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.

Stories without conflict

The spark of this brief meditation comes from statements made by Dr. Matthew Salesses, a professor of creative writing, who complained that his daughter’s school had required her to write a story about a farm that contained within it a conflict.

Salesses said of this, “are we teaching our kids to make stories or are we teaching our kids to make conflict?” And of course the initial reaction from Twitter was to dismiss his claim as ridiculous since the received wisdom is that a story must have a conflict within it.

But, of course, that is begging the question. Received wisdom is that stories must contain conflict but must they? To answer this the first question would be to ask how we define stories. There are many different ways to define stories but we want to dig to the root, the minimal necessity of what constitutes a story compared to what is not. A story must be, at the very least, an account. Something must be told for a story to exist. But I would argue that an account is not a sufficient definition of a story alone. “There was an object,” is not a story. Rather a story is an account of a difference. “There was an object and something happened.”

Now if we’re being dutiful dialectical materialists we can stop right there. Difference, in that frame, sits firmly within an Hegelian dialectical unification which, when mediated by historical materialism thus requires conflict. There is a division between two objects and a moment in which that division comes into contact such that they are changed. So within that frame any account of a difference will necessarily contain within it some form of conflict. Even if that conflict is purely internal, a person divided against themself who must come to a realization, even if that conflict is purely benign, a person who must choose to turn left or right when they arrive at a street corner, unaware of what may be down each branch, it is still a conflict.

Still we don’t need to assume that all difference resides within a dialectical unity. Kierkegaard, for instance, warned against dialectical interpretations in literature, saying, “Levelling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear one’s own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless.”

But of course Kierkegaard is warning in the opposite direction – that the monism of Hegel’s dialectics would flatten out value, kill difference, and make everything flat and powerless. We cannot assume that even a non-dialectical interpretation of difference would, itself, be enough to allow the absence of conflict within difference.

We can turn to Deleuze for the idea of difference in itself. For him, “Difference is the state in which one can speak of determination as such. The difference ‘between’ two things is only empirical, and the corresponding determinations are only extrinsic. However, instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself – and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example, distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also trail it behind, as though it were distinguishing itself from that which does not distinguish itself from it.”

We can thus see a lightning stroke across the night sky as a story without a conflict. There was darkness, then light, then darkness again: a difference but not a contestation of bright lightning against black sky. So yes, in short, it is fully possible to create a story without conflict as long as it only reflects a difference in itself and deals not in the consequences of the difference. After all, the second the lightning stroke leaves the sky and grounds itself in a tree conflict arises again. The tree is cast down by the heavenly bolt – an object unmade. A person might observe the lightning stroke and there is no conflict. “I saw a stroke of lightning across the night sky,” is a story. But the second the lightning bolt is affective conflict arises once again. “I saw a stroke of lightning across the night sky and decided to go home,” engenders within it the conflict between the person and the environs within which they are situated.

So, of course, a story can be conceived that contains no conflict. The question is whether there’d be any value to such an account. Kierkegaard would almost certainly say no but, assuming we treat difference in itself as an immanent property, we could at least say that a story without conflict could still participate in the creation of the new – and as such might have aesthetic value. But this aesthetic value would be entirely inhuman. Sure, if we operate on an axis which resides between the pure aesthetic and the pure metaphysic we can envision of an object of aesthetic value wherein no conflict arises. But it is the unity of a canvas painted entirely, carefully, and uniformly white.

Continuing with a painting metaphor we can see conflict even in an object as abstract as Voice of Fire. The contrast of Red and Blue is not merely a difference in itself but rather a contention between two things that define each other in contrast. It is not a red bolt of lightning on a blue sky but rather three equal bars of colour divided by their own sharp difference. The red is different from the blue. The blue is different from the red. When you stand in the presence of this vast canvas the colours contend with each other. The red and blue bars feel like a war-front and seethe in their uniformity.

But perhaps not every story is a war. Perhaps we want our stories to be moral instruction. In 2005 an article was put forward in the Journal of Child Language titled “Parent–child picture-book reading, mothers’ mental state language and children’s theory of mind.” This, and several subsequent studies, pointed toward the suggestion that the very act of engaging with fiction facilitated the formation of empathy in children. Later Stansfeld and Bunce proposed that reading was impactful on adults with lifelong reading correlating to increased measures of cognitive empathy and immediate reading correlating to affective empathy.

So one might want to elide conflict in order to make a story more effectively a tool for training empathy, assuming that these studies of empathy have merit and that empathy is a good.

But an empathic response requires a renegotiation of the boundary between self and other. Empathy is the capacity to see the other in the self. As such this represents a site of dialectical conflict. First there is me and there is the Other. Then I read about the Other and learn about their experience. I see the reflection of the experience of the Other in my life. And through that process how I see myself is changed. Such a transformation contains within it a kind of violence against concrete boundaries of self. There’s a reason Sartre saw anxiety in the Look. “My apprehension of the Other in the world as probably being a man refers to my permanent possibility of being-seen-by-him; that is, to the permanent possibility that a subject who sees me may be substituted for the object seen by me. ‘Being-seen-by-the-Other’ is the truth of ‘seeing-the-Other.'” To have empathy for another is, necessarily for Sartre, to see one’s own self as an object viewed by the Other. How could we not treat this as a form of internal conflict? As such, if we want stories to be methods of creating empathy, we must, at minimum engender a conflict within the reader and if the page creates in the reader a conflict can we possibly say that there is no conflict on the page?

Ultimately a story with no conflict is possible; it can even hold aesthetic value if the difference it is an account of is one that creates something new. But for it to engage an audience, for that value to be realized in any truly meaningful way, it has to be more than, “something which distinguishes itself – and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it” In order for the story to have any heat the lightning must strike the tree.

Dune: Realism and the metaphorical register

I’ve an ambivalent opinion of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.

I’ve said before that I find it weakest during the scenes of massive space crafts hovering over landscapes. This isn’t an issue with shot composition. Villeneuve brings a photographer’s eye to every frame of this expansive film and he cannot be faulted on these grounds. Rather the reason why I struggle with these more spectacular moments of Dune is precisely tied to why I like other parts of the film. In short it’s a matter of realism.

There’s an overarching tendency within blockbuster cinema to demand verisimilitude. We call a blockbuster good in part if it makes us feel like the events of the film are really happening. We don’t want to be reminded of the artifice behind it all. And this creates a very powerful tension in Dune. The film is very good at bringing verisimilitude – at bringing a vulgar sort of realism – to its broad, expansive spectacle shots. By comparison every actor excepting one is pushes aggressively against any sort of verisimilitude in their performances. These performances are Dune’s strong-suit. Because verisimilitude in Science Fiction is death.

Science Fiction has always had the potential to be the great literature of the now. Certainly this was the case during the origins of science fiction. Frankenstein didn’t imagine a future where men could reanimate the dead – it spoke to the anxiety of the scientific and industrial revolutions ongoing during the early 1800s. The important part of Frankenstein’s title is it’s subtitle: A Modern Prometheus. Frankenstein was not the Prometheus of tomorrow but rather of the now of the moment it was published. Frankenstein is a book that uses its speculative elements in a metaphorical register to speak to the responsibility of scientists and engineers to socialize their creations. The creature, like any piece of technology, is a moral tabula rasa. What shapes him is how he is used (and abused). Victor Frankenstein’s abandonment of him is a sin of carelessness far more than fear or disgust. That the action of the story is framed upon a doomed sailing expedition where the party, pursuing discovery, have carelessly become trapped in the ice acts to demonstrate this metaphoric register. Frankenstein, like all good science fiction, thus becomes a palimpsest. There are words displayed on the page but this is not where the principal meaning of the text resides.

This is not to say that science fiction should be allegorical. We do not pursue a metaphorical mode to create a one-to-one substitution of objects. Aslan being Jesus is not even approaching this metaphorical mode of fiction. Instead the purpose of the employment of a pervasive metaphoric register is to fold into a text meaning upon meaning upon meaning. The danger of careless discovery pervades Frankenstein but so does a read of nature as cold, cruel and unfeeling. The creature haunts wind-swept mountains and arctic ice. As well as being a piece of technology it is a subject who experiences a cold and indifferent world. The creature is also a product of disrespect to the dead, a theft from the gods. Thus Frankenstein is Prometheus. Meaning, in a great work of science fiction, is a monad from which, as Deleuze describes it, “everything is drawn out of it, and nothing goes out or comes in from the outside.”

This overabundance of meaning is the value of a metaphoric register. There must be an infinity of folds within it containing more and more meaning: lines and lines of text written atop one another such that only the uppermost level can be read directly but which contains, folded under, everything else: the entire moment of time in which it is created. The surface text is a barrier that obscures the full interior while still being a part of the interior, folded over. A great science fiction it creates an inexhaustible text from which nothing escapes, nothing more can go in (it is already fully pregnant with meaning) and from which everything can be draw out.

And this returns us to Villeneuve’s Dune and why it is best when it shows the least spectacle.

Verisimilitude aggressively pushes against inexhaustibility. The realist mode says, “this thing stands for only one thing – the space ship hovering above this plain is simply that – a space ship.” Instead of folding the entirety of now into the text, realism seeks to create a representation of the future that stands only for the surface of the future. Spectacle isn’t exactly a hollowing out. It’s, “an outside without an inside.” Realist spectacle can show us anything as long as what it shows us is as exactly that thing as it might possibly be. Ultimately these attempts to construct a verisimilitudinous future are the construction of a facade – something with doors and windows but no interior – holes but no void. And as Laozi reminds us it is the void that is,

“Empty yet structured,
It moves, inexhaustibly giving.”

Studiolio de Fransisco I

This monadic dialectic – a palimpsest where meaning collides and an inexhaustible, inescapable void – is something Deleuze captures handily in his reference to the Studiolio de Fransisco I. Deleuze describes this as a first out-flowing of the baroque: a hidden room where the prince could hide, conduct research, and store his precious objects – a bank vault and a laboratory both and (fitting for our purposes) one dedicated to Prometheus.

But this then lets us situate our metaphoric register as a baroque mode. The baroque was, to the people who first coined the term, a state of absurd complexity; much like a palimpsest which can thus become the template for the baroque within text.

And the thing is that this is something that Villeneuve does quite well in Dune whenever big space ships are absent from the scene. Much of his film consists of two people having a conversation in which far more is said than what is said.

REVEREND MOTHER MOHIAM
I hold at your neck the gom jabbar.
A poison needle. Instant death.
This test is simple. Remove your
hand from the box, and you die.
PAUL
What’s in the box?
REVEREND MOTHER MOHIAM
Pain.

What’s most interesting about the Gom Jabbar scene is what is changed and excluded from the initial text. Rather than the perspective remaining on Paul reciting the Litany Against Fear in his mind we cut back and forth between Paul inside and Jessica, standing guard outside, unsure if her son is dead. Meanwhile the Reverend Mother’s description of the purpose of the test is winnowed down. Rather than explaining the eugenic project of separating men from beasts to Paul she simply tells him an animal caught in a trap will gnaw off its own leg and asks him directly what he would do.

This elision of some of the book’s more expository elements combined with the rigidly formal blocking of the scene creates a remarkable transformation in the text. Certainly the eugenicist project of the Bene Gesserit has not been removed. But rather than make the divide between “man” and “animal” obvious and then deliberately place Paul on the side of “man” this text moves the question far more into the register of metaphor. An animal would do this – what would you do? Paul’s internality is far more constrained than in the text of the book from which it is based. And, thanks in part at least to Villeneuve’s excellent direction of people, the performances delivered by Chalamet and Rampling are enigmatic and withdrawn.

This combination of rigid blocking and enigmatic delivery is even more obvious in the scenes of the Herald of the Change and it is obvious that Benjamin Clémentine understood perfectly how to deliver an unreal performance that contained within it inexhaustibility. I do hope to see far more from this actor going forward. In this scene, especially, we, as an audience, get a sense of the monumental and the portentous from subtleties of gesture and inflection.

This scene, and the later scene where we are introduced to the Sardukar suggest a ritualized way of life and a very other sort of subjectivity on display on the screen. We can see the fifty thousand years of religion and politics we are supposed to feel under the skin of Dune here in this scene. It is a palimpsest.

In all of these scenes, and in fact in nearly any scene in this film involving its human characters who aren’t named Duncan Idaho, it seems like the direction received was to avoid a naturalistic performance in favour of this reserved, enigmatic ritualism.

But what use is inexhaustibility and what does that have to do with science fiction as the literature of the modern? Well, this is why I am of mixed opinions of Villeneuve’s Dune. Because whenever we cut away from the interactions between people in favour of their vehicles and of the worms the movie returns to being a normal spectacle-driven blockbuster – a carefully painted facade – no longer an interior without an exterior but rather an outside that opens onto other outsides. By trying to imagine what a real space ship or a real ornithopter would be like the film opens up too much. It stops trying to be deep black water and becomes instead a window into a possible imagined future.

And this is all rather useless for doing that thing which Science Fiction is best suited for as a literature, which is to point toward the present. Dune is ultimately a story about how the weight of history invades the present. Fremen war with imperial nobles because of the history of the Zensunni wanderers. The wanderers are in the vast beyond of space because of the vast religious upheavals of early space travel. Paul’s prescient power arises from a more perfect understanding of the past. Dune, as a film, thus is in a perfect position to reflect on the present moment as it was formed through its historical antecedents. There is none of that in a hyper-stylized gleaming chrome torus hovering above a desert. You can pack so much more into the riot of Sardukar ritual and the twist at the end of a herald’s smile.

The purpose of science fiction is to make a monad of the present, to encapsulate it all and fold it baroquely into itself such that we make of the present an origami doll like E. Gaff in Blade Runner. While the folds may produce the shape of a rocket, a robot or a giant worm, what matters is that they contain within them everything of their moment. Science fiction explodes into the future because the future is the only space big enough to hold everything in the present, no matter how tight the folds. Simply put the spaceship isn’t the point of science fiction. It’s merely what it looks like all folded up. This is how The Player of Games manages to be a space opera, a spy thriller, a story about a board game tournament, an essay on the relationship between linguistics and ontology and an anarchist political tract all at once. Banks, a master of Science Fiction, has folded all these late 20th century concerns together into the board of Azad. This is likewise how more recent experts of science fiction such as Leckie, Rajaniemi and Muir go about the construction of their stories. Ancillary Justice, The Fractal Prince and Harrow the Ninth occupy the monadic position that Banks achieves so deftly and that Villeneuve almost achieves in Dune whenever he isn’t endeavoring to show us beautiful photographs of shapes in space. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that a through-line of The Player of Games, The Fractal Prince, Ancillary Justice, Harrow the Ninth and Villeneuve’s Dune are ontological questions where we are invited to ask how the protagonists experiences the world and what gives shape to that experience. This becomes a method for drawing forth metaphor from the inexhaustible void at the heart of these great works of art.

Ultimately this creates a paradox. Science fiction tells us something real best when it is least interested in a verisimilitudinous sort of realism. Within cinema this is what sets apart great works of science fiction like The Matrix Reloaded from the mass-produced dross of empty spectacle. Science fiction can best do what it must by reveling in its artifice and refusing to be realistic.

The Snip

Pictured: very small scissors.

Yesterday saw the flatulent release of yet another always-already tired culture war publication with the unveiling of Compact upon an unhappy public. The main event of this publication was a Slavoj Žižek movie review for Moonfall and Don’t Look Up which served as a platform from which Žižek could deploy his patented blend of Lacan and Hegel to argue for a dialectical and psychological reading of active conspiracism and passive liberal platitude in the face of catastrophe.

It was very typically Žižek and if you have read literally any other media criticism by the famous philosopher you’ll recognize it all too easily. Frankly the best thing I can say for Žižek’s article is that it was clear he at least watched Moonfall, which makes this review more rigorous than some of his other 2022 content. But we’ve seen this schtick before and it seems increasingly like Žižek is a one-trick pony. This was ultimately far too predictable and, frankly, dull to serve as the basis to a rejoinder to the Compact crowd.

Rather it is a second article in Compact’s initial slate that drives home the sad absurdity of this social-conservativism-with-healthcare style publication. That is the toweringly stupid piece “The Case Against Aesthetic Castration” by Adam Lehrer. If only Žižek had looked for idiocy among his fellow contributors rather than in nature this publication might have been interesting. Instead it becomes yet another piece of culture war panic only dressed up in pseudo-academic language and dancing around in the visual arts.

Lehrer begins this article by stuffing his preferred strawman with Andrea Dworkin’s hottest 1980s takes and then proposing that the 2017 MeToo movement represented a form of castration wherein the libidinal investment of men in the arts was cut off.

What follows is an all-too-predictable format for this particular brand of culture war salvo: a series of broad and laughable generalizations supported with a handful of anecdotes that try to present how reasonable his fear of a woke-too-far position is.

Lehrer brings attention to accusations of impropriety leveled by Julia Fox against Chuck Close, being sure to mention that Close uses a wheelchair in doing so. It’s obvious he’s trying to frame this as a narrative of unfair victimization. He elides that Close was caught up not in one comment to one model but in a pattern of behaviour documented over the course of over 20 years. In doing so he actually misses a potential defense of Close in that, after his death, his neurologist proposed his declining comportment may have been a consequence of frontotemporal dementia. This is because, to the culture warrior, a person is best reduced to a single anecdote. “An injustice happened here, once, and taken alone it invalidates all attempts to change power relations,” they seem to say.

He then goes on to lament the good old days when heterosexual men could sell more paintings of naked women without feeling shame. He provides no evidence that such shame truly exist unless you posit the only way to hire a nude figure model would be to trick a woman into your studio under false pretenses and then, while alone, ask her to disrobe while making sexual comments to her.

Nu Couché au coussin Bleu – Modigliani

Now far be it from me to demand less sex in art. And while I’m not exactly heterosexual my taste is quite broad and I’m not the sort to declare a sexual male gaze in art to be an intrinsic moral peril. (Women are hot and I’m a man. That I also think non-women are also hot is neither here nor there for my relationship to gaze in art.) Let he who has never advocated for Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers and who has never waxed on about the power and beauty of Matisse and Modigliani’s figure work cast the first stone. I mean while this bilious culture-war missive was being published I was engaged in a public debate over the relative quality of Egon Schiele, an artist who was known specifically for figure-paining of women.

Rather I would deny his premise that men are forbidden from investing their desires in work is a valid premise. I mean, Benedetta came out just last year and last I checked Paul Verhoeven was a man. He certainly isn’t an aesthetic eunuch. But Lehrer complains that the female nude has been banished from art just on the basis of absence of figure painting from a single recent MoMA exhibition.

He then turns to disavowing that counter-examples of men getting along just fine depicting heterosexual desire count, excluding them because this man is too rich to worry about being cancelled, that man is only allowed because his subject is his wife, etc.

What results is a castration of the gaps wherein a problem of men not being allowed to express desire exists but with an increasing series of increasingly ludicrous exceptions. And yet we are made to feel this is some sort of crisis? Ultimately his pronouncement is that, “Male artists must reclaim their manhood,” though he fails to prove any men ever actually lost it. Of course he must make exceptions by excluding homoerotic desire from manhood. By excluding love of a wife from manhood. By cutting and cutting and cutting away at male desire so that all that remains is a fading old painter, wracked with dementia, leering and making naughty comments at a model. I suppose that, if one has such a tiny and impotent view of male desire, the exclusion of that small element might seem like a castration. But the only one cutting at masculinity in these circumstances is Adam Lehrer. If he is afraid of castration so terribly perhaps it’s time he put down the scissors.

Taxonomies

Recent discussions in genre have had one central question at their heart: how coherent is a category? There is a camp of critics who feel that it is the duty of their compatriots to provide clarity with regard to categorizations. To do otherwise is to invite sloppy thinking and the risk of error. On her essay, “How To Define a New Subgenre/Trend: The Speculative Epic and an Addendum to the “Squeecore” Debate” Cora Buhlert, a veteran SFF blogger and critic, sets out very specific criteria for how to go about identifying an artistic phenomenon citing the example of Lincoln Michel as an exemplar.

Buhlert defines very carefully what she sees as the correct method to approach this topic, saying, “I have identified a trend and here are some examples of people who have noticed it, too, as well as some examples of works that fit into that trend. I propose this name for it (a name that’s not derogatory) and it has this characteristics. It’s also part of a larger trend towards genre-bending fiction.”

She also provides a guide to what is absent from Michel’s work and which she thinks other critics should avoid saying, “What this article notably does not include is snarky asides against authors and books that Lincoln Michel does not like, buzzwords like “neoliberal” and issues that are worth addressing but have nothing to do with the subgenre in question. Also, Michel offers solid criteria for defining speculative epics and not criteria that are so vague that they apply hundreds of things up to and including Shakespeare.”

Buhlert tips her hand saying that she is very interested in, “literary trends, subgenre formation and genre taxonomy.” Now quite a lot could be said about Buhlert’s declaration of “neoliberalism” to be a buzzword as “buzzword” tends to imply a fuzziness in definition that allows a word or phrase to be used in a broad and inexact manner. The general sense I get from Buhlert is that she isn’t particularly fond of the broad and the inexact. But beyond that it’s worth noting that the word that gets Buhlert’s goat, in particular, is reference to a pervasive political ideology. It’s certainly the case that many people use “neoliberalism” inexactly. But considering that the impact of neoliberalism, with a very careful delineation of what is meant by such, is a principal concern of this blog I’d suggest that what concerns Buhlert is the idea of the political invading the dispassionate work of the taxonomer. Taxonomy is ultimately an attempt to objectively categorize a thing and define its relationship with all other things. If you care about a fixed taxonomy then the politicization of it certainly is a problem. Categorizing works in the past based on their political use in the present screws taxonomy all up.

I don’t mean to pick on Buhlert especially. I cite her as an example because she is an experienced critic with a long-standing and prolific output on genre literature however her position is indicative of a broad general sentiment within genre fiction readership that a taxonomy of fiction is something of value. And it’s critical to note, for this discussion, two things: first that science fiction includes among its readership many people with a particularly close relationship to taxonomies of fiction relative other readerships and second that this is not at all a phenomenon that arose in response to the Squeecore debate which serves as the inciting motivation behind Buhlert’s call for renewed taxonomic precision.

The Classics of Science Fiction blog attempted a taxonomy of genre fiction even going so far as to cite Linnaeus in 2019. The author of this blog, James Wallace Harris, is another long-established science fiction critic who shares some of Buhlert’s concerns regarding the politicizing of genre categorization. “To be told what my favorites should be is incredibly insulting. To me, that’s far more offensive than the Sad Puppies pushing their political agenda at the Hugos.” Harris, in particular, has a very long-standing relationship to the construction of taxa for fiction.

Jacob Ross and Jeoffrey Thane at Latter-Day Saint Philosopher also spend some effort on a taxonomy of science fiction but provide effectively no argument as to why they would do so (unlike the superior work of Buhlert and Harris) so I will only note it as being yet another example and move on from here.

I will provide a final example somewhat more useful than the LDS Phlosopher article from Clare McBride. Notwithstanding some unusual choices in categorization what makes her article about literary taxonomy interesting is in her recognition of the inadequacies of taxonomy, saying, “once we get to speculative fiction, everything gets a lot soupier.” She admits that these taxonomic exercises are somewhat subjective, saying, “But there are some foggy bits between them, of course–quite technically, I should classify Harry Potter and The Mists of Avalon as supernatural fiction, but I don’t. In Harry Potter’s case, it’s the fullness of the magical world, which probably could function quite separately from the Muggle world, and, in The Mists of Avalon, it’s simply because medieval Europe is the generic fantasy setting to the extent I can’t see past it. If it was set in medieval China, would I still file it under fantasy? Perhaps–I don’t know.”

It is interesting to note that McBride prefaces her 2010 essay by discussing the then-current discourse between Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood over what constituted science fiction. Atwood was, at the time, quite reticent to treat her many science fictional works as being within the genre as they didn’t include ray guns and rocket ships. Le Guin rather disagreed with her taxonomic criteria.

What I find most interesting is that McBride was the only one of these critics who seemed interested in what a taxonomy might be for at all. Buhlert and Harris provide taxonomies because they enjoy it. Both of these critics seems invested in the idea that precise categorization is a result of precise thought and that precise thought is good.

This should be unsurprising as both Buhlert and Harris are first and foremost science fiction critics and what is science but a treatment of precise thought as a good? It should not surprise that critics of the fiction of science should aspire to a scientific objectivity and clarity in their critique.

But this raises the question of what art criticism is, philosophy, science or art?

In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari attempt to define the boundaries between philosophy, science and art, saying of science that, “The object of science is not concepts but rather functions that are presented as propositions in discursive systems. The elements of functions are called functives. A scientific notion is defined not by concepts but by functions or propositions,” while philosophy is taken with the creation of concepts – something which they previously define at length. Art meanwhile operates to preserve, “a bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects.” Now of course in proper Deleuzo-Guattarian fashion we can immediately disrupt these neat categorizations by pointing out how art criticism acts as both an art – preserving percepts and affects in the form of the responsive essay and as philosophy – creating concepts with regard to art, developing novel ways to think about art, and that these novel concepts might even include the possibility of a scientific or pseudo-scientific taxonomy of the arts. The lesson that Deleuze and Guattari teach us best is that the best, and most amusing, thing to do with a category is to destabilize it, to pick at the corners and kick at the edges until the whole damn thing falls apart. Their own categories are, of course, not immune to this loving destruction.

So what use then is a scientific notion of art? We can’t just immediately discard it by suggesting that art is intrinsically different from science when a critic might be very interested in presenting functions of literature in a discursive system. But a discursive system implies a test. So if a taxonomy is testing something then what is being tested and why?

Buhlert is very explicit that what is being tested is simply this, “is artwork A part of group X?” Buhlert is very clear that group X needs to be defined such that an intelligible distinction between within group X and without group X can be made – if a category is so broad that anything can be within group X then it’s useless for saying anything about the text.

What all of the critics cited above except for McBride elide is what can actually be said about a work of art by distinguishing it as part of a category. For McBride the question becomes one of establishing parameters for art discourse. We need to know what is within speculative fiction because we cannot otherwise have a productive discussion of the qualities of speculative fiction. However this becomes something of a circular argument: we cannot discuss the qualities of speculative fiction without defining the qualities of speculative fiction but why do we want to discuss the the qualities of speculative fiction? Because they are necessary to identify what is within speculative fiction.

However the particularity of works of art operates against this. Ultimately each artwork is a unique thing. This is why mechanical reproduction is corrosive to artistic quality – each work of art preserves within itself a unique set of percepts and affects. Take, for example, Junji Ito’s adaptation of Frankenstein. It is simultaneously a horror comic, a science fiction story, a gothic, a work in translation, a literary classic and also something quite modern. Placing this adaptation even in a taxonomy of Frankenstein adaptations might be difficult enough. Was Ito more affected by James Wale, Terrence Fisher or Kenneth Branagh? Can we ignore the multitudinous cinematic adaptations he might have seen between when Shelly wrote her book and when he penned his adaptation?

And so our first obstacle to taxonomizing art is that the uniqueness of any given artwork pushes against clearly delineated categorization at all. The second is that taxonomy forces a specific shape upon the history of artwork. Taxonomies are made out of lines and breaks. You trace a line to a point and say, “here the line divides.” Working in reverse you should be able to trace a taxonomy back to the first thing within the set. In the beginning there were single celled life-forms. Then they began to differentiate. We can cut here where fish emerge, here birds, here mammals.

But there is no one first work of art. At best there is the first work of art still preserved but there is ample evidence that art emerges wherever there are people. Art isn’t arborescent. There isn’t any singular source of all art that we could trace back with to find, eventually, a complete category of all things that are art. It’s certainly true that art is in discourse with the past of art but it’s in discourse with the entire past of art. Art doesn’t operate as a tree but as a geology. Some art may occupy a valley, carved out from erosion, and its artists can see the strata of past artworks displayed on its boundaries but this doesn’t make for a full categorization of all art, just for a categorization of historic breaks within this valley. Across the hill may be something completely different. Like a geology the past, present and future of art are jammed together. The past of art might explode like a volcano and leave a new future that occludes what came before. Likewise the new might wash away parts of what came before and expose hidden truths about fiction. The history of art is not like a tree: it is far too dynamic. And categorizing objects within dynamic systems is a messy and inexact business.

When we look at cyberpunk how do we define what is in and out of it? We can set up taxonomies but if every urban science fiction where an information network and massively powerful corporations are major elements of story action is a cyberpunk novel then the Mass Effect trilogy is a cyberpunk video game rather than space opera. After all the whole Noveria plot of Mass Effect 1 is corporate intrigue, the action of Mass Effect is centered around urban hubs like the Citadel and Omega and the extranet is a pervasive story element, as are VR visualizations of data, particularly during the Geth story lines of Mass Effect 2 and 3.

Of course this is an absurd categorization. And yet.

Perhaps the problem is the urge to categorization. But of course this raises a central problem of identification. There has to be some difference qua difference for objects to exist at all. It’s an easy short circuit to make the difference a negation: it is science fiction if it is not any of the things that are not science fiction. However this gloss of science is a straight-jacket for a critic. Why would I want to talk about Jin Yong while eliding Dumas? And if we’re talking about Dumas how can we but talk about Scott and Hugo both?

But how much of The Hunchback of Notre Dame could we possibly find in The Book and the Sword? Genres and subgenres are territories on a map but they’re not mutually exclusive territories. And, of course, a territory isn’t the same thing as its boundaries – in fact a territory comprises everything that is not the boundary of it. This is to say that it is fully possible to identify that a territory exists without understanding, let alone articulating, its outline. We can see the stuff that is the territory quite clearly even if we don’t think like a state and demand a clear line be drawn around it.

Furthermore, since art criticism is an artistic response to art and since art is the preservation of affects and perceptions we cannot have an objective criticism that ignores the affective character of art. As such any identification of a territory within art will include within it affective judgments. This art fits here in part because it made me feel this way; even SF critics understood this when they valorized sense of wonder which is a fully affective reaction to a genre. And this means that, yes, some categorizations of art will be derisive in character. They are those artworks that made the critic feel derision. But this means an objective measure of art is missing the entire point. Art is that which we cannot possibly be objective about.

In the end I don’t think taxonomy is a productive use of a critics time. Our first order of business should be the creation of art – the preservation of percepts and affects, the direct artistic response to another work of art. Our second order of business should be the creation of artistic concepts – creating new ways to think about art.

This careful sorting of art into delineated categories is neither.

It is definitely good for a critic to refer to specific work. After all a percept or an affect is best preserved by being present. Zizek’s review of the Matrix Resurrections, which he did not see, is a perfect example of how this can be simultaneously reified and also destabilized. It does preserve his affect toward the film even in the process of declining to watch it, a truly artistic response to a work of art but one dependent upon reference to the artwork nonetheless. But when creating concepts it’s unnecessary to do so with exhaustive scientific precision. This philosophical mode of criticism is not science nor should critics aspire to be scientists. It’s enough for a critic to say I saw it here and here and here. There is no impetus within the form of criticism to say, “it cannot possibly arise here. It is bounded by this line.”

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) hates America

There’s a scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre where Lila, a sheltered city girl whose minimal script development leads us to believe is troubled but who may also be a victim of her sister’s emotional abuse more than anything else, confronts Richter, a coal-rolling gun-toting mechanic who is deeply anxious about the pernicious influence of invasive species why he’s such a nihilist and he acts very confused by the question.

She clarifies that his fume-spewing truck is hastening the climate apocalypse and he diverts this with a paean about how he doesn’t like being told what to do. Of course this isn’t an answer at all. But this is because asking Richter why he’s nihilistic, in the context of this film, is somewhat akin to asking a fish why it is wet.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre hates all its characters, except perhaps Leatherface, so completely that they can’t help but be nihilistic. They exist only to die. This creates a problem of sympathy. You have none for any character except the man who wanders around wearing the recently sliced off face of his dead guardian and silently murdering every person he encounters with brutal efficiency. While watching the film I struggled to even gather what these sketches of American failure were named. I never caught Ruth’s name at all prior to her death, nor Richter’s. I figured out Dante’s name 30 seconds before Leatherface began killing him. As is often the case in Texas Chainsaw movies the deaths of our protagonists tend to be drawn out affairs that focus on the total abjection of the subject and this is definitely the case here even if this is realised principally via a tendency for apparently dead characters to come back to life long enough to move the plot forward slightly before fully expiring.

The setup for this instalment of Texas Chainsaw is that Leatherface disappeared after the events of the first film. OG final girl Sally Hardesty became a Texas Marshall and spent the intervening years hunting for the killer but unsuccessfully. As one character points out, it’s hard to catch somebody when you don’t know what they looked like and Leatherface wears a mask.

Our protagonists blunder into this hunt in the form of a car-full of enterprising urban investors who have worked with a bank to purchase (almost) all of a ghost town in rural Texas with the idea of creating a millennial outpost of Austin where they can create a kind of liberal utopia.

They are stopped by a creepy sheriff who encourages them to be respectful of the locals and of course promise to do so. There’s a sense of racial tension around the scene as Dante appears to be the leader of the thrust to gentrify the ghost town and he is also black. The sheriff eases up on his, “y’all best move along” act when Melody, the emotionally abusive older sister, speaks up to mention she was originally from the region.

Things devolve when the gang arrive in town and discover a tattered Confederate battle flag hanging outside a dilapidated orphenage. Dante insists it has to come down because it would upset the investors and he rushes into the supposedly abandoned building to find that the proprietor is still living there: a very frail old woman. Also a resident is one final charge of hers who she insists requires special care and who cannot possibly handle the world outside.

The protagonists argue with the woman over the flag in the process of which she says some remarkably racist things and the situation devolves to the point where the police are called to remove her. Dante is quite certain he owns the building and that she was supposed to be gone already. She insists it was merely a mix-up with the bank and that she still has the deed. The stress of the altercation causes the old woman to have a heart attack and the police drag her out without her oxygen tank to take her to the closest hospital. Her last charge goes with her. She dies en-route thus reigniting Leatherface’s blood lust.

It should be obvious by this point that we shouldn’t like any of these people. The locals suck. The old woman (apparently named Mrs. Mc) is a racist old piece of crap. Luther is the worst possible example of a good ol’ boy. The police are racist, hostile to outsiders but also quite willing to drag an ailing woman out of her home without her medical equipment because somebody with the backing of a bank said so. The city liberals may be remarkably devoid of racism and sexism but they reek of un-earned self-righteousness. They are an invasive gentrifying force collaborating with a bank to push out the poor hicks left behind by American decline in order to create a party-town for Austinites who want to LARP small-town life. They assume they own the orphanage when it transpires Mrs. Mc is right and she remains the rightful owner and they act upon that assumed ownership with arrogant self-assuredness.

A line from the trailer involves a bunch of people on a party bus photographing Leatherface as he revs his chainsaw. One of them says, “Try anything and you’re cancelled bro.” It stirred up a lot of discourse on Twitter for how fucking cringe the line is. And it’s not any better in context. Except, like every single line of dialog in this film it serves a singular purpose: to make you hate all these people.

This movie attempts to create a microcosm of American culture in the town of Harlow and then to show every single person within that microcosm as being beneath contempt. There’s not a single person worthy of even the slightest ounce of sympathy.

This is good because they will receive none. Over the course of the film Leatherface kills them all. Leatherface, who never speaks a line, is the only one we see experience a sincere emotion other than anger or fear when he grieves the death of Mrs. Mc. The fact that he then cuts off her face to wear as a mask is neither here nor there. The gaze of the camera allows us to sympathise with him before allowing him to terrorise and dispatch the police and Ruth. This movie seems all over the place because it displays such obvious contempt for the racism, insularity and ignorance of our hicks in the very same scene that it shows us the arrogance, selfishness and hypocrisy of our urban liberals. But when Sally re-enters the scene it tips its hand and this scattered opening with its uniformly detestable and largely forgettable protagonists becomes clear.

By the time Sally discovers Leatherface is back almost everyone is dead. Only Mel and Lila remain. Sally traps them at gunpoint and uses them as bait to draw Leatherface out. She confronts him demanding recognition but she doesn’t get it. Leatherface doesn’t remember her even as she’s devoted her whole life to hunting him down. He impales her with a chainsaw. It is a cutting rebuke for how recent Halloween films have used Laurie Strode. There’s no redemption to be found in a cathartic exorcism of trauma here. It’s just another avenue for cruelty.

The kills in this movie are uniformly excellent. There’s a flat physicality that this movie successfully inherits from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Being murdered hurts. And we see many people suffer extremes of abjection that never spill over into farce. Some people run and die. Some people fight and die. Some people scream and cower and die. Some people never even see death coming. But, uniformly, when death comes, it sucks. The kills aren’t the sort of ironic nods of Jason’s later ventures nor are they the almost farcical theatrics of the Scream series. They’re brutal, beautifully executed, and drive home that each one is the ending of something that is better off gone.

The bus massacre is particularly well-executed as Leatherface cuts his way through a massive crowd of people who scream and ineffectually try to run from him as he cuts them down one by one with his saw. It reminded me most of the Darth Vader corridor murder from Rogue One – or rather the Darth Vader horror movie that some Star Wars fans wished could follow from that scene. Here it is. An implacable man in a mask, wielding a technologically augmented blade, cutting down a host of confined victims who are entirely unable to protect themselves. Bon appetite.

Leatherface has been powered up a bit in this, able to shrug off multiple stab wounds, shotgun blasts and even a taste of his own saw. He is also strong enough to bring a moving bus to a stop… somehow. He’s also a silent implacable killer. It may be the case that Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees have their origin from him but it is equally true that this iteration of him is influenced by contemporary portrayals of Michael and Jason. Leatherface isn’t a crazy guy in a mask (well he is but he isn’t only a crazy guy in a mask) he is an unstoppable force of annihilation.

After Leatherface kills Sally there is a final confrontation in which Mel and Lila attempt to put him to rest. They almost seem to succeed but this turns out to be a fake-out and the movie ends with Leatherface cutting Mel’s head off and swing it wildly around with his chainsaw as Lila, facing backward out the sunroof of a moving car screams to her vehicular death. Nobody survives.

Nobody deserves to survive.

In the end, Texas Chainsaw Massacre looks at this microcosm of America it constructs and says the only thing to do is to chop it to bits with a chainsaw. America deserves the abjection experienced in the slow deaths of Dante, Mel and Lila but abjection is not redemptive as it is in much of the slasher genre. There’s no redemption here. There is harrowing and there is the grave.

Truck Nuts

Truck nuts are just that — nuts

Throughout the month of February, Canada has been gripped in a slow-moving crisis involving a group that calls itself the Freedom Convoy occupying Ottawa with a loud and often threatening assortment of tactics, blocking international crossings such as the Ambassador Bridge and generally being a nuisance on the roads.

The claim of this group is that their principal motivation is that they are protesting against a vaccine mandate for truckers who cross the border between Canada and the United States. Presently such mandates for COVID-19 vaccination are required by both Canada and the United States. Also presently compliance among truckers is over 90% within Canada. Furthermore this convoy is not supported by the labour movement that represents Canadian truckers with Teamsters Canada, calling the convoy a “despicable display of hate lead by the political Right and shamefully encouraged by elected conservative politicians.”

This convoy is principally composed not of long-haul truckers but rather of private citizens most of whom drive pickup trucks or SUVs. This is categorically not a protest of truckers nor for truckers. However, thanks to a leak of donation data from Give Send Go we can see certain things about the composition of the active supporters therein.

The largest single named donor to this convoy was an American billionaire. The largest Canadian donor is a New Brunswick small business owner. Within the PEI data, which I have reviewed with some level of detail, approximately half of those donors who could be identified at any level of support were entrepreneurs or small business owners. The largest PEI donation (listed at $700) was paid directly by an eavestrough business. This convoy is not in support of truck drivers but rather of small and medium business owners with the explicit financial backing of American billionaires and crypto investors. The majority of donations (roughly 56% of recorded donations) came from donors in the United States. (Before anyone brings it up, 12 of the nearly 93,000 donations came from Russia.) So this is who this convoy serves: Canadian and American Petit-Bourgeois entrepreneurs. Mostly Americans.

The stated goals of the convoy are to ease restrictions related to COVID-19 however most of these restrictions are time-limited and set to expire in coming months. This was already known in late January when these protests began. So if the convoy could achieve their goals in a reasonable timeframe doing nothing why did they bother to come out and protest?

Well it’s because their goals aren’t really to have COVID restrictions eased.

Frankly the convoy is not a protest. It is a show of force. And so far it has been stunningly successful.

Here’s what it has accomplished:

  • The ouster of the vaguely moderate federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole
  • The revelation that the police cannot be trusted to protect Canadians against the threat of far-right violence and that organized labour is too weak in this country to confront them directly
  • Free harassment of the citizens of the national capital
  • Airtime from news media outlets
  • A lot of money funneled to far-right figures in Canada from far-right figures in the United States; much of this money is being transmitted not via operational fundraisers like Give Send Go but rather via distribution of cryptocurrencies.

About the only thing this convoy has been unsuccessful in doing is ousting the Trudeau government – but the have struck a blow to his governance which has been weak, indecisive and overly-cautious throughout the crisis.

So what we have is a show of political force being put forward with the explicit backing of the petit bourgeois in defense of capitalist interests and in the face of crisis. As early as 1931 Leon Trotsky had that clocked as the material basis of a fascist movement. Despite his criticisms of Marx’s definition of the proletariat this is a point that Reich agreed with in The Mass Psychology of Fascism when he said, “As is done in every reactionary movement, Hitler relied upon the various strata of the lower middle class for his support. National Socialism exposes all the contradictions that characterize the mass psychology of the petty bourgeois”

We know this dance.

Communists, anarchists and other anti-fascists have spent the last two years trying to warn anyone who would listen about how the far-right, all these modern by-blows of fascism, have integrated into the anti-vax movement and how they’ve used this alliance to position themselves with increasing power. We explained anti-masking when the mainstream were bewildered by it. We explained how naturopathic concepts of cleanliness and purity fed into fascist fear of the other and everybody thought we were being hyperbolic.

Well now they’re here in force. Journalists are peeling the decals off their vans because they’re afraid of being identified. Tow truck operators are standing aside because they’re afraid of retaliatory violence. And the police don’t have the will to stop these neo-fascists from doing whatever the fuck they want. Don’t dare try and say we didn’t warn you.

But this presents us with a problem. Because, quoting Beauvoir, “When a young sixteen-year old Nazi died crying, “Heil Hitler!” he was not guilty, and it was not he whom we hated but his masters. The desirable thing would be to re-educate this misled youth; it would be necessary to expose the mystification and to put the men who are its victims in the presence of their freedom. But the urgency of the struggle forbids this slow labor. We are obliged to destroy not only the oppressor but also those who serve him, whether they do so out of ignorance or out of constraint.” You don’t surrender public squares to fascism. A response is required and the desire for the government to do something is fully justified. But part of the problem here is the complete abdication of responsibility by an intransigent police force that seems very supportive of these far-right figures. Our supposed political leaders seem unable to command police to deal with fascists as they would with First Nations activists. As such, new laws prohibiting vehicular blockades and occupations or categorizing these economic actions as terrorism are undesirable. There’s plenty of existing law that could be used against these fascists. The police are demurring from doing so. New laws just give the police-allies of fascism new tools to oppress enemies of fascism.

One of the principal preoccupations of Marcello Tari’s very challenging eschatological work, There is no unhappy revolution. is the position of the strike in modern revolutionary praxis:

“{In the new form of strike} there is no classic demand of future closure – something that became even more explicit during the revolt against the French labor laws – but expresses itself instead through the blockages of normal social functioning on the one hand, and the immediate material transformation of life and how we think about life on the other. The more intense the form of the strike, the more intense becomes the ungovernable nature of the form of life that expresses it.”

Simply put, in 2017, Marcello Tari was telling communists that they should be occupying cities and disrupting metropolitan economies. The problem is not that disruption has occurred but rather the who and the why of the matter. A fascist revolution will not create those new and ungovernable forms of life that represent the eschatological beyond of the revolution on the threshold Tari wants to prophecy. The real desire of these movements is to put things back to how they were in 2019. Just with a little bit more death. So we cannot use these movements. We must remove them. But we must do so in a manner that will not foreclose upon the left or our allies making use of similar tactics in the future.

An ideal solution would be for organized labour to remove these occupiers. The streets they honk their horns down do not belong to them and there is justice in removing them. If police will not do so citizens should. But if labour is unable to accomplish this task we still must remove these people from our streets and we must do so without the police as the police have made it entirely clear they intend to do nothing at all. This means that a critical thing we can do is to give support to Ottawa area resistance to these demonstrators.

I know some socialists have declared the convoy “a distraction” from the real work of dismantling capitalism but I have to take issue here. Fascism is the old enemy in its most visible form. It is the mobilization of capitalist violence without pretense. This is why the police sit back and do nothing. The leaders of the police will say the rank and file are afraid to act. The rank and file will say the brass is restraining them but the truth is far simpler: the convoy are adjuncts of the police establishment. They want an end to mask wearing for precisely the same reason the police do. They feel entitled to see your face and confirm you are allowed. They want an end to biopolitical regulations such as social distancing, reduced capacity at restaurants and other venues, vaccine passes and the like because these measures interfere with the free flow of capital and this is the freedom this “freedom convoy” really cares about. Just like police.

I know this rhetoric, calling for direct action on the part of labour from outside the strictures of law, explicitly criticizing policing as a solution to fascist social disorder, will probably leave NDP-type social democrats feeling very uncomfortable. And that’s good. I’m not comfortable with anything going on in this country right now, are you? Should you be?

Ultimately what we need is a renunciation. There’s no prelapsarian past to return to. COVID has arrived and the epoch has turned. That’s it. We must renounce the very idea that there’s a normal to return to or that we would even want it. I mean were you satisfied with life in this country in 2019?

One more reflection on Tari. I have to admit I am still reading There is no unhappy revolution. It’s not an easy book, dipping heavily from Walter Benjamin‘s Marxist and rabbinical thought, Catholic eschatology and the poststructuralist formations of Deleuze, Guattari and Agamben. But I’ve got far enough into it to put forward an hypothesis about what the book is saying.

In his formation of the Eternal Return, Nietzsche effectively asks us the question, “would you say yes if you had to say yes to absolutely everything?” There is no unhappy revolution. is an inversion of this, asking, “would you say no if you had to say no to absolutely everything?” There are fascists occupying Ottawa and at time of publication the police have done nothing to oppose them. How much are we willing to refuse to remove them?

The inadvisability of publishing intro philosophy textbooks by TV producers: a review of How to Be Perfect by Michael Schur

How to Be Perfect

At the conclusion of How to Be Perfect, Michael Schur proposes an ethic which is essentially derived from Aristotle and Montesquieu modulated vial Rawls and the concept of the veil of ignorance. In the course of establishing this, well let’s be honest, this apologia for the American Liberal order, he states, “Humans have this problem: we’re kind of trapped inside our own brains. Our default setting is to think about ourselves – how to keep ourselves happy and safe and protected.” It’s remarkable that he brings about this statement only at the end of the book, considering its proximity to the Allegory of the Cave, because in the entirety of this book the only thing Schur has to say about Plato is a single sentence stating that he was Socrates’ student and that Aristotle was, in turn, his student.

That’s it. That’s all the Plato. And yet the conclusion depends on this idealist idea of a world entirely mediated by individual minds. Schur’s central ethic seems to come down to two of the Delphic maxims: “Know thyself” and “nothing in excess.” But, of course, in The Gift of Death, Derrida points out that one cannot ultimately serve two masters:

“If I obey in my duty towards God (which is my absolute duty) only in terms of duty, I am not fulfilling my relation to God. In order to fulfil my duty towards God, I must not act out of duty, by means of that form of generality that can always be mediated and communicated and that is called duty. The absolute duty that binds me to God himself, in faith, must function beyond and against any duty I have.”

Ultimately the self is the God to whom Michael Schur must serve beyond and against any duty he has, and for all that he lionises Aristotle’s mean even that council toward moderation must fall away in the defense of the individual. Within this book the greatest ethic is to know thyself. In the end it is Polonius and not Aristotle who is the ethical lodestar How to Be Perfect follows most fervently.

It’s evident that this text has great scorn for utilitarians in specific. This is not surprising, I suppose, from how The Good Place, authored by the same person, problematized the utilitarian urge to quantify the Good starting from its very first episode but what becomes evident here is something that was absent from The Good Place and that is why Schur seems to have such contempt for, “good little Utilitarians.” Specifically he seems uncomfortable at how Utilitarianism attacks the centrality of an indivisible self.

Utilitarianism especially runs the risk of placing a person into an ethical situation in which he might be divided against himself. This is a critical failure. How to Be Perfect cannot entertain that a person should ever have to be divided. All people must be fully individual.

There is a real hatred for Communism in this book. This arises early when Schur posits an hypothetical in which North Korea has undertaken one of the war crimes the United States is notorious for. This is not framed as an absurd reference back to American crime. Far from it. It’s a comical aside about how to make ethical decisions in the face of an implacable Other.

Sometime thereafter the book randomly uses the famous video of a protester during the Tiananmen Square Incident standing in front of a tank as an example of a moral martyr. Of course the identity of the figure from that third-of-a-century old videotape is entirely unknown and we cannot possibly make any comment about his moral character aside from in that moment. Perhaps How to Be Perfect is simply assuming anyone who opposes a communist must be a moral martyr.

This distaste for Communism is most egregious when the text has to tackle existentialism. Schur attacks Sartre for the apparent tension between Absolute Freedom and Being-In-The-World (he doesn’t use the Heideggerian term; he makes it clear very early on he has no interest in learning anything of Heidegger and despite my Sartrean understanding of Heidegger’s concepts I can understand this impulse even if I think it’s ultimately self-limiting however his meaning is clear nonetheless). Schur posits that Sartre’s philosophy is being clouded by his dalliance with communism. He elides that Sartre was fully aware of this tension, saying at the end of Being and Nothingness, “Will freedom by taking itself for an end escape all situation? Or on the contrary will it remain situated? Or will it situate itself so much the more precisely and the more individually as it projects itself further in anguish as a conditioned freedom and accepts more fully its responsibility as an existent by whom the world comes into being? All these questions, which refer us to a pure and not an accessory reflection, can find their reply only on the ethical plane. We shall devote to them a future work.”

But, of course, Schur admits that he couldn’t make heads or tails of Being and Nothingness and, again, fair cop. It’s a very difficult book. But to assume that the final word from Sartre on ethics and existentialism was Existentialism is a Humanism is disingenuous at best. Of course this is something of a joke on my part because Sartre also famously never got around to writing his ethic.

He left that to Beauvoir and this makes her exclusion from this book the only one almost as egregious as the exclusion of Plato. Schur, having refused to read Heidegger because of the Nazi stuff, having refused to read Kierkegaard because he’s too religious and having refused to read Nietzsche as being both too conservative and too catty narrows existentialism down to Sartre and Camus then compares Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus to Sartre’s least-well-received work, an off-the-cuff speech he gave out of frustration, in order to declare Sartre, the communist, wanting.

This book never mentions Beauvoir at all. It certainly doesn’t mention that she, four years after Being and Nothingness, put forth an ethic that attempted to discover the Good from the tension between Freedom as an end and collective responsibility. After all, that would be letting the communists win.

This book does have to eventually cite some Anarchists and Communists. In one memorable moment it comes across an Anarchist utilitarian who puts forward a compelling case for intentionally breaking laws.

The text provides the quote in reasonably intact condition. It even includes the author describing himself as an Anarchist. But the commentary the text provides is to weaken the position, reducing law-breaking to breaking nebulously defined rules and then conceding that he can be morally good in an Aristotelian pursuit of the mean to break some rules so long as nobody is hurt by doing so. The fact that the anarchist thinker who put forward this position was persuading people to prepare for revolution is ignored.

In the same chapter the book constructs an elaborate and very weakly argued defense for why Bill Gates’ charitable giving is a moral good. Schur quotes Thich Nhat Hanh quite a bit. He disagrees with the famous monk while defending Bill Gates as he imagines Thich Nhat Hanh would likely care “more about the person doing the thing than what happened when he did it. The Buddhist view of happiness requires that it be the right happiness – the mindful happiness that comes from devotion to the Buddha’s teachings.”

He does give Thich Nhat Hanh quite a bit of respect – he even cops to the very Buddhist series finale of The Good Place being largely based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings. But he leaves out that the monk once wrote of the Sangha, “We are those who are truly without possessions, we are the true communists.”

This text does this a lot whenever it encounters a communist – something which is somewhat unavoidable if you start involving yourself in a study of moral philosophy. When talking briefly about Ubuntu, it brings up a time that Nelson Mandela was asked about the concept and replied, “In the old days, when we were young, a traveler to our country would stop in our village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, and attend to him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it [has] various aspects…. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question, therefore, is: are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve.”

Now this sounds awfully Marxist. Because Nelson Mandela was a Marxist and applied a Marxist lens to social issues regularly. But Schur footnotes this saying, “Mandela doesn’t elaborate on what he means here. I choose to see “enabling the community to improve” as a nonmaterial kind of thing; meaning, like, when we enrich ourselves we shouldn’t do so at the expense of the community, or in such a way that those around us suffer.” I have literally never read a more egregious footnote in any book than this one.

The text seems almost terrified that an ethical choice might make a person change who they are at an intrinsic level and so its author establishes, “know thyself” as his ultimate good. In one section he ties himself in mental loops trying to justify being a fan of “problematic” artists because he cannot imagine approaching comedy without his love of Woody Allen. He spends most of a chapter splitting various hairs over appreciation of problematic art. I don’t discourage this impulse in a way. Schur is at his very best in this book when he’s talking about artists. These moments are rare but his prose comes alive in a way that it often otherwise does not when he talks about improv theatre. A brief passage in which Schur uses improv theatre practice as an example of Aristotelian virtue is easily the best writing in the book. Honestly my biggest complaint is that I would have preferred that book to a survey that so clearly took the author out of his depth. A book on Aristotelian aesthetics by Mike Schur is actually one that might be worth reading.

It’s unfortunate it is not the book we received.

However it is somewhat telling how much this specific problem seems to trouble him. Schur is caught in a bind because most of the ethical tools he has at his disposal point against contributing to the career of an artist who does actual harm as a side-effect of their work. Examples like Allen, Polansky and Daniel Snyder – the owner of a football team with a famously racist name – are effective tools for picking at the duty of an audience, the actual impact of consuming media produced by these people, the role of shame in ethical decision making and other such questions. But it leaves him in a moral bind because Schur does not seem able to imagine who he would be if he wasn’t a man whose love of comedy came from Woody Allen. And so he has to find some way to justify that he is still good. He is insistent a person must be the end and so the idea that a Good beyond one man such as the movement toward freedom can be an end in itself, that it is neither necessary nor possible for one person to be Good as an intrinsic quality, is something he seems to struggle with.

I have three principal complaints with this book. The first is that I felt it was marred by the omissions of Plato and of Beauvoir. Both would have been necessary to confront in order for the text’s ultimate thesis to hold. It depends far too much on Aristotle to avoid talking about Plato. Considering this is a survey text this omission strikes me as very odd. Beauvoir’s exclusion also rankles because I felt it a disservice to a reading public to slight existentialism in the manner this book did. It would have been better for Schur to say nothing about existentialism than to write the chapter he did on the topic. If you are writing a chapter on existentialism and ethics and use neither Kierkegaard nor Beauvoir it would imply that you should have perhaps read a bit deeper before writing that chapter. If you are writing a survey and you don’t feel you have the grounding in the material to speak on it there’s no shame in moving along.

The second is that I found the knots this work ties itself in to protect the capitalist order frustrating. Shur’s reading is weakest whenever a philosopher is suggesting that, perhaps, there should not be billionaires at all, that charitable giving is not the most efficient method of redistributing wealth, or that a self should not be an end of ethics.

This leads to a reading of Utilitarianism so visibly contemptful that I found myself actually wanting to defend Jeremy Bentham of all people. This book implies Bentham was a pervert and spends nearly as long going over the gory details of Bentham’s idiosyncratic funeral arrangements as the actuality of Bentham’s work. Strangely it never even brings up the Panopticon which would, you know, be where I would probably start if I wanted to attack Bentham’s ethics.

Instead most attacks on Utilitarianism are abstracted. Rather than quoting a Utilitarian the text will often propose an ideal Utilitarian who is compelled to obey the extreme limit opinion of various classical ethical thought puzzles, mostly those composed by Philippa Foot. Again it’s worth noting that Schur does seem to have a solid grasp on Aristotelianism. I would have preferred not to have more than one chapter just on the variations on the Trolley Problem though. He did this material far better in the Good Place. Michael’s diabolical maximum-kill solution was an excellent joke.

But it was short.

Getting through a whole chapter of, “but what if he was a famous violinist?”, “but what if you knew her?”, etc. was a slog.

If this book were funny then all this critique of the incompleteness of reading it demonstrates, all these complaints about how the book flinches away from criticizing Capitalism or accepting any Communist premise, all these arguments about how the book shows contempt for Utilitarians without seeming to have engaged deeply with their texts might be irrelevant. It would just be a funny book telling jokes about philosophers.

If it were funny.

This is my third complaint. The Good Place was funny. I laughed a lot. The actors in it had great comedic timing but, what’s more, the script was funny. But, whether these jokes were the product of Schur or of one of the writers he collaborated with on that series, something is lost in the transition from situation comedy to non-fiction prose. There are a lot of attempted jokes. They rarely land.

The jokes don’t land in part because, especially when discussing utilitarian moral calculation or Kantian rigidity, they seem petty. And there are occasions where the author will say an explicitly untrue thing in service of a joke – which is something I would avoid when writing a book in which there’s a whole chapter on Kant and how he universalized truth-telling. This book describes moral philosophy as an unbroken conversation of 10,000 years and, I mean, Schur’s clearly read Aristotle, he has to be aware that even there we find breaks in the conversation. Where is Aristotle’s book about comedy? In fact I think I remember him bringing up the fragmentary nature of Aristotle’s corpus later. So I’m sure he had to know. But setting up the joke needed the word “unbroken” in there so here we go.

But I must be fair. At the start of this review I demanded that this book’s divided ethic – know thyself and everything in moderation – must ultimately serve one master and that this master was self-knowledge. Then I’ve set up three complaints against the text. I’ve already shown how, if there had been amusing jokes in the book, I’d have been more open to the obvious gaps in Schur’s reading within those domains he chose to write upon. So if I am to say I serve just one master in this review it is not that of academic rigor. The truth is though that my second complaint – the centering of self-actualization as a principal Good in service of a defense of capitalism is my principal complaint. This is because of how it distorts the three philosophers this text ultimately seems to like best.

From the perspective of Aristotle it’s evident that billionaires such as Bill Gates are not in service of an economic mean. The accumulation of power via wealth into the hands of so few is not the moderating influence of virtues in conflict a “good little Aristotelian” would want to see in the world. I don’t need to construct some bizarre thought puzzle regarding electric lines, football matches and unlucky workers to demonstrate this either, a simple examination of the material conditions of contemporary life suffices.

After all, what is the fruit of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation? It’s the privatization of the AstraZenica vaccine. The primary purpose of charitable giving is not to redistribute wealth but rather to grant to the wealthy another vehicle by which to shape the use of the means of social reproduction and in this case it’s incredibly clear how that worked.

The use of Montesquieu and his sense that knowledge makes men gentle is next and quite vulnerable. First, of course, it’s trivial to point out that how Montesquieu constructed the category of “knowledge” was in service of a colonial project by supposing a knowledgeable colonial class and a barbaric colonized subject. Under Montesquieu’s terms it was seen as a social good to force those who had been colonized into colonial subjectivities – to grant them knowledge and thus gentility. Marx was quick to point out Montesquieu’s failings railing against Montesquieu in one of his spicier letters to Engels in 1859 as a source of the inaccurate monetary theories of one of his rivals.

Marx also includes several cutting critiques of Montesquieu in Capital vol. 1 – mostly, again, to Montesquieu’s construction of value and of the use of precious metals in monetary systems, although he does take a few small shots at Montesquieu’s anti-Tatar racism too.

But Montesquieu is a weak fit for this book’s treatment of self-knowledge as an ultimate Good. This is because Montesquieu was rather skeptical of self-knowledge as attainable at all. An example often cited is in the Persian Letters where, in letter 6 he writes in the voice of Uzbek the despot, “Mais ce qui afflige le plus mon cœur, ce sont mes femmes. Je ne puis penser à elles que je ne sois dévoré de chagrins.

Ce n’est pas, Nessir, que je les aime: je me trouve à cet égard dans une insensibilité qui ne me laisse point de désirs. Dans le nombreux sérail où j’ai vécu, j’ai prévenu l’amour et l’ai détruit par lui-même: mais, de ma froideur même, il sort une jalousie secrète, qui me dévore. Je vois une troupe de femmes laissées presque à elles-mêmes; je n’ai que des âmes lâches qui m’en répondent.” (Apologies for this quote being in French, I couldn’t find a good translation.) The despot undertakes the oppression of his wives and slaves for reasons that aren’t even clear to him. His jealousy isn’t derived from love nor even from hate but rather from a coldness in his heart. He destroys love and doesn’t know why beyond a sense that his slaves are too cowardly to overthrow him.

Not precisely a good fit for “know thyself.”

Finally there is Rawls. This book depends on this liberal to reinforce its Aristotelianism in the face of capitalism much the same way as it does the older liberal Montesquieu. But again an ethical thought experiment cannot go far when it hits the ground of facticity and this is where Rawls’ Original Position crumbles. We are not constantly entering into some form of contract wherein we all agree certain compensations are commensurate to certain duties. Class exists! Classes reproduce themselves! There is no Original Position; there is only ever a contingent struggle over where a position stands. We cannot insert an original moment outside of history wherein these arrangements are agreed upon like the rules to a poker game. I don’t believe great athletes deserve more money than garbage workers; I don’t want a monied economy at all but even if I did I wouldn’t personally value the labour of hit-ball-with-stick-man over the labour of the person who keeps cities from choking to death on their own waste. The Original Position is a fantasy constructed by a man who was far too sheltered from the facticity of people who were not brought up as the middle son of a wealthy and influential member of the American bourgeoisie.

Sunzi showed that a general standing upon a hill would observe his army differently from the same general standing in camp. Subjectivity is always relative its position and all positions are within the world. You cannot escape the world by declaring the entire contents of the world to be within someone’s head and then playing games of the mind to discover an outcome that fits your ideological preconceptions.

And this is ultimately where How To Be Perfect displays its greatest failure. This text is trapped fully and completely within American Liberal ideology. It cannot even recognize an outside to this worldview. The text recoils from contemporary materialism such that it must reframe the most basic Marxist statements, such as that the accumulation of wealth should serve a communal good, and reframes it as immaterial “rising tide raises all boats” rhetoric. At its heart this book is not a guide to being a good person. It’s a guide to being a good subject of capitalism.

The Synecdoche of Prisoners of the Ghostland

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The best way to describe the experience of watching Prisoners of the Ghostland is to imagine trying to watch Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, The Last Temptation of Christ and Yojimbo simultaneously on one TV set such that the images and sounds of all three rise and fall in a strange discordant melody.

Prisoners of the Ghostland is a 2021 film starring Nicolas Cage and Sofia Boutella and directed by Sion Sono in his first release outside of the Japanese market. Some people have referred to it as Sono’s English language debut but that’s somewhat deceptive as a full appreciation for the script of Prisoners of the Ghostland would depend largely on an understanding of English, Japanese and Mandarin. The film includes substantial dialog in all three of these languages and no subtitles were furnished at least in the version I watched. Considering some elements of the production I suspect this to be intentional.

Sono is a name that is likely at least familiar to people in the horror scene as his previous works like Suicide Club, Noriko’s Dinner Table and Cold Fish have attracted significant critical attention. Sono’s work fits very much into the auteur / small-group collaborator mold with their hallmark being a surrealist sort of dream logic: particularly a regular breaking of classical convention regarding unity of place and unity of time. This is certainly the case in Prisoners of the Ghostland but in general what’s striking about this film is its fundamental incompleteness.

Now this might be a strange thing to say about a movie with the complicated and stunning props, practical sets, costumes and action direction of this movie. The entire thing is a maximalist feast for the eyes as every frame drips with artistry. Blocking is, much like in Dune, quite formal but where Dune provided a very operatic blocking this one is more akin to a Dionysian ritual as characters crowd the frame. Choruses cluster around the the coryphaeus like anxious birds, workers haul ropes, roaring and grunting in the background. Cowboys and samurai surround Hero and Yasujiro weapons creating an inward-pointing circle. Every scene is a cacophony of sight and sound as characters speak, chant, shout over each other and snarl like animalistic beasts – often such that the various languages of the film can become garbled and indistinct until you realize the madness has settled into a comprehensible chant. “It stopped. Short. Never to go again when the old man died.”

Every manner undertaken by every person excepting our five principals (Hero, Bernice, Psycho, Governor and Yasujiro) is deeply ritualistic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with as much chanting, even Koyannisquatsi pales compared to this one, and the only films I’ve seen with more time spent on dancing were musical theatre. But even with all this… stuff… people, dialog, dance, swordfights, Nicolas Cage making funny faces (come on you knew he was going to do that), the movie feels like a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

It seems as if this entire lush film was itself a vast synecdoche for some grander story in which its myriad elements become metaphorical referents to… something else. Something outside. As I’ve hinted at before, this film is orgiastic. I don’t mean in some sort of vulgar sense of “containing orgies” which is perhaps good considering how this film problematizes a triangular formation between sex, power and exploitation. Sono conjures such discomfort from the brush of a red-gloved hand on a child’s head that I’m unsure I’d want to see an actual orgy from him. This movie is one of the most libidinally charged works of art I’ve ever seen. Everything is fully sexual.

But, no, this movie is orgiastic in that it plays out its actors in the process of a vast expenditure of jouissance. The chanting, rhymes, choruses and dancing all serve to bring forth a sense of frenzy in the film that bubbles maniacally beneath even its quietest moments. This is a slow burn of a movie. Prior to the climax it deploys violence carefully, in micro-doses. We are allowed to know that Hero and Yasujiro are strong fighters but we see remarkably little of them fighting – especially Hero. Early fight scenes are tinged by a strange reluctance for Yasujiro wherein it seems the death that surrounds him is as much part of the vast life-ritual this film comprises as the dance and chanting. On many occasions other men will attempt to lay the swordsman low without any apparent motive or warning. In one scene a drunken swordsman calls Yasujiro out to fight in the street. An entire gang joins him. The man has no prior history with Yasujiro and the dialog is in Japanese and remains closed to an English speaking audience – a remarkable choice for a pivotal character moment in a putatively English language film. In another scene Yasujiro is called upon to demonstrate his prowess by killing another of the Governor’s men, as a threat to Hero, he does so efficiently and with minimal fuss like he’s taking out the garbage or washing the dishes. The men he fights seem like furies in a frenzy in comparison.

This is all very Dionysian. The camera treats swordfights as every bit as ritualized as dancing and as chants. There is as much menace in memories of women slowly throwing balls up and down as in the samurai’s sword and as much of the rite in his blade as in the chants of the titular prisoners. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche starts by picking at what Dionysos should be taken to mean in the arts, saying of his name, “here spoke—people said to themselves with misgivings—something like a mystic and almost mænadic soul, which, undecided whether it should disclose or conceal itself, stammers with an effort and capriciously as in a strange tongue,” and there is, in this film, an indecision about disclosure. We are brought to understand that Hero suffers under an overabundance of guilt. There was a robbery that went wrong and people died.

Nietzsche situates the birth of the tragic chorus in Dionysos and via Chimera this film includes just that. Chimera is one of the leaders of the titular prisoners who seem to have coalesced around her and Enoch. These are portentous names. Enoch presents as a preacher. He is a bespectacled man with a book he always carries with him, like a holy text. Enoch, of course, was a very holy man, one who walked into Heaven alive.

Chimera is a wildcard among the prisoners. She walk about the place dressed in funeral robes with a haughty air of a queen or a priestess. She speaks exclusively in Mandarin but she is followed by a chorus who translate everything she says into English. Their voices are slightly discordant and this sometimes muddies all but the most perfunctory of questions: “你看什么 – what did you see? 你看什么 – what did you see?” (你看什么? perhaps better translates to “what are you looking at?” and in the moment of the question Hero is lost in reverie of a vision received in a dream. This collapse of temporalities is common in this film. He is looking at / he did see / he will see all at once.) A chimera is a creature composed of many animals, like a coryphaeus surrounded by her choir, but a chimera is also a monster. Bellerophon heroically killed one. Things didn’t go too well for him afterward though.

At this point we might ask whether Prisoners of the Ghostland is a tragedy with the way it deploys both the formal trappings of Greek tragedy and so much allusion to tragic and divine figures. The initial reaction might be to say no. Hero wins! The prisoners are freed! Bernice shoots the governor! Hero slays Yashujiro! But let’s return to Nietzsche and how he, in the frame of the Dionysian, defines tragedy.

Tragedy is, “The highest art in the yea-saying to life.” Nietzsche describes how the flourishing of a situation of over-abundance, of jouissance, gives birth to the need for the Dionysian. Largely fueled by his frustration surrounding the limitations of Wagner, Nietzsche proposes a new flourishing of the Dionysian within music – and this as a new flourishing of tragedy. This moment has yet to come – tragedy remains trapped at the periphery of the arts. Sometimes it is allowed to bleed back in but at best we simply get anti-heroes. And half these are afforded a reprieve from any truly tragic ends, allowed to retire and enjoy a time of peace after the conclusion of their trials. Most everything is tragicomedic these days. But all this seems to propose that Prisoners of the Ghostland is a tragedy. But if that is so it’s certainly not an ordinary one.

The value of tragedy is in its ability to capture the entirety of the human experience; and this entirety includes measures of triumph, abjection and nothingness. The standard format of tragedy as we generally receive it now is a work that orders these elements of the human condition in precisely this pattern. First MacBeth succeeds then he suffers then he dies.

But Prisoners of the Ghostland lurks at the boundary between life and death. The eponymous prisoners are trapped in their zone not by the guns and swords of the Governor but by some quirk of metaphysics – you cannot leave.

Patrolling the border is Psycho, Hero’s one-time partner in crime. Psycho is either a ghost escaped from hell or a man scarred and mutated by a nuclear accident. He may ultimately be both. He materializes and disappears in haze and blinding light. He seems very real until he vanishes. It seems as if Psycho and his followers are the wardens keeping the prisoners in but if they are then their motives are as obscure as the as the way in which they’re persuaded to stand aside.

The first time Hero meets Psycho at the border he is attempting to return to the Governor with Bernice.

She’s lost her voice due to the trauma she’s suffered and this presents a problem for Hero as the Governor has given him only five days to collect Bernice and return with her. He’s wearing a suit covered in bombs and they will explode if he’s late. But her voice can unlock two extra days to return and he desperately needs the time.

The bombs are at his throat (and will explode if he attempts to take the suit off), his arms (and will explode if the sensors in the suit detect that he intends to strike a woman), and his testicles (and will explode if he becomes aroused.)

Hero nearly sets off one of the bombs on his arm in a moment of frustrated pique that Bernice won’t speak but he is able to rein in the impulse to violence fast enough to avoid losing the arm. Soon after the still non-verbal Bernice indicates she’s thirsty and he gives her water. She drinks greedily, taking in too much, and the water begins flowing in rivulets down her chin and neck. Hero becomes aroused (this movie is very libidinal and almost every movement in the film is already invested with a sexualized charge) and the warning on his suit chimes. He leaps away from Bernice but his erection proves harder to subdue than his anger. One of the bombs at his testicles explodes, cleanly severing it, Hero raises it up in his hand and then collapses at the precipice of death.

He has an incomplete vision and returns to encounter Psycho. In his vision we see that partway through a bank robbery Psycho decided, seemingly without reason, that he would rather commit a massacre. Hero fought him and the brawl spilled out into the street but not before Psycho killed several people including a child. In the street police were waiting and Hero tried to surrender but Psycho decided to fight the cops. Hero ran and the police shot wildly into the crowd, killing several bystanders including Bernice’s mother. Bernice was wounded and was selected by the Governor to be one of his “granddaughters” in this moment. Hero discovers that the guilt he’s been feeling is not for having killed but rather for having survived as innocent people died in his stead.

After Hero returns from his vision Psycho’s followers try to separate Hero from Bernice and in the chaos of the melee the suit misinterprets his attempts to protect Bernice as an intent to strike her. The moment the bomb on his arm explodes Psycho shoots it off and Hero is still injured but not as badly as he might have been. It’s actually quite unclear from the action whether Hero’s wound is made better or aggravated by what Psycho does and while he doesn’t lose the limb he does lose use of the hand on it.

This moment of excess pain pushes Hero into the completion of his vision and he returns with a sense of purpose he didn’t have before. He returns to the Ghostland settlement and rallies the Prisoners. He returns to the boundary and he confronts Psycho – and they reconcile – Psycho forgives Hero for fleeing and Hero seems to absolve Psycho for his misdeeds in light of the misfortune he’s suffered since. Psycho permits the Prisoners to leave the Ghostland and departs, clearing the path for Hero and Bernice to return to the Governor.

Now it’s very unclear in this movie precisely where the boundary between life and death is. While it does seem on the balance that the prisoners were living people trapped in a strange situation there is an equal textual argument that they are ghosts and dead already.

With this in mind it’s not entirely clear during Hero’s two near-death ecstatic experiences whether he’s actually alive and suffering abjection or dead and suffering damnation. The line between abjection and damnation is as blurred as the line between life and death.

Hero is half a martyr. Two half-deaths to equal a whole. Loss of one arm. Loss of one testicle. Rendered half a man. But he replaces his wounded hand with a very phallic metal cylinder out of which his crushed and pulpy hand extrudes obscenely and which is topped by a sword. While not every sword in every movie should be interpreted as a penis this one almost certainly should be.

We find then in Hero this collapse of all things in life inward toward him – he experiences oblivion and returns – twice. He experiences abjection, suffering two symbolic injuries that stand in for a division of the man. He then experiences triumph. As such this film contains that same complete experience that a tragedy provides, “the same thing in a deceptive form,” without tragicomic blunting. Prisoners of the Ghostland is not a classical Greek tragedy but with its wild Dionysian excess and with the completeness of being of its protagonist it may as well be.

But this raises the question of why one would go to the trouble of inverting a tragedy? Why would one go about creating a tragic story – not a tragicomedic one – and then allow its Hero to prevail? To what end?

The other prison in Prisoners of the Ghostland is called Samurai Town.

A few plot summaries refer to Samurai Town as being in Japan but I find the textual basis for this weak at best. Samurai Town contains many Japanese people but they’re all caught in a strangely anachronistic Western gaze of Japan. Bits and pieces of the Western idea of Japanese identity – the Samurai, the Geisha-as-prostitute, smartphone photography and modern cars – all collide in Samurai Town along with a bizarre infusion of the Wild West. There are cowboys who can posse up behind a Sherriff and there are Samurai variously deferential to or homicidal toward Yashujiro. The ruler, the Governor, is like a fetish version of an Antebellum plantation owner. Most, if not all, of the subjects of Samurai Town appear to be his slaves or his enablers. Bernice starts the movie fleeing Samurai Town and into the Ghostland. Hero’s rescue is a recovery of a run-away slave. The Governor doesn’t just demand obedience, he demands familial love and ritualistic centrality. When he drives his sedan down the street it’s slow enough that a crowd of women can surround the black car, walking and clapping as they call out, “Governor,” over and over. Every element of his interaction with the public is ritualized. Clapping is mandatory.

And so this movie is certainly staking a position on a discourse of exploitation and subjectification and it is one that is situated in the historicity of American exploitation of Japan. However Governor’s exploitation extends beyond the construction and subjugation of a racial other and into misogyny – the women in Samurai Town are all his explicit property. They may be his prostitutes or they may be his “granddaughters” but this simply means those women who he’s taken the most perverse interest in. The Governor seems desperate to break the incest taboo but so incapable he has to create slave-relatives in order to fulfill this perverse desire.

The Governor also exploits the men around him in hierarchies of dominance. He forces Hero into the bomb suit and sets boundaries about what Hero can do to Bernice, his property. Her opinion on the matter is not considered by the Governor, just his right of ownership. He also keeps one of Yashujiro’s children as one of his grand-daughters and yet Yashujiro seems resigned to this exploitation. His position is infinitely precarious; the Governor takes no efforts at all to protect Yashujiro from the regular attempts on his life he experiences. But despite his precarity, Yashujiro seems at peace with the situation. Certainly he doesn’t seem to have any qualms about all the killing. It is never clear why he stands for any of it.

Hero does not return to rescue Bernice but to deliver her. Once in Samurai Town and in the face of her “Grandfather” Bernice suddenly knows how to fight with a sword and with a gun. She cuts a bloody path through the Governor’s bodyguards and guns him down. What Bernice does isn’t just revenge though; it’s a signal for a total desertion. One of the Governor’s other prisoners, Susie, helps Bernice and is wounded in the process. Bernice takes her aside and guides her to remind herself that she is not a prisoner. None of them are, the second they choose not to be. Before he dies, the other women the Governor exploited break into his house, steal all his shit, and call him a looser. The prisoners in Samurai Town and the Ghostland alike are free in the moment they choose to be.

Hero’s half-martyrdom allows him to be Bernice’s psychopomp. With him able to navigate the boundary between life and death he can help guide her to her life of liberation. He achieves his liberation from his guilt and grief and the revelation of that liberation helps him show others the path to freedom. But just as Hero could not force Bernice to speak, she had to find her own voice, so too Hero cannot give Bernice her revenge. He can just guide her to where she can take it for herself.

In short this inverted tragedy does what Kill Bill set out to do but, where Tarantino and his team failed, Sion Sono and his team succeeded. What is somewhat more ambiguous then is the way Hero’s fight with Yashujiro unfolds.

Dramatically, Yashujiro is far too much Chekov’s gun not to be fired. An entire movie is set up establishing he is a master swordsman, the greatest killer available to the Governor. It’s unclear why Yashujiro consents to serve this awful little pervert. Certainly he could easily dispatch the Governor. It’s not like the Sheriff or his men pose any threat. Hero, who is Yashujiro’s equal in combat, dispatches half the constabulary in the first thirty seconds of the melee. But where Bernice peels off to help Susie and then hunt down the Governor, Hero stays and fights with Yashujiro.

It’s a gorgeous fight. Well blocked, well lit, well performed. Tak Sakaguchi has such wonderful poise. Every movement is deliberate, every emotion controlled. It’s never really clear what Yashujiro wants except possibly to be left alone for just a minute. Perhaps he is not much more than a death drive – a man who seeks silence, killing and the possibility of oblivion. He dies beautifully and seems at peace with it.

There’s this vastness within Prisoners of the Ghostland. Samurai Town stands in for the way America exploits other countries, how it feels to be perceived via an orientalist gaze. It stands in for how men objectify the people around them, enforce hierarchies of dominance along lines of gender, race and status. It stands in for how a creeping fear for the other can create a situation of much greater actual disorder than that caused by the chaos you try to keep out and it stands in for a chance to have a samurai and a mad max clone enter a life or death battle against a posse of cowboys. Figures like Hero and Governor are given declarative names that assigns them a function in the world more than an identity. Hero is the agent of change. Governor the agent of control. When change brings revelation, control is swept away. Every character and every action unfolds and unfolds into an overabundance of meaning, an overabundance of desire, an overabundance of life. This film is the revitalization of the Dionysian in the form of the tragic but it is a tragedy that postulates that it isn’t enough for our hero to triumph, suffer and die. He must return reborn with new ecstatic energy to point in the direction of universal freedom.

The problem with the middle

I don’t particularly like “middle-brow” fiction for much the same reason I don’t like centrism. This boils down to two basic points:

1. It’s boring, derivative, ultimately small-c conservative and doesn’t foster my sense of the aesthetic ideal of the creation of the new.

2. It kind of doesn’t exist anyay.

Now I want to clarify that I will always heartily defend trash. I came up on horror films and kung fu movies. Give me a piece of total trash like Duel to the Death and I’m as happy as a pig in muck. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes as hosted by Elvira Mistress of the Dark was a deeply formative film to my taste. I love me some trash.

See the thing about trash that is different from “middle-brow” fiction is that trash takes risks. These risks might be inadvisable. They might be poorly executed. They might be pyrrhic examples of somebody misjudging his own constraints and reaching far more than exceeds his grasp. But regardless of the advisability of the risks, regardless of the likelihood of success, trash puts itself out there. High-art is likewise willing to take risks. Often the two principal differences between high art and trash are formal training and budget. This isn’t just the case in cinema but also applies to literary trash like pulps which were trashy in a large part because the author had to churn out content to live. They couldn’t sit around polishing art until it shone because they had rent to pay and mouths to feed.

But we can see this element of broad, explosive, and occasionally poorly-advised creation of the new throughout the pulps. I mean I don’t need to do Lovecraft discourse here, do I? But even beyond that we can see hints of this trash – high-art dialectical collapse in the work of Maurice Leblanc, whose Arsène Lupin stories existed largely to fund his life in Paris but whose inversion of Sherlock Holmes into the gentleman burglar remains a literary influence in French fiction to this day. Lupin is a startling figure. He starts from the established ground of the elite criminal that Foucault describes as stretching “from the adventure story to de Quincey, or from the Castle of Otranto to Baudelaire.” But where Foucault saw these elite criminals as a deactivation of the outlaw hero and the disturbance at the scaffold in favour of an, “affirmation that greatness too has a right to crime and that it even becomes the exclusive privilege of those who are already great,” Lupin reactivates the heroic criminal. His greatness transforms from a position of an elite right to the domain of crime to that of the illegalist activist who can achieve great works, overcome injustices, and also pull the wool over the eyes of paragons of law and order such as the then-copyright-non-enforceable consulting detective Herlock Sholmes.

Looking at Duel to the Death and, beneath the veneer of red-dyed corn syrup and sword-slash sound effects we can also see a serious exploration of how men who should otherwise get along are drawn into lethal conflict by their factional and national loyalties. Hashimoto and Ching-wan appear to like each other but even so it ends with Hashimoto dying and Ching-wan at best maimed for life, having lost an arm and the fingers of his opposite hand. For all that Duel to the Death is trash (and it is very much trash) it remains a creatively vital work that pushed not only the boundaries of good taste but also of nationalistic discourse between two rival countries. This same pattern repeats again in PG: Psycho Goreman, which I previously reviewed.

But though I might talk about a trash / high-art dialectic collapsing this doesn’t mean that trash and high art are precisely the same. Philip Glass takes risks but not the same sort of risks that the Dead Kennedys take. Shadow of the Vampire is a risky film but in a different way from The Toxic Avenger. There is a lot of baggage around the term, “high art” many of which are class-based. At its base, high art is art that takes the sort of risks a bourgeois audience would appreciate. High art must, like trash, be fervently and consistently creative; it stretches constantly toward the new. But high art does this in a manner that imposes barriers that are absent from trash. It might require a deep appreciation for classics of literature, an understanding of philosophy or politics, it may require an understanding of musical theory in order to appreciate the specific ways in which it breaks the laws music theory encodes. This isn’t to say that an understanding of art theory, philosophy, the literary canon and politics is absent from trash; far from it. The difference is that trash, being created as part of the culture industry, must remain open to access without barriers that high art is incentivized to set. There’s not much chance in earning a million dollars from a painting that any uninitiated member of the hoi polloi could appreciate. However this sometimes affords high art both a focus and a level of technical virtuosity absent in trash. Einstein on the Beach attacks the rules of music even more directly than Sonic Youth because Glass has the luxury of greater clarity of aim coming from his lived position as a bourgeois composer.

No. It’s too pat to try and say that trash and high art are the same. But they fall toward the same point in the avant-garde. Avant-garde art is often revolutionary; it is a domain of communists and anarchists. Its art is revolutionary rather than elite. It may be off-putting and hard to approach simultaneous with displaying technical virtuosity but not because of bourgeois class markers but rather by trying to be non-consumable and non-replicable. Avant-garde art is a bitter pill that most people will spit out. It is difficult to recuperate the work of an artist like Chris Burden into consumer structures. Even if the opportunity to spectate his art could be commodified, its non-reproducibility laves it eternally outside consumer culture in the sense of the word Adorno might apply.

Avant-garde art is often obscure and difficult to interpret. Begotten, for example, is literally painful to watch as eyes struggle to focus on the flickering and indistinct organic forms writhing on the screen. Artaud’s theater of Cruelty used no scripts and depended on stunning the audience with light and sound. But the reason why is less to establish a class barrier like a requirement for a formal education but rather to be like a koan – a bit of nonsense that disrupts patterns of thought, that demands an audience think differently using shock and confusion as its tools.

Avant-garde thus becomes the collision point between high art and trash. It is neither but both carry within them its germ. Avant-garde is the disruptive creation of the new that both trash and high art aspire toward in its best realization. And this is where middle-brow art is ultimately lacking. It can never achieve that avant-garde end.

Middle-brow art is very much within consumer culture. It is directly opposed to the avant-garde in that, rather than creating vanguardist barriers of shock and confusion, middle-brow art seeks to be approachable by the largest possible audience. It must be a sufficiently “ripping yarn” that it can be accessed with no barriers but must have enough allusion, clever wordplay, or commodity fetishism within it to appeal to bourgeois and especially to aspirational petit-bourgeois interests. It must be clever but not possessed of any idea so outré as to alienate an audience. It must reflect back at a culture its sense of how that culture sees itself on its best days so as to allow the greatest number of people the sense that it is good art to consume.

Jim Butcher is a strong example of this. He regularly quotes texts that require some education to fully appreciate: Midsummer Night’s Dream and Paradise Lost are alluded to regularly. However the engagement remains very much on the surface. This isn’t William Blake close-reading Milton and discovering in him a great satanic rebellion. Instead it’s a hint that the character of Nicodemus has read Milton and the suggestion that his education indicates something about him as a character. Recognition of the allusion is the only thing the allusion is used for.

The middle-brow artist feels free to draw both from high culture (such as Milton) and from trash (such as the detective noir) in order to create their work but in doing so they sanitize both. The barriers of high culture must be brought down but at the same time the threat inherent in trash must be neutralized. It took Butcher 12 books to do anything actually risky with the misogyny of noir that he’d previously used as window-dressing and then he, not to put too fine a point on it, shat the bed, establishing a story wherein Dresden was required to murder his ex-girlfriend. In fact she even thanked him for it. After that Butcher settled down into a series of increasingly mediocre books in which he tried unsuccessfully to reclaim some of the commercial appeal he had prior to that book. I don’t know if he succeeded because I rapidly lost interest. Frankly there’s nothing particularly risky about having your protagonist do a mercy-killing as a pivotal character moment and that reification of misogyny is not the creation of the new.

And so we have effectively established art as a quadrangle. Trash and high art both feed into avant-garde art, which seeks to disrupt, shock and create the new out of the collision of disparate ideas and that explicitly de-commercializes art and both feed into middle-brow art that seeks to strip them for commercially viable material to replicate. Middle-brow art is the MCU, it’s the Whedonesque and it’s all that those interwoven aesthetic positions have done to film, television and literature in their wake.

But also middle-brow art isn’t fully real.

This is because centers are intrinsically unstable.

I am no fan of centrism. For one it is a fundamentally reactionary position. A centrist always calibrates based on two points. The first is their relationship to the edge of the Overton Window. A centrist wants to sit in the safe middle of acceptable discourse. This can be good! When LBGTQ+ activists forced the hand of the political class and won hard-fought rights centrists mostly acquiesced as soon as they became sure where the safe-middle of the Overton window was. You’re unlikely to find gender abolitionists among the political center but you’re also less likely to find explicit homophobes than you would have been in decades past, unlike those who push at the rightward edge of the Overton window.

But on the other hand, centrists reference themselves by a connection to inertia. A centrist would prefer the political center stay put. They are calibrating their position based on comfort and disruption is uncomfortable. A centrist is slow to change. Gradualist. Incrementalist. The centrist political ideology does not want to give birth to the New.

This, more than anything else, makes the centrist reactionary. They can only respond politically to an external disruption. Left alone, and absent any discomfort, a centrist pursues only a social stasis where the current mode of life is endlessly and perfectly reproduced.

Just as commercial art is endlessly and perfectly reproduced.

This is a problem because the ability to endlessly and perfectly reproduce art hacks at the very fundaments of the value of art. As Walter Benjamin said, “In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art – its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence – and nothing else – that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject.” This is what marks the work of Burden. It’s not that a person was shot that is the central artistic statement of Shoot but that he was shot in a certain place and at a certain time.

And so we return to this point where art that chases after an illusory middle is simultaneously static and in a frenzied chase of the center. It wants nothing more than a stasis in style. When mere-decade old examples of an artistic style are brought forward these centrists of taste say, “but that’s outmoded! What about what happened last year?” But the problem is that nothing much has changed. The frenzied search for a center might have modulated a little bit around some small issues like the mutability of gender or the threat posed by fascism but mostly the middle-brow gathers its history about it and says, “we must remain here in the middle of it all.”

Matt Colquhoun recently wrote a short essay about the alt-right and the hyperreal that absolutely grabbed my imagination. The key thing I think is relevant to this aesthetic discussion of centrists though is the idea that the hyperreal isn’t an irrealism but rather it’s an over-abundance of the real. It represents a crowding out of potential in the face of all this reality. There’s a concept within science fiction discourse: sensawunda. There’s a certain palingenetic sense among conservative fans that sensawunda isn’t what it used to be. The idea of a golden age of science fiction is deployed to suggest that once more wonder was evoked in SF. Conservatives will propose a cause for the failure of sensawunda in the censoriousness of their political rivals. While more centrist voices will either argue that sensawunda is exactly as it always was or is simply irrelevant. The truth is there’s very little to wonder at in modern SFF. Most of the “hard” science fiction is simply reiterating the same cosmological argument between relativity and quantum physics that has held physics in near stasis for the last forty years or is picking at technological solutions to climate catastrophe while “soft” science fiction and fantasy have retreated into self-reflexivity, endlessly prodding at the same problems again and again. Let’s re-litigate Omelas or the Cold Equations. Let’s invert the subject-object relation in Frankenstein (but not really because the point of that book was always to do with inter-subjectivity). As is often the case conservatives identify that there is a problem but are incapable of grasping the nature of it. As a result they propose counter-productive and actively harmful solutions.

However wonder is a rare commodity in commercial SFF. Mostly what these works are about is the reproduction of the present. Fisher’s “frenzied stasis” again. But there’s no wonder in the present. And this is what many of these books want to serve us – the present again – “the same thing in a deceptive form.” There’s hardly anything new in a book about colonialism, city planning and institutional memory. Brunner touched on many of those topics in 1965. And even that parodic reiteration is a breath of fresh air compared to novels that project a retrofuturistic desire for colonial exploration back onto the past and suggest we could have got there if only a rock spun left instead of right. This folding of the past, present and future together is precisely the hyper-real crowding out of the future that traps these middle-brow science fictional stories.

There are, of course, outliers. Jeff VanderMeer’s Hummingbird / Salamander delivers a kind of terrified awe that can pass for wonder by the dingy light of a failing fluorescent at the end of the world and while there’s nothing particularly wondrous in Gideon the Ninth it is at least a novel formulation of the gothic – which is better than nothing. (And I would note that Tamsyn Muir’s mastery of voice makes anything she writes worth reading regardless of other factors.) However I would be hard-pressed to call VanderMeer especially middle-brow in any capacity and both Muir and VanderMeer blur the lines between science fiction and horror enough to avoid the trap of the endless replication of the present in more conventional science fiction and fantasy endeavors.

Elizabeth Sandifer talks about a response to this wonder-less reification of the present into all future epochs in her excellent four tiny essays on SF-F, proposing a mode called “Epic Cold” which encapsulates a coldly clinical approach to very large things. She raises Denis Villeneuve as an exemplar of the style and I’d propose his Dune adaptation might be the best case in point for what she proposes. I have mixed opinions of Dune. It’s at its best when it’s two actors together in a stark set being cryptic toward each other – the combination of minimalist script and stridently formalistically operatic blocking Dune uses works to its aesthetic advantage here. But when these clinical Epic Cold modalities pulls back to let us see the world it becomes not much more than a Pink Floyd Laser Experience at the Planetarium. This appears to be something the marketers of this movie were aware of.

Middle-brow has the advantage of market appeal. Its ideas sell easily. It doesn’t take many risks because avoiding the risks of the marginal and the edge-case is its principal preoccupation. Where avant-garde art cuts trash and high art apart to find the revolutionary moment, to contain art in its specific novelty, middle-brow art seeks to reproduce the present conditions and give another hit of enjoyment to a consumptive public. It can interrogate but interrogation must occur along predefined pathways. What’s more it must show the mechanics of the interrogation to the audience because the creation of a dangerous interrogation would create resistance and the hyperreal doesn’t want resistance – frenzied stasis is a response against resistance. It can entertain. Certainly it can entertain. But it treats entertainment as an end rather than a means. What the middle brow cannot do is simply this: It cannot create the New.