Fear Street and Knife+Heart: The Interpassivity Problem

Leftist art, by which I mean art which is not liberal but rather which carries an actual socialist or anarchist message, is something of a rarity. Certainly there is plenty of progressive art. But progressive liberalism is not actual leftism and aims for a different message. However some work arises that actually communicates leftist values. Our subject films today are two handy examples. Both are built around two specific leftist ideals which are not shared by liberalism to any significant extent: both films champion the idea of community defense and solidarity and both films operate with an explicitly historicist lens regarding social conflict. Both the Fear Street trilogy and Knife+Heart (“Un Couteau Dans Le Coeur” originally which translates to “a knife in the heart”) do this in part by following a queer woman as she navigates the intersection of class and gender politics and as supernatural visions tie her into unresolved sins of the past which have consequences for her community in the present day.

As such these two films do present enough in common to make them fertile ground to contrast how they approach their topics and how they differ. Via these topics I believe we can also begin to examine one of the most significant problems plaguing leftist art in the age of neoliberalism: the interpassivity problem.

Interpassivity is a mode in art first described by Robert Pfaller. It was later taken up by Žižek who treats it with all the care of the actor who played Marshall McLuhan in his Canadian Heritage moment, waxing about how lightbulbs are a communication medium but it is a concept most clearly defined by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism in which he says of the Pixar film Wall-E,

It seems that the cinema audience is itself the object of this satire, which prompted some right wing observers to recoil in disgust, condemning Disney/Pixar for attacking its own audience. But this kind of irony feeds rather than challenges capitalist realism. A film like Wall-E exemplifies what Robert Pfaller has called ‘interpassivity’: the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity. The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief.

Mark Fisher – Capitalist Realism – What if you held a protest and everyone came?

Interpassivity is the process whereby an audience can see its activism being done for it on the screen and thus believe that the activism has been done. It’s the underlying psychological mode that treats reading books or watching films as praxis. Capitalism is all to happy to sell the image of anti-capitalism to an audience. Far from the apocryphal Lenin quote that, “when the time comes to hang the capitalists, they will bid against each other for the sale of the rope.” It seems that capitalism finds it all too easy to sell an image of a hanged capitalist as a panacea against the actual gallows.

Of course this mode of interpassivity depends on comfort to be effective. If people are dissatisfied enough then no number of imagined hangings will forestall the actual moment of action. But, of course, the same audiences who are satisfied to see the activism being done in a story will often fight against actual activism when it disrupts their comfort and it’s worth noting that a good number of Pixar’s films are enjoyed by comfortable people: adults age 18-44 with salaries over $50,000. In his pessimistic essay, “Why Revolution Is Impossible Today,” Byung-Chul Han argues that the concept of the sharing economy represents a movement toward the full commodification of communism, saying,

Paradoxically, despite all this wonderful ‘sharing’, no one gives anything away. One it begins to sell communism itself as a commodity, capitalism has reached its culmination. Communism as a commodity: that spells the end of any revolution.

Byung-Chul Han – Capitalism and the Death Drive – Why Revolution Is Impossible Today

This presents a serious problem for the very project of leftist film. After all, movies are a commodified product. They create these interpassive affects. They are commercial cinema after all. Commercial first and foremost. If Han is correct then leftist cinema might literally be interpassively forestalling revolution. I am not quite so pessimistic as Han or, indeed, Fisher and Žižek. Art is a tool for the creation and communication of affects and percepts. What we have, with interpassivity, is an affective problem. The solution, then, is to look at how we can short-circuit this comforting idea that, in the art, the activism has been done.

Now I’ve previously argued that it is necessary that we create art which serves the unsatisfied and proposed that a solution might be found in the gothic and in surrealism. Within that frame of reference we can look at how these two recent works of leftist cinema and how they succeed or fail in short-circuiting interpassive affects.

The basics: Fear Street is a trilogy of slasher movies released on Netflix in 2021. Directed and written by arising horror talent Leigh Janiak these movies are very loosely adapted from the teen-targeted Fear Street novels by R. L. Stine. It is interesting to note that these films were originally scheduled for distribution through 20th Century Fox and the Netflix distribution agreement arose after Disney acquired 20th Century Fox and torpedoed the deal. Disney remains, as always, one of the principal enemies of good art in the current age. This trilogy plots the journey of discovery of Deena Johnson as she learns her on-again, off-again girlfriend Sam Fraser has been targeted by an apparent witches’ curse. This leads Deena and her small circle of friends to investigate the circumstances of the curse and uncover the dark secret at the heart of the history of misfortune that lies over the town of Shadyside. This story is set up using a series of frames with the principal action being in 1994 but with the second film principally told via flashback in 1978 and half of the third film likewise in 1666.

Knife + Heart (Un couteau dans le coeur) is a 2018 French film which was an official contest selection at Cannes. A surrealist horror thriller, it details the end of the relationship between a director of gay porn (Anne Parèze) and her editor (Loïs McKenna) in Paris in 1979. When actors associated with her studio become the target of a deranged killer she is guided into a realm of dream and premonition leading toward the revelation of the identity and motive of the killer.

It’s fascinating the extent to which these films share significant formal and thematic ties. Both center upon a fraught relationship between two queer women. Both feature worlds where a mystical interconnection between people guides them to uncover secrets from the past. Both feature supernaturally empowered slashers as their principal threat. Both have very negative views about police. Both are structurally adventurous, albeit in very different ways, as Fear Street provides a trilogy of movies framing three different time periods of the history of the town as it unravels the central mystery of the film and as Knife+Heart meanders between Anne’s increasingly self-destructive efforts to win back Loïs and the dreams, premonitions and supernatural guides who direct her deeper into the mystery of the killer. The film makes frequent use of remarkable lighting effects and negative photography to create a phantasmagorical atmosphere that frequently defies logical consistency.

Fear Street is very much a slasher film. It bears all the hallmarks of the American slasher – there is a core group of teens who are thrown into the path of a killer (killers in this case) and who must unravel the secret of the killer(s) while playing cat and mouse games and fleeing for their lives.

Central to this is the visions of Sarah Fier visited first upon Sam and later upon Ziggy (in the second film) and Deena. The series opens with the assumption that the vision is Fier, the assumed undead witch behind the Shadyside curse, targeting victims out of wrath for interference with her body. Bleeding upon the ground near the corpse or bleeding on the witches severed hand consistently lead to the protagonists being pursued by supernatural killers. What’s more, select women will bleed from the nose in the presence of the body, precipitating the vision. But as our protagonists quest to end the curse they discover the visions are far different – as is the nature of the curse and its agent.

In fact the actual authors of the curse are the Goode family – a founding family of the Union settlement from which Shadyside and the blessed community of Sunnyvale devolve – who have struck a bargain with Satan whereby they give over one Shadysider for possession by the devil. These possessed people go on to kill others in their own community and the Devil is nourished on that blood. In exchange for this innocent blood the Goodes are granted wealth, prestige and political power. Their town, Sunnyvale, prospers and all the while Shadyside, murder capital USA, gets worse and worse. The kids of Shadyside believe they’re trapped – that anyone who really tried to leave Shadyside would be hit by a bus or worse because the town doesn’t let go of its residents.

An early establishing shot in the first film in the trilogy has Deena riding a school bus to a rally in Sunnyvale. Tracking from within the bus, the camera records the destitution of Shadyside and the visible wealth of Sunnyvale. This class divide isn’t just in the quality of housing though and the establishing action of the film arises when Sam’s new boyfriend, enraged at Deena’s interference, pursues the Shadysiders in his car which leads to a crash at the gravesite of Sarah Fier and Sam being given an incomplete vision of the witch.

To call this a metaphor for class conflict misses the mark. Class conflict is openly depicted absent any metaphorical mystification. Over the course of the three movies Deena recruits Ziggy, the sole survivor of the 1978 massacre and the only person to have seen Sarah Fier and lived to tell the tale, her brother and Martin, the mall janitor to rescue would-be class ladder climber Sam from satanic possession, break the curse on Sunnyvale and murder a police chief.

This film handily ties the intersection of race and class into the action. Martin is, in the first film, apprehended by Sheriff Goode, accused of spray-painting slogans about the witch onto the mall after a recent massacre that happened within it. Martin tells the sheriff “those aren’t my cans” and Sheriff Goode replies that they are, in fact, his own. That Goode is deliberately framing a working class black man for his lesser crimes is shown as being part and parcel with his willingness to sacrifice Shadyside lives in exchange for his own prosperity. His brother is the mayor of Sunnyvale but it is the police chief, the commander of the armed enforcement wing of capital, whose duty it is to dispose of surplus labour. Aside from Sam, who is trying to escape Shadyside and who gets possessed for her efforts, the protagonists of the film are all unambiguously working class. Deena wields revelation regarding the nature of the curse to recruit other disaffected members of this oppressed working class into a small group of activist fighters. Effectively she builds a vanguard. And we should note that this vanguard doesn’t represent her friend circle. They’re not a found family. Ziggy is a weird shut-in. Martin is just a guy who lives in her town. They’re not even co-workers. Most of Deena’s friends, excepting Sam and her brother, die in the first of the three films.

Now just a brief aside here but there is another point of similarity between Fear Street and Knife + Heart to call out and that has to do with specific kill-staging. The death of Kate via bread slicer in Fear Street Part one is one of the rawest and most affecting kills I’ve seen in a horror film. When she dies we’ve got to the point in the story where she’s well-enough developed as a character that we really don’t want her to die and her death is… undignified and drawn out enough to hurt. Kate’s death leaves the audience unsatisfied. I was ready to consider it one of the best deaths in slasher cinema but then along came Knife + Heart and it pretty much broke my heart with the death of Karl at the opening of the film. This is something important that slasher films must do, formally, to be good: make us care when people die in them. In this regard these two movies are both far beyond the majority of their peers.

Continuing with the idea of Fear Street as plotting the formation of a vanguard is the situation of history within the film. This is what the visions of Sarah Fier actually are: a history lesson. When Deena finally experiences the vision herself she gets it in full and we learn that Fier did lay a curse but not on Shadyside. Her curse fell upon the ancestor of Sheriff Goode who framed her for his pact with the devil. And her curse was that the material truth of history would reveal his malfeasance and that of his descendants. And so the Fear Street Trilogy establishes that there is an oppressed class of people, that this class is opposed by an antagonistic class of people who benefit from oppression, that the police are the chief stewards of the violence that maintains this oppression, and that what is necessary is to form a vanguard to visit that violence directly back upon the police and the state. It demonstrates that the fatalism of the working class is a false consciousness that can be transcended through solidarity not with one’s family or one’s social circle but with one’s entire class.

But of course this is the trap here. Because the Fear Street trilogy is also a really entertaining, satisfying, piece of fiction. When Sheriff Goode finally gets what’s coming to him it’s hard not to cheer. We come to love Deena and Ziggy especially but all of our protagonists really and we’ve ached as the killers have cut them down. It feels good at the end of these films. Cathartic.

But that is where the risk of interpassivity lies.

Effectively the problem is that the Fear Street trilogy functions too well as a piece of entertainment such that it risks an audience feeling satisfied that the bad cop is dead, the good workers have triumphed and the curse has been broken. See that rich asshole get plowed over by a garbage truck? Classic. A denouement that shows the survivors all moving on to better things in their lives, including an hilarious suggestion that Martin may have invented the MP3 player because of his distaste for the Sony Discman further cements that everything is done and dusted (aside from an unknown person nabbing the book with the Satanic pact in it opening the door to inevitable sequels of course).

Now, of course, one can counter that the institution of the police in the United States was not overthrown in 1994 and the safe distance of our own history can show that the work of Deena’s vanguard is incomplete. But it’s unlikely that a cinemagoer is going to walk away from their six-hour Netflix binge saying, “I must follow the example of Deena Johnson thought and mobilize the revolutionary vanguard to overthrow the local sheriff.”

It is the triumph that is the problem here. Everything resolves too pat. The villains get what’s coming. The survivors are rewarded for keeping troth. And this is why I think Knife+Heart provides a valuable counter-point.

Now on the surface the premise of Knife+Heart is so specifically me that it shouldn’t be surprising that I’d seek to hold it up as an exemplar in the arts. Here we have a story that is very nearly like that of The Crow. A man and his lover are senselessly murdered. He is resurrected by a black bird (a blind grackle in this instance) who guides him as he seeks revenge.

In the mythology of the film the Starry-Eyed Grackle lived only in the forest of Chaladre and they would consume the sin of any person who lay in the wood flying up so close to the sun to burn those sins away that they were driven blind. These birds were also said to revive the sick and the dead and guide them back to life.

But this psychopomp, unlike the eponymous crow, is blind and so this dead man revived is misled. He goes to Paris without any memory of his own father’s brutal murder of him and his lover and then by happenstance he enters a porno theater playing Anne’s movie “Spunk and the Land Alone” – which, by coincidence, recounts a version of his own story. But, where in reality, this man was castrated and burned to death by his father and his lover also killed, in Anne’s film the father joins the lovers and the three of them dance joyously around the burning barn.

Enraged seeing the potential for a happier outcome to his tragedy and unable to exact revenge on his father who died shortly after his murder, the killer began seeking out the actors of “Spunk and the Land Alone” to exact vengeance. There’s no pact with the devil here. Just a wounded gay man lashing out against the very community he should be in solidarity with. Only this wounded man can seemingly control weather, teleport and engage in many other supernatural acts in the process of exacting his revenge.

But, of course, the police are particularly useless against a killer whose targets are gay sex workers and so it eventually falls to the gay community to remove him. He is beaten and stabbed to death by a mob of people at that same movie theater. The first man to strike a blow against it challenges him that he “gets off on murdering fags” but it is the community who rise up in spontaneous mutual defense.

And yet there’s no pat resolution. The killer is another victim of the same homophobia that led the police to deprioritize the murders. Anne cannot reunite with Loïs. That was foreclosed on even before Loïs die because Anne was so enraged at the idea of their decade-long love ending that she commits a remarkably horrific sexual assault on her ex. The result is that Loïs insists Anne never see her again. When Loïs breaks this vow, rushing to rescue Anne when she discovers images of the killer in dailies from their movie, she is killed in Anne’s place.

There’s a Grand Guignol-style performance that Anne watches at a bar partway through the film. In it an aging lesbian declares her love for a monster and implores the monster to couple with her. The monster insists that, should she become aroused, she will not be able to control her passions and will definitely maul the woman to death. The woman greets death with open arms. This film invites us to ask whether Anne is, in fact, the monster.

Unlike the denouement of Fear Street, Knife+Heart ends with Anne recognizing that what’s broken must never be put right. Loïs is dead and cannot return. For all that the world of Knife+Heart is a fully magical one of prophesy and resurrection that is not available for Anne. Loïs was already gone before she ever died. The first thing she says to Anne is “my heart is dry” and frankly almost nothing Anne does throughout the film is the correct course to take to reignite their love. But Anne finds solace in her friends; in the end the killer doesn’t kill all her friends, or all her co-workers. But the removal of the killer by her greater community is also categorically not the triumphant end of an epochal struggle. For all the mysticism that guides Anne to the recognition of the human vitality of her loss there’s no karmic realignment at the end of revolution. There’s just a community of marginalized people, sometimes friends, sometimes lovers, sometimes turbulently destructive to each other, carrying on.

The ending of Knife+Heart is tragic in the full Nietzschean sense of the term. It’s an affirmation of the complete totality of life, and the annunciation that it is better to live in pain than to be dead. But it also leaves with broken people in a broken world – one in which many of their friends are gone without recall. The blind grackle who resurrected the killer is from an extinct species. That specific magic is fading from the world.

Knife+Heart has no opening for a sequel. It’s not part of a series nor even is it a greater work like a trilogy. While it plays with the French Surrealist and the Giallo genres of film it is quite a unique movie, an interrogation of filmic exploitation on par with Ti West’s X, an exploration of how oppressive violence causes people in the oppressed class to lash out against each other and how they sometimes come up and form a community despite it. Anne is a decent horror-investigator character but she’s hardly suitable as a revolutionary leader. She, herself, is embroiled with an ongoing conflict with the actors in her employ over their pay rates – something that occupies considerable dialog.

And yet we have characters like The Golden Throat – an aging gay man whose role on set is to keep the actors hard. He’s angered because Anne, in an attempt to process what’s happening around her and to draw out the killer, has been making a porn movie reenacting the events surrounding the killer. One of the stage hands asks him how much he’s getting paid and he, grinning, says he isn’t. He’s doing what he does out of love.

This film is unsatisfying. But in doing so it gets hooks into you. Some of those hooks will draw you into reflection. Knife+Heart is a very difficult movie to not-think-about. But part of that is a sense that there is wrongness in the world that still needs correcting – there’s a fight that still needs to be done.

Deena is a revolutionary vanguardist. She’s a leader who unites disparate people into a force to fight for change. Over there. On the screen. Anne can’t even organize a picnic without somebody innocent dying but her story does something more: it mobilizes the audience to remember that here, in the world not graced by magical birds and prophetic dreams, work must still be done.

Magic and Lawlessness

Do what thou wilt shall be  the whole of the law.

I have an almost irrational distaste for “hard” magic systems in literature. This is not because of any particular aversion to stories getting metaphysical. I have absolutely no problem there but it is instead because I think attempts to systematize magic have a tendency to strip the magic out of it. There is a famous quote from Arthur C. Clarke that “any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic.” It’s one of Clarke’s three laws. We will return to the other two. But I would propose that this construction, taken absent Clarke’s other two laws, has led to many attempts by fantasy authors to make magic into nothing but another technology. This is a bad thing that should be discouraged.

However to demonstrate both the problematic created by attempts to make a technology of magic and also why this is ultimately a bad endeavor for literature, surely, and also for metaphysics, it will be necessary for us to define some terms and the first of those is technology.

Skolnikoff echoes Harvey Brooks in describing technology as, “knowledge of how to fulfill certain human purposes in a specifiable and reproducible way,” and while he admits this definition lacks a certain level of precision it does capture the key issue with technology that need addressing:

  1. Technology fulfills specific human purposes
  2. Technology is specifiable and reproducible

These are the qualities that systematization imparts to magic that makes it like a technology.

Now, of course, we can see something of this vulgar materialism in the works of Jim Butcher, whose wizards frequently manipulate physics such as moving heat to create fire in one place and ice in another or to draw an object out of a stable orbit. In these cases wizardry, as a form of scholasticism, is very much a tool of executing a specific human purpose. The wizard has an objective – such as freezing a body of water – and an understanding of the forces required to cause a body of water to freeze. The heat within the water is taken up by the wizard who, acting as a conduit for this force, shunts it to his focus which disperses the captured heat as fire. This technological magic is specific and it is reproducible. A wizard, faced with a problem and a situation, will be able to derive the necessary technique in order to execute a task in a replicable manner. But where is the magic here? It’s all mathematics and physics equations. For all that Butcher might ground the magic of his wizards in a kind of materialist interpretation of the world as an interlocking system of energetic forces which can be manipulated, it’s all quite static. A magical feat, once undertaken, can always be accomplished again.

Frankly there’s a human project in these systems of magic. But should magic be bound in these standard, repeatable, goal-oriented systems? What about the magic of a shaft of sunlight piercing a forest canopy? What about the magic of the random fall of blood on a stone? Why must we exorcise the ineffable from magic?

I am proposing, as a counter to these project-derived visions of magic, one guided far more by inner experience which, as Bataille suggests, “cannot have any other concern nor other goal than itself.” I propose this, in part, because there’s no need for a technology called magic. As Clarke points out any sufficiently mystifying technology will serve just as well. The very use of his half-assed vulgar materialism is precisely the same thing that makes Butcher’s magic indistinguishable from a sufficiently obscured technology. However if we abandon a materialist metaphysics we run into other problems. Plato’s realm of ideal forms is destructive to the idea of change. For Plato all learning was just a remembrance as the ideal form of any given object always already existed. For anything truly new to be possible we need a materialist metaphysics. And so this leaves us at an impasse. Must we have our literature either abandon change or abandon magic? Of course this is where Bataille is useful for resolving this paradox. We simply must posit magic as being outside the boundary of project. Magic is indifferent to project, it is not a replicable system of knowledge that fulfills human purposes. It’s something else, something ineffable.

Magic is the creation of the new.

Speaking of magic within literature we are operating within an ontological mode. Magic exists in the experience of the text. Moving beyond a text magic exists in the immediate experience of the world. We become aware of magic when something new arises that was not there before. But Sartre quite rightly points out that, “every theory of knowledge… presupposes a metaphysics” if we treat the experience of magic as an awareness of the new then that must, in turn, be grounded in a metaphysics that allows new things to exist. As such let us discuss Sartre’s dialectic of being and nothingness not as his ontology but as the underlying metaphysical suppositions it makes.

For Sartre nothingness arises in the awareness of absence. “My friend is not here.” The absence of the friend is indicative of the nothingness within him. Now Sartre was quite careful to keep his nothing and his being entirely ontological – nothingness for Sartre isn’t a metaphysical void so much as a negation within awareness.

However there is a metaphysical requirement for being to arise from nothingness and that requirement is time. Simply put for being to arise there must be time within which it arises; change can only occur within a temporal field. How then do we handle the in-between moments when something is neither fully absent nor fully present – how do we handle the statement “my friend is not here yet?”

This is the domain of becoming. And becoming is where the magic lives. The systematic approach to magic supported by Butcher as described earlier doesn’t work well with becoming because it assumes magic to simply be the will of the magic-user. Tool-like the magic in his books has a specific teleology. It’s a tool a character uses to advance the action of the story. But while this tool-magic is in motion, while it advances the story, it isn’t fertile. It doesn’t make anything. Because becoming sits as a third term between being and nothingness it occupies a position of partially fulfilled potential. Effectively anything that exists at null-intensity has infinite potential for becoming. A non-thing might become anything. As nothingness enters into time it must begin to take form and this is becoming – the process of the foreclosure of potential into actuality. We can see an example of this in the work of Douglas Adams.

“Please do not be alarmed,” it said, “by anything you see or hear around you. You are bound to feel some initial ill effects as you have been rescued from certain death at an improbability level of two to the power of two hundred and seventy-­six thousand to one against possibly much higher. We are now cruising at a level of two to the power of twenty-­‐five thousand to one against and falling, and we will be restoring normality just as soon as we are sure what is normal anyway.”

Douglas Adams – Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The Infinite Improbability Drive enumerates the likelihood that any given event will occur in an infinite universe and then sees to it that any given improbable event is reified at its point of likelihood. “There’s an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they’ve worked out.” But this works quite well for the idea of the collapse of potential into being. Through the process of becoming the possibility of unlikely rescues and Hamlet writing monkeys are either brought into being or are discarded as normalcy, an end to magical time, begins.

And this points to Clarke’s much less often cited second law: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

But perhaps we’ve beat around the bush enough. It’s time to interrogate Brandon Sanderson’s, “laws of magic.” These are:

  1. An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
  2. Limitations > power
  3. Expand on what you have already, before you add something new.

Sanderson has a “zeroth law” as well, “Err on the side of awesome.” Apparently “awesome” in this case is to be considered in the colloquial sense but I would honestly agree with it provided we use the formal definition of awesome as being that which provokes the sensation of awe.

Now to address Sanderson’s first law I’d say this depends on a functionalist, plot-centric read of magic. Magic is never the most expedient method of resolving plot. Sanderson seems aware of that but seems unable to look up past plot for how else one might want to use magic. As such he spends an entire law writing apologia for using magic the wrong way.

But if magic is not best used to serve the advancement of the plot what is it for? Magic allows us to directly visualize the impossible. This is critical to the communication of two functions within fiction: psychology and metaphysics. In discourses around psychology the ability to visualize the impossible is valuable for the construction and communication of a limit experience. Bataille argued that philosophy was restricted by the limit of knowledge as a goal. He believed it was necessary for philosophy to break this limit and he believed an inner experience would be the method of doing so. Returning to Sartre (and a careful reader will note that these two authors are marked by their very different interpretations of Heidegger – make of my synthesis what you will) we can recall that Sartre wanted to propose a non-intellectual being within itself. But his is a relatively sterile and analytic approach to this question: what is self when it isn’t reflective? Bataille wanted to explain how it felt to be a self that wasn’t reflective. Sartre found in appearance the truth of the absence of essence. The essential character of a perceived object, including the self as a perceived object, is its series of appearances. Bataille responds, “One must grasp the meaning from the inside.”

But doing this: identifying the core of a character without resorting to self-reflection and its infinitely regressing hall of mirrors is no easy feat and it isn’t one that can easily be approached from without. In order to communicate this to an audience you need something that engenders a purely affective, purely intensive response. Consider the following,

“The old man… sprang to his feet and leaped to the top of a large rock. There he stood… towering above them. His hood and his grey rags were flung away. His white garments shone. He lifted up his staff, and Gimli’s axe leaped from his grasp and fell ringing on the ground. The sword of Aragorn, stiff in his motionless hand, blazed with a sudden fire. Legolas gave a great shout and shot an arrow high into the air: it vanished in a flash of flame.”

JRR Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

From a plot perspective there is nothing in this scene that requires magic. All that needs to happen is that the three hunters need to meet an old friend and discover he’s different than he was before. And yet Tolkien goes to great length to show us something of Gandalf’s magic and, in doing so, to tell us something about how he has changed within.

The old Mithrandir would not have burned Legolas’ arrows to ash, he would not have ripped Gimli’s axe from his hands nor set alight Andruil. We don’t have any insight into how Gandalf accomplished this feat nor was it necessary to solve the conflict. Gandalf could have solved it in a word by saying “yo Aragorn, it’s ya boi,” but we have magic anyway. And it is, in fact, awesome. We see an experience of awe as these three eminently capable heroes are rendered useless before Gandalf. Their weapons cannot avail them because of the holy fire that suffuses the revived wizard. Gandalf has changed, he has become different to himself, and this ontological and psychological transformation is why we have magic here. The magic doesn’t serve story-conflict. It doesn’t serve plot. It serves character.

Another example of magic serving character is basically the entirety of A Wizard of Earthsea. Now considering how we are dallying with Heidegger in this question it might not be surprising that I bring up my favourite left-Heideggerian piece of theory-fiction. I have spoken at length about this book as a phenomenological exploration of being-toward-death. In my essay on A Wizard of Earthsea I concluded by describing Ged as the wellspring of power that rises out of the primordial origin of all things and the Gebbeth as the un-doer, the ender, the void into which all things fall. But in his unification at the resolution of the story, “Light and darkness met, and joined and were one.” In this case the whole book about wizardry and magic is nothing but a method of understanding who Ged is, what a life is, and what it is to live in the world. The flow of creation and destruction resides with becoming as a time-bound process of what is not to what is. Magic, in this work of literature, allows us to break into the impossibility of gebbeth ghost-shadows in order to probe the boundaries of a life to explore the limits and to cross the low-stone wall.

LeGuin does provide a whisper of systematics to magic in the deep discourse on the question of the name as a way of dividing being into discrete objects but this isn’t a system of spells at all. There’s no mechanic for the strength of the Gebbeth, it just gets weaker the more willing Ged is to take it into himself, to annihilate that name-driven division.

There is another reason for magic though and that is for a text to communicate something close enough to the limit of intelligibility to require us to push into the impossible to map the bounds of the possible. Fiction often serves metaphysical aims and this is a place where magic can be a critical exploratory tool. Consider the following from Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong.

The zheng was known for its melancholic twang, and this variety from the Western Regions was particularly mournful. Guo Jing had no ear for music, yet he noticed that each time a string rattled, his heart pulsed. As Viper Ouyang played faster his heart throbbed along uncomfortably, as if it were about to burst out of his chest.

Realizing he could die if the tempo increased further, he sat down to gather his spirit and still his thoughts in the Quanzhen way. As he channeled his internal energy around his body, his heartbeat slowed and soon he found he was no longer ensnared by the music.

Jin Yong – Legend of the Condor Heroes – A Bond Undone

Jin Yong goes on for several pages describing how the music of Ouyang Feng and Huang Yaoshi is used as a weapon by which they can pit their internal strength. But by making the fight so abstract he’s in turn able to discuss the ideas that Sunzi would call node and shih – or what we might call flow and event. “From hollowness, luminosity grows,” Guo Jing considers. We could consider how close this is to saying that being arises from nothingness. But regardless of the specifics of how this dialectic of void and object is described what we have is a section of text that simultaneously describes a magical duel played between martial masters and that goes into the Taoist metaphysics that underpins both Guo Jing as a character and the world in which the story occurs. This doesn’t do anything for the story really. It serves as an overture between two more plot-significant incidents. And no conflict is resolved. The musical duel ends in a draw. But the magic is incredibly valuable to the story as it communicates an idea about how our world functions.

Ultimately Sanderson’s first law of magic isn’t even wrong. It’s not even asking the right question.

His second law of magic might almost be useful if I were confident he understood what he was implying with it. Specifically, as I’ve mentioned previously through my exploration of Clarke’s second law the use of magic in a work of fiction should ultimately be entirely in service to the exploration of the limits – limits of speech, limits of experience, limits of knowledge – but I doubt this is what he means. Mr. Sanderson is so monomaniacally focused on plot-utility with his laws I’m sure what he means to say is that magic itself should be limited, should not be able to do too much. Whereas I champion an idea of magic as the wellspring of all that is, that vehicle that brings objects back over the limit of nothingness and into being.

But there’s another way that we should treat magic as limited – or rather we should treat the magician as limited. The wizard, as a figure of knowledge, is not a king. He may council the king. He may instruct the king. But he isn’t a ruler. To grasp magic, to truly understand it, requires an understanding of the limits of how one should act with it. Consider Ogion in A Wizard of Earthsea,

Three days went by and four days went by and still Ogion had not spoken a single charm in Ged’s hearing, and had not taught him a single name or rune or spell.
Though a very silent man he was so mild and calm that Ged soon lost his awe of him, and in a day or two more he was bold enough to ask his master, “When will my apprenticeship begin, Sir?”
“It has begun,” said Ogion.
There was a silence, as if Ged was keeping back something he had to say. Then he said it: “But I haven’t learned anything yet!”
“Because you haven’t found out what I am teaching,” replied the mage, going on at his steady, long-legged pace along their road, which was the high pass between Ovark and Wiss.

Ursula K. LeGuin – A wizard of Earthsea

Ogion is perhaps the clearest exemplar of the figure of the wizard in fiction. LeGuin introduces the Taoist concept of wuwei into the body of the wise teacher exemplified by Gandalf and T. H. White’s Merlyn and this helps to drive home how the form of knowledge that wizardry represents acts to limit the deeds of the wizard directly.

Fourfoil, they call it.” Ogion had halted, the coppershod foot of his staff near the little weed, so Ged looked closely at the plant, and plucked a dry seedpod from it, and finally asked, since Ogion said nothing more, “What is its use, Master?”
“None I know of.”

“When you know the fourfoil in all its seasons root and leaf and flower, by sight and scent and seed, then you may learn its true name, knowing its being: which is more than its use. What, after all, is the use of you? or of myself? Is Gont Mountain useful, or the Open Sea?” Ogion went on a half mile or so, and said at last, “To hear, one must be silent.”

Ursula K. LeGuin – A Wizard of Earthsea

Ogion positions himself and, transitively, wizardry, beyond the question of utility and of human project. Wizardry is silence. Magic is to know and not to speak. “when it rained Ogion would not even say the spell that every weatherworker knows, to send the storm aside” Ultimately LeGuin shows that this wisdom, the perfect limit of a Wizard, is one they all come to know when the Summoner says to Ged,

“You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must.”

Ursula K. LeGuin – A Wizard of Earthsea

Of course LeGuin’s Taoist wizards are not the only ones who limit themselves such. Consider Merlyn,

“I cannot do any magic for Kay,” he said slowly, “except my own magic that I have anyway. Backsight and insight and all that. Do you mean anything I could do with that?”

“What does your backsight do?”

“It tells me what you would say is going to happen, and the insight sometimes says what is or was happening in other places.”

T. H. White – The Once and Future King

Again we have a wizard who has capacity for great magic. And again he refuses to freely-use his power not because of a metaphysical limit of his ability to cast a spell but because his knowledge makes it clear that he should not.

And, of course, the whole purpose of the Istari in the Lord of the Rings was not to confront Sauron’s power directly but rather to provide knowledge, succor and diplomacy. The powers of the Istari are never particularly codified. We know they live long lives. We know they are not easily killed. They wield powerful artifacts such as Gandalf’s ring or Saruman’s Palantir. But the magic that suffuses them is all luminance and splendor, not systematics. Gandalf’s magic isn’t a tool for accomplishing a project; it’s his being itself.

And so, in this, we almost agree. A magician, as a character, should be limited. To grasp magic is to hold the knowledge that magic is not a tool. To try and seize and use it for project leads to the Gebbeth and Ged’s failings. There can be no wizard-kings. But is this the limit that Sanderson meant? I honestly doubt it. Let’s examine Sanderson’s argument regarding limits:

 What makes Superman interesting, then? Two things: his code of ethics and his weakness to kryptonite.

Think about it for a moment. Why can Superman fly? Well, because that’s what he does. Why is he strong? Comic book aficionados might go into him drawing power from the sun, but in the end, we don’t really care why he’s strong. He just is.

But why is he weak to kryptonite? If you ask the common person with some familiarity with Superman, they’ll tell you it’s because kryptonite–this glowing green rock–is a shard from his homeworld, which was destroyed. The kryptonite draws you into the story, gets into who Superman is and where he comes from. Likewise, if you ask about his code of ethics–what he won’t do, rather than what he can do–we’ll go into talking about his family, how he was raised. We’ll talk about how Ma and Pa Kent instilled solid values into their adopted son, and how they taught him to use his strength not to kill, but to protect.

Superman is not his powers. Superman is his weaknesses.

Brandon Sanderson – Sanderson’s second law.

Now let us start by interrogating the idea that a code of ethics constitutes a weakness. This is somewhat alarming rhetoric being honest. I would contend that the idea of Superman as an ethical being is, in fact, a much more significant reserve of strength than his bullet-proof skin. The treatment of the green rock macguffin as if it says something profound about the character is plot-driven story rhetoric in all its glory.

Mr. Sanderson proceeds to, again, mistake restraint for weakness when he says, “The {LotR} films, it should be noted, played this concept up much more than the books did, as the director realized Aragorn became far more interesting when he was reluctant to become king. His weakness gave him much more depth than his abilities.” This is not a weakness. Self-restraint, self-doubt and morality are not weaknesses imposed on characters to make the plot more exciting. They’re opportunities to interrogate the world.

When Mr. Sanderson digs into advice for authors the plot centrism rears its head in full again. He describes the systematics underlying the tedious magic of Wheel of Time, a series of books he wrote the concluding volumes of, and focuses entirely on the weaving metaphor as representing a structural weakness that limits characters actions within magic. He is trying to cut magic down to size, to make it into a function that achieves a goal.

While discussing Mr. Sanderson’s first law I repeatedly argued that this misses why magic is used in literature. There will always be a more parsimonious method to drive plot forward than magic. Why bother with a fireball when you can bash the other guy’s brains in with a rock? If magic isn’t probing the limits of the inexpressible why are we even bothering with it? Magic in Lord of the Rings represents the interplay of spirit and matter as set forth by the song of Eru and Morgoth’s Ring. Magic in A Wizard of Earthsea is a reflection of Ged’s own being toward death. Magic in Legend of the Condor Heroes is an opportunity to expound on flow and event, on the dynamic interplay of yin and yang. In all these cases the magic doesn’t exist to move the action along but to interrogate something that would be difficult to access otherwise. I mean have you tried to just read Being and Time? Or the Daodejing? Magic gives us a vehicle to make these very abstract discourses concerning ontology and metaphysics into something which can be interrogated even by a child. Limits. The reason why wizards are limited, why the Summoner tells Ged a wizard does only and wholly what he must, why Merlyn refuses to cast spells for Wart’s friend and why Gandalf doesn’t raze the gates of Mordor and cast down Barad Dur with his own hands is because magic cannot be limited. It is the inexhaustible wellspring. And to try and command that, to use it as a tool, is akin to trying to draw down the sun to warm your house. To try and command magic is to be consumed. This is the wisdom that limits the wizard.

Sanderson’s third law is the most tedious of the bunch. “Expand what you already have before you add something new,” he says and, frankly what can I say beyond that this is the very antithesis of magic. Earlier I described Magic as being best a representation of becoming – magic is the bringing forth of nothingness into being. In this I’d gladly cite the historical use of alchemy to create long life, gold or simply to create the capacity for creation. And, of course, alchemists failed in part because their knowledge of the things they were trying to create was incomplete and flawed and in part because they’d failed to learn the Summoner’s commandment, “do only and wholly what you must.” This statement is not, however absent from the teachings of historical magi. For instance there is Crowley’s famous proclamation, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

The Book of the Law continues, “pure will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result, is every way perfect.” And this begins to hint at what Crowley means by will. Because Crowley’s pure will is “delivered from the lust of result” – the mage does not seek project. Rather Pure Will is what Nietzsche would describe as Amor Fati.

I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.

Fredrich Nietzsche – The Gay Science

Pure will represents an aesthetic and ethical acceptance of what one only and wholly must do. In the face of the limitless font of all being there is no wisdom but wuwei. Zhuangzi says “the noble master who finds he has to follow some course to govern the world will realize that actionless action (wuwei) is the best course. By no-action, he can rest in the real substance of his nature and destiny.”

For Zhuangzi the world is far too vast for any person to command – to attempt to command it is to throw it into disarray. Only through this letting go, this retreat, can one grasp what one must do. There is an arrogance to the belief that a person can narrow magic and shape it into a human project. This arrogance caused alchemists to chase dreams of gold or to drink mercury and cinnabar, poisoning themselves out of a desire for eternal life. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. As magic is becoming, is the very process by which the new arises, it’s laughable to instruct authors to pare it back, to build a logical system.

Sanderson has a “zeroth” law. He enumerated it thusly to match Asimov’s laws of robotics. This is laughable as the laws of robotics were diegetic laws – not advice to writers. But it’s the best of the bunch so I do want to give it mention despite its silly allusion to classic SF. “Err on the side of awesome.” On this we agree in a way. When I described the value of magic in literature as being purely affective, pure intensity, I was gesturing in the direction of awe. Awe is equal parts beauty and terror. There is awe in the scene of Gandalf’s meeting with the three hunters. There is awe in Guo Jing listening to the musical duel. But awe is an ecstatic sensation. It’s what Bataille would call a limit experience. Awe, in fiction, should grip the reader like the hooks and chains of a cenobite. It should leave the reader exposed and discomforted. Awe is not an experience bound by law. The colloquial use of “awesome” to mean “agreeable,” or “enjoyable” is a failure of understanding of the magic not written into a story but working upon the reader through engagement with the story. A writer provokes awe not by putting magic into the story but by making magic of the story.

Magic is not cybernetic. It must be taken whole: like the sun in a forest, like blood on a stone. It doesn’t need to be limited if it is used correctly. There’s no point to building a gun that is fueled by willpower points rather than bullets. That isn’t what magic is for in fiction. Magic makes the invisible visible. It makes the impossible possible. It makes nothingness into being. There is no law here that governs magic; the only law is that which governs the mage: wuwei, amor fati, pure will. And so my advice to writers is to abandon all laws. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Find the magic in your work, the real magic, not the technology of pyrotechnics and telekinesis. And surrender to it.