Gothic anti-realism: art for the unsatisfied

Angelus Novus by Paul Klee

His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

— Walter Benjamin

We are being crushed under realism.

We are all living in a world after the age of no alternative. We are all cursed to see ourselves as survivors of a failed apocalypse: the so-called end of history. But in the absence of the end of history communicating anything truly revelatory we all seem trapped, waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is, in brief, the ontological condition of capitalist realism. Believing that nothing can possibly create a real transformative change in the world order we are confined to what Fisher called “reflexive impotence.” We, “know things are bad, but more than that, {we} know {we} can’t do anything about it.” After all, history is over. All we can do now is accept that this is the final form of the world, the final and eternal order. Of course Fisher described this not as “a passive knowledge of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self fulfilling prophesy.”

Looking then at how this paradoxical apocalypse without an eschaton has affected the arts we can understand quite clearly how this realism leads to a few different strands:

  1. A prioritization of comfort as a response to absurdity
  2. A reification of normalcy onto those things that do not fit
  3. A fear and suspicion toward transformative change

These three threads run through quite a few liberal-progressive arguments with regard to art. For instance comfortcore, hopepunk and other proposed subgenres of fiction have attempted to carve out a moral imperative to tell people that it’s OK. The world already ended and you’re still here so you might as well get used to it and find your joy where you can.

We see a huge focus on the valor behind “found family” as the entirety of social life is re-enscribed into the domestic, familial, and (as such) patriarchal sphere. In fact we are told this is good, it’s progress that now, too, people who might have been excluded by their old patriarch can create a family of their own. There are, after all, as the prophet of the end of history, Margaret Thatcher said, “only individuals and their families. There is no alternative.”

And we see, in general, a lot of media that is focused on making the status quo nicer. We want everyone to have a seat at the table to the end of the world, every person should find a family with whom they can enjoy the endless grey suffocation of all this forevermore.

Because the vicissitudes of power have made it so that almost no art has a chance except for the broad, the corporate, the four-quadrant, the comfortable, we see a host of artists, fans and critics justifying that this is actually a good state of affairs. It’s right to engage mostly with children’s media. It’s suspicious to want art that is cynical, cruel or angry, Only reactionaries show wrath in public and you wouldn’t want to be one of them.

We want heroes who have fun adventures, find a family, and who demonstrate that even if they are something a little strange, like a sentient gemstone or a gay person, they’re actually Just Like You: a normal citizen of the end of the world.

But if all there is are individuals and their families then we can, as Deleuze says, “no longer form a unified subject able to act.” We aren’t a people. We aren’t a community. We’re individuals and their (found families) living in the ruins of ended time in suspension. So what is to be done? We can’t cozy our way out of the endless grey suffocation of capitalist realism. But likewise I doubt anyone would find that the equally stultifying (socialist) realism of the Stalinists and their descendants is any more comforting to the spirit.

In the end realism is, itself, the enemy. This idea that art must be applicable to this historical moment is itself an enemy. We don’t need a children’s cartoon to tell us how queer love is just the same as the heterosexual family. Instead we need a subtle knife that can cut time itself and kill even God. The art that this moment demands must reveal the rot of the end of history.

Shirley Jackson famously wrote, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone,” and I think this is a strong way to begin approaching the demands of art to break realism. And just as no live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality. No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute realism. This stultifying sense of being at the end, at the final form, in the best possible fallen world, is maddening. Is it any wonder so many people want to retreat into nostalgia and childhood?

The gothic has always been an enemy of realism because the gothic recognizes first and foremost the impermanence of all things. The House of Usher exists to fall. Heathcliff cannot ultimately survive the death of Catherine. The damned immortality of Dorian Grey and of Count Dracula exists to be torn down.

The gothic is, as such, an historicizing form of fiction, it is one that places its subjects into a flow of history in which they are temporary and contingent. Not without consequence, of course, you cannot be a part of history while being entirely insubstantial. But the gothic does not exist in a world suffocated under a grey blanket of the real. The gothic treats the current moment as a dying and diseased thing that will be replaced in its turn by something else, something new.

It is important to note that new does not mean better. We cannot know, when we shatter the real of today, what the world of tomorrow will truly be like. It might be a horror show. But the time of monsters is birthed, per Gramsci because the old world is dying but the new one cannot be born. The refuse and ruin of the old world clogs the path. The grey blanket of “no alternative” forestalls the birth of the new.

It must be burned away.

And so I want art that is a torch touched to dry kindling.

I want art that is a knife that cuts that is a gun fired into a crowd.

I want art that leaves the audience uncomfortable and disturbed, that shows the crumbling foundations of the real and takes a sledgehammer to them. I don’t want a found family; I want to see other, novel, social formations that we might assume and I want artists to have the courage to say that, for instance, a sensate cluster isn’t a family at all. I want art to be the sharp knife that cuts the fetters on time and frees the angel of history from its shackles. I want art that maddens and confuses.

Not children’s cartoons but the avant garde. Not the MCU but Sion Sono. In order to cut away the fetters on history we must unmoor ourselves from nostalgia and the reflexive recreation of the past into the present and the future. Art like this does exist, of course. The directorial work of Julia Ducournau and Sion Sono, particularly their recent films, Titane and Prisoners of the Ghostland respectively, are key figures for such an art. In literature we can see this anti-realism and reactivation of history in the work of Tamsyn Muir (particularly her second book, Harrow the Ninth) and Jeff Vandermeer such as in the Southern Reach trilogy. In visual art, the work of Jessi Sheron, particularly her “Other Happy Place” project reflects many of these aesthetic values.

Many of these artists are grim. And the gothic will never be anything but dark. However you will never free the angel of history with hugs.

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