Everything Everywhere All at Once and the limits of the multiverse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty bleak.

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

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

Mad God and Cosmic Ecstasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crimes of the Future: Living a life as art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biopolitics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will toward art

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must all undergo becoming.

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

In doing so we may live our lives as art.

Gothic anti-realism: art for the unsatisfied

Angelus Novus by Paul Klee

His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

— Walter Benjamin

We are being crushed under realism.

We are all living in a world after the age of no alternative. We are all cursed to see ourselves as survivors of a failed apocalypse: the so-called end of history. But in the absence of the end of history communicating anything truly revelatory we all seem trapped, waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is, in brief, the ontological condition of capitalist realism. Believing that nothing can possibly create a real transformative change in the world order we are confined to what Fisher called “reflexive impotence.” We, “know things are bad, but more than that, {we} know {we} can’t do anything about it.” After all, history is over. All we can do now is accept that this is the final form of the world, the final and eternal order. Of course Fisher described this not as “a passive knowledge of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self fulfilling prophesy.”

Looking then at how this paradoxical apocalypse without an eschaton has affected the arts we can understand quite clearly how this realism leads to a few different strands:

  1. A prioritization of comfort as a response to absurdity
  2. A reification of normalcy onto those things that do not fit
  3. A fear and suspicion toward transformative change

These three threads run through quite a few liberal-progressive arguments with regard to art. For instance comfortcore, hopepunk and other proposed subgenres of fiction have attempted to carve out a moral imperative to tell people that it’s OK. The world already ended and you’re still here so you might as well get used to it and find your joy where you can.

We see a huge focus on the valor behind “found family” as the entirety of social life is re-enscribed into the domestic, familial, and (as such) patriarchal sphere. In fact we are told this is good, it’s progress that now, too, people who might have been excluded by their old patriarch can create a family of their own. There are, after all, as the prophet of the end of history, Margaret Thatcher said, “only individuals and their families. There is no alternative.”

And we see, in general, a lot of media that is focused on making the status quo nicer. We want everyone to have a seat at the table to the end of the world, every person should find a family with whom they can enjoy the endless grey suffocation of all this forevermore.

Because the vicissitudes of power have made it so that almost no art has a chance except for the broad, the corporate, the four-quadrant, the comfortable, we see a host of artists, fans and critics justifying that this is actually a good state of affairs. It’s right to engage mostly with children’s media. It’s suspicious to want art that is cynical, cruel or angry, Only reactionaries show wrath in public and you wouldn’t want to be one of them.

We want heroes who have fun adventures, find a family, and who demonstrate that even if they are something a little strange, like a sentient gemstone or a gay person, they’re actually Just Like You: a normal citizen of the end of the world.

But if all there is are individuals and their families then we can, as Deleuze says, “no longer form a unified subject able to act.” We aren’t a people. We aren’t a community. We’re individuals and their (found families) living in the ruins of ended time in suspension. So what is to be done? We can’t cozy our way out of the endless grey suffocation of capitalist realism. But likewise I doubt anyone would find that the equally stultifying (socialist) realism of the Stalinists and their descendants is any more comforting to the spirit.

In the end realism is, itself, the enemy. This idea that art must be applicable to this historical moment is itself an enemy. We don’t need a children’s cartoon to tell us how queer love is just the same as the heterosexual family. Instead we need a subtle knife that can cut time itself and kill even God. The art that this moment demands must reveal the rot of the end of history.

Shirley Jackson famously wrote, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone,” and I think this is a strong way to begin approaching the demands of art to break realism. And just as no live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality. No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute realism. This stultifying sense of being at the end, at the final form, in the best possible fallen world, is maddening. Is it any wonder so many people want to retreat into nostalgia and childhood?

The gothic has always been an enemy of realism because the gothic recognizes first and foremost the impermanence of all things. The House of Usher exists to fall. Heathcliff cannot ultimately survive the death of Catherine. The damned immortality of Dorian Grey and of Count Dracula exists to be torn down.

The gothic is, as such, an historicizing form of fiction, it is one that places its subjects into a flow of history in which they are temporary and contingent. Not without consequence, of course, you cannot be a part of history while being entirely insubstantial. But the gothic does not exist in a world suffocated under a grey blanket of the real. The gothic treats the current moment as a dying and diseased thing that will be replaced in its turn by something else, something new.

It is important to note that new does not mean better. We cannot know, when we shatter the real of today, what the world of tomorrow will truly be like. It might be a horror show. But the time of monsters is birthed, per Gramsci because the old world is dying but the new one cannot be born. The refuse and ruin of the old world clogs the path. The grey blanket of “no alternative” forestalls the birth of the new.

It must be burned away.

And so I want art that is a torch touched to dry kindling.

I want art that is a knife that cuts that is a gun fired into a crowd.

I want art that leaves the audience uncomfortable and disturbed, that shows the crumbling foundations of the real and takes a sledgehammer to them. I don’t want a found family; I want to see other, novel, social formations that we might assume and I want artists to have the courage to say that, for instance, a sensate cluster isn’t a family at all. I want art to be the sharp knife that cuts the fetters on time and frees the angel of history from its shackles. I want art that maddens and confuses.

Not children’s cartoons but the avant garde. Not the MCU but Sion Sono. In order to cut away the fetters on history we must unmoor ourselves from nostalgia and the reflexive recreation of the past into the present and the future. Art like this does exist, of course. The directorial work of Julia Ducournau and Sion Sono, particularly their recent films, Titane and Prisoners of the Ghostland respectively, are key figures for such an art. In literature we can see this anti-realism and reactivation of history in the work of Tamsyn Muir (particularly her second book, Harrow the Ninth) and Jeff Vandermeer such as in the Southern Reach trilogy. In visual art, the work of Jessi Sheron, particularly her “Other Happy Place” project reflects many of these aesthetic values.

Many of these artists are grim. And the gothic will never be anything but dark. However you will never free the angel of history with hugs.

Upcoming projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is back in the chapel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories without conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dune: Realism and the metaphorical register

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studiolio de Fransisco I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Snip

Pictured: very small scissors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nu Couché au coussin Bleu – Modigliani

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

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

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

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

Taxonomies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course this is an absurd categorization. And yet.

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

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

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

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

This careful sorting of art into delineated categories is neither.

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