where I am. It’s a long way from 2016 where I went through burnout, depression and loss of basically everything in my life but my family to here, healthy, happy, bespectacled and with a renewed vigor for my passions. Not everybody makes it through depression. Fisher didn’t. If you go through the biographies of my reading list, it’s not precisely the perfect-picture-of-psychological-health-and-wellbeing-club. But I did. I came out the other side stronger, if weirder.

That urgency to speak and to listen to clear language remains. I do worry about the state of the world; who couldn’t after the year we’ve been through. And I think part of the attraction of theory over fiction is in looking for solutions instead of deferments or temporary escapes.

2020 was a hard year for everyone.

2021 is going to be another. And we’re going to keep having hard years until we get up and do something. I don’t have the answer to these big questions that face the world. Climate change, plague, the political instability of late capital: these are vast problems and no one person will solve them. They will require everybody to work together. I’m not even sure how we could begin to accomplish the sort of transformations we need to undertake to start making the world a better place.

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters,”1 and it feels strange to be talking about how good I feel personally in this uncertain time compared to the relative stability of four years ago. But I think it’s because I’ve been through change and transformation. The only constants in my life are the relationships I carried with me through darkness. I am a process of change. The world is likewise. I got better – if stranger. The world can too.

1: Antonio Gramsci as paraphrased by Slavoj Žižek.

Fanfiction and the enclosure of the creative commons

The discourse of genre authors, almost perennially, falls to the validity of fanfiction as an artistic category. This debate is never, of course, resolved and it flares up again each time some detractor of the category has their voice amplified sufficiently for those who see themselves as friends of the category to feel threatened.

Considering the sensitivity of artists, this does not generally require much in the way of a threat.

Fanfiction, as a category, exists because artists need to find ways of circumventing the barriers put up by capitalism. The idea of copyright is a modern, and capitalist, one. The first copyright law was formed in England in the early 1700s.

This pernicious concept, that ideas could be made commodities to be bought and sold, rather than representing the intellectual commons upon which creation occurred, allows for parties, individuals and companies, to claim ownership of works of fiction, of characters and situations. Only fiction doesn’t work that way. And it’s good that it doesn’t.

The only reason we have a record of most of Shakespeare’s plays is because some theatre nerds with fast fingers would come to his plays, take notes on the script and then sell copies for a side hustle.

Art, including fiction, is iterative. It’s a form of communication and as such it can’t help but be iterative; an answer contains within it the premise of the question. Copying, mutating and iterating are essential creative tools, and they’re tools that are increasingly restricted as the bounds of copyright tighten, terms lengthen, and laws like DMCA move power toward those who want to enclose the creative commons. As a result these components of fiction become walled off.

I want to be clear here that this is far from the only way that capital distorts art, or encloses upon the tools of artistry. For another example please see my essay on how the franchise as a marketing structure makes the artistic use of ambiguity untenable and undermines finitude. Capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with creative ventures; the generation of the fanfiction / original work dichotomy is merely a good example of this forced limitation.

That said, the dichotomy exists in the minds of people trapped within the bounds of what Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism. And since it exists, it’s necessary for us to grapple with its contours.

It’s fine if you want to iterate based off work so old there’s no clear thread of ownership; but if you want to engage in communication with living artists, you must pay for the privilege, or else you must create fic. Fanfiction is an artificial category. Literally no writer is not also a creator of fanfiction. We can’t help but respond to what we read. It is in the nature of art. What separates “fanfiction” from “original” fiction is only whether one can claim ownership over the fiction in order to sell it. This is a useless distinction for artists to argue over.

Why do you care whether another artist wants to sell work or enjoy creative expression as an amateur? The categories of professional and amateur are, in themselves, problematic enough without assessing each work of art an artist creates along the axis of marketability.

This is, of course, the secondary reason that so many “fanfiction” writers who “file off the serial numbers” are reviled. The first is because they’re frequently women as a result of complex social movements. But there’s a sense of fanfiction crossover as having cheated its way into a market it should not own. This is “business ontology,” as Fisher would have put it, creeping into art appreciation.

One of the things that reinforces my communism is the brutal ways capital deforms art. And I get it, artists need to eat. I mean, I maintain a day job explicitly because my art is not profitable. If I could make a living as an author, a critic or a painter I’d do that instead of being a project manager.

My ideological side wants art to be the hard stone that is spit out by capital; for art to be deliberately and aggressively counter to the demands of business ontology. I would make a criminal of every artist. And as such, I am something of a friend to the amateur, including the fanfiction writer. After all, fewer things are more criminal within capitalism than to remove productive action from the bounds of the marketable.

But it’s kind of ridiculous to see professional artists, people who have nomadically sampled the intellectual commons and made their compromises with capital to be allowed the privilege of making art a career, dunking on an artist of no particular notoriety just because they don’t enjoy the fodder in the former part of the commons now within the fanfiction enclosure and loudly say so.

Don’t play the game of categories with them. Find lines of escape instead. The search for new weapons continues.

Wandavision – finitude and the franchise

If you intend to enjoy WandaVision you may want to consider not reading this.

The greatest obstacle to critiquing WandaVision is Disney’s transhumanism.

This goes far beyond the legendary frozen corpse of the founder, lying in wait under the Pirates of the Caribbean ride until the day the stars are right. Instead the transhumanism of Disney exists in a revulsion toward finitude. Nothing can ever end. “Dreams are forever,” as the founder said.

Copyright and trademark are eternal. The House of Mouse is an eldritch singularity, drawing in all of mass culture and hoarding it, digesting stories and shitting out merchandise.

Stories, too, cannot end. Nothing symbolizes this better than the blood-gorged leech of the so-called Infinity Saga. The five odd hour hours of Avengers Endgame and Infinity War smash brightly coloured brand indicators together and ape some vast Manichean conflict between a godlike conqueror and a gang of heroic rebels; but the telos of the two films is just a strident defense of the status quo. The reward for our heroes at the end of this supposedly infinite war is a reset. A return. And not even the return of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Campbell’s hero would return home transformed by the journey. Peter Parker returns unchanged. He slots seamlessly back into old friendships and routines. He is eternally on his journey, forever rejecting and answering calls that never go anywhere. A journey without distance. A cycle as brief as two turns of the clock that signifies nothing but two more turns. But of course the war is infinite, of course its conclusion is a return to an unchanging present. Disney cryogenically freezes narratives. It is terrified of a story ending, because an ending is a letting go. And Disney can never let anything go; it is as incapable of that as the singularity at the heart of the Milky Way.

This vomitous pile of a story hangs over WandaVision; its stench is ever-present. It haunts the story. In such a circumstance, how could we possibly fairly review the story before us?

Only by cutting it away from its own diseased bones. If WandaVision is to be assessed as a singular work of art, it must be walled away from the Avengers. We must exorcise the putrid ghost of the Infinity ” Saga” and approach the text tabula rasa. We will dispel the unspoken belief that he is a ghost while she lives still and start from the beginning as if it were alone, not one chapter in a “saga” but a story: an enclosed and finished work. If WandaVision cannot survive this form of scrutiny, it can thus, at least, fail on its own merits. And the only thread to redeem this product as a work of art stands in approaching it alone.

And it turns out that tabula rasa is the perfect way to approach WandaVision because, after dispensing with some period-appropriate credits, we meet our protagonists as blank slates in Pleasantville. Or at least they are in part blank slates. They come pre-equipped with mannerisms appropriate to an archaic fish-out-water situation comedy and complete and comprehensive knowledge of each other’s powers.

The show really wants to make this clear; Wanda and Vision don’t know what the date marked on their calendar is. They don’t know where they’re from or what their favourite song is. But they know she can summon objects ex nihilo. They know he can walk through a wall. The strangely selective gaps in memory continue. Vision knows he has a job but not what working that job entails. Wanda knows she stays home but does not know what a homemaker does. Archaic sit com hijinks ensue.

WandaVision, within the bounds of its textual frame, is remarkably disconnected from the Real. This disconnect presents itself in two overlapping ways. The first is in a profound temporal disconnect. Time stutters and jumps. A decade passes. Nobody comments. The show is set within situation comedies, but the precise sort of comedy refuses to be nailed down. It’s the Honeymooners or Andy Griffith one moment. Bewitched and I Dream of Genie the next. It gestures in the direction of the Adams Family for a moment then pivots and is, for a mayfly lifespan, The Office. Fashion, decor and hairstyle flux and, while our protagonists maintain a kind of postmodern indifference to this strangeness, Agnes is always exactly the character within the scene required to situate Wanda within the chimerical setting. And this is good, because excepting Wanda and Agnes, the rest of the cast are automata who comfortably glide between genres and roles. This may seem unkind to Vision, but he is immediately designated an automaton. Whenever in the comfort of his home he drops the act of humanity. He is perfectly aware he’s inhuman. He once calls humans small and limited. But Vision is a machine so simple he can be brought low by a wad of bubble gum. Vision is unaware of the extent to which he fails to understand himself at all. That failure of self-knowledge is a theme here.

I think the best way to envision the split in the self-knowledge Wanda and Vision have is to say that they don’t know who they are; but they know all too well what they are. They know that they are abnormal; each episode of the two which were released this week is about a test to see if they can fit in.

In the first of these tests, Wanda meets Agnes, and this is probably the highlight of the show. Kathryn Hahn is delightful. She has exceptional range, and razor-sharp delivery that hits the precise right note of parody to provide the kind of post-ironic frisson this show demands. Frankly, she acts circles around the rest of the cast.

With Agnes’s help, Wanda interprets the heart marked on the calendar as an indication that the evening is her and Vision’s anniversary and prepares a romantic evening for two. Meanwhile, at Vision’s work, he learns that a hazing ritual for new employees is to treat the boss, Andy Hart, and his wife to dinner. They have exacting standards, and the consequences of failing to impress are dire.

The dinner proceeds as a pastiche of early ‘1960s sitcoms. Wanda acts overly affectionate with Mr. Hart, and they explain it away to her origins in a fictional European country nobody comments on her lack of an accent, though Mr. Hart makes some dark allusions to his distrust of communists. Wanda and Vision finally compare notes, and attempt to change course from an erotic romp to an opportunity to impress the boss, engaging in increasingly desperate acts to conceal the fact that Wanda is attempting to hasten dinner along with her magic. At one point she transforms one burnt chicken into a basket full of eggs. “Oh no, too early,” she says (or something to that effect). The terrifying implications that she turned one chicken into many eggs is left to hang in the air, unexplored.

Eventually dinner is served and WandaVision pivots to where it is at its best: pure psychological horror. Mrs. Hart has become woozy from hunger waiting while Wanda bungles dinner after dinner, telekinetically throwing lobsters out windows and doing eldritch… things… to chickens. They get dinner on the table and everyone is seated but the mood is spoiled. The guests ask some questions about Wanda and Vision’s origins but they’re evasive. Mr. Hart becomes increasingly animated, pounding his hands on the table while a clock ticks noisily in the background. 

“What is your story?”
“Why did you come here?”
He’s screaming.
He chokes. 
The clock ticks.
The shadows draw in. 
Wanda commands Vision to help Mr. Hart, who has fallen to the floor, gasping for breath.

Vision reaches his hand through the front of Mr. Hart’s throat and retrieves the errant speck of food.

The shadows recede. Mr. Hart recovers his composure. He and his wife are entirely happy with how dinner went. They leave. The moment of horror ends.

The show retains, from this moment on, an edge that stays with it until one scene prior to the credit roll. Wanda and Vision discuss their strangeness. They seem to have forgotten the terror of the scene that unfolded with the Harts, or at least the trauma of it. Again there’s a sort of partial amnesia as if they know what happened but not what made it significant. They remark on the strangeness that they haven’t wedding rings and Wanda summons rings from nothing again. The laugh track invades here. Sighs of happiness. But it’s ash. Those happy sighs fill me with revulsion because the laugh track has become a character in this horrible, surreal nightmare of a story. The cooing of an invisible audience is a pressure that pushes against the senses. It edges close to the haptic void.

The moment ends. The credits roll. But it’s a fake-out, not the real credits but the credits within the show. This is when WandaVision trips over itself and ruins its own frame in the last scene. Our perspective pans out of the TV playing the show they were on and reveals some shadowy space. There is a panel of screens, including that playing the WandaVision show. One screen has some vague tacticool bullshit on it, and a militaristic logo. The eye is drawn to this screen, as if the logo was somehow important. A hand enters the frame, rendered in the perfect clarity of modern digital cameras, rather than the bespoke lo-fi black and white of the episode before. It turns off the screen. Rather than being left to wonder at the hypnagogic setting, we are allowed to see briefly behind the curtain. To be shown that there is, in fact, a place more real than the world of the show and that it is in some way in control. The question of who controls this liminal space will likely be a central one. I find it hard to care at the moment because this antagonist is gestured at so vaguely that it might as well not be there at all.

More credits roll, these ones comprise a stylized symbolic affair where settings and props from the show are rendered as if they were made up of CRT pixels. They eventually pan out into a digital simulation of two interlocking rings. If there was any doubt remaining at this point that Wanda and Vision were in some sort of generated simulation, this image would dispel it completely. This is disappointing.

Our second episode begins indulgently. First it gives us a previously-on. Considering these two episodes are rather short (~30 minutes each) the division into two episodes might have already been a little questionable (there is some structural reason which I will address later, but I find it poorly executed). To insert a “previously on” at the start seemed honestly insulting. Perhaps it could be seen as a joke, teasing at genre tropes that condense season-long plot threads into two-minute recaps constantly, but if so, it fails to wink at the audience in the way that literally every other joke in this horror-comedy does. Immediately after this our ears are yet again assaulted by the Marvel fanfare. Loudly and at length. 

After a setup for the episode’s mystery, the show cuts to yet another credit sequence. This is the sixth credits sequence across two episodes for those keeping count. This one a cheerful cartoon that carefully, and in great detail, delineates the geography of the setting and the powers of Vision and Wanda. Vision and Wanda remain these faintly smiling cartoons throughout, still rather blank slates – they are these repositories of terrifying power that are unknowable because they do not know themselves.

The second fit-in test is a PTA talent show. (They have no children.) Wanda plans a magic act which will lay bare the artifice of magic, the ropes and mirrors. She hopes it will demistify them. Vision goes to a Neighbourhood Watch meeting but it turns out they mostly just gossip. The people are the same men from his office in the previous episode. He doesn’t notice. He denounces one of the members of the watch as a communist. They all laugh. This show has a casual hatred for the political other. Communism looms as a threat in the text more explicitly than the comedies it simulacratizes. They think he’s a joker. He swallows some gum and it clogs up his gears. Literally.

Wanda, meanwhile, has a series of surreal encounters that might almost feel Lynchian in a better overall work. She encounters out of context objects, a PTA cult, a new friend and then suffers through a repeat of the terrifying encounter of the dinner party. This time the leader of the PTA cult, Dottie, tells Wanda that she doesn’t like her, doesn’t trust her good intentions. She looks to be getting ready to say something more terrible still to Wanda but a radio in the background is screaming with static. A voice cuts through, “Who’s doing this to you Wanda?” And I just wish that WandaVision could sustain this level of quality, because this scene is legitimately frightening. But Dottie immediately forgets the encounter and seems perfectly satisfied.

The magic show goes well. Vision acts drunk (from the gum) but everyone seems to think it’s a bit. They try to sneak away but the town loves them. They drag them to the stage and give them a trophy. There is so much clapping. Far more clapping than hands in the scene to clap, until it becomes a cacophonous wall of noise. The haptic void again. The credit I will give the creative team behind WandaVision is this: when they were using their sound pallet rather than Marvel’s corporate noise, they used sound in interesting ways. Wanda and Vision pass the test. But I worry the magic show will, in some ways be an apt metaphor for this show: a process of demystification, an admission that the audience isn’t here to be startled or enchanted but just to see how the magic trick is done.

Then there is a coda at the end of the second episode that escapes the careful mirroring of before.

 They cut away, tell some jokes, cut the tension. They kill the mood. The transitions are artificial – WandaVision is built of artifice so this shouldn’t be surprising. But it has the effect of spreading oil over everything, undercutting the tension they’ve built. They try to kiss. Vision tells Wanda, “It’s really happening,” WandaVision has already undercut this with its framing so it lands weakly. We’ve already learned he’s wrong by this point. They told us clearly several times in the outro to the first episode. Things become terrifying again, as noises outside lead to a spooky beekeeper climbing out of the sewer.

Wanda commands, “No,” and the whole universe rewinds like a VHS tape. (Not like an 8mm film tape. Another temporal disconnect.) She and Vision kiss. They are not interrupted. The world explodes in colour. Their appearance glitches like they’re within the TV. A voice calls, “Who’s doing this to you Wanda?”

WandaVision’s second episode struggled with pace. It swung wildly between psychological horror and broad comedy. It wasn’t bad at either. It could conjure moments of existential terror in its two mirrored confrontation scenes, and it hit a comedy zenith with the talent show scene, which managed to fuse the careful staged humour of the 1960s with fly-on-the-wall cringe humour more part of the media landscape of the 2000s. Wanda’s absolute power is legitimately terrifying and she could be a good subject of horror. A terrifying and unknowable person in a clearly artificial landscape, a being of immense power and unknown intent. Although both Wanda and Vision seem infected by a compulsion to conform to the immediate normalcy of the ever-mutating narrative, she seems to do so by consent. By the end of the episode, using only the text within the show, I could sincerely argue that it seems more likely that what we do seem to know about the characters, that they have these powers; that they want to conform to local expectations no matter how absurd; that they are unaware of that absurdity; their virulent anti-communism, all of it, was only Wanda’s interpretation, her sense of the world superimposes itself upon the Real. Vision’s interior is depicted as a simplistic cartoon of cogs and wheels, like Bender from Futurama. Is this, perhaps just how she understands the robot? Or is this the show reminding us how absolutely empty he is? Wanda is not empty. She commands the temporal movement of the realm they are within. We’ve seen them stutter and jump in time in strange and unnatural ways throughout both episodes, and Wanda is shown to have power over time. If this were a show disconnected from the MCU, if I really could read it walled away, cut from the rotten bone, it could be a good show.

But I can’t. I try to keep it walled off but the show fights me too much. There’s the opening music. Twice across an hour of television, the Marvel fanfare. That bombastic leitmotif demands that you remember you are in a Marvel product. And it demands this twice. The doubling format has more narrative uses too, and mirroring is used heavily between the two episodes to give them an uncanny, iterative element. There’s this sense of simulation in it. The separation of the premiere into two stories allowed for an intertextual dialog that reinforced this iterative rhythm. There is a force within the show. Either it’s Wanda or it’s something far more terrifying than her. And it’s pushing toward an outcome. It’s not entirely a puppeteer. Wanda, at least, is not a puppet. But it’s a force on the story, and splitting the show in two allowed that force to be made plain. Though the first episode was more soundly paced, this was, in part, to service the second episode showing the aesthetic of change; or at least of movement. But this good work is fatally undercut by the “previously on” segment and the Marvel fanfare. This is a show about unreality. It’s a show where narrative, the sense the protagonists have of the Real is very subject to ad-hoc revision. Cutting away to remind us precisely what reality we are in (that of the MCU) is so deeply harmful to this eerie suspension.

Like Adorno and Horkheimer said, “enjoyment is giving way to being there and being in the know.” The show is peppered with obvious easter eggs designed to get viewers hunting lore and getting engaged with the fan community. There is a commercial embedded within each episode. The first commercial is for a Stark Industries toaster. The second is for a Strücker watch. The first, shallow, MCU trivia primes the audience to go seeking for the second. Unless, of course, they’ve seen Avengers Age of Ultron: the movie that exposits the back-stories of both Wanda and Vision, including her connection to Baron Von Strücker – a villain with tentacles throughout the entirety of the Avengers timeline. WandaVision unfortunately shrinks next to this vast back-catalog of work. Where before Wanda was this terrifying and unknowable entity, now, with the background coloured in, she’s a much more mundane person. Just a run of the mill superhero, trapped in some superheroic situation by a dastardly villain. The potential of WandaVision is crushed by its proximity to Marvel. Too much foreign text crowds the work, demands to fill its cracks and make clear its meanings. Ambiguity is bad for brand maintenance. You want to engage the fans. Make them feel good because they knew things. You have to make sure to sneak the S.W.O.R.D. logo in so that the real-in-the-know fans (and anyone with even a shred of curiosity and a working internet connection) can feel cool for Getting That Reference. The fan games Disney encourages engage the aesthetic of study, of knowing. But they don’t engage the act of it. Anyone can Get That Reference. Keeping you in the media ecosystem is what matters.

I mentioned before that Wanda’s subplot in the second episode was at moments almost Lynchian. But this is another place where the show runs into problems. Because Lynch’s work depends on ambiguity. Reality and recollection blur, identities become indistinct. It’s like they wanted to make a Lynchian story for which a vast encyclopedia exists that sorts all the ambiguity and liminality into easily and exhaustively categorized boxes. We keep being given the hard edges of the thing. Thanks to the demands of Marvel marketing, we aren’t watching a story about unknowable beings in some horrifically comic purgatory. 

WandaVision isn’t a show that wants to mystify its audience. It wants instead to show the audience where all the ropes and mirrors are. 

So, no, it isn’t two unknowable godlike beings in an absurd purgatory. We are watching a story about two superheroes in a situation. Their powers are explained to us quickly and cleanly and smoothly not because they’re part of an intricate fantasy Wanda has created but because the writers are quickly getting people up to speed about the only thing that truly matters for a superhero, the Ariadne’s thread that allows for their interpretation: the power set. Occasionally good artists manage to do something with these empty heroes, and perhaps the WandaVision team will be up to the challenge, but for the most part they’re just broad characters with narrowly defined powers getting into and out of various situations. It’s all very normal and mundane. And this is what the constant intrusion of other texts into WandaVision does. It opens the story’s lungs up and watches as the mundane normalcy of Disney infects it.

Marvel’s blasted overture blares over the start of every episode, roaring for people to get excited for the next big spectacle. What they get instead is a horror comedy about loss of identity in an absurd universe. The surreal setting and its oddly incomplete cast of automata create a pervasive liminality that picks away at sense of self, at the certainty of time; it tortures its protagonist with existential questions. “What’s your story,” indeed. The dissonance between the expectations of franchise and the story the writers seem to want to tell rips at the theme. We expect our heroes, any minute now, to smash their way out of the television and to punch the villain until they fall over and everything goes back to normal.

Vision dies in Avengers Infinity War. The magic rock that gives him life is ripped out of his head and he, alone, of all the heroes who were killed by Thanos, doesn’t get to come back. His was the sacrifice that proved consequences could exist in the MCU. So of course he’s back. Because Disney can’t let go of its property. And that’s all Vision is. Disney’s property.

Dreams are forever, but if a dream is forever you can never wake. Franchise stories keep the dream humming along only by deferring the moment of wakefulness where the story ends. WandaVision could be a strange and nightmarish dream. But because it must be cryogenically suspended in the tapestry of the Marvel Brand, because threads must stitch it into this overall, ever-winding fabric of narrative, you can never wake from it. The boundaries that separate WandaVision from Avengers movies are absent. This is just an artful set of scenes in an awful mess of a vast, never-to-be-completed advertisement for itself.

The failed promise of Star Trek Discovery

It’s unfortunate that in a year with a Star Trek show as good as Lower Decks, Discovery, which is arguably the flagship franchise of Trek on TV, was so painfully mediocre. Discovery season one was, at the time it came out, the best first season a Trek show ever had, and with a few small tweaks to costume and structure, season two was even stronger. 

Star Trek Discovery season two was perhaps the most character-driven a season of Trek ever got. It invested us in the lives and relationships of Burnham and Saru, Spock, Pike, Tilly, Stamets and Culber, Owosekun and Detmer, Georgiu and all the rest.

On top of that it told an interesting story of time travel and AI that touched on many themes and anxieties that had their bones in Star Trek as far back as the original series. It asked questions about the duty to protect sentience, the desire to control and to predict chaotic events, automation and reliance on machines.

Discovery’s use of time travel in season two was sharp, and kept the stakes high. The central mystery was tied to the character and thematic conflicts of the season, allowing the solution of the central mystery to be simultaneously an interesting bit of plotting and a cathartic resolution of  the relationships that dominated the season. The end of Discovery season two established a premise for season three that took Star Trek precisely where most people really wanted it: back to its own future. 

And then Star Trek Discovery wasted a season on the worst sort of brand maintenance, and in the process, reduced many of its central relationships to incoherent nonsense.

Saying something nice

But before we get into the postmortem of a season of television that failed, let’s take a moment to talk about the few things Discovery got right. Book is an excellent addition to the cast. This combination of Deana Troi and Beastmaster had a consistent character arc built around his status as a loner and his integration into a community that allowed us to understand his past (through the conflict with his brother,) a sense of who he was (don’t insult the man’s cat,) and gave him both relationships with others in the world and the opportunity to forge new relationships with the principal cast. If you are going to introduce a new, ongoing, cast member into an extant show, Book is a textbook example of doing so well.

I am somewhat more critical of the introduction of Adira. It’s good that Star Trek has decided to include a non-binary character in the central cast. And, as a character, Adira is more interesting than some of their precursors like Wesley Crusher. However centering so much of Adira’s story directly on either a plot-forced relationship with Stamets or with their struggles integrating becoming host to their own dead lover, who the show demands must be made visible, feel heavy-handed and unsubtle at best. In particular, the scene in which Adira announces their preferred pronouns to Stamets felt like nothing but a bit of social scripting introduced to train Generation-X audience members in the appropriate way to respond to Kids Today. However, the precocious ingenue is a time-honored (if occasionally detested) component of Star Trek, and Adira is certainly not the most vexatious example of this trope. That a show so in dialog with the past of Star Trek as Discovery has been should include one should not surprise. And ultimately, Adira remains one of the net-positives of the show. I do hope that they are allowed to continue developing as a character as the series goes on – their arc being less complete than that of Book – but I like the dynamic of introducing a new Science Friend as it’s clear that Tilly will continue shuffling toward a command-track position. Just, perhaps, the scriptwriters should ease up on the throttle on the found-family narrative and allow Stamets to be a colleague rather than a surrogate father.

The relationship between Owosekun and Detmer was also a highlight of the season. I don’t think any character from the established cast was given as much space to grow and develop as Detmer, and Owo’s support of her was well done. It’s a shame that Detmer’s arc was resolved by half-way through the season, leaving little for her to do other than stand in the background, and that, rather than using the relationship between Detmer and herself, and her established abilities to give Owo her heroic turn in the finale, the scriptwriters simply penciled in a special skill.

Finally there was the exit of Georgiu. I’m divided here, because there was so much wasted potential in Georgiou’s storyline; but she did have a solid character arc, she behaved consistently, and (being honest) Michelle Yeoh remained the most entertaining actor performing on Star Trek this year. Her scenery-chewing swings between horny, cruel, protective and gleeful remained the source of much of the show’s levity. 

There was a while when Georgiu seemed to be an interesting critical figure. Her position as a time traveler and as a mirror-universe figure, her multiple displacements, made her an effective stand-in for much of the deconstructive critique that marked the period of Star Trek between Deep Space Nine and Enterprise and this lent her interaction with the ever-so-Rodenberryesque principal cast a form of metatextual dialog which, during the first half of season three, pointed toward an actual theme.

Of course this was bungled in favour of naked fanservice and brand maintenance as she was somewhat unceremoniously shuffled over to her spin-off Section 31 series, in a two-part episode that fell painfully flat.

Brand maintenance was the name of the game for Discovery season three though. So I suppose this isn’t too surprising. 

A story in search of a theme

What was Discovery season three about? Think about it for a second, really try to think about it. What was it about? We could start by taking inventory on where we came from. Discovery season two established that the crew were a found-family. Our named-cast agree, together, to follow Michael into the future in order to protect the Sphere Data and prevent the arisal of the Control AI that would destroy all life in the galaxy.

Michael and Saru, once rivals, have fallen into a gentle and supportive friendship as she has helped him recover his connection to his people and overturn a form of systemic repression that subjugated Kelpiens throughout history. Michael has been promised the opportunity to reunite with her mother.

Stamets and Culber have been reunited, as the Mycelial Network repays Stamets for his efforts in the two seasons of the show to protect the integrity of the universe even at the expense of his own success and notoriety as a researcher. Stamets, in particular, has learned how to set aside his personal desires and act in the interests of the collective.

Tilly remains the loyal friend and Michael’s mentee. Georgiu remains the dark reflection of the other mother who Michael failed – the pull toward utility and practicality to balance the selflessness of her mother’s own arc. And Pike stays behind to spin off with Spock and Number One. This is fine. We always expected that Pike would be a one-season treat. The sphere data is an enigmatic other. The season ends uncertain whether it will be an ally or a threat – just the certainty that it appears aware in some way.

So what would make sense from here? 

We could build off the sense that Michael needs to pick up the mantle of leadership. We could see her building ties in the future, feeling at home, and having the feeling that she should lead. We could see Saru finding himself a bit too rigid, a bit of a fish out of too many waters. Put Saru on the bridge when Osyraa’s regulators board; have it go the same. Let Michael have her die-hard sequence and then have Saru demand Michael take command rather than Tilley. We end in the same place. Saru retired to Kelpinar, Michael as captain. Tilly has been Michael’s mentee since season one episode one so having her remain so, with an eye toward assuming a command role at season-end, (and perhaps a promotion) would have continued to give Mary Wiseman something to do aside from following Saru around being his folly. This would give us a thematic through-line that leadership requires not just genius and thoughtfulness, but some of the willingness to throw oneself into an uncertain future that Michael represents. In fact, such an arc would hark back to the white rabbit motifs of season one. Michael has always been one to go down the rabbit hole.

Or we could lean into the changed politics of the burn and examine what the Federation really is. This would require reconfiguring the order things happen in a bit of course. The introduction of the Emerald Chain in the first episode was the place to plant seeds about the chain’s instability in the lack of Dilithium. 

We could have then met the painfully mis-used Aurellio – who could have been the initial representative of the Chain to the heroes. He could have praised Osyraa’s vision and ability to unite people in the face of adversity. While the Federation retreated to its starbase of pure abstraction, Osyraa is down in the dirt, trying to hold the galaxy together. Then we learn about the exploitation of pre-warp species. But still there’s an excuse. If we don’t bring them in we might lose the galactic culture. They are important. And then the slave camps. Then the horror that girds Osyraa’s rhetoric. Because as the political story is told, we already know the Emerald Chain is a horror before Aurelio ever tries to make a defense of it. As a result, the scene is absurd. There is no way that Stamets could be persuaded, not when we, the audience already know what’s behind the curtain.

And then there’s the central mystery.

This is the great void at the heart of Discovery, season three, and the center of its failure.

The burn is nonsense.

It’s not a political consequence of the Federation. This possibility is explored during the Galactic Tour and then abruptly dismissed. Nor is it a weapon of an enemy. And there were so many enemies to choose. It could have been whichever faction enforces the outcome of the Temporal Wars. It could be the extra-galactic AI of Picard season one. Or the sphere data. Or these could be the same – the burn could be Control’s last shout of “from hell’s heart I stab at thee.” It could have been the Emerald Chain who set off the burn. 

Instead it’s a Kelpian child who was grieving  the death of his mother. This might have worked, if Star Trek wanted to propose that the universe was an absurd place where only our bonds to each other allow us to cling to rafts of reason beneath a deep abyss of chaos. But Star Trek is far too deterministic for this. It’s a clockwork world of blank hologram faces, binary states, a clearly defined right and wrong. It’s a world where you cannot return to the past because There Are Rules.

And there are rules. Except when there are not.

And so the theme becomes brand maintenance; it booms “I am the Guardian of Forever” and hopes that people remember not just that this is literally audio from The Original Series but also that there was almost a spin-off to The Original Series brought about through a time travel story (Assignment: Earth). There are rules. You cannot travel in time. Except when the demands of Michelle Yeoh’s contract, and of the spin-off roadmap demand that time travel must be done. It winks at the audience and hints about what might be next.

It does the same with the sphere data. All the show does with this remaining thread from the last season is wink and hint. Wink and hint. Nothing is settled. Nothing concrete is learned. It’s deferred. We can’t give away the game for Season 4 or we’d have to actually try something new.

The first season of Discovery had a thesis: that the humanist values of Star Trek as envisioned by Roddenberry were good, actually.

The second season of Discovery had a theme: that this good was sufficient to overcome the end of everything; and that deviating from Trekian Humanism was a path that would lead to ruin.

In the third season of Discovery there is no such thesis, no such theme. There is a half-baked story of petrostates when the oil runs out; an attempt to engage a dialectic of Star Trek and Mad Max and find the oneness between these futures. But instead of pinning the rise and fall of the action to a thesis or a theme, this season is just a collection of events, an absurd and meaningless process of moving characters like game pieces into the configuration necessary to carry forward the franchise.

About that dilithium

Star Trek Discovery situates the Federation as a humanism. Season one makes it clear that what makes the Federation good is what makes Starfleet good is what makes Star Trek good and that this is a deliberate centering of its subjects. The show seems to ask that same question De Beauvoir did, “How could {people}, originally separated, get together?” In season one, the Klingons ask, but should we want that. Shouldn’t we cling to our difference? And Star Trek answers no. By coming together, Michael finds absolution, Saru finds community, Stamets finds love and kindness, Tilly finds someone to look up to. These disparate, different, people build a community that is centered around their relations, they build each other up. This is what makes the Federation good

In season two, Section 31 shifts away from Federation humanism and toward a kind of cybernetic utilitarianism. Build a good enough machine and it will predict how to bring people together. It will maximize happiness and oops we made a paperclip maximizer that’s going to kill us all better do a humanism quick. Season two shows us not the Klingon rejection of humanist community but rather a tecnnocratic subversion of it. And then season two tells us why that, too, is wrong.

In season three, all the Federation is, is a collection of ships and bases, and having run out of gas it dissolves. Well except for the hard kernel that later reterritorializes the absence left by its own collapse, and the collapse of the Emerald Chain left behind. But this reterritorialization isn’t the same humanism. We’re told, by our half-baked materialist Osyraa that the Federation is choking on its idealism. It’s a realm of abstraction, of computer generated holograms built explicitly to occupy the uncanny valley, of programmable matter that can be anything (as long as that thing serves plot expedience) and of force fields. So many force fields. But aside from the crew of Discovery, the actual population of the Federation is reduced to three. Aditya Sahil, Vance and Kovich. Three old men. Each isolated within his function. The lighthouse keeper. The admiral. The enigma. There is no community here for Discovery to be a part of.

The show seems to understand this and so it throws its characters into whatever scrap of community they can muster. And so Michael has her plot-convenient crisis of faith because of her community with Book. Stamets adopts his coworker for reasons that are never made clear in the show. It’s not like even the most evil elements of the future are homophobes; so Adira’s queer identity seems like a weak basis for Stamets to decide he must be their surrogate dad. And Saru adopts an elderly Kelpien (one who must be chronologically far older than Saru) rather than continue his duties as captain – something that had been previously very important to him. These honestly bizarre character choices can only be justified as the scriptwriters realizing the lack in their story and attempting to fill it with something, anything. After all. A family is a community too.

So what is the Federation? Is it a community of worlds? If so all that is left of it is N’Var – where the community of worlds has been made manifest in reunification. Is it a family? If so it has become a very small one. Is it just the fuel to make the ships go? The text of Discovery suggests that. But this is just material culture.  Fanon talked about the structure of a nation a lot. He thought a nation was vast and impossible to perceive all at once, what Timothy Morton would have called a hyperobject. When a group of people get together, in the existentialist-humanist sense of the world, then they, the culture they create, the boundaries they set, the land they work, the wars they fight, the vast totality of all those lives is the nation. A culture cannot exist without a nation as culture exists in the agreeing of the members of a nation on what constitutes that culture. A material culture arises out of a nation, but it is the people who compose it. It is the people who invest the material culture with anything resembling meaning. And so, absent any people to be the Federation, it has no culture. Liberation demands a nation too, as liberation is, by necessity an action we do together. And we even get a hint of that in the void the Federation left in its passing – Osyraa is all too happy to fill that with naked power. But without that sense of culture, without the sense of something built, we are left with yet another thing undone at the end of the season. Because there still isn’t a nation at the end. Just a single found family in the absurd void of space. And frankly, Voyager already did that story.  The failure of Discovery to move beyond the themes of the first two seasons in any significant way but also to resolve any new questions or contradictions leaves me with a Sisyphean sense of the story.

I still like these characters. I like Michael and Book. I like Saru in all his contradictions, and Tilly’s uncertainty, I like Stamet’s incendiary emotional pallet and the smooth water that Culber brings. I want to see these characters have adventures that are invested in meaning. We aren’t there right now. As it stands, we leave Michael pushing the rock of Federation Humanism up the slope of history, having it now slipped from her grasp three times, each time to be recovered so she can start again.

I can only imagine her happy.