Scream and the death of Hollywood Satire

Scream - 1996 - 11 x 17 Movie Poster - Style B : Amazon.ca: Home

The four Scream movies contain both the best movies in the slasher genre and represent the most consistently good movies in the slasher genre. As with a lot of auteurial projects part of what allowed this consistence in quality in Scream is the involvement of a consistent team as Wes Craven directed all four, Kevin Williamson wrote three of four, Patrick Lussier edited three of four, Peter Deming was director of photography for three out of four and Marco Beltrami provided the score for all four films, On the other side of the camera, quite unusually for a slasher franchise, the lead cast remained consistent across the four movies with Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, Roger L. Jackson and David Arquette reprising their roles in every successive film. In short these movies aren’t excellent because Craven was a singular genius but because a central core of creative workers came together to make something good and kept doing so. I say this because I will be treating the scream movies as very specifically auteurial throughout this review and I want to avoid a reductive conclusion that this is something that can be collapsed just to Craven or even to Craven and Williamson.

The scream series also charts the arc of satire at the end of its life in Hollywood. This wasn’t intentional – Scream didn’t kill satire, it was rather the last great flourishing of it. After all, the shattering of the American self-image of the 1990s in 2001 effectively forbade Hollywood from ever doing something as introspective as Scream again.

Scream: The rules of horror and the unexamined

The subject of satire in the initial Scream movie is reasonably evident. The Scream team were not being subtle in what is, effectively a reasonably straightforward criticism of the slasher genre. It’s become somewhat commonplace to read Scream as being largely a filmic equivalent to Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Having the kids of Scream being aware of slasher cinema in specific to the point where Randy is able to declare the rules: “you can never have sex, you can never drink or do drugs, and never (ever, under any circumstances) say “I’ll be right back”.” But it’s interesting the extent to which Randy’s rules for survival elide the role of the final girl considering the extent to which the text of scream becomes an interrogation of that trope in particular. Scream is gesturing desperately toward this absence, telling us, look the kids in this movie, watching these movies, missed something.

And so, of course the killer is somebody close to the final girl. Of course she’s been pre-selected to be the final girl not because she followed some byzantine rules of horror but because the killer wanted to hurt her, in particular. The idea of the slasher killer as a moral arbiter is shown to be a bald lie by Scream as Billy lashes out at Sidney and her friends for his mother’s departure. Casey and Steven didn’t break any slasher movie rules. Nor was anything about Casey’s presentation in the opening sequence indicative of any kind of moral failing. She’s making popcorn for a quiet night in for goodness sakes. Principal Himbry is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tatum is getting a beer, yes, for one of the killers, because he asked her to do so in order to present the opportunity to murder her. Kenny is also just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather, as Clover suggests, the killers of Scream are boy-children whose all-too-oedipal (Clover points out, of Craven, that, “at least some horror filmmakers read Freud,”) sexual hang-ups inform their crimes. Billy is mad because Sidney’s promiscuous mother seduced his father. Stu is along for the ride because of a fawning libidinal investment in Billy’s approval. Also in line with Clover’s assessment of the formal elements of the slasher genre, the boys use a knife. Right up until they don’t. It’s an interesting, and regularly repeated, characteristic that the final stand-offs of Scream films almost always involve a handgun entering into what has, until then, been a knife fight.

But, of course, all this problematizes Clover’s thesis a bit. After all, “In the slasher film, sexual transgressors of both sexes are scheduled for early destruction,” but the only person who is killed for a sexual transgression is Maureen Prescott, murdered off-screen before the action of the film has ever begun. But this is not so much a contradiction as it is a filmic way of under-lining what Clover gets at a little bit later, “always the main ones, die—plot after plot develops the motive—because they are female. Just as Norman Bates’s oedipal psychosis is such that only female victims will do, so Michael’s sexual anger toward his sister (in the Halloween series) drives him to kill her—and after her a string of sister surrogates.”

This fits the nature of the killings depicted well. Scream carefully balances male and female on-screen killings. Of six victims, three are men and three are women. But as I mentioned above, of the men, only Steven is deliberately targeted by the killers. An he is only targeted because of his relationship to their principal target, Casey. He’s killed so that they can terrify her before they kill her.

And so this brings us full-circle back to Sidney, the final girl, and how her specific abjection is deployed by Scream. Clover says that the final girl is, “abject terror personified, ” and this tracks for this poor girl who is pinballed between possible suspects across the film, uncertain and increasingly afraid as her friends die for her to discover. There is a ritualistic element at play. Much as Steven is killed explicitly to frighten Casey, every death by the hand of the Ghostface killers is orchestrated explicitly to frighten Sidney. It’s not enough for them to kill her, they need her to suffer.

Billy justifies this as wanting Sidney to feel an abandonment like his. As if her friends abandoning her into death will balance the pain of her mother’s loss. But it’s ultimately not revenge. Sidney didn’t do anything to hurt Billy even by accident – she fingers Cotton Weary as her mother’s killer, letting him off the hook for his original revenge-murder. And, of course, this film, in particular, seeks to absolve the audience. Billy and Stu don’t kill because they watch scary movies. They kill because they’re awful, sexually frustrated, mean little boys who don’t have a functioning conscience between them. They kill because they’re sexist assholes who see the girls and women in their lives as playthings. It’s fun when she screams. Billy’s selfish desire to torture Sidney is what anoints her as the final girl rather than any choice she or her friends make. This, again does the interesting dance of revealing Clover’s argument precisely by problematizing it. Clover argues that “The gender of the Final Girl is likewise compromised from the outset by her masculine interests, her inevitable sexual reluctance, her apartness from other girls, sometimes her name. At the level of the cinematic apparatus, her unfemininity is signaled clearly by her exercise of the “active investigating gaze” normally reserved for males and punished in females when they assume it themselves; tentatively at first and then aggressively, the Final Girl looks for the killer, even tracking him to his forest hut or his underground labyrinth, and then at him, therewith bringing him, often for the first time, into our vision as well.”

And some of this does ring true in Sidney. She’s reluctant, at first, to have sex with Billy. But then she relents and sleeps with him at a party. She isn’t apart from other girls. She’s popular and well-liked by her peers; her main apartness is, rather, that her mother died and she was a key witness at the trial of the man accused of her killing. Sidney doesn’t engage in anywhere near as much ‘active investigation’ in this film as she does in the sequels or as Emma does in the sadly below-par Scream TV series. In fact, she spends most of the run-time trying to avoid the killer as much as possible. She flees her home and stays with a friend. She attends a party with lots of people at it. She sticks close to her boyfriend. Scream deliberately accentuates the femininity of its final girl. In fact the investigative character of the final girl is forked off into Gail Weathers, who does most of the actual detective work throughout, being honest, the entire quadrilogy. And, of course, Gail is also a final girl. It’s almost as if Scream intentionally divides the tangled sexual depiction of the final girl between these two women: the arch-femme Sidney and the tomboyish, investigative, Gail and shows us how these two elements together allow a final girl to be the survivor. But again this difference from Clover’s thesis serves, within the medium of satire, to emphasize the same point. Scream is a movie about the connection between sex and death in the popular consciousness that is perfectly aware of what it is saying. But it plays a careful bit of legerdemain in the establishment of Randy’s very incomplete rules being presented to us with all seriousness while in the background the story shows us just how much Randy missed. And in this duplication of the final girl and these responses to abjection, Scream hammers home far more about her construction within horror than they could have with Sidney alone.

Turning the camera: Scream 2 and the horror audience

Have we become the audience in Wes Craven's New Nightmare?

In Scream, the opening sequence serves to skewer the slasher genre expectation of the killer as moral arbiter. It presented us a genre-aware victim who had done nothing wrong within the context of the genre she was within. In Scream 2 the action opens in a movie theater. The victims are again a young couple, a man and a woman on a date. The film is Stab – an in-universe cinematization of the events of the first movie but Stab is not as self-aware a horror so instead of situating Casey getting ready for a quiet night in, it situates her in the shower. Phil has dragged Maureen out to the movie on opening night and people are excited. Ghost face masks and rubber knives are in abundance in the audience in something of an explicit callback to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

Maureen isn’t happy about this state of affairs though – the attempts of Stab to place sex and death so explicitly close at the start through the inserted nudity of Casey-the-character is upsetting her. It’s just too sexist. She insists that Phil buy her a snack to make up for dragging her into this mess. Ghostface dispatches Phil in a bathroom stall and then joins Maureen at her seat. As the Ghostface-the-character murders Casey on the screen, Ghostface begins stabbing Maureen. She staggers up from her seat and stumbles to the front of the theater but nobody helps her; nobody really even notices her. She climbs up in front of the screen and presents her very real wounds to an audience who slowly begin to realize that this woman is dying in front of them. She dies as the title card pops up for Stab. The audience is indicted.

The conflict at the heart of Scream 2 is largely about how horror stories are disseminated to audiences and how the audiences use them. Gale has been making hay over the exoneration of Cotton Weary and has been trying to force a confrontation between Cotton and Sidney – it’ll be good for her career. Meanwhile the events of the first film have spawned Stab – the first of many films-within-films that the Scream series presents. These two threads – the non-fiction recounting and the fictionalization create a matrix of notoriety that the new Ghostface killers exploit. Audiences are no help. Randy’s rules for a sequel are that there will be more deaths an that the kills will be more elaborate. And both of these rules play true but it doesn’t help the audience. If we treat Randy as being our principal stand-in for the audience, well, Randy doesn’t make it out alive.

Between the deaths of Phil and Maureen first and of Randy in the second act of the film, the audience of the horror movie is subject to a more complete evisceration than the sequel as a filmic concept. The main bit of critical heavy-lifting this satire does is to gesture in the direction of its divided final girl. Sidney and Gail have a much more involved, and complicated, relationship in this than in the first film. Gail remains the investigator, the digger, while Sidney would prefer to withdraw. These instincts, between retreat and attack, are positioned in complete contradiction at the start of the film where Sidney decks Gail over ambushing her with Cotton. But in the final conflict this dialectic has been resolved with Sidney and Gail shooting Mickey repeatedly in concert. The final girl is shown, in a moment of cathartic release, to no longer be divided against herself. This is something Clover nearly anticipates as her treatment of Craven’s early cites sources that describe specific forms of familial dialectics as being an “obsession” of Craven’s. But resolving this divided final girl and a wink in the direction of sequels having unique rules compared to the pure cinema that establishes slasher franchises do little to advance a discourse about horror movies qua horror movies. Instead we get a killer who is a reporter, we get a killer who is a film critic – we get people whose role is to talk about horror stories. And these killers are juxtaposed against the actual reporter, the actual final girl. Scream 2 thus hints at themes more thoroughly explored in the superior two movies that follow it. No. The principal target of Scream 2 is the reception of horror stories. It’s a film about how we, as a public, respond to stories of abjection.

Mickey craves the notoriety of being the source of abjection. He wants to be caught and to go to trial so that he can be at the center of the circus. He wants the audience to look at him. And yet he isn’t satisfied with fictionalized versions of abjection. That’s why he has to collapse the artifice of the Stab premiere by killing two people for real there. Mickey knows that the audience has an affective response to true abjection that differs from a cathartic response to fictionalized abjection. He is unsatisfied with this real / unreal divide between fiction and history so, just as Sidney and Gail undergo a dialectic unification to complete the picture of the final girl so too does Mickey try to collapse the dialectic of the audience response to horror and to real-world cruelty. But the unity of these two elements is the final cruelty to the audience. Because, when push came to shove, the audience couldn’t tell real abjection from a simulation of it. Maureen dies in front of a theater full of people and the deafening silence of their slow realization is a final condemnation. There is an interesting twist here though because you would think this would reposition the slasher killer as a moral arbiter, but it doesn’t. Much like in the first film, Ghostface murders based on their own selfish desires and not based on any personal transgression of a victim. Randy wasn’t in the opening night audience for Stab. While he may stand in for an audience he is not the audience being indicted and yet he is the audience who is cut up. There’s this tension at the heart of Scream 2 which is never fully resolved. Mickey wants to say that audiences of horror movies are a problem and much of the film agrees with him. But he doesn’t get the final say. Instead he’s removed from the discourse when Mrs. Loomis wounds him and attempts to reinsert a familial conflict dialectic such as the one Clover calls out in her response to The Hills Have Eyes.

Hollywood, exploitation and the fake in Scream 3

Scream 3 contains one of the greatest action sequences in the history of cinema. Sidney has wandered onto the soundstage for Stab 3. This is actually the soundstage for Scream only with the camera pulled back far enough to reveal its artifice. She encounters the specter of her dead mother, who has been haunting her throughout the first act of the film, and she encounters Ghostface, back again.

Sidney flees Ghostface across the set and operates instinctively as if the geography of her home would map onto the set. Only it’s all fake and none of the doors open onto the right rooms. She escapes the set/house/memory and is found by Dewy and the police. They find no sign of the killer. The film never lands fully on an answer as to whether the killer chased her or whether it was all a figment of her imagination.

Set, as it is, on the set of the filming of Stab 3, Scream 3 is a film that revels in picking at the real / fake boundary that Scream 2 gestured toward. In an hilarious cameo, Carrie Fisher appears playing a receptionist who is regularly mistaken for Carrie Fisher. Gale is followed, throughout nearly the whole film, by Jennifer Jolie – an actress playing Gale in Stab 3. The second kill-scene in Scream 3 involves an actress complaining to the director that she is only in two scenes before her character becomes the victim of the second kill-scene in Stab 3. Her death is her second scene. The film is actively hostile to the idea of the fake and the real and wants to collapse reality and simulation into each other. This is used to good effect considering that Scream 3 picks up the feminist thread of the first film by approaching the original sin of the Scream universe as being Hollywood sexual exploitation of starlets. Possibly the single most damning scene of the Scream trilogy is when Gale interrogates producer John Milton:

“It was in the 70’s, everything was different. I was well known for my parties, Rina knew what they were. It was for girls like her to meet men, men who could get them parts, if they made the right impression. Nothing happened to her that she didn’t invite, in one way or another, no matter what she said afterwards.”

Consider that Harvey Weinstein was the executive producer. Milton gets his throat perfunctorily slit not long after this scene.

If Scream wanted to interrogate the construction of the horror movie and Scream 2 wanted to look at how it communicated with an audience then Scream 3 is aimed squarely and viciously at the institution of the film studio. I prefer Scream 3 to Scream 2 precisely because it has such a singular and intense focus. Scream 2 is a bit of a messy affair, it’s uncertain whether it’s a critique of the audience or whether it’s a dialectical interrogation of the relationships between subjects from the first film. Scream 3 points back at Hollywood and roars “from hell’s heart I stab at thee.”

As such its collapse of the real and the simulation serves the purpose of arguing that there’s no simulation; it’s all real. The fictional abjection of the final girl at the hands of the slasher killer is born out of a system of exploitation that produces its very own forms of abjection. Maureen Prescott is reframed not as a dead mother, a pre-film victim, but as a previous final girl: one who survived the all-too-real horror of being treated as a sexual commodity by wealthy and powerful men. In the final confrontation, Roman returns to the Freudian well saying, “And who’s our hero? The sole survivor, the one who bravely faced down the psychopath and fucked her with her own knife.  You’re gonna pay for the life you stole from me Sid. For the mother, and for the family, and for the stardom, and for, goddammit, everything you had that should’ve been mine!” But Sidney rejects his familial psychodrama and stabs him, incapacitating him until he pops up to die in a hail of gunfire when Gail and Dewey finally arrive.

There’s an interesting arc in Sidney’s story. She tries to put the events of Scream behind her in Scream 2 but she fails and becomes a recluse despite the promise of a dialectical unity with Gail proposed by the conclusion. The third film ends instead with Sidney rejecting the position as final girl. She denies Roman’s deliberate application of narrative convention to her life and situates him as being another pathetic psycho. Scream is unique in how pathetic Ghostface is. You don’t ever root for the killer like you would Jason or Freddy in some of their outings. Ghostface pops up like a demented jack-in-the-box from beneath window sills and it’s honestly always very funny but that’s as far as “funny” goes for Ghostface who doesn’t quip. Ghostface only ever threatens. And when the latest Ghostface is inevitably revealed they’re shown in all their petty humanity. This becomes the final collapse of the artificial and the real. Ghostface is always just a person in a mask with a knife. No zombie killers. No unstoppable madmen. No ghost rippers. Just an asshole with a chip on their shoulder, a hatred of women and some serious mommy issues.

Scream 4 and the desire for the final girl

There’s an interesting shift of focus in Scream 4. It is the only entry in the series filmed after September 11, 2001 and the only entry to exist in a Hollywood that had otherwise abandoned satire. I mentioned at the top that the American film industry became reflexively incapable of the sort of introspection necessary for satire and this is largely true. It’s difficult to prove an absence but, between 2001 and 2010, the most famous explicit satires in cinema were almost exclusively foreign films. Within Hollywood there was the insufferable parody Idiocracy, which sometimes is mischaracterized as a satire (and Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods would bravely tread the exact same ground as Scream but absent any of the feminist text that made the earlier film a stand-out in what is otherwise a very clear Whedon-pastiche) but more straightforward satirical films like Get Out and Knives Out were still many years away and, honestly, the genre has never fully recovered.

This means that Scream 4 occupies a strange place as a piece of critical work. A surface read suggests a fair bit of cultural anxiety concerning social media and an always-online culture that’s hungry for fame but this is where that auteurial character I mentioned at the top becomes critical. Because this is the same team that created the three previous Scream movies and, as a cohesive team, they recognized the ground they’d already tread and used this new focus on the online subject to circle back around and interrogate the final girl from a new direction asking, “why would somebody want to be a final girl?”

This film is set ten years after Scream 3 and a full 25 years since the first Scream. Sidney and Gail are now middle aged and have lived the sorts of complete lives that final girls are usually denied. Gail’s married. Sidney has her own book out. Everybody has moved on. Except that Ghostface begins stalking Sidney’s young cousin and murdering a new batch of media-aware teenagers. What we get is possibly the most meta-fictional film in the series yet. As with Scream 2, the opening kill helps establish this well as the first kill is shown to be a fake-out, the opening sequence to Stab 6. The scene cuts to Chloe and Rachel (in a delightful pair of cameos by Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin) debating the merits of the movie which Rachel derides, saying, “It’s been done to death. The whole self-aware, post- modern meta-shit is over. Stick a fork in 1996 already.” As Rachel sits down on the couch, Chloe stabs her in the gut, snarling that she never shuts up. It’s the opening to Stab 7, which is being watched by the actual first victims of Scream 4. The film-criticism aspect of Scream 4 is, on the surface, a little perfunctory. It’s not happy about the remakes that filled the Hollywood horror scene during the first decade of the 2000s. Sidney eventually nails this to a wall when she says, “don’t fuck with the original,” in the final stand-off with the latest Ghostface. However there is a far more interesting critical thread in Scream 4 in its treatment of the final girl. Because this latest iteration of Ghostface wants to be the final girl.

Since we are reading the Scream series largely as a reification of Clover’s work let’s return again to the description Clover provides of the final girl in full:

“She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friends knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with the knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued or to kill him herself.

Scream 4 looks at this and says, “why in the world would anybody want to be this badly enough to kill for it?” And this is a fascinating question. But I think it deserves a moment to step back from it and look at how this target of satire varies from what’s come before in the Scream series. Scream films always previously targeted an institution: the horror film, the audience, the studio. This time though the target isn’t an institution. The new Ghostface isn’t a stand-in for Twitter. Rather the film is interrogating a form of individual subjectivity. It is almost as if Hollywood still wasn’t ready to look at itself in the mirror, nor even at the audience it created. Instead it had to look at this one person and ask, why is she like this?

Scream 4 is still a satire and it is a good movie but this is a fundamental difference from the previous films in the franchise and this marked difference is significant – one very much of a piece with the failure of Hollywood to create satire in the 21st century. Even this satire is compromised by an unwillingness to focus its fury on an institution. Eventually it seems to land on a fundamental failure of recognition. Sidney has been through some shit. Across the three previous attempts on her life, Sidney has been stabbed and bludgeoned she’s been shot and she’s been betrayed by people she loved. She’s become a recluse and then managed to come through the other side. But all Jill can see is Sidney is Famous. She has a book, an annoying publicist, rich friends, a personal story that eclipses the family story. Her mom is Maureen Prescott’s sister but the only person anyone cares about is Sidney because Sidney survived.

And so Jill tries to engineer becoming the final girl because she sees this woman forced into a direct confrontation with death, this woman who arises with strength in the face of abjection and fails to realize how fundamentally awful that would be. She sets up cameras everywhere so she can re-live being the killer, so that she can see the victims die again and again but she never seems to apprehend fully the character of her actions because she has stars in her eyes. Ultimately this is the concern that arises about social media: not the collective experience of Twitter mobs or Facebook Nazis but rather the idea that subjects would subject themselves and others to all manner of awful things for the chance to be famous. The real / unreal divide that Scream 3 worked so hard to collapse is already destroyed and everybody lives in this hyperreal space where the fundamental materiality of the signifier is already manifest. Sidney’s command not to fuck with the original serves a double purpose, first to take a shot at the remakes that Craven, at the very least, hated remakes. His back catalog was not well served by that period. But there’s another purpose there in reifying a kind of authentic experience. Sidney is famous for events that were out of her control and that she never wanted to happen. She survived three separate mass killers – that’s not something anyone should want. Attempting to engineer the circumstances where one becomes a final girl isn’t just monstrous because of all the killing along the way. It’s also monstrous because it fails to recognize the facticity of being the final girl. Sidney’s life isn’t an identity somebody can try on like a shirt. It’s dependent on 25 years of being through the meat grinder of life. And, at the end of things, Scream 4 says this is something that can’t be reproduced as a packaged identity.

The Scream series was the last great flourishing of satire in Hollywood before the rise of Jordan Peele as a film maker. Across their four films they managed to come full circle, interrogating the slasher killer – final girl relationship, the role of the audience and how tragedy is communicated, the exploitation of Hollywood in the creation of horror films and a dialectic collapse of the final girl into the slasher killer in the finale. In their attempt to pick apart the slasher movies of the 70s and 80s they managed, instead, to create the greatest series of slasher films yet. The scream series are a testament to the collaborative efforts of a committed team with a clear vision, something to say and the will to say it.

Psycho Goreman – an existentialist response to cosmic horror

Psycho Goreman (2020) - IMDb

It is perhaps a little bit surprising that one of the best films of 2021 is a Canadian low-budget horror movie in which a girl struggling to handle her parents’ slowly crumbling marriage befriends an imprisoned cosmic horror who looks straight out of a GWAR video.

This movie is very much a low-budget affair for better and for worse. The sound balancing is just painful. When I was watching this movie I couldn’t find my TV remote, which my daughter had dropped under the couch, and had to run over to the TV a dozen times to adjust the volume between whisper-quiet dialog scenes and cacophonous sound during action scenes. However this minor frustration was eclipsed by the sheer joy of watching a genre movie which was, by necessity, principally using practical effects. This film is absolutely brimming with wild and unique creature designs and every single one of them is either a puppet or a dude in a rubber suit and a ton of make up and it’s amazing. There is CGI in the movie but it revels in its fakeness. There’s no need for a photo-realistic integration of digital effects into a film when you literally have a robot shaped like a tank full of corpses spraying blood all over the title character in the midst of a fight. Psycho Goreman (PG for short) is a character whose whole schtick depends on him being out of place – a weird intrusion into the mundane lives of the protagonists – and so making the effects seem like weird intrusions doesn’t harm the movie. It makes it better. I honestly cannot praise the special effects team of this film highly enough. Psycho Goreman is a feast for (perverted) eyes.

This is also an incredibly funny movie. There’s a running joke throughout the film that PG is commanded by Mimi, the little girl who, as a result of a series of misadventures controls him, to explain some aspect of his history. The story will cut away to a depiction of his time as a galactic conqueror, replete with high-concept cosmic fantasy battles with a very Heavy Metal meets Gwar look only to cut back almost immediately as the children lose interest in the story and change the subject. This is a movie that delights in containing a vast back-story for its title character that you will never be fully satisfied by. The tease is the joke.

The humour of Psycho Goreman is a central strength. Matthew Ninaber and Steven Vlahos, collaborating on PG’s performance, have excellent comedic timing in this film. In an early scene, Mimi brings PG some magazines to keep him occupied while she and her brother are at school. She apologizes she wasn’t able to get him some porn and says at least she got him some fashion magazines with “hunky boys.” PG bellows, “I do not care for hunky boys,” glances at the magazine and then amends himself, “Or do I?” And the delivery is simply exquisite. In another scene Mimi tries to introduce PG to her parents and to reassure them about her terrifying new friend but PG keeps contradicting Mimi, telling her parents that they should worry, they should be afraid, he doesn’t mean well.

Ninaber and Vlahos’s performance here is a standout. Generally this movie is about as well acted as you’d expect of a low-budget film with a cast of unknown actors half of whom are children. The mumbly dialog delivery of Adam Brooks and Alexis Kara Hancey isn’t exactly improved by the poor audio quality although their under-stated performance of a couple at the edge of their relationship attempting to keep up appearances for the sake of their children includes good physical performances. In general, with the exception of the standout line delivery of Vlahos, weak dialog with good physical performance, is effectively the best possible summary for the performances in this film which remains a visual treat from beginning to end.

Psycho Goreman also succeeds by being a film that has something to say about its genre and that does so well, with a clarity in the articulation of theme and a care for how the often bizarre characterizations in the film lean into what it’s trying to say. Psycho Goreman starts from the standard cosmic horror idea that the universe is vast and humanity is insignificant. PG and the other denizens of Gygax occupy a cosmos that exists outside the bounds of time and of regular space. Their vast powers seem at once both technological, magical and biological in character in part because it constantly seems as if the words for their being escape us. Contemplating the relationship of Gygax and its creatures to earth brings to mind Bataille’s struggles in Inner Experience when he said, “Perhaps, for I can henceforth not conceive of my life, if not pinned to the extreme limit of the ‘possible.'” Bataille suggests imagining the extreme limit of possibility would require a superhuman intelligence and it seems as if Gygax exists if anything somewhere beyond that limit, in the outside that escapes a direct description.

This is served well both by the weirdness of the special effects and by the running gag of PG’s interrupted attempts to explain his back-story. We only ever get access to fragments of Gygax. The sense is that it’s too big, too strange. Everything within it is an intrusion into what we see as reality – it is, quite formally, Weird in the Fisherian sense of the word.

There is a conflict central to Gygax and it is a conflict central to Mimi’s family as well – that is the division between order and chaos. Chaos and order are both shown as multi-faceted. Chaos is the infinite creativity that Mimi brings to the invention of, “Crazy Ball,” but it is also Greg’s slovenly and entropic detachment from the maintenance of the household. Chaos is a creative energy and a destructive energy simultaneously. It is present in equal measure when Greg destroys the microwave trying to cook chicken breasts in it and when Greg remarks, when encountering PG’s lair, “this television won’t stop bleeding.”

Order is also shown as multi-faceted. It is the authoritarian dominance of the templars. Pandora is no more compassionate than PG. The main difference is that Pandora’s extreme violence is carefully motivated by a desire for obedience whereas PG sees his destruction as a form of art. He freezes one of his victims upon the precipice of death, the extreme limit of life, constantly cycling him through a cycle of agony and annihilation not because the man disobeyed him but just because he thought it would be beautiful. When one of the children nudges the victim who topples over and shatters, his disconnected mouth wheezing “thank you,” PG rages that they destroyed his masterpiece. In contrast, Pandora kills and tortures not for the sake of aesthetics but for utilitarian reasons: to create a disguise, to extract information, to create an ally, to keep allies in line. Pandora is worshipful and demands others worship, but in her piety she reveals the authoritarianism of the priest. In demanding obedience to her gods she demands obedience to herself. In his telling PG began his existence as her slave and absolutely nothing about Pandora suggests that her interpretation of order would be anything but welcoming of absolute mastery over all others. But on the other hand, order is necessary to keep the family household afloat. Susan is the one who makes sure bills are paid, meals are edible and people who need medical attention get it. She’s the one who keeps on top of chores and prevents everything from just falling apart. Likewise Luke’s loyalty and sense of responsibility to his family is a hallmark of order compared to Mimi’s, “champions don’t eat broccoli,” attitude.

This order / chaos conflict seems to almost fall within the rubric of Blake with PG standing in for Satan and Pandora for the angel of Blake’s memorable fantasy. Of course the thesis of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is that religions have failed by proposing a divide between a damnable body with its energies and a divine soul with its reason:

the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away and displaying the infinite which was hid.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Blake established Milton’s Lucifer as the great satanic protagonist, the divine mover from whom all activity was begun. But he also presented this as a necessary reaction to the transcendent dominance of order and stasis over the world. The Marriage of Heaven and hell sees the moment of revelation, in which the unity of order and chaos becomes evident as an eschatological one, an apocalypse. “

The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have
heard from Hell.

For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at tree of life, and when he does the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite and holy

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

And, of course, PG does bring the apocalypse. Finally freed of all bonds, even freed of his dependence on the Gem of Praxidike by the power of friendship, he immediately incites the end of days. Even for hunky boys. Except not for Mimi’s family, because she’s his friend and he promised.

And this then gives us the sly subversion of cosmic horror which Psycho Goreman contains. Because, yes, the universe is vast and unknowable. Yes, beings exist that are so far beyond the limits of human experience that they fall away. And yes, they are engaged in a grand Manichean conflict that will inevitably end with an eschaton but for all that there’s this family at the heart and the silly, unimportant and trivial things they do: their games and songs, their conflicts and friendships fundamentally matter.

This isn’t some sort of reconciliation with order. There is no grand plan for Mimi and her family. She and Luke find the gem by accident, they awaken PG by accident. When PG transforms their friend Alastair into a giant shambling brain creature who communicates via touch-telepathy it isn’t because it’s part of some grand plan. It’s just this crazy thing that happens, arbitrary and absurd. There is no reconciliation with higher meaning here. Mimi snaps a crucifix over her knee in the build-up to the climax. The moment is organic, unbidden. It’s unclear even that Pandora’s gods are the same as the Christian God. But that doesn’t matter because they stand in for the same thing and that apocalypse of a frozen eternity under a white boot is rejected in favour of the more satanic apocalypse of PG’s liberation.

On love, Sartre says, “While I am attempting to free myself from the hold of the Other, the Other is attempting to free himself from mine,” this helps to encapsulates the dynamic that exists between Mimi and PG for the majority of the film. PG would like to be free of Mimi’s control while Mimi is just as trapped by the power she commands over PG. If she slips and he is able to take back the gem she knows a terrible revenge will be visited upon her. Mimi, more than anybody else in the movie has seen what PG is and chosen not to flinch away from it. For Sartre, love is the act of projects that put a subject, “into direct connection with the Other’s freedom.” Sartre characterizes this as a conflict, “precisely because I exist by means of the Other’s freedom, I have no security; I am in danger in this freedom.”

Psycho Goreman takes this theoretical statement and renders it text as Mimi must ultimately grant PG his freedom in order to save her family from Pandora, an act precipitated after her mother renounces Pandora’s gifts to protect Mimi from her. In each of these pairings: Susan’s protection of Mimi, Mimi’s freeing of PG and PG’s promise not to kill Mimi’s family we see two aspects: first – an affirmation of the freedom of the Other and second a willingness to step into danger thereby. The negotiation of love between Mimi and PG certainly is one of conflict and it’s one that follows a steady progression from mastery and toward mutual recognition and freedom.

Psycho Goreman presents an absurd and unlikely apocalypse in which one family, alone, is spared because of love, because Mimi recognized PG’s being, saw him as he was, and said he was free. In these acts of love and these recognitions of freedom we climb out of the void and create being, as Sartre proposes our being is constructed in the look of the other. This is something Bataille and Sartre agree on. Bataille says, “This infinite improbability from which I come is beneath me like a void: my presence above this void is like the exercise of a fragile power, as if this void demanded the challenge that I myself bring it, I – that is to say the infinite, painful improbability of an irreplaceable being which I am.” In both these cases being suspends itself above an absolute void, a limit of knowledge that cannot be breached. Psycho Goreman proposes vast Manichean conflicts arise beyond that void but when these conflicts enter into being, when their weirdness intrudes upon the world, even they fall sway to the bonds of mutual recognition upon which we build each other.

The misapprehension of mythology

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

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

The Golden Bough

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

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

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

Monomyth and Archetype

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

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

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

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

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

Guan Yu

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

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

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

Myth and Literature

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

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

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

The (un)reality of fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is both yes and no.

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

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

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

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

Scorsese on a Jungle Cruise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic and childhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modernity and techno-cults

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

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

Subternia and Preternia

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

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

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

Nostalgia as a Haunting

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

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

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

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

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


1: Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 585

“Cat Person” in the uncanny valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Creative Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complex Systems, bees, lobster and Kitchen Cabinets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth Windows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing is hidden in the construction of a yurt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this brings us, finally to truth windows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

751

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

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

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

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

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

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

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