Content Warnings and Censorship: What is the duty of the artist?

The recent acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk has led to a centering of several interrelated discourses regarding online speech and social media. Many of these conversations have to do with the intersection of free expression and community safety. Now in part this is because Musk, prior to and during his court-enforced acquisition of Twitter, talked a lot about how his motivation for acquiring the social media platform was to foster freer speech on Twitter. This largely seems to have been taken as a rallying cry for right-wing voices who ran afoul of Twitter’s hate-speech moderation policies to return to the site although, in the chaos following Musk’s acquisition, it appears that many of the reactivated right-wingers were promptly banned again as many of these content moderation policies remained in place after the start of Musk’s chaotic tenure.

However this brings in a second thread. Because the period of Musk’s onboarding has been incredibly chaotic: marked by mass firings and haphazard policy decisions that seem to have been cooked up on the fly by the incoming owner. In all this chaos many users have looked to alternatives and one stood out as appearing, on the surface, close enough to Twitter to attract attention: Mastodon. Now, of course, many of these similarities are skin-deep. There are massive structural differences in that nearly anyone can host a Mastodon instance and nearly anyone can register on a Mastodon instance and communicate with others on that instance.

However the biggest social grouping within Mastodon is the Fediverse: a series of interconnected (federated) Mastodon instances that allow cross-communication and that agree to certain shared content moderation standards. The Fediverse, as with most large social websites, has a highly distinct culture and one element of Fediverse culture is widespread use of content tagging. And when I say widespread I mean it’s considered, within the Fediverse, good form to provide brief descriptive content warnings for a vast panoply of potential media from things you might expect (such as discussions of sexual assault and suicide) to those that might, on the surface, seem more benign (such as food photos).

This is largely an emergent property of a system that was an early adopter of content warning tagging and a culture very interested in users being able to customize their social media experience. The culture of Mastodon does not view content warnings merely as a tool to alert users to material that might cause a trauma response but also simply as a tool to allow users to opt into what sorts of things they see and engage with as opposed to Twitter’s more opt-out system of blocking and muting. Many Twitter users accessed Mastodon only to be confronted with a wall of (TW: Food), (TW: Nudity), (TW: specific-type-of-body), etc. and found this disconcerting to say the least. And many Twitter users have reported back to complain about this cultural difference on Twitter where this discussion of content warnings has found ample attention within the writing community.

Within this community there has been a recent flurry of discussion regarding whether authors have a duty to provide explicit content tagging in their books. The opposing views here on one hand are that this will allow readers to make informed decisions about the sort of material they read, allowing them to avoid books that engage with subjects that are likely to retraumatize them. On the other hand some people, including myself, have been quick to point out that content warnings may be fine as a voluntary provision but should not become an industry standard, citing examples such as film rating systems and parental advisory warnings on music as having had a significant censorious impact that was particularly born by marginalized artists including people of colour and LGBTQ+ artists. A third group largely consists of racists who want to be able to say slurs online but we can disregard them from this conversation because, frankly, neither side of the argument I care about here has anything good to say about those sorts of people. However this discussion ends up at something of an impasse when one assumes both that content warnings serve a purpose for protecting readers who have experienced trauma and that standardization of content tagging will lead to censorship.

As such, in order for this conversation to progress it behooves us to ask a few questions.

  1. Do content warnings have a positive impact on the reading experience of traumatized readers?
  2. Do content warnings lead to censorship?
  3. Do artists have a moral duty to furnish content warnings?
  4. Can artists meaningfully create effective content warnings that can serve traumatized readers?
  5. Are content warnings really for traumatized readers at all or do they serve some other function?

Now before we dig into these five questions there’s a few questions that will not be entertained. These include whether freedom of speech, as an abstract principle, is more important than the safety and access of any marginalized group and whether it is morally permissible for authors or classroom instructors to voluntarily disclose content that they deem might give their audience problems. Frankly there is nothing wrong with a teacher, upon assigning Lord of the Flies to schoolchildren, telling the schoolchildren that certain material is contained within the book. In fact it is somewhat critical to do so in order that the children can be made alert to this content and how it communicates the themes of the book. In other words disclosure of content is positive in a classroom setting because it allows for anticipation of content and attention to content rather than because it allows for avoidance. A student who is studying a text should anticipate material in it so that they can learn how to identify components of the text that might not be as obvious as the plot.

And as for authors: if an author wants to disclose this sort of material voluntarily, as the academic research we will review later supports quite clearly, this isn’t likely to be overly harmful to anyone and may be helpful to the author in marketing. I think it’s important to set these limits up front because while this discussion will explore some discursively fraught questions it will not at any point be saying that authors must not include content warnings nor that instructors should not disclose information about a fraught text to their class.

But what I will be doing here is ultimately asking the question of what content warnings do and who they serve.

And a good place to start that is in the academic literature on content warnings. Now I will start by referring to a paper from within the class of research called meta-analysis. Meta-analyses are a form of research paper common in medicine and social science: fields of research that are both highly dependent on statistical analysis of data to make conclusions and that also suffer from systemic limitations on sample size and composition. These papers will do a survey of extant research on a topic and will seek out recurring methodologies, themes and limitations. Having established, using these points, that disparate studies are exploring the same topic they will then conduct a statistical analysis of the results of findings across studies to ascertain the replicability of findings. The study I will be working with most here is, “A Meta-Analysis of the Efficacy of Trigger Warnings, Content Warnings, and Content Notes” by Bridgeland, Jones and Bellet.

Now the first thing I want to do is to focus on their discussion of limitations because Bridgeland et. al. raise a very important point here that we will be returning to. “Although the current study provides evidence that trigger warnings are broadly inert as applied writ large, it does not provide information on whether trigger warnings have differing effects in specific subpopulations or contexts.” This is because, due to both reasons of access and ethics, most studies of trigger warnings do not consist of people who have experienced traumatic events nor of people suffering from PTSD. Instead they mostly draw from a general population. This makes the findings of the majority of academic work on the topic inapplicable to our first question. Do content warnings have a positive impact on the reading experience of traumatized readers? Honestly, according to this analysis we don’t really have strong evidence one way or the other.

However what we can say is that content warnings do almost nothing one way or the other to people who don’t have mental health needs surrounding trauma. In fact Bridgeland et. al. found only one measurable category in which content warnings did anything statistically significant at all: “trigger warnings appear to reliably increase anticipatory anxiety about upcoming content. This finding is supported by both subjective (e.g., rating scales) and objective (e.g., psychophysiological measures) markers of distress. Moreover, this finding appears to be consistent across the different trigger warning types used across studies, attesting to the robustness of this effect.

In theory, this anticipatory period could indicate that forewarned individuals are bracing themselves for a negative emotional experience. However, as discussed in the section on response affect, whatever bracing might occur during this anticipatory period is apparently completely ineffective.”

Of particular note here are the psychophysiological measures used for anticipatory anxiety: heart rate, respiratory rate and skin conductance. These measures were used in only one study and represent the most statistically significant variance from the general support of the null hypothesis found in almost all studies.

But those of us who engage with horror media know about this sort of anticipatory anxiety all too well. It pretty closely maps to the tension one might feel during a stalking scene or some other moment of peril before a horrific event occurs. It’s something horror artists actively court, building mood in order to entice the audience to become anxious and it’s an affect the audience of horror generally seeks out. People who don’t like being scared don’t generally like horror.

But what this does, when read in light of Bridgeland et. al. comments on the limitations of these studies, is point to the fact that we cannot do a straightforward read of, ‘content warnings increase anxiety and therefore are bad,’ because what they do is give non-traumatized audiences a taste of the forbidden pleasures to come. Far from being a tool for avoidance, “cw:incest” allows a reader to anticipate that they will be reading a book that contains incest and it’s worth noting that this anxiety could actually sweeten the reading experience for them in much the same way that a horror fan enjoys a kill better when it’s been built up properly (I’m thinking of the perfectly executed build-up to the kill of Wes Hicks in Scream (2022) as an example.)

So this now points us not toward an answer to our first question but rather to our fifth. Are content warnings really for traumatized readers? Certainly they aren’t just for traumatized readers although the advocates of them rarely seem interested in pitching them as a tool for marketing and discovery it does appear that, when not engaging with a traumatized audience but rather with a general audience, that this is just about the only thing content warnings do at all.

But if we want to look at the impact on traumatized readers in particular we have to turn our attention to a different study. “Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals with Trauma Histories,” by Jones, Bellet and McNally is one of a very small number of studies that actually looks at the effect of content warnings specifically on traumatized populations. Now again we should start with limitations here as it’s very important, when working with academic research, to be alert to the scope of the research. In this case the principal limitation is a methodological weakness of depending on self-report for all participants. While steps were taken to ensure subjects had experienced trauma there does not appear to be much the authors could have done to prevent a person from providing misleading information regarding their past experiences. However a clinical study, which might have validated the trauma experience of subjects more cleanly, would certainly not have been able to achieve the sample size of n=600 that this paper managed.

Further limitations, however, included a dependence on English fluency and a requirement for US residency that should not be overlooked as challenges to replicability. However, at the end of the day, the paper came to conclusions that very closely mirrored Bridgeland et. al. saying, “For individuals who met a clinical cutoff for severity of PTSD symptoms, trigger warnings slightly increased anxiety. Trigger warnings were not helpful for individuals who self-reported a diagnosis of PTSD. Perhaps most convincingly, trigger warnings were not helpful even when they warned about content that closely matched survivors’ traumas. That is, when considering only the passages which participants reported as reminding them of past trauma, trigger warnings were still unhelpful.”

Perhaps more damning still was the confirmation of the information Bridgeland et. al. had found regarding anticipatory anxiety, saying, “We found evidence that trigger warnings increase the narrative centrality of trauma among survivors, which is countertherapeutic (Boals & Murrell, 2016). We also found that trigger warnings increase anxiety for those with more severe symptoms of PTSD. Although these effects were preregistered and found in a large sample, the size of the effects were small and have not yet been rigorously tested across multiple studies.” Now the authors are quite right to point out that this impact was small and that replication is required so I think it would be hasty to say that content warnings are actively harmful to people who meet the clinical cutoff for PTSD (among people who do not meet that requirement the null hypothesis was observed).

And so we can now answer the question of whether content warnings have a positive impact on the reading experience of traumatized people – they don’t. According to the best research available, for most people who have undergone trauma, content warnings do nothing much at all. For those people whose suffering is particularly severe there is even a small risk a content warning might harm more than it helps. We can also say with certainty that authors cannot meaningfully create content warnings that will serve a traumatized audience because the reality is that, to the extent content warnings serve anyone at all, they serve non-traumatized audiences and authors best via their use as a discovery tool and for the deliberate assumption of anxious affects in the course of engaging with material that touches on taboo subjects.

But all this talk of null hypothesis means this does become a question of personal taste and courtesy. You can be assured that you won’t much hurt a person by omitting a content warning but courtesy certainly goes beyond avoidance of explicit harm. It doesn’t harm someone to eschew “please” and “thank you” but if you never use either phrase people still might rightly call you an asshole.

This is where our second and third questions are still relevant. Having established that content warnings have nearly no clinical impact on traumatized populations our next question is whether content warnings might in fact be harmful to marginalized audiences. For this we might want to visit the advent of the parental advisory label on music.

The response from the record industry has been that it, much like content warnings, had very little impact at all. It was useful as a marketing tool both for albums with it and albums without. For example, manager Danny Goldberg pointed out that while the sticker did allow stores like WalMart to brand themselves as “family-friendly” by declining to sell any album with a PA label most children had very little difficulty acquiring material that was marked as parental advisory. Overall the stickers didn’t much effect record sales one way or the other.

This was less the case in film where the Hays Code and subsequent film and television ratings systems inordinately targeted queer narratives, largely driving LGBTQ+ artists and themes out of cinema. Now books are not movies nor are they records. But in both cases we see how ratings and advisory systems have been deployed as a method of exclusion. Unsuccessfully in the case of music, where the exclusion of “PA” content by WalMart was countered by the willingness of record stores to sell “PA” material and successfully in the case of cinema where the ratings system created a series of economic incentives for self-censorship. As such those people who have concerns about systematic industry standards in content reporting leading to censorship have a point. While the attempts to censor material based on industry-set content warnings has been haphazard and has certainly not been universally successful the use of industry standard content warnings has, in other artwork, been used to censor that art.

This then finally establishes the full framework for commenting on an author’s moral responsibility. Content warnings are useless for traumatized people to manage trauma reactions but useful as a discovery tool among general populations. They may lead to censorship but it’s not clear the extent to which such censorship would be effective. Certainly there has been a lot of proactive attention from reactionaries on book censorship of late and giving these reactionaries extra tools with which to discover books to ban would be counter-indicated. But the advocates of content warnings like to point out a key outlier circumstance as a justification for the moral argument: the deployment of sexual assault in fiction. Now they’ve certainly got a point that if some inconsiderate person runs around shouting “rape” we would consider that rude, immoral, and alarming behaviour. And we cannot just handwave away every deployment of sexual assault in fiction as being beyond reproach. There are boundless examples of rapes that were included to titillate and, even among those works with something critical to say about sexual assault, there’s no guarantee that these themes will be approached well by the author. If I had a nickel for every book or movie that tried to deconstruct some concept only to reify it out of incompetence I’d be a wealthy man.

Giving people a heads-up about this might, then, be a gesture of common courtesy. And that would suggest it is, at least, the polite thing to do to provide content warnings for this (along with other broadly questionable content). Except we need to recontextualize this call for courtesy in light of some of the academic findings about content warnings. Specifically: there is no indication that people who read a content warning are any more likely to avoid that content but again we need to bring up that increase in anticipatory anxiety. We cannot count on people to use this courtesy to decide to read something else. Academic research suggests they probably won’t – at least in aggregate – but we can count on people to get excited by it. Their heart rates rise, they breathe faster. This then raises an opposite question: is an author morally responsible to tell people that their kinks are in a book? I mean it’s a bit of a silly question, isn’t it, because if I’m an author writing kink I want an audience who want to read kink to find it. But is that a moral imperative or is it just good marketing? Any regular reader of this blog will be aware that I’m quite apprehensive about assigning moral imperatives to art. The aestheticization of morality is a dangerous tool and a favourite one of reactionaries. People generally have a hard time separating out, “this is beautiful” from “this is good.” It’s quite easy to look at the deployment of something in a work of art, such as a sex assault, and say, “wow that was ugly and no good.” But ugly is not the same as evil and I think it’s important for critics and artists, especially, to learn to differentiate between an ugly work of poorly executed art (like a Dresden Files novel) from an evil work of propaganda (like the Turner Diaries).

Bring libido into the picture and it becomes even more of a landmine. Because once you go from “this is beautiful” to “this excites me” moral questions immediately become far more tangled. After all, who doesn’t likely feel shame about their own arousal in some form? This is especially so if we’re dealing with darker erotic themes. While I can certainly understand that some readers might prefer not to interrogate that it seems unlikely that content warnings will actually help them with that.

In the end I think part of the problem is one of form. The advocates for content warnings want short, broad, concise tags at the front of a book. This is excellent for marketing and discovery because it’s very algorithm friendly. I would propose a more graceful method is to actually use back-flap space to describe what a book is about rather than reserving it for blurbs. I don’t think anybody benefits from reading The Story of the Eye without understanding what they’re in for ahead of time. But I think that a clinical, “CW: Masturbation, Rape, Dubious Consent, Violent Orgies, Necrophilia,” doesn’t particularly do justice to the affect being pursued. Context matters and should be communicated in such a discussion. But an exploration of the context being one about Bataille grappling with the interplay of sex and death in European thought, expanding upon the legacy of Sade (of whom he was a principal scholar) and raising questions of limit experiences and madness isn’t going to give you that easy-to-search list of tags they prefer.

But what it does is improve discoverability. Ultimately there’s no sincere debate about whether it should be possible to find out what a book is about. The question is one of form: should this look like a voluntary and often community-driven process of resource sharing or should it be a system of brief and concise tags an author is supposed to put on their book.

Certainly tags share a few benefits: They’re good for marketers and for censors for precisely the same reason – they make it easy to find content you’re looking for. But this is where the benefit ends. The preference for context-driven back-cover notes and third-party disclosure (such as instructors discussing challenging material prior to reading in class and community driven efforts to surface potentially upsetting content) is less friendly to marketing efforts and raises the risk that things might be missed but it does provide the necessary context to identify the difference between a work that deploys charged material for libidinal reasons from those that do the same for critical reasons – something tagging systems are necessarily mute on.

And so, here at the end, we have our answers:

  1. Content warnings have nearly no impact on traumatized readers.
  2. Content warnings may or may not lead to censorship but do lead to increased discoverability which is a useful tool both for marketers and censors.
  3. Artists do not have a moral duty to make work more discoverable. But if they want to find an audience to sell their work to it’s probably not a bad idea. Furthermore it’s good from a critical readership perspective that context concerning the content of a work be known prior to reading so that a reader may be alert to it.
  4. Because content warnings do not meaningfully serve traumatized readers artists cannot meaningfully create content warnings that serve traumatized readers.
  5. Content warnings appear to increase anticipatory anxiety but not avoidance among non-traumatized populations, making them effective for getting a person excited for upcoming material. This, combined with the concise and tag-like method preferred by advocates make them excellent marketing and discovery tools.

So in the end who do content warnings really serve? The people who want to read that content and the writers who want to sell it.

On Authority and the Author

I think Engels is sometimes unfairly maligned. There was long a tendency, and it has not ever fully ended, to treat Engels as if he were the author of every failure and error in Marxism. And perhaps the work most responsible for cementing his position as the sin eater of Marxism is On Authority.

This text is, on the surface an aggressive repudiation of an Anarchist tendency to want to obliterate hierarchy, level all power differentials, and leave everybody equal. This sort of flat equality had never been the objective of Marxism and Engels is critical of it as lacking an understanding of the depth of power. “Everywhere combined action, the complication of processes dependent upon each other, displaces independent action by individuals. But whoever mentions combined action speaks of organization; now, is it possible to have organization without authority?” He asks.

And yet I think the greatest problem with On Authority is the number of readers of Engels who stop there and who never develop the necessary introspection to turn a later statement at themselves or the heads of state they admire, “These gentlemen think that when they have changed the names of things they have changed the things themselves.” And yet, for many readers of Engels the decision is to do just that!

It’s the people’s jail; completely different from a regular prison. And the prison is important here because I think a more productive read of On Authority would be to see it as an anticipation of Discipline and Punish. Engels quite rightly points out how the technologies that existed in the late 19th century helped form an authoritarian subjectivity. He demonstrates that a factory worker or a steam ship operator must, by necessity, create a form of authority in order to accomplish their tasks.

This, in a way, echoes Foucault’s suggestion that the epistemological shift that created the conditions for the prison was far vaster than a mere building of stone and steel. Engels diagnoses the problem of authority in much the same way Foucault diagnoses the problem of discipline. The principal difference is that Engels, in the 1870s says, we cannot abandon this yet, while Foucault, a century later, says, we should have abandoned this long ago.

Engels is arguing that the power relationship of authority, the idea that one person could subordinate the will of the other to achieve a collective aim, is necessary for conducting the violence of the revolution. ” Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois?” And he’s not entirely wrong. He almost comes to a profound understanding: the problem of authority is not that it exists but rather that it persists. Tari comes to this realization when he points to the example of Subcomandante Marcos who dissolved back into the anonymity of the people after his role as a spokesperson for the Zapatistas was no longer needed. “Authority and autonomy are relative things whose spheres vary with the various phases of the development of society.” Engels says and this suggests an understanding that authority is, and must be, contingent.

The problem that arises is that this authority congeals into an institution and this, like the prison and the disciplinary society it is a part of, continues long after the moment it should have been struck down.

And so, you can see, we can construct an Engels who speaks against Lenin, Stalin and all the authoritarian Marxists who follow in their wake from the very essay from which they build their case for the people’s jail.

But this raises the question of whether this is an authentic Engels. Certainly I’m reading into the text things that simply could not be there. Engels assumes inevitability and yet I demand he sees contingency. I divide him against himself.

There are certain people who might shrug at this and suggest that whether Engels saw authority as an inevitable product of a productive society or as a contingent phenomenon tied to a vast network of other contingencies is irrelevant to how an audience receives a text. And in doing so they take my divided Engels and split him fully: we have the Engels of the inevitable and we have the Engels of the contingent. This situates the discursive power of the text fully in its interpretation. A message is only as strong as the receipt of it.

But, of course, there is another possibility ignored by this very dialectically divided Engels. And that is that both of these divided figures occupy the same space. We can start by stepping back and asking whether I divided Engels in the interpretation or if these contradictions were there in the text, equally present but irreconcilable. It is a misunderstanding of contingency to suggest it is flat. In a fully contingent universe even contingency is contingent and we must expect to see the accretion of consistency.

From within a domain of consistency that consistency likely seems inevitable. It occludes the contingency on the horizon. But this is only ever metastable. After all: the consistency is contingent. Transformation may occur at any moment. When they have changed the names of things they may not have changed the things themselves but a transformation of a thing will also require a transformation of its name. And yet none of this is erased. No matter how much I unfold destitution out of On Authority the inevitable Engels of Stalin remains too.

This is the nature of authorship. We cannot erase intent; it will always be there in the text. However we cannot assume intent is singular. Intent changes; intent becomes other to itself. Even the dead Engels can change his mind when contradictory thoughts exist on the page. This is not to say that there is a unity between my destituent Engels and the Engels of the inevitable. Such an encounter is, to paraphrase Deleuze, as absurd as an authentic encounter between a sadist and a masochist. And so we cannot simply re-unify Engels into one who contains both. He is already fragments. As are we all. But these fragments can coalesce too; new consistencies can be achieved that are wholly alien to the ones before. These remain metastable and contingent, of course, and this is why the work of liberation will never be done. Even if we perfected society we could not assume it would stay perfect. But it’s precious to remember, in the aftermath of a disaster especially, that destitution and constitution are dynamic processes that never reach unity but also can never achieve totality. The marks of the past will always be upon us. But we don’t live there. And over the horizon is something different.

Ghost of Ned Ludd in the Shell

“Ned Ludd Smashes a Loom” via an AI Art platform.

With the total collapse of the NFT market the financiers whose grift involves the full financialization of art has had to look to different tactics. Happily they have found just such a rhetorical tool in the emerging field of, “AI Art.”

AI Art, much like NFTs, has been around for a while but has had a recent influx of attention and cash from the tech sector. Google Deep Dream was likely the first exposure people had to this medium and it has been around since 2015. However recent iterations of the software have become more controllable than Deep Dream. The training sets have “improved” as long as one’s yard stick for improvement excludes exploitation. The result is that it’s easier to get aesthetically unified results from a prompt than it had been previously where you’d mostly just get animal chimera jammed into input images like distortion patterns.

There is currently a debate ongoing regarding AI art which asks a few questions:

  1. Is AI art actually art at all?
  2. Is AI art theft?
  3. Should AI art be resisted.

I will principally be discussing the third point here but I do want to address the first and second points to say the proponents of AI art are mostly correct in that what I’ve previously called Will Toward Art can be found in the cycles of prompt and iteration undertaken by an AI Artist. The automation and mediation by machinery present in AI art is just as present in photography. One is shot framing and selection from a field of material objects. The other is shot framing and selection from an iteration of an algorithm. As such it would be disingenuous to say that AI Art is not art.

Now that doesn’t mean it’s any good and the majority of AI art is at best, by the very nature of its iterative selection process, parodic and derivative. The algorithmic basis of AI art is to take a catalog of extant works related to the prompt keywords and to shuffle through them seeking out similarities in order to output a result. You cannot but create a parody of extant works when you are using such a basis for creation.

But parodic art is still art and insofar as difference can arise out of the affective change brought about by repetition this art can, in theory, lead to the arising of the new via that process.

This then brings about the question of whether AI art is theft and I don’t think it’s possible to say anything other than that it is. As AI art is entirely predicated upon the iterative sampling of extant images it is, fundamentally, a theft. But then I’ve been clear in the past that such iterative cycles are a part of art and that this criminality is inseparable from the artistic process. What’s the issue here is that AI art automates this theft.

A counter-example of art being theft in a non-automated manner would be to look at the upcoming Zach Snyder film Rebel Moon. Snyder’s project started off as a Star Wars film but, when that fell through, he went on trucking, iterating upon the ground Star Wars laid. I suspect the parodic character of the final product will be effectively self-evident. Certainly everything I’ve seen about it anticipates this likelihood.

However, in order to do this act of replication, Snyder had to produce a whole $83 million film project employing a few hundred people, including many, many artists, each of whom will be bringing their own ideas and influences into the fold. An AI art program does this with the literal push of the button.

We can make similar statements regarding iteration and the use of samples in music. While music that samples other songs clearly is taking from that art it requires labour to do so. This then is the crux of the problem with the automation of AI Art: the complicated and organic process of iteration has been handed over to a machine that automates it, making it far easier for artists and non-artists alike to produce a result that is, at the very least, reminiscent of artwork.

And that raises the third question: Should this be resisted?

Now I have seen some proponents of AI Art conjuring the specter of the Luddites to argue against resisting the arising of AI art. However most of them couch this within the idea that automation was inevitable and Luddites were fools to resist. “AI art is coming for your job regardless so you better be prepared.” And of course this is nonsense.

Let’s start by looking at one of the most rigorous nearly-contemporary accounts of the Luddites.
“Factory legislation, that first conscious and methodical reaction of society against the spontaneously developed form of the process of production, is, as we have seen, just as much the necessary product of modern industry as cotton yarn, self-actors, and the electric telegraph. Before passing to the consideration of the extension of that legislation in England, we shall shortly notice certain clauses contained in the Factory Acts, and not relating to the hours of work. Apart from their wording, which makes it easy for the capitalist to evade them, the sanitary clauses are extremely meagre, and, in fact, limited to provisions for whitewashing the walls, for insuring cleanliness in some other matters, for ventilation, and for protection against dangerous machinery. In the third book we shall return again to the fanatical opposition of the masters to those clauses which imposed upon them a slight expenditure on appliances for protecting the limbs of their workpeople, an opposition that throws a fresh and glaring light on the Free-trade dogma, according to which, in a society with conflicting interests, each individual necessarily furthers the common weal by seeking nothing but his own personal advantage! One example is enough. The reader knows that during the last 20 years, the flax industry has very much extended, and that, with that extension, the number of scutching mills in Ireland has increased. In 1864 there were in that country 1,800 of these mills. Regularly in autumn and winter women and “young persons,” the wives, sons, and daughters of the neighbouring small farmers, a class of people totally unaccustomed to machinery, are taken from field labour to feed the rollers of the scutching mills with flax. The accidents, both as regards number and kind, are wholly unexampled in the history of machinery. In one scutching mill, at Kildinan, near Cork, there occurred between 1852 and 1856, six fatal accidents and sixty mutilations; every one of which might have been prevented by the simplest appliances, at the cost of a few shillings.” Marx says at the start of Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 15, Part 9 – framing the conflict between milling machinery and workers like the Luddites not in the abstract realm of the dangers of automation but rather in the physical toll these factories put to workers and, this being important, the power relations that allowed for that toll. Marx is clear that it is, in fact, the vague wording of laws and the penurious behaviour of factory owners that led to factory casualties rather than the intrinsic character of the factory.

Marx pivots to discussing technological change more directly, saying, “The only thing, that here and there causes a change, besides new raw material supplied by commerce, is the gradual alteration of the instruments of labour. But their form, too, once definitely settled by experience, petrifies, as is proved by their being in many cases handed down in the same form by one generation to another during thousands of years. A characteristic feature is, that, even down into the eighteenth century, the different trades were called “mysteries” (mystères); into their secrets none but those duly initiated could penetrate. modern industry rent the veil that concealed from men their own social process of production, and that turned the various, spontaneously divided branches of production into so many riddles, not only to outsiders, but even to the initiated. The principle which it pursued, of resolving each process into its constituent movements, without any regard to their possible execution by the hand of man, created the new modern science of technology.”

And of course it’s immediately evident to see the process by which automation is now doing to the mysteries of the arts what Marx was demonstrating in his discussion of potters and weavers. As such we have to re-situate the Luddite movement, even based on the strength of these establishing statements alone, as not one of a class against machines but rather as a battlefield of antagonisms between two classes: the craftsmen who were undergoing a process of proletarianization and the owners of machines who wished to suck their blood. As Marx says, “We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of modern industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous.” This is precisely the ‘inevitable’ future, brought about solely by technology, that these advocates of AI demand artists content themselves with. Marx’s final word on the Luddites comes down to this, “It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used.” And it’s necessary, when deciding if AI art is to be resisted, to ask this same question: is the problem the machine or the hand that controls it?

Certainly this automated art stealing from and iterating upon a vast catalog of images posted online, has the capability to supplant illustrators, advertisers and other such artists. But this supplanting is not a matter of the tool but rather the mode in which it is used.

And this, then, is where we must begin asking for whom these tools have been made and to what ends. There is a tendency, within capitalism, to attempt to mystify the machinery of it. If the problem is that the eternal system of capitalism creates externalities it’s easy enough to shrug it away. It wasn’t on purpose that the machine crushed illustrators; it was merely their time to be automated into obsolescence.

But, of course, this assumes far too much. Who owns this machine is a far more pressing question and, in the case of OpenAI whose Dall-E tool is one of the most popular, the ownership question points back to Elon Musk and Sam Altman. Musk eventually departed leaving the “capped profit” limited partnership, registered in the tax haven state of Delaware (natch) under the control of Altman and Greg Brockman. This is not a tool owned by artists nor for artists. It’s a commercial asset of the financial class. And this, then, demystifies the nature of the struggle. Altman, Brockman and the rest of the tech-startup-venture-capital crowd would prefer that they be paid for illustration instead of little artists. Craftsmen find their work copied by a black-box machine and their jobs supplanted by an AI that can produce ugly illustrations on demand for the low-low price of $15 for 115 prompts. So much more efficient than hiring a craftsperson.

So, yes, AI art should be resisted. It shouldn’t be resisted because it copies images and iterates on them but rather because its application is yet another attempt of tiresome tech bros, the self-same ones who tried to sell the world on NFTs, to suck the blood of working artists. Smash the fucking things to the ground.

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.”