Fantasy and history

Recently Amazon released the first few episodes of the new tv show about the second age – The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

This ensemble cast fantasy show is set in the second age of Tolkien’s world (the events of the Lord of the Rings happen some 3-5,000 odd years later at the end of the third age). It explores the creation of the rings of power by the elven craftsmen under Celebrimbor‘s leadership and the tutelage of Sauron in his guise as Annatar, “the Lord of Gifts.”

However this Lord of the Rings show has become a center of controversy, along with the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon and the Disney live action remake of the Little Mermaid for casting choices that gave major roles to non-white actors.

The argument from certain (bigoted) corners of the internet is that the inclusion especially of black characters in this setting is damaging to the historical accuracy of these stories. But of course this is patently nonsense.

Now the easiest way to demonstrate this is nonsense is to point out that Rome had significant African holdings and that, as early as 19 BC Roman explorers had crossed the Sahara and made contact with Sub-Saharan cultures. Furthermore from the 8th until the 15th century much of what is now Spain was occupied by an African aristocracy after the invasion of Tariq ibn Ziyad. This is all information that would have been readily available to Tolkien as a philologist and literary scholar. But, of course, for that to be relevant you would have to contend that fantasy exists to reproduce history. And that’s just not the case.

While fantasy books may have a deep interest in history fantasy, by its very nature, is uninterested in producing an accurate simulation of history. This would be more properly historical study – or, if we’re being generous, historical fiction. Fantasy, as speculative literature, is unlikely to have much to say about a careful reproduction of history.

Where fantasy lives instead is in the area of meta-questions regarding history: what is the relationship between history and the present? How does history inform a person’s position in the world? Can history be escaped? What is the weight of history?

And these sorts of questions depend not on reproducing history but on disrupting it. The flooding of Beleriand and later of Numenor is thus informed, not just by Atlantis, but also by the flooding of Doggerland – which flooded across two periods: one in which an island was left and a second in which the island remnants were washed away, likely by a tsunami. The events in Doggerland are prehistorical ones discovered via archaeological labour and happy accident. The people of Doggerland were a mesolithic culture which we can say very little of. Certainly it would be difficult in the extreme to trace the occupants of that flooded land to any modern nation.

Throughout the Lord of the Rings the heroes are forever passing through the ancient ruins of abandoned kingdoms. Orthanc and Osgiliath, Amon Sûl and Khazad-dûm, Minas Morgul and Amon Hen are all remnants of three thousand years of history. The weapons of the Barrow Downs are likewise ancient, coming from kingdoms extinguished 1,500 years previous.

History, in Tolkien, is the ruin within which the present moment walks. How can we possibly speak of accuracy in its depiction when there has been so much clarity provided by the text that it believes history to be an incomplete and fragmentary account? This is reinforced metatextually via Tolkien’s appendices which provide fragments of historical record: selected charts of lineage, some linguistics, notes on things forgotten.

Frankly I do have some complaints with how Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power handles history because the show seems intent on compressing 3,000 years of the second age into a period the length of a human lifespan. Events that should be separated by centuries and people who lived many lifetimes apart are walking shoulder to shoulder so that the show can maintain a consistent cast. I worry that this takes away some of the most interesting things Tolkien’s work has to say about history and that it, more than anything else the show has done, grounds his elves and transforms them from the semi-angelic beings they are into just guys with pointy ears and ninja powers.

However, if we are going to do away with the argument that Lord of the Rings, or fantasy more generally, is trying to accurately reproduce history then the obvious presence of people of African descent throughout the last 2,000 years of European history is also not available as an apologia. However textual accuracy becomes important. And frequently it’s an examination of textual references that displays the poor reading comprehension of many bigots. After all, fantasy and science fiction is filled with non-white characters whose depictions have either been white-washed without any furor (Ged in the execrable Earthsea mini-series) or whose accurate depictions led to outcry from racists who were too poor at reading comprehension to recognize what they were reading.

Now the truth is that I don’t believe any apologia is necessary to diversely cast fantasy stories. They’re fantasies. We can do what we like with them. But if we absolutely must cling to questions of reproductive accuracy the question should at least be, “were there people of colour in the text this show is based on?” And the answer to that is yes. Fortunately Tolkien straight up tells us that some hobbits, in particular, are not white. Let’s examine some quotes:

“In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast.”

Here it’s important to remember that this couldn’t possibly be referring to Sam being tanned from working outside for so long. This scene happens just outside of Mordor after both Frodo and Sam had been travelling for six months.

Now I know a lot of the people complaining about race depictions in fantasy never leave their parents basements but take it from this weirdo farmer that it takes significantly less than six months for a tan to come in and yet Sam is described as brown and Frodo as white. They’ve been together six months, living outdoors for much of it, they’ve had the same opportunity to tan. If Sam’s skin colour, in this scene, is depicted as different from Frodo’s it’s because he had different coloured skin. This is not the only time that we see reference to Sam’s skin colour either. Sometime later, during the fight with Shelob, the story says, “As if to do honour to his hardihood, and to grace with splendour his faithful brown hobbit-hand that had done such deeds, the phial blazed forth suddenly, so that all the shadowy court was lit with a dazzling radiance like lightning; but it remained steady and did not pass.”

Sam is also described as having curly hair and brown eyes. Frankly casting Sean Astin in the role was whitewashing a character who was clearly written as not white. What’s more Tolkien says this is a characteristic of the largest of the hobbit clans, from whom Sam descends. “The Harfoots were browner of skin, smaller, and shorter, and they were beardless and bootless; their hands and feet were neat and nimble; and they preferred highlands and hillsides.”

The hobbit clan depicted in Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power are the Harfoots and while efforts have been made for diverse casting throughout the show it is among the Harfoots we see the greatest concentration of non-white actors. So frankly, while no apologetics are necessary to justify diverse casting, we have multiple clear references to Harfoots, such as Sam Gamgee, being brown-skinned, brown-eyed and curly-haired. How much clearer does this have to be spelled out?

But let’s give authorial intent the final word because Tolkien addressed race and segregation, contextualized within his youth in colonial South Africa, very clearly. And here’s what he said: “I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.”

Gothic anti-realism: art for the unsatisfied

Angelus Novus by Paul Klee

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

— Walter Benjamin

We are being crushed under realism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It must be burned away.

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming projects

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

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

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

Stories without conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dune: Realism and the metaphorical register

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studiolio de Fransisco I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Snip

Pictured: very small scissors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nu Couché au coussin Bleu – Modigliani

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

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

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

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

Taxonomies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course this is an absurd categorization. And yet.

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

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

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

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

This careful sorting of art into delineated categories is neither.

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

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.