Hi all, I’m happy to announce that my Elden Ring review, focusing on the economy of Elden Ring and why the best thing to do with power is to set it down again, is now live in the most recent edition of Seize The Press. Right now it’s available for subscribers only so get your subscription today!
When Marx wrote that history repeated itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce,” he was pointing toward a parodic structure to history wherein the “tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” This was a phenomenon which Bataille later captured with almost the same grace but even more breadth when he declared, ” each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form.”
Consider then two 2022 films: Bodies Bodies Bodies and Glass Onion: a Knives Out mystery. The first film was a nihilistic genre cross between psychological thriller and slasher, directed by Halina Reijn and written by Sarah DeLappe based on a story by Kristen Roupenian (of Cat Person fame). It centers upon a clique of rich kids who decide to occupy the mansion of the groups pseudo-leader David’s parents empty mansion on the eve of a hurricane to throw a party. Inter-personal conflict and long-simmering grievances are exacerbated by isolation and disaster until they fall into a Hobbsean war of all against all. Before I go any farther with my analysis though I think it behooves to mention me that both Bodies Bodies Bodies and Glass Onion are films that depend heavily on one or more twists – so please consider this your warning that there are spoilers below.
In Glass Onion, written and directed by Riaan Johnson the consulting detective Benoit Blanc is called into action via another mysterious invitation which lands him at an annual private party held by billionaire (and thinly veiled Elon Musk stand-in) Miles Bron at his private island mansion during the early days of the COVID pandemic. However conflicts over a partner pushed out of the company and a dangerous new product cause the guests to reveal the emptiness of their self-professed friendship beside the naked desire to gain and retain power.
But of course we’ve seen this story before. When it was called Lord of the Flies. It really is a pity that the pedagogy surrounding this book has often been so shabby that people believe Golding’s novel was some sort of comment on universal human nature when it was quite clearly a commentary on the specific cruelty and viciousness of the public school attending classes. Likewise both Bodies Bodies Bodies and Glass Onion are laser focused in their critique specifically of Bourgeois culture in the opening decades of the 21st century. In Bodies Bodies Bodies, much as with Lord of the Flies, this is accomplished by showing how the children of the powerful have been raised to be vicious little monsters. In Glass Onion, rather, the ruling class are attacked directly rather than via their progeny – with the lot of Bourgeois strivers on display being consistently stupid while possessing grandiose belief in their own genius, self-centered backstabbers who present a façade of tight, lasting friendship. Both films expose the contradictions at the heart of the Bourgeois in precisely the same way as Lord of the Flies: isolation and a disaster.
Dividing the bourgeois off from the majority of their exploited subjects, forcing them to fend for themselves, and then introducing the stress of uncertainty brought about by a shipwreck, a hurricane or a global pandemic allows for the surfacing of the fault-lines between their contradictions.
Of course, for all that they might share central thematic and story-structure bones neither Glass Onion nor Bodies Bodies Bodies is reducible to just a rehash of Lord of the Flies. Bodies Bodies Bodies, for instance, sees social dynamics as being far more fluid within our group of rich assholes than Lord of the Flies. Rather than a rigid hierarchy of ins and outs that forms to recreate the oppressed class from within the body of the oppressor the subjects of Bodies Bodies Bodies fall apart completely with alliances shifting as people die and the storm outside worsens. There is a hint of such alliances with the rapid murder of Greg (a veterinarian who everyone stupidly mistakes for a veteran) and the expulsion of working class Bee into the storm shortly thereafter but Bee’s reintegration by Sophie and then the later turn of Sophie and Bee into mutual distrust shortly before the final reveal complexifies this relationship and points back to a fluid social milieu. Meanwhile the political situation of Glass Onion is much more static – there’s Blanc and Andi against everyone else. But, of course, everyone else is “Sucking on Miles’ golden titties,” so the political dynamic becomes far more despotic. The party-goers are either with Miles or against him.
These represent, then, three different views of power among the ruling class. Lord of the Flies proposes that, isolated from their victims and in crisis, the ruling class will produce a novel category of exploitation in order to reproduce extant hierarchies. Bodies Bodies Bodies says the ruling class will descend into the hell of Hobbes, any sense of alliance consumed under paranoia and distrust far too dysfunctional to allow for the reproduction of extant hierarcies. Glass Onion almost splits the difference, saying that a crisis will cause the ruling class to split either based on an expectation that loyalty to the existing hierarchy will set their course or that doing so will cause them to go down with the ship. Here alliance is possible but atomized personal survival trumps the construction of any sort of substantial hierarchy. In Bodies Bodies Bodies friendship is a battleground upon which every rich shithead battles every other rich shithead to become the lord of all the shitheads. In Glass Onion friendship is contingent on maintenance of a position in a pecking order but the idea of a cohesive group isn’t treated as a fiction. It’s somewhat unsurprising that when the “disruptors (shitheads)” finally turn on Miles they do so all together.
There’s also some significant differences in quality of performance between these films. No offense to Pete Davidson but David’s corpse is a far worse antagonist than Edward Norton’s Miles. And Daniel Craig and Janelle Monae are far stronger as protagonists than Amanda Stenberg and Maria Bakalova. Give them a few years to mature perhaps.
That being said the return of Benoit Blanc, now elaborated into an aging gay man who suffers from depression when he’s not able to put himself into risky situations involving murder and deception and the introduction of his ally in his latest case, Andi, played by Monae with Mona Lisa-like subtlety, both serve to elevate Glass Onion which would otherwise have suffered for its blunt edges compared to the meaner Bodies Bodies Bodies.
Now I should note that blunt edges and meanness are relative here. Bodies Bodies Bodies has nothing but disgust for the offspring of the ruling class. They are, one and all, mean-spirited, backstabbing, judgmental, hypocritical and stupid. There’s not a moment of sympathy or compassion to be had for any of them. When we finlly get the reveal of the actual circumstances of David’s death all we can do is laugh. Because what these awful people did to each other is precisely what they were always going to do. It’s just that the crisis heightened the stakes from social death to actual death.
On the other hand some compassion can be conjured for the Disruptors/Shitheads. Particularly for Whiskey via the recontextualization of her activities in the flashback sequence. But similar dribbles of humanity are allowed for Duke via his delightful mother and Dave Bautista’s continued capacity to deliver an emotionally subtle performance despite looking like a meat-tank and via the misgivings and sense of being trapped that both Claire and Lionel demonstrate. Even Birdie is allowed a bit of sympathy as it becomes evident that, despite her unexamined prejudices, she mostly suffers from being very stupid and incurious – the sort of person who thought a notorious sweatshop was just somewhere with a powerful reputation for manufacturing sweat pants. But this is where generic markers become significant because Bodies Bodies Bodies is a tragedy and Glass Onion is a farce. Specifically I mean that Bodies Bodies Bodies is a story in which our protagonists are their own undoing via the action of their own character crossed with the fickle hand of fate. In Bodies Bodies Bodies all the death and mayhem would have been fully avoidable if only the protagonists were to stop and think for a second – to talk to each other without the words being simply another category of weapon. They undo themselves and are fully undone. Meanwhile Glass Onion revels in the stupidity of its cast. True to its name, no effort is made to conceal Miles’ stupidity. We may hear Lionel talk abut Miles’ brilliance, we might hear Miles brag about what a special little boy he is at length, but Benoit unravels his murder mystery game in under a minute and his malapropisms and nonsense neologisms (“inbreathiate” lol) are so egregious as to immediately undercut the idea that this man is anything other than a fraud. In fact, while Bodies Bodies Bodies creates an atmosphere of paranoia so pervasive as to leave you guessing until the literal last minute as to the identity of the killer Glass Onion lives up to its name by repeatedly reminding the audience that, while it may look as if there are layers of complexity, the core is always visible. Of course Bodies Bodies Bodies cheats by concealing the key evidence (the video of David’s drunken accidental death via failed tik tok stunt) for the final twist while Glass Onion establishes itself firmly within the generic construction of the cozy mystery and plays very fairly with the audience. Glass Onion’s trick is to show you Miles, to tell you Miles has the strongest motive for the murder, to demonstrate that Miles has no alibi and in fact to situate Miles at the scene of the crime via Duke’s comments but then to have Miles and his hangers on spend the whole movie talking piss about how brilliant Miles is. Glass Onion plays the mystery straight, makes it as easy as a “child’s puzzle” puzzle-box invitation and then enthusiastically encourages the audience to over-think and chase obvious red herrings because, well, it couldn’t be that simple, could it? When Blanc realizes he’s been playing 4D chess against a pigeon his own combination of ironic humor and frustration is intended as a reflection of the audience.
And so the history of Lord of the Flies inspired critiques of the ruling class proceeds first as tragedy and then as farce. Both films seek to strip the ruling class naked of their propaganda and to reveal there’s nothing special about the rich. In this regard farce becomes a stronger tool than tragedy. The victims of Bodies Bodies Bodies are constrained to die by their own fundamental moral vacuity. It doesn’t matter that they’re also stupid. It is unimportant that the emperor wears no clothes. After all these are just the children of the emperor anyhow and all we’re seeing is how these otherwise unremarkable life-failures (fail to) learn how to navigate the cut-throat social politics of their class. Meanwhile Glass Onion revels in displaying the nakedness of the Disruptors/Shitheads. Even the pilot of the yacht is able to outplay them with wordplay (as it takes Lionel nearly half the film to figure out what was meant by calling Miles’ glass dock a pieceashite) and they are ultimately compelled to abandon Miles when Blanc and Andi demonstrate that Miles has no power beyond what he can con from his more talented peers. Miles, the leader of the Disruptors, is shown to be the dumbest, most foolhardy, most venal and vulgar of the lot of them.
It takes him mere seconds after discovering that Duke has possible leverage over him for him to murder Duke but even then he does it incompetently, literally handing Duke the poisoned drink in plain sight. Miles is still undone by his tragic flaws – the Mona Lisa burns with his mansion because he arrogantly decided to install a backdoor to let him circumvent the agreed-upon safety measures the Louvre required – but because Miles is so obviously the villain of the piece from the first moment we see him this doesn’t invite any sense of the tragic. Instead we laugh at his farcical undoing and clap as Andi and Blanc deliver justice to him. But of course this is also one place where Bodies Bodies Bodies may be slightly stronger than Glass Onion. The tragic former piece cannot imagine justice coming for the ruling class. When they undo themselves it isn’t justice – it’s just the outcome of their own flawed and monstrous nature. But Glass Onion entertains the fantasy that justice might be visited upon the powerful – it envisions a world were a man who is Elon Musk in all but name might actually face the legal consequences for his many transgressions. It’s a pleasant fantasy and an appropriate ending to a farcical movie. But perhaps, although I would be as loath to universalize the bellum omnium contra omnes of Bodies Bodies Bodies beyond the bounds of the ruling class as I am to generalize the reproduction of exploitation beyond the British ruling class of Lord of the Flies, it is more honest and unflinching about how the Bourgeois will end than Glass Onion.
I don’t know. I would like to believe the fantasy of justice Riaan Johnson penned. I’m just not sure I can. It’s an easier pill to swallow than the undiluted bile of Bodies Bodies Bodies. But this makes it, perhaps, easier to recuperate than the former. Which is a better tool to explore the ruling class in this moment? Farce or tragedy? Pessimism or fantasy? In the end I’m unsure. But it’s at least heartwarming to see these conversations occurring across film.
As it is once again That Time of the Year I regret to inform you I’m putting together an award eligibility post. Currently my work is eligible in most genre media awards excluding the Nebula awards as I am not, and have no intention of becoming, a member of SFWA. As a Canadian I hold the Aurora Awards in particular regard and would especially appreciate support in those awards.
If an award category is best suited to a single essay such as in a fan writing category I would ask that you nominate Notes on Squeecore. This is certainly one of my most widely read essays as well as being one of my most notorious ones. I also like to think it’s a decent work of literary and culture criticism.
If an award category is best suited to nominating a fan / amateur publication then you may wish to nominate simonmcneil.com as a whole.
If an award includes a creative non-fiction category I would ask you to nominate Preliminary Notes on a Disaster – my meditation on temporality and grief.
I was a guest on two podcasts this year: The Left Hand of Le Guin (episodes one and two) and Rite Gud – Writing Beyond the End of History and I would encourage people to nominate these two podcasts independent of my own eligibility as a guest.
Recently Netflix announced that the 2022 Jenna Ortega fronted limited series, Wednesday, surpassed the viewership record previously set by Stranger Things. Now, of course, we have no reason to actually trust Netflix on this. The company is notoriously opaque regarding user data. However it is safe to say that Wednesday has been a pretty big deal in the November media market, perched between the Halloween horror boom and the start of the Christmas season.
Now it would be pretty easy just to pan Wednesday. One could, as one recent reviewer succinctly put it, say that Tim Burton is a hack and that Wednesday is simply, “what if a goth?”
However I don’t think that’s quite fair since Wednesday does have quite a lot to recommend it. Looked at principally as a vehicle for showcasing the talents of a young actress the show succeeds handily and Jenna Ortega delivers an exceptional performance of a young woman seething over with emotion while maintaining a carefully cultivated shell of blank-faced snark. In this endeavor she is supported by some standout performances. Gwendolyn Christie as Principal Weems is excellent and what little we see of Luis Guzman and Catherine Zeta Jones as Morticia and Gomez is likewise delightful. Guzman captures the precise ratio of wholesome kindness and concealed menace that marks most portrayals of Gomez and compares favorably to Raul Julia’s performance in the 1991 film from which Wednesday borrows heavily. Meanwhile, while Catherine Zeta Jones is not at all comparable to Anjelica Huston as Morticia, her sadder and more restrained take on the Addams matron is nevertheless well-executed and interesting.
Another key performance in the series which we must discuss is that of Danny Elfman, whose score elevates every scene it is in. it’s also worth noting that this isn’t just a Tim Burton show. Miles Millar and Alfred Gough are producers and led the writing room and their influence is at least as evident in the final production as Burton’s both through the introduction of several extraneous kung fu set pieces which I certainly didn’t complain about despite their tonal dissonance with the rest of the series (I miss Into the Badlands) and also in a rather specific sort of teen-mystery-with-supernatural-elements vibe that harkens back to Smallville.
What we end up with is a show that actually succeeds quite handily on a scene-by-scene basis. Gough and Millar deliver a decent writer’s room when it comes to comedy and the jokes, for the most part, land well. Again this is helped by Ortega’s excellent performance.
And despite some people complaining that this show has the “netflix look” I think it’s worth pointing out that any Burton production is likely to feature a relatively dark image punctuated by highly saturated colour and a lot of coloured lighting during night scenes. I mean we do remember Beetlejuice, right?
So if Wednesday is a well-acted comedy with a funny script, an excellent score and a perfectly passable colour palette then why is it so painfully unsatisfying? I think that the answer is largely because the theme is a chaotic mess.
But before we dig into precisely how the theme fails I think it might be valuable to look at Wednesday’s most obvious (if unspoken) influence: Adult Wednesday Addams. Now, when this webseries first arose into notoriety I covered it – I quite enjoyed the work and was rather annoyed that the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation had issued a copyright strike against it. In the subsequent years Melissa Hunter, the creator of the webseries, re-hosted it at her own domain and it has remained available there as it probably is defensible under US copyright law as a work of parody. But it remains an unauthorized imagining of what Wednesday Addams might be like a bit more grown-up.
Now, at the time, the justification for the copyright strike was actually because of an exclusive rights agreement made with MGM for the 2019 film The Addams Family, which I have to admit to enjoying despite the sour taste left in my mouth by the treatment of Hunter. This film was successfully received enough to produce a sequel, The Addams Family 2 which I reviewed quite favorably. Now the premise of Adult Wednesday Addams was that Wednesday, now grown, encountered a variety of Millennial problems of the (late-Obama era) day and would respond to them, well, like Wednesday Addams from the 1991 movie and, especially, its 1993 sequel Addams Family Values whose summer-camp sequence clearly informed Hunter’s take. But all of this was largely used by Hunter as a vehicle for culture and media criticism, generally with a pop-feminist approach.
But notably, for the sake of comparison to our principal subject of review, this show isolated Wednesday from the rest of the Addams Family and then juxtaposed her with normal people who could react to her self-assured morbidity with a variety of reactions in order to tell a joke or make some point on a culture issue. This is effectively how the jokes of the Wednesday series are structured. Even when she’s among the “outcasts” (more on that mistake later) of Nevermore Wednesday remains surrounded by normal people. For all that Nevermore’s denizens are werewolves, vampires, gorgons and psychics of various stripes literally none of them are creepy, kooky, mysterious or spooky in the way the Addamses are. Nevermore is as much part of American cultural hegemony as Pilgrim World is and only the Addams family is situated at all outside of this normative regime. As the other Addams family members only really appear in one or two episodes of the season this causes Wednesday to stand alone.
This is a problem because of how such a positioning impacts the themes of the series. And it’s at the thematic level that Wednesday begins to fall apart. The Addams Family has, since its 1964 iteration, been fascinated with the question of integration. From the first episode of the series the Addamses are presented as an inverse of the waspish suburbia they find themselves in. The conflict in the first episode of the TV series presents a neurotic pair of newlyweds who are distraught to find out their neighbours (and landlords) are the creepy and kooky clan. Despite the class difference at play here the newlyweds assume their integration into a cultural norm elevates them above the title family. As the episode goes by the couple discover first that the Addamses, as a result of their class position, are inescapable. After the man cooks up a plot to escape the lease via a work relocation to Hong Kong Gomez buys his company so that the new neighbours can stay and enjoy the Addamses hospitality.
This inversion, of course, helps to highlight the message that this ’60s show presented: that America could only create an other of people from disparate cultures because of their relative class positions. Absent the economic lever integration would be necessary and accommodation for cultural difference among people of goodwill was the only sane course of action. The 1991 movie flipped this question on its head and asked what would happen if it fell to the Addamses to integrate a new member. It turns out that they’re pretty good at it. The less we say about the late-90s TV revival The New Addams Family the better.
However Wednesday is definitely a product of the post-deconstructive era where the writer’s room are starting from the assumption that the idea of the theme of assimilation in the Addams family is well-known to the audience to the point where deconstruction effectively becomes unnecessary. And so within Wednesday we do get a story which tries very hard to be about integration and assimilation. In the series there are two distinct classes of people: normies and outcasts. The outcasts comprise the undead, psychics and monsters and Nevermore is their school.
The question of whether Nevermore, which stands alone from town, should integrate is quite loudly proposed by the show. In fact the best episode in the series centers around a town tradition called “Outreach Day” in which the outcast students of Nevermore come into town for the day to volunteer at local businesses. In this episode it is quite openly exposited by the mayor that Nevermore is allowed to continue, despite the disagreeable nature of its inhabitants, because of the financial pressure the institution can bring to bear. As such Outreach Day is a reminder to the normies that they must allow Nevermore to continue. Integration is not an issue.
The central conflict of the episode centers around Principal Weems compelling Wednesday to perform a concert together with the school band from the local normie high school. This additional pressure from the principal then interferes with Wednesday’s ability to continue her investigations into the central mystery of the season. However Wednesday gets her own back at the principal by rigging a catastrophe during the concert, vigorously playing the cello while all around her panic, while explosions flare and the statue of the normie town founder Joseph Crackstone melts. It is a very well shot little piece of chaos. But Wednesday later repudiates Weems that the town and the school are far too alike in that they keep secrets and smooth over conflicts in the name of propriety. Unlike the cheerfully oblivious Gomez of the 1964 iteration the outcasts of Nevermore are perfectly aware that the normies hate them – they just find it convenient to use financial pressure and back-room deals to keep a lid on the violence.
But of course this fails. Laurel Gates is plotting to bring the violence to a boil and the truth is that she doesn’t really need to do that much. Town locals including the Sheriff and the mayor’s son all want Nevermore and its outcasts gone and are happy to engage in this othering behavior. The mayor’s son, in particular, bullies and torments outcast children every chance he gets, even spraying red paint all over a dance party in a half-assed reference to Carrie executed with far more charm in The Addams Family 2.
As the series progresses we discover that one of the secrets Nevermore covered up was that Garret Gates (Laurel’s brother) died from poisoning rather than a sword through his chest – the poison had been intended to murder the entire student body of the outcast school.
But this situates the Nevermore institution as being complicit in preserving this violent state of affairs. They are equal partners in the cover-up. This critique of Nevermore as an institution is continued when we encounter the Nightshades: a secret society that exists within the school and that began its existence as effectively an Outcast equivalent of the Black Panthers. This cabal was formed to protect outcasts from normie violence and to avenge the same when they failed in the former. We learn they were founded by Wednesday’s ancestor, Goodie Adams, in response to the genocidal violence of Joseph Crackstone: the same town founder whose statue Wednesday destroyed and whose sanitized history is displayed at the local attraction Pilgrim World. But the Nightshades are severely reduced. They are nothing more than a social club who meet in a library full of history books none of them ever read. When they encounter Wednesday she’s raiding their library and they ask her to join. She rebuffs them.
This show has a very negative view of institutions that preach integration. Every institution we see in the series from the officials of the town of Jericho (mayor and police) to the school to its clubs is a den of deadly secrets that exists to conceal that the power relations of the town were founded when the survivor of a genocide exacted revenge upon the people who committed it. But this reorganizaiton of power relations is necessarily incomplete because of how history has been mystified. As nobody knows who the Nightshades should be, why Nevermore is built on the site of Crackstone’s tomb or who really killed Garret Gates the conditions of violence that led to the initial genocide remain ever present.
If this show had the courage to be fully destituent in its view of the institution, if it had the braveness to make the climax of episode 3 a true thematic representation of the season, then this would be a very different review. Unfortunately this is not the case. Instead there are a few key elements that muddy this message and make the thematic elements of Wednesday a confused mess.
The first is the sad story of the Hydes: outcasts too outcast even for the outcasts.
The Hydes are a category of monster who lurk behind seemingly normal facades until activated via trauma, poison or hypnosis. Whoever succeeds in activating a Hyde will become the Hyde’s master and it will do their bidding but, beyond that, these outcasts are (possibly but probably not) mindless fonts of brutal violence. Because of the intrinsic violence that Hydes represent this school full of vampires, werewolves and gorgons refuses to admit Hydes. The full force of the carcerial is used against a suspected Hyde and anyone suspected of this form of difference is bound in chains.
Now showing how an institution replicates social divisions even while ostensibly being a haven against the same would be a pretty normal deconstructive gesture but Wednesday doesn’t do that fully. Instead it reifies that Nevermore is quite right to take its zero-tolerance position on Hydes. The Hyde turns out to be a willing and enthusiastic participant in murder and genocide. This is not the straightforward matter of a Caliban like enslaved other forced into acts of malice. This is someone who arrived at bestial monstrosity and said, “yes. I like this.”
The next problem to a destituent read of Wednesday would be Goody Addams. The Addams family should be the intrusion of the outside into normative American life. This is certainly something the more recent cartoon movies understood quite well – and the depiction of Wednesday in particular, in the recent cartoons reinforces this read clearly. This is made harder when Wednesday has an ancestor so similar to her that she’s portrayed by the same actress who was the one who personally hunted down the genocidal town founder, cursed him to eternal torment, founded the school on ground reclaimed from him and founded the vigilante group who protect outcasts from future harm. By tying Wednesday so strongly to Goody Addams we do not have a situation wherein an institution is, in itself, a corrupt den of secrets. Instead it becomes a revanchist sort of message where the school has fallen from a position of past glory and must be revived.
This becomes even more evident when Wednesday, late in the series, announces she believes a prophesy that showed her as the destroyer of Nevermore might actually be depicting her as its savior. This puts Weems in an odd position of simultaneously being Wednesday’s most visible antagonist and also her strongest ally throughout the back third of the season. But there’s problems with the characterization of the school’s student body. To whit they’re far too normy. The vampires are just pale kids who wear sunglasses. The gorgons are normal kids who wear beanies. The werewolves might have coarse manners but they are also very normal kids who do normal high-school kid stuff. The only “outcast” at Nevermore who acts culturally distinct from the normies is Wednesday herself. By framing the school this way we get less a conflict between two cultures mediated via an inverted class relationship that situates hegemonic culture as at a disadvantage and instead we get some iteration on the Hatfield-McCoy feud.
This show also really half-asses its critique of the police. Sheriff Gates sucks. I mean I have only encountered one police officer in a TV series who I like less – Sherriff Acosta from the Scream series. Sheriff Gates is exactly the sort of man who makes every encounter a little worse for his involvement. He keeps dangerous secrets, he’s emotionally abusive to his son. He’s closed off and uncommunicative. He’s just generally a complete asshole.
So of course the show has to validate that he’s actually right about some of his behaviour. The cathartic conclusion to the oedipal psychodrama with his son positions him more like Sergeant Al Powell than Sheriff Acosta. Don’t get me wrong. This show is hardly copaganda. The cops are mostly useless and that’s when they’re not an active hindrance to our protagonist. But again the show lacks the courage of its conviction and tries to weasel out a bit of a “both sides” in the final episode. The show concludes with Nevermore closed for the semester but not forever. Laurel Gates’ plot to revive Crackstone and purge the “outcasts” has failed but new mysteries await Wednesday (should Netflix decide to pick up season 2.) Sheriff Gates is still the sheriff. Wednesday neither saves nor does she destroy any institutions. Some of the people at the top are replaced. There will be some staffing changes at Nevermore come season 2 and a new mayor for Jericho but this seems to plant the blame for all the secret-keeping and conspiracism firmly on the shoulders of individuals rather than the institutions they serve. It’s not that the Nightshades devolved into a social club due to mystification from their material origins – they just needed an Addams to lead them. This is a show that wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants Wednesday to be right that the institutions she’s surrounded by – from the medical panopticon of a court-ordered psychologist to the school to the police – are corrupt and in need of bringing down but also that they can be reformed if only the right people occupy the right seats. Damnit I want my fully Foucauldian Addams Family retelling and not this half-measure.
And so Wednesday remains a fun momentary distraction for parents of spooky children but little more. It’s not like Wednesday has a toxic thematic message – it doesn’t have a coherent thematic message at all besides perhaps “it’s good to have friends who understand you” – so I’m not saying, “give it a miss” so much as “calibrate your expectations.” If you go in expecting a funny show with two good fights, one good dance, and two really good cello solos but little else to do or say you’ll be fine. Jenna Ortega is a talented new actress and I’m glad to see her getting a larger role after playing a second-fiddle in recent outings like Scream (2022) and X. But it really drives home that you can’t expect a coherent critique of normativity from Tim Burton. And we can all, perhaps, admit at last that it was good he passed on the 1991 film and cleared the path for Barry Sonnenfeld to direct in his stead. Because, building largely on the aesthetic legacy of Sonnenfeld’s movie and on the hastily redacted fan-series of Melissa Hunter, Burton managed to make… a mess.
It’s a funny mess. It’s a well-acted mess. But it’s still a mess. But I suppose, considering how Netflix is hyping those numbers and the obvious sequel bait of the final episode, it’s a mess we’ll likely get a second helping of and that I, ever the fool when it comes to the Addams Family, will probably start watching the day it comes out.
And at least it’s better than The New Addams Family.
The recent acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk has led to a centering of several interrelated discourses regarding online speech and social media. Many of these conversations have to do with the intersection of free expression and community safety. Now in part this is because Musk, prior to and during his court-enforced acquisition of Twitter, talked a lot about how his motivation for acquiring the social media platform was to foster freer speech on Twitter. This largely seems to have been taken as a rallying cry for right-wing voices who ran afoul of Twitter’s hate-speech moderation policies to return to the site although, in the chaos following Musk’s acquisition, it appears that many of the reactivated right-wingers were promptly banned again as many of these content moderation policies remained in place after the start of Musk’s chaotic tenure.
However this brings in a second thread. Because the period of Musk’s onboarding has been incredibly chaotic: marked by mass firings and haphazard policy decisions that seem to have been cooked up on the fly by the incoming owner. In all this chaos many users have looked to alternatives and one stood out as appearing, on the surface, close enough to Twitter to attract attention: Mastodon. Now, of course, many of these similarities are skin-deep. There are massive structural differences in that nearly anyone can host a Mastodon instance and nearly anyone can register on a Mastodon instance and communicate with others on that instance.
However the biggest social grouping within Mastodon is the Fediverse: a series of interconnected (federated) Mastodon instances that allow cross-communication and that agree to certain shared content moderation standards. The Fediverse, as with most large social websites, has a highly distinct culture and one element of Fediverse culture is widespread use of content tagging. And when I say widespread I mean it’s considered, within the Fediverse, good form to provide brief descriptive content warnings for a vast panoply of potential media from things you might expect (such as discussions of sexual assault and suicide) to those that might, on the surface, seem more benign (such as food photos).
This is largely an emergent property of a system that was an early adopter of content warning tagging and a culture very interested in users being able to customize their social media experience. The culture of Mastodon does not view content warnings merely as a tool to alert users to material that might cause a trauma response but also simply as a tool to allow users to opt into what sorts of things they see and engage with as opposed to Twitter’s more opt-out system of blocking and muting. Many Twitter users accessed Mastodon only to be confronted with a wall of (TW: Food), (TW: Nudity), (TW: specific-type-of-body), etc. and found this disconcerting to say the least. And many Twitter users have reported back to complain about this cultural difference on Twitter where this discussion of content warnings has found ample attention within the writing community.
Within this community there has been a recent flurry of discussion regarding whether authors have a duty to provide explicit content tagging in their books. The opposing views here on one hand are that this will allow readers to make informed decisions about the sort of material they read, allowing them to avoid books that engage with subjects that are likely to retraumatize them. On the other hand some people, including myself, have been quick to point out that content warnings may be fine as a voluntary provision but should not become an industry standard, citing examples such as film rating systems and parental advisory warnings on music as having had a significant censorious impact that was particularly born by marginalized artists including people of colour and LGBTQ+ artists. A third group largely consists of racists who want to be able to say slurs online but we can disregard them from this conversation because, frankly, neither side of the argument I care about here has anything good to say about those sorts of people. However this discussion ends up at something of an impasse when one assumes both that content warnings serve a purpose for protecting readers who have experienced trauma and that standardization of content tagging will lead to censorship.
As such, in order for this conversation to progress it behooves us to ask a few questions.
- Do content warnings have a positive impact on the reading experience of traumatized readers?
- Do content warnings lead to censorship?
- Do artists have a moral duty to furnish content warnings?
- Can artists meaningfully create effective content warnings that can serve traumatized readers?
- Are content warnings really for traumatized readers at all or do they serve some other function?
Now before we dig into these five questions there’s a few questions that will not be entertained. These include whether freedom of speech, as an abstract principle, is more important than the safety and access of any marginalized group and whether it is morally permissible for authors or classroom instructors to voluntarily disclose content that they deem might give their audience problems. Frankly there is nothing wrong with a teacher, upon assigning Lord of the Flies to schoolchildren, telling the schoolchildren that certain material is contained within the book. In fact it is somewhat critical to do so in order that the children can be made alert to this content and how it communicates the themes of the book. In other words disclosure of content is positive in a classroom setting because it allows for anticipation of content and attention to content rather than because it allows for avoidance. A student who is studying a text should anticipate material in it so that they can learn how to identify components of the text that might not be as obvious as the plot.
And as for authors: if an author wants to disclose this sort of material voluntarily, as the academic research we will review later supports quite clearly, this isn’t likely to be overly harmful to anyone and may be helpful to the author in marketing. I think it’s important to set these limits up front because while this discussion will explore some discursively fraught questions it will not at any point be saying that authors must not include content warnings nor that instructors should not disclose information about a fraught text to their class.
But what I will be doing here is ultimately asking the question of what content warnings do and who they serve.
And a good place to start that is in the academic literature on content warnings. Now I will start by referring to a paper from within the class of research called meta-analysis. Meta-analyses are a form of research paper common in medicine and social science: fields of research that are both highly dependent on statistical analysis of data to make conclusions and that also suffer from systemic limitations on sample size and composition. These papers will do a survey of extant research on a topic and will seek out recurring methodologies, themes and limitations. Having established, using these points, that disparate studies are exploring the same topic they will then conduct a statistical analysis of the results of findings across studies to ascertain the replicability of findings. The study I will be working with most here is, “A Meta-Analysis of the Efficacy of Trigger Warnings, Content Warnings, and Content Notes” by Bridgeland, Jones and Bellet.
Now the first thing I want to do is to focus on their discussion of limitations because Bridgeland et. al. raise a very important point here that we will be returning to. “Although the current study provides evidence that trigger warnings are broadly inert as applied writ large, it does not provide information on whether trigger warnings have differing effects in specific subpopulations or contexts.” This is because, due to both reasons of access and ethics, most studies of trigger warnings do not consist of people who have experienced traumatic events nor of people suffering from PTSD. Instead they mostly draw from a general population. This makes the findings of the majority of academic work on the topic inapplicable to our first question. Do content warnings have a positive impact on the reading experience of traumatized readers? Honestly, according to this analysis we don’t really have strong evidence one way or the other.
However what we can say is that content warnings do almost nothing one way or the other to people who don’t have mental health needs surrounding trauma. In fact Bridgeland et. al. found only one measurable category in which content warnings did anything statistically significant at all: “trigger warnings appear to reliably increase anticipatory anxiety about upcoming content. This finding is supported by both subjective (e.g., rating scales) and objective (e.g., psychophysiological measures) markers of distress. Moreover, this finding appears to be consistent across the different trigger warning types used across studies, attesting to the robustness of this effect.
In theory, this anticipatory period could indicate that forewarned individuals are bracing themselves for a negative emotional experience. However, as discussed in the section on response affect, whatever bracing might occur during this anticipatory period is apparently completely ineffective.”
Of particular note here are the psychophysiological measures used for anticipatory anxiety: heart rate, respiratory rate and skin conductance. These measures were used in only one study and represent the most statistically significant variance from the general support of the null hypothesis found in almost all studies.
But those of us who engage with horror media know about this sort of anticipatory anxiety all too well. It pretty closely maps to the tension one might feel during a stalking scene or some other moment of peril before a horrific event occurs. It’s something horror artists actively court, building mood in order to entice the audience to become anxious and it’s an affect the audience of horror generally seeks out. People who don’t like being scared don’t generally like horror.
But what this does, when read in light of Bridgeland et. al. comments on the limitations of these studies, is point to the fact that we cannot do a straightforward read of, ‘content warnings increase anxiety and therefore are bad,’ because what they do is give non-traumatized audiences a taste of the forbidden pleasures to come. Far from being a tool for avoidance, “cw:incest” allows a reader to anticipate that they will be reading a book that contains incest and it’s worth noting that this anxiety could actually sweeten the reading experience for them in much the same way that a horror fan enjoys a kill better when it’s been built up properly (I’m thinking of the perfectly executed build-up to the kill of Wes Hicks in Scream (2022) as an example.)
So this now points us not toward an answer to our first question but rather to our fifth. Are content warnings really for traumatized readers? Certainly they aren’t just for traumatized readers although the advocates of them rarely seem interested in pitching them as a tool for marketing and discovery it does appear that, when not engaging with a traumatized audience but rather with a general audience, that this is just about the only thing content warnings do at all.
But if we want to look at the impact on traumatized readers in particular we have to turn our attention to a different study. “Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals with Trauma Histories,” by Jones, Bellet and McNally is one of a very small number of studies that actually looks at the effect of content warnings specifically on traumatized populations. Now again we should start with limitations here as it’s very important, when working with academic research, to be alert to the scope of the research. In this case the principal limitation is a methodological weakness of depending on self-report for all participants. While steps were taken to ensure subjects had experienced trauma there does not appear to be much the authors could have done to prevent a person from providing misleading information regarding their past experiences. However a clinical study, which might have validated the trauma experience of subjects more cleanly, would certainly not have been able to achieve the sample size of n=600 that this paper managed.
Further limitations, however, included a dependence on English fluency and a requirement for US residency that should not be overlooked as challenges to replicability. However, at the end of the day, the paper came to conclusions that very closely mirrored Bridgeland et. al. saying, “For individuals who met a clinical cutoff for severity of PTSD symptoms, trigger warnings slightly increased anxiety. Trigger warnings were not helpful for individuals who self-reported a diagnosis of PTSD. Perhaps most convincingly, trigger warnings were not helpful even when they warned about content that closely matched survivors’ traumas. That is, when considering only the passages which participants reported as reminding them of past trauma, trigger warnings were still unhelpful.”
Perhaps more damning still was the confirmation of the information Bridgeland et. al. had found regarding anticipatory anxiety, saying, “We found evidence that trigger warnings increase the narrative centrality of trauma among survivors, which is countertherapeutic (Boals & Murrell, 2016). We also found that trigger warnings increase anxiety for those with more severe symptoms of PTSD. Although these effects were preregistered and found in a large sample, the size of the effects were small and have not yet been rigorously tested across multiple studies.” Now the authors are quite right to point out that this impact was small and that replication is required so I think it would be hasty to say that content warnings are actively harmful to people who meet the clinical cutoff for PTSD (among people who do not meet that requirement the null hypothesis was observed).
And so we can now answer the question of whether content warnings have a positive impact on the reading experience of traumatized people – they don’t. According to the best research available, for most people who have undergone trauma, content warnings do nothing much at all. For those people whose suffering is particularly severe there is even a small risk a content warning might harm more than it helps. We can also say with certainty that authors cannot meaningfully create content warnings that will serve a traumatized audience because the reality is that, to the extent content warnings serve anyone at all, they serve non-traumatized audiences and authors best via their use as a discovery tool and for the deliberate assumption of anxious affects in the course of engaging with material that touches on taboo subjects.
But all this talk of null hypothesis means this does become a question of personal taste and courtesy. You can be assured that you won’t much hurt a person by omitting a content warning but courtesy certainly goes beyond avoidance of explicit harm. It doesn’t harm someone to eschew “please” and “thank you” but if you never use either phrase people still might rightly call you an asshole.
This is where our second and third questions are still relevant. Having established that content warnings have nearly no clinical impact on traumatized populations our next question is whether content warnings might in fact be harmful to marginalized audiences. For this we might want to visit the advent of the parental advisory label on music.
The response from the record industry has been that it, much like content warnings, had very little impact at all. It was useful as a marketing tool both for albums with it and albums without. For example, manager Danny Goldberg pointed out that while the sticker did allow stores like WalMart to brand themselves as “family-friendly” by declining to sell any album with a PA label most children had very little difficulty acquiring material that was marked as parental advisory. Overall the stickers didn’t much effect record sales one way or the other.
This was less the case in film where the Hays Code and subsequent film and television ratings systems inordinately targeted queer narratives, largely driving LGBTQ+ artists and themes out of cinema. Now books are not movies nor are they records. But in both cases we see how ratings and advisory systems have been deployed as a method of exclusion. Unsuccessfully in the case of music, where the exclusion of “PA” content by WalMart was countered by the willingness of record stores to sell “PA” material and successfully in the case of cinema where the ratings system created a series of economic incentives for self-censorship. As such those people who have concerns about systematic industry standards in content reporting leading to censorship have a point. While the attempts to censor material based on industry-set content warnings has been haphazard and has certainly not been universally successful the use of industry standard content warnings has, in other artwork, been used to censor that art.
This then finally establishes the full framework for commenting on an author’s moral responsibility. Content warnings are useless for traumatized people to manage trauma reactions but useful as a discovery tool among general populations. They may lead to censorship but it’s not clear the extent to which such censorship would be effective. Certainly there has been a lot of proactive attention from reactionaries on book censorship of late and giving these reactionaries extra tools with which to discover books to ban would be counter-indicated. But the advocates of content warnings like to point out a key outlier circumstance as a justification for the moral argument: the deployment of sexual assault in fiction. Now they’ve certainly got a point that if some inconsiderate person runs around shouting “rape” we would consider that rude, immoral, and alarming behaviour. And we cannot just handwave away every deployment of sexual assault in fiction as being beyond reproach. There are boundless examples of rapes that were included to titillate and, even among those works with something critical to say about sexual assault, there’s no guarantee that these themes will be approached well by the author. If I had a nickel for every book or movie that tried to deconstruct some concept only to reify it out of incompetence I’d be a wealthy man.
Giving people a heads-up about this might, then, be a gesture of common courtesy. And that would suggest it is, at least, the polite thing to do to provide content warnings for this (along with other broadly questionable content). Except we need to recontextualize this call for courtesy in light of some of the academic findings about content warnings. Specifically: there is no indication that people who read a content warning are any more likely to avoid that content but again we need to bring up that increase in anticipatory anxiety. We cannot count on people to use this courtesy to decide to read something else. Academic research suggests they probably won’t – at least in aggregate – but we can count on people to get excited by it. Their heart rates rise, they breathe faster. This then raises an opposite question: is an author morally responsible to tell people that their kinks are in a book? I mean it’s a bit of a silly question, isn’t it, because if I’m an author writing kink I want an audience who want to read kink to find it. But is that a moral imperative or is it just good marketing? Any regular reader of this blog will be aware that I’m quite apprehensive about assigning moral imperatives to art. The aestheticization of morality is a dangerous tool and a favourite one of reactionaries. People generally have a hard time separating out, “this is beautiful” from “this is good.” It’s quite easy to look at the deployment of something in a work of art, such as a sex assault, and say, “wow that was ugly and no good.” But ugly is not the same as evil and I think it’s important for critics and artists, especially, to learn to differentiate between an ugly work of poorly executed art (like a Dresden Files novel) from an evil work of propaganda (like the Turner Diaries).
Bring libido into the picture and it becomes even more of a landmine. Because once you go from “this is beautiful” to “this excites me” moral questions immediately become far more tangled. After all, who doesn’t likely feel shame about their own arousal in some form? This is especially so if we’re dealing with darker erotic themes. While I can certainly understand that some readers might prefer not to interrogate that it seems unlikely that content warnings will actually help them with that.
In the end I think part of the problem is one of form. The advocates for content warnings want short, broad, concise tags at the front of a book. This is excellent for marketing and discovery because it’s very algorithm friendly. I would propose a more graceful method is to actually use back-flap space to describe what a book is about rather than reserving it for blurbs. I don’t think anybody benefits from reading The Story of the Eye without understanding what they’re in for ahead of time. But I think that a clinical, “CW: Masturbation, Rape, Dubious Consent, Violent Orgies, Necrophilia,” doesn’t particularly do justice to the affect being pursued. Context matters and should be communicated in such a discussion. But an exploration of the context being one about Bataille grappling with the interplay of sex and death in European thought, expanding upon the legacy of Sade (of whom he was a principal scholar) and raising questions of limit experiences and madness isn’t going to give you that easy-to-search list of tags they prefer.
But what it does is improve discoverability. Ultimately there’s no sincere debate about whether it should be possible to find out what a book is about. The question is one of form: should this look like a voluntary and often community-driven process of resource sharing or should it be a system of brief and concise tags an author is supposed to put on their book.
Certainly tags share a few benefits: They’re good for marketers and for censors for precisely the same reason – they make it easy to find content you’re looking for. But this is where the benefit ends. The preference for context-driven back-cover notes and third-party disclosure (such as instructors discussing challenging material prior to reading in class and community driven efforts to surface potentially upsetting content) is less friendly to marketing efforts and raises the risk that things might be missed but it does provide the necessary context to identify the difference between a work that deploys charged material for libidinal reasons from those that do the same for critical reasons – something tagging systems are necessarily mute on.
And so, here at the end, we have our answers:
- Content warnings have nearly no impact on traumatized readers.
- Content warnings may or may not lead to censorship but do lead to increased discoverability which is a useful tool both for marketers and censors.
- Artists do not have a moral duty to make work more discoverable. But if they want to find an audience to sell their work to it’s probably not a bad idea. Furthermore it’s good from a critical readership perspective that context concerning the content of a work be known prior to reading so that a reader may be alert to it.
- Because content warnings do not meaningfully serve traumatized readers artists cannot meaningfully create content warnings that serve traumatized readers.
- Content warnings appear to increase anticipatory anxiety but not avoidance among non-traumatized populations, making them effective for getting a person excited for upcoming material. This, combined with the concise and tag-like method preferred by advocates make them excellent marketing and discovery tools.
So in the end who do content warnings really serve? The people who want to read that content and the writers who want to sell it.
I’m writing a lot this month but it’s all fiction. That’s right – I’m doing NaNoWriMo again this year. As of the time of writing I’m at 5,035 words in-month and it’s day 4. Anyway the blog is on hiatus until the end of the month so I can concentrate on the novel manuscript. With that said I do have two articles out in the world that might come out soon so keep your eyes peeled. Other than that see you in December where I’m planning to put up my review of Ken Liu‘s bulging theory-fiction fantasy novel The Wall of Storms and a piece on Stranger Things, D&D and ludo-narrative.
At the start of the season I reviewed the first episode of House of the Dragon. At the time I anticipated a story that explored dynasticism, social change and the process of historicization.
This proved to be mostly accurate. Certainly the ten-episode season fixated on the question of dynasty and on what constituted a family. Lord Corlys’ insistence that history books remember names rather than blood opened a fascinating dialectic regarding the nature of bastardry. While Rhaenyra’s two eldest sons certainly didn’t look like their father – a gay man who the show informs us tried and failed to sire legitimate children for his wife – the acceptance of their grandfather prioritizes historical record as being the principal significance of the dynasty. It won’t matter, after all this is over, what his heirs looked like, only that they carried his name and that they did these deeds.
Ultimately Corlys ends up being the carrier of the principal discourse concerning the nature of dynastism and how an orientation toward dynastic goals might impact one’s political decisions. His willingness to bite back slights to blood – such as Daemon’s beautifully gory decapitation of his brother for treason – in order to preserve the historical position of his house ends up saying far more about what a dynasty is about, as a political unit, than Viserys’ constant ruminations on prophetic dreams and the significance of heirs. But there was another key theme regarding power that was established in the first episode of this series and that I entirely missed: the question of what power does to the body.
Of course we can see this most obviously in two key examples: the physical decomposition of Viserys throughout the season and the multitudinous deaths that occur as a result of pregnancy.
Let’s start with Viserys as his example is perhaps the least-subtle. Our good-man king is uneasy on the iron throne. The barbs and blades of it cut him and these cuts become infected. As the show progresses and the child-characters of Rhaenyra and Alicent age into their adult performances Daemon, Corlys and most of the initially adult cast remain basically the same. But not so for Viserys as Paddy Constantine becomes increasingly smothered in makeup and special effects depicting the steady disintegration of a man. We can only see this as being quite explicitly the physical toll of power. It is the throne that does this to him and yet he sits upon it. By the time Viserys spends the last of his life desperately attempting to persuade Rhaenyra and Alicent to bury the hatchet despite the worm-tongued whispering of Otto Hightower and the impulsive violence of his brother and son-in-law Daemon he’s already half a corpse, barely able to walk, missing digits, missing an eye.
The loss of an eye is something of an obsession of this text. Not only does Viserys display the terminal signs of decay via a skull-like orbital cavity but also the eye is the price Aemond pays for power. He loses his own eye immediately after he claims Vhagar: the largest of the dragons. In the finale, Aemond’s desire to make Lucerys pay for this with an eye of his own precipitates the manslaughter of Rhaenyra’s son and becomes the first blow in the war which will occupy the future seasons of this show. Lucerys demurs to lose an eye and is barred from power.
It would be easy to treat this as an Odinic metaphor – Viserys loses an eye to sip from Mimr’s well – but this doesn’t fit comfortably as Aemond has no particular wisdom. Rather, Aemond represents nearly the opposite: vast power with all the restraint one would expect of a violently disfigured adolescent. Instead it is an indicator of the toll power takes upon the body.
This idea of power as something physical that eats up its carriers is bound together with the dynastic discourse via the wages of birthing heirs. Of course the death of Aemma was a principal focus of my review of the first episode. But this is echoed across the season. First we see it through the death-in-childbirth of Laena Velaryon. Laena finds herself in the same position as Aemma however, unlike Aemma, Laena takes agency over the matter of her death. Aware that Daemon will be faced with the same decision as his brother – to kill the wife to possibly save the child or to watch both die – she chooses to die, commanding Vhagar (who was her dragon at that time) to immolate her. In this case two sources of power: the power to bring about life and the power to destroy it both take a toll on her body and leave her nothing but ash. Finally, in the last episode of the season we have a third horrific childbirth as Rhaenyra’s discovery of her father’s death and Alicent’s treason seems to precipitate a miscarriage of her fifth child. She survives and, in a truly horrific scene, pulls the still-born baby from her own womb with her own hands, refusing to let the doctors or maids assist her. All the time she is undergoing labour she commands her sons to prevent anyone making decisions in her absence. The childbirth scene then becomes a reflection of Rhaenyra’s willingness to accept the physical toll of power. In this case those powers of life and death at play in the death of Laena are inverted – still-birth and an ascension into a position of command.
But of course all this inter-tangling of childbirth into a discourse around legitimacy (as Otto is quick to point out legitimacy is largely a symbolic affair), dynastism and the position of blood cannot help but touch on the elephant in the room – the incestuous relationship between Daemon and Rhaenyra. Certainly there is plenty to chew on here about blood and its relationship to power in how Daemon slowly seduces Rhaenyra over the years, eventually plotting with her and her husband to fake the latter’s death in order to clear the path for him to wed his niece after the death of Laena. On the topic of incest Freud quotes Frazer, saying, “the law only forbids men to do what their instincts incline them to do; . . . Instead of assuming, therefore, from the legal prohibition of incest that there is a natural aversion to incest, we ought rather to assume that there is a natural instinct in favor of it.” Thus a straight Freudian reading might argue that the incestuous marriage is another method of showing power: Daemon and Rhaenyra can choose to overcome law with their power and thus achieve something desired.
But Deleuze and Guattari are skeptical of this Freudian reading of incest, saying, “By placing the distorting mirror of incest before desire (that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?), desire is shamed, stupefied, it is placed in a situation without exit, it is easily persuaded to deny “itself” in the name of the more important interests of civilization (what if everyone did the same, what if everyone married his mother or kept his sister for himself? there would no longer be any differentiation, any exchanges possible).” This sarcastic response to the Freudian read of incest and the right of kings leads them to say, “Although we can see social production’s interest in such an operation, it is less clear what makes this operation possible from the point of view of desiring-production itself.” In other words: what does it matter to the formation of the self whether a desired object is a mother, a sister, a niece, an uncle?
They relate the incest prohibition (via the work of Clastres) to prohibitions among the Guanyaki people against a hunter eating his own kill. This circulation of spouses then becomes a pro-social act that helps to distribute power and keep its twin, desire, flowing. In this case the issue with incest that leads to its inscription as a taboo becomes not one of power over law but rather of selfishness over pro-sociality and as one online commenter pointed out House of the Dragon is a show about incredibly selfish people – “as if each of the Kardashians had a nuclear-capable F-22.” So perhaps we can treat Daemon and Rhaenyra’s romance as being an indicator of the same sort of selfishness that might lead a person to drive a continent into a war that Rhaenyra says would create a kingdom of fire and ash over the grief of two dead children.
But even this doesn’t quite cut to the heart of it. Turning again to Deleuze and Guattari, later discussing the work of Claude Levi-Strauss they say, talking specifically of the distinction between mother-son incest on one hand and uncle-niece incest on the other, “the mixing of the generations in the son-mother case has the same effect as their correspondence in the case of the uncle-sister, that is, it testifies to one and the same intensive germinal filiation that must be repressed in both cases. In short, a somatic system in extension can constitute itself only insofar as the filiations become extended, correlatively to lateral alliances that become established.”
This then situates the incest prohibition again in the position of power. Why is incest prohibited? Because it closes the door to political marriage. And boy howdy but there’s a lot of political marriage in this story. Both of Daemon’s first two marriages and Rhaenyra’s first marriage are purely political. The same can be said of Alicent’s marriage to Viserys and of every other marriage barring that of Rhaenyra to Daemon. In all these cases marriage exists to spread the net of power, to secure advantage, to maneuver through the process of alliance. These children become markers of alliances as clear as the green and black clothes of the two factions. What this says, then, of Daemon and Rhaenyra is that their political marriages have accomplished the extent of what they believe they can do. Principally this has been to entangle the Velaryon into the Blacks. We have seen, from Corlys already, that for many of the characters in this show names mean far more than blood and they have tied the name of Velaryon ever tighter via their inter-marriage. This then situates the Hightowers as having played a different game, insinuating Alicent into a marriage to achieve power but then spreading the children and grandchildren that arose from this family among many families in order to achieve more power, more influence.
Otto Hightower believes that power is a matter of symbols and trappings – a crown, a sword, the cheers of the masses, and of marriages. But Rhaenyra and Daeamon know that power is something else: the ability to give and take life. The birthing bed and the fire of the dragon. Having secured all of that power they thought they needed why not let their taboo desires flow?
One of the chief thematic touchpoints of the fifth Scream film, released this year under the title Scream, is the concept of the requel.
This is a format of horror cinema that exists between the reboot and the sequel. According to the film-buff victims and killers of Scream this generally involves a handoff between legacy characters and a new generation, an exploration of the life-long impact of traumatic events on the protagonists and, in general, a contention with the consequences of horrific circumstances.
Key examples of the requel that have arisen recently include the 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Halloween / Kills / Ends trilogy. However there is an element of the requel that Scream somewhat elided and, in exploring how Hellraiser fits into its respective series, it’s an important one: the requel often is an admission of the diminishing quality of sequels. I mean I think nobody needs persuasion that Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers wasn’t a good movie and while I have a personal fondness for the camp of Jason X it is also not exactly a piece of cinema that operates at the same level as the original two Friday the 13th movies. The requel format usually resolves this problem by ignoring that the middle movies exist. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a direct sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The films between 1986 and 2017 just aren’t relevant. Likewise the recent Halloween trilogy picks up from Halloween in much the same way that the previous requel attempt (H20 & Resurrection) did from Halloween 2.
I think it’s important to look at this element because while Hellraiser could easily be viewed as a straightforward reboot I think it makes nearly as much sense to consider it in light of the requel. I say this not so much because of any connections of plot or lore but rather because of the way this film, sometimes deftly and sometimes less so, is in dialogue with Hellbound: Hellraiser 2. We cannot possibly call this a reboot of Hellraiser 2. That film was far too tied, at the plot and character level, to the original Hellraiser. But we also cannot deny both that nothing within this film would preclude the events of Hellraiser 2 from happening – the recasting and redesign of the Hell’s Priest and the creation of a host of entirely new Cenobites to accompany her more than accommodate the deaths of the Doug Bradly iteration of the character and his associated compatriots (RIP Butterball you were too beautiful for this earth) – and this movie is exploring many of the same questions as Hellraiser 2: where do Cenobites come from? How do they come and for whom?
In order to explore this theme we’re introduced to Riley, a struggling multi-addict who is attempting recovery, played with exceptional depth and sensitivity by Odessa A’zion. Riley is having a rough go of it. She’s been clean for a while but she’s had trouble finding a job. She lives with her brother, his boyfriend and their roommate and none of them quite approve of her current boyfriend, Trevor, who she met in her 12 step program. These misgivings prove founded as Trevor seduces Riley into both aiding him in a crime (stealing the unknown contents of a safe that appears to be abandoned) and into sliding off the wagon. The contents of the safe: the Lament Configuration.
There is a change to the puzzle box in this outing and this change represents one of the largest structural weaknesses of the film. In this version solving the box will expose a hidden blade. The Cenobites will take whoever is cut by this blade, not necessarily whoever solves the box. This creates a tension from the statement in Hellraiser 2 that, “It is not hands that call us. It is desire.” At its silliest this leads to a scene late in the film in which a Cenobite is cut by the box and is ripped apart by its fellows but it also leads to several of Riley’s room mates being taken, or threatened, by the Cenobites despite not having expressed any desires that might have called the Cenobites to begin with.
A lot of this is a script problem. There is a ghost of a solution to this issue within the film through the depiction of Riley’s conflicting desire. There’s a scene when she’s been kicked out of her brother’s apartment. Preparing to drive into the night she packs all her things into a car and she discovers some pills. She opens the bottle, almost eats them then throws them on the ground. After a beat she then crouches down, picks the pills back up from between the cobblestones and eats them all. What does Riley want here? She wants to be rid of her addiction. She wants to throw away her pills. She also wants very much to take them. Riley isn’t a unified arrow of desire; her libidinal investments shoot off in all directions and at all times. If people are packets of conflicting desire then sure anyone might desire to call the Cenobites.
But the other characters are insufficiently fleshed out to carry this message home. Riley’s brother Matt has a hint of this same conflicted desire – he kicks his fuck-up sister out of his home and then almost immediately goes running into the night looking for her on the premonition she’s come to harm – but he dies far too quickly (off-screen) for us to ever really know him well enough to understand the conflicts within his heart the way the story would require. If we’d seen some contact between Matt and the Hell’s Priest (played with wonderful aplomb by the exceptional Jamie Clayton in one of the most inspired recasting choices I’ve ever seen) we might have been able to buy that Matt’s desires called the Cenobites to him. Instead he’s just the poor sucker who got poked by the wrong knife.
Eventually it transpires that Riley, Matt, Trevor and all the rest are dancing on the strings of the demented occultist Roland Voight – a disappointing downgrade from Phillip Channard or, especially, Frank Cotton. Voight previously solved the final configuration of the puzzlebox and was rewarded a wish by the Cenobites. For baffling and poorly explained reasons he chose “sensation” (who would ask Cenobites for that gift if others were available) and the Cenobites responded by creating an instrument that winds his nerve fibers around cranks at random intervals, allowing him to persist in everlasting torment. Voight has some buyer’s remorse.
Honestly Voight represents the other manifestation of the weakness in the script of this film. His plot makes little sense and only works, at all, because of the direct intercession of the Hell’s Priest and / or the accidental miss of a knife to Riley’s hand. Furthermore, his Cenobite-trap home makes for a beautiful baroque set but also leads to some of the silliest slasher antics of a movie that is desperately trying not to be just another slasher. Finally Goran Višnjić simply doesn’t deliver a performance that is even in the same genre as those of A’Zion and Clayton. They’re going for subtlety and depth; he’s chewing the sets. A protagonist as good as Riley deserved a better villain than Voight. But at least this film understands what all Hellraiser movies barring the first two failed to: the Cenobites aren’t the villains of the piece. As a result the Cenobites are a delight. Their motivations may be muddied with the business with the knife in the box but what we get as a result is a host of terrible angels: truly inscrutable cosmic horrors who can do anything, appear anywhere, shape reality to their whims and are entirely inhuman. The creature design in this film is top-notch. I’ve mentioned that Jamie Clayton is excellent in her performance as the Hell’s Priest but she also looks absolutely stunning. A perfect reimagining of the iconic monster. The new Cenobtes are equally delightful to behold.
That being said it does seem strange the extent to which this film shies away from gore considering its subject matter. Scenes of explicit gore are used sparingly and this combined with the slow-burn pacing, the dramatic characterization of the protagonist and the angelic design of the Cenobites leaves this film feeling almost staid. For better and worse this is not Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth. What we end up with is an imbalanced movie. It is far better than the vast majority of Hellraiser movies. I’d even hazard to call it the third-best in the franchise. But with two of the best performances in the franchise and the beautiful reimagining of the Cenobites it shows potential to have been so much better than third-best.
Unfortunately David Goyer was twenty years past the point in his career where he might have been up to the task of writing the script this film needed and the film was marred by an underwhelming villain. However this lopsided story of the tangled contradiction of desire remains a better movie than Hellraisers 3 through 10 and clearly demonstrates how jettisoning the chaff of poor quality sequels can still breathe new life into tired franchises. And, honestly, the only one of these franchise requels to have served better as a stand-alone film was Scream 2022. So perhaps we should be a little satisfied with an okay film featuring two excellent performances when it could have been so much worse.
I think Engels is sometimes unfairly maligned. There was long a tendency, and it has not ever fully ended, to treat Engels as if he were the author of every failure and error in Marxism. And perhaps the work most responsible for cementing his position as the sin eater of Marxism is On Authority.
This text is, on the surface an aggressive repudiation of an Anarchist tendency to want to obliterate hierarchy, level all power differentials, and leave everybody equal. This sort of flat equality had never been the objective of Marxism and Engels is critical of it as lacking an understanding of the depth of power. “Everywhere combined action, the complication of processes dependent upon each other, displaces independent action by individuals. But whoever mentions combined action speaks of organization; now, is it possible to have organization without authority?” He asks.
And yet I think the greatest problem with On Authority is the number of readers of Engels who stop there and who never develop the necessary introspection to turn a later statement at themselves or the heads of state they admire, “These gentlemen think that when they have changed the names of things they have changed the things themselves.” And yet, for many readers of Engels the decision is to do just that!
It’s the people’s jail; completely different from a regular prison. And the prison is important here because I think a more productive read of On Authority would be to see it as an anticipation of Discipline and Punish. Engels quite rightly points out how the technologies that existed in the late 19th century helped form an authoritarian subjectivity. He demonstrates that a factory worker or a steam ship operator must, by necessity, create a form of authority in order to accomplish their tasks.
This, in a way, echoes Foucault’s suggestion that the epistemological shift that created the conditions for the prison was far vaster than a mere building of stone and steel. Engels diagnoses the problem of authority in much the same way Foucault diagnoses the problem of discipline. The principal difference is that Engels, in the 1870s says, we cannot abandon this yet, while Foucault, a century later, says, we should have abandoned this long ago.
Engels is arguing that the power relationship of authority, the idea that one person could subordinate the will of the other to achieve a collective aim, is necessary for conducting the violence of the revolution. ” Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois?” And he’s not entirely wrong. He almost comes to a profound understanding: the problem of authority is not that it exists but rather that it persists. Tari comes to this realization when he points to the example of Subcomandante Marcos who dissolved back into the anonymity of the people after his role as a spokesperson for the Zapatistas was no longer needed. “Authority and autonomy are relative things whose spheres vary with the various phases of the development of society.” Engels says and this suggests an understanding that authority is, and must be, contingent.
The problem that arises is that this authority congeals into an institution and this, like the prison and the disciplinary society it is a part of, continues long after the moment it should have been struck down.
And so, you can see, we can construct an Engels who speaks against Lenin, Stalin and all the authoritarian Marxists who follow in their wake from the very essay from which they build their case for the people’s jail.
But this raises the question of whether this is an authentic Engels. Certainly I’m reading into the text things that simply could not be there. Engels assumes inevitability and yet I demand he sees contingency. I divide him against himself.
There are certain people who might shrug at this and suggest that whether Engels saw authority as an inevitable product of a productive society or as a contingent phenomenon tied to a vast network of other contingencies is irrelevant to how an audience receives a text. And in doing so they take my divided Engels and split him fully: we have the Engels of the inevitable and we have the Engels of the contingent. This situates the discursive power of the text fully in its interpretation. A message is only as strong as the receipt of it.
But, of course, there is another possibility ignored by this very dialectically divided Engels. And that is that both of these divided figures occupy the same space. We can start by stepping back and asking whether I divided Engels in the interpretation or if these contradictions were there in the text, equally present but irreconcilable. It is a misunderstanding of contingency to suggest it is flat. In a fully contingent universe even contingency is contingent and we must expect to see the accretion of consistency.
From within a domain of consistency that consistency likely seems inevitable. It occludes the contingency on the horizon. But this is only ever metastable. After all: the consistency is contingent. Transformation may occur at any moment. When they have changed the names of things they may not have changed the things themselves but a transformation of a thing will also require a transformation of its name. And yet none of this is erased. No matter how much I unfold destitution out of On Authority the inevitable Engels of Stalin remains too.
This is the nature of authorship. We cannot erase intent; it will always be there in the text. However we cannot assume intent is singular. Intent changes; intent becomes other to itself. Even the dead Engels can change his mind when contradictory thoughts exist on the page. This is not to say that there is a unity between my destituent Engels and the Engels of the inevitable. Such an encounter is, to paraphrase Deleuze, as absurd as an authentic encounter between a sadist and a masochist. And so we cannot simply re-unify Engels into one who contains both. He is already fragments. As are we all. But these fragments can coalesce too; new consistencies can be achieved that are wholly alien to the ones before. These remain metastable and contingent, of course, and this is why the work of liberation will never be done. Even if we perfected society we could not assume it would stay perfect. But it’s precious to remember, in the aftermath of a disaster especially, that destitution and constitution are dynamic processes that never reach unity but also can never achieve totality. The marks of the past will always be upon us. But we don’t live there. And over the horizon is something different.
It’s Sunday night. We’ve been without power two days. The cat is over-nigh at the emergency vet after a bout of stress cystis nearly killed him. We’re sitting at the kitchen table lit by a single camp lantern. Its LED is an intense white light but it mostly just casts shadows. We’re trying to play a board game to keep our minds off of the destruction. We choose games about building things, growing things. We couldn’t handle something driven by more explicit conflict but a lot of our traditional faves are out of the question – the lantern isn’t enough light to read the cards by.
The tedium is one of the things stories about disasters never touch on. You are living in a condition of the other shoe having dropped. The storm has passed but the clean-up is all still ahead and you have to sit in your fear: what if the lights never come back on? What if you run out of water? It’s possible you could go buy water. But there are line-ups at the doors of every open grocery far worse than those from the early days of COVID. Water is a hot commodity. You need to balance the ticking clock of a draining reserve against the opportunity cost of standing in the rain for an hour just to discover the people ahead of you cleared out the shelves.
The reduction of the world to one lamp and a few dim candles changes your subjectivity. Before the storm evenings were free time. We would read or play games or watch a show but we would do so comfortable that whatever we wanted to do we could. Now you stay near the lamp or you sit in a darkened room. We begin following each other around the house – our schedules slowly click into a kind of simpatico brought about by the constraint of available light.
It’s Friday night. The platonic dark and stormy night. I’m watching a horror movie on my couch alone after my family has gone to bed. I figure it might be my last chance for a while (and I’m right). The rain is pressing against the window on our north wall so hard that the glass is bowing. I’m a bit afraid to go to bed because of the old walnut tree next to the house. If it fell it would fall directly on my room. The power stays on long enough for me to finish my movie and the stress of the storm coupled with the anxiety of a tense film has left me tired enough to sleep. I lie in bed listening to the noise outside. Eventually the lights die but I don’t notice because I’ve already turned everything off. I will get my confirmation in the morning when my toilet stops flushing.
It’s Tuesday morning and I’m driving to work. We heard a rumour that the lights were back on at our office building downtown and maybe even internet? It’s worth the fuel to come in from the countryside. And anyway, there’s water to be had in town. When we arrive we discover the lights are on but the internet is out. Work has become another warming center – albeit one locked behind a key card. After a half hour of fiddling I manage to jury-rig the internet to work and get to doing my job but the attempt to restore normalcy breaks me open and tears begin to flow. I keep myself off camera for calls all day, claiming I’m conserving limited bandwidth but it’s because I don’t want my colleagues to see me cry. I don’t even really know why I’m crying now. The cat is back from the hospital. He’s alive but he’s rough and hiding a lot. We still don’t have water at home but our house survived the storm unscathed so at least we’re warm and dry.
So many people aren’t that lucky.
It’s Saturday afternoon. The storm that had been screaming outside all day has finally begun to subside – drifting off to expend its fury on Newfoundland where it will wash the town of Port aux Basques into the sea. We emerge from the house and examine the damage. Our greenhouse is miraculously undamaged but our solar panels are gone. We walk around some more and find them face down in the field next to the struts they stood on. We don’t know if they’re insured or not. In a few hours we will discover that our cat is sick but there are four trees down across our driveway and the wind and rain are still too high for me to safely cut us out with me being a green novice with the chainsaw. We decide to wait until the morning and reassess. By morning the cat is nearly dead but a neighbour, unaware that we were even home, brings his chainsaw and clears the path to the road. We cling desperately to the belief he just saved a life.
Time loses meaning in all this. We still have clocks but they’re not relevant. We do daylight things in daylight; we do night-time things in the dark. Most of our activity is geared just to keeping us going and alive.
But not all of us survive.
It’s Wednesday afternoon. A beautiful day. My cat dies in my arms. The vet kept him overnight, made sure he was able to pee on his own. The vet loves the cat; he’s so friendly and playful. Just a perfect little kitty. They were almost sorry to see him go but he seemed to have recovered and we wanted our friend, our family member, home. But things quickly start going wrong. He doesn’t want to touch his new food. He doesn’t drink. He fights against his medicine. He spends his last days hiding under my daughter’s bed or sleeping next to her at night. Wednesday he seems lethargic and drowsy. We hope it’s a side effect of the medicine and he’s still peeing – but he seems to be incontinent. We call the vet and they give us monitoring instructions. My wife takes a vacation day to look after him. There’s electricity at work again so we’re both supposed to be back. I go in. She calls me in the midst of a meeting telling me that we need to get the cat back to the vet quickly and I rush home – hindered by a vast traffic jam caused by the needs of road crews cutting trees out of power lines along the highway. The vet tells us he’s blocked again. His electrolytes are out of balance again. We’re back to square one. They can do everything they did before all over again but they aren’t observing the crystals they’d associate with stress cystis in his samples and the truth is they don’t know why his bladder and kidneys are shutting down. They cannot promise even the most heroic efforts would let him recover. They don’t say it but we are thinking it: the storm has killed my cat; it’s just taking a while to finish the job.
He dies in my arms knowing he was always loved. He’s only one year old. I don’t sleep well that night. I keep waking to the sound of feet scampering in the attic but they stop as soon as I’m awake and alert. I don’t know whether these liminal footsteps are an animal or if they’re just the remnants of dreams of a missing friend. I’m too tired to look.
Depictions of disaster in popular art are neat and tidy. They focus on the moment of crisis – the sharp fear of devastation and the bright excitement of survival. But the truth is that this is not the true nature of the disaster. Time breaks down around you. There’s a heavy grief that occupies you for lost friends, lost possessions and the shared pain of a community struggling to reconstruct itself amidst the ruins of the event. Bataille’s inner experience captures the fragmented nature of thought at the edge of what a person can tolerate. Sentences break down. Time sense becomes confused as the pain of the past, the doldrum of the present and the blank grey fear of the future all crowd together. I was in a meeting when I got the call from the vet to have that talk. All I could manage to get out for the longest time were fragments: “I just…” “I can’t.” Eventually I managed to force out, “I have to go,” but still I lingered to the end of the call – as much as I couldn’t stand to be in the present moment I also couldn’t stand the idea of moving toward that awful future I could anticipate ahead of me.
The truth was that in the anticipation of that moment I was already there, in that future time, living through it. There is still a future for us. Those of us who remain. And there are still routines that need to be served. Work needs to be done. Livestock needs feeding. We have another cat and a dog who we love and who can’t understand why their third companion is gone and won’t come back. There still isn’t electricity at home. There’s still no running water. So I’m sitting in my office: my actual office that I normally never go to since I work from home most every day, trying to work and lose myself in routines but it’s not enough and my sense of time remains unmoored. I’m still living in Friday night watching the storm push in my windows. I’m still living in Saturday afternoon, surveying the destruction of my farm. I’m still living in Wednesday afternoon, in a comfortable but impersonal room watching my cat die between my tears.
Disasters shatter time. So many things are broken: landscapes, properties, lives but, in the aftermath, it’s the breaking of chronology that cuts to the soul. You are pulled in a thousand temporal directions – unable to grieve properly because you’re still at the start, anticipating the terror to come an at the middle, struggling to understand and at the end, trying to pick up the pieces all at once.