Hopepunk: A genealogical sketch

Barack Obama "Hope" poster - Wikipedia

Hope is not an optimistic emotion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Raytheon / Hugo Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drawing the line: Capitalism and Wrong Livelihood

(Image c/o Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

No ethical consumption under Capitalism

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

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

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

It honestly seems mostly to be the latter.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The misapprehension of mythology

Odysseus' return from Trojan War dated
Odysseus slaying the suitors.

There’s something of a truism that has arisen over the last decade within anglosphere cultural conversations. This goes that superhero stories are, “modern mythology.” I call this a truism because the discourses surrounding the position of the superhero vis-a-vis the myth is not to ask whether a superhero constitutes a mythic figure but rather to treat the consequences of superheroes as mythic figures. This has been an unfortunate development for criticism for a few reasons. It is, of course, flatly wrong. It also elides the reality of the mythology that underpins the modern world. This is ultimately a harmful obfuscation because it obscures how mythologies inform both literature and ideology. But to pick apart the nature of this error it’s necessary to step back and look at how the anglosphere has, throughout the 20th and 21st century, completely failed to understand myth.

The Golden Bough

During the Victorian period, James Frazer published a substantial study of mythography called The Golden Bough. In the Golden Bough, Frazer attempted to show commonalities between ritual and myth across cultures. He argued for an evolutionary progress of human culture from magic to religion and then science. This rigid progression of knowledge allowed for the assumption that the industrial imperial nations of Europe were, actually, helping their subjects by accelerating their progress past superstition toward technology. Furthermore, by categorizing “primitive” religions as magical thinking less advanced than monotheistic religion, efforts to convert colonial subjects to Christianity could be justified as a necessary progression to move them from superstition and toward reason.

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of The Golden Bough. The idea of cross-cultural mythological commonality became central to Campbell’s monomyth. Frazer’s work also informed Freud’s development of the Oedipus Complex – the idea that laws against incest could only arise because incest was desired traced directly from Frazer’s treatment of sacred kings and the origin of law. But, of course, there’s a problem here. Frazer’s work was an explicitly colonial treatise. The assumption of an inevitable progress to the development of culture was a fiction formed by colonial powers as a post-hoc justification for their abuses of power.

This error was expounded upon in a particularly cogent fashion by Pierre Clastres when he said, “the assertion of an obvious evolution cannot justify a doctrine which, arbitrarily tying the state of civilization to the civilization of the State, designates the latter as the necessary end result assigned to all societies.” Clastres demonstrated, rather than a necessary evolution of societies toward the (capitalist) state, that societies would find social equilibria in which they operated quite stably until some disruption occurred. This is a social version of an ecological concept called metastable equilibrium. The interesting about systems in states of metastable equilibrium is that, when they are disrupted by external conditions, these systems tend to find new modes of equilibrium. These changes in equilibrium then require far more energy input to restore to the previous state of equilibrium than was required to disrupt the state to begin with. There is no inevitable progression; there is equilibrium, disruption and some new equilibrium. The commonality that underpins the work of Frazer and later theorists like Campbell then becomes largely a fragment of cherry picking and of projection. The colonial theorist plasticizes the culture of the imperial subject and shapes it in his own understanding to fit his idea of how these subjects should behave.

Monomyth and Archetype

It should be clear by now that I hold Campbell’s monomyth in no particular regard. I last visited it when I was discussing A Wizard of Earthsea and the ways in which Le Guin disrupted monomythic expectations by deviating from Campbell’s heroic journey.

However the next fall-back of mythic universalists is a slightly harder nut to crack than Campbell’s hand-picked selection of mythography, and that’s also often the point of approach which advocates of the superhero-as-modern-myth prefer. That is the Jungian concept of the archetype. Now of course the through-line here with Jung is largely the same as it is with Campbell. Jung, as a student of Freud, was influenced by Freud’s reading of myth which was, in turn, influenced by Frazer’s colonialist universalism. However it would be a little bit shoddy to just declare Jung and Freud fruit of a poison tree and discard both out of turn. In one regard, Jung is much more assailable than Freud in that his concepts of collective unconscious and of synchronicity become increasingly nothing but idealistic mysticism. Jung puts forward these ideal forms of unconsciousness and suggests that they create universal patterns, a shared phenomenological shape to experience. These packets of meaning are communicated at a subliminal level be it by processes of biological heritability or by a more mystical connection between minds at some quantum level. Any specific hero then carries The Hero within it. Le Guin realizes one of these archetypical constructions in A Wizard of Earthsea in the Gebbeth – a material manifestation of Ged’s own Shadow. But Jung’s archetypes have the typical idealistic failure of assuming a reality that is perpetually out of reach. We can’t apprehend this ideal Shadow directly but only manifestations of it – facets of a jewel that is never entirely within our experiential frame. And as these archetypes cannot be apprehended directly but instead can only be apprehended via their manifestations they become just as plastic as Frazer’s colonial universalism of myth.

This plasticity and denial of the particularity of myth makes it a simple process to declare any sufficiently broad piece of art mythic. Superheroic stories are about these “archetypical” characters who engage in “epic” adventures. This makes them “mythic” and thus makes them into myth.

Except archetypical here mostly just means broad. Superheroes are the products of many hands, their tangled literary continuities are full of internal contradictions because of the divided character of their authorship. But divided authorship isn’t the hallmark of a myth. Homer’s Illiad may or may not have been contributed to by multiple people but it has a singular author. Likewise Beowulf’s author, the Green Knight poet, Hesiod or Snorri Sturlson. The diffusion of authority that led to superheroes becoming broad, “archetypical,” characters misses the reasons that the Illiad, the Theogony, the Grail Cycle, Beowulf, or Gylfaginning achieve the status of myth. Myth exists in the investment of a people into these stories to the point where they believe this particular story says something about their particular experience as a people.

The value of myth doesn’t lie in its archetypical similarities but in the particulars. It’s irrelevant that there is a commonality in that Pangu‘s bones are the mountains and that Ymir‘s blood is the oceans. What makes these stories into myths are the ways in which people tied their own being to these stories. The mythic doesn’t lie in the general or the generalizable. It lies in the particular. Archetype points away from what makes the mythic significant.

Guan Yu

Guan Yu was a retainer of Liu Bei during the three kingdoms period of China. There is little known about his life with the historical record depending principally upon the Sanguozhi – an historical document written by the official historian of the Jin dynasty, Chen Shou, which provided a valuable justification for the succession from the Han dynasty through the three kingdoms period and to the rise of the Jin – effectively a chronicle of the time of disruption between two moments of social equilibrium. As such the Sanguozhi has to be treated as a fundamentally political document and the things it reports about Guan Yu – his loyalty to Liu Bei, the high regard Cao Cao held for him, his eventual execution by Sun Quan and his posthumous honoring by Cao Cao should be treated as specifically propagandistic works. However something odd happened with Guan Yu that did not occur with the other historical figures of the Sanguo Zhi – he was deified. Now the deification of Guan Yu was a messy process and one that also contained some rather explicitly political dimensions. Buddhists adopted him at some point after the start of the Tang dynasty as a bodhisattva and between the Song and Ming dynasties, Guan Yu became increasingly treated as a god figure within Taoism and Chinese Folk Religion. By the time the Sanguo Yanyi was written, Guan Yu was well within the popular consciousness as a god figure and the book drew from various popular depictions to create something of a canonical story of his apotheosis that combined the guardian deity elements of Chinese folk religion with the war god and slayer of demons of Taoism and the bodhisattva of Buddhism into something of a coherent character. It’s from the Sanguo Yanyi that the picture of Guan Yu with eyes like a phoenix and skin as red as a ripe date arises, and this is the image that all modern altars to Guan Yu use as the basis for his depiction.

The myth of Guan Yu doesn’t come from a singular author but it was seeded by one in Chen Shou and codified by another with Luo Guanzhong. He is a man who was elevated to a war god, a protector and a god of good fortune, a killer of demons and a protector of the faith. But comparing him to Gilgamesh or to Romulus misses everything that makes Guan Yu significant as a myth. The threads of Taoism, Buddhism and Chinese Folk Religion, the operas and the histories, the particularity of the political situation that gave rise to his fundamental texts, these are where the myth of Guan Yu lives. Guan Yu has a terroir, he is inseparable from the people who deified him across history and into the present. Guan Yu is a modern myth in that he is a figure out of myth who still holds mythic resonance today. The shrine to Guan Yu is an incredibly common Chinese cultural indicator but reducing him to nothing but an archetypical character means erasing the messy particularity that creates him as a subject of myth making.

Constructing a myth is something that people do together. They are the product of centuries of that call-and-response feedback that is the artistic cycle as a culture tells itself about itself and replies again and again and again. The figures within it might carry surface similarities to figures from other myths. But they are inseparable from their origins, from their particularity.

Myth and Literature

Superman isn’t this. Frankly all these superheroes are far too young to have become mythic. The accretion of myth is a geologic process. Guan Yu contains strata: the Sanguozhi and its commentaries, the folk operas, the escalation of posthumous titles, the elevation to bodhisattva, the positioning of him as a war god, as a door god, as a protector and bringer of fortune, the codification of these narratives in the Sanguo Yanyi and the operas, movies and TV shows that arose from that. These strata conceal what came before but incompletely. The past of the Sanguo Zhi erupts into the Sanguo Yanyi a thousand years later. The nation building task of the Jin and the nation building task of the Ming create resonances between these strata that sing to each other like tectonic plates grinding. We have a tendency to look back at myth and say, “it started there,” but if we peel back the layers that origin retreats from us. It took 2000 years to create the modern myth of Guan Yu. These broad, plastic, heroes are empty of particularity. Sure you can say of Superman that he stands for, “truth, justice and the American way,” but even after a century of growth there’s far too little there to say what Superman stands for. He hasn’t had nearly the time necessary for Americans to fill him up and make him mythic.

George Washington, on the other hand, has. Washington, as a figure, exists in a superposition of deification and historicism not dissimilar to Guan Yu and his position as the founding leader of the American empire invests him with an immediate significance to Americans as a people. But of course the historical Washington is only one stratum of the myth of Washington along with the accretion of apocrypha such as the cherry tree story and the lionization of him as one of the “founding fathers.” Washington begins with a singularity of authorship in Mason Weems, but explodes into something of a possession of all Americans. He stands in for the particular experience of being American and as the nature of Americanness as changed, so too have strata accreted onto the myth of Washington to accommodate that transformed understanding.

Superman is literature. He’s a story told by authors to an audience. What’s more, the careful ownership that DC maintains over Superman, the fact that he remains just one owner’s piece of art constrains him from ever achieving a truly mythic resonance. Nobody owns the mythic resonance of American “Founding Fathers.” The civic cult is far more diffuse than that. A subject escapes literature and becomes myth when there is sufficient weight behind them that they stop being property of a person and become, instead, a reflection of a people. The mythic contains within it all the particularity of the people who elevated that myth and being modern myth depends on a depth of history that is contiguous with the development of the people holding that myth. There’s an arrogance present in these creators of broad archetypical stories that are all so hollow and plastic in thinking they can conjure myth out of declaring it so. But the mythic, the truly mythic, will repel these idealistic declarations.

The (un)reality of fiction

This year has seen a lot of discussion of the nature of fiction within genre communities. There is a tread that has run through conversations related to what enjoyment of certain media might say about an audience’s moral character, the justification for artists to explore difficult topics and the question of what information should be made available to an audience prior to engaging with an artwork.

A lot of this discussion has largely fallen into two apparently opposed camps: on one side are those who make the argument that fiction can engender real harm and as such must be treated through a lens of moral instruction. An audience’s selection of media is a window into their soul and an author has a moral duty not to harm their audience through exposure to information hazards. Opposing this is the argument that fiction isn’t real. The events contained within a fictional work have not occurred and nobody has been harmed in creating it; an audience can just put the work down if it discomforts them.

Recently Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story came to the Confederation Center for the Arts. The show’s authors state that the musical / concert hybrid is inspired by the true story of two Jewish Romanian refugees who came to Canada in 1908. The story focuses on the chance meeting and subsequent marriage between a young man whose family was killed in a pogrom and an older woman whose husband died of disease and whose child died of malnutrition while escaping Romania for Russia during the winter. They meet at a screening point in Halifax and meet again in Montreal at which point they begin courting.

The show is narrated by Caplan’s character, “the Wanderer,” a figure who is simultaneously a nod to the anti-Semitic stereotype of the wandering Jew, a metaphor for the refugee experience and the difficulties of cultural and linguistic integration, a rabbi to Chaim and Chaya and a fourth-wall breaking interlocutor who teases and challenges the audience directly. At a point near the climax of the show, during a dramatic shift from the ribald humour that preceded it to a dark and somber reflection on mortality and trauma, the Wanderer confronts the audience and asks them if they regret coming to the show. Are they upset to learn that they were given something unexpected with this sudden shift to somber reflection? This fourth wall break is meant to cut the tension, of course, and to reassure the audience that the light-hearted musical about love and sex will come back from its dark night of the soul. But, of course, what he says is the opposite. As the Wanderer is fond of saying throughout the show, “that’s a lie.”

There’s an existentialist thread running through Old Stock. In his essay, Return to Tipasa, Camus says, “In the difficult hour we are living, what else can I desire than to exclude nothing and to learn how to braid with white thread and black thread a single cord stretched to the breaking-point.” This interpretation of amor fati informs the central theme of Old Stock that requires that the audience take the good and the bad together. You can have a song about the Talmudic “minimum intervals” that a husband must offer his wife between carnal encounters and also a tableau about his failure to save his younger brother’s life during the aftermath of the pogrom, how his father committed suicide rather than carry on in its wake, leaving him alone. Chaim’s life, and his love for Chaya comes from both – he is both – and a clear understanding of his truth isn’t possible without recognizing both the lovesick young man anxious about pleasing his more experienced wife and the haunted victim of genocide.

Old Stock is based on a true story. But is it real? Is truth more real than a lie?

Certainly if we look at the material impact of a statement, its veracity has little impact on its materiality. A politician can put forward the most ridiculous fabrications and yet people will act upon those statements, share his lies, denounce them, split hairs about whether this or that statemen is truly a lie. They might even take more concrete action – hurt someone, other a group of people, engage in genocide.

It’s self-evident that lies are very real; there is a historically visible material impact to deception. People have been killed because of untruth. The concept of the blood libel underpinned many pogroms. Jewish people were massacred because of the story that they killed children. These stories still crop up in the present day via conspiracy theories such as the pizzagate conspiracy theory or the ravings of Qanon. But these conspiracy theories and the harm they cause are separated from unambiguous fictions because their truth is disputed. Nobody believes you can date an anthropomorphized sword but there are people who sincerely believe that Democrats are secretly assaulting children in the secret basement of a Washington DC pizzeria. So this gives rise to another question: is belief a vital force? Do we make stories real in the act of believing them. Terry Pratchett confronted this question directly in Small Gods. In it the last true believer in a god (Om) carries his object of worship on a quest to revitalize his faith and, in the process, to create a new covenant with the god – one which was more in keeping with Pratchett’s humanist sensibilities than the blood and thunder of the old way. Pratchett carefully divides the trappings of religion from that of belief. Vorbis and the Quisition are quite willing to use the story of Om for their own material interests – to maintain their position of power in their society and to project force into the world. But this materialist relationship to the divine doesn’t nurture the god. There’s no vital spark to it. Brutha, on the other hand, has given himself wholly over to Om. In fact Om has difficulty persuading Brutha that he is who he says he is specifically because Brutha is so completely given over to his belief that the disparity between Om’s material condition and the god that lives in Brutha’s head is almost irreconcilable.

By undergoing a process of education Brutha and Om learn to reconcile the material conditions of the faith with the authentic interiority of the faith – that subject of the leap that Kierkegaard deemed essential to true belief – and in doing so revitalize the god. In this case we’re presented with a kind of dialectical vitalism. Reality can be granted or withdrawn from Om through the power of authentic belief assigned to him. Om is a kind of fiction. Pratchett makes the fictive nature of the gods increasingly clear in later books such as Thud! in which a mine sign is presented as being simultaneously a kind of minor god and also a word in a language. The power of the Summoning Dark is a linguistic one. It presents itself as a message and what it does to dwarfs who believe in it is as much a function of their belief that those words have power as it is any sort of supernatural activity. But for Pratchett that belief which nourishes and empowers a fiction can be withdrawn. It’s only real when it’s believed. What then if we choose to take reality as immanent?

In a way, Pratchett’s gods are immanent – they are active in the world and accessible to the people therein. Om can appear to Brutha as a tortoise, the Summoning Dark rides as a mark on Vime’s arm and as a thought within his mind. The ultimate victory of Vimes’ own Watching Dark over the Summoning Dark doesn’t withdraw the power and belief that the Summoning Dark has but rather demonstrates how Vimes too can manifest that aspect of belief, his belief in his own self-policing, in a manner that allows him power akin to that of the gods. Vimes’ fiction of the Watching Dark is no more nor less real than the Summoning Dark. That’s how they are able to contend. And yet, the material effect of this fictive struggle is visible in the story as he thrashes through the dark fighting with the dwarfs whose conspiracy he interrupted. The dialectical sense of a divide between the real and the story collapses in much the same way that Walter Benjamin described the motivations of André Breton to break, “with a praxis that presents the public with the literary precipitate of a certain form of existence while withholding that existence itself.” The stories are real, all of them, they broadcast their own immanent being. Or, as Garak from Star Trek Deep Space Nine might say, “They’re all true, especially the lies.”

Returning to Old Stock we can then look at the Wanderer’s frequent asides of “that’s a lie” as communicating a form of truth. He’s highlighting the contradiction between a proposed fiction and the materiality of a situation specifically to highlight the reality of the former. The lies are true and fiction is very real. But if fiction is real, and if fiction has a material impact on the world, what of the artist’s moral responsibility? Can an artist do harm to a person through their work?

The answer is both yes and no.

An oft-presented example of harmful art is The Turner Diaries. This racist novel, written by an avowed Nazi, is a favourite of notorious terrorists. It has been read, shared and used as a basis for the formation of tactics and plans by some of the most vile people in the United States during the half-century since its publication. If you consider how it might have inspired Timothy McVeigh with regard to specific tactics one could very well say that it is harmful. Except the book didn’t blow up a building – a man did who enjoyed that book. As for the idea that the book created the man the counter-question could be raised of how anybody who didn’t already have a germ of belief in the ideas within that book might be influenced by it to do harmful things. If we treat the Turner Diaries like the summoning dark, an immanent demon able to, through the manipulation of language, manipulate people into doing terrible things then we, each of us, have a Watching Dark too. We are each able to look at the contents of that book and go, “this is awful, cruel and I don’t like it,” and we can then discard of it into the trash, where it belongs. The investment of desire into the artwork allows it to channel the harm a person might do along specific paths but the desire to do harm still belongs with the person who does it. In the case of the Turner Diaries we can certainly look at the harm William Luther Pierce has wrought. He was a politically active Nazi who deliberately used his fiction to distribute thoughts on tactics and strategy to other Nazis. But this is hardly a normal case. Most artworks are not created explicitly to allow terrorists to clandestinely share tactics. And in the case of Boyfriend Dungeon that’s not the nature of the harm proposed. Rather the complaints there were that the artist had a moral duty to inform the audience about certain themes that might cause them discomfort.

And here we return back to Pratchett’s dialectic of the Summoning Dark and the Watching Dark. Art is akin to language in that it is explicitly communicative. And language has an immanent power; there is a vitality that arises out of a person’s belief in the art. Furthermore, much like in the case of Vimes this isn’t an either / or situation. He doesn’t have to fully believe in the Summoning Dark to be influenced by it, especially when other people, the audience of the Summoning Dark believe in it. But that vitality isn’t confined only to that one mark and Vimes does not need to be beholden to an idea. He has the ability to self-police, to employ the Watching Dark to say, “this idea isn’t right for me.”

Nobody is going to force you to play Boyfriend Dungeon, to read Manhunt or to watch Old Stock. In each case you have the ability to say, “I don’t want to braid with these threads,” and to set aside the art, to go about your life. Perhaps this artwork will haunt you. Vimes doesn’t jail the Summoning Dark in his soul without challenge. But he is ultimately the captain of his own ship and able to make the choice to be affected by this word or that. If an artist has imbued their art with sufficient vitality to haunt a person this is to be lauded, not decried as a moral hazard and it is the responsibility of an audience to choose whether to engage with the artwork or to set it aside. Old Stock is an excellent musical, an excellent work of art, because it recognizes that the being of art needs to take in the good and the bad – universally cozy art is dull. Universally miserable art is, at best, off-putting. Writing a story in either of those modes is akin to painting with just one colour.

Art is very real. There is a vital materiality to art that cannot be denied because it is a part of the world, and the world is itself a material, real, place. Nietzsche councils us to be only a “yea sayer,” and this may, in fact, be the best thing he ever said in that it gives us a frame to deny nothing: neither the ability of art to affect the world nor the power of an audience to overcome the effect of an artwork within them. The duty of an artist is to create something that communicates powerfully and sometimes what is communicated will not be fully pleasant. Most good art, let alone great art, braids with white thread and black thread a single cord stretched to the breaking-point. The Wanderer in Old Stock reminds us that Chaim and Chaya’s life is made true because it isn’t just the happy bits. It isn’t the duty of the artist to warn an audience that there might be uncomfortable themes in their work any more than it’s the duty of a painter to warn an audience their painting will contain both red and yellow pigment. This doesn’t absolve an author of all moral responsibility. Clearly attempting to create a manual for white supremacist terrorists disguised as a novel is a morally repugnant act. But I think some clarity on the part of critics and audiences is necessary in recognizing that this is a rare exception and not a universal rule. Even art that takes on morally repugnant themes, such as Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card or The Horror at Red Hook by H.P. Lovecraft don’t harm the audience directly. Nobody says, “I’m going to go out and conscript child soldiers,” because they read Ender’s Game, and it’s likely only a bigot would look at a Lovecraft work and see permission for their bigotry. What many of these controversies about the moral duty of the author are, in fact, doing is attempting to absolve the audience of their moral responsibility. These claims on the duty of the author want the work to be like the conception of the Summoning Dark as this all-powerful linguistic demon that bends minds to its will but, as Pratchett makes clear, this isn’t all. The power of communication exists between parties and each audience member has their own Watching Dark. The moral duty of an audience to be alert to the effect of fiction upon them cannot be withdrawn.

Scorsese on a Jungle Cruise

James Gunn says Martin Scorsese bashed Marvel movies to get press | EW.com

The wheel of discourse turns and yet again we’re talking about the fact that Martin Scorsese doesn’t like superhero movies. This salvo began because James Gunn suggested Scorsese’s comments, mostly in 2019, that Marvel movies aren’t cinema was just to drum up marketing for the latter’s movie The Irishman.

But the thing is that Scorsese is somewhat right; although superhero movies may appear on film they are structurally much closer to a ride than they are to a movie. And this has to do with the nature of movement in cinema compared to that in a ride. In Cinema 1: The Movement Image Deleuze does his thing where he comes up behind another theorist and presents them with their child only monstrous to Bergson and composes a defense of cinema from Bergson’s critique of the same. In it, he refers to cinema as producing an immediate movement-image. This is to say that cinema is not a static image to which movement is added but rather the movement is intrinsic to the cinematic image. So we can start by positioning cinema principally as being an image of movement or of change. As Deleuze says, “the shot would then stop being a spatial category and become a temporal one.” Deleuze describes a cartoon in specific as no longer constituting, “a pose or a completed figure, but a description of a figure which is always being formed or dissolving through the movement of lines and points taken at any-instant-whatevers of their course.” He continues to talk about how the privileging of specific instants such as in the work of Eisenstein doesn’t take away from this favoring of movement and change over the static pose as the structure of the cinematic image.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that Eisenstein’s concept of collision likely derived at least in part from Kuleshov’s early work on montage as Eisenstein was briefly a pupil of Kuleshov. And of course montage is all about the ability to create change through the juxtaposition of images against each other. There is a thread running through these early directors and film theorists which demonstrates that cinema is ultimately the artform of transformation. Cinema doesn’t capture a pose as a photograph or a painting does but rather the movement that a subject undertakes, the changes a subject undergoes. Deleuze ties movement explicitly to change, “each time there is a translation of parts in space, there is also a qualitative change in a whole.” He later presents Bergson’s conclusion that, “if the whole is not giveable it is because it is the Open, and its nature is to change constantly.”

So finally we can arrive at the key requirement of cinema and that is constant change. It is significant to note here that constant in this context is heavily directed by the concept of any-instant-whatever rather than of the static pose. The dialectic of movement in the classical sense where movement describes the transition between two specific and significant poses is thus replaced with this sense that any moment of a movement could be extracted and provided with equal significance as each moment of a movement describes an image of its process of change.

But an amusement park ride doesn’t do that. Remarkably amusement park rides are a repudiation of change. Rather the movement of a ride consists explicitly of a series of fixed poses retuning to an unchanging conclusion. The amusement park ride ends where it began and, if it is functioning correctly, nothing changes. The ride is so carefully tuned to provide a specific and replicable experience that you can position a fixed camera on a timer and ensure that every attendee can have their reaction to that moment memorialized – a fixed pose of screaming exhilaration.

26 Of The Most Hilarious Amusement Park Ride Photos You'll Ever See

As such the ride is something of an opposite to cinema. For something to be a good amusement park ride it must bring you, via its movement, full circle to the point where you began. It must be a dialectic of fixed poses wherein movement only describes the transition between them: the climb, the drop, the loop, the splash, the photo at the end. These privileged moments are not a Kuleshov like process of montage wherein the juxtaposition of difference leads to an affective change in an audience. They aren’t the emotive collision of Eisenstein. Rather the amusement park ride is a wheel turning in the air, going nowhere.

And this is fine. Obviously amusement park rides affect audiences. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the predictable and the unchanging in and of itself and insofar as that goes. But if something is just a spinning wheel going nowhere it cannot be cinema. Cinema was, in fact, designed explicitly to be contrary to that affect.

While Deleuze sees cinema as being dependent on the technology that created it via Edison’s moving pictures and Lumiere’s teeth I think it’s important to look at cinema not just in the frame of how technology caused it to form but also in the frame of what it does with that form. And what cinema does is furnish transformation. Gunn should know that better than most considering that Super ends with the question of change, and with the protagonist presenting, unanswered, a dialectic between immutable order and transformative change. But of course Gunn has made a career of slyly subverting the superhero narrative, and so this also makes him particularly sensitive to Scorsese’s critique that Marvel films will disallow him from doing the cinematic things he clearly wants to do with the medium.

The problem ultimately becomes one of power. In this relation Gunn has almost none in the shadow of the Disney behemoth, and Disney isn’t in the business of making cinema. It’s in the business of making amusement park rides. I mean let’s not beat around the bush too much. the big Disney film on the horizon right now is Jungle Cruise – a movie that is explicitly derived from an amusement park ride. This movie follows the same basic beats and structure as many of its Pirates of the Caribbean films. The Pirates franchise was also based around an amusement park ride. When one of Disney’s most specific streams of output is so explicitly tied to amusement park rides, and to the cinematic replication of that experience of static poses, is it really surprising that a lover of cinema in the mold of Scorsese would look at Marvel and see a Ferris wheel rather than a movie?

But there is more to it than just this. Superhero movies in general, but Marvel films in specific, have gone to painstaking lengths to recreate the comic book format in cinema. This adherence to comic structure is something that has been lauded by fans on multiple occasions. But comic books are not like cinema nor even like cartoons. Comic books are static poses with movement inferred from the change in pose across panels.


Even in a dynamic panel of a comic containing a lot of action, a few poses, such as that of Batman in the center of the example to the right must stand in for all those any-instant-whatevers. The instant of Batman surrounded by goons, swinging the fire extinguisher becomes a privileged instance that is not impacted by the Kuleshov effect as there is no temporal disjunction. The poses are flattened into a single moment. They become privileged moments. And the superhero genre has desperately tried to replicate this.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the end credits contain rendered images of the fight between the Avengers and Ultron’s robot horde rendered as if it were a marble statue of that moment. The dynamism of their specific poses is captured as a privileged moment through the act of freezing that instant and twirling around it. We see this pattern repeating throughout the MCU both in the first Avengers movie when we see the assembly shot of the Avengers surrounded by aliens, back to back in New York and in Avengers Endgame, repeatedly, during the final battle with Thanos’ army. Of particular note is the assembly moment where the various women of the MCU all pose together, reminding audiences that, although none of them had yet to be given a feature film, the MCU contained plenty of women characters. But it isn’t the message of this moment that interests me so much as that it was rendered as a static and privileged moment.

This sense of stasis is something I’ve commented about regarding Disney before. I talked about it in the context of Disney’s sense of ownership and its refusal to let go. But this stasis is far more pervasive than that as Disney is, as much as it is anything, a marketer of rides, with amusement parks throughout the world which are a major source of revenue. The love Disney has for cross-platform promotion means that this sense of the ride now pervades is other media so that it can sell the ride experience.

But this means that, even when not making movies explicitly about rides like Pirates of the Caribbean or Jungle Cruise, Disney is making movies selling a ride experience. And when you add to the sale of the ride experience the medium-specified requirement of the comic book to prefer the privileged moment of the pose over the any-instant-whatever of the cinematic mode and we see how this amusement park ride sensation creeps into the Marvel movie from two dimensions.

And so Scorsese is right. Marvel movies are not cinema. What they are doing is, structurally, anathema to what cinema was designed to do. Frankly a Looney Tunes cartoon has more in common with Eisenstein than even the best MCU experiences could furnish – not for reasons of quality or enjoyment but because the task of duplicating the comic book form pushes against the task of cinema as clearly and specifically as the task of the roller coaster does. Disney has become very adept at marketing Ferris wheels. As such they have become very adept at providing filmic experiences that proceed through a series of privileged moments, of poses, before returning right back to where they started unchanged and ready for the next trip around the track.

Reterritorialization and Overcoding – the creative bankruptcy of reaction

If we wanted to put a pin in the beginnings of the resurgence of the far-right it would likely be 2013. Within art this was marked by two principal social conflicts in which the outline of the nascent reactionary movement can be seen. The first was the release of Depression Quest and the second was the inauguration of the first Sad Puppies campaign. Both of these events, in 2013, seemed minor. Depression Quest was a Twine game – effectively the indiest of all indy game platforms. Zoë Quinn was, at the time, a very minor figure in gaming. Depression Quest was a browser game that also attracted some attention via Steam Greenlight but considering Greenlight’s history of lax acceptance standards and vast panoply of games available, this is hardly something that should have stood out above the noise. However Quinn’s meditation on illness received some critical attention and this led to sour grapes with an ex-boyfriend in what became the initial casus belli for the Breitbart-affiliated Gamergate movement.

Simultaneously, Larry Correia struggled to get his novels onto the Hugo ballot and in the process of what largely seems to have been a self-promotion effort fomented the arm of the same reactionary forces behind Gamergate into science fiction and fantasy literature. The decade that followed subsequently saw the mainstreaming of neoreactionary ideology – which shaped what E.L. Sandifer described in Neoreaction A Basilisk as, “an entirely sympathetic anger that people with power are making obvious and elementary errors,” into a tool for fascist entry via the very same platforms (again, Breitbart was central). This then metastasized into the Trumpism and the alt-right: the modern anglosphere Fascist movement that then dominated the half decade starting in 2016.

But it might be somewhat puzzling why, with the obvious movement of fascism in the sphere of politics at this time (Breitbart was also heavily involved in the Tea Party movement,) I am choosing to peg this resurgence to such specifically artistic indicators.

This is because I think it’s important to situate the extent to which fascism is an aesthetic movement.

Fascism as an aesthetic

Fascism has been rather unique among ideologies in how difficult it is to pin down. There are three definitions that are often passed around: the definition provided by Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascist essay, Lawrence Britt’s 14 Characteristics of Fascism, and Roger Griffin’s, “palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism.” Of these, Britt’s description is probably the least-useful. Britt wasn’t any particular expert and it seems to have been, in my eyes, something of an attempt to correct what he may have seen as deficiencies in Eco’s definition. However if this is the so I think Britt over-corrected as I find Eco’s argument in the Ur-Fascism essay far more relevant to understanding the phenomenon. Griffin’s definition of fascism certainly holds the quality of precision and conciseness that you would expect from a political scientist and an historian and I do want to stress that this lens is critical to understanding fascism but it aims more at the ultimate consequence of what fascists coordinating tend to do to a political milieu than at the underlying project of a fascist qua fascist.

I think this helps explain the longevity of Eco’s description of Fascism; Eco, an artist and semiotician, realized something critical about fascism that Griffin missed. Fascism is largely an aesthetic position. “Even though political regimes can be overthrown, and ideologies can be criticized and disowned, behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives,” Eco says, and these cultural habits, these obscure instincts and unfathomable drives aren’t a political program exactly, they’re not an ethic nor even an anti-ethic. Rather, as I discussed in my essay on the concept of degeneracy, much of what underpins fascism is a sense of what is beautiful and, more critically, what is ugly. The fascist is, at the root of it all, somebody with an exceptionally powerful revulsion for ugliness and a very specific set of criteria for what makes something ugly.

The fascist is a narcissist par excellence. In fact the only thing a fascist sees beauty in is himself. All of Eco’s 14 points on ur-fascism extend logically from this point of absolute narcissism. The fascist constructs an irreconcilable dualism of self and other and associates all beauty with the self, all ugliness with the other. He loves the cult of tradition because he sees himself in the approving eyes of his ancestors. And from the cult of tradition, Eco rightly points out the rejection of modernity follows. Eco describes how fascism is irrational and unable to withstand systemic critique. The irrationality is, yet again, an inevitable result of the fascist’s solipsism. Any input that destabilizes the duality of absolute self and absolute other must be expelled regardless of whether or not it is reasonable. The syncretism of fascism and its instability in the face of critical scrutiny follows from its irrationality and fascism’s fear of diversity is an immediate property of fascist solipsism again. When we then look at Eco’s description of fascist nationalism this appears again in a remarkable form when we consider the idea of the nation as an imagined community.

Terrible Imagined Communities

When I discussed the idea that there was no such thing as a total community I was largely pointing toward the idea of the imagined community. There is an abstraction to “the genre community,” “the gaming community,” or even to, “Canada,” that belies that these attempts at total communities are fictions notwithstanding ideological differences. It is relevant that there is no room for nazis and their victims in one community, but it’s just as relevant that there will be no true encounter between me and, “Joe from Canada, I think he lives in Vancouver, or maybe it was Halifax?” If a community is predicated upon some sort of group interaction, an imagined community is one where that group interaction has become so vague, so abstract, that it is effectively fully alienated from the people within it. In the sixth and seventh Theses on the genesis of the terrible communities, Tiqqun say:

The Word advances, prudently, filling the spaces between singular solitudes, it swells human numbers in groups, pushing them together against the prevailing winds - effort unites them. This is almost an exodus. Almost. But no pact holds them together, except the spontaneity  of smiles, inevitable cruelty, and accidents of passion.

This passage, similar to that of migrating birds, with murmurs of shifting pain, little by little gives form to the terrible communities.

We can see how these terrible communities, these enclosing and entrapping spaces, these prisons that must be deserted all at once as a spontaneous and total jailbreak, arise as imagined communities. Nations and fandoms alike are held together by, “smiles, cruelty and accidents of passion.” These things are traps. They capture people and create artificial in-groups and out-groups. And it is only a very short slip from, “this is mine,” to, “this is me.”

Fandoms and nations alike both point toward the cancerous undifferentiated bodies that Deleuze and Guattari warn of in November 28, 1947: How Do You Make Yourself a Body Without Organs? “take a stifling body of subjectification, which makes a freeing all the more unlikely by forbidding any remaining distinction between subjects. Even if we consider given social formations, or a given stratic apparatus within a formation, we must say that every one of them has a BwO ready to gnaw, proliferate, cover, and invade the entire social field, entering into relations of violence and rivalry as well as alliance and complicity,” and they provide that carcinogenic ground for these cancerous bodies without organs in part by forming themselves as an imagined space where idealized others are just like me. If I like Star Wars – if Star Wars is mine – if Star Wars is me – if Star Wars is him too – then he is also me. As Bataille said, “a man who finds himself among others is irritated because he does not know why he is not one of the others.” A person who is making a cancerous body without organs has fallen fully into this trap. His sense of his own potential is ready to cover and invade the entire social field – this idea that anybody might not be just like me becomes such a psychic violence to him that he will countenance any cruelty in order to respond to it.

This is entirely an aesthetic action. There’s no sense of the good in any of this. There isn’t even a twisted rejection of the good here. No virtue is possible nor any universalism to build a deontological frame beyond the universalism of, “it is good because it is me,” or, “it is bad because it is not me.” There is no consideration of utility nor is there a question of ambiguity or uncertainty. Just a boot on a neck, a hand holding down a head, a brutish force to clear the line of the fascist’s sight of anything that might offend him.

The incapability of loving destruction

The fascist is incapable of loving destruction for precisely this reason. The fascist cannot destroy what he loves because he only loves himself. This sort of self-annihilation is inimical to the cancerous, metastasizing nature of fascist ideologies. But this has dire (though unsurprising) consequences for the fascist aesthetic. Artistic creation, authentic artistic expression, is bound indelibly to loving destruction. To create art you must identify the thing you love and utterly destroy it in order to create it anew. What has never lived cannot be reborn, and this rising and falling creative cycle is essential to the introduction of the novel, the creative spark arises when the sparks of love and destruction glow together. And this means that the fascist can recognize what he sees as beauty but cannot contribute to its creation. He is all that is beautiful to himself. There is no purer fascist artistic statement than to stand, alone, in a box in which all six walls are covered entirely in mirrors: an endless self recursion without change or derivation. A universe filled with the self. Just like Agent Smith. Fascism mutilates artistic capability because of this solipsism. And so the fascist steals.

We all know the struggle: you like a thing and then the Nazis roll in and take the thing over. People get disgusted with all the Nazis hanging around and then all that’s left surrounding the thing are the Nazis. They did it with solar diagrams. They did it with esotericism. They did it with Norse mythology. They did it with Pepe the Frog. They even try to take the Hammer and Sickle from the left through their hollow, loveless appropriations. Over and over again we see the same pattern.

We must momentarily step back and discuss some basic semiotics. A form of communication, such as an artwork, contains two central components: a signifier and a signified. The signified is the thing communicated, the signifier is the thing that carries that communication. Saussure, who did much of the groundwork for this idea, posited that the relationship between a signifier and a signified was somewhat arbitrary. The value of a signification depended on two relations: the relation between the specific signifier and the specific signified and the relation between the signification and other significations within the system. In economic terms Saussure described these relations as the exchange value of a quantity of currency for bread and the relationship between a quantity of currency and a different quantity of the same currency.

This helps to situate how words relate etymologically to each other and, in turn, how aesthetic concepts relate to each other into a system. But it still makes signification a remarkably arbitrary process. As Lyotard says while describing the development of lexical systems, “Signification would thus find itself pushed out beyond the system of significative units, inasmuch as it could embody any one of these units, then abandon it, only to invest another, without ever seeming to be frozen in an invariant set of oppositions.”

Discourse, Figure is fascinated with the role art, especially visual art, impacts signification, attempting to course correct from Saussure’s preference for the word by giving preference to the image as a signifier. Lyotard presents a view of visual art that allows for the encoding of vast quantities of meaning. But even this doesn’t escape the ultimately arbitrary character of signification.

The picture is such an inefficient trompe l'oeil that it requires the eye to access the truth, and it is, in a sense, nothing more than a call to the eye to be acknowledged. Even if the picture resembles nothing (and it really does resemble nothing, even when it is figurative, since its visible function is to give the given), the eye takes back from it the right it had given up in order to allow the picture to be: the right to believe itself the place from which the world-even in the process of manifesting itself-is seen manifesting itself, manifests its manifestation.

This disconnect between the signifier and the signified is the flaw via which fascism sneaks into art. Fascism is incapable of creating new permutations of meaning but it has become very adept at precisely one artistic act: overcoding a chain of signification with the body of the despot, which is, ultimately a solipsistic reflection of the fascist’s own self-image. Standing alone in his box of mirrors, the fascist says, “Yes me, me me; also me.” Fascism swarms into the infected signifier and attempts then to crowd out any competing signified objects besides itself. The solar cross of Buddhism is no longer a symbol of the radiant beauty of the dharma. It just means the body of the despot. The hammer and the sickle no longer a symbol of the alliance of farmer and factory worker. It just means the body of the despot. The anthropomorphic frog is no longer a symbol for unashamed and sybaritic self-enjoyment (“feels good man”) – it just means the body of the despot.

There’s a story that gets passed around anti-fascist circles: a Nazi bellies up to the bar at a punk rock club and orders a drink. He isn’t bothering anyone except by presenting fascist images on his clothes. The bartender pulls out a baseball bat and chases the Nazi off. A bystander asks the bartender why he chased away the Nazi and the bartender explains that any bar that doesn’t chase away the first Nazi will become a Nazi bar in time, that the Nazi population will grow and as it does it will push the limits of the offense it can cause. Eventually, inevitably, the Nazis will become violent and then all you have left is a Nazi club.

The Dead Kennedys hinted at this too with Nazi Punks Fuck Off – where they proposed that the Nazi punks weren’t really any different than the hegemonic coaches, businessmen and cops who run the imperial core. “When you ape the cops it ain’t anarchy.” They were just stealing a style they didn’t understand. “Trash a bank if you’ve got real balls.” The painful truth is that when Nazis are allowed to overcode a signifier with themselves it is exceedingly difficult to recover that symbol. While some Buddhists and Jainists may be frustrated about the theft of the Swastika you still can’t trust somebody flying it just because they say they’re Buddhist. Matt Furie held a funeral for Pepe the Frog. It can be frustrating to watch as Nazis spread all over this symbol or that – but this just makes the urgency to push back against any attempt to overcode a symbol with fascist solipsism all the greater.

I’ve talked before about the idea of art as a field in which ownership of intellectual property denotes ownership. This is something of a related phenomenon to overcoding. In overcoding a signifying chain is overlaid with a new signified object. In territorialization boundaries are drawn around signifying blocks and we are told these things belong together, these are the boundaries that should not be crossed. Overcoding disregards territorialized boundaries but then it spills out and covers the territory. It puts up walls and guards at the gates and says, “only I may enter here.” It over-writes old boundaries in the process of reifying ones that suit the overcoder. It proceeds like Tetsuo from Akira, like Smith from the Matrix, replacing everything in its path with more of the same, creating a deadening monotony. It isn’t that every reterritorialization is fascist – when I talked about this phenomenon in The Millers vs the Machines I mentioned how it recreated boundaries, not that those boundaries were cancerous or solipsistic; nor is every consumptive fan community doomed to fascism. But it’s important that we recognize that these movements, the walling off of the collective intellectual commons behind boundaries of ownership, the construction of an identity that mistakes an object of desire for the self, and a desire to make things, “like me,” are the ingredients from which fascism arises.

Fascism is difficult to define because it doesn’t have just one origin or just one manifestation. The paranoia of Agent Smith or of nazi punks aping cops can arise out of any social field; but the social field created by capitalism is particularly vulnerable to the manifestation of fascism because it creates fertile preconditions for the arising of this phenomenon.


If we are to resist fascism in the aesthetic field it cannot be by a counter-move of engaging in a pitched battle over staked territories already subsumed. The fascist incorporation of all into the body of the despot leaves a stink that can’t be washed out. We can start by refusing to cede new territory to the fascists – by showing them the door with a baseball bat in hand but this isn’t always easy to do in the art world, in online spaces, in places where the territories are conceptual rather than points on a field of earth. But this doesn’t mean that resistance is a problem even in these circumstances.

Engage willingly with cycles of creation and loving destruction. These cycles exist. We can enter them. And the fascist, trapped in self-love, cannot follow here. Be a thief, as they say, “be gay, do crimes.” Go out beyond the territories you know and return with treasure. Break the jewels you return with to microscopically fine sparkling dust and then reconstitute new gems from it, imbued with both your own being and your love of the other. Make art like making love – not a process of dialectics where two become one but a scizzing movement where two become many. Love your fate and love your resistance to it. Break rules. Break taboos. Be degenerate and deviant. Be a monster. Remember you are not on moral ground and so disregard the ethical imperatives and instead create a beauty that fascists cannot tolerate. Show that beauty to the world to inoculate them against fascist solipsism. Love the other. Don’t become a singularity holding everything in, trying to own the world. Instead allow yourself to be the wandering point dancing across little pools of nothing; be willing to shed identities and to assume them but tend the identities you assume. Avoid paranoia. Since there is no universal community, create communities that are like the sack of humanity unpicked and sewn back up with the moon inside, be alien and strange and beautiful and terrible and evangelize a vision of the world that loves difference, that is unafraid of cycles of birth and death and birth and death. Find the power in your beauty and your assumption of it but wield that power not to make everything like you but rather to make everything unlike you – to make everything strange.

That is the aesthetic ground upon which we fight.

That is the aesthetic ground upon which we win.

Nazis, Puriteens and Accessibility: The pointless ‘kink at pride’ discourse

Here’s one for the terminally online.

Before we go forward I want to position my stakes in this argument. I’m pretty open on this blog about being bisexual. I mean of the 16 reviews I wrote in 2021, seven have either featured a textually queer protagonist, were created by a queer artist or both. But I’m also a parent (this is why four of the 16 2021 reviews have been of children’s media.) And as such I am a cause of kids at Pride parades as, prior to COVID anyway, I regularly brought my daughter to Pride.

Now another important question is why I want to bring my daughter to Pride parades and the answer to that is because I want her to grow up with a broad understanding of the ways love and enjoyment of others can manifest. I want to raise a child who understands these things well so that she can make healthy choices about her own life that will forward her happiness. I am not bringing my daughter to pride just for a parade with a bunch of rainbow floats (though she does appreciate those.) Pride parades are political actions. In fact, the bank sponsored displays, mainstream political parties marching for publicity and, worst of all, uniformed authority figures are the parts of Pride I have the least time for. On the other hand, I supported the 2016 Black Lives Matter action at Pride in Toronto. I also supported the right of QuAIA to march in Toronto pride parades and was aghast at the municipal interference to silence them. There has never been a time that Pride parades were not fundamentally political actions – and sites of political struggle. With that in mind we should not be surprised to see bigots attempting to use Pride as this vague notion of an event as a site of political struggle now. But I do think it’s important to understand who is doing this and why.

It’s fucking nazis

In 2020 4chan nazis got some attention for Operation Pridefall – a concerted effort by far-right participants of that hellish site to alienate the general public from the LGBTQ community. It’s significant to note that children were a preferred target. One participant said, “Tiktok -> Convince any gen-z sibling or relatives to do some kind of shitty gesture / charade / whore dance, then add LGBT critical captions on top of it and repost.”

The general operating procedure for Pridefall was to post anti-LGBTQ memes and generally do as much as possible to shift discourse such to present queer people, specifically participating in pride month activities, in a negative light. And, wouldn’t you know it, but this has become a predominant image shared around the web in May 2021 – just in time for Pride month!

Let’s be clear about a few realities of this picture. The kinksters in it are not touching the girl, menacing her or causing her any discomfort. The girl in the picture is obviously happy to be there. She’s got a flag, and several strings of beads on, she’s smiling and reaching out to pat the dog-man as if her were a puppy. He’s acting like a dog. This isn’t sexual. It’s just play. And frankly this man is dressed in no more revealing a manner than any number of guys you might encounter on a beach or at a swimming pool.

It’s something of a mistake to assume that kink is just sex. As many people have pointed out, there are a fair number of asexual people who participate in kink. They aren’t there for the fucking – they’re there for the play. People within the BDSM community refer to their games as “scenes” and there is certainly an element of theatricality to the bondage scene. People engaged in kink might and deriving sexual pleasure from their activities. But they’re definitely either putting on a show or playing games every time. Regardless of if there is any sexual pleasure there is, in BDSM a performative and playful pleasure that need not have anything whatsoever to do with sex. And it’s that performative and playful enjoyment on display here. These three very good boys are playing dog. The little girl, who looks to be just around the right age for play-acting games, is obviously enjoying the scene. Nobody’s boundaries are being violated. Nobody is being compelled to do anything. Nobody in the scene is making use of a power differential to impose upon another outside the bounds of adult affirmative consent. But for nazis this photo provides great mimetic fodder for a “think of the children” narrative that is divorced from reality and instead cleaves directly to the revulsions of the straights for the queer.

Fucking nazis using manipulative framing of pictures like this is the core of this awful discourse. And honestly we should be reminding any concern trolls popping up that they’re carrying water for nazis. Fuck nazis.


The phrase “puriteen” has been tossed about for the last few weeks. This is a mythical child who is incensed that their internet experience includes adults who sometimes talk about sex, share sexually explicit information or are just, in general sexual beings. Note, the “puriteen” isn’t a person responding against sexual harassment but is rather somebody who proactively attempts to censure third parties for engaging in sexualized behaviour in digital public spaces.

There’s a fair bit of hand-wringing about kids today who don’t know how we all struggled but the reality is that these “puriteens” are really two separate phenomena:

  1. Overly sensitive adolescents.
  2. Nazis pretending to be overly sensitive adolescents.

The solution to both is the same: block, disengage, and if they fall into making overtly bigoted statements report. There is nothing to be gained from arguing with children. There is even less to gain from arguing with 4chan nazis. The former are not yet at the point where they should be having any say in how adults at an adult event comport themselves. The latter should should be suffocated under the weight of deafening silence.

And all the rest

There are also various concern trolls and online entertainers who make money off of inserting themselves into arguments. None of these people should be taken seriously for the simple reason that none of these people have any actual stakes in the argument. They’re just in it for the clicks. I will not mention who these people are because hate-clicks are clicks too. Needless to say there’s never a good reason to engage with a Twitch debater.

But what about accessibility?

This isn’t a thing. I know a fair number of asexual people. As I said, a few of them are into kink. The vast majority aren’t interested in sex for themselves but are perfectly happy to see others getting it. The few sex-revulsed asexual people I know probably wouldn’t ever be interested in attending a Pride parade in the first place. See the push to make Pride child-friendly is just garden-variety neoliberalism. The semiotic signifiers of Pride are being decoupled from their original use and repackaged as commodities to sell: cute tee-shirts and rainbow flags. This is what lead to the discomfort that mainstream society had with the QuAIA people and with BLM. Divisive politics! At a parade? Where’s my fainting couch?

This sense is engendered that Pride Must Be For Everyone. And that means sanding down all the rough bits. The leather daddies are welcome too, as long as they leave the harnesses at home. After all There Are Children In The Audience Who Might Ask Questions. The assimilationist wants Pride to be an affirmation that society is now OK with The Gays. And if people do things that interfere with that – if people express their diverse strange desires as diverse and as strange that would put lie to the affirmation. It would show that, in fact, society is not yet OK with The Gays. Society is OK with an abstract idea that some people have otherwise heteronormative relationships with people of their own gender, but don’t be weird about it.

And of course don’t be weird about it is defined with a particularly cisheteronormative lens. Two men kissing is allowable. We can pretend that one is “the girl” in the relationship. But drag queens or, heaven forbit, trans women must be rendered invisible. If they can’t pass they can’t participate. After all the bounds between kink and play never really existed. So the drag queen, who lives entirely in the theatrical, entirely in the domain of play, is a figure of fear and disgust. And the transphobes make no distinction between the drag queen and trans woman – who they are desperate to pathologize, to flatten to a paraphilia, a sexual deviancy.

The question of “kink at pride” is certainly one of access. But it’s one that prefers the access of people like me – heteronormatively passable queers who bring their kids for the party – over the people who still face real obstacles to access everywhere else. Now I need to be clear: I have never seen the risk that my child might see a person in a state of undress, or in a state of unusual dress, as anything even remotely resembling a barrier of access to Pride parades. But remember when I described Pride as a site of political conflict? I know whose side I’m on here. And the access of trans women and leather daddies is not something that should not be denied so that people who already have perfectly reasonable access to the world can continue to glide about with minimal resistance. I reject the premise that the presence of “kink” denies access to parents with children. But even if it did, as I said about science fiction conventions before, universal communities don’t exist. The Pride parade is a moment of explicitly political direct action to show that queer people in all our beautiful and strange diversity exist. The access of those who will not pass as normal should be preferred. It is their parade first and foremost. If that means a few sex-discomforted teenagers feel like they cannot access it so be it.

One influential online personality argued that Pride should be as open as possible in order to help normalize queer desire. This guy is in much the same boat as me – in that he’s so normal-presenting I didn’t actually realize he wasn’t straight. This personality is also, as usual, dead wrong. Fuck respectability. Coddling normies doesn’t move the struggle for liberation. Rights aren’t granted – they’re taken.

This gets to my last point. A kinkster I know pointed out that this whole argument was silly because they’re going to turn up and march anyway. They’ll come out with leather harnesses, cuffs and collars, they’ll come with dog masks and with rings affixed to chains around their necks and it won’t fucking matter if some children on twitter don’t think they should be there because the leather daddies, drag queens and dog boys know their right to present as they do has nothing to do with permission. Something is a right when it cannot be taken from you. If it’s a conditional acceptance extended as long as you’re not weird about it, it isn’t a right. The Pride march has always been about creating a right. The old phrase is, “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” not, “we’re here, we’re queer, please like us.” It is a show of force, a presentation that some strangenesses will not be surrendered. If you want an all-ages, de-sexed, pride event, make your own. But in the meantime, don’t expect you will stop the kinky from marching.

About where certain authors should fuck off to

The Hugo awards have provided us a few controversies. There is, of course, my quixotic quest to turn a consumer culture against one of the principal sellers of cultural product. However there have been a few other things brewing below the surface. And these have mostly been questions about whether certain prickly works deserve to be included. On all but one of these issues I’d rather remain silent. This is because, in all but one of these issues, I have not yet read the work in question.

I have read George R.R. Martin Can Fuck Off Into The Sun, or: The 2020 Hugo Awards Ceremony (Rageblog Edition) and it’s…


It’s art criticism.

Now I’ll precis this by saying first that it isn’t good art criticism. And I wouldn’t be voting for this blog entry to get a Hugo award. But if it did somehow win the Hugo (something that is more likely thanks to reactions such as calling for Worldcon to censor the title) it still wouldn’t even be the worst rageblog to ever be given a Hugo for best related work. Not by a long shot.

I’m calling the Fuck Off Into The Sun blog art criticism because I’m treating award ceremonies as art works. Luhrs certainly makes an honest attempt at critique when she says, “The proper role of an awards show host is to keep the audience entertained between awards and get the fuck out of the way of the people being honored. Martin did neither.” And this blog does not read like a grievance letter about Martin’s poorly organized loser’s party but rather a systematic attempt to look at the tone of the awards ceremony, its adherence to the tropes of the genre, its ethical and aesthetic characteristics, and the messages it communicated. That’s art criticism and that makes it an appropriate nominee for a best related work Hugo. That it wasn’t very good is neither here nor there.

But, of course, things have gotten silly. I read the blog on the strength of its amusing (if somewhat over-long) title when the Hugo nominees were announced. When I told some co-workers who aren’t tied to the “fandom” scene about the Hugos this essay was the one they wanted to know more about. Even normies have heard of George R.R. Martin and it isn’t surprising that they wanted to know about why someone wanted him to fuck off into the sun – or that they wanted to know why this opinion would be popular enough to be nominated for an award. And I laughed. I told them there’s a long tradition of such silly entries in the Related Work category because not that many “fans” care about it and it’s easy to slip something onto a ballot with even a small kernel of support. Let’s not forget the minimum threshold for entry onto the Related Work ballot this year was 31 votes.

I said there wasn’t a chance in hell it’d actually be the winner. I mean even that Bronycon video was a better critical work. And there was that tantalizing translation of Beowulf; there was a highly rated book of critical analysis about Octavia Butler for goodness sake – related work has an embarrassment of riches this year. But this idea of subjecting a nominee for an award to scrutiny for a supposed ethics violation of the convention that is hosting the award for which she was nominated is some next-level childishness.

I’ve talked before about the defensiveness of the consumptive fan – the idea that even the weakest criticism (and this is weak criticism) is met with extreme hostility because the associated identity as a fan is so fragile that it cannot suffer anything that might harm the reputation of the product the fan has invested meaning in. It’s been pointed out already that the calls to censor the title of this nominee have come from fans of George R. R. Martin including one who runs a fan website that is not affiliated with the author. Of course this will almost certainly end up as an example of the Streisand Effect and frankly, if by some unlikely circumstance the Fuck Off Into The Sun blog wins the Hugo it should be presented to Luhrs by the administration of the Westeros site – after all, they will be the ones who have given it to her. This is, as I said before, all very silly. Thin-skinned fans can’t bear the thought of their favourite TV Producer / occasional novelist being criticized for being an old, white, wealthy American who acts like an old, white, wealthy American. They have constructed so much of their own identity with their affiliation with the Game of Thrones brand that her criticism, which was pretty obviously a surface level criticism wherein Martin was being used as a stand-in for a series of systemic grievances that are hard to get at in a blog post and thus not exactly a thorough evisceration of his oeuvre, was too much for them to take. It was as if Luhrs’ act of criticism was an assault upon the fans. This sort of fan behaviour is, as I’ve harped on about many times, to the detriment of the arts.

Then there is the bit of legalistic wrangling that has become the lynchpin of the complaint of these disgruntled fans: “Comments directly intended to belittle, offend, or cause discomfort including telling others they are not welcome and should leave…” This is honestly kind of laughable coming from the same concom that took several days to debate whether to retain a GoH who was the administrator of a forum that included Trumpist Insurrectionist discussion. We need to seriously consider whether a person who administered a safe-space for hate speech is an appropriate guest of honour but we wouldn’t want anybody to feel unwelcome. And this cuts to the heart of the problem I raised during the Baen’s Bar imbroglio. There is no way to make everybody welcome. A welcoming space for a bigot will be, by definition, not a welcoming space for the subject of bigotry. Now I am not calling Martin or his fans bigots, nor am I suggesting that Discon III should be unwelcoming to Martin – who is something of an establishment at the Hugo awards notwithstanding how he may have succeeded or failed as a presenter. Rather I’m saying that the idea of censoring the name of a Hugo nominee in order to avoid the risk that Martin or, more importantly, Martin’s fans might get their feelings bruised is childishness. So no. George R.R. Martin Can Fuck Off Into The Sun, or: The 2020 Hugo Awards Ceremony (Rageblog Edition) should not win a Hugo. But it has earned its place on the ballot and the fans who are lobbying to censor it should take a deep breath and learn to cope with a world where some people may have bad things to say about popular old rich men.

I’ve noticed that due to certain viral trends of December 2021 this article is getting a significant up-tick in views. I want to note that the subject of this article was not a member of the concom for Discon III and, just as she should not have been held to task by them for an “ethics violation” so too should she not bear the blame for the ethical failures of the Discon III concom. In light of their misuse of the term “ethics violation” in this instance though it should be noted that the Discon III made some serious ethical errors and I have some pointed things to say on that topic. Check them out in this article.

Hugos: Have we forgotten Disney Must Pay?

Yesterday the 2021 Hugo Award nominees were announced. There’s a lot of interesting stuff on it. Harrow the Ninth and The City We Became are both high up my to-read list. Aliette de Bodard is one of my favourite authors in general – I’ve previously written about her books and I’m very tempted to dig up “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” soonest for all of the Hugo nominated print fiction on offer this year.

I am also very excited to read Beowulf: A New Translation, by Maria Dahvana Headley Moving out of print work, dramatic presentation, Long Form, includes the best comic book adaptation to come out in the last few years with Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and another very strong contender within the category with The Old Guard – a movie I enjoyed perhaps not as much as Birds of Prey, but would still consider one of the best genre entries of 2020.

Short-form dramatic presentation has strong contenders with the series finale of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which is a possible contender for a future Kid’s Stuff essay and with the series finale of The Good Place, for which I have a lot of affection. All in all this slate of finalists looks far better than the painful slates we suffered through during the tumultuous Sad Puppy years. And yet I’m not happy.

Because it seems like the entirety of SFF has forgotten that, as of the time of writing, Disney still has not paid Alan Dean Foster. Disney’s insufferable expression of unadulterated brand-as-entertainment, The Mandalorian, is nominated in short-form dramatic presentation not once but twice, and the Pixar movie Soul is nominated in long-form dramatic presentation. I have never felt even the slightest whit of interest in The Mandalorian as I consider the entire enterprise almost entirely lacking in artistic merit. On the other hand, Soul may very well be a very good cartoon. I don’t care. It’s shocking that the genre “fan community” would show so little concern for the material conditions under which artists labour as to heap fan-accolades upon the Mouse that Eats.

Recently Disney bought and shuttered a minor competitor of Pixar in Blue Sky Studios. This is on top of their widely-covered acquisitions of Fox, Marvel, Lucasfilm and Pixar that have marked its monopolistic quest to control all of entertainment over the last fifteen years. In my opinion there is no greater threat to artistic expression, in the world, than Disney. Not even Amazon is as harmful. Disney has now begun using its streaming service to directly supplant cinema as a result of the 2020-21 COVID-19 pandemic, charging exorbitant mark-ups to access feature movies like the Mulan reboot in which Disney attempts to cement its ownership of a poem older than even Beowulf and Raya and the Last Dragon. There is no reasonable frame in which Disney’s corporate maneuvers, their acquisitiveness and their monopolism can be divided from their art.

Disney’s rapid acquisition of genre properties should be of grave concern to genre fans. It has a long history of homophobia, colonialism and racism. It is a four-quadrant obsessed producer of massive tentpole films in which people don’t fuck or swear, queers exist in subtext alone, and where violence is safely PG-13. It is deeply in bed with the US military. Disney’s vast acquisitions have the effect of flattening and circumscribing the imaginations of audiences who have very few options that aren’t the Mouse. And this also plays into the construction of consumer communities that reduce the act of engaging with art to merely being an unpaid amateur brand ambassador. And so I’m pleading with fan communities to remember that Disney doesn’t care about artists. It just cares about hoarding art and treating it as a revenue stream. If we’re fans of art and not of brands we must show Disney as much distain in 2021 as we did to the Sad Puppies in 2015. The risk to art from Disney is far greater than the risk to art ever posed by the Puppies.

So please do not vote for any Disney owned artworks at this year’s Hugo awards. And spread the word.