Preliminary notes on a disaster

It’s Sunday night. We’ve been without power two days. The cat is over-nigh at the emergency vet after a bout of stress cystis nearly killed him. We’re sitting at the kitchen table lit by a single camp lantern. Its LED is an intense white light but it mostly just casts shadows. We’re trying to play a board game to keep our minds off of the destruction. We choose games about building things, growing things. We couldn’t handle something driven by more explicit conflict but a lot of our traditional faves are out of the question – the lantern isn’t enough light to read the cards by.

The tedium is one of the things stories about disasters never touch on. You are living in a condition of the other shoe having dropped. The storm has passed but the clean-up is all still ahead and you have to sit in your fear: what if the lights never come back on? What if you run out of water? It’s possible you could go buy water. But there are line-ups at the doors of every open grocery far worse than those from the early days of COVID. Water is a hot commodity. You need to balance the ticking clock of a draining reserve against the opportunity cost of standing in the rain for an hour just to discover the people ahead of you cleared out the shelves.

The reduction of the world to one lamp and a few dim candles changes your subjectivity. Before the storm evenings were free time. We would read or play games or watch a show but we would do so comfortable that whatever we wanted to do we could. Now you stay near the lamp or you sit in a darkened room. We begin following each other around the house – our schedules slowly click into a kind of simpatico brought about by the constraint of available light.

It’s Friday night. The platonic dark and stormy night. I’m watching a horror movie on my couch alone after my family has gone to bed. I figure it might be my last chance for a while (and I’m right). The rain is pressing against the window on our north wall so hard that the glass is bowing. I’m a bit afraid to go to bed because of the old walnut tree next to the house. If it fell it would fall directly on my room. The power stays on long enough for me to finish my movie and the stress of the storm coupled with the anxiety of a tense film has left me tired enough to sleep. I lie in bed listening to the noise outside. Eventually the lights die but I don’t notice because I’ve already turned everything off. I will get my confirmation in the morning when my toilet stops flushing.

It’s Tuesday morning and I’m driving to work. We heard a rumour that the lights were back on at our office building downtown and maybe even internet? It’s worth the fuel to come in from the countryside. And anyway, there’s water to be had in town. When we arrive we discover the lights are on but the internet is out. Work has become another warming center – albeit one locked behind a key card. After a half hour of fiddling I manage to jury-rig the internet to work and get to doing my job but the attempt to restore normalcy breaks me open and tears begin to flow. I keep myself off camera for calls all day, claiming I’m conserving limited bandwidth but it’s because I don’t want my colleagues to see me cry. I don’t even really know why I’m crying now. The cat is back from the hospital. He’s alive but he’s rough and hiding a lot. We still don’t have water at home but our house survived the storm unscathed so at least we’re warm and dry.

So many people aren’t that lucky.

It’s Saturday afternoon. The storm that had been screaming outside all day has finally begun to subside – drifting off to expend its fury on Newfoundland where it will wash the town of Port aux Basques into the sea. We emerge from the house and examine the damage. Our greenhouse is miraculously undamaged but our solar panels are gone. We walk around some more and find them face down in the field next to the struts they stood on. We don’t know if they’re insured or not. In a few hours we will discover that our cat is sick but there are four trees down across our driveway and the wind and rain are still too high for me to safely cut us out with me being a green novice with the chainsaw. We decide to wait until the morning and reassess. By morning the cat is nearly dead but a neighbour, unaware that we were even home, brings his chainsaw and clears the path to the road. We cling desperately to the belief he just saved a life.

Time loses meaning in all this. We still have clocks but they’re not relevant. We do daylight things in daylight; we do night-time things in the dark. Most of our activity is geared just to keeping us going and alive.

But not all of us survive.

It’s Wednesday afternoon. A beautiful day. My cat dies in my arms. The vet kept him overnight, made sure he was able to pee on his own. The vet loves the cat; he’s so friendly and playful. Just a perfect little kitty. They were almost sorry to see him go but he seemed to have recovered and we wanted our friend, our family member, home. But things quickly start going wrong. He doesn’t want to touch his new food. He doesn’t drink. He fights against his medicine. He spends his last days hiding under my daughter’s bed or sleeping next to her at night. Wednesday he seems lethargic and drowsy. We hope it’s a side effect of the medicine and he’s still peeing – but he seems to be incontinent. We call the vet and they give us monitoring instructions. My wife takes a vacation day to look after him. There’s electricity at work again so we’re both supposed to be back. I go in. She calls me in the midst of a meeting telling me that we need to get the cat back to the vet quickly and I rush home – hindered by a vast traffic jam caused by the needs of road crews cutting trees out of power lines along the highway. The vet tells us he’s blocked again. His electrolytes are out of balance again. We’re back to square one. They can do everything they did before all over again but they aren’t observing the crystals they’d associate with stress cystis in his samples and the truth is they don’t know why his bladder and kidneys are shutting down. They cannot promise even the most heroic efforts would let him recover. They don’t say it but we are thinking it: the storm has killed my cat; it’s just taking a while to finish the job.

He dies in my arms knowing he was always loved. He’s only one year old. I don’t sleep well that night. I keep waking to the sound of feet scampering in the attic but they stop as soon as I’m awake and alert. I don’t know whether these liminal footsteps are an animal or if they’re just the remnants of dreams of a missing friend. I’m too tired to look.

Depictions of disaster in popular art are neat and tidy. They focus on the moment of crisis – the sharp fear of devastation and the bright excitement of survival. But the truth is that this is not the true nature of the disaster. Time breaks down around you. There’s a heavy grief that occupies you for lost friends, lost possessions and the shared pain of a community struggling to reconstruct itself amidst the ruins of the event. Bataille’s inner experience captures the fragmented nature of thought at the edge of what a person can tolerate. Sentences break down. Time sense becomes confused as the pain of the past, the doldrum of the present and the blank grey fear of the future all crowd together. I was in a meeting when I got the call from the vet to have that talk. All I could manage to get out for the longest time were fragments: “I just…” “I can’t.” Eventually I managed to force out, “I have to go,” but still I lingered to the end of the call – as much as I couldn’t stand to be in the present moment I also couldn’t stand the idea of moving toward that awful future I could anticipate ahead of me.

The truth was that in the anticipation of that moment I was already there, in that future time, living through it. There is still a future for us. Those of us who remain. And there are still routines that need to be served. Work needs to be done. Livestock needs feeding. We have another cat and a dog who we love and who can’t understand why their third companion is gone and won’t come back. There still isn’t electricity at home. There’s still no running water. So I’m sitting in my office: my actual office that I normally never go to since I work from home most every day, trying to work and lose myself in routines but it’s not enough and my sense of time remains unmoored. I’m still living in Friday night watching the storm push in my windows. I’m still living in Saturday afternoon, surveying the destruction of my farm. I’m still living in Wednesday afternoon, in a comfortable but impersonal room watching my cat die between my tears.

Disasters shatter time. So many things are broken: landscapes, properties, lives but, in the aftermath, it’s the breaking of chronology that cuts to the soul. You are pulled in a thousand temporal directions – unable to grieve properly because you’re still at the start, anticipating the terror to come an at the middle, struggling to understand and at the end, trying to pick up the pieces all at once.

Ghost of Ned Ludd in the Shell

“Ned Ludd Smashes a Loom” via an AI Art platform.

With the total collapse of the NFT market the financiers whose grift involves the full financialization of art has had to look to different tactics. Happily they have found just such a rhetorical tool in the emerging field of, “AI Art.”

AI Art, much like NFTs, has been around for a while but has had a recent influx of attention and cash from the tech sector. Google Deep Dream was likely the first exposure people had to this medium and it has been around since 2015. However recent iterations of the software have become more controllable than Deep Dream. The training sets have “improved” as long as one’s yard stick for improvement excludes exploitation. The result is that it’s easier to get aesthetically unified results from a prompt than it had been previously where you’d mostly just get animal chimera jammed into input images like distortion patterns.

There is currently a debate ongoing regarding AI art which asks a few questions:

  1. Is AI art actually art at all?
  2. Is AI art theft?
  3. Should AI art be resisted.

I will principally be discussing the third point here but I do want to address the first and second points to say the proponents of AI art are mostly correct in that what I’ve previously called Will Toward Art can be found in the cycles of prompt and iteration undertaken by an AI Artist. The automation and mediation by machinery present in AI art is just as present in photography. One is shot framing and selection from a field of material objects. The other is shot framing and selection from an iteration of an algorithm. As such it would be disingenuous to say that AI Art is not art.

Now that doesn’t mean it’s any good and the majority of AI art is at best, by the very nature of its iterative selection process, parodic and derivative. The algorithmic basis of AI art is to take a catalog of extant works related to the prompt keywords and to shuffle through them seeking out similarities in order to output a result. You cannot but create a parody of extant works when you are using such a basis for creation.

But parodic art is still art and insofar as difference can arise out of the affective change brought about by repetition this art can, in theory, lead to the arising of the new via that process.

This then brings about the question of whether AI art is theft and I don’t think it’s possible to say anything other than that it is. As AI art is entirely predicated upon the iterative sampling of extant images it is, fundamentally, a theft. But then I’ve been clear in the past that such iterative cycles are a part of art and that this criminality is inseparable from the artistic process. What’s the issue here is that AI art automates this theft.

A counter-example of art being theft in a non-automated manner would be to look at the upcoming Zach Snyder film Rebel Moon. Snyder’s project started off as a Star Wars film but, when that fell through, he went on trucking, iterating upon the ground Star Wars laid. I suspect the parodic character of the final product will be effectively self-evident. Certainly everything I’ve seen about it anticipates this likelihood.

However, in order to do this act of replication, Snyder had to produce a whole $83 million film project employing a few hundred people, including many, many artists, each of whom will be bringing their own ideas and influences into the fold. An AI art program does this with the literal push of the button.

We can make similar statements regarding iteration and the use of samples in music. While music that samples other songs clearly is taking from that art it requires labour to do so. This then is the crux of the problem with the automation of AI Art: the complicated and organic process of iteration has been handed over to a machine that automates it, making it far easier for artists and non-artists alike to produce a result that is, at the very least, reminiscent of artwork.

And that raises the third question: Should this be resisted?

Now I have seen some proponents of AI Art conjuring the specter of the Luddites to argue against resisting the arising of AI art. However most of them couch this within the idea that automation was inevitable and Luddites were fools to resist. “AI art is coming for your job regardless so you better be prepared.” And of course this is nonsense.

Let’s start by looking at one of the most rigorous nearly-contemporary accounts of the Luddites.
“Factory legislation, that first conscious and methodical reaction of society against the spontaneously developed form of the process of production, is, as we have seen, just as much the necessary product of modern industry as cotton yarn, self-actors, and the electric telegraph. Before passing to the consideration of the extension of that legislation in England, we shall shortly notice certain clauses contained in the Factory Acts, and not relating to the hours of work. Apart from their wording, which makes it easy for the capitalist to evade them, the sanitary clauses are extremely meagre, and, in fact, limited to provisions for whitewashing the walls, for insuring cleanliness in some other matters, for ventilation, and for protection against dangerous machinery. In the third book we shall return again to the fanatical opposition of the masters to those clauses which imposed upon them a slight expenditure on appliances for protecting the limbs of their workpeople, an opposition that throws a fresh and glaring light on the Free-trade dogma, according to which, in a society with conflicting interests, each individual necessarily furthers the common weal by seeking nothing but his own personal advantage! One example is enough. The reader knows that during the last 20 years, the flax industry has very much extended, and that, with that extension, the number of scutching mills in Ireland has increased. In 1864 there were in that country 1,800 of these mills. Regularly in autumn and winter women and “young persons,” the wives, sons, and daughters of the neighbouring small farmers, a class of people totally unaccustomed to machinery, are taken from field labour to feed the rollers of the scutching mills with flax. The accidents, both as regards number and kind, are wholly unexampled in the history of machinery. In one scutching mill, at Kildinan, near Cork, there occurred between 1852 and 1856, six fatal accidents and sixty mutilations; every one of which might have been prevented by the simplest appliances, at the cost of a few shillings.” Marx says at the start of Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 15, Part 9 – framing the conflict between milling machinery and workers like the Luddites not in the abstract realm of the dangers of automation but rather in the physical toll these factories put to workers and, this being important, the power relations that allowed for that toll. Marx is clear that it is, in fact, the vague wording of laws and the penurious behaviour of factory owners that led to factory casualties rather than the intrinsic character of the factory.

Marx pivots to discussing technological change more directly, saying, “The only thing, that here and there causes a change, besides new raw material supplied by commerce, is the gradual alteration of the instruments of labour. But their form, too, once definitely settled by experience, petrifies, as is proved by their being in many cases handed down in the same form by one generation to another during thousands of years. A characteristic feature is, that, even down into the eighteenth century, the different trades were called “mysteries” (mystères); into their secrets none but those duly initiated could penetrate. modern industry rent the veil that concealed from men their own social process of production, and that turned the various, spontaneously divided branches of production into so many riddles, not only to outsiders, but even to the initiated. The principle which it pursued, of resolving each process into its constituent movements, without any regard to their possible execution by the hand of man, created the new modern science of technology.”

And of course it’s immediately evident to see the process by which automation is now doing to the mysteries of the arts what Marx was demonstrating in his discussion of potters and weavers. As such we have to re-situate the Luddite movement, even based on the strength of these establishing statements alone, as not one of a class against machines but rather as a battlefield of antagonisms between two classes: the craftsmen who were undergoing a process of proletarianization and the owners of machines who wished to suck their blood. As Marx says, “We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of modern industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous.” This is precisely the ‘inevitable’ future, brought about solely by technology, that these advocates of AI demand artists content themselves with. Marx’s final word on the Luddites comes down to this, “It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used.” And it’s necessary, when deciding if AI art is to be resisted, to ask this same question: is the problem the machine or the hand that controls it?

Certainly this automated art stealing from and iterating upon a vast catalog of images posted online, has the capability to supplant illustrators, advertisers and other such artists. But this supplanting is not a matter of the tool but rather the mode in which it is used.

And this, then, is where we must begin asking for whom these tools have been made and to what ends. There is a tendency, within capitalism, to attempt to mystify the machinery of it. If the problem is that the eternal system of capitalism creates externalities it’s easy enough to shrug it away. It wasn’t on purpose that the machine crushed illustrators; it was merely their time to be automated into obsolescence.

But, of course, this assumes far too much. Who owns this machine is a far more pressing question and, in the case of OpenAI whose Dall-E tool is one of the most popular, the ownership question points back to Elon Musk and Sam Altman. Musk eventually departed leaving the “capped profit” limited partnership, registered in the tax haven state of Delaware (natch) under the control of Altman and Greg Brockman. This is not a tool owned by artists nor for artists. It’s a commercial asset of the financial class. And this, then, demystifies the nature of the struggle. Altman, Brockman and the rest of the tech-startup-venture-capital crowd would prefer that they be paid for illustration instead of little artists. Craftsmen find their work copied by a black-box machine and their jobs supplanted by an AI that can produce ugly illustrations on demand for the low-low price of $15 for 115 prompts. So much more efficient than hiring a craftsperson.

So, yes, AI art should be resisted. It shouldn’t be resisted because it copies images and iterates on them but rather because its application is yet another attempt of tiresome tech bros, the self-same ones who tried to sell the world on NFTs, to suck the blood of working artists. Smash the fucking things to the ground.

Fantasy and history

Recently Amazon released the first few episodes of the new tv show about the second age – The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

This ensemble cast fantasy show is set in the second age of Tolkien’s world (the events of the Lord of the Rings happen some 3-5,000 odd years later at the end of the third age). It explores the creation of the rings of power by the elven craftsmen under Celebrimbor‘s leadership and the tutelage of Sauron in his guise as Annatar, “the Lord of Gifts.”

However this Lord of the Rings show has become a center of controversy, along with the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon and the Disney live action remake of the Little Mermaid for casting choices that gave major roles to non-white actors.

The argument from certain (bigoted) corners of the internet is that the inclusion especially of black characters in this setting is damaging to the historical accuracy of these stories. But of course this is patently nonsense.

Now the easiest way to demonstrate this is nonsense is to point out that Rome had significant African holdings and that, as early as 19 BC Roman explorers had crossed the Sahara and made contact with Sub-Saharan cultures. Furthermore from the 8th until the 15th century much of what is now Spain was occupied by an African aristocracy after the invasion of Tariq ibn Ziyad. This is all information that would have been readily available to Tolkien as a philologist and literary scholar. But, of course, for that to be relevant you would have to contend that fantasy exists to reproduce history. And that’s just not the case.

While fantasy books may have a deep interest in history fantasy, by its very nature, is uninterested in producing an accurate simulation of history. This would be more properly historical study – or, if we’re being generous, historical fiction. Fantasy, as speculative literature, is unlikely to have much to say about a careful reproduction of history.

Where fantasy lives instead is in the area of meta-questions regarding history: what is the relationship between history and the present? How does history inform a person’s position in the world? Can history be escaped? What is the weight of history?

And these sorts of questions depend not on reproducing history but on disrupting it. The flooding of Beleriand and later of Numenor is thus informed, not just by Atlantis, but also by the flooding of Doggerland – which flooded across two periods: one in which an island was left and a second in which the island remnants were washed away, likely by a tsunami. The events in Doggerland are prehistorical ones discovered via archaeological labour and happy accident. The people of Doggerland were a mesolithic culture which we can say very little of. Certainly it would be difficult in the extreme to trace the occupants of that flooded land to any modern nation.

Throughout the Lord of the Rings the heroes are forever passing through the ancient ruins of abandoned kingdoms. Orthanc and Osgiliath, Amon Sûl and Khazad-dûm, Minas Morgul and Amon Hen are all remnants of three thousand years of history. The weapons of the Barrow Downs are likewise ancient, coming from kingdoms extinguished 1,500 years previous.

History, in Tolkien, is the ruin within which the present moment walks. How can we possibly speak of accuracy in its depiction when there has been so much clarity provided by the text that it believes history to be an incomplete and fragmentary account? This is reinforced metatextually via Tolkien’s appendices which provide fragments of historical record: selected charts of lineage, some linguistics, notes on things forgotten.

Frankly I do have some complaints with how Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power handles history because the show seems intent on compressing 3,000 years of the second age into a period the length of a human lifespan. Events that should be separated by centuries and people who lived many lifetimes apart are walking shoulder to shoulder so that the show can maintain a consistent cast. I worry that this takes away some of the most interesting things Tolkien’s work has to say about history and that it, more than anything else the show has done, grounds his elves and transforms them from the semi-angelic beings they are into just guys with pointy ears and ninja powers.

However, if we are going to do away with the argument that Lord of the Rings, or fantasy more generally, is trying to accurately reproduce history then the obvious presence of people of African descent throughout the last 2,000 years of European history is also not available as an apologia. However textual accuracy becomes important. And frequently it’s an examination of textual references that displays the poor reading comprehension of many bigots. After all, fantasy and science fiction is filled with non-white characters whose depictions have either been white-washed without any furor (Ged in the execrable Earthsea mini-series) or whose accurate depictions led to outcry from racists who were too poor at reading comprehension to recognize what they were reading.

Now the truth is that I don’t believe any apologia is necessary to diversely cast fantasy stories. They’re fantasies. We can do what we like with them. But if we absolutely must cling to questions of reproductive accuracy the question should at least be, “were there people of colour in the text this show is based on?” And the answer to that is yes. Fortunately Tolkien straight up tells us that some hobbits, in particular, are not white. Let’s examine some quotes:

“In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast.”

Here it’s important to remember that this couldn’t possibly be referring to Sam being tanned from working outside for so long. This scene happens just outside of Mordor after both Frodo and Sam had been travelling for six months.

Now I know a lot of the people complaining about race depictions in fantasy never leave their parents basements but take it from this weirdo farmer that it takes significantly less than six months for a tan to come in and yet Sam is described as brown and Frodo as white. They’ve been together six months, living outdoors for much of it, they’ve had the same opportunity to tan. If Sam’s skin colour, in this scene, is depicted as different from Frodo’s it’s because he had different coloured skin. This is not the only time that we see reference to Sam’s skin colour either. Sometime later, during the fight with Shelob, the story says, “As if to do honour to his hardihood, and to grace with splendour his faithful brown hobbit-hand that had done such deeds, the phial blazed forth suddenly, so that all the shadowy court was lit with a dazzling radiance like lightning; but it remained steady and did not pass.”

Sam is also described as having curly hair and brown eyes. Frankly casting Sean Astin in the role was whitewashing a character who was clearly written as not white. What’s more Tolkien says this is a characteristic of the largest of the hobbit clans, from whom Sam descends. “The Harfoots were browner of skin, smaller, and shorter, and they were beardless and bootless; their hands and feet were neat and nimble; and they preferred highlands and hillsides.”

The hobbit clan depicted in Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power are the Harfoots and while efforts have been made for diverse casting throughout the show it is among the Harfoots we see the greatest concentration of non-white actors. So frankly, while no apologetics are necessary to justify diverse casting, we have multiple clear references to Harfoots, such as Sam Gamgee, being brown-skinned, brown-eyed and curly-haired. How much clearer does this have to be spelled out?

But let’s give authorial intent the final word because Tolkien addressed race and segregation, contextualized within his youth in colonial South Africa, very clearly. And here’s what he said: “I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.”

Review: House of the Dragon Episode 1 – The Heirs of the Dragon

House of the Dragon is a 2022 HBO show set in the fictional history of Westeros leading up to the events called The Dance of the Dragons as depicted in background exposition of A Song of Ice and Fire, in various Westeros set short stories an in Fire & Blood. It stars Paddy Constantine as King Viserys I, Emma D’Arcy & Milly Alcock as his eldest daughter Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Matt Smith as dollar store Elric of Melniboné Daemon Targaryen, the king’s younger brother.

This show sets up the principal action of the series by establishing that Viserys I assumed the crown in a bid to avoid a secession crisis. The previous king’s two sons had both predeceased him and his choices were between his eldest grandchild – Princess Rhaenys Targaryen or her younger cousin, Viserys. The king retains stability by choosing the younger man over the older woman.

We then advance forward in time. Viserys I has ruled over a prolonged peace within Westeros. He has a daughter approaching adulthood and his wife is pregnant with a child who, according to the king’s supposedly prophetic dream, will be a male heir. Due to the precedent set by his grandfather his presumed heir is Daemon – his younger brother, a scoundrel and all-around failson who has been tossed into a job as commander of the city guard largely to keep him out from underfoot after he demonstrated no capacity for any other position of authority. As the commander of the guard he operates with extreme and callous brutality – a thirst for violence we see again when he enters a tournament on the day the queen is supposed to give birth.

Although Constantine delivers a good performance as Viserys I the heavy lifting among the actors is being done by Smith who establishes himself as a villain’s villain almost immediately and who definitely seems to understand what’s expected of him in a role that is 50% skulking in shadows being creepy and 50% being a violent brute who happily kills and insults just because he enjoys doing so. Real grade-a villain performance from Smith here and honestly I’m not sure I’ve seen him deliver a better performance. Certainly he was never this good as Dr. Who.

This show is a delight aesthetically as the production team has taken to heart some of the complaints with the original show, making significant changes to both the set design of the Red Keep (particularly the Iron Throne) and Harrenhal which have been revised to be more faithful to their depictions in the books. The CGI of the dragons is passable, more so for not being over-used, and the costuming is excellent. I, for one, am not really bothered by half the cast members wearing white wigs although I know I may be in the minority on this one.

The show establishes early on that queen Aemma is having a hard time with her pregnancy. Rhaenyra dotes over her mother, running late for other obligations as a result, and a lot of the action of the episode is reflected through Rhaenyra’s anxiety about being a woman in a viciously unequal world and balancing her ambitions against the social expectations on a woman of the royal house. Aemma tells Rhaenyra, who wants to be a warrior on the battlefield, that the birthing bed is their battlefield, a metaphor which is reified in a very heavy-handed but still effective piece of montage later as her struggles to give birth run contemporaneously to the tournament devolving into bloodshed.

Aemma has a breach birth and the king’s incompetent doctors propose a c-section despite not being at all good at them. Faced with the choice of the likely death of both wife and heir or the chance of salvaging the heir King Viserys chooses to allow the operation and his wife dies in the process. The child survives the birth but dies later the same day. Daemon celebrates the death of the rival heir with his guards in a brothel but is spied upon doing so and the king is so shocked by his callousness that he banishes Daemon from court and names Rhaenyra his heir, going against prior tradition and establishing the circumstances for the war of secession that his grandfather avoided.

Now, obviously, the death of Aemma has become a key discursive theme following the airing of the episode and two, equally wrong-headed, camps have formed. It seems people either defend the inclusion of this incident as being “historically accurate” or decry it as being a glorification of violence against women. These are both nonsense. Regarding historical accuracy it is necessary to point out that the relationship between the work of George R. R. Martin and history is a bit more complicated than is generally considered. His writing is certainly informed by history but, more than that, it largely explores the process of historicization and its differentiation from myth. Westeros isn’t England. It isn’t Europe. It’s a vast continent marked by long, extreme, seasons. It contains dragons and ice monsters and giant wolves. Its populace are plagued by prophetic dreams which often lead them toward doom. The use, in A Song of Ice and Fire, of historical military conflicts to develop the setting is the insertion of a ready-made historicity rather than to make the work accurate. This allows us to observe how these actions, within an intelligible cycle of dynastic history, interact when they’re confronted with the mythic register of the legend of the final winter in which humanity will be extinguished by supernatural and inhuman foes. The mythic register is actually as carefully created as the historic one with exposition regarding Bran the Builder, Lann the Clever and all the other denizens of the Age of Heroes. This mythic register is, in A Song of Ice and Fire, initially occluded so that the impact of its reinsertion into and disruption of an historic cycle will be felt more forcefully.

Frankly, with the ways in which Martin establishes and then undercuts the historical in Westeros throughout his works, the best thing to say about these stories and their relation to history is that they’re profoundly skeptical of historicization and want to lay bare the way in which history is created after the fact to make sense and give pattern to the chaos of being. With that being said the people who think this show is somehow valorizing or aestheticizing forced childbirth and abuse of women in the name of bearing children need to look again at what is depicted. Viserys I follows the advice of incompetent doctors who tell him his choice is either to lose the queen and the child or to save the child at the expense of the queen.

In light of this terrible choice he decides, if his wife is doomed regardless, he should save the son, secure the secession, and achieve something he cares about. He doesn’t consult his wife in this matter and her death, if maybe inevitable, is likely more terrifying and abrupt than it otherwise might have been.

But it turns out terribly. The king’s decision does not save his heir. The boy dies within less than a day. It breaks his family, forming a dangerous rift between himself and his brother Daemon, and it leads to his epiphany that he should have named his daughter heir all along: a refutation of the very thing that led him to this awful decision. Depiction is not condonement and that’s never been clearer than here. I think, instead, people should be more ready to approach this show on its terms: neither as historical fiction nor a direct commentary on the contemporary politics of the United States but rather as a fantasy that explores the processes of dynastism, social change and historicization more broadly.

Everything Everywhere All at Once and the limits of the multiverse

Everything Everywhere All at Once was one of my most anticipated movies of 2022. It almost beat out Crimes of the Future for the title of the film that got my pandemic-anxious backside back in cinema seats and the only reason I ended up waiting for the digital release was because it got very few screens in PEI (one) and the only showing was not at a time I could readily get to. Perhaps this is for the best because, although Everything Everywhere All at Once is far better than other multiverse-themed media I’ve seen this year, it would have been a let-down compared to my level of anticipation of it.

Now, I do want to be fair, this movie is well put-together. We get a good performance from Michelle Yeoh as the protagonist, Evelyn, a middle-aged Chinese immigrant struggling to keep her laundry business afloat as her family drifts apart. I should note that this is far from her best performance; she evinced neither the scenery-chewing glory of her turn on Star Trek Discovery nor the under-stated dignity that fuel her excellent performances in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny or the various dramatic roles she performed throughout the first decade of the 2000s. However Yeoh is a talented performer and even when not delivering her best work she is still very talented – if slightly up-staged by the delightful and unexpected range demonstrated by Ke Huy Quan as Waymond and the deranged scenery chewing of Jamie Lee Curtis who is very much on her A-Game here.

The Daniels deliver the exact kind of fast-cut music-video affected dadaist absurdity we would expect of them in a manner that delivers some excellent costuming and blocking and some perfectly passable set construction and Paul Rogers shows some excellent editing with an especial nod to the inventiveness of scene transitions in the second half and to an excellent rapid-fire montage at the climax of the film.

There are problems at the script level. Particularly the resolution of Evelyn’s material problems in our principal continuity are entirely subsumed into her cathartic revelation regarding her relationships. It seems somewhat pat the extent to which the conflict surrounding her tax bills just kind of smooth away in the conclusion just because our protagonist experienced a revelation concerning inter-general trauma and empathy. And these problems cannot be eased out regardless of how many strong performances are delivered and no matter how clever the editing.

Furthermore Stephanie Hsu seemed unable to deliver the emotional weight necessary for her role as Joy. It’s publicly known that the role was originally written for Akwafina but that she was unable to fill it due to a scheduling conflict – perhaps the expectation was that the role would be played funnier? But what we get is a rather dry and straightforward read of a character who should be anything else. Ultimately this may come back to problems with the script.

Now looking at what story the script is trying to tell what we see is a use of the multiverse to set up a conflict between two different existentialist perspectives: absurdity and ambiguity. Evelyn must learn to differentiate the absurd from the ambiguous such that she can save Joy from self-annihilation which is said to be intrinsic to a true appreciation of the absurdity of existence. Because alpha-Joy discovers the absurdity of a life in which any possible set of conditions might apply, which takes on any possible permutation of options, she becomes despondent, seeing what Kierkegaard would call the “levelling scythe” of dialectics collapsing into oneness. And it’s not surprising to see other critics using Kierkegaard in order to situate Evelyn’s arc as being one of identifying the need for a leap of faith but I personally think Beauvoir is a better lens here. Consider, “To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won.” This statement from The Ethics of Ambiguity, more than anything else I’ve ever seen, sums up the core conflict of the film. Joy believes that existence is absurd. Evelyn discovers it’s truly more ambiguous – that in each moment one can attempt to build a meaning via one’s community. And I think it’s important that the resolution doesn’t just involve the oedipal triangle of Evelyn, Joy and Waymond but a broader community that includes customers at the laundromat, extended family and even Deirdre Beaubeirdre, an IRS inspector and antagonist to Evelyn who contains unexpected depths. I like that they made this choice because if this film had collapsed everything down to “family is meaning in the face of the absurd,” it would have been a far weaker movie.

However I do think that this film suffers both from too great an attempt at subtlety and nuance and also from the intrinsic limitations of the multiverse as a storytelling model. Specifically I don’t think many people, even in the art-film audience, are likely to care enough about nearly century-old internal disputes among existentialists to particularly identify Kierkegaard here, Camus there, Beauvoir here. And, honestly, I think that the Daniels interpretation of absurdity is also lacking. I have seen other critics suggest that they would have been better off if they’d read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race or some other anti-natalist literature when fleshing out Joy’s character but, honestly, it’d probably be helpful if it had been clear they’d even read and understood The Myth of Sisyphus. Expecting an antagonist informed by Ligotti might be a stretch when dealing with scriptwriters who seem to have missed key points of Camus’ work considering how heavily Joy leans on Camus for her ideology.

Part of the problem here is the multiverse and, gosh, but if there’s a concept I’d like Hollywood to forget quickly that is it.

First off let’s be clear that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is not really the one preferred by physicists, cosmologists or philosophers of science. Multiverses are not a provable part of our reality sufficiently to make them an inevitability in art – part of a material basis to contend with. In fact, prior to Michael Moorcock, they weren’t really part of the genre fiction landscape much at all and only really achieved prominence when DC realized they could use the concept to lampshade continuity errors within their catalog of comic stories. And so we must treat multiverses not as an emergent property of fiction but rather as a deliberate narrative conceit.

Multiverses invite reflexive passivity in that, like we saw in the inferior Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it’s very easy to tease out a demand that you be satisfied with your lot in this universe because of the inevitable progression of an invisible hand composed of the aggregate decisions of history. By showing us the infinity of possibilities and then insisting upon a root universe to tether the audience to the multiverse actually constrains freedom. We can’t have the liberation of Beauvoir’s ethics within ambiguity because everything is purely deterministic.

This determinism is a problem in Everything Everywhere All At Once which posits every minor decision a person makes causes a bifurcation of reality. In this universe you had always already made that choice. The universe becomes clockwork – and that lack of agency is not something that arises in the debate between Joy’s absurdism and Evelyn’s ambiguity. Both seem resigned that they are slaves to the past.

I honestly think this fatalism represents a limit of the multiverse as a narrative conceit. If you introduce this arborescent pattern of decisions fanning out from some root such as a subjective sense of self you’ll end up with a fatalistic story. And this fatalism is at odds with a Beauvoirian read. Evelyn wants to tell Joy that we can win meaning out of the immediacy of our lives, that we can fight for the people we love and bring them back from the edge except she says this from a position of absolute inability to truly act. She must become aware that every decision she might have made has, in fact, been made and that the consequences of the same are fully mapped out. She must commit fully to a view of a multiverse of clockwork just to get the the point of being able to contend with Joy.

Pretty bleak.

Beauvoir built her ethic around an expectation that freedom, true radical freedom, wasn’t just something that could be achieved. It was, in fact, an emergent property of the world. Every person is, at all times, a font of infinite potential. But this is what a multiverse movie misses – that font of potential doesn’t arise out of failure. It simply arises. What a person can do is either recognize that freedom and foster growth of that recognition in others or succumb to a kind of mystification that obscures freedom via the antinomies of action.

This is the thorn this film gets caught upon and it leaves us with something that is, unsurprisingly, similar to a music video: stylish, surely. Well performed too. But ultimately empty and a little trite. That this is probably the best we could expect from the multiverse as a form should hopefully be sufficient to put a nail in the coffin of this narrative conceit but I won’t hold my breath.

Mad God and Cosmic Ecstasy

“The Sun exclusively loves the Night and directs its luminous violence, its ignoble shaft, toward the earth, but finds itself incapable of reaching the gaze or the night, even though the nocturnal terrestrial expanses head continuously toward the indecency of the solar ray.”
—-Georges Bataille – the Solar Anus

Mad God (2022) is a metatextual myth. The story goes that Phil Tippett, a master of practical special effects whose innovations include the AT-AT Imperial Walker, ED-209 and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, and his team spent 30 years, off and on, creating Mad God as a passion project – that it was a matter of grave artistic doubt for Tippett, who often expressed anxiety over CGI and what it might do to his career. It is a mythic origin story – built around an heroic figure who, charismatically leading a cohort of allies, overcame both physical trials and psychological tortures to achieve a grand ambition. We can imagine Tippett Odysseus. Simultaneously we have a work that immediately situates itself within the mythic through the immediate citation of Leviticus 26,

“If you disobey Me and remain hostile to Me I will act against you in wrathful hostility. I, for my part, will discipline you sevenfold for your sins.

You shall eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters.

I will destroy your cult places and cut down your incense stands and I will head your carcasses upon your lifeless idols.

I will spurn you. I will lay your cities in ruin and make your sanctuaries desolate and I will not savor your pleasing odors.

I will make the land desolate so that your enemies who settle it shall be appalled by it.

And you I will scatter among the nations and I will unsheath the sword against you.

Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin.”

Now it should be noted that this particular version of the biblical quote has been somewhat modified against any contemporary translation – particularly the line “I will destroy your cult places…” is generally quite different in most translations from what is written here. And, of course, when one quotes a significant work of myth but then manipulates the quote it raises the question of why the quote was manipulated and to what ends.

And this brings us comfortably to the question of what Mad God is trying to communicate. The script gives us few clues – most of the dialog in this movie is either complete garbled nonsense or it is grunts and chuckles. Further frustrating straightforward interpretation the quote from Leviticus is effectively the only legible text more complex than a clock face which arises in the film. When we see printed objects like maps and scrolls they are principally covered in illegible glyphs. The maps, in particular, decompose as they are read as if to tell us that these signposts exist only to draw us deeper into the labyrinth. Mad God is best treated as a attempt to communicate something that is ultimately incommunicable. In Inner Experience Georges Bataille said,

“I must admit today that these states of communication were only rarely accessible to me.

I was far from knowing what I see clearly today, that anguish is linked to them. I couldn’t understand at the time that a trip which I had been greatly looking forward to had only brought me uneasiness, that everything had been hostile for me, beings and things, but above aIl men, whose empty lives in remote villages I was obliged to see – empty to the point of diminishing him who perceives them – at the same time that I saw a self-assured and malevolent reality.”

For Bataille the ability to articulate the incommunicable depends upon an experience of anguish or ecstasy – sense must be pushed to the limit of what can be experienced in order to recognize experience qua experience. Mad God takes this to heart and as such an attempt to communicate its incommunicable substance depends on the infliction of agony. But as we cannot ourselves be directly subject to the agonies of Mad God we must pass those agonies onto a protagonist. This then is the role of our protagonist – the Assassin.

At first it seems like the role of the Assassin is to bear witness to agony. Their pod escapes the fire of guns and they emerge to see a small scene of cruelty – a reminder of the destructiveness which is eating – as a creature in bandages emerges from a hole to capture and consume a smaller creature only to be caught in turn and dismembered by a larger and more ferocious creature.

The Assassin slips away from this scene of personal, immediate, cruelty and descends to a factory where featureless workers toil and are annihilated in the construction of flat-faced monoliths. This factory scene is one of the most fascinating in the film for how it lays bare the violence at the heart of material relations. The workers are fashioned, ultimately, of the shit of captive and tortured giants. They toil and they die. Sometimes these deaths seem explicitly suicidal as workers throw themselves into fiery pits. Other times they die because the system of production they’re enmeshed in finds no value in their lives. They are faceless labour resources.

They have management both in the form of torturous foremen and distant and incomprehensible management. The directions of management comes across as the disjointed elements of a rotting face and the babble of a pre-verbal infant. The workers, too, engage in acts of brutality, cutting at the flesh of livestock whose bodies serve some part in the abstract and alienating factory processes around them. The assassin is not here as a liberator though and descends further through a series of tunnels and then to the place where they must plant their bomb. But the assassin is captured and the bomb never detonates. Of course every labyrinth has minotaur at its center. The scene pans out to show us that the heart of this labyrinth is littered with stacks of un-exploded bombs. This assassin is not the first to try and pace a bomb here. And none have ever succeeded.

It’s interesting to consider the clarity with which this film tells us that this is a labyrinth designed never to be exited. Of course that was the purpose of the labyrinth of Minos – and without Ariadne Theseus would never have escaped. There is no Ariadne in Mad God; the Assassin’s map always disintegrates upon them reaching a new plateau of this underworld.

But this is ultimately not a story about the Assassin, it’s a story about the machinery of an alien and hostile god. And so, after the Assassin is taken by our minotaur, they end up in a surgery where they are vivisected without sedation. I’m going to offer a word of caution here that my tastes run dark and I tend to see the humour in a lot of pretty horrifying stuff in horror cinema. The Thing is low-key really funny. The surgery sequence of Mad God was up in the top-three most difficult to watch sequences of film I’ve ever seen along with the opening scene of Begotten and Salò (just… like… all of Salò) it represents a clinical reduction of a person to just a pile of stuff. We actually get to see the Assassin dismembered twice. First presented as a shadow-play for an audience somewhere within the cosmology of the film and then second intimately, as we watch a surgeon and a nurse empty the Assassin of everything. And I do really mean everything from uncertain organs, to books, piles of blood-soaked coins to even a fish. Eventually, the last thing cut out of the Assassin is a screaming worm-like infant who is escorted down a series of impossible corridors (we are still within the inescapable labyrinth) by a nurse, one of a very small number of human actors who appear on-screen.

But before our nurse travels down this endless industrial corridor we learn more about where the Assassin comes from. A figure called the Last Man in the credits, another of the very small set of human actors in this film is elsewhere, dressed in the robes of a Cardinal. He receives the map the Assassin uses from three witches and verifies its contents before sending the Assassin down into the maelstrom of war and his eventual demise in the labyrinth below. This scene confirms something that was hinted at before – that this Assassin is but one of many sent below. None have succeeded. But the attire of the Last Man and the way the film frames him as being in collaboration with the terrible god of this labyrinthine underworld asserts a sort of cyclical predestination. The experience of the Assassin bearing witness to all this cruelty becomes a cog in the machinery of the terrible factory and its monstrous outputs.

It is essential that Mad God is filmed mostly with puppets. In this regard Ligotti has his finger on the pulse, saying puppets,

“are made as they are made by puppet makers and manipulated to behave in certain ways by a puppet masters will. The puppets under discussion here are those made in our image, although never with such fastidiousness that we would mistake them for human beings. If they were so created, their resemblance to our soft shapes would be a strange and awful thing, too strange and awful, in fact, to be countenanced without alarm. Given that alarming people has little to do with merchandising puppets, they are not created so fastidiously in our image that we would mistake them for human beings, except perhaps in
the half-light of a dank cellar or cluttered attic. We need to know that puppets are puppets. Nevertheless, we may still be alarmed by them. Because if we look at a puppet in a certain way, we may sometimes feel it is looking back, not as a human being looks at us but as a puppet does. It may even seem to be on the brink of coming to life. In such moments of mild disorientation, a psychological conflict erupts, a dissonance of perception that sends through our being a convulsion of supernatural horror.”

And this is central to the intensity of the horror Mad God produces. The semi-distance that filming Mad God with puppets gives us is far closer than it would be if this were just another CGI, or even hand-drawn, cartoon. And certainly it would be impossible to film Mad God and its visions of excess in such an explicit manner if it were all filmed with human actors. No. The horror of Mad God intrinsically depends upon the subjects being puppets. They could be nothing else. The horror of Mad God is explicitly a horror of the puppet. These creatures are being moved; regardless of the threats against disobedience in the Leviticus quote disobedience isn’t an option. The motives of the god of Mad God, inscrutable and alien though they are, cannot be overcome by the subjects within it. They are all, every one of them, puppets.

And so it is a puppet that takes the screaming infant-thing extracted from the Assassin and it is to a puppet it is delivered. This puppet, a leering and gnome like figure who seems warmly amused by the suffering of its various experimental subject may be an avatar of the god of Mad God or may be, like the Last Man, one of its servants. This is left ambiguous in the film. But he is as happy as he is violent. He keeps a vivarium full of beautiful, psychedelic, plants and colourful little creatures then releases a predator to consume one while its mate looks on in horror. This amuses him for a moment.

When he turns his attention to the screaming infant it’s to mash it with a macerator and collect its pulp. This is forged into an ingot which is crushed and dispersed into the cosmos where each grain of dust from the infant-worm inside the Assassin becomes a monolith just like the ones from the factory sequence. These monoliths become seeds, bringing life to barren worlds and with life the same cycles of creation and destruction that were witnessed by the Assassin throughout their descent.

“When they arrive at the salon of Princess Guermantes, the destruction of the puppets is completed,” Bataille said, referencing Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Bataille’s fortuitous deployment of the puppet here is in service of an argument that communication principally exists to determine the measure of the unknown. Language creates fences of the known that set a boundary against the unknown: that which cannot be spoken of.

But Bataille believes that artistic communication, poetic communication in particular, has some access to the unknown, saying of Proust, “The charm of Proust’s style is due ta a sort of prolonged exhaustion in which develops that which the dissolving progression of time (death) leaves open.” This idea of death as a dissolving progression of time is echoed in the way that Mad God handles time. Frankly this movie defies chronology. An extended sequence during the vivisection of the Assassin can be read as tapping into the memory the Assassin had of crossing a battlefield before their descent proper. However these memories include moments the Assassin would not have been privy to and they may, in fact, be a reification of the fact another Assassin has already been sent down into the labyrinth. The bombs of the Assassins never detonate in part because their detonators are tied to clocks and clocks, in the cosmology of Mad God, are fickle things that operate under no discernable logic. Time itself is so fluid that one might die twice, or never, just as space is so fluid that the monoliths are both the dust of a crushed ingot smelted from the fluid of a dead infant and also the product of demonic factory labour.

“The infant may cry, if things went right. But time will dry its eyes; time will take care of it. Time will take care of everyone until there are none of us to take care of,” Ligotti says. He would likely disagree with Bataille’s view of an eternal return in endless cycles of creation and destruction. Mad God, here, takes Bataille’s side and time certainly does not take care of anyone at all. In fact time is fundamentally fickle and openly antagonistic. Clocks will tick to the last second and then turn back; ages will pass in moments; time will stand still and allow a second of agony to stretch into an eternity. The dust of the wailing infant sparks entire cycles of solar economy on disparate worlds.

In a vignette of one of these worlds of strife anarchist rebels struggle for freedom. But we know that the god of Mad God brooks no freedom in whatever its design is. What, ultimately, is the purpose of this vast, punitive, theater of cruelty? Some other critics have suggested that the world of Mad God represents a world of the fall after the Tower of Babel. But this disregards the distortion of Leviticus. This is not the God of the Christians but rather something adjacent, something more raw. And we have the tools to see what this god wants and it’s nothing more than unbridled creation. That creation is fueled by cruelty and destruction because, per the first lesson of the Assassin, everything kills to eat. There is something of the pessimistic despair of Ligotti about the universe of Mad God. The avatars of the god the Gnome and the Alchemist are unfeeling and willfully cruel monsters. They have the best interests of nobody at heart and all of the creation we see is part of a gigantic mechanism of torture. But this mechanism is the motor of creation. It takes a desolate universe of rocks moving in arcs through space and fills it with strife. This, then, answers the question of why a god would threaten punishment for disobedience to a populace entirely unable to disobey its all-encompassing will. It is because this god’s will is to upend the predictability of existence, to introduce the chaos of an eternal cycle of creation and destruction.

“Beings only die to be born, in the manner of phalluses that leave bodies in order to enter them.

Plants rise in the direction of the sun and then collapse in the direction of the ground.

Trees bristle the ground with a vast quantity of flowered shafts raised up to the sun.

The trees that forcefully soar end up burned by lightning, chopped down, or uprooted. Returned to the ground, they come back up in another form,” Bataille tells us and this would appear to be the purpose of the Mad God. The final image of the film is of a bird springing forth from a clock, a moment of rotation becoming a phallic penetration. It shouts, “coo coo, coo coo.” And, on one hand, this is a delightful joke. This mad work of creation is certainly coo coo. But it’s also a reminder that we live in a maddening creation devoid of perfection. These cycles are unending and mechanistic but liberation lives within them. The anarchist rebels who fight on a distant world come about as much through the cruel cycle as the arbitrary and nonsensical directions of the factory manager.

This mad cycle also speaks back to the metamyth of the film’s creation. Tippett saw his entire career possibly razed by the advent of CGI only to cycle back into creation 30 years later when the limits of that technology were realized and when new technologies provided the ground for Tippett and his team to realize their artistic vision.

Mad God is an unrivalled work of perverse creativity and, through all its brutality, manages to become almost hopeful. This film is amor fati fully realized. It discovers freedom in the clockwork of an insane god and the possibility of liberation through conflict. If the Assassin fails, if they are ultimately just cogs in a god’s machine, it is in service of the explosion of anarchic life, in all its beauty and cruelty, throughout the cosmos. And that is beauty enough to celebrate.

Crimes of the Future: Living a life as art

In the early minutes of Crimes of the Future (written and directed by David Cronenberg) we learn that people have changed. Pain nearly doesn’t exist; a few people still experience it in their sleep. And people have begun manifesting novel organs of unclear purpose. This is a situation of great concern to the governments of the world.

But it’s abundantly clear that this isn’t entirely true. Saul Tenser’s (Viggo Mortensen) life appears to be one of almost unending agony as he lurches, coughs and gags through a constant pain that he dismisses with neutral language: blockage, thickness, interruption.

Saul has a bed that is supposed to respond to his body, prevent the true pain he experiences in sleep from disrupting his sleep cycles too badly but it doesn’t work well. He has a “breakfaster chair” that is supposed to help him in eating and digesting the pureed foods he chokes down but nothing seems a greater agony to him than the act of trying to eat. And, of course, nobody seems to manifest novel organs as rapidly as Saul.

Saul is an artist. His performance very much calls to mind the work of Ron Athey. He gestates novel organs. When he feels they are ready within him his partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), tattoos them still within him. They then perform an operation in which the tattooed organs will be excised by Caprice, using a modified autopsy bed to perform this biopsy. The tattooed organ is then presented to the audience.

Immediately the question of artistic authority is raised. While Saul and Caprice insist they are equal partners it becomes evident to people that they talk to that Caprice is the one doing what we might generally consider art. She acts upon Saul’s body by marking his flesh, cutting it open and presenting his marks to the world. Prone to portentous speeches, Caprice believes that the body, as a thing, is a void of meaning. By marking Saul’s body with ink she injects meaning into these bizarre growths he produces.

But Caprice and Saul both argue back that Saul is an artist because it is he who creates the organs to be marked. The question of will arises. Do these organs come about because Saul wills them? They seem to be the source of his agonies. But is this a conscious act of production that wills these organs into existence? Is it Saul or his body that desires these things? Is Saul, in fact, his body?

Saul and Caprice are both enmeshed in a world of performance artists. Saul attends a performance in which a dancer with his eyes and mouth sewn shut and prosthetic ears grafted across the entirety of his body presents himself. He thinks the performance is fine; but everyone agrees it’s not up to the quality of Saul’s work. The ears are artificial. That Saul grows the organs within him matters.

Caprice also has her own artistic interests. She seems to feel trapped in Saul’s shadow. He’s the great Saul Tenser. She is merely his partner. She has her own friends whose art is more akin to Orlan than to Athey. Her friend Odile (Denise Capezza) isn’t interested in the mortification of Saul’s performance, there is no agony there. But she wants her body to be a canvas upon which she can create. She shapes her appearance so that she can be a work of art just the same.

Of course this is no different from the ear-dancer. He felt no pain as the needle slid through his eyelids and sealed them. He, too, took conscious control over the shape of his being. So why does this hierarchy exist? Why do the various people who populate Crimes of the Future seem to believe there’s something more artistic in growing into something different than in choosing to become it? What role does will play here and how must we define it?

In Four Scenes in a Harsh Life Ron Athey cut open the back of his assistant, Divinity P. Fudge, and dabbed at the wounds with paper towel. He hoisted these blood-soaked rags up above the audience and presented the gay blood that so many assumed to be intrinsically tainted by AIDS. The press was unkind. But there is an interesting dynamic at play here between Athey, the person cutting and Fudge who was cut. The assumption, even of the receptive corners of the artistic world, was that Athey, wielding the knife, was the artist and Fudge was something of a canvas or an ink-pot for his work.

And yet Divinity P. Fudge got up there and exposed himself, his body became marked. The wounds kissed paper like mouths and left their marks. In a later scene of Crimes of the Future Saul is invited to join an “inner beauty pageant,” an underground celebration of novel organs. He has a zipper installed in his abdomen to allow easier access to his innards. Caprice unzips him and kisses the incision as if he were Christ. The same dynamic exists between Tenser and Caprice as existed between Athey and Fudge. One acts, the other is acted upon but the will to become art exists in the interplay between both. And it is in this inter-subjective act of communion that we find a thread to begin leading us out of the tangle of unanswered questions Crimes of the Future presents.

Biopolitics

“The excess of biopower appears when it becomes technologically and politically possible for man not only to manage life but to make it proliferate, to create living matter, to build the monster, and, ultimately to build viruses that cannot be controlled and that are universally destructive. This formidable extension of biopower … will put it beyond all human sovereignty.”

— Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, March 17, 1976

Governments have become very concerned about novel organs. As a response to concerns that these novel organs represent an advent of something inhuman they have sought to discipline these bodies, to bring these bodies away from Foucault’s excess of biopower and back within the realm of the sovereign state. The National Organ Registry, a secretive bureaucratic organization, has been founded to excise and to mark novel organs. The two bureaucrats who serve here are both big fans of Saul and Caprice. Wippet (Don McKellar) is a pervert who adores these new organs. He’s joined the National Organ Registry because he sees them as sources of constant beauty. Timlin (Kristin Stewart, in what should be a career-defining performance) covets Caprice’s talent. She is less beholden to the beauty of the organ and, instead, wants to mark them, give them a state’s meaning, bring them within discipline. She lusts after Saul nevertheless. Finally state power is represented by Cope (Welket Bungué) – a police officer who sees a political threat in the evolution of subjects away from humanity. Within these three we see very different approaches to how a state might want to bring these unruly organs under control be that through the revelation and celebration of their beauty, their disciplining via the act of sorting and marking or the more absolute discipline of state violence. There is also corporate interference. Two women who appear to work for the corporation responsible for Saul’s assistive devices lurk throughout the film and work to keep the simmering boil of the future contained in a capitalist now. While they clearly do not serve the state and its disciplinary functions they, nevertheless, collaborate with it.

Of course this government is divided against itself. There is no body of the king that all these people extend from, no real central will. Instead Wippet works to undermine his own agency out of his infatuation for neo-organs while Timlin undermines her supervisor in order to better serve state power. Cope is distant and ineffective. The corporate assassins are close and brutally effective.

What these people who think like states all see, what Saul and Caprice are too bound up in their art to consider, is that these neo-organs are a crisis of the human. There is a real fear of the Ship of Theseus at play here. How many organs can grow within a person and have them still be a human?

In the inciting moments of the film a little boy plays by the seaside. His mother calls to him, disapproving, and tells him not to eat anything he finds. Anything. He doesn’t respond to her.

Later the boy eats a plastic garbage pail in the bathroom and she smothers him with a pillow. Later, still, his grieving father is eating a bar of purple material that looks something like a chocolate bar. He leaves it lying around and another man picks it up and eats it. He dies immediately. Contrary to Caprice’s belief that the body is without intrinsic meaning this man, Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), believes that there is a very definite purpose within the transformation of the body. He is a cell leader in a revolutionary faction called evolutionists who, prompted by the advent of neo-organs, have taken it upon themselves to reshape the digestive system. They have become plastic-eaters. But the food they eat is toxic to anyone who has not undergone the surgery. Except for his son Bracken who, in some fit of Lamarckian impossibility, has been born with neo-organs that allow him to, naturally, eat plastics. But only that. His mother was convinced he was an inhuman monster, kidnapped and killed him because she hated her own son as an inhuman product of her estranged husband’s obsessions.

In Crimes of the Future the body and its configuration have become a deeply charged political question. States wish to preserve command over the granting of life and the form it will take for the public, in aggregate. As such the random deviation of the body and its deliberate shaping are effectively synonymous. It doesn’t matter that Bracken was born able to eat plastic while Lang gave himself the quality. Both are equally monstrous to a state whose principal concern is not how people can eat plastic but that they might. A mother rejects her own child, murders him, because she cannot tolerate such difference and the bile she projects at Lang is just as vicious. She blames him, and his transformative desires, for precipitating her murder of her son.

Lang wants to reveal the truth of his son’s transformation to the world and begs Saul to use his autopsy table to reveal the truth. Saul eventually, reluctantly, agrees. Caprice seems eager to do it and discover definitively whether the body has intrinsic meaning. When they cut the boy open they discover that he has already been thoroughly marked by Timlin who has filled the child-corpse with tattooed organs in a plagiaristic homage to Caprice’s tattoo work. Any intrinsic meaning the body might have is over-coded by the demands of the state.

“All the stupidity and the arbitrariness of the laws, all the pain of the initiations, the whole perverse apparatus of repression and education, the red-hot irons, and the atrocious procedures have only this meaning: too breed man, to mark him in his flesh,” Deleuze and Guattari say in Anit-Oedipus. They say this marking of the flesh exists to form man “within the debtor-creditor relation, which on both sides turns out to be a matter of memory – a memory straining toward the future.” The state fears that people might become inhuman because to do so might set people outside the bounds of debt and alliance that tie them back to the state and grant its power. The absolute biopower of a body to become different from itself is the ultimate threat to the ability of the state to discipline a body. As Deleuze says, “We do not even know what a body is capable of,” and Foucault points out that discipline begins, in part, in the barracks and the careful systematization of bodies to individual, almost atomic, movements. To discipline a body is to sort, carefully, what it can do. This anarchic metastasis threatens that disciplinary power. If a body has intrinsic meaning: if it is, of its own volition, trying to become something new and different then it cannot be governed.

The corporate assassins kill Lang but Saul abandons any pretext of cooperation with the state in light of this. He goes home and eats the purple chocolate as Caprice films him. The film ends with a look of ecstasy on his face as, for the first time in the film, he eats without excruciating agony. We don’t know if he will live or die but he is becoming something other than what he was.

Will toward art

We must not forget in all this talk of power and revolution, of states and revolting bodies, that Saul and Caprice are first and foremost artists. Our initial question is not about whether a state can, or even should, govern the potentials of a body but rather whether a body has the will to become an artwork without the conscious intention to become art of some ego behind the body. Must a body be governed to become a body of art or can art conjure itself?

We are presented with arguments both for and against this. The ear-dancer fails to make art of himself by conscious effort while Saul creates his art effortlessly. But Saul’s art is overcoded with Caprice’s tattoos and Odile has been successful creating of herself an artwork through conscious will.

It seems as if, within Crimes of the Future, will is distinct from conscious direction. A body may have direction but lack will. It may have will but lack direction. It may lack both – like Bracken’s unfortunate corpse – or it may contain both – like Saul in the moment when he eats the plastic bar.

Art demands both. Saul, containing the will toward art, and Caprice, holding a direction, make an excellent collaborative team precisely because they are able to thread this needle together. The question of whether Athey or Fudge was the true artist is a wrong question. Both are essential to the process.

Crimes of the Future envisions art as a becoming rather than a being. It exists not in the paint affixed to canvas but in the act of affixing the paint. The art exists between the hand holding the brush and the canvas upon which the marks are presented. It is a suspended moment of transition.

Crimes of the Future sits at the precipice off the Outside. The state fights back against the advent of the new weakly, in a disorganized manner, and is ultimately ineffective at doing anything more meaningful than defacing a child’s corpse. Capital, too, attempts to forestall the future albeit with a bit more savagery but no more success. They kill one rebel but untold hundreds more exist. The future cannot be forestalled. The artistry of Crimes of the Future exists in describing the fluid process of becoming. It’s irrelevant whether Saul will become a plastic eater or a corpse. The fixity of being is to be denied. Instead what is significant is the process of change whereby he is no longer what he once was.

We must all undergo becoming.

We must all change to be no longer what we once were.

In doing so we may live our lives as art.

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.

Upcoming projects

It’s been too long since I wrote something here in part because I’m planning some reviews of very long form media that I’ve just not finished with yet. As such I thought I’d briefly tease what I’m working on and its status lest my readers think I was done with this:

  • Elden Ring and Destituent Power: This is part of why I’ve been so quiet the last two months. This game is a fascinating work of art and I think there’s quite a lot we could say about it, and its view of the use of power, in light of the work of Tari, Benjamin Foucault and Marx. However I don’t want to really put pen to paper until I’ve completed a playthrough. I have been trying heroically to finish this vast game but it’s also my first FromSoft title and it’s been… a learning curve. So when I finally finish you can expect I have quite a lot to say.
  • Stranger Things and the postmodern genre of pop-cultural simulacra: Riffing off a Horror Vanguard episode about Mandy I want to write something about how Stranger Things creates a 1980s absent any direct interaction with the decade and instead reconstructs its setting entirely from a pop cultural interpretation of the decade. Stranger Things has nothing to do with the history of the 1980s and everything to do with the music and film of the decade and I think that’s a fascinating distinction even if it doesn’t do anything quite as good as what the Cage film accomplished with that material. Still since I’m stuck watching it (my daughter is a super-fan) I might as well mine it for content. This will probably come out before the Elden Ring essay.
  • Titane and the Societies of Control: A look at the 2021 movie Titane in light of Gilles Deleuze’s Postscript to the Societies of Control which will focus on the idea of identity as modular. Probably also approach via Deleuze’s work on Spinoza and the question of what a body can do though this will require some reading. I am… almost… ready to start writing this. I have the film digested sufficiently to write on it but need to fit in some reading first. Likely to come out before the Elden Ring essay and after the Stranger Things essay but I might bump it up depending on how tired I am of Stranger Things by the time I finish Season 4 part 2.
  • A series of articles on permaculture and philosophy using the work of Epicurus, Marx, Deleuze and Guattari and maybe a few others of my faves to look at how ecologically sustainable farming ties into the idea of the rhizome as a political formation and to examine the risks of Malthusianism that exist within the concept formations of the discipline. This will be an ongoing effort throughout.

So that’s what I’m up to. I’m also slowly reading through a few novels that might get reviews, such as Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms and Gretchen Felker Martin’s Manhunt. I’ll probably try to fit reviews of at least one of these into my upcoming schedule.

Holding on: Generosity, greed and death in The Green Knight

Þenne tas he hym stryþe to stryke,
And frounsez boþe lyppe and browe;
No meruayle þaȝ hym myslyke
Þat hoped of no rescowe.
He lyftes lyȝtly his lome, and let hit doun fayre 
With þe barbe of þe bitte bi þe bare nek

The Green Knight is a 2021 filmic adaptation of the 14th century chivalric poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight written and directed by David Lowery and starring Dev Patel.

The film starts with young Gawain as a squire who aspires to become a knight in the service of an elderly King Arthur. At Christmastime a terrifying giant knight with the face of the Green Man arrives at court and invites anyone brave enough to engage him in a game of traded blows. Gawain takes up the gauntlet and cuts his head off, against the warning of Arthur that this is only a game. Of course Arthur, in giving the warning, also gives Gawain Excalibur which, in a departure from the poem, is the instrument of the beheading.

The knight then retrieves his head and says that he will see Gawain in precisely one year to return the blow given. He leaves behind a magical axe, which causes moss and grass to grow wherever it is laid, as a token and departs. From here the story charts Gawain’s quest to reach the Green Chapel by the following Christmas in order to keep his appointment.

This is a dense film that plays quite a lot about the relationship of Christianity and a kind of idealized green man paganism and treating it as a theological text first and foremost is an attractive prospect. After all the Green Knight himself is realized as a god-like figure and this is a film that is very concerned with cycles of death and rebirth which makes for fertile ground to explore how Christians and Pagan might differ with regard to their treatment of theological matters.

And yet, this is not anywhere near a complete-enough picture to capture what I think this film is really attempting to accomplish. Rather The Green Knight is quite focused on a dialectic of geed and generosity and with how that relates to death.

As such I think it’s important to concentrate on a four specific moments within the film. First we should look at what precipitates Gawain’s first great loss. Traveling across a battlefield he encounters a chatty scavenger who engages him in conversation. Gawain, focused on his quest, doesn’t want much from the scavenger except directions to the Green Chapel and he makes that clear. The scavenger directs him to a forested area along a stream and asks for consideration. Gawain is, at first, reluctant to give the scavenger anything but after some wheedling from the scavenger gives him a small quantity of money.

The scavenger then arranges an ambush where he steals Gawain’s axe, his horse, his armor, his magic belt (gifted by his witch-mother who serves as something of a stand-in for Morgana in the film) and his money. The scavenger shatters his shield, illuminated with an icon of the Virgin Mother and when Gawain protests that he was merely looking for the Green Chapel the scavenger tells him he is already within it. The forest is the Green Chapel. But the scavenger also scolds Gawain that he brought this misfortune upon himself because he was insufficiently generous.

Gawain, bound, has a vision of his own death in the woods before he is mysteriously free and sets off on his journey again.

The next episode of significance is when he encounters the ghost Saint Winifred who complains she has lost her head at the bottom of a nearby pond. Gawain dives into the pond and retrieves her skull without any thought of compensation and has another vision before surfacing to find the ghost departed but the magic axe returned.

The next piece of this puzzle arrives when Gawain is at the home of the Lord and Lady who reside near the Green Chapel. The lady interrogates Gawain as to why the Green Knight is green rather than some other colour and he brushes it off saying that, perhaps, the Green Knight is an alien, “not of this world.”

The lady replies with what is probably the longest monologue in the film, saying:

We deck our halls with it and dye our linens.
But should it come creeping up the cobbles, we scrub it out, fast as we can.
When it blooms beneath our skin, we bleed it out.
And when we, together all, find that our reach has exceeded our grasp, we cut it down, we stamp it out, we spread ourselves atop it and smother it beneath our bellies, but it comes back.
It does not dally, nor does it wait to plot or conspire.
Pull it out by the roots one day and then next, there it is, creeping in around the edges.
Whilst we’re off looking for red, in comes green.
Red is the color of lust, but green is what lust leaves behind, in heart, in womb.
Green is what is left when ardor fades, when passion dies, when we die, too.
When you go, your footprints will fill with grass.
Moss shall cover your tombstone, and as the sun rises, green shall spread over all, in all its shades and hues.
This verdigris will overtake your swords and your coins and your battlements and, try as you might, all you hold dear will succumb to it.
 
Your skin, your bones.
Your virtue.
And what do you hope to gain from facing all of this… this hue?

Green, in the lady’s cosmology, is not passionate but it is infinitely giving. It spreads over everything, filling up the spaces that red cannot permanently occupy. And the lady, too, is generous, returning to Gawain his magical green sash, which his mother and the lady, both, promise will protect him from any harm. (She also compels him to ejaculate as a price for her gift. It’s filmed ambiguously but seems reasonably clear she is masturbating him. And remember that green is what spreads when ardor fades.)

There is an ambiguous unity between death and renewal in the Lady’s speech and we should see this as being encoded in the gift of the sash. Green comes after death. Life creeps back in on footprints and tombstones. The gifted sash, fertilized by a moment of passion that fades into embarrassment and shame, is preservative. He cannot die while he’s wearing it. But this at odds with the cosmological significance of green in the film that exists in an endless cycle of death and rebirth.

Finally there is Gawain’s vision at the Green Chapel.

This is the moment that will most confound anyone who has read the poem since it is invented nearly whole-cloth. After sitting vigil overnight at the chapel facing the inert form of the Green Knight, Christmas arrives and the knight prepares to return Gawain’s blow. Gawain flinches twice and then flees the chapel, initiating an extended montage. He finds his horse and rides back to Camelot. The king dies and names Gawain his heir. Gawain has a bastard son who he takes from his lover Essel, leaving her coin in recompense. He marries for politics but won’t allow his bride to remove the green sash he still wears. His son dies in a war. He is abandoned by everyone he ever knew as they one-by-one exit his life (possibly into death, at least into time) alone on his throne he removes the sash from around his waist and his head falls off.

He is back in the chapel.

Now we need to back-track a moment to piece out the significance of this final vision in a film full of visions. When Gawain was staying at the manor of the Lord and Lady the Lord compelled Gawain into a game. The lord will go out hunting and give a gift to Gawain of whatever he wins in his hunt while Gawain will remain in the house with the Lady. And anything Gawain wins at the home will be given to the Lord. Gawain is dutiful in returning all these gifts, a book, a kiss. But not the sash.

It’s his already after all. His mother gave it to him.

And the sash will keep him from death. So he keeps it. This is the same moral failing he engaged when he refused to compensate the scavenger sufficiently earlier in the film.

But the vision shows him the error of his ways, so Gawain takes the sash off and, now devoid of protection against death, he is ready to face his death. The knight crouches beside him and says, “now, off with your head.” And the film ends.

Of course, we know in the poem that Gawain is given a small cut to remind him of his failure on the third day of the bargain with the lord. He is praised for his virtue above all knights despite this failing and returns to Camelot in high esteem. The green sash is taken up by the other knights of the round table.

But we don’t get that closure here. This is in part because of how paganism is foregrounded in the film but we need to actually look that paganism in the face a bit now because, of course, it’s all a Christian idea of what paganism is. It’s easy to treat the godlike Green Knight as a pagan god because of how Christianity is deployed contra him within the text of the film but this is eliding that the Green Man motif appears most prominently in medieval churches. We should not fall into Frazer’s universalism in saying an English Green Man is functionally equivalent to Osiris just because two cultures realized that annual plant cycles are effective representations of death and rebirth nor should we have such a closed view of Christianity as to foreclose rebirth as a Christian concept just because only Jesus is seen doing so in the Bible.

The Green Knight is a movie about annual cycles, surely. That the action starts at Christmas and ends at the subsequent Christmas is too obvious a tell for anyone to miss. However I question that it’s a particularly pagan film. The axe that so clearly symbolizes death and rebirth is returned after Gawain engages in an act of generosity with no expectation of reciprocation for a Catholic saint. This is an explicitly Christian act of virtue. Furthermore, the most obviously anti-Christian figure in the film, the Scavenger, is hardly triumphant. He might succeed in taking from Gawain, he may play the iconoclast, but Gawain rises again immediately in a vision that explicitly ties death to a symbolic rebirth into the quest, now stripped of the armor of arrogance and more capable of engaging his quest with Christian humility. Ultimately iconoclasts were also Christians after all. Devout ones at that.

Rather I think it’s best to look at this film not as a clash between religions but as an exploration of the relationship between holding on and letting go. This is a movie in which a man receives gifts and loses them, receives more gifts and loses them again. This is a movie where a man struggles to hold onto his own life in the face of the knowledge that his own actions have authored his death and who learns that he cannot begin to properly live until he learns to let it go.

In The Gift of Death, Derrida traces an idea of the gift of life as being also, inevitably, a gift of death. To be given a life is to be given a death. However he complicates this by demonstrating that, within a largely Heideggerian frame, a death cannot be given nor taken. The uniqueness and irreplaceability of the being who dies is such that every being has their own death which is a fundamental factor of being. The gift of the sash is a threat of a hollow life because it promises something that cannot be given – a specific death at a specific time. The sash is the promise that the gift of Gawain’s death will be deferred.

This extinguishing of an irreplaceable being is at odds with death as part of an infinitely recurring cycle, which thus creates a tension within the film between the obvious textual references to rebirth, particularly in the use of Saint Winifred as a fulcrum in the action of the film, and the unresolved threat of the extinction of Gawain’s uniqueness. Gawain is a man who must come to recognize his own death as a part of his being and how that will lead to the end of the irreplaceable Gawain but he must hold this in a simultaneous superposition to the idea that death is a fundamental part of a life without which life is incomplete.

Other people have pointed to the fact that Winifred appearing as a specter is at odds with Catholic theology since ghosts are generally seen as being within purgatory – somewhere you would never expect to see a saint. However this is ignoring that Winifred is a saint of resurrection. Her head was restored to her by Saint Beuno and she returned from death. In this film Beuno is replaced by Gawain but it doesn’t change that the restoration of the head occurs and that doing so dispels the ghost of Saint Winifred. Because a ghost cannot be someone restored to life.

As Derrida continues to explore death and gifts he turns to Kierkegaard and the Knight of Faith – he who has given himself wholly over to God. And for Kierkegaard this was a most precarious position. In fact, writing in the guise of Johannes de Silentio, he proposed exactly two Knights of Faith had ever existed – Abraham and the Virgin Mary. But one of the markers of the Knight of Faith is supreme anxiety – Kierkegaard argues that a Knight of Faith may not be even certain that they are one and that the condition of being such is entirely inexpressible.

“To be sure, Mary bore the child wondrously, but she nevertheless did it ‘after the manner of women,’ and such a time is one of anxiety, distress and paradox. The angel was indeed a ministering spirit, but he was not a meddlesome spirit who went to the other young maidens in Israel and said: Do not scorn Mary, the extraordinary is happening to her. The angel went only to Mary, and no one could understand her. Has any woman been as infringed upon, as Mary, and is it not true here also that the one whom God blesses he curses in the same breath?”

Derrida describes the Knight of Faith as one who has given themself over entirely to one person, who shows absolute and total loyalty. But this has to be read in the terms of Kierkegaard’s uncertainty and anxiety. And so, at last, we can say that The Green Knight is not a film interrogating Christianity from outside it. Gawain is the most faithful of knights. But faith is a sword as two-edged as Excalibur, with which he strikes the head from the Green Knight. He is confronted with constant tests of loyalty. To his quest, to his mother, to his hosts, to God, to the Knight. But to be a Knight of Faith means a singular loyalty before all others. This, ultimately, is Christian faith.

And this is a fundamentally anxious position. Of course Gawain is plagued by visions of his death, and of the hollow life he might lead if he turns away from the focus of his faith. This final vision is not an ambiguous possible other-future but a representation of Gawain’s own anxiety surrounding his life-toward-faith. The Lady asks him after her monolog, “You’ll do this one thing, you return home a changed man, an honorable man? Just like that?” and Gawain just says, “Yes.” I don’t think we necessarily need to doubt his correctness. By devoting himself entirely to his troth to the Knight, by devoting himself entirely to faith, he does, in fact change, just like that. “I’m ready now,” Gawain says to the Green Knight and, in that moment, after an entire film of people telling him that he is not a knight, the Green Knight replies, “Well done, my brave knight.”

Gawain is a faithful knight in the poems and this film does want to interrogate his faith. But I don’t believe it wants to interrogate Christianity; it wants to interrogate the faith of Gawain and the fundamental anxiety of being faithful. His various tests of faith either succeed or fail but they succeed best, such as when he recovers Saint Winifred’s skull, when he embraces his faith. Meeting the Green Knight in a chapel on Christmas day is a Christian act and it’s a test that he succeeds in after fear and trembling. As such The Green Knight is a triumph not of paganism but of a sincere and internal Christian faith I think Kierkegaard would recognize – it is the story of how it feels to become faithful.