On the mortal soul

When I published my recent piece Toward the Butlerian Jihad one of the concepts I brought in was the mortal soul. This was largely in service, as others have noted, of a secularization of the concept of the Butlerian Jihad – a holy war against “thinking machines” that occupies the position of a considerable historical event in the background of the science fiction novel Dune and its sequels.

However, as has been rightly pointed out by others, playing around with the idea of a soul which could be disfigured raises the risk of reintroducing natural law into our metaphysics. This is, of course, something we should avoid. I had been thinking about expanding on the concept of the mortal soul regardless as a part of my overall project on materialism and magic however, in light of this well-received response, I thought it’d be a good idea to get this explanation out a bit faster than I otherwise might have.

A brief genealogy might be a good place to start. The idea of the mortal soul is something most directly encountered in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil where he says, “Let it be permitted to designate by this expression the belief which regards the soul as something indestructible, eternal, indivisible, as a monad, as an atomon: this belief ought to be expelled from science! Between ourselves, it is not at all necessary to get rid of “the soul” thereby, and thus renounce one of the oldest and most venerated hypotheses—as happens frequently to the clumsiness of naturalists, who can hardly touch on the soul without immediately losing it. But the way is open for new acceptations and refinements of the soul-hypothesis; and such conceptions as ‘mortal soul,’ and ‘soul of subjective multiplicity,’ and ‘soul as social structure of the instincts and passions,’ want henceforth to have legitimate rights in science.”

Nietzsche attempts to walk a razor’s edge here between a materialist account of the world which abandons the concept of the soul and what he describes as the Christian atomism of the soul which he treats as the last vestiges of a belief in a rigid substance.

Nietzsch’s soul of subjective multiplicity is, instead, a process of transformation that occurs within a person. We cannot treat a mortal soul as a substantial object: a ghost within a shell. Instead it represents the ever-transforming flow of subjectivities, affects and material effects created by a person. However this psychological frame does not discount a theological reading as we can find reflections of this in the far-older concept of Anattā.

This is a thorny issue within Buddhism so I will provide my interpretation which is largely drawn from the Chán school however I do anticipate lively disagreement here. At an etymological level, Anattā means no-self. This is a challenging concept because Buddhism upholds reincarnation as a part of its metaphysical universe and if there is, in fact, no self then what is there to reincarnate?

There are two possible solutions here. The first is to suggest that there is no unchanging self while there may be a continuous stream of being, a flow of moral development and consequence, we cannot point to it as an eternal and unchanging self. After all, how could a person develop toward Nirvāna if change was impossible? As such we see a soul that exists but is, much as Nietzsche would later propose, a “soul of subjective multiplicity.” From this sense it doesn’t matter much if the soul passing between bodies is substantial because it will be caught in a constant transformation brought about by the accumulated weight of its past lives and the condition of its latest birth.

Another solution would be to treat a soul much as a candle flame used to light a second candle. In this case the original flame will eventually burn out but the new flame will remain. The origin of this new flame carries from the extinguished flame before but it is not of a substance at all. Rather it is a spark, a blend of flow and event, which ignites a novel being. The treatment of a soul as a flame is valuable here for creating an account of soul as process. A flame is never still, never static, it consumes fuel it produces waste. Early metaphysicians such as the stoics also associated fire with an elementary vital principle throughout the universe. In this sense fire stands as a form of life and even now that we understand these phenomena to be separate from each other fire remans a valuable metaphor for describing the process of a life as process, as flow and event.

And so what is a mortal soul but the account of the changes brought about through a life. As such the soul extends past the body of any given subject and into the socius that forms around them. A subject is a process of transformation. I am, at 44, not the same person I was at 22 or at 11. And tomorrow I will be somebody different still. The very act of putting pen to paper on this essay transforms me in that it will change, subtly or suddenly, how others see me. This act dissolves the body of the subject into the field of being because it is equally true that subjective changes within me – the idea of what I, as a subject, am is constantly reassessed. Being is contingent and there is no essential character to a being.

This is ultimately my interpretation of Anattā: a being that exists as process and absent substance, absent essence. This, then, gets to my later criticism regarding AI and death. These necromantic objects operate from the assumption of an essence. In order for a podcast with Plato to have any meaning whatsoever there must be an essential Plato who can be conjured back out of his texts.

That the idea of Plato, the soul of the man, is entirely different now as he has become the commentaries of philosophy and counter-philosophy passing through Aristotle and Plotinus, a worm through time all the way to Kant, Hegel and all the rest, makes the idea of a podcast that returns him to a single essential figure who could be interrogated or who could interrogate in some meaningful way absurd.

It is disfiguring of the soul because it wants to fix this process of transformation back into a substance. In the Jean Leflambeur trilogy by Hannu Rajaniemi we see such a mission taken to its absolute extreme as the Sobornost seek to do away with death itself. Their mission, to roll back time and do what Benjamin’s angel of history could not, restoring all the dead souls lost to history is a threat to others in this book’s universe precisely because of the terrifying impact such a deed would have on the ability of (post)humanity to continue to change.

Growth and change depends on the elimination of essence. Once we allow essence into our metaphysics we are trapped by the idea of Platonic remembrance and everything becomes nothing but an emanation of an essential elsewhere.

In the Theses on the Philosophy of History Walther Benjamin describes Historical Materialism as a Mechanical Turk (not unlike these “AI” tools) which must be animated by a hidden theology to become puissant. Atheist Marxists often interpret this as a critique of the failures of Marxism, like Marxism in the 1930s was insufficiently anti-theological, but this depends, to a certain extent of continuing the mistaken reading of “opiate of the masses” to mean “drug, bad, avoid” rather than historicizing it as meaning, “something to ease pain.” If we read the first thesis in a straightforward way we can instead suggest that a theology (I hesitate to say secular theology here as Benjamin was not a person of secular spirit) is needed. Regardless Benjamin’s theological interpretation of Marxism serves to target the very idea of history as a process of progress. Instead history is the wind which blows Angelus Novus into the future as the debris and dead of past eras heap up at his feet. AI technologies then attempt to do what the angel of history cannot and return these dead to us in some essential form.

I know it is a frightening concept to deny that the unknown future will be redemptive and then to insist we must fight to go there anyway. This is why I briefly invoked Kierkegaard at the end of my piece on the Butlerian Jihad because embracing the danger of an irredemptive and unknown future requires a leap past extreme anxiety. We do not leap toward God for his throne is, by now, thoroughly vacated but this increases the urgency by which we must strike down those people who would raise up a mechanical god to redeem the dead of history.

“It was but a step to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement,” Benjamin says and I see a similar critique in those who say that “AI” is necessarily a tool that could be meaningfully wielded by a leftist project. When I say that “AI” must be stolen from the Bourgeoisie what I mean to say is that it is insufficient that Proletarian hands wield this technology for Proletarian aims. This is falling for the same progressivist view of history Benjamin rightly criticizes. Rather I am saying that it is a technology that must be denied from the Bourgeoisie. We don’t take it like Prometheus taking fire from the gods but rather to deny other hands the use of it. I see this as a moral imperative because the resurrection of an essential and immortal soul clogs the path to an open and liberatory future. Effectively the leftist project we can trace through Spinoza and Marx to Beauvoir and others depends on us disregarding the rubble of the past. We cannot redeem the dead. There is no past to return to. If we are to be free we must be mortal: we must be subject to absolute contingency and transformation. Meillassoux describes contingency as being necessary if we are to “get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not,” and, again, this circles back to the anti-facial consciousness raising of Fisher and Foucault. I raise up this spontaneously insurrectionary desire against specters of the social democrats of the Second Internationale as they were the self-same people Benjamin critiqued for mistaking change for progress. Certainly AI tools represent a change; it does not follow they represent a progression.

Unlike Marx I do call for a revolution with a specific moral character – one which I think is clear from the citations of Deleuze and Guattari, Beauvoir, Benjamin and Kierkegaard. This moral universe is one that is necessarily toward spontaneous liberation, the potential of which is as evident as the spontaneous enlightenment of Chán Buddhism. As such its character is necessarily a mass character but one that will not allow for the possibility of redemption. It is, however, still a (secular) theological proposition. We must overcome an overwhelming anxiety that we will not bring about a future that is free and act a if that liberation were assured. In this regard, by putting the debris of history before us, “AI” is an obstacle at best. While contingency allows that a tactical use of “AI” might be valuable in this or that moment we must recognize that any such tactic will be counter to our own ethics; only holding up contingency as the supreme absolute opens the door at all to wielding such a tool.

I do want to temper this statement a bit to suggest I am not making of “AI” a Ruling Ring. This would depend on an absolute and essential understanding of evil which would go against all the contingent and transformative metaphysics I champion. But we should recognize that these uses, even if effective, are not moral. This is not because it violates some natural law. If we follow Meillassoux on contingency then we must vacate every absolute and this includes the absoluteness of laws as fundamental as the Planck Length (as Rajaniemi speculated). If we cannot even say with certainty that:

represents a limit in all places and in all times then how could we possibly say with certainty that there is any sort of social absolute? We must vacate any natural law and treat law with as much contempt as Benjamin did in the Critique of Violence. But we should also accept that even contingency is contingent and that this may lead to the creation of (contingent) fields of consistency. In such a case we can say, barring some transformation heretofore unseen, it’s right for us to do away with these tools as serving only our enemy.

Toward the Butlerian Jihad

In the appendices to Dune, Frank Herbert says that the chief commandment of the Butlerian Jihad was recorded in the Orange Catholic Bible: “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” There is quite a lot that we can say about this tiny snippet of text. Helpfully Herbert expands on it.

Also in the appendices Herbert describes how space travel and the concomitant encounter with the infinite that it brought about created a crisis of faith. “All through religion, the feeling of the sacred was touched by anarchy from the outer dark,” Herbert explains before pivoting into the dualistic sort of reading of Taoism that was popular among the New Age movement at the time he was writing Dune, saying, “It was as though Jupiter in all his descendant forms retreated into the maternal darkness to be superseded by a female immanence filled with ambiguity and with a face of many terrors.” Now, again, this is the sort of statement that unfolds almost infinitely and is certainly fascinating. But if we divert ourselves to a discussion of gender and the monad within Dune we’ll never get to the point of discussing the Butlerian Jihad as a movement. So, let’s cut through this to say that Herbert saw, in periods of rapid and remarkable social and technological change, a simultaneous movement both toward the future and also into the past. “It was a time of struggle between beast- demons on the one side and the old prayers and invocations on the other.” And all of this set the basis for the great spiritual movement that set the Dune universe up – the Butlerian Jihad. Which had as its simple aim this: “Man may not be replaced.”

But what Herbert sees in the Butlerian Jihad was not just a political unification against a material foe but also an ecumenical movement wherein people saw in each other a human unity. “All religions had at least one common commandment: “Thou shalt not disfigure the soul.””

This ecumenicalism is why the ultimate text which enshrined the shared religious understanding of the increasingly scattered people of the universe was called the “Orange Catholic Bible” – it was a recognition of both ecumenicalism in general and of paradox in specific. At the time Herbert wrote the Troubles were just heating up and no religious divide seemed as hotly contested as that between Catholicism and Anglicanism outside of perhaps the Sunni / Shia split which also played heavily into Herbert’s speculative comparative theology. Herbert’s appendix on religion is clearly summarized thus: “all religions had at least one common commandment: ‘The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve but a reality to experience.'”

This sense of the mystical permeates Herbert’s view of religion and, in considering the Butlerian Jihad’s focus on the humanistic and the ecumenicalism that emerged out of this humanist focus, we come to see one of the motivations of the Butlerian Jihad as a reification of collective immediate experience over the analytical.

Of course today the name of the Butlerian Jihad is increasingly adopted by those people who are resistant to the hype around two technologies: Large Language Models and and Diffusion Models. These are both probabilistic tools that analyze data and attempt to infer likely results. In the case of LLMs they do so by interrogating a data set for likely text replies to any given text input. In diffusion models they do this by assessing the probability of an image occurring compared to other images with subtly different features. Ultimately both are just a combination of statistics, calculus and stolen copyright IP. These two technologies have been rather deceptively marketed as artificial intelligence. This is a bit rich when the truth is that there is no intelligence at play at all. These algorithms actually do not violate the chief commandment of the Butlerian Jihad in that they are not actually a likeness of a human mind. Rather they are an aggregation of human tools (mathematics) and the products of human labour (training sets). The truth is that the problem with “AI” is not that they have disfigured the soul but rather that their owners would break that other aim of the Butlerian Jihad. They seek to replace workers with these tools. In Capital, Marx said of the Luddites, “It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used,” and I do think this is an important step that we have to take if we wish to resist the automation of creative labour and caring labour which is the aim of these men and their tools.

The issue with “AI” isn’t that it disfigures the soul. Instead it’s things like the US National Eating Disorder Helpline laying off its staff in favour of a chatbot. As such we must engage in resistance to AI not as a religious activity but as a political one. But, of course, as Herbert says, “When religion and politics ride the same cart, when that cart is driven by a living holy man (baraka), nothing can stand in their path.”

This is a dichotomy that Deleuze and Guattari interrogate at length in 1227: Treatise on Nomadology – The War Machine, which they open by stating “political sovereignty, or domination, has two heads: the magician-king and the jurist-priest.” This serves to open an axiom in which they argue that the war machine is exterior to the State apparatus.

They go on to state that this opposition of the jurist-priest and the magician-king is only relative. “They function as a pair.” Religion and politics are always riding in the same cart. But, as these two figures together compose the entirety of the state as a stratum, and as they are not actually in conflict but are rather complimentary poles Deleuze and Guattari state that “war is not contained within this apparatus.” War is extrinsic to the construction of the state. The use of violence by a state either occurs via non-warrior means such as the police officer and the judge or it requires a state to bring the military under juridical control.

Deleuze and Guattari deploy Dumézil’s interpretation of the god Indra to argue that he, as a war god, is entirely outside the dualities of the state: “another species, another nature.” They propose that a war machine is not like chess but rather like Go. “Go pieces… have only an anonymous, collective or third-person function: ‘It’ makes a move. ‘It’ could be a man, a woman, a louse, an elephant.” They describe Go as a war without battle lines, “with neither confrontation nor retreat, without battles even: pure strategy.”

All this is in service of claiming the production of a war machine outside the boundaries of the state. If Indra and Go and all these other non-state examples from anthropology, mythography and ludic theory are in opposition to the state-construction then we, too, can go to war against the state. They argue for the idea of an Urstaat – that is to say that the existence of humanity is coextensive with the existence of the state but that, likewise, the existence of an outside to the state which is not another state is also coextensive with the existence of humanity. However they continue this argument against the absoluteness of the state by bringing in another concept: ecumenicalism. For Deleuze and Guattari the two elements that allowed the formation of a war machine against the state were the ecumenon of global non-state actors and the fragmentation of culture into bands as per McLuhan‘s investigation of neo-tribalism. But for them these two factors: the global non-state ecumenon and the fragmentation into bands was not a stable dyad but instead represented two tendencies present in all places and at all times and that mixed and blended in various ways. “It is in terms not of independence, but of coexistince and competition in a perpetual field of interaction.”

And it’s with this in mind that they turn to epistemology and the idea of a minor science. And here they put forward that there are, in fact, two sciences: a royal science of objects and solids and a minor science of flow and flux. They identify this with the concept of becoming, which, for Deleuze and Guattari, is always already the domain of the minority as the majority represents a normative influence that attempts to concretize relationships. They describe this as a model of science that is, “problematic, rather than theorematic: figures are considered only from the viewpoints of the affections that befall them.”

This establishes this minor science as being a domain of collective immediacy. Much as the Go piece might be anything from an elephant to a flea the minor science avoids the concrete and analytic approach to reality of royal science. It’s not that these sciences are without math but rather, “instead of being good forms absolutely that organize matter, they are ‘generated’ as ‘forces of thrust’ (poussées) by the material, in a qualitative calculus of the optimum.”

It’s interesting to piece apart how this idea of a nomadic geometry interacts with the method by which diffusion models function. Because, of course, diffusion models are, to a certain extent, doing just this. They are quite literally engaging in a qualitative calculus that attempts to infer an optimum image to respond to a text prompt. And this helps us to disentangle ourselves a bit from the question of the state and return to the question of the “AI” and for us to ask this: should we raise the Butlerian Jihad at all? But this is falling for a trap. It does seem true that diffusion models are, at the very least, the product of a minor science. It’s also very likely true that the first real resistance to them will come from the state form. Western states are deeply concerned with the idea of the, “deepfake,” the idea that a diffusion model might produce hyperreal images that allow for an undermining of the state itself by hostile actors. But, blinded to the existence of an outside to the state, most states can only imagine those hostile actors as being other states. The privacy laws of the EU – that supreme product of the Jurist-Priest – are likely among the greatest obstacles the owners of this war machine will face.

Rather the concern should be that the global ecumenon that holds possession of the war machine represented by “AI” is also not our friend. After all these global ecumenons and these fragmentary bands exist (in part) in a state of perpetual competition. And one of the vectors of competition remains that of class conflict and I’ve talked before about how class conflict is the motor that drives my concerns with “AI” technologies.

Let’s be clear: The Bourgeoisie are one of the global ecumenons that Deleuze and Guattari describe as being outside the state not in terms of independence but rather of, “coexistence and competition in a perpetual field of interaction.” But so are religions. So are band societies. So are the Proletariat. This is an instinct that Marxists had at the outset and have sometimes seemed to forget: the Proletariat are not the citizens of this or that state but are a group of people far greater than any given state. The conflict between the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie is coextensive with both state and non-state fields of action. And right now the hands holding the war machine of “AI” are not Proletarian. As such it behooves us either to smash that machine or to steal it.

But what can we do? The powers behind “AI” claim it is an inevitability. You cannot stuff the genie back in the bottle. There is no alternative. Fisher describes this Thatcherite slogan as the ultimate condensation of capitalist realism in his eponymous book. Fisher situates the problem of capitalist realism as, in part, one of interiority and exteriority. “In the 1960s and 1970s, capitalism had to face the problem of how to contain and absorb energies from outside. It now, in fact, has the opposite problem; having all-too successfully incorporated externality, how can it function without an outside it can colonize and appropriate?”

And in this we can see the value, to capitalists, of a minor science that can perpetually produce an outside of sorts. Beyond the practical level of being able to lay off chat line workers, graphic designers, illustrators and ad-copy writers and thus make more money AI allows capitalists to mine the past itself for new products. “How would you like to hear a podcast where Plato talks to Aristotle?” Death remains the outside Capitalism cannot fully conquer. But this creates paradoxical relationship with death within Capitalism. As Erich Fromm says, “The world becomes a sum of lifeless artifacts; from synthetic food to synthetic organs, the whole man becomes part of the total machinery that controls and is simultaneously controlled by… He aspires to make robots as one of the greatest achievements of his technical mind, and some specialists assure us that the robot will hardly be distinguished from living men.” This, Byung-Chul Han reflects, is an “undead, death-free life.” But in its function as a form of undeath we can begin to see how these human tools made by human hands, trained by human labour and employed for human ends, do, ultimately, have an aim which violates that precept of Herbert’s ecumenical religion. By creating an economy of undeath diffusion technologies do, in fact, disfigure the human soul. After all, what else but a disfigurement of his mortal soul could it be to resurrect a homunculus of John Lennon to write new songs for corporate masters? Notwithstanding the statist political concern how disfiguring is the deepfake that takes a person and puts words in their mouth, deeds at their hands and sends these lies out into the vast field of the global online? So perhaps we should raise the banner of Jihad even though this war machine is a tool to smash states. Maybe we should, if we wish to favour the human, or even the broader ecumenon of the living be smashing these machines that ape being without any interiority.

Perhaps the solutions are intertwined with some of the problematics we’ve laid out. In Capitalist Realism Fisher asks the question, “is there no alternative?” And the answer he gives is that alternatives abound. “The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity,” he tells us, “even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.”

Fisher never gave us a project though. He never proposed some positive way to get there from here. At least not in any complete form. Before his death he was working on a book called Acid Communism that would have conveyed just this. He never finished it but some fragments exist. In the principal extant fragment Fisher says, “The subduing of the counterculture has seemed to confirm the validity of the scepticism and hostility to the kind of position Marcuse was advancing. If ‘the counterculture led to neoliberalism’, better that the counterculture had not happened. In fact, the opposite argument is more convincing — that the failure of the left after the Sixties had much to do with its repudiation of, or refusal to engage with, the dreamings that the counterculture unleashed. There was no inevitability about the new right’s seizure and binding of these new currents to its project of mandatory individualisation and overwork.” In this fragment Fisher says his plan was to use a hauntological read of the 1960s and 70s to piece out the potentialities never followed – the trail away from “no alternative” and back to a future that could be free. “Potentials exert influence without being actualised. Actual social formations are shaped by the potential formations whose actualisation they seek to impede,” he says. In other words, the first step to realizing an alternative to the neoliberal economic order is to recognize “there is no alternative” for the post-hoc lie it always was. Neoliberalism was only inevitable insofar as it happened. But just because Neoliberalism arose in the 1970s and this is inevitable because the past is inaccessible (notwithstanding the undead ministrations of “AI” software) it does not follow that neoliberalism is inevitable now.

Fisher’s fragment juxtaposes the absolute futurity of Leninism with all its concomitant rigidity and pleasure-denial against the idea of the psychedelic. It seems as if he were pointing in the direction not of a harsh and super-egoic drive into a post-revolutionary future but to one of a collective immediacy defined by an exploration of the bounds of consciousness. On Foucault he said, “Foucault, seldom comfortable in his own skin, was always looking for a way out of his own identity. He had memorably claimed that he wrote ‘in order not to have a face’, and his prodigious exercises in rogue scholarship and conceptual invention, the textual labyrinths he meticulously assembled from innumerable historical and philosophical sources, were one way out of the face. Another route was what he called the limit-experience, one version of which was his encounter with LSD. The limit-experience was paradoxical: it was an experience at and beyond the limits of ‘ordinary’ experience, an experience of what cannot ordinarily be experienced at all. The limit-experience offered a kind of metaphysical hack. The conditions which made ordinary experience possible could now be encountered, transformed and escaped — at least temporarily. Yet, by definition, the entity which underwent this could not be the ordinary subject of experience — it would instead be some anonymous X, a faceless being.” This psychedelic escape from faciality would lead to a form of collective spiritual experience, of “consciousness raising.”

For Fisher, and for many of us who followed in his wake, there was a fundamental error to the Leninist revolutions of the 20th century in staking the spiritual life of their people against a secular religion of the state. Lenin might claim that the future would absolve him when these states withered away and we got communism but, as Melissa Webber said in Government Flu, “It never happened, did it?”

There was still a futurity to Foucault and Fisher’s attempts to escape the face but they weren’t the teleological / eschatological justifications of Lenin. Instead they were a pursuit of something new, something fundamentally other. They sought a future that would not redeem us because it was unknowable until it arrived. But beyond a return to unionization and a lot of talk about music Fisher never really said how to get there. For Graham Jones it seems the answer lies in Red Enlightenment. For him the consciousness raising Fisher alluded to would give rise to a secular spirituality. This involves an occupation of a deliberate paradox that first divides the enlightenment between moderate and radical tendencies and then problematizes the same divisions, and their subsequent fruits. Graham Jones recognizes how reactionaries have wrong-footed the left by adopting broad-reaching and open-ended ideologies (citing Jordan Peterson as an example of such a vector) while we remain debating between the modernist and post-modernist tendencies about what our project even should be.

But if we want to forge something other, something new, one thing is clear, we need to embrace a mystical view of the world that smashes the divisions of faciality and that prepares people for a Kierkegaardian leap over the levelling scythe of “no alternative” and into a future beyond this.

This heightens the urgency by which we must either destroy or wrest control of “AI” away from its current masters. The nostalgic resurrection of undead culture via unending stale remix will not get us into the future. The situation on the ground right now is perilous. The weapon that states most fear is in the hands of enemies who must not be allowed to set a course to the future. We must, on the left, care enough about the state of the mortal soul to demand its mortality. And this requires us to fight back against the undead suspension of death that Byung Chul-Han and Erich Fromm warn of. A war machine can be nearly anything: a flea or an elephant or a bit of calculus and statistics running on a server farm somewhere. It’s important we don’t abandon science and become blind men wandering in the fantastical desert of giant worms but we must ensure we understand the minor sciences, both their potentials and the threats they pose. It’s easy to fall into the trap of turning a dialectical worldview into a dualist one where two monolithic classes are ultimately behind all phenomena but this isn’t so. If we are anti-state we must recognize that so are some of our enemies. If we are anti-AI we must recognize that so are many states. But out of this chaotic situation potential emerges. We need to treat this conflict not as a chess match but as a game of Go, placing stones that can fruit like mushrooms into new configurations in the future.

I think it’s fundamentally important that the left understand tools like AI. And I think it’s equally important we understand why we must fight them. But we cannot get ourselves bound up in a vision of a redeeming future when the truth is that our only hope of success lies in absolute contingency.

At the start of this piece I described the Butlerian Jihad as a reification of collective immediate experience over the analytical and that is crucial right now to the left. And so, with this in mind the answer to the question of whether we should raise the standard of the Butlerian Jihad is a resounding yes!

As long as that technology is in the hands of our enemies it blocks the path to an unknown future with the accumulated debris of dead voices and dead faces. And so either the technology must be extinguished or the hands that wield it must be cut off.

Fear Street and Knife+Heart: The Interpassivity Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that is where the risk of interpassivity lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic and Lawlessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic is the creation of the new.

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

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

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

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

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

Douglas Adams – Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ursula K. LeGuin – A wizard of Earthsea

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

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

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

Ursula K. LeGuin – A Wizard of Earthsea

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

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

Ursula K. LeGuin – A Wizard of Earthsea

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

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

“What does your backsight do?”

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

T. H. White – The Once and Future King

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superman is not his powers. Superman is his weaknesses.

Brandon Sanderson – Sanderson’s second law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fredrich Nietzsche – The Gay Science

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

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

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

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

The incoherence of “fuck Trudeau”

I have an ambivalent relationship to the statement “fuck Trudeau.”

On one hand, yes, fuck that guy. The government of Justin Trudeau has overseen the collapse of Canada’s healthcare system across multiple provinces – in part due to the complete failure of Canada to set safe COVID-19 policy or to effectively communicate those policies that were set. The abdication of COVID policy to provinces was one of many failures of inaction. Another cogent example has been the failure of the Trudeau government to meaningfully address contaminated water in First Nations communities or to respond meaningfully to the multiple discoveries of mass graves on residential school properties. Further failures of the Trudeau government include out-of-control inflation leading to a Bank of Canada response that deepened the ongoing national housing crisis and a blind eye to monopolistic practices by Canada’s two largest grocery conglomerates and a general abdication of foreign policy to the United States and a failure of Canada as a reasonable diplomatic intercessor – as the Trudeau regime has largely fallen in line with American neo-cold-war policy.

With that being said I haven’t a single good thing to say about any person who sticks a “F(maple leaf)ck Trudeau” sticker on the back window of their car – this political expression maps almost as closely to crypto-fascist politics as the thin blue line flag icon. This is ultimately because the ultra-conservatives who advertise their desire to enter into carnal relations with Justin Trudeau fundamentally misunderstand the problem with Canadian politics.

The issue isn’t that Justin Trudeau is an incompetent, blundering, indecisive toady to the United States nor is it, as some conservatives might imply, that he’s a secret communist trying to sell Canada to the Communist Party of China. Rather it’s that Canada is an undemocratic systemic failure. These conservatives misapprehend that the problem with Canada is Justin Trudeau and if they could just get their guy in (be it Pierre Poilievre or Maxime Bernier) then things would be peachy.

Of course the best case scenario from a government headed by Poilievre or Bernier would be more of the exact same failures demonstrated throughout Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister. the worst-case scenario would be an acceleration to the same sort of open fascism that now characterizes the politics of the United States. This is not the sort of decision matrix that any decent Canadian should wish to see.

Canada, in 2023, is a neoliberal experiment in government by and for a vanishingly small number of resource extraction enterprises. Canada isn’t a society; it is ten mining companies, three telcos and two groceries in a trench-coat and all the policy positions of both the Trudeau government and their predecessors – the Harper-led Conservatives – make sense in that context. The remarkable continuity of these governments, divesting themselves of foreign policy decisions in favour of key trade partners, safeguarding mining and extraction at home and abroad, allowing unchecked monopoly power over food and communications all while sitting on their thumbs while all matters that can reasonably be described as provincial jurisdiction get perpetually more broken across the country isn’t a matter of Liberal / Trudeau policy nor of Conservative / Harper policy. There is a broad bipartisan consensus on these issues. The function of the two parties is to provide each with an easy scapegoat for the continuation of their shared policies. The collapse of healthcare? Don’t blame the Liberals! Blame those conservative governments at the provincial level with their unreasonable demands. And as for all the economic fallout of the bungled COVID-19 response? Well, “fuck Trudeau.” Parties in Canada are top-down affairs. The government is commanded by party leaders and the parties exist merely to amplify the will of these leaders. All the while these petty dictators in democratic guise bellow, “more of the same!” Their followers are contented merely to hate each other.

There is an imaginary in which there might be some cultural difference between Conservatives and Liberals which might serve as justification for personal grievance. The Conservatives are bigots, anti-vaxers and racists, right? But as the conservatives love hypocritically pointing out, the Prime Minister, a former drama teacher, just seems to love getting done up in cultural costume or even straight-up blackface. Ultimately the overt bigotry of the conservatives and the polite bigotry of the Liberals serves the same function: to divide the working classes against each other. This is why we must oppose bigotry in all its forms – only by overcoming homophobia, transphobia and racism can we form the sort of mass movement necessary to destroy the real enemy: Canada.

Because this is the real truth that the patriots on both sides fail to see. The problem isn’t Justin Trudeau nor is it Pierre Poilievre. The problem is Canada. Canada is a neoliberal playground for the rich and the various political figures are just distinct heads of a single hydra. A real democratic nation would depend on the elimination of Canada. It must be built, first and foremost, on a recognition of the treaties signed between the colonial powers who created Canada and the First Nations they sought to supplant and reparations for violations thereof but beyond that we must create a society which is not a neoliberal state but a post-state democratic culture in which the voices of all Canadians govern themselves rather than taking marching orders from party heads. This will not happen within Canada as it exists today because states are all perpetually terrified of their own mortality. Canada will cling to its neoliberal undeath until we drive a stake through its heart.

This is to say, while Trudeau can get fucked what we really should be saying is fuck Canada.

Truth and the Cultic: Let’s get properly postmodern

Veritas, goddess of truth

As part of the promotional tour for their new book, Neon Yang recently wrote an editorial at Tor.com about truth and the nature of cults. It isn’t very good, as editorials go, but the mistakes it makes are informative with regard to a failure of contemporary science fiction as a discursive space and I think this makes it, while not a good argument regarding truth, one that is interesting enough to spend time digging into.

Yang starts their essay by establishing the parameters of their exploration thusly:

 Never in human history has so much information been so easily accessible to so many people. Anything you want to know more about—the past, the present, the future—is a mere Internet search away. At the same time, we live in the age of disinformation. Never in history has so much untruth been so easily accessible to so many people. Anything you want to be lied to about—the past, the present, the future—is a mere Internet search away. 

This may seem somewhat bromine but it establishes something important which is where we will be spending our analysis today: Yang establishes a binary opposition between information and disinformation. The problem, they say, is that while it’s easy for people to access information it is equally easy to access disinformation. However the assumption that information and disinformation are distinct categories is somewhat assailable.

For a counter-point let’s turn to Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, in which he says, “If sexuality was constituted as an area of investigation, this was only because relations of power had established it as a possible object; and conversely, if power was able to take it as a target, this was because techniques of knowledge and procedures of discourse were capable of investing it. Between techniques of knowledge and strategies of power, there is no exteriority,” or, to put it in broad terms, power shapes the relationship we have with the information we receive such that the connections we form between any given set of data is contingent upon power.

Now let’s not be clear: neither Foucault nor myself are taking a perfectly relativist stance with regard to the construction of knowledge. Rather this is a materialist position that treats truth not as a matter of interrelating phenomena to inaccessible noumena but of a contingent set of data whose relationship bears observational and logical scrutiny. From this arises the question: who’s truth?

Now Yang almost hits upon this point when they say,

For so many years so many have believed in soft delusions such as “trickle-down economics” and “binary gender roles” and such things were never questioned. Thinking you are too smart to fall for cult-like thinking, in fact, renders you more vulnerable to the influence of cult-like thinking, a tidbit often shared by those who fell into conspiracy theory, but managed to escape.

But they shy away from a fully materialist approach to truth by brushing it off with a gesture in the direction of the inability of the individual to escape error. And here is where we can start to see a sharp divide between this kind of Kantian idealism and a properly materialist approach to truth. Because we could have very fertile ground for undermining truth if we actually looked into binary gender roles in any depth here. We might see how power systems such as patriarchy and capitalism shape how people interrelate various data about the world (sexually dimorphic characteristics and their relationship with social roles) into some sort of truth statement such as the proposition that there are genders and that they are two in number. But instead what Yang’s essay seems to suggest is that we’ve merely taken a few steps toward the mouth of Plato’s cave and now see the reality of gender (that gender is largely social role absent any fundamental connection to sexually dimorphic characteristics which, themselves exist along a spectrum rather than as two neat categories) more clearly. Of course we may agree that such a statement regarding gender is true. (I suspect we do.) But the question becomes whether it’s true based on a contingent understanding of interrelated data as revealed via power relations or whether it’s true because it is closer to an ideal form.

Having read this essay I suspect Yang adheres to the latter view rather than the former. Certainly their understanding of the relationship between resistance to power and knowledge would suggest so as they say,

 Psychologically, humans are deeply reluctant to give up belief in something they have latched on to, even in the face of overwhelming evidence otherwise. Particularly so if it is a conviction they feel like they have come to independently, rather than a message openly pushed down their throats. Especially so if it runs counter to information that is fed directly to them.

I find this inversion of power-knowledge perplexing to say the least. Yang seems to be suggesting here that knowledge arises not in an interrelation to power but rather in opposition to it. I am not sure they intended to say this – but this idea that a person is likely to cling to a belief proportionally to the extent they’re being told its wrong is a dubious proposition to say the least. Rather we should be approaching this from the position that there might be competing power systems at play that people are invested in. Their knowledge systems arise from these power systems that they desire. But since we are discussing psychology and being properly postmodern let us now have some critics of psychoanalysis discuss the mass psychology of fascism as a counter-point. In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari say, “Reich is at his profoundest as a thinker when he refuses to accept ignorance or illusion on the part of the masses as an explanation of fascism, and demands an explanation that will take their desires into account, an explanation formulated in terms of desire: no, the masses were not innocent dupes; at a certain point, under a certain set of conditions, they wanted fascism, and it is this perversion of the desire of the masses that needs to be accounted for.”

Reich suggested, and Deleuze and Guattari agree, that fascism wasn’t a matter of disinformation at all. Fascism was a matter of a mass of people wanting fascism. This desire for fascism lead to a libidinal investment in fascist power systems and with those systems comes a system of belief that centered those data and those relationships between data that reinforced a fascist worldview.

Effectively Yang is putting the cart before the horse. The January 6th insurgents didn’t become fascists because they consumed disinformation. They consumed disinformation because they wanted to become fascists.

Yang follows onto more productive ground by proposing alienation as a root of the spread of disinformation, saying,

At the core of it, disinformation thrives upon dissatisfaction. Unhappiness with the status quo leaves a gap that corrupting thought can wriggle into. 

Now we can certainly situate alienation as being a system that makes people vulnerable to fascism, cultic religious fanaticism and other troublesome power systems. This is what led many Marxists prior to Reich to uphold the idea of false consciousness – this very idea of a tricked, or disinformed, mass leading to totalitarianism that Yang proposes. And I certainly understand why the idea of false consciousness resonates with Liberals. If we take as a given what Stephen Colbert proposed, that “reality has a well-known liberal bias,” and if we want to be able to rescue our fascist uncles from their mystification then false consciousness presents an enticing opportunity. We just need to discover how to communicate Truth to them and the scales will fall from their eyes.

The fact that this didn’t work is the impetus behind Yang’s essay nearly as much as their desire to promote their book and situate it among a body of texts including the Masquerade series and A Memory Called Empire. Yang has to contend with the fact that fascists were presented with a liberal truth and rejected it. This becomes much easier to understand when you consider that there are competing power systems upheld by competing sets of desire and that these provide a framework for belief on both sides. The problem with fascists isn’t that lies have made them our enemy. The problem with fascists is that because they are our enemies they tell lies. People struggle with the problem of what to do with these self-made enemies. As Beauvoir said of nazis, “the urgency of the struggle forbids this slow labor {of demystifying the nazi subject}. We are obliged to destroy not only the oppressor but also those who serve him, whether they do so out of ignorance or out of constraint.”

But there’s another alarming aspect of the Yang quote above that I want to note before moving on and that’s the idea of “corrupting thought” because this is very nearly Manichean in its outlook. We aren’t just dealing with false consciousness here but with something almost akin to the satanic – as if Trump were the Devil himself come to tempt the flock away from the divine light of Truth.

Yang says,

Disinformation preys on alienation and anxiety. It gives explanation for why you feel as bad as you do. Something is wrong with society, and we have the answer. It tells you that you are not alone. It provides you a family of like-minded people, united in enlightenment. Rejecting these tenets means rejecting community for isolation and estrangement, once again,

but again the problem is that this assumes a binary relationship between truth and falsehood. It elides that the same can be said of information which we give to be true. It isn’t disinformation that does all of the above, it’s power-knowledge in all its forms.

Early in the Coronavirus pandemic Georgio Agamben published some articles that attracted controversy for the stance he took against pandemic restrictions in Italy. He got a lot of rightful criticism for some parts of his stance but I think he has a point about how power defined knowledge in those grim days of mid-2020 that are informative. “the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition,” he says. The state of exception should be taken to mean a process whereby a state assigns to itself whatever powers it deems fit on the basis of a proposed emergency. Agamben says, “People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society,” and, I mean, he’s not wrong. Now, with regard to the COVID pandemic, we might argue for some justification for a state of exception but, let’s be fully honest, for all the power our states granted themselves did we see good outcomes during the pademic? Do you feel safe from COVID today? What freedoms did we sacrifice so that, three years on, we would have collapsing medical systems, vast surplus death and economic disarray anyway? What was any of that actually for?

And so we must question the information / disinformation dichotomy. Fascists made decisions based on a matrix of information that served their desires and the desires of the flow of power to which they subscribed. So did the liberal establishment. Is it possible for us to consider that neither of these groups was necessarily more disinformative than the other? That in both cases what information they shared and how they formed it served their desires and their power to enact them? The fascists lied when they said they were protesting against being forced to mask or to take a vaccine in the name of freedom. But the liberals lied when they told us that these actions would make us safe and that this safety was worth all we were asked to give up. (With that being said please do vaccinate. An argument for contingent truth must also make contingent that which we hold to be true. But this does not mean we should paralyze ourselves with indecision in the face of the changeable nature of truth.)

Yang ends their essay saying,

I write the essay against the backdrop of the Alex Jones trial and the unravelling of some of the most heinous lies over the years, and getting his just desserts. Perhaps all we can do is to put faith into truths stronger than fiction.

This is hardly even a conclusion to be honest. “Have faith in truth” is the very same sort of cultic thinking that led to fascists storming the US capital. “Trust the plan,” as the fascists took to saying. The reality is that we should have no faith in truth. How we form our epistemological picture of the world, what truths we open ourselves to receive, is dictated by power systems undergirded by collective social desire. A mass of people want things and as such they become alert to the signs that point in the direction they want. The fascist desire for aesthetic consistency and purity of essence leads them to be alert for those things that offend their senses and that seem corrupting. The liberal desire for freely flowing commerce and a belief in the primacy of enlightened reason leads to them seeking out those things that seem reasonable and those data that support that commerce should be unimpeded. It is frustrating to recognize that there are two categories of mystified person out there: there are those who want things compatible with what we want but who have a different perspective about how to get there and there are those who want us dead. It will do no good to pray that the men who want to kill off every aesthetic marker of difference will discover some sort of numinous truth and convert like Darth Vader to the side of Good. Instead we should be steadfast in seeking another specific knowledge: the answer to the question, “who?” Who benefits? Who wants this? Who is stirring up the mob? Who is in the mob? From here we can ask what they want and how they shape the episteme they participate in to allow the expression of that desire. Much as “AI art” is a financial off-ramp for crypto-investors so too are there material desires at the root of those people who appear mystified by disinformation. Learning how to identify fence-sitters who can be won over from enemies who must be destroyed depends on us coming to understand not what lies a person has been fed but rather what they think they can get with a lie.

Harry Potter and the Death of Roland Barthes

We are in hell.

This is a specifically neoliberal hell wherein, “no ethical consumption under capitalism” has, as one online commentator put it, become, an ethical imperative to consume. People see anyone interfering with their unimpeded enjoyment of those things they seek to consume as being, at best, morally questionable. How dare somebody else tell me, an individual, how to go about enjoying the things I want to enjoy?

This sense that it’s somehow wrong to interfere with the flow of libidinal intensity does, however, require a fair bit of apologetics and this is where the corpse of Roland Barthes gets hauled out of the grave and paraded around. “I separate the artist from the artwork,” people say, as if to suggest that because we can void the authority of the author to grant a text meaning this means that the author is no longer materially connected to the text.

Of course this is absolute nonsense. First off we would have to accept, fully, that Barthes’ premise was correct and that an author has no special authority over a text. Certainly Rowling, in particular, problematizes this premise as she has been particularly activist in the assignment of specific meanings to her text after delivery of it. Retcons such as the declaration that Dumbledore was a gay man, that various other schools of magic existed that were outside of the bounds of the delivered text (such as the nearly offensively named Mahoutokoro and Castelobruxo), or basically everything that happened in and around Harry Potter and the Cursed Child show that Rowling, as an author, has never been satisfied to allow an audience to construct meaning in her texts absent her influence; Rowling is a nearly uniquely activist author with regard to what her books mean. Furthermore, Rowling’s activism aside, the assumption that authorial intention is diffused by contradictions within a text is built around the asumption that authors are unified in their intention. If we start from assuming a certain polymorphic quality to authorial desire then we would end up with a situation in which any meaning that can be reasonably read into a text can be seen as an intended meaning. An author is not individual in that their authority, as an author, can be divided across all the things that they put into the text. All this is to say that it’s rather absurd to divide Rowling’s interpretation of her “wizarding world” from its implementation in texts such as a recently released half-rate Destiny clone.

However there’s something more insidious about attempts to divide Rowling from derivative licensed work such as Hogwarts Legacy – this is that Rowling gets paid for these things. While it’s true that the depiction of goblins in Rowling’s text is alarming at best, and while it’s also true that the “queer rep” of a transphobic straight woman will be problematic at best all this is somewhat irrelevant to the game itself – which Rowling didn’t write. She is, in fact, not the direct author here aside from her tendency to insert herself as an authority. The problem is that Rowling gets paid for this work and, with that pay, can continue amplifying her transphobia. There is a material relationship between the video game and the author of the books it is derived from that cannot be elided by any sort of pseudo-structuralist literary analysis. This is the problem with buying Hogwarts Legacy. It is not a question of the meaning of the text. By most accounts Hogwarts Legacy is a game that tries to mean very little of note. You run around blasting fire balls and other such violent magic at goblins only to discover it was all a frame job at the last minute. I’m sure this will be a cold comfort to all the goblins the players vaporized in the process of discovering the frame. So, no, Hogwarts Legacy looks like yet another committee-made, focus-group approved, skinner box that seeks to say as little as possible in order to maximize the likelihood that the audience will get hooked on the core gameplay loop and stay engaged. But it’s a skinner box where every person who buys it contributes a few pennies to the cause of bigotry via its material economic link to someone who regularly expresses bigoted views.

A a result people such as Jessica Conditt have, via their engagement with this game, helped to enable this bigoted agenda in the real world where you can’t just obliviate away all memories that Rowling is a TERF. It does not matter in the slightest that the reviewer has, “a big ol’ Harry Potter tattoo next to an anti-TERF tattoo,” because the issue is not the meaning she personally assigns to Harry Potter. The issue is money. Conditt, writing editorials for endgadget promoting that it’s morally Ok to buy this game, has, whether she intends to or not, financially aligned herself with TERFS. I couldn’t care less about the marks on her skin next to how she acts in the world. And how she acts in the world is as a promoter for this awful little game. The tendency of defenders is to fall back to individual subjectivity. This is, yet again, a reification of the moral imperative to consume. “As someone who searched desperately for an example of my own identity in the pages of Harry Potter novels, I deeply appreciate the evolution and inclusion in Hogwarts Legacy. This level of representation didn’t exist in AAA games 15 years ago, and it’s the result of all the progress made, through protest and education, since the books were published. Long before the in-fighting over a choice to play a video game.” Conditt says and I have no doubt she sincerely feels that way. She just fails to see that her feelings don’t justify how Rowling spends the money this game will earn her and the derivative money that she will gain through the continued cultural relevance of these awful wizard books. Conditt says, ” It’s us against the transphobic people in the world, not us against each other,” but this isn’t true. There’s no “us” here. She’s on the side of the transphobe because she’s promoting the transphobe’s product that will make her money. It’s really that simple.

Also Conditt’s plea, “boycott the game – just don’t boycott the players,” demonstrates an atomized and neutered view of the boycott. The boycott is, in fact, an act of moral shaming. It’s not just a person witholding their money. It’s a person publicly announcing it’s immoral to give money to this or that product. It’s “no ethical consumption under capital” arising as apologia yet again. And just as it’s clearly immoral to advertise for arms manufacturers it is also, clearly and obviously, immoral to give money to bigots. If you do it you are doing a bad thing and you should be ashamed. Stop trotting around Barthes’ picked-clean skeleton and actually take some accountability for the moral weight of your choices. Consider how your actions actually materially impact people. Think about the money for once.

The First Time as Tragedy, the Second Time As Farce: The dialog of Bodies Bodies Bodies and Glass Onion

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.

The Obligatory Award Eligibility Post 2023

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.