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.


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.

Protect critics

I am sure people know that I’m not a fan of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. While I do consider copyright, as an institution, to have a pernicious impact on the arts I’m also painfully aware artists have to eat. As a result, I don’t advocate the abolition of copyright outside of the frame of a revolutionary reworking of the arts industry.

However this specific law has the very specific impact of allowing copyright owners to silence online critique of their products via false DMCA strikes. And right now this is being exploited in a very specific way by an artist to do just that.

At issue here specifically is how indie game developer Gilson B. Pontes appears to have been using DMCA takedown notices to remove videos produced by James Stephanie Sterling from YouTube that are critical of Pontes’ skill as a game developer. Sterling does use footage of Pontes’ games within their reviews, but their use of these elements is fully within the bounds of fair use – Sterling is a critic engaging in art criticism. The idea that they should not be able to show the games is as ludicrous as the idea that I might review a book without including quotes or showing the cover.

Game criticism is all too often treated as an armature of games marketing and Sterling is one of the very few independent games industry critics who has resisted that tide. Their work on the social impact of loot boxes, in particular, is incredibly valuable, as a work of criticism, and there is almost nobody else in the field who is doing it. I’d also draw people’s attention to Sterling’s work on the material conditions of labour at AAA games studios. Needless to say, I consider Sterling to be precisely the sort of critic we need more of – fiercely independent, carefully researched, courageous in the face of pressure. We should, as critics, as artists and as audiences, be advocating for protecting important critics like Sterling.

I’ve included a link to Sterling’s Patreon; you’d be doing a solid to an important working critic to kick them a buck-fifty a month. Supporting criticism is supporting the arts.

History and lineage in A Hero Born – Book 1 of the Holmwood translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes

One of the unexpected impacts of the Coronavirus crisis of 2020-21 has been the delay of certain expected book releases. Originally I’d intended to read all four volumes of the recent translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes back to back and then to write an essay after completing that effort. Then I discovered that the fourth volume had been pushed back from a March release date to an August one… on the day I went to the store to buy it. Needless to say I put it under pre-order. However I did decide I’d space out my reading of the volumes to allow me to better keep up with my theory reading and to allow me to read a few other books that I have planned essays about (look for essays about A Wizard of Earthsea and a return to The Invisibles in the intermediate future – I want to make some revisions from my too-surface Hegelian read of the latter work.)

I have previously read Legend of the Condor Heroes via fan translations. In fact, while it’s quite rough around the edges, my essay about Hong Qigong was a test balloon for much of what I’ve been trying to do in this space recently.

Writing about Jin Yong was also my original introduction to literary criticism and represents my earliest attempt to work in the field. I frequently refer to Jin Yong as my favourite author, and this isn’t empty hyperbole. Legend of the Condor Heroes is one of the greatest works of fantasy literature written, and the sprawling text provides vast opportunities for engagement and assessment. I want to start by providing the most basic information: A Hero Born is the first of four volumes within this translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes – this volume was translated by Anna Holmwood and she was either the translator or the editor for each subsequent volume. There are other translators involved in the project, but I will be referring to this edition of the overall work as the Holmwood translation throughout as a matter of expedience. I will make sure to name other credited translators when I review future volumes of course.

This volume covers the Condor Heroes story from its start to the escape of Yang Tiexin and Bao Xiruo from the palace of Wanyan Honglie. This also means that this book does the heavy lifting of introducing the principals (Guo Jing, Huang Rong, Yang Kang, Mu Nianci, Wanyan Honglie, Ouyang Ke) but aside from allusions and the repeated appearance of Huang Yaoshi’s student, Mei Chaofeng, the Five Greats are absent from the story. The ending-point feels well-chosen. There was never going to be a spot in the first quarter of this novel that wouldn’t have seemed abrupt, but the conclusion of the action at the palace is a strong choice for where to leave off.

Holmwood proves an excellent translator; she has a sharp eye for prose and, most importantly when translating Jin Yong, seems to understand the purpose that underlies some of his odder structural choices. Many adaptations of Jin Yong’s work (such as the 2017 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes) will gloss over Jin Yong’s frequent asides, and re-order events in order to bring characters into the story more quickly. We want to see Huang Rong and Guo Jing interacting faster, so we put those scenes before the failed attempt of Ouyang Ke’s retainers to steal his horse: that sort of thing. Happily Holmwood does not do this. The end result is a text that might prove a challenge to people who are accustomed to either linear structures or the in-media-res – flashback – climax structure preferred in English and American fantasy but, if you can get past the structural alienness of the text, there is an incredibly rewarding book on the other side.

Holmwood’s translation is a welcome upgrade from the era of fan translations; but comes with a welcome call-back in the form of illustrations from a past Chinese edition of the book. If you are a reader either of fantasy fiction or a fan of Dumas, Scott, and other 19th century romance-adventure authors (to whom Jin Yong owes a deep debt) then I would heartily recommend this book. But I suppose there’s not much point in me trying to hype a new translation of the best-selling fiction book of all time. So let’s, instead, turn our attention to the question of how Jin Yong’s book creates a sense of the self in opposition to Descarte’s Cogito.

What is the self anyway

The Guo family must have descendants.

Let’s start with the super-nutshell version. Descartes was pretty much the OG skeptic. And he systematically tried to demonstrate that anything was beyond the possibility of doubt. In the end Decartes could find only one thing that he could not doubt. That there was a self who doubted. This idea, that the ability of a subject to be conscious, became the ground upon which most modern liberal conceptions of self are based. We like to think of ourselves as being singular, atomic, individual.

You might have noticed that I regularly state, “we are dividual” and various other formations of the same throughout my prior writing. This is not some strangely pervasive spelling error but is rather one of the two approaches of attack to the idea of the cartesian cogito. You can attack whether the cogito is, in fact, one thing or many things. If we imagine the subject that doubts not as a solid kernel of identity but rather as a frothing process of force, potential and change then we problematize Descartes. This helps to restore the validity of self-doubt, which became a topic of significant focus for early existentialists like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but also raises the specter of nihilism since, if we cannot even be certain that the cogito that thinks is an accurate approximation of our self, what can we be certain of?

So that’s one way to attack the cogito – to question whether the self could be divided into multiple components – but there is another thing you can do to the self to break the hold of the cogito and that is to situate identity as being part of a process that is larger than the single person. In this case, the boundaries of the self dissolve into that of the community. As John Mbiti put it, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” While this viewpoint is most often expressed through the ideas of Ubuntu philosophy, this also is the form of self that Jin Yong presents in this text.

An example.

In the first chapter of the book, Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin have encountered the Taoist priest Qiu Chuji who has just completed a mission to murder and ritually mutilate a government official who sold out the Song to Jin invaders. As you’d expect from a person currently carrying a man’s head, heart and liver in a sack, Qiu is feeling a bit paranoid and so when Guo and Yang invite him to come and have a drink with them (they’ve noticed his kung fu and think he seems cool) he assumes an ambush and picks a fight.

Now the book has informed us already that Guo and Yang are patriots and the descendants of heroes. Yang, in particular, is descended from a retainer of Yue Fei, so when he starts fighting with Qiu, the Taoist recognizes the way he fights as being his family’s famous spear technique. As Qiu comes to this realization, the action shifts from the fight (literally mid-movement) into an extended description of Yang’s famous ancestor, including his achievements in battle and his heroic death:

He gave his life for his country on that battlefield. When the Jin army burned his body, over two jin1 of molten metal flowed into the mud beneath him. After that battle the Yang family spear became famous across China's great planes.

The recognition Qiu is able to give to Yang is not because of his own merits. Or at least it’s not entirely because of his own merits. Qiu recognizes Yang is a good spearman. He is appreciative of Yang’s ability, but what tells Qiu that Yang is probably not an agent of the Jin come to ambush him isn’t the quality of his spearmanship but its lineage. Yang isn’t Yang Tiexin the man; he is Yang Tiexin the descendant of a heroic soldier, and the father of Yang Kang who is not yet born. His identity is a node in the ongoing flow of history. It may have its singularity in the moment, but its significance as an identity is superseded by the collective identity of the Yang family and the Yang spear pedagogical lineage.

Obligation and history

This pattern continues to repeat throughout the story. Whenever a new person is introduced, especially when that person’s physicality is introduced, it will be coupled with the history of their family or of their school. When Guo Jing’s eventual teachers, the Seven Freaks of Jiangnan, are introduced, Jin Yong provides the following introduction to one of them:

In ancient times, the two southern kingdoms of Yue and Wu were long at war. The King of Yue, Gou Qian, kept himself ready for combat at all times bysleeping on a bed of straw and drinking from a gall bladder. But the Wu army was universally acknowledged to be superior, mainly due to General Wu Zixu's strategic prowess, learned under the master tactician Sun Tzu. One day, however, a beautiful young woman, accomplished in the art of the sword, arrived in Jiaxing, then located just inside the Yue border. One of the kingdom's highest-ranking ministers, Fan Li, asked if she would teach them her skills so they might defeat the Wu. So it happened that Jiaxing came to be the home of this particular sword technique, passed from master to disciple, generation to generation. 

Just as in the first example, this aside, which is actually a synopsis of Jin Yong’s Sword of the Yue Maiden happens mid-way through a physical movement which is intended to tell us about what the character (Han Xiaoying) but diverts temporally from the narrative to tell us, in brief, why her lineage matters. This is how she is introduced because she is the product of that lineage and the one upon whom it rests to pass that lineage on into the future. This is how we can understand who she is.

And this gets at the specific relationship that a subject in the present of this story has toward the past and that is continuity. When Guo Xiaotian is killed during Wanyan Honglie’s kidnapping of Bao Xiruo, Qiu’s first (and honestly only) thought is that the Guo family must continue. He is so obsessed with preserving the life of Guo’s widow, and more importantly the unborn child she carries, that he bursts into a Buddhist monastery, wrecks up the place and then picks a fight with the heroic Seven Freaks of Jiangnan, all just to ensure that Li Ping delivers her baby in safety. And when he realizes she’s gone missing he proposes the famous bet with the Seven Freaks that holds within it the very same relationship of obligation to history and to the future that positions identity.

Specifically he proposes that he pursue Bao Xiruo (and the unborn Yang Kang) and the Seven Freaks will pursue Li Ping (and Guo Jing). Should either he or the Seven Freaks find their child alive, they will train the child in their martial arts. Upon their eighteenth birthday, they will each bring their pupil to the same place to have a martial arts match (the Seven Freaks and Qiu are evenly matched and uncertain who is the stronger martial artist) after which, if both children are boys they’ll be sworn together as oath brothers and if one is a boy and the other a girl they will be married, thus ensuring the continuation of the Guo family, the Yang family, the teachings of the Seven Freaks and the teachings of Qiu Chuji, regardless of the outcome.

To Jin Yong, history is not a thing that happened in a past. Rather history is a fluid process that every subject is enmeshed within. We all move within history, molded by the situation of our times, becoming the people we are as a result of decisions made long before we were born. The decision of a general in the Spring and Autumn period to ask for the help of the Yue Maiden in his dynastic conflict gives rise to Guo Jing as much as the murder of his father mere weeks before he was born in the heart of a Mongolian snowstorm. Yang Kang’s eventual refusal of the lineage of his dead heroic ancestor, his willingly assuming of the position of Xiao Wangye (little prince – the son of a prince to be specific) within the Jin, isn’t immoral because there is anything fundamentally evil about the Jin. Jin Yong problematizes that quite well in the sequel which inverts the alliance patterns between Jin, Han and Mongol. It’s immoral because it is a severing off of Yang Kang from that flow of lineage. He is not part of the history of the Jin. His insertion of himself into that history, escaping from the history of heroic last stands of the Song dynasty Han in the process, is a selfish betrayal as sharp as any of the cruelties he visits upon Mu Nianci in time.

The Materialism of Jin Yong

History intrudes upon the narrative of A Hero Born constantly. And this history informs the people of the story, their places in the world and the decisions that they make. The central section of A Hero Born details Guo Jing’s childhood on the steppes of Mongolia and his eventual growth from a stubborn, honest and generous child into the youngest general of Ghengis Khan and the heroic himbo that we all know and love.

This episode of the story is one of the parts that interfaces most directly with a sort of historical fiction and it demonstrates the other very important relationship which Jin Yong has to history. History might be a present force which a subject is obligated to but it isn’t mystical. Jin Yong’s conception of history is classically materialist; it is the product of the social structures, the alliances and economies, that underpin it. Throughout the Mongolian chapters, the Jin are a constant threat. They are anxious about the boisterous, mobile and war-like Mongolians and are particularly anxious about Temujin, a modernizer who has been attempting to unite the rival clans of Mongolia. The Jin dispatch Wanyan Honglie (because of course it’s him again) and another prince of the dynasty to give Temujin a formal rank within the Jin empire and effectively to reinforce the empire-client relationship between the Jin and the two clans that Temujin has the greatest pull over.

However, the Mongols prove resistant to flattery, proud and scornful of bribes and honeyed words, and it becomes clear that Temujin is building up a force of capable generals and so instead the Jin decide to sow dissent between Temujin and his closest allies.

This plot comes to fruition with an attempted wedding party massacre, only the future Ghengis Khan proves a bit harder to catch than certain Starks we might remember, and Temujin, his closest retainers and Guo Jing end up encircled upon a hilltop. During the siege, a parlay occurs and we get the following exchange:

Jamuka rose to his feet. "you surrendered in the past when you were weaker than you are now. You give the spoils of war to your soldiers, telling them it belongs to them, not to the whole tribe. In this, again the clan leaders say you do wrong. It's against our traditions."
"But it pleases my young fighters! The clan leaders claim they cannot keep it because they want it for themselves. Such traditions make the fighters angry. Who do we need more? Brave soldiers or greedy, stupid clan leaders?"
"Brother you have always acted alone, as if you didn't need the help or advice of the other clan leaders. You have also been sending messengers to persuade my soldiers to surrender and join you, promising them riches, that the livestock won't be shared among all the people of the tribe. Do you think I was blind to what you have been doing?"

Jamuka is Temujin’s oath brother, and he’s speaking to his brother from the position of historical tradition, which Temujin will disrupt with his, strategically effective, economic revisions. But think for a second of the ridiculousness of a pause in a battle in Tolkien so that the rival generals can get together and have an argument over the distribution of horses and sheep. History is a force that subsumes the individual and it is a force that is driven by the material conditions of life. The fracture that the Jin exploit to drive a wedge between Temujin and Jamuka is economic. The dispute between these two historical figures is one over the distribution of soldiers, their place in society and the obligations those soldiers have to society. History is this vast material thing that binds us all together, it is the fabric out of which people are formed.

Guo Jing is a bundle of obligations that predate his birth. He is obliged to his family, to continue it and to carry forward its traditions. He is obliged to his teachers, the Seven Freaks of Jiangnan, to be a good person, a strong fighter, an exemplar of their teachings. He is obliged to Yang Kang to marry them if they’re a girl or to become their brother if they’re a boy. He is obliged to Ghengis Khan for taking in his family. After the failure of the marriage alliance between Temujin and Jamuka, Temujin betroths his daughter Huazheng to Guo Jing and this becomes yet another obligation. Guo Jing is all of these competing strands of history, bound into a knot of perspective, coincidence and desire, and sent out into the world. Then he meets the daughter of Old Heretic Huang who demonstrates how these various obligations create antinomies and how the discovery of how to reconcile these contradictions leads on the path to heroism.

1: A jin is a Chinese measure of weight approximately equivalent to a half-kilogram. Please treat distinctly from the Jin (the Jin dynasty) or Jin Yong (the pen name of Louis Cha Leung-yung, which roughly translates to “golden trifle”). Isn’t Chinese a fun language?

The loving destruction of The Hu’s Sad but True

I’m very fond of The Hu.

I heard about them first when Wolf Totem dropped in November 2018 and was immediately taken by this novel fusion of Mongolian folk music and crunching hard rock. The Hu are masters of rhythm, and their singles are often marked by distinctive rhythms, whether it is the patterned call and response of Wolf Totem, the cowboyish syncopation of Yuve Yuve Yue or the intense pulsing forward motion of The Great Chinggis Khaan, the Hu’s infusion of rock instrumentation into a sonic landscape dominated by throat singing, Morin Khuur and Tovshuur was a fresh and exciting change from what folk metal had offered before. Even other Mongolian metal bands like Tengger Cavalry and Nine Treasures hadn’t managed to hit quite that right note as they both leaned harder into the tropes of heavy metal and ended up becoming more a sort of international folk metal with a Mongolian flare.

But no, the Hu are something unique. They aren’t just folk metal only with horse stuff; there is a terroir to their work that could only come from the steppes. The fact that they allow the folk aspect of folk metal to be so predominant, and their deliberate and pervasive engagement with Mongolian metaphysics is how the Hu, rather than any of these other bands, managed to produce something as singular as Song of Women. Or as Sad But True.

But wait, you might say, Sad But True is a cover. It’s a Metallica song. It’s from the Black Album. Surely you’ve heard of it.

And yeah. But just have a listen:

I mean, yes, it’s the same song. But the changes to the arrangement are a precise example of the destruction of transformation. The trembling, tenuous and sharp screech of the three-stringed fiddle in the Hu’s arrangement draws out the intro. The first drum hit of the key motif of Sad But True is 22 seconds into the Metallica song. It’s 41 seconds into the Hu arrangement. The extra 18 seconds not only gives time to introduce the elemental symbology of the visual aspect of this work of art but also establishes an entirely different sonic palette. The Hu chant over the introductory riff, a simple, multi-voiced repetition: “Hu Hu-hu,” in counterpoint to the guitar. It adds additional layers to the rhythm of the section. The Hu arrangement is sharper, it has been shifted subtly to allow the inclusion of the delicate treble of the Mongolian strings and when they finally begin to sing in earnest, the Hu roar like lions.

Don’t get me wrong. James Hetfield does justice to the vocals here but he’s unable to hold a candle to the vocal force of these four powerful singers. Everything about the Hu arrangement is bigger, sharper and more open. It broadens out and refreshes a song that has become foundational to metal in a way that breaks apart the original and shows us something entirely new.

This also operates on the aspect of the visual presentation of the song. The lyrics are a translation close enough to almost constitute a gloss. But the Hu have created a video that takes this lyrical content along with the auditory motifs they introduce and weaves it into an abstract parable about reincarnation, karma and the eternal return.

In it our protagonist reincarnates into a garden and disregards the beauty around him in favour of gold. He is alone in the garden aside from the psychopomp but despite his solitude he systemically destroys the garden to draw gold out of the earth. Each reincarnation he views the garden with new eyes and finds joy or sorrow in it. Each death is marked by sorrow and the watchful eye of the psychopomp. The psychopomp allows the man to be tormented by demons (the band) in a state of Bardo before he is born again and again and again. In the final reincarnation of the song, the protagonist weeps at the desolation of the garden and discovers just one little shoot of green left. He devotes the rest of his life to caring for this sapling weeping his final breath beside it. The fate of the sapling is uncertain at the end of the song, it shivers as if it were an animal struggling in the cold. But we know what comes next – the man will reincarnate again and will destroy, or heal, again.

The Metallica video for Sad but True is concert footage.

The Hu end their video with a text message in English. It reads, “Like millions of people around the world , Metallica has been a huge inspiration for us as music fans and musicians. We admire their 40 years of relentless touring and the timeless, unique music they have created. It is a great honor to show them our respect and gratitude by recording a version of ‘Sad But True’ in our language and in the style of The Hu.” It is clear, brilliantly and evidently clear, that The Hu love Metallica and this song. They say as much.

This, then, gets to the heart of the idea of loving destruction. The Hu’s Sad But True is theirs. You cannot deny that it is derived from Metallica’s Sad But True but it is equally impossible to deny that it is a singular work of art. This singularity, this difference, is stark both in the song-as-a-song and in the song as a work of multimedia audio-visual art. So much, from tone, to vocal style, to instrumentation, to symbolism has been changed between Metallica’s work and this that there is hardly anything left. Despite Metallica being masters of rhythm (Lars Ulrich is undeniably a masterful drummer) The Hu take the familiar beats of Sad But True and make them new again. They draw out and open up the song in novel and appealing ways. The Hu infuse a sense of shamanic weight into what is otherwise a relatively shallow song about agency which happens to have an incredibly catchy hook. But here’s the thing: I’m walking a tenuous line between bashing Metallica and praising them not because it’s uncool to like Metallica but because I want to make the paradox here clear. The Hu can only destroy Sad But True as thoroughly as they do, they can only take ownership of this song as completely as they do, because they love it. And there is undeniably some cruelty in that love. To create Sad But True, the Hu must bring the song to Bardo. It is tormented by the vocal force of four unified singers, by the screech of the Morin Khuur and by the weight of the symbolism forced upon it in the video. It is reborn anew, a unique creation.

Kid’s Stuff: Labyrinth and the illusion of adulthood

Nothing is what it seems
Live without your sunlight
Love without your heartbeat
I, I can't live within you
---- David Bowie, Within You

Labyrinth is a bit of an off-putting film at first glance. It’s the creative collaboration of several very disparate artists, with the input of George Lucas, Brian Froud, Terry Jones, Jim Henson and David Bowie contributing to a work of art that is nearly as lumpy and misshapen as the goblin puppets it features. Our two principal leads are Sarah and Jareth – played by Jennifer Connelly in one of her earliest major roles and David Bowie. One of these performers struggles somewhat heroically to bring a grounded sense of seriousness to a movie principally populated by puppets. The other is David Bowie in all his strange glory.

I feel a sense of sympathy for Connelly, whose performance was not well rated by viewers at the time that Labyrinth was released because she needed to, at sixteen, perform a role that depended on a fair bit of nuance, where growth is more explicit than the gesture of a forgotten line of a play but also kept largely and, at times uncomfortably subtextual. Not only this, but she has to do it when she is only ever sharing a screen with either a panoply of Jim Henson puppet masterworks or, (even harder) David Bowie’s mad kabuki wizard. It is always difficult to have to be the emotional ground tasked with responding to a scenery chewer but Connelly soldiers on gamely and ultimately delivers a sincere performance of a young woman forced by social pressure and the inevitable march of time to assume a new place in the world.

The remainder of the cast consists of Sarah’s father and step-mother, the baby Toby and a whole bunch of absolutely wild puppets. It’s something of a misfortune that Sarah’s role in a film that is as aggressively internal as Labyrinth has been overshadowed within the form of its cult following by the strangeness of Bowie’s performance and by these wondrous puppets but they do demonstrate clearly the legacy of the Henson company – and their peerless ability to realize things that are simultaneously grotesque and beautiful.

Just look at these darlings. Don’t you want to just hug them

The challenge we have to confront when reviewing Labyrinth though is that it is entirely and completely Sarah’s movie. There’s hardly a scene she isn’t in, her quest is the action of the film, and even from the film’s first gestures, Labyrinth situate the story as being one that happens within Sarah. A reading of this film that tries to interface with its themes must thus situate all the wild and bizarre goblins, monsters, and even the antagonistic Jareth as aspects of Sarah. This gives way to one of Labyrinth’s chief illusions: A movie about a maze that seems at odds with its own clearly deliberate directionality. Labyrinth situates Sarah in a place where movement in all directions is possible, but the story always only moves inward and downward.


Labyrinth begins by demonstrating Sarah, lingering in a park and in a state of forgetfulness having to rush home in the rain. She argues with her step-mother over the question of responsibility and goes to hide in her room: a quintessential sanctum filled up with the bric-a-brac of a young life.

As she flees her unnamed step-mother, the (honestly decent and reasonable) woman shouts out at Sarah that she almost wishes the girl had been out with a boy. That would have been a normal thing for a sixteen year old to do. Instead, Sarah is lingering in a park and struggling to memorize the lines in a play. We get a sense she intends to audition but we are never told. Even this early on we see a movement inward within the film. Sara moves from an open park to the street to the foyer to the sanctum of her room. She is only forced out of her childish sulking when she discovers one of her favourite toys, a teddy bear named Lancelot, is missing. The film uses establishing photography effectively, if not with subtlety, to give us a sense of the sort of girl Sarah is. She reads the Wizard of Oz and names her toys for Arthurian figures. She has multiple books about fairy tales, and still reads Maurice Sendak at the age of sixteen. In its establishing scenes we get a clear visual sense of who Sarah is: an intelligent but immature girl, introverted and self-contained, loving of her childhood and too nostalgic. Labyrinth, as a film, is deeply hostile to nostalgia.

Driven out of her sanctuary to find her errant toy, Sarah finds Lancelot on the floor of her infuriating half-brother’s nursery. He is standing at the edge of his crib crying. No matter how Sarah pleads, coddles or scolds Toby he won’t stop crying so she mostly monologues at him about how insufferable it is to have a baby in the house. The unspoken looms in the background – that with the entrance of Toby into the home, Sarah isn’t the baby anymore. The presence of this toddler has made it more urgent that Sarah grow up and assume the responsibilities of adulthood.

By accident, she casts a spell and summons the Goblin King who promises to take away Toby and leave, in exchange, a crystal ball that will let Sarah see her deepest dreams. The Goblin King is a liar in this, like in everything he does, and his baubles full of dreams are just illusions. But his promise to take away the baby is all too real. When Sarah begs that she didn’t mean for her brother to really be kidnapped, Jareth gives her a quest instead: traverse his labyrinth in thirteen hours to claim her brother or lose him forever.

The rest of the movie involves Sarah moving into the labyrinth. This movement involves a process not just of continual inwarness but also of descent. Sarah moves always toward Jareth. She might want to claim her brother, but in the final moments there is just her and the Goblin King: her quest might be motivated by a desire to rescue her brother but its object is the moment of confrontation with him.

Irrational Psychopomp

Jareth is the antagonist of the film but he’s a singular one. Jareth is far more like a psychopomp or the assigner of heroic trials than he is a villain. At times, when it seems like the challenge put forward to Sarah is too easy, Jareth will personally intercede, he will tempt Sarah, try to persuade her to give up. He always seems quite sincere in his efforts to stop her, but he is also the one who set the initial conditions of the challenge. Jareth is the on who brought Sarah to the edge of his labyrinth and who told her to seek him at its heart.

Jareth manipulates Hoggle and tries to force him to betray Sarah through his fear. But when Jareth finally makes good on his threat that if Sarah ever kisses Hoggle he’ll be thrown into the Bog of Eternal Stench, they encounter Sir Didymus who immediately undertakes to help Sarah with her quest, and whose courage is ultimately instrumental to Sarah’s success. It seems a little strange that the Goblin King, this ever-present sovereign who can be anywhere at any time, who can reshape time itself to his whims, would work so hard to force Sarah into the very place where she needs to be to meet an important ally. Critics of Labyrinth have previously pointed out that the film struggles as the stakes often seem undercut by the action. This is in part because Jareth imposes obstacles that are designed to be overcome. He wants Sarah to progress toward him. It’s just important to Jareth not just that she confront him in his palace but that she do so at the final moment.

So Jareth is not an adversary so much as a guide. Sarah walks his labyrinth and he leads her on her path. He sets out trials for her of cunning, and compassion, of will and perseverance and he ensures that Sarah always understands her choice. She can retreat, or she can advance, knowing that the reward for success will be the chance to undertake another trial. Jareth wants Sarah to recognize that she needs him and he gives her a quest that is designed to seduce her over to that view. He also gives her ample opportunity to turn aside, but for all that he might bluster, the last thing Jareth wants is for Sarah to do that. She must march onward and face Jareth directly. This is in part because we must recognize, the film primes us to recognize, that Jareth, Hoggle, Sir Didymus and all the rest are aspects of Sarah and her symbolic quest is one into herself.

The beauty and terror of adulthood

Sarah is standing at a boundary – this isn’t uncommon in coming of age stories. A map of Labyrinth onto Campbell’s hero’s journey is almost trivially easy.

But Labyrinth isn’t simply wearing the idea of coming of age as a frame for an exciting story targeted at children who are themselves on the boundary of mature responsibility. Rather, Labyrinth is a film that examines that boundary and then asks whether it is there at all.

It’s no secret that Sarah is reluctant to leave childhood behind. She needs the figures of her childhood: children’s books, toys and memorabilia. Even her more mature interests – in theatre and performance – are grounded in play and childishness. She can’t remember her lines!

Sarah has responsibilities and would like very desperately to forget this. But she doesn’t want to forget everything. Instead, she wants to forget about the future. What comes next will sort itself out, but in her room she can hide and remember when she was the baby, when her family was whole. Jareth then is adulthood. He’s the terror of responsibility; the agony of deadlines; he’s the challenge of conflicting loyalties that have complexified beyond mommy and daddy; he’s the allure of sex. Sarah rejects adulthood when she demands goblins take her baby brother and Jareth comes to remind her that becoming an adult is not a choice she can just opt out of. He forces her to assume that root of responsibility – an obligation to a helpless other – and he gives her challenges that require her to employ the talents of an adult. She must deal with false friends, contend with logic puzzles, confront death and danger, show compassion, make judgments that disregard the superficial; she must accept the allure of the sensual, accept it is a field she will be able to operate within, but also develop the tools to decide when it’s time to leave the party and get back to work. She must reject nostalgia. Through it all, Jareth sets the pace, calls the tune and arranges the pieces to entice Sarah with this aspect of childhood or with that promise of pleasure.

We really have to hand it to the costumer too.

He offers her dreams. He offers her drugs. He offers her himself. It’s unsurprising that many fan-interpretations of the film propose Jareth as a Byronic hero. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights is acknowledged as one of his antecedents. Many fan works suggest that Sarah is an avatar of some lost and eternal love, that Jareth’s simultaneous attraction and repulsion of Sarah is a courtship and that what he wants is her love. But Jareth doesn’t say he can’t live without her. He says he can’t live within her. Jareth doesn’t want Sarah to take what he’s offering. He just wants her to continue walking the labyrinth. Remember that labyrinth walking is a spiritual and meditative act. The process of slowly walking the winding circumference of a labyrinth is itself a movement into the mind and into contemplation. And for all the times Jareth tells Sarah to turn back we cannot possibly disregard the extent to which he is the architect of her trials. We should reject the surface read: that Jareth wants Sarah to marry him in favour of this, more internal, reading of the character. Jareth wants Sarah to become him. Jareth is the master over all these child’s things because Jareth is adulthood. He is the good and the bad, he beautiful and the terrifying, the master and the obligated. He calls Sarah to walk his labyrinth and to undertake his trials so that she can take upon herself his aspect – so that she can be her own sovereign. But then Sarah does something entirely unexpected: in the final moment, she rejects him. Sarah discovers that she doesn’t need to take up the sovereign and reject childhood. There is no threshold to cross. She may have changed but she is still herself. She can be more responsible and still be the child who loves fairy tales. But she is not unchanged. In order for Sarah to unify the child hiding in her room with the Goblin King, in order for her to be able to reject Jareth in the way an adult would rather than the way a child would she needs to integrate who she is now into her sense of self. She must learn what of the child is still her, the Wild Thing, and what is just nostalgia for a past that is gone.

Nostalgia is death

The most terrifying moment of Labyrinth is also one of the most gentle. Having escaped Jareth’s masquerade dream, Sarah falls into a junkyard. While there she meets a goblin woman who leads her into a cave, and that cave is her bedroom. The Junk Lady sits her down at a mirror and begins piling all the objects of her childhood that are dear to Sarah around her. Piece by piece, Sarah’s profile is obscured by the lumpy, misshapen, mass of all the things she owns and invests with value. The Junk Lady attempts to entomb Sarah in the living death of being ever-trapped in the recollection of the past.

The original idea of nostalgia was the pain and anxiety of being away from home and uncertain if you would ever see it again. It is a sadness that reflects death in the future in the mirror of memory. Sarah is standing on a threshold and unsure if she should cross it, and one of the principle obstacles is the fear that if she crosses, she cannot return. Jareth promises the pleasures and pains of adulthood, and one of those things is the recognition of death. By the time Sarah reaches the city of the goblins this is explicit enough that the threat of war is mobilized upon her. Jareth, the avatar of adulthood, also promises forgetting. But it isn’t the forgetting of the future Sarah wanted, it’s forgetting of the past, a putting away of childish things. And Sarah is terrified of the idea she might forget this. Instead she clings to her past, terrified that if she lets go of it she will die before she ever returns to it.

But staring in the mirror, as the Junk Lady entombs her in the living death of nostalgia, Sarah is filled with revulsion. She rips the walls of her bedroom down with her bare hands, smashes out into the uncertain future and joins her friends to confront the Goblin King.

Sarah doesn’t take everything the Goblin King promises. When she confronts him at the stroke of the thirteenth hour she says to him, “you have no power over me,” and in the remembering of the forgotten line she succeeds in her trials. Jareth fails to make Sarah into him. She does not have to set aside childhood. ” Well, if that is the way it is done, then that is the way you must do it. But, should you need us…” Sir Didymus says. And this integration of the child into the woman is the mode of integration that lets her escape the illusion of Jareth’s adulthood. In the end, her puppet friends remain there, when she needs them, when responsibility is hard and has to lean on the wonder of the child.

But they aren’t the toys she curated like exhibits in a museum, they’re the living, breathing, feeling creatures she met on her journey into understanding. Sarah reconciles the obligation of adulthood, which Jareth wants her to take up, forgetting the child, with the joy and wonder of childhood. She’s obviously a creative child, an artistic and literary soul, and there’s nothing wrong in wanting to keep that element of childhood. She doesn’t need to forget it. What she cannot do any longer is be its prisoner. Obligation occurs. Eventually we all grow and change. Rejecting nostalgia doesn’t have to be a forgetting; it can instead reconcile the joy of childhood into the maturity of adulthood. We must not let our past entomb us.

Idea Landlords

The internet is being silly again and it’s kind of Dr. Seuss’ fault.

I promise this is going somewhere that isn’t tedious internet culture war silliness but we need to set the stage: two days ago, the business that administers Dr. Seuss’ estate announced that they would be withdrawing six books from future reprints. This led to conservatives across the internet, who had never previously expressed any interest in Seuss, or in children’s literature at all, to pull a collective wobbler that Seuss was being cancelled.

The books in question featured racially stereotyping images of Inuit, Chinese people, Japanese people and Black people. In one case, the racial stereotyping of Chinese people was so archaic that some of its coding (a Qing dynasty queue and clothes that might have been appropriate to a late 18th century official) might seem entirely foreign to a modern reader – while still managing to have the cringiness associated with an image that considers a person eating with chopsticks a wild and strange sight when on a daily walk. The images of Japanese people that Seuss had drawn as a propagandist during the second world war went far beyond merely being cringey or orientalist, explicitly calling Japanese Americans the fifth column. The remainder fell between these two poles of insensitivity.

The business made the business decision that they could continue profiting from Seuss best by burying these images that are so inappropriate in 21st century culture. And when it became clear to conservatives that this was not censorship but rather a business decision, this led some of them to have the epiphany that, perhaps, copyright is a problem. After all, if businesses believe it’s to the best interest of their bottom line to bury an historical artwork, copyright prevents anybody else from legally, “rescuing,” said racist art.

And this has sparked yet another round of debate regarding copyright between children who call artist-ownership of art, “idea landlordism,” and adult artists who should know better than to argue with children online. Two things are true: idea landlordism is an incredibly silly and surface understanding of the problems of copyright, and copyright still operates as the enclosing of a commons in which major media companies operate on a rentier business model. There are two principal problems with this idea landlordism description of copyright. The first is that the people making the claims fail to generate a cohesive material analysis of the power structures that underlie the ownership of art. The second is that they don’t go anywhere near far enough.

Artist, class and wasteful action

Artists, individual working artists, present a quandry for a basic class analysis because they seem, on the surface, to resemble petit bourgeoisie. Often an artist owns the means of their artistic production. I have a studio space, an easel I built, brushes I own, paints I bought, a computer and writing software which is mine to use. The petite bourgeoisie was once principally composed of individual skilled artisans: shoe makers, tailors, jewelers and such. They were people who earned their living by the means of production which they owned but who were generally too small-scale to exploit the labour of many workers like the big boys of the bourgeois proper. It’s also somewhat true that the principal body of the petit bourgeoisie in the modern era is the renter class. It’s small-scale landlords who derive a modest income off renting, buying and selling a small number of buildings. As such, tying the idea of rent seeking to petite bourgeoisie and from them to copyright holders is attractive.

However this disregards what the production of art is, and what is produced with regard to art within capitalism.

Principally art is waste.

You are taking the labour of the people who ground the pigment; who wove the canvas; who cut the wood; who mined copper, smelted it and shaped it into nails; who shaped the frame, stretched the canvas, jessoed it and packaged it, who operated the machines that produced the brushes, who stocked the shelves at the art store, and you are expending it.

The end product, a work of art, has no use value. Its value, in being aesthetic, is only in the pleasure we derive from it. Furthermore there is a significant break between the labour of the people who produce the material inputs to art and the labour of the artist. The value of art has no correlation to the material value of the labour and materials of the inputs. Nor does the value of art have a direct correlation to the labour of the artist. Rather, the labour of all these people is wasted. The act of artistic creation destroys the inputs as clearly when they are tubes of paint as when they are previous artistic iterations. An artist spends more or less time on a work of art in order to produce that which is pleasing to themselves. Later an audience will decide if the art is pleasing to them too. This is its value. We cannot claim the training of the artist is the source of value because no specific unit of training can be apportioned against a specific artwork. We cannot claim their labour in making the art is the source because a photograph produced in 1/32 of a second might very well be as artistically valid as a sculpture that takes a decade to complete.

Capitalism cannot handle waste well. It likes to forget waste. And so capital assigns exchange value to art. It says that this Picasso is more valuable than this child’s finger-painting because the market will bear $95 million as the purchase price of Dora Maar Au Chat but nobody wants to buy the child’s painting.

However to a parent, perhaps somebody who is something of a philistine, their own child’s painting may have far more value than a painting by yet another dead French dude.

“My kid could do that,” they might scoff when what they mean to say is, “I enjoy the art my kid does more.” The paint used on the Picasso and that of the child are both equally wasted. No further use can be made of it except in the receipt of subjective pleasure.

And so the means of production of art within capital isn’t about producing the objet d’art but rather about its marketing. And this is a place in which the individual artist is entirely alienated. If you self-publish you aren’t likely doing so by typesetting, printing and binding. You’re selling it on Kindle Unlimited – owned and operated by Amazon. If you write a cartoon you aren’t hand-drawing every cell and projecting it in your back-yard. You’re showing it on Netflix or Disney+. The individual artist is a proletarian. Their labour is exploited to make the actual rentiers of the artistic world – the marketers, distributors and copyright-buyers – wealthy even though these Bob Chapeks and Jeff Bezoses create nothing artistic in the slightest.

The real copyright rentiers

In fact, it is in the refusal to waste anything that might still hold exchange value that entities like Disney become antagonistic to the arts. Copyright, although conceived as a form of labour protection for working artists, has been reclaimed by capital as a tool by which these big corporations can extract rent. But a proper class analysis should demonstrate that the problem with copyright isn’t that an individual author can exercise some measure of control over the exchange of their work, it arises when the very wealthy are able to buy work rights the same way that one buys a house.

This commodification in turn causes real harm to real working artists. And not just from Disney claiming it bought the right to publish a work but not the contractual obligation to pay the artist. This is a widespread pattern of abuse. For instance, Nintendo is notorious for disregarding fair-use provisions in its prosecution of copyright matters.

Copyright, in its current form has metastasized from a worker-protection to yet another tool of capitalist exploitation. However, as is often the case when capital territorializes something, the occupation is incomplete. Foucault liked to point out that the arising of a new episteme didn’t obliterate the one that came before it. The systems of power and knowledge that underpinned one period remained, with the new systems superimposed on top. The end of the power of sovereign kings and their retributive justice gave way to the juridicial disciplinary state. But that didn’t eliminate retribution from justice. Likewise many working writers depend on royalties and other down-stream consequences of copyright to eat even though copyright is principally a tool of their exploitation.

Copyright is part of the superstructure of the arts. But it isn’t sufficiently modular to be plucked out of the rest of that superstructure. Furthermore, while it is critical that artists create an artistic superstructure that is built to suit the demands of art, the root of the exploitation endemic in the arts is a matter of the cultural base from which the superstructure arises. To put it bluntly, we cannot abolish copyright without ensuring that artists can continue eating, living indoors, and creating art. Certainly a strong case can be made for strictly limiting copyright and doing away with pernicious laws like DCMA. And I do think that it is best to do away with copyright, but this must be in the context of a revolutionary transformation of society and its relationship to art.

Moral right

And finally, those children who contend against copyright absent class analysis or with a flawed and incomplete one must still contend with the question of moral right. Simply put, the failure to respect the right of an artist to say, “this is my creation,” is one that copyright protects against poorly, but it remains one of the few protections that exists. We must make sure whatever wondrous new world we create in which copyright is not necessary still protects the moral right of an artist to be the artist of this work. All art is iterative but all art contains differences from what comes before into which an artist encodes meaning. And in fact the true value of the art is found here. Artists need to eat. Artists also need to be able to command that this is their art.

I said before that putting a work of art into the world is a gamble the artist makes: that the artwork may face a cruel reception. However the other side of this gamble, that an artist must allow themselves to be open to this violence, is that we affirm the art is theirs.

I sincerely believe the task of dismantling capitalism and replacing it with something different is an artistic task, the Body Without Organs, too, is the moral right of artists. And I also believe there is an urgency to this task – I don’t want to put off the abolition of copyright with a calm, “yes but not today.” However I do want every person who advocates against copyright to understand clearly and with intent what they are advocating to undertake. Nothing short of a revolutionary transformation of society will allow for the conditions of an abolition of copyright. We must raze the entire superstructure of art to the ground and then keep going, cutting at the roots of the art world with an axe, if we wish to do away with copyright. And then we must create something more pleasing from its ruins.

Art, qualification and risk

When I talk about art, I think it’s important to understand first that I think art is a fundamentally proletarian thing to do. By this, I mean that art is something that all people have the capacity to do, that all people can intrinsically participate in. There is no barrier to entry to be an artist, there are no qualifications required.

Qualification and scholarship

Like any activity that can be undertaken, art has associated skills that can be trained. Art schools, writer’s workshops and such are important for developing those skills, but we should always remain alert to Gramsci‘s warning that the formalization of intellectual life into schools and narrow disciplines serves only hegemony. As artists are schooled and formalized they become intellectuals who, “are the dominant group’s ‘deputies’ exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government.”

Of particular interest to Gramsci is the way in which formal education into hegemonic systems allows for the arising of a false sort of, “spontaneous consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.”

Or, as Assata Shakur said much more plainly, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.”

As such, while formal schooling in art can lead to the improvement of technical skill and intellectual study which can, in turn, allow an artist to create better art, this is neither a guaranteed path nor one without its dangers. After all, channeling artistic impulses down specific canals cuts off other possible avenues of exploration.

Gramsci and Shakur both believed it was necessary, in a revolutionary context, for the oppressed classes to bring about, within themselves, a specifically proletarian intellectualism that spoke with the voice of the oppressed. This would arise through auto-didacticism, study groups and other forms of mutual and shared communities of study and critique. Within art, this speaks to the necessity of oppressed people to speak in their voice about their struggles. Authors like Barker are critical within queer spaces because their art arises from the dark places of oppression that are the shared understanding of the non-straight to what we now call cisheteronormatvity – the hegemony of desire within the anglosphere that predominated in the late-20th century, when he began writing.

The arising of such queer voices is a necessary and critical thing. And it has been instrumental for weakening the hegemonic power of dominant institutions. However it does not follow that an artist must only speak with their own voice to create good art. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is a good work of art. It is thoughtful, thorough and has interesting things to say. Its characters are voiced in a sincere manner that treats them first as realized people rather than tropes. It achieves the principal artistic objective of communicating something novel about the world.

But its credited creators are a pair of white men, despite the subjects of the story being people of colour and mostly girls. There’s no talk of license here. There’s no talk of qualification. It’s not that Barker and his ilk have an exclusive qualification to speak to the queer experience, it’s that those voices that come from within oppressed groups are necessary and deserving of critical and audience attention.

The failure to put own-voice authors forward does not come from artists creating art outside of their lane. It comes from editors, publishers, and critics failing to give them the attention they are due, and it must be viewed as a systemic problem rather than one of an individual, personal, failure. As such, it’s very frustrating to see advice given to artists that they should see themselves as unqualified to create this work or that on the basis of an intrinsic lack. This misses the point of organic scholarship, it, in fact, inverts the relationship and seeks to exclude people from creating art rather than seeking to break down the hegemonic systems that create that exclusion.

The exclusion is, in fact, the problem. Just as factory workers and their experience was excluded from the intellectual games of the bourgeois, so too are the experiences of queer people, women, people of colour, disabled people and people who suffer under systemic oppression excluded from the hegemonic understanding of art on the basis of the superstructure of art. As such, a library administrator who caves to public pressure and cancels drag queen story events and an algorithm trained on a dataset that assumes queer media is intrinsically more adult than heterosexual media are far more pressing problems than a straight artist writing about the gays.

The liberal response is to try and make a bigger tent – to identify those ways in which the existing superstructure can be modified in order to allow the inclusion of previously excluded subjects. This is toward the good as far as it goes. However, these modular adjustments to the superstructure ultimately fail to address the presence of a base condition which will reproduce hegemonic exclusion in new and novel forms. Or which will only allow the inclusion of oppressed voices by taming them and slotting them into a worldview that will not disrupt hegemony.

The Marxist suggestion is to, instead, create a rival superstructure. Gramsci was a university drop-out. He was also deeply and fundamentally committed to working class people making contributions to explicitly working class bodies of knowledge. Gramsci believed we could create an epistemological rupture by operating within these processes of organic scholarship which required, as part of their basis, systems of dissemination, communication, critique and response that had to operate explicitly within the interests of the class of people it served.

To return it to the art world, it was essential not just that there be queer authors but also queer agents, editors, publishers, distributors, booksellers, and in fact queer understandings of the nature of literature and its communication.

Art and quality

Of course although we champion difference within art we cannot reject quality. For this, I want to turn to Kierkegaard. And, especially as this essay is principally situating itself within discussion of queer representation, I do want to start by mentioning that I use Kierkegaard for value here particularly because he represents one of the key antecedents to what we understand as queer theory.

There’s a small body of historicism suggesting that Kierkegaard was, himself, not straight. But he’d caution us away from making any declarative statements about his identity. And this is part of the thing. Kierkegaard saw identity as a matter of deep personal anxiety. Authenticity was a goal but even a person living an authentic life could not be certain they were, in fact, being authentic. Nor could they communicate a state of authenticity to any outside party. Instead, a person had to live with the anxiety and doubt intrinsic to being and to leap over the leveling scythe of (dialectical) reason toward authenticity.

Kierkegaard was worried that dialectics destroyed value. So let’s back up once again to describe what dialectics, and particularly the Hegelian dialectics that informs the Marxists I discussed above, is. The common-repeated mantra of thesis-antithesis-synthesis does not derive from Hegel. Instead it was the work of a contemporary German idealist, Fichte. This error, attributing Fichte’s dialectic to Hegel and via him to Marx and the Marxists has given rise to the hilariously misinformed “problem-reaction-solution” interpretation of dialectics put forward mostly by David Icke. I bring up these mistakes in dialectics because in understanding why Kierkegaard criticized dialectics specifically on the quality of value it is first necessary to understand what the predominant Hegelian dialectic was.

The simplest way to describe the Hegelian dialectic is to imagine a magnet. It has a left pole and a right pole. But it is one magnet. If you cut the magnet in half you get two magnets each with a left and a right pole and not two magnetic monopoles. Hegelian dialectics was in fact a manner of observing how phenomena contain their own negation or opposite such that everything can sort of fold-upward to oneness: a singular universal phenomenon which contains everything and thus is everything.

But if everything is just one then nothing has value. Art, to be valuable within a dialectical model, must also be worthless. This worried Kierkegaard greatly. And it should worry artists too because once we reject that formal artistic training is the source of value in art, as we must if we are to adopt a position that favours organic scholarship, we have to reject that the value of art comes from the labour of formal education. We could decide to assign art a value based on market forces. But I have detailed elsewhere how dependence on a market to define artistic value is corrosive. The challenge before us is to devise an artistic value that allows for difference and that allows for the many.

In the introduction to Difference and Repetition, Deleuze proposes a solution in Kierkegaard that might suffice us here:

Furthermore, if repetition concerns the most interior element of the will, this is because everything changes around the will,
 in accordance with the law of nature. According to the law of nature, repetition is impossible. For this reason, Kierkegaard condemns as aesthetic repetition every attempt to obtain repetition from the laws of nature by identifying with the legislative principle, whether in the Epicurean or the Stoic manner.

Deleuze has a great deal more to say on the topics of difference, and I’ve already alluded to that somewhat through my references to Bataille and Deleuze in previous essays. However for the purpose of establishing a sense that art can have value discrete from market value it is enough to propose a rough draft for a method of assessing good art:

  1. Does it overcome its antinomies sufficiently to communicate a message?
  2. Is the communicated message aesthetically pleasing?
  3. Is the communication novel?
  4. Is the communication authentic?

Grounding art in difference requires us to concede that all art contains within it antinomies that must be reconciled in some way. In Cabal, Lori is the subject who desires. As the book centers around the idea of being monstrous, this situates Lori in the fundamentally queer position of desiring monstrosity, of (if we do away with the metaphor) wanting to be queer. However, in the film adaptation, the scene where Lori tours Midian, which in the book is central for showing us her desire for monstrosity, sits more external and Lori is presented as an intruding outsider, a metaphor for the gentrifying gaze of the hets in love with this strange community, wanting to save it, and damning it in the process. The intertextual relationship between the film and the book are such that this becomes like a magic-eye picture. Once seen her intrusion is there in the book too. Once seen her desire to be a monster is there in the film too.

These different reads of Lori must coexist within the text. And they are at odds with each other but they are not each other’s negation. In both cases, Lori’s desire is central. The difference arises in whether her desire represents a homecoming or an intrusion. And these two are not opposites that negate into unity. If we affirm difference is we must accept that any text will contain such dialectically incomplete contradictions. As such, the irreconcilable and irreducible differences of a text will act as a form of semiotic interference. If the interference is so great that nothing is communicated by the art, it is not good art.

Aesthetic pleasure is a more challenging question as it is bound so closely to subjectivity. I previously touched on the difficulty of assigning beauty in my moral case for spoilers, and I think that using a position of moral judgment may be useful for ascertaining what an aesthetically pleasing communication might resemble. If we deny that there is a clear and delineated boundary between the good and the beautiful we eventually concede that at least some moral arguments are sufficiently aesthetic for them to hold some weight in assigning value to art. However morality, like aesthetics, remains a subjective concern. I might find it morally repugnant to euthanize stray cats. Someone else might find it morally repugnant to keep them alive when they predate local bird populations. We might situate De Beauvoir’s demand that we serve a movement toward an open future as an ethical absolute, especially since it also serves our rejection of the One in favour of difference well; but beyond these highly abstract ethical requirements the ambiguity of the situation interferes and leaves this an area up to the interpretation of the critic to respond and call this or that work good through their ability to articulate their aesthetic response to it.

Squaring the circle of novelty and repetition remains one of my central aesthetic concerns. The truth is that the repetitive and parodic character of art is inescapable. Bataille went so far as to say, “the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another,” and if the whole world is a sequence of parodies then art can hardly escape. So where do we find novelty but in those things that transform within the process of iteration. This is why it is so essential to grasp the loving destruction of the artistic mode of engaging with art. Each artwork is a parody of other art it is, as Bataille said, “the same thing in a deceptive form.” Each artwork however introduces differences, and in the pattern of these differences arises novelty. An artwork must be a transformation and not just a repetition back of precisely the same thing it was before. There is no artistry in disassembling a chair, laying all the pieces out and then reassembling again the precise same chair. Nothing was transformed, it merely underwent a change and then was restored. And so we begin to see a definition of good art accrete out of these definitions: good art creates an aesthetically pleasing pattern of difference from that which came before, and this pattern encodes a message powerful enough to overcome the contradictions that are intrinsic to any system that rejects the One.

But then there is the final question of authenticity – and as you may recall from when I touched on this before – Kierkegaard believes authenticity to be incommunicable and ultimately a vector of self-doubt that can only be overcome through irrational faith. A personal example: as one reading these essays can likely tell I care a great deal about queer representation in art. I am myself openly bisexual and find great significance in exploring those aspects of who I am. However I was closeted for a long time, and being closeted is easy. I married a woman. This isn’t at all uncommon for bisexual men. Many of us are monogamous or at least indifferent enough to the question of monogamy and polyamory to find comfort in a monogamous relationship. And based on simple demography the likelihood that a monogamously-inclined bisexual is to end up in a long-term relationship with a heterosexual partner or with a partner with whom the relationship maintains the veneer of het-passing (IE: with partners who are trans or non-binary but present enough like cis members of the opposite sex to pass and bisexual partners of the opposite sex) is approximately eight times greater than for such a person to end up in a non-het-passing long term relationship assuming the subject has no preferences regarding partner sex or gender whatsoever. Frankly, there’s simply a lot more heterosexuals than there are us queers. While closeted there were occasions when I wanted to submit art to queer calls for work and did not because I didn’t feel my bisexuality was authentic-enough. The truth is that I could have been a member of a sense8 cluster and still probably have reason to doubt if I was queer enough to be in queer spaces because bisexuality is a liminal condition that thrives and sustains itself on the same ambiguity that leaves space for doubt to undermine authenticity.

Nobody but the artist can know whether an artistic expression is authentic and even the artist will have cause to doubt. “Perhaps I only painted it that way because I was watching a video about Matisse, that day. Maybe it’s not really what I meant to make.” And yet, authenticity is necessary for good art.

A critic, called upon to judge a work may very well instead attempt to apply an heuristic. One is to substitute this last question for a reiteration of the second: but did this communication please me? Did I, the audience, have an authentic reaction to it? This is probably the correct approach. The second is to deny that an artist might possibly be authentic. This dismissive attitude says, well it’s just a parody of something better after all. Or it says, this artist couldn’t possibly have made this art. This sort of a priori assumption about authenticity should be avoided by a good critic as the critical moment only arises after exposure to the text.

Risk and the hostile critic

So far this might seem like a defense of problematic art. And it is insofar as my personal aesthetic sentiment is such that art which problematizes nothing is generally boring. Remember to problematize something is to force additional questions, to dig deeper to get to the roots, the mycelia and rhizomatic stems, that undergird the phenomena of the world. However this must not be taken as a defense of bad art nor of systems that allow for the creation of bad art. Frankly most colloquial uses of, “problematic,” could easily be replaced with, “bad,” and would be better arguments for their clarity.

Rather it is a matter of addressing the apportionment of blame. A bad artist is not to blame for failing to realize his art communicates ugly ideas, or communicates in such a muddled way that it communicates nothing, or is just an inferior copy of a better work. A bad artist is even not to be blamed for failing to realize that his work is hollow because, well, we all might be hollow. But presentation of art includes an implicit contract: the artist must be willing to expose their work to the critic and, more horrifying still, to other artists. An artist, who has put out a work of art, has nobody to blame but themselves if critics engage with the art and say cruel things about it. They have nobody to blame but themselves if other artists make cruel transformations. Critics owe art their attention. They owe artists nothing. Art is built upon the violence of transformation and the art community is rarely nice. Although these cruelties and schisms are often decried as being a wrong thing, they are in fact part of what art is. In Desert Islands and Other Texts, Deleuze said, “Good destruction requires love,” and that’s true. Love is as indivisible from art as cruelty, but there is cruelty in these destructive acts, and it, too is indivisible from art.

And now we should return to the idea of a rival superstructure because what we are doing here is effectively an artistic project. The creation of a queer artistic superstructure includes within it the loving destruction of the straight one. And that loving destruction will look like appropriating their queer coded villains, it will look like excluding straights from anthologies and it will look like the sort of critical action that led to Laura Mixon’s wrong-headed and mean-spirited Hugo award winning complaint. It will look like a disregard for copyright law and it will look like a refusal on the part of oppressed artists, critics and fans to accept the demand we behave in accordance with the decorum necessary to be allowed to remain in the big tent.

This, therefore is the artistic gamble:

To move art toward the open future we must deny no artist the right to create art. There is no qualification to be set. There is no barrier to entry. But when hegemony silences oppressed artists, it is right for them to create structures hostile to the hegemonic. As a critic we have a duty to grapple with art before we review and not to pre-judge it. But we likewise have a duty to be cruel when we must. As artists we must love art. And we must destroy it. There is no artistic unity. All that there is, is difference. But herein lies the path to us creating a value for art aside from the market or the demands of formality. By recognizing that some differences please us and others do not, we affirm that art has significance, has meaning, has value that goes beyond numbers in a ledger.