Degeneration, Aquaman redux

That's a bold strategy cotton gif from Dodgeball

I figure blogs are also the place to put all the darlings you had to kill in the process of writing—you know—real people stuff. So here is an entire section about human evolution that had to get cut from my post about the role of genetic determinism in Aquaman.


Obviously, the DCU is not contingent on reality. A comparative timeline nevertheless provides insight into the implications of the biological and evolutionary logic the films employ.

Please understand that both “But it’s not real” and “Zeus did it” are considered acceptable explanations of the events and outcomes in the DCU.

This is not intended to be a critique of the accuracy—historical or otherwise—of the DCU.

That the Atlanteans were able to turn into crab people and fish people and, simultaneously, that descendants who retained a more humanoid form were nevertheless able to procreate with H. Sapiens will remain firmly outside the purview of this piece. That would clearly constitute a foolish and unnecessary attempt to apply the limits of scientific knowledge to a work of fantasy. The use of historical and anthropological evidence is, of course, perfectly sensible under these circumstances.

The “First Invasion of Earth” which united Mankind, the Atlanteans, and the Amazons supposedly took place 30,000 years before 2018. (“Invasion of Earth”) That would have been nearly 20,000 years before the emergence of agriculture, and about the same time that H. Sapiens arrived in the Americas. (“Homo Sapiens” “Map of Human Migration”) Quite literally, this puts that original event closer to the epoch where Europe was a Cro-Magnon stomping ground than it would to the emergence of Ancient Egyptian civilization (about 5,000 years ago), which predates Ancient Greece by 2,000 years.

Atlantis is supposed to have fallen into the ocean sometime after that initial conflict, presumably within a few thousand years (at the outside). That would give the various Atlantean kingdoms less than 30,000 years to evolve into distinct species. By contrast, H. Sapiens is believed to have been in Australia as many as 60,000 years ago. (“Map”) Aboriginal Australians are, obviously, hominids of the same species as every other member of H. Sapiens, including the British settlers who colonized their territories less than 500 years ago.

It is unknown whether the kingdoms of Atlantis incorporated technological innovations such as gene editing to enable their “evolution” into different species, but it remains unlikely that they achieved such a level of morphological differentiation and presumed speciation presented in the films in the 30,000 years between the fall of Atlantis and the modern day through natural selection.

Bibliography:

Aquaman. Directed by James Wan. United States: Warner Bros., 2018. Film.

“Atlantis.” DC Extended Universe Wiki. Accessed February 20, 2019. https://dcextendeduniverse.fandom.com/wiki/Atlantis.

“Homo Sapiens | Meaning & Stages of Human Evolution.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 20, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Homo-sapiens.

“Invasion of Earth | DC Extended Universe Wiki | FANDOM Powered by Wikia.” Accessed February 20, 2019. https://dcextendeduniverse.fandom.com/wiki/Invasion_of_Earth.

“Map of Human Migration.” Genographic Project (blog). Accessed February 20, 2019. https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/human-journey/.

Lurking Degeneracy: Aquaman’s Lovecraftian evolutionary theory

Even as Aquaman rejects notions of racial purity and as it celebrates the possibilities inherent in hybridity and change, it still falls back on narratives of genetic determinacy and degeneracy. These ideas are inextricably linked to the eugenic epistemology which defines the supremacism the film is trying to critique.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Aquaman is undeniably a story where hybridity and inclusivity triumph, as both personal characteristics and philosophical approaches to life. This celebration of mixed bloodlines has been hailed as a revocation of the racist ideologies embedded in much of its pulp inspiration, such as the work of H.P. Lovecraft.

While Lovecraft would certainly have been distressed by the moral of Aquaman (as by the teratophilic romance in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water), there is more of the racism associated with the author embedded in the film than is immediately apparent. Lovecraft’s stories utilize – to borrow the term from Brooks E. Hefner – a “eugenic epistemology,” a racist view which holds “that knowledge about character and identity can be gained through the description and taxonomic indexing of bodies.” (652) Or, in other words, that appearance is indicative of an individual’s personal qualities. Even as Aquaman rejects notions of racial purity and as it celebrates the possibilities inherent in hybridity and change, it still falls back on narratives of genetic determinacy and degeneracy. These ideas are inextricably linked to the eugenic epistemology which defines the supremacism the film is trying to critique.

Understanding the racial politics of Aquaman requires a simultaneous acceptance of the biological narrative established within the world of the film and a critical view of the creative decisions which resulted in that reality. First, there is the film’s propagation of a narrative of evolutionary “progress” by willingly classifying the outcomes of natural selection as a degenerate and regressive.

Second, it is necessary to explore the way the film’s assumptions interact with historical reality, with special attention to the audience’s credulity when presented with a narrative which explicitly uses visual cues—as well as narrative ones—conveying degeneracy and hierarchical taxonomy.

Does evolution make mistakes?

The biological reality in Aquaman is aggressively segregated. Each of the undersea kingdoms of Atlantis is patterned on a drastically different body type, conveying a long evolutionary history of isolation and dramatic speciation. By providing an explanation for the various kingdoms which relies on an evolutionary process, the film implicitly posits that a formerly unified humanoid species (seen briefly in a flashback) with minor variation in gene expression at a surface level (variations in skin tone, eye color, hair color and texture, etc.) would evolve into sexually incompatible species exhibiting massive morphological differences in the course of mere tens of thousands of years. In so doing, Aquaman is unconsciously reinforcing the idea that “race” is a prelude to speciation, an idea which is in no way reflected in the biological record.

Each kingdom that evolved out of the original Atlantis is established as having developed from a sentient, humanoid species into distinct sentient species possessing of differences in culture, political ideology, and physical traits. Their morphological distinctions are seen as correlating with their social development, for example, the crab-like Brine – renown for their prowess in physical conflict – are possessing of powerful bodies and hard carapaces (the better to fight you with, presumably). While, the kingdom of the Fishermen are delicate, polychromatic merpeople noted for being a non-violent, intellectually and artistically motivated society.  The hand-wave-y evolutionary explanation postulates some form of environmental natural selection was involved in the speciation of the different kingdoms.

Taken without its pseudo-scientific evolutionary history, those choices would have remained ambiguous in their allegorical potential. But the inclusion of that history and the decision to characterize the mysterious Kingdom of the Trench as a primitive, evolutionary regression unfortunately cleave closer to the racist semiotics of the pulp era, ultimately undermining the film’s attempt at deconstructing supremacist ideology.

The manifestation of an “animalistic,” “primitive” degeneracy through genetic contamination or evolutionary error is rampant throughout Lovecraft. It is, arguably, the defining feature of Lovecraft’s racial anxieties, encompassing religious, class, and ethnic groups whom he considered inferior. Lovecraft explicitly invokes a eugenicist, genetic determinist vocabulary when describing rural whites in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” and “The Lurking Fear:”

…a primitive colonial peasant stock whose isolation for nearly three centuries in the hilly fastnesses of a little-travelled countryside has caused them to sink to a kind of barbaric degeneracy, rather than advance with their more fortunately placed brethren of the thickly settled districts.
(“Beyond the Wall of Sleep” 28)

Simple animals they were, gently descending the evolutionary scale because of their unfortunate ancestry and stultifying isolation.
(“The Lurking Fear” 285)

Embedded within the ideas of de-evolution and degeneracy is the belief that there is such a thing as evolutionary “error.” This normative, teleological understanding of evolution is a direct continuation of the eugenicist view that social and cultural variance and adherence to Western standards of “development” reflect not only immutable, fundamental differences between groups, but also indicate different stages along the evolutionary path towards a perfected biological organism.

Given that natural selection operates on a non-normative principle of survival, it is illogical to argue that a species which is well-suited to its environment is a product of de-evolution. The Kingdom of the Trench evolved within an environment of limited natural resources. They are swift to respond to new presences in their environment, do not appear to have any defined settlements, and they are able to communicate between themselves insofar as they act as a group.

Unfortunately, given the tendency toward anthropocentrism and specifically to the prioritization of the cognitive and social characteristics which are considered to evidence “sentience,” the Kingdom of the Trench is subjected to evaluation using a set of standards which, in addition to continually being updated, are impossible to ascertain from the evidence presented in the film itself.

For example, the ability to communicate abstract knowledge between individuals is one of the qualities which is considered proof of a high degree of sentience. There is no evidence of audible language in the few scenes where actual denizens of the Trench are present. They are capable of coordinated responses, however, which implies at least the level of sophistication present in social insects (bees, ants, and termites). The possibility of non-verbal communication, through metaphysical or mundane means, is never addressed. It is possible that they have some method of communication equivalent to sign language (which emerges organically in communities with significant rates of congenital deafness just as spoken language does in communities dominated by hearing individuals). And, given that Aquaman, includes a giant telepathic sea monster, the possibility of telepathic communication between individuals of the Kingdom of the Trench cannot be discounted.

Not intended as a full-scale re-interpretation of the Aquaman cinematic canon, these questions are intended to encourage a critical response to the paucity of information provided by the characters and, therefore, the audience. Even the hybrid champion of the narrative is unable to eschew the rampant hierarchical taxonomy which dominates Atlantean culture. The relative “inhumanity” of the Kingdom of the Trench is accepted at face value and its people are dealt with accordingly; they are invaded and slaughtered in the name of personal and political expediency.

Looking for ourselves

The reduction of an entire branch of Atlantean evolution to an undifferentiated, expendable Other is part and parcel of a eugenic semiotics which strips groups of their potential as subjects and, simultaneously, relieves the audience of any moral or emotional responsibility to them.

It is imperative to recognize the way that physiognomic indicators (the lack of humanoid features, the absence of spoken language, inclusion of claws and teeth, etc.) are still used in fantasy media to demarcate the “human” (or “analogously human”) from the “in-human” and “non-human.”

Acceptance by authors and audiences of this sort of physiognomic shorthand is an implicit acceptance of the eugenic epistemology employed by Lovecraft and others who shared his limitations. It actively transforms bodies into texts which can be perused for information about the emotional and intellectual capacities of other beings and propagates the idea that it is possible to intuit the presence of subjectivity by observing an entity’s physical form. In addition to the racist underpinnings of this logic, it closes the door on the possibilities—narrative and philosophical—provided by intelligences or beings which fail to conform to categories with which we are already comfortable.

Human history is a litany of failure to recognize subjectivity. Inclusion and exclusion from “the human” has been the primary method of instituting power relations and enacting political and social subjugation. Consider the way Black people were reduced to chattel under American slavery, the belief that women are dominated by their biological functions (and thereby cognitively and emotionally deficient), or the assertion that life begins at conception, and it is possible to see how, in defining what constitutes a “human being,” we have determined not only which people are allowed to engage in self-determination, but which entities are entitled to consideration and empathy.

Lovecraft failed to appreciate that the human experience is multifarious, and that variety in ways of life in no way diminishes the humanity of those who live it. He could more easily imagine vast unknown and unknowable alien intelligences capable of dwarfing mankind in their considerations, than he could imagine that working class immigrants might contribute intellectually and culturally to the human experience. Continuing the Lovecraftian tradition which can imagine previously unknown sentience and intelligence existing only at a scale greater than humanity’s would be a mistake. We should be able to imagine that such unexplored ways of being exist on Earth concurrent with humanity, not only as intrusions from beyond the stars.

Ultimately, by endowing a comprehensible—if unknowable—consciousness to the Cthulhoid horror at the bottom of the trench and banishing an entire branch of the Atlantean evolutionary line to mute unrecognizable collectivism, Aquaman may have become truly Lovecraftian.


Bibliography:

Brooks E. Hefner. “Weird Investigations and Nativist Semiotics in H.P. Lovecraft and Dashiell Hammett.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 60, no. 4 (2014): 651-676. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed January 23, 2019).

Aquaman. Directed by James Wan. United States: Warner Bros., 2018. Film.

Lovecraft, H.P. “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” In The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Ruth Tillman, 28–40. CthulhuChick.com, 2011. http://arkhamarchivist.com/free-complete-lovecraft-ebook-nook-kindle/.

Lovecraft, H.P. “The Lurking Fear.” In The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Ruth Tillman, 277–301. CthulhuChick.com, 2011. http://arkhamarchivist.com/free-complete-lovecraft-ebook-nook-kindle/.

HUMAN VOICES, an in-depth review of Dreams from the Witch House

Cover and Illustrations by Danielle Serra

Dreams from the Witch House edited by Lynne Jamneck is a gorgeous book.

It’s a larger than usual format—25.5 cm by 17.8 cm—soft cover, with beautiful full bleed, color illustrations by Danielle Serra. With a smooth, matte cover and generous layout, it feels good in the hands and easy on the eyes.

“There are black zones of shadow close to our daily paths, and now and then some evil soul breaks a passage through. When that happens, the man who knows much strike before reckoning the consequences.”

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”

In her introduction to the collection, Lynne Jamneck muses on the fragility of male sanity, particularly in Lovecraft’s own work, and the willingness present in the feminine experience to encompass unknown and unimaginable possibilities.

She lightly admonishes the puritanical impulse in some corners of Lovecraftianism, a reminder that the genre is dedicated to exploring the far reaches of all possible universes. This is a task which demands the greatest possible plurality of voices, a mere fraction of which she has gathered here.

Jamneck opens the collection with a restrained and dreamy historical piece, “Shadows of the Evening” by Joyce Carol Oates, which sees a young woman travel from her German-Hungarian neighborhood in upstate New York to the home of an aged aunt in Massachusetts. Its Lovecraftian elements come through in the setting and the manner in which the young, innocent protagonist is drawn in by some force far beyond her ability to understand, only in part because she has literally left her known world behind. The style is exquisitely crafted, harkening back to the language of a by-gone age, melding an early-20th century style with something older still.

Oates cleverly builds tension throughout the story by compressing time and allowing the future to project itself into the narrative of the past. The reader knows that the young woman will live to be quite old and that she will get married and have a family, which creates anticipation as the audience – aware they are reading a horror story – is rushing ahead of the story to figure out where and what will go wrong. The answer, of course, is almost impossible to describe.


The globe spins. In the next story, the reader finds themselves in an untamed wilderness during the early days of white settler incursion into New Zealand. Tamsyn Muir’s “The Woman in the Hill” is an epistolary story in the form of one letter and a single footnote. It lingers on the terror of wandering out into the hills only to encounter something too old to even recognize. It draws on the primal fear of the wilderness, how it has always been able to close around people and make them disappear, while also asking, “What comes back?”

The story poses an implicit question about the dangers of curiosity and empathy as the land – far more ancient and dangerous than anything else the settlers have encountered – makes its victims into accomplices, consuming them, spirit and flesh, until even their attempts to save the people they care become acts of complicity.


Cat Hellisen’s story “The Face of Jarry” will…

Ridiculously Terrifying: Kevin Smith’s Tusk

Imagine the serial killer logic of Criminal Minds, the inventive and perverse body horror of The Human Centipede, and the wacky, irreverent – yet nonetheless emotional – hijinks of 90s slacker cinema, each taken to their logical extremity simultaneously.
You might then, for the briefest of moments, catch a glimpse of the feverish nightmare that is Tusk.

The trailer for the Kevin Smith’s 2014 film Tusk is as ambiguous as the film itself. For two and a half minutes, it is impossible to tell if you are watching a trailer for a comedy movie, a shlock horror flick, or something somewhere in between – a loving, though no less mocking, send up of the horror genre of the sort which were the rage in the first half of the 2010s.

The basic set-up has a young, hot-shot podcaster going to Canada to interview a well-traveled old man, only to be drugged and abducted by his prospective interviewee who plans to transform him into a walrus. (That’s right.)

Obviously, the events of the film defy all logic – be it scientific, medical, or rhetorical – but they are executed with such unflinching dedication and apparent sincerity so as to demand the audience suspend their disbelief and meet the movie on its terms.

Justin Long is deeply hateable as Wallace Bryton, host of a successful humiliation comedy podcast with the puerile, though provocative, name: “The Not-See Party.” At the risk of attributing meaning where none was intended, Long’s performance may succeed thanks to the implicit moral law: only a complete asshole could find himself in such a situation.

Genesis Rodriguez plays Ally Leon, Bryton’s longtime girlfriend. Rodriguez is the true star and emotional core of this film, without her tender and engaging performance the movie would have devolved beyond its barely manageable absurdity into pure farce.

Haley Joel Osment carefully navigates the divided loyalties familiar to anyone with a best friend completely outclassed by their better half. Osment’s Teddy Craft struggles to balance his involvement with Wallace’s podcasting fame fueled antics and his recognition of increasingly unattractive qualities his friend has developed as a result of success. Osment manages the convoluted emotions demanded of his character with grace and a persuasive friendliness.

Meanwhile, Michael Parks and Johnny Depp (almost entirely unrecognizable under a terrible wig, false nose, and exaggerated not-quite-Quebecois accent) compete for the distinction of most bizarre and unsettling performance.

Parks projects an unsettling menace without ever appearing physically threatening. The psychosis he reveals with every wild-eyed pronouncement is a performance wasted on his would-be interviewer. Long’s Wallace is dedicatedly vacuous and self-involved, ensuring that each scene he shares with Parks incites a piteous horror of the sort usually reserved for small, stupid animals. Parks unflinchingly executes a performance which demands everything from waxing poetic about an animal otherwise banished to satiric 19th century poetry (familiar from another Kevin Smith film, Dogma) to deranged vocalizations and low brow caricature.

Depp’s Guy Lapointe is a washed-up Inspector Clouseau, beaten down by the world and haunted by his past failures, keeping all of the exaggerated ridiculousness of a Peter Sellers’ character and adding an incongruous sense of grief and world-weariness.

Were Depp’s character the beaten down, veteran gumshoe in any other film, he would certainly drink too much. Instead, Smith writes in the fast food diner equivalent of the raw egg hangover cure routine, leaving the desperate protagonists to lay their plight in the dubious – and, in this case, greasy – hands of the only man willing to take them on.

When Parks and Depp share the screen, scenes that would have, at best, been satires of stereotype, become distressingly unsettling and perverse, suffused with a menace that originates as much in the distorted portrayals as it does in the narrative context.

The special effects have that rubbery quality particular to practical effect, yet are no less unsettling or horrific for it. Give the propensity for gory realism and smooth CGI in so much of contemporary cinema, the return to silicone and painted foam exacerbates the conflicting impulses present throughout the film. They are patently ridiculous and heighten the un-reality of the mechanics of the plot, simultaneously, however, they have the inescapable materiality of something that exists.

Smith’s filmmaking is impeccable. He wields the misdirection of the frame and the editing suite to maximum effect, especially in the scenes which delve into the unexpectedly complex relationship ensnaring Wallace, Ally, and Teddy. The film establishes a pattern of flashbacks early on, lulling the audience into a sense of security. The slow unfolding of a dreamy, already unreachable, sun-dappled status quo illustrates the depths of Wallace’s douchebaggery, while demonstrating the genuine affection – rooted in what little remains of the young man she fell in love with – which ties Ally to this undeserving cretin.

Imagine the serial killer logic of Criminal Minds, the inventive and perverse body horror of The Human Centipede, and the wacky, irreverent – yet nonetheless emotional – hijinks of 90s slacker cinema, each taken to their logical extremity simultaneously.
You might then, for the briefest of moments, catch a glimpse of the feverish nightmare that is Tusk.

The commitment to seeing the film through without giving in to the nudge-nudge-wink-wink of irony is quite possibly the thing which makes it surpass all other recent horror films in terms of absolute perversity. It has none of the ironic trope inversions which made Tucker and Dale vs. Evil or Cabin in the Woods so delightful. Instead it operates with the white-knuckled sincerity of a horror film unselfconscious of genre.

Somehow, regardless of the way it should absolutely be a bad joke, Smith never breaks the tension, keeping the audience captive (quite possibly against their will and their better judgement) up until the very end. The audience is left dangling over the abyss, uncertain if the soft cushion of a punchline awaits them at the bottom. Without ever telegraphing whether the story will end on a laugh or a piteous cry, Kevin Smith has brought the metahorror of cognitive dissonance to its apotheosis. The film traps the audience in that moment where they are uncertain whether or not they should laugh.

After all, a joke without a punchline is a horror story.

 

Content Warnings: mutilation, suicide, kidnapping, infidelity, crass language, douchebaggery.

2018.04.19 : In defense of Cynicism

The opposite of optimism is pessimism; the belief that everything will go wrong, all attempts will end in failure, and happy endings are impossible. This is the diametric opposition of the optimist, who believes that things will be okay, things will work out, and happy endings are always possible.

I am not a pessimist.

Two weeks ago (maybe more, maybe less) a friend and I sat down and started discussing philosophy.

I struggle to get along with optimists. Not to denigrate or dismiss them, because I think it’s beautiful to be able to believe in the best possible outcome. It is simply not something I am always able to entertain or understand. For me, optimism takes work.

The opposite of optimism is pessimism; the belief that everything will go wrong, all attempts will end in failure, and happy endings are impossible. This is the diametric opposition of the optimist, who believes that things will be okay, things will work out, and happy endings are always possible.

I am not a pessimist.

I consider myself a cynic. What does that mean exactly? It can’t be the same as pessimism, despite the fact that the words are often used interchangeably. Why does cynicism feel apt, where pessimism is grating?

The cynic, in my mind, is one who is ever hopeful, someone who dreams of happy endings, who wants things to work out. But. (And there is always a “but” with the cynic, it’s true.) Despite all that wanting, despite the dreaming, they’ve been frustrated too many times to believe that things will work out. The cynic reads the paper in the morning and weeps, because every morning they hope that the news will not be a litany of tragedies (though they know, every morning, when their feet touch the floor, that they should expect something terrible).

The cynic has taken a bad bet. Because the cynic will bet on the underdog, the new-comer, the good man knowing that they will lose. This is where the cynic and the pessimist differ; the pessimist has no desire to be surprised. The cynic is ever hopeful that this time, things will be different (despite knowing the odds).

So who is the opposite of the cynic? It is not the optimist, for they are static, just the same as the pessimist; they both look down the long uncertain road ahead, and see the light at the end, one sees sunlight, the other the on-coming train. The cynic is waiting, hoping for sunlight, and expecting the train. Who sits with them in that uncertainty?

My friend said, “Faith.” And she was correct.

Faith is that which sustains people in times of uncertainty. Faith is not optimism; it doesn’t promise that everything will work out for the best. Faith is an abiding belief in the future, that when the road is long and dark, something warm and safe awaits at the end of the road. Faith never promises a journey absent of strife, danger, and suffering. Faith promises that one can always take another step; look how far you’ve come.

The cynic and the faithful sit together in the dark, they know the odds. They know that the road is long and dark, and they both hope for the best. The difference is that the faithful knows the strength of hope. They know that hope is capable of sustaining someone, so long as you are a true believer.

The cynic, by contrast, is not quite strong enough. The cynic knows what hope tastes like, but doesn’t know how to make it grow, does not know how to harvest it, how to bake it into what they eat.

On days when I have to attempt great works, I sometimes wish I could have the strength of the faithful. There is a certainty to faith, to optimism, to pessimism that can seem enviable.

On every other day, I welcome the spark of doubt that lives within my cynicism. It is a balancing act, a middle path. The cynic can dream of heaven and keep their feet on the ground. One must be able to see clearly to know what is broken and one must have tasted hope to know what is possible.

Without cynicism, I would not be able to do the things I dream of doing. Cynicism is both that which arms to me examine how we have failed as a people, as a species, and where we have done wrong, it is the expectation of being beaten down, of being lied to, of finding victims and perpetrators. But it is also cynicism that makes me believe that we can do better, that we can improve, that we can apologize and heal.

I’m not sure I recommend it. The cynic is always expecting disappointment and, unlike the pessimist, they are not ready to accept it. But it’s a fighting spirit; still hoping for the best, despite their expectations.