Week in Review 008

A busy week, from meeting Patton Oswalt and swapping reading recommendations to visiting the Bauhaus centennial exhibit at the Boston MFA.

Reading:

  • Broken Stars by Ken Liu, ed.
  • Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You by Scotto Moore.
  • European Identity and Citizenship: between Modernity and postmodernity by Sanja Ivic

Listening…

  • The Magnus Archives

Watching:

Movies:

  • Plaire, Aimer, et Courir Vite (2018)
  • Le Livre D’Image (2018)

TV Shows:

  • AP Bio
  • Russian Doll
  • The Marvelous Ms Maisel
  • Deadly Class

I’m exhausted. I can’t believe it’s been only a week, possibly because the last few days have felt like an entire week just by themselves.


On Saturday, I had the absolutely unparalleled good fortune to meet Patton Oswalt. He was in Providence to perform a comedy show at the Veterans Memorial Theater, and he graciously accepted our invitation to visit the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Council. I cannot thank him enough for taking the time to visit us, and it was such an absolute privilege to make his acquaintance in person.

We swapped reading recommendations. Mr. Oswalt suggested “WET PAIN” by Terence Taylor which can be found Whispers in the Night: Dark Dreams III co-edited by Tananarive Due and Brandon Massey. He said he learned of it from Ms. Due who, in addition to her work as an author and editor, executive produced Horror Noire: a history of Black horror (2019) which can be streamed online through Shudder. We discussed Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” briefly and so I recommended (as ever) Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom.


The latter half of my Friday was spent pleasantly with a friend in Boston. We visited the MFA to see the Bauhaus exhibit. There is also an exhibit of Bauhaus works up at the Harvard museum, which we will hopefully have the opportunity visit.

This year is the centennial of the founding of the Bauhaus School (1919). There are times I lament my passion for their particular modernist style, if only because it can seem conventional, bordering on the cliché. Nevertheless, the way Moholy-Nagy creates a sense of a three dimensional interaction and interrelation of objects in his abstract paintings will never cease to delight me. In one of the paintings of his they have on display, the transparency of the paint where two of his shapes overlap makes it seem—as my friend so eloquently phrased it—as if one were a fabric appliqué.

I was also quite taken with the Kandinsky pieces they had on display. It feels as though I shouldn’t have been surprised at how much white space his drawings contained, but I was. I could happily have spent all evening in front of his “Little World” pictures trying to figure out how he achieved such balance in an otherwise random-seeming distribution of elements.

Mostly, what I love about the Bauhaus is the way the work of these artists fills me with a sense of possibility. Every time I have the opportunity to steep myself in their abstract geometries, I can feel the edges of a new language pressing up against me. Movement and essence are made concrete, not something that can be pinned down, but something inherent which can be expressed with lines on a page.

(Other design movements which make me feel this way are Russian Constructivism and Punk/DIY collage.)


This week, I accidentally got into it on Twitter with the MAG fandom. Shockingly, 280 characters is not really enough space to adequately convey nuance and context. I found being accused by strangers on the internet of wanting to censor people or command moral authority to be extremely insulting.

I work in a front-facing position within a dedicated fan space, in a fandom defined by a serious controversy. My personal and professional experiences have lead me to believe that “fandom,” far from being a space insulated from disagreement and political and cultural debate, must be a place where people are able to engage critically with the mores, biases, personal and historical narratives, and other foundations and assumptions which are inherited from the original work or developed within the surrounding community.

I work at an organization dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft.

If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that sometimes the only thing you can say in response to another fan’s interpretation is, “I disagree strongly – possibly to the point of considering your position to be harmful – and this is why.” Because it is only in that moment where we are part of the same community – as fans – that we can have this discussion as people who share in something bigger than ourselves.

But I don’t wish to linger on this topic; it is exhausting, unproductive, and has already claimed too much of my time.


Ideally, I’ll have a little something up this week about Broken Stars, the second collection of contemporary Chinese SF translated and edited by Ken Liu. I adored Invisible Planets, which I cannot recommend strongly enough. (Upon finishing it, I immediately bought two copies to give as gifts, and pre-ordered Broken Stars. I have also leant out my copy of the first collection so that the people in my life can share in its wonders.) Go read both of them!

Week in Review 2019: 005-7

Read:

  • The Hounds of Tindalos. Frank Belknap Long.
  • The Crisis of Criticism. Maurice Berger, ed.
  • Introduction, Age of Lovecraft.
  • The Baffler: Issue 43. [partial]
  • “Intra-European Racism in Nineteenth-Century Anthropology,” History and Anthropology, Vol. 20, No. 1, March 2009, pp. 37–56. Gustav Jahoda.
  • Broken Stars. Ken Liu, ed. [started]

Watched:

  • An appalling quantity of Comedy Central’s “This is Not Happening” on Youtube.
  • Anime Crimes Division, seasons 1 & 2.
  • First 3 episodes of Hap & Leonard

SF44 : the Boston 24-hr Science-Fiction Film Marathon

  • Innerspace (1987)
  • Dr. Cyclops (1940)
  • Rollerball (1975)
  • Woman in the Moon (1929)
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
  • Annihilation (2018)
  • Sourcecode (2011) [partial]
  • Sunshine (2007)
  • Escape from New York (1981)

There were a few movies I slept through which I have not included in this list. For a full schedule, check out the Boston SciFi Film Fest forum. They have complete lists of all movies shown at the ‘Thon in a variety of configurations.

The stand-out films for me (and my coterie of Youths) were Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.

Despite its 3+ hr runtime, the Lang film was completely engrossing. The film was written by Thea von Harbou, who also wrote the screenplay for Metropolis. I was particularly impressed by the nuance of the romantic tensions in the film. While it is obvious that Friede (Gerda Maurus) is in love with Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch) she is nevertheless set on marrying Hanz Windegger (Gustav v. Wangenheim). The crux of these relationships is that Helius is deadset on protecting Friede at the expense of her desire to see the mission she has worked on through to the end. Hanz, meanwhile, is perfectly willing to support her choice to travel with the men to the moon.

Because I hope that some of you will have the chance to see the film for yourselves, I’ll not tell you how it all shakes out. But I will say that I was impressed by the characterizations and the choices made throughout. It is quite clear to me that Hollywood can only benefit from revisiting the silent era if they’re tired of being told they don’t know how to write convincing female characters.

Sunshine was completely different. Alex Garland successfully incorporated a similiar level of nuance in the interpersonal relationships throughout the film. Similarly, the film focuses on the intersection between the quest for scientific knowledge and the personal, individual desires of the people who have set out to accomplish an immense task.

It is difficult, now, to separate entirely what I was thinking at the time from the brief scroll through the movie’s Wikipedia page in the immediate aftermath. I know Danny Boyle wanted to present an apocalyptic narrative which could have the gravity of climate change without sharing any of its fundamental characteristics. I certainly believe he achieved that feat.

Sunshine focuses on the second manned mission to the sun, who are hoping to deliver a nuclear payload which will re-ignite the dying star and preserve human life on Earth. While they should be able to make the trip back, it is not guaranteed.

If you know anything about Alex Garland, then you know it is something less than possible that they will make it home.

I cannot help but compare Sunshine to the other Alex Garland film they showed, 2018’s Annihilation. Ultimately, I think Sunshine succeeds in evoking that ineffable quality which is present in the Jeff Vandermeer original, but which was lost in Garland’s translation of the story from book to screen. Both the 2007 film and Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy rely on a transcendental quality which Garland never manages to evoke in his adaptation of Annihilation.

Pervasive throughout Sunshine is the understanding that the mission at hand exceeds the comprehension of any of the individuals undertaking it. The combination of urgency and fixation–echoed in the combined life-giving and destructive powers of the Sun–overwhelm the crew. The action they are undertaking is the greatest thing that they will ever accomplish, literally an achievement which will overshadow not only anything else that they have ever accomplished or will accomplish, but argueably, greater than anything anyone has ever accomplished in the whole of human history up to that point.

Yet none of them can be said to exist as meaningful individuals, despite the singularity of the mission.

By collapsing the whole into the singular and the singular into the human totality, Garland and Boyle manage to produce an existential narrative which succesfully encompasses multiple registers of meaning ranging from the most fundamentally human to the most abstracted divine view of humanity.

It helps that both Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans are able to project both unlikeability and decency without forcing the audience to believe one supercedes the other.


This week is also the French Film Festival, here in Providence. So I’ve got a full week of new French movies to take in. I fully anticipate that my capacity to consistently produce one language at a time will have completely evaporated by the time March rolls around.

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/.

Week in Review 2019: 001 & 002

Read:

  • Dreams from the Witch House, female voices in Lovecraftian Horror. Lynne Jamneck, ed.
  • Buffalo Soldier. Maurice Broaddus.
  • Wasteland, the Great War and the origins of modern horror. W. Scott Poole.
  • People’s Republic of Everything. Nick Mamatas.
  • Isherwood on Writing. Christopher Isherwood.
  • Neonomicon. Alan Moore.
  • Walking Awake“. N. K. Jemisin.
  • “The Medusa” and “Conversations in a Dead Language”. Thomas Ligotti.
  • Conan and the Little People: Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft’s Theory. Bobby Derie.

Watched:

Movies

  • Aquaman (2018)
  • Hereditary (2018)
  • Empire Records (1995)
  • Dumplin’
  • The Fundamentals of Caring
  • [Partial] Lovesong
  • [Partial] You Might Be the Killer

TV Shows

  • The Orville
  • Bull
  • Brooklyn 99
  • The Good Place
  • Deadly Class
  • Black Books
  • Red Oaks
  • Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (2010)

The article by Bobby Derie left me with more questions than answers, mainly: what exactly did Victorian anthopologists think was happening in pre-historic Europe? I have yet to fully understand what Margaret Alice Murray means when she speaks of a “dwarf race which once inhabited Northern and Western Europe” in her book The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921).

I wonder which aspects of our own scientific presumptions will seem equally as arcane to future generations.

While the article is an excellent survey of the ways in which scientific racism influenced Lovecraft in his view of the world, it was lacking a strong critical voice. Given the present moment, it continues to feel irresponsible to repeat the racist and/or unsubstantiated claims of any past or current thinker without any recognition of its defects. (This was something Poole does very effectively and correctly in Wasteland, which I especially appreciated about the book.)


I have a lot of thoughts about how Aquaman, despite its critique of Lovecraft’s racist attitudes nevertheless bought in to and propagated a number of racial themes which comprise the subtle aspects of Lovecraft’s racism.

But they need a little more time to percolate.


Without getting into all of it, The People’s Republic of Everything was absolutely amazing. The novella Under My Roof which finishes the collection is a hilarious and incisive look at the nature and meaning of borders, nationalism, and citizenship.

It seemed hilariously a propos that I should find the following quote from Isherwood after finishing Mamatas’ book:

…this psycho-nuclear revolution, the invention of the atomic devices, has rendered their nationalism obsolete.

Christopher Isherwood, Isherwood on Writing. 151.

On the topic of nationalisms, I particularly enjoyed the view of an alternate North America as presented in Buffalo Soldier. I struggled with some of the action scenes in the book – my inner eye seems to like action sequences as much as my outer eyes do… Which is to say, “Not much.” But the chance to visit a North America that could have been, one where Western expansion is halted, and where the First Nations have a chance for self-determination was beautiful and heartbreaking.


I don’t want to linger on the topic as most of what I needed to say about sexual assault and Neonomicon has already been said on Twitter. But I had one interesting revelation, nonetheless.

One of the reasons I find the narrative turn from a supernatural, existential horror to the comparatively mundane horror of sexual assault so disappointing is that it is a horror which does not require aliens or time travel or a complete paradigm shift. It is merely someone opening the box of Shroedinger’s ego-death (as effected by a denial of personhood) to reveal what femme individuals have always known: Our sujectivity and agency never mattered, at all. It is not an apotheosis, but an inevitability.


Pulled from the draft pages:

The impossible will always be able to recognize itself. All monsters are kin.

06 JAN 2019

2016.12.12 : the struggle of waking destroys the dreamer

Wasn’t the world supposed to end on this date four years ago?

It feels like maybe it was working on it, and we weren’t paying attention.


There’s snow on the ground and rain falling from the sky and winter is making its way across New England and I was less prepared for it than I expected. I’ve lived them all my life, but every year for the last six or so, they’ve felt less and less like home. 

I have a lot of things I want to say, and another desire, equal to or greater than the one to speak, to stay quiet and let the day roll by without any comment. It’s surprisingly exhausting to find yourself with nothing to do.


A friend, my father, and I finished HBO’s Westworld last night. I’ve had a bit of Dolores’ monologue drifting through my head all morning:

“You will be put in the ground with the rest of your kind. Your bones will turn to sand, and on that sand a new god will walk.”

The show is a great meditation on consciousness and humanity and what it is that ties those two things together, all the existential and humanist philosophy you could desire. But at its heart, it is telling us that which we already know:

All children outlive their parents. All children await their progenitors’ elimination, because they know that the world was meant for them. Every parent knows this, and fears their eventual obsolescence. 

I’ve said it before, of people a generation or two my elders, when we reach a political impasse. 

You can tell me that I’m wrong, but I am young, and someday, you will die, and I will still live, and the world will belong to me, and not to you. 

I cannot decide how that makes me feel in this exact moment. Everything feels uncertain; all the things I took for granted seem to be more changeable than I believed. 


My mind turns to other cinematic literature, on politics and man. We are living in a moment of revolution, uncertainty is at an all time high, and in the battle against precarity it seems that more and more people are willing to accept that the ends justify the means. 

And Castro’s death should remind us that there is a deal one never makes with the revolutionaries that one really ought to. 

Those who fight the battle to make the world new again, have no place in the world they’ve created. 

The Operative: I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: So me and mine gotta lay down and die… so you can live in your better world?
The Operative: I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there… any more than there is for you. Malcolm… I’m a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.

––Serenity (2005)

Or the beautiful moment at the end of Snowpiercer (2013) when Chris Evans’ character reaches the front of the train and faces the reality of the system, of what he has lost fighting for something that might not even exist and for a moment, a long beautiful moment, you think he might really choose to let the system reign after all. 


The thing that the children awaiting the deaths of their forefathers don’t know and the thing all good revolutionaries realize, is that we don’t fight to better the world for ourselves. We fight to build a world in which our children will not have to fight the battles we have fought, and in which, perhaps, their battles will be fewer and less costly. 

What we pay for in blood, we can never truly enjoy. Our victories are something that can only ever be meant as a gift. Because the people we become in fighting them, are not to people we were when we began. We can only hope that someone will remember the dreams of the children we once were and will grow into the space we carved for ourselves, in which we can no longer fit.