The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Category: Criticism

Comic Review: Open Spaces and Closed Places

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Cover art for OSCP 2

Probably the greatest part of enduring the huge milling crowds of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) is the chance to interact with creators one has never met or heard of before. I met the wonderful saicoink/An Nguyen while exploring one of the smaller exhibition rooms. She cuts a striking and fashionable figure, and her art embodies all the nostalgic indulgence and defiance of her clothes. Open Spaces and Closed Places, collected in six volumes, came home with me in a bag I got from the local Japan Foundation, and I read the entire series over about two days. Having just finished it, I felt it was best to commit some of my thoughts to writing so I can look back at this when I am rereading it or just flipping back through the pages someday.

OSCP revolves around a genre-standard shoujo setup: two high school boys, Oscar and Jirou, furtively crushing on each other while dealing with academic problems, rival schools, and other assorted slice-of-life issues. Although the tone of the book is rather flowery and cute most of the time, however, there is a strong undercurrent of occult darkness that runs through it. Oscar and his friend Vivien, in particular, carry with them a sense of sadness and urgency, a sense that all of the places they inhabit are ultimately fleeting and temporary for them. One of the central conflicts, in fact, is Oscar’s attempts to dissuade Jirou from getting attached to him. Oscar, ashamed of his various afflictions and haunted by literal and metaphorical demons, responds to overt affection in a way I find quite familiar as someone who struggles with depression and social anxiety.

The more surreal and occult elements of the story were the most appealing for me. Much like in the recent game Night in the Woods, supernatural terror haunts all of the most mundane social interactions, and the author is able to bring many of the characters’ anxieties to the surface with a heavy use of black, grotesque shapes. Curling, cackling demons remind me of all the spectres that stalked me in my sleep as a child and during the first months of university. Despite the characters often behaving in frustrating ways, their grounding in both real-world problems and more fantastical situations makes them mostly understandable as human beings. While Oscar is something of an enigma and I never quite grasped him, I still found him compelling, reminding me of myself while also not feeling like a simple self-insert or a mirror that the reader can simply project onto.

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Although saicoink’s drawing style is fairly simple, especially for the human figures, layouts, stylistic flourishes, and a strong grasp of facial expressions make it more evocative than it otherwise might be. Simple  figures, after all, are often more emotionally resonant and easy to understand. Some of the action scenes are more stiff than I prefer, and certain aspects of the style are not to my taste–to me a few of the characters are difficult to tell apart because they have very similar head shapes–but I find the entire presentation of the story to enhance rather than detract from the basic drama of it. The story inhabits the style very well, and I can’t imagine it looking any other way. It’s nostalgic and soft, yes, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.

I appreciated OSCP as a diversion and as a narrative about the difficulty we have in relating to each other and our positive and more self-destructive reactions to those problems. I would certainly recommend the book to those who are fans of shoujo or just to those who appreciate a cute love story with some darker and more esoteric aspects to it. It’s an understated, lovely bit of work from an artist I am certainly going to follow from now on. Here’s to chance meetings and little glances.

Socialism in the Wasteland

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Propaganda image of Dazhai, China, the site of an agricultural project that became the focus of a national campaign during the later Mao years.

Soon, very soon, I will review Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War on Nature. Tonight, however, I’m going to write frankly and personally about a topic that’s dear to me. I can’t write a blog entirely about other people’s words, after all! I mention the book, however, because it has sharpened my thoughts and feelings about what I value and dream about. Because although analysis and rational thought inform my goals, my affiliations, and my ethical choices, human rationality is inescapably linked to physical structures of my own body as well as my social contacts and personal tastes. Fantasies and desires, emotional satisfaction, and physical security inform and permeate my decision-making process. Coming out as trans could be construed as a purely rational decision, but that decision is only rational if my desires for personal freedom, for recognition, and for living truthfully outweighed my desires for conformity, social peace, or keeping secrets.

Shapiro’s book notes that Mao’s conception of both human/human relations and human/nature relations was one of struggle. Common metaphors and fantasies conjured by Mao’s speeches and writings often revolve around the power of sheer numbers of people to overcome greater or more concentrated power. Filtered through a mind steeled by military leadership, these metaphors and narratives included the ability to win against American nuclear attacks through sheer population size and the infinite creative power of labour infused with ideological enthusiasm. A proper political line, mobilized among a gigantic population, could master nature entirely. This mindset, of course, was not enough to wreak the devastation of watersheds, lakes, hillsides, forests, animal life, and, often, human life that Shapiro describes. Rather, Mao won many over to his side, operationalizing a programme through administrative teams and cadres capable of mobilizing (voluntarily or otherwise) millions of people for often ill-conceived engineering projects.

Moreover, due to a somewhat understandable mistrust of experts and intellectuals, scientific critics of these projects were often criticized and silenced, even branded as pariahs. Even as Mao broke with the Soviet model and attempted to direct the state to pursue less concentrated forms of industrialization, the organic world was conceived in antagonistic and instrumental terms. Socialism, meanwhile, was supposed to solve issues of subsistence, population growth, and environmental protection by its very nature. Only capitalists could be despoilers. For Shapiro, the key enablers of the dramatic environmental destruction that went on in the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution’s Dazhai model projects, and the erection of the Third Front in the Chinese interior as a hedge against Soviet invasion, was not socialism itself but rather a cluster of factors. The suppression of minority ways of life and knowledge about the environment, practical silencing of dissent, and militaristic disregard for natural systems’ own value all contributed to these tragic events.

Yet, as Shapiro notes and as I observe in news stories about the suppression of the EPA and National Parks Service in the United States––not to mention the wastelands being created by capitalist Chinese mining and construction industries–-socialism and capitalism have similarly dismal records of neglecting the protection of resources and the delicate dependence humans have on resources.

Given this, I wanted to take inventory of my own fantasies, desires, and reasons for being a Marxist. It’s a myth that bad people destroy natures, whether human or beyond our particular genetic group. Every individual, every social group, every mode of production is capable of spinning ecosystems and energy systems into chaos, causing local or global deprivation and destruction. One apt criticism of Marxists that I’ve had to wrestle with is that we tend to think that because we think correctly we are insulated from error. Adventurists and worshippers of spontaneity rush in ill-prepared while we lay long-term plans and create organizations of considerable scope and complexity. Political line is everything, we think, and we go to considerable lengths to enforce a certain mindset and a certain style. What the history of Marxism and the environment (and LGBT people, for that matter) shows is that well-intentioned and deeply committed and wise people can be just as hurtful and dangerous as those who are out for profit or self-interest. To an animal or tree or a mountain or wetland, the politics behind its destruction don’t matter.

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The Aral Sea, 1989 on the left and 2014 on the right. The Soviet Union and its successor states have used this inland lake for irrigating cotton fields with disastrous and toxic results.

Often, the fantasies that animate Marxism, in both academia and in power, are fantasies (not in the genre sense but in the sense of hopes and desires) about harmony and control. Chaos and “anarchy of production” arise as some of the worst aspects of capitalism. Everything under socialism will be nationalized, centralized, made orderly and neat. Everyone will have a basic living and we will gradually but inexorable solve the great problems capitalism has left us.

What our history tells us, though, is that fantasies about control and order are some of the most dangerous. I know that I’ve caught myself fantasizing about leading this-or-that enterprise or managing people, making a name for myself. Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of how fascism and obsessively conformist modes of desiring and action can proliferate even among those who most desire freedom resonates with me because of this. While it’s obviously preferable and necessary to have a correct and well-reasoned political line and to gather and organize the people necessary to perform these goals, we have to remember to avoid fetishizing the purely rational. I don’t mean that we adopt a skepticism of any rationality of science, but rather that we don’t mistake our reason for something better than what it is. We have to remember that collective decisions can be pushed through because of fear and insecurity, people’s desires to avoid rocking the boat, and not necessarily because more minds will be more right than one.

Being a pro-ecological Marxist means we have to avoid pretending that revolution will fix our problems. Revolutions have brought great terror and suffering ––to intended and unintended victims––as well as joy and enthusiasm. In practical terms, it means living well, building a sense of your own ethics, of pursuing your own path, of organizing with people who will be creative and constructive and not just destructive and gloomy. Revolution might be necessary, now more than ever, but reaching that “other side” is worthless if we are not prepared, indeed if we have not already partly built, the new society that will arise. It means accepting a certain level of chaos, the contingency of your own body and those of others, and the fact that progress is not a matter of more control but, because it will involve more people reaching their potential, more complexity and a recognition that our actions can have unforeseen consequences.

Marxists value history greatly, which is valuable. But we are often either so fixated on our mistakes or so defensive and resistant to negative lessons that we lose sight of its real complexity. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution to this problem. Criticism and self-criticism are not in themselves great solutions because they are only formal procedures that can twist into grotesque self-negation and bullying. This is about the ethics and ethos of the movement, and will involve a process of conversation, of building alternative and non-alienating spaces for contemplation and pleasure, of decisive action, of recognizing that we have to respect the power of the world beyond our species. Socialism in the wasteland is not much better than capitalism in the wasteland. So it’s socialism or barbarism––for sure––but as we know, barbarians aren’t the only ones who can destroy.

Christian Kitsch #12: Kitsch in the Wild

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Having produced eleven pieces on various bits of Christian kitsch, I finally feel like I have some basis for talking about Christian kitsch as a whole. I already offered a definition of Christian kitsch in the series’ opening post:

The term [kitsch] is generally used to denote the binary opposition to high art, a form or genre of object that partakes in some of the same tropes as “proper” art so that it can stand in for some of the same purposes, but that does not participate in any discourse that stands above pre-packaged sentimentality, cliché, and a general unquestioning affirmation of whatever bourgeois values are in vogue at the time. Kitsch is also a product of the industrial revolution, and tends to be mass-produced and homogeneous, though there is certainly a sizable niche for homemade kitsch as well.

In short, I argued that kitsch is the aesthetic incarnation of common sense. The infinite flexibility of kitsch derives from the flexibility of the commodity itself. Standing in an aisle of themed greeting cards, you realize their apparent variety. The manufacturers have produced hundreds of canned messages, appealing to stereotypes about straight married people, scatological fascinations, the “relatable” irony of aging, about as mechanical as a babydoll’s wink.  Each card has been assembled with sophistication and professionalism, using traditional cartoons, digital photography, collage, etc. Yet the vast array of merchandise fits into a narrow circle of messages and values. As I mentioned in the earlier piece, kitsch’s most readily identifiable attribute is its ability to inhabit the corpse or shell of art while abjuring any qualities that might make someone think before buying it. If a commodity does not sell, it does not serve its sacred purpose: realizing surplus value and profits. Any barrier to selling, therefore, is an inhibition.

Kitsch, then, is a kind of art the way a virus is a kind of living thing. And like the virus, kitsch is an apt infiltrator and co-opter. As a trans and queer person, it’s easier to realize just how much kitsch fits into heterosexist common sense. But, in certain contexts, trans and queer kitsch can serve the same purpose but on a smaller scale: realize surplus value by gently affirming our common sense about ourselves.

Within queer and trans communities, it can also have the effect of projecting misleading ideas about us: that we are largely white students or professionals who come out, leave their parents, and work in the culture industry or maybe take up knitting. While there’s nothing wrong with fitting that profile (I certainly do, except for the knitting), the proliferation of such impressions (since they’re often not as solid as “ideas,” and kitsch is generally emotive rather than intellectual) obscures our siblings who do not conform to this archetype, especially racialized, proletarian, and older people. So although queer and trans-targeted kitsch might actually shock people who think that “women be shopping” jokes are still mildly amusing, it can have an insidious effect on our capacity to think and the vitality of our communities.

None of this is to say that people who appreciate kitsch are morally or intellectually deficient. Unfortunately, the comforting and domesticated aspects of kitsch are intrinsically appealing to people whose lives are troubled by uncertainty. To criticize kitsch is to condemn the deficiency of a system of production and its foul effluence. These objects, to be frank, are not worthy of any human being. If we flipped the argument and said that people who like kitsch are unworthy of “higher” things, we would indeed be slipping into elitist errors. Still, we should never hesitate to condemn them for fear of being called elitist.

At last, we come to the final piece of our little plastic and porcelain ecosystem: Christianity. After all this time wading through shoddy Archie comics and listening to sanitized “parody” music, two questions present themselves:

1. Why is Christianity in particular such a hotbed of kitsch production and consumption? Is there anything specific in popular theology that sanctions it, or can you explain Christian kitsch solely by the subjugation of the church in general to capitalist logic?

2. In discussing items like the Spire Archie comics, how do we understand the interrelation of “propaganda” and “kitsch.” Is it possible for something to be confrontational propaganda––designed to confront and convince, to make a real argument––and kitsch at the same time?

Number one is difficult to answer, though I suspect that the subjugation of most of the church to capitalism both materially and ideologically has inflamed certain inherent problems in Christianity. There is a reason why Christian art in particular is so often allowed to be garish pablum.

As for number two, the answer has everything to do with context. While they were authored as propaganda, they would only serve that purpose if given or shown to people outside of the Christian community or used as teaching tools for children or new converts. It seems, however, that when read by people who are already convinced Christians and agree with the noxious political perspective they contain the books function as kitschy comfort food. Propaganda has to have a certain political edge and aesthetic quality to avoid kitschy aspects, and the two sides are often complementary. Militant commitment to any position requires, in an environment of (real or perceived) widespread indifference opposition, that the committed person consume a certain amount of literary material to nourish that commitment. Like food for the body, like knowledge for the mind.

This question of propaganda vs. kitsch is not relevant for everything I’ve reviewed here. But the fact that a confrontational tone can still coexist with snoozy conformity in a piece of kitsch, especially when that object is appropriated ironically, shows how context and time can warp the meaning of an object beyond the recognition of its original author.

I’ll certainly be considering these two questions in further entries in Christian Kitsch. We’re coming up on lucky 13, so I will have to find an especially ripe example for everyone! Until then, keep your eye out for kitschy delights. If you have any suggestions, feel free to comment, but if not my nose for kitsch is unfailing. Best of luck.

 

The World Today with Tariq Ali

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Though Marxists have been responsible for some of the most arresting and powerful art and design of the last century and beyond, the current state of aesthetics within Marxist circles and the revolutionary left is dismal. Partly because of a lack of resources and skill and partly because of an attachment to motifs and styles that seem as ossified as a Geocities website, left groups tend not to put their best face forward in their propaganda materials. No wonder that Jacobin has been able to distinguish itself from the Monthly Reviews of the world simply by cultivating eye candy as much as––if not more than––their serious reporting. It doesn’t look like something only activists and Marxist scholars used to poring over utilitarian journal articles would read.

The World Today With Tariq Ali is another case of a left media outlet that pays serious attention to presentation. Produced for the Venezuelan television service teleSUR, it’s a one hour weekly news and commentary program that recently wrapped up its first season. All of its episodes are available online for free without commercials, and they include a variety of programming. Most weeks the hour includes an interview or monologue featuring Ali, a feature on the arts, an ideological analysis of some bourgeois media outlet or news item, and an animated short sequence featuring “Larry the Llama.” We’ll do a quick review of the typical format and tone for each these segments before wrapping up in an analysis of what the program does well and where it fails as a discussion space for leftist viewpoints.

  1. Global Empire: This segment is always hosted by Ali himself, consisting of either a topical monologue or an interview with a (usually European) scholar or leftist figure. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, Greek SYRIZA figure Stathis Kouvelakis, and Marxist geographer David Harvey have all appeared, and lectures have discussed the British elections, the Vietnam War, the International Monetary Fund, and other topics. Ali’s alignment seems rooted in the Trotskyist corner of the New Left, and he is on the editorial board of the New Left Review. Since the show operates through teleSUR, it is no surprise that one of Ali’s most frequent talking points is the left electoral revival in South America and Venezuela in particular.
  2. Media Review: Contrasting with the scholarly tone of Global Empire, this segment usually delivers information with an acidic and bitter sense of humour. Usually hosted by former SWP member Richard Seymour, it either reviews the history and politics of a particular publication like Al Jazeera or The Washington Post or it offers a snapshot review of the bourgeois media’s coverage of a particular event like the rise of ISIS or the SYRIZA government’s rise to power in Greece.  The format takes cues from comedy news shows like The Daily Show but concentrates on exposés and leaves out most of the jokes. Production values are simple and unobtrusive: a flat table, a modestly-dressed host, cuts to screenshots of news articles.
  3. Rear Window: By far the most varied and inconsistent program, this one takes on subjects ranging from the Surrealist movement to oppositional art produced in Palestine to reviews of the work of major world filmmakers. As one could guess from that list of examples coverage focuses on art with a particularly leftist edge, whether it be embedded in the social realist aesthetics of the Dardenne brothers or the revolutionary-psychoanalytical pretensions of the Surrealists. The format varies from retrospectives to interviews to art criticism to poetry readings.
  4. Llama Time: Rounding out each episode is a short visit from Larry the Llama. Unlike the rest of the regular cast of the show, this opinionated pack animal is characterized as an American. Voiced and written by English comedian and actor Andy de la Tour, the character speaks in an accent that, to me, vaguely resembles a New York accent. This urban feel is further reinforced by the ambient sounds of cars rushing by pumped into the background, which has a strange effect when paired with the abstract backdrops and the fact that the character is a South American animal not usually known for prowling the streets of NYC. Whether the choice of animal was influenced by the South American production of the show (though it’s not from an Andean country in any case) is unknown. The character draws on the traits one would associate with an “everyman” and of the shows the tone here is at its most casual and loose. Larry even makes reference to fictional, unseen characters with whom he has had conversations as a way to transition into the topic of the day.
A screen cap of Media Review featuring Richard Seymour.

A screen cap of Media Review featuring Richard Seymour.

Befitting its production location in London, the majority of the voices heard and issues addressed are European or North American. Ali’s program positions itself as broadly supportive of building mass movements and using electoral tactics to achieve social progress in Europe. Despite its position under the teleSUR umbrella, it rarely talks about Venezuela directly, and never registers significant criticism of left-y figures in South America, usually being content to expose Western hypocrisy and intrigues on the continent. That much is to be expected, as this English-language program is, like Jacobin, a socialist program that seemingly aims at bringing in left liberals and those dissatisfied with the quality of commercial news programming. It also provides an English-language platform for representatives of the anti-austerity left in Europe––indeed, anti-austerity politics are probably its most pervasive concern. In that role, I find it mostly effective despite not sharing the politics of any of its editorial staff or talent.

Larry the aforementioned Llama

Larry the aforementioned Llama

If there is anything I have to say against the likes of The World Today or Jacobin, other than their being wedded to a trade unionism and electoralism I would deem ineffective in a North American context, is that they do no original investigative reporting of their own. If the Left is going to stay in its traditional “comfort zone” of political commentary and criticism, we’re not going to make much headway in the media. Left media outlets should dedicate more of their resources to the task of creating our own news, despite the expenses and difficulty that entails. Considering the high ambition for social change the revolutionary and Marxist left is supposed to embody, I feel we are lacking a real presence in the journalistic sphere, at least in North America.

One Final Note:

As far as the aesthetics of the website and the show itself, the most fascinating aspect of the whole package is the show’s appropriation of Russian Constructivism. The early years of the Soviet Union saw the flowering of a particularly vibrant and fragile avant-garde. It’s curious that Ali’s program, which has rarely every even mentioned the Soviet Union in its programming and avoids mentioning Marx or Marxism in any of its self-description, takes this particular historical style to define itself. It’s aspirational, to be sure, but I would have preferred an attempt to define a unique visual identity in the opening titles rather than a hollow echo of a style with which the show itself has little connection.

Wakfu: French Animation, Japanese Style

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Because anime is my partner’s main field of academic study, we have lots of lengthy discussions about it. Anything from its link with Japanese power projection to subculture formation and, of course, aesthetics, might pop up in these conversations. One of the more fascinating talks we’ve had recently was sparked by a curiosity we found on Netflix. Wakfu is a French show produced by Ankama Animation, the TV production arm of Ankama Games, which produces the MMORPG on which the program is based. Though I want to mostly discuss the spinoff special episode directed by Eunyoung Choi and featuring the design talents of Masaaki Yuasa, a bit of background on the show itself is in order. That will be the content of this post, while Choi’s “Noximillien” special will be the topic of the next one.

As mentioned, Wakfu is based on an MMORPG of the same name, which was published in 2011. The game adopts the aesthetics of Japanese animation and an isometric camera perspective. Its setting liberally mixes anime and Western fantasy tropes––swords and sorcery, anachronistic technology, a smattering of humanoid fantasy races, etc.––and all of it is rendered in Adobe Flash. Unlike many shows that use the venerable animation software, however, Wakfu has a fairly appealing look. Animation is not the most fluid, and tends to flitter around awkwardly, something I know from experience is difficult to avoid when animating in Flash. Overall, however, the production quality is respectable despite an often dissonant English dub job. I’m not sure if I’ll be finishing the show and don’t have much to say about its story or characters, at least not after just two episodes and the special. To tell the truth, the show feels fairly generic and uninteresting at this point. However, there are larger issues of context and aesthetics I thought worth exploring.

The United States is no stranger to television shows that lift anime aesthetics, and often narrative conventions, wholesale. Avatar and its successor Korra are the most prominent examples, with numerous others borrowing elements to a greater or lesser extent. France has also produced a couple of shows in this vein, including the off-kilter Totally Spies, a strange teen-girl filtering of spy movie clichés that miraculously ran for six seasons and cultivated a global fan following. Wakfu, because its premise was generated from a role-playing game, hews closely not just to anime as an aesthetic but to a particular brand of adventure fantasy that appears in both shonen––young boys’––manga and anime and related media, especially video games.

Anime itself, in its infancy, derived from artist Osamu Tezuka’s melding of Japanese visual art conventions with the style of Walt Disney’s animated films. Huge expressive eyes and rounded features defined much of this look, and though the Disney influence has been diluted throughout the decades, Tezuka’s role in creating anime itself, the production industry, and the markets to which it caters still retains considerable influence. Japan’s ballooning postwar economic expansion and large domestic population provided a material basis for the creation of a powerful animation industry.

Combined with an increasing international profile sparked by American fear and admiration of its state-corporate economic model in the 1970s and 80s and the proliferation of VHS and other recorded means of copying and distributing media cheaply, fan subcultures in the West sprouted up. These eventually provided the energies and target market for a whole Western industry importing and translating Japanese comics, television, and, more rarely, theatrical film. Eventually, American and other Western production firms attempted to capitalize on this perceptibly growing fanbase by creating animation that looked Japanese but wasn’t, and therefore could be more precisely controlled and pitched to young audiences in the United States and Europe. As mentioned earlier, their efforts have produced some notable successes.

What Wakfu is doing, therefore, is creating another Westernized iteration of a Japanese cultural form. I previously compared this wave of borrowing from Japan in Western animation to the nineteenth century vogue for Japonisme in painting. There are a few issues here worth commenting on.

  1. Anime’s Cultural Portability: It’s often remarked that human beings in anime often appear European despite being in most cases Japanese characters. There are representations of specifically racialized subjects in anime, often just as embarrassing and stereotyped as early American animation––but for the most part human beings appear light skinned with large eyes. This does not indicate that they were meant to be perceived as European, and in fact it’s usually easy to tell when an animation from Japan wants you to know that a character is, for example, an American. But the lack of specificity inherent in the art form, the ability of Euro-American, Japanese, and French audiences to immediately identify with the characters in anime probably contributes to its exportability and flexibility.
  2. Anime’s Origins as an Import: As mentioned, the aesthetic seeds of manga and anime are both native to Japan, in particular the thriving modern commercial art scene in Edo and Meiji era Japanese cities, and to American animation. In fact, much of Japanese modern culture was imported or even imposed “from above” in order to modernize the country as quickly as possible and help to “catch up” with the core capitalist countries. Nevertheless, the strength of Japan as an empire, a colonial power, and a capitalist country in its own right allowed it––contrary to most other nonwhite nations––to manage this “catching up” and to subject it to its own interests. Now, it is even able to project its own cultural values and brands into the rest of the world.
  3. Wakfu as a Domestic French Production: As a final note,we should recognize that, with the exception of the Choi episode that will be the topic of the next post, the entirety of Wakfu was produced in France, which is not even true of most American productions that outsource the more tedious labour to South Korean or other SE Asian countries. Whatever the debts it owes to the anime tradition, it remains a thoroughly and specifically French creation, one that, like Tezuka, borrows what it likes from another country’s traditions while subjecting these aspects to domestic needs. The quality of the show aside––on which I am not decided––it represents one of the stranger symptoms of capitalism’s extension and autonomous development in Japan.

Jeff Vandermeer: Annihilation

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Late one night, staying up long after I meant to, I caught fragments of an episode of the Peter Capaldi series of Doctor Who, the undying (not to say interminable, but…) British science fiction series. Between the extreme close-ups of Capaldi’s topographically dazzling mug, a little streamlet of a story ran something like this: a gigantic magical forest completely overwhelmed the world. Though at first believing them to be malicious, our Doctor of dubious professional credentials intuits that they are actually attempting to act as a sandbag, cushioning the earth from a cosmic disaster. More than that, I could not grasp.

Forests marching back to reclaim their old territories have been a recurring symbol in literature and art for centuries. Everyone who knows anything about MacBeth would remember that one of the final gambits in the power struggle against the titular tyrant involves an army masquerading as a moving forest. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, aligning with the novel by the oddly Shakespeare-hating J.R.R. Tolkien, depicts a race of tree-people, the ents, savaging an industrial fortress. Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, which has perhaps the closest analogue to Annihilation’s setting that I can recall, places its heroine in a world where the non-human natural world has internalized the toxins dumped into it by humanity and colonized the world with a toxic vastness fatal to human beings.

Even Nausicäa’s toxic jungles, though, conceal within themselves a vaulted cathedral of purity beneath their toxic exterior. They exude poisons into the atmosphere, but as part of a process of self-purification, revealing an essentially beautiful core. Toxic jungles are uncanny ecosystems but are ultimately a part of Earth’s self-regulating impulses, a process belonging to Equilibrium rather than chaos.

Area X in Annihilation is all the more unsettling because, at least in this first volume of the trilogy, the ecosystem complex that comprises this negative zone beyond human control shows no signs of benevolence or even comprehensibility. A hole, ultimately: in human knowledge, in the maps, in the psyche, exposing or, perhaps, absorbing and exhaling, all the chaos unleashed by industrialization in a more unbounded form. And into such a place walks a troupe of experts.

These experts, all women, form the human component of Annihilation. Vandermeer hitches his narrative to one woman in particular, the unnamed Biologist. Coming into Area X following her late husband, entranced by the mystery of this cryptic Eden, her arc in the story consists of her encounter with the biosphere in Area X and the resulting transformation. What’s remarkable about the book, though, is that it refuses to personalize this change to the extent one usually sees in fantasy. Cronenbergian body horror, in its default mode, usually involves the intrusion of something alien into a normalized white settler body: a fly, a virus, cybernetics, an otherworldly love of money. What Vandermeer does is destabilize the entire natural world, bringing his human beings into a process of becoming something other than human. And yet, they are not growing more alienated from the world around them, as frequently happens in Cronenberg. Their abjection from human society is accompanied by their blending further and further into Area X itself.

Comparisons could also be made to the genre of alien invasion/body snatching, but on a personal note I find the latter so remote and abstract that I have difficulty recognizing the horror in them. Whereas the threat from an encroaching and indifferent nature, something coming––at least potentially––from within the earth, is a primal fear I have no difficulty appreciating. So we have a dialectical movement from outside to inside: the environment permeates the person, making it part of an environment. At what point, in her story, is the Biologist no longer human? Aren’t human beings already host to all kinds of extra-human organisms?

Vandermeer’s execution of these ideas, as difficult as they are, is nothing short of astonishing. I was physically and mentally shaken for a few hours after finishing the book in a large gulp of a sultry afternoon. Surrounded by gardens, little growing beings we shove into boxes, we scarcely comprehend the struggles involved in such a practice. And the formal grasp that Vandermeer demonstrates makes all of the above far more comprehensible and involving than the linear sketch I presented above. Annihilation is a book about the pitfalls of science and knowledge, the hollowness of what we know and the terror that an indifferent but living intelligence brings to us. I have great anticipation for the second and third volumes, luckily not having to wait long.

All the News Fit to Buy: Samir Amin, the Death of the Dissolve, Media Power

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Global capitalism has often been caricatured as a Godzilla-sized octopus, sucker-studded tentacles tenaciously gripping the globe. No doubt no slander or libel is directed at real, fleshy octopi, who are delightful creatures with impressive flexibility and intellect. But let’s take a leap into the fantastical and mistake capitalism for a real octopus––well, what do we expect of such a beast? We know from the caricatures, and our own elementary observations, that the octopus has tentacles and suckers. When it wants to conceal itself, though, the octopus has other, more diabolical weapons to deploy. Camouflage, sheer speed, and, of course, its cloud of ink. Before losing our heads in this multi-armed analogy, let’s remember that capitalism relies just as heavily on ink for its own evasive manoeuvres as the humble mollusk.

Capitalists do not carry around bags of ink to throw in workers’ faces in a pinch. Capitalists deploy ink in even more subtle ways. Money is, at this time in history, the master of media. We could even say that capitalist oligopolies are the animating intelligence behind almost all media, providing the axioms that govern how the masses receive and process information. Why is this? In the majority of cases, the media propagated to the world flows to us directly from monopolistic companies. At the corporate level, shareholders and management determine information policy and what kind of standard the company’s output will conform to. Samir Amin writes about how this process operates in our own moment:

“What is unfolding is not what is called a ‘market economy’ but a ‘market-oriented society. Within this framework, media…realizes that [its] autonomy has diminished, relatively speaking. Without necessarily becoming instruments at the beck and call of others, they find themselves in situations where they have to fulfill useful functions that are necessary to guarantee the success of deployments of supreme powers of global monopolies.”¹

Even when people working in media are not mere sock-puppets for capitalist firms and states, therefore, they have to conform to the overall logic of the system itself. That logic is capital accumulation directed by imperialist monopolies and the states that nurture and protect them. Independent and democratically minded reporters working for a large news corporation, for instance, might submit and occasionally even publish reporting that informs and educates the public in a way that escapes the mandate of the organization, but this will become increasingly difficult if it conflicts with the needs of the stockholders, advertisers, or, in some cases, a reactionary commentariat.

Media remains an autonomous entity within society, but it is nonetheless subordinated to capital. Usually, this does not mean a resort to absolute falsehood in reporting or the fabrication of outright propaganda in a film studio. Instead, capital prescribes the limits of what can be said in media, valuing ideological consistency secondarily and profitability primarily. Just as capitalist profits could be compared to a form of taxation imposed on workers, the logic of the capitalist system operating within media can be compared to a form of censorship, occasionally enforced with an iron hand but usually operating in a subterranean way, absorbed and normalized by the people employed within these firms.

Profitability also determines the editing and selection process in creating media and the form in which it’s published. Online, the fact that most websites earn money though advertising means that whatever drives the highest statistics is what will be featured. The recent shutdown of the film site The Dissolve illustrates the fate of even relatively populist and “inclusive” enthusiast media sources under this ruthless profit regime. While producing writing that was of a high standard of craft and tending to include either soft left-liberal or apolitical content, the site was nevertheless shut down by its corporate owner, Pitchfork. In the rushing waterfall of monetary flows, the most ardent ideals are bound to falter against the current. As capitalism does, it is intensively commodifying cultural production of all sorts, taking some of the inherent goods of the internet––its low level of entry, its openness, its networked structure, its immediacy––and using them in a parasitic way, beating writers into submitting to low or no pay for high value product. Take this blog as an example, though I would hesitate before claiming that I could generate “high value” for anyone here.

It’s easy to “feel” the spatial vastness and fluid networking of the internet and see it as empowering for artists and other creators. To do so is ignoring that even a potentially liberating space, if controlled by parasitic forces, will be “enclosed’ and put to work for the bosses. Of course, that enclosure is not complete, and there are oppositional forces using the Internet to facilitate their activities. But they do so against the ingrained logic of how media, online or not, functions in capitalism. Capitalists need depoliticized, misinformed, atomized subjects, and the bourgeois media does its bit to produce those subjects. It gives you the hunger before you start to feel that you need what it’s feeding you.²

In that way, media fits right in with the rest of contemporary capitalism. It’s crucial for communists and the rest of the radical left to understand this and use it as a basis for rallying resistance to the colonization of everyday life in all its qualities by capitalism. Not just resistance, even, but the overthrow of the entire situation, and the beginning of a long road to socialism. We had best start using our imaginations now.

Notes:

1. Samir Amin, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism (Monthly Review Press, 2013), 36-37.

2. All of this would, of course, benefit from an injection of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and the role of the Marxist party in struggling for dominance within these “civil” institutions, but I did not have the space for it nor the foresight to realize how invaluable such a contribution is.

Constructing the Past in Turkey

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Foreground: image of Ataturk, father of the modern Republic of Turkey. Midground: remaining pillar from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus Background: Mosques and churches as well as a fortified hilltop.

Construction is as common as tobacco-choked air and urban haze in modern Turkey, the result of an expanding economy and a need to circulate and realize capital pouring into the country. The ruling AK Party, known for using populist Sunni rhetoric to win popularity, also uses its capitalist state muscles to spread the capital around in a politically beneficial way. Political patronage networks, therefore, snake all over the country and, like in Japan to this day, construction reigns at the top of the chain of being. All of this I either knew or suspected before coming here to Turkey. What’s more intriguing, however, is the way that the archaeological digs and historical sites are articulated into this same construction/patronage complex. Numerous fine examples of mosques, city walls, and other structures are undergoing unnecessary renovations both for the sake of making them appear more palatable and to provide stimulation to local economies. This is the so-called “chain of happiness,” where you have a party official or sympathetic contractor at one end and a whole series of people who benefit from the income that pours into the city for these projects.

The naive sense i used to have about such projects is that they were primarily determined by intellectual discovery and the pursuit of knowledge. Of course, in a country like Turkey, sponsorship of such projects is in the interest of national pride––as they are in other places, especially Egypt––and you often see Turkish flags and other nationalist icons in museums and around dig sites.

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Curiously enough, not intended to be an exhibit in the Ephesus museum. It’s one of the first things you see when you come through the door.

This line of observation illustrates two important ideas for Marxists to consider:

1. The omnipresence of the state as an entity not only in ideological reproduction but also in the distribution of wealth. This is basic for Marxists, but if we recognize politics as a contest among classes for state power and the use thereof––with the later dissolution of the state through socialism––considering how to deal with matters of archaeology, nationhood, and development is essential. The current regime is elitist and blatantly propagandistic in its treatment of important historical sites. What is the nature of a socialist transformation of these areas?

2. Understanding that the past, as Benjamin put it, part of the spoils of victory for the ruling class is control over the past and people’s relationship to it. This is certainly the case in Turkey, whose multifarious layers of deep history are by now fully articulated to the aims of its capitalist state.

On The Interview Incident

Extraordinary events rarely create new conditions or attitudes. Rather, they draw what was once latent or concealed into a harsher light. GamerGate didn’t create the misogyny or anti-intellectualism of male supremacist gamers; it channeled and condensed those attitudes into a movement, much as how the KKK didn’t create racism but simply gives it its most natural outlet. Both of those movements are militant expressions of normative attitudes in society, ogres summoned when the status quo of white settler supremacy or patriarchy seems less assured than usual. Likewise, this farce over The Interview has brought to light the collusion between Hollywood and other arms of American imperial supremacy––as well as the legions of dancing jesters willing to retell the old song about “free speech” and the American way of life.

To be clear: I hold both of those principles in contempt. The Interview is not the product of popular speech; it is a calculated sop to market demographics created by professionals whose work, at its core, is to soak money from beleaguered people who crave a distraction from their daily grind. A daily grind that reproduces itself with their own consent. The proper word for this, of course, is capitalism, the legal theft of labor and the amassing of kingly fortunes at one pole and the creation of colossal misery at the other. Mass culture, as I have brought up many times before, is an industrial monopoly like any other, and in many ways Hollywood operates as the concentrated propaganda machine of the bourgeoisie. The Interview in effect makes sport of the assassination of a living figure, comparable to an Iranian propaganda film about the killing of the American president. Like many comedies and action films, it places the freewheeling American disregard for national sovereignty into an acceptable context. No American would tolerate this kind of mean-spirited attack from another country, but will call the release of this trash a matter of principle at a moment’s notice.

The greatest hypocrisy has to come from certain political leaders who have emphasized that people should be “able to make their own decisions” about the film. Which strikes me as hilarious because the Hollywood system, like all capitalist enterprises, is impervious to any form of popular democracy. It answers only to the demands of capital, and those demands have terminated countless films, many better than The Interview, no doubt, without a peep of public protest. So here we are: the so-called critical press that laments the creeping influence of money on art, or elections, or whatnot, defend to the hilt the right to release a vacuous studio project, to make it a political priority. It is to retch.

Gaming’s Siege Mentality: Even Nice Guys Wear Helmets

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Polygon has a reputation for being from the nice guy side of the gaming press. This mainly stems from it being the target of vilification from GamerGate misogynists and its perspicuity in pointing out the sexism inherent in a character like Bayonetta. That makes it several rungs more respectable than the average online game rag, which exist, in mass, to sell expensive kit to onion-skinned collectors and win cool swag for their highly journalistic staff. Sarcasm aside, they at least attempt to inject a semblance of thought into their output. Such is the case for earnest nice guy features writer Charlie Hall, whose latest article, “Hatred, UNICEF and how gaming’s perception makes it a target for censorship,” tries to defend his hobby from enemies both foreign and domestic.

Though the specifics of the article differ somewhat from the norm––having something to do with UNICEF pitching a fake game to raise awareness for war victims in Southern Sudan––the article has a theme that rings of the primeval. Hum a few bars and the words come rushing back: gaming has a PR problem, and the best way to solve that problem is for gamers to take a genuine interest in the playing habits of people who dabble in games but don’t consider themselves “insiders.” Like a Paul Haggis film, the article arrives at its conclusion by tying together several thematically related plot threads, all of which have to do with gaming’s aforementioned image problems. Hall begins with UNICEF but also includes the recent case of Apple censoring a popular independent game’s nudity while not doing the same for films and television shows it also sells in the same store. He even manages to work in some fatherly disappointment about his career choices.

While the entire article is a noxious stew of individualist liberal nostrums, it manages to provide some unintentional insight into a genuine problem with capitalist subcultures, especially ones like gaming that are essentially pagan monuments to commodity fetishism. Despite being nominally opposed to Let’s string together a few choice quotations and see if we can see the symptoms, appearing like a scarlet rash.

A game like Hatred can disgust me, but while it’s Valve’s right to set the standard for what gets sold through Steam that doesn’t mean I want to see it censored. It’s up to me to put my energy behind games that are the direct opposite of that experience in the same creative space, and to indulge in them instead…

Some people read books that are painful and sad and tragic and make them weep at the end. Other people play games for the same reasons. And no one outside of this hobby knows that.

Gaming has a public relations problem, one so deep that parents fear the hobby will ensnare even their adult children. Games and gamers are regularly judged in ways that are totally unacceptable for any other modern artistic medium…

The only way out of this hole we’re sunk in is for fans of video games to extoll the virtues of this art form, and for critics and commenters to bring their opinions to bear on every work.

Forgive that lengthy interlude, but it’s important to find every link in a chain before you can decide which one is the weakest. What Hall is saying reveals that he has far more ideologically in common with the court jesters in GamerGate. To him, I’m sure that would sound ridiculous since he uses different words and, as we’ve seen from above, different messages are everything. For both GamerGate demagogues and Mr. Hall, gaming culture has no intrinsic problems. Games and games are marginalized and taken for foolish trifles, which maintains the illusion that this colossally profitable and mainstream pursuit is a besieged minority.

Only those in the know have an appreciation for the wonders that games offer, he reasons. Gamers are good people, and GamerGate is an anomaly. Hall never once questions the institutional structures or the capitalist underpinnings of the entire enterprise, the fact that his “hobby” is a lucrative machine oiled by mass marketing, partly facilitated by publications like his. “Gamer” is an identity fundamentally tied to ownership, and this is a value Hall never questions. Not only this, but his conception of censorship and intellectual freedom are clearly not ethical questions at a fundamental level. Rather, they are market functions that deliver the best product to the right consumers.

Gaming does not have a problem of appearance or image. It’s not something that a bunch of freelance game-playing consultants can solve around holiday meal tables. Nor can they be solved with consumer “activism” or “voting with your wallets,” as if mass culture were something that came from the people rather than being something foisted on them. Appeals to the value of criticism and disagreement are cute, but they would be more substantial if the author had any idea what was actually wrong with his deeply disordered community, one he doesn’t even seem to take too seriously given that he uses words like “hobby” and “technophiles” to describe it. At least he’s perceptive enough to notice that the game industry is basically a branch of the gadget business––though he shows no sign of thinking that’s a bad thing. Games can be wonderful, but are fundamentally constrained not by an image problem but by the demands of a capitalist system that marginalizes anyone who can’t fit the mass-market mold. Real artistic progress requires more than a few stories: it takes a cultural revolution, which no one in the gaming press, to say the least, is capable of even broaching at this point.

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