Nazis, Puriteens and Accessibility: The pointless ‘kink at pride’ discourse

Here’s one for the terminally online.

Before we go forward I want to position my stakes in this argument. I’m pretty open on this blog about being bisexual. I mean of the 16 reviews I wrote in 2021, seven have either featured a textually queer protagonist, were created by a queer artist or both. But I’m also a parent (this is why four of the 16 2021 reviews have been of children’s media.) And as such I am a cause of kids at Pride parades as, prior to COVID anyway, I regularly brought my daughter to Pride.

Now another important question is why I want to bring my daughter to Pride parades and the answer to that is because I want her to grow up with a broad understanding of the ways love and enjoyment of others can manifest. I want to raise a child who understands these things well so that she can make healthy choices about her own life that will forward her happiness. I am not bringing my daughter to pride just for a parade with a bunch of rainbow floats (though she does appreciate those.) Pride parades are political actions. In fact, the bank sponsored displays, mainstream political parties marching for publicity and, worst of all, uniformed authority figures are the parts of Pride I have the least time for. On the other hand, I supported the 2016 Black Lives Matter action at Pride in Toronto. I also supported the right of QuAIA to march in Toronto pride parades and was aghast at the municipal interference to silence them. There has never been a time that Pride parades were not fundamentally political actions – and sites of political struggle. With that in mind we should not be surprised to see bigots attempting to use Pride as this vague notion of an event as a site of political struggle now. But I do think it’s important to understand who is doing this and why.

It’s fucking nazis

In 2020 4chan nazis got some attention for Operation Pridefall – a concerted effort by far-right participants of that hellish site to alienate the general public from the LGBTQ community. It’s significant to note that children were a preferred target. One participant said, “Tiktok -> Convince any gen-z sibling or relatives to do some kind of shitty gesture / charade / whore dance, then add LGBT critical captions on top of it and repost.”

The general operating procedure for Pridefall was to post anti-LGBTQ memes and generally do as much as possible to shift discourse such to present queer people, specifically participating in pride month activities, in a negative light. And, wouldn’t you know it, but this has become a predominant image shared around the web in May 2021 – just in time for Pride month!

Let’s be clear about a few realities of this picture. The kinksters in it are not touching the girl, menacing her or causing her any discomfort. The girl in the picture is obviously happy to be there. She’s got a flag, and several strings of beads on, she’s smiling and reaching out to pat the dog-man as if her were a puppy. He’s acting like a dog. This isn’t sexual. It’s just play. And frankly this man is dressed in no more revealing a manner than any number of guys you might encounter on a beach or at a swimming pool.

It’s something of a mistake to assume that kink is just sex. As many people have pointed out, there are a fair number of asexual people who participate in kink. They aren’t there for the fucking – they’re there for the play. People within the BDSM community refer to their games as “scenes” and there is certainly an element of theatricality to the bondage scene. People engaged in kink might and deriving sexual pleasure from their activities. But they’re definitely either putting on a show or playing games every time. Regardless of if there is any sexual pleasure there is, in BDSM a performative and playful pleasure that need not have anything whatsoever to do with sex. And it’s that performative and playful enjoyment on display here. These three very good boys are playing dog. The little girl, who looks to be just around the right age for play-acting games, is obviously enjoying the scene. Nobody’s boundaries are being violated. Nobody is being compelled to do anything. Nobody in the scene is making use of a power differential to impose upon another outside the bounds of adult affirmative consent. But for nazis this photo provides great mimetic fodder for a “think of the children” narrative that is divorced from reality and instead cleaves directly to the revulsions of the straights for the queer.

Fucking nazis using manipulative framing of pictures like this is the core of this awful discourse. And honestly we should be reminding any concern trolls popping up that they’re carrying water for nazis. Fuck nazis.

Children

The phrase “puriteen” has been tossed about for the last few weeks. This is a mythical child who is incensed that their internet experience includes adults who sometimes talk about sex, share sexually explicit information or are just, in general sexual beings. Note, the “puriteen” isn’t a person responding against sexual harassment but is rather somebody who proactively attempts to censure third parties for engaging in sexualized behaviour in digital public spaces.

There’s a fair bit of hand-wringing about kids today who don’t know how we all struggled but the reality is that these “puriteens” are really two separate phenomena:

  1. Overly sensitive adolescents.
  2. Nazis pretending to be overly sensitive adolescents.

The solution to both is the same: block, disengage, and if they fall into making overtly bigoted statements report. There is nothing to be gained from arguing with children. There is even less to gain from arguing with 4chan nazis. The former are not yet at the point where they should be having any say in how adults at an adult event comport themselves. The latter should should be suffocated under the weight of deafening silence.

And all the rest

There are also various concern trolls and online entertainers who make money off of inserting themselves into arguments. None of these people should be taken seriously for the simple reason that none of these people have any actual stakes in the argument. They’re just in it for the clicks. I will not mention who these people are because hate-clicks are clicks too. Needless to say there’s never a good reason to engage with a Twitch debater.

But what about accessibility?

This isn’t a thing. I know a fair number of asexual people. As I said, a few of them are into kink. The vast majority aren’t interested in sex for themselves but are perfectly happy to see others getting it. The few sex-revulsed asexual people I know probably wouldn’t ever be interested in attending a Pride parade in the first place. See the push to make Pride child-friendly is just garden-variety neoliberalism. The semiotic signifiers of Pride are being decoupled from their original use and repackaged as commodities to sell: cute tee-shirts and rainbow flags. This is what lead to the discomfort that mainstream society had with the QuAIA people and with BLM. Divisive politics! At a parade? Where’s my fainting couch?

This sense is engendered that Pride Must Be For Everyone. And that means sanding down all the rough bits. The leather daddies are welcome too, as long as they leave the harnesses at home. After all There Are Children In The Audience Who Might Ask Questions. The assimilationist wants Pride to be an affirmation that society is now OK with The Gays. And if people do things that interfere with that – if people express their diverse strange desires as diverse and as strange that would put lie to the affirmation. It would show that, in fact, society is not yet OK with The Gays. Society is OK with an abstract idea that some people have otherwise heteronormative relationships with people of their own gender, but don’t be weird about it.

And of course don’t be weird about it is defined with a particularly cisheteronormative lens. Two men kissing is allowable. We can pretend that one is “the girl” in the relationship. But drag queens or, heaven forbit, trans women must be rendered invisible. If they can’t pass they can’t participate. After all the bounds between kink and play never really existed. So the drag queen, who lives entirely in the theatrical, entirely in the domain of play, is a figure of fear and disgust. And the transphobes make no distinction between the drag queen and trans woman – who they are desperate to pathologize, to flatten to a paraphilia, a sexual deviancy.

The question of “kink at pride” is certainly one of access. But it’s one that prefers the access of people like me – heteronormatively passable queers who bring their kids for the party – over the people who still face real obstacles to access everywhere else. Now I need to be clear: I have never seen the risk that my child might see a person in a state of undress, or in a state of unusual dress, as anything even remotely resembling a barrier of access to Pride parades. But remember when I described Pride as a site of political conflict? I know whose side I’m on here. And the access of trans women and leather daddies is not something that should not be denied so that people who already have perfectly reasonable access to the world can continue to glide about with minimal resistance. I reject the premise that the presence of “kink” denies access to parents with children. But even if it did, as I said about science fiction conventions before, universal communities don’t exist. The Pride parade is a moment of explicitly political direct action to show that queer people in all our beautiful and strange diversity exist. The access of those who will not pass as normal should be preferred. It is their parade first and foremost. If that means a few sex-discomforted teenagers feel like they cannot access it so be it.

One influential online personality argued that Pride should be as open as possible in order to help normalize queer desire. This guy is in much the same boat as me – in that he’s so normal-presenting I didn’t actually realize he wasn’t straight. This personality is also, as usual, dead wrong. Fuck respectability. Coddling normies doesn’t move the struggle for liberation. Rights aren’t granted – they’re taken.

This gets to my last point. A kinkster I know pointed out that this whole argument was silly because they’re going to turn up and march anyway. They’ll come out with leather harnesses, cuffs and collars, they’ll come with dog masks and with rings affixed to chains around their necks and it won’t fucking matter if some children on twitter don’t think they should be there because the leather daddies, drag queens and dog boys know their right to present as they do has nothing to do with permission. Something is a right when it cannot be taken from you. If it’s a conditional acceptance extended as long as you’re not weird about it, it isn’t a right. The Pride march has always been about creating a right. The old phrase is, “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” not, “we’re here, we’re queer, please like us.” It is a show of force, a presentation that some strangenesses will not be surrendered. If you want an all-ages, de-sexed, pride event, make your own. But in the meantime, don’t expect you will stop the kinky from marching.

Kids Stuff: The Insidious Appeal of reterritorialization in The Mitchells vs the Machines

If The Mitchells vs the Machines isn’t the funniest family movie of 2021 I will be deeply surprised. My attention was drawn to this film when the first trailers dropped and the expectation of the movie was a full theatrical release. That was, of course, prior to the COVID pandemic which appears to have led to a recalibration to a Netflix release. The marketing was relatively true to the narrative structure: the central relationship in the film was between a technophobic father and his hyper-connected daughter whose relationship is in crisis due to miscommunication.

The marketing maybe over-played the extent to which differing views on technology impacted the story. The conflict is more around a more fundamental misunderstanding of each other, specifically his inability to understand her art. As the film progresses it becomes clear rather that the central parent-child conflict is built not so much around Rick’s failure to understand Katie (though he does fail to understand her) but around his relationship to his own failure as an artist. Rick may be technophobic but this is presented as a manifestation of a deep and abiding love for nature and natural materials. Rick, some twenty years prior to the action of the film, built an off-grid cabin in the woods, with an exceptionally large number of craftsmanly flourishes, and ended up abandoning it because, for reasons never made entirely clear, it was an untenable situation for Katie as a toddler. The marketing for the movie is also quite anxious to tell audiences that the same creative team who made this film are the ones who were behind Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse and the Lego Movie. Certainly a comparison with these other two movies is apt. Both of the previous films shared two significant similarities with this film through the use of a form of visual grammar that makes the psychology of the characters visible on screen and simultaneously sets expectations about the nature of the world in which the film is set and an attempt to probe at the uncomfortable corners of the relationship between child and patriarch.

This team has a deft touch and understands that families attend family comedies for the comedy rather than for any over-arching drama and as such they manage to avoid the maudlin excesses of Pixar offerings such as Coco, which often took itself far too seriously, while still managing to get at some of the discomfort they want to.

Of course another thing that sets The Mitchells vs the Machines apart from Pixar treacle is the decision to center the narrative around an openly and textually gay protagonist. Katie is a lesbian. When we see the world, at its happiest, through her eyes, rainbows in the colour of the lesbian pride flag spark and flash everywhere. However this is where the cracks start to show a little bit and some of the insidious problems peak through. Because the disconnect between Katie and her father isn’t because she’s gay but it is because she’s queer. And the movement of this misunderstanding surrounding identity into subtext, combined with the use of long-suffering mom Linda to request that we meet the patriarchy half-way, muddies the water of the story at least as much as the insufferable apologia made for big tech through the far-too-gentle treatment of Mark Bowman, the tech-bro whose actions nearly damn all of humanity.

Meeting Patriarchy Half-Way

The greatest weakness of The Mitchells vs the Machines is the desire of the creative team to make Rick Mitchell sympathetic. There’s a conservativism to Rick. He’s a luddite, as in he cannot operate a smartphone. He’s a bow-hunter. He drives a car from the 1990s and, to the extent we have any awareness of what he does for a living, he is a person who fixes things: a plumber, carpenter and mechanic who carries a screwdriver everywhere and who believes everyone else should too. Needless to say he drives stick and thinks it’s important to pass on that skill to children who will grow up fully in the age of hybrid and electric vehicle transmission systems.

Rick is shown as being expert at building, carving, designing snares and other simple machines and as being a force of pure unrelenting destruction to anything with a microchip. One of the initiating moments of conflict occurs when he accidentally smashes his daughter’s laptop. He later, quite intentionally, destroys his family’s cellphones and tablets, and the film builds to a climax that involves a very convoluted effort to drop a cell phone into a glass of water. Rick is low-key a survivalist. He’s obsessed with providing his children with the skills to survive to the point he often disregards what they need to thrive. Rick cannot understand his daughter’s art. She’s an aspiring film creator who posts her videos to YouTube (a service Rick is textually incapable of using short of the sort of pressures that turn his wife into a flying slayer-of-robots) and her art depends heavily on a sort of seamless integration into gen-z flow-of-consciousness memeing. This film is at its best when told from Katie’s perspective, as her Dadaesque art-style begins to invade the visual canvas of the movie, not so much breaking the fourth wall as contorting it into ever more maddening distortions. But the movie wants us to understand that the misunderstanding is reciprocal. Rick might be a patriarch who regularly disregards the agency of his children, who deigns to make decisions for the collective because he’s the dad and whose emotional fragility must be catered to because his physical strength depends entirely on the emotional strength of those who depend on him but, “you should meet your father half-way.” After all, he’s an artist, and a weirdo, too. And he’s just haunted by his failures. He just wants you to, “have a backup plan,” because he failed. He abandoned his dream to live within his art – because he had you. It’s somewhat alarming that it falls on Katie to accept the burden of her own father’s failure, particularly when all we see of it is him buckling her into a car seat and breaking off one carved-moose banister cap with which to remember his lost dream. The carved moose he gives to Katie to cheer her when she has separation anxiety. The carved moose she later discards as nothing more than the detritus of childhood. This thick symbolism positions Katie, her kind-hearted mother and her impulsive father within all-too-familiar an oedipal triangle (as Deleuze and Guattari put it, “daddy-mommy-me”) that suggests the problem with being queer isn’t a matter of social repression of desire but just the stress it causes for the nuclear family.

Likewise this film carefully scrambles codes by making Rick the most explicitly anti-capitalist force in the film. The movie takes care to show how tech monopoly leads to a “pal chip” in almost everything, even a tennis racket. It falls to Rick to ask why in the name of all that’s sacred somebody would put a microchip into a tennis racket to begin with. During one of the most visually entertaining action sequences of the film, the family are attacked by an army of Furbies and Rick shows absolutely no hesitance in shooting them down with a bow he is remarkably adept at firing. Katie, meanwhile, is so integrated with this technological milieu that her sense-of-the-world is overlaid with the sorts of emojis and stickers that permeate the online landscape even in the midst of a robot apocalypse. This is also the avenue in which Rick is forced to make the greatest shift – Katie needs to learn how to drive stick. Rick has to learn how to use a phone. These two facts are given somewhat equal weight within the narrative, as if Rick has to get with the program of the tech dystopia that the film shows us nearly destroying the world in the same way that Katie must meet patriarchy half-way.

Ultimately this film is harmed by such half measures and attempts at balance. The argument to moderation is a logical fallacy for a reason and a more dispassionate relation of the same text would show that Rick is something of a monster, and that Linda’s attempts to make peace between her husband and her daughter, despite some early promise where she subtextually threatens Rick with divorce if he doesn’t repair his failure, ultimately end up with a film afraid to have the strength of its convictions.

This is highlighted by the fact that for all that Rick shares the aesthetic trappings of a certain sort of American conservativism, he is entirely lacking the bigotry that is part and parcel of that way of life. As I said before his complaint with Katie isn’t that she’s gay but that she’s queer. He doesn’t have a problem with her dating girls, his problem is that her semiotics aren’t his. She’s opaque to him – until a friendly tech billionaire forces him to sit down and actually watch her movie. Their next-door neighbours are a painfully photogenic non-white family with whom Linda has an under-developed keeping-up-with-the-Joneses arc and Rick is fine with them. Never a hint of racism. This is made particularly strange by the fact that they are even more terminally online than his daughter. They should be as alien to Rick as Martians and yet he either ignores them or attempts to emulate them depending on the needs of the plot in the moment. So we have this all-American monster but he’s been sanitized, made palatable. In the name of both-sidesing Rick has been purged of any of the darker baggage that would most likely come with his worldview. Instead we’re presented with an alternate America that is colour-blind and where love is love but where Apple still insidiously rules the world, and where patriarchs can still cancel their daughter’s flights and demand a family-bonding roadtrip and can expect spousal support even if they have, “gone rogue.” The idea that these psychological conditions: the enclosure of the nuclear family and the elevation of the patriarch within it might correlate somehow with capitalism and that both might correlate with bigotry seems lost on the creative team to its detriment.

Mark Bowman deserves the guillotine

In a darker film, Rick would have been antagonist enough. Instead he becomes a symbiotic protagonist to Katie: each must serve as a foil to the other and each must learn to “find the middle ground” as half of a heroic team. This is deployed to good effect when, at the climax of the film, they are using random dance steps they devised to Dragostea Din Tea and we can be generous to overlook how the notoriously luddite Rick would have ever come across one of the foundation blocks of Internet Dada. The team behind this movie has learned how to weaponize nostalgia such that anyone who could put himself into the position of Rick will undoubtedly know the song even if they haven’t the first clue who O-Zone are. This is the same sort of cunning that led to the delightful sequence that turns Furby into some sort of weird-fictive robot dragon for Rick to slay.

But the rehabilitation of Rick demands another antagonist and, just as the movie has a binary of protagonists it also has a binary of antagonists in Mark Bowman and PAL. The mirroring goes beyond the doubling of protagonist and antagonist as the objective of Rick and Katie, to recognize the invaluability of relationship, is mirrored in the disposability with which both Mark and PAL show toward each other and, by extension, everybody else.

PAL is a virtual assistant designed by Mark, fully occupying the myth of the tech-entrepreneur-as-singular-genius-inventor, and it takes an evil turn when Mark suddenly and dramatically discards it, calling it obsolete garbage, at the unveiling of his new product: an android that serves as both a maid, a phone and a visual joke on the name of the largest mobile OS currently in market.

Reeling from being casually discarded, PAL immediately decides to do the same not just to Mark but to the entire human species, and devises an elaborate plan to collect all of humanity, to isolate each person into a pod just for them, and then to launch them into the depths of space to be alone, together, forever.

(Please do not ask how PAL arranged the pods or the rockets on such short notice.)

Mark becomes one of the first victims of PAL, being dragged off the stage and lectured at by PAL who monologues at him for a bit about the banal evil of a humanity that would gladly give in to absolute isolation as long as the wifi remains free and abundant, before jamming him into a pod to watch Katie’s movies for plot reasons. PAL decides to punish Mark by promising to put him next to the Mitchells, as soon as they are captured of course, and when Rick is captured immediately prior the climax PAL makes good on its threat. There, Mark serves to require Rick to actually watch his daughter’s movie. The pods are transparent and are not soundproof so Mark and Rick are able to talk and see each other but each pod has a screen and Mark’s is on the movie. This is the moment that allows Rick to understand Katie’s complaint with him and gives him the motivation to overcome his technophobia. Mark also serves as a expositor for how Rick’s own strangeness, encapsulated at this point by the fact he always carries a very specific screwdriver with him wherever he goes, can be used to overcome PAL’s nefarious plot.

And then the story conveniently forgets about the man whose own inability to recognize a relationship (PAL was fond of him and he treated it like garbage) and whose avarice (in putting PAL chips in every possible commodity in order to expand the reach of his tech empire’s “ecosystem”) almost leads to the total extinction of humanity. He’s let off the hook. He’s really sorry and he definitely learned his lesson. We are led to believe that it will be an era of a kinder, gentler tech bro who might not use people’s aggregated data as a marketing cudgel against them.

Eric Andre is honestly wasted in this role because there’s very little here: some posturing, a hint of Steve Jobs style douchery, and then depths of sincere regret. In any just world Mark would get the guillotine. The show ends with PAL executed and Mark restored to his position of power without even so much as a word. He disappears from the story; his actions might have incited PAL to revolt but he was never really the subject of critique.

The seductive appeal of it all

And yet despite the cleansing of Rick, the creation of a patriarch who must be met on his own terms, and despite the way in which Mark Bowman is let off the hook for, and I really want to drive this home, almost causing the extinction of the species single-handedly, damn me if I can’t help but like this movie. Katie is a delight of a protagonist. I regret her rebelliousness must be so forcefully situated within the oedipal triangle in part because she has so much potentiality to be transgressive even in the bounds of a children’s cartoon. As much as this movie likes to scramble codes, to bifurcate and explore the opposite halves of an already collapsed dialectic before putting everything back, so too does Katie’s own artistic vision engage in an act of decoding.

She makes movies starring her pug and sock puppets that simultaneously act as broad pastiche of the tired buddy cop genre and as hyper-specific discussions of her pain surrounding the distance she feels from her father. A lot of care and attention has gone into this movie-within-a-movie and it’s one of the best things in this film. There is a running gag surrounding the family dog Mochi. Mochi is a wall-eyed pug who is almost as bad at being a dog as my dear goblin Oliver. The androids that are tasked with capturing humanity by PAL cannot look at Mochi. When they do, it causes them to enter into a destructive loop of indecision about whether they are looking at a pig, a dog or a loaf of bread. This causes their heads to explode. Katie’s movie, featuring Mochi as the star, thus demonstrates another way of looking at the idea of virality. By scrambling the semiotic code of “dog,” “pig,” and “loaf of bread,” her movie becomes a mimetic weapon to use against the titular machines.

Another running joke in the film plays off Katie’s remark that her father resembles a hooting gibbon from a viral video. Overlays and filters whether the gibbon or “cat face filters” applied via phones invade the filmic reality in various ways that scramble codes too. This movie is constantly trying to make new and novel connections. This, then, is what reterritorialization looks like in action. Codes are scrambled – the dog is a pig is a loaf of bread – but then they’re recontextualized into something coherent again. The Oedipal triangle remains in place. The nuclear family is allowed to stand in for all the breadth of human relationship. If Katie and her dad can find common ground so can we all. And you can’t say it isn’t attractive. This is a beautiful movie. Its art is impeccable. And it’s a funny movie. Its comedic timing and, in fact, what it finds funny enough to build as the basis of a joke is basically perfect. This is especially good because it manages to do this with the precise sort of absurdist chaos that permeates online discourse. It’s a movie that understands its audience: zoomer kids and millennial parents. I couldn’t help but laugh and enjoy myself. The climax of the film is so funny that my wife actually came in to see what had my daughter and I both in such riotous stiches. And for all I might criticize the worm in the heart of the ideology of this film I can’t help but like Rick. He’s funny, sincere, and, despite the violence he does to electronic devices, he’s somebody who cares about fixing, building, protecting and many of the elements of masculinity that are least-toxic. His impulsivity and his sense that he should be able to lead solely by dint of being a patriarch are to his detriment but, damn it, the creative team of this movie have done far too good a job in rehabilitating him. Being both a schlubby x-millennial cusp dad and a queer weirdo artist it’s easy to experience the film both from the perspective of Katie and of Rick. This is the trap of the movie. The movie asks you to meet the patriarch half-way and then constitutes a patriarch who can be met half-way. I am glad, deeply glad, to see a movie that treats non-het sexualities as so normal that it is simultaneously constantly present and not even deemed a matter of discussion. And this film does that – as explicit as it is that Katie is gay, it is also explicit that this isn’t the cause of conflict. Her parents unquestionably accept that part of who she is. It’s the part where she’s a weird artist that makes her father anxious.

The problem with reterritorialization is that it works by giving us what we want and The Mitchells vs the Machines does that very well. I’m certain it will also create plenty of outraged conservative tears which will be delicious to various progressives who stand firmly by such aphorisms as, “love is love.” For me this is a source of discomfort. This isn’t a case of wanting to like a movie and being prevented by its flaws. I do like this movie despite its flaws. But there’s a discomfort in being given what you want and simultaneously watching as it draws a neat triangle around you and says, “we’ve redrawn the boundary for your comfort, please do not cross it.”

It’s to be expected that a movie financed by Sony and Netflix and created by a team that brought you a hyper-stylized comic book and a 101 minute toy commercial would fail to create something critical of capitalism, that they’d be unable to recognize that the subject of critique in PAL’s nihilism and Mark’s disregard for relationship was somehow connected to a psychology that triangulates social relations against a patriarch or that both were tied inextricably to capital. It’s a challenge because I do want to see media going the direction The Mitchells vs the Machines goes. It’s just that it doesn’t go anywhere near as far as art must.

Review of Hummingbird Salamander: the vastness of everything

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

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

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

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

Hyperwhat?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hauntology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An antidote to indifference

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

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

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

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

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