Ghost of Ned Ludd in the Shell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The inadvisability of publishing intro philosophy textbooks by TV producers: a review of How to Be Perfect by Michael Schur

How to Be Perfect

At the conclusion of How to Be Perfect, Michael Schur proposes an ethic which is essentially derived from Aristotle and Montesquieu modulated vial Rawls and the concept of the veil of ignorance. In the course of establishing this, well let’s be honest, this apologia for the American Liberal order, he states, “Humans have this problem: we’re kind of trapped inside our own brains. Our default setting is to think about ourselves – how to keep ourselves happy and safe and protected.” It’s remarkable that he brings about this statement only at the end of the book, considering its proximity to the Allegory of the Cave, because in the entirety of this book the only thing Schur has to say about Plato is a single sentence stating that he was Socrates’ student and that Aristotle was, in turn, his student.

That’s it. That’s all the Plato. And yet the conclusion depends on this idealist idea of a world entirely mediated by individual minds. Schur’s central ethic seems to come down to two of the Delphic maxims: “Know thyself” and “nothing in excess.” But, of course, in The Gift of Death, Derrida points out that one cannot ultimately serve two masters:

“If I obey in my duty towards God (which is my absolute duty) only in terms of duty, I am not fulfilling my relation to God. In order to fulfil my duty towards God, I must not act out of duty, by means of that form of generality that can always be mediated and communicated and that is called duty. The absolute duty that binds me to God himself, in faith, must function beyond and against any duty I have.”

Ultimately the self is the God to whom Michael Schur must serve beyond and against any duty he has, and for all that he lionises Aristotle’s mean even that council toward moderation must fall away in the defense of the individual. Within this book the greatest ethic is to know thyself. In the end it is Polonius and not Aristotle who is the ethical lodestar How to Be Perfect follows most fervently.

It’s evident that this text has great scorn for utilitarians in specific. This is not surprising, I suppose, from how The Good Place, authored by the same person, problematized the utilitarian urge to quantify the Good starting from its very first episode but what becomes evident here is something that was absent from The Good Place and that is why Schur seems to have such contempt for, “good little Utilitarians.” Specifically he seems uncomfortable at how Utilitarianism attacks the centrality of an indivisible self.

Utilitarianism especially runs the risk of placing a person into an ethical situation in which he might be divided against himself. This is a critical failure. How to Be Perfect cannot entertain that a person should ever have to be divided. All people must be fully individual.

There is a real hatred for Communism in this book. This arises early when Schur posits an hypothetical in which North Korea has undertaken one of the war crimes the United States is notorious for. This is not framed as an absurd reference back to American crime. Far from it. It’s a comical aside about how to make ethical decisions in the face of an implacable Other.

Sometime thereafter the book randomly uses the famous video of a protester during the Tiananmen Square Incident standing in front of a tank as an example of a moral martyr. Of course the identity of the figure from that third-of-a-century old videotape is entirely unknown and we cannot possibly make any comment about his moral character aside from in that moment. Perhaps How to Be Perfect is simply assuming anyone who opposes a communist must be a moral martyr.

This distaste for Communism is most egregious when the text has to tackle existentialism. Schur attacks Sartre for the apparent tension between Absolute Freedom and Being-In-The-World (he doesn’t use the Heideggerian term; he makes it clear very early on he has no interest in learning anything of Heidegger and despite my Sartrean understanding of Heidegger’s concepts I can understand this impulse even if I think it’s ultimately self-limiting however his meaning is clear nonetheless). Schur posits that Sartre’s philosophy is being clouded by his dalliance with communism. He elides that Sartre was fully aware of this tension, saying at the end of Being and Nothingness, “Will freedom by taking itself for an end escape all situation? Or on the contrary will it remain situated? Or will it situate itself so much the more precisely and the more individually as it projects itself further in anguish as a conditioned freedom and accepts more fully its responsibility as an existent by whom the world comes into being? All these questions, which refer us to a pure and not an accessory reflection, can find their reply only on the ethical plane. We shall devote to them a future work.”

But, of course, Schur admits that he couldn’t make heads or tails of Being and Nothingness and, again, fair cop. It’s a very difficult book. But to assume that the final word from Sartre on ethics and existentialism was Existentialism is a Humanism is disingenuous at best. Of course this is something of a joke on my part because Sartre also famously never got around to writing his ethic.

He left that to Beauvoir and this makes her exclusion from this book the only one almost as egregious as the exclusion of Plato. Schur, having refused to read Heidegger because of the Nazi stuff, having refused to read Kierkegaard because he’s too religious and having refused to read Nietzsche as being both too conservative and too catty narrows existentialism down to Sartre and Camus then compares Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus to Sartre’s least-well-received work, an off-the-cuff speech he gave out of frustration, in order to declare Sartre, the communist, wanting.

This book never mentions Beauvoir at all. It certainly doesn’t mention that she, four years after Being and Nothingness, put forth an ethic that attempted to discover the Good from the tension between Freedom as an end and collective responsibility. After all, that would be letting the communists win.

This book does have to eventually cite some Anarchists and Communists. In one memorable moment it comes across an Anarchist utilitarian who puts forward a compelling case for intentionally breaking laws.

The text provides the quote in reasonably intact condition. It even includes the author describing himself as an Anarchist. But the commentary the text provides is to weaken the position, reducing law-breaking to breaking nebulously defined rules and then conceding that he can be morally good in an Aristotelian pursuit of the mean to break some rules so long as nobody is hurt by doing so. The fact that the anarchist thinker who put forward this position was persuading people to prepare for revolution is ignored.

In the same chapter the book constructs an elaborate and very weakly argued defense for why Bill Gates’ charitable giving is a moral good. Schur quotes Thich Nhat Hanh quite a bit. He disagrees with the famous monk while defending Bill Gates as he imagines Thich Nhat Hanh would likely care “more about the person doing the thing than what happened when he did it. The Buddhist view of happiness requires that it be the right happiness – the mindful happiness that comes from devotion to the Buddha’s teachings.”

He does give Thich Nhat Hanh quite a bit of respect – he even cops to the very Buddhist series finale of The Good Place being largely based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings. But he leaves out that the monk once wrote of the Sangha, “We are those who are truly without possessions, we are the true communists.”

This text does this a lot whenever it encounters a communist – something which is somewhat unavoidable if you start involving yourself in a study of moral philosophy. When talking briefly about Ubuntu, it brings up a time that Nelson Mandela was asked about the concept and replied, “In the old days, when we were young, a traveler to our country would stop in our village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, and attend to him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it [has] various aspects…. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question, therefore, is: are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve.”

Now this sounds awfully Marxist. Because Nelson Mandela was a Marxist and applied a Marxist lens to social issues regularly. But Schur footnotes this saying, “Mandela doesn’t elaborate on what he means here. I choose to see “enabling the community to improve” as a nonmaterial kind of thing; meaning, like, when we enrich ourselves we shouldn’t do so at the expense of the community, or in such a way that those around us suffer.” I have literally never read a more egregious footnote in any book than this one.

The text seems almost terrified that an ethical choice might make a person change who they are at an intrinsic level and so its author establishes, “know thyself” as his ultimate good. In one section he ties himself in mental loops trying to justify being a fan of “problematic” artists because he cannot imagine approaching comedy without his love of Woody Allen. He spends most of a chapter splitting various hairs over appreciation of problematic art. I don’t discourage this impulse in a way. Schur is at his very best in this book when he’s talking about artists. These moments are rare but his prose comes alive in a way that it often otherwise does not when he talks about improv theatre. A brief passage in which Schur uses improv theatre practice as an example of Aristotelian virtue is easily the best writing in the book. Honestly my biggest complaint is that I would have preferred that book to a survey that so clearly took the author out of his depth. A book on Aristotelian aesthetics by Mike Schur is actually one that might be worth reading.

It’s unfortunate it is not the book we received.

However it is somewhat telling how much this specific problem seems to trouble him. Schur is caught in a bind because most of the ethical tools he has at his disposal point against contributing to the career of an artist who does actual harm as a side-effect of their work. Examples like Allen, Polansky and Daniel Snyder – the owner of a football team with a famously racist name – are effective tools for picking at the duty of an audience, the actual impact of consuming media produced by these people, the role of shame in ethical decision making and other such questions. But it leaves him in a moral bind because Schur does not seem able to imagine who he would be if he wasn’t a man whose love of comedy came from Woody Allen. And so he has to find some way to justify that he is still good. He is insistent a person must be the end and so the idea that a Good beyond one man such as the movement toward freedom can be an end in itself, that it is neither necessary nor possible for one person to be Good as an intrinsic quality, is something he seems to struggle with.

I have three principal complaints with this book. The first is that I felt it was marred by the omissions of Plato and of Beauvoir. Both would have been necessary to confront in order for the text’s ultimate thesis to hold. It depends far too much on Aristotle to avoid talking about Plato. Considering this is a survey text this omission strikes me as very odd. Beauvoir’s exclusion also rankles because I felt it a disservice to a reading public to slight existentialism in the manner this book did. It would have been better for Schur to say nothing about existentialism than to write the chapter he did on the topic. If you are writing a chapter on existentialism and ethics and use neither Kierkegaard nor Beauvoir it would imply that you should have perhaps read a bit deeper before writing that chapter. If you are writing a survey and you don’t feel you have the grounding in the material to speak on it there’s no shame in moving along.

The second is that I found the knots this work ties itself in to protect the capitalist order frustrating. Shur’s reading is weakest whenever a philosopher is suggesting that, perhaps, there should not be billionaires at all, that charitable giving is not the most efficient method of redistributing wealth, or that a self should not be an end of ethics.

This leads to a reading of Utilitarianism so visibly contemptful that I found myself actually wanting to defend Jeremy Bentham of all people. This book implies Bentham was a pervert and spends nearly as long going over the gory details of Bentham’s idiosyncratic funeral arrangements as the actuality of Bentham’s work. Strangely it never even brings up the Panopticon which would, you know, be where I would probably start if I wanted to attack Bentham’s ethics.

Instead most attacks on Utilitarianism are abstracted. Rather than quoting a Utilitarian the text will often propose an ideal Utilitarian who is compelled to obey the extreme limit opinion of various classical ethical thought puzzles, mostly those composed by Philippa Foot. Again it’s worth noting that Schur does seem to have a solid grasp on Aristotelianism. I would have preferred not to have more than one chapter just on the variations on the Trolley Problem though. He did this material far better in the Good Place. Michael’s diabolical maximum-kill solution was an excellent joke.

But it was short.

Getting through a whole chapter of, “but what if he was a famous violinist?”, “but what if you knew her?”, etc. was a slog.

If this book were funny then all this critique of the incompleteness of reading it demonstrates, all these complaints about how the book flinches away from criticizing Capitalism or accepting any Communist premise, all these arguments about how the book shows contempt for Utilitarians without seeming to have engaged deeply with their texts might be irrelevant. It would just be a funny book telling jokes about philosophers.

If it were funny.

This is my third complaint. The Good Place was funny. I laughed a lot. The actors in it had great comedic timing but, what’s more, the script was funny. But, whether these jokes were the product of Schur or of one of the writers he collaborated with on that series, something is lost in the transition from situation comedy to non-fiction prose. There are a lot of attempted jokes. They rarely land.

The jokes don’t land in part because, especially when discussing utilitarian moral calculation or Kantian rigidity, they seem petty. And there are occasions where the author will say an explicitly untrue thing in service of a joke – which is something I would avoid when writing a book in which there’s a whole chapter on Kant and how he universalized truth-telling. This book describes moral philosophy as an unbroken conversation of 10,000 years and, I mean, Schur’s clearly read Aristotle, he has to be aware that even there we find breaks in the conversation. Where is Aristotle’s book about comedy? In fact I think I remember him bringing up the fragmentary nature of Aristotle’s corpus later. So I’m sure he had to know. But setting up the joke needed the word “unbroken” in there so here we go.

But I must be fair. At the start of this review I demanded that this book’s divided ethic – know thyself and everything in moderation – must ultimately serve one master and that this master was self-knowledge. Then I’ve set up three complaints against the text. I’ve already shown how, if there had been amusing jokes in the book, I’d have been more open to the obvious gaps in Schur’s reading within those domains he chose to write upon. So if I am to say I serve just one master in this review it is not that of academic rigor. The truth is though that my second complaint – the centering of self-actualization as a principal Good in service of a defense of capitalism is my principal complaint. This is because of how it distorts the three philosophers this text ultimately seems to like best.

From the perspective of Aristotle it’s evident that billionaires such as Bill Gates are not in service of an economic mean. The accumulation of power via wealth into the hands of so few is not the moderating influence of virtues in conflict a “good little Aristotelian” would want to see in the world. I don’t need to construct some bizarre thought puzzle regarding electric lines, football matches and unlucky workers to demonstrate this either, a simple examination of the material conditions of contemporary life suffices.

After all, what is the fruit of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation? It’s the privatization of the AstraZenica vaccine. The primary purpose of charitable giving is not to redistribute wealth but rather to grant to the wealthy another vehicle by which to shape the use of the means of social reproduction and in this case it’s incredibly clear how that worked.

The use of Montesquieu and his sense that knowledge makes men gentle is next and quite vulnerable. First, of course, it’s trivial to point out that how Montesquieu constructed the category of “knowledge” was in service of a colonial project by supposing a knowledgeable colonial class and a barbaric colonized subject. Under Montesquieu’s terms it was seen as a social good to force those who had been colonized into colonial subjectivities – to grant them knowledge and thus gentility. Marx was quick to point out Montesquieu’s failings railing against Montesquieu in one of his spicier letters to Engels in 1859 as a source of the inaccurate monetary theories of one of his rivals.

Marx also includes several cutting critiques of Montesquieu in Capital vol. 1 – mostly, again, to Montesquieu’s construction of value and of the use of precious metals in monetary systems, although he does take a few small shots at Montesquieu’s anti-Tatar racism too.

But Montesquieu is a weak fit for this book’s treatment of self-knowledge as an ultimate Good. This is because Montesquieu was rather skeptical of self-knowledge as attainable at all. An example often cited is in the Persian Letters where, in letter 6 he writes in the voice of Uzbek the despot, “Mais ce qui afflige le plus mon cœur, ce sont mes femmes. Je ne puis penser à elles que je ne sois dévoré de chagrins.

Ce n’est pas, Nessir, que je les aime: je me trouve à cet égard dans une insensibilité qui ne me laisse point de désirs. Dans le nombreux sérail où j’ai vécu, j’ai prévenu l’amour et l’ai détruit par lui-même: mais, de ma froideur même, il sort une jalousie secrète, qui me dévore. Je vois une troupe de femmes laissées presque à elles-mêmes; je n’ai que des âmes lâches qui m’en répondent.” (Apologies for this quote being in French, I couldn’t find a good translation.) The despot undertakes the oppression of his wives and slaves for reasons that aren’t even clear to him. His jealousy isn’t derived from love nor even from hate but rather from a coldness in his heart. He destroys love and doesn’t know why beyond a sense that his slaves are too cowardly to overthrow him.

Not precisely a good fit for “know thyself.”

Finally there is Rawls. This book depends on this liberal to reinforce its Aristotelianism in the face of capitalism much the same way as it does the older liberal Montesquieu. But again an ethical thought experiment cannot go far when it hits the ground of facticity and this is where Rawls’ Original Position crumbles. We are not constantly entering into some form of contract wherein we all agree certain compensations are commensurate to certain duties. Class exists! Classes reproduce themselves! There is no Original Position; there is only ever a contingent struggle over where a position stands. We cannot insert an original moment outside of history wherein these arrangements are agreed upon like the rules to a poker game. I don’t believe great athletes deserve more money than garbage workers; I don’t want a monied economy at all but even if I did I wouldn’t personally value the labour of hit-ball-with-stick-man over the labour of the person who keeps cities from choking to death on their own waste. The Original Position is a fantasy constructed by a man who was far too sheltered from the facticity of people who were not brought up as the middle son of a wealthy and influential member of the American bourgeoisie.

Sunzi showed that a general standing upon a hill would observe his army differently from the same general standing in camp. Subjectivity is always relative its position and all positions are within the world. You cannot escape the world by declaring the entire contents of the world to be within someone’s head and then playing games of the mind to discover an outcome that fits your ideological preconceptions.

And this is ultimately where How To Be Perfect displays its greatest failure. This text is trapped fully and completely within American Liberal ideology. It cannot even recognize an outside to this worldview. The text recoils from contemporary materialism such that it must reframe the most basic Marxist statements, such as that the accumulation of wealth should serve a communal good, and reframes it as immaterial “rising tide raises all boats” rhetoric. At its heart this book is not a guide to being a good person. It’s a guide to being a good subject of capitalism.

Contracts and the will to power in Brand New Cherry Flavor

Brand New Cherry Flavor (TV Mini Series 2021) - IMDb

Brand New Cherry Flavor is a Netflix limited series based on the first section of a 1996 novel by Todd Grimson adapted by Nick Antosca who is previously known for Channel Zero and Brand New Cherry Flavor is a mess.

I’ve often said that I’m much fonder of an ambitious project that swings for the fences and misses than for a project that plays it safe, strives for little and accomplishes less and so I do have a fair amount of fondness for this messy and confused attempt. It certainly succeeded at injecting a fair amount of edge into the often atmospheric and moody world of Netflix horror miniseries with its regular use of well-executed practical gore effects and disturbing body horror. A scene in which a character pulls a worm out of the eye socket of another is well done enough to make even horror fans cringe a bit and there is a moment of Cronenberg-inspired body horror fused with seedy sexual desire in episode four that was incredibly disturbing – but in the precise way that people fond of extreme horror are likely to gel with. Antosca owes a very deep stylistic debt to Cronenberg throughout the series and I would recommend that people who enjoyed eXistenZ or Vieodrome in particular will enjoy the seedy aesthetics of this show.

I would also like to mention that Rosa Salazar delivers an excellent performance as the show’s anti-hero, Lisa Nova. I think it’s funny that somebody who has been putting in the effort in genre film as long as Salazar is still getting “will this be her breakout performance?” notes on her performance here, particularly after she already starred in the sadly poorly received Alita: Battle Angel, but it is true that she brought precisely the correct blend of edge, cruelty and vulnerability to this difficult role to make the character’s journey something we care about. Shame that Eric Lange wasn’t really able to keep up with her. Happily, Lange’s Lou Burke is rapidly eclipsed by Catherine Keener‘s Boro – and Keener provides an understated performance that works quite well as she drifts through the madness her character authors with a faint smile a sense of detachment.

But for all that the show had slick visuals and some strong performances from the leads it ends up being a little bit muddled. It is, at its core, a show about contracts. The inciting action drives this home as Lou offers Lisa a contract to direct a feature length adaptation of her short film and tells her to get a lawyer to read it. She does not, instead trusting a music video director friend-of-a-friend to ensure it’s all good. This leads to her missing a loophole that allows Lou to steal her movie in an act of petty spite for her rejecting his sexual advances.

In the second episode, Lou reinforces that there’s a dichotomy between a promise and a contract – and he suggests that the contract, the agreement on paper, is ultimately far more important than the promises made. This ends up being something the show reinforces in the final episode. But throughout it we see the various victims of either Lisa and Boro’s shared quest for revenge on Lou or the war-of-the-witches that builds between the two once Lisa discovers how Boro has manipulated her suffering and dying despite never having entered into a contract at all. But then perhaps this is the point.

When we think of contracts we often think of them as a device to enable something. We enter a contract to secure work or to agree to the performance of a service. A person who signs a contract agrees to do a thing and in exchange the other party also agrees to do a thing: A does a job, B pays for it. But when we look at the world of Brand New Cherry Flavor we see, more than anything else, a world where people with power, when unconstrained, do whatever they want to whoever they want.

Lisa emotionally manipulates Mary to get the performance she wants out of her for Lucy’s Eye. She’s so successful that, while the two of them are both high on Peyote, Mary rips out her own eye and eats it. Lisa films it and adds it into her short – grist for the creative mill. Lou exploits his power to make or break would be stars. Alvin Sender, despite his obsequious demeanor makes it just as clear that he wields power and expects obedience. And, of course, Boro does what they want to whoever they want whenever they want. They drug people, murder people, enslave them as undead zombies. They ensorcell people and they steal the bodies of people, forcibly overriding their victims’ minds so that they can continue their eternal life. These people don’t need contracts to enable them. Boro has eyes on Lisa the second she sets foot in Los Angeles and long before Lisa comes to them for help with her revenge on Lou. Boro, in fact, manipulates Lisa to the position where she expects Lou to betray her and while Lou’s ultimate motive for his treason is personal, common and pathetic there may, in fact, be a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy in how things work out for Lisa in that Boro primes her to believe she has the power to hurt Lou and the will to use it.

No. Contracts constrain the powerful. In Brand New Cherry flavour it isn’t that a contract enables you to do anything. Instead the contract sets the limits of what the powerful can do to you. Boro makes a contract with Lisa to help her take her revenge on Lou in exchange for the kittens she begins vomiting up. Lisa makes a contract with Lou which she believes will constrain him in his choice of director but she’s deceived.

Contracts are protective in Brand New Cherry Flavor. This is a show with a remarkable body count. Almost every named character is either killed or maimed. But it’s notable that the people who survive: Lisa, Boro, Lou and Jules are all people who have entered into contracts with each other. Lisa adheres to the precise limit of her contract with Boro and, as such, is unconstrained in the use of her own, not inconsiderable, power to repel Boro’s attempt to take more than they were owed. Lou enters a contract with Lisa and, despite losing everything of value to him, he lives. We can safely assume that Jules has signed a contract with Lou and Jules was also intimately involved in the deception of Lisa regarding the terms of her contract and he, too, survives, if barely. In the end his girlfriend happily announces that his restorative surgeries are going apace. Meanwhile Roy and Code, Jonathan and Christine and even Mary never engage in contracts. They enter the arena of the powerful without any such protection and they are consumed.

There’s a scene early in the first episode where Lisa moves into her apartment and discovers a coyote being eaten by a pack of stray cats. Cats turn up a lot. Boro compels Lisa to vomit white kittens and Boro leaves Lisa with a cat of her own as a token of their contract. Lisa’s mother may, in fact, be a spirit of a white jaguar. The spirit is an ancient enemy of Boro’s but in particular she is a spirit being who Boro broke a contract with. The Jaguar left Boro for dead but they managed to escape and the two of them have been playing something of a game of cat-and-mouse ever since. Boro wants to steal the jaguar’s magic to reinforce their own and Lisa is a conduit to that magic. But Boro is playing with fire since Lisa, as such a conduit, is a being with power of her own to wield, and Boro has, by necessity, to educate Lisa in the use of that power in order to advance her revenge and position her to become Boro’s new vessel. As the show goes by the dead coyote slowly decays and nobody really does anything about it. Lisa, becoming increasingly a witch rather than an artist, seems somewhat at home with it and her visitors all react with revulsion but think it should be someone else’s job to clean up. Instead it’s just… consumed.

Hollywood, in Brand New Cherry Flavour, is the domain of predators who eat anything smaller than them and who have implemented the contract to impose the minimal limits upon their consumption necessary to allow any collaboration at all. But this goes beyond people being inhumane – this presents a cosmology where altruism is punished. It’s a universe where powers contend and overthrow each other: a universe of struggle. This then allows us to unify the dialectic we’ve established surrounding a contract. Because, in its character of a restraint upon the powerful and a shield for the less powerful against predation it allows a savvy negotiator the opportunity to secure more power to herself. In their pentultimate confrontation, Lou castigates Lisa, accusing her of being no better than him. In a sense he’s not entirely off the mark. Lisa did exploit Mary. “She’s an actor; she means whatever I allow her to,” she says at one point. Mary believed there was something far more mutual between her and Lisa to the point where, when Code tells Mary how little Lisa really cares about her, she murders him on the spot in a particularly brutal fashion. Except Lou has missed something important. Lisa, burned by her inattention to her contract with Lou, has used her contract with Boro to grow both the power available to her and her will to use it. The first time Lou sends an assassin to kill Lisa he almost succeeds. The second time, Lisa eats the assassin. This is, in part, because Lisa has secured power from Boro but that’s not the full story. We know, by this point, that Boro is a parasite. They need Lisa’s power to execute their magic. That is what the kitten blood is all about. It’s fuel. So when Boro heals Lisa and grants her increased strength with which to confront the assassin, who Boro intentionally puts in Lisa’s path knowing full well the outcome, they’re only returning to Lisa a fraction of the power they took along with the knowledge and the will to use it. Lisa isn’t like him. By the time they have their second-last encounter she is far more powerful and far more willing to use that power. This is demonstrative in how she approaches her revenge – as a restorative vengeance which Nietzsche describes as being built around a need to assert a lack of fear: “The intention of showing their complete lack of fear goes so far in some people that the dangers of revenge—loss of health or life or other losses—are in their eyes an indispensable condition of every vengeful act.” Lou fidgets and hesitates when he decides to kill Lisa and ultimately goes through an intermediary. He’s unable to summon the will to do the deed himself. By this time Lisa has already infected Lou with a parasite, been a conduit through which Jules spontaneously combusts inadvertently led to the death and zombification of Lou’s son at the hands of Boro and eaten the assassin Lou sent to kill her. Lou’s money is power just as Lisa’s magic is. But he doesn’t have the will to wield it. He’s small and pathetic. Lisa, ultimately, has so little concern for him that she gives him the final insult of letting him live. Blind. Ruined. When they meet for the last time, he asks her not to turn on the TV – he doesn’t want to hear it if he can’t see it.

She leaves it running.

Marx described revenge as being, “one of the highest incentives to energetic and passionate action,” in revolutionary times. And as such we can also see how Lisa, in her contracts and her proletarianism, is embodying a revolutionary drive contrasted to Lou’s bourgeois moralizing. “Law, morality, religion, are to {the proletarian} so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests,” and so it doesn’t matter if Lisa is better than Lou. It doesn’t even matter if she has committed some of the same sins of exploitation that he did before. She has contended with him and brought his so very bourgeois world crashing down with the power of her will.

When we first meet Lisa and Lou there is a vast gulf of class and status at play. She’s living out of a car. He’s living in a mansion where he keeps falcons and he is able to throw around cash to do whatever he wants. He sees the world as his oyster. But this class antagonism proves insufficient to forestall Lisa’s revenge once Lisa uses the system of contracts in place to marshal her strength and pit herself fiercely, completely, against him. Lisa isn’t just like Lou, she’s far far more terrifying because while Lou might be guided by appetites, while he might be a predator, he’s divided against himself while Lisa has an intensity and singularity of focus that allows her to use any power she can seize far more effectively. And, of course, Lisa is not alone. Things don’t go well for her allies but she has them nonetheless. She even tries to protect them. But more than that, she marshals their strength and guides it into the spear-thrust of her attack on Lou and later into her escape from Boro.

Lisa’s proletarian stature remains throughout the series. She never gets much money and what she does she spends to rent a room in a derelict hotel. She’s the only tenant in the cavernous building and so she ends up with a demesne much like Boro’s a home for a witch – a run-down and forgotten place possessed not by the bonds of capital but by the will of the holder to take it. When we learn the backstory to Lisa’s movie we discover that it was financed by the star and shot in her house. Lisa hadn’t any money before shooting and she didn’t after. She didn’t even pay for the peyote they took.

When Boro tries to jump into Lisa they’re unable to explicitly because her will is too strong to dominate. They try to compel her to despair by killing the last of Lisa’s allies and by pushing her to renounce life. But she refuses. Lisa would rather live with all the death and terror and monstrosity that suffuses her life than give in. Mary chooses otherwise and is consumed in her stead.

Ultimately it’s fundamentally important to understand how Brand New Cherry Flavour decouples class position from power. At the end Lisa is confronted with a Hollywood executive more powerful and insidious than Lou ever was and she laughs in his face. She’s done what she set out to do with Lou and set his world on fire. All his bourgeois posturing, his anxiety, concern for lineage, his pride in family and his last-minute defensive moralizing are ash. And she did it without needing to engage bourgeois power. Boro is never seen spending a penny on anything. They take the scraps and refuse a butcher doesn’t need to feed their zombies. They take what they want directly and what they don’t take they make themselves – they’re a gardener and a doctor one and the same with being a witch. Boro is not bourgeois; they’re something far older, something best approached via Nietzsche’s ideas of master morality. But Lisa is not an embodiment of slave morality so much as an exemplar of proletarian will thrusting against the power of her enemies.

Brand New Cherry Flavor is a clumsy, messy work full of internal contradictions. There isn’t an easy or neat through line and this interrogation of Lisa’s revenge and its ties to power dynamics and class is, itself, something which suffers from muddled and unclear readings. But the one thing that shoots straight and sharp as an arrow through this tangled mess of a horror story is the will of the protagonist. It gleams out of Rosa Salazar’s expressive eyes and radiates from her stance. It is something the rich predators of Hollywood lack. There is a certainty to the poor, to the forgotten, to the underbelly, here. Even the cheap assassins Lou hires have more certainty, more will, than their employer. This doesn’t become a valorization of the proletariat. Lisa isn’t a good person and many of the other proletarian characters we encounter are far worse. But it is an evident divide from the contempt this show demonstrates for Bourgeois comfort and platitude. Brand New Cherry Flavor is a difficult show to recommend. The chances are if you’ve read this far and still want to watch this show you’ll appreciate the experience. But it’s a tough pill to swallow with an expression of theme that is, at times, as messy and haphazard as the gore that gloriously spatters every frame. But it is compelling. This season has me curious to read the book it’s adapted from in part to see if certain structural elements of mirroring between Boro and Lisa that don’t pay off in the show are present, and resolved, in the book and in part because I suspect that as somebody with an appreciation for Barker, Bataille and Burgess I might also enjoy the work of Grimson. At the very least, this eight-episode war-of-the-witches is far better paced than the average Netflix fare and is served well by being only eight episodes long. If you’re a fan of horror it might be one to consider this Halloween season.