On Authority and the Author

I think Engels is sometimes unfairly maligned. There was long a tendency, and it has not ever fully ended, to treat Engels as if he were the author of every failure and error in Marxism. And perhaps the work most responsible for cementing his position as the sin eater of Marxism is On Authority.

This text is, on the surface an aggressive repudiation of an Anarchist tendency to want to obliterate hierarchy, level all power differentials, and leave everybody equal. This sort of flat equality had never been the objective of Marxism and Engels is critical of it as lacking an understanding of the depth of power. “Everywhere combined action, the complication of processes dependent upon each other, displaces independent action by individuals. But whoever mentions combined action speaks of organization; now, is it possible to have organization without authority?” He asks.

And yet I think the greatest problem with On Authority is the number of readers of Engels who stop there and who never develop the necessary introspection to turn a later statement at themselves or the heads of state they admire, “These gentlemen think that when they have changed the names of things they have changed the things themselves.” And yet, for many readers of Engels the decision is to do just that!

It’s the people’s jail; completely different from a regular prison. And the prison is important here because I think a more productive read of On Authority would be to see it as an anticipation of Discipline and Punish. Engels quite rightly points out how the technologies that existed in the late 19th century helped form an authoritarian subjectivity. He demonstrates that a factory worker or a steam ship operator must, by necessity, create a form of authority in order to accomplish their tasks.

This, in a way, echoes Foucault’s suggestion that the epistemological shift that created the conditions for the prison was far vaster than a mere building of stone and steel. Engels diagnoses the problem of authority in much the same way Foucault diagnoses the problem of discipline. The principal difference is that Engels, in the 1870s says, we cannot abandon this yet, while Foucault, a century later, says, we should have abandoned this long ago.

Engels is arguing that the power relationship of authority, the idea that one person could subordinate the will of the other to achieve a collective aim, is necessary for conducting the violence of the revolution. ” Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois?” And he’s not entirely wrong. He almost comes to a profound understanding: the problem of authority is not that it exists but rather that it persists. Tari comes to this realization when he points to the example of Subcomandante Marcos who dissolved back into the anonymity of the people after his role as a spokesperson for the Zapatistas was no longer needed. “Authority and autonomy are relative things whose spheres vary with the various phases of the development of society.” Engels says and this suggests an understanding that authority is, and must be, contingent.

The problem that arises is that this authority congeals into an institution and this, like the prison and the disciplinary society it is a part of, continues long after the moment it should have been struck down.

And so, you can see, we can construct an Engels who speaks against Lenin, Stalin and all the authoritarian Marxists who follow in their wake from the very essay from which they build their case for the people’s jail.

But this raises the question of whether this is an authentic Engels. Certainly I’m reading into the text things that simply could not be there. Engels assumes inevitability and yet I demand he sees contingency. I divide him against himself.

There are certain people who might shrug at this and suggest that whether Engels saw authority as an inevitable product of a productive society or as a contingent phenomenon tied to a vast network of other contingencies is irrelevant to how an audience receives a text. And in doing so they take my divided Engels and split him fully: we have the Engels of the inevitable and we have the Engels of the contingent. This situates the discursive power of the text fully in its interpretation. A message is only as strong as the receipt of it.

But, of course, there is another possibility ignored by this very dialectically divided Engels. And that is that both of these divided figures occupy the same space. We can start by stepping back and asking whether I divided Engels in the interpretation or if these contradictions were there in the text, equally present but irreconcilable. It is a misunderstanding of contingency to suggest it is flat. In a fully contingent universe even contingency is contingent and we must expect to see the accretion of consistency.

From within a domain of consistency that consistency likely seems inevitable. It occludes the contingency on the horizon. But this is only ever metastable. After all: the consistency is contingent. Transformation may occur at any moment. When they have changed the names of things they may not have changed the things themselves but a transformation of a thing will also require a transformation of its name. And yet none of this is erased. No matter how much I unfold destitution out of On Authority the inevitable Engels of Stalin remains too.

This is the nature of authorship. We cannot erase intent; it will always be there in the text. However we cannot assume intent is singular. Intent changes; intent becomes other to itself. Even the dead Engels can change his mind when contradictory thoughts exist on the page. This is not to say that there is a unity between my destituent Engels and the Engels of the inevitable. Such an encounter is, to paraphrase Deleuze, as absurd as an authentic encounter between a sadist and a masochist. And so we cannot simply re-unify Engels into one who contains both. He is already fragments. As are we all. But these fragments can coalesce too; new consistencies can be achieved that are wholly alien to the ones before. These remain metastable and contingent, of course, and this is why the work of liberation will never be done. Even if we perfected society we could not assume it would stay perfect. But it’s precious to remember, in the aftermath of a disaster especially, that destitution and constitution are dynamic processes that never reach unity but also can never achieve totality. The marks of the past will always be upon us. But we don’t live there. And over the horizon is something different.

Crimes of the Future: Living a life as art

In the early minutes of Crimes of the Future (written and directed by David Cronenberg) we learn that people have changed. Pain nearly doesn’t exist; a few people still experience it in their sleep. And people have begun manifesting novel organs of unclear purpose. This is a situation of great concern to the governments of the world.

But it’s abundantly clear that this isn’t entirely true. Saul Tenser’s (Viggo Mortensen) life appears to be one of almost unending agony as he lurches, coughs and gags through a constant pain that he dismisses with neutral language: blockage, thickness, interruption.

Saul has a bed that is supposed to respond to his body, prevent the true pain he experiences in sleep from disrupting his sleep cycles too badly but it doesn’t work well. He has a “breakfaster chair” that is supposed to help him in eating and digesting the pureed foods he chokes down but nothing seems a greater agony to him than the act of trying to eat. And, of course, nobody seems to manifest novel organs as rapidly as Saul.

Saul is an artist. His performance very much calls to mind the work of Ron Athey. He gestates novel organs. When he feels they are ready within him his partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), tattoos them still within him. They then perform an operation in which the tattooed organs will be excised by Caprice, using a modified autopsy bed to perform this biopsy. The tattooed organ is then presented to the audience.

Immediately the question of artistic authority is raised. While Saul and Caprice insist they are equal partners it becomes evident to people that they talk to that Caprice is the one doing what we might generally consider art. She acts upon Saul’s body by marking his flesh, cutting it open and presenting his marks to the world. Prone to portentous speeches, Caprice believes that the body, as a thing, is a void of meaning. By marking Saul’s body with ink she injects meaning into these bizarre growths he produces.

But Caprice and Saul both argue back that Saul is an artist because it is he who creates the organs to be marked. The question of will arises. Do these organs come about because Saul wills them? They seem to be the source of his agonies. But is this a conscious act of production that wills these organs into existence? Is it Saul or his body that desires these things? Is Saul, in fact, his body?

Saul and Caprice are both enmeshed in a world of performance artists. Saul attends a performance in which a dancer with his eyes and mouth sewn shut and prosthetic ears grafted across the entirety of his body presents himself. He thinks the performance is fine; but everyone agrees it’s not up to the quality of Saul’s work. The ears are artificial. That Saul grows the organs within him matters.

Caprice also has her own artistic interests. She seems to feel trapped in Saul’s shadow. He’s the great Saul Tenser. She is merely his partner. She has her own friends whose art is more akin to Orlan than to Athey. Her friend Odile (Denise Capezza) isn’t interested in the mortification of Saul’s performance, there is no agony there. But she wants her body to be a canvas upon which she can create. She shapes her appearance so that she can be a work of art just the same.

Of course this is no different from the ear-dancer. He felt no pain as the needle slid through his eyelids and sealed them. He, too, took conscious control over the shape of his being. So why does this hierarchy exist? Why do the various people who populate Crimes of the Future seem to believe there’s something more artistic in growing into something different than in choosing to become it? What role does will play here and how must we define it?

In Four Scenes in a Harsh Life Ron Athey cut open the back of his assistant, Divinity P. Fudge, and dabbed at the wounds with paper towel. He hoisted these blood-soaked rags up above the audience and presented the gay blood that so many assumed to be intrinsically tainted by AIDS. The press was unkind. But there is an interesting dynamic at play here between Athey, the person cutting and Fudge who was cut. The assumption, even of the receptive corners of the artistic world, was that Athey, wielding the knife, was the artist and Fudge was something of a canvas or an ink-pot for his work.

And yet Divinity P. Fudge got up there and exposed himself, his body became marked. The wounds kissed paper like mouths and left their marks. In a later scene of Crimes of the Future Saul is invited to join an “inner beauty pageant,” an underground celebration of novel organs. He has a zipper installed in his abdomen to allow easier access to his innards. Caprice unzips him and kisses the incision as if he were Christ. The same dynamic exists between Tenser and Caprice as existed between Athey and Fudge. One acts, the other is acted upon but the will to become art exists in the interplay between both. And it is in this inter-subjective act of communion that we find a thread to begin leading us out of the tangle of unanswered questions Crimes of the Future presents.

Biopolitics

“The excess of biopower appears when it becomes technologically and politically possible for man not only to manage life but to make it proliferate, to create living matter, to build the monster, and, ultimately to build viruses that cannot be controlled and that are universally destructive. This formidable extension of biopower … will put it beyond all human sovereignty.”

— Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, March 17, 1976

Governments have become very concerned about novel organs. As a response to concerns that these novel organs represent an advent of something inhuman they have sought to discipline these bodies, to bring these bodies away from Foucault’s excess of biopower and back within the realm of the sovereign state. The National Organ Registry, a secretive bureaucratic organization, has been founded to excise and to mark novel organs. The two bureaucrats who serve here are both big fans of Saul and Caprice. Wippet (Don McKellar) is a pervert who adores these new organs. He’s joined the National Organ Registry because he sees them as sources of constant beauty. Timlin (Kristin Stewart, in what should be a career-defining performance) covets Caprice’s talent. She is less beholden to the beauty of the organ and, instead, wants to mark them, give them a state’s meaning, bring them within discipline. She lusts after Saul nevertheless. Finally state power is represented by Cope (Welket Bungué) – a police officer who sees a political threat in the evolution of subjects away from humanity. Within these three we see very different approaches to how a state might want to bring these unruly organs under control be that through the revelation and celebration of their beauty, their disciplining via the act of sorting and marking or the more absolute discipline of state violence. There is also corporate interference. Two women who appear to work for the corporation responsible for Saul’s assistive devices lurk throughout the film and work to keep the simmering boil of the future contained in a capitalist now. While they clearly do not serve the state and its disciplinary functions they, nevertheless, collaborate with it.

Of course this government is divided against itself. There is no body of the king that all these people extend from, no real central will. Instead Wippet works to undermine his own agency out of his infatuation for neo-organs while Timlin undermines her supervisor in order to better serve state power. Cope is distant and ineffective. The corporate assassins are close and brutally effective.

What these people who think like states all see, what Saul and Caprice are too bound up in their art to consider, is that these neo-organs are a crisis of the human. There is a real fear of the Ship of Theseus at play here. How many organs can grow within a person and have them still be a human?

In the inciting moments of the film a little boy plays by the seaside. His mother calls to him, disapproving, and tells him not to eat anything he finds. Anything. He doesn’t respond to her.

Later the boy eats a plastic garbage pail in the bathroom and she smothers him with a pillow. Later, still, his grieving father is eating a bar of purple material that looks something like a chocolate bar. He leaves it lying around and another man picks it up and eats it. He dies immediately. Contrary to Caprice’s belief that the body is without intrinsic meaning this man, Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), believes that there is a very definite purpose within the transformation of the body. He is a cell leader in a revolutionary faction called evolutionists who, prompted by the advent of neo-organs, have taken it upon themselves to reshape the digestive system. They have become plastic-eaters. But the food they eat is toxic to anyone who has not undergone the surgery. Except for his son Bracken who, in some fit of Lamarckian impossibility, has been born with neo-organs that allow him to, naturally, eat plastics. But only that. His mother was convinced he was an inhuman monster, kidnapped and killed him because she hated her own son as an inhuman product of her estranged husband’s obsessions.

In Crimes of the Future the body and its configuration have become a deeply charged political question. States wish to preserve command over the granting of life and the form it will take for the public, in aggregate. As such the random deviation of the body and its deliberate shaping are effectively synonymous. It doesn’t matter that Bracken was born able to eat plastic while Lang gave himself the quality. Both are equally monstrous to a state whose principal concern is not how people can eat plastic but that they might. A mother rejects her own child, murders him, because she cannot tolerate such difference and the bile she projects at Lang is just as vicious. She blames him, and his transformative desires, for precipitating her murder of her son.

Lang wants to reveal the truth of his son’s transformation to the world and begs Saul to use his autopsy table to reveal the truth. Saul eventually, reluctantly, agrees. Caprice seems eager to do it and discover definitively whether the body has intrinsic meaning. When they cut the boy open they discover that he has already been thoroughly marked by Timlin who has filled the child-corpse with tattooed organs in a plagiaristic homage to Caprice’s tattoo work. Any intrinsic meaning the body might have is over-coded by the demands of the state.

“All the stupidity and the arbitrariness of the laws, all the pain of the initiations, the whole perverse apparatus of repression and education, the red-hot irons, and the atrocious procedures have only this meaning: too breed man, to mark him in his flesh,” Deleuze and Guattari say in Anit-Oedipus. They say this marking of the flesh exists to form man “within the debtor-creditor relation, which on both sides turns out to be a matter of memory – a memory straining toward the future.” The state fears that people might become inhuman because to do so might set people outside the bounds of debt and alliance that tie them back to the state and grant its power. The absolute biopower of a body to become different from itself is the ultimate threat to the ability of the state to discipline a body. As Deleuze says, “We do not even know what a body is capable of,” and Foucault points out that discipline begins, in part, in the barracks and the careful systematization of bodies to individual, almost atomic, movements. To discipline a body is to sort, carefully, what it can do. This anarchic metastasis threatens that disciplinary power. If a body has intrinsic meaning: if it is, of its own volition, trying to become something new and different then it cannot be governed.

The corporate assassins kill Lang but Saul abandons any pretext of cooperation with the state in light of this. He goes home and eats the purple chocolate as Caprice films him. The film ends with a look of ecstasy on his face as, for the first time in the film, he eats without excruciating agony. We don’t know if he will live or die but he is becoming something other than what he was.

Will toward art

We must not forget in all this talk of power and revolution, of states and revolting bodies, that Saul and Caprice are first and foremost artists. Our initial question is not about whether a state can, or even should, govern the potentials of a body but rather whether a body has the will to become an artwork without the conscious intention to become art of some ego behind the body. Must a body be governed to become a body of art or can art conjure itself?

We are presented with arguments both for and against this. The ear-dancer fails to make art of himself by conscious effort while Saul creates his art effortlessly. But Saul’s art is overcoded with Caprice’s tattoos and Odile has been successful creating of herself an artwork through conscious will.

It seems as if, within Crimes of the Future, will is distinct from conscious direction. A body may have direction but lack will. It may have will but lack direction. It may lack both – like Bracken’s unfortunate corpse – or it may contain both – like Saul in the moment when he eats the plastic bar.

Art demands both. Saul, containing the will toward art, and Caprice, holding a direction, make an excellent collaborative team precisely because they are able to thread this needle together. The question of whether Athey or Fudge was the true artist is a wrong question. Both are essential to the process.

Crimes of the Future envisions art as a becoming rather than a being. It exists not in the paint affixed to canvas but in the act of affixing the paint. The art exists between the hand holding the brush and the canvas upon which the marks are presented. It is a suspended moment of transition.

Crimes of the Future sits at the precipice off the Outside. The state fights back against the advent of the new weakly, in a disorganized manner, and is ultimately ineffective at doing anything more meaningful than defacing a child’s corpse. Capital, too, attempts to forestall the future albeit with a bit more savagery but no more success. They kill one rebel but untold hundreds more exist. The future cannot be forestalled. The artistry of Crimes of the Future exists in describing the fluid process of becoming. It’s irrelevant whether Saul will become a plastic eater or a corpse. The fixity of being is to be denied. Instead what is significant is the process of change whereby he is no longer what he once was.

We must all undergo becoming.

We must all change to be no longer what we once were.

In doing so we may live our lives as art.

The problem with the middle

I don’t particularly like “middle-brow” fiction for much the same reason I don’t like centrism. This boils down to two basic points:

1. It’s boring, derivative, ultimately small-c conservative and doesn’t foster my sense of the aesthetic ideal of the creation of the new.

2. It kind of doesn’t exist anyay.

Now I want to clarify that I will always heartily defend trash. I came up on horror films and kung fu movies. Give me a piece of total trash like Duel to the Death and I’m as happy as a pig in muck. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes as hosted by Elvira Mistress of the Dark was a deeply formative film to my taste. I love me some trash.

See the thing about trash that is different from “middle-brow” fiction is that trash takes risks. These risks might be inadvisable. They might be poorly executed. They might be pyrrhic examples of somebody misjudging his own constraints and reaching far more than exceeds his grasp. But regardless of the advisability of the risks, regardless of the likelihood of success, trash puts itself out there. High-art is likewise willing to take risks. Often the two principal differences between high art and trash are formal training and budget. This isn’t just the case in cinema but also applies to literary trash like pulps which were trashy in a large part because the author had to churn out content to live. They couldn’t sit around polishing art until it shone because they had rent to pay and mouths to feed.

But we can see this element of broad, explosive, and occasionally poorly-advised creation of the new throughout the pulps. I mean I don’t need to do Lovecraft discourse here, do I? But even beyond that we can see hints of this trash – high-art dialectical collapse in the work of Maurice Leblanc, whose Arsène Lupin stories existed largely to fund his life in Paris but whose inversion of Sherlock Holmes into the gentleman burglar remains a literary influence in French fiction to this day. Lupin is a startling figure. He starts from the established ground of the elite criminal that Foucault describes as stretching “from the adventure story to de Quincey, or from the Castle of Otranto to Baudelaire.” But where Foucault saw these elite criminals as a deactivation of the outlaw hero and the disturbance at the scaffold in favour of an, “affirmation that greatness too has a right to crime and that it even becomes the exclusive privilege of those who are already great,” Lupin reactivates the heroic criminal. His greatness transforms from a position of an elite right to the domain of crime to that of the illegalist activist who can achieve great works, overcome injustices, and also pull the wool over the eyes of paragons of law and order such as the then-copyright-non-enforceable consulting detective Herlock Sholmes.

Looking at Duel to the Death and, beneath the veneer of red-dyed corn syrup and sword-slash sound effects we can also see a serious exploration of how men who should otherwise get along are drawn into lethal conflict by their factional and national loyalties. Hashimoto and Ching-wan appear to like each other but even so it ends with Hashimoto dying and Ching-wan at best maimed for life, having lost an arm and the fingers of his opposite hand. For all that Duel to the Death is trash (and it is very much trash) it remains a creatively vital work that pushed not only the boundaries of good taste but also of nationalistic discourse between two rival countries. This same pattern repeats again in PG: Psycho Goreman, which I previously reviewed.

But though I might talk about a trash / high-art dialectic collapsing this doesn’t mean that trash and high art are precisely the same. Philip Glass takes risks but not the same sort of risks that the Dead Kennedys take. Shadow of the Vampire is a risky film but in a different way from The Toxic Avenger. There is a lot of baggage around the term, “high art” many of which are class-based. At its base, high art is art that takes the sort of risks a bourgeois audience would appreciate. High art must, like trash, be fervently and consistently creative; it stretches constantly toward the new. But high art does this in a manner that imposes barriers that are absent from trash. It might require a deep appreciation for classics of literature, an understanding of philosophy or politics, it may require an understanding of musical theory in order to appreciate the specific ways in which it breaks the laws music theory encodes. This isn’t to say that an understanding of art theory, philosophy, the literary canon and politics is absent from trash; far from it. The difference is that trash, being created as part of the culture industry, must remain open to access without barriers that high art is incentivized to set. There’s not much chance in earning a million dollars from a painting that any uninitiated member of the hoi polloi could appreciate. However this sometimes affords high art both a focus and a level of technical virtuosity absent in trash. Einstein on the Beach attacks the rules of music even more directly than Sonic Youth because Glass has the luxury of greater clarity of aim coming from his lived position as a bourgeois composer.

No. It’s too pat to try and say that trash and high art are the same. But they fall toward the same point in the avant-garde. Avant-garde art is often revolutionary; it is a domain of communists and anarchists. Its art is revolutionary rather than elite. It may be off-putting and hard to approach simultaneous with displaying technical virtuosity but not because of bourgeois class markers but rather by trying to be non-consumable and non-replicable. Avant-garde art is a bitter pill that most people will spit out. It is difficult to recuperate the work of an artist like Chris Burden into consumer structures. Even if the opportunity to spectate his art could be commodified, its non-reproducibility laves it eternally outside consumer culture in the sense of the word Adorno might apply.

Avant-garde art is often obscure and difficult to interpret. Begotten, for example, is literally painful to watch as eyes struggle to focus on the flickering and indistinct organic forms writhing on the screen. Artaud’s theater of Cruelty used no scripts and depended on stunning the audience with light and sound. But the reason why is less to establish a class barrier like a requirement for a formal education but rather to be like a koan – a bit of nonsense that disrupts patterns of thought, that demands an audience think differently using shock and confusion as its tools.

Avant-garde thus becomes the collision point between high art and trash. It is neither but both carry within them its germ. Avant-garde is the disruptive creation of the new that both trash and high art aspire toward in its best realization. And this is where middle-brow art is ultimately lacking. It can never achieve that avant-garde end.

Middle-brow art is very much within consumer culture. It is directly opposed to the avant-garde in that, rather than creating vanguardist barriers of shock and confusion, middle-brow art seeks to be approachable by the largest possible audience. It must be a sufficiently “ripping yarn” that it can be accessed with no barriers but must have enough allusion, clever wordplay, or commodity fetishism within it to appeal to bourgeois and especially to aspirational petit-bourgeois interests. It must be clever but not possessed of any idea so outré as to alienate an audience. It must reflect back at a culture its sense of how that culture sees itself on its best days so as to allow the greatest number of people the sense that it is good art to consume.

Jim Butcher is a strong example of this. He regularly quotes texts that require some education to fully appreciate: Midsummer Night’s Dream and Paradise Lost are alluded to regularly. However the engagement remains very much on the surface. This isn’t William Blake close-reading Milton and discovering in him a great satanic rebellion. Instead it’s a hint that the character of Nicodemus has read Milton and the suggestion that his education indicates something about him as a character. Recognition of the allusion is the only thing the allusion is used for.

The middle-brow artist feels free to draw both from high culture (such as Milton) and from trash (such as the detective noir) in order to create their work but in doing so they sanitize both. The barriers of high culture must be brought down but at the same time the threat inherent in trash must be neutralized. It took Butcher 12 books to do anything actually risky with the misogyny of noir that he’d previously used as window-dressing and then he, not to put too fine a point on it, shat the bed, establishing a story wherein Dresden was required to murder his ex-girlfriend. In fact she even thanked him for it. After that Butcher settled down into a series of increasingly mediocre books in which he tried unsuccessfully to reclaim some of the commercial appeal he had prior to that book. I don’t know if he succeeded because I rapidly lost interest. Frankly there’s nothing particularly risky about having your protagonist do a mercy-killing as a pivotal character moment and that reification of misogyny is not the creation of the new.

And so we have effectively established art as a quadrangle. Trash and high art both feed into avant-garde art, which seeks to disrupt, shock and create the new out of the collision of disparate ideas and that explicitly de-commercializes art and both feed into middle-brow art that seeks to strip them for commercially viable material to replicate. Middle-brow art is the MCU, it’s the Whedonesque and it’s all that those interwoven aesthetic positions have done to film, television and literature in their wake.

But also middle-brow art isn’t fully real.

This is because centers are intrinsically unstable.

I am no fan of centrism. For one it is a fundamentally reactionary position. A centrist always calibrates based on two points. The first is their relationship to the edge of the Overton Window. A centrist wants to sit in the safe middle of acceptable discourse. This can be good! When LBGTQ+ activists forced the hand of the political class and won hard-fought rights centrists mostly acquiesced as soon as they became sure where the safe-middle of the Overton window was. You’re unlikely to find gender abolitionists among the political center but you’re also less likely to find explicit homophobes than you would have been in decades past, unlike those who push at the rightward edge of the Overton window.

But on the other hand, centrists reference themselves by a connection to inertia. A centrist would prefer the political center stay put. They are calibrating their position based on comfort and disruption is uncomfortable. A centrist is slow to change. Gradualist. Incrementalist. The centrist political ideology does not want to give birth to the New.

This, more than anything else, makes the centrist reactionary. They can only respond politically to an external disruption. Left alone, and absent any discomfort, a centrist pursues only a social stasis where the current mode of life is endlessly and perfectly reproduced.

Just as commercial art is endlessly and perfectly reproduced.

This is a problem because the ability to endlessly and perfectly reproduce art hacks at the very fundaments of the value of art. As Walter Benjamin said, “In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art – its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence – and nothing else – that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject.” This is what marks the work of Burden. It’s not that a person was shot that is the central artistic statement of Shoot but that he was shot in a certain place and at a certain time.

And so we return to this point where art that chases after an illusory middle is simultaneously static and in a frenzied chase of the center. It wants nothing more than a stasis in style. When mere-decade old examples of an artistic style are brought forward these centrists of taste say, “but that’s outmoded! What about what happened last year?” But the problem is that nothing much has changed. The frenzied search for a center might have modulated a little bit around some small issues like the mutability of gender or the threat posed by fascism but mostly the middle-brow gathers its history about it and says, “we must remain here in the middle of it all.”

Matt Colquhoun recently wrote a short essay about the alt-right and the hyperreal that absolutely grabbed my imagination. The key thing I think is relevant to this aesthetic discussion of centrists though is the idea that the hyperreal isn’t an irrealism but rather it’s an over-abundance of the real. It represents a crowding out of potential in the face of all this reality. There’s a concept within science fiction discourse: sensawunda. There’s a certain palingenetic sense among conservative fans that sensawunda isn’t what it used to be. The idea of a golden age of science fiction is deployed to suggest that once more wonder was evoked in SF. Conservatives will propose a cause for the failure of sensawunda in the censoriousness of their political rivals. While more centrist voices will either argue that sensawunda is exactly as it always was or is simply irrelevant. The truth is there’s very little to wonder at in modern SFF. Most of the “hard” science fiction is simply reiterating the same cosmological argument between relativity and quantum physics that has held physics in near stasis for the last forty years or is picking at technological solutions to climate catastrophe while “soft” science fiction and fantasy have retreated into self-reflexivity, endlessly prodding at the same problems again and again. Let’s re-litigate Omelas or the Cold Equations. Let’s invert the subject-object relation in Frankenstein (but not really because the point of that book was always to do with inter-subjectivity). As is often the case conservatives identify that there is a problem but are incapable of grasping the nature of it. As a result they propose counter-productive and actively harmful solutions.

However wonder is a rare commodity in commercial SFF. Mostly what these works are about is the reproduction of the present. Fisher’s “frenzied stasis” again. But there’s no wonder in the present. And this is what many of these books want to serve us – the present again – “the same thing in a deceptive form.” There’s hardly anything new in a book about colonialism, city planning and institutional memory. Brunner touched on many of those topics in 1965. And even that parodic reiteration is a breath of fresh air compared to novels that project a retrofuturistic desire for colonial exploration back onto the past and suggest we could have got there if only a rock spun left instead of right. This folding of the past, present and future together is precisely the hyper-real crowding out of the future that traps these middle-brow science fictional stories.

There are, of course, outliers. Jeff VanderMeer’s Hummingbird / Salamander delivers a kind of terrified awe that can pass for wonder by the dingy light of a failing fluorescent at the end of the world and while there’s nothing particularly wondrous in Gideon the Ninth it is at least a novel formulation of the gothic – which is better than nothing. (And I would note that Tamsyn Muir’s mastery of voice makes anything she writes worth reading regardless of other factors.) However I would be hard-pressed to call VanderMeer especially middle-brow in any capacity and both Muir and VanderMeer blur the lines between science fiction and horror enough to avoid the trap of the endless replication of the present in more conventional science fiction and fantasy endeavors.

Elizabeth Sandifer talks about a response to this wonder-less reification of the present into all future epochs in her excellent four tiny essays on SF-F, proposing a mode called “Epic Cold” which encapsulates a coldly clinical approach to very large things. She raises Denis Villeneuve as an exemplar of the style and I’d propose his Dune adaptation might be the best case in point for what she proposes. I have mixed opinions of Dune. It’s at its best when it’s two actors together in a stark set being cryptic toward each other – the combination of minimalist script and stridently formalistically operatic blocking Dune uses works to its aesthetic advantage here. But when these clinical Epic Cold modalities pulls back to let us see the world it becomes not much more than a Pink Floyd Laser Experience at the Planetarium. This appears to be something the marketers of this movie were aware of.

Middle-brow has the advantage of market appeal. Its ideas sell easily. It doesn’t take many risks because avoiding the risks of the marginal and the edge-case is its principal preoccupation. Where avant-garde art cuts trash and high art apart to find the revolutionary moment, to contain art in its specific novelty, middle-brow art seeks to reproduce the present conditions and give another hit of enjoyment to a consumptive public. It can interrogate but interrogation must occur along predefined pathways. What’s more it must show the mechanics of the interrogation to the audience because the creation of a dangerous interrogation would create resistance and the hyperreal doesn’t want resistance – frenzied stasis is a response against resistance. It can entertain. Certainly it can entertain. But it treats entertainment as an end rather than a means. What the middle brow cannot do is simply this: It cannot create the New.

The Matrix Resurrections proves a better blockbuster is still possible

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I cannot assume that a review for a major movie that came out literally yesterday is going to be read only by my regular audience so before I get into the meat of the review I should mention that I regularly discuss incidents from the plot of my subjects of critique, including climactic events, in the course of review. I have strong and somewhat idiosyncratic views on the concept of the “spoiler” and its place within criticism and film discourse but I also know there will be a lot of people who want to experience the surprises and reversals of this movie fresh. I loved this film. It’s funny and heartfelt, achingly sincere in that so-very-Wachowski manner, and, as one less favorable critic said, it’s full of “philosophical mumbo jumbo” (would we want it any other way?) and has a “woke agenda” (in that it recognizes patriarchy and misogyny as foundational poles of social control). So this is your warning. If you don’t know how the events of the film transpire and would prefer not to learn about them in a review you should stop here and wait until you can watch the movie. The legal choices currently are either to go to a cinema or watch it on a streaming service that is technically only available in the United States, which is unfortunate but this is, alas, the world we live in here in the closing days of 2021. I don’t personally council going to theaters right now, there was a public exposure site at one of the showings of that other blockbuster movie here on my remote island. But if that’s the choice you make please take precautions, wear a well-fitted three-layer mask, sit away from others, avoid eating in the theater and make sure your vaccinations are up to date.

So let’s dig in.

The first act of The Matrix Resurrections starts with an apology for the making of The Matrix Resurrections. In this part of the film Neo is once again living as Thomas Anderson: a successful video game designer whose game, The Matrix, won substantial critical acclaim. But Thomas is a mess. His studio is owned by Warner Brothers and they’ve insisted that the studio begin work on a sequel to the long-completed trilogy of original games. Thomas’ partner in the company confides in him that WB will be making the sequel with or without him and that if he refuses to participate he can be easily removed as an obstacle to its creation. The choice before him is a non-choice. He can make another game, guide how it’s shaped to an extent and take his share of the profits from its eventual success or he can step aside and get nothing while somebody else does whatever they want with his career-defining creation.

I am very fond of the tendency of Wachowski movies to be entirely unsubtle but this remarkably on the nose.

There are two possible ways to read this early sub-plot. Either it’s a sincere apology that a sequel was made for such a definitively finished work, possibly even a recounting of the conversations Lana Wachowski had to have surrounding the production, or it’s a sly joke winking at the possibility of the same. From any other creative team I’d assume the latter but considering how Wachowski sister movies traffic in sincerity here I lean in the direction of the former.

During the discussion, Thomas, showing obvious signs of extreme anxiety begins to see his partner’s mouth seal shut in precisely the way Smith had once done to him in the first film. Later Thomas talks to his analyst who reassures him about the indications of progress evident that he could even articulate this hallucination freely. His analyst calls the discussion an ambush and suggests his hallucination was a transference; Thomas felt his voice was taken away by the decision to make a sequel over his wishes so he imagined his partner’s voice taken instead. The analyst offers Neo a refill on a prescription he’s been using. Bright blue pills the same shade as the analyst’s smart jacket and fashion-forward glasses frames.

This setup comfortably introduces a lot of the key themes that run through the movie simultaneous to its work as a piece of critical apologia for the sequel-driven state of Hollywood blockbusters in general and for the decision to make this movie at this time in particular. The Matrix is a film very concerned with identity – specifically with the divide between the self-gaze and the gaze of the other. Thomas sees himself as we, the audience, see him: Keanu Reeves with long hair and a beard. But we catch glimpses of another man in a reflection. An older man, balding, with a face that looks ground down by a life described later by the Analyst as a combination of yearning for what you don’t have and fear of losing what you do. Other such circumstances apply to the other characters introduced in the first act. Thomas’ partner displays many of the mannerisms of Agent Smith but looks nothing like him and he seems friendly even if the Analyst is wary of his intentions. In another early sequence, somewhat disconnected from Thomas’ story, a new character, Bugs, enters a part of the Matrix that looks like the opening sequence of the first film. But it’s different. Trinity has a different face. It’s similar, hauntingly familiar, but it’s not her. And in this node of the Matrix Agent Smith is there but he’s also Morpheus this blending of identities carries with it a new face in the form of Yahya Abdul-Mateen – who brings an off-kilter humour to his performance that lands many of the best jokes in a surprisingly funny film.

In this retelling of the opening scenes of the first film, Trinity doesn’t escape; she is surrounded by agents and they’re beating her down. Bugs interferes and is pursued by Morpheus / Smith. She escapes into Thomas Anderson’s apartment from the first film and there encounters Morpheus / Smith who is an agent and a program but who is also certain that he is, in fact, Morpheus. Both Bugs and Morpheus are sure Neo is still alive. She saw him. He awoke her. Morpheus shares the same story.

A Neo who is Thomas Anderson again. A Smith who isn’t Smith. A Morpheus who is Smith. A Trinity named Tiffany and another Trinity who isn’t. The first act of this film introduces us to all these fragments of identity that carry with them the signification of others. These are characters who are split between how they see themselves and how others see them. When Thomas looks at his partner and, for a moment, sees Smith we are invited to ask whether it is, in fact Smith, or whether it’s a remnant of the significance Smith had on his life.

There’s a principal question regarding self the film attacks early on rooted in the question of memory and narrativization. Thomas has created a fiction of his memories of the Matrix. He has written it into a video game. In the process of doing so he’s creating a narrative frame out of his past. But the film asks whether this frame is a fiction or whether it is an authentic reflection of the becoming of this man at this time.

The Matrix plays out Thomas’ struggle with what constitutes his reality for far longer than the first film. There’s an extended montage of him mainlining blue pills and sleepwalking through his painfully unfulfilling life, work, gym, pining after Tiffany (Trinity) in the delightfully named Simulatte coffee shop as she nips in and out with her children but saying nothing.

Tiffany is a mother to a whole gaggle of kids. She’s got a doting husband (Chad) and doesn’t understand either why her life feels a little bit empty. She tries to exorcize the ennui by building motorcycles as a hobby and fantasizes about kicking Chad, “not too hard, just maybe hard enough to break his ribs.” A work colleague of Thomas forces an introduction because he’s tired of seeing his buddy mooning after Tiffany from afar and they form a slightly remote friendship. Tiffany can’t help but notice how much Trinity in the Matrix video game looks like her. But she is anxious about the affection she feels for Thomas, the familiarity she has to him because she is a loving mother and wife.

Morpheus forces a confrontation. He reveals that the node of the matrix Bugs found him in was, in fact, a construct created by Thomas with the express purpose of gestating an AI. He is a fusion of Smith and Morpheus because these two people were the most formative on Neo’s life and Neo needed them both to forge his escape from this new prison he found himself trapped within. He offers Thomas a red pill but Thomas refuses. Police invade and chaos ensues. Thomas’ partner stumbles into the bloodshed as Morpheus battles the police and picks up a pistol. In that moment he becomes Smith again, bellowing, “Mr. Anderson” at Thomas rather than Tom and immediately trying to kill him. There’s a discontinuity, a cat named Deja Vu, and then Thomas is back with his therapist who is very concerned for his wellbeing.

Bugs and Morpheus must make another attempt before they can free Neo from the prison of the identity of Thomas Anderson that has been forced upon him. Of course, despite spending an hour with our anxious and emotionally fragile depressive Thomas trying to navigate a disintegrating reality, the Matrix Resurrections must eventually pivot back to being a Matrix movie – it cannot prevaricate endlessly over what is the Matrix and what is the Real. I know many fans had hoped for some revelation that the Real was itself another Matrix, that reality was a nested set of simulations but this is not the case. In fact, in a film that exists specifically to upset binary divisions in so many ways, the division between the Matrix and the Real is the one it leaves unbroken. There are different nodes, different places, within the Matrix. Bits of old code get slotted in. There are constructs and there are sandboxes. But ultimately these are all part of the Matrix which is just as much a prison as it ever was.

There is a hint of an abolitionist critique here. The Tiqqun phrase I’m so fond of is apropos. “But evasion is only a simple escape: it leaves the prison intact. We must have desertion, a flight that at the same time obliterates the whole prison. Properly speaking, there is no individual desertion. Each deserter takes with him a little of the group’s fighting spirit. By simply existing he is an active challenge to the social order: and all the relationships he enters are contaminated by the radicality of his situation.” Neo’s compromise with the Machines left the Matrix intact but unstable. There was a civil war among the Machines. The losing side of that civil war joined with the survivors of Zion to create Io – a new city ruled over by an ancient and cynical Niobe. The victors created a far worse Matrix. By failing to break the prison of the Matrix entirely, Neo left his job only half-done. The change he brought created a difference. The society of Io is different in so many ways from Zion – some better, some worse. But the revolution never ended. The world remained at war, even if the sides of the conflict changed, and Niobe has grown bitter and fearful because of it. Niobe fears that the return of Neo will spark a new front in the war. But this film isn’t a war movie at all. It’s a rescue mission.

The Neoliberal Matrix

Stepping back for a moment it’s significant to situate this as an auteurial movie. And, happily, it’s learned one lesson that separates effective auteurial projects from failures. An auteurial film requires a singularity of creative vision, not of creative control. Tells such as the presence of many, many Sense8 actors in the cast along with David Mitchel and Aleksandar Hemon who have both previously collaborated with Wachowski on the script, cinematographer John Toll who has been the Wachowski cinematographer since Cloud Atlas, Joseph Jett Sally as editor (previously an assistant editor on Speed Racer) and Lindsay Pugh in costuming – another Sense8 alum – indicate that a cohesive creative team has built up around Lana Wachowski. This construction of the team is so fundamentally important to the creation of that unified vision that makes auteurial cinema stand out from more studio fare. And this is critical because of how this film answers the apology in act 1. In The Matrix Resurrections irony, sarcasm and emotional distance code directly onto villains. Our protagonists are achingly sincere, painfully vulnerable. This is a long-standing theme in Wachowski films. It’s notably present in the original Matrix sequels and in Sense8 – a show almost entirely about the power of sincerity and emotional vulnerability. This puts this film directly at odds with the quippy ironic distance of blockbuster fare like Red Notice, Deadpool or anything directed by Joss Whedon and also at the cold and clinical distance of blockbuster directors like Nolan and Snyder. We get multiple close-ups of Thomas rubbing the fabric of his jeans to ground himself, touch has power. After Thomas and Tiffany shake hands for the first time the sense memory of her hand conjures powerful memories of his life as Neo in him. In the Matrix, as in much of the Wachowski ouevre, love is a force of real power. The bonds people form, the way that they live through the other via love is central to their ability to overcome the challenges before them. This film problematizes this by redesigning the Matrix. This isn’t the old Matrix where the main mode was an enforced somnescence and where love merely had to be a powerful enough clarion call to awaken the sleeper. The Architect, who scorned human emotion as being something irrelevant to the grand algorithmic balance of his construction is gone and in his place is the Analyst – who has built his prison explicitly out of love.

Specifically the Analyst, finally revealed not as Thomas’ therapist but rather as Neo and Trinity’s jailer has built his new matrix out of the frustrated potential of Neo and Trinity’s love unrealized. When the Matrix was destabilized following the end of the war with Zion, the Analyst instituted a project to restore Neo and Trinity from death. And once he’d done this, he bound them together as the processing core of the new Matrix and as a psychological template for its systems of control. Neo and Trinity are bound into their prison by what he describes as their yearning for what they don’t have coupled with their fear to lose what they do. He keeps them close enough they can almost touch while constantly frustrating their efforts. He creates for Trinity a husband, children. For Thomas a high paying job in the creative industry. The choice exists for them both. They can see each other. And the Analyst cannot fully erase the meaning they hold for each other because the whole Matrix is literally powered by their frustration. And so they must be separated by emotional and psychological obstacles: her family, his mental health problems. In the process of imprisoning Neo and Trinity thus he has also bound Smith who was forced into the role of Neo’s partner and artificially kept from being who he truly is. The Architect makes Neo and Trinity choose their own subjugation. When Neo is freed he threatens Trinity and promises to kill her if Neo will not return of his own volition.

This film has inherited the complicated discourse the first three movies wove around the issue of choice. The question of choice is omni-present. Sati reminds everyone during the rescue of Trinity that she must choose to be freed or the mission will fail. But simultaneously many characters including Morpheus, Bugs and Smith comment on the illusory nature of choice. Smith-the-partner presents Thomas with the sequel fait accompli. He could choose to refuse to participate but that would basically just mean cutting his own input out of an unhaltable process. When Bugs offers Morpheus the red pill choice they both admit there’s no choice there and he already knows which pill he will take. This ties into the idea of the Eternal Return which was central to the original sequels. And, sure enough, this film plays with the ideas of difference and repetition a lot. It’s present in the gestating simulation Thomas uses to create Morpheus. It’s there when, during the second act, Neo and Smith fight and the entire fight is an echo of their past encounters.

There is intercut footage from the original film series throughout this movie. When Smith speaks the image will momentarily cut to a time from the first movie when Hugo Weaving’s Smith said the thing. When Morpheus confronts Neo during his rescue he does so in a cinema playing footage from Thomas’ game – of the scene in which Fishburne’s Morpheus originally gave Neo the red-pill choice. When Thomas struggles with his memories of being Neo we see them as fragmented images from across the original trilogy. This, combined with some excellent sound editing makes for an often unnerving experience, especially as Wachowski has maintained the original, highly aestheticized look of the original footage but has used entirely different and far broader-spectrum colour grading for the new Matrix.

The Analyst, and most of the rest of the cast other than Bugs and Morpheus, see the Matrix as an inevitability. There is no alternative. They tried to shut it down and doing so just fragmented the Machines, created new factions but no peace and no end to the Matrix. The Analyst believes that most of the “coppertops” prefer their subjugation. They’re too afraid to lose what little they have to step out of line. The unequal power structures that define the contemporary moment exist because the victims choose them.Hang on tight and spit on me,” is the mode of the Analyst’s Matrix.

Niobe is an old revolutionary lost to pessimism. She’s seen too much death and pain and she’s sick of it. She sees no alternative to the Matrix because they tried once and it didn’t work. She’s deeply bitter toward Morpheus (the original Morpheus) who never stopped believing that the revolution could never be defeated. The Analyst sees no alternative because he doesn’t want an alternative. He doesn’t even want a rollback to an earlier version of the Matrix, one that isn’t dependent on keeping two resurrected heroes in a state of immortal purgatory. And Smith isn’t beholden to this Matrix or that – he just doesn’t want to be put back in prison.

And to a certain extent there’s some honesty to the Analyst’s defense of the new Matrix. A rollback would not, on its own, be anything even resembling enough. Mark Fisher puts forward a left-accelerationist read of Lyotard in Postcapitalist Desire that, “that there’s no possible retreat from capitalism – there’s no space of primitive outside to which we can return, we have to go all the way through capitalism.” Likewise there’s no return to Zion and the war with The Machines. In fact nobody would want that. The dissident Machines are a loved and valued part of the society of Io. Morpheus (the program), Cybebe and Lumin8 are valued and beloved allies of the Resistance, nobody wants to go back to the absolute binary of Neo’s era. The only way out is through.

But the other thing nobody really wants is another front in the war. And this is the final really significant formal structural detail I want to draw out here – the plot of the Matrix Resurrections isn’t a bildungsroman like the first nor is it a war movie like the original sequels. This is a rescue movie. The new Matrix, the one powered by the double-bind of yearning and fear, only functions by keeping the object of desire always just out of reach of the subject. They can see it, the thing they want, right there but they can’t quite reach. But if they stay in the system, if they don’t make waves, maybe they can get just a tiny bit closer – a perverse Xeno’s paradox at play that the film depicts clearly during Neo’s first true confrontation with the Analyst in which the program fires a gun at Trinity and holds Neo back just long enough that he thinks he might still power through and rescue her while knowing he almost certainly will have to watch her die again.

The Analyst wants Neo to return to his cage willingly and so he holds Trinity up as a hostage. Neo is faced with another choice-that-is-not-a-choice: he can escape at the cost of Trinity’s life or he can return to a prison where he will, forever, look but never touch. But Sati proposes a rescue – with the only catch being that Trinity must choose to be rescued and during his attempts to win Trinity over she reveals to Neo that she has been having prophetic dreams much like his from The Matrix Reloaded; they end badly. By the moment of the confrontation the story has laid the groundwork that “Tiffany” is as unsatisfied in this half-life as Neo was when he was compelled into the persona of Thomas. But even so it’s terrifying to let go of what she had: a husband, children. The Analyst engineers a crisis at home to drag Trinity away from Neo at the last moment, to skew her to staying in his simulation in hopes a failure of the rescue mission will also compel Neo back under his domination. But Trinity turns back on her way out the door, sees Neo getting pressed to the ground under a horde of cops and something snaps and she breaks free. She decides the simulated family isn’t worth sacrificing the truth. She becomes tired of Chad grabbing her by the arm and leading her where the Analyst wants her. She is tired of building bikes rather than riding them. She leaps.

The Leap

Love, in the Matrix, is always a matter of faith. It’s power is ineffable and irrational. This is why the Architect failed – he disregarded love as nonsense and the love Neo and Trinity had for each other was enough to overturn his plans. The Analyst, instead, wants to pervert love into a weapon to use against the lovers. He knows that love is a desire and that he can use the productive force of desire as a real source of energy if he can only keep the lovers just the right distance apart. The Analyst doesn’t underestimate love qua love. He doesn’t underestimate love as an emotion. But he does understand love as an expression of faith.

There had always been hints of this idea in the Matrix. As early as the first film Morpheus showed Neo how far he could jump if he only freed his mind. In this film the Leap and its expression of the concept of faith takes center stage. Bugs tells Neo that she awakened when she saw him jump off a building and he never fell. The analyst, meanwhile, refers to “Thomas” as a suicide survivor and attempts to make Neo’s faith, his belief that he could be free, into a matter of shame and anxiety. “The doubt that saves doubts only itself,” Kierkegaard says. He means this as a challenge against the idea of dialectical skepticism in the context of theology. Hegelian theology was popular at the time of Kierkegaard’s career and he pushed back against the ability to approach religion from the direction of doubt. He would rather doubt the doubt itself.

There is some power in this position. I’ve often remarked that the biggest failing of Rational Skepticism is the unwillingness to turn the tools of skepticism inward, to doubt the bases upon which they build their skeptical responses to the external phenomena they doubt. There is a danger in self-assuredness that creates blind spots the anxious may see. Kierkegaard put forward this paradoxical position of anxious self-doubt as the basis for authentic belief throughout much of his body of work and his solution was to leap over the leveling scythe of reason and into faith. Kierkegaard counseled an irrational response to matters of faith as being the only true avenue for the expression of real faith. What faith is there in biblical proof?

In the film, Neo has lost the ability to fly. In fact, he spends much of the movie rusty – an old soldier who thought his days of fighting were over – and whose hesitance to re-enter the fray manifests in a reduction of his powers. He’s still strong enough to toss enemies around and to stop bullets with his will. He’s still fast enough to dodge bullets and to observe their path through the air and he’s still robust enough to survive being thrown through a concrete pillar but he is not the man he once was.

Neo is plagued with self-doubt. He begins the film with crippling self-doubt. He doubts even his own life story, a doubt that the Analyst is all to eager to help along with a delightful display of Wormtoungery. Neo wants to make a leap but his doubts plague him. And he can’t just start flying from the ground because his faith is insufficient. It isn’t a leap of faith to jump up when there’s no risk. You have to put everything you are into a moment of irrational devotion. Only there does an authentic leap of faith lie.

On the other side of the leap is the Knight of Faith and Kierkegaard cautions us that this is an incommunicable state of being. It’s impossible to know for sure if a leap is genuine harder still to communicate the essence of such a genuine moment.

After they escape from the Analyst, Neo and Trinity flee through the streets of the Matrix pursued by a horde of zombies. (The Analyst feels this “horde mode” is a more effective solution than the agents of the previous iteration.)

This whole sequence is interesting in that it puts the threat of stochastic terrorism and mass violence front-and-center where once it was just cops. Furthermore it shows how cops and stochastic terrorists operate together for the maintenance of the status quo. And so the zombies chase Neo and Trinity onto a roof where helicopters wait to gun them down. But they agree that they will not return to their prison and they jump. It should come as no surprise to anyone watching this film that it is Trinity who has a moment of authentic faith and discovers the ability to fly although I’m certain it will upset all of the worst members of the audience to no end.

Patriarchy and Societies of Control

In Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish he describes an epistemological regime called the “disciplinary society.” This is a system of subjectification wherein a subject enters into a space where their body is trained before exiting that space and, as Deleuze put it, starting from 0 again in that new space. Disciplinary societies are best reflected in disciplinary institutions such as the school, the hospital, the factory and the prison. Now it’s important to note that these epistemic systems are not complete and impermeable. The principal work of Discipline and Punish was to show a genealogy of how previous epistemic systems led to the production of the disciplinary society as a mode of subjectification. A feature of the disciplinary society was a focus of power on the individual subject, specifically a focus on shaping the individual subject into an ideal citizen – a perfection of the soul through the rigors of training and a sort of inherited monasticism. He remarks upon how the design of the prison cell and the work-house cell of the early factories was modeled rather explicitly on the monastic cell. But while these epistemes leave marks they do not remain the dominant systems of subjectification forever and in the Postscript to Societies of Control, Deleuze proposed that, by the 1990s the disciplinary society was already being supplanted by a new episteme – the society of control.

The principal difference between the disciplinary society and the society of control was a spatial one – the disciplinary society is made up of a series of distinct spaces you move within. You go to school, advance through grades, complete school. Then you move to the new enclosed space of the factory. If you get sick you go to the hospital and go through triage, observation, treatment. If you fall afoul of police you go through arrest, trial, sentence. In all these cases there’s a focus on specific delineated corrective spaces.

The society of control is modular. Access to this module is granted or removed. Guattari, who Deleuze cites in the essay, proposed this as being like a city divided into zones in which the gates were operated by a key card. At any time a subject could be admitted to some zones and excluded from others. Deleuze took this observation even farther and suggested that the singular subjectivity of the disciplinary society – that focus on a perfectible singular being upon whom discipline could operate – had been replaced by a modular subject. Distinct schools were replaced with training modules. Professional memberships and licensing organizations could assign or withdraw various rights. A perfect genealogical precursor to this power relation is the driver’s license: you have permission to operate a motor vehicle contingent on not being found to do so in an unsafe manner. This is not the disciplinary power relation although it was not, alone, sufficient to manifest as a new episteme. The original Matrix was released nine years after Deleuze’s postscript, seven years after its first translation into English. While Deleuze believed that the society of control had already become the predominant episteme at that time, per both Deleuze and Foucault, no episteme erases the marks of the one before and the transition from one to another can only ever be discovered genealogically. We recognize we are in a new episteme when we can recognize the completion of the old order. This period of transition is visible in the first Matrix movie. Knowledge is modular. Put in a disc and know kung fu. But the authority of the agents is still disciplinary. Smith takes Thomas Anderson out of the space of the workplace and into the interrogation room. There he engages in an attempt to correct Mr. Anderson, to return him to a life of productive service to the extant power structure. This is fundamentally a disciplinary power mechanism.

In contrast the Analyst implements measures of control. Identity is treated as modular. Neo is allowed to be “Thomas Anderson” he’s even allowed to have a personal history with the Matrix and an awareness of his past but he is denied access to his own face. Trinity features similar dividuality of her being, buried under the disguise of Tiffany. Access to spaces is also modular. An alarm rings in Thomas’ workplace and lets everybody know access is now forbidden. The enforcement of authority that comes after is not an attempt to correct a defective soul but rather a purge of all subjects who have failed to depart from the denied zone.

The granting and denial of the object of desire in various forms is central to the Analyst’s Matrix, very much in contrast to the Architect’s disciplinary one. And this also shows in the difference between agents and the horde mode. The agents are aware singular subjects who can appear and remove a subject for correction. They take people like Neo and Morpheus and put them in rooms to reshape them to suit a purpose. The horde mode is a modular area denial tool. They can be activated in this zone or that to force subjects to move into this space but not that one.

Control, much like the related but distinct Foucauldian concept of the biopolitical order is not concerned with individual subjects so much as it is with modules, aggregates, clusters and categories. And this traces into how the Analyst deploys misogyny. Because, oh boy, but the Analyst is the most misogynistic robot I have ever encountered. In the denouement, when Trinity has proven Smith correct in his statement that “anyone could be Neo” by achieving an equivalent level off awakening, and Neo and Trinity both confront the Analyst to warn him that they will be remaking his world, Trinity takes the lead while Neo hangs back. She repeatedly kills the Analyst and restores him and all the while the Analyst begs Neo to control his woman. This same pattern of misogynistic subjugation is clear in the differential treatment of Neo and Trinity by the Analyst in their imprisonment. Neo is defined by his career. Trinity is defined by her family.

And we are invited to see her discomfort with this when she says to Neo that she isn’t certain whether she had children because she wanted them or because it was expected that she would. Trinity is given a history, as Tiffany, that includes these children who she loves, because in the modular self the Analyst has created for her includes these children. She is, in this film, entirely correct to question whether her having children, feeling like she wanted them, is a compulsion put upon her by an outside force. And the love for a child is the emotional cudgel the Analyst uses to try and dissuade Trinity from choosing her own freedom.

Because this film is ultimately too existentialist to treat this dividuality of the self as fully real. The Matrix posits that there is, in fact, an authentic subjective core to being. There is a Neo underneath who is the authentic Neo. There is a Trinity who is the authentic Trinity. This authenticity is reflected through the love these two have for each other.

Importantly that same access to authenticity is also applied to Smith who insists Neo freed him and whose whole motivation is doing whatever he deems necessary to avoid being imprisoned away from his own authentic self again, to avoid being treated as a modular being. Considering how the old Smith desired to make everything the same, like him, this pursuit of an authentic self is an interesting direction to take Smith but not an inappropriate one. His core of authenticity is also relational. His bond with Neo plays very much into the Spinozist sense of the proximity of love and hatred.

The tension of this film is the idea that power will shape people not by taking them, one at a time, into a room and making them conform but by creating a social field in which they will move themselves into controllable relations. Trinity will be a home maker. Neo will be a careerist. Smith will be a defanged antagonist rather than the trickster he desires to be. They will not be these things because they were trained to be but because the social field was manipulated to move them into these spaces. This deployment of misogyny specifically in the case of Trinity is particularly telling and points toward how reactionaries deploy nostalgia for the nuclear family to exercise control over men and women alike. Patriarchy is at much in play in making Neo an alienated worker as it is in making Trinity a dissatisfied homemaker but special cruelty is applied to Trinity. She is allowed less of her authentic self by dint of being a woman and being compelled into situations of inauthentic love.

This movie is a rescue mission. It’s not the triumphant return of the hero. Neo barely spends any time in Io and he’s seen there more as an inconvenience than as a hero. But Trinity being rescued from the Matrix is the one thing, the lynch pin. That is the only thing the Analyst cannot countenance, that will break his Matrix entirely.

This is a delightfully kind reminder that revolution must not only be a matter of giving a different set of men the power and control over society but should instead recognize and destitute all axes of control that prevent people from realizing their authentic relationships. This is where they break from Kierkegaad because he thought that everybody must make the leap into faith alone but the Matrix Resurrections knows that the leap can only ever be made together. Authenticity exists, we can discover a core to our being, but it isn’t some hard kernel alone from all others. It’s a shining web of loves and hatreds, of lives touched and of differences made. We must all leap together into an uncertain future if we want to paint the sky with rainbows.

Nice Strawman Ben

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again,” Fisher said, and this is a kernel of revolutionary optimism we revolutionaries cling to. I have shown you it’s possible to imagine the world without the prison, and if it’s a nightmare I have given you it is at least a gentler one than the nightmare we are all currently live within. It is the duty of all of us to break out, this minute, all at once. And so long as people remain trapped in this nightmare, we abolitionists and revolutionaries will call for the wrecking ball. Release the terrified grip you have on the devil you know: freedom, real radical freedom, is terrifying. I know. It scares me too. Heavens knows it scared Sartre. But what frightens me far more is the idea that people would rather this familiar cruelty than the possibility of anything better.

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.