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

How to Be Perfect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it was short.

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

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

If it were funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not precisely a good fit for “know thyself.”

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

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

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

The Synecdoche of Prisoners of the Ghostland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem with the middle

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

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

2. It kind of doesn’t exist anyay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is because centers are intrinsically unstable.

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

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

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

Just as commercial art is endlessly and perfectly reproduced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taoism, Buddhism and Dasein – Monk Comes Down the Mountain

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In 1946 Heidegger and the Chinese academic Paul Shih-yi Hsiao collaborated on a translation of the Tao Te Ching. Hsiao withdrew from the project after translating 8 of the 81 stanzas of the classic citing anxiety over Heidegger’s departures from the text. Carman and Van Norden remark that this was somewhat usual behaviour from Heidegger who felt little need for textually loyal interpretation of any texts. Heidegger, for his part, expressed exceptional love for and philosophical affiliation with D. T. Suzuki and said he felt this Zen theologian and philosopher captured the essence of his philosophy.

Considering these two different accounts we should be careful with mapping any sort of one-to-one relationship between existentialist thought and the metaphysics of Buddhism and Taoism but likewise we cannot ignore that parallels exist.

I also want to briefly discuss why I’m talking about Buddhism and Taoism together here. Principally this is because both Buddhism and Taoism are essential to an understanding of Monk Comes Down the Mountain. He Anxia, the protagonist, is a Taoist monk. His principal moral guides throughout this film are a doctor of Western medicine, a Buddhist abbot and a Taoist recluse. Buddhism and Taoism are different but not necessarily opposed. They are different but non-contradictory and have had an influence over each other. Particularly you can see a Taoist influence on the writings of the Chán patriarchs such as via the focus on formlessness in the Flower Sermon. The Chán focus on the insufficiency of language to communicate the dharma largely echoes the Tao Te Ching when it says,

“The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.”

Whether we look at the Buddhist sense of Dharma or teaching or the Taoist sense of tao or way of being we encounter this fundamental argument that the absolute thing being taught is not entirely communicable from within language – it’s insufficient. However the Flower Sermon is not a universal Buddhist text – it is, in fact, rather explicitly restricted to Chán and its successor Zen. Here it’s important to reflect on how Buddhism, in specific, is non-monolithic. Rather Buddhism has always been rather syncretic, responding to and interacting with local intellectual life. Chán is one of two principal schools of Buddhism that arose in China (along with Pure Land Buddhism) and both were in deep dialog with Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese Folk Religion from the moment they arrived on the scene.

In the 2015 Chen Kaige film Monk Comes Down the Mountain this interrelated nature is brought front and center as it plots the journey of a junior Taoist monk who, after being asked to leave his monastery, goes on a search for teachers who include a doctor of Western medicine, a Buddhist abbot, a Taoist recluse and an opera star.

This is a strange film. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising as Chen has a history of writing and directing movies that make unusual choices. A strong prior example is the critically divisive 2005 fantasy film The Promise which contained stunning and irrealist costuming and set design to frame a story that remains focused on Chen’s perennial topics of sexual desire and its relationship to masculine friendship. These topics are present in Monk Comes Down the Mountain in spades but with an added twist of a focus on and exploration of the master-student dynamic that is central to the Chinese monastic experience and, via a transitory action from that monastic setting, martial arts fiction.

Some of the strangeness comes from a deeper-than-average formal adherence to wuxia structure. Wuxia novels were often quite episodic as a result of their golden age being dominated by newspaper serials. Each episode in a character’s story had to both fit into the overall arc and also be a cohesive tale about that character that could fit into the column inches available for it. But setting a wuxia story in Hangzhou in the 1930s is an interesting deviation since the mid-20th century period that marked the greatest output in the genre was also marked by a desire to look back into the pre-Republican past while most contemporary kung fu stories either followed this same trend or were set in the present. The period between the end of the Zhongshan Incident and the 1970s is at best a loose sketch with a small number of portrayals of Ip Man, Huo Yuanjia and his fictional pupil Chen Zhen standing in for the breadth of the jianghu during the early 20th century. In fact the premise of the Once Upon a Time in China films was largely that Wong Fei-hung‘s generation was the last blossoming of the age of martial arts heroes. But this movie does away with that and suggests, instead, that the heroes were all still there, secluded in temples, performing in operas and playing at gangster just as they had always done just somehow rendered almost invisible by modernity: just acrobats, monks and gangsters in the eyes of the world. Diminished.

In the world of this film no amount of neigong will protect a hero from a bullet in the back.

Another avenue for strangeness is the singular performance given by Wang Baoqing as the protagonist He Anxia. Wang characterizes his monk as a figure whose emotional map is dialed up to eleven. When he is happy (and he is a happy sort so this is often) he grins with his whole face, capers and laughs maniacally. When bored his whole body sinks into objects, his face droops, eyes almost shut. When angry He Anxia is outright and effectively homicidal in his wrath. Wang’s characterization of He seems to be hinting that being raised since infancy in a monastery has left He without normal emotional filters. He is unable to restrain these impulses of various passions because he never experienced enough to even realize he had them. This impulsivity extends into the script.

He’s first mentor upon leaving the temple is another former Taoist monk who abandoned the clergy and became a doctor out of lust. He was so desirous of a beautiful woman he encountered that he changed his whole life to be with her. He’s an older man though and so to support his desire he pays his younger brother, an apothecary, for aphrodisiacs. He isn’t aware his wife is having an affair with his younger brother but He Anxia spies on her while out on an errand and sees her in tryst with the younger brother; he confronts her, tells her she should tell her husband.

She assumes he has told the doctor and comes clean only to learn that He Anxia, just as impulsively as when he’d chosen to follow her, has not told the doctor a thing. The doctor persuades her to break off the affair with her brother which she does but the brother gives her a poisoned aphrodisiac which kills her husband before resuming his affair with her.

The film is clear the wife doesn’t realize the medicine is tainted.

He Anxia murders them both, locking them together in a boat and sinking it to the bottom of West Lake. He watches the light fade in her eyes as she drowns and then flees to a Buddhist temple seeking some understanding of whether what he did is good or evil.

Later he is drugged by the son of a gangster who believes his father has murdered his own best student (he has) and who believes He Anxia has information (he does). The drug loosens He Anxia’s tongue and he tells the other man, “I want to fuck my master’s wife.”

Later in the film He Anxia comes into the orbit of Zhou Xiyu – a recluse who lives alone in an abandoned Taoist temple. It transpires that Zhou is the former martial brother of the pupil-killing gangster and He’s actions reveal to the gangster that his xiongdi is still alive. The gangster, played by the delightfully hammy legend of Hong Kong cinema Wah Yuen is obsessed with maintenance of the family line and the martial line in one. He has never forgiven his father for teaching Zhou a powerful martial art and not him and so he goes to beat the secret out of Zhou. He fails; Zhou is by far the stronger fighter. But after he leaves Zhou is shot in the back by an unknown assailant. He hovers at the border between life and death. He Anxia brings his new teacher to the same abbot whose advice he sought after killing his last teacher’s unfaithful wife and begs the abbot to aid his teacher with his passing. The teacher reveals he needs to see one man before he dies and the abbot reminds him he can see him in his heart. Zhou agrees and sees a man who is a stranger to the audience smiling beatifically down at him before dying.

This man is the opera star Boss Zha – who is revealed to be Zhou’s former lover. The two met as soldiers some years previously and Zhou saved Zha’s life during a beautiful scene in which they embrace on a bridge as shells explode around them. They retreated from the world together to practice kung fu and when they eventually departed vowed eternal loyalty. Zha finding justice for his lover’s death marks the conclusion of the final episode of the film and brings He Anxia’s story to its conclusion. The film ends by saying in a voice-over narrative, “Only by experiencing good and evil can you truly appreciate the way… The true heart can hold all things, the mountains, plains and rivers and an eternal cosmic universe.”

It’s really only in this moment that all this strangeness, this lumpy, uneven and deeply odd narrative of love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, selflessness and selfishness becomes clear. He Anxia’s moral development depends not just on a naïve man learning to do good things but rather of an empty vessel filling up with all the thickness of the world. He has to experience everything. And now we’re ready to talk a bit about Taoism, Buddhism and Existentialism.

In Return to Tipasa, Camus says, “In the difficult hour we are living, what else can I desire than to exclude nothing and to learn how to braid with white thread and black thread a single cord stretched to the breaking-point? In everything I have done or said up to now, I seem to recognize these two forces, even when they work at cross-purposes… But if one forgoes a part of what is, one must forgo being oneself; one must forgo living or loving otherwise than by proxy. “

The true heart can hold all things; learn how to braid with white thread and black tread a single cord stretched to the breaking point. There is an echo here. Taoism recognizes that the world is absurd. Certainly this film does. In a minor episode a beautiful young woman approaches He Anxia and tells him he is her savior. It transpires she has been unable to bear a child – the husband is probably to blame but nobody wants to admit that. She has been praying to Guanyin at the temple for a son and the goddess used to grant sons but in the last several years the goddess has stopped and nobody knows why.

On the strength of this chance encounter with a stranger He Anxia goes to the Abbot (the same one who guided him through his guilt over his murder, the same one who will later ease his teacher’s passing) and asks why the goddess has stopped granting sons.

The abbot tells him that during the tenure of the previous abbot the monastery allowed men to hide in a secret room beneath the temple to Guanyin. When women came there to pray for a son one of the men would bring her down and help her to conceive one. The abbot says he didn’t think this was appropriate decorum for temple and he locked the secret room. This is why the Goddess stopped answering those particular prayers.

He asks the abbot for the key and the abbot asks why. He says he wants to help a woman and the abbot says yes. He Anxia promises the woman never to see her again after helping her solve her heir-problem. It’s all absurd. The woman is a stranger. She comes to He Anxia by chance. She is the first (and in the film only) person he is physically intimate with. She leaves his life just as suddenly as she entered it and then she becomes an absence in his life.

Sartre situates nothingness in absence. In Being and Nothingness he brings forth the example of a friend to be met at a restaurant. “I say, ‘he is not here.’ Is there an intuition of Pierre’s absence, or does negation enter in only with judgment? At first sight it seems absurd to speak here of intuition since to be exact there could not be an intuition of nothing and since the absence of Pierre is this nothing. Popular consciousness, however, bears witness to this intuition. Do we not say, for example, ‘I suddenly saw that he was not there.'” Sartre says that the absence of his friend is marked as an aspect in the fleeting faces of all those people who are not Pierre. Being is composed of all these absences marked by the sudden and shocking intrusion of presence when the absence is negated. “the negative judgment is conditioned and supported by non-being.” For Sartre, these early pages of Being and Nothingness are built around the argument that the being of a thing is ontologically primary. That our ability to assign appearances and essences to a being depend first on the presence of the being which is composed of an infinite series of all appearances and dis-appearances of it. The nothingness that marks the absence of a being is also part of that being.

It is bottomless; the very progenitor of all things in the world.
In it all sharpness is blunted,
All tangles untied,
All glare tempered,
All dust smoothed.
It is like a deep pool that never dries.
Was it too the child of something else? We cannot tell.
But as a substanceless image it existed before the ancestor.

The Tao Te Ching interprets the Tao as an empty vessel, an uncarved block, a void to be filled. The Way is a being that contains within it all its own nothingnesses; it is, in fact, a nothingness from which all things emerge. For the Tao Te Ching this aspect of being fruiting out of nothingness isn’t merely an ontological process whereby our understanding of what an object is not is a unified part of our understanding of what an object is. Instead it’s a metaphysical nothingness that gives birth to all things. Nothingness is within all things because all things arose from nothingness.

There’s a sense, in the phenomenological existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre that the presence of other objects to a being is an intrinsically shocking thing, almost hostile. But at the same time a subject cannot help but encounter other beings. We are within the world. This is Dasein – this sense that to exist is to be tossed about in a maelstrom of becoming and of appearances. In Nausea, Roquentin describes sitting under a Chestnut tree and says, “I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me.” This direct encounter with the being of the other shocks him but at the same time it digs into the ground against which the word, “tree” or the description of the root, “black,” rests. There is this rupture of the tree being too much, too solid. But being-in-the-world is inescapable. We are not cartesian mind-imps observing everything through a screen. We are buffeted about by being and the vicissitudes of life. Language fails Roquentin in the face of a true encounter with the tree. As Zhuangzi says, “those who understand, do not say. Those who say do not understand.”

This idea – that language creates a barrier to an encounter with the real – remains the point where Heidegger breaks from Taoism and from Ch’an. Both of these older ontologies look at the inability of language to capture the paradoxes and contradictions of being in the world and say that language is the problem; an object must be taken in whole and no words can carry enough meaning to communicate even the smallest object in its entirety. Heidegger, instead, ties himself in knots attempting to describe these phenomenological problems.

Sartre gets closer at times and more distant to this anti-linguistic frame. In Nausea, under the Chestnut Tree, he captures the inability of language to describe being in a true sense. “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” as Laozi puts it. But even then he returns to the complex formulae of phenomenology in a vain attempt to describe the eternal Tao.

Monk Comes Down the Mountain is a story about the absurd and paradoxical nature of life. Its character, in his wild irrealist mood swings and strange, twisting, life story lives a life every bit as absurd of that of Roquentin, refusing to write his book in a coastal town that doesn’t exist. But being a Taoist work, Monk Comes Down the Mountain understands that the only way to truly and fundamentally apprehend being in all its paradox is to take it all in, to recognize the completeness of being and of the failure of language, even filmic language, to represent it in its wholeness. Recognizing its insufficiency to the task the film, instead of tying itself down in a complex phenomenology, allows its story to drift to metaphor and parable that is purposefully inadequate but is beautiful and strange nonetheless.

Heidegger failed to translate the Tao Te Ching and for all he tried to insert himself into the lineage of Zen he failed at that task too. No nazi can understand the sermon present in a smile and a plucked flower. Nausea fails too and so does Monk Comes Down the Mountain. Nothing can represent being; no work of art can present an essence to being in all its thickness. The essence is contained within the object of being along with its absence. It is but a part of a far greater whole. But where Heidegger’s Dasein gestures in the direction of the field, and where Nausea brushes against its surface, Monk Comes down the Mountain capers and dances, flashes a manic grin and throws itself about in acrobatic maneuvers. Camus said we need to braid with white and black thread stretched taught to the point of breaking and so must the Monk but even this misses the mark. He Anxia doesn’t braid with white and black thread; he is the white and black thread. His heart contains an eternal cosmic universe.

Notes on Squeecore

Squee! - Wikipedia

On January 13 R.S. Benedict’s Rite Gud podcast published an episode titled A Guide to Squeecore which served as an addendum and exploration of some topics raised during the previous November 11, 2021 episode Puppy Play. The discussion in this later podcast episode was wide-ranging and loose but it broadly posited that there is a dominant movement within SFF, that the participants in this movement often operate as gatekeepers, that this gatekeeping has a broadly class-based dynamic and that this movement has characteristic stylistic and ideological markers.

This has caused considerable consternation.

Now, as this “Squeecore” concept dovetails quite nicely into my recent essay on Hopepunk and into my ongoing examination of the impact of capitalism and idealism on the style and ideology of genre fiction I found the podcast to be very interesting. It certainly was not perfect and I think Camestros Felapton’s rebuttal is on the money on many points. With that being said, a podcast is most certainly not an essay and cannot be treated as one. Even the most essay-like podcasts (looking at the absolutely delightful Horror Vanguard) must ultimately be discursive, conversational. Podcasts are not essays. And as such, I think that CF’s argument – that Squeecore was insufficiently defined and too loose to constitute a movement, that there were contradictions among the examples provided and in fact some internal contradictions within the definition offered, isn’t a fatal criticism. It was two people exploring a phenomenon, grappling with it. It was insufficient to provide a definition or a proof but it provided many very interesting threads to pull at. So let’s tug a bit.

But first let’s examine the idea of “movements” within art and what dominance entails. There are largely two different modes by which a movement is reified. The first is for a group of artists with shared ideologies and worldviews to release a manifesto (or more than one manifesto) and announce that they are to constitute a movement. Examples of these include Futurism, Dogme 95 and Hopepunk. Movements like these are easy. If you want to know what they do, what they stand for, and who is within them they are generally happy to tell you. Sometimes, as in the case of Hopepunk, these definitions may become unclear but this isn’t generally a matter of under-definition so much as over-definition and contradictory definition. However that isn’t always the case.

Take, for example, Fauvism. This early modernist art-style emerged largely out of a school but it had no manifesto and didn’t require strict adherence to some sort of ideology or even aesthetic beyond a fondness for a vibrancy of colour, a treatment of the use of colour as a predominant aesthetic concern of painting. And Fauvism did not name itself. Rather, scandalized critics who saw the output of the Fauvists at the Salon D’Automne of 1905 derided the paintings of these “wild beasts” who had thrown the careful accuracy of prior styles out the window in favour of their laser-sharp aesthetic concern with colour. Furthermore these Fauvist aesthetic concerns are not able to be narrowly confined to just one school; Tom Thomson‘s Algonquin paintings share many of the aesthetics of a painter like Maurice de Vlaminck and Thomson was contemporaneous with the Fauves but he was not an exhibitor at the Salon. A movement may be defined by clear memberships and clear goals but neither of these are necessary preconditions for one to manifest.

Turning to genre literature and something like the New Wave is more nebulous still. Although it is best situated as part of the broader new wave artistic movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s it is hardly like John Wyndam was writing essays on Nouvelle Vague and its applications in literature. And while Michael Moorcock eventually had quite a lot to say about the New Wave, I don’t think anything he produced could be treated as an exhaustive definition of the movement. Rather it was broad, nebulous and open-ended.

And the truth is that this is the case for the vast majority of literary movements. They are coextensive and permeable. When we look at authors like John Brunner or Philip K. Dick we might be looking at a New Wave author or as an early representative of Cyberpunk. The fact that the boundaries between Cyberpunk and New Wave blur and mesh doesn’t reduce the possibility that either movement could be considered dominant.

In fact precisely because movements are coextensive and permeable dominance must always be treated as contingent. What it means for a movement to be a dominant one will change as the historical terrain upon which it operates moves. Frankly, the Cyberpunk movement could never have expressed dominance in the same manner that a contemporary movement, whatever we choose to call it, could because the Cyberpunk movement didn’t have Twitter, Goodreads and AO3 at its disposal. Dominance is best recognized in retrospect – when a movement has unified with the socius of the literary scene, left its marks for future movements to follow, and we can observe how it has impacted those who are without it. Cyberpunk and New Wave can be called dominant movements not because they exercised any sort of gatekeeping power at journals, conventions, workshops or within artists social spaces but rather because, in retrospect, they shaped how those who followed engaged with the production of new literature and new movements.

So that brings us to two questions: is there a cohesive literary movement that could be seen as dominant within genre fiction right now and is it something recognizable within the Rite Gud parlance as Squeecore?

Let’s set aside the question of dominance for the moment and ask whether there is a literary movement that meets some or all of Rite Gud’s criteria. I’m not going to slavishly constrain myself here within the contradictions identified by Camestros Felapton since, as I said before, I don’t think A Guide to Squeecore provides a definition so much as a map. However there are a few aesthetic and ideological markers I think we need to look at:

  1. A screen-aesthetic
  2. An undue influence from the YA genre even outside of those works identified as YA
  3. A specifically self-aware form of deconstructive discourse
  4. An ideology derived from progressive bourgeois liberalism
  5. A triumphalism within that ideological frame

For the first point I think it would be good to examine one of the few named examples of a Squeecore author in Chuck Wendig. Now, I should note, that I previously defended Wendig when various Star Wars chuds attempted to review bomb Star Wars: Aftermath – a book which I liked far more than most tie-in fiction.

A few caveats: 2015 is not 2022 and I am decidedly not the same person I was seven years ago. With that being said, I was already starting to feel a dissatisfaction with fandom even then and my response toward a coordinated reactionary fan movement against a broadly progressive author was always going to favor the author over the fans. The main change in my thinking regarding fandom since then is a shift from identifying reactionary fandom as a problem to identifying fandom as being intrinsically reactionary. The main change in my thinking regarding Wendig was rather a souring with regard to his style. Certain elements that I enjoyed from him in 2015, notably a certain kineticism with regard to action, a flair for the visual and how these two qualities imbeds the narrative in a sort of flow from any given moment to the next, have become tedious and overplayed to me. I’ve seen far too much of this and begun to become frustrated not that there are screen-like books but that it seems like most of what is produced are screen-like.

Even the most internal of Wendig’s books, the Mookie Pearl duology, which I would happily characterize as the high-water mark of Wendig’s career, aren’t particularly internal. Although we are invited to understand something of how Mookie feels and why things matter to him, the book remains mostly a kinetic and screen-like action thing. If this duology, his best work, has such little in the way of internality beyond a gesture toward Mookie’s patriarchal regret then it’s reasonable to describe Wendig’s work as being composed mostly of surfaces across which action plays. Like a movie, or a TV show.

Wendig is, perhaps, the clearest example of a novelist who writes in a filmic style. Now I think it’s important to draw out how I talked previously a bit about how this was a characteristic of Hopepunk – the mediation of a literary canon via its filmic representation being something I called out within the Hopepunk manifestos – but this isn’t so much a matter of Wendig mediating literature via its depiction on screens as it is Wendig drawing the screen structure back into the book. The crafting of an image becomes the chief concern of the novel in Wendig’s hands. Action is in the moment and the dialog is kinetic precisely because Wendig is trying to show his audience a moving picture rather than tell them a story. In a way the lionization of show, don’t tell, almost inevitably leads to the logic of a filmic literature. After all, internality often involves telling the audience how somebody feels. As “Show, Don’t Tell” becomes a hard rule, it’s not hard to see how an audience of would-be authors with an insufficient grounding in literature but a lot of exposure to television will inevitably interpret that to turn the page into a kind of screen.

Let’s turn next to Scalzi, another person who was mentioned as part of the foundation of the Squeecore canon, to examine the second and third points. Now Camestros Felapton quite rightly points out that Scalzi’s protagonists are generally quite old. I mean it’s right there in the title: Old Man’s War. However this doesn’t mean that Scalzi’s work is without YA influence. It would be easy just to point to Zoe’s Tale as an example of a Young Adult novel, within his Old Man’s War series, that simultaneously attempts to be a work of adult fiction. However even in Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades the influence of Heinlein is too obvious to elide. Old Man’s War, especially, shares in a bildungsroman style wherein John undergoes a second adolescence and a subsequent initiation into adulthood via a process of moral development. It would obviously be reductive to call all contemporary bildungsromans young adult but it is likewise reductive to discard the influence of young adult fiction on an author simply because the protagonist was 75 before getting shunted into an unfamiliar, newly young, body. I think it’s clear that Scalzi’s Old Man’s series has influences from young adult while simultaneously being clearly a work of adult fiction. It is, to a very large extent, also heavily in discourse with Heinlein in a way that points toward the third point – a specifically self-aware form of deconstructive discourse.

Now here I want to pause on one of the points the Rite Gud podcast were clear on here that, within their Squeecore definition it was not sufficient that a work be discursive so much as that a work must insist that its discursive element be seen and I think this is where Redshirts becomes a valuable point of discussion. Absolutely nobody is suggesting that the idea of disposable, red-shirted, extras on Star Trek was somehow unexplored prior to 2012. However Redshirts did a lot to foreground this through its fourth-wall-breaking conclusion. Now me? I like a fourth-wall break when it’s well executed and I think it was well executed in Redshirts. This essay should not be seen as an attempt to bury John Scalzi. But regardless of where we stand on matters of taste regarding the literary device or where we stand on the quality of execution of the device in this case, it still holds that this execution, in this story, served to underline the discursive elements of Redshirts such that it insisted the audience engage with them. It wasn’t sufficient to construct a funhouse mirror reflection of the Gothic as Peake did in his Gormenghast books, nor to interrogate the cultural assumptions of a genre as Pratchett did with classic British fantasy in his early Discworld novels – both of these were deconstructive works but neither, especially not Peake, felt much need to insist that the audience acknowledge that a deconstruction was in progress. But Scalzi had his characters literally escape from their work of fiction to plead for consideration from their own fictive creators. This is not a subtle work of deconstruction.

So then we should grapple with whether these works, and others we might fold into this canon operate within a progressive liberal bourgeois ideological framework. And I mean let’s consider the end of The Last Colony to start, “In time every member of the Special Forces will be the same. It matters. It matters to who we are and for what we can become to the Colonial Union and to humanity.” This book was largely framing the revelation of a military secret to bring about a universal reification of the human. I mean. That’s pretty liberal. However we can’t discount how Scalzi’s progressivism puts him into dialog with Heinlein’s more fascist leanings, and how he suggests a progressive liberal solution to fascism through the revelation of truth. Marxists may have largely abandoned the idea of false consciousness after the work of Reich and Althusser, both of whom highlighted the Spinozist elements of Marx but this idea, that all that is needed to make conservatives see the light of progress is simply to lift the scales from their eyes is alive and well in liberalism.

Finally there’s the triumphalist pose. Certainly we can see this extratextually in the Hopepunk manifestos and I persist in insisting that we cannot explore the Rite Gud proposed Squeecore movement without considering it in relation to Hopepunk. However that same triumphalism arises in Wendig and Scalzi regularly, especially in Scalzi who cannot end a book but as a triumphalist clarion-call. Hints of this triumphalism also occur in the work of Hannu Rajaniemi whose Leflambeur trilogy concludes, “Inside one of the Prison’s many, many cells of glass a man sits reading a book or trying to,” this prisoner experiences a sudden moment of illumination, “There is a door, open, white and bright.
“He puts down the book, gets up and walks through it, whistling as he goes. He is surprised, but only a little. For in the end, there is always a way out.”

This same triumphalism occupies the conclusion of The Goblin Emperor which grants its righteous and just king the very liberal epithet of “bridge-builder.” And so what we can see is the beginning of a movement. This is built principally of 21st century literature although, notably, these examples are quite deliberately selected from among decade-old books. This is in part a recognition that much of the literature that Rite Gud was grappling with was from this period at the end of the first decade of the 21st century and the beginning of the second. But it’s also because movements don’t happen overnight and their dominance is, as I said before, best recognized after the fact. With that being said, it would be foolish to under-count the significant influence of Wendig, Scalzi, Rajaniemi and Addison on the last decade of speculative fiction. Between Wendig’s filmic treatment of text, Scalzi’s triumphal progressivism, Addison’s liberalism and even Rajaniemi’s more metaphysical liberalism (grounded in a kind of positivist and pluralist concern with an order / chaos dialectic) there is a common thread which is at least as unifying as that one which ties together Brunner and Gibson or Wyndham and Herbert. Or Dick and all four of the former. There is, ultimately, a movement and we can see its dominance in the worm-trace it leaves in its wake.

The dominance posited by Rite Gud was one that occupied two principal axes: a social control on the bounds of acceptable discourse that was grounded in a specifically bourgeois frame and a financial control of access to careers via class-gated activities such as writers’ workshops. These are rather nebulous but we can certainly look at the success that figures like Scalzi and Wendig enjoyed in their activities against the Sad Puppies as indicative of the former. Much of the complaint, especially against the Sad Puppies (less so for the more openly far-right Rabid Puppies) was that they’d violated an unspoken set of social norms with regard to comportment around awards conversations. They were thus frozen out of discourse, rendered invisible. As Benedict pointed out this sort of indirectness and this focus on unspoken and assumed norms are both characteristics of a Bourgeois reflection of culture. But, of course, per Deleuze and Guattari there is only one class: the Bourgeois in that the neoliberal period has driven all other class constructions out of consideration. Everyone is Bourgeois, just some of us are financially embarrassed members of the monolithic class. A direct, “hey fuck you buddy,” form of engagement is often interpreted as threatening or dangerous within this monolithic class formation as it is inappropriate comportment for a member of the Bourgeoisie – which to the Bourgeoisie is taken to mean everyone.

And that brings us to how workshops and conventions play into the networking necessary for SFF careerism. Frankly this is patently obvious. Notwithstanding limited scholarships (which create the myth of meritocracy) workshops, especially, are the domain of the idle rich. Six weeks and five thousand dollars can scarcely be obtained by anyone who has to work for a living although it’s a trivial barrier for a member of the propertied class. A five hundred dollar scholarship to entice a monied person who has experienced some intersectional form of marginalization in a non-class domain does very little to democratize access to these rarified events. What these workshops are very effective at doing is further financializing the arts as each author with the success of a few novels or a brace of short stories behind their name then becomes a workshop facilitator in some greater or lesser capacity as a side hustle, to make a career of their art. The workshops are, as such, a principal tool of recuperating art into a neoliberal ideological paradigm. Conventions are a bit less expensive and give networking opportunities to the labour aristocracy and petit bourgeois who have sufficient wealth and free time for a $1000 hotel stay for a week if not for the full workshop experience. But even within conventions it’s widely known that financial barriers distort attendance and create barriers to access for economically marginalized people including workers in the imperial core and people from the global south. It is worth remarking how these authors engaged in both workshop facilitation, the selling of writing manuals and curricula and in convention culture across their careers. A Clarion attendance can make a career as can being at the right place at the right time at a convention. If we discount how these become tools of dominance it is at our peril. And so we see here what dominance looks like: it is a group of largely monied, largely liberal major authors all of whom are sufficiently advanced in their career to have had a sizeable influence on the genre, and all of whom have a series of interlocking aesthetic and ideological concerns.

As I said previously, movements are coextensive and permeable. It’s not surprising that the movement that Rite Gud are gesturing toward in their podcast is nebulous. Most are. Futurists and Dogme 95 are the exception, not the rule when it comes to artistic movements and an attempt to deny a movement exists because it doesn’t have a manifesto that everyone within it has signed onto is just an act of self-delusion. And honestly a lot of this constructed movement fits very well with the Hopepunk manifestos anyway. Frankly it requires an act of willful blindness to ignore how screen-representation has impacted narrative style across the last two decades or how significant authors like Wendig have been influential as trend-setters in this regard. Likewise it is an act of willful blindness to ignore the triumphalism of Addison and Scalzi in the lionization of liberal progressivism – as I mentioned Rajaniemi goes so far as to imbed this in his metaphysics. The dominance this movement encompasses is diffuse but aligns with the class position of these authors such that a very bourgeois moral order is allowed to reproduce within literary culture. The alternative proposed by the sad and rabid puppies: varying from a conservative retreat into the past to outright fascism was roundly banished to the margins by this dominant group and that’s well and good. They should be told to fuck off. But a half-decade on we’ve seen very little to unseat these asethetic indicators or, especially, these ideological ones and this includes the adoption of liberal blind-spots like a failure of science fiction authors to recognize a Raytheon logo or understand why that is bad. This isn’t to propose an all-encompassing dominance. What is being sketched as a dominant movement isn’t like Sherwin Williams covering the world in paint but the contingent dominance it enjoys is visible and will remain present until some opposing force unseats it.

Hopepunk: A genealogical sketch

Barack Obama "Hope" poster - Wikipedia

Hope is not an optimistic emotion.

When we discuss optimism we can start by returning to that very early definition of optimism as an emotional position: the glass is half full. Optimism is grounded in an assessment of material conditions. The glass is an object. Its condition – being half-full of water – is a part of its facticity. The water, too, is an object. The optimist begins from the material conditions that exist and extrapolates how the good arises from them. While an optimist has one eye on the future state of the object their gaze is fixed first upon the conditions as they exist.

Hope is far slipperier. In some ways it is an expression of despair. To hope is to observe the abjection of the material and to reject that as the basis for analysis, instead looking toward some outside agency to swoop in and make things better. The optimist, looking at the half-full glass might extrapolate that there is water to be had. The hopeful imagines somebody will bring them more instead.

This feature of optimism – the tendency toward agency – was remarked upon by Antonio Gramsci in his prison letters when he said, “My own state of mind synthesises these two feelings and transcends them: my mind is pessimistic, but my will is optimistic. Whatever the situation, I imagine the worst that could happen in order to summon up all my reserves and will power to overcome every obstacle.” Gramsci’s assessment starts from a material basis and, as one might expect of a Marxist in an Italian prison during the reign of the fascists, he finds his material condition unfortunate. However Gramsci maintains an “optimism of the will” – a revolutionary optimism that demands that the revolution never ended, the workers have not been defeated, so long as one fighter draws breath and continues to fight. Gramsci suffered imprisonment and maltreatment for much of his too-brief life. But his optimism left behind him a legacy of academic work that forwarded revolution for decades to come. What of hope? Hope never lifted him from his prison nor overthrew the Fascist regime in Italy. But the Salò Republic fell and Communist partisans slaughtered Mussolini like the pig he was. This agency is not the object of hope but of such a revolutionary optimism.

However this optimism of the will – this sense that a person can start from their material basis and enact meaningful change – that the words of a neglected prisoner can be one of the sparks that leads to the death of a fascist demagogue – depends on being enmeshed in history. By history here I don’t mean an account of the past but rather a continuous process of movement of the future into the present and the present into the past. Optimism depends on the presence of ambiguity within the facticity of our situation. To be optimistic is to recognize that there is a seed of good here and now from which a person can, with sufficient will, build the future.

In Capitalist Realism Fisher proposes that this is the very thing neoliberalism sought to snuff out. We can see this desire, to bring about an end to history, in both the theoretical works of people like Fukuyama, who proposed history as an evolutionary process and the present moment as its final form (eliding both that human social development has never been evolutionary in character but rather more like an ecological process in a state of metastatic equilibrium and that evolution itself has no end) and in the practical efforts of Margaret Thatcher’s “no alternative” rhetoric, the neoliberal order is sustained in its own perilous equilibrium largely by the lie it foments that this is all we can strive for: a present that is always at the end of the arc of history curving inevitably toward freedom. A past that is always a time of darkness and superstition. A future that is more present but just with a faster phone with more pixels in the screen.

In such a future there is no place for the agency of revolutionary optimism. The neoliberal order hardly even likes to admit the agency of people is a good. Populism is made a dirty word and equated exclusively with fascists. Government becomes technocratic – governance a task best left to experts like some perverse materialization of Plato’s philosopher kings. But in a world where agency must always accompany professional expertise there is a place for hope. Perhaps, in the future, The Experts will make things better. A person who is an agent of hope thus ends up fighting a rear-guard action for the status quo. Any upset too far, any reactivation of history, carries with it the risk that the outside agents who hold aloft the light of hope cannot come and save us.

The neoliberal circumscription of the imagination has certainly had a negative impact on science fiction. In the precursor novel to cyberpunk, “The Sheep Look Up” the future was bleak. The novel traces the dissolution of the American empire after all and it does so with an unflinching eye to the circumstances of empire. However even there we get a sense that alternatives exist. The problem isn’t a purely Malthusian one but rather one that is specific to a mode of production in a specific place and time, “We can just about restore the balance of the ecology, the biosphere, and so on – in other words we can live within our means instead of an unrepayable overdraft, as we’ve been doing for the past half century – if we exterminate the two hundred million most extravagant and wasteful of our species,” in other words the alternative will arise out of the funeral pyre of empire. At the other end of the cyberpunk genre, William Gibson built the story of Virtual Light entirely out of the grounding of the future in a material present – a vast real-estate deal might reshape a city if only a person has the right eyes to see it.

Of course there’s a cynicism in cyberpunk. It is very much a genre of pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit. The little people who populate cyberpunk novels – the thugs and grifters, the couriers and the hackers are not movers or shakers. And yet, despite being vastly, overwhelmingly, outpowered by the forces arrayed against them, they do their little hustles, carve out space for a future, for a history. This is because cyberpunk, charting that thread of science fiction between Brunner and Dick at one end and Gibson, Sterling and Stevenson at the other, was in many ways a punk genre.

Punk rock arose contiguously with cyberpunk. In retrospect 1968 had repercussions much farther afield than the French academy and this sense that the alternative future offered by the Soviet Union was perhaps as failed as the future offered by the United States informed many of these cynical quests to find an optimism of the will within pessimistic times. Within music this arose largely as a matter of distrust in the studio system and an unwillingness to participate in those syndical games compromising artistic vision. And so we have the Fugs announcing that they “dreamed of a bum, seven foot tall, who crushed the Bourgeoisie with a cross,” and we have Iggy Pop singing about his own desire for subjugation, “now I wanna be your dog.” The music, carving our an optimism of the will via a rejection of a formal system in favour of embracing the limits of do-it-yourself aesthetics contained within it the realization of a potential new future for music – a continuation of history by turning away from money and from polish in order to access something primordial: a broken and jagged scream that had no place in the institutions of the time.

Of course punk was recaptured by capital and the Stooges gave way to Blink 182. The bringing of punk to heel was a death by a thousand cuts. It may have begun with the style-before-substance empty anarchy of the Sex Pistols but there was no one moment before which punk was good and after which it was bad. Green Day were part of the punk-pop movement and yet they still carried with them that yearning for things to be different that characterized more radical precedents like the Dead Kennedys. Even now punk produces acts like Red Bait as well as acts like Paramore.

The capture of Punk was a suffocation under new axioms. Punk might be music for hoodlums and thugs but if it bends this direction or that, if it can become a vessel of a form of commodity fetishism, then places can be carved out for it. Crust punks might still gather in the living rooms of squats to reintroduce the primal scream of punk but they can be disregarded as long as carefully manicured ballads to teen angst played over three chords could also be allowed. Punk was expanded, not stylistically, there was always already a vast panoply of sounds to punk whether it’s the folk-sludge of the Fugs and the amateurish jangle of the Stooges or the surf-rock riffs of the Dead Kennedys and the Celtic lilt of The Real McKenzies – but rather it was expanded ideologically so that its initial rejection of the systems it was formed as an escape from became unnecessary – not incompatible, just unrequired. It’s important in this to keep in mind that what we see is a division of punk into these two components. The first is a punk aesthetic – a carrier of the artistic form associated with punk. The second is a system of material relationships with art. It describes a set of social and economic relations to art along with an underlying ethic regarding the purpose of art. This we could generalize as a punk ethos. This ethos does not need to map perfectly onto a specific aesthetic, which is why we could call acts that aren’t precisely within the punk genre of music (notably Gaylord and Feminazgul) as strong examples of the continuation of this ethos along with the aforementioned Red Bait.

A similar expansion was occurring in the waning days of cyberpunk. In 1990, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, two of the luminaries of the subgenre, wrote The Difference Engine. This novel proposed an alternate history where Charles Babbage successfully created an analytical engine and where the British labour movement was subsequently crushed much sooner. This novel sought to trace a technological inevitability to neoliberalism and its anti-labour positions, as if the computer was responsible for crushing miner’s strikes. While I’m quite critical of The Difference Engine and its positioning of technology as the engine of history more than humans it was still effectively a cyberpunk work – its position in 1855 was to put forward the argument that the present age would inevitably arise when the technological conditions existed. The Difference Engine proposes the cyberpunk dystopia as the end of history.

However this novel also acted to pry open the definition of literary punk via the anointing of a successor in the form of Steampunk. Steampunk was a failed read of The Difference Engine that latched onto the aesthetic indicators of the second half of the nineteenth century as imagined by a deranged clock maker. Certainly Babbage’s computing engines were machines of gears and precision, but this is largely where the analysis of the Steampunks ended.

While Gibson and Sterling acted to critique the relationship between the industrial revolution and novel technologies by introducing a novel technology from the information revolution into the mix the Steampunk fandom were mostly just interested in the aesthetics this critique was clad in – the aesthetics of the Victorian world.

Steampunk provided an easy way to market all kinds of alternative histories diverging at some key technological nexus: Dieselpunk, Atompunk, Biopunk, and all the other -punk subgenres arose not directly from Cyberpunk but rather from the fannish under-interpretation of this one late-cyberpunk text and from the many imitators that tried to ride on the coattails of its success. If Steampunks had one last connection to anything punk it was via a DIY sensibility surrounding costuming that wasn’t honestly particularly unique within cosplay as an artistic movement. All cosplayers lionized the self-made costume over store-bought. Only Steampunks tried to say this made them punk.

By the time Hopepunk was codified as an aesthetic positionality, punk had become nothing but a floating signifier – its boundaries had been so expanded that virtually any work of art could be called a punk text. This was the final defanging of punk as a genre. Red Bait and their radical ilk only manage to hold on by disregarding the punk label entirely and instead presenting a punk ethos. Hopepunk arose out of the bromine claim that “hope is punk” but it should be obvious by now that such a claim is farcical. Punks do for themselves, they make and they perform, they live in the margins and the recesses. Punks may have a pessimism of the intellect – a cynicism of the world as a broken place. But Punk, any remnant of the Punk ethos that remains in the wake of its defanging, insists on the agency of its participants. Punk doesn’t hope that the world will be better and instead gets on acting with autonomy in the world that is. Punk is materialist.

So, no, hope is not punk. It’s not punk at all. But this isn’t sufficient to render Hopepunk entirely occluded within its antimonies because, arising as it did from the fandom thread tracing back to Steampunk there’s no need for a punk ethos within Hopepunk for it to claim the -punk suffix. It’s just an intrinsically meaningless sound used to denote the aesthetic center of the subgenre. A -punk suffix does nothing but direct the reader that the prefix carries the essence of the subgenre. Dieselpunk is about trains. Atompunk is retrofuturistic nostalgia for the 1950s. Steampunk is the second half of the nineteenth century imagined as if their technology exceeded our own while retaining the aesthetic character of the industrial revolution. Hopepunk is likewise uninterested in being punk in the sense that The Stooges or The Sheep Look Up is punk but is instead interested in centralizing the experience of hope as its central aesthetic concern.

Thus far we cannot say much about Hopepunk. It certainly isn’t punk but we can hardly fault it for that. It is simply using common understandings to communicate that the emotion of hope is the essence of the genre. But, as I said, hope is something of a slippery emotion – it is an essentializing of optimism that divorces it from a material basis via an absolute rejection of facticity. But all this says is that Hopepunk is an idealist literature. However Hopepunk does not lack for manifestos.

Perhaps the most important of these would be an untitled essay of Alexandra Rowland’s from 2017 where she expands upon the statement that Hopepunk is best understood as the opposite to Grimdark saying that the older subgenre’s essence, “is that everyone’s inherently sort of a bad person and does bad things, and that’s awful and disheartening and cynical. It’s looking at human nature and going, “The glass is half empty.”

No examples are provided of what Rowland considers to constitute a Grimdark literature. We could surmise she might be referring to the work of fantasists such as Joe Abercrombie who take a more discursive tone to the fantastical, interrogating the essentialism of good and evil presented in classics such as the Lord of the Rings. Rowland includes this text as a Hopepunk text, along with The Handmaid’s Tale, “Jesus and Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Robin Hood and John Lennon,” to put forward something of a Hopepunk canon.

Now there are a few things we can take from this essay of Rowland’s regarding her characterization of Hopepunk. We can see it as existing in a broadly liberal space. There’s a certain lack of criticality to including John Lennon alongside the mythical founder of one of the world’s largest religions. Rowland gestures toward people who are, however, enmeshed in a specific kind of liberal sense of the Good. John Lennon earns his spot next to Jesus not because of any sort of shared facticity but rather by the shared beauty of their imaginations. She’s treating these disparate figures as their texts, comparing The Sermon on the Mount to King’s Dream speech to Lennon’s Imagine. Alongside this treatment of these people as text she’s using the object of their deaths to create her essence, interrelating the martyrdom of Jesus King, Ghandhi and Lennon too. Tolkien is Hopepunk too – after all there has rarely been a greater master of the idealist fantasy than he – but this is with a slight caveat that situates the example as a specific interpretation of the text by Sean Astin in a specific scene of The Two Towers film.

What can be drawn from Rowland’s examples is that she is pursuing an idealist Good as an objective of fiction. She gestures that people may not succeed all the time – most people aren’t John Lennon after all – and much of her political language is very much of its time and place as an American Democrat in the early days of the Trump presidency. However we can certainly situate Hopepunk as a liberal literature that is quite welcoming of conservativism as long as it is the friendly idealist version put forward by old JRR.

Rowland wrote a second manifesto in 2019 which I think serves as a clarification of the 2017 definition. In this she posits that the crux of her argument is that, “being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion.” I think she does something interesting here in situating a positionality for the ethic of Hopepunk in a specific class when she says, “But once in a while, the people toward the middle of the heap manage to look down and see the mass of wretched bodies below, the base of the pyramid that’s supporting them, and for a moment, they see the instability of their own position, that their pyramid isn’t built on solid ground but on human flesh and human pain.” Of course, the, “middle class,” is no class at all. As Deleuze and Guattari put it, under late capitalism, “there is only one class, the Bourgeoisie.” Absent this striation you get nothing but this undifferentiated pyramid of suffering. “The middle of the heap,” is a dangerously reductive statement compared to the clarity of a working class. And I do want to make sure that it is entirely clear from the context of this essay that “the middle of the heap,” can be taken to mean, “us.”

Rowland seems to have pivoted from a clear liberal idealism in 2017 to a position more akin to a humanist existentialism in 2019. This humanism is largely being brought in by way of the great humanist satirist Terry Pratchett. However much of her attempt at devising an aesthetic seems to largely be a frame for her personal response to the declining political situation of the United States across those last pre-COVID years. Rowland says, at one point, “The world has always and only been a never-ending, Darwinian struggle for survival, an ’empire of unsheathed knives and hungers,’ clawing at each other and climbing over each other in a mad riot, pushing our boots down into someone else’s face to heave ourselves up a little higher or risk being trampled ourselves.” This, together with the bleak picture of the middle of the heap complexify her humanism in uncomfortable ways. It’s hard to see both the kind of Beauvoirian ethic she attempts to approach in this article when you are also seeing all of human culture as a demonic crab bucket.

When Rowland returns to Hopepunk after this rather bleak precis she starts by claiming, “First, you must understand that everything is stories: money, manners, civilization. It’s all just little tales we tell each other, little collective hallucinations. A set of rules so that we can all play pretend together.” This fixation on culture as text is very nearly Derridean in its focus but misses the mark a bit when it reduces the concept of narrative, of text, to “little collective hallucinations.” This becomes a return to a kind of idealism, a sense that there is no world beyond the mind and that noumen are inaccessible to us. Rowland’s critique of the decline of the American empire under Trump stumbles over this refusal of materialism. She lacks anything like an optimism of the spirit in this moment of this text. And as I said before, hope is a dialectical unity with despair.

Rowland tries to bridge this despair with a valorization of stubbornness. Again the problem remains this focus on an idealist worldview wherein the social field is just a network of hallucinations or, as she quotes Pratchett, little lies. But then she does an odd pivot in an attempt to create a companion subgenre to Hopepunk in “Noblebright” (another attempt at an opposite to the still-undefined Grimdark).

“Noblebright is about goodness and truth and vanquishing evil forever, about a core of goodness in humanity. It’s most of the Arthurian legends, the Star Wars original trilogy, Narnia . . . in Tolkien terms, it’s Aragorn, rather than Frodo and Sam (who are hopepunk as hell). In noblebright, when we overthrow the dark lord, the world is saved and our work is done. Equilibrium and serenity return to the land. Our king is kind and good and pure of heart; that’s why he’s the king.

It’s all very nice,” she says. And Rowland, during the more desperate period of her essay in which she reflected upon the politics of the moment has been quite critical of niceness. Rowland tries to create a discourse between this proposed subgenre and Hopepunk, using them to tease out the aforementioned Beauvoirian ethic except that her idealist approach serves her poorly there. “It’s about being kind merely for the sake of kindness, and because you have the means to be, and giving a fuck because the world is (somehow, mysteriously, against all evidence) worth it and we don’t have anywhere else to go anyway.” Somehow, mysteriously, against all evidence. This, then is the return to hope contra optimism I mentioned before. Rowland doesn’t want to look for the Good in her facticity but rather to find it against all evidence.

In the end Rowland turned from a pure sort of Liberal idealism in 2017 to a kind of existentialism in 2019 – but in doing so she occluded an actual definition of Hopepunk even further. What is Hopepunk? It’s an idealist literature of a non-existent class that attempts to respond to power with aphorisms about the value of kindness but an avowed willingness to lean into ambiguity. This makes it even harder to square some of the many disparate examples. Aside from one song how does any of this apply to the man who sang Taxman – a protest song against progressive taxation under a Labour government? How could this attempt at a radical idealist kindness lionize a political leader who was all too happy to call Hitler his “dear friend,” a man who was all too happy to deploy racist arguments about Black South Africans if it meant improving the position of Indians within the colony? In Rowland’s two manifestos much changes. Her entire ideological frame seems to shift and she attempts to pivot Hopepunk with it. It isn’t enough to have constructed a strawman in “grimdark” against which to measure this vague subgenre but now a second one, “noblebright,” must be deployed as a foil. And of course the examples for “noblebright” fiction are safely anachronistic. Star Wars may, in fact, be the most recent work of art mentioned and I would propose that Rowland may have misapplied her rubric. If she believed truly that, especially that first film dealt in absolutes then she might want to consider revisiting the text of Star Wars from the perspective that the Jedi aren’t entirely reliable expositors. Ultimately an attempt to sketch what Hopepunk actually is will need to leave Rowland behind. She’s critical to its formulation but her manifestos are impacted to their detriment by her obvious attempts to process the failure of American liberalism without letting go of American liberalism entirely. We must expand our field of view.

The Jesuit priest Jim McDermott contributed an interesting thread to the definition of Hopepunk by claiming it for Catholicism largely through the invocations of Tolkien and Lewis in its formation. Writing in 2019 he elaborated on Rowland’s essay first by attempting to define “grimdark,” describing its central texts as, ““The Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad” or the Zack Snyder-helmed DC Comic book movies.” On the other hand, McDermott sees a reflection of his faith in Hopepunk, saying, ” hopepunk insists there are streams of life-giving water all around us—stories, people and experiences to which we can still turn for inspiration and renewal. Our very faith is built upon such a story, one in fact so ridiculously unafraid of the worst that reality can throw at us that it chose to make the moment of its most horrendous loss the icon of its hope.”

For him, the thread of the valorization of the martyr found in Rowland’s first essay is key and he repeats her invocation not just of Jesus but of Martin Luther King Jr. This inclusion is interesting since his thesis is so specifically to claim Hopepunk for Catholicism and King was a Baptist. But he is writing for an American catholic publication and King is not just a Christian martyr but also a principal martyr of the American civic cult so I suppose this fits the specific syncretism of the American Liberal Priest just fine. McDermott is a poetic essayist, it’s sure and his conclusion is beautifully worded, “That is the point and opportunity of hopepunk: the Spirit does not follow the rules we set down. Grace rebels and God thrives not in some impossible sanctity but in the actual mess of our humanity.” But this merely reinforces the idealist thread of Rowland’s work. His reading of Rowland is one of a transcendental soul upon which a moral field acts. The other commonality between McDermott and Rowland’s definitions of Hopepunk is that both assume a clear ethical dimension to art – for both authors art exists to communicate Good whether that’s Rowland’s vaguely secular humanistic Good or his more explicitly Catholic ethic.

Aja Romano also situates Hopepunk as beginning from Rowland’s pronouncement in opposition to “grimdark” however she treats it more as a literary movement than an aesthetic or an ethos. Romano implores her audience to “picture that swath of comfy ideas” and I think this is a very important dictum as the Hopepunk ethic is very much rooted in the literary concept of the cozy. It’s a fiction that tries to keep the mean stuff off the page as much as possible. We know orcs are bad and Sauron worse but we don’t see the torture chambers of Mordor – we just hear about them. Cozy novels want to encourage an integrated audience who can ride along with the characters of the story in maximum comfort. This is largely a utilitarian motivation as in the mystery genre, where the cozy is particularly prevalent, this comfort with our characters allows the audience to solve the crime along with the detective. The Cozy arises in other context too though, with On The Beach being a key early example of the cozy apocalypse. Out there everything has fallen apart but over here things still go on in a way as we all await the end quietly, contemplatively, inevitably.

Romano shares the same examples of “grimdark” as McDermott albeit with a bit more shade for Nolan and a bit less for Snyder and here is where we begin to see part of the problem with Hopepunk’s search for a moral essence in fiction because they fail to differentiate Breaking Bad as a text from the worst audience responses to the same. Breaking Bad is flatly satirical – a vicious attack on the American healthcare system, the American education system and a case study in how one vicious little man can befoul the lives of the people around him all while pursuing a perverted idea of the American Dream. Though weakened by the dramatic positioning of the “One who knocks” speech and Bryan Cranston’s career-defining performance there was nothing in Breaking Bad that suggested that Walter White should be anything other than a moral warning. There is an ethic underlying Breaking Bad and it is one that is fundamentally critical of our Heisenberg. The finale of Season 2, in particular, should dispel any notion that Walt is anything other than a moral hazard for everyone around him. The way it builds so much death and pain off of chance encounters doesn’t lionize his bad behaviour – it condemns it. But this seems missed by a literature that desires a moral lesson in a cozy package.

Romano also draws out in text some of the subtext in Rowland’s first manifesto, describing Rowland’s strange Jesus and John Lennon list as, “heroes who chose to perform radical resistance in unjust political climates, and to imagine better worlds.” I believe I’ve dwelled enough on the heroism of Ghandi and John Lennon’s heroism for one essay but suffice it to say I am uncomfortable with calling either of them, especially, heroic.

Romano is honest about the frustrating vagueness of definition in Rowland’s manifesto saying, “The broad strokes of Rowland’s definition mean that a lot of things can feel hopepunk, just as long as they contain a character who’s resisting something,” but she attempts to supersede Rowland’s insufficient definitions, providing a bulleted list of aesthetic parameters including, “A weaponized aesthetic of softness, wholesomeness, or cuteness — and perhaps, more generally, a mood of consciously chosen gentleness,” and, “An emphasis on community-building through cooperation rather than conflict.” I think this essay is the first time we get a clear sense of the problem presented by Hopepunk as a narrative construction: Romano refers to it as being of a cloth with, “an extreme, even aggressive form of self-care and wellness” and this, combined with its idealist connection to an ethic and its discomfort with critical depictions of cruelty leave Hopepunk a relatively empty form made principally out of blind spots.

We’ve seen what aggressive self-care often looks like and that is an expulsion of discomfort. An oyster who encounters a piece of grit responds by forming a pearl around it but this aggressive advocacy for cozy fiction mostly ends up being much more like a Sea Cucumber expelling its own innards to escape a threat. Romano describes Hopepunk as possessing the aesthetics of Bag End – being fixed upon comfort and she attempts to equate this comfort-seeking with some sort of radical rejection of work. This seems otherwise unsupported by the available texts. Certainly it’s at odds with Rowland’s vision of Hopepunk as a proactive tool of protest.

Romano also expounds on the link between Harry Potter and the September 11 attacks of 2001 (not to be confused with the far-more tragic September 11 of 1973) suggesting that the, “films provided essential tales of optimism in response to widespread narratives of war and anti-globalization.” Anti-globalization is an interesting insertion into this discourse considering how activities such as the Alter-Globalization movement were recharacterized, following September 11, as anti-globalist, and the demands that neoliberal exploitation of multilateral trade be restricted were reframed as some sort of impossible demand to return to a protectionist past. Of course plenty of ink has been spilled about the neoliberalism of Harry Potter. After dwelling on various strands of Potter-branded activism Romano turns to the claiming of additional fictions that are built around emotional empathy as Hopepunk, fixing her attention on Sense8 in a move that I think grossly misses the point of that show.

“Even more, in the literary sense, hopepunk has the power to embed the conscious kindness that Sam encourages within the worldview and worldbuilding of a story itself.” Romano says and this reinforces the sense that Hopepunk, as a literary movement, has specific expectations not only of the message of a text but also its form. It’s not enough that evil be repudiated by the authorial voice, comfort must be baked into the very worldbuilding of the story. It’s unsurprising that the luminary texts of Hopepunk are principally mass-market fantasies.

Romano is also one of the first voices within this literary movement to articulate an actual target within “grimdark” literature, via Game of Thrones though even here it’s cloaked through reference to a filmic adaptation as she interprets Jon Snow as “a chosen one,” figure, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Martin’s Work in a Song of Ice and Fire was explicitly problematizing the idea of the “chosen one trope” and was critical of it.

This is where the idealism of Hopepunk makes it ultimately unsuited to a revolutionary task. Hopepunk is incapable of recognizing a critical movement within literature. So fixed on surfaces, on televisual and filmic representations of kindness and empathy, that it fails to see that Walter White is the bad guy of Breaking Bad or that Jon Snow remains, to this day, dead in the snow and betrayed by his brothers in the books. Hopepunk, when deployed as a critical standpoint, has terrible aim. Its central formulators want to claim it as a weapon against oppression and the far-right but will only countenance this rebellion if it is comfortable. Absent this demand of comfort Hopepunk becomes so nebulous that about all you can say of it is that it is a vaguely Bourgeois fiction that traffics in idealistic understandings of the Good, which is to say it’s just fantasy fiction. Standard fantasy fiction.

Hopepunk loves a martyr and McDermott is quite right to call it a Christian fiction, even if he reaches too far in claiming it for Catholicism in particular. The true believers of the movement see it, quoting a friend of Romano, as “some seriously important and sacred shit!” But Hopepunk struggles as a fiction of the sacred because it also wants so badly to be a humanist fiction. It’s frustrating to see people approaching Pratchett in the same breath as Tolkien considering how much the former’s career served as a critique of the latter. But again this points back to the fixation of Hopepunk with comfortable surfaces. It’s easy to look at Death in Hogfather talking about little lies and to stop there. But to avoid that you’d need to be blind to the historical materialism of the Hogfather’s growth from a seasonal sacrificial rite to a commercial holiday. Pratchett is deeply and critically involved with the enmeshment of the social field in the material. The point, the real point, of Hogfather is that they aren’t lies at all. That place where the rising ape meets the falling angel is materiality, it’s a human condition that exists within history, within matter. This is why the Auditors cannot win. They don’t understand the materiality of culture – they mistakenly assume the material is just rocks moving in arcs.

I think Rowland’s 2019 essay is perhaps the best possible version of a Hopepunk we could expect until it divorces itself from the liberal legacy of the fantasy mainstream. Her attempt at an existentialist ethic misses key qualities of Beauvoir’s materialism in The Ethics of Ambiguity but she does grasp well the idea of the pursuit of the good as a task without an end, a task that exists in a state of ambiguity. However I think the version of Hopepunk that actually exists is the far more frustrating version put forward by Romano. This is the version that is obsessed with an aesthetic of comfort, that refuses to engage with anything critical because it might seem unkind. Romano’s framing of Hopepunk will never produce pearls although it has a legacy of driving two years of twitter feuds.

I do think a revolutionary literature is valuable but for a literature to be revolutionary it must have three qualities Hopepunk lacks: a critical response to extant material conditions, a willingness to explore discomfort and a complete rejection of the status quo. A revolutionary literature doesn’t require hope – but it does require pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. Frankly, a revolutionary literature has to, in the end, be truly punk.

The Matrix Resurrections proves a better blockbuster is still possible

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I cannot assume that a review for a major movie that came out literally yesterday is going to be read only by my regular audience so before I get into the meat of the review I should mention that I regularly discuss incidents from the plot of my subjects of critique, including climactic events, in the course of review. I have strong and somewhat idiosyncratic views on the concept of the “spoiler” and its place within criticism and film discourse but I also know there will be a lot of people who want to experience the surprises and reversals of this movie fresh. I loved this film. It’s funny and heartfelt, achingly sincere in that so-very-Wachowski manner, and, as one less favorable critic said, it’s full of “philosophical mumbo jumbo” (would we want it any other way?) and has a “woke agenda” (in that it recognizes patriarchy and misogyny as foundational poles of social control). So this is your warning. If you don’t know how the events of the film transpire and would prefer not to learn about them in a review you should stop here and wait until you can watch the movie. The legal choices currently are either to go to a cinema or watch it on a streaming service that is technically only available in the United States, which is unfortunate but this is, alas, the world we live in here in the closing days of 2021. I don’t personally council going to theaters right now, there was a public exposure site at one of the showings of that other blockbuster movie here on my remote island. But if that’s the choice you make please take precautions, wear a well-fitted three-layer mask, sit away from others, avoid eating in the theater and make sure your vaccinations are up to date.

So let’s dig in.

The first act of The Matrix Resurrections starts with an apology for the making of The Matrix Resurrections. In this part of the film Neo is once again living as Thomas Anderson: a successful video game designer whose game, The Matrix, won substantial critical acclaim. But Thomas is a mess. His studio is owned by Warner Brothers and they’ve insisted that the studio begin work on a sequel to the long-completed trilogy of original games. Thomas’ partner in the company confides in him that WB will be making the sequel with or without him and that if he refuses to participate he can be easily removed as an obstacle to its creation. The choice before him is a non-choice. He can make another game, guide how it’s shaped to an extent and take his share of the profits from its eventual success or he can step aside and get nothing while somebody else does whatever they want with his career-defining creation.

I am very fond of the tendency of Wachowski movies to be entirely unsubtle but this remarkably on the nose.

There are two possible ways to read this early sub-plot. Either it’s a sincere apology that a sequel was made for such a definitively finished work, possibly even a recounting of the conversations Lana Wachowski had to have surrounding the production, or it’s a sly joke winking at the possibility of the same. From any other creative team I’d assume the latter but considering how Wachowski sister movies traffic in sincerity here I lean in the direction of the former.

During the discussion, Thomas, showing obvious signs of extreme anxiety begins to see his partner’s mouth seal shut in precisely the way Smith had once done to him in the first film. Later Thomas talks to his analyst who reassures him about the indications of progress evident that he could even articulate this hallucination freely. His analyst calls the discussion an ambush and suggests his hallucination was a transference; Thomas felt his voice was taken away by the decision to make a sequel over his wishes so he imagined his partner’s voice taken instead. The analyst offers Neo a refill on a prescription he’s been using. Bright blue pills the same shade as the analyst’s smart jacket and fashion-forward glasses frames.

This setup comfortably introduces a lot of the key themes that run through the movie simultaneous to its work as a piece of critical apologia for the sequel-driven state of Hollywood blockbusters in general and for the decision to make this movie at this time in particular. The Matrix is a film very concerned with identity – specifically with the divide between the self-gaze and the gaze of the other. Thomas sees himself as we, the audience, see him: Keanu Reeves with long hair and a beard. But we catch glimpses of another man in a reflection. An older man, balding, with a face that looks ground down by a life described later by the Analyst as a combination of yearning for what you don’t have and fear of losing what you do. Other such circumstances apply to the other characters introduced in the first act. Thomas’ partner displays many of the mannerisms of Agent Smith but looks nothing like him and he seems friendly even if the Analyst is wary of his intentions. In another early sequence, somewhat disconnected from Thomas’ story, a new character, Bugs, enters a part of the Matrix that looks like the opening sequence of the first film. But it’s different. Trinity has a different face. It’s similar, hauntingly familiar, but it’s not her. And in this node of the Matrix Agent Smith is there but he’s also Morpheus this blending of identities carries with it a new face in the form of Yahya Abdul-Mateen – who brings an off-kilter humour to his performance that lands many of the best jokes in a surprisingly funny film.

In this retelling of the opening scenes of the first film, Trinity doesn’t escape; she is surrounded by agents and they’re beating her down. Bugs interferes and is pursued by Morpheus / Smith. She escapes into Thomas Anderson’s apartment from the first film and there encounters Morpheus / Smith who is an agent and a program but who is also certain that he is, in fact, Morpheus. Both Bugs and Morpheus are sure Neo is still alive. She saw him. He awoke her. Morpheus shares the same story.

A Neo who is Thomas Anderson again. A Smith who isn’t Smith. A Morpheus who is Smith. A Trinity named Tiffany and another Trinity who isn’t. The first act of this film introduces us to all these fragments of identity that carry with them the signification of others. These are characters who are split between how they see themselves and how others see them. When Thomas looks at his partner and, for a moment, sees Smith we are invited to ask whether it is, in fact Smith, or whether it’s a remnant of the significance Smith had on his life.

There’s a principal question regarding self the film attacks early on rooted in the question of memory and narrativization. Thomas has created a fiction of his memories of the Matrix. He has written it into a video game. In the process of doing so he’s creating a narrative frame out of his past. But the film asks whether this frame is a fiction or whether it is an authentic reflection of the becoming of this man at this time.

The Matrix plays out Thomas’ struggle with what constitutes his reality for far longer than the first film. There’s an extended montage of him mainlining blue pills and sleepwalking through his painfully unfulfilling life, work, gym, pining after Tiffany (Trinity) in the delightfully named Simulatte coffee shop as she nips in and out with her children but saying nothing.

Tiffany is a mother to a whole gaggle of kids. She’s got a doting husband (Chad) and doesn’t understand either why her life feels a little bit empty. She tries to exorcize the ennui by building motorcycles as a hobby and fantasizes about kicking Chad, “not too hard, just maybe hard enough to break his ribs.” A work colleague of Thomas forces an introduction because he’s tired of seeing his buddy mooning after Tiffany from afar and they form a slightly remote friendship. Tiffany can’t help but notice how much Trinity in the Matrix video game looks like her. But she is anxious about the affection she feels for Thomas, the familiarity she has to him because she is a loving mother and wife.

Morpheus forces a confrontation. He reveals that the node of the matrix Bugs found him in was, in fact, a construct created by Thomas with the express purpose of gestating an AI. He is a fusion of Smith and Morpheus because these two people were the most formative on Neo’s life and Neo needed them both to forge his escape from this new prison he found himself trapped within. He offers Thomas a red pill but Thomas refuses. Police invade and chaos ensues. Thomas’ partner stumbles into the bloodshed as Morpheus battles the police and picks up a pistol. In that moment he becomes Smith again, bellowing, “Mr. Anderson” at Thomas rather than Tom and immediately trying to kill him. There’s a discontinuity, a cat named Deja Vu, and then Thomas is back with his therapist who is very concerned for his wellbeing.

Bugs and Morpheus must make another attempt before they can free Neo from the prison of the identity of Thomas Anderson that has been forced upon him. Of course, despite spending an hour with our anxious and emotionally fragile depressive Thomas trying to navigate a disintegrating reality, the Matrix Resurrections must eventually pivot back to being a Matrix movie – it cannot prevaricate endlessly over what is the Matrix and what is the Real. I know many fans had hoped for some revelation that the Real was itself another Matrix, that reality was a nested set of simulations but this is not the case. In fact, in a film that exists specifically to upset binary divisions in so many ways, the division between the Matrix and the Real is the one it leaves unbroken. There are different nodes, different places, within the Matrix. Bits of old code get slotted in. There are constructs and there are sandboxes. But ultimately these are all part of the Matrix which is just as much a prison as it ever was.

There is a hint of an abolitionist critique here. The Tiqqun phrase I’m so fond of is apropos. “But evasion is only a simple escape: it leaves the prison intact. We must have desertion, a flight that at the same time obliterates the whole prison. Properly speaking, there is no individual desertion. Each deserter takes with him a little of the group’s fighting spirit. By simply existing he is an active challenge to the social order: and all the relationships he enters are contaminated by the radicality of his situation.” Neo’s compromise with the Machines left the Matrix intact but unstable. There was a civil war among the Machines. The losing side of that civil war joined with the survivors of Zion to create Io – a new city ruled over by an ancient and cynical Niobe. The victors created a far worse Matrix. By failing to break the prison of the Matrix entirely, Neo left his job only half-done. The change he brought created a difference. The society of Io is different in so many ways from Zion – some better, some worse. But the revolution never ended. The world remained at war, even if the sides of the conflict changed, and Niobe has grown bitter and fearful because of it. Niobe fears that the return of Neo will spark a new front in the war. But this film isn’t a war movie at all. It’s a rescue mission.

The Neoliberal Matrix

Stepping back for a moment it’s significant to situate this as an auteurial movie. And, happily, it’s learned one lesson that separates effective auteurial projects from failures. An auteurial film requires a singularity of creative vision, not of creative control. Tells such as the presence of many, many Sense8 actors in the cast along with David Mitchel and Aleksandar Hemon who have both previously collaborated with Wachowski on the script, cinematographer John Toll who has been the Wachowski cinematographer since Cloud Atlas, Joseph Jett Sally as editor (previously an assistant editor on Speed Racer) and Lindsay Pugh in costuming – another Sense8 alum – indicate that a cohesive creative team has built up around Lana Wachowski. This construction of the team is so fundamentally important to the creation of that unified vision that makes auteurial cinema stand out from more studio fare. And this is critical because of how this film answers the apology in act 1. In The Matrix Resurrections irony, sarcasm and emotional distance code directly onto villains. Our protagonists are achingly sincere, painfully vulnerable. This is a long-standing theme in Wachowski films. It’s notably present in the original Matrix sequels and in Sense8 – a show almost entirely about the power of sincerity and emotional vulnerability. This puts this film directly at odds with the quippy ironic distance of blockbuster fare like Red Notice, Deadpool or anything directed by Joss Whedon and also at the cold and clinical distance of blockbuster directors like Nolan and Snyder. We get multiple close-ups of Thomas rubbing the fabric of his jeans to ground himself, touch has power. After Thomas and Tiffany shake hands for the first time the sense memory of her hand conjures powerful memories of his life as Neo in him. In the Matrix, as in much of the Wachowski ouevre, love is a force of real power. The bonds people form, the way that they live through the other via love is central to their ability to overcome the challenges before them. This film problematizes this by redesigning the Matrix. This isn’t the old Matrix where the main mode was an enforced somnescence and where love merely had to be a powerful enough clarion call to awaken the sleeper. The Architect, who scorned human emotion as being something irrelevant to the grand algorithmic balance of his construction is gone and in his place is the Analyst – who has built his prison explicitly out of love.

Specifically the Analyst, finally revealed not as Thomas’ therapist but rather as Neo and Trinity’s jailer has built his new matrix out of the frustrated potential of Neo and Trinity’s love unrealized. When the Matrix was destabilized following the end of the war with Zion, the Analyst instituted a project to restore Neo and Trinity from death. And once he’d done this, he bound them together as the processing core of the new Matrix and as a psychological template for its systems of control. Neo and Trinity are bound into their prison by what he describes as their yearning for what they don’t have coupled with their fear to lose what they do. He keeps them close enough they can almost touch while constantly frustrating their efforts. He creates for Trinity a husband, children. For Thomas a high paying job in the creative industry. The choice exists for them both. They can see each other. And the Analyst cannot fully erase the meaning they hold for each other because the whole Matrix is literally powered by their frustration. And so they must be separated by emotional and psychological obstacles: her family, his mental health problems. In the process of imprisoning Neo and Trinity thus he has also bound Smith who was forced into the role of Neo’s partner and artificially kept from being who he truly is. The Architect makes Neo and Trinity choose their own subjugation. When Neo is freed he threatens Trinity and promises to kill her if Neo will not return of his own volition.

This film has inherited the complicated discourse the first three movies wove around the issue of choice. The question of choice is omni-present. Sati reminds everyone during the rescue of Trinity that she must choose to be freed or the mission will fail. But simultaneously many characters including Morpheus, Bugs and Smith comment on the illusory nature of choice. Smith-the-partner presents Thomas with the sequel fait accompli. He could choose to refuse to participate but that would basically just mean cutting his own input out of an unhaltable process. When Bugs offers Morpheus the red pill choice they both admit there’s no choice there and he already knows which pill he will take. This ties into the idea of the Eternal Return which was central to the original sequels. And, sure enough, this film plays with the ideas of difference and repetition a lot. It’s present in the gestating simulation Thomas uses to create Morpheus. It’s there when, during the second act, Neo and Smith fight and the entire fight is an echo of their past encounters.

There is intercut footage from the original film series throughout this movie. When Smith speaks the image will momentarily cut to a time from the first movie when Hugo Weaving’s Smith said the thing. When Morpheus confronts Neo during his rescue he does so in a cinema playing footage from Thomas’ game – of the scene in which Fishburne’s Morpheus originally gave Neo the red-pill choice. When Thomas struggles with his memories of being Neo we see them as fragmented images from across the original trilogy. This, combined with some excellent sound editing makes for an often unnerving experience, especially as Wachowski has maintained the original, highly aestheticized look of the original footage but has used entirely different and far broader-spectrum colour grading for the new Matrix.

The Analyst, and most of the rest of the cast other than Bugs and Morpheus, see the Matrix as an inevitability. There is no alternative. They tried to shut it down and doing so just fragmented the Machines, created new factions but no peace and no end to the Matrix. The Analyst believes that most of the “coppertops” prefer their subjugation. They’re too afraid to lose what little they have to step out of line. The unequal power structures that define the contemporary moment exist because the victims choose them.Hang on tight and spit on me,” is the mode of the Analyst’s Matrix.

Niobe is an old revolutionary lost to pessimism. She’s seen too much death and pain and she’s sick of it. She sees no alternative to the Matrix because they tried once and it didn’t work. She’s deeply bitter toward Morpheus (the original Morpheus) who never stopped believing that the revolution could never be defeated. The Analyst sees no alternative because he doesn’t want an alternative. He doesn’t even want a rollback to an earlier version of the Matrix, one that isn’t dependent on keeping two resurrected heroes in a state of immortal purgatory. And Smith isn’t beholden to this Matrix or that – he just doesn’t want to be put back in prison.

And to a certain extent there’s some honesty to the Analyst’s defense of the new Matrix. A rollback would not, on its own, be anything even resembling enough. Mark Fisher puts forward a left-accelerationist read of Lyotard in Postcapitalist Desire that, “that there’s no possible retreat from capitalism – there’s no space of primitive outside to which we can return, we have to go all the way through capitalism.” Likewise there’s no return to Zion and the war with The Machines. In fact nobody would want that. The dissident Machines are a loved and valued part of the society of Io. Morpheus (the program), Cybebe and Lumin8 are valued and beloved allies of the Resistance, nobody wants to go back to the absolute binary of Neo’s era. The only way out is through.

But the other thing nobody really wants is another front in the war. And this is the final really significant formal structural detail I want to draw out here – the plot of the Matrix Resurrections isn’t a bildungsroman like the first nor is it a war movie like the original sequels. This is a rescue movie. The new Matrix, the one powered by the double-bind of yearning and fear, only functions by keeping the object of desire always just out of reach of the subject. They can see it, the thing they want, right there but they can’t quite reach. But if they stay in the system, if they don’t make waves, maybe they can get just a tiny bit closer – a perverse Xeno’s paradox at play that the film depicts clearly during Neo’s first true confrontation with the Analyst in which the program fires a gun at Trinity and holds Neo back just long enough that he thinks he might still power through and rescue her while knowing he almost certainly will have to watch her die again.

The Analyst wants Neo to return to his cage willingly and so he holds Trinity up as a hostage. Neo is faced with another choice-that-is-not-a-choice: he can escape at the cost of Trinity’s life or he can return to a prison where he will, forever, look but never touch. But Sati proposes a rescue – with the only catch being that Trinity must choose to be rescued and during his attempts to win Trinity over she reveals to Neo that she has been having prophetic dreams much like his from The Matrix Reloaded; they end badly. By the moment of the confrontation the story has laid the groundwork that “Tiffany” is as unsatisfied in this half-life as Neo was when he was compelled into the persona of Thomas. But even so it’s terrifying to let go of what she had: a husband, children. The Analyst engineers a crisis at home to drag Trinity away from Neo at the last moment, to skew her to staying in his simulation in hopes a failure of the rescue mission will also compel Neo back under his domination. But Trinity turns back on her way out the door, sees Neo getting pressed to the ground under a horde of cops and something snaps and she breaks free. She decides the simulated family isn’t worth sacrificing the truth. She becomes tired of Chad grabbing her by the arm and leading her where the Analyst wants her. She is tired of building bikes rather than riding them. She leaps.

The Leap

Love, in the Matrix, is always a matter of faith. It’s power is ineffable and irrational. This is why the Architect failed – he disregarded love as nonsense and the love Neo and Trinity had for each other was enough to overturn his plans. The Analyst, instead, wants to pervert love into a weapon to use against the lovers. He knows that love is a desire and that he can use the productive force of desire as a real source of energy if he can only keep the lovers just the right distance apart. The Analyst doesn’t underestimate love qua love. He doesn’t underestimate love as an emotion. But he does understand love as an expression of faith.

There had always been hints of this idea in the Matrix. As early as the first film Morpheus showed Neo how far he could jump if he only freed his mind. In this film the Leap and its expression of the concept of faith takes center stage. Bugs tells Neo that she awakened when she saw him jump off a building and he never fell. The analyst, meanwhile, refers to “Thomas” as a suicide survivor and attempts to make Neo’s faith, his belief that he could be free, into a matter of shame and anxiety. “The doubt that saves doubts only itself,” Kierkegaard says. He means this as a challenge against the idea of dialectical skepticism in the context of theology. Hegelian theology was popular at the time of Kierkegaard’s career and he pushed back against the ability to approach religion from the direction of doubt. He would rather doubt the doubt itself.

There is some power in this position. I’ve often remarked that the biggest failing of Rational Skepticism is the unwillingness to turn the tools of skepticism inward, to doubt the bases upon which they build their skeptical responses to the external phenomena they doubt. There is a danger in self-assuredness that creates blind spots the anxious may see. Kierkegaard put forward this paradoxical position of anxious self-doubt as the basis for authentic belief throughout much of his body of work and his solution was to leap over the leveling scythe of reason and into faith. Kierkegaard counseled an irrational response to matters of faith as being the only true avenue for the expression of real faith. What faith is there in biblical proof?

In the film, Neo has lost the ability to fly. In fact, he spends much of the movie rusty – an old soldier who thought his days of fighting were over – and whose hesitance to re-enter the fray manifests in a reduction of his powers. He’s still strong enough to toss enemies around and to stop bullets with his will. He’s still fast enough to dodge bullets and to observe their path through the air and he’s still robust enough to survive being thrown through a concrete pillar but he is not the man he once was.

Neo is plagued with self-doubt. He begins the film with crippling self-doubt. He doubts even his own life story, a doubt that the Analyst is all to eager to help along with a delightful display of Wormtoungery. Neo wants to make a leap but his doubts plague him. And he can’t just start flying from the ground because his faith is insufficient. It isn’t a leap of faith to jump up when there’s no risk. You have to put everything you are into a moment of irrational devotion. Only there does an authentic leap of faith lie.

On the other side of the leap is the Knight of Faith and Kierkegaard cautions us that this is an incommunicable state of being. It’s impossible to know for sure if a leap is genuine harder still to communicate the essence of such a genuine moment.

After they escape from the Analyst, Neo and Trinity flee through the streets of the Matrix pursued by a horde of zombies. (The Analyst feels this “horde mode” is a more effective solution than the agents of the previous iteration.)

This whole sequence is interesting in that it puts the threat of stochastic terrorism and mass violence front-and-center where once it was just cops. Furthermore it shows how cops and stochastic terrorists operate together for the maintenance of the status quo. And so the zombies chase Neo and Trinity onto a roof where helicopters wait to gun them down. But they agree that they will not return to their prison and they jump. It should come as no surprise to anyone watching this film that it is Trinity who has a moment of authentic faith and discovers the ability to fly although I’m certain it will upset all of the worst members of the audience to no end.

Patriarchy and Societies of Control

In Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish he describes an epistemological regime called the “disciplinary society.” This is a system of subjectification wherein a subject enters into a space where their body is trained before exiting that space and, as Deleuze put it, starting from 0 again in that new space. Disciplinary societies are best reflected in disciplinary institutions such as the school, the hospital, the factory and the prison. Now it’s important to note that these epistemic systems are not complete and impermeable. The principal work of Discipline and Punish was to show a genealogy of how previous epistemic systems led to the production of the disciplinary society as a mode of subjectification. A feature of the disciplinary society was a focus of power on the individual subject, specifically a focus on shaping the individual subject into an ideal citizen – a perfection of the soul through the rigors of training and a sort of inherited monasticism. He remarks upon how the design of the prison cell and the work-house cell of the early factories was modeled rather explicitly on the monastic cell. But while these epistemes leave marks they do not remain the dominant systems of subjectification forever and in the Postscript to Societies of Control, Deleuze proposed that, by the 1990s the disciplinary society was already being supplanted by a new episteme – the society of control.

The principal difference between the disciplinary society and the society of control was a spatial one – the disciplinary society is made up of a series of distinct spaces you move within. You go to school, advance through grades, complete school. Then you move to the new enclosed space of the factory. If you get sick you go to the hospital and go through triage, observation, treatment. If you fall afoul of police you go through arrest, trial, sentence. In all these cases there’s a focus on specific delineated corrective spaces.

The society of control is modular. Access to this module is granted or removed. Guattari, who Deleuze cites in the essay, proposed this as being like a city divided into zones in which the gates were operated by a key card. At any time a subject could be admitted to some zones and excluded from others. Deleuze took this observation even farther and suggested that the singular subjectivity of the disciplinary society – that focus on a perfectible singular being upon whom discipline could operate – had been replaced by a modular subject. Distinct schools were replaced with training modules. Professional memberships and licensing organizations could assign or withdraw various rights. A perfect genealogical precursor to this power relation is the driver’s license: you have permission to operate a motor vehicle contingent on not being found to do so in an unsafe manner. This is not the disciplinary power relation although it was not, alone, sufficient to manifest as a new episteme. The original Matrix was released nine years after Deleuze’s postscript, seven years after its first translation into English. While Deleuze believed that the society of control had already become the predominant episteme at that time, per both Deleuze and Foucault, no episteme erases the marks of the one before and the transition from one to another can only ever be discovered genealogically. We recognize we are in a new episteme when we can recognize the completion of the old order. This period of transition is visible in the first Matrix movie. Knowledge is modular. Put in a disc and know kung fu. But the authority of the agents is still disciplinary. Smith takes Thomas Anderson out of the space of the workplace and into the interrogation room. There he engages in an attempt to correct Mr. Anderson, to return him to a life of productive service to the extant power structure. This is fundamentally a disciplinary power mechanism.

In contrast the Analyst implements measures of control. Identity is treated as modular. Neo is allowed to be “Thomas Anderson” he’s even allowed to have a personal history with the Matrix and an awareness of his past but he is denied access to his own face. Trinity features similar dividuality of her being, buried under the disguise of Tiffany. Access to spaces is also modular. An alarm rings in Thomas’ workplace and lets everybody know access is now forbidden. The enforcement of authority that comes after is not an attempt to correct a defective soul but rather a purge of all subjects who have failed to depart from the denied zone.

The granting and denial of the object of desire in various forms is central to the Analyst’s Matrix, very much in contrast to the Architect’s disciplinary one. And this also shows in the difference between agents and the horde mode. The agents are aware singular subjects who can appear and remove a subject for correction. They take people like Neo and Morpheus and put them in rooms to reshape them to suit a purpose. The horde mode is a modular area denial tool. They can be activated in this zone or that to force subjects to move into this space but not that one.

Control, much like the related but distinct Foucauldian concept of the biopolitical order is not concerned with individual subjects so much as it is with modules, aggregates, clusters and categories. And this traces into how the Analyst deploys misogyny. Because, oh boy, but the Analyst is the most misogynistic robot I have ever encountered. In the denouement, when Trinity has proven Smith correct in his statement that “anyone could be Neo” by achieving an equivalent level off awakening, and Neo and Trinity both confront the Analyst to warn him that they will be remaking his world, Trinity takes the lead while Neo hangs back. She repeatedly kills the Analyst and restores him and all the while the Analyst begs Neo to control his woman. This same pattern of misogynistic subjugation is clear in the differential treatment of Neo and Trinity by the Analyst in their imprisonment. Neo is defined by his career. Trinity is defined by her family.

And we are invited to see her discomfort with this when she says to Neo that she isn’t certain whether she had children because she wanted them or because it was expected that she would. Trinity is given a history, as Tiffany, that includes these children who she loves, because in the modular self the Analyst has created for her includes these children. She is, in this film, entirely correct to question whether her having children, feeling like she wanted them, is a compulsion put upon her by an outside force. And the love for a child is the emotional cudgel the Analyst uses to try and dissuade Trinity from choosing her own freedom.

Because this film is ultimately too existentialist to treat this dividuality of the self as fully real. The Matrix posits that there is, in fact, an authentic subjective core to being. There is a Neo underneath who is the authentic Neo. There is a Trinity who is the authentic Trinity. This authenticity is reflected through the love these two have for each other.

Importantly that same access to authenticity is also applied to Smith who insists Neo freed him and whose whole motivation is doing whatever he deems necessary to avoid being imprisoned away from his own authentic self again, to avoid being treated as a modular being. Considering how the old Smith desired to make everything the same, like him, this pursuit of an authentic self is an interesting direction to take Smith but not an inappropriate one. His core of authenticity is also relational. His bond with Neo plays very much into the Spinozist sense of the proximity of love and hatred.

The tension of this film is the idea that power will shape people not by taking them, one at a time, into a room and making them conform but by creating a social field in which they will move themselves into controllable relations. Trinity will be a home maker. Neo will be a careerist. Smith will be a defanged antagonist rather than the trickster he desires to be. They will not be these things because they were trained to be but because the social field was manipulated to move them into these spaces. This deployment of misogyny specifically in the case of Trinity is particularly telling and points toward how reactionaries deploy nostalgia for the nuclear family to exercise control over men and women alike. Patriarchy is at much in play in making Neo an alienated worker as it is in making Trinity a dissatisfied homemaker but special cruelty is applied to Trinity. She is allowed less of her authentic self by dint of being a woman and being compelled into situations of inauthentic love.

This movie is a rescue mission. It’s not the triumphant return of the hero. Neo barely spends any time in Io and he’s seen there more as an inconvenience than as a hero. But Trinity being rescued from the Matrix is the one thing, the lynch pin. That is the only thing the Analyst cannot countenance, that will break his Matrix entirely.

This is a delightfully kind reminder that revolution must not only be a matter of giving a different set of men the power and control over society but should instead recognize and destitute all axes of control that prevent people from realizing their authentic relationships. This is where they break from Kierkegaad because he thought that everybody must make the leap into faith alone but the Matrix Resurrections knows that the leap can only ever be made together. Authenticity exists, we can discover a core to our being, but it isn’t some hard kernel alone from all others. It’s a shining web of loves and hatreds, of lives touched and of differences made. We must all leap together into an uncertain future if we want to paint the sky with rainbows.

Quick Raytheon / Hugo Update

I am throwing this up really quick just as a situation update to my recent post on the ethics of participating in a fan convention with an arms manufacturer sponsor. The chair of the DisCon III concom, Mary Robinette Kowal, released an official statement yesterday and it’s actually… pretty good all things considered.

A picture of con chair Mary Robinette Kowal's statement and apology, along with her signature, regarding the sponsorship DisCon III received from Raytheon Intelligence and Space.

Now a few notes, mostly positive. This letter did several things that were required. First, Kowal has taken responsibility for this action personally. One of the things I was worried about previously was how the loose and rather byzantine organization of Worldcon created a risk of a diffusion of responsibility that passed the moral burden to the aggregate membership rather than a single person. I’ve said elsewhere that, based on my past professional experience in non-profit advancement teams, major sponsorship agreements don’t get approval without going up to senior leadership within the non-profit so it was always going to come back to her. I’m encouraged she recognized this and took that responsibility.

Second, while a full accounting of the process might have been interesting from a root-cause-failure approach I appreciate that Kowal elided on specifics because she didn’t want to be seen as making excuses. This is actually probably the right course of action all things considered.

Likewise the fact that Kowal declines to mention the charity she and DisCon III have selected by name is actually a good choice. It is good for two reasons: the first because it takes out any opportunity for praise over the donation. This is an act of restitution and the removal of the ego-effect of being probably a significant donor is a good choice. The second is because the ideological landscape with regard to NGOs is pretty fraught and even a slam-dunk donation (like to War Child, for instance) probably would have upset somebody so from the perspective of resolving the current social conflict an anonymous donation was a reasonable choice.

Finally it is good that specific recommendations for future con organizers were made. We all wanted transparency and this is part of that.

The main two pieces of missing information that would have been good to include here are a timeline of when the sponsorship deal was signed and when it was publicized and the amount of the donation. However the former is very minor and the latter is important but will likely come out eventually.

There is one other item I want to address here and that is the question over why Raytheon attracted such ire when the other banner sponsor – Google – is also bad. Again this ties back to my discussion of ethical ambiguity and ethical bounds. Google is not good. They’re an evil company that does bad things. But, as we discussed before, the same could be leveled of any organization able to throw around “major sponsor” money.

There is a powerful left-critique of the NGO that treats the non-profit as a form of social control whereby the wealty are able to invest in the direction of the power their wealth represents. In this frame of treating charitable giving as being a form of directed power relation we cannot remove the non-profit and the volunteer-run organization from the superstructure of capitalism as its base economic conditions are inextricably bound to that superstructure. The non-profit, under capitalism, is an organization within capitalism. This is where “no ethical consumption under capitalism” kind of actually lives. However, as I said, there are some ethical distinctions that don’t partake in the ambiguity of operating within the interior of capital as all non-profits do. And, with a product of imperial death, Raytheon is beyond all possible ethical ambiguity in a way that even pretty wholly awful companies like Google are not. Simply put, arms merchants are a special kind of evil that goes beyond even the mundane evil of Google and its ilk. As a communist I would bring the whole edifice down and Google is as much a target as Raytheon. But I am a communist living within the bounds of Capitalism and as such I need to be able to draw ethical distinctions within that territory. To put it in theoretical terms, the Socius is a field of inscription. It exists in being marked. The territory within Capitalism is delineated in a way that the outside of Capitalism simply is not by dint of its non-being. As such moral distinctions within Capitalism are inevitable. And so, yes, the donation from Google is also bad but, no, it was not hypocritical to be especially upset by the donation from Raytheon.

Last word on this subject from me: I don’t particularly like Kowal and I think her leadership of this concom was pretty disastrous between this and the increasing likelihood that Worldcon was a COVID superspreader event (17 possible exposures identified and counting). But, as I’ve said before, no ethical failure precludes the possibility of future right-decisions and I think this letter is a very positive first step. I think we should, on the left, be willing to acknowledge that this was a good first step and continue to kindly encourage accountability and restitution from the concom as a whole and Kowal in particular. I also think we should probably all lay off of the finalists who were caught flat-footed and may have responded defensively to being thrust into an uncomfortable position.

Drawing the line: Capitalism and Wrong Livelihood

(Image c/o Wikipedia)

The Worldcon that never should have happened has had a wild ride after an all-too-easy to call COVID outbreak, some shady business at the business meeting that seemed likely an attempt to influence the site selection process away from the (ultimately winning) Chengdu bid for next year and then, the piece de resistance, the revelation that a major sponsor for the convention, with a branded red-carpet photo wall at the Hugo Awards was the Raytheon corporation.

This raises an interesting question regarding the duty of participants in Worldcon to respond to the interface of their science fiction convention with a “defense contractor” that was supplying materiel to Saudi Arabia at least as recently as 2017 and that is a key supplier of the US military. Should a concom be held responsible for how sponsorships are used to launder the reputation of corporations? What about the ethics of working for such an organization? After all, it’s something of a received wisdom in progressive spaces that corporations are de-facto evil; if we cannot work but to work for an evil organization is there a gradient of evil to mark against? How far is, ultimately, too far beyond the pale?

Buddhism provides a very concrete starting point for what constitutes a boundary with the Aṅguttara Nikāya, in particular containing discourses accredited to the Buddha and his disciples on the topic of right livelihood – one of the eight subjects of the Noble Eightfold Path. According to these early Buddhist texts, a right livelihood is one that does not involve traffic in, “weapons, living beings, meat, alcoholic drink or poison.”

As such it’s clear that, at least from an orthodox Buddhist perspective, there is a very specific line and it is one that Raytheon is entirely beyond. Of course the same could be said of the butcher and the liquor store down the road along with any pet store proprietors and certain garden shops that sell plants that could potentially be used for the production of poison so we could, perhaps, argue that such specificity is somewhat unhelpful to a modern context.

The Buddhist proscription is bound, inextricably, to a Buddhist ethical universe that seeks to avoid the causation of harm. As such proscribed livelihoods are proscribed because of their specific interaction with the Buddhist perspective on what constitutes the Good. However what the Buddhist example is best for showing is that a boundary can be set. We can, in fact, say that even if all things are not intrinsically ethical some things, in particular, are unethical enough that they should be avoided as moral hazards.

No ethical consumption under Capitalism

There is something of a mimetic phrase within progressive circles that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. This phrase appears not to have a clearly fixed origin although it does seem to arise out of online spaces. Now this argument – that ethical consumption is impossible within Capitalism points in two disparate directions. First, it is deployed as a form of absolution. “Yes I know this product was made by an appartheid state in an occupied territory but there’s no ethical consumption under Capitalism,” at the extreme sure but also, “I’m aware that fast food restaurants deploy environmentally destructive agricultural practices to keep prices down but there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, I live in a food dessert and have few choices and ultimately I have to eat something,” would be closer to an ideal example of this absolutory use. The second is as a critique. A celebrity backs a T-shirt slogan – or some other commodified piece of political rhetoric – and critics point out that it was manufactured with exploited labour. Does a feminist really look like a white woman getting rich off of sloganeering at the expense of vulnerable workers in Bangladesh? There is no ethical consumption under Capitalism.

And so, effectively this statement means either, “I am aware of the contradiction in my position and cannot avoid it,” or “you should be aware of the contradiction in your position,” depending upon whose consumption is the subject of ethical assessment.

Now a fan convention is most certainly an example of consumption. In fact, fewer things are more purely consumptive than a fan convention – an event that seeks to lionize and institutionalize a category of consumption, to bring consumers into the proximity of producers so that they can consume more effectively. And with a fan convention being a form of institutionalized consumption, sponsors of a convention are certainly to be counted both as consumers of the product the convention offers (largely the attention of other consumers) and simultaneously as producers of the event. Raytheon is both a consumer of Discon III and also a product that Discon III attendees are being invited to consume. And anybody who took a photo at the Raytheon branded red carpet photo station, anybody who went to the Raytheon booth, they were consuming Raytheon. So when people respond to this consumption of Raytheon by attendees that there is no ethical consumption under Capitalism our question then becomes whether this is the consumer being asked to be aware of the contradiction in their position or if it is the consumer aware of the contradiction claiming they have no choice.

It honestly seems mostly to be the latter.

Certainly, unless that consumer was on the concom they had no choice about whether to invite Raytheon to be a sponsor so we may be able to absolve most attendees of that specific blame. Although members of the concom should certainly be called to account for their funding decisions. However, while the attending membership had no choice whether Raytheon was to be a sponsor, this doesn’t mean they had no agency in this situation at all. And this is where things become even more difficult.

Ambiguity

In her seminal work, “the Ethics of Ambiguity,” Simone de Beauvoir grappled with the fundamental problem of making ethical judgments in recognition of the inability of a person to have an objective understanding of all consequences. In this book Beauvoir remains consequentialist in her outlook, maintaining that the ethical value of an act had to do with its movement toward liberation but problematized consequentialist ethics by pointing out that it would be nearly impossible to judge, in a moment of action, whether any given well-intentioned action, in fact, moved in the direction of liberation. Antagonistic to the virtue-ethic of the Buddhists that would declare it is wrong livelihood, a consequentialist might ask to whom weapons were being sold and to what purpose. Beauvoir then points out that, no matter how great the purpose the consequentialist cannot possibly know what the ultimate consequences of selling those guns must be.

In the end, Beauvoir’s ethic proposes something of a Sisyphean life – one of constantly striving toward a greater freedom fully aware that it can never be obtained. The struggle for liberation is an endless and ever-changing task. All a person can do is their best. As Beauvoir puts it, “Ethics does not furnish recipes any more than do science and art. One can merely propose methods. Thus, in science the fundamental problem is to make the idea adequate to its content and the law adequate to the facts; the logician finds that in the case where the pressure of the given fact bursts the concept which serves to comprehend it, one is obliged to invent another concept; but he can not define a priori the moment of invention, still less foresee it.”

Beauvoir argues that meaning is constantly changing and that the movement of life with purpose, of a good life, is thus also constantly a moving target. But that doesn’t mean she provides no lodestone. Instead Beauvoir takes a nearly Epicurean approach, saying, “However, it must not be forgotten that there is a concrete bond between freedom and existence; to will man free is to will there to be being, it is to will the disclosure of being in the joy of existence; in order for the idea of liberation to have a concrete meaning, the joy of existence must be asserted in each one, at every instant; the movement toward freedom assumes its real, flesh and blood figure in the world by thickening into pleasure, into happiness. If the satisfaction of an old man drinking a glass of wine counts for nothing, then production and wealth are only hollow myths; they have meaning only if they are capable of being retrieved in individual and living joy. The saving of time and the conquest of leisure have no meaning if we are not moved by the laugh of a child at play. If we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way.”

And, of course, this idea of a good life as being one that pursues some sort of genuine happiness both on our own account and through others is something of a shared quest between Beauvoir, the Epicureans and the Buddhists.

What then is the ethical weight of a red-carpet photo against the death of a child in Yemen? It should be such a simple formula – arms dealers bad – and yet it brings with it so much other baggage. Did the actions of the red-carpet walkers contribute to Raytheon’s ability to sell the weapons that kill? Were factors such as the ability of convention members to pursue a career in the arts (which received wisdom says necessitates participation in fan conventions) ones that moved their own actions, in that moment toward a concrete mode of liberation? Should an artist who discovers their participation might give a company like Raytheon access to an audience disengage immediately? How much burden to know what, in fact, Raytheon is and does should be ascribed to the hosts of a Science Fiction podcast or the creators of a popular semi-pro zine? I don’t think I need the certainty of the Noble Eightfold Path to say that Raytheon is ethically compromised. It sells weapons to many of the most aggressive and warlike militaries in the world. No country has as many extraterritorial military bases as the United State. Few states wage war as readily and egregiously as Saudi Arabia. That Raytheon partners with these militaries makes it obvious that there’s very little ambiguity at play with working in their employ or with deliberately selling them advertising space at your convention. A good Raytheon employee is an employee who quits.

But I think the “no ethical consumption” line creates more problems than it solves. Certainly it’s true in as far as capitalism is a system that pushes back against Beauvoir’s idea of a life of love on our own account and lived through others. It’s a system that depends, instead, on a zero-sum gamification of existence where every moment of joy we squeeze out of life must, at its core, be a moment of joy denied to another. But the moment of radical freedom we call revolution depends on a level of mass action that doesn’t reside with some atomized individual. Turning around and walking out of the Hugo awards upon sighting the Raytheon banner would have been a decent action. It would be what Buddhists call “right intention” but it would be ineffectual. It would not overthrow the rule of Capital; it would not unmake the missiles and the bombs. In order for it to be a truly revolutionary moment it would require a total desertion of Discon III – for every single person there to spontaneously refuse to cross that threshold. And absent that sort of spontaneous and revolutionary moment ambiguity rules here. Hugo awards make careers and it’s just a banner.

Ultimately the concom of Discon III has earned scorn. It was the height of irresponsibility to hold a convention in Washington DC in 2021. We all knew perfectly well the pandemic would not be over and I think it’s not too much of a stretch to assume most people knew the pandemic would not be over in the United States specifically considering the disorganized way it responded to the crisis. Frankly there should have been no opportunity to pose in front of a Raytheon banner at all. And even if we set aside the irresponsibility of holding an in-person fan convention during a plague year the concom should not have sold its sponsorship opportunities to a “defense contractor.” Awarding a sponsorship to Raytheon was an egregious lapse in ethics by the standard of the Buddhists, the Epicureans, the standards of Beauvoir and frankly even those of Kant who would have fixed upon the concom the duty of acting in a manner that advanced respect and dignity of all people. Death from above at the hands of missiles manufactured half a world away is, at its core disrespectful. It is a death lacking in dignity to be snuffed out like an unwanted candle.

Capitalism operates through a diffusion of responsibility. People who have worked within the IT divisions of defense contractors talk about jobs that center around entirely abstract snippets of code – work toward abstract benchmarks where they haven’t the first clue what their code is even intended to do. This sort of diffusion permeates capitalist organization such that, ultimately, no one person is ever to be blamed for the cruelties of the system. And the concom could argue, in their defense, that then never dropped a bomb nor asked one to be dropped.

Ultimately the question becomes: where do you draw the line? As Jello Biafra said, “I’m not telling you, I’m asking you.”

For me, the line is drawn not at being an audience for Raytheon but it is certainly drawn before collaborating with Raytheon to give them an audience. But each person must construct that line for themselves. This is the ultimate paradox of collective spontaneity. We must each, alone, decide to act together in the moment. If a spontaneous moment is lost to ambiguity we should, rather than ripping at those people who, enmeshed in ambiguity, may have made a wrong choice, aim toward building better preconditions to make the right choice in the future.

As such my final word is this: No more arms manufacturers at fan conventions. And if anyone violates this clear line by inviting arms manufacturers to participate, let’s deem them outside what we see as the genre community. In that moment of collaboration they have put themselves beyond the pale. But let’s stop there and work to build solidarity around this line.

Scream and the death of Hollywood Satire

Scream - 1996 - 11 x 17 Movie Poster - Style B : Amazon.ca: Home

The four Scream movies contain both the best movies in the slasher genre and represent the most consistently good movies in the slasher genre. As with a lot of auteurial projects part of what allowed this consistence in quality in Scream is the involvement of a consistent team as Wes Craven directed all four, Kevin Williamson wrote three of four, Patrick Lussier edited three of four, Peter Deming was director of photography for three out of four and Marco Beltrami provided the score for all four films, On the other side of the camera, quite unusually for a slasher franchise, the lead cast remained consistent across the four movies with Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, Roger L. Jackson and David Arquette reprising their roles in every successive film. In short these movies aren’t excellent because Craven was a singular genius but because a central core of creative workers came together to make something good and kept doing so. I say this because I will be treating the scream movies as very specifically auteurial throughout this review and I want to avoid a reductive conclusion that this is something that can be collapsed just to Craven or even to Craven and Williamson.

The scream series also charts the arc of satire at the end of its life in Hollywood. This wasn’t intentional – Scream didn’t kill satire, it was rather the last great flourishing of it. After all, the shattering of the American self-image of the 1990s in 2001 effectively forbade Hollywood from ever doing something as introspective as Scream again.

Scream: The rules of horror and the unexamined

The subject of satire in the initial Scream movie is reasonably evident. The Scream team were not being subtle in what is, effectively a reasonably straightforward criticism of the slasher genre. It’s become somewhat commonplace to read Scream as being largely a filmic equivalent to Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Having the kids of Scream being aware of slasher cinema in specific to the point where Randy is able to declare the rules: “you can never have sex, you can never drink or do drugs, and never (ever, under any circumstances) say “I’ll be right back”.” But it’s interesting the extent to which Randy’s rules for survival elide the role of the final girl considering the extent to which the text of scream becomes an interrogation of that trope in particular. Scream is gesturing desperately toward this absence, telling us, look the kids in this movie, watching these movies, missed something.

And so, of course the killer is somebody close to the final girl. Of course she’s been pre-selected to be the final girl not because she followed some byzantine rules of horror but because the killer wanted to hurt her, in particular. The idea of the slasher killer as a moral arbiter is shown to be a bald lie by Scream as Billy lashes out at Sidney and her friends for his mother’s departure. Casey and Steven didn’t break any slasher movie rules. Nor was anything about Casey’s presentation in the opening sequence indicative of any kind of moral failing. She’s making popcorn for a quiet night in for goodness sakes. Principal Himbry is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tatum is getting a beer, yes, for one of the killers, because he asked her to do so in order to present the opportunity to murder her. Kenny is also just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather, as Clover suggests, the killers of Scream are boy-children whose all-too-oedipal (Clover points out, of Craven, that, “at least some horror filmmakers read Freud,”) sexual hang-ups inform their crimes. Billy is mad because Sidney’s promiscuous mother seduced his father. Stu is along for the ride because of a fawning libidinal investment in Billy’s approval. Also in line with Clover’s assessment of the formal elements of the slasher genre, the boys use a knife. Right up until they don’t. It’s an interesting, and regularly repeated, characteristic that the final stand-offs of Scream films almost always involve a handgun entering into what has, until then, been a knife fight.

But, of course, all this problematizes Clover’s thesis a bit. After all, “In the slasher film, sexual transgressors of both sexes are scheduled for early destruction,” but the only person who is killed for a sexual transgression is Maureen Prescott, murdered off-screen before the action of the film has ever begun. But this is not so much a contradiction as it is a filmic way of under-lining what Clover gets at a little bit later, “always the main ones, die—plot after plot develops the motive—because they are female. Just as Norman Bates’s oedipal psychosis is such that only female victims will do, so Michael’s sexual anger toward his sister (in the Halloween series) drives him to kill her—and after her a string of sister surrogates.”

This fits the nature of the killings depicted well. Scream carefully balances male and female on-screen killings. Of six victims, three are men and three are women. But as I mentioned above, of the men, only Steven is deliberately targeted by the killers. An he is only targeted because of his relationship to their principal target, Casey. He’s killed so that they can terrify her before they kill her.

And so this brings us full-circle back to Sidney, the final girl, and how her specific abjection is deployed by Scream. Clover says that the final girl is, “abject terror personified, ” and this tracks for this poor girl who is pinballed between possible suspects across the film, uncertain and increasingly afraid as her friends die for her to discover. There is a ritualistic element at play. Much as Steven is killed explicitly to frighten Casey, every death by the hand of the Ghostface killers is orchestrated explicitly to frighten Sidney. It’s not enough for them to kill her, they need her to suffer.

Billy justifies this as wanting Sidney to feel an abandonment like his. As if her friends abandoning her into death will balance the pain of her mother’s loss. But it’s ultimately not revenge. Sidney didn’t do anything to hurt Billy even by accident – she fingers Cotton Weary as her mother’s killer, letting him off the hook for his original revenge-murder. And, of course, this film, in particular, seeks to absolve the audience. Billy and Stu don’t kill because they watch scary movies. They kill because they’re awful, sexually frustrated, mean little boys who don’t have a functioning conscience between them. They kill because they’re sexist assholes who see the girls and women in their lives as playthings. It’s fun when she screams. Billy’s selfish desire to torture Sidney is what anoints her as the final girl rather than any choice she or her friends make. This, again does the interesting dance of revealing Clover’s argument precisely by problematizing it. Clover argues that “The gender of the Final Girl is likewise compromised from the outset by her masculine interests, her inevitable sexual reluctance, her apartness from other girls, sometimes her name. At the level of the cinematic apparatus, her unfemininity is signaled clearly by her exercise of the “active investigating gaze” normally reserved for males and punished in females when they assume it themselves; tentatively at first and then aggressively, the Final Girl looks for the killer, even tracking him to his forest hut or his underground labyrinth, and then at him, therewith bringing him, often for the first time, into our vision as well.”

And some of this does ring true in Sidney. She’s reluctant, at first, to have sex with Billy. But then she relents and sleeps with him at a party. She isn’t apart from other girls. She’s popular and well-liked by her peers; her main apartness is, rather, that her mother died and she was a key witness at the trial of the man accused of her killing. Sidney doesn’t engage in anywhere near as much ‘active investigation’ in this film as she does in the sequels or as Emma does in the sadly below-par Scream TV series. In fact, she spends most of the run-time trying to avoid the killer as much as possible. She flees her home and stays with a friend. She attends a party with lots of people at it. She sticks close to her boyfriend. Scream deliberately accentuates the femininity of its final girl. In fact the investigative character of the final girl is forked off into Gail Weathers, who does most of the actual detective work throughout, being honest, the entire quadrilogy. And, of course, Gail is also a final girl. It’s almost as if Scream intentionally divides the tangled sexual depiction of the final girl between these two women: the arch-femme Sidney and the tomboyish, investigative, Gail and shows us how these two elements together allow a final girl to be the survivor. But again this difference from Clover’s thesis serves, within the medium of satire, to emphasize the same point. Scream is a movie about the connection between sex and death in the popular consciousness that is perfectly aware of what it is saying. But it plays a careful bit of legerdemain in the establishment of Randy’s very incomplete rules being presented to us with all seriousness while in the background the story shows us just how much Randy missed. And in this duplication of the final girl and these responses to abjection, Scream hammers home far more about her construction within horror than they could have with Sidney alone.

Turning the camera: Scream 2 and the horror audience

Have we become the audience in Wes Craven's New Nightmare?

In Scream, the opening sequence serves to skewer the slasher genre expectation of the killer as moral arbiter. It presented us a genre-aware victim who had done nothing wrong within the context of the genre she was within. In Scream 2 the action opens in a movie theater. The victims are again a young couple, a man and a woman on a date. The film is Stab – an in-universe cinematization of the events of the first movie but Stab is not as self-aware a horror so instead of situating Casey getting ready for a quiet night in, it situates her in the shower. Phil has dragged Maureen out to the movie on opening night and people are excited. Ghost face masks and rubber knives are in abundance in the audience in something of an explicit callback to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

Maureen isn’t happy about this state of affairs though – the attempts of Stab to place sex and death so explicitly close at the start through the inserted nudity of Casey-the-character is upsetting her. It’s just too sexist. She insists that Phil buy her a snack to make up for dragging her into this mess. Ghostface dispatches Phil in a bathroom stall and then joins Maureen at her seat. As the Ghostface-the-character murders Casey on the screen, Ghostface begins stabbing Maureen. She staggers up from her seat and stumbles to the front of the theater but nobody helps her; nobody really even notices her. She climbs up in front of the screen and presents her very real wounds to an audience who slowly begin to realize that this woman is dying in front of them. She dies as the title card pops up for Stab. The audience is indicted.

The conflict at the heart of Scream 2 is largely about how horror stories are disseminated to audiences and how the audiences use them. Gale has been making hay over the exoneration of Cotton Weary and has been trying to force a confrontation between Cotton and Sidney – it’ll be good for her career. Meanwhile the events of the first film have spawned Stab – the first of many films-within-films that the Scream series presents. These two threads – the non-fiction recounting and the fictionalization create a matrix of notoriety that the new Ghostface killers exploit. Audiences are no help. Randy’s rules for a sequel are that there will be more deaths an that the kills will be more elaborate. And both of these rules play true but it doesn’t help the audience. If we treat Randy as being our principal stand-in for the audience, well, Randy doesn’t make it out alive.

Between the deaths of Phil and Maureen first and of Randy in the second act of the film, the audience of the horror movie is subject to a more complete evisceration than the sequel as a filmic concept. The main bit of critical heavy-lifting this satire does is to gesture in the direction of its divided final girl. Sidney and Gail have a much more involved, and complicated, relationship in this than in the first film. Gail remains the investigator, the digger, while Sidney would prefer to withdraw. These instincts, between retreat and attack, are positioned in complete contradiction at the start of the film where Sidney decks Gail over ambushing her with Cotton. But in the final conflict this dialectic has been resolved with Sidney and Gail shooting Mickey repeatedly in concert. The final girl is shown, in a moment of cathartic release, to no longer be divided against herself. This is something Clover nearly anticipates as her treatment of Craven’s early cites sources that describe specific forms of familial dialectics as being an “obsession” of Craven’s. But resolving this divided final girl and a wink in the direction of sequels having unique rules compared to the pure cinema that establishes slasher franchises do little to advance a discourse about horror movies qua horror movies. Instead we get a killer who is a reporter, we get a killer who is a film critic – we get people whose role is to talk about horror stories. And these killers are juxtaposed against the actual reporter, the actual final girl. Scream 2 thus hints at themes more thoroughly explored in the superior two movies that follow it. No. The principal target of Scream 2 is the reception of horror stories. It’s a film about how we, as a public, respond to stories of abjection.

Mickey craves the notoriety of being the source of abjection. He wants to be caught and to go to trial so that he can be at the center of the circus. He wants the audience to look at him. And yet he isn’t satisfied with fictionalized versions of abjection. That’s why he has to collapse the artifice of the Stab premiere by killing two people for real there. Mickey knows that the audience has an affective response to true abjection that differs from a cathartic response to fictionalized abjection. He is unsatisfied with this real / unreal divide between fiction and history so, just as Sidney and Gail undergo a dialectic unification to complete the picture of the final girl so too does Mickey try to collapse the dialectic of the audience response to horror and to real-world cruelty. But the unity of these two elements is the final cruelty to the audience. Because, when push came to shove, the audience couldn’t tell real abjection from a simulation of it. Maureen dies in front of a theater full of people and the deafening silence of their slow realization is a final condemnation. There is an interesting twist here though because you would think this would reposition the slasher killer as a moral arbiter, but it doesn’t. Much like in the first film, Ghostface murders based on their own selfish desires and not based on any personal transgression of a victim. Randy wasn’t in the opening night audience for Stab. While he may stand in for an audience he is not the audience being indicted and yet he is the audience who is cut up. There’s this tension at the heart of Scream 2 which is never fully resolved. Mickey wants to say that audiences of horror movies are a problem and much of the film agrees with him. But he doesn’t get the final say. Instead he’s removed from the discourse when Mrs. Loomis wounds him and attempts to reinsert a familial conflict dialectic such as the one Clover calls out in her response to The Hills Have Eyes.

Hollywood, exploitation and the fake in Scream 3

Scream 3 contains one of the greatest action sequences in the history of cinema. Sidney has wandered onto the soundstage for Stab 3. This is actually the soundstage for Scream only with the camera pulled back far enough to reveal its artifice. She encounters the specter of her dead mother, who has been haunting her throughout the first act of the film, and she encounters Ghostface, back again.

Sidney flees Ghostface across the set and operates instinctively as if the geography of her home would map onto the set. Only it’s all fake and none of the doors open onto the right rooms. She escapes the set/house/memory and is found by Dewy and the police. They find no sign of the killer. The film never lands fully on an answer as to whether the killer chased her or whether it was all a figment of her imagination.

Set, as it is, on the set of the filming of Stab 3, Scream 3 is a film that revels in picking at the real / fake boundary that Scream 2 gestured toward. In an hilarious cameo, Carrie Fisher appears playing a receptionist who is regularly mistaken for Carrie Fisher. Gale is followed, throughout nearly the whole film, by Jennifer Jolie – an actress playing Gale in Stab 3. The second kill-scene in Scream 3 involves an actress complaining to the director that she is only in two scenes before her character becomes the victim of the second kill-scene in Stab 3. Her death is her second scene. The film is actively hostile to the idea of the fake and the real and wants to collapse reality and simulation into each other. This is used to good effect considering that Scream 3 picks up the feminist thread of the first film by approaching the original sin of the Scream universe as being Hollywood sexual exploitation of starlets. Possibly the single most damning scene of the Scream trilogy is when Gale interrogates producer John Milton:

“It was in the 70’s, everything was different. I was well known for my parties, Rina knew what they were. It was for girls like her to meet men, men who could get them parts, if they made the right impression. Nothing happened to her that she didn’t invite, in one way or another, no matter what she said afterwards.”

Consider that Harvey Weinstein was the executive producer. Milton gets his throat perfunctorily slit not long after this scene.

If Scream wanted to interrogate the construction of the horror movie and Scream 2 wanted to look at how it communicated with an audience then Scream 3 is aimed squarely and viciously at the institution of the film studio. I prefer Scream 3 to Scream 2 precisely because it has such a singular and intense focus. Scream 2 is a bit of a messy affair, it’s uncertain whether it’s a critique of the audience or whether it’s a dialectical interrogation of the relationships between subjects from the first film. Scream 3 points back at Hollywood and roars “from hell’s heart I stab at thee.”

As such its collapse of the real and the simulation serves the purpose of arguing that there’s no simulation; it’s all real. The fictional abjection of the final girl at the hands of the slasher killer is born out of a system of exploitation that produces its very own forms of abjection. Maureen Prescott is reframed not as a dead mother, a pre-film victim, but as a previous final girl: one who survived the all-too-real horror of being treated as a sexual commodity by wealthy and powerful men. In the final confrontation, Roman returns to the Freudian well saying, “And who’s our hero? The sole survivor, the one who bravely faced down the psychopath and fucked her with her own knife.  You’re gonna pay for the life you stole from me Sid. For the mother, and for the family, and for the stardom, and for, goddammit, everything you had that should’ve been mine!” But Sidney rejects his familial psychodrama and stabs him, incapacitating him until he pops up to die in a hail of gunfire when Gail and Dewey finally arrive.

There’s an interesting arc in Sidney’s story. She tries to put the events of Scream behind her in Scream 2 but she fails and becomes a recluse despite the promise of a dialectical unity with Gail proposed by the conclusion. The third film ends instead with Sidney rejecting the position as final girl. She denies Roman’s deliberate application of narrative convention to her life and situates him as being another pathetic psycho. Scream is unique in how pathetic Ghostface is. You don’t ever root for the killer like you would Jason or Freddy in some of their outings. Ghostface pops up like a demented jack-in-the-box from beneath window sills and it’s honestly always very funny but that’s as far as “funny” goes for Ghostface who doesn’t quip. Ghostface only ever threatens. And when the latest Ghostface is inevitably revealed they’re shown in all their petty humanity. This becomes the final collapse of the artificial and the real. Ghostface is always just a person in a mask with a knife. No zombie killers. No unstoppable madmen. No ghost rippers. Just an asshole with a chip on their shoulder, a hatred of women and some serious mommy issues.

Scream 4 and the desire for the final girl

There’s an interesting shift of focus in Scream 4. It is the only entry in the series filmed after September 11, 2001 and the only entry to exist in a Hollywood that had otherwise abandoned satire. I mentioned at the top that the American film industry became reflexively incapable of the sort of introspection necessary for satire and this is largely true. It’s difficult to prove an absence but, between 2001 and 2010, the most famous explicit satires in cinema were almost exclusively foreign films. Within Hollywood there was the insufferable parody Idiocracy, which sometimes is mischaracterized as a satire (and Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods would bravely tread the exact same ground as Scream but absent any of the feminist text that made the earlier film a stand-out in what is otherwise a very clear Whedon-pastiche) but more straightforward satirical films like Get Out and Knives Out were still many years away and, honestly, the genre has never fully recovered.

This means that Scream 4 occupies a strange place as a piece of critical work. A surface read suggests a fair bit of cultural anxiety concerning social media and an always-online culture that’s hungry for fame but this is where that auteurial character I mentioned at the top becomes critical. Because this is the same team that created the three previous Scream movies and, as a cohesive team, they recognized the ground they’d already tread and used this new focus on the online subject to circle back around and interrogate the final girl from a new direction asking, “why would somebody want to be a final girl?”

This film is set ten years after Scream 3 and a full 25 years since the first Scream. Sidney and Gail are now middle aged and have lived the sorts of complete lives that final girls are usually denied. Gail’s married. Sidney has her own book out. Everybody has moved on. Except that Ghostface begins stalking Sidney’s young cousin and murdering a new batch of media-aware teenagers. What we get is possibly the most meta-fictional film in the series yet. As with Scream 2, the opening kill helps establish this well as the first kill is shown to be a fake-out, the opening sequence to Stab 6. The scene cuts to Chloe and Rachel (in a delightful pair of cameos by Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin) debating the merits of the movie which Rachel derides, saying, “It’s been done to death. The whole self-aware, post- modern meta-shit is over. Stick a fork in 1996 already.” As Rachel sits down on the couch, Chloe stabs her in the gut, snarling that she never shuts up. It’s the opening to Stab 7, which is being watched by the actual first victims of Scream 4. The film-criticism aspect of Scream 4 is, on the surface, a little perfunctory. It’s not happy about the remakes that filled the Hollywood horror scene during the first decade of the 2000s. Sidney eventually nails this to a wall when she says, “don’t fuck with the original,” in the final stand-off with the latest Ghostface. However there is a far more interesting critical thread in Scream 4 in its treatment of the final girl. Because this latest iteration of Ghostface wants to be the final girl.

Since we are reading the Scream series largely as a reification of Clover’s work let’s return again to the description Clover provides of the final girl in full:

“She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friends knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with the knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued or to kill him herself.

Scream 4 looks at this and says, “why in the world would anybody want to be this badly enough to kill for it?” And this is a fascinating question. But I think it deserves a moment to step back from it and look at how this target of satire varies from what’s come before in the Scream series. Scream films always previously targeted an institution: the horror film, the audience, the studio. This time though the target isn’t an institution. The new Ghostface isn’t a stand-in for Twitter. Rather the film is interrogating a form of individual subjectivity. It is almost as if Hollywood still wasn’t ready to look at itself in the mirror, nor even at the audience it created. Instead it had to look at this one person and ask, why is she like this?

Scream 4 is still a satire and it is a good movie but this is a fundamental difference from the previous films in the franchise and this marked difference is significant – one very much of a piece with the failure of Hollywood to create satire in the 21st century. Even this satire is compromised by an unwillingness to focus its fury on an institution. Eventually it seems to land on a fundamental failure of recognition. Sidney has been through some shit. Across the three previous attempts on her life, Sidney has been stabbed and bludgeoned she’s been shot and she’s been betrayed by people she loved. She’s become a recluse and then managed to come through the other side. But all Jill can see is Sidney is Famous. She has a book, an annoying publicist, rich friends, a personal story that eclipses the family story. Her mom is Maureen Prescott’s sister but the only person anyone cares about is Sidney because Sidney survived.

And so Jill tries to engineer becoming the final girl because she sees this woman forced into a direct confrontation with death, this woman who arises with strength in the face of abjection and fails to realize how fundamentally awful that would be. She sets up cameras everywhere so she can re-live being the killer, so that she can see the victims die again and again but she never seems to apprehend fully the character of her actions because she has stars in her eyes. Ultimately this is the concern that arises about social media: not the collective experience of Twitter mobs or Facebook Nazis but rather the idea that subjects would subject themselves and others to all manner of awful things for the chance to be famous. The real / unreal divide that Scream 3 worked so hard to collapse is already destroyed and everybody lives in this hyperreal space where the fundamental materiality of the signifier is already manifest. Sidney’s command not to fuck with the original serves a double purpose, first to take a shot at the remakes that Craven, at the very least, hated remakes. His back catalog was not well served by that period. But there’s another purpose there in reifying a kind of authentic experience. Sidney is famous for events that were out of her control and that she never wanted to happen. She survived three separate mass killers – that’s not something anyone should want. Attempting to engineer the circumstances where one becomes a final girl isn’t just monstrous because of all the killing along the way. It’s also monstrous because it fails to recognize the facticity of being the final girl. Sidney’s life isn’t an identity somebody can try on like a shirt. It’s dependent on 25 years of being through the meat grinder of life. And, at the end of things, Scream 4 says this is something that can’t be reproduced as a packaged identity.

The Scream series was the last great flourishing of satire in Hollywood before the rise of Jordan Peele as a film maker. Across their four films they managed to come full circle, interrogating the slasher killer – final girl relationship, the role of the audience and how tragedy is communicated, the exploitation of Hollywood in the creation of horror films and a dialectic collapse of the final girl into the slasher killer in the finale. In their attempt to pick apart the slasher movies of the 70s and 80s they managed, instead, to create the greatest series of slasher films yet. The scream series are a testament to the collaborative efforts of a committed team with a clear vision, something to say and the will to say it.