Art, qualification and risk

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

Qualification and scholarship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art and quality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk and the hostile critic

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

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

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

This, therefore is the artistic gamble:

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

Putting away Chekov’s gun

Abigail Thorn
PhilosophyTube Feb 21 Chekhov: Remove everything that has no relevance to the story - if there is a gun on the wall in the first chapter it must go off by the end! Nabokov: My father owned 500 guns that I will describe obliquely and at length. None of them are relevant but they all made me horny.

Recently the popular youtuber, Abigal Thorn posted this joke to her twitter account. On the surface, this is a pretty typical Twitter-style sensible chuckle. Most people with any familiarity with the authors mentioned would get the joke easily enough; it’s hardly like Nabokov’s tendency toward baroque prose and toward sexually charged topics isn’t well known.

But she is picking at the edge of something interesting and relevant here with regard to the structural concerns of a novel. To whit: why are parsimonious novels? In the case of Chekhov, the reasons for his desire toward narrative utility and parsimony are easily identified. A playwright has a very limited time in which to tell his story, a short story author has strict length limits imposed by her style. But novels are not generally intended to be read in a single sitting like a play or a short story. And certainly the origin of the novel wasn’t one particularly concerned with parsimony. One of the earliest novels ever written, arguably the first structurally modern novel depending on how you choose to define the term, was Romance of the Three Kingdoms which was ~800,000 words. Moving forward to more modern works, many novels (the Count of Monte Cristo, David Copperfield and the first structurally modern European novel – Don Quixote) each weighed in at significantly over 300,000 words. And, of course, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu clocked in at 1,267,000 words (I do need to get around to reading this one but it’ll have to wait until I’ve cleared out the reading back-log a bit.) Meanwhile the writing advice given to authors is to put their novels pretty carefully between a range of 70,000 to 120,000 words. This is, on its own, a strange discrepancy. But a survey conducted in 2015 demonstrated another interesting trend: book lengths on high-selling books increased by a mean rate of 4.4% between 1999 and 2015. While this survey was not academically rigorous, it does provide a reasonable benchmark to consider that the length of novels is growing. The same survey also posited that the range of possible word-lengths was growing. So we have here two obvious trends. First, sometime between the time of the 19th century classics and the end of the 20th century, the length of the novel shrank and standardized. Second, throughout the 21st century, this trend seems to have reversed as novels increased in word length, and range of length diversified.

The answer, of course, comes down to the material circumstances of novel publishing: money and distribution. The Legend of the Condor Heroes, one of Jin Yong’s most significant and popular works was published as a serial in a newspaper – its 918,000 word count didn’t have a material impact on distribution or on profit because it came out in newspapers of generally uniform size. Its column inches may have been considered, but considering the popularity of the author’s fiction in the newspaper, I doubt too many limits were put on him there. In addition, as it was published as a serial, the author was free to take his time getting where he was going.

This serial publication was a feature of many early novels. The Count of Monte Cristo and David Copperfield were published as serials. Don Qixote was printed in exceptionally small production runs and books were shipped overseas in order to fetch higher unit prices. The idea of the standard novel length wasn’t so necessary because there wasn’t yet, standardized distribution of novels or even standard pricing.

However, starting in the late 19th century this changed. We can begin to see the progressive standardization of book distribution in moments like the founding of the International Publishers Association which, it should be noted, was formed principally to protect copyright for publishers. A commodification of a market requires, as part of it, a standardization of the market. Audiences for books cannot effectively purchase books if they don’t know where to buy them and if they aren’t able to budget their cost. This process coincided with a general process of maturation of a form of epistemological framework that informed society – what Foucault would call a disciplinary society.

Disciplinary societies thrived on standardization, as much of the demands of the disciplinary society had to do with the demands for workers in assembly-line facilities. But this had a side-effect of creating a culture much like an assembly line: people would have distinct roles, like the parts of a machine. Each would serve this role and the output of one person’s effort would become the initial input of another’s. This was reflected across institutions as a process of movement from one enclosed space to another: from the family to the school, from the school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory. And of course from any of these to the prison or the hospital when a subject needed correction beyond what could be provided by the more normative disciplinary institutions.

This can be seen as a process of standardizing and regulating bodies; is it any wonder a similar process happened to bodies of text?

And so an author would produce a manuscript that would be bought by a publisher. The manuscript would then be corrected by editors who would send it to a printer. The books would be bound and shipped to a distributor and the distributor would then apportion books to booksellers for the consumption of an audience. And all of this labour had to meet assembly-line like requirements. Publishers needed to produce enough volume of manuscript to make sales targets as would distributors and as would book sellers. And standardization is at odds with irregularity in form and in distribution. Booksellers, depending on a standard throughput of books to make their profits, measured books in shelf-inches, that is the number of inches wide a spine of a book was displayed on a shelf. Books on a shelf of irregular width made for a challenge to sell. And books of multiple volumes also introduced irregularity in purchase patterns. Rather than producing seven volumes of Proust all in a go, or for that matter one volume of Lord of the Rings, as Tolkien originally intended, it was better to apportion books into smaller, shorter, and more standard volumes. Longer works could be serialized with a relatively standard release schedule of one year per volume. Failure to meet that standard still provokes considerable distress among the book buying public. By the time that disciplinary societies were declining, this had come to be what is considered, in the generally received wisdom, to be the standard length of 75,000 to 120,000 words for a book targeting adult audiences. This was not a reflection of any sort of artistic ideal, unless we want to suggest that Proust is more artistic than Chekov because he wrote long books, or alternatively, that Chekov was more artistic in his parsimony.

Of course, nothing ever stays the same forever, and in time the patterns of the disciplinary society gave way to what Gilles Deleuze described as a society of control. Within the societies of control, this sense of moving from one enclosed space to another was supplanted by a constant process of modularity; Deleuze described people as dividual. What we were wasn’t some indivisible soul to be perfected but rather modular beings. The institution of the school gave way to lifelong learning. The factory gave way to the corporation and the watchword to the password. And the bookseller gave way to Amazon.

The arrival of Amazon to the book publishing industry was likely one of the most disruptive moments since the beginnings of standardization a century prior. And simultaneous to Amazon’s arrival came another technological change with the e-book reader. Suddenly spine inches didn’t matter. The bookseller was gone – Amazon is more akin to a distributor, selling books by the box from a warehouse. And even then, in many cases, the physical media upon which a book was printed was gone, replaced with the pure information of digital ephemera.

Of course this had its threats. The ability of Amazon to reach into a users e-book reader and withdraw access to a downloaded book was remarked upon by many people as shocking. But I suspect it would have elicited a shrug from Deleuze. Such antics are the reasons he admonished readers to search for new weapons. And so we have a narrative that explains the rise and fall of the standardized novel. It was a product of disciplinary societies that was rendered obsolete by the advent of the societies of control.

But this isn’t the only reason for parsimony in fiction, is it?

We still, thirty years after Deleuze heralded the advent of the societies of control, council parsimony in writing. The advice of Chekov, to only show those elements that are relevant to the story, and of Hemmingway, to write with careful precision and minimal extraneous language, remain received wisdom among authors. Unbound as we are from the tyranny of the shelf-inch why can’t we put down Chekov’s gun?

I will admit that I used to be very much in the camp that this was an artistically superior decision. It created a clear text, one which guided an audience through and told a story in a straightforward way that didn’t have the author’s own cleverness get in the way of the message being communicated. I largely repudiate that previously held position now. Rather, I have come to be much more firmly in favour of artistic agency. I think an artist should create the work of art they desire to create, unbound by the expectation of the audience. An audience’s response to the art is critical to the ongoing process of creation of art. But it should never be something an artist attempts to anticipate; if a dividual is operating in the mode of the artist they must set aside the mode of the critic, or the fan. This isn’t who they are in this moment. This perspective situates art as a moment within a flowing process: from artist to critic to artist to critic, art rising and falling like a phoenix. Any given work is just an explosion of fire in this cycle. Why should an artist anticipate that an audience wants a straightforward story, told without artifice? Is this not, ultimately, just a call for unchallenging and standardized art?

Adam Shaftoe, a dear friend and an excellent art critic, was talking with me about this topic recently and suggested that this is because these straightforward, easy, texts are still, ultimately, more marketable than something more baroque. Audiences enjoy the sensation of anticipating a story. They like the excitement of a clean narrative that moves like an arrow from a beginning to an ending that they can see approaching from the start.

Amusingly, this puts narrative parsimony at odds with spoiler aversion. After all, there can’t be any reversal too surprising or you’ve failed to adequately foreshadow. As one famous author recently remarked: a book can tolerate one ridiculous coincidence but if too many pile up, you lose suspension of disbelief. This is not to say narrative parsimony is anti-artistic. I’m not suggesting that a fondness for clear, declarative language or a distaste for unnecessary adverbs is corrosive to art in the way that franchise entertainment is. Rather, it’s an error of authors to treat this stylistic choice as the only right one. It is fully possible that the art an artist desires to create is a meandering and florid affair showing off their ability to navigate baroque sentence structures, piling coincidence upon coincidence and adverb upon adverb into a vast ants-nest of a story. And if the artist can execute this art in a way that pleases them and that communicates a cohesive message which is able to survive its antinomies, this is a successful work of art.

It may, however, not be commercially successful. And so, once again, we approach the point where the influence of capitalism proves a threat to the diversity and openness of artistic creation. The demands of marketing remain, as always, at odds with the demands of the artist because an artist savagely creates and destroys with little regard for little matters like ownership, markets or profitability. Bataille saw art, especially grand art, as a use of the accursed share: an output of waste. This is at odds with the corporate need to acquire, too accumulate and to grow. Nothing should be needlessly expended. Nothing should be wasted. Not even words.

A little post-script

I just wanted to add that my next blog post may be in a couple of weeks. I’m presently reading the first volume Anna Holmwood’s excellent translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes – A Hero Born – and do intend a major essay about this translation. When I last read Legend of the Condor Heroes, it was only available as a fan translation and this represents the first time I’ve had the opportunity to read two very different translations of the same book. As I mentioned previously, Legend of the Condor Heroes is a long book and I suspect the Holmwood translation, by the time I get through all four volumes, will clock in north of 500,000 words. It may take me a minute to read it all. Don’t worry. I’m not gone. I’m just reading a long book.

The vexatiousness of the culture wars in SFF – Baen’s Bar and the fantasy of total community

Oh did we all think that ended with the collapse of the Sad Puppy movement into genral Trumpism? Of course it didn’t. And the latest salvo is turning into a wild ride.

Buckle in.

On February 15, 2021, Jason Sandford published an exposé of a pattern of discourse at Baen’s Bar – a forum managed by Toni Weisskopf on behalf of the storied SF publisher Baen Books – which included racist comments and, most alarmingly, advocacy for violence perpetrated not just by regular participants at the forum but also its moderation team.

Sandford started receiving messages which he interpreted as death threats from prominent Baen’s Bar forum members. This was reported on by File 770 with a link to a twitter thread in which Sandford compiled screenshots of the threatening messages, however Sandford has since locked his Twitter account and these screenshots are unavailable at this time. That being said, I did see them prior to Sandford locking his account, and they include the “helicopter ride” meme which is a far-right reference to the Death Flights of the fascist Pinochet regime of Chile.

Further calls for violence have surfaced on Twitter – the screenshot above is an example available at time of posting which references Tacitus’ account of Emperor Nero of Rome burning Christians as lamps – and so Sandford’s decision to take his online presence more private is not surprising.

Weisskopf closed Baen’s Bar for the immediate future, stating:

We have received no complaints about the content of the Bar from its users.
That said, it has come to our attention that allegations about the Bar have been made elsewhere. We take these allegations seriously, and consequently have put the Bar on hiatus while we investigate. But we will not commit censorship of lawful speech.

How reassuring that the users who said, “I can see a smallish force with good skills at explosive handling, bringing a large city to its knees just through a few well-placed booms at some of the points I mentioned,” and, “Trump losing is a good thing. IF he had won things would be better for a while but the Dims would keep up the garbage. Now they will do the stupid power mad grab that will set off what NEEDS to happen. Which is ACW21. Those that claim its already happening as usual cannot understand reality. A real civil war is killing in job lots and all that goes with it,” saw no reason to complain that a privately operated message board allowed them to express such violent rhetoric openly and unopposed. It is also worth noting that, for all of Weisskopf’s claims to be an advocate for unrestricted free speech, certain topics are, in fact, banned at Baen’s Bar, such as Mercedes Lackey and her fraught relationship with the publisher. So we can posit that Baen, as a company, finds speculation as to the specific tactics of a conservative-led civil war within the United States to be less controversial than the idea that some authors did not enjoy good working relations with Jim Baen.

Regardless, this has led to profuse defensive posturing from all the ususal suspects, including, as reported by File 770 at the link above, attempts to downplay the rhetoric from David Weber, claims that Baen Books was “attacked by cancel culture” from Larry Correia and far more unhinged statements from the various sad-rabids who operate at the periphery of the science fiction world.

Now simultaneous to all of this, Toni Weisskopf was scheduled to be the guest of honour at Discon III – the 2021 Wordcon, an in-person science fiction convention being held in Washington DC. In the light of the report on Baen’s Bar, and Weisskopf’s response to it, there has been pressure applied to Discon III to disinvite her as guest of honour on the basis that her presence would make the science fiction convention an unsafe environment for reasons other than the inadvisability of holding a convention in the age of COVID-19.

And here we return to two central questions that have been at the heart of genre fiction’s long-running culture war, just who is this community and what, if anything are its standards?

We have here a situation where the genre fiction “communty” consists of several disparate actual groups of people. These people have mutually exclusive definitions of the ideal present notwithstanding what they may want to see in fiction about the future, the past or other worlds. The attempts of mass conventions like DisCon III to serve these vastly disparate communities means it’s ultimately impossible to serve any.

Now I’m honestly quite shocked that there is going to be an in-person WorldCon this year. Between international travel restrictions and the clear and present danger of mass gatherings, it really feels like a live convention in 2021 is unsafe quite regardless of who the editor guest of honour is. With this said, while I do believe that Sandford turning over this particular rock exposed the peril lying under the surface of science fiction I don’t think de-platforming Weiskopf is going to make the convention any less dangerous for anyone unwilling to tow the American conservative line. Frankly, Toni Weiskopf isn’t the problem, she’s merely a symptom of it. Baen, and its stable of Trumpist malcontents is in fact only a symptom of the systemic problem that is the faulty assumption at the core of the SFF communities that there is some overarching and totalizing community for all to contribute to.

It was never true.

All that has changed is that those people who once hadn’t enough power to speak out about John Campbell’s racism, Orson Scott Card’s homophobia or Harlan Ellison’s busy hands have achieved enough power through adoption of new technology, changes in social understanding and various civil rights movements to fight back against the people who once kept them silent.

And the ideological descendants of these once-powerful men are the constituent backbone of the reactionary movement within SFF communities. And that brings us to the unfortunate materiality of these “culture wars” because we are in a position where we will have to fight, rhetorically, for command over what any genre community actually is.

We do have to do the work of excluding people and that probably includes Weisskopf. Because she is a part of the overall reactionary movement in genre and that movement must be entirely excised if there is to be anything like an actual community here. It is insufficient to cow the reactionary movement, tell them they have lost and allow them to sit and stew, because as we can see from their various words, they fantasize about doing real violence to us.

The damage is done for Worldcon 2021. If Weisskopf is barred, the convention will be unsafe every time a reactionary raises her de-platforming as a grievance. If she is not, the convention will be unsafe because of the risk potentially violent reactionaries will see her presence as a victory. And above all this looms COVID-19 and the questionable decision to hold an in-person convention in the United States in 2021 at all and for any pretense. However the idea that has been percolating for a while, that concoms must show some discernment in selecting who is considered within the community, has become much more pressing. We have moved beyond it being enough to point at this or that missing stair and ask why he was allowed to buy a membership. We must start considering the ideological messaging of our shared spaces. There is no neutral space in which a fascist and a socialist can both feel safe. Sides were drawn long ago and the people bound up in the liberal delusion that the rift is curable need to let go of the fantasy that they can exist without ideology.

We forget that we are all within our ideologies at our peril. Baen’s Bar is a community of between 1,000 and 8,000 people who share a lot of ideological markers. They know and are committed to their ideology and I find it revolting. The Baen’s Bar members are not part of any community I consider myself a part of, even if they like books with space ships too.

Update: February 19, 2021: DisCon III has announced that they have removed Weisskopf as the editor guest of honour:

We knew simply saying those words with no actions to back them up would be unacceptable. Too often, we have seen individuals and organizations say they are on the right side of issues yet do nothing to act on those words. We knew we had to take a hard look at our own position and take action based on our established policies.

As a result, after discussion with her, we have notified Toni Weisskopf we are removing her as a Guest of Honor for DisCon III.

We know this decision was not as quick as some of you would have wanted, and we understand your frustration. Our committee’s leadership was always in full agreement that there was a fundamental difference between the values Worldcon strives to uphold and the values allowed to be espoused on the forums-in-question.

I will say this is a good statement, and specifically the admission that there is a, “fundamental difference between the values Worldcon strives to uphold and the values allowed to be espoused on the forums-in-question,” strongly echoes my point previously – that there is, in fact, a fundamental ideological disconnect between the Baen’s Bar community and other SFF communities.

I still question the advisability of holding a Worldcon live this year and hope they make the decision to transition to an online format. In addition, I do stand by my statements that censuring Weisskopf is unlikely to create a tangibly safer environment for convention-goers.

With that said, I suspect that, with regard to this specific incident, the concom for DisCon III did the best they could in a bad situation,

1: ACW2 stands for “American Civil War 2”

On the artist – critic relationship, a response to “On Fanfiction, Fandom, and Why Criticism Is Healthy,” by Stitch

This letter serves as a brief response to the excellent editorial recently brought forward by Stitch at Teen Vogue, “On Fanfiction, Fandom and Why Criticism is Healthy.” In it, Stitch puts forward an argument for why there should be space for criticism within fanfiction communities, and I do agree with the general broad strokes of their assertion.

Stitch explores, in much the same vein that I did, how fannishness leans into a sense of enthusiasm that precludes other emotional responses to art being seen as valid and proposes that, again as I have in the past, that critique of an artform represents a legitimate form of art enjoyment. A critic enjoys the act of criticism. However I do have a small dispute with some of Stich’s framing, which I hope they will take in good faith.

Specifically, Stitch does something very common in discussion of “fan” phenomena and imagines fandom as a territory or space. Fandom, in such a structure, is the terrain in which artists responding to a work, critics dissecting it and enthusiasts of an artwork congregate and share their thoughts. The conflict that thus arises is one of belonging. Fans are people who like a thing which is why it seems like critics must fight for a space within fandom. The critical impulse to reveal a piece of media’s secret contours and to, as Lyotard might put it, “work as the sun does when you’re sunbathing or taking grass,” often seems at odds with the enthusiasm of the fan in much the same way that the enthusiasm of a butcher might seem out of place at a meeting of a pot-bellied pig fancier’s club.

I do think this is a mistake – fandom isn’t a place you are so much as a face you present. What’s more, people are dividual and may present different faces at different places and different times. So when I talk about the contradictions between these faces of response to art, please don’t think I’m totalizing any given person to just one of these identities that they must choose like some team. Rather I’m talking about the tensions that occur when engaging with art.

I tend to treat response to art as having three principal faces with the third divided into two sub-modes. The first is indifference. The indifferent response to art could be mild amusement or even strong revulsion but it is a reaction that desires to disengage from the art. It doesn’t find the art something it wants to respond to. The indifferent has no interest in any form of communication with the art.

The second face is the fannish face. This is representative of the person who wants to express enthusiasm for the art. It is something of a limited opposite to the indifferent face except that enthusiasm is the only allowable mode of response. People presenting a fannish face, defined by their absolute enthusiasm for a work, frequently act as gatekeepers and norm-setters. I dislike the extent to which this face has been given precedence in discourse surrounding art, including the extent to which the idea of the “fan” has come to subsume the final face which is that of the artist/critic.

I am uncomfortable with the categories of the fan-artist, the fan-critic or the fan-critic-of-fan-artist. This is because, while there is vast overlap between the revelations of the artist or critic, I find both of these responses to art to be mutually exclusive from fannish totalizing enthusiasm. A fan polices the boundaries of spoilers because the being in the know is one of the perimeters that delineates who may authentically wear the fan face.

An artist authentically presents the face of the artist by doing art. A critic authentically presents the face of the critic by doing critique. Neither of these play nicely with fannish territoriality. Now, again, people are dividual. A person can be a fan and be an artist both. But thy cannot be a fan in the moment they go about creating art. The “fanfiction writer” is thus a misnomer. There’s no fan in their fiction. They are an artist responding to art.

Enter the critic. If we treat (fan)fiction as a form of responsive art, a transformative repetition that takes the familiar elements of the art and creates something new from it, then we approach that non-productive boundary of undifferentiation from which production arises. The artist destroys to create. But this destruction is not uncontrolled. The process of disassembling art, revealing its secrets, spreading out its parts, “like smooth sleeping dolphins,” is the act of critique, which, Lyotard also reminds us, is a form of religious act. I would say it becomes something of a ritual sacrifice, ending the old artwork in a manner that makes space for new growth. While, for some artists, the critique – the moment of sacrifice where the work upon the altar is cut apart and its secrets revealed – is the end, artists must also be critics to create art. They must come to know the secrets of a work to transform it.

Artists are sometimes tricked into believing their passion is equivalent to fannish enthusiasm. Blake understood this intimately when he said, “the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Milton’s fannish enthusiasm for God rings hollow next to the damning critique of the Devil. This is because, as Blake says, Milton was a true poet; and a true artist is also a critic in their nature rather than a fan.

I believe (fan)fiction writers would be well served to remember that they are also critics. If their work creates critique all this means is that the art has broken the barrier of the indifferent face and inspired another person to engage authentically with it. Enthusiasm is a childish aim in the appreciation of art next to the sacred sacrifice of critique and the promethean act of creation. The territory of fandom is an imagined place. The police on the borders are children who, by the act of showing only enthusiasm for art, cannot defend it.

Where there are artists there are also critics. The face of the critic is indivisible from the face of the artist. An artist enjoys their art and so too does a critic enjoy their critique. I derive as much passion, as much joie de vivre from savaging a truly awful art as I do from gushing about a true masterpiece. Excluding the more frightening passions of the critic ultimately only harms artists. (Fan)fiction writers, embrace the satanic critic. You are of our party anyhow.

I’m back?

So it’s been a minute.

I’m kind of back. At least, I’m writing essays again, if nothing else, and, well, I have a blog, so… I might as well put them here.

Some of you might be wondering what happened to me that I went basically dark for three years. A lot of my readers are close friends, so they know a lot of this. But I have got to the point where I feel ready to talk about it. The wounds are basically closed. I want to make this really clear, I don’t want and am not seeking sympathy. I don’t want or need pity or concern. I’m fine. Really. But to get to how I got to fine I kind of need to walk through when I wasn’t and what that meant to me.

So let’s start in 2016. In 2016 I suffered from a pretty serious bout of depression. It wasn’t politically related – I’m susceptible to depression, I had a young child and was living in a slummy apartment in a city that I felt was chewing me up. On paper life was really good. My daughter. I had the best job I’d ever had to date. My novel had been published a year ago, and I was as successful as an artist as I’d ever been. But I felt kind of trapped and really miserable. I tried to change things up. I went back to school, I did another post-graduate professional certification, studied for and sat an incredibly difficult exam. And then nothing really changed except I experienced extreme burnout.

My depression led to me making some bad choices – I tossed in my job for one that paid more but was doing work I was neither morally comfortable with nor really properly trained for. I got it on the basis of my hard-won professional certification but then found that it wasn’t the work I had studied to do. And the burnout wasn’t getting better. I lost my job.

At the same time I lost my job, we were moving out of the slummy apartment and into a condominium my wife and I had put a lot of money into pre-construction. Only, we couldn’t secure a mortgage with me on EI and were looking at potentially being on the street once the apartment closed. Closing kept getting pushed back by the developer and I was just…


Completely broken. This was spring 2018.

We made the hard decision to leave Toronto. I found work subcontracting for an IT company and working for the Federal Government. I moved out to Charlottetown and stayed with my best friend while we sorted out the housing situation. We got a beautiful house on the edge of town adjacent a horse farm. The pace of life slowed. I buried myself in family, and started healing from those psychic wounds that I’d accumulated over the last two years.

But I started getting headaches when I tried to read.

I hadn’t been reading much during my depression. It’d been a symptom of my depression, and as these things often are, this symptom fed back into those painful feelings and left me paralyzed. Having come out the other side I kind of wanted to start reading again. But I was walking (and later driving or being driven) to and from work instead of taking transit. My daughter was growing and made more demands on my time. I was working. And when I tried to read I would feel tired quickly and there were those headaches.

Eventually it came to pass that I discovered I needed glasses. It was 2019 and I was 40. These things happen.

However I was still struggling to read. Fiction wasn’t clicking with me. “Show, don’t tell,” had gone from a piece of craft advice to a stone in my boot. Having healed I was getting more concerned with politics again beyond a sense of unending despair, but I felt a sort of anxious urgency to speak and be spoken to clearly and without dissembly. The contradictions inherent in fictive text had bugged me for a while. I was writing about that in 2016, a few months before I burned out and fell into depression, and I’d talked about it depth at the 2015 Spec Fic Colloquium a year previously when I’d dug into the concept of, tabula rasa rebellion as a form of ideological neutering. But what was a nuisance in 2015 just grew and grew until it made it very difficult for me to enjoy anything but the most strident and didactic books. I turned to works in translation largely because people outside the anglosphere were more likely to say what they meant and mean what they said in their fiction.

These days I mostly read French books. So that “works in translation” thing kind of stuck I guess. But I’m learning French too so a few of those book aren’t in translation and that’s really cool. But I’ll get to this.

Ok, so we’re into the home stretch here. Things were definitely on the up-swing for me. I had glasses, I was working, had a beautiful red house that was mine in a nice neighbourhood with a whole bunch of little girls near my daughter’s age with whom she made fast friends. My wife had finally found a position worthy of her talents and she was working and happy too.

I’d left the Federal Government job – it’d always been contract – but I’d moved seamlessly into another position. I had a direct report who I’d the best relationship since the good job I’d left at the start of my depression.

I was traveling for work a lot; and reading on flights. I read a couple of science fiction novels but the confused ideology of books like The Expanse series – books that wanted to be about radical, transformative, paradigmatic shifts in technology and culture but that couldn’t imagine a universe more different than what we have now, only with basic income for some – just didn’t gel with me. I was enjoying Ian M. Banks. And I was enjoying non-fiction.

I read Julie Watson’s Ghost Stories and Legends of Prince Edward Island. This was effectively a work of anthropology – a mythography discussing the stories my new home told about itself. I adored it. I also read my old, dear, friend Vanessa Brown’s true crime book about the Forest City Killer. I don’t generally read true crime, and only did read it because of who wrote it (Vanessa is one of my two oldest friends). But in these books I found what I’d been missing; I found that the clarity of conversation I was struggling with in fiction was present in these books that said what they meant and meant what they said. My return to reading came in fits and starts, but it was a start. So I suppose I should thank Vanessa for helping me overcome a pretty severe obstacle in my life last year.

It was February 2020 and I was mostly worried about my cousin who lives in Tianjin and my in-laws who live in central China. My boss, the one I liked, left my employer, and things were getting tense as COVID-19 crept over the horizon. I was in Texas in early March, when the travel ban came in. I returned home the same day that mandatory 14 day self-isolation periods for international travel were established. Soon after schools closed and we went into lockdown. Unable to travel for work, and with my American clients in disarray, work was going poorly, and somebody needed to give greater attention to our daughter, who was going a bit feral, and who was not really learning French despite being in French immersion.

My wife and I knew one of us were going to have to step away from work, and my employer offered me an out. We came to an agreement that they would lay me off, but unlike the time before when I lost my job I actually felt great. It wasn’t like I was the only person out of work in April 2020, and it meant I could be there for my daughter. I became her French tutor, and started learning French a bit myself to keep up. Eventually the lockdown eased in PEI and my daughter started going to ballet again. The weather was nice, and I really didn’t want to spend time indoors. COVID precautions precluded watching her dance, so I got in the habit of getting a coffee from the shop across from her dance studio and taking it to a picnic table, I’d drink coffee and play with my phone, read news about COVID, read about politics. Sometimes I’d pinch wifi and watch Youtube videos. I’d become fond of a few channels that talked about philosophy but I’d noticed that most of them were very entry-level. (This isn’t actually all that true, but the stuff I found first via politics focused Breadtube types was.)

I’d always loved philosophy.

If you go into my back-catalog you know I was writing about Hegel in the article about rebels. I talked about Nietzsche in another article, but it’d been years since I’d read him (my Nietzsche reading having been between 1999 and 2004) and I don’t think I fairly represented him in those writings so I’m going to leave off the link. I’d been getting pretty involved with radial leftist discourse online and was frustrated by the ML/Anarchist conflicts – which I largely saw as arising out of miscommunication and century-old bad blood.

It was by then getting to be about mid-September and I was also painfully bored. So I decided to fill one of those gaps I saw in Youtube philosophy content and start putting out some videos specifically targeted at leftists presenting ethical problems within leftist discourse and using a largely materialist-existentialist frame to address good ways of approaching these problems while hopefully side-stepping the sectarian divisions that bothered me. So I decided I should brush up on my philosophical reading.

I’d loved that stuff in university.

Fifteen years ago.

But hadn’t read much since I’d returned from China in 2007. So I eased into it by picking up The Present Age by Kierkegaard – he’d been my fave in university. Honestly I think a lot of people going into philosophy at the undergraduate level found him a bit opaque, but I’d been interested in theology as a precocious child and by the time I met Kierkegaard in university I was already well-situated to understand him. I’d found writing essays about Kierkegaard was a good way to get good grades in philosophy classes so… I stuck with that.

And when I returned to philosophy I started there and with Simone De Beauvoir – who I adore for her successful efforts to secularize Kierkegaard’s ethics and whose ethical sense underpinned my planned project. I started researching for my first video. It was getting to be the American electoral season again, and leftists were arguing about whether leftists should vote and if so how. I decided to do a video about that and read Sartre, Adorno and Horkheimer to round out my reading list. (And, of course, Marx.)

I planned to do a second video about whether a state could be ethical, and picked up Foucault. I had encountered him in university but had been generally unimpressed. I wasn’t well situated to see much profundity in him then, and he’d never been a difficult author for me so I just saw him as being another overrated postmodernist. This was a position that I rapidly erased upon reading Society Must Be Defended, which is an exceptionally easy to read and engaging series of lectures regarding the relationship of the discipline of history to the structures of state power that surrounded them. In this book I found the lynchpin to the questions about the state I wanted to ask. And between these two books, I rediscovered my ability to read for pleasure.

The flood gates opened. I started grabbing up books as fast as I could learn about them. In November and December of 2020 I read Mark Fisher, Frantz Fanon, I started in on another Foucault book (Discipline and Punish), started re-reading my favourite graphic novel (The Invisibles) and also reading Valerian L’Integrale volume 2 in French, my literacy in that language having improved sufficiently to handle it since the start of 2020. I read Gilles Deleuze, whose essay, Postscript on the Societies of Control, is possibly the most singularly influential thing of the lot of my Q4 2020 reading. When you occasionally see me reference, “the search for new weapons,” I am quoting this essay. I also started listening to podcasts, particularly Acid Horizon, and through them learned about a host of other philosophers (Felix Guttari, of course, but also Simondon, Lyotard and Bataille). I revisited Derrida and Nietzsche and found my opinions on them had, in fact, shifted since university. Bataille’s The Solar Anus was nearly as influential for my recent WandaVision essay as Fisher or Adorno were, albeit more for the stylistic freedom that I felt in it. And I should note that this massive glut of books, essays, poems and commentaries was all stuff I was reading and listening to between October 2020 and now. At the end of November I found another job which is operating fully remote, and I set up a home office that has come together as a very comfortable space to work, create, read and have a good think in.

I am reading again. And eventually my reading overflowed into writing. I’m not sure I can write fiction where I am right now. If I do, it’ll have to be a pretty substantial break from what I wrote before. But Adorno and Deleuze, Bataille and Fisher have reignited my fondness for criticism and I have more reading on deck as I’m set to read Anti-Oedipus, The Weird and the Eerie, The Rebel (you can see hints of Camus peeking out of my recent review of Star Trek Discovery Season 3) and Critique of Dialectical Reason vol. 1 after I finish with Discipline and Punish.

My research specific to the question of the state is almost done and has left me more certain than ever that the main things separating modern state Socialists from Anarchists are semantics over the definition of what a state actually constitutes. I am excluding various online malcontents from this discussion. Frankly I think most Marxists would do well to tell Stalinists and Gonzalo Thought proponents to jump off the nearest pier just as I think most anarchists should remain on guard against eco-fascist entryism. There will be a Youtube video for the ethics of the state in pan-leftist discourse at some point.

And that’s where I am. It’s a long way from 2016 where I went through burnout, depression and loss of basically everything in my life but my family to here, healthy, happy, bespectacled and with a renewed vigor for my passions. Not everybody makes it through depression. Fisher didn’t. If you go through the biographies of my reading list, it’s not precisely the perfect-picture-of-psychological-health-and-wellbeing-club. But I did. I came out the other side stronger, if weirder.

That urgency to speak and to listen to clear language remains. I do worry about the state of the world; who couldn’t after the year we’ve been through. And I think part of the attraction of theory over fiction is in looking for solutions instead of deferments or temporary escapes.

2020 was a hard year for everyone.

2021 is going to be another. And we’re going to keep having hard years until we get up and do something. I don’t have the answer to these big questions that face the world. Climate change, plague, the political instability of late capital: these are vast problems and no one person will solve them. They will require everybody to work together. I’m not even sure how we could begin to accomplish the sort of transformations we need to undertake to start making the world a better place.

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters,”1 and it feels strange to be talking about how good I feel personally in this uncertain time compared to the relative stability of four years ago. But I think it’s because I’ve been through change and transformation. The only constants in my life are the relationships I carried with me through darkness. I am a process of change. The world is likewise. I got better – if stranger. The world can too.

1: Antonio Gramsci as paraphrased by Slavoj Žižek.

Wandavision – finitude and the franchise

If you intend to enjoy WandaVision you may want to consider not reading this.

The greatest obstacle to critiquing WandaVision is Disney’s transhumanism.

This goes far beyond the legendary frozen corpse of the founder, lying in wait under the Pirates of the Caribbean ride until the day the stars are right. Instead the transhumanism of Disney exists in a revulsion toward finitude. Nothing can ever end. “Dreams are forever,” as the founder said.

Copyright and trademark are eternal. The House of Mouse is an eldritch singularity, drawing in all of mass culture and hoarding it, digesting stories and shitting out merchandise.

Stories, too, cannot end. Nothing symbolizes this better than the blood-gorged leech of the so-called Infinity Saga. The five odd hour hours of Avengers Endgame and Infinity War smash brightly coloured brand indicators together and ape some vast Manichean conflict between a godlike conqueror and a gang of heroic rebels; but the telos of the two films is just a strident defense of the status quo. The reward for our heroes at the end of this supposedly infinite war is a reset. A return. And not even the return of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Campbell’s hero would return home transformed by the journey. Peter Parker returns unchanged. He slots seamlessly back into old friendships and routines. He is eternally on his journey, forever rejecting and answering calls that never go anywhere. A journey without distance. A cycle as brief as two turns of the clock that signifies nothing but two more turns. But of course the war is infinite, of course its conclusion is a return to an unchanging present. Disney cryogenically freezes narratives. It is terrified of a story ending, because an ending is a letting go. And Disney can never let anything go; it is as incapable of that as the singularity at the heart of the Milky Way.

This vomitous pile of a story hangs over WandaVision; its stench is ever-present. It haunts the story. In such a circumstance, how could we possibly fairly review the story before us?

Only by cutting it away from its own diseased bones. If WandaVision is to be assessed as a singular work of art, it must be walled away from the Avengers. We must exorcise the putrid ghost of the Infinity ” Saga” and approach the text tabula rasa. We will dispel the unspoken belief that he is a ghost while she lives still and start from the beginning as if it were alone, not one chapter in a “saga” but a story: an enclosed and finished work. If WandaVision cannot survive this form of scrutiny, it can thus, at least, fail on its own merits. And the only thread to redeem this product as a work of art stands in approaching it alone.

And it turns out that tabula rasa is the perfect way to approach WandaVision because, after dispensing with some period-appropriate credits, we meet our protagonists as blank slates in Pleasantville. Or at least they are in part blank slates. They come pre-equipped with mannerisms appropriate to an archaic fish-out-water situation comedy and complete and comprehensive knowledge of each other’s powers.

The show really wants to make this clear; Wanda and Vision don’t know what the date marked on their calendar is. They don’t know where they’re from or what their favourite song is. But they know she can summon objects ex nihilo. They know he can walk through a wall. The strangely selective gaps in memory continue. Vision knows he has a job but not what working that job entails. Wanda knows she stays home but does not know what a homemaker does. Archaic sit com hijinks ensue.

WandaVision, within the bounds of its textual frame, is remarkably disconnected from the Real. This disconnect presents itself in two overlapping ways. The first is in a profound temporal disconnect. Time stutters and jumps. A decade passes. Nobody comments. The show is set within situation comedies, but the precise sort of comedy refuses to be nailed down. It’s the Honeymooners or Andy Griffith one moment. Bewitched and I Dream of Genie the next. It gestures in the direction of the Adams Family for a moment then pivots and is, for a mayfly lifespan, The Office. Fashion, decor and hairstyle flux and, while our protagonists maintain a kind of postmodern indifference to this strangeness, Agnes is always exactly the character within the scene required to situate Wanda within the chimerical setting. And this is good, because excepting Wanda and Agnes, the rest of the cast are automata who comfortably glide between genres and roles. This may seem unkind to Vision, but he is immediately designated an automaton. Whenever in the comfort of his home he drops the act of humanity. He is perfectly aware he’s inhuman. He once calls humans small and limited. But Vision is a machine so simple he can be brought low by a wad of bubble gum. Vision is unaware of the extent to which he fails to understand himself at all. That failure of self-knowledge is a theme here.

I think the best way to envision the split in the self-knowledge Wanda and Vision have is to say that they don’t know who they are; but they know all too well what they are. They know that they are abnormal; each episode of the two which were released this week is about a test to see if they can fit in.

In the first of these tests, Wanda meets Agnes, and this is probably the highlight of the show. Kathryn Hahn is delightful. She has exceptional range, and razor-sharp delivery that hits the precise right note of parody to provide the kind of post-ironic frisson this show demands. Frankly, she acts circles around the rest of the cast.

With Agnes’s help, Wanda interprets the heart marked on the calendar as an indication that the evening is her and Vision’s anniversary and prepares a romantic evening for two. Meanwhile, at Vision’s work, he learns that a hazing ritual for new employees is to treat the boss, Andy Hart, and his wife to dinner. They have exacting standards, and the consequences of failing to impress are dire.

The dinner proceeds as a pastiche of early ‘1960s sitcoms. Wanda acts overly affectionate with Mr. Hart, and they explain it away to her origins in a fictional European country nobody comments on her lack of an accent, though Mr. Hart makes some dark allusions to his distrust of communists. Wanda and Vision finally compare notes, and attempt to change course from an erotic romp to an opportunity to impress the boss, engaging in increasingly desperate acts to conceal the fact that Wanda is attempting to hasten dinner along with her magic. At one point she transforms one burnt chicken into a basket full of eggs. “Oh no, too early,” she says (or something to that effect). The terrifying implications that she turned one chicken into many eggs is left to hang in the air, unexplored.

Eventually dinner is served and WandaVision pivots to where it is at its best: pure psychological horror. Mrs. Hart has become woozy from hunger waiting while Wanda bungles dinner after dinner, telekinetically throwing lobsters out windows and doing eldritch… things… to chickens. They get dinner on the table and everyone is seated but the mood is spoiled. The guests ask some questions about Wanda and Vision’s origins but they’re evasive. Mr. Hart becomes increasingly animated, pounding his hands on the table while a clock ticks noisily in the background. 

“What is your story?”
“Why did you come here?”
He’s screaming.
He chokes. 
The clock ticks.
The shadows draw in. 
Wanda commands Vision to help Mr. Hart, who has fallen to the floor, gasping for breath.

Vision reaches his hand through the front of Mr. Hart’s throat and retrieves the errant speck of food.

The shadows recede. Mr. Hart recovers his composure. He and his wife are entirely happy with how dinner went. They leave. The moment of horror ends.

The show retains, from this moment on, an edge that stays with it until one scene prior to the credit roll. Wanda and Vision discuss their strangeness. They seem to have forgotten the terror of the scene that unfolded with the Harts, or at least the trauma of it. Again there’s a sort of partial amnesia as if they know what happened but not what made it significant. They remark on the strangeness that they haven’t wedding rings and Wanda summons rings from nothing again. The laugh track invades here. Sighs of happiness. But it’s ash. Those happy sighs fill me with revulsion because the laugh track has become a character in this horrible, surreal nightmare of a story. The cooing of an invisible audience is a pressure that pushes against the senses. It edges close to the haptic void.

The moment ends. The credits roll. But it’s a fake-out, not the real credits but the credits within the show. This is when WandaVision trips over itself and ruins its own frame in the last scene. Our perspective pans out of the TV playing the show they were on and reveals some shadowy space. There is a panel of screens, including that playing the WandaVision show. One screen has some vague tacticool bullshit on it, and a militaristic logo. The eye is drawn to this screen, as if the logo was somehow important. A hand enters the frame, rendered in the perfect clarity of modern digital cameras, rather than the bespoke lo-fi black and white of the episode before. It turns off the screen. Rather than being left to wonder at the hypnagogic setting, we are allowed to see briefly behind the curtain. To be shown that there is, in fact, a place more real than the world of the show and that it is in some way in control. The question of who controls this liminal space will likely be a central one. I find it hard to care at the moment because this antagonist is gestured at so vaguely that it might as well not be there at all.

More credits roll, these ones comprise a stylized symbolic affair where settings and props from the show are rendered as if they were made up of CRT pixels. They eventually pan out into a digital simulation of two interlocking rings. If there was any doubt remaining at this point that Wanda and Vision were in some sort of generated simulation, this image would dispel it completely. This is disappointing.

Our second episode begins indulgently. First it gives us a previously-on. Considering these two episodes are rather short (~30 minutes each) the division into two episodes might have already been a little questionable (there is some structural reason which I will address later, but I find it poorly executed). To insert a “previously on” at the start seemed honestly insulting. Perhaps it could be seen as a joke, teasing at genre tropes that condense season-long plot threads into two-minute recaps constantly, but if so, it fails to wink at the audience in the way that literally every other joke in this horror-comedy does. Immediately after this our ears are yet again assaulted by the Marvel fanfare. Loudly and at length. 

After a setup for the episode’s mystery, the show cuts to yet another credit sequence. This is the sixth credits sequence across two episodes for those keeping count. This one a cheerful cartoon that carefully, and in great detail, delineates the geography of the setting and the powers of Vision and Wanda. Vision and Wanda remain these faintly smiling cartoons throughout, still rather blank slates – they are these repositories of terrifying power that are unknowable because they do not know themselves.

The second fit-in test is a PTA talent show. (They have no children.) Wanda plans a magic act which will lay bare the artifice of magic, the ropes and mirrors. She hopes it will demistify them. Vision goes to a Neighbourhood Watch meeting but it turns out they mostly just gossip. The people are the same men from his office in the previous episode. He doesn’t notice. He denounces one of the members of the watch as a communist. They all laugh. This show has a casual hatred for the political other. Communism looms as a threat in the text more explicitly than the comedies it simulacratizes. They think he’s a joker. He swallows some gum and it clogs up his gears. Literally.

Wanda, meanwhile, has a series of surreal encounters that might almost feel Lynchian in a better overall work. She encounters out of context objects, a PTA cult, a new friend and then suffers through a repeat of the terrifying encounter of the dinner party. This time the leader of the PTA cult, Dottie, tells Wanda that she doesn’t like her, doesn’t trust her good intentions. She looks to be getting ready to say something more terrible still to Wanda but a radio in the background is screaming with static. A voice cuts through, “Who’s doing this to you Wanda?” And I just wish that WandaVision could sustain this level of quality, because this scene is legitimately frightening. But Dottie immediately forgets the encounter and seems perfectly satisfied.

The magic show goes well. Vision acts drunk (from the gum) but everyone seems to think it’s a bit. They try to sneak away but the town loves them. They drag them to the stage and give them a trophy. There is so much clapping. Far more clapping than hands in the scene to clap, until it becomes a cacophonous wall of noise. The haptic void again. The credit I will give the creative team behind WandaVision is this: when they were using their sound pallet rather than Marvel’s corporate noise, they used sound in interesting ways. Wanda and Vision pass the test. But I worry the magic show will, in some ways be an apt metaphor for this show: a process of demystification, an admission that the audience isn’t here to be startled or enchanted but just to see how the magic trick is done.

Then there is a coda at the end of the second episode that escapes the careful mirroring of before.

 They cut away, tell some jokes, cut the tension. They kill the mood. The transitions are artificial – WandaVision is built of artifice so this shouldn’t be surprising. But it has the effect of spreading oil over everything, undercutting the tension they’ve built. They try to kiss. Vision tells Wanda, “It’s really happening,” WandaVision has already undercut this with its framing so it lands weakly. We’ve already learned he’s wrong by this point. They told us clearly several times in the outro to the first episode. Things become terrifying again, as noises outside lead to a spooky beekeeper climbing out of the sewer.

Wanda commands, “No,” and the whole universe rewinds like a VHS tape. (Not like an 8mm film tape. Another temporal disconnect.) She and Vision kiss. They are not interrupted. The world explodes in colour. Their appearance glitches like they’re within the TV. A voice calls, “Who’s doing this to you Wanda?”

WandaVision’s second episode struggled with pace. It swung wildly between psychological horror and broad comedy. It wasn’t bad at either. It could conjure moments of existential terror in its two mirrored confrontation scenes, and it hit a comedy zenith with the talent show scene, which managed to fuse the careful staged humour of the 1960s with fly-on-the-wall cringe humour more part of the media landscape of the 2000s. Wanda’s absolute power is legitimately terrifying and she could be a good subject of horror. A terrifying and unknowable person in a clearly artificial landscape, a being of immense power and unknown intent. Although both Wanda and Vision seem infected by a compulsion to conform to the immediate normalcy of the ever-mutating narrative, she seems to do so by consent. By the end of the episode, using only the text within the show, I could sincerely argue that it seems more likely that what we do seem to know about the characters, that they have these powers; that they want to conform to local expectations no matter how absurd; that they are unaware of that absurdity; their virulent anti-communism, all of it, was only Wanda’s interpretation, her sense of the world superimposes itself upon the Real. Vision’s interior is depicted as a simplistic cartoon of cogs and wheels, like Bender from Futurama. Is this, perhaps just how she understands the robot? Or is this the show reminding us how absolutely empty he is? Wanda is not empty. She commands the temporal movement of the realm they are within. We’ve seen them stutter and jump in time in strange and unnatural ways throughout both episodes, and Wanda is shown to have power over time. If this were a show disconnected from the MCU, if I really could read it walled away, cut from the rotten bone, it could be a good show.

But I can’t. I try to keep it walled off but the show fights me too much. There’s the opening music. Twice across an hour of television, the Marvel fanfare. That bombastic leitmotif demands that you remember you are in a Marvel product. And it demands this twice. The doubling format has more narrative uses too, and mirroring is used heavily between the two episodes to give them an uncanny, iterative element. There’s this sense of simulation in it. The separation of the premiere into two stories allowed for an intertextual dialog that reinforced this iterative rhythm. There is a force within the show. Either it’s Wanda or it’s something far more terrifying than her. And it’s pushing toward an outcome. It’s not entirely a puppeteer. Wanda, at least, is not a puppet. But it’s a force on the story, and splitting the show in two allowed that force to be made plain. Though the first episode was more soundly paced, this was, in part, to service the second episode showing the aesthetic of change; or at least of movement. But this good work is fatally undercut by the “previously on” segment and the Marvel fanfare. This is a show about unreality. It’s a show where narrative, the sense the protagonists have of the Real is very subject to ad-hoc revision. Cutting away to remind us precisely what reality we are in (that of the MCU) is so deeply harmful to this eerie suspension.

Like Adorno and Horkheimer said, “enjoyment is giving way to being there and being in the know.” The show is peppered with obvious easter eggs designed to get viewers hunting lore and getting engaged with the fan community. There is a commercial embedded within each episode. The first commercial is for a Stark Industries toaster. The second is for a Strücker watch. The first, shallow, MCU trivia primes the audience to go seeking for the second. Unless, of course, they’ve seen Avengers Age of Ultron: the movie that exposits the back-stories of both Wanda and Vision, including her connection to Baron Von Strücker – a villain with tentacles throughout the entirety of the Avengers timeline. WandaVision unfortunately shrinks next to this vast back-catalog of work. Where before Wanda was this terrifying and unknowable entity, now, with the background coloured in, she’s a much more mundane person. Just a run of the mill superhero, trapped in some superheroic situation by a dastardly villain. The potential of WandaVision is crushed by its proximity to Marvel. Too much foreign text crowds the work, demands to fill its cracks and make clear its meanings. Ambiguity is bad for brand maintenance. You want to engage the fans. Make them feel good because they knew things. You have to make sure to sneak the S.W.O.R.D. logo in so that the real-in-the-know fans (and anyone with even a shred of curiosity and a working internet connection) can feel cool for Getting That Reference. The fan games Disney encourages engage the aesthetic of study, of knowing. But they don’t engage the act of it. Anyone can Get That Reference. Keeping you in the media ecosystem is what matters.

I mentioned before that Wanda’s subplot in the second episode was at moments almost Lynchian. But this is another place where the show runs into problems. Because Lynch’s work depends on ambiguity. Reality and recollection blur, identities become indistinct. It’s like they wanted to make a Lynchian story for which a vast encyclopedia exists that sorts all the ambiguity and liminality into easily and exhaustively categorized boxes. We keep being given the hard edges of the thing. Thanks to the demands of Marvel marketing, we aren’t watching a story about unknowable beings in some horrifically comic purgatory. 

WandaVision isn’t a show that wants to mystify its audience. It wants instead to show the audience where all the ropes and mirrors are. 

So, no, it isn’t two unknowable godlike beings in an absurd purgatory. We are watching a story about two superheroes in a situation. Their powers are explained to us quickly and cleanly and smoothly not because they’re part of an intricate fantasy Wanda has created but because the writers are quickly getting people up to speed about the only thing that truly matters for a superhero, the Ariadne’s thread that allows for their interpretation: the power set. Occasionally good artists manage to do something with these empty heroes, and perhaps the WandaVision team will be up to the challenge, but for the most part they’re just broad characters with narrowly defined powers getting into and out of various situations. It’s all very normal and mundane. And this is what the constant intrusion of other texts into WandaVision does. It opens the story’s lungs up and watches as the mundane normalcy of Disney infects it.

Marvel’s blasted overture blares over the start of every episode, roaring for people to get excited for the next big spectacle. What they get instead is a horror comedy about loss of identity in an absurd universe. The surreal setting and its oddly incomplete cast of automata create a pervasive liminality that picks away at sense of self, at the certainty of time; it tortures its protagonist with existential questions. “What’s your story,” indeed. The dissonance between the expectations of franchise and the story the writers seem to want to tell rips at the theme. We expect our heroes, any minute now, to smash their way out of the television and to punch the villain until they fall over and everything goes back to normal.

Vision dies in Avengers Infinity War. The magic rock that gives him life is ripped out of his head and he, alone, of all the heroes who were killed by Thanos, doesn’t get to come back. His was the sacrifice that proved consequences could exist in the MCU. So of course he’s back. Because Disney can’t let go of its property. And that’s all Vision is. Disney’s property.

Dreams are forever, but if a dream is forever you can never wake. Franchise stories keep the dream humming along only by deferring the moment of wakefulness where the story ends. WandaVision could be a strange and nightmarish dream. But because it must be cryogenically suspended in the tapestry of the Marvel Brand, because threads must stitch it into this overall, ever-winding fabric of narrative, you can never wake from it. The boundaries that separate WandaVision from Avengers movies are absent. This is just an artful set of scenes in an awful mess of a vast, never-to-be-completed advertisement for itself.

The failed promise of Star Trek Discovery

It’s unfortunate that in a year with a Star Trek show as good as Lower Decks, Discovery, which is arguably the flagship franchise of Trek on TV, was so painfully mediocre. Discovery season one was, at the time it came out, the best first season a Trek show ever had, and with a few small tweaks to costume and structure, season two was even stronger. 

Star Trek Discovery season two was perhaps the most character-driven a season of Trek ever got. It invested us in the lives and relationships of Burnham and Saru, Spock, Pike, Tilly, Stamets and Culber, Owosekun and Detmer, Georgiu and all the rest.

On top of that it told an interesting story of time travel and AI that touched on many themes and anxieties that had their bones in Star Trek as far back as the original series. It asked questions about the duty to protect sentience, the desire to control and to predict chaotic events, automation and reliance on machines.

Discovery’s use of time travel in season two was sharp, and kept the stakes high. The central mystery was tied to the character and thematic conflicts of the season, allowing the solution of the central mystery to be simultaneously an interesting bit of plotting and a cathartic resolution of  the relationships that dominated the season. The end of Discovery season two established a premise for season three that took Star Trek precisely where most people really wanted it: back to its own future. 

And then Star Trek Discovery wasted a season on the worst sort of brand maintenance, and in the process, reduced many of its central relationships to incoherent nonsense.

Saying something nice

But before we get into the postmortem of a season of television that failed, let’s take a moment to talk about the few things Discovery got right. Book is an excellent addition to the cast. This combination of Deana Troi and Beastmaster had a consistent character arc built around his status as a loner and his integration into a community that allowed us to understand his past (through the conflict with his brother,) a sense of who he was (don’t insult the man’s cat,) and gave him both relationships with others in the world and the opportunity to forge new relationships with the principal cast. If you are going to introduce a new, ongoing, cast member into an extant show, Book is a textbook example of doing so well.

I am somewhat more critical of the introduction of Adira. It’s good that Star Trek has decided to include a non-binary character in the central cast. And, as a character, Adira is more interesting than some of their precursors like Wesley Crusher. However centering so much of Adira’s story directly on either a plot-forced relationship with Stamets or with their struggles integrating becoming host to their own dead lover, who the show demands must be made visible, feel heavy-handed and unsubtle at best. In particular, the scene in which Adira announces their preferred pronouns to Stamets felt like nothing but a bit of social scripting introduced to train Generation-X audience members in the appropriate way to respond to Kids Today. However, the precocious ingenue is a time-honored (if occasionally detested) component of Star Trek, and Adira is certainly not the most vexatious example of this trope. That a show so in dialog with the past of Star Trek as Discovery has been should include one should not surprise. And ultimately, Adira remains one of the net-positives of the show. I do hope that they are allowed to continue developing as a character as the series goes on – their arc being less complete than that of Book – but I like the dynamic of introducing a new Science Friend as it’s clear that Tilly will continue shuffling toward a command-track position. Just, perhaps, the scriptwriters should ease up on the throttle on the found-family narrative and allow Stamets to be a colleague rather than a surrogate father.

The relationship between Owosekun and Detmer was also a highlight of the season. I don’t think any character from the established cast was given as much space to grow and develop as Detmer, and Owo’s support of her was well done. It’s a shame that Detmer’s arc was resolved by half-way through the season, leaving little for her to do other than stand in the background, and that, rather than using the relationship between Detmer and herself, and her established abilities to give Owo her heroic turn in the finale, the scriptwriters simply penciled in a special skill.

Finally there was the exit of Georgiu. I’m divided here, because there was so much wasted potential in Georgiou’s storyline; but she did have a solid character arc, she behaved consistently, and (being honest) Michelle Yeoh remained the most entertaining actor performing on Star Trek this year. Her scenery-chewing swings between horny, cruel, protective and gleeful remained the source of much of the show’s levity. 

There was a while when Georgiu seemed to be an interesting critical figure. Her position as a time traveler and as a mirror-universe figure, her multiple displacements, made her an effective stand-in for much of the deconstructive critique that marked the period of Star Trek between Deep Space Nine and Enterprise and this lent her interaction with the ever-so-Rodenberryesque principal cast a form of metatextual dialog which, during the first half of season three, pointed toward an actual theme.

Of course this was bungled in favour of naked fanservice and brand maintenance as she was somewhat unceremoniously shuffled over to her spin-off Section 31 series, in a two-part episode that fell painfully flat.

Brand maintenance was the name of the game for Discovery season three though. So I suppose this isn’t too surprising. 

A story in search of a theme

What was Discovery season three about? Think about it for a second, really try to think about it. What was it about? We could start by taking inventory on where we came from. Discovery season two established that the crew were a found-family. Our named-cast agree, together, to follow Michael into the future in order to protect the Sphere Data and prevent the arisal of the Control AI that would destroy all life in the galaxy.

Michael and Saru, once rivals, have fallen into a gentle and supportive friendship as she has helped him recover his connection to his people and overturn a form of systemic repression that subjugated Kelpiens throughout history. Michael has been promised the opportunity to reunite with her mother.

Stamets and Culber have been reunited, as the Mycelial Network repays Stamets for his efforts in the two seasons of the show to protect the integrity of the universe even at the expense of his own success and notoriety as a researcher. Stamets, in particular, has learned how to set aside his personal desires and act in the interests of the collective.

Tilly remains the loyal friend and Michael’s mentee. Georgiu remains the dark reflection of the other mother who Michael failed – the pull toward utility and practicality to balance the selflessness of her mother’s own arc. And Pike stays behind to spin off with Spock and Number One. This is fine. We always expected that Pike would be a one-season treat. The sphere data is an enigmatic other. The season ends uncertain whether it will be an ally or a threat – just the certainty that it appears aware in some way.

So what would make sense from here? 

We could build off the sense that Michael needs to pick up the mantle of leadership. We could see her building ties in the future, feeling at home, and having the feeling that she should lead. We could see Saru finding himself a bit too rigid, a bit of a fish out of too many waters. Put Saru on the bridge when Osyraa’s regulators board; have it go the same. Let Michael have her die-hard sequence and then have Saru demand Michael take command rather than Tilley. We end in the same place. Saru retired to Kelpinar, Michael as captain. Tilly has been Michael’s mentee since season one episode one so having her remain so, with an eye toward assuming a command role at season-end, (and perhaps a promotion) would have continued to give Mary Wiseman something to do aside from following Saru around being his folly. This would give us a thematic through-line that leadership requires not just genius and thoughtfulness, but some of the willingness to throw oneself into an uncertain future that Michael represents. In fact, such an arc would hark back to the white rabbit motifs of season one. Michael has always been one to go down the rabbit hole.

Or we could lean into the changed politics of the burn and examine what the Federation really is. This would require reconfiguring the order things happen in a bit of course. The introduction of the Emerald Chain in the first episode was the place to plant seeds about the chain’s instability in the lack of Dilithium. 

We could have then met the painfully mis-used Aurellio – who could have been the initial representative of the Chain to the heroes. He could have praised Osyraa’s vision and ability to unite people in the face of adversity. While the Federation retreated to its starbase of pure abstraction, Osyraa is down in the dirt, trying to hold the galaxy together. Then we learn about the exploitation of pre-warp species. But still there’s an excuse. If we don’t bring them in we might lose the galactic culture. They are important. And then the slave camps. Then the horror that girds Osyraa’s rhetoric. Because as the political story is told, we already know the Emerald Chain is a horror before Aurelio ever tries to make a defense of it. As a result, the scene is absurd. There is no way that Stamets could be persuaded, not when we, the audience already know what’s behind the curtain.

And then there’s the central mystery.

This is the great void at the heart of Discovery, season three, and the center of its failure.

The burn is nonsense.

It’s not a political consequence of the Federation. This possibility is explored during the Galactic Tour and then abruptly dismissed. Nor is it a weapon of an enemy. And there were so many enemies to choose. It could have been whichever faction enforces the outcome of the Temporal Wars. It could be the extra-galactic AI of Picard season one. Or the sphere data. Or these could be the same – the burn could be Control’s last shout of “from hell’s heart I stab at thee.” It could have been the Emerald Chain who set off the burn. 

Instead it’s a Kelpian child who was grieving  the death of his mother. This might have worked, if Star Trek wanted to propose that the universe was an absurd place where only our bonds to each other allow us to cling to rafts of reason beneath a deep abyss of chaos. But Star Trek is far too deterministic for this. It’s a clockwork world of blank hologram faces, binary states, a clearly defined right and wrong. It’s a world where you cannot return to the past because There Are Rules.

And there are rules. Except when there are not.

And so the theme becomes brand maintenance; it booms “I am the Guardian of Forever” and hopes that people remember not just that this is literally audio from The Original Series but also that there was almost a spin-off to The Original Series brought about through a time travel story (Assignment: Earth). There are rules. You cannot travel in time. Except when the demands of Michelle Yeoh’s contract, and of the spin-off roadmap demand that time travel must be done. It winks at the audience and hints about what might be next.

It does the same with the sphere data. All the show does with this remaining thread from the last season is wink and hint. Wink and hint. Nothing is settled. Nothing concrete is learned. It’s deferred. We can’t give away the game for Season 4 or we’d have to actually try something new.

The first season of Discovery had a thesis: that the humanist values of Star Trek as envisioned by Roddenberry were good, actually.

The second season of Discovery had a theme: that this good was sufficient to overcome the end of everything; and that deviating from Trekian Humanism was a path that would lead to ruin.

In the third season of Discovery there is no such thesis, no such theme. There is a half-baked story of petrostates when the oil runs out; an attempt to engage a dialectic of Star Trek and Mad Max and find the oneness between these futures. But instead of pinning the rise and fall of the action to a thesis or a theme, this season is just a collection of events, an absurd and meaningless process of moving characters like game pieces into the configuration necessary to carry forward the franchise.

About that dilithium

Star Trek Discovery situates the Federation as a humanism. Season one makes it clear that what makes the Federation good is what makes Starfleet good is what makes Star Trek good and that this is a deliberate centering of its subjects. The show seems to ask that same question De Beauvoir did, “How could {people}, originally separated, get together?” In season one, the Klingons ask, but should we want that. Shouldn’t we cling to our difference? And Star Trek answers no. By coming together, Michael finds absolution, Saru finds community, Stamets finds love and kindness, Tilly finds someone to look up to. These disparate, different, people build a community that is centered around their relations, they build each other up. This is what makes the Federation good

In season two, Section 31 shifts away from Federation humanism and toward a kind of cybernetic utilitarianism. Build a good enough machine and it will predict how to bring people together. It will maximize happiness and oops we made a paperclip maximizer that’s going to kill us all better do a humanism quick. Season two shows us not the Klingon rejection of humanist community but rather a tecnnocratic subversion of it. And then season two tells us why that, too, is wrong.

In season three, all the Federation is, is a collection of ships and bases, and having run out of gas it dissolves. Well except for the hard kernel that later reterritorializes the absence left by its own collapse, and the collapse of the Emerald Chain left behind. But this reterritorialization isn’t the same humanism. We’re told, by our half-baked materialist Osyraa that the Federation is choking on its idealism. It’s a realm of abstraction, of computer generated holograms built explicitly to occupy the uncanny valley, of programmable matter that can be anything (as long as that thing serves plot expedience) and of force fields. So many force fields. But aside from the crew of Discovery, the actual population of the Federation is reduced to three. Aditya Sahil, Vance and Kovich. Three old men. Each isolated within his function. The lighthouse keeper. The admiral. The enigma. There is no community here for Discovery to be a part of.

The show seems to understand this and so it throws its characters into whatever scrap of community they can muster. And so Michael has her plot-convenient crisis of faith because of her community with Book. Stamets adopts his coworker for reasons that are never made clear in the show. It’s not like even the most evil elements of the future are homophobes; so Adira’s queer identity seems like a weak basis for Stamets to decide he must be their surrogate dad. And Saru adopts an elderly Kelpien (one who must be chronologically far older than Saru) rather than continue his duties as captain – something that had been previously very important to him. These honestly bizarre character choices can only be justified as the scriptwriters realizing the lack in their story and attempting to fill it with something, anything. After all. A family is a community too.

So what is the Federation? Is it a community of worlds? If so all that is left of it is N’Var – where the community of worlds has been made manifest in reunification. Is it a family? If so it has become a very small one. Is it just the fuel to make the ships go? The text of Discovery suggests that. But this is just material culture.  Fanon talked about the structure of a nation a lot. He thought a nation was vast and impossible to perceive all at once, what Timothy Morton would have called a hyperobject. When a group of people get together, in the existentialist-humanist sense of the world, then they, the culture they create, the boundaries they set, the land they work, the wars they fight, the vast totality of all those lives is the nation. A culture cannot exist without a nation as culture exists in the agreeing of the members of a nation on what constitutes that culture. A material culture arises out of a nation, but it is the people who compose it. It is the people who invest the material culture with anything resembling meaning. And so, absent any people to be the Federation, it has no culture. Liberation demands a nation too, as liberation is, by necessity an action we do together. And we even get a hint of that in the void the Federation left in its passing – Osyraa is all too happy to fill that with naked power. But without that sense of culture, without the sense of something built, we are left with yet another thing undone at the end of the season. Because there still isn’t a nation at the end. Just a single found family in the absurd void of space. And frankly, Voyager already did that story.  The failure of Discovery to move beyond the themes of the first two seasons in any significant way but also to resolve any new questions or contradictions leaves me with a Sisyphean sense of the story.

I still like these characters. I like Michael and Book. I like Saru in all his contradictions, and Tilly’s uncertainty, I like Stamet’s incendiary emotional pallet and the smooth water that Culber brings. I want to see these characters have adventures that are invested in meaning. We aren’t there right now. As it stands, we leave Michael pushing the rock of Federation Humanism up the slope of history, having it now slipped from her grasp three times, each time to be recovered so she can start again.

I can only imagine her happy.

Batman v. Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: a review of Death Note

This article largely came out of a conversation with Adam Shaftoe regarding the Death Note film. I would strongly recommend reading his review as well, as his knowledge of the source material Death Note is derived from is greater than mine, and it provides a good overview.

But there’s one thing in specific that has been bothering me about Death Note, that I wanted to explore in some greater depth and that’s the use of the mode of alienation and the ethics of nihilism in teen media.

Page excerpted from Johnny the Homicidal Maniac by Jhonen Vasquez

In order to fully explore that I’ll start with an alternative comic from the mid-1990s called Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.

This comic did the circuit through a lot of the counter-culture scenes circa 1997 and it was something that seemed rather unique at the time. The comic focused on the surrealistic adventures of a solipsistic spree killer, who was driven to kill by supernatural incarnations of alienation and angst that took the form of a pair of gothed up Pillsbury Dough Boys.

Drawn in a sharply chiaroscuro style reminiscent of expressionist woodcuts, this comic presented itself as a commentary on the fundamental banality of modern consumer culture, as the protagonist, defined by his isolation, responds to the desire for undeserved attention, customer-always-right arrogant consumerism, and hollow passion directed to the trivial, projected to seem life shattering with a variety of increasingly nihilistic impulses including murder, torture and suicide.  The audience is openly invited to identify with Johnny; there is no other protagonist provided, and with the exception of the two innocents who are deeply traumatized by contact with him (a potential girlfriend who fast realizes the monstrosity of her date and then there was a whole book about her PTSD and a deeply anxious child who Johnny “befriends” for whom there was also a whole book about his PTSD) but ultimately unimportant to the story, the secondary characters who are introduced are universally banal, shrill and unpleasant.

The thesis of the comic largely becomes that the pervasiveness of consumer culture creates an alienation so deep that all people become entirely solipsistic, viewing all other people as Others only considered either as an audience or an enemy. In the face of this, the comic proposes a reasonable response is an urge toward total annihilation: of the self, the Other and the world.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is presented as being slightly counter to this culture. During a kill spree at a fast food restaurant, he’s listening to Wagner on his Walkman (Because of course he is. This book is so influenced by German romanticism and early modern thought that the only surprising thing is that there isn’t actually a character named Nietzsche in it.) However, for his difference, he’s still embedded in the culture. He’s at the fast food restaurant not because he intends to tear down the establishment, but because he wants to buy a taco. During another public massacre, he is at a 24 hour convenience store buying a slushie. Instead, the absurdity of the way others react to their own alienation causes a moment of revulsion in Johnny that points to the nihilistic urge. And then the page is spattered in black ink blood spatter drawn from sharply angular knives.

Johnny believes himself to be special. He believes that his spasms of nihilistic violence help to keep the world from ending. However he is ultimately revealed to be just another alienated young man, unable to affect change in the world, and faced with the choice between death of the body and a spiritual death which comes from final emotional disconnection from his place and culture.

Light Turner in Death Note is effectively just a dumbed down version of Johnny. The bones are there. The mode of alienation is presented clearly, and how Light’s alienation leads to nihilism is also well established. But absent a critical lens to society beyond, “crime hurts families,” he fails to project even the purile illusion of depth that made Johnny the Homicidal Maniac an interesting book for a certain young art student with altogether too much interest in early existentialism.

But for all that Light fails to be an anti-heroic protagonist of the nihil, the film itself does do a good job creating a sense of alienation as a mood. And a lot of this can be laid at the feet of the soundtrack and the portrayal of Ryuk.

These two elements seem like an odd juxtaposition, but they actually do some very important work together. The soundtrack is designed with razor focus to elicit nostalgia. A deft combination of modern ’80s inflected synth, new wave deep cuts and pure schmaltz grounds the blue-washed and perpetually overcast streets of Seattle in the Real. The music conjures for the audience the sense of high school dances, and the sense of listening to music just weird enough to signal one as an “outcast” in the smoking pit while the jocks do jock stuff somewhere nearby. They help to draw the audience into a frame of feeling like they did in school.

Then the unreal invades.

There is absolutely no attempt to make Ryuk realistic. Cloaked in shadow and silhouette, out of focus at times and other times a mass of sharp lines that become nothing but a chaotic mass of angle and form, the death god is a projection of the liminal. And his gift is equally unreal. The deaths granted by the eponymous note fit into the Rube Goldberg / Final Destination / Dead Like Me style, and depend not only on chains of increasingly unlikely coincidence, but also on the ability of the keeper of the note to exact complete control over his victim, their actions and circumstances for a period of time leading up to their demise.

The grey, brown, earthy visual palette of the city, and the deliberately nostalgic soundtrack thus create an intense tension against the unreality of Ryuk and his dark gifts which alienates the audience from the proceedings. This does much of the heavy lifting for providing a sense of identification with the otherwise un-likeable, un-meritorious antihero of the film.

“We are so alone in this world in which there is no justice, in which death is arbitrary,” the film says before positing that one solution is to put religious faith in a nietzschean ubermensch who can overcome the contradiction between good and evil to mete out justice, accountable to nobody.”

The film then presents us with a second protagonist who provides a second, equally dark, resolution to our alienation in L.

L, a Holmsean detective / ninja / chosen one is possibly the best live action screen representation of Batman in the modern period. Unlike like Light, who claims special status and intellect, but who does not show any such quality until the closing scenes of the film, L really does seem that much smarter than anybody else.

By the time he arrives in Seattle it’s evident that he’s already fingered Light as the likely killer, and his challenge becomes more about entrapping Light without exposing himself than about actually figuring out who did it.

A mind capable of processing and synthesizing vast amounts of data to reach broad understandings of his subjects, L is sharply indicative of the modern panopticon, even down to being a consulting detective of nebulous actual authority but the blessing of state actors to operate.

And so these are the choices Death Note presents us for resolving our alienation: surrender to the self-appointed heroes who attempt to transcend good and evil or to the ever-watching eye of an anonymous surveillance apparatus: all of society mobilized to respond to the Other either as enemy or audience.

This isn’t a comforting choice that the film invites the audience to make. What makes Death Note even more discomforting is that it deliberately leaves this choice ambiguous. A late scene involves an anonymous figure aiding Light against L because he sees “Lord Kira” as a suitable solution to the film’s poorly defined social woes. Of all the various coincidences that the film retcons into Light’s eleventh-hour plot of genius manipulation, this one alone is left out of the end descriptive narrative. In this case alone, the character may have acted with agency as opposed to being fate’s plaything.

And the idea of being a plaything to uncaring Others is another thread of alienation running through the film, driven home by Ryuk’s last line when he menacingly says, “humans are so interesting,” implying that all the carnage that unfolded was merely an idle entertainment for him.

Death Note is a bad film. It is a sexist mess in its treatment of Mia, and it strips any pretense of social commentary from its profound alienation before offering up either the chaos of destruction or the rigidity of the ever-watching eye as the solutions to this alienation.

What makes it comment-worthy is that it is particularly slick iteration of a spectrum of media, mostly targeting young men, that points in a specifically misanthropic direction – and is thus likely to reach a larger audience than Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. It is important to discuss films like this, because they do have an impact, and for all their objective defects, will speak to an audience. Especially an audience that, due to a hyper-saturation of targeted marketing, a continuum of study which is beginning to expose them to new ideas, and a volatile emotional milieu feel alienation ever so strongly.

Frankly Death Note left me with a bad taste in my mouth. And now I kind of want to go and watch something that responds by collapsing the Other into the Self and resolving the difference by the act of mutual recognition. You know. Like Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets, which seems all the more meritorious in the retrospect provided by this piece of garbage.

I watched Iron Fist so you don’t have to. Watch these instead.

First housekeeping. There will be spoilers in this article. If you care about spoilers for a mediocre AF martial arts show on Netflix, you probably want to stop reading.

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first. There’s some racist stuff going on in Iron Fist both on-set and off it. But just to be clear, the central plot of the show involves an insidious order of mystics who are textually situated somewhere in China and / or Japan (and the less we dwell on the inability of the scriptwriters to distinguish between China and Japan the better) and who have infiltrated the American Family Business using opium and the promise of alchemical immortality. These guys are about one Fu Manchu reference away from actually using a 1912 Sax Rohmer style yellow peril narrative here.

But I think that’s been addressed well by others already, including here – where Genevra Littlejohn gets at the disrespect presented by the showrunners and by Jessica Henwick, one of the stars of the show. I also don’t want to belabor the excellent points made by Abigail Nussbaum in her article on the show. What I will say is that while I entirely agree with her assessment of the characterization of Danny Rand, there was a level of personal discomfort with his character for me which I have to accept may have exacerbated my reaction to the show.

Namely, as a white man who speaks Mandarin, does martial arts, has spent time around Buddhist temples and who consumes a lot of Chinese media, some of Danny’s bad behaviour hit a bit too close to home in the, “please tell me I was less insufferable as a kid,” sort of a way. That sense-of-identification with this blatantly awful human being with stunning boundary issues certainly didn’t increase my enjoyment of the show.

I didn’t enjoy the show. In fact, the slight frission of pleasure I got from shitposting about it on Facebook faded by about Episode 4. After that I was mostly only watching out of stubbornness. However, my lack of enjoyment of the show had less to do with the whitewashing controversy or even the yellow peril narrative (which I largely bit my tongue over when Daredevil did similar) than it did with how poorly constructed Iron Fist was as a piece of martial arts media and that’s where I’m going to concentrate.

The creative team

The central problem here appears to be the formation of the creative team. And I think a lot of those can be traced to the employment of Scott Buck as the showrunner. Buck’s previous production and writing credits almost entirely center around either comedies or adult dramas (notably Six Feet Under and Dexter). His only experience with adventure television is Rome. He certainly has no background in martial arts cinema, and with his lack of a background he failed to hire appropriate scriptwriters.

Of course Buck was credited with three episodes himself. Beyond him, Quinton Peeples has done a variety of light genre, but mostly it gravitates towards police and military narratives. He has no experience with martial arts that I can find. Scott Reynolds is also mostly a police drama writer. Christine Chambers pretty much only wrote previously for Boardwalk Empire, a gangster show.

The writer of one of the two best episodes of Iron Fist is also the only one who has previous experience working with anything even remotely close to a martial arts story. Dwain Worrell previously worked as the scriptwriter for a 2010 (zombie?) movie called Walking the Dead which was set in China. It featured an antagonist with an axe but followed slasher tropes rather than martial arts from what little of it I was able to track down.

Ian Stokes, credited on two episodes, is straight-up genre but again no martial arts background. Tamara Beecher-Wilkinson mostly did police drama writing although she was the script coordinator on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Pat Charles is mostly known for writing episodes of Bones.

In other words the writer’s room was long on experience with police and crime drama but had no previous experience writing martial arts media. This lack of experience carries through to the direction team, with two notable exceptions.

Episode 6 was directed by RZA and episode 8 was directed by Kevin Tancharoen. These two directors have, between them, a reasonable resume of martial arts related work. Tancharoen has directed good episodes of all the CW superhero properties, while RZA wrote, directed and starred in the grossly under-appreciated martial arts horror / comedy and Shaw Brothers homage The Man With the Iron Fists.

It’s unsurprising then, that as pieces of martial arts media, Episodes 6 and 8 are the best Iron Fist has to offer. It’s the only time there was even a lick of experience in the creative team.

Trope Deployment

With a creative team better suited to making a police drama than a martial arts show, it’s somewhat unsurprising that their grasp of martial arts tropes is weak. A central example of this has to do with their failure to understand what “external” and “internal” mean in a martial arts context, their failure to properly identify whether named styles are external or internal, their failure to understand how internal cultivation features into the education of a martial arts hero and thus their accidental deployment of the “flawed internal cultivation” trope when they try to address Danny’s PTSD.

So let’s back up.

Internal vs. External

In the real world, internal vs. external is a formalism that divides certain theoretical bases concerning application of force. External martial arts believe in applying personal physical force to combat. Their training regimes focus on body conditioning and use techniques that frequently expect a certain level of strength and speed from the practitioner. Boxing is a perfect example of an external martial art. In martial arts media, external martial arts are the physical manifestation of a martial artist’s abilities, allowing them to become more effective at punching, kicking, wrestling, wielding weapons, etc.

Internal martial arts in the real world describe a group of martial arts that concentrate on leverage and borrowing force from your opponent (and also Xingyiquan which is mostly about stabbing people efficiently with a spear when in military ranks.) Internal martial art training regimes focus on balance, core strength and grace-in-movement. The cooperative and meditative arts such as Taijiquan and Aikido are perfect examples of an internal art. In martial arts media, internal martial arts are the spiritual manifestation of a martial artist’s abilities. With their internal skill, they can empower their external skills to greater effect, make use of qinggong (super-speed, wall running and high jumping) and dianxue (pressure point) techniques, become resistant to injury, heal the internal wounds of themselves and others and impart exceptional force to darts and other small missiles.

Now first off, Danny Rand claims to be versed in internal martial arts when he paternalistically starts instructing Colleen Wing during their awkward fight-flirt. Then he immediately identifies Tiger style as an internal form.

And this is where the CMAists in the room must burst into laughter, because within Shaolin Five Animal, it doesn’t get any more external than Tiger.

Well then, what about if we look at a different CMA with a Tiger style. Say… Hung Gar? Again, tiger is the epitome of external conditioning within that art. Again and again, within kung fu systems with animal naming conventions, tigers stand in for the tendons, for raw power, rending, tearing and breaking. You know, because tigers look like this:

I mean, look at the shoulders on that monster.

Anyway, this seems to suggest that Danny doesn’t have the first clue what external and internal really mean and this is a problem because…

Internal martial arts are a fundamental component in the education of a martial hero

We’re told (not shown) that Danny earned the right to claim the Iron Fist by mastering all the martial arts of K’un Lun. And K’un Lun seems to want to be established like a martial sect. I mean its name is lifted from one after all (even if the Kunlun Sect of the wuxia genre is a secular Taoist one and thus absent warrior monks). Danny is supposed to be the top student of K’un Lun. The star pupil of Lei Kung “The Thunderer”. So why the hell does he need to learn basic neigong for restoration of qi from a master of the Hand?

That’s right, having exhausted himself in a previous fight, Danny is unable to call upon the iron fist. We’re told his qi is depleted, though he doesn’t show the exhaustion and wasting sickness we might expect to see from a person who has scoured their internal force. As part of an effort to seduce him, secret “no we’re the other Hand” hand master, Bakuto teaches Danny some qigong. I guess the taiji we saw him butchering earlier in the series didn’t count or something? It’s never exactly clear. But yeah, somehow the star pupil of this great sect was entrusted with a weapon that depends on manipulation of qi without first getting any education into how to manipulate qi. And, yeah, that’s kind of a problem. Especially when it leads to the apparently accidental deployment of a trope that undercuts some of the character beats they were going with for Danny Rand.

You don’t want to pull an internal muscle

In martial arts stories people get injuries all the time either from overexertion during training or combat. These injuries take on three forms usually: wounds, poison and internal injuries.

Wounds and poisonings are simple enough; though the cure for poison is generally a combination of qigong and medicine rather than medicine alone. But internal injuries are another matter. An internal injury sustained in combat may paralyze or cripple a warrior, but generally they can recover with time, qigong and the intercession of internal masters. More dangerous is making a mistake in internal cultivation.

Here’s a key example: in Legend of the Condor Heroes, Guo Jing comes into possession of a terrible and powerful manual on internal cultivation. For complicated reasons, he’s apprehensive to practice it, but he’s found himself in a position where he both knows the contents of it and has begun making some small use of it. One of the results of this is that he’s caught the attention of several old masters.

One of them, the villainous Ouyang Feng, (note: my favourite villain in the history of literature) extracts leverage from Guo Jing and uses it to demand the young hero give him access to the manual. Unwilling to risk the deadly consequences of defying Ouyang Feng, but also unwilling to grant the vicious poisoner access to another powerful martial art, Guo Jing changes one word in the manual in such a manner that the meaning of one line is opposite what it would otherwise be.

Ouyang Feng begins using the manual and it works. Well. His power grows. But… The reversed character causes the villain to reverse the direction of energy in his body. This has several effects on him that appear in the long run: emotional instability, fits of violence (and not his usual malice but rather actual fits) and an uncontrollable urge to walk around in a handstand – at which he becomes very accomplished – because of the reversed direction of the energy circulating through his body.

Danny Rand is suffering from PTSD. His emotional problems serve as a key character touchstone. But when you combine them with his ineptitude at internal martial arts, it begins to look like the show deployed the, “screwed up Neigong training,” trope. Except that they didn’t. Danny’s inability to regularly access the Iron Fist is, textually, a consequence of his emotional instability alone. The writers’ weak understanding of internal and external means that they never explore the possibility that he was ignoring his internal lessons and somehow became top student anyway.

Of course, top-student is also a problem since…

Finn Jones is not a fighter

Ideally you should cast martial artists for your martial arts show. Iron Fist even did that for some secondary and tertiary characters such as Zhou Cheng (played with aplomb for far too little time by Lewis Tan). If you don’t get a martial artist for your star it’s fine. But picking somebody with a background in dance or gymnastics or… SOME sort of physical activity is probably a good idea. That way, when you do the reaction shots and have to show the character’s face, they can still sell the part.

Finn Jones moves with the coordination of an awkward teenager, has the muscle definition of the same and fails to sell his scenes. In fact, you can tell you’re likely to get a decent fight in Iron Fist when it either doesn’t involve Danny Rand at all, or when it starts with Danny inexplicably putting on a hoodie to hide his head.

Of course there’s an easy fix for this problem with comic book heroes. Put them in a disguise. Daredevil did this. It freaking worked. But for some reason, the directors and writers of Iron Fist insist on showing off Danny’s hipster curls every chance they can and didn’t bother introducing any of the Iron Fist’s costumes. That’s, honestly? I don’t even know what to say. I expected a reveal in the last episode. But nope. No costume at all. Because… reasons? I mean this is a show with a dragon in it (the eyes of one anyway) so the no costume thing CAN’T possibly be, “realism.”

Finn Jones practicing martial arts solo is an embarrassment. His body mechanics suck. It’s clear he’s just learned the forms, he has no inkling of martial intent behind his flailing and his attempts to look focused mostly come off as constipated. Finn Jones engaging in the actual fights is a disaster. And the result is a succession of poorly lit, poorly blocked, highly cut (like three cuts for one hip toss) fight.

During two car-jumping stunts, one is obviously CGI, and the other involves seeing Danny winding up to jump and then landing without showing the jump in the middle at all.

So we have in Iron Fist an actor who can’t move portraying a version of Danny Rand who doesn’t look like a master of martial arts, who is inexplicably ignorant of basic martial arts concepts and who isn’t able to control his own abilities. This is what you get when you hire a bunch of cop show writers and directors to do a martial arts adventure story.

And again, I’ll note that I’m leaving the directors of episodes 6 and 8 out of this critique. RZA didn’t light his fights well, but I think that was him recognizing he had a useless star and doing what he could to hide that. Tancharoen’s solution of putting Danny into a hoodie and filming him from behind led to better fights in general and that’s why I’d give 8 the crown for least-awful episode rather than 6.

So to summarize, we have a show which is ostensibly a martial arts show, which features an actor who doesn’t look like a fighter portraying a supposed martial arts master who doesn’t know basic martial arts knowledge because the writers who wrote his lines didn’t bother finding out. Most of the action beats seem to be derived from 1980s era martial arts ephemera such as the Karate Kid. It’s like nothing filmed after the Matrix was ever made. So yeah, the bad reviews from this show? They’re not just SJW grief over a missed opportunity in casting. They’re because the show is a turkey.

Watch These Instead:

So let’s find some silver lining in this cloud. Here are some shows to watch instead. I’ll start at the shallow end and work deeper.

So let’s say you want a superhero show. One about a hero who is the heir to a major corporation. This heir takes a trip to an Asian locale with his father and sees the vehicle he’s travelling in destroyed, followed in quick succession by witnessing the death of his father. Billionaire heir finds himself stranded somewhere remote and falls into the orbit of a succession of martial arts masters who reshape him first as a survivor and then into a weapon. After several years, during which he has been declared dead, this man returns home to reclaim his life and uncover the truth about the conspiracy behind his fathers’ death. He is haunted by the losses he suffered and has almost crippling emotional and psychological problems that he must overcome.

Does that sound familiar? It’s basically the setup to the plot of Iron Fist. But it’s also the setup to the plot of the first of my “watch this instead” shows:

Watch Arrow instead

I told you that this was the shallow end.

Arrow was the original CW superhero show. From it spawned The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, the second season of Supergirl and there’s talk of more spinoffs in the works. Arrow is not anything even resembling a perfect show. It’s effectively a tawdry soap opera, and its repeated killing of Lance sisters is so not-cool that I very nearly stopped watching on more than one occasion. So why did I come back?

Well, Stephen Amell is a charming and charismatic actor who manages to bring real and resonant emotion to the character of Oliver Queen. He is also built appropriately to be believable as a superhero when he’s doing solo training sequences. (Google Stephen Amell  salmon ladder if you want proof of that)

By putting him in a hood and costume from Ep. 1 the Arrow team were able to sub in stunt fighters easily and cleanly; this is a technique that they leaned on increasingly, making sure that the entire Arrow team wear hoods, masks and iconic costumes – which allow them to do group fight set pieces that don’t suck.

In a martial arts program, you can do a lot with a charming lead and good action. Arrow is proof of that as it takes effectively the exact same story as Iron Fist and makes it not suck.

But that’s a little easy. It is, after all, still a superhero program. What if you want, you know, a kung fu show? (Cue the audience being apprehensive that I’m going to rec Martial Law or something…)

Watch Into the Badlands instead

Into the Badlands is proof of how much difference it makes when your writers know their genre.

Specifically Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, the creators of the series have past work experience with Jet Li (Lethal Weapon 4), Jackie Chan (Shanghai Noon and sequels) and Sammo Hung (Here’s the Martial Law reference). Li, Chan and Hung are three of the biggest names in martial arts cinema since Bruce Lee died. Gough and Millar having worked with martial artists who had the clout to make story decisions since the ’90s means that they understand the tropes they’re using, how to use them, what the audience expects and what the audience knows.

On top of having a decent writing team, Into the Badlands has an excellent star in Daniel Wu.

Wu started training in wushu at age 11, inspired by Jet Li and from 1998 onward has been polishing his talents in a succession of film roles, most in fantasy and martial arts cinema. He’s also able to act, which is not something every martial artist star delivers.

On a personal note, Into the Badlands is precisely how I would write a wuxia story for a North American audience. In fact its setting is so close to that of The Black Trillium, that I remain thankful that it aired first after my publication date. So I’m a bit biased here. It is, in my opinion, the best thing on television.

Seriously, I am watching Season 2 now. It’s still amazing.

But you don’t have to just watch TV to get a sense of what you can do with martial arts on film in the 21st century. So let’s say you want something modern, but rooted in tradition…

Watch 七剑 (Seven Swords) instead

Seven Swords is the painfully under-appreciated 2005 masterwork of long-standing Chinese fantasy auteur Tsui Hark. Starring Donnie Yen, it is an adaptation of a novel by Liang Yusheng.

Liang was one of the four greats of the mid-20th century wuxia renaissance, along with Wang Dulu (whose work led to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), Gu Long (whose work has not made inroads in North America but who remains a big deal in Taiwan) and Jin Yong (aka: the greatest living fantasy author in the world, aka: my personal idol).

Liang was also responsible for 大唐游侠传 (Datang Youxia Zhuan) and for 白发魔女传 (Baifa Monü Zhuan or, as it’s better known in North America, The Bride with White Hair).

It’s a very traditional martial arts narrative. The imperial government is occupied by a foreign invader (the Manchus this time, though those themes have been in use even as far back as Shui Hu Zhuan, which came out in the late 1500s.)  An opportunistic warlord takes advantage of this to assault the wulin, and is opposed by a ragtag band of martial artists each gifted with a special sword. Seven Swords is long and ponderous compared to 1990s era Jet Li films, but it makes excellent use of Yen’s ability to present melancholy and displays the fantastical and innovative special effects and action which are Tsui Hark’s trademark.

Seven Swords is martial arts cinema at its essence. But pressingly, it’s an example of what can be accomplished in the 21st century with the genre.

Tying this all up

I love martial arts.

I love doing it. I love talking about it. I love reading about it. I love watching it. I went into Iron Fist really hoping that it’d prove better than expected. It proved worse.

Iron Fist is not a show you need to watch. There’s so little movement in its Hand plot that the Hand at the end of Iron Fist is in exactly the same position that it was at the end of Daredevil season 2. The personal journey of Danny Rand is uninteresting at best, grating at worst and also does little to advance his character. He goes from being fucked up and in denial to just being fucked up. But it’s not like he grows or changes. At all. So if you’re thinking of watching it because you plan on watching The Defenders, don’t bother. There’s no need. This is a show which is all noise and fury signifying nothing.

Into the Badlands got renewed for a second season. It deserves to get a third. Go watch that.

Arrow has a catalog of 115 episodes which, at their worst, are equal to Iron Fist at its best.

The martial arts movies of Tsui Hark, Zhang Yimou, and Ang Lee elevated wuxia to an art form as great as any other in cinema. Go watch them instead. Or go read a translation of a Jin Yong novel or a Wang Dulu novel (and if you can find any extant Liang Yusheng or Gu Long professional translations let me know). Martial arts is a huge sub-genre of fantasy. One of the biggest, one of the deepest. It deserves respect. Iron Fist doesn’t do that. But we can, as an audience.



I have a love-hate relationship with rebel narratives.

I mean, I get the appeal. When you live in mass societies that are grounded in structural inequality, there’s something clean, something uplifting about imagining slicing through the bullshit and cutting out the cancer.

There’s something uplifting in the idea that a person can, through direct, heroic action bring about lasting mass-scale change.

But, of course, there’s the problem of all the death and violence. Historical rebels generally caused a fair bit of mayhem before they got to the business of making something better than what came before. A happy few actually ever got to the “making something better” part. Most didn’t, either because they lost, their vision of better was monstrous or they never expected to win.

Generally, when we write rebel narratives in fiction, we cheat. We create an authority so monstrous that rebellion is the only reasonable course. When you’re fighting space Nazis, whether it’s Cardies or the Empire, it’s pretty easy to root for the scrappy underdog rebels.

Of course the down-side of using these sorts of narratives is that they provide an ideological tabula rasa, which is itself rather dangerous. But that’s something of an aside. The core dilemma is rather that even rebels who have the best of intentions and the fortitude to bring those intentions about, may need to do some terrible things in order to dislodge the same corrupt power structures that birthed them in the first place.

Some media have addressed this more directly than others; Deep Space Nine pulled few punches in the characterization of Major Kira, especially in early episodes, as she struggles with the transition from rebel to authority. This is one of several reasons it remains probably the greatest Trek TV series. It’s also one of only a handful of shows to deal with revolution directly while being situated specifically after the revolution ends. Most media prefer to roll credits on the heroes standing amid the ruin of the old, without having to roll up their sleeves and get to work on creating something new.

On the other hand, Star Wars was so desperate to avoid removing the rebel mantel from its heroes, that it created a rather convoluted political situation, which was not (at least within the bounds of the film) very clearly elucidated, just so that it could call Leia’s faction, “The Resistance.” And Les Miserables deliberately chooses a revolution that died in its crib in order to create pure heroes of truth and liberty to be sacrificed upon the altar of Javert’s moral absolutism.

This may be why I ultimately like Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, despite it’s so very overt  1990s comic book flaws.

Hegel and the Invisibles

13227839Before I get into the meat of what The Invisibles did differently from most rebel narratives a little segue into Hegelian dialectics.

Hegel saw dialectical processes as underpinning reality. Our understanding of the real came from the sublimation of dualistic opposites as they came into contact, and in the process of resolving those conflicts led to the synthesis of something different.

Ultimately Hegel didn’t see this as a destructive process; opposites transformed at contact rather than annihilating.

Morrison really ran with this in The Invisibles. At the inception of the book, he presents us with a pretty standard rebel group: King Mob’s Invisibles cell is a small rag-tag group of talented weirdos who must stand up against a vast network of established, faceless authority.But then he yanks the rug out from underneath the readers as it becomes increasingly likely that either the Invisibles and the Outer Church are one and the same, take orders from the same thing or are, at the very least, related phenomena.

King Mob’s journey is of particular note since he transitions from a destructive rebel to ultimately a figure of the establishment, and a builder-of-things; and in the process of that transition from one opposite to another helps complete the ritual needed to birth something new out of Humanity.

King Mob’s dialectical character arc also helps to draw an underline under another thing about rebellion that The Invisibles obsessed over: the idea of rebel as identity.

The changeability of the concept of self is a running theme throughout the entirety of The Invisibles. King Mob goes from violent force of destruction, to media mogul. Jack Frost transforms from a petty delinquent to a homeless vagrant to a figure of nearly religious salvation. Ragged Robin’s mutating back-story, and the transition of Lord Fanny both also try to get at the idea of “self” being a floating point derived more from accumulated experience than a fixed concept. Even the unfortunately plotted character arc of Boy, one of the most rightfully criticized parts of The Invisibles tries to make the same argument: we are not ever who we think we are, because we are always in the process of becoming something else.

The Rebel Archetype

A rebel identity is very much a personal identity. It’s part of what makes rebel stories attractive; they’re always about the personality of the rebel, why this person, in this place must take up a dangerous task.

annex20-20dean20james20rebel20without20a20cause_02Specifically, rebel identities are reactionary identities. They are formed in opposition to some other thing. Take away the Authority and the Rebel collapses.

So what do we do with a problem of the Rebel? There’s a few good reasons for us to retain rebel narratives in some manner. First: they make for entertaining stories. If we are story-tellers, this is important. The Rebel is an archetypical construct, and one which speaks particularly strongly to people in mass societies. After all, who hasn’t felt dissatisfaction with the state of their culture in some way or other?

Second, the societies we live in aren’t perfect, and if we’re being socially responsible artists, fostering opposition to Authority for authority’s sake is important. There are plenty of people in the world who will tell you to obey because The Rules Are Sacrosanct. Artists should push back against that, and the Rebel is a useful tool to do so.

Perhaps the honesty of Deep Space Nine is a good direction to go. Perhaps we should spend more effort talking about what world rebellion creates, rather than just focusing on the simple heroics of a small band of individuals struggling against faceless space Nazis.

Situating rebellion within a dialectical framework was a powerful tool for deconstructing the archetype, and while Morrison got many things wrong with The Invisibles, he did that one thing very well. But deconstruction in literature without action to create a synthesis afterward is the road to Batman v. Superman and that’s no good for media or for those who over-think media for fun and profit.

So my plea to those of us who write rebel stories, and for those of us who consume them is ultimately to be more thoughtful, less certain. Partly this can be done by where we situate our narratives. Giving rebel heroes feet of clay is fine from a deconstructive standpoint, and is probably more honest-to-life than the heroics of Luke Skywalker and co. But if our only tool for assessing rebellion in literature is either to present them as heroic martyrs on one hand, or the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss on the other, we’re missing the final step of the dialectic.

Instead, perhaps, we should concentrate on the duality of the vision of the rebel, what they wish to build, and the consequence of rebellion. Perhaps it’s time for the Rebel to become a figure of nuance rather than absolutes. Perhaps we need to break down the archetype of the Rebel, an ultimately reactionary character and replace them with something Revolutionary, a person with a vision to transform the world, not just to oppose how it is.