Kid’s Stuff: Labyrinth and the illusion of adulthood

Nothing is what it seems
Live without your sunlight
Love without your heartbeat
I, I can't live within you
---- David Bowie, Within You

Labyrinth is a bit of an off-putting film at first glance. It’s the creative collaboration of several very disparate artists, with the input of George Lucas, Brian Froud, Terry Jones, Jim Henson and David Bowie contributing to a work of art that is nearly as lumpy and misshapen as the goblin puppets it features. Our two principal leads are Sarah and Jareth – played by Jennifer Connelly in one of her earliest major roles and David Bowie. One of these performers struggles somewhat heroically to bring a grounded sense of seriousness to a movie principally populated by puppets. The other is David Bowie in all his strange glory.

I feel a sense of sympathy for Connelly, whose performance was not well rated by viewers at the time that Labyrinth was released because she needed to, at sixteen, perform a role that depended on a fair bit of nuance, where growth is more explicit than the gesture of a forgotten line of a play but also kept largely and, at times uncomfortably subtextual. Not only this, but she has to do it when she is only ever sharing a screen with either a panoply of Jim Henson puppet masterworks or, (even harder) David Bowie’s mad kabuki wizard. It is always difficult to have to be the emotional ground tasked with responding to a scenery chewer but Connelly soldiers on gamely and ultimately delivers a sincere performance of a young woman forced by social pressure and the inevitable march of time to assume a new place in the world.

The remainder of the cast consists of Sarah’s father and step-mother, the baby Toby and a whole bunch of absolutely wild puppets. It’s something of a misfortune that Sarah’s role in a film that is as aggressively internal as Labyrinth has been overshadowed within the form of its cult following by the strangeness of Bowie’s performance and by these wondrous puppets but they do demonstrate clearly the legacy of the Henson company – and their peerless ability to realize things that are simultaneously grotesque and beautiful.

Just look at these darlings. Don’t you want to just hug them

The challenge we have to confront when reviewing Labyrinth though is that it is entirely and completely Sarah’s movie. There’s hardly a scene she isn’t in, her quest is the action of the film, and even from the film’s first gestures, Labyrinth situate the story as being one that happens within Sarah. A reading of this film that tries to interface with its themes must thus situate all the wild and bizarre goblins, monsters, and even the antagonistic Jareth as aspects of Sarah. This gives way to one of Labyrinth’s chief illusions: A movie about a maze that seems at odds with its own clearly deliberate directionality. Labyrinth situates Sarah in a place where movement in all directions is possible, but the story always only moves inward and downward.

Directionality

Labyrinth begins by demonstrating Sarah, lingering in a park and in a state of forgetfulness having to rush home in the rain. She argues with her step-mother over the question of responsibility and goes to hide in her room: a quintessential sanctum filled up with the bric-a-brac of a young life.

As she flees her unnamed step-mother, the (honestly decent and reasonable) woman shouts out at Sarah that she almost wishes the girl had been out with a boy. That would have been a normal thing for a sixteen year old to do. Instead, Sarah is lingering in a park and struggling to memorize the lines in a play. We get a sense she intends to audition but we are never told. Even this early on we see a movement inward within the film. Sara moves from an open park to the street to the foyer to the sanctum of her room. She is only forced out of her childish sulking when she discovers one of her favourite toys, a teddy bear named Lancelot, is missing. The film uses establishing photography effectively, if not with subtlety, to give us a sense of the sort of girl Sarah is. She reads the Wizard of Oz and names her toys for Arthurian figures. She has multiple books about fairy tales, and still reads Maurice Sendak at the age of sixteen. In its establishing scenes we get a clear visual sense of who Sarah is: an intelligent but immature girl, introverted and self-contained, loving of her childhood and too nostalgic. Labyrinth, as a film, is deeply hostile to nostalgia.

Driven out of her sanctuary to find her errant toy, Sarah finds Lancelot on the floor of her infuriating half-brother’s nursery. He is standing at the edge of his crib crying. No matter how Sarah pleads, coddles or scolds Toby he won’t stop crying so she mostly monologues at him about how insufferable it is to have a baby in the house. The unspoken looms in the background – that with the entrance of Toby into the home, Sarah isn’t the baby anymore. The presence of this toddler has made it more urgent that Sarah grow up and assume the responsibilities of adulthood.

By accident, she casts a spell and summons the Goblin King who promises to take away Toby and leave, in exchange, a crystal ball that will let Sarah see her deepest dreams. The Goblin King is a liar in this, like in everything he does, and his baubles full of dreams are just illusions. But his promise to take away the baby is all too real. When Sarah begs that she didn’t mean for her brother to really be kidnapped, Jareth gives her a quest instead: traverse his labyrinth in thirteen hours to claim her brother or lose him forever.

The rest of the movie involves Sarah moving into the labyrinth. This movement involves a process not just of continual inwarness but also of descent. Sarah moves always toward Jareth. She might want to claim her brother, but in the final moments there is just her and the Goblin King: her quest might be motivated by a desire to rescue her brother but its object is the moment of confrontation with him.

Irrational Psychopomp

Jareth is the antagonist of the film but he’s a singular one. Jareth is far more like a psychopomp or the assigner of heroic trials than he is a villain. At times, when it seems like the challenge put forward to Sarah is too easy, Jareth will personally intercede, he will tempt Sarah, try to persuade her to give up. He always seems quite sincere in his efforts to stop her, but he is also the one who set the initial conditions of the challenge. Jareth is the on who brought Sarah to the edge of his labyrinth and who told her to seek him at its heart.

Jareth manipulates Hoggle and tries to force him to betray Sarah through his fear. But when Jareth finally makes good on his threat that if Sarah ever kisses Hoggle he’ll be thrown into the Bog of Eternal Stench, they encounter Sir Didymus who immediately undertakes to help Sarah with her quest, and whose courage is ultimately instrumental to Sarah’s success. It seems a little strange that the Goblin King, this ever-present sovereign who can be anywhere at any time, who can reshape time itself to his whims, would work so hard to force Sarah into the very place where she needs to be to meet an important ally. Critics of Labyrinth have previously pointed out that the film struggles as the stakes often seem undercut by the action. This is in part because Jareth imposes obstacles that are designed to be overcome. He wants Sarah to progress toward him. It’s just important to Jareth not just that she confront him in his palace but that she do so at the final moment.

So Jareth is not an adversary so much as a guide. Sarah walks his labyrinth and he leads her on her path. He sets out trials for her of cunning, and compassion, of will and perseverance and he ensures that Sarah always understands her choice. She can retreat, or she can advance, knowing that the reward for success will be the chance to undertake another trial. Jareth wants Sarah to recognize that she needs him and he gives her a quest that is designed to seduce her over to that view. He also gives her ample opportunity to turn aside, but for all that he might bluster, the last thing Jareth wants is for Sarah to do that. She must march onward and face Jareth directly. This is in part because we must recognize, the film primes us to recognize, that Jareth, Hoggle, Sir Didymus and all the rest are aspects of Sarah and her symbolic quest is one into herself.

The beauty and terror of adulthood

Sarah is standing at a boundary – this isn’t uncommon in coming of age stories. A map of Labyrinth onto Campbell’s hero’s journey is almost trivially easy.

But Labyrinth isn’t simply wearing the idea of coming of age as a frame for an exciting story targeted at children who are themselves on the boundary of mature responsibility. Rather, Labyrinth is a film that examines that boundary and then asks whether it is there at all.

It’s no secret that Sarah is reluctant to leave childhood behind. She needs the figures of her childhood: children’s books, toys and memorabilia. Even her more mature interests – in theatre and performance – are grounded in play and childishness. She can’t remember her lines!

Sarah has responsibilities and would like very desperately to forget this. But she doesn’t want to forget everything. Instead, she wants to forget about the future. What comes next will sort itself out, but in her room she can hide and remember when she was the baby, when her family was whole. Jareth then is adulthood. He’s the terror of responsibility; the agony of deadlines; he’s the challenge of conflicting loyalties that have complexified beyond mommy and daddy; he’s the allure of sex. Sarah rejects adulthood when she demands goblins take her baby brother and Jareth comes to remind her that becoming an adult is not a choice she can just opt out of. He forces her to assume that root of responsibility – an obligation to a helpless other – and he gives her challenges that require her to employ the talents of an adult. She must deal with false friends, contend with logic puzzles, confront death and danger, show compassion, make judgments that disregard the superficial; she must accept the allure of the sensual, accept it is a field she will be able to operate within, but also develop the tools to decide when it’s time to leave the party and get back to work. She must reject nostalgia. Through it all, Jareth sets the pace, calls the tune and arranges the pieces to entice Sarah with this aspect of childhood or with that promise of pleasure.

We really have to hand it to the costumer too.

He offers her dreams. He offers her drugs. He offers her himself. It’s unsurprising that many fan-interpretations of the film propose Jareth as a Byronic hero. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights is acknowledged as one of his antecedents. Many fan works suggest that Sarah is an avatar of some lost and eternal love, that Jareth’s simultaneous attraction and repulsion of Sarah is a courtship and that what he wants is her love. But Jareth doesn’t say he can’t live without her. He says he can’t live within her. Jareth doesn’t want Sarah to take what he’s offering. He just wants her to continue walking the labyrinth. Remember that labyrinth walking is a spiritual and meditative act. The process of slowly walking the winding circumference of a labyrinth is itself a movement into the mind and into contemplation. And for all the times Jareth tells Sarah to turn back we cannot possibly disregard the extent to which he is the architect of her trials. We should reject the surface read: that Jareth wants Sarah to marry him in favour of this, more internal, reading of the character. Jareth wants Sarah to become him. Jareth is the master over all these child’s things because Jareth is adulthood. He is the good and the bad, he beautiful and the terrifying, the master and the obligated. He calls Sarah to walk his labyrinth and to undertake his trials so that she can take upon herself his aspect – so that she can be her own sovereign. But then Sarah does something entirely unexpected: in the final moment, she rejects him. Sarah discovers that she doesn’t need to take up the sovereign and reject childhood. There is no threshold to cross. She may have changed but she is still herself. She can be more responsible and still be the child who loves fairy tales. But she is not unchanged. In order for Sarah to unify the child hiding in her room with the Goblin King, in order for her to be able to reject Jareth in the way an adult would rather than the way a child would she needs to integrate who she is now into her sense of self. She must learn what of the child is still her, the Wild Thing, and what is just nostalgia for a past that is gone.

Nostalgia is death

The most terrifying moment of Labyrinth is also one of the most gentle. Having escaped Jareth’s masquerade dream, Sarah falls into a junkyard. While there she meets a goblin woman who leads her into a cave, and that cave is her bedroom. The Junk Lady sits her down at a mirror and begins piling all the objects of her childhood that are dear to Sarah around her. Piece by piece, Sarah’s profile is obscured by the lumpy, misshapen, mass of all the things she owns and invests with value. The Junk Lady attempts to entomb Sarah in the living death of being ever-trapped in the recollection of the past.

The original idea of nostalgia was the pain and anxiety of being away from home and uncertain if you would ever see it again. It is a sadness that reflects death in the future in the mirror of memory. Sarah is standing on a threshold and unsure if she should cross it, and one of the principle obstacles is the fear that if she crosses, she cannot return. Jareth promises the pleasures and pains of adulthood, and one of those things is the recognition of death. By the time Sarah reaches the city of the goblins this is explicit enough that the threat of war is mobilized upon her. Jareth, the avatar of adulthood, also promises forgetting. But it isn’t the forgetting of the future Sarah wanted, it’s forgetting of the past, a putting away of childish things. And Sarah is terrified of the idea she might forget this. Instead she clings to her past, terrified that if she lets go of it she will die before she ever returns to it.

But staring in the mirror, as the Junk Lady entombs her in the living death of nostalgia, Sarah is filled with revulsion. She rips the walls of her bedroom down with her bare hands, smashes out into the uncertain future and joins her friends to confront the Goblin King.

Sarah doesn’t take everything the Goblin King promises. When she confronts him at the stroke of the thirteenth hour she says to him, “you have no power over me,” and in the remembering of the forgotten line she succeeds in her trials. Jareth fails to make Sarah into him. She does not have to set aside childhood. ” Well, if that is the way it is done, then that is the way you must do it. But, should you need us…” Sir Didymus says. And this integration of the child into the woman is the mode of integration that lets her escape the illusion of Jareth’s adulthood. In the end, her puppet friends remain there, when she needs them, when responsibility is hard and has to lean on the wonder of the child.

But they aren’t the toys she curated like exhibits in a museum, they’re the living, breathing, feeling creatures she met on her journey into understanding. Sarah reconciles the obligation of adulthood, which Jareth wants her to take up, forgetting the child, with the joy and wonder of childhood. She’s obviously a creative child, an artistic and literary soul, and there’s nothing wrong in wanting to keep that element of childhood. She doesn’t need to forget it. What she cannot do any longer is be its prisoner. Obligation occurs. Eventually we all grow and change. Rejecting nostalgia doesn’t have to be a forgetting; it can instead reconcile the joy of childhood into the maturity of adulthood. We must not let our past entomb us.

Idea Landlords

The internet is being silly again and it’s kind of Dr. Seuss’ fault.

I promise this is going somewhere that isn’t tedious internet culture war silliness but we need to set the stage: two days ago, the business that administers Dr. Seuss’ estate announced that they would be withdrawing six books from future reprints. This led to conservatives across the internet, who had never previously expressed any interest in Seuss, or in children’s literature at all, to pull a collective wobbler that Seuss was being cancelled.

The books in question featured racially stereotyping images of Inuit, Chinese people, Japanese people and Black people. In one case, the racial stereotyping of Chinese people was so archaic that some of its coding (a Qing dynasty queue and clothes that might have been appropriate to a late 18th century official) might seem entirely foreign to a modern reader – while still managing to have the cringiness associated with an image that considers a person eating with chopsticks a wild and strange sight when on a daily walk. The images of Japanese people that Seuss had drawn as a propagandist during the second world war went far beyond merely being cringey or orientalist, explicitly calling Japanese Americans the fifth column. The remainder fell between these two poles of insensitivity.

The business made the business decision that they could continue profiting from Seuss best by burying these images that are so inappropriate in 21st century culture. And when it became clear to conservatives that this was not censorship but rather a business decision, this led some of them to have the epiphany that, perhaps, copyright is a problem. After all, if businesses believe it’s to the best interest of their bottom line to bury an historical artwork, copyright prevents anybody else from legally, “rescuing,” said racist art.

And this has sparked yet another round of debate regarding copyright between children who call artist-ownership of art, “idea landlordism,” and adult artists who should know better than to argue with children online. Two things are true: idea landlordism is an incredibly silly and surface understanding of the problems of copyright, and copyright still operates as the enclosing of a commons in which major media companies operate on a rentier business model. There are two principal problems with this idea landlordism description of copyright. The first is that the people making the claims fail to generate a cohesive material analysis of the power structures that underlie the ownership of art. The second is that they don’t go anywhere near far enough.

Artist, class and wasteful action

Artists, individual working artists, present a quandry for a basic class analysis because they seem, on the surface, to resemble petit bourgeoisie. Often an artist owns the means of their artistic production. I have a studio space, an easel I built, brushes I own, paints I bought, a computer and writing software which is mine to use. The petite bourgeoisie was once principally composed of individual skilled artisans: shoe makers, tailors, jewelers and such. They were people who earned their living by the means of production which they owned but who were generally too small-scale to exploit the labour of many workers like the big boys of the bourgeois proper. It’s also somewhat true that the principal body of the petit bourgeoisie in the modern era is the renter class. It’s small-scale landlords who derive a modest income off renting, buying and selling a small number of buildings. As such, tying the idea of rent seeking to petite bourgeoisie and from them to copyright holders is attractive.

However this disregards what the production of art is, and what is produced with regard to art within capitalism.

Principally art is waste.

You are taking the labour of the people who ground the pigment; who wove the canvas; who cut the wood; who mined copper, smelted it and shaped it into nails; who shaped the frame, stretched the canvas, jessoed it and packaged it, who operated the machines that produced the brushes, who stocked the shelves at the art store, and you are expending it.

The end product, a work of art, has no use value. Its value, in being aesthetic, is only in the pleasure we derive from it. Furthermore there is a significant break between the labour of the people who produce the material inputs to art and the labour of the artist. The value of art has no correlation to the material value of the labour and materials of the inputs. Nor does the value of art have a direct correlation to the labour of the artist. Rather, the labour of all these people is wasted. The act of artistic creation destroys the inputs as clearly when they are tubes of paint as when they are previous artistic iterations. An artist spends more or less time on a work of art in order to produce that which is pleasing to themselves. Later an audience will decide if the art is pleasing to them too. This is its value. We cannot claim the training of the artist is the source of value because no specific unit of training can be apportioned against a specific artwork. We cannot claim their labour in making the art is the source because a photograph produced in 1/32 of a second might very well be as artistically valid as a sculpture that takes a decade to complete.

Capitalism cannot handle waste well. It likes to forget waste. And so capital assigns exchange value to art. It says that this Picasso is more valuable than this child’s finger-painting because the market will bear $95 million as the purchase price of Dora Maar Au Chat but nobody wants to buy the child’s painting.

However to a parent, perhaps somebody who is something of a philistine, their own child’s painting may have far more value than a painting by yet another dead French dude.

“My kid could do that,” they might scoff when what they mean to say is, “I enjoy the art my kid does more.” The paint used on the Picasso and that of the child are both equally wasted. No further use can be made of it except in the receipt of subjective pleasure.

And so the means of production of art within capital isn’t about producing the objet d’art but rather about its marketing. And this is a place in which the individual artist is entirely alienated. If you self-publish you aren’t likely doing so by typesetting, printing and binding. You’re selling it on Kindle Unlimited – owned and operated by Amazon. If you write a cartoon you aren’t hand-drawing every cell and projecting it in your back-yard. You’re showing it on Netflix or Disney+. The individual artist is a proletarian. Their labour is exploited to make the actual rentiers of the artistic world – the marketers, distributors and copyright-buyers – wealthy even though these Bob Chapeks and Jeff Bezoses create nothing artistic in the slightest.

The real copyright rentiers

In fact, it is in the refusal to waste anything that might still hold exchange value that entities like Disney become antagonistic to the arts. Copyright, although conceived as a form of labour protection for working artists, has been reclaimed by capital as a tool by which these big corporations can extract rent. But a proper class analysis should demonstrate that the problem with copyright isn’t that an individual author can exercise some measure of control over the exchange of their work, it arises when the very wealthy are able to buy work rights the same way that one buys a house.

This commodification in turn causes real harm to real working artists. And not just from Disney claiming it bought the right to publish a work but not the contractual obligation to pay the artist. This is a widespread pattern of abuse. For instance, Nintendo is notorious for disregarding fair-use provisions in its prosecution of copyright matters.

Copyright, in its current form has metastasized from a worker-protection to yet another tool of capitalist exploitation. However, as is often the case when capital territorializes something, the occupation is incomplete. Foucault liked to point out that the arising of a new episteme didn’t obliterate the one that came before it. The systems of power and knowledge that underpinned one period remained, with the new systems superimposed on top. The end of the power of sovereign kings and their retributive justice gave way to the juridicial disciplinary state. But that didn’t eliminate retribution from justice. Likewise many working writers depend on royalties and other down-stream consequences of copyright to eat even though copyright is principally a tool of their exploitation.

Copyright is part of the superstructure of the arts. But it isn’t sufficiently modular to be plucked out of the rest of that superstructure. Furthermore, while it is critical that artists create an artistic superstructure that is built to suit the demands of art, the root of the exploitation endemic in the arts is a matter of the cultural base from which the superstructure arises. To put it bluntly, we cannot abolish copyright without ensuring that artists can continue eating, living indoors, and creating art. Certainly a strong case can be made for strictly limiting copyright and doing away with pernicious laws like DCMA. And I do think that it is best to do away with copyright, but this must be in the context of a revolutionary transformation of society and its relationship to art.

Moral right

And finally, those children who contend against copyright absent class analysis or with a flawed and incomplete one must still contend with the question of moral right. Simply put, the failure to respect the right of an artist to say, “this is my creation,” is one that copyright protects against poorly, but it remains one of the few protections that exists. We must make sure whatever wondrous new world we create in which copyright is not necessary still protects the moral right of an artist to be the artist of this work. All art is iterative but all art contains differences from what comes before into which an artist encodes meaning. And in fact the true value of the art is found here. Artists need to eat. Artists also need to be able to command that this is their art.

I said before that putting a work of art into the world is a gamble the artist makes: that the artwork may face a cruel reception. However the other side of this gamble, that an artist must allow themselves to be open to this violence, is that we affirm the art is theirs.

I sincerely believe the task of dismantling capitalism and replacing it with something different is an artistic task, the Body Without Organs, too, is the moral right of artists. And I also believe there is an urgency to this task – I don’t want to put off the abolition of copyright with a calm, “yes but not today.” However I do want every person who advocates against copyright to understand clearly and with intent what they are advocating to undertake. Nothing short of a revolutionary transformation of society will allow for the conditions of an abolition of copyright. We must raze the entire superstructure of art to the ground and then keep going, cutting at the roots of the art world with an axe, if we wish to do away with copyright. And then we must create something more pleasing from its ruins.

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.

A Moral Case for Spoilers

Phillipa Georgiu will return to Star Trek, Quicksilver will return to the MCU and it is immoral to participate in the policing of spoilers.

Now first I want to be precise when I talk about the word, “moral.” The boundaries between concepts are unclear. We have two questions that are particularly difficult to separate – the question of what is good and the question of what is beautiful: Ethics and Aesthetics.

There are many methods of chopping these two discussions of value in order to say this is one thing or it is another. It is good to dispense justice. A painting is beautiful; but there is certainly overlap. The presence of religion gives testament to this as many religious programs attempt to simultaneously define both what is good and what is beautiful in connection to each other. A Christian might say it is Good to live in God’s divine light – but preference for light over darkness is an aesthetic concern.

The truth is that humans don’t easily divide the good from the beautiful. A bigot, upon seeing two men kissing, might excuse himself by saying, “It’s not that what they are doing is wrong, I just don’t want to have to look at it.” These edge conditions multiply persistently wherever we might look for them. How many people would think they have an ethical obligation to their neighbours to keep the façade of their home beautiful? Morality, in the sense I am deploying it here, is to describe a thing that has one foot each in the realm of the ethical and of the aesthetic.

For instance, it is an ethical proposition to suggest an actor has less bargaining power than a multinational corporation. If an actor, in his enthusiasm for a role, announces he will play a part, but the studio, for reasons of marketing, wishes to keep that role silent and the studio then punishes the actor we can hardly side against the actor. After all, some corporations might monopolize the opportunities for an actor to ply his trade; he may have no choice but to sign odious confidentiality clauses or choose against having a career. When facing such a systemic inequality we can hardly call these contracts ones that are negotiated in good faith. And if a corporation has compelled a worker to accept unpleasant working conditions on fear of being unable to work, how could a decent and clear-thinking person say that this worker just should have honored his word? The words that came out of his mouth were never his. This is an ethical concern.

However the problem of spoilers is far more involved merely than a single material relationship between a worker, or even a class of workers, and a powerful avatar of capital. It involves both other ethical concerns, power relationships and the question of group formation, but also questions of what makes for good art.

But before we can address these questions we must first answer a more basic question: what, really, is a spoiler?

To spoil is to rot or to put beyond all utility. Food spoils when eating it makes you sick. But art isn’t food. The problem, I think, is that franchise media wants to make art into a meal: not into something an audience engages with, enters into communication with. But something they dumbly consume. But if art spoils in the same way food spoils, this raises a problem: why would knowing the shape of the plot prior to consuming a work of art make one ill? Perhaps it would be best to push back against the idea of art as something we eat, and to look at art as a vehicle of communication instead. So how do we decompose the utility of art as a vehicle of communication?

We could suggest that a work of art is spoiled when the artist or some third party, through malice or error, eliminates its ability to communicate a coherent message. We would have to put the art into a position of such irreconcilable internal contradiction that it could say nothing at all to truly spoil a work of art.

Monkey Jesus is not a spoiled artwork

Even if we look at grand artistic mistakes such as the amateur restoration off the Borja Ecce Homo fresco, we can see the communication of meaning within the art. Christ’s occluded black eyes and faint hint of a mouth, the abstracted plane of his nose and the indistinct boundaries of hair and flesh all present a contradiction with the subject: Ecce Homo. And yet, behold the man! “Monkey Jesus,” gives a wonderful hint into the animal character of humanity, it puts lie to the suggestion of divinity in a way which still creates a meaningful and significant, if accidental message.

Cecilia Giménez’s Ecce Homo is not a spoiled artwork. It is, in fact, a shockingly successful artwork, as her attempts to restore the fresco, and the beautiful and surprising way she failed to restore it have attracted increased attention to her community and her church. If this Ecce Homo can survive such a transformation unspoiled, why are franchise artworks so fragile that they collapse if only the aspect of surprise is taken from them?

Because this is ultimately the only thing spoiled for the audience. The surprise. Are we, as a culture, so limited that we believe the surprise of reversal to be something fundamental to the quality of art? What then of Romeo and Juliet? How are we to enjoy the art of this famous tragedy when it begins:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

(Emphasis mine)

Any art so vacuous that it is ruined beyond recovery simply by the knowing of a fact is not art worth anyone’s effort. As such we should contend that, no, art is not spoiled even when the surprise is. But the thing is that while policing of spoilers is about knowledge, it isn’t really about surprise. Rather it’s about secrecy.

Specifically, the spoiler is the inevitable companion of the mystery box. So whose experience of art is truly spoiled by the spoiler? It is the marketer. This becomes painfully clear when we look at how artists are put behind the demands of marketing for secrecy. Tom Holland is given incomplete scripts. He is not allowed to know the secrets of the movie in which he is the star because of the fear he might disclose a secret. His ability to be an actor is hampered so that the marketers can have their way. We cannot have the audience knowing Quicksilver will in fact return before the moment, even if any given audience member with even the slightest spark of critical insight might mark it as likely, because our marketing cycle is built upon the revelation to the press at this time or that of the cameo, of the actor who plays the role, and of all the mystery boxes that will be put in view of the audience with this revelation. And, with its dependence on continuity, and on the interconnection of properties, especially in the case of the MCU with its heavy dependence on lore delivered via cameo-coda, the franchise becomes precisely this: a box containing boxes, containing boxes, containing boxes. Each box carries the promise that there is something inside, some meaning, a kernel of a reason for the art. But the meaning is nothing but an empty box and the endless deferment of the moment of transformation in favour of simulations of catharsis. We cannot spoil the franchise; it’s already rotted to bone, to dust, to void.

Ultimately, the purpose of a franchise artwork is not about anything resembling meaningful communication between an artist or artists and an audience. It’s about the construction of a community, a lifestyle, a fandom. Fandom, with its desire to catalog, to be encyclopedists, to be those who are in the know, polices the spoiler because it allows them to identify those who are to be included as fans and those who are not. An altogether common, and altogether revolting conversation about a work of art on social media will begin: “No spoilers, but OMG, franchise title.” This is a is such an awful exclusionary tactic. It says, “I would love to talk to you, but only after you pay the franchise owner with your time and money.” It denies that anyone might engage with a work of art but as a fan. It denies that any passion should be allowed in response to art but enthusiasm.

This idea, that only enthusiasm is permitted in public discourse surrounding art is summed up in perfect vacuity by the “let people enjoy things,” meme.

But I am, in fact enjoying myself, get your hands off my mouth you irritating twit.

This is an infantilization of an audience. The fan has invested so much of their identity in being a fan of this franchise or that, of being a trekker or of being a Marvel fan, of loving Barbie or loving Batman, that any criticism of the art for its technical execution, its message, its deployment of novelty or of repetition becomes a violence committed against the fan.

Recently, I made the mistake of discussing my opinion of WandaVision on social media, and I said that I thought it was, and this is a complete quote that would not be transformed by context, “Not… good.” Two words, one ellipses. Not… good. A fan replied, “I feel like you kicked me.” Like I had kicked them. My statement, that I denied the quality of this work of art in which they had invested their identity, was seen as being indistinguishable from an assault upon them. Confronted with an artwork consisting of empty boxes, this fan put their heart inside. When I opened up the box and declared it empty, it was as if I had nullified their heart. But fannishness is the worst form of art appreciation. It is nothing but a surrender to the art. It denies that the audience has anything to say about the art, that the audience has any role beyond a mouth chewing.

Fannishness is full of pointless activity – the curation of wikis, the argumentation over “fan theories” and “head canons,” the hunt for easter eggs – but for all this wasted effort in sorting the franchise into digestible bites, easier to chew, there isn’t really anything for a fan to do. To become an artist, to take the work and to make something of it, involves a tearing down of the art to the ground. The once-fan-become-artist unmakes the old art to create the new. This is an escape from fandom; the fanfiction artist has set themselves apart from fandom through the act of responding to the art. Likewise a critic cannot be a fan. Criticism is an act of cutting. We slice apart the art, open up its hidden layers, expose its secret parts to sunlight. A critic must keenly look for the hidden box, rip off the lid and announce its contents to the world. Marketers who want to hide the interiority of the art because they know it to be lacking are enemies of critics in the same way copyright lawyers are enemies of artists.

And so we come to the point where a fan can be identified as what they truly are: an unpaid brand manager. Of course we’ve seen from fandoms what toxicity this ambassadorship can engender.

The best movie I saw in theatres in 2020, and the best superheroic movie released within any franchise since Black Panther in 2018, the only comic book movie worth the effort of watching since the release of Black Panther, was Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. This movie took the only redeemable kernel of value from the otherwise putrid Suicide Squad – Margot Robbie’s excellent performance, which managed to shine through even the monstrous editing of this film – and crafted from it a brash and explosive movie which shamelessly obliterated the authoritarian apparatus of the superheroic genre in a riot of glitter and cocaine.

So, of course, the brand ambassadors of the “Snyderverse” have taken to voluntarily sticking advertisements for their preferred version of the DC brand on the front of dvd boxes for this far-better film. This is just marketing. Unpaid marketing, marketing as competent as the art-restoration skills of Cecilia Giménez’s but with infinitely less charm. And likewise, those discussions that demand we refuse to become either artists or critics, that demand we express nothing but enthusiasm for the next bite of our pablum, are nothing but marketing.

Furthermore, this fannish preoccupation with avoidance of spoilers is a particularly cheap marketing ploy that factionalizes social groups to those who are in the know and those who must get caught up lest they be left out. Let’s be blunt. People who oppose the disclosure of spoilers make their demands in the name of respect but spoiler aversion isn’t about respect for friends. If my friend was about to dig into a steaming plate of offal because some slick liar persuaded them it was steak, I would be a good friend to say, “don’t eat that, it’ll make you sick.” Refusing to discuss art like a critic or like an artist, demanding all public discussion of art permit only enthusiasm is not respect for your friends. In fact, it is deeply disrespectful to your artist friends who would burn down the old work to create the new, or to the critic who enjoy laying the secrets of the artwork visible. Policing spoilers is fundamentally disrespectful to everybody but the brand ambassador. It is respect of the franchise alone.

And this means it is just a roundabout way to lick a particularly polished boot. An empty one at that. There is one final definition of “spoil” I think we could address. One spoils a child by giving in to their childish impulses, by allowing them to dictate what should be done even when their guardians know better. A spoiled child demands that their parents do and say the things they like or they will throw a tantrum. Fandom is an infantilization of the audience. Perhaps we should stop spoiling their detrimental impulses and start talking about art without averting our eyes.

Revisiting the ownership of fanfiction: Adam Ellis and Keratin

We had an interesting case example about the boundaries of fanfiction today when the popular online cartoonist, Adam Ellis, claimed the short film Keratin plagiarized his own work. I think this is a fascinating example of the way in which the delineation of ownership sets the boundaries of fanfiction, because on one hand, it’s trivially evident that Keratin is a fan work.

James Andrew MacKenzie Wilson does not appear to have any prior film credits to his name, while the other person credited with the Keratin short (Andrew Butler) has only a few prior credits. This short, which has been working the festival circuit, seemed like an opportunity for two early-career directors to demonstrate what they can do with a camera and with actors.

But of course they didn’t pay for their storyboard. Instead they chose a comic they were clearly fond of and used it as their storyboard. As I talked about previously, fanfiction is the act of creating art in dialog with and derivative art for which the artist cannot claim ownership. What problematizes this here is that the artists behind the film did, in fact, claim ownership of Keratin though not of the Ellis storyboard that obviously informed it.

Now I’m seeing a lot of the same people who were rushing to the defense of fanfiction during the recent discourse on the topic, expressing outrage at the uncredited use of Ellis’ art as a storyboard. And I get it, because these two men are building prestige, and possibly making money, off the back of Ellis’ creative labour. Their work is clearly derivative.

However derivation is a natural component of the artistic process. We might as well complain that Goya’s work was derivative of Reubens.

Derivation and transformation bringing about that which would not be but for the art

In both Goya’s depiction of Saturn devouring his son and that of Reubens, the monstrous father looms above his child-prey in the panel. Both are cloaked in darkness, the ground beneath their feet indistinct, the sky a void. Saturn, in both instances, show a loathsome muscular physicality, but in both cases his genitals are concealed, abstracting Saturn from the generative aspect of the father. He is the father as unmaker, as the terrible presence that overcomes the child and leaves him naked and consumed.

Our only principal difference is a change in the treatment of the son. For Reubens, the son is a subject, his abjection and terror are a shocking central motif of the frame. For Goya the son is an object, reduced to just so much meat to be consumed.

In many art history classes, Goya’s painting is a central piece of study. Our study of Reubens is more likely to focus on his depiction of the female form. Goya is the master of the image of the devouring father in his darkness. Reubens the master of the fecund and generative. This could be seen as appropriate considering the way Goya consumes Reubens’ motifs in the creation of his monstrous masterpiece.

And through this process of derivation, through this act of grazing upon the intellectual commons sowed by Reubens, Goya created a truly great work of art. And at this point I’ll pause to describe my criterion for calling Goya’s work great; it certainly doesn’t lie in the technical excellence of the work. In every technical manner, Reubens is the superior painter, the greater craftsman.

But Goya’s work, the manic wildness in the eyes of Saturn, the way that his divine child has been reduced to a cadaver, an object devoid of hands or of a head, of any of the markers of subjectivity we expect, creates, in the depiction of Saturn, that which would not be but for the art. How could we come to understand Saturn in the way we do through Goya’s art if we did not see Goya’s painting?

So we can do away with the idea that a work of art being derivative invalidates it as a work of art. But there is a question of boundaries here beyond the question of ownership. And that is this: is a storyboard part of a film or is a film a work of art derived from a storyboard, a distinct artistic moment?

I found a page recently that contains several samples of storyboards from famous films. I want to look at one specific example from it here for a moment.

Even in this very limited set, we can see both how the storyboard realized the vision of the film but also how it differed from it. The title of the film in the opening crawl was changed, the text became flat against a star field rather than the three-dimensional objects of the first panel. The design of C3P0 changed, became more mechanical and obviously artificial between storyboard and film. It’s evident that the storyboard is art. And it is evident that the storyboard informs the art of the film; but is the storyboard a being-in-itself or is it simply one of the faces Star Wars presents us? If it is, in fact, a part of Star Wars and not an independent artwork, how do we address the changes that occur in the process of derivation?

But of course, it was never entirely about the independence of the art so much as it was about the ownership of the art. So by the same token, who has the moral right to Star Wars: George Lucas or Joe Johnson and Alex Tavoularis, who drew the storyboards?

And furthermore, does the fact that the storyboards to Star Wars are sold by a book, an object separate from the movie, have any impact on the extent to which the storyboard is a being-in-itself rather than a being-for-another? Should we consider then the author of the storyboard to be Lucasfilm LTD? Is the company then an independent being? And if so did it die when it was consumed by Disney? How, aside from the artificiality of ownership contract can we assign the right to claim Star Wars as a work-that-is-theirs to Disney and not to Tavoluaris?

Who owns an original? Who owns a derivative? Where do those boundaries lie? I don’t suspect that any of these questions will be answered today. I am frustrated that ownership must so often intrude upon art. It’s trivially obvious that derivation and transformation play a role in the creation of art: derivation as transformation is one of the principal tools of artistic endeavor, and as I discussed in a previous essay, transformation is first a process of unmaking. If the original object of artistic inspiration is unmade in the process of transformation, any derivation is to be considered a new thing: the phoenix arising from the ashes of the death of the original work. But capital doesn’t recognize these patterns of creation and destruction. Instead it recognizes only the contract and the right to own. Capital wants to hold everything in stasis.

Ultimately this is a dispute over three questions in the realm of the world we live in, the world of capital’s boundaries. The first is legal. Is Keratin sufficiently transformative to survive litigation through the mechanism of fair use? I am not a lawyer and must carefully state that this is not legal advice, but my instinct is that, yes, it is transformative. It is a work in an entirely different medium. The distance between the comic and the film is far vaster than that between Reubens and Goya.

The second question: does Ellis have a moral right to the work? This one I am uncertain of for the same reason I question who holds the moral right to Star Wars.

The third question: should Ellis be paid? This is, of course, distinct from the legal question of must Ellis be paid. And this is one where a fair moral argument could be held in either direction. However a word of caution I’d advise commentariat on here: please consider the extent to which this situation differs from Twilight and Thirty Shades of Grey. In each case, one artist took the work of another and unmade it in a transformative act into the ground for new art. In each case, the derivation is clear. If not for Stephanie Meyer, there would be no E.L. James.

If you feel E.L. James had no ethical requirement to pay Stephanie Meyers for her transformative-derivative work, you should probably err likewise here, notwithstanding Ellis’ popularity. And meanwhile, perhaps we should reserve or outrage for an economic system that pits artists against themselves and their own artistic impulses in the name of carefully delineated boundaries of ownership.

Wingspan and Post-Capitalist Forms of Competition

This might seem something of a pivot considering my blog generally covers books and television far more than other forms of art. But I want to be straightforward in situating board games as an artform. From a perspective of pure design, few board games released in recent years have had Wingspan’s visual panache.

The layout of a Wingspan game is one of moving pieces. Each player has a board upon which their game progresses. There is a common supply of markers used to indicate available food and eggs. There is a scorecard for round-objectives and a caddy which holds both face-up bird cards and and the decks of face-down cards that players can draw from as required. There is also a dice tower; and here is one of the places we have to stop to admire the commitment of the game to its visual motif.

The Wingspan Dice Tower

We should first note that the tower serves very little mechanical significance within a game of Wingspan. You could just as easily roll the food dice and leave the unclaimed dice in any easily accessible bit of table. This dice tower is an object of beauty. It’s shaped like a birdhouse, and creates this immersive three-dimensionality to the play area that is lacking in many games of its ilk.

The narrative of wingspan is that each player is creating a wildlife refuge for birds. This refuge is divided into three zones which are carefully colour coded: green forests, yellow grasslands and blue wetlands. Each one of these zones can hold a maximum of five species of bird. While some birds have capabilities that allow them to move between habitats, once a bird has been played it cannot be removed from the board. There are two types of card a player can hold: a bonus objective card which influences a player’s overall playstyle, and bird cards which represent the main scoring mechanic of play and the core gameplay loop. Each bird card is designed to replicate the look and feel of a page of a birdwatcher’s pocket guide. The cardstock presents a gloss white background with a hand-drawn colour image of a bird, generally viewed from profile, in the middle. The margins of the card provide a variety of information about the bird including its common name, taxonomic description, the habitats it can be played into and the food tokens that must be exchanged to play it, the point-value of the card when it is scored at the end of play, the type of nest it builds, the number of eggs it can hold, in a nest, the wingspan of the bird, the mechanics of how the presence of this bird in a habitat affects gameplay going forward, and a one-sentence note of trivia regarding the species. The cards are a master-work in efficient design. Almost every piece of information on the card might have an impact upon scoring and gameplay.

End-of-round objectives frequently require players to count number of eggs laid in specific nest types, or number of birds in specific habitats. There are sixteen potential end-of-round objectives out of which any game will use four, randomly selected. Each objective is on a tile which contains two objectives, one on each side, which means there is something in the realm of 80,640 – 2(8!) – possible configurations of end-of-round objective tiles, from which four will be selected each game. Furthermore bonus cards may require players to deliberately play cards with low point values, cards that contain references to colours or geographical features in their common names, cards that require specific feed types or that must be played in specific habitats.

The final piece that needs consideration is a set of eight colour-coded cubes which players use to indicate the actions they take upon their board. These cubes also indicate a player’s relative success in each end-of-round goal. This, of course, means that in each of the four rounds of play, each player will have successively one fewer action they may take on their board: Eight in round one. Then seven. Then six. Then, finally, five.

A commonly-played Wingspan card

There are four actions a player may take with each of these tokens. They may play a bird card into a habitat. They may select dice from the bird feeder. They may lay eggs into the nests of played birds or they may draw additional bird cards. Aside from playing bird cards, which only gets progressively more expensive, each action is associated with a habitat. Woodlands produce food, grasslands produce eggs, wetlands allow you to draw cards. As you fill the spaces in a habitat with more species, these actions become progressively more efficient, allowing a player to draw more dice from the feeder, to lay more eggs, to draw more cards. And of course, many of the cards played into a habitat also have effects that are activated by a player when they take an action in the habitat of the bird. These actions are also heavily impacted by order-of-play as a player always activates the most recently played bird first, and then works backward to the oldest bird in a habitat when activating card-based effects.

This situates Wingspan in the genre of board games called, “engine building games.”

A brief aside to define ludonarrative

Having now described the basic gameplay mechanics of Wingspan, the next question would likely be, “so what?” Why does it matter that you lose actions each round, or that an action becomes more efficient as you place more bird cards into a habitat row? What does any of that mean?

And this is where it’s necessary to introduce an important concept in the design and critique of game systems: ludonarrative. To start with coming to a proper understanding of this idea, and of how ludonarrative differs from narrative, we can first turn to Marshall McLuhan. If you are a Canadian of a certain age your first encounter with him may have been a heritage minute.

The Medium is the Message

For a version that isn’t a very silly 30-second drama you could also look into his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, from whence the phrase that “the medium is the message” derives.

A game is a machine that can get into action only if the players consent to become puppets for a time. For individualist Western man, much of his "adjustment" to society has the character of a personal surrender to the collective demands. Our games help both to teach us this kind of adjustment and also to provide a release from it. The uncertainty of the outcomes of our contests makes a rational excuse for the mechanical rigor of the rules and procedures of the game. 

McLuhan saw games as an intrinsically communicative and parodic medium. People deliberately put themselves into a contrived social situation, one bounded by strict but arbitrary rules, in a kind of mimetic replication of life. But games, being bounded by their agreed rules, limit the ways a person can think about playing the game.

Poker is a game that has often been cited as the expression of all the complex attitudes and unspoken values of a competitive society. It calls for shrewdness, aggression, trickery, and unflattering appraisals of character.

So in this appraisal, we can see how a game not only creates an artificial social simulation but how its rules shape that situation. McLuhan sees Baseball as being a game of, “static positions,” and, “specialist professions,” while he sees American football as a game that supports fluid, generalist roles. He sees poker as a game that requires a person to make, “unflattering appraisals of character,” as a game that induces one to be shrewd and aggressive.

While McLuhan’s digressions into aesthetics in this book verge on what we would consider some sort of pure and unadulterated cringe there is still great value in his sense of games as establishing communication through their structure. “The form of any game is of first importance,” he says, and there is where ludonarrative lies.

A ludonarrative is the message communicated by the board and the rules of a game. It is the story that arises directly out of the game-like structure of a game. Ludonarrative is always in communication with the more conventional narrative of the game. The way we are expected to play a game is going to inform the frame within which we consider the ideas of the game’s narrative.

So what is the narrative of wingspan again?

Well, we’re building a bird sanctuary.

Engine building games and the value of more

Engine building games are usually built around the idea of profit. You get more actions as the game progresses. In Terraforming Mars, your currency (M€) production will grow over the game. As this currency is the principal limit for how many actions you can take in a round, this leads to a gameplay that grows in complexity and duration to the precise amount that your profit grows. After all, M€ is an explicit reference to income. A player in Terraforming Mars holds cards in hand which are project plans and which they pay a nominal quantity of currency to purchase; these then are like patents which the player may then expend more money to execute. These cards provide the player with sources of profit that create a positive feedback loop wherein making money gives you more money to spend executing projects to give yourself the ability to make more money.

In Orléans the narrative explicitly situates a player as a merchant. While they may fund the building of forts or the work of farmers, the principal objective of the game is to obtain goods for trade and markets in which to trade these goods. As players build up their supply chains, introducing automation, hiring guards, and sponsoring technological innovation they may call upon more employees to assist them in the execution of actions each turn. The ludonarrative treats the player as a human resources manager carefully arranging the task-assignments of various work specialists such that you can make more money.

Scythe has a more complicated relationship with production and profit but only slightly. Scythe concedes that state power can appropriate the productive capacity of other agents by positioning most of its currencies on the board. And it also imposes a minor penalty on production when a player has reached certain critical milestones in their ability to produce. But even so, this sense of increasingly being able to do more as the game progresses is built in. Deploying mechs improves your mobility immensely, allowing a player a far greater ability to navigate the board and secure strategic resources. Deploying workers allows a player to produce more and build industrial improvements and monuments that increase what they gain each turn.

While there is an element of cost-benefit analysis in Terraforming Mars and in Scythe, this is entirely absent from Orléans whose ludonarrative is entirely about the maximization of profit. And in all three of these popular engine building games, the assumption of game structure is that as the game progresses the player will have to do more.

In contrast Wingspan asks its players to successively do more with less. Each round of play in wingspan, a player has fewer actions in which to accomplish a broad variety of objectives. Depending on random factors a player will have somewhere between one and three bonus objective cards to fulfill. They will also have a round objective. They will need to consider the value of the birds they are introducing to their habitats and they will need to consider the interactions between these birds and none of these factors suggests an accumulation of profit. Wingspan is a game about expenditure.

You spend limited actions to activate the cards in a habitat, and to make use of the habitat. You spend cards from hand to gain food with which to play other cards in hand. You spend food to induce your birds to lay eggs, you spend eggs to diversify your ecosystem by drawing new bird cards and generating the potential to play cards. You are operating within a field of sharply defined limits and there are no external reinforcements coming. You don’t have an income phase like in Terraforming Mars or a harvest phase like in Agricola. You have objectives, some shared and some secret, and you have an ever-shrinking pool of resources with which to achieve those objectives. You may improve the efficiency with which you attempt to achieve those objectives but only at a cost. Playing a bird card takes an action in which you cannot activate any other cards. And each action taken in a turn represents not only a gain but also an expenditure. Everything on your board in Wingspan has end-game value. You are building a diverse ecosystem and a diverse ecosystem includes up to 15 species of bird, the fish, insects, rodents, fruit, grain and other birds that those species eat, the eggs they lay, the extent to which all these different creatures correspond to the objectives you’ve agreed to, when considering success in Wingspan you have to consider the balance of all things.

TFW your opponent plays Ecoline and you know you’re going to lose the game.

And to succeed at one thing requires, to a certain extent, sacrificing another, engaging in an act of expenditure. This is even the case at the start of play. Each player is dealt a hand of five bird cards and five food, one of each of the types available in play. This represents a set of ten play markers. A player must reduce that to five play markers by discarding some combination of bird cards and food tokens. Every player starts play on equal footing; asymmetries in starting play emerge out of an act of expenditure for which there is no synchronous gain. This presents another contrast to the arch-capitalist Terraforming Mars, where each player will have a pre-set advantage that will include the starting resources and income a player has available.

In terraforming Mars, success is measured very clearly in building a profit-generating engine. Wingspan is also centered around the building of an engine, but you know you will be entering into a position of loss with each successive turn. Instead the engine in Wingspan is about optimizing system efficiency such to counter the reduced resources available to you. This may seem like a very small tweak on the engine building model but it creates a very different economy of play and this changed economy is far less capitalist than what we see from most other engine building games.

Competition is not intrinsically capitalist

The ideology of liberal capitalism situates capitalism as a totalizing thing. Capitalism is seen as the ultimate expression of certain traits, such as competition, the generation of surplus, the development of innovation, and freedom. For somebody enmeshed within a capitalist view it’s very easy to imagine reality as a slider. On one side is capitalism and on the other is not-capitalism. Not-capitalism is always weakly defined, which is what creates idiocy like the horseshoe theory. The capitalist ideologue has positioned the political other in relation to capitalism. Anything that is against those traits that capitalism claims is the same thing by being against those traits. And anything that is explicitly against capitalism must also be against those traits, because to the capitalist ideologue, competition, surplus, innovation and freedom are capitalism.

It’s no wonder that the capitalist ideologue looks at communism and says, “they must be against freedom,” because communism is against capitalism, and capitalism is the same thing as freedom in their mind. And it’s no wonder that they, against any practical or logical reason believe nazism to be the same as socialism because nazis are against freedom, against innovation. As freedom and innovation are seen as synonyms for capitalism, nazi traditionalism and authoritarianism must be fundamentally the same as communist collectivism. The idea that there might be more than just a slider is questionable, though some capitalists might at least concede a second, less important, axis between freedom and authority. Capitalism is, of course, situated upon the freedom end of this axis; just also to the right.

There are other problems that arise from this in the creation of secondary false dichotomies, and one of these is what interests me the most about Wingspan. A capitalist mindset plots a right-left dichotomy between cooperation and competition. According to capitalist ideologues, the more cooperative an action is, the less competitive it becomes. This is because capitalism sees competition as being an act of taking all the surplus.

And yet, here we have Wingspan, a game in which there is no surplus to take, a game in which people start symmetrically and in which people lose resources at a symmetrical rate, where each player will have, in any given game, some ten to twelve contradictory objectives they must try to prioritize and spend their equally limited resources on. Success in the ludic level of the game involves a clever weighing of a sort of multi-column arithmetic in order to most efficiently achieve those goals it is possible to excel at without falling too far behind on goals that are off-meta. Success in the narrative level of the game involves producing a diverse and complicated ecosystem within your three zones of habitability. You succeed by building the most delicately complicated bird sanctuary possible.

What possible profit could this bring?

And yet there is competition.

We can imagine our players, each a manager of a bird sanctuary, as people who care deeply about birds. We want everyone to succeed at creating a bird sanctuary. This isn’t the cut-throat mercantile politics of Orléans or the techno-corporate future of delineated ownership that is Terraforming Mars. There is no central board for players to oppositionally position themselves on. There is just all these little sanctuaries full of their vast panoply of beautiful birds. The mindset that Wingspan produces is one in which the success of another player is to be encouraged. A low-scoring game involves no defense. A win with a low score reflects a mutual failure. The thing to do is to win with the highest score. And this will involve not just the creation of a functioning and diverse habitat (though this will be needed) but one with a distinctly personal flare, as defined by your bonus card(s). Perhaps your sanctuary is composed only of birds with wingspans less than 30 centimeters; or particularly colourful birds, or gives priority to birds who only eat fish. And in balancing these terribly specific objectives against the general objective of creating a diverse board game we see what success looks like in Wingspan.

Success lies in building a bird sanctuary that both functions and that reflects something special, something that could not have been if you weren’t the one who did it. There’s no sense of profit in Wingspan. Eventually you will run out of resources with which to build a sanctuary. There’s a limit to how complex an ecosystem can become. There’s a limit to how many eggs you can persuade a pelican to lay. Limits, in fact, abound. Wingspan is ultimately a game of what you cannot do, of being funneled into actions because you cannot accomplish what you desire without establishing a conducive precondition.

You compete not to end up with more of a pool of resources. You compete to do the best job. In other engine building games, it’s common to use an action to block another player. You might, in Terraforming Mars, draft a card you know fits your opponent’s meta, or place a tile on a hex that impedes the direction another player wants to grow. You might set a nuclear bomb off next to their best city, degrading its value as a result.

In Wingspan the only opportunity to attack other players that can occur is to take a face-up bird card before another player can. But most card-actions occur on multiple cards, and you aren’t necessarily going to be hurting the other player much at all by taking that card, and your actions are scarce. You had best hope you have a use for the card you took. In contrast, there are many ways to help another player with your action. Many birds have actions that don’t activate when you play into a habitat but rather when an opponent does. Other cards might give the same food resource to all players, or will allow all players to lay eggs. These cards represent a risk, but the risk isn’t one of “can I harm my enemy,” so much as it is, “will this help me more than it helps my rivals?”

Wingspan puts lie to the idea that competition and cooperation are antonyms, and it puts lie to the idea that competition is intrinsically capitalist. Instead it gives us an idea of a world in which people strive to create good works, and where competition and prestige arises not from monetizing that work but by doing the most you can with the least resources input. It presents an idea of competition where personal flare matters more than market effectiveness. It presents an idea of competition where cooperation is a part of the competitive act and where the measure of your success is improved when everyone plays their best game.

The text of Wingspan is about building a bird sanctuary. But its ludonarrative gives us a window into a world where we’ve broken the illusion of the capitalist monolith, it lets us see that we need not amputate parts of the human spirit like innovation or competition in order to do away with an economy that is destroying the world.

Wingspan, ultimately, presents us with a stark contrast to Terraforming Mars. The logic of capital tells us we must always expand outward, must build bigger, grander, more complex projects, ever profiting, ever doing more. Wingspan gives a different logic, a logic of limits, and working within them, a paradigm of competition as expression of personality, a spice to make the cooperation sweeter.

Desiring to be monstrous in Clive Barker’s Cabal

Cabal is a book about sex.

Every character in the book thinks about sex. A lot. Lori is concerned about her sex life with Boone. Boone worries he can’t please Lori. Eigerman is comforted by cartoons of sodomy on the toilet wall and comforted that they stay safely cartoons on a wall. Ashbery is terrified that people will find out about his paraphilia for women’s underwear. Decker gets hard when he murders. At the climax of the book, Boone, well, the text can speak for itself here:

"Baphomet's head. It turned to him, vast and white, its symmetry fabulous. His entire body rose to it: gaze, spittle, and prick. His congealed blood liquefied like a saint's relic and began to run. His testicles tightened; sperm ran up his cock. He ejaculated into the flame, pearls of semen carried up past his eyes to touch the Baptizer's face."

So yeah, the climax of the book involves one of our protagonists ejaculating into the face of a god. Cabal is a book about sex. Everybody, at least everybody with a remotely human viewpoint, is thinking about sex all the time, and honestly nobody is very happy about it. Lori and Boone are a good couple but can’t make it work in the bedroom. He usually ends up crying over his inadequacy. Eigerman wants his sodomy carefully abstracted. Ashbery is terrified of his secret being found out, and keeping his secret from being found out is Decker’s whole motivation. Decker’s twin desires for the little death to be reflected in an orgy of vast, grand death, but not to be seen to be a sexual being drives the entire plot of the story.

But Cabal isn’t about sex. Not entirely. Not if you plumb its depths. In 1988, the same year Cabal was published, Clive Barker said, “What I like to write is ‘iceberg’ literature. Most of it is below the surface, and you produce things that don’t explain everything.” And Cabal is, in some ways like an iceberg. I read Cabal when I was in my early twenties. At the time I was still deeply closeted about my bisexuality, and the wild, kaleidoscopic world of Midian was a thrilling and illicit fantasy. I read it then as a book about sex and was satisfied to see it that way.

When I picked up Cabal now, two decades later, I said to a friend of mine that I thought I’d grasped Cabal the first time but what I’d really done was just make a fist in the ocean. This book has depths. But this book is a map. This book wants you to explore its depths, much in the same way Lori explores Midian, a layer at a time, each time being seduced deeper. Each time making the choice to be seduced.

Cabal is a book about infection

I mean it’s not like it’s the first time a horror author wrote about infection. That risk, that the Other could get inside you and make you not who you were is central to horror at least as far back as Lovecraft. And 1988 was right in the heart of the first wave of the AIDS crisis. Back then, heterosexual transmission of HIV was still uncommon in the UK, but gay people had been dying of AIDS for a few years and it was on a few minds.

Cabal is an openly queer book with sex on its mind and particularly with the idea of sex as a source of shame on its mind; it shouldn’t be surprising that the idea of infection was bubbling in Cabal. The Nightbreed pass their dark gifts with a bite – the balm. If you are bitten by one of the Nightbreed, you can survive the experience. I mean you may not – the Nightbreed are monsters and, in their hunger, can be terribly savage, but Boone does. He takes a bite and he flees and he lives. Until he’s shot and dies. And upon death the balm awakens the infant monster to their true life. The book is never clear if this is the only way one can become a Nightbreed. We might shudder to consider Rachel and Babette. Rachel, the gentle, vampire-like monster who shows Lori kindness could be somebody who was given the balm, but what do we make of Babette? Was Rachel’s daughter killed with her? Or was she born to her? The book never tells us.

But the balm is not the only way infection is referenced in the book. Because there’s another thing that seems to be catching.

Cabal is a book about madness

Boone is schizophrenic. He hallucinates. He has intrusive thoughts. He suffers shame and guilt about his illness, depression tagging along with his schizophrenia. Boone’ psychologist, Decker, is also somebody with some deep psychological pathologies. Decker is a serial killer, a sociopath and a social chameleon. He’s not actually a doctor; he just stole a name and an expensive suit. He told lies that opened doors and let him exploit vulnerable people. Decker, who cuts out the eyes of his victims because he cannot bear the thought of being seen devoid of his masks (the mask he wears when about the murder is in fact his real face) sees in Boone a valuable victim of a different sort from his usual. And so he plies Boone with drugs, hypnotherapy and shocking images, and persuades the vulnerable, ill, man that he is a killer. That he has psychically blocked his own crimes out of an inability to face his monstrosity. This is, of course, transference. Decker is the one who is uncomfortable being put in the position of his own monstrosity. He is the one who hides behind masks behind masks behind masks in order to stay pure. Boone, in counterpoint, wears his heart on his sleeve. He thinks he’s too broken to be a good boyfriend for Lori.

Boone’s need to be emotionally sincere doesn’t extend just to his presentation; he is awash in very human pain and it leads to his failed suicide attempt. And you know, it’s interesting because at times Cabal tells us Nightbreed are made by infection, by the balm. But Boone throws himself in front of a truck and gets up afterward. He then hitch-hikes and walks from Calgary to the middle of nowhere. (Midian is described as being “North of Athabasca, east of Peace River, near Shere Neck and north of Dwyer.” While some of these places are invented, others are real locations in Alberta and they situate Midian as being somewhere perhaps in the vicinity of the Wabasca lakes, seven hours north and deep in the bush. There are few places in the world more remote.) So perhaps being Nightbreed is more than being bitten.

This fits with the descriptions of Midian provided when Boone first meets Narcisse. And when Narcisse cuts his own face off, Boone thinks he sees the flesh underneath transform. He’s a deeply unreliable perspective so we can’t be sure, but we never see one of the Nightbreed give Narcisse the balm, yet there he is in Midian when the action kicks off.

Perhaps being Nightbreed depends on a certain kind of mimetic infection. Cabal describes Midian first as a talisman of the mad, saying, “some belonged to the collective mind. they were words he would hear more than once: nonsense rhymes whose rhythms kept the pain at bay, names of gods.

Among them Midian.”

Early in the story, Decker describes Boone’s hypnotherapy sessions and says that Boone is confessing to, “something so abhorrent to you even in a trance you couldn’t bring yourself to say it.” It’s easy to treat this as a lie. Decker lies. Decker is a deeply unreliable character in this book, but then no character is reliable. Cabal shows us every one of its perspective characters facing moments where their senses clearly fail them and we, as readers, know that their perceptions cannot be trusted.

So if all our characters are unreliable, is it not possible that the germ of the Nightbreed lies in insanity?

This would certainly fit for Lori’s arc. Lori, the beautiful. Lori, the empathetic. Lori, the unwell.

Lori can’t look at herself in a mirror. Barker deploys an excellent bit of prose to describe her:

Her neck was too thick, her face too thin, her eyes too large, her nose too small. In essence she was one excess upon another and any attempt on her part to undo the damage merely exacerbated it. Her hair, which she grew long to cover the sins of her neck, was so luxuriant and so dark her face looked sickly in its frame. Her mouth, which was her mother's mouth to the last flute, was naturally, even indecently red, but taming its color with a pale lipstick merely made her eyes look vaster and more vulnerable than ever. 

It wasn't that the sum of her features was unattractive. She'd had more than her share of men at her feet. No, the trouble was she didn't look the way that she felt. It was a sweet face. And she wasn't sweet, didn't want to be sweet, or thought of as sweet.

So here we have our lovers, beautiful, Byronic Boone who suffers his demons, his voices and codes, driving him toward Midian. And we have Lori. Boone promises her, “I’ll never leave you,” but he knows he’ll break that promise, and he does. He is, after all a haunted man. He is aware that there is something monstrous within him, something that wants to come out and that tortures him.

And Lori, for her part, is uncomfortable in her own body. She has a sweet face but she doesn’t think she’s sweet. She loves a vulnerable madman, and almost restores him to health before the exploitative void that is Decker sends him crashing down again. And when Boone leaves her, when he vanishes to Midian, she goes chasing after him. This is an irrational choice. She is putting off work to go traipsing into the bush of northern Alberta. It’s almost codependent – Boone was wracked with guilt, and one of the things that he felt guilt about was how dependent he was on Lori; she was the entirety of his fragile support system. He never noticed how dependent she was on him. Lori feels deeply alienated from the world. She needs Boone’s otherness.

When she learns that Boone has been killed in a ghost town, that he’s believed to be a serial killer who terrorized Alberta, murdered people indiscriminately, cutting them to ribbons and ripping out their eyes in their own homes, she goes to the graveyard adjacent where he died and mourns. But she brings a companion who isn’t comfortable in this eerie situation, and leaves, reluctantly. She gets a motel room so she can stay nearby while she decides her next moves, and her friend leaves her alone.

The people in the room next to her are having a party (later Decker will murder them all) and Lori becomes excited at the thinness of the wall, the idea that she is almost in public as she walks around her motel room naked out of the shower. She masturbates and falls asleep, having a sort of semi-prophetic dream.

"In sleep she was at Midian's Necropolis, the wind coming to meet her down its avenues from all directions at once - north, south, east and west - chilling her as it whipped her hair above her head and ran up inside her blouse.

The wind was not invisible. It had a texture as though it carried a weight of dust, the motes steadily gumming up her eyes and sealing her nose, finding its way into her underwear and up into her body by those routes too. 

It was only as the dust blinded her completely that she realized what it was - the remains of the dead, the ancient dead, blown on contrary winds from pyramids and mausoleums, from vaults and dolmen, charnel houses and crematoria. Coffin dust and human ash and bone pounded to bits, all blown to Midian and catching at the crossroads.

She felt the dead inside her. Behind her lids, in her throat, carried up toward her womb. And despite the chill and the fury of the four storms, she had no fear of them, nor desire to expel them. They sought her warmth and her womanliness. She would not reject them."

The dream proceeds on as she demands Boone of the dead, and they refuse to surrender him. The dream becomes a nightmare. Sheryl wakes her. And despite this nightmare, this idea that Midian will bring the dead into her, that it will deny her Boone even so, she does the irrational thing and returns to Midian.

Lori doesn’t appear sane. When she later reappears with Boone, she puts herself in the position of the willing lover of a cannibal and a monster. Over and over again, she returns to sites of mortal peril. She seems driven by an unquenchable death wish.

This madness seems contagious. Decker drives Boone into relapse and Boone’s madness infects Lori. When Decker, Boone and Lori bring the insanity of their situation to Shere Neck, Eigerman rapidly goes off the deep end, emptying out his police precinct, mustering an irregular posse, threatening the local priest along, anything to purge the Nightbreed. It’s insane: tunnel vision taken to an extreme. Eigerman is irrational. The chief symptom seems to be an excited death drive. Boone attempts suicide. Narcisse can’t wait for his afterlife to begin. Decker and Eigerman desire slaughter. And Lori wants to be with the dead.

Death fascinates Lori. Or it does for a while. Because while she may seem to be possessed by a mad death drive, Cabal isn’t precisely a book about madness. It doesn’t matter that people are uncomfortable being sexual, that they lust for what they should not, that their lust bring them shame. And it doesn’t matter that Boone’s bite, after he is transformed, is infectious, nor does it matter that Boone is himself transformed by infection. We don’t know for certain every person who becomes a Nightbreed is bitten by another but one thing we know for certain is that every person who becomes a Nightbreed is compelled to go to Midian for one reason or another. Narcisse is so desperate to go to Midian that he mutilates himself to reveal to the Nightbreed that he is already one of them. Narcisse wants to go to Midian so that he can belong. Boone mostly seemed to crave Midian as a refuge, somewhere to be left alone by a world that was cruel to him. But he still craved Midian and went there. And when he arrived, “he found himself a bed out of sight between two graves and lay his head down. The spring growth of grass smelled sweet.” Lori, too, is drawn to Midian, if only to take Boone away from it. This compulsion is irrational, but it isn’t madness. It’s desire.

Cabal is a book about desiring to be other

Desire exists in so many forms throughout Cabal. Boone desires solace. Lori desires Boone. Decker wants to kill. Eigerman wants notoriety. Narcisse craves community. The Nightbreed want peace. It isn’t unusual for a story to center around a protagonist who announces a desire and pursues it. What separates Nightbreed is the ubiquity with which the omniscient narrator makes it clear that every person in the story moves toward the thing they want. Even in flight, Boone is reaching out for what he desires. Even when she knows it’s self-destructive, Lori seeks out what she desires with single-minded intensity. And Decker has to kill. But for Lori, Boone and Narcisse, the deepest desire is to reconcile the otherness they feel, the sense they have of alienation from the world of people, the cravings and urges that seem unusual with a sense of who they really are.

They need to transform. And the Nightbreed are transformation. Lori falls out of love with death. She barely escapes Decker at a burned out restaurant, and he murders her traveling companion, Sheryl. She goes back. She has some idea that she can find evidence to prove Decker is the murderer. Instead what she finds is a host of flies feasting on the corpse of her friend.

"Both mind and body failed. The cloud of flies came at her, their numbers now so large they were a darkness unto themselves. Dimly she realized that such a multiplicity was impossible and that her mind in its confusion was creating this terror. But the thought was too far from her to keep the madness at bay; her reason reached for it, and reached, but the cloud was upon her now. She felt their feet on her arms and face, leaving trails of whatever they'd been dabbling in: Sheryl's blood, Sheryl's bile, Sheryl's sweat and tears. There were so many of them they could not all find flesh to occupy, so they began to force their way between her lips and crawl up her nostrils and across her eyes.

Once, in a dream of Midian, hadn't the dead come as dust, from all four corners of the world? And hadn't she stood in the middle of the storm - caressed, eroded, and been happy to know that the dead were on the wind? Now came the companion dream: horror to the splendor of the first. A world of flies to match the world of dust, a world of incomprehension and blindness, of the dead without burial, and without a wind to carry them away. Only flies to feast on them, to lie in them and make more flies."

Lori has already encountered the Nightbreed a few times before this; but this moment gives her the desire not just to live at peace with the existence of monsters in the world, but to collaborate with them. Lori is pushed far beyond the limits of her sensation and returns with newfound purpose. It’s a religious experience.

The Nightbreed fascinate Lori. She sees in them an alternative to, “the stench of creeping decay, the inevitability of it all.” She thought she was possessed by a drive to be occupied by the dead, and she is, in fact, occupied by the dead when Babette forms a psychic bond that lets them telepathically communicate across distances, that lets them see through each other’s eyes. Babette is the dead wind within her, filling her up, but Babette isn’t a wind; she’s a child, a young, vital child.

That vitality is what Lori sees in the Nightbreed: “the monsters of Midian – transforming, rearranging, ambassadors of tomorrow’s flesh and reminders of yesterday’s – seemed full of possibility.” This is enticing to Lori, who isn’t comfortable in her own skin. At one point, she is taken into Midian and allowed to explore it while Boone seeks the blessing of Baphomet, the god of the Nightbreed. She sees the Nightbreed in all their monstrousness, their horror and beauty. She sees a painter with the head of a dog and a bloated man covered in glowing maggots. She sees creatures with metal parts, and chimera. And what Lori sees in the Nightbreed is something she never before realized how much she wanted.

All that she coveted or envied in others of her species now seemed valueless. Dreams of the perfected anatomy - the soap opera face, the centerfold body - had distracted her with promises of true happiness. Empty promises. Flesh could not keep its glamour, or eyes their sheen. They would go to nothing soon.

But the monsters were forever. Part of her forbidden self. Her dark, transforming midnight self. She longed to be numbered among them.

Lori doesn’t crave extinction; she craves monstrousness. The Nightbreed aren’t sweet. Some of them are beautiful, but it’s the beauty of the angels in the Old Testament, a fury of sensation that overwhelms with its beauty. Most are hideous, deformed, bestial and sometimes broken. When the perspective, shortly thereafter, moves to Boone, this is reinforced, “they were what the species he’d once belonged to could not bear to be.”

Barker wrote Cabal to be a book open to multiple interpretations. In some sense it’s a book about transformation, but it’s a book about desiring transformation specifically. Lori achieves her desire in the end. She pushes herself to the brink of death and an inch beyond to achieve her desire and to repeat Boone’s promise, “I’ll never leave you,” back to him. That Boone has transformed completely is nothing even remotely touching a deal-breaker because Lori, too wants to transform.

But to understand this desire, we also have to understand the manner in which the Nightbreed transform. In the course of the story we witness several sequences of transformation; and what is peculiar is that these moments of transformation are described much more clearly than the way the Nightbreed look in their transformed state.

At one point, we finally get something approaching a clear example of Boone’s transformed state:

"Part the beast he'd inherited from Peloquin, part a shade warrior, like Lylesburg, part Boone the lunatic, content with his visions at last."

This description is nothing approaching an appearance. You can’t paint a picture of Boone. He looks like a beast perhaps, or like a shadow, or like himself only comfortable, at last, in his monstrous skin. And the descriptions of other Nightbreed are, with a few exceptions, either perfunctory, “a painter with the head of a dog” or are vague and impressionistic.

But the moments in which a Nightbreed changes from a human form to something else, when it reveals its nature as one of these, “ambassadors of tomorrow’s flesh,” the vision becomes clear, detailed, lovingly crafted and entirely alien.

One of the best examples of this moment of clear and vivid transformation comes during Lori’s first encounter with the Nightbreed. She has come to the cemetery at Midian to feel closer to Boone and she finds an animal in a thicket. It seems sick, dying. There is a woman standing in a tomb who begs Lori to bring her the creature. This woman is described like a vampire, and when her hand touches the sun, it begins to dissolve into dust, much like the dead in Lori’s prophetic dream. Lori, being Lori, helps the woman and the small creature. The creature digs its claw into Lori’s breast, like an anxious kitten, but when she passes the threshold of the tomb and goes to return the creature to the vampiric woman:

The animal was changing before her eyes. In the luxury of slough and spasm it was losing its bestiality, but not by reordering its anatomy, but by liquefying its whole self - through to the bone - until what had been solid was a tumble of matter. Here was the origin of the bittersweet scent she'd met before the tree: the stuff of the beast's dissolution. In the moment it lost coherence, the matter was ready to be out of her grasp, but somehow the essence of the thing - it's will, perhaps, perhaps it's soul - drew it back from the business of remaking. The last part of the beast to melt was its claw, its disintegration sending a throb of pleasure through Lori's body.

This fluid plasticity is the hallmark of the transformation of the Nightbreed. In the moment of their transformations, they dissolve into droplets and liquid flows. They become disorganized, undifferentiated matter. Boone’s substance, when he transforms, is fluid. The Nightbreed, to Lori, seemed full of possibilities.

In 1947, Antonin Artaud put on a radio play called, To Have Done with the Judgment of God. Few figures loom larger in assessment of Barker’s early theatrical work than Artaud through his concept of the Theatre of Cruelty, which sought to use overwhelming sound and light to stun the audience, as well as creating a situation where the mise-en-scène was put before the script. This is iceberg theatre – it’s theatre that deliberately invites multiple interpretations. It is also very much in keeping with the ideas of another avant-garde artist and philosopher widely regarded as influential upon Barker in Georges Bataille. And we can see stark parallels between Lori’s experience, her death-drive in Cabal and Bataille’s description of ecstasy in Inner Experience:

"What is thereby found in deep obscurity is a keen desire to see when, in the face of this desire,
 everything slips away.

 But the desire for existence thus dissipated into night turns to an object of ecstasy. The desired spectacle, the object, in the expectation of which passion goes beyond itself, is the reason why "I could die for not  dying". This object grows dim and night is there: anguish binds me, it sears me, but this night which is  substituted for the object and now alone responds to my anticipation? Suddenly I know, I discover it in a  cry: it is not an object, it is IT I was waiting for."

Barker, like Bataille and Artaud, wants to shock the senses, to inspire ecstasy and to describe for his audience, people in the throes of this ecstasy. And it is via Artaud and Bataille that we must interpret how Barker describes the transformation of the Nightbreed.

In To Have Done with the Judgment of God, Artaud says:

When you will have made him a body without organs,
then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
and restored him to his true freedom.

And in their moment of transformation, the Nightbreed become a body without organs. What then is it? Artaud is unclear except to say that a body without organs represents a true freedom. This idea of the body without organs was elaborated upon by two other authors who were deeply influenced by Artaud. In their 1972 treatise, Anti-Oedipus Gilles Deuleuze and Félix Guattari elaborate upon the body without organs in depth, where they position it as the “third term in the linear series.”

A Deuleuzian metaphysics is one defined by difference. Being is composed of a series of machines, “The breast is a machine that produces milk and the mouth a machine coupled to it.” These machines represent flows and breaks. But as these produce, including producing production, including producing the desire to produce, they also tend toward decay. But these philosophers reject that this system of being can ever lead fully to nothingness. Nothing is ever gone completely and the dead become dust in the wind, become flies or even become monsters.

So our body without organs becomes that undifferentiated point which is the barrier at which the breakdown of the old and the arising of the new meet. It could be seen as an ambassador of tomorrow’s flesh and a reminder of yesterday’s. But it is neither. It is an undifferentiated fluid surface. “The desiring-machines attempt to break into the body without organs, and the body without organs repels them.” The body without organs constitutes, “a surface over which the forces and agents of production are distributed.” But as the body without organs gives rise to the mitochondrial machinery that make something an organic thing, a differentiated thing, it seems in its repulsion of desire as if it miraculates them. The universe becomes this push and pull between being, and desiring to be and ending, desiring to end.

In Cabal, this is the root desire of Lori and of Boone and of all the other misfits whose lives fall into the constantly dying and being reborn cosmology of Midian. This desire to fall back to the undifferentiated and to arise again, phoenix-like in some new form. To blossom and then to fall. As Bataille poetically put it,

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

 The trees that forcefully soar end up burned by lightning, chopped down, or uprooted. Returned to the ground, they come back up in another form." 

Boone and Lori destroy Midian. This isn’t their intention, Boone wants to be left alone. Lori wants Boone. But Boone and Lori attract the attention of Decker, and Decker, in turn, attracts the attention of Eigerman, who, for his part, cannot tolerate the presence of those who are everything his species could not bear to be. As a consequence of his destruction, Boone is granted the power to restore Midian and the obligation to do so.

There’s a thread running through Deuleuze and Bataille back to Nietzsche, that situates the origin of morality in debt. Deleuze and Guattari describe this as the force that transforms the socius (which we can treat as a special form of the body without organs). They describe it as being the origin of many things, but one of those is, “the pain of the initiations.”

Initiation is like a seduction through the layers of a necropolis. It brings you within by degrees. And it brings with it agony and the limit of the senses. But like seduction, and like becoming a Nightbreed, initiation is something we desire. We move toward our initiations and their agonies, knowing that they will bring us pain and desiring that pain. Boone and Lori seek out their debts. They become indebted to Midian because they desire it. They desire that constant breaking-down to the point of unmaking and reconstitution that is transformation, and in their transformation we see a template for understanding how a person might transform.

Transformation is like a seduction, like and initiation, it is the ecstasy of sensation that pushes us out of the rational and allows us to come back with knowledge, conviction and purpose. In Cabal, sex, death, shame, lust, revulsion, longing, fear and joy all tangle together like a mass of worms beneath the skin of the world or the mycelia of a colony of mushrooms. In order to be transformed we must first be unmade. Cabal teaches us this lesson well as first Narcisse, then Boone, then Lori are unmade and reconstituted transformed. They each, in their way, pursue those desiring machines within them along the path to breakdown, to the undifferentiated matter from which all new growth blooms, and then they arise again different, terrible, monstrous and alien.

The Nightbreed dance along the edge of the indescribable because they are everything that we can not bear to be. Much as Bataille’s ecstasy is like night falling, is a sensation akin to death, so to are the Nightbreed and therein lies their seductive appeal.