Yes, you have to use the same rules for everyone (Monsters vs Modernism)

Seriously, I’m both saddened and genuinely perturbed by people who feel capable and justified in casting out monsters, most especially Adam AKA Frankenstein’s Creature. While the Creature’s actions may be contemptible, his plea to be recognized as worthy of human compassion is so convincingly stated.

We must register, here, the contradiction at the heart of all debate on this issue: if we believe literature to be meaningful, we must recognize the power of language and both emotive and rational argumentation. Simultaneously, there are those who would deny the right of any intelligent entity to justify its own existence or advocate for its recognition as human. After all, it could all be a ploy. Each person must decide which of the two arguments they believe and then, one hopes, follow that logic through to its conclusion. Either words are powerful vectors of meaning and can convey an otherwise imperceptible truth regarding the inner qualities of a given entity’s experience of itself, OR any thing which advocates for itself must be treated with suspicion as a result of the possibility that it could be lying (people included).

I can tell you which option I prefer, but ultimately, nothing I say is likely to convince you, so I’ll leave it at that.

In the case of Adam, I am inclined to point to his reprehensible behavior as evidence of his humanity. He ultimately chooses to express himself in the manner with which he has been made most familiar by those around him; a destructive rage which seeks to balance the scales of justice which he sees as having been so cruelly stacked against him.

This particular rhetorical turn leads us to another point of insoluble contention.

Those who register a fundamental difference between Victor and his Creature are prone to the following logical proofs[1]:

Victor = Man
Man ≠ God
∴ Victor ≠ God

Creature = Unnatural
Unnatural = Monstrous
∴ Creature = Monstrous

Simultaneously, they believe that these are static, immutable categories. Victor is not God, so he cannot create life absent of the usual process of human conception and gestation. The fact that he brought the Creature to life (loosely speaking) does not transform him into a god. Ergo, regardless of any action he takes, he remains a man.

Meanwhile, the Creature is burdened with its own immutable, non-human nature. There is nothing the Creature can do or say to alter its status as “monstrous”.

Given my personal thesis of the Creature’s fundamental right to compassion, I can choose to approach these arguments in a few different ways. First of all, this presupposes two very important ideas. It assumes that “Human” and “Monstrous” are mutually exclusive categories, yet it fails to follow one potential outcome of that very supposition. Namely:

Victor = Man
Man ≠ God
∴ Victor ≠ God

BUT if God is the only self-contained creative force, AND Victor created life w/o help, THEN – perhaps –
Victor ≠ Natural
Natural is oppositional to Unnatural
∴ Victor = Monstrous

Creature = Unnatural
Unnatural = Monstrous
∴ Creature = Monstrous

This particular line of reasoning can result in the possibility of being both Monstrous and Man without requiring that the terms being interchangeable.

We hit the end of the road when we realize that the question has become ‘What is the definition of “Man”?’

As we can see, it also requires us to deny the possibility that action has any transformative or generative capacity. By relying on the assumption that Victor is a priori excluded from the creation of life without a partner, then anything Victor creates which walks and talks and may show all the usual symptoms of “life” must not actually be alive. Hence the Adam’s designation as “unnatural” and his classification as “monstrous”.

The possible counter-arguments bifurcate once more.

On the one hand, I could produce historical evidence which shows that, prior to the Renaissance/Enlightenment and the development of modern human anatomy, the monstrous was inherently both natural and human. Forces beyond the traditional scope of man were clearly involved, resulting in “monstrous” births being viewed as auguries, portending good or ill. Nevertheless, they were born of human mothers, were seen as relating to human affairs and therefore their position as part of the human world is undeniable.

But an argument from authority, relying on history, is nevertheless an attempt to revise the fundamental assumptions of this argument, in a somewhat underhanded manner.

The other line of argument cuts right to the chase:

By this logic, our behavior is a direct result of our fundamental nature. Because our natures cannot change, our actions are confined to the limits of what our nature allows. If this is the case, then our nature and therefore our actions are the result of having been born one way or another, as this or as that.

If so, Adam is blameless in his monstrosity. His position outside humanity is beyond his control; yet he is supposed to submit to violence and denigration for an accident of birth.

We return to the question of original sin, innate evil, inherent and intrinsic qualities. This is the question which haunts moral philosophy, psychology, religion, and the judicial process:

Are we responsible for our own actions?
How must we live pursuant to or in the absence of that answer?


[1] Who wants to yell at me for using symbology cribbed from the two things I remember from high school freshman geometry? This is the rhetorical equivalent of an economist inserting a so-called “illustrative” graph which merely visually represents their argument without any meaningful relationship to actual observed phenomena. DON’T LET PEOPLE LIE TO YOU. (Especially not me.)

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.

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/.

Week in Review 2019: 004

And none of this even begins to touch on the issue, “Nic Cage is a meme.” Because once you have been transformed into a hollow vector for self-replicating situational humor, you cease to be able to generate meaning for yourself.

I’ve been bedridden for the last three days. A fever, a nice wet cough, moments where I could have sworn I was going to die… The works.

Thankfully, the fever broke mid-way through Saturday and now I only sound awful. All this to say: I have watched an astounding number of movies and a fair bit of television over the last 72 hours:

Movies:

• Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
• Mandy (2018)
• Summer of 84 (2018)
• Mayhem (2017)
• Duck Butter (2018)
• Toc Toc (2017)
• A Most Wanted Man (2014) (partial)
• Snowden (2016) (partial)

TV:

  • Supergirl: Season 3, episodes 22 and 23
  • The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: Season 1, episodes 1 through 5.
  • Red Oaks: Season 2, episodes 2 and 3.
  • Travelers: Season 3, episode 2.

Before it got to be as Bad As All That, I…

…watched:

  • Signature Move (2017)
  • The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

…read:

  • The Mobius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone
  • finished the parts of The Nightmare Factory that I’d not read before.

I’ve been chatting with folks who come into the store about the decision to cast Nicholas Cage in “The Colour out of Space” movie adaptation. And, having now seen Mandy, I feel confident in my opinion that Nic Cage is a difficult choice. His sudden appearance in Snowden is actually why I stopped it and switched to something else. (Well, that and the aggressive levels of American Patriotism.)

I think the big danger with Nic Cage is encouraging him to act unhinged. That is usually when his performance goes off the rails in terms of believability. He seemed mostly sane and O.K. in the scene that introduced him in Snowden.

He’s also one of those actors you can’t help but see when they’re acting; Nic Cage, Jack Nicholson, Keanu Reeves, Oprah Winfrey… And it doesn’t have to do with recognizability, either. Sam Rockwell, Domhnall Gleeson, Tom Hardy, Zoe Saldaña always surprise me because, despite their familiarity, they don’t get in the way of the presence of the character they’re playing.

To come at it another way: Lovecraft’s stories aren’t really about people. They rely on a sense of atmosphere and the creeping realization of what lurks beyond the human experience. It seems strange to me, then, to cast some one with an undeniable presence, someone who cannot fade into the background, on whom the audience cannot project themselves.

Lovecraft is very much a writer of un-characters. None of the people he writes, protagonists or otherwise, do substantially more than progress the plot. Whatever friends they have are utilitarian pieces of the narrative to open doorways into other, horrific worlds. Even incidental characters (other tenants, housekeepers, etc) serve some function of necessity, if only as racialized foils for the characters with whom the narrator chooses to associate.

And none of this even begins to touch on the issue, “Nic Cage is a meme.” Because once you have been transformed into a hollow vector for self-replicating situational humor, you cease to be able to generate meaning for yourself.

(Which is exactly why Nicholas Cage hates memes about himself, presumably.)