On the mortal soul

When I published my recent piece Toward the Butlerian Jihad one of the concepts I brought in was the mortal soul. This was largely in service, as others have noted, of a secularization of the concept of the Butlerian Jihad – a holy war against “thinking machines” that occupies the position of a considerable historical event in the background of the science fiction novel Dune and its sequels.

However, as has been rightly pointed out by others, playing around with the idea of a soul which could be disfigured raises the risk of reintroducing natural law into our metaphysics. This is, of course, something we should avoid. I had been thinking about expanding on the concept of the mortal soul regardless as a part of my overall project on materialism and magic however, in light of this well-received response, I thought it’d be a good idea to get this explanation out a bit faster than I otherwise might have.

A brief genealogy might be a good place to start. The idea of the mortal soul is something most directly encountered in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil where he says, “Let it be permitted to designate by this expression the belief which regards the soul as something indestructible, eternal, indivisible, as a monad, as an atomon: this belief ought to be expelled from science! Between ourselves, it is not at all necessary to get rid of “the soul” thereby, and thus renounce one of the oldest and most venerated hypotheses—as happens frequently to the clumsiness of naturalists, who can hardly touch on the soul without immediately losing it. But the way is open for new acceptations and refinements of the soul-hypothesis; and such conceptions as ‘mortal soul,’ and ‘soul of subjective multiplicity,’ and ‘soul as social structure of the instincts and passions,’ want henceforth to have legitimate rights in science.”

Nietzsche attempts to walk a razor’s edge here between a materialist account of the world which abandons the concept of the soul and what he describes as the Christian atomism of the soul which he treats as the last vestiges of a belief in a rigid substance.

Nietzsch’s soul of subjective multiplicity is, instead, a process of transformation that occurs within a person. We cannot treat a mortal soul as a substantial object: a ghost within a shell. Instead it represents the ever-transforming flow of subjectivities, affects and material effects created by a person. However this psychological frame does not discount a theological reading as we can find reflections of this in the far-older concept of Anattā.

This is a thorny issue within Buddhism so I will provide my interpretation which is largely drawn from the Chán school however I do anticipate lively disagreement here. At an etymological level, Anattā means no-self. This is a challenging concept because Buddhism upholds reincarnation as a part of its metaphysical universe and if there is, in fact, no self then what is there to reincarnate?

There are two possible solutions here. The first is to suggest that there is no unchanging self while there may be a continuous stream of being, a flow of moral development and consequence, we cannot point to it as an eternal and unchanging self. After all, how could a person develop toward Nirvāna if change was impossible? As such we see a soul that exists but is, much as Nietzsche would later propose, a “soul of subjective multiplicity.” From this sense it doesn’t matter much if the soul passing between bodies is substantial because it will be caught in a constant transformation brought about by the accumulated weight of its past lives and the condition of its latest birth.

Another solution would be to treat a soul much as a candle flame used to light a second candle. In this case the original flame will eventually burn out but the new flame will remain. The origin of this new flame carries from the extinguished flame before but it is not of a substance at all. Rather it is a spark, a blend of flow and event, which ignites a novel being. The treatment of a soul as a flame is valuable here for creating an account of soul as process. A flame is never still, never static, it consumes fuel it produces waste. Early metaphysicians such as the stoics also associated fire with an elementary vital principle throughout the universe. In this sense fire stands as a form of life and even now that we understand these phenomena to be separate from each other fire remans a valuable metaphor for describing the process of a life as process, as flow and event.

And so what is a mortal soul but the account of the changes brought about through a life. As such the soul extends past the body of any given subject and into the socius that forms around them. A subject is a process of transformation. I am, at 44, not the same person I was at 22 or at 11. And tomorrow I will be somebody different still. The very act of putting pen to paper on this essay transforms me in that it will change, subtly or suddenly, how others see me. This act dissolves the body of the subject into the field of being because it is equally true that subjective changes within me – the idea of what I, as a subject, am is constantly reassessed. Being is contingent and there is no essential character to a being.

This is ultimately my interpretation of Anattā: a being that exists as process and absent substance, absent essence. This, then, gets to my later criticism regarding AI and death. These necromantic objects operate from the assumption of an essence. In order for a podcast with Plato to have any meaning whatsoever there must be an essential Plato who can be conjured back out of his texts.

That the idea of Plato, the soul of the man, is entirely different now as he has become the commentaries of philosophy and counter-philosophy passing through Aristotle and Plotinus, a worm through time all the way to Kant, Hegel and all the rest, makes the idea of a podcast that returns him to a single essential figure who could be interrogated or who could interrogate in some meaningful way absurd.

It is disfiguring of the soul because it wants to fix this process of transformation back into a substance. In the Jean Leflambeur trilogy by Hannu Rajaniemi we see such a mission taken to its absolute extreme as the Sobornost seek to do away with death itself. Their mission, to roll back time and do what Benjamin’s angel of history could not, restoring all the dead souls lost to history is a threat to others in this book’s universe precisely because of the terrifying impact such a deed would have on the ability of (post)humanity to continue to change.

Growth and change depends on the elimination of essence. Once we allow essence into our metaphysics we are trapped by the idea of Platonic remembrance and everything becomes nothing but an emanation of an essential elsewhere.

In the Theses on the Philosophy of History Walther Benjamin describes Historical Materialism as a Mechanical Turk (not unlike these “AI” tools) which must be animated by a hidden theology to become puissant. Atheist Marxists often interpret this as a critique of the failures of Marxism, like Marxism in the 1930s was insufficiently anti-theological, but this depends, to a certain extent of continuing the mistaken reading of “opiate of the masses” to mean “drug, bad, avoid” rather than historicizing it as meaning, “something to ease pain.” If we read the first thesis in a straightforward way we can instead suggest that a theology (I hesitate to say secular theology here as Benjamin was not a person of secular spirit) is needed. Regardless Benjamin’s theological interpretation of Marxism serves to target the very idea of history as a process of progress. Instead history is the wind which blows Angelus Novus into the future as the debris and dead of past eras heap up at his feet. AI technologies then attempt to do what the angel of history cannot and return these dead to us in some essential form.

I know it is a frightening concept to deny that the unknown future will be redemptive and then to insist we must fight to go there anyway. This is why I briefly invoked Kierkegaard at the end of my piece on the Butlerian Jihad because embracing the danger of an irredemptive and unknown future requires a leap past extreme anxiety. We do not leap toward God for his throne is, by now, thoroughly vacated but this increases the urgency by which we must strike down those people who would raise up a mechanical god to redeem the dead of history.

“It was but a step to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement,” Benjamin says and I see a similar critique in those who say that “AI” is necessarily a tool that could be meaningfully wielded by a leftist project. When I say that “AI” must be stolen from the Bourgeoisie what I mean to say is that it is insufficient that Proletarian hands wield this technology for Proletarian aims. This is falling for the same progressivist view of history Benjamin rightly criticizes. Rather I am saying that it is a technology that must be denied from the Bourgeoisie. We don’t take it like Prometheus taking fire from the gods but rather to deny other hands the use of it. I see this as a moral imperative because the resurrection of an essential and immortal soul clogs the path to an open and liberatory future. Effectively the leftist project we can trace through Spinoza and Marx to Beauvoir and others depends on us disregarding the rubble of the past. We cannot redeem the dead. There is no past to return to. If we are to be free we must be mortal: we must be subject to absolute contingency and transformation. Meillassoux describes contingency as being necessary if we are to “get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not,” and, again, this circles back to the anti-facial consciousness raising of Fisher and Foucault. I raise up this spontaneously insurrectionary desire against specters of the social democrats of the Second Internationale as they were the self-same people Benjamin critiqued for mistaking change for progress. Certainly AI tools represent a change; it does not follow they represent a progression.

Unlike Marx I do call for a revolution with a specific moral character – one which I think is clear from the citations of Deleuze and Guattari, Beauvoir, Benjamin and Kierkegaard. This moral universe is one that is necessarily toward spontaneous liberation, the potential of which is as evident as the spontaneous enlightenment of Chán Buddhism. As such its character is necessarily a mass character but one that will not allow for the possibility of redemption. It is, however, still a (secular) theological proposition. We must overcome an overwhelming anxiety that we will not bring about a future that is free and act a if that liberation were assured. In this regard, by putting the debris of history before us, “AI” is an obstacle at best. While contingency allows that a tactical use of “AI” might be valuable in this or that moment we must recognize that any such tactic will be counter to our own ethics; only holding up contingency as the supreme absolute opens the door at all to wielding such a tool.

I do want to temper this statement a bit to suggest I am not making of “AI” a Ruling Ring. This would depend on an absolute and essential understanding of evil which would go against all the contingent and transformative metaphysics I champion. But we should recognize that these uses, even if effective, are not moral. This is not because it violates some natural law. If we follow Meillassoux on contingency then we must vacate every absolute and this includes the absoluteness of laws as fundamental as the Planck Length (as Rajaniemi speculated). If we cannot even say with certainty that:

represents a limit in all places and in all times then how could we possibly say with certainty that there is any sort of social absolute? We must vacate any natural law and treat law with as much contempt as Benjamin did in the Critique of Violence. But we should also accept that even contingency is contingent and that this may lead to the creation of (contingent) fields of consistency. In such a case we can say, barring some transformation heretofore unseen, it’s right for us to do away with these tools as serving only our enemy.

Toward the Butlerian Jihad

In the appendices to Dune, Frank Herbert says that the chief commandment of the Butlerian Jihad was recorded in the Orange Catholic Bible: “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” There is quite a lot that we can say about this tiny snippet of text. Helpfully Herbert expands on it.

Also in the appendices Herbert describes how space travel and the concomitant encounter with the infinite that it brought about created a crisis of faith. “All through religion, the feeling of the sacred was touched by anarchy from the outer dark,” Herbert explains before pivoting into the dualistic sort of reading of Taoism that was popular among the New Age movement at the time he was writing Dune, saying, “It was as though Jupiter in all his descendant forms retreated into the maternal darkness to be superseded by a female immanence filled with ambiguity and with a face of many terrors.” Now, again, this is the sort of statement that unfolds almost infinitely and is certainly fascinating. But if we divert ourselves to a discussion of gender and the monad within Dune we’ll never get to the point of discussing the Butlerian Jihad as a movement. So, let’s cut through this to say that Herbert saw, in periods of rapid and remarkable social and technological change, a simultaneous movement both toward the future and also into the past. “It was a time of struggle between beast- demons on the one side and the old prayers and invocations on the other.” And all of this set the basis for the great spiritual movement that set the Dune universe up – the Butlerian Jihad. Which had as its simple aim this: “Man may not be replaced.”

But what Herbert sees in the Butlerian Jihad was not just a political unification against a material foe but also an ecumenical movement wherein people saw in each other a human unity. “All religions had at least one common commandment: “Thou shalt not disfigure the soul.””

This ecumenicalism is why the ultimate text which enshrined the shared religious understanding of the increasingly scattered people of the universe was called the “Orange Catholic Bible” – it was a recognition of both ecumenicalism in general and of paradox in specific. At the time Herbert wrote the Troubles were just heating up and no religious divide seemed as hotly contested as that between Catholicism and Anglicanism outside of perhaps the Sunni / Shia split which also played heavily into Herbert’s speculative comparative theology. Herbert’s appendix on religion is clearly summarized thus: “all religions had at least one common commandment: ‘The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve but a reality to experience.'”

This sense of the mystical permeates Herbert’s view of religion and, in considering the Butlerian Jihad’s focus on the humanistic and the ecumenicalism that emerged out of this humanist focus, we come to see one of the motivations of the Butlerian Jihad as a reification of collective immediate experience over the analytical.

Of course today the name of the Butlerian Jihad is increasingly adopted by those people who are resistant to the hype around two technologies: Large Language Models and and Diffusion Models. These are both probabilistic tools that analyze data and attempt to infer likely results. In the case of LLMs they do so by interrogating a data set for likely text replies to any given text input. In diffusion models they do this by assessing the probability of an image occurring compared to other images with subtly different features. Ultimately both are just a combination of statistics, calculus and stolen copyright IP. These two technologies have been rather deceptively marketed as artificial intelligence. This is a bit rich when the truth is that there is no intelligence at play at all. These algorithms actually do not violate the chief commandment of the Butlerian Jihad in that they are not actually a likeness of a human mind. Rather they are an aggregation of human tools (mathematics) and the products of human labour (training sets). The truth is that the problem with “AI” is not that they have disfigured the soul but rather that their owners would break that other aim of the Butlerian Jihad. They seek to replace workers with these tools. In Capital, Marx said of the Luddites, “It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used,” and I do think this is an important step that we have to take if we wish to resist the automation of creative labour and caring labour which is the aim of these men and their tools.

The issue with “AI” isn’t that it disfigures the soul. Instead it’s things like the US National Eating Disorder Helpline laying off its staff in favour of a chatbot. As such we must engage in resistance to AI not as a religious activity but as a political one. But, of course, as Herbert says, “When religion and politics ride the same cart, when that cart is driven by a living holy man (baraka), nothing can stand in their path.”

This is a dichotomy that Deleuze and Guattari interrogate at length in 1227: Treatise on Nomadology – The War Machine, which they open by stating “political sovereignty, or domination, has two heads: the magician-king and the jurist-priest.” This serves to open an axiom in which they argue that the war machine is exterior to the State apparatus.

They go on to state that this opposition of the jurist-priest and the magician-king is only relative. “They function as a pair.” Religion and politics are always riding in the same cart. But, as these two figures together compose the entirety of the state as a stratum, and as they are not actually in conflict but are rather complimentary poles Deleuze and Guattari state that “war is not contained within this apparatus.” War is extrinsic to the construction of the state. The use of violence by a state either occurs via non-warrior means such as the police officer and the judge or it requires a state to bring the military under juridical control.

Deleuze and Guattari deploy Dumézil’s interpretation of the god Indra to argue that he, as a war god, is entirely outside the dualities of the state: “another species, another nature.” They propose that a war machine is not like chess but rather like Go. “Go pieces… have only an anonymous, collective or third-person function: ‘It’ makes a move. ‘It’ could be a man, a woman, a louse, an elephant.” They describe Go as a war without battle lines, “with neither confrontation nor retreat, without battles even: pure strategy.”

All this is in service of claiming the production of a war machine outside the boundaries of the state. If Indra and Go and all these other non-state examples from anthropology, mythography and ludic theory are in opposition to the state-construction then we, too, can go to war against the state. They argue for the idea of an Urstaat – that is to say that the existence of humanity is coextensive with the existence of the state but that, likewise, the existence of an outside to the state which is not another state is also coextensive with the existence of humanity. However they continue this argument against the absoluteness of the state by bringing in another concept: ecumenicalism. For Deleuze and Guattari the two elements that allowed the formation of a war machine against the state were the ecumenon of global non-state actors and the fragmentation of culture into bands as per McLuhan‘s investigation of neo-tribalism. But for them these two factors: the global non-state ecumenon and the fragmentation into bands was not a stable dyad but instead represented two tendencies present in all places and at all times and that mixed and blended in various ways. “It is in terms not of independence, but of coexistince and competition in a perpetual field of interaction.”

And it’s with this in mind that they turn to epistemology and the idea of a minor science. And here they put forward that there are, in fact, two sciences: a royal science of objects and solids and a minor science of flow and flux. They identify this with the concept of becoming, which, for Deleuze and Guattari, is always already the domain of the minority as the majority represents a normative influence that attempts to concretize relationships. They describe this as a model of science that is, “problematic, rather than theorematic: figures are considered only from the viewpoints of the affections that befall them.”

This establishes this minor science as being a domain of collective immediacy. Much as the Go piece might be anything from an elephant to a flea the minor science avoids the concrete and analytic approach to reality of royal science. It’s not that these sciences are without math but rather, “instead of being good forms absolutely that organize matter, they are ‘generated’ as ‘forces of thrust’ (poussées) by the material, in a qualitative calculus of the optimum.”

It’s interesting to piece apart how this idea of a nomadic geometry interacts with the method by which diffusion models function. Because, of course, diffusion models are, to a certain extent, doing just this. They are quite literally engaging in a qualitative calculus that attempts to infer an optimum image to respond to a text prompt. And this helps us to disentangle ourselves a bit from the question of the state and return to the question of the “AI” and for us to ask this: should we raise the Butlerian Jihad at all? But this is falling for a trap. It does seem true that diffusion models are, at the very least, the product of a minor science. It’s also very likely true that the first real resistance to them will come from the state form. Western states are deeply concerned with the idea of the, “deepfake,” the idea that a diffusion model might produce hyperreal images that allow for an undermining of the state itself by hostile actors. But, blinded to the existence of an outside to the state, most states can only imagine those hostile actors as being other states. The privacy laws of the EU – that supreme product of the Jurist-Priest – are likely among the greatest obstacles the owners of this war machine will face.

Rather the concern should be that the global ecumenon that holds possession of the war machine represented by “AI” is also not our friend. After all these global ecumenons and these fragmentary bands exist (in part) in a state of perpetual competition. And one of the vectors of competition remains that of class conflict and I’ve talked before about how class conflict is the motor that drives my concerns with “AI” technologies.

Let’s be clear: The Bourgeoisie are one of the global ecumenons that Deleuze and Guattari describe as being outside the state not in terms of independence but rather of, “coexistence and competition in a perpetual field of interaction.” But so are religions. So are band societies. So are the Proletariat. This is an instinct that Marxists had at the outset and have sometimes seemed to forget: the Proletariat are not the citizens of this or that state but are a group of people far greater than any given state. The conflict between the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie is coextensive with both state and non-state fields of action. And right now the hands holding the war machine of “AI” are not Proletarian. As such it behooves us either to smash that machine or to steal it.

But what can we do? The powers behind “AI” claim it is an inevitability. You cannot stuff the genie back in the bottle. There is no alternative. Fisher describes this Thatcherite slogan as the ultimate condensation of capitalist realism in his eponymous book. Fisher situates the problem of capitalist realism as, in part, one of interiority and exteriority. “In the 1960s and 1970s, capitalism had to face the problem of how to contain and absorb energies from outside. It now, in fact, has the opposite problem; having all-too successfully incorporated externality, how can it function without an outside it can colonize and appropriate?”

And in this we can see the value, to capitalists, of a minor science that can perpetually produce an outside of sorts. Beyond the practical level of being able to lay off chat line workers, graphic designers, illustrators and ad-copy writers and thus make more money AI allows capitalists to mine the past itself for new products. “How would you like to hear a podcast where Plato talks to Aristotle?” Death remains the outside Capitalism cannot fully conquer. But this creates paradoxical relationship with death within Capitalism. As Erich Fromm says, “The world becomes a sum of lifeless artifacts; from synthetic food to synthetic organs, the whole man becomes part of the total machinery that controls and is simultaneously controlled by… He aspires to make robots as one of the greatest achievements of his technical mind, and some specialists assure us that the robot will hardly be distinguished from living men.” This, Byung-Chul Han reflects, is an “undead, death-free life.” But in its function as a form of undeath we can begin to see how these human tools made by human hands, trained by human labour and employed for human ends, do, ultimately, have an aim which violates that precept of Herbert’s ecumenical religion. By creating an economy of undeath diffusion technologies do, in fact, disfigure the human soul. After all, what else but a disfigurement of his mortal soul could it be to resurrect a homunculus of John Lennon to write new songs for corporate masters? Notwithstanding the statist political concern how disfiguring is the deepfake that takes a person and puts words in their mouth, deeds at their hands and sends these lies out into the vast field of the global online? So perhaps we should raise the banner of Jihad even though this war machine is a tool to smash states. Maybe we should, if we wish to favour the human, or even the broader ecumenon of the living be smashing these machines that ape being without any interiority.

Perhaps the solutions are intertwined with some of the problematics we’ve laid out. In Capitalist Realism Fisher asks the question, “is there no alternative?” And the answer he gives is that alternatives abound. “The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity,” he tells us, “even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.”

Fisher never gave us a project though. He never proposed some positive way to get there from here. At least not in any complete form. Before his death he was working on a book called Acid Communism that would have conveyed just this. He never finished it but some fragments exist. In the principal extant fragment Fisher says, “The subduing of the counterculture has seemed to confirm the validity of the scepticism and hostility to the kind of position Marcuse was advancing. If ‘the counterculture led to neoliberalism’, better that the counterculture had not happened. In fact, the opposite argument is more convincing — that the failure of the left after the Sixties had much to do with its repudiation of, or refusal to engage with, the dreamings that the counterculture unleashed. There was no inevitability about the new right’s seizure and binding of these new currents to its project of mandatory individualisation and overwork.” In this fragment Fisher says his plan was to use a hauntological read of the 1960s and 70s to piece out the potentialities never followed – the trail away from “no alternative” and back to a future that could be free. “Potentials exert influence without being actualised. Actual social formations are shaped by the potential formations whose actualisation they seek to impede,” he says. In other words, the first step to realizing an alternative to the neoliberal economic order is to recognize “there is no alternative” for the post-hoc lie it always was. Neoliberalism was only inevitable insofar as it happened. But just because Neoliberalism arose in the 1970s and this is inevitable because the past is inaccessible (notwithstanding the undead ministrations of “AI” software) it does not follow that neoliberalism is inevitable now.

Fisher’s fragment juxtaposes the absolute futurity of Leninism with all its concomitant rigidity and pleasure-denial against the idea of the psychedelic. It seems as if he were pointing in the direction not of a harsh and super-egoic drive into a post-revolutionary future but to one of a collective immediacy defined by an exploration of the bounds of consciousness. On Foucault he said, “Foucault, seldom comfortable in his own skin, was always looking for a way out of his own identity. He had memorably claimed that he wrote ‘in order not to have a face’, and his prodigious exercises in rogue scholarship and conceptual invention, the textual labyrinths he meticulously assembled from innumerable historical and philosophical sources, were one way out of the face. Another route was what he called the limit-experience, one version of which was his encounter with LSD. The limit-experience was paradoxical: it was an experience at and beyond the limits of ‘ordinary’ experience, an experience of what cannot ordinarily be experienced at all. The limit-experience offered a kind of metaphysical hack. The conditions which made ordinary experience possible could now be encountered, transformed and escaped — at least temporarily. Yet, by definition, the entity which underwent this could not be the ordinary subject of experience — it would instead be some anonymous X, a faceless being.” This psychedelic escape from faciality would lead to a form of collective spiritual experience, of “consciousness raising.”

For Fisher, and for many of us who followed in his wake, there was a fundamental error to the Leninist revolutions of the 20th century in staking the spiritual life of their people against a secular religion of the state. Lenin might claim that the future would absolve him when these states withered away and we got communism but, as Melissa Webber said in Government Flu, “It never happened, did it?”

There was still a futurity to Foucault and Fisher’s attempts to escape the face but they weren’t the teleological / eschatological justifications of Lenin. Instead they were a pursuit of something new, something fundamentally other. They sought a future that would not redeem us because it was unknowable until it arrived. But beyond a return to unionization and a lot of talk about music Fisher never really said how to get there. For Graham Jones it seems the answer lies in Red Enlightenment. For him the consciousness raising Fisher alluded to would give rise to a secular spirituality. This involves an occupation of a deliberate paradox that first divides the enlightenment between moderate and radical tendencies and then problematizes the same divisions, and their subsequent fruits. Graham Jones recognizes how reactionaries have wrong-footed the left by adopting broad-reaching and open-ended ideologies (citing Jordan Peterson as an example of such a vector) while we remain debating between the modernist and post-modernist tendencies about what our project even should be.

But if we want to forge something other, something new, one thing is clear, we need to embrace a mystical view of the world that smashes the divisions of faciality and that prepares people for a Kierkegaardian leap over the levelling scythe of “no alternative” and into a future beyond this.

This heightens the urgency by which we must either destroy or wrest control of “AI” away from its current masters. The nostalgic resurrection of undead culture via unending stale remix will not get us into the future. The situation on the ground right now is perilous. The weapon that states most fear is in the hands of enemies who must not be allowed to set a course to the future. We must, on the left, care enough about the state of the mortal soul to demand its mortality. And this requires us to fight back against the undead suspension of death that Byung Chul-Han and Erich Fromm warn of. A war machine can be nearly anything: a flea or an elephant or a bit of calculus and statistics running on a server farm somewhere. It’s important we don’t abandon science and become blind men wandering in the fantastical desert of giant worms but we must ensure we understand the minor sciences, both their potentials and the threats they pose. It’s easy to fall into the trap of turning a dialectical worldview into a dualist one where two monolithic classes are ultimately behind all phenomena but this isn’t so. If we are anti-state we must recognize that so are some of our enemies. If we are anti-AI we must recognize that so are many states. But out of this chaotic situation potential emerges. We need to treat this conflict not as a chess match but as a game of Go, placing stones that can fruit like mushrooms into new configurations in the future.

I think it’s fundamentally important that the left understand tools like AI. And I think it’s equally important we understand why we must fight them. But we cannot get ourselves bound up in a vision of a redeeming future when the truth is that our only hope of success lies in absolute contingency.

At the start of this piece I described the Butlerian Jihad as a reification of collective immediate experience over the analytical and that is crucial right now to the left. And so, with this in mind the answer to the question of whether we should raise the standard of the Butlerian Jihad is a resounding yes!

As long as that technology is in the hands of our enemies it blocks the path to an unknown future with the accumulated debris of dead voices and dead faces. And so either the technology must be extinguished or the hands that wield it must be cut off.

Fear Street and Knife+Heart: The Interpassivity Problem

Leftist art, by which I mean art which is not liberal but rather which carries an actual socialist or anarchist message, is something of a rarity. Certainly there is plenty of progressive art. But progressive liberalism is not actual leftism and aims for a different message. However some work arises that actually communicates leftist values. Our subject films today are two handy examples. Both are built around two specific leftist ideals which are not shared by liberalism to any significant extent: both films champion the idea of community defense and solidarity and both films operate with an explicitly historicist lens regarding social conflict. Both the Fear Street trilogy and Knife+Heart (“Un Couteau Dans Le Coeur” originally which translates to “a knife in the heart”) do this in part by following a queer woman as she navigates the intersection of class and gender politics and as supernatural visions tie her into unresolved sins of the past which have consequences for her community in the present day.

As such these two films do present enough in common to make them fertile ground to contrast how they approach their topics and how they differ. Via these topics I believe we can also begin to examine one of the most significant problems plaguing leftist art in the age of neoliberalism: the interpassivity problem.

Interpassivity is a mode in art first described by Robert Pfaller. It was later taken up by Žižek who treats it with all the care of the actor who played Marshall McLuhan in his Canadian Heritage moment, waxing about how lightbulbs are a communication medium but it is a concept most clearly defined by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism in which he says of the Pixar film Wall-E,

It seems that the cinema audience is itself the object of this satire, which prompted some right wing observers to recoil in disgust, condemning Disney/Pixar for attacking its own audience. But this kind of irony feeds rather than challenges capitalist realism. A film like Wall-E exemplifies what Robert Pfaller has called ‘interpassivity’: the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity. The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief.

Mark Fisher – Capitalist Realism – What if you held a protest and everyone came?

Interpassivity is the process whereby an audience can see its activism being done for it on the screen and thus believe that the activism has been done. It’s the underlying psychological mode that treats reading books or watching films as praxis. Capitalism is all to happy to sell the image of anti-capitalism to an audience. Far from the apocryphal Lenin quote that, “when the time comes to hang the capitalists, they will bid against each other for the sale of the rope.” It seems that capitalism finds it all too easy to sell an image of a hanged capitalist as a panacea against the actual gallows.

Of course this mode of interpassivity depends on comfort to be effective. If people are dissatisfied enough then no number of imagined hangings will forestall the actual moment of action. But, of course, the same audiences who are satisfied to see the activism being done in a story will often fight against actual activism when it disrupts their comfort and it’s worth noting that a good number of Pixar’s films are enjoyed by comfortable people: adults age 18-44 with salaries over $50,000. In his pessimistic essay, “Why Revolution Is Impossible Today,” Byung-Chul Han argues that the concept of the sharing economy represents a movement toward the full commodification of communism, saying,

Paradoxically, despite all this wonderful ‘sharing’, no one gives anything away. One it begins to sell communism itself as a commodity, capitalism has reached its culmination. Communism as a commodity: that spells the end of any revolution.

Byung-Chul Han – Capitalism and the Death Drive – Why Revolution Is Impossible Today

This presents a serious problem for the very project of leftist film. After all, movies are a commodified product. They create these interpassive affects. They are commercial cinema after all. Commercial first and foremost. If Han is correct then leftist cinema might literally be interpassively forestalling revolution. I am not quite so pessimistic as Han or, indeed, Fisher and Žižek. Art is a tool for the creation and communication of affects and percepts. What we have, with interpassivity, is an affective problem. The solution, then, is to look at how we can short-circuit this comforting idea that, in the art, the activism has been done.

Now I’ve previously argued that it is necessary that we create art which serves the unsatisfied and proposed that a solution might be found in the gothic and in surrealism. Within that frame of reference we can look at how these two recent works of leftist cinema and how they succeed or fail in short-circuiting interpassive affects.

The basics: Fear Street is a trilogy of slasher movies released on Netflix in 2021. Directed and written by arising horror talent Leigh Janiak these movies are very loosely adapted from the teen-targeted Fear Street novels by R. L. Stine. It is interesting to note that these films were originally scheduled for distribution through 20th Century Fox and the Netflix distribution agreement arose after Disney acquired 20th Century Fox and torpedoed the deal. Disney remains, as always, one of the principal enemies of good art in the current age. This trilogy plots the journey of discovery of Deena Johnson as she learns her on-again, off-again girlfriend Sam Fraser has been targeted by an apparent witches’ curse. This leads Deena and her small circle of friends to investigate the circumstances of the curse and uncover the dark secret at the heart of the history of misfortune that lies over the town of Shadyside. This story is set up using a series of frames with the principal action being in 1994 but with the second film principally told via flashback in 1978 and half of the third film likewise in 1666.

Knife + Heart (Un couteau dans le coeur) is a 2018 French film which was an official contest selection at Cannes. A surrealist horror thriller, it details the end of the relationship between a director of gay porn (Anne Parèze) and her editor (Loïs McKenna) in Paris in 1979. When actors associated with her studio become the target of a deranged killer she is guided into a realm of dream and premonition leading toward the revelation of the identity and motive of the killer.

It’s fascinating the extent to which these films share significant formal and thematic ties. Both center upon a fraught relationship between two queer women. Both feature worlds where a mystical interconnection between people guides them to uncover secrets from the past. Both feature supernaturally empowered slashers as their principal threat. Both have very negative views about police. Both are structurally adventurous, albeit in very different ways, as Fear Street provides a trilogy of movies framing three different time periods of the history of the town as it unravels the central mystery of the film and as Knife+Heart meanders between Anne’s increasingly self-destructive efforts to win back Loïs and the dreams, premonitions and supernatural guides who direct her deeper into the mystery of the killer. The film makes frequent use of remarkable lighting effects and negative photography to create a phantasmagorical atmosphere that frequently defies logical consistency.

Fear Street is very much a slasher film. It bears all the hallmarks of the American slasher – there is a core group of teens who are thrown into the path of a killer (killers in this case) and who must unravel the secret of the killer(s) while playing cat and mouse games and fleeing for their lives.

Central to this is the visions of Sarah Fier visited first upon Sam and later upon Ziggy (in the second film) and Deena. The series opens with the assumption that the vision is Fier, the assumed undead witch behind the Shadyside curse, targeting victims out of wrath for interference with her body. Bleeding upon the ground near the corpse or bleeding on the witches severed hand consistently lead to the protagonists being pursued by supernatural killers. What’s more, select women will bleed from the nose in the presence of the body, precipitating the vision. But as our protagonists quest to end the curse they discover the visions are far different – as is the nature of the curse and its agent.

In fact the actual authors of the curse are the Goode family – a founding family of the Union settlement from which Shadyside and the blessed community of Sunnyvale devolve – who have struck a bargain with Satan whereby they give over one Shadysider for possession by the devil. These possessed people go on to kill others in their own community and the Devil is nourished on that blood. In exchange for this innocent blood the Goodes are granted wealth, prestige and political power. Their town, Sunnyvale, prospers and all the while Shadyside, murder capital USA, gets worse and worse. The kids of Shadyside believe they’re trapped – that anyone who really tried to leave Shadyside would be hit by a bus or worse because the town doesn’t let go of its residents.

An early establishing shot in the first film in the trilogy has Deena riding a school bus to a rally in Sunnyvale. Tracking from within the bus, the camera records the destitution of Shadyside and the visible wealth of Sunnyvale. This class divide isn’t just in the quality of housing though and the establishing action of the film arises when Sam’s new boyfriend, enraged at Deena’s interference, pursues the Shadysiders in his car which leads to a crash at the gravesite of Sarah Fier and Sam being given an incomplete vision of the witch.

To call this a metaphor for class conflict misses the mark. Class conflict is openly depicted absent any metaphorical mystification. Over the course of the three movies Deena recruits Ziggy, the sole survivor of the 1978 massacre and the only person to have seen Sarah Fier and lived to tell the tale, her brother and Martin, the mall janitor to rescue would-be class ladder climber Sam from satanic possession, break the curse on Sunnyvale and murder a police chief.

This film handily ties the intersection of race and class into the action. Martin is, in the first film, apprehended by Sheriff Goode, accused of spray-painting slogans about the witch onto the mall after a recent massacre that happened within it. Martin tells the sheriff “those aren’t my cans” and Sheriff Goode replies that they are, in fact, his own. That Goode is deliberately framing a working class black man for his lesser crimes is shown as being part and parcel with his willingness to sacrifice Shadyside lives in exchange for his own prosperity. His brother is the mayor of Sunnyvale but it is the police chief, the commander of the armed enforcement wing of capital, whose duty it is to dispose of surplus labour. Aside from Sam, who is trying to escape Shadyside and who gets possessed for her efforts, the protagonists of the film are all unambiguously working class. Deena wields revelation regarding the nature of the curse to recruit other disaffected members of this oppressed working class into a small group of activist fighters. Effectively she builds a vanguard. And we should note that this vanguard doesn’t represent her friend circle. They’re not a found family. Ziggy is a weird shut-in. Martin is just a guy who lives in her town. They’re not even co-workers. Most of Deena’s friends, excepting Sam and her brother, die in the first of the three films.

Now just a brief aside here but there is another point of similarity between Fear Street and Knife + Heart to call out and that has to do with specific kill-staging. The death of Kate via bread slicer in Fear Street Part one is one of the rawest and most affecting kills I’ve seen in a horror film. When she dies we’ve got to the point in the story where she’s well-enough developed as a character that we really don’t want her to die and her death is… undignified and drawn out enough to hurt. Kate’s death leaves the audience unsatisfied. I was ready to consider it one of the best deaths in slasher cinema but then along came Knife + Heart and it pretty much broke my heart with the death of Karl at the opening of the film. This is something important that slasher films must do, formally, to be good: make us care when people die in them. In this regard these two movies are both far beyond the majority of their peers.

Continuing with the idea of Fear Street as plotting the formation of a vanguard is the situation of history within the film. This is what the visions of Sarah Fier actually are: a history lesson. When Deena finally experiences the vision herself she gets it in full and we learn that Fier did lay a curse but not on Shadyside. Her curse fell upon the ancestor of Sheriff Goode who framed her for his pact with the devil. And her curse was that the material truth of history would reveal his malfeasance and that of his descendants. And so the Fear Street Trilogy establishes that there is an oppressed class of people, that this class is opposed by an antagonistic class of people who benefit from oppression, that the police are the chief stewards of the violence that maintains this oppression, and that what is necessary is to form a vanguard to visit that violence directly back upon the police and the state. It demonstrates that the fatalism of the working class is a false consciousness that can be transcended through solidarity not with one’s family or one’s social circle but with one’s entire class.

But of course this is the trap here. Because the Fear Street trilogy is also a really entertaining, satisfying, piece of fiction. When Sheriff Goode finally gets what’s coming to him it’s hard not to cheer. We come to love Deena and Ziggy especially but all of our protagonists really and we’ve ached as the killers have cut them down. It feels good at the end of these films. Cathartic.

But that is where the risk of interpassivity lies.

Effectively the problem is that the Fear Street trilogy functions too well as a piece of entertainment such that it risks an audience feeling satisfied that the bad cop is dead, the good workers have triumphed and the curse has been broken. See that rich asshole get plowed over by a garbage truck? Classic. A denouement that shows the survivors all moving on to better things in their lives, including an hilarious suggestion that Martin may have invented the MP3 player because of his distaste for the Sony Discman further cements that everything is done and dusted (aside from an unknown person nabbing the book with the Satanic pact in it opening the door to inevitable sequels of course).

Now, of course, one can counter that the institution of the police in the United States was not overthrown in 1994 and the safe distance of our own history can show that the work of Deena’s vanguard is incomplete. But it’s unlikely that a cinemagoer is going to walk away from their six-hour Netflix binge saying, “I must follow the example of Deena Johnson thought and mobilize the revolutionary vanguard to overthrow the local sheriff.”

It is the triumph that is the problem here. Everything resolves too pat. The villains get what’s coming. The survivors are rewarded for keeping troth. And this is why I think Knife+Heart provides a valuable counter-point.

Now on the surface the premise of Knife+Heart is so specifically me that it shouldn’t be surprising that I’d seek to hold it up as an exemplar in the arts. Here we have a story that is very nearly like that of The Crow. A man and his lover are senselessly murdered. He is resurrected by a black bird (a blind grackle in this instance) who guides him as he seeks revenge.

In the mythology of the film the Starry-Eyed Grackle lived only in the forest of Chaladre and they would consume the sin of any person who lay in the wood flying up so close to the sun to burn those sins away that they were driven blind. These birds were also said to revive the sick and the dead and guide them back to life.

But this psychopomp, unlike the eponymous crow, is blind and so this dead man revived is misled. He goes to Paris without any memory of his own father’s brutal murder of him and his lover and then by happenstance he enters a porno theater playing Anne’s movie “Spunk and the Land Alone” – which, by coincidence, recounts a version of his own story. But, where in reality, this man was castrated and burned to death by his father and his lover also killed, in Anne’s film the father joins the lovers and the three of them dance joyously around the burning barn.

Enraged seeing the potential for a happier outcome to his tragedy and unable to exact revenge on his father who died shortly after his murder, the killer began seeking out the actors of “Spunk and the Land Alone” to exact vengeance. There’s no pact with the devil here. Just a wounded gay man lashing out against the very community he should be in solidarity with. Only this wounded man can seemingly control weather, teleport and engage in many other supernatural acts in the process of exacting his revenge.

But, of course, the police are particularly useless against a killer whose targets are gay sex workers and so it eventually falls to the gay community to remove him. He is beaten and stabbed to death by a mob of people at that same movie theater. The first man to strike a blow against it challenges him that he “gets off on murdering fags” but it is the community who rise up in spontaneous mutual defense.

And yet there’s no pat resolution. The killer is another victim of the same homophobia that led the police to deprioritize the murders. Anne cannot reunite with Loïs. That was foreclosed on even before Loïs die because Anne was so enraged at the idea of their decade-long love ending that she commits a remarkably horrific sexual assault on her ex. The result is that Loïs insists Anne never see her again. When Loïs breaks this vow, rushing to rescue Anne when she discovers images of the killer in dailies from their movie, she is killed in Anne’s place.

There’s a Grand Guignol-style performance that Anne watches at a bar partway through the film. In it an aging lesbian declares her love for a monster and implores the monster to couple with her. The monster insists that, should she become aroused, she will not be able to control her passions and will definitely maul the woman to death. The woman greets death with open arms. This film invites us to ask whether Anne is, in fact, the monster.

Unlike the denouement of Fear Street, Knife+Heart ends with Anne recognizing that what’s broken must never be put right. Loïs is dead and cannot return. For all that the world of Knife+Heart is a fully magical one of prophesy and resurrection that is not available for Anne. Loïs was already gone before she ever died. The first thing she says to Anne is “my heart is dry” and frankly almost nothing Anne does throughout the film is the correct course to take to reignite their love. But Anne finds solace in her friends; in the end the killer doesn’t kill all her friends, or all her co-workers. But the removal of the killer by her greater community is also categorically not the triumphant end of an epochal struggle. For all the mysticism that guides Anne to the recognition of the human vitality of her loss there’s no karmic realignment at the end of revolution. There’s just a community of marginalized people, sometimes friends, sometimes lovers, sometimes turbulently destructive to each other, carrying on.

The ending of Knife+Heart is tragic in the full Nietzschean sense of the term. It’s an affirmation of the complete totality of life, and the annunciation that it is better to live in pain than to be dead. But it also leaves with broken people in a broken world – one in which many of their friends are gone without recall. The blind grackle who resurrected the killer is from an extinct species. That specific magic is fading from the world.

Knife+Heart has no opening for a sequel. It’s not part of a series nor even is it a greater work like a trilogy. While it plays with the French Surrealist and the Giallo genres of film it is quite a unique movie, an interrogation of filmic exploitation on par with Ti West’s X, an exploration of how oppressive violence causes people in the oppressed class to lash out against each other and how they sometimes come up and form a community despite it. Anne is a decent horror-investigator character but she’s hardly suitable as a revolutionary leader. She, herself, is embroiled with an ongoing conflict with the actors in her employ over their pay rates – something that occupies considerable dialog.

And yet we have characters like The Golden Throat – an aging gay man whose role on set is to keep the actors hard. He’s angered because Anne, in an attempt to process what’s happening around her and to draw out the killer, has been making a porn movie reenacting the events surrounding the killer. One of the stage hands asks him how much he’s getting paid and he, grinning, says he isn’t. He’s doing what he does out of love.

This film is unsatisfying. But in doing so it gets hooks into you. Some of those hooks will draw you into reflection. Knife+Heart is a very difficult movie to not-think-about. But part of that is a sense that there is wrongness in the world that still needs correcting – there’s a fight that still needs to be done.

Deena is a revolutionary vanguardist. She’s a leader who unites disparate people into a force to fight for change. Over there. On the screen. Anne can’t even organize a picnic without somebody innocent dying but her story does something more: it mobilizes the audience to remember that here, in the world not graced by magical birds and prophetic dreams, work must still be done.

The incoherence of “fuck Trudeau”

I have an ambivalent relationship to the statement “fuck Trudeau.”

On one hand, yes, fuck that guy. The government of Justin Trudeau has overseen the collapse of Canada’s healthcare system across multiple provinces – in part due to the complete failure of Canada to set safe COVID-19 policy or to effectively communicate those policies that were set. The abdication of COVID policy to provinces was one of many failures of inaction. Another cogent example has been the failure of the Trudeau government to meaningfully address contaminated water in First Nations communities or to respond meaningfully to the multiple discoveries of mass graves on residential school properties. Further failures of the Trudeau government include out-of-control inflation leading to a Bank of Canada response that deepened the ongoing national housing crisis and a blind eye to monopolistic practices by Canada’s two largest grocery conglomerates and a general abdication of foreign policy to the United States and a failure of Canada as a reasonable diplomatic intercessor – as the Trudeau regime has largely fallen in line with American neo-cold-war policy.

With that being said I haven’t a single good thing to say about any person who sticks a “F(maple leaf)ck Trudeau” sticker on the back window of their car – this political expression maps almost as closely to crypto-fascist politics as the thin blue line flag icon. This is ultimately because the ultra-conservatives who advertise their desire to enter into carnal relations with Justin Trudeau fundamentally misunderstand the problem with Canadian politics.

The issue isn’t that Justin Trudeau is an incompetent, blundering, indecisive toady to the United States nor is it, as some conservatives might imply, that he’s a secret communist trying to sell Canada to the Communist Party of China. Rather it’s that Canada is an undemocratic systemic failure. These conservatives misapprehend that the problem with Canada is Justin Trudeau and if they could just get their guy in (be it Pierre Poilievre or Maxime Bernier) then things would be peachy.

Of course the best case scenario from a government headed by Poilievre or Bernier would be more of the exact same failures demonstrated throughout Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister. the worst-case scenario would be an acceleration to the same sort of open fascism that now characterizes the politics of the United States. This is not the sort of decision matrix that any decent Canadian should wish to see.

Canada, in 2023, is a neoliberal experiment in government by and for a vanishingly small number of resource extraction enterprises. Canada isn’t a society; it is ten mining companies, three telcos and two groceries in a trench-coat and all the policy positions of both the Trudeau government and their predecessors – the Harper-led Conservatives – make sense in that context. The remarkable continuity of these governments, divesting themselves of foreign policy decisions in favour of key trade partners, safeguarding mining and extraction at home and abroad, allowing unchecked monopoly power over food and communications all while sitting on their thumbs while all matters that can reasonably be described as provincial jurisdiction get perpetually more broken across the country isn’t a matter of Liberal / Trudeau policy nor of Conservative / Harper policy. There is a broad bipartisan consensus on these issues. The function of the two parties is to provide each with an easy scapegoat for the continuation of their shared policies. The collapse of healthcare? Don’t blame the Liberals! Blame those conservative governments at the provincial level with their unreasonable demands. And as for all the economic fallout of the bungled COVID-19 response? Well, “fuck Trudeau.” Parties in Canada are top-down affairs. The government is commanded by party leaders and the parties exist merely to amplify the will of these leaders. All the while these petty dictators in democratic guise bellow, “more of the same!” Their followers are contented merely to hate each other.

There is an imaginary in which there might be some cultural difference between Conservatives and Liberals which might serve as justification for personal grievance. The Conservatives are bigots, anti-vaxers and racists, right? But as the conservatives love hypocritically pointing out, the Prime Minister, a former drama teacher, just seems to love getting done up in cultural costume or even straight-up blackface. Ultimately the overt bigotry of the conservatives and the polite bigotry of the Liberals serves the same function: to divide the working classes against each other. This is why we must oppose bigotry in all its forms – only by overcoming homophobia, transphobia and racism can we form the sort of mass movement necessary to destroy the real enemy: Canada.

Because this is the real truth that the patriots on both sides fail to see. The problem isn’t Justin Trudeau nor is it Pierre Poilievre. The problem is Canada. Canada is a neoliberal playground for the rich and the various political figures are just distinct heads of a single hydra. A real democratic nation would depend on the elimination of Canada. It must be built, first and foremost, on a recognition of the treaties signed between the colonial powers who created Canada and the First Nations they sought to supplant and reparations for violations thereof but beyond that we must create a society which is not a neoliberal state but a post-state democratic culture in which the voices of all Canadians govern themselves rather than taking marching orders from party heads. This will not happen within Canada as it exists today because states are all perpetually terrified of their own mortality. Canada will cling to its neoliberal undeath until we drive a stake through its heart.

This is to say, while Trudeau can get fucked what we really should be saying is fuck Canada.

Truth and the Cultic: Let’s get properly postmodern

Veritas, goddess of truth

As part of the promotional tour for their new book, Neon Yang recently wrote an editorial at Tor.com about truth and the nature of cults. It isn’t very good, as editorials go, but the mistakes it makes are informative with regard to a failure of contemporary science fiction as a discursive space and I think this makes it, while not a good argument regarding truth, one that is interesting enough to spend time digging into.

Yang starts their essay by establishing the parameters of their exploration thusly:

 Never in human history has so much information been so easily accessible to so many people. Anything you want to know more about—the past, the present, the future—is a mere Internet search away. At the same time, we live in the age of disinformation. Never in history has so much untruth been so easily accessible to so many people. Anything you want to be lied to about—the past, the present, the future—is a mere Internet search away. 

This may seem somewhat bromine but it establishes something important which is where we will be spending our analysis today: Yang establishes a binary opposition between information and disinformation. The problem, they say, is that while it’s easy for people to access information it is equally easy to access disinformation. However the assumption that information and disinformation are distinct categories is somewhat assailable.

For a counter-point let’s turn to Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, in which he says, “If sexuality was constituted as an area of investigation, this was only because relations of power had established it as a possible object; and conversely, if power was able to take it as a target, this was because techniques of knowledge and procedures of discourse were capable of investing it. Between techniques of knowledge and strategies of power, there is no exteriority,” or, to put it in broad terms, power shapes the relationship we have with the information we receive such that the connections we form between any given set of data is contingent upon power.

Now let’s not be clear: neither Foucault nor myself are taking a perfectly relativist stance with regard to the construction of knowledge. Rather this is a materialist position that treats truth not as a matter of interrelating phenomena to inaccessible noumena but of a contingent set of data whose relationship bears observational and logical scrutiny. From this arises the question: who’s truth?

Now Yang almost hits upon this point when they say,

For so many years so many have believed in soft delusions such as “trickle-down economics” and “binary gender roles” and such things were never questioned. Thinking you are too smart to fall for cult-like thinking, in fact, renders you more vulnerable to the influence of cult-like thinking, a tidbit often shared by those who fell into conspiracy theory, but managed to escape.

But they shy away from a fully materialist approach to truth by brushing it off with a gesture in the direction of the inability of the individual to escape error. And here is where we can start to see a sharp divide between this kind of Kantian idealism and a properly materialist approach to truth. Because we could have very fertile ground for undermining truth if we actually looked into binary gender roles in any depth here. We might see how power systems such as patriarchy and capitalism shape how people interrelate various data about the world (sexually dimorphic characteristics and their relationship with social roles) into some sort of truth statement such as the proposition that there are genders and that they are two in number. But instead what Yang’s essay seems to suggest is that we’ve merely taken a few steps toward the mouth of Plato’s cave and now see the reality of gender (that gender is largely social role absent any fundamental connection to sexually dimorphic characteristics which, themselves exist along a spectrum rather than as two neat categories) more clearly. Of course we may agree that such a statement regarding gender is true. (I suspect we do.) But the question becomes whether it’s true based on a contingent understanding of interrelated data as revealed via power relations or whether it’s true because it is closer to an ideal form.

Having read this essay I suspect Yang adheres to the latter view rather than the former. Certainly their understanding of the relationship between resistance to power and knowledge would suggest so as they say,

 Psychologically, humans are deeply reluctant to give up belief in something they have latched on to, even in the face of overwhelming evidence otherwise. Particularly so if it is a conviction they feel like they have come to independently, rather than a message openly pushed down their throats. Especially so if it runs counter to information that is fed directly to them.

I find this inversion of power-knowledge perplexing to say the least. Yang seems to be suggesting here that knowledge arises not in an interrelation to power but rather in opposition to it. I am not sure they intended to say this – but this idea that a person is likely to cling to a belief proportionally to the extent they’re being told its wrong is a dubious proposition to say the least. Rather we should be approaching this from the position that there might be competing power systems at play that people are invested in. Their knowledge systems arise from these power systems that they desire. But since we are discussing psychology and being properly postmodern let us now have some critics of psychoanalysis discuss the mass psychology of fascism as a counter-point. In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari say, “Reich is at his profoundest as a thinker when he refuses to accept ignorance or illusion on the part of the masses as an explanation of fascism, and demands an explanation that will take their desires into account, an explanation formulated in terms of desire: no, the masses were not innocent dupes; at a certain point, under a certain set of conditions, they wanted fascism, and it is this perversion of the desire of the masses that needs to be accounted for.”

Reich suggested, and Deleuze and Guattari agree, that fascism wasn’t a matter of disinformation at all. Fascism was a matter of a mass of people wanting fascism. This desire for fascism lead to a libidinal investment in fascist power systems and with those systems comes a system of belief that centered those data and those relationships between data that reinforced a fascist worldview.

Effectively Yang is putting the cart before the horse. The January 6th insurgents didn’t become fascists because they consumed disinformation. They consumed disinformation because they wanted to become fascists.

Yang follows onto more productive ground by proposing alienation as a root of the spread of disinformation, saying,

At the core of it, disinformation thrives upon dissatisfaction. Unhappiness with the status quo leaves a gap that corrupting thought can wriggle into. 

Now we can certainly situate alienation as being a system that makes people vulnerable to fascism, cultic religious fanaticism and other troublesome power systems. This is what led many Marxists prior to Reich to uphold the idea of false consciousness – this very idea of a tricked, or disinformed, mass leading to totalitarianism that Yang proposes. And I certainly understand why the idea of false consciousness resonates with Liberals. If we take as a given what Stephen Colbert proposed, that “reality has a well-known liberal bias,” and if we want to be able to rescue our fascist uncles from their mystification then false consciousness presents an enticing opportunity. We just need to discover how to communicate Truth to them and the scales will fall from their eyes.

The fact that this didn’t work is the impetus behind Yang’s essay nearly as much as their desire to promote their book and situate it among a body of texts including the Masquerade series and A Memory Called Empire. Yang has to contend with the fact that fascists were presented with a liberal truth and rejected it. This becomes much easier to understand when you consider that there are competing power systems upheld by competing sets of desire and that these provide a framework for belief on both sides. The problem with fascists isn’t that lies have made them our enemy. The problem with fascists is that because they are our enemies they tell lies. People struggle with the problem of what to do with these self-made enemies. As Beauvoir said of nazis, “the urgency of the struggle forbids this slow labor {of demystifying the nazi subject}. We are obliged to destroy not only the oppressor but also those who serve him, whether they do so out of ignorance or out of constraint.”

But there’s another alarming aspect of the Yang quote above that I want to note before moving on and that’s the idea of “corrupting thought” because this is very nearly Manichean in its outlook. We aren’t just dealing with false consciousness here but with something almost akin to the satanic – as if Trump were the Devil himself come to tempt the flock away from the divine light of Truth.

Yang says,

Disinformation preys on alienation and anxiety. It gives explanation for why you feel as bad as you do. Something is wrong with society, and we have the answer. It tells you that you are not alone. It provides you a family of like-minded people, united in enlightenment. Rejecting these tenets means rejecting community for isolation and estrangement, once again,

but again the problem is that this assumes a binary relationship between truth and falsehood. It elides that the same can be said of information which we give to be true. It isn’t disinformation that does all of the above, it’s power-knowledge in all its forms.

Early in the Coronavirus pandemic Georgio Agamben published some articles that attracted controversy for the stance he took against pandemic restrictions in Italy. He got a lot of rightful criticism for some parts of his stance but I think he has a point about how power defined knowledge in those grim days of mid-2020 that are informative. “the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition,” he says. The state of exception should be taken to mean a process whereby a state assigns to itself whatever powers it deems fit on the basis of a proposed emergency. Agamben says, “People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society,” and, I mean, he’s not wrong. Now, with regard to the COVID pandemic, we might argue for some justification for a state of exception but, let’s be fully honest, for all the power our states granted themselves did we see good outcomes during the pademic? Do you feel safe from COVID today? What freedoms did we sacrifice so that, three years on, we would have collapsing medical systems, vast surplus death and economic disarray anyway? What was any of that actually for?

And so we must question the information / disinformation dichotomy. Fascists made decisions based on a matrix of information that served their desires and the desires of the flow of power to which they subscribed. So did the liberal establishment. Is it possible for us to consider that neither of these groups was necessarily more disinformative than the other? That in both cases what information they shared and how they formed it served their desires and their power to enact them? The fascists lied when they said they were protesting against being forced to mask or to take a vaccine in the name of freedom. But the liberals lied when they told us that these actions would make us safe and that this safety was worth all we were asked to give up. (With that being said please do vaccinate. An argument for contingent truth must also make contingent that which we hold to be true. But this does not mean we should paralyze ourselves with indecision in the face of the changeable nature of truth.)

Yang ends their essay saying,

I write the essay against the backdrop of the Alex Jones trial and the unravelling of some of the most heinous lies over the years, and getting his just desserts. Perhaps all we can do is to put faith into truths stronger than fiction.

This is hardly even a conclusion to be honest. “Have faith in truth” is the very same sort of cultic thinking that led to fascists storming the US capital. “Trust the plan,” as the fascists took to saying. The reality is that we should have no faith in truth. How we form our epistemological picture of the world, what truths we open ourselves to receive, is dictated by power systems undergirded by collective social desire. A mass of people want things and as such they become alert to the signs that point in the direction they want. The fascist desire for aesthetic consistency and purity of essence leads them to be alert for those things that offend their senses and that seem corrupting. The liberal desire for freely flowing commerce and a belief in the primacy of enlightened reason leads to them seeking out those things that seem reasonable and those data that support that commerce should be unimpeded. It is frustrating to recognize that there are two categories of mystified person out there: there are those who want things compatible with what we want but who have a different perspective about how to get there and there are those who want us dead. It will do no good to pray that the men who want to kill off every aesthetic marker of difference will discover some sort of numinous truth and convert like Darth Vader to the side of Good. Instead we should be steadfast in seeking another specific knowledge: the answer to the question, “who?” Who benefits? Who wants this? Who is stirring up the mob? Who is in the mob? From here we can ask what they want and how they shape the episteme they participate in to allow the expression of that desire. Much as “AI art” is a financial off-ramp for crypto-investors so too are there material desires at the root of those people who appear mystified by disinformation. Learning how to identify fence-sitters who can be won over from enemies who must be destroyed depends on us coming to understand not what lies a person has been fed but rather what they think they can get with a lie.

Harry Potter and the Death of Roland Barthes

We are in hell.

This is a specifically neoliberal hell wherein, “no ethical consumption under capitalism” has, as one online commentator put it, become, an ethical imperative to consume. People see anyone interfering with their unimpeded enjoyment of those things they seek to consume as being, at best, morally questionable. How dare somebody else tell me, an individual, how to go about enjoying the things I want to enjoy?

This sense that it’s somehow wrong to interfere with the flow of libidinal intensity does, however, require a fair bit of apologetics and this is where the corpse of Roland Barthes gets hauled out of the grave and paraded around. “I separate the artist from the artwork,” people say, as if to suggest that because we can void the authority of the author to grant a text meaning this means that the author is no longer materially connected to the text.

Of course this is absolute nonsense. First off we would have to accept, fully, that Barthes’ premise was correct and that an author has no special authority over a text. Certainly Rowling, in particular, problematizes this premise as she has been particularly activist in the assignment of specific meanings to her text after delivery of it. Retcons such as the declaration that Dumbledore was a gay man, that various other schools of magic existed that were outside of the bounds of the delivered text (such as the nearly offensively named Mahoutokoro and Castelobruxo), or basically everything that happened in and around Harry Potter and the Cursed Child show that Rowling, as an author, has never been satisfied to allow an audience to construct meaning in her texts absent her influence; Rowling is a nearly uniquely activist author with regard to what her books mean. Furthermore, Rowling’s activism aside, the assumption that authorial intention is diffused by contradictions within a text is built around the asumption that authors are unified in their intention. If we start from assuming a certain polymorphic quality to authorial desire then we would end up with a situation in which any meaning that can be reasonably read into a text can be seen as an intended meaning. An author is not individual in that their authority, as an author, can be divided across all the things that they put into the text. All this is to say that it’s rather absurd to divide Rowling’s interpretation of her “wizarding world” from its implementation in texts such as a recently released half-rate Destiny clone.

However there’s something more insidious about attempts to divide Rowling from derivative licensed work such as Hogwarts Legacy – this is that Rowling gets paid for these things. While it’s true that the depiction of goblins in Rowling’s text is alarming at best, and while it’s also true that the “queer rep” of a transphobic straight woman will be problematic at best all this is somewhat irrelevant to the game itself – which Rowling didn’t write. She is, in fact, not the direct author here aside from her tendency to insert herself as an authority. The problem is that Rowling gets paid for this work and, with that pay, can continue amplifying her transphobia. There is a material relationship between the video game and the author of the books it is derived from that cannot be elided by any sort of pseudo-structuralist literary analysis. This is the problem with buying Hogwarts Legacy. It is not a question of the meaning of the text. By most accounts Hogwarts Legacy is a game that tries to mean very little of note. You run around blasting fire balls and other such violent magic at goblins only to discover it was all a frame job at the last minute. I’m sure this will be a cold comfort to all the goblins the players vaporized in the process of discovering the frame. So, no, Hogwarts Legacy looks like yet another committee-made, focus-group approved, skinner box that seeks to say as little as possible in order to maximize the likelihood that the audience will get hooked on the core gameplay loop and stay engaged. But it’s a skinner box where every person who buys it contributes a few pennies to the cause of bigotry via its material economic link to someone who regularly expresses bigoted views.

A a result people such as Jessica Conditt have, via their engagement with this game, helped to enable this bigoted agenda in the real world where you can’t just obliviate away all memories that Rowling is a TERF. It does not matter in the slightest that the reviewer has, “a big ol’ Harry Potter tattoo next to an anti-TERF tattoo,” because the issue is not the meaning she personally assigns to Harry Potter. The issue is money. Conditt, writing editorials for endgadget promoting that it’s morally Ok to buy this game, has, whether she intends to or not, financially aligned herself with TERFS. I couldn’t care less about the marks on her skin next to how she acts in the world. And how she acts in the world is as a promoter for this awful little game. The tendency of defenders is to fall back to individual subjectivity. This is, yet again, a reification of the moral imperative to consume. “As someone who searched desperately for an example of my own identity in the pages of Harry Potter novels, I deeply appreciate the evolution and inclusion in Hogwarts Legacy. This level of representation didn’t exist in AAA games 15 years ago, and it’s the result of all the progress made, through protest and education, since the books were published. Long before the in-fighting over a choice to play a video game.” Conditt says and I have no doubt she sincerely feels that way. She just fails to see that her feelings don’t justify how Rowling spends the money this game will earn her and the derivative money that she will gain through the continued cultural relevance of these awful wizard books. Conditt says, ” It’s us against the transphobic people in the world, not us against each other,” but this isn’t true. There’s no “us” here. She’s on the side of the transphobe because she’s promoting the transphobe’s product that will make her money. It’s really that simple.

Also Conditt’s plea, “boycott the game – just don’t boycott the players,” demonstrates an atomized and neutered view of the boycott. The boycott is, in fact, an act of moral shaming. It’s not just a person witholding their money. It’s a person publicly announcing it’s immoral to give money to this or that product. It’s “no ethical consumption under capital” arising as apologia yet again. And just as it’s clearly immoral to advertise for arms manufacturers it is also, clearly and obviously, immoral to give money to bigots. If you do it you are doing a bad thing and you should be ashamed. Stop trotting around Barthes’ picked-clean skeleton and actually take some accountability for the moral weight of your choices. Consider how your actions actually materially impact people. Think about the money for once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Authority and the Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghost of Ned Ludd in the Shell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantasy and history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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