The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Category: Criticism

New Series: Solarpunk and the Aesthetics of Optimism

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Solarpunk aims to develop images and narratives that inspire hope and optimism. As an aesthetic, it visualizes future human achievement. Moreover, it tries to cultivate a tinkering, democratic, and cooperative attitude towards social matters and a reverent attitude towards ecology in its audiences. Those audiences, formed online and through fiction publications, have also produced a great deal of commentary on the “movement,” its goals, and its advantages and shortcomings. Unabashedly utopian and sunny, solarpunk, in the eyes of its boosters and practitioners, professes optimism as an oppositional virtue, projecting a ray of sunlight through the dim clouds of post-apocalyptic pop media.

Not only is solarpunk supposed to inspire real activism and practical solutions to environmental and social problems, its proponents are also, at this stage, highly activist about this nascent subgenre. There is even a manifesto for it. So although it is a literary and artistic tendency first and foremost, many of the authors we’ll be encountering in this new series inject far loftier ambitions. While this seems appropriate given the defiant can-do-it attitude of solarpunk, it also generates a set of interesting questions:

1. What is the relationship between the literary work and any practical activist or infrastructural work done in the name of solarpunk?

2. Does solarpunk aspire to become more than a literary movement or does it sit content appropriating and recontextualizing works that fit the aesthetic but are not formally affiliated with it?

3. How do the creative workers and critics promoting solarpunk conceptualize their own politics–as uniquely solarpunk, or merely influenced by it?

While I can’t answer all of these questions in full, I want to look more closely at this genre because it represents a rather unique post-ironic and anti-nihilist approach to thinking about ecology and technology, society and the individual, and “the end of the world” vs. the end of the world as we know it. My other reason for investigating solarpunk and some of its many close relatives and affiliates is a profound skepticism. To be brief: I am unconvinced that this lustrous approach to “punk” can be the basis of a radical critique of the status quo, at least not at this point. While sentimental cynicism can be just as noxious as untempered idealism (in the dreamer sense, not the Marxist insult), existing critiques of futurism and visions of earthly harmony cast doubt on the project of “re-brightening” science fiction and our collective visions of the future.

In order to think through these fundamental concerns and approach an answer to the three questions I posed earlier, I will be exploring some of the genealogy of solarpunk, its current manifestations, and looking at specific critical writing and image and literary production associated with solarpunk.

My first post will look at Castle and the Sky, Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, and Princess Mononoke, which have all been claimed as part of the aesthetic heritage of solarpunk and even recommended as part of a “syllabus” for those getting familiar with the subgenre. I want to explore what Miyazaki’s relationship to the stated goals of solarpunk really are and look at his own evolution, since we can’t assume that every film will have the same relationship.

In the second post, I will look at Adam Flynn’s “Notes toward a manifesto” for solarpunk. By putting this document in dialogue with a few other “manifesto-type” documents related to the subgenre, we can get a sense for what sympathetic critics and academics see in solarpunk and explore some reasons why this might be the case.

Third, we’ll delve into a more explicitly political solarpunk-pusher. Specifically, we’ll look at Solarpunk Anarchist’s blog and Facebook presence and the media and audience that they have curated. This gives us a sense of at least one of the vital audiences that solarpunk has generated. Comparing it to some of the more popular solarpunk tumblr blogs, we can use Solarpunk Anarchist as a way to perceive how explicit political commitment matters as far as audience cultivation and ideology. Though solarpunk is political to its core–at least in a moment where it has not been widely commercialized or appropriated by mainstream media–it’s useful to look at a more directly political wing of the subculture to see how solarpunk’s inherent politics might be contrasted and compared to a solarpunk infused with and infusing an anarchist ideology.

Solarpunk’s defiance of nihilistic or pessimistic appraisals of the future is one of its core tenets. For the fourth post, therefore, I’ll be considering some of the nihilist and some non-nihilist critiques of futurism or of optimism more generally. There are many reasons to be suspicious about the rhetoric of hope and light that solarpunk offers, but that hopeful ethos is also its greatest point of differentiation with other -punk subgenres.

Finally, in the fifth and final post, I will conclude with a critical summary of solarpunk as it currently exists. I’ll hopefully be able to get ahold of some of the more prominent solarpunk literature and investigate how short story writers construct their worlds and characters. At the very end, there may be room for speculation about what solarpunk’s contribution to radical ecology and politics might be.

Optimist aesthetics, especially partisan ones that claim an oppositional, counterculture basis, are a rarity today. That much is certain. And through this series of pieces on solarpunk, I hope we can all acquaint ourselves better with this tendency and all of its twisted tendrils.

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Mononoke, Violence Against Women, and The Partiality of Truth

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  1. The Medicine Seller as interpreter
  2. The Spacetime of Grudges
  3. Violence Against Women

Mononoke is a detective show with a definite formula. The Medicine Seller (薬売り) exorcises mononoke, monsters borne from the unresolved and secret grudges of those who have been wronged. To do so, he must know the shape, the truth, and the reason of the mononoke. Only once he has all three pieces can he draw his sword and resolve the imbalance that has been created by violence, neglect, and the resulting ill karma.

Every episode is driven forward by revelations. The mononoke makes itself known as a danger in every story, manifesting as sounds, images, and violent action. In one episode, the mononoke strangles a sword-wielding man. In another, it takes a subway train and its passengers hostage. An old grudge or unresolved tension has made itself known in the present, mundane space. Nothing functions normally in these cases–present and past are conflated, events occur over and over again, spaces redouble themselves or change dramatically. Nothing is allowed to move or to transform as usual until the suspension of the grudge is broken by the Medicine Seller. In that sense, he is one who reconciles, who acts in order to keep the mundane world free of glitches.

As I already mentioned, however, he cannot act without first listening. He listens to a pregnant woman and an innkeeper discuss their pasts, he pieces together a story of forbidden love from an incestuous priest, tying a multi-vocal story into a truth. This act of uniting various stories, of listening to every witness without judgment and finding an actionable principle that unites them is the act of interpretation. Fundamentally, the Medicine Seller is an interpreter, someone who listens to human and mononoke alike to determine what must be done to appease the supernatural grudge. In his interpretation, he brings together fragments that were once separate or incomplete, which often means bringing secret or taboo acts or desires into the light.

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Of course, this does not make him fundamentally different from any detective. In an old article on the methods used by American detectives, Captain Duncan Matheson writes:

Every crime tells a story capable of interpretation. A peace officer that cannot read the story has no value in its solution. This is where the detective comes in. He makes a survey of the premises, the scene of the crime, the neighborhood and all the intimate details connected therewith.¹

A good detective story is mechanically elegant. The detective unravels the story for us and we are privy to all the pieces of the story and are invited to make our own interpretations. Typically, the greatest pleasure of the mystery story is in being given a surprising or slightly twisted version of a story we already think we know. The pieces can fit together many ways, but ultimately only one way is true, only one way of looking at things enables the detective to make the correct judgment. So not every interpretation has equal value.

For Mononoke and the Medicine Seller, the crime is not usually something contemporary or, sometimes, even recent. These are crimes that have lain dormant, curdling into malevolence while they remain unsolved. Mononoke, whether they can speak or not, are witnesses to as well as traces of the crimes from which they emerge. They often take an agency in the solving of the case, and the Medicine Seller has to weigh their desires and needs as well as those of the human beings affected by them. Part of the pleasures of Mononoke for the viewer, then, is the discovery of something human and recognizable at the core of beings who appear completely alien and incomprehensible. By unraveling their story and their reason for being, their shape and actions become understandable. The Medicine Seller bridges us to these strange beings, acting as a medium as well as an exorcist. Because there is no placating the mononoke without listening to its peculiar voice, which is as unique as any person’s.

2. The Spacetime of Grudges

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Before thinking about violence against women in Mononoke, we can first consider the architecture. Space takes numerous forms in the show, and while many scenes are staged as flat tableaux and composed like Edo-era Japanese prints and paintings, in more dramatic moments the camera will push rapidly forward and backward through depths that were barely hinted at earlier. This sense of hurtling forward and backward accentuates the strangeness of the space, especially when apparent exits are closed, rooms multiply copies of themselves, and the world outside a fragile vessel (boat, train) becomes demonic and hellish.

When the mononoke warp space and time, it’s usually as an act of aggression against the perpetrators. They arrest the normal flows and create pockets of stasis or chaos where reality is uncertain and everyone loses their bearings. Passage is often denied, whether through rendering escape illusory or impossible or simply binding someone in place. And the show constructs space differently depending on the nature of the grudge. The shape of the mononoke is not the only thing determined by its truth and reason, but the shape of everything.

3. Violence Against Women

In the third arc of the show, a woman confesses to killing her entire family. According to the law, her fate is already sealed by her words. The Medicine Seller, however, is not satisfied, sensing a mononoke. His skepticism and questioning of the imprisoned woman leads to her realization that her violence was not actually directed at her family but, rather, at herself. She committed a virtual suicide because of being trapped in abusive status marriage. As mentioned in part 2, the spaces of the episode shift the nature of the crime or crimes. Her conflict, although it originates from outside circumstances and physical and mental abuse, becomes confined within herself. The arc therefore begins in a prison cell and finishes with her escaping through a window, running away from her abusive family once and for all.

The intimate nature of the violence committed against her contrasts with the explosive publicity of the crime to which she confesses. She says that she slaughtered her family and hung their bodies from a tree in plain sight. Her rage, so heavily internalized, at last explodes like dynamite, creating an unmistakable sign. She publicly confesses as well. Nevertheless, these confessions and signs turn out to be illusions, even falsehoods. Most of the arc takes place in the confined and intimate spaces of her memory, which has a confusing, repetitive quality. In order to lay these illusions bare, the Medicine Seller crafts his own illusion, a man in a Noh mask, in order to show the woman how her situation had robbed her of her self-worth and her humanity, causing her to seek her own destruction through execution.

Nearly every arc revolves around or involves a similar act of violence against women. These acts typically punish “improper” affections or desires or women’s attempts to enter masculine spaces. For instance, the final arc deals with the sensational murder of a woman journalist who wanted to expose corruption and collusion between the local mayor and the capitalists who wanted to build a subway in the city. In the end, not only is the murderer haunted, by various witnesses all comprehend a much more complete picture of the crime, facilitated by both the mononoke and the Medicine Seller.

Violence against women is often concealed by shame and taboo, both in the show and in the real world. The function of the Medicine Seller is to go beyond these boundaries and reveal the truth of the matter. Although we know little about the Medicine Seller and he appears as an impartial judge or actor, he in fact always taking sides in one way or another. After all, the revelation of truth never affects two people the same way. And many would rather live with the affliction of a mononoke, an undying grudge, than ever allow the truth to come to light. The Medicine Seller’s interpretation, the mosaic composed of all the little truths, shatters those who are protected by customary silence and power.

Notes:

1. Duncan Matheson, “The Technique of the American Detective,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 146 (1929): 214. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1017564.

Staying with the Trouble and Earthbound Life

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“Chthonic ones are not safe; they have no truck with ideologues; they belong to no one; they writhe and luxuriate in manifold forms and manifold names in all the airs, waters, and places of earth.”

–Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, 2.

Figure 1: Snakes

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Snakes have difficulty holding onto things. Unlike humans, they have no limbs to speak of–maybe some vestigial nubs at most. They can hold things in their digestive tracts, in their reproductive system, from the mouth on down. These slithery reptiles also shed their skin in far more dramatic fashion than humans. Often coming off in whole pieces, the snake’s transformative shedding is a stark, frequent coming of age. For those who feel like they were only born after a great shedding, after removing so much undesirable cruft from their bodies, it’s a familiar symbol. Most importantly for our purposes here, snakes are tightly bound to the Earth. While there are snakes that can take to the air in dramatic fashion, even these snakes live in trees and slither close to the ground much of the time. Their whole bodies tend to be in contact with the earth while moving. They’re very horizontal beings, in other words, a 90 degree turn from bipedal walkers.

For Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble, the Earthbound, a term she borrows from Bruno Latour, are beings who “eschew the dubious pleasures of transcendent plots of modernity and the purifying division of society and nature.”¹ For Latour and for Haraway, becoming Earthbound (or Chthonic ones, from the Greek for earth) is a choice, a choice to align oneself with a complex, interwoven Earth or the convenient illusions of the Modern. Like the snake, the Earthbound or Chthonic one is not a skygazer or someone who takes a position above the weird and mundane world we inhabit. Instead, snakes slither through and around, and are inextricably bound to threads, are threads, of movement, consumption, creation, destruction, etc. For Haraway, becoming Earthbound is the only way for humanity to survive. Shedding the modern, authoritarian skin and walking closer to the ground, listening more closely–these are what is required of us.

Trouble invokes snakes and humans together in a section describing the Medusa as “the only mortal Gorgon,” who might “heighten our chances for dashing the twenty-first-century ships of the Heroes on a living coral reef instead of allowing them to suck the last drop of fossil flesh out of dead rock.” Notably, Gorgons are “dreadful” by definition, monstrous to “astralized” and patriarchal minds.² So we have a relatively complete picture of what the Chthonic/Earthbound ones do: they live and die, they align against Heroes and Gods, they defend the complex mess from which they came, and they narrate themselves within a mass of other stories in which they are not protagonists. Importantly, the Earthbound exist with the other beings of the Earth, the snakes they resemble so well. It matters dearly what we choose to do when we live and how we die, but we should neither be cynical and say our nature dooms the world to death nor arrogant and say our moral fortitude will be its salvation.

Figure 2: Acacias

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Acacias don’t just find themselves planted in soil. They don’t wake up in the dirt one day and accept their lot in life. Instead, they collaborate to make the earth they grow in. As legumes, they collaborate with fungi and bacteria to fix nitrogen into forms that plants can use. This process is a bedrock happening in all plant-bearing ecosystems. Moreover, they provide shade, seeds, chemicals like gum arabic, and, with the bees’ assistance, a prized kind of honey.³ They also grow rapidly and often push out native species where they were introduced by colonialists.

Like the acacias, human beings have a potent power to reshape the world. Transforming chemicals, creating solid structures, collaborating with bees, feeding other beings–we do these things daily, and in a fashion far more likely to grab our own attention. So being bound to the Earth, aligning with it as we must, involves a recognition that we are, with all other beings (bacteria being the most powerful, inside and outside our bodies) creators of the worlds we inhabit. We have an orientation–horizontal, earth-centred, non-ideological–and a deeply transformative way of life. It seems obvious that we transform the world, since that’s the basis of several prominent theories of social development and a cornerstone of humanist theories about human uniqueness and stature. But when we see our activity through the figure of the acacia, using the legume-tree as a map to explore ourselves in a new way, we understand that, like the tree, our connections are not always conscious, our impacts neither uniformly negative nor positive.

It would be anthropomorphizing the tree to directly compare us to it, but we should be able to see that, as Haraway puts it, we are both “world travelers and…homebodies…their ways of living and dying have consequences for terraforming, past and present.”⁴ Every way of existing involves us in a project of changing the soil from which we spring. This means that everything is dangerous, nothing is safe, nothing is pure. Wariness, attentiveness, and a recognition of risks and our potential friends and rugged companions on this earth are the qualities we Earthbound want to cultivate. Of course, our powers here are limited, especially as individuals (even moreso when we think of ourselves as contained and restricted to our skin), but even though we inherit a world that is damaged and broken in many ways, we can align our powers towards renewal and shelter rather than destruction.

Figure 3: The Tanuki

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Pom-Poko, the 1996 film from Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli, ends with the tanuki, mythical raccoon-dog spirits, integrating into human civilization in disguise. They have period reunions in an isolated park, stripping off their clothes and practicing their old shapeshifting magic in secret. Their ways of life have been completely obliterated by the human need for housing and development. Their forests fell and burned, and their valiant defence failed. In one final cathartic moment for the film, however, they use their powerful magic to make an illusion of their old 19th century, pre-industrial life. This illusion shows their desire to live apart from and with humans in the old relative balance and harmony they once had. Antagonisms and pressures existed, but nothing like the accelerated devastation they have witnessed.

Although the relationship of Earthbound beings to those who seek the Sky and who emulate modern human nature is not quite like that of the tanuki and the humans they are imitating to survive, the fact that tanuki are shapeshifting creatures with close ties to the earth suggests a kinship. What Haraway suggests in her discussions of the Earthbound or Chthonic ones is that they are hybrids and mutable, ones who are exhausted by industrial discipline and the modern human body. In the final chapter of Staying with the Trouble, Haraway narrates a science-fiction speculation about the Communities of Compost, whose inhabitants are bonded to animals and other organisms during periods of rapid transformation and intense feeling.

“In 2025, the community felt ready to birth their first new babies to be bonded with animal symbionts…Other children in this cohort became symbionts with fish, birds, crustaceans, and amphibians…The animals themselves were not modified with human material; their roles in symbioses were to teach and to flourish in every way possible in dangerous and damaged times.”⁵

This narration, while not without its flaws and bizarre tangents,⁶ is strong in that it integrates the somewhat disparate essays that precede it and give a dreamlike glimpse into a strange world of humanity expanding and redefining itself. Beauty lies there, in the proliferation of different forms, of individuals stranger and more loving than any we could imagine before.

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And if we get animal symbionts within our time, I’ll take tigers. It’s on theme.

Notes:

1. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016), 41.

2. Ibid, 52-3.

3. Ibid, 123.

4. Ibid, 125.

5. Ibid, 146-7.

6. Note 18 on page 221, in particular, betrays or at least suggests an impaired view of transgender people and how they identify themselves, in particular the odd usage trans-female and trans-male and the categorization of those two as genders in and of themselves, which does not describe the feeling of most trans people I know. Nor mine.

Cyberpunk and Hope in Environmental History

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Flooded Chinatown – John Wallin Liberto

“We believe if you have a serious critique of capitalism and the state (along with the related oppressions they spawn), it might be wise to reclaim their fortresses-the cities. The cities are the home to modern capitalism and state power. They are the engines of the modern economy and the places where their devastating policies are made. We have to confront the enemy at their fortress, if we take away their fortresses they will cease to exist.

For too long, anarchists have surrendered where 3/4 of the world lives to these corrupt and corrupting powers. We believe urban anarchists must organize and create militantly radical infrastructure in the very belly of the beast, if we wish to have substantial victories. Retreating to the forests and wildernesses will not stop the dual juggernauts of capitalism and state power.”

Curious George Brigade, “Liberate, Not Exterminate”  

Cyberpunk is a fascinating genre that doesn’t seem like it has much to do with environmental history at first glance. After all, the entire genre is about the negation of nature, the creation of soulless megalopolises and the heartless domination of corporations, tyrannical states, and ganglords.

Put that another way, however, and it’s obvious that cyberpunk is far, far better when informed by an ecological and historical framework. I’ve been working on a fun side-project in the last couple of weeks. I’ve been developing a cyberpunk RPG setting alongside a group of friends and have been responsible for laying the groundwork for the setting’s geography, culture, and overall history.

The setting, Los Angeles in 2067, is besieged by rising sea levels on one hand and the intensification of heat and smog on the other. Injustices committed by corporations and mercenaries affect not only the human beings in the city, but the aquatic and terrestrial life as well. Fish and seals die off in large numbers, feral dogs roam the streets, plants and trees warp and twist under the stress of the new environmental conditions. This is cyberpunk influenced by a view of human and animal bodies, and the cities they inhabit, as natural systems. Complexity, information, and a high level of entanglement define everyday life for the (thanks Donna Haraway) Chthonic denizens of the new world.

The city itself carries an air of melancholy, especially in quarters that haven’t be renovated into walled-off, antiseptic Arks designed to insulate the wealthy, white population from masses of climate refugees and furious locals. Urban zones are full of life struggling with the weight of machines, automation, and the jackboots of mercenaries for space and air. Every urban ecosystem, though, spites and outgrows the imaginary limitations put on it by engineers and design perfectionists. Groves of trees split abandoned bunkers in two, groups of citizens cultivate crops in now-desolate suburbs, fish and other aquatic beings recolonize flooded cityscapes. Cyberpunk today should be without hope, without the optimism of a final revolutionary cleansing, but also! fundamentally about people who struggle in harsh daylight and in the shadow of the capitalist nightmare for sustenance. Cyberpunk is about people who modify their bodies for pleasure, who steal every happy minute from ruthless employers or anti-loitering robocops. Cyberpunk is stripping away the comforting and deadening dream of North American imperialist capitalism.

Recently, to diverge from the topic slightly, the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NICHE) ran a miniseries about hope in environmental history. My field of environmental history is often decried for its “declensionism,” which in layperson’s terms means an obsessive focus on the declining state of ecosystems and the terrors humans have inflicted on the natural world. Many of the authors describe cases of limited environmental renewal and some ways that scholars of ecologies past can integrate hopeful narratives into their writing. For instance:

“Contemporary conceptions of hope as an expectation for an axiomatically better and brighter future are, of course, a historical construct. Hope’s progress-oriented cousins—optimism and expectation—should be seen as an outgrowth of an industrial society which assumes robust economic growth, the right to commoditize nature, and constant technological advance. This idea is embodied in E.F. Schumacher’s quip: “Just wait another minute—we shall all be rich and happy.”

Philip Wright, “Hope Beyond Progress” 

I would argue that hope, optimism, and expectation are all tied into the same idea of potential miraculous deliverance or at least spontaneous victory over adversity. In my upbringing, hope was always connected to the miracle of the Resurrection and the expectation of the Second Coming. Though many people integrated this idea into a practice that cared for the world and hoped to heal its ills in the present, many used that hope/expectation as an excuse to throw the material sphere onto the trash heap and watch, sometimes gleefully, as it burned.

So, although cyberpunk is, I would say, often condemned to be fetishistic and oddly sentimental about its technologies of control and surveillance and its aesthetics (embodied by the weird nostalgia infecting products like the Shadowrun tabletop game), environmental history also has something to learn from a no-futurism like cyberpunk. At its best, cyberpunk is not dystopian, utopian, or even overly pessimistic. Instead, cyberpunk can be a logical extension of present-day issues in a more concentrated and antagonistic setting. It is speculation that arrives at the sobering conclusion that things will probably get harder and worse, but not to the point of absurdity. It shows that our lives constitute a struggle, a campaign of attack, defence, and retreat against systems of oppression, capitalist violence, cisheteropatriarchy, settler fascism, naïve techno-messianic hopes, and so on and so on. So environmental history informed by cyberpunk and other techno-pessimist projections is one that can embrace a certain degree of positivity while noting that, in the Cthulucene and Anthropocene/Capitalocene era, there are no technical solutions and the systems that degrade the resilience and health of ecosystems are only going to be better-armed and fiercer in the future.

Cyberpunk is something like an antibody, a way of looking at fiction and at the future that insulates us, makes us cynical where we ought to, and cherish the beauty of the world. It’s a reminder that, in order for us to continue to struggle and attack, and help each other, we all need lives worth living, and that we have a long list of networked and heavily armed and well-funded oppressors who stop us from having those lives. When writing environmental history, we should not only be critically hopeful, but be critical of hope as well as sentimentalized despair. We need to acknowledge that, as academics or as activists, our words will only reach some ears, and that it’s not our job to make hope. Hope happens in communities of resistance and struggle, in the deserts, cities, forests, and beaches, scrublands and marshes. We cannot summon it from words alone.

Book Review: Maoism and the Chinese Revolution: A Critical Introduction

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Elliott Liu’s 2016 book attempts to present a simplified synthesis of recent scholarship on Mao’s China as well as a historically-founded critique of the politics that issued from that period. There are a few provisos to consider when discussing this work, however. The first is that the Maoism Liu engages is not the Maoism of current revolutionary movements nor does it fit in Moufawad-Paul’s recent philosophical definition. Rather, Maoism for Liu means the politics of Mao himself and of the CCP from the mid-1930s to 1976. Insofar as the book criticizes core Maoist concepts like two-line struggle and certain conception of dialectics, it is still a useful intervention in the activist space. However, those who follow a modern form of Maoism will doubtless take the line that the book has nothing to say about their traditions since they are supposed to have transcended the politics of the Chinese Revolution proper. Nevertheless, the book, taken on its own, has quite considerable value to both interested students of the topic and, more importantly, to activists and revolutionaries.

Indeed, the book’s final chapter, which breaks down some of the more important Maoist concepts and evaluates their relevance to today, indicates that leftist activist circles are Liu’s primary audience. Still, in order to mount a critical argument, the author has to delve into history. The history of the Chinese Revolution and the Maoist period has recently been enriched by studies from Joel Andreas’ Red Engineers to Yiching Wu’s monograph about the dynamics of class and marginalized people during the Cultural Revolution. Liu
draws on all of these books as well as more general histories from the likes of Arif Dirlik, Maurice Meisner, and more classic texts like Bettelheim’s 1970s study of industrial organization during the Cultural Revolution. The resulting synthesis, evaluated on its own, draws entirely from secondary sources like those just mentioned but manages to present a coherent narrative about the vacillations of Chinese revolutionary activity from the 1920s up until 1976. Even separated from the “critical” part of its title, the book is an adequate summation of recent China scholarship, which earns it at least some points for those who are not familiar with the field.

Of course, the book is not marketed as a progressively-bent historical pocketbook but as a “Revolutionary Pocketbook,” which has slightly loftier goals than simple summation in mind. Liu draws a few core conclusions from his historical study. The first is that the People’s Republic of China was fundamentally a state-capitalist entity. By that, he means that the state functioned as the primary and dominant agent of capital accumulation during the drive to industrialize the country. As a corollary to this, he argues that the industrialization plan rested on the hyper-exploitation of the peasantry and the imposition of strict control and austerity over industrial workers. Even from the limited swathe of examples he employs to support this argument make a fairly airtight case.

Although property was theoretically controlled and owned by the entire people and used to benefit the entire people, the reality was more harsh and exclusive since workers and peasants did not have effective political authority over their lives. Resources that were technically nationalized were at the beck and call of central planners and workers’ and peasants’ access to their own produced goods was strictly limited by state regulations. Even during the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese army and other armed forces were used to quash workers’ revolts and strikes, and the country essentially revolved entirely around building up the national economy with little regard for quality of life or autonomy of the workers.

Liu’s second argument is about Mao as a theoretician and leader. Mao himself, Liu contends, never broke from a Stalin-derived synthesis that equated simple empirical observation and study with dialectical investigations and movement. Mao, he argues, tended to see dialectics as a series of mutual oppositions that were fairly static and could be resolved from the outside by policy interventions. A more robust and nuanced picture of the dialectic, he contends, would emphasize the processual and dynamic character of the dialectic as well as the way in which dialectical oppositions constitute and support each other.

In other words, Mao misses that there is a spontaneous and energetic play of oppositions that can generate real insights even from unlikely sources. Liu links these problems to the general failures of Mao’s leadership and the CCP’s role in Chinese society more generally. In brief, he notes that the CCP and Mao’s administration were essentially bureaucratic, centralist, and often chose to crush the very popular movements they summoned to attack other, more conservative party actions. Liu is not uniformly negative in the book, especially when crediting Mao’s strategic and political gifts, but he takes a dim view of Mao’s philosophical and ideological contributions to radical politics.

Finally, the book’s most important conclusion or set of conclusions concerns the applicability of Maoist ideas in current organizing projects. He acknowledges that there are a number of live Maoist projects currently claiming to carry on Mao’s legacy in politics today, mentioning the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement and revolutionary activity in Peru, Nepal,India, and the Philippines by name. He breaks down a number of core Maoist concepts including mass line, different kinds of contradiction, united fronts, new democracy, two-line struggle, and “putting politics in command.” Though he credits many of these ideas as general principles, he argues that Mao and many other organizations took these rather vague concepts and
took them in anti-people directions.

For example, in his discussion of the mass line concept, he notes that the concept could be used simply to drum up populist consent for central state policies or mobilize authoritarian campaigns. To be valuable, he argues, the concept has to be tied to a political programme that ensures that the revolutionary organization is actually listening to ordinary people and taking input from them rather than just gathering evidence to support preexisting political ideas. Each of his evaluations is fairly nuanced considering the small space in which he is operating. There are certainly much deeper criticisms or supporting arguments to be made for or against these concepts, but his conclusions are useful in that they accurately portray each concept and lay out potential pitfalls and opportunities associated with each one.

I would recommend Liu’s book to all those who have a cursory or even more intense interest in the Chinese Revolution and its politics. That sequence of events, the process of political and economic transformation in the world’s most populous state, was one of the key events of the 1900s. The book is not a deep critique of Maoism as it is currently practiced in organizations from North America to India, but it does serve to outline some of the limitations and potentially powerful ideas that such movements can carry forward. Neither
abjectly hostile to the Chinese Revolutionary project nor an advertisement for Mao and the PRC, the book accomplishes its limited goals with aplomb. I hope that it leads many people into some of the better recent literature on the Revolution and believe that it provides a good basic primer and criticism of an important revolutionary process.

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.
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