The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: February, 2014

Fathers and Sons: Romanticized Radicalism

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Alexius returns home from a day stalking pigeons in the park. He was nearly arrested and had to show his stalking license to the authorities. “Just pin in on your ears next time,” the cop said. What is it with humans and attaching pointy things to animals’ ears. It’s almost like we’re not people.

Alexius: Gah!

Mr. Harold Zo: What’s up, my striped friend?

Alexius: Russian literature is the cause of my current outburst.

Mr. Harold Zo: I remember my undergraduate days fondly (Editor’s Note: his graduate school days were far less memorable, I am sorry to say). Russian lit was always one of my favourite classes. What gives?

Alexius throws a copy of Fathers and Sons onto the couch before sliding effortlessly onto the couch. He cuts a stark and sensual picture in the bare apartment. Where are they? And where is the rest of the band?

Mr. Harold Zo: Looks like your editor is at the door asking impertinent questions again. Should I tell him to buzz off?

Alexius: We’re not on speaking terms right now. I’m currently furious with all human beings for exterminating my kind. He deserves to wither out there in the cold.

Mr. Harold Zo: Speaking of the cold, I thought we were talking about Russian literature.

Alexius: Ah, yes. Precisely. You see, I think there’s a way in which liberals like to romanticize radicals, and I see this more and more as I get older and closer to death.

Mr. Harold Zo: Par example, s’il vous plait?

Alexius: Let’s take this book right here. Fathers and Sons. It’s Ivan Turgenev. Classic Russian literature. It concerns this one Bazarov, a nihilist who abjures all beliefs and traditions. He dedicates his days to working on dissections and medicine, learning chemistry and so on. He picks up this friend named Arkady, an aristocratic hanger-on who thinks that Bazarov is a cool cat. So Arkady brings Bazarov back to his father’s dilapidated estate to hang out with some of the upper crust. Bazarov agrees, but realizes that his friend’s nihilism is as authentic as Uncle Pavel’s English tailored suits. By the end, Turgenev has forced Bazarov to repudiate his beliefs by falling in love with a Russian ice princess. Well, she’s a idle widow, but who cares to distinguish when it comes to the useless upper class?

Mr. Harold Zo: Right.

Alexius: (sneezes) In any case, Turgenev not only makes Bazarov a hypocrite, which is fair enough, but also kills him off with a bad case of typhus. At the end, the author inserts this laughably romantic liturgy for the fallen nihilist, talking about eternal life and reconciliation and how beautiful his parents’ tears are and so on. In other words, the book treats Bazarov as a fallen, tragic individualist. His mission to transform society is depicted as utterly hopeless, his personal integrity is constantly undermined through authorial fiat (which is fair as far as it goes), and at the end he’s given an almost mystical eulogy.

Mr. Harold Zo: So are you saying that he makes this Bazarov into a total bastard?

Alexius: That’s precisely it. He isn’t, but the only traits we are supposed to find redeemable are romantic ones. He rejects tradition, he’s an individualist, he tenders a passionate love in his (gulp) bosom, and ends up dead. What I mean is that the only way liberals can like revolutionaries is if they’re dead. Their convictions are chalked up to tragic personality flaws and as long as they are atomized rebels who don’t accomplish much, or can be turned into kitsch symbols (see: Che), liberals want nothing to do with them.

Trotsky is a good example. Mark my words: without that icepick, he would never have become Orwell’s little darling. All the liberals who fawn over Animal Farm as if it accurately represents the history of the Soviet Union wouldn’t be pining about “oh, if only Trotsky had won.” I mean, there are Trotskyists, and obviously they don’t treat Trotsky that way. At least hopefully not. I’m talking about liberal liberals here, capitalists par excellence who prefer their revolutionaries served with an icepick or a spot of typhus. They’re easily romanticized as rebels with a hopeless cause. Another blogger I like to read has discussed this before. Rebellion and so on are all well and good as long as you leave everything the way you found it.

Mr. Harold Zo: Well, I certainly understand where you’re coming from, but I hope you won’t hurt me when I tell you I have a Che poster in my room.

Alexius: How old are you? (Gets up off the couch and leaves, dragging his editor back to their house with his teeth.)

Mr. Harold Zo: Ah, he’ll get over it. If my species were going extinct, I would act the same way.

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Food, Food, Food, Food, Food

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Does everyone here remember the ending of the Wes Anderson film Fantastic Mr. Fox? After Mr. Fox and his family have endured numerous misadventures and a long sojourn confined to the sewers, they poke their heads up into a supermarket. This desert of linoleum lined with row upon row of artificially flavored, processed nutrition will enable the animals to survive. Though we rejoice that the displaced animals no longer have to scrounge a living from what you can find scurrying around in pipes, there is a note of sadness in this as well. Their woodland life is over: no more living in pine trees, no more derring-do, no more of the old. Now it’s hard flooring and stolen human surplus. It’s thievery without the romance, squatting without the rustic mise-en-scène that gave it some dignity.

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I spend more time than I care to strolling around under harsh fluorescent lights and exposed ceilings trying to choose between twenty-six different kinds of toothpaste. I waste my time trying to find affordable packaged fruit juice that isn’t packed with sugar or corn syrup. Retail stores are loci of capitalist desire, with the best being glossy buildings where smiling is obligatory for the employees and the awkward ritual of market exchange is the core liturgy. We supposedly enter through the automatic doors as free agents, consumers armed with information and set free into a free-floating zone of infinite choice. How can we not be happy, considering the abundant necessities and chaotic proliferation of luxuries?

While this is starting to sound like a nostalgic paean to the good old days, and in some ways that’s what Wes Anderson films do, I want to reject that kind of thinking right here. Nor am I going to call for a straightforward return to a “simple” life, full of hard labour off the land and subsistence living. The abundance that flows outward from the industrial revolution represents a bright hope. Through increasingly complex and complete mastery of science and its application in engineering, agriculture, communications, and manufacturing, we can now not only provide for ourselves but live  beyond what our bodies require. The pain I experience doesn’t originate in the artificiality of the environment or in the superfluous variety of body-destroying products and expensive organic deluxe foods. It doesn’t originate in the bright tile, the colors, or the way employees have to put up a brave face and endure torrents of abuse from customers.

I hate all of those things, but the real anger comes from the realization that all of this is a just a symptom of commodification. It’s a treasure trove of imperialist exploitation, capitalist profit-making, and the transformation of the basic stuff of life into another way the ruling class can squeeze profits out of those who have to sell their time and bodies to survive. What’s worse is that there’s no way to negotiate a better deal out of this situation. No amount of “fair trade” shopping or conscious consumerism is going to make a tittle of real difference. Those who believe otherwise are almost as frustrating as the endless, arid wastelands of commercial strip malls not a few blocks from my front door. It’s strange that some liberals can revolt over the idea that healthcare isn’t something we provide for people as a society, but refuse to recognize that food is the same way. Their solutions, often in the form of handouts or charitable causes–food banks and the like–are short-term, ineffective, and humiliating. It’s no good to moralize and pontificate about the terrible evils of our food production system (which are many) without a comprehensive solution that can feed everyone. That can only mean the end of capitalism.

Of course, the fact that people in certain countries have this excess and decadence is a result of imperialism and the stratification of nations and peoples into the oppressor and the oppressed nations. I will in no way deny that dealing with overwhelming choice is a privilege compared to subsistence agriculture. But it’s only in recognizing this, and finding a concrete strategy for the elimination of concrete structures of oppression that these insights have any use. Proletarian revolution is going to be painful when and if it thunders to the gates of the centers of capitalism. It’s going to entail a great deal of sacrifice from those of us who are accustomed to eating beyond what’s necessary. But don’t people, even the most politically unaware, often lament that they want to simplify? Isn’t this often preached from pulpits? Don’t the politicians foist “austerity” onto the proletariat in the name of the greater (bourgeois) good? Surely the dictatorship of the proletariat, which I expect will entail the logical rationing of food surpluses rather than their senseless concentration, will have to make similar demands of the old ruling classes?

Under capitalism, our desires are not our own. They are created, bought, and paid for by our so-called betters. And when someone panders to our debased tastes and preferences, we are supposed to be flattered. People often mock the Soviet Union for the long bread lines and cramped housing. In reality, though, waiting in a long line for guaranteed rations will be a gigantic step up for most of the world’s population. Long live the revolution! Solidarity with rural and urban proletariat the world over!

Ragtime: The Dangers of Abstract Moralizing

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Dramatic and literary theory are often fantastic ways to give order and meaning to media analysis. Understanding persistent archetypes and plot structures gives you a better grasp of how writers convey meaning. It gives you a kind of shorthand for getting to the heart of a story’s significance. On the other hand, these archetypes are often crude abstractions and when they are applied without care they can erase the more concrete details of a character which might have more significance than the particular “arc” they happen to inhabit. Any tool, especially ones that use sweeping abstractions, can be used improperly.

I encountered one such improper use when discussing Miloš Forman’s 1981 film Ragtime and its protagonist (though this is an ensemble film, he clearly takes the pivotal role) Coalhouse Walker (Howard Rollins, Jr.). Walker is a black pianist who manages to claw his way to middle class respectability in turn-of-the-century America. He is even able to afford a brand new Model T, thus, in his mind, sealing his newly elevated social role. Walker, who previously abandoned his partner and child because he could not support them, returns to them and wants to build a respectable family. Unfortunately, his ambitions are blocked, literally, by a group of Irish volunteer firefighters who want to put him in his place. They seize and eventually ruin his car, enraging Walker and sending him on a quest to regain his car, exact justice on the firefighter station chief who wronged him, and assert his humanity.

At first he appeals to the law and the courts, asking that the rights supposedly granted to him as an individual be enforced. The film brilliantly shows how concrete structures of racism work to disempower him at every turn, making it apparent that, whatever he achieves and gains, it can all be taken away. The reality is that the bourgeois liberal rights he has are oriented toward benefiting the rich white people who are at worst murderous toward him and at best paternalistic. Like the Biblical Job, he is a plaything at the mercy of “higher powers,” and is systematically dispossessed of his property, his dignity, his wife, and finally his life. At last, he realizes that the society that pretended to be free, that promised so much but devoured him at every turn. Frantz Fanon described this hypocrisy, the very cornerstone of Western bourgeois imperialism in this famous quotation:

“Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe.”

This statement is graphically brought to life in the brutal murder of Coalhouse Walker in front of J.P. Morgan’s library. Walker eventually realizes that none of his supposed rights can be his unless he can defend himself, and he organizes a band of armed men to terrorize the fire chief and eventually hold the aforementioned library hostage. With the help of a disillusioned fireworks designer, they rig the building with explosives and promise to detonate if Walker’s car is not returned and the firehouse chief is not handed over to his justice.

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The person with whom I was discussing Walker’s character noted that he fit the archetype of the Greek tragic hero. Though he is virtuous and seeks justice, he has a fatal flaw, in this case the “sin of pride,” as she put it, and this leads to his downfall. While that hold true in a descriptive sense–he is indeed proud of himself and tries to the utmost to regain his dignity–it fails as an analysis of his character because it blots out the living context in which he lives and all the concrete aspects of his situation. He is not like Icarus, a gilded elite with dangerous ambition.

Nor is he like Hamlet or MacBeth, other aristocrats who, though they are meant to be moral examples to the masses and rule their underlings with grace and nobility, are afflicted by moral flaws that destroy them. He is more like Job, a mere pawn who is systematically dispossessed of everything and yet holds his head up and defends himself from the suggestions of his friends that he has brought this upon himself.

Walker is certainly flawed. He treats both his future wife and his car as his property, abandoning the former when it was inconvenient and returning as if he has every right to his child. In one poignant scene, he meets a black lawyer to push his case into the courts, but the lawyer rightly objects that he has no time for a rich black man who has lost his car. There are, he notes, poorer people with real problems. Considering that many African Americans were being lynched, dispossessed, and subjected to far worse torments than losing a luxury item, this is a reasonable statement. Certainly, Sarah, his lover and the mother of his child, suffers an even more ignominious fate, appealing to the Vice President for justice on her husband’s behalf when she is beaten to death in a crowd. One is reminded of the Russian people in 1905 appealing to the czar for relief from the brutality of their situation, only to be met with fire and lead.

The reason that characterizing Coalhouse Walker as a classic tragic hero is incorrect is not that it is descriptively wrong, but that it does not accurately explain his actions nor does it do anything to oppose the reactionary system that killed him in the film. It stays at the level of abstraction, ignoring the actual content of the film and encouraging us to see his final defeat as both tragic and necessary, since his fall was preordained by his “tragic flaw.”

Certainly the film’s logic is conventional: the black rebel who arms himself and disturbs the tranquility and obliviousness of white society must be punished. To say that he was afflicted by the “sin of pride” is to indulge in the worst of bourgeois moralizing, pinning the fault for his death on his transgression of a class and racial system rather than on the system itself. Without a correct historical understanding of dehumanizing racism and the exploitations of capitalism, we can only shake our heads in bemusement at this would-be soldier for justice. “He should have played by the rules,” we might say. Indeed, by using this description we fall into conspiracy with the executioners. While I don’t think that Walker’s individual terrorism is viable since it totally lacks links with a true mass movement or a strategy for social change, I also believe that preaching about the problems of individual pride obscures the real problem and allows us to shirk responsibility. Yes, this is fiction, but stories like Walker’s are far more common than many realize, playing out daily everywhere in America.

This is the value of a Marxist historical analysis of Ragtime. Because there is a unifying theory of history at its heart, it can both accurately describe Walker’s circumstances as well as explain their social origins. Further, it provides a correct political program for the elimination of these concrete, violent, exploitation, and oppressive structures. We are not left equivocating or making moral speeches. We don’t waste our time mourning the racists who die at the hands of the black militia. We understand that without arms and an army the people have nothing. We need a concrete analysis of a concrete situation in order to transform the world. Lament and sermon might be available to us, but without revolutionary theory and proper concrete analysis, we are without the weapons that might actually transform the world, which is why we’re here in the first place.

The Lego Movie: A Commercialized Dream

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No recent movie has been more fun to gush about with friends, going over favourite jokes and moments.

The Lego Movie is advertising so cunningly plotted, so precisely executed, that it is only after its childlike wonder and bright glow have faded from the screen and you have stepped out of the theatre that you remember just how thoroughly commercial it is. The very fabric of its computer-rendered world is patented, packaged, and sold by a certain Danish corporation. Yet the broader cultural reaction to it, including my own, has been not to scorn but a warm embrace. No one, or no one who is taken too seriously, has spurned it as a piece of crass “synergistic” marketing (not just for Lego, but also for studio Warner Bros.’ DC Comics properties, Hobbit franchise, etc.). What strange mystification is at work here so that, while we might snarl and claw at blatant product placement in Man of Steel or Adam Sandler’s cinematic abominations, we readily accept this nostalgia-driven ideological delivery mechanism?

Here we come to the power of a great story, which needs little summary. Emmett (Chris Pratt), our hero, is a run-of-the-mill construction worker in Brickopolis, a city comprised entirely of Lego blocks. It is ruled by President Business (Will Ferrell), owner of the only corporation in the world who also happens to be head of state. One evening, Emmett, becoming disillusioned with how invisible he seems to everyone around him, discovers the Piece of Resistance, a special block that, he discovers, holds the key to saving the world from President Business’ plan to freeze it all in glue. Because he was the one who found it, he becomes the Special, destined to overcome all obstacles and save the world. He is inducted into the order of the Master Builders–people who, like the One in the Matrix films, can take the world apart and refashion it into any shape–after escaping the police with Wildstyle, a woman who was looking for the piece herself. She happens to be in a relationship with Batman (Will Arnett), who, along with hordes of other licensed characters and a wizard named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) are going to aid Emmett in his quest.

Narratively, the film achieves pop perfection. It embraces the aspects of commodity fetishism we like–cuteness, malleability, novelty, sensory stimulation–while explicitly condemning the oppressive aspects of the Cult of Lego. All those instructions, all those licensed and pre-planned sets, the film proclaims, stifle creativity and produce conformity. At the same time, it does not celebrate pure creative anarchy, but tempers its valorization of the individual with a strong appeal to teamwork and a communal ethos. Its aptitude at appealing to the better parts of our jaded postmodern sensibilities runs further than that, however. A few examples will suffice. Its treatment of Batman lampoons the character’s self-absorption and the Nolan trilogy’s “gritty” realism but keeps the benefits of having Batman in the film. Rapid-fire jokes rain down on the audience, but the core story has high stakes and a conventional dramatic arc that is executed to perfection. It uses the Chosen One trope to drive the narrative forward precisely until it can no longer believe in it. Revealing the prophecy of the Special to be fabricated, it democratizes the notion of “special” to include all those generic plastic figures walking around, who, when enlightened, are suddenly capable of amazing things.

Even Lord Business, the president of the world’s only corporation (and the world itself), is brought low by the realization that he is capable of so much more than enforcing a beautiful but stifling order. It’s a dig at the way adults appropriate children’s toys and ruin them by taking them too seriously, but also allows the story to end on a total redemption. He rejects his ultimate weapon of control–Krazy Glue, not generic adhesive, of course–to turn over his kingdom to his children, whom the film imagines to be the rightful rulers of the realm of play and imagination. Someone could write a decent paper on how the film deals with the issue of human freedom and the death of God as an omnipotent guarantor of the universe, but I’ll cede that to someone who can stomach Nietzsche better than I can.

In The Lego Movie we see a vision of the world’s contradictions and conflicts resolved. It’s a spectacular dream that directors Lord and Miller have created. It’s all the virtues of capitalism–free exchange, the ability to remake oneself at will, unbridled industriousness, and the protection of the individual–without the alienation, deprivation, and rampant violence that form its foundations. Lord Business’ plutocratic empire, which itself is only a concealment for a much grander and more sinister scheme, feels true to us because it is imperialist capitalism in miniature. Though that world has to be overcome by struggle, the world is saved when the evil overlord is convinced of his wrongdoing and abdicates his power to the [plastic] people.

Near the end, the world of The Lego Movie is revealed to be our own, the adventures and characters of which we have grown fond are the property of a real-life father. His son is the creator of our narrative. This is a vital realization both for Emmett and the audience, who should grasp that the harmony and freewheeling creativity of the brick world are only projections and dreams. Within the world of Lego, we can, like the Master Builders, rearrange global affairs at our whim, fill our imaginary reality with dozens of characters from popular culture, turn any random set of bricks into a spaceship, etc. The Lego Movie recognizes and proclaims the value of play but, as we leave the theatre, we are left with the sense that, someday, Will Ferrell’s son is going to grow up.

Despite the film’s buoyant tone and hilariously fantastical adventures, it acknowledges that there is a reality outside of the dream space, one that nurtures and produces it. It’s not radical by any means, but it is a sign that the film is not all surface. It has real substance to it despite being corporate propaganda, and while its subversions are relatively tame, they are most welcome. It’s another example of the film having its cake and eating it too, but there’s nothing wrong with dreaming castles in the air if the dream can be translated into reality. That will be a struggle, and I doubt the real revolution will be as simple as taking a few things apart and making wonderful new things with the pieces, but that’s no reason not to enjoy the dream while it lasts. Just take heed of who owns the copyright on that dream.

Christian Kitsch #7: Archie’s Love Scene

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A long time ago, in an unfathomable land between the civilizations of Canada and Mexico, a pasty comic book character named Archie became the subject of a whole series of deeply terrible Christian propaganda comics. Entrancing and yet repellant, the source of much derision and laughter, the comics had an aura of silly glory all their own. Though they appeared simple and plain, and truth be told had less intelligence and wit than the barrel of salted peanuts I’m gnawing on right now, they nonetheless brought delight to many. How they did so is a mystery best left to the mists of time. It has been too long since I have set my critical gaze upon the Spire Comics’ run of Archie issues. Today, I will be correcting this with a special Valentine’s Day edition of Christian Kitsch. It is time to enter the surprisingly erotic and fraught adolescent world of Archie yet again with an examination of Archie’s Love Scene. 

This comic is a compilation of short segments separated by vague themes and bookended by Bible verses. All of the segments address love as a topic, but in quite different and sometimes contradictory ways. Of course, those who are familiar with these comics and their writer/mastermind Al Hartley will know what to expect from Spire’s attempt to talk about love: upbeat preaching, regressive gender stereotypes, and a worldview so thoroughly whitewashed that Tom Sawyer would be sheepish around it.

Now for the comic itself:

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One page in, and we are already in the realm of this grizzled father’s worst nightmare: his daughter Veronica eloping with Archie through a window. His expression is not angry, contorted with so much sheer terror that all the vanilla custard is spraying from inside his head. I’m hoping that my own parents weren’t so nearly terrified by the thought that I might waltz out of the house on a ladder and elope in high school.

Of course, Archie and Veronica are not about to skip out to Vegas to pay Rev. Elvis a visit, right?

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The dialogue makes the excuse that Veronica didn’t want to wake anyone up, but, as we see, the ladder clanging on the side of the house was probably much louder than quietly sneaking down the stairs would have been. Enough of the superficial nitpicking, though. What is this comic trying to tell us about love? First of all, Veronica calms down her father’s conniptions (and leave Archie slack-jawed) by asserting that she knows “what the Bible says about real love and marriage.” Well, I know that the Apostle Paul thought that it was better not to marry and that the Old Testament is a veritable minefield of terrible marriage advice and doomed couples. For starters, just ask Leah how she felt being forced to marry a man who didn’t want her and thought she was her own sister. And then have tons of kids with him. Or all the times in the OT where the Bible just skips over the existence of women and talks about fathers just begetting sons, presumably emerging chest-burster style.

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First Lesson About Love: God will bring you your soul mate, to the horrified dismay of your aging WASP father.

The second part of the comic is about expert playboy Reggie, who demonstrates the kind of tactical error you don’t want to make while using weaponized Valentine’s cards.

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I can only presume that Reggie thought he had better chances with his four-pronged maneuver than focusing on a single woman at a time. It’s hard to tell, but I like to think that he got all four of them together, handed them all a card, and said “OK, now you can kill each other for me.” And instead they go Lord of the Flies on him. This page ends with a verse from the Bible (what, were you expecting the Qur’an?): “Love one another as I have loved you.” That comes from John 15:12. I assume that Jesus did not have a barrage of giant Valentine cards in mind when he said that.

Second Lesson About Love: Love the way that Jesus did–one woman at a time.

Prepare for a massive tone shift as we transition from a playful tale about an eviscerated playboy to a far more macabre yarn. Fearful Archie and hapless Jughead are about to take a ride through what appears to be the Christian version of a horror-themed roller coaster.

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“The weather is zilch,” Jughead? I concede that the dense overhanging forest does make it seem like there is no weather. The color of the sky in the top panel is perfectly ambiguous and all of the green fog ribbons appear to be emanating from the forest floor. Of course, we all know who the green-robed figure looming in the distance along a forest road is. Right?

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Jughead makes a point to register his astonishment at the cloaked woman’s peculiar fashion sense, but that’s the least of our concerns with this bizarro page. For those of you without an encyclopedic knowledge of Biblical prophecy, the person they have just picked up, named Mystery, is the legendary Whore of Babylon. Archie’s blatantly irresponsible driving and panicked expression are quite understandable in this case, since he just picked up a prostitute. Not only a prostitute, but one who represents all the depravity and worldly delights that send a shiver down the spine of any Revelation-reading, rapture-anticipating fundamentalist. I think it pays to be a bit skeptical of Jughead’s fearful ranting about Mystery, though, because it’s not as though she did anything bad to them. She just invites herself into the car, which apparently doesn’t set off any alarms at first, and sits there before vanishing. Granted, vanishing into thin air fall short of conventional behavior for forest-stalking symbolic ciphers for corruption and evil, but the two strapping straight men in the front of the car appear unscathed.

The next page has the gang running into a whole crew of Scooby-Doo worthy vices, including crime, fear, and hate.

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Being licked is Jughead’s greatest fear, for reasons he would prefer to keep in the dark.

This parade of hitchhiking weirdos still seems far from threatening, with the exception of Crime. He relieves our protagonists of their summer job money and beats it. That makes me suspect that he was just an actual criminal and not a hazy symbol like the rest, since he doesn’t look at all like the other apparitions. Of course, like any morality play, this comic needs to come to a shiny conclusion where the sinners on their wayward road are rescued by the powers of heaven.

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What a delightful turn of events! Not only have Archie and Jughead gotten clear of the forest and rid of the vile vagabonds that inhabit it, they now have a triple-double-date lined up. The comic wants us to think that these ivory-skinned beauties are eminent representatives of heaven, but I’m not entirely sure. For one, if the devil actually wanted to to corrupt the character of Hot Blooded All American Boys©, a triad of alluring sirens would seem a craftier plan than throwing random vagrants into the back of their car. Perhaps I’m being too presumptuous. After all, we should see how the comic ends before rendering judgment.

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Let’s do some math. Blonde woman=love. Love=God. God=ready to touch your life this minute. I have to say, that’s too close to pagan temple prostitution for my virtuous heart. While Reggie can’t get away with trying to proposition four girls simultaneously, God has seen fit to deliver unto this doofy pair three companions. Clearly, they are the chosen ones, or else the Almighty would not favor them with His “touch.”

I hope we’re all getting a sense of the somewhat split-minded attitude this comic has toward sex and love in relationships. In a more coherent and better-constructed work, I would assume this was evidence of some kind of intelligent ambiguity on the topic. In Archie’s Love Scene, though, I think it’s more symptomatic of sheer incompetence. We’re going to skip ahead through some of the more boring segments, though one about Betty’s diary entry pining for Archie deserves some notice. The comic shows her writing in her journal about her unrequited love for the titular character, before dismissing it as mere selfishness. She has to submit to God’s will for her life, she decides, and eventually the comic concludes this way:

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God not only touches people, he fills them up too. I suppose we’re given a disclaimer that God’s love is wholesome and pure. The comic becomes more absurd and far more interestingly queer when you assume that all of the comics are in continuity with one another. Why? So we know that God’s love has previously been equated with a blonde woman with a red rose in her hair. Taking that into account, we could read Betty’s “stepping out of the darkness” and wanting to snuggle up to God’s Love a sign of her realizing she’s more into women after all, though she makes allowances for when she wants to be filled up with God Himself. Not to mention that last panel. Jughead does look slightly catatonic, leaning against Archie’s shoulder that way. But Archie is grabbing him with some vigor, and even though he’s torn himself away from Jughead’s gaze to focus on the newly liberated Betty, there is a tiny bit of homoromantic subtext going on here.

The depressing reality, of course, is that this is all Christian propaganda encouraging women to put up with stupid men because being a good Christian will make you more desirable to the “right” man. Given this bleak reality, you will understand my desire to find a subversive reading or two in there. Especially since, not one segment later, Archie is out on a Smooching Cliff in a car with yet another woman. Veronica said she was a player, but Archie sure seems to get around himself.

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One problem with more aggressively propagandistic Christian kitsch is that it often doesn’t understand what it’s trying to fight against, and ends up stomping all over its overall message in exchange for taking potshots at its favorite villains. For instance, Suzy, taken with Archie for some unknown reason, is inordinately passionate about the stars, so much so that she seems completely oblivious to his erotic advances. He, being the sensitive, insecure male that he is, makes creepy claw hands and demands that she let him plant a kiss on her. While he’s clearly turned on by all the talk about Saturn(alia) and Jupiter, he seems to take offense at her astrological interests.

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Let’s stop to appreciate the breathtaking grandeur of what the author has done here. Ostensibly, this whole comic book is supposed to be a treatise on various aspects of love. It’s meant to impart virtue, defend against vice, uphold dust-dull bourgeois family values, that whole familiar tune. Up to this point, the comic has at least respected individual agency and condemned just the sort of tryst that Archie appears to be on at the moment. After all, we had paranoid white-haired WASP father panicking just because his daughter was using a ladder to leave the house. At this point, though, we’re being asked to sympathize with Archie–because he doesn’t hold any stock in that astrology nonsense!–at the point where he is not only alone with a woman in a car at night, but attempting to force himself on someone. It’s clear that he only cares about her proclivity toward less-than-rational adherence to horoscopes only after it’s clear he’s not getting any. Ask me why this travesty of a page belongs in a paternalistic comic book teaching children the values of monogamy and letting God into your life. I dare you. Though I suppose this kind of male jerkery being excused is perfectly consistent with the patriarchal, feudalistic claptrap the rest of this comic is selling. Which is more depressing still.

That would be a good place to end, but there is one more segment that tickles my fancy, and I would be remiss, nay, I would make a mockery of my blog without bringing your attention to this gem.

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Yes, the dog wants to be a hippy. Throw off your chains, canine! Set that ignoramus in his place. Once you put him in jeans, hip sandals, and a counter-culture headband, he looks almost as human as the crudely drawn hominids around him. Of course, the creators couldn’t resist pairing him up with the “ugly girl,”  but otherwise things look up for our social-climbing dog.

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What begins as a glorious expropriation of the expropriator and a liberation from the chains of dog-hood ends in decadence and alienation. I love that the story being told here almost exactly parallels the much-ballyhooed fall of the Baby Boomers from the youth in revolt to the kind of people who, well, watch Disney cartoons, waterski, go driving in a convertible, and listen to music on their expensive stereos. It’s weirdly prescient for a comic written in the 70s. Reaganite excess–prophesied in Archie, folks.

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Alas, alack, the ruler of the household is not to be downtrodden for long. A skinny, lunkheaded dude with a stripy T-shirt can only live on dog food for so long before he gets furious. With the proper human order reestablished, our yuppy dog ponders all his unanswered questions with a pensive expression. He follows his master, but class consciousness, once won, is difficult to get rid of. Jughead’s appointment of the guillotine has only been postponed, my friends. Faith is the answer, people. A romantic notion if I ever heard one.

There is a small coda about following Jesus, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been covered in previous posts, so I’ll spare you. Suffice to say that it’s been immensely pleasurable taking apart another Spire Comics monstrosity, and hope that by staring into its black and banal abyss we will conduct ourselves better this Valentine’s Day. Whatever your relationship status, take heart! For God will touch you and fill you up if you let Him. Adieu!

Zombie Liberal Arts College

Hekman Library (general view), Calvin College

Liberal arts college: last known photo

Colleges and universities are meant to be incubators of the mind, inculcating productive habits, weeding out lazy or incoherent thinking, and shaping the individual students into critical thinkers. At the college my editor attends, officials and promoters make a point of emphasizing that it is a liberal arts institution in the grand tradition of the medieval university. The college exists not only to chip away at high school students’ vast and terrifying ignorance but also to refashion them into more socially useful subjects, armed with a specific, highly moralistic worldview (in this case, a Calvinist one) and well-versed in the abstract philosophical underpinnings of the “world of work” into which they will graduate. While the reality is that most of the school’s energies are concentrated in developing professional programs and a more utilitarian approach to education is becoming dominant, everyone finds it necessary to emphasize the edifying role of a college rather than just its ability to manufacture job candidates and an increasingly large reserve army of labour for the capitalist class to exploit.

While the increasing importance of preprofessional programs and more technical, less “liberal” instruction could be seen as a corruption of the college’s stated goals–not that I would agree with those goals in any case–there is a far more pernicious and pervasive rot on campus. One sees it ambling down the walking paths and on the posters advertising upcoming events. You can hear it in the music drifting up from the faux-chic coffee shop and, most viscerally, feel it in the architecture and how space is produced. A professor of literature at the college told me an anecdote about the architect of the campus: he made it deliberately confusing and sprawling in order to make it feel more like a neighborhood or residential community than a college. It’s not true that brutalist architecture was designed to suppress student revolts, but I can see where the idea got traction. Sharp-edged concrete monoliths with small windows and imposing edifices are naturally intimidating. The Robarts Library, located on the campus of the University of Toronto, is a somewhat fearsome structure, especially in contrast to the rest of the university.

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Many people process this kind of architecture as “totalitarian” or at least domineering in its logic. There is no doubt that such structures exert a powerful influence on the surrounding space, which, depending on the building, can be experienced as oppressive. Nonetheless, I think my small liberal arts college’s campus, with its winding pathways and tree-sheltered dormitories, has a more subtle but still insidious totalizing logic operating in it. It gives one the sense of a completely domesticated, almost toy-like world. The liberal arts college is not merely a womb but a playroom as well, a space for careless experimentation where people are ostensibly shielded from the trauma of the “real world” outside. This is especially true at a Christian college that strives to maintain a tension between the terrifying secular world without and the coddled and privileged upbringing most of its students experienced.

The college’s raison d’être is, in part, to be a place where skittish and respectable religious people can send their children and be protected from commie professors, pornography (it’s blocked on the campus network), sex (prohibited for students), and drugs. Everything that comes from beyond the narrow confines of the school’s church-policed ideology is carefully packaged and assimilated so that it will be less threatening. It’s all very neighborly, the spitting image of a white American suburban utopia. Privilege is concealed in modesty, the alienated and atomized student population is sucked dry for tuition money and funneled into one entertaining event after another, biology professors need to cater to the delusions of creationists sitting in their classrooms, and on the common green areas the suffocating politeness of the architecture commingles with the student body to create something almost diabolical.

While many of the more liberal professors and staff members, who tend to be less reactionary than the student body, talk up the virtues of community this and liberal arts that, the truth is that the college is completely helpless in the face of vicious market forces. Education is becoming a shopping experience, a wholesale store for credentials robed in the costumes of its old prestige. The college keeps the furry robes and the pomp of graduation while ruthlessly cutting art and language programs. The university, like the old warring aristocracy of Europe, has been disarmed and tamed, and is now an incubator of manner and posturing without much substance. I used to be frustrated that students who came here showed so little interest in actually learning and changing rather than shuffling through the assembly line before starting their careers. But I’ve come to see that that’s the logic of the university now. You practically smell the decay in the air, and it’s going to take more than a bit of fumigation to get it out.

Thanks for putting up with my unstructured musing. I’ll have more Christian kitsch goodness on the way.

Her

This is a fantastic piece on Her. I am especially intrigued by his use of the term “cupcake fascism” and will duly investigate. Despite my lack of familiarity with some of the concepts he’s using, it’s a succinct essay that fits into what I aspire for this blog to be. So give it a thorough reading.

Database Animal

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I realized not that long into watching Her (dir. Spike Jonze) that it was a film that would generate a lot of “thinkpieces” that focused in on its least interesting aspect (its treatment of masculinity). It’s a memorable film, but not really a good one. It looks gorgeous, no doubt, but its subject matter isn’t particularly well suited to film – being a film allows for a more forceful underlining of Samantha’s non-corporeality, but it also means that a lot of the running time is close-ups of Joaquin Phoenix (playing a professional personal letter writer called Theodore Twombley) being a bellend. The characters are also (deliberately? It’s hard to tell) shallow and infantilized – repeatedly wowed by utterly insipid ‘insights’ and expressing themselves in the way a 13-year old does; one of the only two characters who doesn’t fit into this pattern acts, tellingly, like a condescending suburban father to…

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Satelliti: Transister

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Though music has been a constant in human life for thousands of years, the means by which this music has been created constantly evolve in history. Take the piano, which for many is the first instrument they learn. Pianos are almost ubiquitous in churches and other public performance spaces, and many in the upper class can afford to put them in their living rooms. It has become associated with weepy ballads and stern classicism, middle school student geniuses and sleazy saloon patrons alike. Before the early 18th century, however, the piano did not exist. When it was invented, it was favored by players and composers because it was both loud enough to be heard throughout a concert hall in an age before amplification and allow precise enough for players to control the sound of the notes. I hope by this example to illustrate the idea that reality has no room for what we often idealize as “traditional” musical instruments.

This is a roundabout way of introducing a highly non-traditional album. Satelliti is the stage name of two Italian musicians named Andrea Polato (drums) and Marco Dalle Luche (keyboards and synths). They have been jamming together since 2010 and, in line with a whole army of European innovators, have created some truly remarkable improvised work that owes its roots to jazz but fearlessly absorbs influences from other genres. Their new album, Transister, is a set of exciting duets that combines jazz with elements of rock music, house, psychedelia, and 90s Detroit techno.

While the flow of most traditional jazz, at least more popular forms like swing and bebop, is defined by alternating solos and bands with strong leaders, Satelliti sounds more like an equal partnership. This is not to say that their work is soft or conciliatory. Their pieces surge and seethe with energy, using relatively familiar dance structures as found in early electronic music and rearranging them in unpredictable ways. The effect is at times similar to 1970s Krautrock bands like Neu!, Can, or Faust, though definitely lacking the cut-and-paste recording wizardry of the latter. Here the point of the music is not to sound humane or naturalistic but to infuse the most mechanical of rhythms with a definite purpose. Like all music, it’s technology skillfully handled that produces the best results, and Transister is certainly a strong piece of work.

Polato’s drumming sets the clockwork of each song in motion. Often imitating electronic drum machines in his precision, he is nonetheless not keen on staying in one place for too long. While cast-iron grooves are numerous on the album, he is surprisingly agile as well, keeping the whole affair from getting monotonous. His skills are most obviously on display in the more aggressive tracks. The best of these includes “Voltage,” “Canada” (which begins slowly but eventually bursts), and the final track, “Transister.” Dalle Luche has a yet more varied bag of tricks to employ, generally using synth loops to create tension and regularity in the grooves while introducing more manic improvised layers on top of the rhythms. Some of the synth work is indebted to the shredding, squelchy style of Detroit techno, while some tracks feature sounds like wind chimes and other soft tones. A couple of the tracks, the longest of which is “Bright Tunnel,” eschew fireworks altogether and opt for a more thoughtful pace and warmer textures. It’s a testament to the versatility of both the musicians and the tools they are using that all of this sounds consistent with the larger whole. I would go so far as to say that this band, along with others like The Neck and Dawn of Midi, are at the cusp of a new and vital form of jazz fusion with electronic music forms. It’s an exciting time to be listening to jazz.

Back to that piano. I am sure that the trusty old traditions will always have their place in music. That is, as long as there are musicians who can use the instrument in the service of great music, and nothing obviously supersedes it, the piano is not going away. Samplers, drum machines, synths, and computers, likewise, are here to stay, and no retro wishful thinking is going to change that. If Satelliti and other groups like it are any indication, we have a long and fruitful future to come.

How Important Is Culture?

Of course, the answer to this question for most tigers is “I’m hungry, you interloper. Get off my territory or I’ll have your spin for a necktie.”

Given that my primary sapient audience is human, however, I need to address culture’s importance in their terms. Further, my statistics tell me that people in the centers of global capitalism make up the vast majority of people who read this blog. Because I am also embedded in a Western, specifically American, context, my judgments and any generalizations I make will be shaped to a Western and North American culture.

This blog’s primary purpose is to discuss culture, which in practice has meant individual critical pieces on works of mass culture, discussions of specific artists and cultural events, and a sprinkling of broader theorization about how culture should be approached and understood. Originally, the focus on culture derived from a specific job I held on campus educating people on how to think more critically about how they consumed media. At this point, I have no obligation to write about culture, meaning that when I write about it it is because I have a genuine interest in the topic. Working on this blog has also kept me attuned to major currents in popular culture studies and pushed me into larger projects like my work with Edward Said and graphic novels. This has conditioned me to be more apt at talking about culture rather than other topics, and because of that essays and posts about culture are easier to write.

None of this gives us a good answer for the larger question of how important culture is, however. I should clarify precisely what I mean. My answer is broad–addressing the significance of human culture to human society in general, above disclaimers applying–but is also specifically political. I am, as longtime readers might know, committed to a communist politics and the Marxist-Leninst-Maoist strand in particular. Therefore, when I write about culture I assume that it is a human-made response, a reflection of material circumstances. I reject “art for art’s sake” and accept that capitalism is a site of contradictions and class struggle. This class struggle, these contradictions, have their roots in material reality but are expressed through culture.

Marxist theorists are notorious for making the distinction between the base of human society–economic production, relations of production, how power is wielded by the ruling class through force and exploitation–and the superstructure, which encompasses the world of ideology and myths that arise from and also help reproduce the class structure of society. A crude and mechanical understanding of the superstructure, which includes much of what I would define as culture, would hold that it is only a reflection of the base, indicating what is “really going on” but in a nebulous and unreal way. Culture, in this scenario, is produced by the base but does not have any influence beyond that. I don’t believe that reality gives any substance to this idea. Ideology, stories, and myths are not in the last instance the primary drivers of history, but when people act according to what they read and see in their culture they can become incarnated  into reality. Real life is messy and complex, and ideas from one historical mode of production–say, feudalism–might persist in society long after that mode of production has been superseded. Patriarchy, for instance, is not inherent to capitalism but originated in agricultural societies, becoming particularly hardened under feudalism. Yet it obviously persists as a vestige of the past within capitalism, morphing and adapting to a new economic and social reality. To take this further, we know that vestigial patriarchy, though it is not essential to capitalism in the abstract, has all kids of real implications for women even in the most “liberal” societies. Even where equality has become legislative writ, the liberation of women is woefully incomplete, which manifests in all sorts of horrifying ways.

Studying culture, therefore, is a worthy endeavor. Learning the language of the dominant ideology, criticizing it where it appears, unmasking its falsehoods, and bringing clarity and consciousness where there was once obscurity are all noble aspirations. I hope that this blog, however unimportant and obscure it is, might play some part in that mission. At the same time, there needs to be a reality check. Intellectual treatises on popular films and music are not going to overthrow capitalism, and to mistake understanding and interpreting the language of exploitation is not the same as fighting for the destruction of that injustice. We can understand how the culture industry at the centers of capitalism creates an atmosphere of consent, justifies our comforts, and obscures the imperialist and exploitative basis of our so-called “civilizations.” This will not do any good unless we actively work to overthrow the social order, i.e. capitalism, that produced our situation in the first place and continually strengthens and reorders the world according to its whims. Our primary vocation needs to be, to adapt Marx, change the world, not interpret it. Though a revolutionary movement is nothing if not armed with truth, carrying only truth when a rifle or stone or one’s body is needed is foolish. My blog, which isn’t even that great when compared to some others, is performing a secondary task, even if it can be important.

(As a side note, I think it’s good to emphasize that a humble attitude with regard to culture also helps us avoid moralistically condemning people for enjoying certain films or music. The dreaded term “problematic” conjures up all sorts of Internet demons I would prefer to avoid. Though I think being vigilant and critical is necessary, this doesn’t mean simply blacklisting cultural artifacts in most cases. For instance, I enjoyed The Lego Movie despite it being blatant advertising. The most important thing is that we recognize ideology when we see it.)

Not only that, but it pays not to be too serious. If anything, some realistic deflation and self-deprecating humor are more useful and winning in the long run than unbroken seriousness or, worse, petulant whining. Make no mistake: culture is important, and understanding it is also vital. At the same time, the work I do here is meant more for entertainment and edification than making a difference in the world. The best I can hope for is that every post leaves me, and a tiny sliver of the world, more illuminated than when I started. As for the real revolutionary work, I have been distinctly lacking in that department. Perhaps I’ll be able to report differently someday, but for now I humbly leave you with a quotation from Mao:

An army without culture is a dull-witted army, and a dull-witted army cannot defeat the enemy.

–“The United Front in Cultural Work” (October 30, 1944), Selected Works, Vol. III, p. 235.

 

 

Further Notes on Capitalism and Evangelion

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Once we’re done overcoming our abandonment issues and trauma, we can have a shopping spree!

In a couple of places, specifically in my discussion of Revolutionary Girl Utena and my recent post on the death of the author and Neon Genesis Evangelion, I have criticized works of art for being individualistic. In both cases, there have been responses characterizing my criticism as being reductionist, collapsing psychology completely into the sphere of the economic. Marxist criticism does have a tendency to lapse into an essentialist and simplistic discussion of how the economic base influences the superstructure and, in many case, vice versa. The post on Evangelion and Barthes eventually found its way onto Reddit, and prompted this response. It reads, in part:

“Edit: As I understand it, the paragraph seems to be saying that the psychological (Hedgehog’s dilemma and whatnot) should have been entirely reduced to the social and economic (Marxist class struggle, I guess). It makes more sense to me, however, that both psychological and social explanations have their place (neither should be fully reducible to the other), and that it’s not a problem if a single work of art (like Eva) focuses on the psychological to the exclusion of larger economic and social forces. Maybe someone here who has actually read some Marx can inform me if I’m mischaracterizing the author’s statement.”

This seems to be responding to a small passage in my post, which was only using Evangelion as an example rather than specifically being about the show. I wrote:

At the same time, its bleak sense of apocalypse never transcends the individual, makes the individual psyche the centre of its narrative, and understands our current oppressed situation not as the result of a historically contingent capitalist mode of production that can be transcended through revolutionary activity. Instead, the solution is simply to seize control of our own lives, stop relying on others to define our precious identities, and recognize that we shouldn’t be so selfish and cowardly because we hurt others.

Because I was only using the show as an example within a larger piece, I resorted to a quick gloss that fails in many ways to actually explain why I think Evangelion, in the last instance, fails to break out of capitalist ideology. It was probably a mistake to attempt to criticize such a complex show in a single paragraph. To clarify: I don’t think that the show is wrong for focusing its energies on exploring the psychology of individuals. Depression, the thorniness of intimacy (i.e. the Hedgehog’s Dilemma), the crushing weight of expectations, the tensions between parents and children, between change and continuity, between terror and courage, are all worth exploring. Moreover, the show is able to mount a stinging criticism of how societies–particularly the Japanese society–tends to instrumentalize its citizens, particularly the young, turning them into “worker-samurai.” Evangelion’s strongest virtue is as a diagnosis of crisis, how capitalist social relations destroy the very individuals it claims to liberate.

Unfortunately, while it recognizes the nature of the problem, it never transcends the realm of the individual. Shinji’s final reconciliation with himself (in the show, the film End of Evangelion being another matter entirely) and self-realization are portrayed as the solution. He stops relying on others to prop up his ego, collapsing in weakness whenever he fails to earn the approval of his father and peers. He has, in effect, gone through a highly intensive therapy session over the course of the show, finally arriving at a moment of integration with himself and others. All of this is fine, as far as it goes. But criticism needs to address not just what a show is and how well it executes on its basic premises and style and so on. It also needs to understand that every piece of mass culture is produced as part of a system that reinforces ideology but is also a site of struggle over how society is/should be organized. Evangelion does a number of things right. I love how it explores insecurity and abandonment, reflecting the social disintegration of Japan that took place under its shock transition to capitalism and the deep malaise that has settled over it since the bubble burst in the early 90s. In the final instance, however, we have to acknowledge that the show is not revolutionary. It is therapy, a way to deal with and accept our own individual problems. This could be a prerequisite to becoming politically active and working to overthrow bourgeois hegemony and establishing socialism, but it could also just help us “lean in” and comfort ourselves with the status quo. Another point that would be worth exploring, but which I have no room to do here, is the way that the show has become essentially commodified into a safe and even fetishistic object. The way that it has been appropriated and received by fans, who are rightly loathed by their creator, also plays a role in criticism. Perhaps I’ll write on that another time.

None of this undermines Evangelion’s claim to being enjoyable and thought-provoking. I’m merely arguing that its narrative is structured in a way that is captive to individualism. Within that limitation, it’s a fine piece of work, but I don’t think it’s necessarily reductionist to hold the show up to the necessity of revolution and finding it somewhat wanting in that regard. In my original post, I leapt too quickly into economics, but the point is that Evangelion is not significantly deviant in terms of capitalist ideology, and it might be reinforcing the essential basics of bourgeois individualism while critiquing some of the trauma and alienation that grow out of capitalist social relations.

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