Review of Hummingbird Salamander: the vastness of everything

Hummingbird Salamander is a 2021 science fiction / ecological thriller written by Jeff VanderMeer. In the course of this review I will be talking about elements of the plot including its conclusion. As this is a brand new book, if you have not had an opportunity to read it yet and feel like surprise is integral to your enjoyment of fiction I’ll put up front that it is an excellent book which I would strongly recommend reading.

VanderMeer’s prose is lyrical and carefully crafted and his use of a carefully developed palette of related metaphors demonstrates a singular artist. VanderMeer is principally known as a weird fiction author. I wrote about his work previously in my discussion of the New Weird, a term he was instrumental in coining. However this book is not a weird fiction book per say. Rather than being a book about a presence that should not be this is what Mark Fisher would describe as a book about the eerie. It’s a haunted book, one in which the question of agency looms large and where the agent is most generally marked by their absence.

This is a book that tries to engage with difficult questions regarding the impact of humanity on the global environment and how humanity is impacted by anthropogenic climate change. It is a book narrated by a deeply unreliable narrator and one that confronts hauntological questions both at the level of eerie agency and also at the level of how a person can be haunted by their personal history. It is, in fact, a book that attempts to collapse the distinction between the personal and the grand by demonstrating how both the little moments in a little life and world-shattering epochal changes are both equally haunted to the point where the question of agency between the two becomes indistinct.

If you read this review further please consider yourself forewarned that I will be discussing plot details throughout.

Hyperwhat?

There are two concepts from philosophical theory that are absolutely critical to an understanding of Hummingbird Salamander: Hauntology and hyperobjects. Of the two, the more conceptually difficult one is the hyperobject. The speculative realist Timothy Morton first presented the concept of the hyperobject in his 2010 book The Ecological Thought. This is a category of objects (in the philosophical sense of the word) that Morton believes to be distinct from other objects on the basis of several criteria. The central criterion is that hyperobjects must be, “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” The category describes things with scopes so vast that they become hard to sense. We live in the thick of them and their scope is far greater than fits comfortably into a human mind.

One of the central characters in Hummingbird Salamander is Silvina, the daughter of an Argentinian billionaire. He runs his (ostensibly family) business as an empire so vast and distributed that Silvina is able to steal substantial resources from him over an extended period of time without him ever noticing. His empire is too vast in scope for even he, the emperor, to fully grasp. Silvina carves her plan out of the crannies that he doesn’t see. Silvina is presented as somebody who doesn’t have the normal limits on perception. Lights are too bright, sounds too intense. She sees everything and it terrifies her. She flees into the wilderness to escape that intensity, becomes nomadic. Jane follows her on this path and she too becomes nomadic, flees the intensity of the thriller to hike in the back-country while the world falls apart in the background. There’s a sense that this nomadic retreat is a response to seeing too much – that the mind cannot tolerate being shown undifferentiated extremity.

In Sartre’s Nausea, Roquentin remarks, “I must not put in strangeness where there is none. I think that is the big danger in keeping a diary: you exaggerate everything.” Diaries and memoirs are central to Hummingbird Salamander. Jane pursues Silvina through her diary, which she later learns is only a fragment, a sanitized version of a much vaster thing curated for the consumption of an audience with a particular viewpoint. But Jane’s recollection, too, is a diary. There’s a chance we could interpret these accounts as exaggerations. Certainly we cannot trust Jane nor can we ever fully trust Silvina. But this exaggeration permeates everything. Everything becomes too big to take in all at once. Jane is as occluded from a relationship with her daughter as she is from the plot of taxidermied animals and bioterrorism she finds herself entangled in, as she is from the green-gray haze that is filling the sky. It is all too big. The memoir, written at the end of it all, also has an effect of making the times expand and contract in strange ways. A day might get a hyper-detailed recounting. Five years roll by in a haze as if the times were too big to perceive properly. Here we begin to see what appears a critique of Morton in VanderMeer’s book. Yes, some objects are too vast to comprehend. All of them in fact. So what makes something a hyperobject? Are we not just describing an object?

Morton continues describing hyperobjects in the book, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and ecology after the end of the world, saying, “They are viscous, which means that they “stick” to beings that are involved with them. They are nonlocal; in other words, any ‘local manifestation’ of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject. They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. In particular, some very large hyperobjects, such as planets, have genuinely Gaussian temporality: they generate spacetime vortices, due to general relativity. Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time. And they exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects. The hyperobject is not a function of our knowledge: it’s hyper relative to worms, lemons, and ultraviolet rays, as well as humans.”

There are legitimate questions that can be raised to the extent to which any one of these categories is distinct from a more typical conception of the object. In particular, a use of the conception from Being and Nothingness of an object as comprising an infinite series of appearances makes any given object non-local. The appearance of the absence of the object is as much part of the object’s existence as any other given appearance of it. “Nothingness can be nihilated only on the foundation of being; if nothingness can be given, it is neither before nor after being, nor in a general way outside of being. Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being-like a worm,” as Sartre says. If we can consider an absence of an object to be part of the being of the object then all objects are non-local. This-rock-here isn’t the complete object of the rock. I pick up the rock and throw it out of sight and it’s still the rock even though it is no longer this-rock-here. This-rock-here and that-rock-thrown-out-of-sight are both the same rock. Morton seems to be seeking an essence behind the existence of the hyperobject for its nonlocal appearances to be separated from it but I don’t think he ever really gets there.

As I said previously, Hummingbird Salamander is a haunted book. We are tortured by the thought of all the paths we didn’t walk and the choices we didn’t make. Power always exists off the edge of the page. As such everything is non-local. We have touchstones, the bag (Shovel-Pig) that Jane drags around, the eponymous hummingbird and salamander taxidermies, the ghost of Jane’s brother and her grandfather. But at the same time that she carries these everywhere they’re mostly marked by their absence. She hides the hummingbird in her gym locker then worries it’ll be missing. It is. And the absence of the object becomes as obsessive as looking at it ever was to her. The hummingbird is present in its absence, its nothingness is a component of its being.

Viscosity turns up a lot in Hummingbird Salamander. Jane finds ideas stick to her. She can’t escape her obsession with the mystery of the hummingbird and Silvina’s journal. She carries the death of her brother and her murder of her grandfather, who she wrongly blamed for the death, everywhere she goes. Jane sticks to her husband and even after she abandons him, he pursues her if only to get some closure, to understand why he became a ghost to her while the ghost of Silvina was so real. All of this takes the character of compulsion. It’s not that Jane wants to be reliving the dissolution of her first family as her second family too dissolves. It doesn’t ever seem that she really consciously desires the mystery of Silvina. “I am not a spy. Not a detective. Not caught and lost in some tangle or maze. Not lying against the mud and leaves watching over my brother’s body,” Jane says. But she can’t say what she is. And despite protesting that she isn’t a spy or a detective, despite protesting that she is not caught, she is precisely that. Caught in the tangle of Silvina’s life, her brother’s life, work and family and the family that was.

Ultimately we are left with two significant quality of a hyperobject that is not reducible to merely a subset of regular objects: its spatio-temporal vastness and that it its ontologically indifferent. Morton proposes that a hyperobject contains the qualities that make it different from ordinary-order objects regardless of the subject.At this point it might be valuable to address the nature of the hyperobject that is under examination in Hummingbird Salamander in the form of anthropogenic climate change. Climate change was one of Morton’s initial targets when he coined the concept and as much as he might be seen to have attempted to demonstrate a category of objects, a charitable interpretation of Morton’s works is that he was attempting to create a framework through which to understand why climate change is so hard to grasp and why that matters.

Hummingbird Salamander starts five minutes in the future. Pandemics happen, people wear masks, life goes on. The protagonist, Jane, carries on her life flying to conferences, failing to communicate with her family and avoiding work with only the slightest hint of anxiety projected over the narrative. As I mentioned earlier, this story is revealed to be something of a memoir or a confession Jane is producing at the end of it all and it’s unclear throughout the narrative how much of the anxiety in the early scenes of the book, when society is still sound and the wheels still turn with just marginally more grit, how much of her anxiety is what she felt in the narrated moment and how much is projected back from the moment of narration. “Somewhere along the way, for reasons I misremember, I bought a go-bag,” she tells us. She speculates what might have been the reason she got this thing before landing on her family, “I think I just wanted to protect them – from the thought, the impetus, the raging landscapes of the nightly news. Protect them from the idea I believed such a future might come to pass.”

Of course, by the time Jane says this to us, this future has come to pass. She has not adequately protected her family, has, in fact, abandoned them. Even her post-hoc speculation as to why she might have bought the go-bag contains a hint of delusion. She cannot even see herself clearly, how can she possibly see the problems facing her world. Jane is a terribly unreliable narrator. She tells us she changes details in her recounting. “You’ll never get their names,” she tells us early on. She says, “The moment I type their names, they’ll be lost to me, belong to you.” Every character in this book has an alias assigned them. We don’t see them clearly either. There’s an immediate sense in Hummingbird Salamander that everything is too big to see all at once. A secret hidden in the eye of the smallest taxidermied hummingbird contains a clue as vast as a mountain. People cannot be grasped in their contradiction or complexity. Is Silvina a billionaire’s heir playing games of power? A revolutionary? A terrorist? A sick woman working through her illness? Is she just a ghost? Perhaps she is all of these things. Jane spends chapters and chapters chasing across the country on a quest that turns out to be nothing but an apology letter from a stranger: a neighbour whose family drama impacted Jane’s life in ways far too circuitous to possibly predict. And yet in the end it is all just a single room – a missed detail – that contains the key to everything. The quest was superfluous in that Jane could have solved the mystery without it. But the reality is that she couldn’t have solved the mystery because she didn’t have the eyes to see it.

Hauntology

Hauntology is a concept that originally derives from the work of Jacques Derrida although much of the significant academic work on the topic was undertaken by people who followed after him such as Fisher. To be haunted is to be aware of the objects that are absent, the spaces left for unfulfilled potential, the choices unmade. This sense of haunting is deeply tied into the literary mode of the eerie, that Fisher describes as art that asks, “what happened to produce these ruins? This disappearance? What kind of entity was involved? What kind of thing was it that emitted such an eerie cry?” In Nausea, a pregnant woman remarks, “There… There… The seagulls.” Roquentin tells us that there are, in fact, no seagulls. The cry may just be something creaking. This is where the discomfort of the eerie lives, and it lives, too, in every facet of Hummingbird Salamander.

Throughout the story there is a deferral of revelation of agency. Silvina haunts Jane. Jane pursues her despite all the evidence suggesting she is dead, that her mystery is absurd and goes nowhere. Silvina’s father, as an antagonist, is always off-stage. He erases digital tracks, he hides behind goons who are mostly nameless. He appears once, via webcam, and later Jane is told that the man she saw was an actor, not the agent at all. And yet there is agency. People are run over by cars. People are shot. Warehouses are burned down. Evidence is stolen and witnesses are silenced. In his absence, Silvina’s father is everywhere. And so is she.

Jane is also haunted by her past. She had an abusive grandfather and an ineffectual father. They had a farm and she says it was struggling and yet Jane goes to university. She fumbled her way into a criminology degree, failed upward into a cybersecurity job. She lives in the suburbs and has a nice house in an expensive city. She flys first class but she always tells us that she grew up feeling poor. Jane had a brother who she loved and he died. They said it was drowning. She tells us her grandfather used to drown livestock and so she believed her grandfather had murdered her brother. She murdered her grandfather.

And Jane is haunted by the words she doesn’t say. She has a daughter she professes to love but cannot talk to. She has a husband she professes to love, but she cheats on him at conferences. Has cheated before, will again given the chance. Much of the text isn’t occupied by the things Jane has done so much as her reflection on the things she didn’t do, the conversations she didn’t have: ships passing in the night.

The climax of the book makes clear this idea of agency obscured. Jane returns to the place the mystery started, believing she will be able to find resolution there. There are two men who have been involved in the various twists of the plot previous who both also arrive in this place: the (likely former) government agent she only knows as Jack and a sometimes revolutionary, sometimes dealer in contraband animal products Langer. Jane previously nearly killed Langer and she previously nearly slept with Jack but in this moment neither are her friends. She is ascending the mountain in a fog. Langer approaches her and they have a gunfight where neither can see the other. “Then a furious fire from my right, through the fog, bullets snapping into the roots, into the trunk, as I slid to the ground, unhurt.”

Jane is eventually shot but she finds Langer in the fog. She attacks him and says, “it was brief and brutal,” of the encounter, claiming that Langer had no experience fighting close and she overwhelmed him. But as she recounts the story of the fight it becomes clear it was a close thing. Both of them are injured. Langer just a fraction more-so. And Jane doesn’t kill him. Instead a bullet out of the fog does Langer in and Jack captures the injured and fatigued protagonist. They find nothing on the mountain. He lets her go and disappears from her life.

Jane disappears too, abandoning the narrative to wander the wilderness and ignore the world. It’s all too much. She abandons the quest and any attempt to make sense of it all. Eventually the increasing dissolution of the US interferes with her retreat into primitivity and she decides to go home but roadblocks and disasters prevent her from getting home. She ends up instead back at the storage “palace” where she first found the hummingbird. The lights are out in the building but one light remains on and this is when Jane discovers that the solution to the puzzle had been there, in the room, the whole time. She just hadn’t had eyes to see it.

She finds Silvina dead in a hidden bunker along with Ronnie, another person who had been tied into the conspiracy, and realizes that the ghost she’d been chasing had been alive when she was questing but is not now.

The terrible thought. The unthinkable.
That as Hellmouth Jack and I searched and searched and searched for this place atop the mountain... that Silvina had been down here, watchin us. Observing us through the pebbles at our feet.
That she had still been in the world the. That if only I had been smarter, more savvy, more observant, I would have come up those steps into her secret place to find her alive.

It appears Silvina and Ronnie both died from an injection. Silvina’s grand project wasn’t a bio-weapon but rather an attempt to engender a new and trasformative relationship between people and the world.

In front of her like an altar, that odd medical station, which had three tubes for syringes held within a clear polymer container, radiated the cool hum of climate control. Two were missing. One of the two lay cracked on the floor beneath Silvina's dangling hand. It took no imagination to guess that Ronnie had taken the second.
Whatever it was, Silvina had thought it would change the world. Each was a different "approach," according to the documentation. Each promised radical transformation. Each promised contamination until you would see the world so differently. And as you walked out into t he world what had captured you would capture others and they, too, would be transformed. "We must change to see the world change."

An antidote to indifference

In the Denma Translation of the Sunzi, Kimmer Smith and James Gimian talk about the significance of perspective to understanding the ancient text. They start by describing how the Sunzi details complexity, how it demands the impossible, “because all things are interconnected, you must know each one, and how each one affects each and every other.” They describe a world where, “everything is in touch with everything else, always in movement.” They believe this dynamic and interrelated view of reality was the metaphysical basis of classical Chinese thought but they posit that different schools addressed it in different ways. Confucians focused on ordering the chaos. Taoists with riding its flows and breaks like a surfer. But Sunzi was mostly interested in an ontological response to complexity. “We must measure it from where we ourselves are standing. Here is a seemingly trivial example from a recent Chinese children’s book, in which a squirrel is trying to figure out whether it is safe to cross a stream. To him, it is a raging current, and he will drown there. But the stream is only up to the fetlocks of a horse.”

This perspective treats ontology as being positional; much like our relativistic idea of time, what is revealed and what is occluded depends on point of view. Jane returns to the mountain in a fog and finds nothing. She returns again in a blackout and finds the key to the secret. Silvina prepares three drugs to change perception. One produces a sense of ecstasy and then death. The second produces a sense of “completion” and then death. The third might transform the world. Or it might not. And it might depend on Silvina’s ark to repopulate the world. It’s left ambiguous. We cannot know because Jane’s memoir, her confession, ends there. We cannot know because we don’t have the point of view to see that end.

In the end there’s no such thing as a hyperobject. Everything that makes a hyperobject unique falls away, one by one, until you’re merely left with the infinity lurking behind every single object and the sense of ontological indifference – that rarefied nihilism enjoyed by the speculative realists that posits that every perspective, that of the person that of the stone and that of the air through which the thrown-stone flies, is essentially equivalent.

Except this isn’t true at all. As Hummingbird Salamander tells us again and again, perspective is highly contingent and our ability to grasp an object, the parts of an object that can be revealed to us, are intrinsically dependent on a form of subjectivity, and specifically one that can change. As Sartre discusses in Being and Nothingness, a person would only be aware that a friend was not in a restaurant if they first knew to look for the friend there. That absence is an appearance of the being of the friend that is revealed by a consciousness directed to the task of seeking out the face of the friend. All consciousness is consciousness of something which means that it will, by necessity exclude other things. However we can direct consciousness to be of one thing or another. If we are observing an army we can read its grain manifests, its marching orders and the faces of its soldiers or we can stand back on a hill and see that army all as one thing. We may occupy a position where climate change seems too big, where we can’t see it for its vastness. We might be a frog in a slowly heating pan of water unaware of the temperature change. We might be haunted by the decisions we didn’t make. “We must change to see the world change,” but of course the world changes all the time. As Jane abandons her co-workers, her family, the ghosts of the family she abandoned before, her ties to conspiracies, even her quest, she changes and in her transformation things become clear. Her grandfather never killed her brother. He was an awful man but he was ultimately just a fading old shell murdered for nothing. Her brother wasn’t a martyred saint. He was a poacher who died because he saw crimes he shouldn’t have. Silvina was never a bioterrorist; she might have doodled bombs in the margins of her journal but her ultimate plan was to give people the tools to see the change in the world.

Everything is too big when you really look at it. We are bound in subjectivity and as such we will always miss things. We will gloss over things, change names, allow things to go out of sight. We’ll decide problems are too big and refuse to look at them. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can move to a different position. We can look with different eyes. The fixity of ontological indifference is a mistake: a surrender to inevitability and apologia for inaction. We must change how we see. We must change to see.

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.

Fanishness, Consumption and Desire

I like The Good Place.

Shock, right? The weird nerd who can’t shut up about Deleuze and Guattari, Sartre and de Beauvoir, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche likes the show that is literally a sit-com actualization of famous ethical problems.

But memes like this one drive home that there may be… other… reasons why I enjoy the show. There is a language-of-community that traces lines between media properties and identities. In the case of queer identities these are often representational. Eleanor Shellstrop is an out bisexual. The simple fact of her enunciation of attraction not just to Chidi but also to Tahani was probably sufficient to earn The Good Place a fair number of fans among what we might loosely describe as the Bisexual community just by dint of being able to see our experience of desire articulated even in such a basic way.

The same pattern holds through for a whole ecosystem of media; similar memes appear for Brooklyn 99 – another show with an out bisexual protagonist. But these go farther; “every bisexual likes Brendon Fraser’s 1999 adventure film The Mummy.” In this case it is entirely driven by aesthetic indicators that aren’t even subtext. Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, Arnold Vosloo and Patricia Velasquez didn’t play bisexual characters; but the use of gaze sexualized these four principal characters to almost the same extent and this, combined with the likelihood that it was a formative movie for a lot of millennial adolescents in the late-1990s has made it into something of a “bisexual fave.”

Of course, not-said is that in the 1990s, when many bisexual millennials were adolescents, there wasn’t much in the way of out-bisexuality on screens. The hints of subtext in queer-coded cartoon villains and in the gaze-decisions of adventure films were often all that they had to build an understanding of their desires around. And these weakly-representative media, or the non-representative media that has been post-factually coded as representative media, has become very important to a generation of bis such that a lot of my fellows will get quite defensive of the importance of such representation in its function to rendering the bisexual experience intelligible to straight audiences. I mean can’t you see the corollary of desire between Evy and Rick? Isn’t it obvious how being able to show the way in which the camera allows us to look at Rick and the way in which the camera allows us to look at Evy are similar? Doesn’t this relatable bit of nostalgia allow me to be seen?

We all want to be seen and understood at some level. And this desire, to use media to create a matrix of understanding that another can use to see you, is a central one underlying most fannishness. But this leads to a more insidious process whereby the desire to be understood via a thing becomes an internalized self-understanding via the thing. “I felt more bisexual after I got this haircut,” cue Twitter drama.

This provides a valuable lever for marketers. People aren’t, after all, that picky about what identities they form, and any given group of people will be as likely to form an identity around a product or sequences of products as they are to assign a correlation between product and an implicit and existing identity. This is how you get trekkers, how you get the post-ironic Jedi church, and how you get formations like the Sad Puppies.

Remember the Puppies?

Friend-of-the-blog, Camestros Felapton has been working on a detailed history chronicling the Sad Puppy movement at their blog which I would recommend to get a sense for the major players in this fraught period. If you are interested in learning how the Sad Puppies arose, how they relate to other online reactionary movements, what they did and for whom, the Debarcle series is an incredible resource which I would recommend highly.

I’m not so interested in this case in looking at the specifics of major figures such as Vox Day or Larry Correia except in-as-far as they operated as marketers with a product (their books) to sell. To put it simply, these authors were very successful in mobilizing a fanbase to move copies of their books, to attract attention to their personal brands and to develop a position as a sort of thought-leader within the broader “fandom” community. What is interesting is the way that they essentialized consuming a product (buying a certain type of science fiction and fantasy novel) as the principal activity of a fan.

It’s these fans I’m principally interested in. Not any given fan as an individual, mind, but the great breadth of the fan culture that the Sad Puppies inculcated. Because they were, in a lot of ways, not dissimilar from other genre fan groups such as the Browncoats.

In both the case of Browncoats and Sad Puppies we saw groups of fans whos identity was centralized around their consumption of a specific type of media. Note that while some Browncoats may have been fan artists (fic writers, cosplayers, etc.) this was not a central part of Browncoat identity. What was central was an open, public and emphatic love of Firefly signified largely through the use of linguistic signs and occupation of shared spaces. The same happened with Sad Puppies. Being a Sad Puppy didn’t preclude being and artist (as many of its ringleaders were authors) but being an artist was not an essential part of the Sad Puppy persona. Instead it was the adoption of a certain rhetorical position, the use of a shared vocabulary and occupation of shared spaces all with the aim of celebrating their love for a specific marketing category of art.

And we can observe how this identification with a product turns sour in both cases. In the case of Browncoats there was an ongoing sense of ressentiment toward the cancellation of Firefly and a constant effort to maintain Firefly as a significant part of the cultural lexicon of the broader genre-fan-communities. Browncoats often acted as evangelists, attempting to persuade other people who entered into their shared spaces not only to show politeness toward the idea of loving the show but also to become Browncoats themselves. This evangelistic aspect of behaviour seemed to be an attempt to act upon, and thus mitigate the ressentiment that they felt over the show’s perceived poor-treatment by its parent network and subsequent cancellation.

For the majority of Sad Puppies, this connection between ressentiment and evangelism also holds true. They had a belief that the category of product around which they’d developed a shared identity was being maligned. They acted upon this by evangelizing, attempting to persuade others that they were a legitimately aggrieved party, and also in ultimately useless attempts to brigade an award nomination as if assuming that award would undo the negative light under which their preferred marketing category was viewed.

This is ressentimental in character because both Browncoats and Sad Puppies were impotent. Despite the occasional success of fan-writing campaigns to save at-risk shows, it was never particularly likely that the Browncoats would succeed. As time went by, these odds reduced even further. However what they did succeed in doing was in identifying themselves to marketers as an easy audience for secondary products: cosplay artifacts, signed actor-photos, tie-in fiction, tie-in games, branded glassware, keychains, posters and other décor items, etc. The Sad Puppies, for all their sturm und drang, were likewise impotent. Even if they had succeeded in brigading the Hugo Awards, it would not have marked a significant change in the regard the general public had for their right-wing inflected pastiches of Heinlein juvenilia. But they made themselves very easy to identify by marketers who were all too happy to sell them books and the other various cultural signifiers that they could use to signify participation in this identity.

There is an impotency to the consumptive fan. This impotency is built into the conflation of me and mine. A consumptive fan has staked his own self-recognition on a series of identities he can try on. He is a Browncoat, a Sad Puppy, a science fiction convention attendee, a Hugo voter, a Marvel fan, a metalhead. He seeks himself in these product identities and ultimately finds nothing. Of course Sartre argues that being-for-itself must haul itself whole-cloth out of nothingness, but the consumptive fan does this by just pointing at this or that object and saying, “that is me, and that, and that.” But how can one be for one’s self when all one can imagine being is a series of brand markers, projected by another, with the intention of becoming nothing more than a consumer of product?

Gates and walls

When a person has thus staked their identity upon the impotent demand to consume another imperative arises. Because we can’t forget that capitalism is a deterritorializing force par-excellence. It creates the ‘interpassivity’ and a subjugation via interaction and participation that Fisher warns of in Capitalist Realism. If capitalism is going to be everything and sell everything it creates a problem for the person who has built their identities around consumption of various products. Deleuze and Guattari describe a subject who, “spreads itself out along the entire circumference of {a} circle, the center of which has been abandoned by the ego.” This consumption-as-identity is ultimately more scizo than the fan is comfortable with; by making themselves nothing more than a series of marketing categories, they risk dissolving into all those dividual bits from which they’ve constructed their being back into nothingness. If Firefly is forgotten where is the Browncoat?

The solution is to harden the shell. The consumptive fan must construct a binary, an inside and an outside that doesn’t exist except within their own hearts. There are us, the Sad Puppies, and them, those horrible commie pinko science fiction snobs who don’t like Heinlein or two-fisted action adventure stories. There are us, the Browncoats, and them, the people who think Firefly wasn’t actually very good. The consumptive fan must build a wall around the camp of their fannishness in order to retain the cohesiveness of such a threadbare identity as the one they’ve formed. But the fan is also an evangelist, so they must construct gates through these walls. Those gates take the form of sharing behaviours – whether that’s Easter-egg hunting in an MCU episode, using Whedonesque patois, or putting watch gears on a pair of goggles. A person can signal that they are to be let within the walls by demonstrating sufficient commitment to the consumer-culture of the in-group.

But when you have a wall and you have a gate you have guards. And gatekeepers are always watching to catch people who slip up – who demonstrate insufficient loyalty to the identity. The weaker the tie there is between these consumptive identities and some implicit identity, the more fiercely the guards will protect it. Introspection is dangerous, if you look too closely at an identity built around being a fan it begins to crumble under the weight of scrutiny, but panopticist inspection of your fellows is not only expected: it is necessary for the maintenance of the identity. See, a fan must always be watching out for imposters because any devaluing of the product consumed is a devaluing of the fan’s own being. If I have built an identity around loving The Good Place and then somebody comes along and points out that, just maybe, the philosophy presented is a little trite, perhaps the actors aren’t quite the paragons of kindness the marketing makes them out to be, maybe Eleanor Shellstrop’s bisexuality is merely a bit of performative winking to attract an easy mark in recognition-starved bis, that wounds me.

Any violence to the object of devotion becomes violence to the subject who is devoted. “When you said my show was bad it was as if you kicked me,” “how dare you defile the good name of Firefly by pointing out its racism,” “the authors I like deserve awards more than those gay communists.” The sense of injury is real even if the injury itself is not.

Desire

We must treat desire not as a response to a lack but as rather a site of production. It is, in fact, one of the principal machineries by which the Sartean paradox of being-for-itself arising out of nothingness can be resolved, as the action described in Anti-Oedipus of desire attempting to penetrate the potentialities of the surface of the Body Without Organs and the repulsive production that happens in response maps the flows by which a being is able to create itself. As such, desire is intrinsic to being. Don’t think cogito ergo sum but rather cupio ergo sum. Desire creates the object of desire, and Deleuze in Guattari are quite clear in Anti-Oedipus that this is a real creation. If a desiring being is prevented from acting upon that desire materially they will create the object of desire in their minds nonetheless. The schema of desire proposed by Deleuze and Guattari involves an ever-complexifying network of machinic processes. Each step of this process involves a machine that couples to another, syphoning off the output of the former. And each machine in turn becomes the input to subsequent processes. Through this network of machinery, a great roiling fabric of desire can be seen and this arises both in the personal field and also through the social field, with the inscription surface, the Body Without Organs of the social field being described as a socius.

This is the basis for which I am describing some distinction between those desires that arise within a being and those desires that arise at the prompting of pressures of the desiring machines of the socius. There is a common mistake made by dialectical materialists of assuming that all desire is imposed from without – with their distaste for the power relations inscribed upon the socius, they reduce each being to a naked pool of nothingness, reduce the self to the mere hammer of history. But of course all this is doing is assigning a kind of essentialism to bourgeois desire, as if capital were so powerful and so intoxicating that an entire false-consciousness could arise that would stamp out any sort of desire that arises within a being.

It is never so simple as such binaries. Rather, as desire represents a dynamic flow, it is generally a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic sources acting upon a subject. Talking about Proust‘s depictions of sexuality within In Search of Lost Time, Deleuze and Guattari suggest, “everyone is bisexual, everyone has two sexes, but partitioned, noncommunicating; the man is merely the one in whom the male part, and the woman the one in whom the female part, dominates statistically.” If everyone is, in fact, bisexual, then my bisexual desires almost certainly have an intrinsic rise. But the ways in which I engage with that bisexuality – the norms that tell me when I should simply pass as straight, the deliberate preference of certain media in order to present that matrix of understanding to the world, how I style my hair or the language I use, what walls I watch and upon whom I engage in scrutiny – these are a decidedly mixed bag.

I liked The Mummy just fine, but it wasn’t part of my matrix of personal understanding; in 1999 The Matrix was much more formative to my sense of desire, as was Eyes Wide Shut. And yet, as other Bisexuals don’t talk about Eyes Wide Shut, I rarely do either, what’s the point? It wouldn’t become something I could use to form a position of recognition in others. Continuing on the topic of bisexuality, Deleuze and Guattari put forward, “in contrast to the alternative of the ‘either/or’ exclusions, there is the ‘either… or… or…’ of the combinations and permutations where the differences amount to the same without ceasing to be differences.” We cannot reduce these differences down to nothing but media consumption. We cannot assume every person is just a little nothing – a blunt instrument of historical force – with no real differentiation even when we recognize the insidious way in which the desires of others can shape our own wants.

Ultimately the consumptive fan is not a totalizing identity. A person can be now a fan, now an artist, now a critic. On a day when I’m feeling tired or isolated it can be fun to lose my self in the fantasies of Neo, the slick leather and gleam of dark glasses in seedy underground clubs speaks to me at a deep level. I can create those dangerous virtual spaces as a reaction to the desire to be different among others. Or it can be fun to lose myself in Eleanor Shellstrop: a disaster of appetite and ego – the learner whose hunger to learn is as much a product of her appetites as everything else about her. And in those moments I might point at those objects and say, “this is me, and this and this.” As such we shouldn’t be too hard for people just for becoming trapped in the desires of others. Deleuze put it bluntly, “If you’re trapped in the dream of the other, you’re fucked!” And for many people who occupy the role principally of the consumptive fan, this is entirely what they are. We should pity such people and help them to find liberation where they can. Art arises from the intrinsic desire; it is the waste-output of the construction of being-for-itself, and it is a desiring machine. We insert this machine into the sequence of our own desires because that is how desire works.

But this doesn’t mean we cannot tend our gardens. We can recognize that there is a difference between, “this is mine,” and, “this is me,” and do the work of bringing the desiring machinery of the art we engage with to the point of breaking down before recursively returning it, newly imbued with our own being. As much as every artist has the potential to be the consumptive fan, so too does every consumptive fan have the potential to be an artist. And as we smash walls and dismantle systems of panoptic surveillance, so too must we help to situate these beings closer to the wellspring of their sense of being-for-themselves.

Revisiting the Invisibles

I wrote about The Invisibles in 2016 in an article that was something of a test-balloon for the style that I’ve more recently adopted in this space. At the time I focused mostly on King Mob and argued for a Hegelian read of the character as a unification of opposites and a movement toward unity.

King Mob is attractive in that manner. King Mob as a character basically exists to depict permutations of a dialectical search for recognition from within the self. The images King Mob presents exist as a nested series of negations. The lynch pin to this series of self-negations comes in a flash-back in Volume 2. This incident relates back to a time when King Mob and Jolly Roger – another Invisibles cell leader – had studied together in a monastery.

Their instructors had trained them:

 6: "Have we yet come even close to a full description of it?
Did we even mention that several hundred years ago it wasn't a chair but a tree? Where is it now, here? Or in memory?"
E:"We cannot even fully describe a chair and yet we say, 'I am.' 'I am...'
Understand there is no, 'I am.'
Nothing, 'is.'"
"Try to describe all that you are"
"Simultaneously discern the logical flaw in what I've just said."
"Now!"
"Feel the White Flame"

This meditation becomes a method of resisting mind-control within the text of the story as it is a lesson in escaping the bounds of self that mind control is posited as manipulating but while this describes a dissolution of self it does so in a specifically unifying way. The identity of the chair is negated in the identity of the tree – the difference is negated in the temporal unity between tree and chair. There is no self because all things unify in the sufficiently idealistic white flame – a generative moment of pure intensity that cannot possess a self because it is all things at once.

King Mob elaborates on this later when he describes reality as being the holographic interaction of two overlapping meta-universes – these he describes in totalizing terms – “healthy,” and, “terminally sick, deranged.” This hologrammatic metaphor is something Morrison sustains for so long that an inattentive reader might actually believe this is what their story was saying. But this is the ultimate unifying metaphor – all that exists does so because the many were subsumed into unity. This collision of the healthy and the deranged meta-universes is the collision of two carefully defined objects in such a manner that they blur into each other and become, in the devastation, one.

But of course King Mob isn’t the protagonist of this story. And the Invisibles, for all it might wink at the idea of being in service of transcendent unity, cannot sustain this illusion. In the end, one of the principal targets of The Invisibles wrath is Thelema. Sir Miles, the primary antagonist of the story, is repeatedly referred to as a highly initiated Thelemite and the idea of the, ‘Satanistic Tory,’ “an existentialist who just wants to feel guilt,” is baked into the climax of the story – with the perverse coronation of the Moon Child. And, if you wanted to propose a totalizing and unifying read of the Invisibles then this deployment of Thelema as the antagonistic ideology proves problematic. Thelema divides history into epochal aeons built around a set of opposing ideological values. These transformations are imbued with a sort of historical determinism that might almost echo Marx albeit absent the materialism that undergirds dialectical materialism. Thelema is almost entirely a species of idealist belief – as above so below – and Crowley’s aeons have a kind of Fichtean dialectical character to them – each aeon arising in response to the problems presented by the one before – and this sort of idealistic grounding makes for a strange basis for the antagonists of the story – should we really read The Invisibles as an internecine dispute among the German Idealists?

And the actual protagonist of The Invisibles laughs straight in the face of this absurd proposition. He laughs and boasts that he’d be a great messiah – would give kids a day off school. Dane McGowan identifies the trap in the unity of the white flame as early as his confrontation with the King of All Tears in the House of Fun. He stays with the Invisibles and constantly acts like a counter-weight to King Mob during dialog scenes. It sometimes becomes easy to forget, with King Mob’s bluster, his tragic relationship with Ragged Robin, and his use as a vessel of authorial insertion, that the story is actually about Dane. He’s the one we meet on page one of the first volume and he’s the one who pronounces, “our sentence is up.” on the last page of the last volume. King Mob’s holographic universes are a fake-out. Robin’s all-now comes closer but is ultimately one final trap. There is something lurking around the edges of the Invisibles story – a thing that is dismissed when Sir Miles asks about it – but it is the central concern of the story. And that thing is the universe attempting to be born and its placenta.

The magic mirror of The Invisibles is a perfect example of a Body Without Organs in art.

Where King Mob and the other dialectical characters of The Invisibles are correct is that this story is about getting past the barriers of self. But the holographic metaphor which unifies two meta-universes into a transcendent whole acctually miss the mark about what’s happening here. Instead we have to look past the climax of the story, wherein Dane McGowan eats a god and then travels with the Blind Chessman to the AllNow, and into the 2012 coda. Here we see that Invisibles, under Dane’s leadership, have moved away from these unifying dialectical understandings of self toward the Memeplex – a fragmentary and disjointed understanding of being as a series of becomings. Much like Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the Scizo in Anti-Oedipus – the being composed of machines each interrupting the last and each breaking down, being taken out of its series or socketed into some new series in turn – the Memeplex denies a totalizing identity for any given self. If a self dissolves not into the white flame of unity but rather into the writhing and worm-laden flows of the Body Without Organs, and from there into the disjunctive froth of the machinic, of pure affirmative difference, then this rather takes away from the idea of two meta-universes pressing close and forming the illusion of the universe as the holographic boundary between them.

But this brings in the thread of The Invisibles characterized by De Sade and his little utopia of the pornographer, and the references to Wilhelm Reich and Stanislav Grof that are brought along with it. And what do these three very disparate figures share in common?

Sex.

Sade

Of course there is the Marquis de Sade. I want to start by situating the Marquis and sadism within the context of the use of his thought in dialectics. Here, Deleuze becomes handy. In Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty, Deleuze says:

Sade and Masoch are not merely cases among others; they both have something essential to teach us, the one about masochism and the other about sadism. The second reason why Masoch's fate is unjust is that in clinical terms he is considered complementary to Sade. This may indeed be the reason why people who are interested in Sade show no particular interest in Masoch. It is too readily assumed that the symptoms only have to be transposed and the instincts reversed for Masoch to be turned into Sade, according to the principle of the unity of opposites. The theme of the unity of sadism and masochism and the concept of a sadomasochistic entity have done great harm to Masoch. He has suffered not only from unjust neglect but also from an unfair assumption of complementarity and dialectical unity with Sade. 

Despite sadomasochism being one of the most widely discussed dialectics within sex, Sade and Masoch strain against each other. While each had his lessons, they were not easily situated into a dialectic. The contradictions between their views of reality are intrinsically irreconcilable. Deleuze reads Bataille’s interpretations of Sade to suggest that Sade’s work is, “paradoxical,” that the description of torture can only arise from the victim and that, as such, the victim-subject of Sade’s work is the viewpoint to understanding Sade’s cruel libertines.

For his part, Bataille imagined a revolutionary Sade. In The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade (An Open Letter to My Current Comrades), Bataille attributes a sequence of values to Sade. His argues that Sade is attempting to tell the audience that:

 It is high time that human nature cease being subjected to the autocrat's vile repression and to the morality that authorizes exploitation. Since it is true that one of a man's attributes is the derivation of pleasure from the suffering of others, and that erotic pleasure is not only the negation of an agony that takes place at the same instant, but also a lubricious participation in that agony, it is time to choose between the conduct of cowards afraid of their own joyful excesses, and the conduct of those who judge that any given man need not cower like a hunted animal, but instead can see all the moralistic buffoons as so many dogs.

This cautionary reading of Sade – this idea that Sade is speaking from the position of the victim in order to demonstrate how morality provides the framework for the exploitation of the libertine takes on a very clear representation in the film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom which situates the libertine excesses of Sade’s text during the final days of Italian fascism.

This film treats Sade’s work in much the same way that Bataille does – not as an apologia for the lust of the torturer but rather as a warning and a call to revolution. Sade grabs you by the face and demands you don’t look away from the consequences of the moral system we have normalized within our culture. The libertines of Sade’s books expound at length on their beliefs but, Deleuze says, in contrast to the characters of Masoch’s writing, they teach nothing. There is no instruction for the tortured.

It is worth noting that, when the Invisibles retrieve the tulpa of Sade from the past in the first volume of text, they must bring him through 120 Days of Sodom specifically. As the narration of the bleak story of abjection reaches its climax, Morrison’s Sade says, “The revolution came and I saw the weak become strong and do in their turn what the strong have always done to the weak. I was sickened.” King Mob rolls his eyes and suggests that the only thing they can do is “try to see the funny side.” After all, the libertines of Sade’s stories have nothing to teach in their pages and pages of exposition. They are, for Morrison as for Deleuze and Bataille, a critique of the cruelty of men in power to exploit that power.

As such, Sade makes a fitting character for the ideological wing of a rebel group but still an odd fit for a group with an explicitly dialectical objective of the dissolution of the self into oneness. After all, Sade doesn’t unify cleanly with Sacher-Masoch. His libertines are not fully unifiable with the cold and cruel teachers of Sacher-Masoch. While the libertines blab on and on about their beliefs, they teach nothing, they have no desire to teach anything to their victims. And we, for our part, are given the perspective of the victims within Sade’s work. If we cannot even unify sadism into oneness with masochism, why would we use him to move toward unity?

Furthermore, Morrison does not deploy Sade in this manner. Instead, Morrison, who is openly non-binary now though they were not out at the time, uses Sade to create a third gender in the non.

At the time The Invisibles was written, terms denying a gender binary were in their infancy. The term non-binary, in relation to gender, had been in use for four years in explicitly queer spaces, but it would not achieve widespread understanding until it was popularized by the internet sometime after the publication of The Invisibles. And yet here we are, observing Morrison miraculating, “a new gender; cruel and poised, beautiful and self-contained,” denying one of the most fundamental binaries. However we cannot consider the non a unification of male and female – Thierro says they desire sexlessness, not to be both sexes. The non is, rather, a third term introduced into the interactions of gender. There remain men and women. There are also non. Now Morrison presets Sade as obviously arrogant and willing to take credit for many absurd things. We don’t need to believe Sade is the architect of the non. But when he recruits Thierro at the end of the first volume we get narrative from Thierro’s perspective:

He tells me I have left the houses of the dead and entered the land of the truly living. I am to be no particular age, no particular sex. I am to be fluid, mercurial. He tells me I must slogh my name and my past as a snake sheds its skin. 
He pins a blank white badge to he collar of my jacket. I sit in my seat, nameless, invisible, untouchable, breathing blue smoke. I ask him what I should call him. 
The engine starts up. 
I settle back in the leather seat, becoming weightless and transparent. There is no more time. I close my eyes.
And in y mind I see the sun rise on a new and better world.

While Thierro seems quite happy to have shed their past gender in favour of this brave new future, we see the fingerprints of Sade’s instruction in the narrative. But of course Sade isn’t a teacher. Sade’s works deny the idea of instruction as anything more significant than the powerful talking for themselves. So what are we to make of Morrison’s Sade, teaching strangers against his own inclinations, introducing disruptions into supposedly harmonious systems, creating chaos? Sade creates a utopia of sex and while this utopia does try to decouple reproduction from desire the reality is that Edith’s tour of Sadeland shows very clearly that an outcome of sex, even in Sade’s utopia is children. However mostly what Sade does in his little utopia is play around. And as such Edith’s visit to his compound serves as foreplay to the climax of the story.

And children are the definition of the introduction of a disruptive third term into a dualistic system. One last note before we leave Sade: while in Sadeland, Edith is shown a giant Orgone accumulator. It appears to be having an impact over the weather and she predicts that Sadeland will be nearly at the point of achieving something when time begins to warp around Sadeland.

And this might seem strange. Time and weather being shaped by sex acts. But there are few 20th century psychologists stranger than Wilhelm Reich – and as we depart Sadeland the next step to understanding the anti-dialectical character of The Invisibles is Organon.

Reich

Wilhelm Reich was an early Freudo-Marxian psychoanalyst. He was educated by Sigmund Freud in Vienna, becoming a doctor in 1922, and had a… storied… career which included several affairs with his patients, a search for a material basis for consciousness that provided much of the prefiguring groundwork for the career of Felix Guattari, he became one of the earliest proponents of preventative reproductive health, attempted to bring mental health to the masses, coined the term “sexual revolution,” wrote one of the earliest texts discussing why people would support their own subjugation (The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933)), developed a psychiatric practice that involved massaging naked patients, fled the Nazis to the United States, attempted to make weather-control machines, got in trouble with the FDA for advocating miracle boxes, began chasing UFOs, had even more affairs with even more patients, was imprisoned for fraud for continuing to advocate for miracle boxes against FDA orders, and died in prison. The FDA burned many of his books during this period which led to a posthumous history of conspiracy theories, accusations of pseudoscience and Kate Bush music videos.

It should be obvious from this description that Reich was rather pre-occupied with sex. Rather specifically he was preoccupied with orgasm. Orgiastic potency was one of Reich’s earliest ideas. He saw this not only in the vulgar sense of being able to achieve sexual release, but in the more general terms of being able to “achieve full resolution of existing sexual need-tension,” which, considering the Freudian bent of his work, in turn underpinned many elements of sexual health.

However it must be stressed that Reich was very much unlike his near-contemporary Carl Jung in that he was an arch-materialist. It may be that Reich’s materialism that led him to first consider a Marx-Freud synthesis. Regardless, he had become something of a communist, if a strange one, by 1927. Reich continued his work on attempting to find a material cause of consciousness, first looking at phenomena such muscular tension as possible sources. However in 1937 he changed the direction of his enquiry becoming, for the time, one of the leading figures in light microscopy with work on cancer cells leading him to believe he’d identified a substance called a bion which he believed to be a bridge between living and non-living materials. Experimentation with these materials allowed him to provoke the production of tumors in tissue cultures and led to his devising of the idea that he’d discovered…

I mean I don’t know how else to say this.

Reich thought he’d found midi-chlorians. Reich conceived of an energy force which he called orgone and which he believed permeated existence. He believed this to have several material effects, including the facilitation of consciousness, the maintenance of cellular health and even the colour of the Northern Lights. He thought these bions were the receptors that allowed the collection and use of orgone by living systems. In all of this, Reich was attempting to undertake a serious scientific inquiry into fundamental, still unresolved, questions. That he came up with an answer that has the totalizing trappings of pseudoscience – one weird trick that explains everything -shouldn’t be held too strongly against him. (This isn’t an attempt to downplay his obviously compromised ethical compass, but rather to situate that, strange as Reich was, he wasn’t entirely off his rocker.) Reich tied this cosmic energy to the Freudian concept of Libido. A more refined variant of a simmilar attempt to understand consciousness can be found in the work of fellow-Freudian Melanie Klein in her work on partial objects and in Deleuze and Guattari, who devote some considerable effort to a kind critique of Reich and Klein in Anti-Oedipus with the formation of the idea of desiring-production. This concept, unlike Klein’s partial objects but (to a certain extent) like Reich’s bions and orgone had far-reaching metaphysical implications.

Regardless, following his flight from Europe in 1939, as Europe was increasingly a bad place for a left-wing intellectual with strange ideas about sexual liberation at the time, Reich settled in the United States where he devoted the remainder of his career to studying, and theorizing on, orgone. He eventually founded a rural retreat and observatory which he dubbed Orgonon. (This is the place the narrator of Cloudbusting still dreams of.) Derived from his prior experiments with tumors in Oslo, Reich became convinced that orgone would allow for the curing of cancer in patients. He persisted in tying orgone to the moment of orgasm and to libido in general. He furthermore became convinced he’d developed a methodology for creating orgone-rich environments. These took the forms of enclosed boxes called orgone accumulators. And Reich could not shut up about orgone accumulators with all their sexual innuendo fully on display. It didn’t take long for Reich to discover that the United States in the 1940s was as hostile to a sex-obsessed Marxist academic as Europe had been. By 1954 the FDA obtained an injunction prohibiting Reich from transporting orgone accumultors or writings about orgone and orgonomics (the study of orgone) across state lines.

Reich disregarded this injunction, and was charged and convicted for contempt in 1956 to a two-year prison sentence. While he was imprisoned, the FDA destroyed as much of his writing on orgonomics as they could get their hands on. He died of heart failure shortly before he would have been eligible for parole.

In the Invisibles, Sade is a perfect figure for foreplay before sex. Our opposites come together, come so closely together their boundaries blur, and then all kinds of scandalous things occur. With contradictory, cruel, revolutionary, cynical Sade we can represent the whole possible breadth of such liberating scandal and also situate the critique of it.

Reich then comes after – he comes, again not to put too fine a point on it – at the moment of orgasm. The awkward and spasmodic life of Reich is not text in the Invisibles. He’s only present in the extent of the regard Sade serves him in Sadeland, and in how Edith hints he is the path forward from Sade. It’s a brief moment – a few pages, a side adventure in the last volume before the fun of god-eating and knight-hanging gets underway – but it forms a bridge between the foreplay of Sade and the resolution of the story. The invocation of Reich just before the climax of the story drives home what is being done when the Invisibles kidnap Sir Miles and then subject him to a torture which is textually juxtaposed against an Invisible initiation ceremony (the Jack Flint initiation) that is structurally almost identical. By juxtaposing Sir Miles facing ego-death while dosed on Key-23 to Jack Flint also experiencing ego-death while dosed on, yes, Key-23 administered by the exact same people the text is all but shouting at us that what Sir Miles is undergoing isn’t torture. It isn’t revenge. It certainly isn’t an interrogation. What they’re doing is an initiation. In the kidnap of Sir Miles, the Invisibles are taking a parcel of thought, of energy, and they are firing it into the body of the opposite. This moment certainly seems dialectical when taken alone but it isn’t the final resolution. Rather it is the fulcrum between coming together and coming apart again. This isn’t a collapse into unity, it’s the piston-movement of a sex act.

In the end, this is what the principal text of The Invisibles is. I mean King Mob, acting as authorial insert, gives this away in the final pages when he says the story is, “a thriller, it’s a romance, it’s a tragedy, it’s a porno, it’s neo-modernist kitchen sink science fiction that you catch, like a cold.” It’s a porno. It’s right there – the Invisibles describes a highly abstracted metaphysical sex act. If the two meta-universes have collided it isn’t in the manner of the titanic and the iceberg but in the manner of lovers coupling. And if you are going to introduce such a clear metaphor for sex into a narrative about the fundamental nature of reality can you really be surprised to find a Freudian waving back at you from the subtext?

But ultimately Reich is insufficient. “He denounced, in the final resignation of Freudianism, a fear of life, a resurgence of the ascetic ideal, a cultural broth of bad consciousness. Better to depart in search of the Orgone, he said to himself, in search of the vital and cosmic element of desire,” Deleuze and Guattari say of him (emphasis mine). Morrison, too, is seeking a cosmic element of desire in the Invisibles but while Reich can get us to the orgasm, he can’t get us to the finish line, he can’t get us away from a dialectical collapse into oneness. For that we need to turn to an even stranger figure of psychoanalysis in Stanislav Grof.

Grof

To get to Grof, and how he plays a role in the Invisibles we should first situate where Grof is in comparison to other figures we’ve discussed. Stanislav Grof is a leading figure in the field known as transpersonal psychology, a branch of psychology interested in movement away from self both in forms of healthy ego-transcendence via mystical experience and in forms of unhealthy breaks from the ego via mental illness. Transpersonal psychology largely focused on the idea that consciousness was not something that operated only in a specific state. Focusing on subjects including the use of drugs, meditation, shamanic activities, mystical practices and near-death experiences, transpersonal psychologists sought to map a psyche that was broader and more complex than the self.

As such, they do draw back to many of the same origins as Guattari and Reich – principally via Freud and Bataille. On the topic of Bataille’s relationship to the development of transpersonal studies, Harry Hunt says, “part of the importance of Bataille today may be in his extreme and pointed articulation of these genuine ambiguities that remain largely implicit within a ‘human sciences’ transpersonalism or a contemporary ‘science of consciousness.'” Grof came out of a Freudian education before pivoting toward an interest in birth and death experiences. In 1974 he joined the Esalen Institute – known largely for the participation of Aldous Huxley, Abraham Masow, and for the formation of Gestalt Practice. Much of this led to attempts to incorporate Buddhism into western psychotherapy and ontology, though these efforts have been criticized within Buddhist circles.

Grof is unique among the subjects brought to bear by Morrison within the Invisibles of being alive in 2021, and his current work remains concentrated on psychic exploration facilitated by breathing practices and the use of entheogenic agents. However most of Morrison’s interest has to do with Grof’s concept of perinatal matrices. Grof believes that physical, chemical or emotional trauma at various points in the development of a fetus between the moment of conception and that of birth lead to various patterns of psychological manifestation that leave a mark despite being repressed. (Note the essentially Freudian notions of symbolic exchange and repression. We still haven’t escaped Freud here.) These matrices are referred to by a system of numbering thus: Basic Perinatal Matrix I (BPM I) associates with trauma experienced in-utero prior to the beginning of labour. BPM II corresponds to trauma that occurs between the onset of labour and entry to the birth canal. BPM III corresponds to trauma that occurs during movement through the birth canal and BPM IV corresponds to the trauma of the moment of delivery.

We can see, in some of Grof’s detailing of BPM I experiences a movement toward Melanie Klein’s idea of partial objects – albeit one that extrapolates from this concept in a significantly more mystical manner to the biomes of Reich or the desiring-production of Deleuze and Guattari. Nobody could make the mistake of calling Grof a materialist. Grof is cited repeatedly and explicitly within the concluding volume of The Invisibles, his presence in the text is far more substantial than that of Reich, but there’s a specific page I’d like to focus on:

This page comes not from the climax of the story (which properly belongs to Reich with his Bions and his UFO hunting) but from the denouement. “‘The King-of-All-Tears withdraws in a rain of colored cubes,’ goes the story — the ‘Archons’ are clearly BPM 3 Grof condensations — inevitable signs that universal larval development is proceeding towards self-awareness and birth.” In this fiction, the King-of-All-Tears is one of five Archons of the Outer Church, the most active one at that as it is the one who tempts Dane at the House of Fun and who attempts to disrupt Ragged Robin’s time travel experiment. Renn Butler, a disciple of Grof, says abut the BPM 3 matrix that it, “is based around the dynamic stage of labor, with the corresponding activation of powerful biological energies. The cervix is now open and the infant is slowly forced down the birth canal by uterine contractions that range between between fifty and one hundred pounds of force, a struggle for delivery that pits the mother and fetus in a synergistic effort to end the often excruciating suffering inflicted on each other.” From the perspective of the structural view of what this story is trying to do in this moment it is thus clear that the sex-act metaphor of the climax has been followed by a time-jump of some significant gestational period and has thus led to the moment of birth. There is additional metaphorical material to be mined from Morrison’s invocation of Grof – returning to Butler, “The transpersonal side of the experience includes sequences of temptation, sacrifice, purgatory, and Judgment. Individuals also confront or identify with deities such as Shiva, Kali, or Hercules performing his Labors, or with dying-reviving figures such as Persephone, Christ, Osiris, or Dionysus. The experiences in this matrix culminate in a type of intense driving arousal that transcends pain and pleasure, which Grof referred to as volcanic or Dionysian type of ecstasy.”

Of course Grof was hardly the first person to speak of Dionysus in such ecstatic terms and as you can draw a thread back through time from Grof to Bataille, so too do you eventually encounter Nietzsche who framed the Dionysian such in the Birth of Tragedy:

...all this, as also the unconditional will of Christianity to recognise only moral values, has always appeared to me as the most dangerous and ominous of all possible forms of a "will to perish"; at the least, as the symptom of a most fatal disease, of profoundest weariness, despondency, exhaustion, impoverishment of life,—for before the tribunal of morality (especially Christian, that is, unconditional morality) life must constantly and inevitably be the loser, because life is something essentially unmoral,—indeed, oppressed with the weight of contempt and the everlasting No, life must finally be regarded as unworthy of desire, as in itself unworthy. Morality itself what?—may not morality be a "will to disown life," a secret instinct for annihilation, a principle of decay, of depreciation, of slander, a beginning of the end? And, consequently, the danger of dangers?... It was against morality, therefore, that my instinct, as an intercessory-instinct for life, turned in this questionable book, inventing for itself a fundamental counter—dogma and counter-valuation of life, purely artistic, purely anti-Christian. What should I call it? As a philologist and man of words I baptised it, not without some liberty—for who could be sure of the proper name of the Antichrist?—with the name of a Greek god: I called it Dionysian.

Dionysus – an Antichrist, an intercessory-instinct for life. And it would seem as if we’ve reached another dialectical impasse in establishing the King-of-All-Tears as an antichrist to the Christ-figure of Dane Mcgowan. Except that Dane rejects such notions. People variously try to frame Dane as Christ, as Maitreya, as an avatar of the Aeon of Horus, and he rejects every label. Dane, getting well beyond the idea of such singular identities, tells an old mate who he comforts at the end of the world, “Remember it’s all just a mirror we made to see ourselves in. And when the archons come and it all turns inside out with scary miracles. It’s only all the things you left outside when you were building your little house called, ‘me,’ ey.”

Dane does want to collapse the boundaries of self – but look at the tense shift: it’s a mirror WE made. It’s the things YOU left. The monsters come from the singular – the magic mirror, which we’ve previously examined as being a representation of the Body Without Organs comes from US. From the many.

Minkowski space and the eternal

Hermann Minkowski was an instructor of Albert Einstein and the person responsible for the General Relativity conception of four-dimensional space-time. His work posits a perception of time that allows every moment to have always already happened. The work of Einstein and Minkowski overturned the “Presentist” view of time – that past and future don’t exist but instead an ever-moving moment of now – and instead posited time more as a direction or a dimension with a relationship to other dimensions such that it is only really useful to measure relationships between objects. We exist not as individuals moving through a river of time but as the worm-trail of change across the surface of some impossible substrate. In typical fashion, The Invisibles characterizes this substrate as being a cosmic crystal however the specifics of the substrate are less significant than the consequences: that every act has always already happened in full – that the universe is ultimately an object in which our subjective experience of change is one of positionality alone.

This is certainly something we see textually when Dane goes behind the walls of the world with the Blind Chessman and sees his own worm-trail through life. The same visual motif occurs during the denouement when Ragged Robin returns from her journey through time now transformed into an avatar of the AllNow. Within our universe, that holographic projection of two meta-universes, time is a block. There is no need to worry about causality beyond the loop of narrative causality that winds through The Invisibles because everything that ever has or will happen exists simultaneously within the substrate of being.

Before I inferred that Ragged Robin got closer to the truth than King Mob – with all his transpersonal dialectics. Robin’s block time contains all of difference inscribed upon its surface. It is an ever-complexifying topography of difference. But it is, despite this, still reducible to a single thing in the form of the Infinite. And so we make a final turn, now to Sartre.

The infinity of being

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre argues for a very specific understanding of what being is – specifically he denies the idea of an essence beneath the appearances of being. Instead Sartre posits that being exists of an infinite series of appearances each of which is representative of the object. The object is the infinite totality of those appearances.

Returning to the White Flame Meditation, Mr. Six says, ” Have we yet come even close to a full description of it? Did we even mention that several hundred years ago it wasn’t a chair but a tree?” This infinite series of appearances – the tree, the chair, the shattered ruins of the chair after Elfayed destroys it with a hammer, these are all appearances of being – where Sartre differs from Six and Elfayed is in saying that there is no white flame behind all of them. There is nothing. “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm,” Sartre says. And Sartre’s conception of being becomes thus worm-like – an ever expanding sequence of appearances stretching off into past and future alike. From this Sartre first collapses every binary – every possible approach to the dialectic – down to just this: the binary of the finite and the infinite.

But this is problematic. “If the series of appearances were finite, that would mean that the first appearances do not have the possibility of reappearing. which is absurd, or that they can be all given at once, which is still more absurd,” Sartre says. If the universe of The Invisibles is to be seen as having a unitary being then it is, in fact, constituted of an infinite series of all its own appearances. All these figures, Jack Frost and King Mob, Ragged Robin and Mr. Six, the Marquis De Sade and Edith are rescued from unification in a white flame by dint of each being part of that infinite sequence. Each becomes the site of a little pool of nothingness at the heart of being. Each achieves at least being-in-itself in the process of being an appearance of the universe that you can point to and say, “there is a thing.”

Sartre attacks the Kantian basis of Hegel’s idealism, by arguing for the visceral being of the appearance, “If the essence of the appearance is an ‘appearing’ which is no longer opposed to any being, there arises a legitimate problem concerning the being of this appearing.” There’s no need for noumen lurking behind. This led to Deleuze praising Sartre above all others in “He Was My Teacher,” and championing him as taking the first tenuous steps toward a philosophy affirming difference. The nothingness curled in the heart of Sartean being lies just the other side of the membrane of the Body Without Organs.

And here we finally can begin to talk about how Morrison, too, despite their protestations to the contrary does the same.

We have discussed at some length how The Invisibles uses the metaphor of the sex-act to demonstrate the true-movements of the meta-universes at its core. With the Marquis de Sade we see the coupling. All sorts of scandalous things transpire, many of which are cruel and shocking. Others are hauntingly beautiful. This reaches its crescendo in an act of coitus that initiates the aeon-dominated idealist monster Sir Miles into the truth of freedom and that climaxes in a grail full of tears and the promise of resurrection. There is a disjunction in time and we see the results of this: the arising of the Memeplex, the dissolution of self not into Grof’s transpersonal unity but rather into the disjunction of the machinic. The birth of the universe.

A birth is ultimately a process where one thing becomes two things. There is a mother. There is an organ growing within her – it starts off merely a few cells but over time it begins to change. By the time it reaches the stages of Grof’s Perinatal Matrices, it has begun to divide and then there are two beings. A child cannot be dialectically reduced back to their parents. Take away everything that was the father and everything that was the mother and you will still have something, some unique element of being, remaining and that being multiplies to infinity. Every being becomes a universe in itself.

In No Exit, Garcin remarks that, “Hell is other people.” Sartre, however, was the ultimate champion of freedom. He recognized the infinite potential of a person to be and to be different than they were before. In the Memeplex we see a conception of that freedom. We see echoes of this in King Mob’s dialectical quest for self-recognition and in Lord Fanny’s careful and magic-infused play of gender and identity. And by reminding us that we construct an Other from those things we choose are not US, Dane sees this freedom too. In the last page of The Invisibles, Dane recounts one last lesson from Elfayed (who is one of the two instructors of the White Flame Meditation), “‘We made gods and jailers because we felt small and ashamed and alone,’ he said. ‘We let them try us and judge us and, like sheep to slaughter, we allowed ourselves to be… sentenced. ‘See! Now! Our sentence is up.”

This is the central renunciation of the dialectic. Ultimately there is a ‘us’ a multitude who can no longer be made to endure hell in other people. The universes multiply and the new, the self-aware new arises in a multitudinous “us” away from unity and toward an affirmative difference, toward some great and unknowable future which isn’t a block of predestination. The fixity of Minkowski space-time end at the edge of the universe being born and whatever exists beyond that is something new, something different. The multitudinous many froths out of potential wherever the one is. Each appearance of a being has a being-in-itself in turn, each being is an infinite series of appearances. We can try to dialectically collapse the many into the one all day but ultimately the recursive infinity of difference wins through. If the Invisibles ended in oneness it would be bleak. The final victory of the Outer Church that hates difference, that wants a universe unchanging forever. This is not the ending we achieve. Instead it is far stranger – a recognition of the infinite in every being hiding behind the semblance of idealist unity – but what else but strangeness should we expect for the conclusion of this strange book?