Preliminary notes on a disaster

It’s Sunday night. We’ve been without power two days. The cat is over-nigh at the emergency vet after a bout of stress cystis nearly killed him. We’re sitting at the kitchen table lit by a single camp lantern. Its LED is an intense white light but it mostly just casts shadows. We’re trying to play a board game to keep our minds off of the destruction. We choose games about building things, growing things. We couldn’t handle something driven by more explicit conflict but a lot of our traditional faves are out of the question – the lantern isn’t enough light to read the cards by.

The tedium is one of the things stories about disasters never touch on. You are living in a condition of the other shoe having dropped. The storm has passed but the clean-up is all still ahead and you have to sit in your fear: what if the lights never come back on? What if you run out of water? It’s possible you could go buy water. But there are line-ups at the doors of every open grocery far worse than those from the early days of COVID. Water is a hot commodity. You need to balance the ticking clock of a draining reserve against the opportunity cost of standing in the rain for an hour just to discover the people ahead of you cleared out the shelves.

The reduction of the world to one lamp and a few dim candles changes your subjectivity. Before the storm evenings were free time. We would read or play games or watch a show but we would do so comfortable that whatever we wanted to do we could. Now you stay near the lamp or you sit in a darkened room. We begin following each other around the house – our schedules slowly click into a kind of simpatico brought about by the constraint of available light.

It’s Friday night. The platonic dark and stormy night. I’m watching a horror movie on my couch alone after my family has gone to bed. I figure it might be my last chance for a while (and I’m right). The rain is pressing against the window on our north wall so hard that the glass is bowing. I’m a bit afraid to go to bed because of the old walnut tree next to the house. If it fell it would fall directly on my room. The power stays on long enough for me to finish my movie and the stress of the storm coupled with the anxiety of a tense film has left me tired enough to sleep. I lie in bed listening to the noise outside. Eventually the lights die but I don’t notice because I’ve already turned everything off. I will get my confirmation in the morning when my toilet stops flushing.

It’s Tuesday morning and I’m driving to work. We heard a rumour that the lights were back on at our office building downtown and maybe even internet? It’s worth the fuel to come in from the countryside. And anyway, there’s water to be had in town. When we arrive we discover the lights are on but the internet is out. Work has become another warming center – albeit one locked behind a key card. After a half hour of fiddling I manage to jury-rig the internet to work and get to doing my job but the attempt to restore normalcy breaks me open and tears begin to flow. I keep myself off camera for calls all day, claiming I’m conserving limited bandwidth but it’s because I don’t want my colleagues to see me cry. I don’t even really know why I’m crying now. The cat is back from the hospital. He’s alive but he’s rough and hiding a lot. We still don’t have water at home but our house survived the storm unscathed so at least we’re warm and dry.

So many people aren’t that lucky.

It’s Saturday afternoon. The storm that had been screaming outside all day has finally begun to subside – drifting off to expend its fury on Newfoundland where it will wash the town of Port aux Basques into the sea. We emerge from the house and examine the damage. Our greenhouse is miraculously undamaged but our solar panels are gone. We walk around some more and find them face down in the field next to the struts they stood on. We don’t know if they’re insured or not. In a few hours we will discover that our cat is sick but there are four trees down across our driveway and the wind and rain are still too high for me to safely cut us out with me being a green novice with the chainsaw. We decide to wait until the morning and reassess. By morning the cat is nearly dead but a neighbour, unaware that we were even home, brings his chainsaw and clears the path to the road. We cling desperately to the belief he just saved a life.

Time loses meaning in all this. We still have clocks but they’re not relevant. We do daylight things in daylight; we do night-time things in the dark. Most of our activity is geared just to keeping us going and alive.

But not all of us survive.

It’s Wednesday afternoon. A beautiful day. My cat dies in my arms. The vet kept him overnight, made sure he was able to pee on his own. The vet loves the cat; he’s so friendly and playful. Just a perfect little kitty. They were almost sorry to see him go but he seemed to have recovered and we wanted our friend, our family member, home. But things quickly start going wrong. He doesn’t want to touch his new food. He doesn’t drink. He fights against his medicine. He spends his last days hiding under my daughter’s bed or sleeping next to her at night. Wednesday he seems lethargic and drowsy. We hope it’s a side effect of the medicine and he’s still peeing – but he seems to be incontinent. We call the vet and they give us monitoring instructions. My wife takes a vacation day to look after him. There’s electricity at work again so we’re both supposed to be back. I go in. She calls me in the midst of a meeting telling me that we need to get the cat back to the vet quickly and I rush home – hindered by a vast traffic jam caused by the needs of road crews cutting trees out of power lines along the highway. The vet tells us he’s blocked again. His electrolytes are out of balance again. We’re back to square one. They can do everything they did before all over again but they aren’t observing the crystals they’d associate with stress cystis in his samples and the truth is they don’t know why his bladder and kidneys are shutting down. They cannot promise even the most heroic efforts would let him recover. They don’t say it but we are thinking it: the storm has killed my cat; it’s just taking a while to finish the job.

He dies in my arms knowing he was always loved. He’s only one year old. I don’t sleep well that night. I keep waking to the sound of feet scampering in the attic but they stop as soon as I’m awake and alert. I don’t know whether these liminal footsteps are an animal or if they’re just the remnants of dreams of a missing friend. I’m too tired to look.

Depictions of disaster in popular art are neat and tidy. They focus on the moment of crisis – the sharp fear of devastation and the bright excitement of survival. But the truth is that this is not the true nature of the disaster. Time breaks down around you. There’s a heavy grief that occupies you for lost friends, lost possessions and the shared pain of a community struggling to reconstruct itself amidst the ruins of the event. Bataille’s inner experience captures the fragmented nature of thought at the edge of what a person can tolerate. Sentences break down. Time sense becomes confused as the pain of the past, the doldrum of the present and the blank grey fear of the future all crowd together. I was in a meeting when I got the call from the vet to have that talk. All I could manage to get out for the longest time were fragments: “I just…” “I can’t.” Eventually I managed to force out, “I have to go,” but still I lingered to the end of the call – as much as I couldn’t stand to be in the present moment I also couldn’t stand the idea of moving toward that awful future I could anticipate ahead of me.

The truth was that in the anticipation of that moment I was already there, in that future time, living through it. There is still a future for us. Those of us who remain. And there are still routines that need to be served. Work needs to be done. Livestock needs feeding. We have another cat and a dog who we love and who can’t understand why their third companion is gone and won’t come back. There still isn’t electricity at home. There’s still no running water. So I’m sitting in my office: my actual office that I normally never go to since I work from home most every day, trying to work and lose myself in routines but it’s not enough and my sense of time remains unmoored. I’m still living in Friday night watching the storm push in my windows. I’m still living in Saturday afternoon, surveying the destruction of my farm. I’m still living in Wednesday afternoon, in a comfortable but impersonal room watching my cat die between my tears.

Disasters shatter time. So many things are broken: landscapes, properties, lives but, in the aftermath, it’s the breaking of chronology that cuts to the soul. You are pulled in a thousand temporal directions – unable to grieve properly because you’re still at the start, anticipating the terror to come an at the middle, struggling to understand and at the end, trying to pick up the pieces all at once.

Ghost of Ned Ludd in the Shell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: House of the Dragon Episode 1 – The Heirs of the Dragon

House of the Dragon is a 2022 HBO show set in the fictional history of Westeros leading up to the events called The Dance of the Dragons as depicted in background exposition of A Song of Ice and Fire, in various Westeros set short stories an in Fire & Blood. It stars Paddy Constantine as King Viserys I, Emma D’Arcy & Milly Alcock as his eldest daughter Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Matt Smith as dollar store Elric of Melniboné Daemon Targaryen, the king’s younger brother.

This show sets up the principal action of the series by establishing that Viserys I assumed the crown in a bid to avoid a secession crisis. The previous king’s two sons had both predeceased him and his choices were between his eldest grandchild – Princess Rhaenys Targaryen or her younger cousin, Viserys. The king retains stability by choosing the younger man over the older woman.

We then advance forward in time. Viserys I has ruled over a prolonged peace within Westeros. He has a daughter approaching adulthood and his wife is pregnant with a child who, according to the king’s supposedly prophetic dream, will be a male heir. Due to the precedent set by his grandfather his presumed heir is Daemon – his younger brother, a scoundrel and all-around failson who has been tossed into a job as commander of the city guard largely to keep him out from underfoot after he demonstrated no capacity for any other position of authority. As the commander of the guard he operates with extreme and callous brutality – a thirst for violence we see again when he enters a tournament on the day the queen is supposed to give birth.

Although Constantine delivers a good performance as Viserys I the heavy lifting among the actors is being done by Smith who establishes himself as a villain’s villain almost immediately and who definitely seems to understand what’s expected of him in a role that is 50% skulking in shadows being creepy and 50% being a violent brute who happily kills and insults just because he enjoys doing so. Real grade-a villain performance from Smith here and honestly I’m not sure I’ve seen him deliver a better performance. Certainly he was never this good as Dr. Who.

This show is a delight aesthetically as the production team has taken to heart some of the complaints with the original show, making significant changes to both the set design of the Red Keep (particularly the Iron Throne) and Harrenhal which have been revised to be more faithful to their depictions in the books. The CGI of the dragons is passable, more so for not being over-used, and the costuming is excellent. I, for one, am not really bothered by half the cast members wearing white wigs although I know I may be in the minority on this one.

The show establishes early on that queen Aemma is having a hard time with her pregnancy. Rhaenyra dotes over her mother, running late for other obligations as a result, and a lot of the action of the episode is reflected through Rhaenyra’s anxiety about being a woman in a viciously unequal world and balancing her ambitions against the social expectations on a woman of the royal house. Aemma tells Rhaenyra, who wants to be a warrior on the battlefield, that the birthing bed is their battlefield, a metaphor which is reified in a very heavy-handed but still effective piece of montage later as her struggles to give birth run contemporaneously to the tournament devolving into bloodshed.

Aemma has a breach birth and the king’s incompetent doctors propose a c-section despite not being at all good at them. Faced with the choice of the likely death of both wife and heir or the chance of salvaging the heir King Viserys chooses to allow the operation and his wife dies in the process. The child survives the birth but dies later the same day. Daemon celebrates the death of the rival heir with his guards in a brothel but is spied upon doing so and the king is so shocked by his callousness that he banishes Daemon from court and names Rhaenyra his heir, going against prior tradition and establishing the circumstances for the war of secession that his grandfather avoided.

Now, obviously, the death of Aemma has become a key discursive theme following the airing of the episode and two, equally wrong-headed, camps have formed. It seems people either defend the inclusion of this incident as being “historically accurate” or decry it as being a glorification of violence against women. These are both nonsense. Regarding historical accuracy it is necessary to point out that the relationship between the work of George R. R. Martin and history is a bit more complicated than is generally considered. His writing is certainly informed by history but, more than that, it largely explores the process of historicization and its differentiation from myth. Westeros isn’t England. It isn’t Europe. It’s a vast continent marked by long, extreme, seasons. It contains dragons and ice monsters and giant wolves. Its populace are plagued by prophetic dreams which often lead them toward doom. The use, in A Song of Ice and Fire, of historical military conflicts to develop the setting is the insertion of a ready-made historicity rather than to make the work accurate. This allows us to observe how these actions, within an intelligible cycle of dynastic history, interact when they’re confronted with the mythic register of the legend of the final winter in which humanity will be extinguished by supernatural and inhuman foes. The mythic register is actually as carefully created as the historic one with exposition regarding Bran the Builder, Lann the Clever and all the other denizens of the Age of Heroes. This mythic register is, in A Song of Ice and Fire, initially occluded so that the impact of its reinsertion into and disruption of an historic cycle will be felt more forcefully.

Frankly, with the ways in which Martin establishes and then undercuts the historical in Westeros throughout his works, the best thing to say about these stories and their relation to history is that they’re profoundly skeptical of historicization and want to lay bare the way in which history is created after the fact to make sense and give pattern to the chaos of being. With that being said the people who think this show is somehow valorizing or aestheticizing forced childbirth and abuse of women in the name of bearing children need to look again at what is depicted. Viserys I follows the advice of incompetent doctors who tell him his choice is either to lose the queen and the child or to save the child at the expense of the queen.

In light of this terrible choice he decides, if his wife is doomed regardless, he should save the son, secure the secession, and achieve something he cares about. He doesn’t consult his wife in this matter and her death, if maybe inevitable, is likely more terrifying and abrupt than it otherwise might have been.

But it turns out terribly. The king’s decision does not save his heir. The boy dies within less than a day. It breaks his family, forming a dangerous rift between himself and his brother Daemon, and it leads to his epiphany that he should have named his daughter heir all along: a refutation of the very thing that led him to this awful decision. Depiction is not condonement and that’s never been clearer than here. I think, instead, people should be more ready to approach this show on its terms: neither as historical fiction nor a direct commentary on the contemporary politics of the United States but rather as a fantasy that explores the processes of dynastism, social change and historicization more broadly.

Everything Everywhere All at Once and the limits of the multiverse

Everything Everywhere All at Once was one of my most anticipated movies of 2022. It almost beat out Crimes of the Future for the title of the film that got my pandemic-anxious backside back in cinema seats and the only reason I ended up waiting for the digital release was because it got very few screens in PEI (one) and the only showing was not at a time I could readily get to. Perhaps this is for the best because, although Everything Everywhere All at Once is far better than other multiverse-themed media I’ve seen this year, it would have been a let-down compared to my level of anticipation of it.

Now, I do want to be fair, this movie is well put-together. We get a good performance from Michelle Yeoh as the protagonist, Evelyn, a middle-aged Chinese immigrant struggling to keep her laundry business afloat as her family drifts apart. I should note that this is far from her best performance; she evinced neither the scenery-chewing glory of her turn on Star Trek Discovery nor the under-stated dignity that fuel her excellent performances in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny or the various dramatic roles she performed throughout the first decade of the 2000s. However Yeoh is a talented performer and even when not delivering her best work she is still very talented – if slightly up-staged by the delightful and unexpected range demonstrated by Ke Huy Quan as Waymond and the deranged scenery chewing of Jamie Lee Curtis who is very much on her A-Game here.

The Daniels deliver the exact kind of fast-cut music-video affected dadaist absurdity we would expect of them in a manner that delivers some excellent costuming and blocking and some perfectly passable set construction and Paul Rogers shows some excellent editing with an especial nod to the inventiveness of scene transitions in the second half and to an excellent rapid-fire montage at the climax of the film.

There are problems at the script level. Particularly the resolution of Evelyn’s material problems in our principal continuity are entirely subsumed into her cathartic revelation regarding her relationships. It seems somewhat pat the extent to which the conflict surrounding her tax bills just kind of smooth away in the conclusion just because our protagonist experienced a revelation concerning inter-general trauma and empathy. And these problems cannot be eased out regardless of how many strong performances are delivered and no matter how clever the editing.

Furthermore Stephanie Hsu seemed unable to deliver the emotional weight necessary for her role as Joy. It’s publicly known that the role was originally written for Akwafina but that she was unable to fill it due to a scheduling conflict – perhaps the expectation was that the role would be played funnier? But what we get is a rather dry and straightforward read of a character who should be anything else. Ultimately this may come back to problems with the script.

Now looking at what story the script is trying to tell what we see is a use of the multiverse to set up a conflict between two different existentialist perspectives: absurdity and ambiguity. Evelyn must learn to differentiate the absurd from the ambiguous such that she can save Joy from self-annihilation which is said to be intrinsic to a true appreciation of the absurdity of existence. Because alpha-Joy discovers the absurdity of a life in which any possible set of conditions might apply, which takes on any possible permutation of options, she becomes despondent, seeing what Kierkegaard would call the “levelling scythe” of dialectics collapsing into oneness. And it’s not surprising to see other critics using Kierkegaard in order to situate Evelyn’s arc as being one of identifying the need for a leap of faith but I personally think Beauvoir is a better lens here. Consider, “To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won.” This statement from The Ethics of Ambiguity, more than anything else I’ve ever seen, sums up the core conflict of the film. Joy believes that existence is absurd. Evelyn discovers it’s truly more ambiguous – that in each moment one can attempt to build a meaning via one’s community. And I think it’s important that the resolution doesn’t just involve the oedipal triangle of Evelyn, Joy and Waymond but a broader community that includes customers at the laundromat, extended family and even Deirdre Beaubeirdre, an IRS inspector and antagonist to Evelyn who contains unexpected depths. I like that they made this choice because if this film had collapsed everything down to “family is meaning in the face of the absurd,” it would have been a far weaker movie.

However I do think that this film suffers both from too great an attempt at subtlety and nuance and also from the intrinsic limitations of the multiverse as a storytelling model. Specifically I don’t think many people, even in the art-film audience, are likely to care enough about nearly century-old internal disputes among existentialists to particularly identify Kierkegaard here, Camus there, Beauvoir here. And, honestly, I think that the Daniels interpretation of absurdity is also lacking. I have seen other critics suggest that they would have been better off if they’d read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race or some other anti-natalist literature when fleshing out Joy’s character but, honestly, it’d probably be helpful if it had been clear they’d even read and understood The Myth of Sisyphus. Expecting an antagonist informed by Ligotti might be a stretch when dealing with scriptwriters who seem to have missed key points of Camus’ work considering how heavily Joy leans on Camus for her ideology.

Part of the problem here is the multiverse and, gosh, but if there’s a concept I’d like Hollywood to forget quickly that is it.

First off let’s be clear that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is not really the one preferred by physicists, cosmologists or philosophers of science. Multiverses are not a provable part of our reality sufficiently to make them an inevitability in art – part of a material basis to contend with. In fact, prior to Michael Moorcock, they weren’t really part of the genre fiction landscape much at all and only really achieved prominence when DC realized they could use the concept to lampshade continuity errors within their catalog of comic stories. And so we must treat multiverses not as an emergent property of fiction but rather as a deliberate narrative conceit.

Multiverses invite reflexive passivity in that, like we saw in the inferior Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it’s very easy to tease out a demand that you be satisfied with your lot in this universe because of the inevitable progression of an invisible hand composed of the aggregate decisions of history. By showing us the infinity of possibilities and then insisting upon a root universe to tether the audience to the multiverse actually constrains freedom. We can’t have the liberation of Beauvoir’s ethics within ambiguity because everything is purely deterministic.

This determinism is a problem in Everything Everywhere All At Once which posits every minor decision a person makes causes a bifurcation of reality. In this universe you had always already made that choice. The universe becomes clockwork – and that lack of agency is not something that arises in the debate between Joy’s absurdism and Evelyn’s ambiguity. Both seem resigned that they are slaves to the past.

I honestly think this fatalism represents a limit of the multiverse as a narrative conceit. If you introduce this arborescent pattern of decisions fanning out from some root such as a subjective sense of self you’ll end up with a fatalistic story. And this fatalism is at odds with a Beauvoirian read. Evelyn wants to tell Joy that we can win meaning out of the immediacy of our lives, that we can fight for the people we love and bring them back from the edge except she says this from a position of absolute inability to truly act. She must become aware that every decision she might have made has, in fact, been made and that the consequences of the same are fully mapped out. She must commit fully to a view of a multiverse of clockwork just to get the the point of being able to contend with Joy.

Pretty bleak.

Beauvoir built her ethic around an expectation that freedom, true radical freedom, wasn’t just something that could be achieved. It was, in fact, an emergent property of the world. Every person is, at all times, a font of infinite potential. But this is what a multiverse movie misses – that font of potential doesn’t arise out of failure. It simply arises. What a person can do is either recognize that freedom and foster growth of that recognition in others or succumb to a kind of mystification that obscures freedom via the antinomies of action.

This is the thorn this film gets caught upon and it leaves us with something that is, unsurprisingly, similar to a music video: stylish, surely. Well performed too. But ultimately empty and a little trite. That this is probably the best we could expect from the multiverse as a form should hopefully be sufficient to put a nail in the coffin of this narrative conceit but I won’t hold my breath.

Mad God and Cosmic Ecstasy

“The Sun exclusively loves the Night and directs its luminous violence, its ignoble shaft, toward the earth, but finds itself incapable of reaching the gaze or the night, even though the nocturnal terrestrial expanses head continuously toward the indecency of the solar ray.”
—-Georges Bataille – the Solar Anus

Mad God (2022) is a metatextual myth. The story goes that Phil Tippett, a master of practical special effects whose innovations include the AT-AT Imperial Walker, ED-209 and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, and his team spent 30 years, off and on, creating Mad God as a passion project – that it was a matter of grave artistic doubt for Tippett, who often expressed anxiety over CGI and what it might do to his career. It is a mythic origin story – built around an heroic figure who, charismatically leading a cohort of allies, overcame both physical trials and psychological tortures to achieve a grand ambition. We can imagine Tippett Odysseus. Simultaneously we have a work that immediately situates itself within the mythic through the immediate citation of Leviticus 26,

“If you disobey Me and remain hostile to Me I will act against you in wrathful hostility. I, for my part, will discipline you sevenfold for your sins.

You shall eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters.

I will destroy your cult places and cut down your incense stands and I will head your carcasses upon your lifeless idols.

I will spurn you. I will lay your cities in ruin and make your sanctuaries desolate and I will not savor your pleasing odors.

I will make the land desolate so that your enemies who settle it shall be appalled by it.

And you I will scatter among the nations and I will unsheath the sword against you.

Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin.”

Now it should be noted that this particular version of the biblical quote has been somewhat modified against any contemporary translation – particularly the line “I will destroy your cult places…” is generally quite different in most translations from what is written here. And, of course, when one quotes a significant work of myth but then manipulates the quote it raises the question of why the quote was manipulated and to what ends.

And this brings us comfortably to the question of what Mad God is trying to communicate. The script gives us few clues – most of the dialog in this movie is either complete garbled nonsense or it is grunts and chuckles. Further frustrating straightforward interpretation the quote from Leviticus is effectively the only legible text more complex than a clock face which arises in the film. When we see printed objects like maps and scrolls they are principally covered in illegible glyphs. The maps, in particular, decompose as they are read as if to tell us that these signposts exist only to draw us deeper into the labyrinth. Mad God is best treated as a attempt to communicate something that is ultimately incommunicable. In Inner Experience Georges Bataille said,

“I must admit today that these states of communication were only rarely accessible to me.

I was far from knowing what I see clearly today, that anguish is linked to them. I couldn’t understand at the time that a trip which I had been greatly looking forward to had only brought me uneasiness, that everything had been hostile for me, beings and things, but above aIl men, whose empty lives in remote villages I was obliged to see – empty to the point of diminishing him who perceives them – at the same time that I saw a self-assured and malevolent reality.”

For Bataille the ability to articulate the incommunicable depends upon an experience of anguish or ecstasy – sense must be pushed to the limit of what can be experienced in order to recognize experience qua experience. Mad God takes this to heart and as such an attempt to communicate its incommunicable substance depends on the infliction of agony. But as we cannot ourselves be directly subject to the agonies of Mad God we must pass those agonies onto a protagonist. This then is the role of our protagonist – the Assassin.

At first it seems like the role of the Assassin is to bear witness to agony. Their pod escapes the fire of guns and they emerge to see a small scene of cruelty – a reminder of the destructiveness which is eating – as a creature in bandages emerges from a hole to capture and consume a smaller creature only to be caught in turn and dismembered by a larger and more ferocious creature.

The Assassin slips away from this scene of personal, immediate, cruelty and descends to a factory where featureless workers toil and are annihilated in the construction of flat-faced monoliths. This factory scene is one of the most fascinating in the film for how it lays bare the violence at the heart of material relations. The workers are fashioned, ultimately, of the shit of captive and tortured giants. They toil and they die. Sometimes these deaths seem explicitly suicidal as workers throw themselves into fiery pits. Other times they die because the system of production they’re enmeshed in finds no value in their lives. They are faceless labour resources.

They have management both in the form of torturous foremen and distant and incomprehensible management. The directions of management comes across as the disjointed elements of a rotting face and the babble of a pre-verbal infant. The workers, too, engage in acts of brutality, cutting at the flesh of livestock whose bodies serve some part in the abstract and alienating factory processes around them. The assassin is not here as a liberator though and descends further through a series of tunnels and then to the place where they must plant their bomb. But the assassin is captured and the bomb never detonates. Of course every labyrinth has minotaur at its center. The scene pans out to show us that the heart of this labyrinth is littered with stacks of un-exploded bombs. This assassin is not the first to try and pace a bomb here. And none have ever succeeded.

It’s interesting to consider the clarity with which this film tells us that this is a labyrinth designed never to be exited. Of course that was the purpose of the labyrinth of Minos – and without Ariadne Theseus would never have escaped. There is no Ariadne in Mad God; the Assassin’s map always disintegrates upon them reaching a new plateau of this underworld.

But this is ultimately not a story about the Assassin, it’s a story about the machinery of an alien and hostile god. And so, after the Assassin is taken by our minotaur, they end up in a surgery where they are vivisected without sedation. I’m going to offer a word of caution here that my tastes run dark and I tend to see the humour in a lot of pretty horrifying stuff in horror cinema. The Thing is low-key really funny. The surgery sequence of Mad God was up in the top-three most difficult to watch sequences of film I’ve ever seen along with the opening scene of Begotten and Salò (just… like… all of Salò) it represents a clinical reduction of a person to just a pile of stuff. We actually get to see the Assassin dismembered twice. First presented as a shadow-play for an audience somewhere within the cosmology of the film and then second intimately, as we watch a surgeon and a nurse empty the Assassin of everything. And I do really mean everything from uncertain organs, to books, piles of blood-soaked coins to even a fish. Eventually, the last thing cut out of the Assassin is a screaming worm-like infant who is escorted down a series of impossible corridors (we are still within the inescapable labyrinth) by a nurse, one of a very small number of human actors who appear on-screen.

But before our nurse travels down this endless industrial corridor we learn more about where the Assassin comes from. A figure called the Last Man in the credits, another of the very small set of human actors in this film is elsewhere, dressed in the robes of a Cardinal. He receives the map the Assassin uses from three witches and verifies its contents before sending the Assassin down into the maelstrom of war and his eventual demise in the labyrinth below. This scene confirms something that was hinted at before – that this Assassin is but one of many sent below. None have succeeded. But the attire of the Last Man and the way the film frames him as being in collaboration with the terrible god of this labyrinthine underworld asserts a sort of cyclical predestination. The experience of the Assassin bearing witness to all this cruelty becomes a cog in the machinery of the terrible factory and its monstrous outputs.

It is essential that Mad God is filmed mostly with puppets. In this regard Ligotti has his finger on the pulse, saying puppets,

“are made as they are made by puppet makers and manipulated to behave in certain ways by a puppet masters will. The puppets under discussion here are those made in our image, although never with such fastidiousness that we would mistake them for human beings. If they were so created, their resemblance to our soft shapes would be a strange and awful thing, too strange and awful, in fact, to be countenanced without alarm. Given that alarming people has little to do with merchandising puppets, they are not created so fastidiously in our image that we would mistake them for human beings, except perhaps in
the half-light of a dank cellar or cluttered attic. We need to know that puppets are puppets. Nevertheless, we may still be alarmed by them. Because if we look at a puppet in a certain way, we may sometimes feel it is looking back, not as a human being looks at us but as a puppet does. It may even seem to be on the brink of coming to life. In such moments of mild disorientation, a psychological conflict erupts, a dissonance of perception that sends through our being a convulsion of supernatural horror.”

And this is central to the intensity of the horror Mad God produces. The semi-distance that filming Mad God with puppets gives us is far closer than it would be if this were just another CGI, or even hand-drawn, cartoon. And certainly it would be impossible to film Mad God and its visions of excess in such an explicit manner if it were all filmed with human actors. No. The horror of Mad God intrinsically depends upon the subjects being puppets. They could be nothing else. The horror of Mad God is explicitly a horror of the puppet. These creatures are being moved; regardless of the threats against disobedience in the Leviticus quote disobedience isn’t an option. The motives of the god of Mad God, inscrutable and alien though they are, cannot be overcome by the subjects within it. They are all, every one of them, puppets.

And so it is a puppet that takes the screaming infant-thing extracted from the Assassin and it is to a puppet it is delivered. This puppet, a leering and gnome like figure who seems warmly amused by the suffering of its various experimental subject may be an avatar of the god of Mad God or may be, like the Last Man, one of its servants. This is left ambiguous in the film. But he is as happy as he is violent. He keeps a vivarium full of beautiful, psychedelic, plants and colourful little creatures then releases a predator to consume one while its mate looks on in horror. This amuses him for a moment.

When he turns his attention to the screaming infant it’s to mash it with a macerator and collect its pulp. This is forged into an ingot which is crushed and dispersed into the cosmos where each grain of dust from the infant-worm inside the Assassin becomes a monolith just like the ones from the factory sequence. These monoliths become seeds, bringing life to barren worlds and with life the same cycles of creation and destruction that were witnessed by the Assassin throughout their descent.

“When they arrive at the salon of Princess Guermantes, the destruction of the puppets is completed,” Bataille said, referencing Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Bataille’s fortuitous deployment of the puppet here is in service of an argument that communication principally exists to determine the measure of the unknown. Language creates fences of the known that set a boundary against the unknown: that which cannot be spoken of.

But Bataille believes that artistic communication, poetic communication in particular, has some access to the unknown, saying of Proust, “The charm of Proust’s style is due ta a sort of prolonged exhaustion in which develops that which the dissolving progression of time (death) leaves open.” This idea of death as a dissolving progression of time is echoed in the way that Mad God handles time. Frankly this movie defies chronology. An extended sequence during the vivisection of the Assassin can be read as tapping into the memory the Assassin had of crossing a battlefield before their descent proper. However these memories include moments the Assassin would not have been privy to and they may, in fact, be a reification of the fact another Assassin has already been sent down into the labyrinth. The bombs of the Assassins never detonate in part because their detonators are tied to clocks and clocks, in the cosmology of Mad God, are fickle things that operate under no discernable logic. Time itself is so fluid that one might die twice, or never, just as space is so fluid that the monoliths are both the dust of a crushed ingot smelted from the fluid of a dead infant and also the product of demonic factory labour.

“The infant may cry, if things went right. But time will dry its eyes; time will take care of it. Time will take care of everyone until there are none of us to take care of,” Ligotti says. He would likely disagree with Bataille’s view of an eternal return in endless cycles of creation and destruction. Mad God, here, takes Bataille’s side and time certainly does not take care of anyone at all. In fact time is fundamentally fickle and openly antagonistic. Clocks will tick to the last second and then turn back; ages will pass in moments; time will stand still and allow a second of agony to stretch into an eternity. The dust of the wailing infant sparks entire cycles of solar economy on disparate worlds.

In a vignette of one of these worlds of strife anarchist rebels struggle for freedom. But we know that the god of Mad God brooks no freedom in whatever its design is. What, ultimately, is the purpose of this vast, punitive, theater of cruelty? Some other critics have suggested that the world of Mad God represents a world of the fall after the Tower of Babel. But this disregards the distortion of Leviticus. This is not the God of the Christians but rather something adjacent, something more raw. And we have the tools to see what this god wants and it’s nothing more than unbridled creation. That creation is fueled by cruelty and destruction because, per the first lesson of the Assassin, everything kills to eat. There is something of the pessimistic despair of Ligotti about the universe of Mad God. The avatars of the god the Gnome and the Alchemist are unfeeling and willfully cruel monsters. They have the best interests of nobody at heart and all of the creation we see is part of a gigantic mechanism of torture. But this mechanism is the motor of creation. It takes a desolate universe of rocks moving in arcs through space and fills it with strife. This, then, answers the question of why a god would threaten punishment for disobedience to a populace entirely unable to disobey its all-encompassing will. It is because this god’s will is to upend the predictability of existence, to introduce the chaos of an eternal cycle of creation and destruction.

“Beings only die to be born, in the manner of phalluses that leave bodies in order to enter them.

Plants rise in the direction of the sun and then collapse in the direction of the ground.

Trees bristle the ground with a vast quantity of flowered shafts raised up to the sun.

The trees that forcefully soar end up burned by lightning, chopped down, or uprooted. Returned to the ground, they come back up in another form,” Bataille tells us and this would appear to be the purpose of the Mad God. The final image of the film is of a bird springing forth from a clock, a moment of rotation becoming a phallic penetration. It shouts, “coo coo, coo coo.” And, on one hand, this is a delightful joke. This mad work of creation is certainly coo coo. But it’s also a reminder that we live in a maddening creation devoid of perfection. These cycles are unending and mechanistic but liberation lives within them. The anarchist rebels who fight on a distant world come about as much through the cruel cycle as the arbitrary and nonsensical directions of the factory manager.

This mad cycle also speaks back to the metamyth of the film’s creation. Tippett saw his entire career possibly razed by the advent of CGI only to cycle back into creation 30 years later when the limits of that technology were realized and when new technologies provided the ground for Tippett and his team to realize their artistic vision.

Mad God is an unrivalled work of perverse creativity and, through all its brutality, manages to become almost hopeful. This film is amor fati fully realized. It discovers freedom in the clockwork of an insane god and the possibility of liberation through conflict. If the Assassin fails, if they are ultimately just cogs in a god’s machine, it is in service of the explosion of anarchic life, in all its beauty and cruelty, throughout the cosmos. And that is beauty enough to celebrate.

Notes on Squeecore

Squee! - Wikipedia

On January 13 R.S. Benedict’s Rite Gud podcast published an episode titled A Guide to Squeecore which served as an addendum and exploration of some topics raised during the previous November 11, 2021 episode Puppy Play. The discussion in this later podcast episode was wide-ranging and loose but it broadly posited that there is a dominant movement within SFF, that the participants in this movement often operate as gatekeepers, that this gatekeeping has a broadly class-based dynamic and that this movement has characteristic stylistic and ideological markers.

This has caused considerable consternation.

Now, as this “Squeecore” concept dovetails quite nicely into my recent essay on Hopepunk and into my ongoing examination of the impact of capitalism and idealism on the style and ideology of genre fiction I found the podcast to be very interesting. It certainly was not perfect and I think Camestros Felapton’s rebuttal is on the money on many points. With that being said, a podcast is most certainly not an essay and cannot be treated as one. Even the most essay-like podcasts (looking at the absolutely delightful Horror Vanguard) must ultimately be discursive, conversational. Podcasts are not essays. And as such, I think that CF’s argument – that Squeecore was insufficiently defined and too loose to constitute a movement, that there were contradictions among the examples provided and in fact some internal contradictions within the definition offered, isn’t a fatal criticism. It was two people exploring a phenomenon, grappling with it. It was insufficient to provide a definition or a proof but it provided many very interesting threads to pull at. So let’s tug a bit.

But first let’s examine the idea of “movements” within art and what dominance entails. There are largely two different modes by which a movement is reified. The first is for a group of artists with shared ideologies and worldviews to release a manifesto (or more than one manifesto) and announce that they are to constitute a movement. Examples of these include Futurism, Dogme 95 and Hopepunk. Movements like these are easy. If you want to know what they do, what they stand for, and who is within them they are generally happy to tell you. Sometimes, as in the case of Hopepunk, these definitions may become unclear but this isn’t generally a matter of under-definition so much as over-definition and contradictory definition. However that isn’t always the case.

Take, for example, Fauvism. This early modernist art-style emerged largely out of a school but it had no manifesto and didn’t require strict adherence to some sort of ideology or even aesthetic beyond a fondness for a vibrancy of colour, a treatment of the use of colour as a predominant aesthetic concern of painting. And Fauvism did not name itself. Rather, scandalized critics who saw the output of the Fauvists at the Salon D’Automne of 1905 derided the paintings of these “wild beasts” who had thrown the careful accuracy of prior styles out the window in favour of their laser-sharp aesthetic concern with colour. Furthermore these Fauvist aesthetic concerns are not able to be narrowly confined to just one school; Tom Thomson‘s Algonquin paintings share many of the aesthetics of a painter like Maurice de Vlaminck and Thomson was contemporaneous with the Fauves but he was not an exhibitor at the Salon. A movement may be defined by clear memberships and clear goals but neither of these are necessary preconditions for one to manifest.

Turning to genre literature and something like the New Wave is more nebulous still. Although it is best situated as part of the broader new wave artistic movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s it is hardly like John Wyndam was writing essays on Nouvelle Vague and its applications in literature. And while Michael Moorcock eventually had quite a lot to say about the New Wave, I don’t think anything he produced could be treated as an exhaustive definition of the movement. Rather it was broad, nebulous and open-ended.

And the truth is that this is the case for the vast majority of literary movements. They are coextensive and permeable. When we look at authors like John Brunner or Philip K. Dick we might be looking at a New Wave author or as an early representative of Cyberpunk. The fact that the boundaries between Cyberpunk and New Wave blur and mesh doesn’t reduce the possibility that either movement could be considered dominant.

In fact precisely because movements are coextensive and permeable dominance must always be treated as contingent. What it means for a movement to be a dominant one will change as the historical terrain upon which it operates moves. Frankly, the Cyberpunk movement could never have expressed dominance in the same manner that a contemporary movement, whatever we choose to call it, could because the Cyberpunk movement didn’t have Twitter, Goodreads and AO3 at its disposal. Dominance is best recognized in retrospect – when a movement has unified with the socius of the literary scene, left its marks for future movements to follow, and we can observe how it has impacted those who are without it. Cyberpunk and New Wave can be called dominant movements not because they exercised any sort of gatekeeping power at journals, conventions, workshops or within artists social spaces but rather because, in retrospect, they shaped how those who followed engaged with the production of new literature and new movements.

So that brings us to two questions: is there a cohesive literary movement that could be seen as dominant within genre fiction right now and is it something recognizable within the Rite Gud parlance as Squeecore?

Let’s set aside the question of dominance for the moment and ask whether there is a literary movement that meets some or all of Rite Gud’s criteria. I’m not going to slavishly constrain myself here within the contradictions identified by Camestros Felapton since, as I said before, I don’t think A Guide to Squeecore provides a definition so much as a map. However there are a few aesthetic and ideological markers I think we need to look at:

  1. A screen-aesthetic
  2. An undue influence from the YA genre even outside of those works identified as YA
  3. A specifically self-aware form of deconstructive discourse
  4. An ideology derived from progressive bourgeois liberalism
  5. A triumphalism within that ideological frame

For the first point I think it would be good to examine one of the few named examples of a Squeecore author in Chuck Wendig. Now, I should note, that I previously defended Wendig when various Star Wars chuds attempted to review bomb Star Wars: Aftermath – a book which I liked far more than most tie-in fiction.

A few caveats: 2015 is not 2022 and I am decidedly not the same person I was seven years ago. With that being said, I was already starting to feel a dissatisfaction with fandom even then and my response toward a coordinated reactionary fan movement against a broadly progressive author was always going to favor the author over the fans. The main change in my thinking regarding fandom since then is a shift from identifying reactionary fandom as a problem to identifying fandom as being intrinsically reactionary. The main change in my thinking regarding Wendig was rather a souring with regard to his style. Certain elements that I enjoyed from him in 2015, notably a certain kineticism with regard to action, a flair for the visual and how these two qualities imbeds the narrative in a sort of flow from any given moment to the next, have become tedious and overplayed to me. I’ve seen far too much of this and begun to become frustrated not that there are screen-like books but that it seems like most of what is produced are screen-like.

Even the most internal of Wendig’s books, the Mookie Pearl duology, which I would happily characterize as the high-water mark of Wendig’s career, aren’t particularly internal. Although we are invited to understand something of how Mookie feels and why things matter to him, the book remains mostly a kinetic and screen-like action thing. If this duology, his best work, has such little in the way of internality beyond a gesture toward Mookie’s patriarchal regret then it’s reasonable to describe Wendig’s work as being composed mostly of surfaces across which action plays. Like a movie, or a TV show.

Wendig is, perhaps, the clearest example of a novelist who writes in a filmic style. Now I think it’s important to draw out how I talked previously a bit about how this was a characteristic of Hopepunk – the mediation of a literary canon via its filmic representation being something I called out within the Hopepunk manifestos – but this isn’t so much a matter of Wendig mediating literature via its depiction on screens as it is Wendig drawing the screen structure back into the book. The crafting of an image becomes the chief concern of the novel in Wendig’s hands. Action is in the moment and the dialog is kinetic precisely because Wendig is trying to show his audience a moving picture rather than tell them a story. In a way the lionization of show, don’t tell, almost inevitably leads to the logic of a filmic literature. After all, internality often involves telling the audience how somebody feels. As “Show, Don’t Tell” becomes a hard rule, it’s not hard to see how an audience of would-be authors with an insufficient grounding in literature but a lot of exposure to television will inevitably interpret that to turn the page into a kind of screen.

Let’s turn next to Scalzi, another person who was mentioned as part of the foundation of the Squeecore canon, to examine the second and third points. Now Camestros Felapton quite rightly points out that Scalzi’s protagonists are generally quite old. I mean it’s right there in the title: Old Man’s War. However this doesn’t mean that Scalzi’s work is without YA influence. It would be easy just to point to Zoe’s Tale as an example of a Young Adult novel, within his Old Man’s War series, that simultaneously attempts to be a work of adult fiction. However even in Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades the influence of Heinlein is too obvious to elide. Old Man’s War, especially, shares in a bildungsroman style wherein John undergoes a second adolescence and a subsequent initiation into adulthood via a process of moral development. It would obviously be reductive to call all contemporary bildungsromans young adult but it is likewise reductive to discard the influence of young adult fiction on an author simply because the protagonist was 75 before getting shunted into an unfamiliar, newly young, body. I think it’s clear that Scalzi’s Old Man’s series has influences from young adult while simultaneously being clearly a work of adult fiction. It is, to a very large extent, also heavily in discourse with Heinlein in a way that points toward the third point – a specifically self-aware form of deconstructive discourse.

Now here I want to pause on one of the points the Rite Gud podcast were clear on here that, within their Squeecore definition it was not sufficient that a work be discursive so much as that a work must insist that its discursive element be seen and I think this is where Redshirts becomes a valuable point of discussion. Absolutely nobody is suggesting that the idea of disposable, red-shirted, extras on Star Trek was somehow unexplored prior to 2012. However Redshirts did a lot to foreground this through its fourth-wall-breaking conclusion. Now me? I like a fourth-wall break when it’s well executed and I think it was well executed in Redshirts. This essay should not be seen as an attempt to bury John Scalzi. But regardless of where we stand on matters of taste regarding the literary device or where we stand on the quality of execution of the device in this case, it still holds that this execution, in this story, served to underline the discursive elements of Redshirts such that it insisted the audience engage with them. It wasn’t sufficient to construct a funhouse mirror reflection of the Gothic as Peake did in his Gormenghast books, nor to interrogate the cultural assumptions of a genre as Pratchett did with classic British fantasy in his early Discworld novels – both of these were deconstructive works but neither, especially not Peake, felt much need to insist that the audience acknowledge that a deconstruction was in progress. But Scalzi had his characters literally escape from their work of fiction to plead for consideration from their own fictive creators. This is not a subtle work of deconstruction.

So then we should grapple with whether these works, and others we might fold into this canon operate within a progressive liberal bourgeois ideological framework. And I mean let’s consider the end of The Last Colony to start, “In time every member of the Special Forces will be the same. It matters. It matters to who we are and for what we can become to the Colonial Union and to humanity.” This book was largely framing the revelation of a military secret to bring about a universal reification of the human. I mean. That’s pretty liberal. However we can’t discount how Scalzi’s progressivism puts him into dialog with Heinlein’s more fascist leanings, and how he suggests a progressive liberal solution to fascism through the revelation of truth. Marxists may have largely abandoned the idea of false consciousness after the work of Reich and Althusser, both of whom highlighted the Spinozist elements of Marx but this idea, that all that is needed to make conservatives see the light of progress is simply to lift the scales from their eyes is alive and well in liberalism.

Finally there’s the triumphalist pose. Certainly we can see this extratextually in the Hopepunk manifestos and I persist in insisting that we cannot explore the Rite Gud proposed Squeecore movement without considering it in relation to Hopepunk. However that same triumphalism arises in Wendig and Scalzi regularly, especially in Scalzi who cannot end a book but as a triumphalist clarion-call. Hints of this triumphalism also occur in the work of Hannu Rajaniemi whose Leflambeur trilogy concludes, “Inside one of the Prison’s many, many cells of glass a man sits reading a book or trying to,” this prisoner experiences a sudden moment of illumination, “There is a door, open, white and bright.
“He puts down the book, gets up and walks through it, whistling as he goes. He is surprised, but only a little. For in the end, there is always a way out.”

This same triumphalism occupies the conclusion of The Goblin Emperor which grants its righteous and just king the very liberal epithet of “bridge-builder.” And so what we can see is the beginning of a movement. This is built principally of 21st century literature although, notably, these examples are quite deliberately selected from among decade-old books. This is in part a recognition that much of the literature that Rite Gud was grappling with was from this period at the end of the first decade of the 21st century and the beginning of the second. But it’s also because movements don’t happen overnight and their dominance is, as I said before, best recognized after the fact. With that being said, it would be foolish to under-count the significant influence of Wendig, Scalzi, Rajaniemi and Addison on the last decade of speculative fiction. Between Wendig’s filmic treatment of text, Scalzi’s triumphal progressivism, Addison’s liberalism and even Rajaniemi’s more metaphysical liberalism (grounded in a kind of positivist and pluralist concern with an order / chaos dialectic) there is a common thread which is at least as unifying as that one which ties together Brunner and Gibson or Wyndham and Herbert. Or Dick and all four of the former. There is, ultimately, a movement and we can see its dominance in the worm-trace it leaves in its wake.

The dominance posited by Rite Gud was one that occupied two principal axes: a social control on the bounds of acceptable discourse that was grounded in a specifically bourgeois frame and a financial control of access to careers via class-gated activities such as writers’ workshops. These are rather nebulous but we can certainly look at the success that figures like Scalzi and Wendig enjoyed in their activities against the Sad Puppies as indicative of the former. Much of the complaint, especially against the Sad Puppies (less so for the more openly far-right Rabid Puppies) was that they’d violated an unspoken set of social norms with regard to comportment around awards conversations. They were thus frozen out of discourse, rendered invisible. As Benedict pointed out this sort of indirectness and this focus on unspoken and assumed norms are both characteristics of a Bourgeois reflection of culture. But, of course, per Deleuze and Guattari there is only one class: the Bourgeois in that the neoliberal period has driven all other class constructions out of consideration. Everyone is Bourgeois, just some of us are financially embarrassed members of the monolithic class. A direct, “hey fuck you buddy,” form of engagement is often interpreted as threatening or dangerous within this monolithic class formation as it is inappropriate comportment for a member of the Bourgeoisie – which to the Bourgeoisie is taken to mean everyone.

And that brings us to how workshops and conventions play into the networking necessary for SFF careerism. Frankly this is patently obvious. Notwithstanding limited scholarships (which create the myth of meritocracy) workshops, especially, are the domain of the idle rich. Six weeks and five thousand dollars can scarcely be obtained by anyone who has to work for a living although it’s a trivial barrier for a member of the propertied class. A five hundred dollar scholarship to entice a monied person who has experienced some intersectional form of marginalization in a non-class domain does very little to democratize access to these rarified events. What these workshops are very effective at doing is further financializing the arts as each author with the success of a few novels or a brace of short stories behind their name then becomes a workshop facilitator in some greater or lesser capacity as a side hustle, to make a career of their art. The workshops are, as such, a principal tool of recuperating art into a neoliberal ideological paradigm. Conventions are a bit less expensive and give networking opportunities to the labour aristocracy and petit bourgeois who have sufficient wealth and free time for a $1000 hotel stay for a week if not for the full workshop experience. But even within conventions it’s widely known that financial barriers distort attendance and create barriers to access for economically marginalized people including workers in the imperial core and people from the global south. It is worth remarking how these authors engaged in both workshop facilitation, the selling of writing manuals and curricula and in convention culture across their careers. A Clarion attendance can make a career as can being at the right place at the right time at a convention. If we discount how these become tools of dominance it is at our peril. And so we see here what dominance looks like: it is a group of largely monied, largely liberal major authors all of whom are sufficiently advanced in their career to have had a sizeable influence on the genre, and all of whom have a series of interlocking aesthetic and ideological concerns.

As I said previously, movements are coextensive and permeable. It’s not surprising that the movement that Rite Gud are gesturing toward in their podcast is nebulous. Most are. Futurists and Dogme 95 are the exception, not the rule when it comes to artistic movements and an attempt to deny a movement exists because it doesn’t have a manifesto that everyone within it has signed onto is just an act of self-delusion. And honestly a lot of this constructed movement fits very well with the Hopepunk manifestos anyway. Frankly it requires an act of willful blindness to ignore how screen-representation has impacted narrative style across the last two decades or how significant authors like Wendig have been influential as trend-setters in this regard. Likewise it is an act of willful blindness to ignore the triumphalism of Addison and Scalzi in the lionization of liberal progressivism – as I mentioned Rajaniemi goes so far as to imbed this in his metaphysics. The dominance this movement encompasses is diffuse but aligns with the class position of these authors such that a very bourgeois moral order is allowed to reproduce within literary culture. The alternative proposed by the sad and rabid puppies: varying from a conservative retreat into the past to outright fascism was roundly banished to the margins by this dominant group and that’s well and good. They should be told to fuck off. But a half-decade on we’ve seen very little to unseat these asethetic indicators or, especially, these ideological ones and this includes the adoption of liberal blind-spots like a failure of science fiction authors to recognize a Raytheon logo or understand why that is bad. This isn’t to propose an all-encompassing dominance. What is being sketched as a dominant movement isn’t like Sherwin Williams covering the world in paint but the contingent dominance it enjoys is visible and will remain present until some opposing force unseats it.

“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.

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.