Scorsese on a Jungle Cruise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

r/batman - CHAP2 MhMn? YOU'RE HERE? WELL, THIS NICE Wt Kn

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

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

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

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

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

Nostalgia and the metastasis of regret in Masters of the Universe: Revelation

Masters of the Universe: Revelation Debuts Killer New Poster
(Ok you had to know there was a non-zero chance I’d do this.)

Here be spoilers if you care about that sort of thing.

I was honestly and pleasantly surprised by Masters of the Universe: Revelation. I didn’t have high expectations for a He-Man cartoon run by Kevin Smith. In general I’m not a huge fan of Smith. I quite liked Dogma but haven’t had anything positive to say about his work in the 22 years (oh god it’s been 22 years since Dogma) since. I suppose his autobiographical stand-up routine was alright.

And the truth is that this cartoon series contains some of the hallmarks of Smith’s worse tendencies. The script is prurient. It assaults viewers with atrocious accumulations of arbitrary alliteration. What isn’t composed in this strangely (and unpleasantly) poetic recall of 1980s cartoon writing is either straight up call-backs to the cartoon (protective bubble) or just clangs.

The voice actors do their best. Mark Hamill is, as always, an absolute delight and casting him as Skeletor was the right call. Sarah Michelle Gellar also accomplishes the astounding feat of elevating Teela above the clunky script and injecting actual pathos into her portrayal. Her pairing with Leena Headley as the principals in the show was another strong choice, as Headley has been on a roll of moving from strength to strength for years, and Evil-Lyn conjures so many of the morally dubious schemers that have become her bread and butter. However good voice acting alone is not enough to elevate a script as truly and fundamentally atrocious as those in the five episodes Netflix released. But, despite the acutely painful dialog and over-abundant call-backs to a 40 year-old toy commerial, Smith’s Masters of the Universe series actually accomplishes quite a lot, and manages to utilize its own weaknesses to create something actually worth watching.

Now I should note that I am not talking exclusively about the way this series sidelines He-Man in favour of concentrating on Teela and Evil-Lyn. Of course this, alone, is what has led to the coordinated campaign of typical online CHUDS to review-bomb the show. As fun as it is to point and laugh at people like Jeremy Hambly exclaiming that the show is, “a WORSE betrayal than The Last Jedi,” the attempt by the show to admit that Teela was poorly treated as a character in the original cartoon wouldn’t, in and of itself, be particularly remarkable. After all, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power already dug into what would happen if one were to invert many of the gendered assumptions of these stories. It would hardly be new ground. But instead, remarkably by keeping the story within the continuity (such as it is) of the original Masters of the Universe cartoon, Smith has managed to dig into a heartfelt and remarkable dissection of nostalgia and how it connects to regret.

Magic and childhood

The first episode of Masters of the Universe: Revelation opens the series as Skeletor takes advantage of a court ceremony to commemorate Teela’s promotion to the to the position of Man-at-Arms to raid Castle Grayskull. Using disguise and decoy he is able to slip through the outer defenses and then uses superior numbers to overwhelm the sorceress and achieve access to a hidden inner sanctum.

However an alarm is raised and the forces of the Eternian monarchy rally to the castle. Once inside things proceed largely like a particularly well-animated episode of the older show right until the moment that, during the fight with Skeletor in the inner sanctum, Sleketor brutally murders He-Man’s ally Moss Man. This understandably upsets He-Man, who until then seems to live in the sort of magical child’s world where the people always jump off the floating tank before it explodes and nobody ever dies.

So he runs Skeletor through with his sword, pinning him to the obelisk in the center of the sanctum. Skeletor’s last words are to congratulate him on finally using his sword as it was intended – as a key to said obelisk – and it opens revealing an orb containing all the magic in the universe. However the orb explodes and the only thing that prevents the immediate destruction of the universe is He-Man channeling the power through his sword. This act splits the sword into two constituent blades and kills He-Man. The swords vanish, returning to Subternia and Preternia – which the show reveals are afterlives analogous to heaven and hell, and are the wellsprings of magic.

Randor is so distraught over the death of his son that he banishes Man-At-Arms from court and orders him executed if he ever does man-at-arms type things again. This show is generally not kind to monarchy, which is refreshing in a fantasy landscape that so often wants to treat royals as somehow redeemable. Teela, grieving the death of her friend and ally and suddenly discovering that said friend deceived her for their whole lives together, resigns from the Eternian court and takes up work as a mercenary.

There is a time-jump and after that we discover that magic is dying in Eternia. Without the orb and the sword all the magic is returning to its sources in the afterlives. And this is killing Eternia. What’s more, should Eternia die, it will herald the extinction of every world in the universe. Eternia, the oldest planet, is critical to universal wellbeing and Eternia cannot survive without magic.

Now it’s important to note how magic is mapped onto childhood by the series. The sorceress ages dramatically when the magic fades and aside from her the most magical creatures, notably Orko, Cringer / Battle Cat and Adam / He-Man are all the most childish (or at least child-like) characters in the show. When Adam is encountered in Preternia he remains in his “young prince” form – something which is quite textually a choice he made and one that amuses the small cadre of heroes who also occupy this Elysium. And the Smith rendering of Adam vs He-Man makes Adam look all the more like a child with the over-sized stature that He-Man has even compared to the other hulks in this muscle-bound show. Orko and Cringer are the most unchanged characters in this new version. And, while we see little of the cat, it becomes readily clear that the loss of magic from the world is killing Orko far quicker than anyone else. He cannot live without magic. The moment that magic is banished from the world is also one that is inaugurated by the introduction of death with the killing of Moss Man, of Skeletor and the heroic sacrifice of He-Man. This awareness of mortality entering into Eternia, the effective end of eternity, also indicates a crossing of a threshold from childhood into maturity. This show is not the first one to forge these bonds between death, magic and the threshold between childhood and adulthood. Famously Hogfather by Terry Pratchett was built entirely on the premise of a child-place being one where death could not go, and of the belief of children being a particularly potent magic.

Perhaps this is where the sense of betrayal from childish Jeremys arises more than even their unexamined misogyny. Smith’s He-Man understands that you have to grow up. Staying a child forever is stunting. We see this in a coarse fashion through Orko’s arc in which he comes to terms with his sense that he’s failed to fulfil the expectations his parents put on him. We see it with more nuance in Teela’s arc, in which she discovers that living in the shadow of He-Man has limited her from achieving all that she otherwise could. Teela starts the show being given the mantle of adulthood but she never really assumes it. A monarch asks her to, as her first act, remove her own father. (How very Oedipal.) And she refuses this call and instead goes galavanting off to make her own way in the world. But this isn’t maturity; rather maturity arises when she’s forced to confront that people who she loved dearly and who loved her hid parts of themselves from her. It comes from her recognition of her own capacity for growth and her ability to forge an identity not built around following in her father’s footsteps or running after He-Man but rather of doing her own things in her own way.

Modernity and techno-cults

One of the odder insertions into this show is Triklops and his technocult. In Skeletor’s absence Triclops has taken control of Snake Mountain and staffed it with only the most cybernetic members of the former cadre (such as Lockjaw). He’s established a cult devoted to the Motherboard and is feeding dronification potions to apparently willing supplicants who are thus transformed into technological monstrosities. Triklops is trying to destroy any remnants of magic that remain. He hates magic because he believes Skeletor’s reliance on magic is the reason for their repeated failures in the past. This is largely to serve as a foil to Teela who also detests magic at this point in the story for what it did to her and the people she cares about. So we get this sense that if magic is tied to childhood then technology, cold and practical but unable to nourish, is bonded to adulthood and the putting away of childish things.

Of course this loss of magic is also killing the world. And so we see this delicate balance that Smith attempts to pull off between knowing the magical world of kings and heroes is a childish fantasy to grow beyond but also recognizing that the alienated modern sense of adulthood is sterile and ultimately deadening. Triklops can’t be allowed to win because his focus on technology is literally toxic; he is hastening the end of the world with his acts. And this is before the show gets all cosmological.

Subternia and Preternia

The afterlife depicted in this show is wild. This is, in part, because of how sparsely populated it is. Subternia is really just where Scare Glow hangs out alone despite characters repeatedly calling it “hell” and while Preternia gets called “heaven” on multiple occasions it is, as I alluded above, far much more akin to Elysium: a reward where select heroes, blessed with immortality, engage in athletic feats that would have been remarkably legible to Pindar. Rather than punishment and reward, Subternia and Preternia represent fear and happiness respectively. The grinning and contesting heroes of Preternia want for nothing while Scare Glow feeds on the fear of the unlucky who stumble into his chthonic domain.

But there’s a third emotion that lurks in both of these afterlives and it’s the thing that ultimately binds all this strangeness together: regret.

Regret is, in fact, the thread that ties everyone together in this show. Teela regrets so much. She regrets the secrets kept from her and she regrets the fight she had with her father. She regrets ever getting mixed up with He-Man in the first place and she regrets that he’s gone. Man-At-Arms is regretful too, regretting his failure to protect Adam and his banishment. Orko regrets failing his parents. Evil-Lyn regrets living in Skeletor’s shadow and Triklops regrets this too, though his regret manifests differently. After Adam is encountered in Preternia he regrets his enjoyment of his elysian reward and chooses to follow Teela back to Eternia even with the repeated warning that he will not be granted entry to the garden a second time. And this is where we finally find the meat of the theme here: Smith takes all the trappings of nostalgia – a deliberately anachronistic script, a childish view of life and death, and a yearning for an inaccessible past – and he demonstrates how it is all rooted in regret.

Nostalgia as a Haunting

Regret is one of the most hauntological emotions. It conjures a state of searching for an absent agent in that you are looking back at the choices you made and considering what you might have done differently. Of course the past is inaccessible to us. There is no returning to childhood. We can allow the strata of our childhood development to rupture to the surface but this is no more the childhood we had than Mount Everest is the floor of the ocean.

Nostalgia is what happens when we allow regret to boil over into a sickness. The nostalgic is like Orko wasting away in his bed for lack of magic to sustain him. This nostalgia drives Triklops to his world-destroying actions. After all, “A Nihilist is the man who says of the world as it is, that it ought not to exist, and of the world as it ought to be, that it does not exist.”1 Triklops’s technocultic nihilism is thus rendered intelligible by the desire to reconcile the world as it is with the world he believes ought to be. And bringing about this world fundamentally requires the destruction of the world that is. These characters regret that they made this choice or that in the past. They regret that they served Skeletor or that they allowed Adam to deceive them. They yearn to return to the simple world of magic but they know they can’t. A nostalgic cannot possibly recover what is lost. There are only two courses out of the sickness of nostalgia: to lean into their nihilism and obliterate themselves or their world or to let go of their regret and move forward into the future.

Honestly it should come as no surprise that the most nostalgic of fans felt betrayed in a fundamental way by Smith’s interpretation of this material. They were promised a return to childhood and the fulfillment of their nostalgic urge. But as nostalgia is rooted in regret for the irretrievable this would never be possible. As much as the toxic fans of the world would like to return to a kind of palingenetic childhood they never will. Even if their childhood passions rupture forth into the present in their spasmodic reactions to a cartoon, they are still unable to retrieve their childhood. This is why they so often believe that reimaginings of childhood media are destroying their childhood – these reiterations put the fan into direct contact with the irretrievable nature of his own past. He reaches for his childhood but it slips through his fingers like the Power Sword falling from Adam’s grasp in the fifth episode.

Smith leaves off the five-episode run with a warning. The Eternal Return lurks over the proceedings and raises the risk that, even in attempts to move to the future, we might find ourselves falling into atavistic patterns. Evil-Lyn serves an excellent foil for Teela in this. Teela still hasn’t fully moved into her future at the end of episode five. The sorceress has already told her that she is the one who has to wield the Power Sword but instead she gives it back to Adam. And by opening the door to the return of old patterns, Skeletor is able to re-emerge too, and drag Evil-Lyn away from her own confrontation with the limiting impact of her nostalgic affect. The victory of nostalgia is the victory of Skeletor. He can only be vanquished by moving forward into an uncertain future. We are, of course, not at the end of the first season. We have seen only the first act of this story. However in establishing both that these characters all feel nostalgia and that nostalgia is harmful to their development and growth, Smith has established a clear and explicit thematic message that belies the childishness of the premise. In 2019, Smith said, “Used to be happy, now I’m vegan.” But, of course, he is also still alive and able to grow because of his lifestyle changes – changes necessitated by a heart attack that could have killed him.

It seems as if this brush with death has provided Smith with the impetus not just to change his diet but to re-examine his life-long connection to childhood media. It’s not enough to be Silent Bob larping Batman in a mall anymore. The past may come around again in some form or another but when it does, it is something that must be resisted. Preternia is an empty heaven. Growth occurs in Subternia, where we confront fear and the specter of death. Death always lurks in the future but clinging to the past just draws it closer via sickness. We must imagine a Prince Adam who must not be He-Man any longer. We must imagine a Teela who has grown beyond the soft sisterly figure of the 80s cartoon or the sassy girlfriend of the 2002 revival, a Teela who has a life and regrets of her own but the will to rise above those regrets. We have to consider the idea that the past is gone and we must grow and change into the future.


1: Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 585

“Cat Person” in the uncanny valley

I swear I read “Cat Person” when it first came out although I found it so tedious an affair that everything about it is a void in my mind. However I’ve been open about how the period of 2016-18 was not the best for my mental health and it’s possible my inability to remember a single detail of the story was less about the craft of it and more about my own depression. With that in mind, when this story became the focal point of the Twitter discourse cycle, I decided to re-read it.

And in less than a minute I encountered this absolute clunker of a paragraph:

After the movie, he came back to her. “Concession-stand girl, give me your phone number,” he said, and, surprising herself, she did.

It doesn’t get better. Margot is an incredibly tedious subject. Her internal monolog is a mixture of vaguely bourgeois relationship anxiety and badly timed Whedonesque quippery. Of course it’s hard to generate much sympathy for a protagonist when her thoughts are narrated like this, “Looking at him like that, so awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair, Margot recoiled. ” It’s not even the casual disgust at fat bodies that bothers me as much as how pedestrian this psychodrama is. Oh no. The protagonist is feeling regret at the sex she’s about to have because the man is a bit fat. Having re-read “Cat Person” in the cold light of 2021 reiterates my initial view of it. That it’s a dull story about two very dull people whose dull tryst leads to a dull revelation about pain and misogyny that undercuts itself at every turn by how little agency it assigns its protagonist.

But then someone came forward and said she was the subject and it set off a discourse cycle about authors using the people they know in their writing. Two principal camps emerged: 1) that this is just how writers go about building out their worlds and 2) that this was an intrusion into the privacy of a person even if it was lamp-shaded with a fiction.

One commentator from the second camp even went so far as to describe it as a theft, that the author of “Cat Person” had stolen a bit of this woman’s life to use as the basis for her story. In this I must be a yes-sayer. This is a theft. And that’s fine. Because artists should be criminals and outlaws. The problem here is not that Kristen Roupenian is a thief of another’s life. The problem is that she’s not a particularly talented thief and what she has created is not Alexis Nowicki but is rather a weak simulacrum imbued with just enough of the latter’s personality to make it recognizable while still being little more than a paper doll to dress up in the clothes of her attempt to explore the frustrations of dating.

Let’s be honest, authors talk about people as part of their art. I’m talking about Roupenian and Nowicki directly in this article because, as a critic, I don’t have the luxury of putting a fictive screen in front of my subject but, consciously or not, an author will draw from their experience of the mannerisms, cadences and motivations of the people around them in the construction of a fictional character. We might like to imagine the author alone in an off-grid shed, entirely disconnected from the world, and giving birth to their creations like they are Zeus birthing Athena but this is hardly the case.

The Creative Process

Art is created in a social field and an artist is first and foremost someone communicating within that social field. Characters do not arise ex-nihilo but rather through a process of creative destruction wherein an author’s sense of a subject is disassembled and used as the ground from which their creative objects arise. An artist, like it or not, has something to say about the world and if they’re talking about people that implies they have something to say about real, material, people.

But bad art doesn’t necessarily accomplish this well. And this, I think, is where the discomfort so many people feel with “Cat Person” arises. Margot is hardly a person. She’s a hollow shell of a person – mannerisms, jobs, ages and easily identified quirks but there’s nothing there beyond this. Her terribly banal inner monolog is almost precisely the same “professor has a mid-life crisis and dates his student” sort of story that detractors of “lit-fic” like to point to about What Is Wrong With The Genre and it’s not made better by having the point of view inverted to the student rather than the older man. The character is dragged through her own story by Robert and Tamara. Her monolog is an endless litany of banal and common-place complaints. Regrets over mistakes, things not said, a kind of Freudian reaction to dating and life that is buried behind the metaphoric screen memory of neo-passéist realism. When that inane internality is stripped away from the character, what we’re left with is just what you could find out about anybody through a facebook crawl: brands liked, photos of pets, nights at specific bars. This story wants you to know these are New York daters but the setting is flat. What is created isn’t a living breathing city, it isn’t even a flat sound-stage reproduction. It’s empty boxes with names attached.

When you close your eyes and imagine the theatre Margot works at, all that’s summoned to mind is a pack of twizzlers and a pudgy man. The Seven-Eleven is just what could be said about it anywhere: a harsh white-yellow light inside, a garish orange and green sign without. Brand markers stand in for any viceral sense of place.

With this flat and empty prose it’s not surprising that Nowicki and her friends are unnerved. I think I’d be equally unnerved to find out that somebody was using a photograph of my head to construct amateurish paper dolls. But the problem isn’t, in fact, that the Roupenian used Nowicki’s life in her work but rather that she did so with such ham-fisted disregard for the person she was observing. She created a world made entirely of flat surfaces and the flattest surface of all is Margot’s affect. Who wants to look at that and see themselves?

Art is theft. And art isn’t nice. Authors hardly have a choice but to use the people around them as grist for the creative mill; even if the author wants to lie to themself and say that they create like Zeus created Athena, they are forgetting that Zeus only gave birth in this startling way because he swallowed Metis whole. Metis, the Titaness who stands for creative ingenuity was a person taken in by Zeus in the process of his creation, and through the deconstruction of Metis, Athena was born. Fictive creation depends on the materiality of the world for it to be produced. There will always be a violence to art, a destructive one. The challenge is to make it loving.

And the absence of love is, I think, where the failure of “Cat Person” arises most clearly. There’s no sense in the story that Margot is an object of love. “Whore,” Robert calls her at the end. And while it is made painfully evident that Robert has no idea who Margot is, there’s no self-love in Margot to balance against the ways Robert objectifies her. Inside and out, Margot remains not much more than an object, navigated by a seemingly disinterested author through empty rooms full of brand markers and empty thoughts full of anxiety and ennui. Effort is made to fully realize the revulsion Robert conjures but no effort is made to elevate Margot beyond the flat affect with which Robert views her.

I think the discourse that surrounds this story and its camps is in part a failure of criticism. “Cat Person” is not a good short story. It’s tedious and passé. It attempts to dig at misogyny but does so with all the grace of a decade-old “manspreading” article. It is a story so revulsed by materiality that the meat of the story lies entirely within the heart of the protagonist, unfortunately it is a story whose protagonist has a heart as real as a child’s paper cut-out of the same. To point to this and say, “see! Thief!” is almost embarrassing because it is such a poor grade of theft. Artists who think creation of character is possible without reference to real people lack self-examination on the matter. Readers who think this are naïve at best. Even Athena was born from an artist’s deconstruction of another. Zeus destroyed Metis to create Athena. Artists must be thieves. There is no real choice in that. But this is neither an indication of good or bad art. And ultimately, when the discourse and the camps are stripped away, what we are left with in the case of “Cat Person” is a bad portrait and a subject whose friends said, “this portrait sucks.”

Complex Systems, bees, lobster and Kitchen Cabinets

As I’ve worked through a lot of materialist thought for the aesthetics project I keep coming back to complex systems. Complex systems theory is an interdisciplinary area of study centered around ecology but with significant impacts for philosophy, economics, sociology, mathematics, physics and other realms of study. It’s a method of looking at non-closed systems. This is largely a response of the failure of ecological and economic systems to behave according to theoretical models predicated around good careful scientifically contained defined systems. We can see systems at work but they’re messy. They have an unlimited number of externalities. Complex systems theory is one of my principal objections to the application of game theory to economics. A game is not a complex system. It is, in fact, a carefully bounded and parsimonious system. Effectively the problem is the board. All games have a board, whether that’s the boundaries of permutations within a deck of cards, an actual physical gameboard or a field of play. The board delineates the boundary of play where, barring unexpected and chaotic factors (say for instance if a swarm of bees invades a football pitch) all that is the game exists within the boundaries of the board. Externalities such as bee swarms are excluded from play. The game will be paused, and resumed when the chaotic element is removed. But of course economies and ecologies don’t work as a game. An economy can’t be paused while a pandemic is cleared away. And that moves it out of the bounds of a game. If economies are games then they are games with infinitely expansive boards in which externalities don’t exist.

Here’s an extended example of the complexity intrinsic to complex systems:

One of the frustrating and long-term unexpected side effects of the pandemic is a disruption of the kitchen fixtures manufacturing sector. It’s very hard to get cabinets installed right now. This is a result of multiple interfacing systems: Let’s start with Alberta paying skilled tradespeople far more than PEI means many carpenters move out west to work. This reduces the overall available pool of carpenters within the province. Add to that the fact that PEI is the fastest growing province in Canada and that the new-construction housing market has a resource bottle neck and the challenge of resourcing people for resale market renovations becomes even more challenging. So you might ask, why doesn’t PEI offer incentives to bring home all those expatriated carpenters from the oil patch? The answer points to even more interlocking systems.

1) Developers in PEI operate on lower margins than oil companies out west. They don’t want to increase pay. Because they’re quite profitable now and the backlog of work just means they have a consistent funnel. They COULD surge hiring by raising pay but that would reduce their overall profitability.

2) PEI effectively doesn’t build public housing. There are two political parties that have traditionally formed power: The Liberals and the Conservatives. Despite the names, the provincial liberals are probably very slightly to the right of the provincial Conservatives though the divide is more a historic town/country split. 

Neither the property-developer beholden Liberals nor the fiscally anxious Conservatives want to spend PEI’s limited budget on affordable housing if they can instead just offer tax cuts to developers in exchange for commitments to lease purpose-built rental units back to the province. This means the province doesn’t need to hire any project managers, carpenters, concrete layers, electricians, etc. It also allows the province to privatize the capital acquisition costs of construction equipment. With the arrival of COVID-19 the attention of the government turned sharply to disease management. And to their credit they have done a commendable job. PEI has had some of the lowest spread of COVID-19 per capita around at 132 cases per 100k people. This puts us on roughly the same footing as Australia. For reference, Canada, overall, is at 3,792 cases per 100k people. To situate this overall, Vietnam, which was widely seen as being the gold standard, sits at 22/100k. South Korea, another stand-out for COVID response is at 312/100k. The best European response is probably Finland at 1753/100k. The world mean is 2396/100k. But the PEI government somewhat notoriously managed this feat by deprioritizing everything else.

This is something that the governing Conservatives, the official opposition Green party and the recently deposed Liberals all aligned on. So despite the pre-existing rental availability crisis there has been very little action on housing in the last two years. 

Now another important system at play here is short-term rental. PEI has four principal industries: Agriculture, Fisheries, IT and tourism. And in Charlottetown, where over half of the population of the whole island lives, Tourism reigns supreme. In particular, Charlottetown has a huge short-term rentals market with something like 1/3 of all downtown homes on the rental market being for short-term rentals specifically. Prior to COVID-19 there was discussion in Charlottetown of addressing this issue. Rental availability rates were lower than those of Toronto and, if you could get a mortgage, it was rapidly becoming substantially cheaper to buy a house than to rent. But this was driving rapid increases in home prices, particularly in the capital region. 

Charlottetown was planning consultations on bylaws that would impose restrictions on short-term rental operators who were not either A) renting rooms or grandparent suites of their own principal residences or B) properly registered tourism operators ie: those who run their businesses through the traditional B&B model rather than unofficial AirBnB premises. However between lockdowns, COVID measures taking bandwidth and the lobbying of the tourism industry to protect it in a general sense against the ravages COVID visited upon the industry, this particular file laid in abeyance until very recently. There was a public consultation that became heated enough that the Charlottetown city council actually shut it down early. I have not heard about subsequent consultations or action on the file since. 

As an aside, the rise in home purchase prices in PEI accelerated significantly during COVID as Ontario and Quebec residents relocated to the Maritimes in record numbers to escape the plague. Anyone who bought a home before 2019 stood to make an exceptional windfall. This is, in fact, how we came to be in a position to need new cabinets as we were able to realize a long-time dream of buying a hobby farm but the farmhouse doesn’t currently have a very functional kitchen. Exacerbating this further, much of the kitchen fixture manufacturing for North America occurs in Texas and the industrial capacity of the state has been impacted not just by Coronavirus but also by the impact of climate disasters, further disrupting delicate supply chains.

So here is an example of how complex systems interlock. Canada subsidizes oil production and makes it part of “the national interest” and so oil companies pay attractive wages pulling carpenters out of the province. The province is politically uninterested in increasing wages for skilled trades. AirBnB pulls rental homes out of the market and drives the start of a home price bubble accelerated further by internal immigration from other provinces. A global pandemic disrupts manufacturing and shipping abroad while climate crisis and the just-in-time delivery model further weaken supply chains. Pandemic response prioritizes public health and the protection of a key provincial industry over resolving pre-existing crises. Home owners are sitting on money to invest back into their homes and further driving demand. But rather than raising prices were seeing, instead, raising wait times. It’s not a matter of some open market bidding because carpenters are employed by specific employers in specific sectors who don’t want their costs to rise. And of course home owners with money in their pockets and lot of time at home are willing to invest in quality. So what ends up buckling is time, making the wait for cabinetry long. This isn’t a game but rather the overlap of several complicated economic systems and it doesn’t map cleanly onto a demand curve. Demand is a factor, but the externalities far outweigh the simple requirement of “people want cabinets.”

All these things: oil barons and floods in Texas, disease and government ideology, rising demand and supply chain fragility, it’s all part of the field of play. In his later work on acid communism and post-capitalist desire, Mark Fisher pointed toward a concept of consciousness raising and I do think that this is a necessary activity. However I think it needs to be directed specifically toward those ontological tools that allow for an understanding of complex systems. What’s more, it isn’t sufficient to leave this in the ivory tower as the domain of ecologists and mathematicians. We can see some understanding of the scope of the problem there, of course. In The Integrative Analysis of Economic Ecosystems: Reviewing labour market policies with new insights from permaculture and systems theory Michael Schlauch addresses the challenges facing economics in adopting a complex systems approch, saying, “Systems are then referred to as “purposeful activity systems”, i.e. systems that consist of human actors that take purposeful actions. These are not taken as real, but as continually changing perceptions from different points of view. Models are “working models” not claiming any “permanent ontological status” (Checkland, 2000, p. 20). Resulting solutions are valid for the observed situation and may not be purported as universal laws.” Referring back, himself, to Peter Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology: A Thirty Year Retrospective. This is academically interesting but not particularly helpful. It’s good for economists to admit that models should not claim a permanent ontological status but it doesn’t really propose clearly what ontology would be preferred nor how to achieve such an ontological position. On the other hand, there’s a risk in over-mystifying complex systems. The Biggest Little Farm takes great care to show how complex systems interact but tends to reduce them either to a “circle of life” implementation of the eternal return or to become even more mystical, assigning some sort of special ontological position to the blue eyes of an aging dog. While this is entertaining (and it is a masterfully shot documentary which will likely entertain people interested in sustainable agriculture) it is also not particularly useful as part of a consciousness raising program.

We can however find some tools for handling complex systems. The ecological tools of permaculture provide a good framework. A permaculture expert at the University of Western Ontario, Rebecca Ellis (in collaboration with Weis, Suryanarayanan and Bailin) says, regarding bees, “Despite growing attention, there is cause for concern that much of the coverage of bee declines pivot around narrowly defined technical evidence (especially in relation to the harm caused by a specific class of pesticides) in a way that can obscure the more fundamental roots of the problems, along with the need for much bigger changes… while conditions affecting bee health and threats to survival are well studied, and evidence is proliferating, too often the problems facing bees are assessed and presented in isolation, with insufficient attention given to the range of ways that industrial agriculture bears on them and how these interrelate.” Complex systems study within agriculture and ecology has its strength both in maturity and in the materiality of its subject matter. Unlike philosophers or economists, who are largely working with abstractions, ecologists and agriculturalists are fully grounded in the material conditions of the world and treat the complexity of these systems as matters of material reality: crop health, biodiversity and systems equilibria in lived environments. Ellis et. al get at the necessity of looking at interrelating systems as relationships rather than as isolated subjects.

This is, of course, not a new idea. From the Denma Translation Group Sunzi:

A state's impoverishment from its soldiers --
When they are distant, there is distant transport. 
When they are distant and there is distant transport the hundred clans are impoverished. 
When soldiers are near, things sell dearly.
When things sell dearly, wealth is exhausted. 
When wealth is exhausted, people are hard-pressed by local taxes.

The Denma Group tie this to Sunzi’s statement that “Taking a state whole is superior. Destroying it is inferior to this,” to transport the idea of taking whole out of the specific context of capturing a state without unneeded military destruction and instead to an ontological position. In the Taking Whole commentary, the Denma group reconcile Sunzi with the Confucian critic Xunzi claiming that the statement, “There is a plant in the Western Regions called a blackberry lily. Its stem is four inches long, but because it grows atop tall mountains, it looks down into a thousand-foot abyss,” rather than operating as a critique of Sunzi, demonstrates the sort of flexibility in perspective that defines Sunzi’s prescription for a sage commander. Ultimately, their interpretation of the ontology of Sunzi depends on a concept called Shih. “The rush of water to the point of tossing rock about. This is shih.” Shih represents the flow across a gradient that manifests as power. But it, and its companion concept node which is the moment of the event in which power is exercised, denote that the principal way Sunzi views circumstances is in their relationships. Much like in Xunzi’s example, power is intrinsically a matter of relationship. Xunzi expresses this relationship in the position of a distant perspective while Sunzi prefers to be enmeshed in the action but both come together to propose that an understanding of the moment of the event is not enough. One must understand rather how that event interrelates to every other event. You can’t just say rocks smashed but rather that they were pushed by the river. And the river, in its turn is water acted upon by gravity, channeled by the differential density of the same rock that it erodes and throws about. The system doesn’t have limits, it expands in every direction over the horizon. The Denma Translation group proposes that a sage must be both Sunzi, occupying the position of the drawn crossbow, the raging river, the boulder rolling down a hill and also that of Xunzi: a little plant at the precipice of a towering abyss. A general must know both the specificity of their supply chain and how it interacts with the local economy but also the terrain in which the army moves. They must live both in the mathematical specificity of the logbook and must stand upon high hills and survey the terrain.

This ontological superposition has been expanded upon greatly in recent years by Mi’kmaw Elder Abert Marshall as Two-Eyed Seeing. This concept has principally been applied to the conflict-laden topic of fisheries management in an attempt to bridge the gap between the Canadian colonial administration of fisheries and Mi’kmaw traditional fisheries stewardship. Marshall proposed that the value of European sciences should not be discarded as poison fruit of a poison tree but rather should be integrated with traditional understandings of fisheries management. The Mi’kmaw people have been fishing the Martime Atlantic for millennia and hold specific local knowledge of the ecological systems in their environment but a scientific understanding of epidemiology and population control is also useful for stewarding seafood populations. This must all be positioned within the context of the Marshall Decision, in which Donald Marshall Jr. (the son of then-Mi’kmaw Grand Chief Donald Marshall Sr.) successfully petitioned the Canadian Supreme Court over treaty obligations not to interfere with Mi’kmaw fisheries. Disputes, especially over lobster, have boiled over into violence directed against First Nations people in Nova Scotia as recently as last year over the decision of Mi’kmaw fishermen to fish lobster outside of the season prescribed by the department of fisheries.

The argument put forward by the Mi’kmaw nation is twofold: first that they know quite well what they are doing and second that Canada is not legally authorized to prohibit their activity. The latter position is best elaborated through the two Marshall decisions which remain the binding legal interpretation of the treaties upon Canada in the current time. The former is elaborated in part through this ontological framework.

Complex systems are open-ended networks of relationships. The analytic/scientific approach of excluding externalities and concentrating on increasingly atomized elements of the system have, as Ellis et. al. suggested, produced problems. People get hung up on glyphosphate and fail to consider how bee populations are impacted by monoculture, by climate change, by the breaking up of habitat, by the transportation of hives as a form of migrant worker or at least imported livestock and how that can create supply chain fragility when transportation or industry becomes disrupted. Attempts to put bees in the little box marked, “honey producing livestock” are as much a part of the problem facing bees as a general category as the use of pesticides which kill them. Not that this defends glyphosphate use; it is one of the inputs into the system. It is just that it is necessary to treat the complex system whole but it is also necessary, when a part of the system is breaking down to be able to manipulate that specific relationship before stepping back again to observe the holistic impact of that change upon the system.

We must learn to treat problems neither in isolation nor as mere movements within an holistic system but rather both at once. We should be enmeshed in systems sufficient to see their node but also be the little plant above the abyss.

Truth Windows

I’ve been thinking a lot about sustainable homes lately.

Sustainable homes are a very interesting trend – this trend has largely been tied to an interconnected network of associated home and lifestyle micro-cultures including the permaculture farming movement, the rewilding movement (in both the conservation biology and anarchist senses of the word) and to tiny homes.

Sustainable home builders are unified by a shared set of general precepts:

  • That modern housing construction is ecologically harmful and unsustainable.
  • That traditional house construction techniques have advantages over modern house construction.
  • That there is an aesthetic or moral advantage to a “simplified” lifestyle.
  • An interest in specific technologies including: passive climate control, sustainable water use practice and efficient home construction.
  • An aesthetic interest in curved living spaces over right-angle construction, the integration of built structures into the landscape, the incorporation of recycled material as explicit aesthetic flourishes and a desire for a DIY aesthetic that carries certain proletarianized (or peasantized) signifiers.

These homes have a few principal overall construction and aesthetic methodologies:

It should be noted that any of the first four categories may or may not also be a part of the fifth, as there are many off-grid sustainable homes but being off-grid is not an intrinsically fundamental aspect of any of the above. I want to focus on a feature specific to two types of buildings in the earthship and the bale and cob style homes in the form of the “truth window” because I think this aesthetic feature of these homes is particularly interesting.

Now part of the reason that truth windows occur in the former types of structure but not in yurts or cave homes is because yurts and cave houses show their truth-in-construction intrinsically. The frame of a yurt is the interior finish of the building and likewise a cave house is, well, a cave.

Nothing is hidden in the construction of a yurt.

However bale and cob homes and earthships share a commonality in that their construction consists of three layers: an outer shell, generally made out of some form of clay masonry, an inner lining of plaster and a central layer made out of a novel material: straw bales in the case of bale and cob, tires full of rammed earth in the case of earthships.

There are certainly commendable advantages to these design decisions. Straw bales are a highly renewable building material, cheap and readily available in any rural setting. They provide excellent insulation and they are an easy substrate to work with. When fully sealed, straw bales will also last a long time. Tires full of rammed earth provide some of the insulative benefit of straw bales and make use of recycled material, diverting tires that are past use as vehicle parts from garbage dumps to be re-used as an incredibly durable building material.

Now I do want to lay out a few points before we dig too deeply into the question of the truth window: first I think sustainable buildings are a good idea. Certainly the violent uniformity of the modern suburb is neither ecologically sustainable, aesthetically pleasing nor culturally positive. Quite a bit has been written about how the suburb breeds alienation. The suburban aesthetic of the grass lawn has lead to turf grass becoming the largest irrigated crop in the United States. And this is despite grass being an invasive species that isn’t particularly efficient at carbon capture (a consequence of monoculture and the externalities of mowing, fertilizer and pesticide), provides no nutrition to people or domestic animals in the suburban milieu and is boring and ugly to boot. The ecological problems of the suburb continue with the manner in which they are built for cars, the space-use structures of the cul-de-sac, and the significance of paved spaces. These are, of course, related issues. Part of what makes sustainable buildings sustainable isn’t in the construction of the building envelope itself so much as the relationship between the building and the surrounding terrain.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the construction of the earthship. These structures have a very specific relationship to their landscape wherein even microclimactic factors are carefully considered in the engineering of the building envelope. An earthship requires both unobstructed access to sunlight, with carefully angled windows for the front wall, and also a large bank of earth into which the back wall is built. The land bank at the rear of the earthship is often where rainwater cisterns are positioned, depending on gravity to pull water through the filtration system, to in-house use before exiting via gray water disposal systems into the front-of-house greenhouse. This imposes specific and particular landscape limitations on the positioning of earthships that limits their usefulness to a rural milieu. You literally cannot build them as suburbs. However this relationship between a built structure and a specific landscape extends beyond the practical limitations of dependence on sunlight and earth for passive climate control and on gravity and cisterns for off-grid water collection. There are, in fact, a preponderance of aesthetic and ideological complexes that interface sustainable homes with their environments. An example is visible in the image of the yurt above.

In traditional construction the wood burning stove is the principal heating source. There is a practical dimension to this decision because this allows for even radiation of heat around the entirety of the structure and because putting the stove (and the chimney) in the middle of the yurt allows for a heavy object from which to tie the central anchor line of the yurt – a structural feature that keeps yurts stable in high wind. However the centrality of the hearth and chimney also creates a hub between the platform and the central dome: an axle to the round home and its radically open concept. Living in a yurt, as it was traditionally designed, imposes certain ways of living that are more collective than the privatization of separate rooms. Tents don’t have internal walls. Cooking happens in the center with furniture and storage in a circle around it. The plan of the home imposes a lifestyle upon those who live within it. The same can be said of the greenhouses of the earthship – which are intrinsic and necessary parts of the water filtration system and which also provide food year-round to the occupants. This, too, imposes certain task-requirements on the occupants in the form of garden maintenance. You will not enjoy living in an earthship if you don’t want to also be a gardener.

In the case of both earthships and bale and cob houses, local earth is used in the creation of the facade. This is first a matter of cost: one of the attractions of sustainable house construction is its low price compared to traditional building. There is a whole ecosystem (if you can pardon the pun) built around seminars and workshops training people how to design and build sustainable homes that doubles to provide a volunteer workforce to undertake the labour of doing so. Recycled tires are frequently donated or can be sourced cheaply. Likewise straw bales are cheap and locally available in nearly any rural setting. It would defeat the purpose of this cost-cutting to drop a bunch of money bringing in earth for making the cladding, especially when these buildings so often require excavation of the terrain upon which they are built anyway. So you’ve got all this clay right there already. You might as well mix it with sand and straw to make some adobe. But this means that the building is literally constructed out of the local environment. In the case of earthships and cave homes, green roofs are not uncommon with local grass species providing protection against water damage and additional insulation in much the same way as a reed or thatch roof – just one that is still alive. At the very least, an earthship will have grasses planted on the rear earth mound.

But with these buildings taking the form of earthworks specifically it is also common to have those earthworks extend out into carefully structured gardens that often provide additional food for the residents and that extend the visual motifs of the built structure into the local environment. These homes are somewhat strongly bound to homesteading. As such the psychology of the sort of people who devote time and energy to learning how to build these structures and who would be happy to accept the trade-offs in creature comforts they sometimes entail (wood chip composting toilets and the like) is also conducive to a deliberate use of small-scale agriculture to supplement or even replace grocery purchases. For various reasons, the users of sustainable homes are often people who are dissatisfied with consumerism as a phenomenon and who wish to minimize their engagement in the formal economy.

But this brings us, finally to truth windows.

Now as I mentioned before, a truth window is a feature common to earthships and to cob and bale homes. It’s a cut-out in the inner plaster, generaly but not always framed and glazed like a window, behind which the central material of the house composition is displayed. In the case of an earthship you will see the tires full of rammed earth. In the case of a cob and bale house you will see the straw bale. The window isn’t a window out to the landscape the house is situated in but rather is a window into the truth of its construction. But why would anybody want such a thing?

And the answer is that, for all that these home life arrangements are organized around a wish for greater simplicity and as much as these homes are often constructed by people who feel both that consumerism is a problem to be avoided and one they are up to the challenge of avoiding most of the people who build and own these homes cannot entirely decouple from capitalism. They may have mortgages to pay unless they’re the recipients of inheritances. Their homestead farms may not produce all of their daily caloric intake and may principally operate as a supplement to groceries. They may need to buy clothes, books, games and tools. Many of the principal advocates for this lifestyle have made use of volunteer labour to build their homes but to access that labour pool they have, themselves, had to be volunteers at builds. Only attending these builds often requires you to fly half-way across the world at your own expense and take a week or even a month working hard labour on somebody else’s property for no pay. All this costs. And once a person has this expertise there’s likely a desire to monetize it further either by consulting, offering seminars in traditional building design or in permaculture, charging enthusiasts who can pay to gain access to hard-won expertise in unorthodox skills or even by renting out properties as cottages which serves the dual purpose of evangelizing for the home style by demonstrating its comforts and of subsidizing the monetary needs of the homesteaders.

The reality is that, despite the global networks of volunteers involved in the production of these homes, there aren’t many established sustainable communities. There are sustainable homes and they are disparate. Spread out. They’re show pieces, secret retreats or outposts in the wilds. Most of these homes contain one family and most of the homesteads feed one family. There is this oedipal triangle built in the social formation of the homestead – the pioneer myth of lone families against the world in terra nullius. This is, of course, all ahistorical nonsense but it’s easy nonsense to sell.

The motivation to live in a bale and cob house is likely, at its root, “I want to live in a house of straw.” But that’s very easy for capitalism to co-opt to “wouldn’t you like to live in a house of straw too?” And this, then, becomes a principal selling point. You might have the honesty to show that the toilet is a bucket full of wood chips, but that’s not how you sell the house either a day at a time as a rental or more abstractly as a lifestyle. Instead you narrow it down to, “wouldn’t you like to live in a house of straw?”

In Soledad Brother, George Jackson says, “I may run, but all the time that I am, I’ll be looking for a stick! A defensible position!” This moved Gilles Deleuze so much that he used it, or paraphrases of it, repeatedly throughout his career including in his work with Felix Guattari as part of his key definition of the term “line of flight.” Sustainable housing is a line of flight from capital. The people who desire these things want outside. So they take their little family and they go out into the wilds, become nomadic. In some cases these buildings are an end-position after literal nomadism as it isn’t uncommon for people building a home like this to have lived in a van while they get their new home in order. The sustainable home is an escape but it also contains within it the possible search for weapons through the resistance they provide to consumerism, the focus on local sustainability and the way in which they show how the structure can become one with the field in which it arises.

But as with any Deleuzo-Guattarian line of flight, the one involving sustainable homes is a walk along the razor’s edge. and, “the sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” On one side of this chasm is a return fully into the territorialities of capitalism.

You can build a yurt that looks like it would be pitched in the lobby of an Ikea doing a special promotion. You can sell sustainable living as a lifestyle and you can make bank doing it; wouldn’t you like to own this life?

I’ve written before about how easy it is to build a self-identity around commodities and there isn’t anything intrinsically decommodifying about a sustainable home, certainly nothing that can’t be immediately reterritorialized by capitalism. And there’s another danger present. In building upon the pioneer myth as part of its basis, a lot of the homesteading movement can be fertile ground for the sort of reactionaries who would happily trade capitalism in for feudalism or something worse. It’s worth noting that homesteading is a predominantly white activity. And I don’t say this to smear homesteaders or say they’re a pack of fascists – I’m aware of many good and kind green-anarchists who are permaculturalists and who are deeply fond of homesteading: people who either are homesteaders themselves or who would be if they could follow the line of flight even that far. However cautionary tales abound. In Do you Make Yourself a Body Without Organs, Deleuze and Guatari warn that it’s very easy to fall into fascism while looking for your escape. And it’s not like this is without precedent. Look what happened to Nick Land. The truth window can be a window into an imagined past in which people “lived simply” and were more “in tune with nature,” and these naturalistic myths elide much of the messy material reality of the past. Yurts are the traditional homes of Central Asian steppe peoples, nomads whose way of life evolved together with their lived condition. Bale and Cobb houses are constructed still in Northern China, and while they are fading from popularity cave homes still exist too.

These white homesteaders building “traditional” dwellings from adobe and straw may act as if they’re reviving some lost past when all they’re really doing is building using the normal and lived expertise from other people in other places. The world has never been “simple” and the truth is that de-cluttering, choosing to raise your own food, and trying to minimize your interaction with capitalism will not make it simpler.

We can’t go back to the past and even if we could we wouldn’t enjoy what we found. There’s a reason we moved on and we don’t want to go back there. We can escape into the wilds but an escape from prison isn’t sufficient. As I’m fond of saying, echoing Tiqqun, what is needed is a total desertion.

Being an evangelist of that desertion may mean setting one foot outside the prison door and revealing that there was never any guard. The tower at the center of Bentham’s panopticon is empty and while Capitalism may always try to move its own boundaries such that it seems as if there is no outside, there is one and the sun shines there on a world just as complicated but in different, better, ways. But we cannot succeed until everyone escapes all together. That is why we must do as Jackson advises and look for a defensible position as we escape – a spot from which to help our fellows find the exit.

But this, eventually, is the rub. One homestead alone in the wild is never enough. We must start to imagine not sustainable homes but sustainable communities. It will involve a reordering of our space and our production not on a familial level but on the broad level of the group. There’s nothing wrong with borrowing the expertise of people who know how to build in these (better) ways, and the motivation of forming communities who volunteer to raise each other’s homes is precisely the right instinct. But we can’t have it be a game for rich kids to play – it’s something we have to do in our communities. My fear coming out of these plague years is that people will cry, “the city is dead, long live the suburbs!” But sustainability cannot happen there. If we must flee the city it must be to rural climes but it must not be as a homestead alone. It must be communities together. We don’t need truth windows to tell us the house is built of straw. We need instead groups of people who understand why using straw is a good choice in this place and at this time.

751

I can barely write because my hands are shaking with rage. Content warnings – I’m talking about a genocide perpetrated against children in our lifetime. There will be mention of horrible crimes.

This morning my daughter announced at the breakfast table that she didn’t want me to walk her to the bus stop. The school bus stops a block away and she has freedom to roam on our block but I like walking with her to the bus stop, seeing her board, waving goodbye. But she was adamant that she wanted to go alone. We eventually came to the compromise that I could watch her from our lawn and wave to her bus in the distance.

My daughter is a bright child who enjoys school. She is doing well. She has a lot of friends. I know she’s going to come home every day happy, ready to look over homework, talk about activities. I know she’s going to come home every day.

As of the time I write this, the Cowessess First Nation has announced that they believe ground penetrating radar has shown 751 unmarked graves at the Marieval Indian Residential School; 751 children who were forced by Mounties and priests to attend one of the deceptively-named extermination camps and who were murdered. This so-called school operated until 1996. This facility of industrialized death was still operating while I (and much of my audience I suspect) was in school. A school we almost certainly entered and left freely. A school where we would never consider the possibility that the staff might drag us away in the night to disappear beneath the soil forever. The map below shows the location of other “residential schools” in Canada. How many graves are there at each of these? How many children murdered because they tried to cling to their language, because they resisted assimilation into Christianity, because they resisted when a priest tried to rape them, because a teacher felt disrespected by their affect, because of so many other non-reasons – excuses for blunt, stupid, brutal evil?

I’m furious. I can’t stand breathing the same air with the kind of people who would commit such crimes or with the kind of people who would try to make excuses for them. But certain things must be done:

  • Canada must immediately investigate these crimes against humanity and bring any living participants in this genocide to trial. In the process of doing so Canada must render any and all aid to First Nations communities involved in the investigation upon request and regardless of cost.
  • If Canada is unwilling to do so, the International Criminal Court must intervene and do it for Canada.
  • Canada must immediately cease all court challenges fighting First Nations children over compensation for discriminatory practices.
  • Canada must listen to First Nations advocates regarding the implementation of a comprehensive UNDRIP law that does not attempt to subordinate First Nations sovereignty into a municipalized hierarchy.
  • All Canadian jurisdictions with publicly funded Catholic schools must immediately and unilaterally defund them.
  • The RCMP must be disbanded.
  • The Catholic church must be removed from Canada and any wealth held by the Catholic Church in Canada must be disbursed to First Nations communities in recompense.
  • The Catholic church must, at the highest levels, be held legally responsible for the genocide it participated in – starting with the surviving Cardinals of Canada and going up from there.
  • All monuments to architects of the residential school system including, but not limited to, John A. Macdonald, Hector-Louis Langevin and Egerton Ryerson must be destroyed. Any buildings, organizations or locations named for the architects of the residential school system must be renamed. Curricula must be amended to situate these “fathers of confederation” as the genocides they were.

I am disgusted that my country still has not taken these actions. I am disgusted that my country smears the word “school” by associating it with these extermination facilities. I know that some of what I’ve said may be incendiary. But at this point, nothing short of the total dismantling of the legacy of residential schools both within the Canadian state and within the institution of the Catholic church will suffice. By making their priest and teachers into death camp wardens, the Catholic church has lost any right to operate in this jurisdiction in any form. There must be accountability for the guilty and for their institutions. There must be restitution for the victims. Nobody should ever have to see a school as an institution that disappears their children.

Of course Disney tried to copyright Loki

Recently a Redbubble designer shared a letter they got about the takedown of their “Low Key Loki” design. And I have to say that I really wish I was even slightly surprised. The image below is a clip from the form letter Redbubble gave to the artist regarding their tee shirt design.

Look at these shitty thieves at Disney trying to steal a whole-ass god.

The thing is that this isn’t the first time that Disney has attempted total nonsense like this. In fact it’s not even the second time. After all, there was that time that Disney tried to trademark a Mexican holiday. There was also that time that Disney tried to trademark a traditional Swahili expression. In fact, aggressive use of trademark law is one of Disney’s preferred methods of expressing ownership over a concept.

Now I know the pedants in the room will be quick to jump on how trademark is more limited than copyright, that the use of “Hakuna Matata” within the Lion King and the use of  Día de Muertos in the (insufferable) Coco does not prevent people from using the expression or enjoying the holiday but that’s the thing: as Disney has shown with their most recent trademark shenanigans, they’re perfectly willing to attempt to take ownership of the idea of Loki notwithstanding the usual barriers of specific design or context that limit trademark. Frankly it doesn’t matter whether something Disney claims ownership is claimed via copyright or trademark. The truth is that in both cases it’s Disney expressing a territory.

If you look at how Disney has camped on the works of Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, Chinese folk traditions dating back 1700 years,  Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, and so many other artists whose work has entered the public domain then what you see is the same predation that played out across England between 1600 and 1900 being executed again not in real estate but within the terrain of the imagination.

Let’s not have a misunderstanding. Disney has no right to ownership of the Little Mermaid, Rapunzel, Hua Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, Día de Muertos, Hakuna Matata or Loki. All they did in all these cases was to adapt extant public-domain material. That they then try to claw these stories, characters and concepts out of the public domain, and that anybody complies says nothing about the nature of copyright or trademark law but rather just demonstrates that all laws kneel below sufficient power and sufficient hubris.

I have not been watching Loki. This is, in fact, because I was quite fond of Thor: Ragnarok which I consider to be the best of the MCU films by a considerable margin. Loki’s arc ended there and it was a satisfactory ending. That the MCU decided to retcon him back to a prior, more usable, state at the expense of character growth is a perfect example of the corrosive violence to art that Disney represents. However I know some people are watching it and enjoying it.

If this is you I have just one request: find some way to watch this show that doesn’t give Disney a single penny of your money. I don’t care about the details but the only way to make Disney relax its avarice about this or that cultural artifact is to make it worthless to them. So do that thing.

Degenerate

The Tower of Blue Horses by Franz Marc
The Tower of Blue Horses – Franz Marc – 1913
Degenerate: late 15th century: from Latin degeneratus ‘no longer of its kind’, from the verb degenerare, from degener ‘debased’, from de- ‘away from’ + genus, gener- ‘race, kind’.

The Tower of Blue Horses disappeared after World War 2. Franz Marc was a German expressionist painter who died during World War 1 but his death, nor that it was in service of Germany during wartime didn’t prevent the nazis from labeling him a degenerate, confiscating his paintings from galleries, and displaying this one at the degenerate art exhibition. Marc had two strokes against him: first he came from a family of Jewish ethnic origin (they had converted to Catholicism, you know, because of all the antisemitism in Europe). Second, his work, which was steeped in mysticism and a visceral response against the violence of war was seen as being actively debasing to the aesthetic purity the Nazis strove toward.

Degenerate, in the context of aesthetics, carries a lot of connotation. It implies art that is no longer art (no longer of its kind) it is debased art – art that moves art away from what it should be. It implies a movement out of its genre: painting that is like sculpture or like a wood print. It implies a mixing of races, and it is no surprise that much of the art at the Degenerate Art exhibit was art that was affected by the exposure to foreign aesthetics brought about by colonialism. Matisse’s fauvism was heavily influenced by Japanese printmaking, as were many post-impressionists prior. The flattening of perspective these styles preferred moved art away from the renaissance preference of depth of field. Cubism, like that of Picasso, owed a deep debt to the art pillaged from Africa and its colonies and abstractionists also drew heavily on middle-eastern motifs. Fellow degenerate and expressionist painter Marc Chagall was Jewish and Jewish mysticism pervades his work.

The Fiddler – Marc Chagall – 1912

I bring this up mostly because I want it to be clear that, first off, degeneracy has always principally been an aesthetic accusation rather than an ethical one. Those who hate the degenerate do so because they find it ugly. Second, it’s important to situate that art called “degenerate” is art that is inseparable from the impact of colonialism. Between the advent of the impressionists in the mid-1800s and the end of WWII, visual art in Europe underwent a transformation the scope of which had not been seen since the Renaissance, and just as the Renaissance was brought about by the reintroduction of classical ideas via expanded contact with the Middle East, so too was modern art explicitly informed by the impact of colonialism. Matisse took from Japanese art freely and Picasso from African art but it wasn’t a moral reaction against those appropriations but rather a revulsion to what these appropriations entailed that upset the fascists. This situates the Nazi revulsion for the degenerate aesthetic as being a clear and obvious expression of their fear that the colonial project would change the imperial core and make those seats of empire no longer like their genus.

The deterritorializing and nomadic quality of modern art is not intrinsically moral either. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is, in my eyes a work of transcendent beauty but it is also a product of theft. Degenerate art goes out beyond the boundaries of its genre and brings in the new. But what is new within the imperial core was the legacy of a thousand years elsewhere.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – Pablo Picasso – 1907

The conservativism of the Nazi remains, unsurprisingly, a perfect example of bad faith. The art they called degenerate was a product of the imperialism they championed. The empires of Germany, France, Spain and England sewed the seeds of modern art that revulsed the Nazi. They were unprepared to reap the whirlwind. They believed somehow they could go out and take from the world and somehow make everything German. This is the same phenomenon that the Wachowskis so masterfully commented upon in the Matrix Sequels via the solipsism of Smith.

I say all this because I want to point out that when supposed leftists speak of the degeneracy of, “transgenderism,” or when they try to lionize Socialist Realism over degenerate, ugly, decadent (rotting or decaying) art, they are speaking with the tongue of Nazis. I have always been proud to call myself a degenerate. These paintings I shared are, in my eyes, some of the greatest ever produced by Europeans explicitly because they went beyond the boundaries of European art and expanded the realm of the aesthetic in doing so. I have no desire to show fidelity to my genre. But this is not an ethical position. All these men, even Chagal, were thieves as for all that his Jewish mysticism shone through his canvases, they did so in the smiling simulation of an African mask.

But why say all this? Why simultaneously claim the term degenerate, announce that its enemies are Nazis and undermine it by laying bare its colonialist framework? Because the moral and the moralizing should be banished from art. It is critical to recognize that the attacks levied against “degenerates” in the present age has no grounding in ethics. It does not live there. For all that self-deceiving liars might harp on the safety of children, on the idea of harm, on the dubious proposition that this or that aesthetic position represents a violation of consent we must recognize that what is being said by these fork-tongued descendants of the Nazis isn’t, “this is evil,” but rather, “this is ugly.” And beauty is not intrinsically good nor ugliness evil.

There is cruelty and danger and wrath in our beauty. The Nightbreed of Midian crave flesh. There is beauty in the skull and the ruin as much as in the flower and the sunrise. The Nazis were immoral butchers. They slaughtered their way across Europe, committed genocides against anybody perceived different from them: Jews, Roma, Gays, Communists. But they were also narrow-minded ugly people who inured themselves against any beauty they didn’t recognize as being of their genre. It’s too easy to flatten these two perspectives, but this leaves us vulnerable.

When we hear people speaking sweet moralizing words, when they talk about liberating workers and organizing the working classes, when they claim revolutionary intent and then turn around and say Nazi things about sex and art it can be disorienting because they’re not Nazis. They said so, right?

But it’s important to remember that the reactionary current is as much an aesthetic position as a moral one. The reactionary is unwilling to accept that our concept of beauty grows as our concept of “us” does. They call for a mass movement then lock the door and say, “not you, you’re too ugly.” So, especially this month, when you encounter some petty person, even a putative leftist, calling kink at pride or trans people degenerate, decadent, or ugly, black their eyes and call them a fucking Nazi. They’ve earned it.

Nice Strawman Ben

The conviction of Derek Chauvin in the extra-judicial execution of George Floyd has led to a moment with regard to prison abolition. Of course one of the principal attacks levied at prison abolitionists is, “Aha! Surely that means you think Derek Chauvin shouldn’t be in jail.” This is an old and favourite rhetorical tool of conservatives, liberals and all other people who want to oppose transformative change within society. Let’s look at one of them.

Ben Burgis opposes prison abolition. Mr. Burgis is a lecturer in philosophy at Georgia State University Perimeter College who writes for Jacobin and Quillette (yes that Quillette) and who writes books of political philosophy directed toward responding against conservative rhetoric through the use of formal logic. However it appears he forgot that the strawman is a failure of logic because he has constructed a remarkable one in his (ugh) Socratic dialog with the prison abolitionist.

The central position he takes is that prison abolitionists want to defer the moment of abolition into the future – that we are furthermore happy to see prison used now – and that any program to abolish the prison must be fully articulated before we bring out the wrecking ball. He does this through a cringe-inducing dialog script that I would expect from a C-graded undergraduate rather than somebody holding a doctorate. However in making his argument against prison abolition into a fiction he has moved it into my territory as an art critic. So let’s examine some of these lines:

Me {Ben}: “So, for example, you don’t think Derek Chauvin should be put it in prison? Because it seems to me that locking up murderous cops would be a really good first step toward correcting some of the crazy power imbalances between cops and ordinary people we’ve got right now…but if you’re an abolitionist about prisons, I assume you disagree?”
PA {Prison Abolitionist}: “No, don’t be ridiculous. I still want to lock up Chauvin. It’s not like abolitionists want to let everyone out of prison immediately. That’s a caricature.”

Here Ben establishes the parameters of the argument. The argument must center around the immediate task of what is to be done with this specific delinquent. The argument must further center around whether the prison abolitionist is fully consistent in their views when confronted with our protagonist. He has situated this within the genre of the Socratic dialog, positioning the Prison Abolitionist as one of Socrates’ interlocutors, and himself as the Gadfly of Athens. Charming.

Of course Ben misses the point here. I don’t want Chauvin locked up. Nor do I want him executed. I want Chauvin to never have been. And as the past is inaccessible to me, my principal objective, and the principal objective of most prison abolitionists is to bring about the world where no more Chauvins arise. Since Ben is well-versed in philosophy, I’m going to call this bad faith in a very specific meaning of the word. Ben’s argument is a flight from the position of his freedom. He’s free to imagine a world without Derek Chauvins, free to imagine somewhere beyond the prison. But he runs from it because the ambiguity of the situation terrifies him, and Ben cannot tolerate ambiguity:

Me again later: “Hmm. I still love Angela Davis but the only part of that book that was relevant to this discussion was pretty bad. The last chapter was the only one about alternatives to prisons and it was just astonishingly hand-wave-y.”
PA: “What do you mean?”
Me: “Well, for example, she talked about ways to reduce crime in the long term but she never exactly said whether she believes interpersonal violence would ever literally be reduced to zero, and if not what should be done with remaining offenders.”
PA: “You probably would have been just as dismissive about the movement to abolish slavery in the 19th century.”
Me: “Excuse me?”
PA: “You heard me. People can never imagine what radical change will look like until it’s happened.”
Me: “You don’t think 19th century abolitionists knew about wage labor when they were talking about abolishing slavery?”
PA: “Maybe they did. But what as socialists you and I agree is the next historical step after that — abolishing wage labor? Didn’t Marx say that we shouldn’t write detailed recipes for the cookshops of the future?”
Me: “Marx was wrong. He was right about most subjects but he was wrong about this one. When you don’t write those detailed recipes, the people you’re trying to convince will be understandably skeptical about whether they’ll have anything to eat in that future. The good thing, though, is that lots of people have written recipes. I wrote a quick one here. Bhaskar Sunkara wrote a more detailed version in the first chapter of his book The Socialist Manifesto. David Schweickart wrote a super-rigorous book-length one you can read here and…”

I cannot look at this section as anything other than an expression of fear. He’s terrified that, in Davis’ vision of the future, there would not be a perfect solution to violence but let’s be real here: there is not, now, a perfect solution to violence. In fact, in the United States, one of the greatest vectors of violence is the police force. Burgis, in this dialog, demands perfection of the critic before he will countenance the destruction of the established system. And furthermore, he acts as if no proposals had been put forward. This is categorically untrue. And I don’t even need to go to communism to find strong arguments for abolition. I don’t need Marx to make this case.

Me: “So why do you call yourself an ‘abolitionist’?”
PA: “Because I want to abolish prisons.”
Me: “BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?”
PA: “It’s not my job to educate you.”

I suppose, since your protagonist in this little play wants to play dumb, that it is my job to educate you about what it means to be an abolitionist, and I know you’re a philosophy instructor. You’re published in zero books so I’m going to assume you read Fisher. I mean with how extensively your book borrows from Exiting the Vampire Castle I would assume we could skip the 101 stuff. Even so, I’m a bit apprehensive by the weakness of your Socratic dialog so, just to be safe, let’s talk about Foucault for a second.

“This delinquency, with its specificity, is a result of the system; but it also becomes a part and an instrument of it. So that one should speak of an ensemble whose three terms (police-prison-delinquency) support one another and form a circuit that is never interrupted. Police surveillance provides the prison with offenders, which the prison transforms into delinquents, the targets and auxiliaries of police supervision, which regularly send back a certain number of them to prison,” he says in Discipline and Punish. Foucault demonstrated in this book how the carcerial is constructed of an interlocking system of power relations that both create the police officer and that create the delinquent – the lens through which we view the subject who undertakes crime. As this is an uninterrupted system, the abolition of one depends upon and must necessarily be constructed of the abolition of all three. Chauvin exists because the carcerial exists. So to say that the carcerial must exist so that Chauvin may be punished is circular logic. Chauvin is a product of the carcerial just like every cop and every criminal processed through its ministrations. Doubly so being a delinquent-police officer. I want to tear down the prison because it creates Derek Chauvins.

Furthermore your “prison minimalism” has another word: Reform. And Foucault rightly points out that efforts to reform the prison began immediately upon the formation of the prison. The effort to reform the prison is, in fact, a principal vector of its functioning. And so we cannot reform. That will merely perpetuate the carcerial and all the cruelty it creates.

Tiqqun understood the stakes. In Theses on the Terrible Community, they said:

Evasion is like the opening of a blocked door: initially it gives an impression of not seeing as far: we stop looking at the horizon and begin putting into place the details for getting out.
But evasion is only a simple escape: it leaves the prison intact. We must have desertion, a flight that at the same time obliterates the whole prison. Properly speaking, there is no individual desertion. Each deserter takes with him a little of the group’s fighting spirit. By simply existing he is an active challenge to the social order: and all the relationships he enters are contaminated by the radicality of his situation.

We must have a mass desertion of the prison. Not tomorrow. Not in the future. Today! This very minute! Right this second! We must vacate the cells, pull down the police forces, smash the prison and end its panopticism, we must break the cycle of arrest-delinquency-release-collaboration. You might say I’m being a revolutionary firebrand (I am) you might say I’m being unrealistic (I am not). And I don’t need to depend on revolution to declare the prison obsolete. In fact I can look to one of the most famous critiques of Discipline and Punish to do just that. So let’s turn our attention to what Deleuze had to say about the episteme we occupy.

On prisons, and other disciplinary institutions, he said, “everyone knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their expiration periods… These are the societies of control which are in the process of replacing the disciplinary societies.” Deleuze is explicit in his postscript that the days of the disciplinary societies that gave rise to the prison are ended and that we already have new epistemic tools for dealing with such problems.

“Controls are a modulation,” he tells us and he proceeds to describe Guattari’s keycard-controlled city: the nightmare whereby at any arbitrary moment access to this place or that could be withdrawn like an unwanted module of a complicated machine. Of course this is a nightmare, but is it a worse nightmare than the one we want to wake from? The nightmare of the panopticon and the cellular instruction toward docility that mark the carcerial? I think not. But you are so incurious in your dialog that you imagine there is no alternative.

Of course it sometimes seems to be that this is true and there is no alternative. It’s terrifying to imagine yourself so radically free that the prison could be deserted. And there will almost certainly be violence. Only less so once the guns have been taken from the police and the prison guards. Less so when the social field has been reordered such that the people who would use violence to impose their will upon another do not have the sanction of a state and its monopoly to prop them up.

“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 said, and this is a kernel of revolutionary optimism we revolutionaries cling to. I have shown you it’s possible to imagine the world without the prison, and if it’s a nightmare I have given you it is at least a gentler one than the nightmare we are all currently live within. It is the duty of all of us to break out, this minute, all at once. And so long as people remain trapped in this nightmare, we abolitionists and revolutionaries will call for the wrecking ball. Release the terrified grip you have on the devil you know: freedom, real radical freedom, is terrifying. I know. It scares me too. Heavens knows it scared Sartre. But what frightens me far more is the idea that people would rather this familiar cruelty than the possibility of anything better.

Art, qualification and risk

When I talk about art, I think it’s important to understand first that I think art is a fundamentally proletarian thing to do. By this, I mean that art is something that all people have the capacity to do, that all people can intrinsically participate in. There is no barrier to entry to be an artist, there are no qualifications required.

Qualification and scholarship

Like any activity that can be undertaken, art has associated skills that can be trained. Art schools, writer’s workshops and such are important for developing those skills, but we should always remain alert to Gramsci‘s warning that the formalization of intellectual life into schools and narrow disciplines serves only hegemony. As artists are schooled and formalized they become intellectuals who, “are the dominant group’s ‘deputies’ exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government.”

Of particular interest to Gramsci is the way in which formal education into hegemonic systems allows for the arising of a false sort of, “spontaneous consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.”

Or, as Assata Shakur said much more plainly, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.”

As such, while formal schooling in art can lead to the improvement of technical skill and intellectual study which can, in turn, allow an artist to create better art, this is neither a guaranteed path nor one without its dangers. After all, channeling artistic impulses down specific canals cuts off other possible avenues of exploration.

Gramsci and Shakur both believed it was necessary, in a revolutionary context, for the oppressed classes to bring about, within themselves, a specifically proletarian intellectualism that spoke with the voice of the oppressed. This would arise through auto-didacticism, study groups and other forms of mutual and shared communities of study and critique. Within art, this speaks to the necessity of oppressed people to speak in their voice about their struggles. Authors like Barker are critical within queer spaces because their art arises from the dark places of oppression that are the shared understanding of the non-straight to what we now call cisheteronormatvity – the hegemony of desire within the anglosphere that predominated in the late-20th century, when he began writing.

The arising of such queer voices is a necessary and critical thing. And it has been instrumental for weakening the hegemonic power of dominant institutions. However it does not follow that an artist must only speak with their own voice to create good art. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is a good work of art. It is thoughtful, thorough and has interesting things to say. Its characters are voiced in a sincere manner that treats them first as realized people rather than tropes. It achieves the principal artistic objective of communicating something novel about the world.

But its credited creators are a pair of white men, despite the subjects of the story being people of colour and mostly girls. There’s no talk of license here. There’s no talk of qualification. It’s not that Barker and his ilk have an exclusive qualification to speak to the queer experience, it’s that those voices that come from within oppressed groups are necessary and deserving of critical and audience attention.

The failure to put own-voice authors forward does not come from artists creating art outside of their lane. It comes from editors, publishers, and critics failing to give them the attention they are due, and it must be viewed as a systemic problem rather than one of an individual, personal, failure. As such, it’s very frustrating to see advice given to artists that they should see themselves as unqualified to create this work or that on the basis of an intrinsic lack. This misses the point of organic scholarship, it, in fact, inverts the relationship and seeks to exclude people from creating art rather than seeking to break down the hegemonic systems that create that exclusion.

The exclusion is, in fact, the problem. Just as factory workers and their experience was excluded from the intellectual games of the bourgeois, so too are the experiences of queer people, women, people of colour, disabled people and people who suffer under systemic oppression excluded from the hegemonic understanding of art on the basis of the superstructure of art. As such, a library administrator who caves to public pressure and cancels drag queen story events and an algorithm trained on a dataset that assumes queer media is intrinsically more adult than heterosexual media are far more pressing problems than a straight artist writing about the gays.

The liberal response is to try and make a bigger tent – to identify those ways in which the existing superstructure can be modified in order to allow the inclusion of previously excluded subjects. This is toward the good as far as it goes. However, these modular adjustments to the superstructure ultimately fail to address the presence of a base condition which will reproduce hegemonic exclusion in new and novel forms. Or which will only allow the inclusion of oppressed voices by taming them and slotting them into a worldview that will not disrupt hegemony.

The Marxist suggestion is to, instead, create a rival superstructure. Gramsci was a university drop-out. He was also deeply and fundamentally committed to working class people making contributions to explicitly working class bodies of knowledge. Gramsci believed we could create an epistemological rupture by operating within these processes of organic scholarship which required, as part of their basis, systems of dissemination, communication, critique and response that had to operate explicitly within the interests of the class of people it served.

To return it to the art world, it was essential not just that there be queer authors but also queer agents, editors, publishers, distributors, booksellers, and in fact queer understandings of the nature of literature and its communication.

Art and quality

Of course although we champion difference within art we cannot reject quality. For this, I want to turn to Kierkegaard. And, especially as this essay is principally situating itself within discussion of queer representation, I do want to start by mentioning that I use Kierkegaard for value here particularly because he represents one of the key antecedents to what we understand as queer theory.

There’s a small body of historicism suggesting that Kierkegaard was, himself, not straight. But he’d caution us away from making any declarative statements about his identity. And this is part of the thing. Kierkegaard saw identity as a matter of deep personal anxiety. Authenticity was a goal but even a person living an authentic life could not be certain they were, in fact, being authentic. Nor could they communicate a state of authenticity to any outside party. Instead, a person had to live with the anxiety and doubt intrinsic to being and to leap over the leveling scythe of (dialectical) reason toward authenticity.

Kierkegaard was worried that dialectics destroyed value. So let’s back up once again to describe what dialectics, and particularly the Hegelian dialectics that informs the Marxists I discussed above, is. The common-repeated mantra of thesis-antithesis-synthesis does not derive from Hegel. Instead it was the work of a contemporary German idealist, Fichte. This error, attributing Fichte’s dialectic to Hegel and via him to Marx and the Marxists has given rise to the hilariously misinformed “problem-reaction-solution” interpretation of dialectics put forward mostly by David Icke. I bring up these mistakes in dialectics because in understanding why Kierkegaard criticized dialectics specifically on the quality of value it is first necessary to understand what the predominant Hegelian dialectic was.

The simplest way to describe the Hegelian dialectic is to imagine a magnet. It has a left pole and a right pole. But it is one magnet. If you cut the magnet in half you get two magnets each with a left and a right pole and not two magnetic monopoles. Hegelian dialectics was in fact a manner of observing how phenomena contain their own negation or opposite such that everything can sort of fold-upward to oneness: a singular universal phenomenon which contains everything and thus is everything.

But if everything is just one then nothing has value. Art, to be valuable within a dialectical model, must also be worthless. This worried Kierkegaard greatly. And it should worry artists too because once we reject that formal artistic training is the source of value in art, as we must if we are to adopt a position that favours organic scholarship, we have to reject that the value of art comes from the labour of formal education. We could decide to assign art a value based on market forces. But I have detailed elsewhere how dependence on a market to define artistic value is corrosive. The challenge before us is to devise an artistic value that allows for difference and that allows for the many.

In the introduction to Difference and Repetition, Deleuze proposes a solution in Kierkegaard that might suffice us here:

Furthermore, if repetition concerns the most interior element of the will, this is because everything changes around the will,
 in accordance with the law of nature. According to the law of nature, repetition is impossible. For this reason, Kierkegaard condemns as aesthetic repetition every attempt to obtain repetition from the laws of nature by identifying with the legislative principle, whether in the Epicurean or the Stoic manner.

Deleuze has a great deal more to say on the topics of difference, and I’ve already alluded to that somewhat through my references to Bataille and Deleuze in previous essays. However for the purpose of establishing a sense that art can have value discrete from market value it is enough to propose a rough draft for a method of assessing good art:

  1. Does it overcome its antinomies sufficiently to communicate a message?
  2. Is the communicated message aesthetically pleasing?
  3. Is the communication novel?
  4. Is the communication authentic?

Grounding art in difference requires us to concede that all art contains within it antinomies that must be reconciled in some way. In Cabal, Lori is the subject who desires. As the book centers around the idea of being monstrous, this situates Lori in the fundamentally queer position of desiring monstrosity, of (if we do away with the metaphor) wanting to be queer. However, in the film adaptation, the scene where Lori tours Midian, which in the book is central for showing us her desire for monstrosity, sits more external and Lori is presented as an intruding outsider, a metaphor for the gentrifying gaze of the hets in love with this strange community, wanting to save it, and damning it in the process. The intertextual relationship between the film and the book are such that this becomes like a magic-eye picture. Once seen her intrusion is there in the book too. Once seen her desire to be a monster is there in the film too.

These different reads of Lori must coexist within the text. And they are at odds with each other but they are not each other’s negation. In both cases, Lori’s desire is central. The difference arises in whether her desire represents a homecoming or an intrusion. And these two are not opposites that negate into unity. If we affirm difference is we must accept that any text will contain such dialectically incomplete contradictions. As such, the irreconcilable and irreducible differences of a text will act as a form of semiotic interference. If the interference is so great that nothing is communicated by the art, it is not good art.

Aesthetic pleasure is a more challenging question as it is bound so closely to subjectivity. I previously touched on the difficulty of assigning beauty in my moral case for spoilers, and I think that using a position of moral judgment may be useful for ascertaining what an aesthetically pleasing communication might resemble. If we deny that there is a clear and delineated boundary between the good and the beautiful we eventually concede that at least some moral arguments are sufficiently aesthetic for them to hold some weight in assigning value to art. However morality, like aesthetics, remains a subjective concern. I might find it morally repugnant to euthanize stray cats. Someone else might find it morally repugnant to keep them alive when they predate local bird populations. We might situate De Beauvoir’s demand that we serve a movement toward an open future as an ethical absolute, especially since it also serves our rejection of the One in favour of difference well; but beyond these highly abstract ethical requirements the ambiguity of the situation interferes and leaves this an area up to the interpretation of the critic to respond and call this or that work good through their ability to articulate their aesthetic response to it.

Squaring the circle of novelty and repetition remains one of my central aesthetic concerns. The truth is that the repetitive and parodic character of art is inescapable. Bataille went so far as to say, “the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another,” and if the whole world is a sequence of parodies then art can hardly escape. So where do we find novelty but in those things that transform within the process of iteration. This is why it is so essential to grasp the loving destruction of the artistic mode of engaging with art. Each artwork is a parody of other art it is, as Bataille said, “the same thing in a deceptive form.” Each artwork however introduces differences, and in the pattern of these differences arises novelty. An artwork must be a transformation and not just a repetition back of precisely the same thing it was before. There is no artistry in disassembling a chair, laying all the pieces out and then reassembling again the precise same chair. Nothing was transformed, it merely underwent a change and then was restored. And so we begin to see a definition of good art accrete out of these definitions: good art creates an aesthetically pleasing pattern of difference from that which came before, and this pattern encodes a message powerful enough to overcome the contradictions that are intrinsic to any system that rejects the One.

But then there is the final question of authenticity – and as you may recall from when I touched on this before – Kierkegaard believes authenticity to be incommunicable and ultimately a vector of self-doubt that can only be overcome through irrational faith. A personal example: as one reading these essays can likely tell I care a great deal about queer representation in art. I am myself openly bisexual and find great significance in exploring those aspects of who I am. However I was closeted for a long time, and being closeted is easy. I married a woman. This isn’t at all uncommon for bisexual men. Many of us are monogamous or at least indifferent enough to the question of monogamy and polyamory to find comfort in a monogamous relationship. And based on simple demography the likelihood that a monogamously-inclined bisexual is to end up in a long-term relationship with a heterosexual partner or with a partner with whom the relationship maintains the veneer of het-passing (IE: with partners who are trans or non-binary but present enough like cis members of the opposite sex to pass and bisexual partners of the opposite sex) is approximately eight times greater than for such a person to end up in a non-het-passing long term relationship assuming the subject has no preferences regarding partner sex or gender whatsoever. Frankly, there’s simply a lot more heterosexuals than there are us queers. While closeted there were occasions when I wanted to submit art to queer calls for work and did not because I didn’t feel my bisexuality was authentic-enough. The truth is that I could have been a member of a sense8 cluster and still probably have reason to doubt if I was queer enough to be in queer spaces because bisexuality is a liminal condition that thrives and sustains itself on the same ambiguity that leaves space for doubt to undermine authenticity.

Nobody but the artist can know whether an artistic expression is authentic and even the artist will have cause to doubt. “Perhaps I only painted it that way because I was watching a video about Matisse, that day. Maybe it’s not really what I meant to make.” And yet, authenticity is necessary for good art.

A critic, called upon to judge a work may very well instead attempt to apply an heuristic. One is to substitute this last question for a reiteration of the second: but did this communication please me? Did I, the audience, have an authentic reaction to it? This is probably the correct approach. The second is to deny that an artist might possibly be authentic. This dismissive attitude says, well it’s just a parody of something better after all. Or it says, this artist couldn’t possibly have made this art. This sort of a priori assumption about authenticity should be avoided by a good critic as the critical moment only arises after exposure to the text.

Risk and the hostile critic

So far this might seem like a defense of problematic art. And it is insofar as my personal aesthetic sentiment is such that art which problematizes nothing is generally boring. Remember to problematize something is to force additional questions, to dig deeper to get to the roots, the mycelia and rhizomatic stems, that undergird the phenomena of the world. However this must not be taken as a defense of bad art nor of systems that allow for the creation of bad art. Frankly most colloquial uses of, “problematic,” could easily be replaced with, “bad,” and would be better arguments for their clarity.

Rather it is a matter of addressing the apportionment of blame. A bad artist is not to blame for failing to realize his art communicates ugly ideas, or communicates in such a muddled way that it communicates nothing, or is just an inferior copy of a better work. A bad artist is even not to be blamed for failing to realize that his work is hollow because, well, we all might be hollow. But presentation of art includes an implicit contract: the artist must be willing to expose their work to the critic and, more horrifying still, to other artists. An artist, who has put out a work of art, has nobody to blame but themselves if critics engage with the art and say cruel things about it. They have nobody to blame but themselves if other artists make cruel transformations. Critics owe art their attention. They owe artists nothing. Art is built upon the violence of transformation and the art community is rarely nice. Although these cruelties and schisms are often decried as being a wrong thing, they are in fact part of what art is. In Desert Islands and Other Texts, Deleuze said, “Good destruction requires love,” and that’s true. Love is as indivisible from art as cruelty, but there is cruelty in these destructive acts, and it, too is indivisible from art.

And now we should return to the idea of a rival superstructure because what we are doing here is effectively an artistic project. The creation of a queer artistic superstructure includes within it the loving destruction of the straight one. And that loving destruction will look like appropriating their queer coded villains, it will look like excluding straights from anthologies and it will look like the sort of critical action that led to Laura Mixon’s wrong-headed and mean-spirited Hugo award winning complaint. It will look like a disregard for copyright law and it will look like a refusal on the part of oppressed artists, critics and fans to accept the demand we behave in accordance with the decorum necessary to be allowed to remain in the big tent.

This, therefore is the artistic gamble:

To move art toward the open future we must deny no artist the right to create art. There is no qualification to be set. There is no barrier to entry. But when hegemony silences oppressed artists, it is right for them to create structures hostile to the hegemonic. As a critic we have a duty to grapple with art before we review and not to pre-judge it. But we likewise have a duty to be cruel when we must. As artists we must love art. And we must destroy it. There is no artistic unity. All that there is, is difference. But herein lies the path to us creating a value for art aside from the market or the demands of formality. By recognizing that some differences please us and others do not, we affirm that art has significance, has meaning, has value that goes beyond numbers in a ledger.