Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

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Jameson as Teacher

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I begin my review in this conflicted, confessional mode because both Tally and Wegner do; both foreground their personal relationships with Jameson, albeit with considerably more confidence and grace than I feel able to muster, situating his writing within the context of teaching within the university system to which he has dedicated his life. Jameson’s very public profile and reputation as “America’s most famous Marxist” actually makes him something of a rare exception in this regard: he is one of the leading members on the relatively short list of scholars who have been more influential outside their classrooms than inside them. For most of us the classroom is where the lion’s share of our work happens, however much our egos might prefer things to be otherwise. For most of us the classroom is the work.

I have a short review essay (weirdly personal by academic standards, at least by mine) about Jameson as thinker and Jameson as teacher, pegged to Robert Tally and Phil Wegner’s recent books on his career: “Doktorvater.”

This paradox returns us also to the question of what it means to be Jameson’s student, whether metaphorically as his reader or literally as his dissertation advisee. Early in Tally’s book he paraphrases other critics who see Jameson as “embrac[ing] all things—but, like a python, squeezing the life out of them” (20). What resists this totalizing enclosure in Tally’s treatment is Jameson’s foregrounding of the productive tension between history as a nightmare and the future as possible utopia, located in the present as a site of struggle—a critical perspective that remains vital and alive insofar as it is always both urgent and irresolvable. Wegner’s version of this same problem comes in his conclusion, where he quotes Evan Watkins’s observation that Jameson’s work is “an ‘anomaly’ among that of the ‘masters of theory’ for the simple reason that ‘you can’t follow this act.’” (Wegner 213). “Jamesonian” has simply never caught on as an adjective in the mold of Hegelian, Marxist, Freudian, Foucauldian, even Žižekian—even as many people (some of his many former students and dissertation advisees among them!) are clearly doing “Jamesonian” analysis. Rather than unfinishable, from this perspective Jameson’s project looks too finished, too complete: he ate the whole elephant, and left nothing behind for the rest of us. Wegner’s answer is to return to the question of fidelity and betrayal: to attempt to simply do Jameson is itself a betrayal of the Jamesonian ethos, and turn him into a “discourse of the university,” another kind of too-close, python-like suffocation. The alternative is to see Jameson not as a master or a mapmaker so much as, again, a teacher, who one day leads us to the gates of the school and then hurls us out into the world to find our own way. “Maybe you can’t do this for yourself,” Wegner quotes Watkins. “It’s not exactly clear what it might mean to ‘follow Jameson’s direction.’ But it is always possible to learn from his work how to do what you do far better and in more historically responsible ways” (qtd. in Wegner 213). As a conclusion to a two-hundred page exegesis, this is perhaps somewhat deflating—you mean this was all a dead end? a road to nowhere?—but for Wegner it seems something more like a rousing call to arms, a “joyful possibility” that speaks to Jameson’s “inexhaustible richness,” resulting in an exuberant final benediction: “May we prove equal to the task!” (213). Jameson’s very irreproducibility, his singularity, can become the engine for our own critical production, so long as we betray him right.

Reading and Teaching Harry Potter after THE CURSED CHILD (No Spoilers, Just a Few Instant Reactions)

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Zoey slept in this morning, so I was able to read the entirety of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on my Kindle app under the covers, racing both an iPad battery that was very rapidly heading to zero and a four-year-old whose every tiny twitch and movement suggested the end of my project was drawing near. I think it’s good. It’s definitely strange. As a revisionary work, it throws some very odd wrinkles into the interior logic of the Harry Potter universe, and as a result I suspect it will always have a sort of quasi-authorative, even apocryphal status within the canon, even beyond what one would have suspected because of the unusual circumstances of its multi-author composition and its form as a play rather than a novel or even a film. It never feels quite real, never feels like the actual future of these people and these circumstances; it’s a tie-in book, oxymoronically authoritative fan fiction. Still, there are a few things here worth lingering on, and it’ll start a lot of conversations.

I know I’ve read the thing almost comically early, so perhaps I’ll do a follow-up post in a week or so with some actual spoiler-laden analysis about the events of the plot. But what struck me most as I was reading The Cursed Child is how directly it resonates with the way I’ve been teaching the series in my literature courses the last two years (a pedagogical focus undoubtedly driven by the fact that I’m a parent now myself). Like many other things in life, the original Harry Potter books look rather different after one becomes a parent, and living inside the franchise again I’ve really come to see it as in large part as a frustrated rumination on bad parents, and on bad fathers in particular.

The class I teach Harry Potter in is a foundations course for English majors, but the theme is “Magic and Literature”; we spend the last half on children’s literature and the last full month on Harry Potter, first talking about the franchise as a whole (with some exceptions, they nearly all know it by heart) and then (re-)reading the fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, together. I choose Order of the Phoenix deliberately: the first three books are all still a little childish, and the fourth is mostly so until the shocking events at the end, which (after Cursed Child) now looks even more like the fulcrum of the entire series. (A surprisingly high number of students in the current college-age cohort had younger siblings who were initially not allowed to read past book three, and only came back to the series later, if at all, after a year or more break.) The sixth and seventh books are really plot-driven, almost to the exclusion of the world-building; you can’t really read one without reading both, and at that point you’re completely excluding any students who don’t already know the series extremely well. But the fifth book is in the sweet spot: it’s adult, in a way the earlier ones aren’t, and it opens up on the larger, darker Wizarding World while still being a stand-alone adventure. It’s also, perhaps it goes without saying, my personal favorite of the five, and I think the actual best writing of all seven — and it brings up some fascinating issues about the Wizarding World and its internal politics that aren’t really developed anywhere else.

We spend two weeks on Phoenix, and afterwards we talk a little bit about the epilogue to the last book, which (as every child knows) flashes forward nineteen years to the day Harry Potter’s second son, Albus Severus, goes to Hogwarts. We need the epilogue in the class because, in my teaching, it’s the culmination of the various explorations of bad parenting that structure Phoenix.

The discussion for the first day inevitably focuses on the scene with Molly Weasley (chapter nine, “The Woes of Mrs. Weasley”). Mrs. Weasley is a fascinating character from the perspective of the Harry-Potter-rereader-as-a-parent, as she is one of only a handful of genuinely “good” parents anywhere in the series: good in the sense that she sees her children (and Harry) as pearls beyond price and simply wants to love, nurture, and protect them, rather than instrumentalize them either in the service of her own ego (as with, say, Lucius Malfoy) or in the service of some larger, supposedly greater cause (as with Dumbledore).

(The character most like Molly in the series is, weirdly, Narcissa Malfoy, as my students in the first iteration of the class pointed out to me: Narcissa is the version of Molly who doesn’t take the word of the men for an answer and who is therefore able to get what she wants and protect her child at any cost, the Higher Cause be damned. That’s a not-insignificant plot detail for reading The Cursed Child.)

In chapter nine of The Order of the Phoenix we see Molly Weasley get excoriated by every other member of the original Order of the Phoenix for being weak, and being unwilling to see that war has come to the children (especially Harry, who is 15) and that they now must grow up and be soldiers instead. Molly says no, leave them out of it, they’re children, and gets shouted down. (In case we miss the point, Molly is then humiliated by the narrative by being unable to defeat a boogeyman parademon that the children had been taught to defeat with a simple spell two years before.) The remainder of the book and really the series as a whole is an exercise in further proving that Molly and those who think like her, like Hermione, are wrong (even though from a strict plot perspective Molly is in fact completely right and if the children had done nothing but just be kids everything in Book Five would have turned out fine). But within the logic of the original series it’s Molly who has to change; she only gets her redemptive moment in Book Seven when she is finally able to reconcile love to violence when she tells Bellatrix Lestrange “Not my daughter, you bitch” before murdering her.

Dumbledore explains at the end of Book Five that, in fact, his problem is that he loves Harry too much, and has been unwilling to fully weaponize him as the circumstances demand, treating him too much like a child — but now he will, reluctantly and with regret, bring Harry completely into the fold as his full lieutenant. (It’s only in Book Seven that we find out Dumbledore is still lying to Harry, even here, and that Dumbledore has always known he was raising Harry for the slaughter; even Snape, who himself has barely any conscience or pity, is horrified when he finds this out.) Both years teaching the course I’ve said at the end of the first day that my overall take on Dumbledore is that he seems to be a brilliant general, a middling-to-poor teacher, and an absolutely terrible father; no one agrees with me on day one, but by the end of the full lesson about half the class or more does. Dumbledore, like Gandalf, and like the Doctor, and like Obi-Wan, and like any other number of mentor wizards in the history of science fiction and fantasy we could name, abuses his protege and everyone else as his instrument in the name of a higher, nobler purpose — and if that’s painful, if that hurts, well, please know he’s sorry, it’s only because he loves you so very much.

The Dumbledore pseudo-apology scene that comes at the end of Book Five is important enough, central enough to the Potter mythos that it plays out again with one of Dumbledore’s portraits in The Cursed Child — only this time, Harry gets to talk back, and this time Dumbledore turns out to be definitely and definitively wrong.

This is why the books always needed the nineteen-years-later epilogue, despite all the many reasons it was a tremendously bad idea compositionally: what we see in the epilogue is that while Harry continues to admire the many men around him who seek to deploy him as their child-soldier, and even names his two sons after his four bad dads (James, who at least was bad mostly because he was dead; Sirius; Severus Snape; and Albus Dumbledore), he actually parents them like Molly Weasley. In the scene Albus is scared that he’ll be sorted into Slytherin, and wants reassurance from his dad that it won’t happen:

“Albus Severus,” Harry said quietly, so that nobody but Ginny could hear, and she was tactful enough to pretend to be waving to Rose, who was now on the train, “you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew.”

“But just say — ”

“– then Slytherin House will have gained an excellent student, won’t it? It doesn’t matter to us, Al. But if if it matters to you, you’ll be able to choose Gryffindor over Slytherin. The Sorting Hat takes your choice into account.”

“Really?”

“It did for me,” said Harry.

He had never told any of this children that before, and he saw the wonder in Albus’s face when he said it.

The punchline of the whole Hogwarts adventure, in my reading, is that Harry’s reward is that he gets to be a father, and/but that he isn’t a father like Dumbledore, Sirius, or Lucius. He just loves his kid unconditionally, whoever he is or isn’t, no matter what, forever.

The play’s retelling of the Deathly Hallows epilogue in Act I, Scene II truncates this scene crucially by eliminating the bolded dialogue. (I haven’t seen it performed so I can’t be sure how it plays on stage, but the stage directions don’t indicate any special reaction from Albus to this information either.) It has to retcon out Harry’s choice to love his children like Molly and Narcissa so that he can spend the play learning that lesson instead. So instead of Harry the Good Dad, we spend most of The Cursed Child with Harry as actually a pretty bad one, who fundamentally misunderstands his role in his son’s life, so at the end he can reform and be returned to the place where the original epilogue had always left him anyway.

In that sense, I suppose, the plot of The Cursed Child writ large is itself a little bit like the bubble timeline of any classic time-travel story, existing temporarily to dissipate in the face of reconciliation with the place we already were all along. But that reconciliation is an interesting thing; even reconciled, we can’t read the earlier books in quite the same way, because after The Cursed Child even Rowling won’t let Dumbledore off his hook. The story The Cursed Child tells in the foreground is ultimately the one the Harry Potter series was always telling in the background: how easy it is to be a bad parent, and how easy it would be to be a good one, if only you were stronger.

‘The Discovered Country’

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My review of Star Trek Beyond (and audition for the writers room of Star Trek: Discovery) is up now at LARB: The Discovered Country. Check it out! Let me know what you think here or there or at the other place!

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July 29, 2016 at 2:12 pm

Tolkien, THE FORCE AWAKENS, and the Sadness of Expanded Universes

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(some spoilers near the end of the post, though I try to be vague)

Not long after completing The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien briefly began work on a sequel called The New Shadow, set 100 to 150 years later during the reign of Aragorn’s son Eldarion. (The main link between the two stories is the minor character Beregond, the noble but disgraced soldier of Gondor whose son, Borlas, would have been a major character in The New Shadow.) The New Shadow reveals that the eucatastrophic fairy-tale ending of The Return of the King was extremely short-lived; with the Elves and the Wizards gone from Middle-earth, the Dwarves moving underground, and the Hobbits now isolated in what amounts to an enclave in the Shire, Men are quickly falling back into their old bad habits. In fact the Men of Gondor already seem to have forgotten much of the details of the War of the Ring, even though it remains in living memory: they seem not to remember, or take seriously, the fact that they once strode with gods and angels in a war against pure evil, and were victorious. Instead, children play at being Orcs for fun; the death of Elessar has been an occasion for political striving and reactionary plots; and even something like a secret death cult of devil-worshipping rebels seems to be spreading through the elites of Gondor.

Tolkien wrote 13 pages of it.

He later wrote:

I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall, but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless — while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors — like Denethor or worse. I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going around doing damage. I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would have been just that. Not worth doing.

Instead, Tolkien turned his attention back to the imaginative project that had more or less defined his life: The Silmarillion, begun between 1914 and 1917, which he tinkered with on and off until his death in 1973. The Silmarillion has always marked, I think, the grey line between being a casual Tolkien fan and becoming a Tolkien enthusiast — a path that then leads one even further into Christopher Tolkien’s twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth and the discovery of Tolkien’s own very elaborate (and somewhat fannish) self-commentary on his legendarium alongside many multiple alternate drafts of the narratives that form the barely glimpsed mythological background of The Lord of the Rings. 

The Silmarillion is nominally a prequel — ostensibly it is the Elvish legends that Bilbo translated and appended to the Red Book while he was retired in Rivendell — but the published version of the book includes a two-page summary of the War of the Ring that culminates in a brief, New-Shadow-style glimpse past Aragorn’s reign. We are reminded of the sapling of the White Tree that Aragorn and Gandalf find in the mountains near Gondor, which Aragorn plants in Minas Tirith as a symbol of his reign, and told that “while it still grew there the Elder Days were not wholly forgotten in the hearts of the Kings.” While it still grew there — which is to say, it doesn’t grow there anymore.

I don’t know that I would call this material “sinister,” but I taught The Silmarillion this semester after having tried and failed to read it as a child, and I think it would certainly be fair to call it “depressing.” What looks, in The Lord of the Rings, like a fairy-tale about how good and decent folk are able to do the impossible and defeat evil (with just a little bit of help from the divine, here and there) becomes in The Silmarillion and The New Shadow and Tolkien’s pseudo-theological commentary only the briefest, most temporary respite from a nightmare history in which things always turn out wrong, millennia after millennia after millennia. In fact Arda, the planet on which the continent of Middle-earth rests, is a cursed and fallen place, infused with evil and wickedness at its material core, and the only thing to do is raze the place and start over, as Eru Ilúvatar will at long last at the very end of time. To study Tolkien beyond Lord of the Rings is to come to a keen understanding of how tragic this history actually is, how Return of the King looks like a happy ending mostly because that’s where Tolkien (quite deliberately and self-consciously) decided to stop writing. But the Fourth Age was no better than the Third, and likely quite worse, and on and on through the degenerative millennia that bring us to the end of the Sixth Age and the beginning of the Seventh with the fall of the Third Reich and the development of the atom bomb.

I’ve been thinking about The New Shadow since it became clear that The Force Awakens would be borrowing from the Expanded Universe the notion that the Battle of Endor at the end of Return of the Jedi did not mark a full or permanent victory for the Rebel Alliance. The Force Awakens is The New Shadow, sinister and depressing, except they decided to go ahead and do it anyway. I joked in the link post earlier this morning that you can tell who read the EU novels and who didn’t based on whether your reaction to The Force Awakens is sadness — but the events of The Force Awakens, as sad as they are, are really only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how horribly Luke, Leia, and Han are punished in the EU novels, over and over, as everything they attempt to build turns to ash and the galaxy repeatedly falls into chaos, war, and catastrophe. In the farthest reaches of the EU universe, the Star Wars Legacy comics, set around 140 years or so after the Battle of Yavin, Luke’s descendent Cade Skywalker wanders a Galaxy that is again in war, as it always is, with a resurgent Empire again ruled by Sith masters — and when one casts oneself into the mists of time in the other direction (in material like the Knights of the Old Republic games, set thousands of years before A New Hope) one finds more or less the same basic story of genocidal total war playing out there too. Star Wars has always been, in the EU at least, a universe more or less without hope, that only looked hopeful to casual fans because they were looking too closely at just a very slender part of it.

This is why, while I can certainly understand the impulse to complain about The Force Awakens as derivative, I really think this is more repetition with a difference than mere or base or stupid repetition. One Death Star is a horror; two Death Stars and one Starkiller Base and whatever horrific murder innovation the First Order will come up with for Episode 9 is something more like the inexorable logic of history, grinding us all to dust. Likewise, it’s true that The Force Awakens hits many of the same story beats as the Original Trilogy, but almost always in ways that are worse: the death of Obi-Wan was sad but mysterious, suggestive of a world beyond death which the Jedi could access, while the death of The Force Awakens‘s version of Obi-Wan is not only brutally material but visceral, and permanent, as far as we have any reason to believe right now. The loss of Alderaan is sad, but the loss of what appears to be the entire institutional apparatus of the resurgent Republic is unthinkably devastating; aside from the loss of life it would take decades for the Galaxy to recover from such an event, even if they weren’t having to fight off the First Order while doing it. The film is extremely vague about the relationship between the Republic and “the Resistance,” but it appears to be a proxy guerrilla war against the First Order fought inside their own territory, secretly funded by the Republic — and prosecuted by Leia, Akbar, Nien Nunb, and all our heroes from the first movies, whose lives are now revealed as permanently deformed by a forever war they can never put down or escape. (If you want to ask me where Lando is, I think he said “good enough” after Endor and walked away, and that sort of makes me hope they never find him, never drag him back into it.) It’s horrible to lose a parent to addiction, or to mental illness, or to ordinary everyday cruelty, however you want to allegorize Vader’s betrayal of his children — but how much worse would it be to lose a child to it, how much worse would such a thing taint every aspect of your life and poison all your joy.

That Star Wars implies a world of sorrow belied by the spectacle of Jedi‘s happy ending isn’t a surprise to me — I told you, I read the EU books — but I can see why it’s a surprise to someone whose last memory of these people is smiles, a fireworks display, hugs, and a picnic. Return of the Jedi never asked us what we thought would happen when those people woke up the next morning and the Empire still had 90% of its guns, ships, territory, generals, and soldiers, ready to descend into vicious, scorched-earth fanaticism as they slid into defeat; it just wasn’t that kind of story. The Force Awakens is that kind of story, and I find that interesting enough to be excited about 8 and 9, to see where they try to take this story now that it turns out fairy-tales aren’t real and that deeply entrenched totalitarian systems don’t have exhaust ports, trench runs, or single points of failure. So I think the emerging critical consensus that The Force Awakens infantilizes its audience by re-presenting us with the same images we all saw as children is actually deeply wrong: The Force Awakens condemns Luke, Leia, and Han to actually live inside history, rather than transcend it, and it condemns us too.

Watching THE FORCE AWAKENS as the Father of a Three-and-a-Half-Year-Old Girl (No Spoilers)

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There’s still plenty of weird plot holes in the movie to complain about — and, of course, call no trilogy happy until it is concluded — and the man simply doesn’t get Star Trek at a basic and fundamental level — but J.J. Abrams achieves something in a sequence of shots near the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens that I hope I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. My daughter is three and a half right now, and she’s still piecing together the world. We’ve raised her, somewhat accidentally, without much concept of gender; it’s only recently that she’s even come to really understand that some people are boys and other people are girls. And it’s broken my heart a bit, as this process has come into focus for her, to see her recognize that nearly all the protagonists in nearly all the stories she loves are boys. She sometimes announces, as we play, that she gets to be the boy — by which she means that she gets to be the hero, the star. I’m the boy, daddy; you’re the dragon. I’m the boy, daddy; you’re the witch.

And as I watched this one particular, truly perfect scene, at the climax of The Force Awakens, I really felt like I could see the whole thing through her eyes, and imagined the moment she watches it a few months or years from now and how it might undo a bit of the toxic lessons she’s already started to learn about boys and girls. I cried. I’m crying now, just writing about it. And however else The Force Awakens is received and whatever its reputation winds up being, however badly 8 and 9 screw it all up (or don’t), Abrams has given little girls like mine a tremendous and very special gift. That bit lives forever, as far as I’m concerned.

I’ll write a longer and more spoiler-y post once more people have seen it, I think, but for now I wanted to say just that much.

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December 17, 2015 at 11:12 pm

Lesser Whedonia 2: Age of Corporate Directives

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LATER-THAT-NIGHT UPDATE: I hadn’t realized when I wrote this how strongly it was influenced by the great review of Captain America 2 that Ryan Vu wrote for us for Science Fiction Film and Television, but reflecting on it a few hours later I really see Ryan’s review as the clear precursor to this. Look for his review in a few months! It’s really smart.

In my five-sentence Avengers review from a few years ago I wrote:

Of course I deeply enjoyed The Avengers, but my sense is it’ll be up to The Avengers 2: Avengers Reveng’d! to salvage the series from the scrapheap of Lesser Whedona. … Though certainly funny and engaging, and on occasion very clever, The Avengers is more or less superheroes completely by-the-numbers, almost entirely lacking in the deconstructive self-awareness that characterizes more artistically ambitious Whedon creations like Buffy, Firefly, and especially Cabin in the Woods and the too-neglected Dollhouse. The film has zero critical purchase on its genre, and precious little Whedonesque irony about itself.

In short, The Avengers is what Buffy would have been, if it were only fight scenes and quips.

Age of Ultron, like The Avengers before it, is fine, though if anything the film actually doubles down on the hollowed-out anti-cinema of the first film: it’s even fightier and much, much quippier, with very little heart (the paltry attempts at character development are exhaustively cloying) and excruciatingly little self-awareness about the genre it is participating in (it really pales in comparison to Captain America 2 on that front, as you knew it would).

A film like this seems to me to defy either aesthetic or political response. What is there to say about it that it isn’t already screaming at maximum volume? Even the film itself can barely muster the energy to care about its own setup or execution, breezing over the only character choice that has any genuine stakes (the initial creation of Ultron) in the span of five or so minutes (and then assiduously refusing to return to it under any circumstances).

The only really interesting thing about the film, to me, is its metatextual participation involving the endless shifting around of pieces in the MCU for a climax that will never arrive. When I watch Age of Ultron my major critical response is in trying to reverse engineer the corporate directives that Whedon was handed when he started to break out this story, and then trying to imagine other ways he might have tried to move the pieces into the proper places instead. What else could he have gotten away with? What did they make him rewrite or reshoot? What was allowed, and what was forbidden?

Of course this is always fantasy franchise-running, but we can be certain that the #1 directive here was “clear the decks.” The primary point of this film is to get rid of characters who won’t appear in the franchise until the next Avengers film at the end of “Phase 3.” In this sense Age of Ultron culminates “Phase 2,” like The Avengers culminates “Phase 1,” but here the climax is more like a toilet flushing than a fireworks spectacular. The central narrative concern here is to remove the blockage of investment in characters played by too-expensive actors so a new crop of rather less famous stars can run through their own four- or five-picture contracts in due course.

What else, besides that? I’d wager Whedon was given orders to soften the surface anti-Americanism of Winter Soldier, perhaps combined with a stick-a-thumb-in-DC’s-eye directive to “do something that will force reviewers compare this movie favorably to the ending of Man of Steel whether they want to or not.” Other than that: Give us some action figures? Make sure you leave some narrative gaps for the video games and the tie-in comics and Agents of SHIELD to play with later? Make sure that you complete the narrative return-to-origin so utterly that, even within the terms of your own diegetic universe, it’s as if the film never happened at all? There’s really hardly anything here, as (again!) perfectly enjoyable it is for the two hours it is on the screen.

It seems to me that Age of Ultron exemplifies a new type of narrative in this kind of media. First we had the franchise film; then we had the prequel trilogy; now every film is a prequel to a film that hasn’t been written yet, a film that will itself merely set the table for the fantasy of still another sequel or series or reboot or tie-in down the line. The real climax, the real pleasure, is permanently deferred, always another greenlight away.

To me a film like Age of Ultron invites speculation about Marvel/Disney’s thirty-year-plan to the exclusion of all other criticism or critique. We need a new theory of artistic creation to explain how films get made in this mode. It isn’t auteurism, it isn’t even really in the hands of individuals at all: it’s a kind of automatic, autonomous process using the combination and recombination of preexisting building blocks, almost on the order of an algorithm, or an artificial intelligence. We have this intellectual property that we think we can monetize more aggressively than we’re monetizing it currently; we have these and those prior narrative elements; now, JARVIS, build me a story.

From the Archives! Interview with Cory Doctorow on Disney, SF, Violence, Meritocracy, Goodhart’s Law, Fandom, and Utopia

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Several years ago I taught Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom for a Writing 20 class at Duke called “Writing the Future,” which resulted in a lenthy interview between my students and Doctorow. For many years the interview was archived at the course site at duke.edu, but it looks like it’s been pulled down; even the Wayback Machine has been thwarted. Since I’m fond of the interview, and frequently return to some of the things he says in it, I’m reposting it here. Enjoy!

The interview took place in Spring 2010.

“Trying to Predict the Present”: An Interview with Cory Doctorow

W20: What did this novel mean to you when you first wrote it, and how has the meaning changed in the nine years since? How might the novel be different if you wrote it today?

CD: That’s a really tough question to answer—not specifically because of the change in circumstances, but because of the change in the writer over time. The more time you spend writing, the more different your approach to the work is. That was the first novel I ever finished—it’s fundamentally different to write a book when you know you can finish a book than to write a book when you don’t know if you can a finish a book—and I actually think those differences would swamp any differences that arose from circumstances or politics or new wisdom or whatever. Just the idea of writing a book, when you know you can write a book, completely overpowers any of the other changes.

I don’t know if that makes sense. It probably doesn’t answer your question very well.

One of the things I realized in the course of writing the book, and that I think a lot of people miss when they read the book, is that Whuffie has one of the fundamental problems that accrues to money or property, which is that the more you have the easier it is to get more. That’s a pretty a pretty enormous gap in the Utopian character of Whuffie. A properly Utopian system is one in which you have something that’s a lot like merit, not like circumstance—where people are rewarded based on how great they are, not based how great they used to be. And I think Whuffie is primarily one of those systems that rewards you for having gotten lucky or doing something good some time ago, and then continues to reward you for that forever at the expense of other people.

I think Whuffie would follow a power-law distribution, just like in-bound links to blogs, for exactly the same reason.

W20: We talked a little bit about this, and it leads to the second question, whether or not large corporations are starting to create a system that’s sort of like Whuffie, but at the same time proprietary. We were thinking of Google, YouTube, Facebook especially, but even something like LinkedIn—isn’t this something like Whuffie that’s starting to materialize? Blog linkage would be the same sort of thing, facing the same sorts of problems you’ve just been talking about.

CD: I based Whuffie at the time more on Slashdot’s Karma, and I don’t know that Faceook has an exact analogue to it. I guess Facebook has this thing where you can see who has the most inbound links, who has the most friends, and you can “digg” up yourself by getting more of those.

I think that in general we have a pathological response to anything we measure. We tend not to measure the thing we care about; we tend to measure something that indicates its presence. It’s often very hard to measure the thing that you’re hoping for. You don’t actually care about how calories you eat; you care about how much weight you’re going to gain from the calories you eat. But as soon as we go, oh, well, calories are a pretty good proxy for weight gain, we start to come up with these foods that are incredibly unhealthy but nevertheless have very few calories in them. In the same way, Google doesn’t really care about inbound links because inbound links are good per se; Google cares about inbound links because inbound links are a good proxy for “someone likes this page; someone thinks this page is a useful place to be, is a good place to be.” But as soon as Google starts counting that, people start finding ways to make links that don’t actually serve as a proxy for that conclusion at all.

GDP is another good example. We don’t care about GDP because GDP itself is good; we care about GDP because the basket of indicators that we measure with GDP are a proxy for the overall health of the society—except as soon as you start measuring GDP, people figure out how to make the GDP go up by doing things like trading derivatives of derivates of subprime subderivates of derivatives, but which actually does the reverse of what we care about by undermining the quality of life and the stability of society.

So I think that one of the biggest problems that Google has, taking Google as probably the best example of someone trying to build a reputation currency, is that as soon as Google gives you any insight into how they are building their reputation system it ceases to be very good as a reputation system. As soon as Google stops measuring something you created by accident and starts measuring something you created on purpose, it stops being something that they want to measure. And this is joined by the twin problem that what Google fundamentally has is a security problem; they have hackers who are trying to undermine the integrity of the system. And the natural response to a problem that arises when attackers know how your system works is to try to keep the details of your system secret—but keeping the details of Google’s system secret is also not very good because it means that we don’t have any reason to trust it. All we know when we search Google is that we get a result that seems like a good result; but we don’t know that there isn’t a much better result that Google has either deliberately or accidentally excluded from its listings for reasons that are attributable to either malice or incompetence. So they’re really trapped between a rock and a hard place: if they publish how their system works, people will game their system; if they don’t publish how their system works it becomes less useful and trustworthy and good. It suffers from the problem of alchemy; if alchemists don’t tell people what they learned, then every alchemist needs to discover for themselves that drinking mercury is a bad idea, and alchemy stagnates. When you start to publishing, you get science—but Google can’t publish or they’ll also get more attacks.

So it’s a really thorny, thorny problem, and I elide that problem with Whuffie by imagining a completely undescribed science fictional system that can disambiguate every object in the universe so when you look at something and have a response to it the system knows that the response is being driven by the color of the car but not by the car, or the shirt but not the person wearing it, or the person wearing it and not the shirt, and also know how you feel about it. So it can know what you’re feeling and what you’re feeling it about. And I don’t actually think we have a computer that could that; I don’t think we have Supreme Court judges or Ph.D. philosophers that can do that.

W20: That’s sort of a fantastic self-criticism, actually—you’re exposing what’s so great about Whuffie and what’s so impossible about it all at once.

CD: Sure, and that’s why I think Whuffie feeds the fantasy of a meritocratic society. There’s something particularly self-serving about people who are doing very well imagining that society is meritocratic: it means that the reason you are doing so well is because you have merit, not because you were lucky or because you screwed someone else. So I’m always suspicious of people who are doing extremely well telling you how meritocratic society their society is. I’m also somewhat suspicious of people doing very poorly who tell you how meritocratic society is, because I think that’s often aspirational: they’ve basically bought the story that if only they work hard and are good and pure of heart they’ll catch up to the people who have been rich for a hundred generations. So I think the idea of meritocracy is a really tricky one because the embrace of meritocracy is seductive for reasons that transcend logic.

W20: I don’t know if I’ll include this in the interview, to shame my students or not, but this is something that comes up a lot in Duke classes. Duke students believe very much in meritocracy because they’re the winners of the system.

CD: Yeah, sure. I think we have a problem in that we end up with this tautological definition of merit in a meritocracy. How do we know what’s meritorious? It’s the thing that’s on top. You have this very Milton Friedman way of measuring accomplishment: you come up with some self-serving thing that makes you better, and declare whatever outcome you have as the best possible one. And I think that’s pretty nakedly not a great way of apportioning social resources or measuring the quality of life.

W20: Let me switch gears to the next question, which is kind of a shadow version of the last one. We talked a little bit about smartphones, and about closely they seem to match the things you describe in the book as the start of the Bitchun society, these little handheld devices. So on the one hand we have the question of whether or not it can still be Bitchun if it’s run by corporations, if they’re provided not by these collectives but by Apple. And then, as a secondary question, to what extent was this novel your personal prediction for society’s future, and what did you not predict that you wish you had?

I’ve never really done anything predictive in my life. I always say that I try to predict the present. Which is to say that you take those elements that seem futuristic that are kind of floating around in the present, but because they’ve snuck up on us so gradually, because we were boiled frog-style so gently in them that we end up not even noticing that they’re there.

My friend Jim Griffin always says that anything invented before you’re 20 was there forever; anything invented before you’re 30 is the coolest thing ever; and anything invented after that should be illegal. And I think one great way that a science fiction writer can help overcome that, or call attention to that, is to have a look at what’s around you and the stuff that feels futuristic and just write about it as if it hadn’t been invented yet, as if it were something you were making up for a science fiction story. And so everyone goes, “Wow, look at that, it’s this incredibly futuristic thing that we have right here about to happen”—and then they look around again and say “Oh my god, it’s happened!”, even though it was there before you started.

So I guess the best example of this was a presentation I once heard someone give on gold-farming at a games conference about five years ago. And then I wrote a short story “predicting” there would be gold-farming in the future. And people who discovered the story first and then read the article, or read more articles as the phenomenon increased—there’s now 400,000 people who earn their living goldfarming—assume that I predicted it. And really what I’d done is written about something in the present as though it were being invented in the future.

I didn’t answer the part about whether smart phones can be Bitchun. And no, I don’t think so—I think the problem with smartphones is not necessarily that they’re run by corporations but the specific corporations that run them. Phone companies are basically a regulatory monopoly wrapped around a soft chewy core of greed and venality. The phone companies have always disguised a complete aversion to change, progress, and democracy by wrapping it up in high-minded talk about how they’re guardians our natural infrastructure. There’s a famous case called Hush-a-Phone in which finally customers won the right to attach a Privacy Cone—like the cone you put around your dog’s head when it has stitches—to the receiver of your phone. Because up until then Bell argued that connecting anything to a phone endangered the network, including, you know, putting stickers on it. And you see this today. Why can’t you get an open phone that you could run any software on? Oh, you could crash the network.

So I think the specifically the fact that cells are run by phone companies and then also run by control-freak companies like Apple that have decided that you shouldn’t be allowed to decide what software you want to run. And Apple has made this unholy alliance with the music industry, who are also great believers that you shouldn’t be able to inspect the workings of your device, and that you shouldn’t be able to use protocols anonymously, and so on. That unholy trinity of the entertainment industry, Apple, and the phone companies means you’ll never get anything remotely great out of mobile phones until someone breaks the deadlock.

W20: What about that last part, what did you not predict that you wish you had? I guess this doesn’t make sense as a question because you don’t predict anything.

You know, in terms of staying power, there are a few things that I predicted would still be in Disney World that have just shut down. The Adventurer’s Club, which I still think is the best Disney has ever done, is now shut. But I guess I could say that in my future they’re reopened it; I could fix that by adding a sentence that says, “The first thing they did was reopen the Adventurer’s Club,” and we’d be back in business.

W20: We were surprised to check your archives and find out that you’d liked the Johnny Deppification of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Given your character we thought you might have wanted it to stay the same.

I really like that. In fact we rode it last week, as we’re stuck in L.A. The new Lincoln Bot is good too; The new Lincoln Bot is awesome, actually: he’s lip-synching, he’s gesturing. The last Lincoln Bot, he was really, um—what they did is go back and research all of his historical gestures, and they put every single into his 90-second speech. They’d made it look like he had Tourette’s.

W20: I’m going to skip a question because we’re now talking about Disney World. They were really interested in why it was you set the novel in Disney World, how it fed into the plot or the themes of the novel. They were wondering if Disney World came first, or did it fit into the idea you had for the story line?

CD: No, it was definitely that Disney came first. I’d always wanted to write a book about Disney World. It’s always inspired me, going to Disney World. I find it inspiring as a piece of art and a piece of social engineering. And inspiring not in the entirely good sense, but inspiring in the sense that every time I go there I have a bunch of thoughts. It really gets both my creative and critical juices flowing, to go to Disney World. I’m not the only one; if you read Baudrillard, he spent all this time there too.

It definitely started with Disney, and to be totally frank one of the cool things about writing a book set in Disney World is that it makes your Disney trips tax-deductible. Which is sort of an interesting, science fictiony thing: anything you choose to write a book about becomes tax-deductible. There’s a reason why Iain Banks took a year off from writing thrillers to write a book about whiskey; his whiskey became tax deductible for a year!

Disney has always had a love-hate relationship, or at least an ambivalent relationship, with audience participation. And with remix, obviously, which is ironic given all the ways Disney has borrowed from the culture before it to make new and I think very good cultural artifacts, by and large.

The Mickey Mouse Club, in the early days, actually met and made their Mickey stuff, and did their own Mickey activities. There’s always been this aspect of, you know, take Mickey and make him part of your world—make your Disney memories classic memories of your life that stick with you forever. All that stuff has always been part of Disney’s DNA. At the same time they’re very proprietary: that shalt not copy, we own all rights in all media now known and yet to be invented throughout the universe, and so own. There’s also some of that.

But when you go to Disney World, what you find is that Disney’s implicit and sometimes explicit social contract with its visitors is that you are a resident of Disney World while you’re here. This is your place too. I once did one of the Disney management courses at the Disney Institute, and one of the things they said is that after a couple of days in Disney World people who are staying there start picking up trash when they see it.

So they want to form a social contract with says that you and we are in this together—which I think is one of the reasons Disney doesn’t go after people who put entire ride-throughs of their rides on YouTube, or why by and large they don’t stop you from taking photos even of the photo ops where they sell you the photo. There’s never a time when they tell you to put away your camera because you’re “on stage”; you can always have your camera out, you can always be shooting. And that’s because it’s your place too; you’re supposed to be making memories and taking them home because that’s where they’re getting their value from.

And yet they’re not completely into this; there’s a place at which the social contract breaks down and becomes a commercial relationship again. And I think it’s pretty natural that fans of Disney World, who’ve been told for generations to form a social contract with Disney where they treat it as their own place, and also become not just guests but custodians of it, start to act like custodians of it.

There’s a great book by Greg Egan called Quarantine—it’s his first novel. In it, there’s a conspiracy of kind of bad guys, and one of the things they do to anyone who is on their trail is put a chip in their brain that makes them absolutely loyal to the conspiracy: they can’t betray the conspiracy, they’re neurologically incapable of betraying the conspiracy. And the way that they get out of it is really clever: what they do is have this mental game in which they say, “Only people who have this chip can be truly loyal to the conspiracy. Therefore the people who put the chips in our head aren’t members of the true conspiracy. They’re members of a false conspiracy because they can choose to betray the conspiracy and we can’t. Therefore it is our duty as members of the true conspiracy to betray the people who put the chip in our heads that make us loyal to them.”

I always thought that was a really interesting little bit here, to say: Who are you to say that you’re the true keeper of the flame? Maybe I’m the true keeper of the flame. You’re just a corporation who’s in it to make as much money as you can from these assets. And maybe that converges sometimes with being the best custodian, and maybe sometimes it doesn’t; maybe sometimes you’ll go off and chase the quarterly profits at the expense of long-term value. Meanwhile, I have no commercial interest in it – therefore I’m a better custodian than you, I should have more say in it that you do. And I think that relationship beats in the heart of big Disney fans, the people you see who know the park like the back of their hand.

W20: So then my follow-up question about whether Disney is a utopia or an anti-utopia has again already been answered in the sense that it’s both, right—that it has these utopian qualities and then these other kinds of countervailing qualities that push against it.

CD: Yeah, that’s right.

W20: So, then, two more questions. The first one—we’ve had a lot of talk about ecology and the environment in our course, and we got a little hung up on what you meant by Free Energy, whether this was something you were imagining seriously as a post-scarcity economics or if it was just something that was some magical thing.

CD: This is Free Energy in the kind of crank sense—zero point energy, cold fusion, perpetual motion machines. The perpetual motion machine has been a feature of Utopianism since Newton I guess. It’s science fiction shorthand, I think, for all of the above—an entropy reversing ray, another universe from which you can siphon off energy, whatever it is. You know, theoretically, fusion, if we ever get, fusion becomes more or less free energy. Not even cold fusion; moderate temperature fusion is more or less free energy forever, because it turns water into electricity.

W20: I think the feeling of the students who asked this question really had to do whether or not this was kind of like the short-circuiting you were talking about with regard to Whuffie; that you kind of skip over the post-scarcity engine that makes this thing work, and that without something like Free Energy (which may or may not actually be possible, probably not) we could never actually get to the Bitchun society because we’d constantly be falling back in to the scarcity wars, constantly falling back into exploitation.

CD: I don’t know that scarcity is necessarily what drives exploitation. I think abundance can drive exploitation too. The record industry certainly responded to a death of scarcity in its core product as a social evil. I don’t know that abundance is necessarily the necessary precondition.

But this is more like the physicist who sits down at the start of the Gedankenexperiment: let us assume a perfectly spherical cow of uniform density. Every Gedankenexperiment necessarily elides certain details, because that’s not what the experiment is about. The thought experiment is not about

how we would get infinite energy, the thought experiment is about what we would do if scarcity vanished. There’s a different thought experiment about how we could get infinite energy; Damon Knight wrote a book called A for Anything that’s very good about that. A very cynical book, I think, but very good. And so there’s a lot of different variations on that theme.

W20. Last question and then I’ll let you go. Thanks for doing this. This was about whether you want to live in the Bitchun Society personally: Would you deadhead, erase memories, flashbake, use backups? What wouldn’t you do? Basically the question is: is the Bitchun Society Cory Doctorow’s Utopia?

CD: I would definitely backup; I would probably flashbake; I don’t think I would deadhead though it’s hard to say what you’d do after 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 years. Nobody really knows the answer to that question. And I think that by and large the Bitchun Society would be better than the one we have now; I don’t know that it’s Utopia. But one of the advantages of the Bitchun Society as opposed to other Utopias is that it doesn’t require a tabula rasa as an interim step.

I think Utopianism has genocide lurking in its bowels; I think a lot of Utopians are saying, “First we eradicate all the systems that are present. We settle all the grievances, we wipe the slate clean, we level the earth, we pave everything, and then we start from go.” The Bitchun Society doesn’t require that at all; it does have a lot of social upheaval in it, but it doesn’t begin “First what we do is kill anyone who has a beef with anyone else in the Middle East, and then we settle up with whoever is left.” That’s a bad solution.

Course Descriptions for Fall 2015 (Yes, Already!)

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Course Number: 4610/5610
Course Title & Subtitle: Individual Authors: J.R.R. Tolkien
Course Description: This decade will see the hundredth anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien’s earliest writings on Middle-Earth (The Book of Lost Tales, begun in 1917) alongside the completion of Peter Jackson’s career-defining twenty-year project to adapt The Lord of the Rings for film (1995-2015). This course asks the question: Who is J.R.R. Tolkien, looking backward from the perspective of the twenty-first century? Why have his works, and the genre of heroic fantasy which he remade so completely in his image, remained so intensely popular, even as the world has transformed around them? Our study will primarily trace the history, development, and reception of Tolkien’s incredible magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings (written 1937-1949, published 1954-1955)—but we will also take up Tolkien’s contested place in the literary canon of the twentieth century, the uses and abuses of Tolkien in Jackson’s blockbuster films, and the ongoing critical interests and investments of Tolkien fandom today. As Tolkien scholars we will also have the privilege of drawing upon the remarkable J.R.R. Tolkien Collection at the Raynor Library here at Marquette, which contains the original manuscripts for The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Farmer Giles of Ham.
Major Readings: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and selected additional readings
Assignments: two shorter papers, one final paper, weekly forum posts, one presentation, class participation

 

Course Number: 6700
Course Title & Subtitle: Studies in Twentieth Century American Literature: American Literature after the American Century
Course Description: In 1941, Time Magazine publisher Henry Luce called upon the twentieth century to be “the first great American Century,” and it’s been ending ever since. This course takes up American literary and cultural studies from the post-everything standpoint of the “after.” What is it to study American literature today, after the American Century, after American exceptionalism, after modernity, after the university, after the idea of the future itself? Our shared investigation into contemporary critical and scholarly practices will focus on key controversies in twentieth- and twenty-first-century literary study, including the ongoing reevaluation of “the canon” (Lolita), popular culture studies (The Body Snatchers), identity and identity politics (Dawn), nationalism and transnationalism (Tropic of Orange), postmodernity and neoliberalism (the short stories of David Foster Wallace), and ecocriticism in the Anthropocene (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves). Our reading will also draw heavily on recent scholarship in critical theory, especially “the new American studies” and the emerging discipline of critical university studies. Alongside weekly reflections and enthusiastic class participation, students in this course will produce a 15-20 page seminar paper on a subject of their choosing related to the themes of the course, as well as present their work to their peers in a conference-presentation format and develop a sample syllabus for an undergraduate course in American literary or cultural studies.
Readings: Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita; Jack Finney, The Body Snatchers; Octavia E. Butler, Dawn; Karen Tei Yamashita, Tropic of Orange; Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves; the short stories of David Foster Wallace; selected additional readings
Assignments: weekly reflections, class participation, conference-style presentation, seminar paper (15-20 pages), sample syllabus

Let’s Just Start Over; Abolish the Constitution

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I went off on a bit of a tear this morning on Twitter and wanted to put it into a slightly more coherent form before I went about my day: my suggestion is that liberals, progressives, and liberal-leftists should look at the results of the last six years and conclude that there is simply no hope for significant reform within the existing constitutional order.

I’ve been saying this for years now, but here it is again: Obama swept into office at the head of a mass movement with a congressional supermajority during the worst crisis in 70 years, with the opposition party totally and absolutely discredited. That was the chance, the only chance, that the existing system had to reform, and he either blew it or betrayed it, however you come down on him. There’s no reason to think there will ever be another 2008 for the liberal-left. It’s over. The only hope now is a radical shift in the constitutional order, which can be achieved by calling for a new constitutional convention as prescribed within the existing constitution. It’s a legal move; it’s just never been tried.

Now, we know that the existing order is on course to destroy civilization within our lifetimes or the lifetimes of our children; we have to weigh any possible outcomes against that. But even bracketing climate change entirely, we have to understand that progressive and leftist economic policy can’t win within the existing order because it’s rigged for paralysis. A constitutional order with this level of malapportionment and this many chokepoints inevitably favors the political right. Even the best-case, most generous reading of Obama’s colossal failures demonstrates this to be true.

A new constitution would be a gamble, but it’s a gamble we take against a certainty of failure; recall that Clinton ’16, Clinton ’20, ClintonVP ’24 is the mainline Democrats’ most optimistic scenario, the one where they hit gold every time and never miss. And there’s good reason to think a new constitution literally couldn’t be worse than what we have now. A new constitution couldn’t get away with shortchanging CA and NY 14 senators, just for starters, much less any of the other crazy stuff that seems normal to us now; there’d be no way to justify it. Even a new constitutional convention that failed and saw the country break up into a loose confederation or into smaller states would be, on balance, an improvement for the world. With the experience of 2008-2014 — not to mention every other thing that’s happened in American politics on either the state or federal level for as long as I’ve been alive — it’s hard to see how a new system could possibly be worse for progressive hopes that the current system, which at this point we have to accept is guaranteed to always steamroll us.

A movement for a new constitution that took ten years to get off the ground would be catching fire at the end of Clinton’s second term, maybe; one that took fifteen years to get off the ground would hit just as whoever follows Clinton was taking office post-reelection. Do you honestly think politics in fifteen years will be better than it is now? Will the system be more just, more peaceful, more ecologically sustainable? Do you think we’ll be glad then that we stuck with the existing system, so Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo and Jay Nixon can save us?

In short my recommendation to the liberal-left and to progressives is to simply stop caring so much about whether Democrats win or lose and to devote themselves instead to advocating that we just start over, aligning with whatever savory and unsavory characters on the right we can get to sign on to the plan so that the convention happens and things at least have some chance to improve things before capitalism has fully and finally destroyed all hope for the future. At this point it’s not even really a gamble; there’s nothing left to lose, we’ve all already lost.

#teachthecontroversy #readyforHillary #despair #nihilism #breadsticks

If I Wrote It: The Harry Potter Sequel

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J. K. Rowling doesn’t need my advice, but if I were going to write the Harry Potter sequel she may or may not eventually be writing I would definitely focus it on the way her fans have developed the Houses into distinct and co-equal entities (as opposed to Protagonist House, Villain House, and Extra Houses). There are two plot hooks that I think would work well for this:

1. Harry’s kid gets sorted into Slytherin and has to figure out what that means for him;
2. The Wizarding World has finally wised up and outlawed Slytherin House altogether, turning it into something like a banned frat that’s moved underground.

Or some version of both at the same time.

J. K., you can send the checks directly to my office.

Written by gerrycanavan

October 8, 2014 at 10:50 am

Guiltpiercer

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I wanted to Storify my back-and-forth with my friend Aaron Bady (and a few other people, but mostly him) on the question of guilt and complicity in liberal politics, which was prompted by his Texas Stands With Gaza post and ultimately looped around, as all things must, to Snowpiercer.

Aaron is right that I’m using Snowpiercer (along with Pacific Rim, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and some other recent Anthropocene science fictions) in a piece of academic writing I’m working on, so I’ll hold off on doing a full reading of the film here for now. But I think the film actually figures this debate we’re having in a pretty direct way. The people on the train are all “guilty” and “complicit” with the Snowpiercer system, albeit in different ways and to different degrees; like any necropolitical survivor, they are all alive while/because someone else has died. Even on the level of character development, much of the movement of the film is directed towards making Chris Evans’s character Curtis feel as though he is worthy of great things despite the guilt he carries with him; characters frequently say this to him explicitly, even, most notably, the character he once tried to eat as a baby and who he later abandons in the name of the larger mission! In fact this guilt, in properly liberal terms, is indistinguishable from his worthiness to lead, with the final act of the film culminating in Curtis being offered the position of the Wizard of Snowpiercer. The Curtis plot in the film is more or less a familiar liberal drama about coming to terms with your own guilty complicity in the system, a process which as if by baptismal magic thereby makes you worthy to run the whole thing as if you’d never been guilty or complicit in the first place.

Aaron’s reading on the film insists that this is the only trajectory open to us, even as he repeatedly turns to Kang-ho Song’s Namgoong as the voice of alterity, rejecting his plan as nonviable. Namgoong knows the train is a horror and knows the train is doomed by its own entropic breakdown, rejects guilt or complicity as a frame, and instead works to blow open the doors and escape. (And this is the position Curtis ultimately settles into as well, having finally hit an encounter of guilt which he can’t autoredeem his way out of in the form of the children in the engine.) Here then we see one version of the Canavan position: guilt is a way of becoming re-trapped, linked back into the atrocity engine, while refusing to identify with the system and its terms opens up the horizon of the future. Neither Namgoong nor Curtis survive the derailment of the train (“there is hope, infinite hope, but not for us”), but their protégés do, and in the final shot of the film see a live polar bear moving outside the train, indicating that life of some kind persists outside the train and that therefore there is something like hope after all.

Now, Aaron rejects all of this — “it’s too cold out there! they have no skills or supplies! that polar bear will probably just eat them!” — and of course he’s right to do so on the level of cold realism; like most such apocalyptic scenarios, the situation is too far gone to allow any sort of genuine renewal. (I always think of the way the Matrix sequels had to confront this, ultimately having the heroic rebels make a truce with the monsters they were supposed to slay because the world is too far gone to actually free anyone anymore.) But this is where Aaron’s flattening of Jameson’s theory of utopia hurts him a bit — because the kernel of the Jamesonian reading of the film is not to imagine it as a practical alternative to the present so much as to figure the ongoing exist alternative in an era that, at every turn, loudly insists there isn’t one.

For it is the very principle of the radical break as such, its possibility, which is reinforced by the Utopian form, which insists that its radical difference is possible and that a break is necessary. The Utopian form itself is the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible, that there is no alternative to the system. But it asserts this by forcing us to think the break itself, and not by offering a more traditional picture of what things will be like after the break. (Archaeologies 232)

Snowpiercer, it seems to me, is pretty plainly about this effort of the imagination; neither the setup nor the climax is really amenable to any sort of realistic analysis about the practicalities of the situation. It’s preposterous from start to finish. The point of the film is to disrupt our guilty comfort and our comforting guilt about a system we all know is terrible (“those crooked fuckers”) but think we can’t oppose, only picket and sigh about and be more beautiful than (“oh, we guilty sinners, oh this fallen world”). So of course the film is an allegory after all; what it figures isn’t the actual situation of capitalism but the hopeless prospects for people who can’t see any way to stop the train, other than a crash, and who perhaps for that very reason have come to believe they’re the ones who are driving it.

Wes Anderson Movies Power Ranking 2014

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1. Rushmore (1998)
2. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
3. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
4. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
5. “Hotel Chevalier” & The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
7. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
8. Bottle Rocket (1996)

In general I would say that Anderson’s career seems to me to be divided between two clear periods: films about failed genius (Bottle Rocket through Darjeelingand about fairy-tale genius (Fantastic through Hotel.) That is: in the first period we find characters whose attempts to realize their creative potential are hamstrung by their inability to move past sadness, with the arc of the movie generally allowing them to expiate that sadness and move on (Max finds love and can write again; Royal’s children forgive him; Zissou grieves; the brothers literally abandon the baggage they’ve been carrying around the entire film). But the films of the second period, unlike the first, are dominated by characters who cannot lose: Mr. Fox is temporarily troubled but ultimately unflappable, always fantastic; Suzy and Sam are able to bend the unforgiving adult world to the service of their love; M. Gustave’s poise, control, and total mastery over social convention never fail him except in the face of maximum fascism in the moment of his heroic death. The all-pervading sadness of the first films persists in the fairy tale films, but only in the background, in the side characters who threaten to, but never quite, take over the main narrative: F. Murray Abraham’s adult Zero; The Bishops and Captain Sharp; Fox’s less-than-fantastic son. My gloss on Anderson’s recent “fairy tale” films is that they feel, generally, like the stories the characters from the “failed genius” period attempted, but failed, to craft about themselves. Moonrise Kingdom feels very strongly like one of Max’s or Margot’s plays; the story the Reader reads of the Author’s recounting of Zero’s telling of M. Gustave’s life feels like a cut from one of the films from the heroic era of Zissou Society, and is quite literally the lie Royal gets engraved on his tombstone: “Died tragically rescuing his [friend] from the wreckage of a [country sinking into fascism].” The ironic cruel-optimism gap between potential and reality that dominated the early films, that crucial space of failure, is strongly pushed off center stage in the later ones — and I think that’s why, while I love them all, I think the later ones are generally a bit worse.

But I wonder if The Grand Budapest Hotel won’t improve a bit, in my estimation, upon subsequent viewings; while a strong sense of entropic breakdown runs throughout the setting, especially in the subtle architectural sublime of the Budapest itself as it falls into ruin, the anti-climatic “shock” of the abrupt ending permanently hurls us out of the fairy tale back to a world structured by failure and loss. Unlike Fox and Moonrise, which never deviate from the inner logic of a children’s story, The Grand Budapest Hotel can really only be viewed that way once. When M. Gustave’s magic finally fails at the end of the film, as it always had to, the fairy tale dispells and only the elegy is left; we’re actually left at the end of Hotel in a world darker and sadder than any found in the earlier films, a world where we seem to have neither the compensations of art nor friendship, where grief never fades, where the intricately constructed dollhouse becomes instead a tomb.

From Our Family to Yours

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Merry Christmas.

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Written by gerrycanavan

December 24, 2013 at 9:22 pm

Bad Fans, Good Fans, and Some Quick Thoughts on ‘Breaking Bad’

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I gave a presentation this weekend at the Reception Studies Society conference on the figure of the “fan-villain”—what Emily Nussbaum in a widely circulated blog post at the New Yorker recently called the Bad Fan. The Bad Fan is that figure whose investment in the text is excessive, or inappropriate, or misplaced, who takes up the text in ways that go beyond or are counter to the idealized “Good Fan” of the author’s intentions, critical consensus, and/or common sense. What I was interested in at the conference were the ways texts and creators seek to talk back to the Bad Fan, most typically by including the Bad Fan within the text either through paraphrase, parody, or (most characteristically, I think) through personification as an actual character within the fictional universe—and further I was interested in this extent to which this talking back is typically quite hostile. But today I’m interested in the other side of that binary.

To back up: Breaking Bad fandom—as is common in the capital-Q Quality TV genre more generally—appears divided between critically sophisticated Good Fans who recognize the show’s nuanced, complicated, and quite emotionally fraught deconstruction of privilege through (again as with most Quality TV shows) its central protagonist, the White Male in Crisis, and the naïve, unsophisticated Bad Fans who take all this in entirely uncritically and who love the show precisely because they think “Walt Is A Badass.” Nussbaum’s recent writings have pointed to the show’s attempts to speak back to the Bad Fan, not simply in Anna Gunn / Skyler White’s recent op-ed in the New York Times decrying the sexism of this portion of the show’s fanbase, and not only through Walt’s bitter and ugly parodying of the #TeamWalt discourse in “Ozymandias,” but through the addition of the creepy sinister character of Todd, who idolizes Walt in a way that seems both increasingly familiar (as the marking of the Bad Fan) and increasingly horrifying.

As may already be evident, I think this imagined division between “Good Fans” and “Bad Fans” is simultaneously useful and potentially deeply misleading, as we can see from Internet insta-reactions to last night’s “FeLiNa,” the final episode of the series. Here we find the Good Fan feeling flattered and pandered to, particularly in the scene in which Walt “confesses” to Skyler that he ultimately become a druglord because he enjoyed it, because it made him feel alive. “Finally,” the Good Fan sighed, “Walt tells Skyler THE TRUTH!” But in fact this scene is almost directly parallel to the phone call scene, in which Walt the consummate schemer deploys partial truths and well-timed emotional outbursts in order to manipulate those around him. This is about controlling his legacy, about telling Skyler (and the Good Fans) a version of what she wants to hear so that she is (and we are) willing to go along with him on his redemption arc.

A point of critical consensus around “FeLiNa” is that it is characterized by a truly remarkable amount of catharsis and narrative closure, dotting every i and crossing every t. But that catharsis, I think, has to come undone the longer we think about the show; what isn’t being talked about much yet is the complexity and the falseness of the redemption narrative, precisely because both the Good Fans and the Bad Fans alike are happy to buy into it all. This cycle of gaslighting apology, followed by grand-gesture redemptive act, followed by an inevitable slide back to form, is part and parcel of how a person like Walter White abuses those around him; the events of “FeLiNa” only seems to offer narrative closure because this time events have conspired to finally kill Walt at the high moment of the abuse-apology cycle. (He knows his cancer is back, and/so he plans to commit suicide-by-Nazi or suicide-by-Jesse at the camp after achieving “redemption.”) In the spirit of Žižek’s reading of the emergency-exit “happy endings” of Titanic and Avatar, we might perversely imagine the version of the end of the series in which this doesn’t hold: Walt’s cancer has never returned, he does not catch a bullet in the massacre, he lives, and is thereby forced to continue to live in the world and take genuine, not fantasy, responsibility for his actions. How long does his turning over a new leaf last, without the miracle of certain death to propel him forward for a mere eighteen hours, give or take?

As Malcolm Harris succinctly put it in response to some of my tweets:

We can see the Heisenberg-Walt at work even in the moment of Skyler scene; “finally, THE TRUTH,” yes, but also a calculated attempt to set the conditions of her last memories of him in terms that are favorable to Walt. “In the end,” she may have thought, and many Internet commentators actually wrote, “the ‘real Walt’ came back.” And again, maybe, partially; but all the same the legacy money won’t go to her, and her life remains utterly destroyed. Meanwhile his final act is an intricate staging of his own death so that he will receive full credit both for killing the white supremacists and for cooking the blue meth, credit even for the “better than ever” batches he didn’t cook—to again set the terms of reality not in fidelity to truth or to what is best for other people but simply in accordance with the way he prefers things, which as always is having it both ways. Walt’s true chemical genius has always been in controlling the reactions of the people around him, in how easily he gets others (and us) to play along. We Good Fans turn out to be just as happy to be lied to, we just want a different sort of lie.

Written by gerrycanavan

September 30, 2013 at 12:11 pm

#NoSuperDads

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Written by gerrycanavan

April 26, 2013 at 8:55 pm