The Witcher and Star Wars IX; tempora cum causis (10)

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With the release on the same day (Dec. 20th 2019) of both the Netflix adaptation of The Witcher and the final installation of the new Star Wars trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, this week we got an object lesson on how cultural criticism works on a mass scale. Before we dive in to either of these, I want again to invoke Jia Tolentino’s analysis of social media as a commercially driven organ, designed to privilege negative or otherwise emotionally provocative content. In Trick Mirror, Tolentino writes that over time, personal lives transforming into public assets via social media meant that “social incentives — to be liked, to be seen — were becoming economic ones” (2019: 6). She goes on: “Twitter, for all its discursive promise, was where everyone tweeted complaints at airlines and bitched about articles that had been commissioned to make people bitch” (2019: 7-8). Looking at the internet as an exercise of performativity (one that extends and magnifies the natural human performativity of the offline world), Tolentino writes that “the internet is defined by a built-in performance incentive” (2019: 8). In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell (2019: 18) discusses social media too, drawing in the remarks of Franco Berardi: 

“Berardi, contrasting modern-day Italy with the political agitations of the 1970s, says the regime he inhabits ‘is not founded on the repression of dissent; nor does it rest on the enforcement of silence. On the contrary, it relies on the proliferation of chatter, the irrelevance of opinion and discourse, and on making thought, dissent, and critique banal and ridiculous.’ Instances of censorship, he says, ‘are rather marginal when compared to what is essentially an immense informational overload and an actual siege of attention, combined with the occupation of the sources of information by the head of the company.’ [Berardi 2011: 35] It is this financially incentivized proliferation of chatter, and the utter speed at which waves of hysteria now happen online, that has so deeply horrified me and offended my senses and cognition as a human who dwells in human, bodily time.”

The commercial incentive of online interaction is what particularly disturbs Odell; the communities and networks of social media are one thing, the design of such platforms to fulfill a capitalist purpose is another. Odell continues (2019: 60):

“Our aimless and desperate expressions of these platforms don’t do much for us, but they are hugely lucrative for advertisers and social media companies, since what drives the machine is not the content of information but the rate of engagement. Meanwhile, media companies continue churning out deliberately incendiary takes, and we’re so quicky outraged by their headlines that we can’t even consider the option of not reading and sharing them.”

All of this has a bearing on what happened this week. When Netflix dropped The Witcher last Friday, it was met with some noteworthy and negative reviews. Darren Franich and Kristen Baldwin’s “Netflix’s The Witcher is nakedly terrible: Review” (Entertainment Weekly) gave the series an F grade, with a 0/100 on Metacritic. These reviewers immediately, and justifiably, came under fire themselves given that they admitted that they did not watch the series in its entirety. Reponse to The Witcher has been divided: critics hate it, the public loves it. So is The Witcher any good? One of the barriers here is the general distaste for “genre” pieces. Some might avoid science fiction, fantasy, or romance just because it is labled so. Ursula K. Le Guin took on this problem in her essay, “Genre: a word only a Frenchman could love” (reprinted in Words are My Matter, 2019: 10):

“So we have accepted a hierarchy of fictional types, with ‘literary fiction,’ not defined, but consisting almost exclusively of realism, at the top. All other kinds of fiction, the ‘genres,’ are either listed in rapidly descending order of inferiority or simply tossed into a garbage heap at the bottom. This judgemental system, like all arbitrary hierarchies, promotes ignorance and arrogance. It has seriously deranged the teaching and criticism of fiction for decades, by short-circuiting useful critical description, comparison, and assessment. It condones imbecilities on the order of ‘If it’s science fiction it can’t be good, if it’s good it can’t be science fiction.'” 

In the preface to her (critically acclaimedThe Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin had already drawn attention to the fact that science fiction, like any literature, is about its present, not the future (1969/1999: xvi):

“All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life — science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of those metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.”

The Witcher is not actually “about” magic and monsters; it’s about the relationship between storytelling and reality (Jaskier’s song vs. Geralt’s action), about the pain of isolation (Yennefer), about trying to live your life despite tempestuous circumstances (Geralt); it’s about assembling strange families, when biological ones fail (Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri). Assigning an F to The Witcher because it successfully engages with its own genre, one which you, the reviewer, do not know or care enough about to situate the object of your critique within, removes the rich layers of cultural entanglement which may make such a show worthwhile to a viewer like me. Le Guin continues (2019: 10): “If you don’t know what kind of book you’re reading and it’s not the kind you’re used to, you probably need to learn how to read it. You need to learn the genre.”

I’m not coming at this from a neutral perspective, since I voraciously played and replayed, and loved Witcher 3. But is Netflix’s The Witcher “objectively bad”? No, it’s not. It has haunting performances from Anya Chalotra (Yennefer) and Henry Cavill (Geralt) is perfection. The fight scenes are incredible. And it’s beautiful to look at. Yes, they say “destiny” too many times. But, look, it’s a romp!

On to Star Wars, then. Since we kept up our tradition of seeing the newest Star Wars on Christmas eve, I was aware of an enormous amount of critical disappointment and fan anger regarding the latest installment before I saw the film itself. You know what? It was fine. Yes, it had a very fast pace, and it wasn’t seamless with the trilogy’s own self-mythologizing. The Star Wars universe is full of holes because of the method of its composition; to some extent the writing, and overwriting (if you think that’s what J.J. is doing) resembles the process of story development in the oral tradition of the Greek epic canon, and in its reception. Consider Odysseus in the Iliad vs. Odysseus in the Odyssey vs. Odysseus in Sophocles’ Ajax. Indeed, the empty spaces projected by Star Wars are part of its charm: it’s a perfect landscape for imaginative rethinking, whether in the form of fan fiction, fan art, or roleplaying games like Edge of The Empire. That Star Wars captures the modern imagination so strongly is somewhat ironically reflected in the strength of the vitriol against it (and in the fan art. Peruse #reylo only if you dare).

All of this might be fine if it really were so simple. The emotional economy of the internet has a role to play here, but in this case we end up in a different place than we did with The Witcher. Anthony Breznican of Vanity Fair recorded J.J. Abrams’ public response to the backlash against TROS :

“After a screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Friday, I [=Breznican] asked Abrams what he would say to those who are unhappy. Are they not getting something? Is there a problem in the fandom? ‘No, I would say that they’re right,’ he answered quickly. ‘The people who love it more than anything are also right.’ The director had just returned from a global tour with the film, where he also fielded questions about that mixed reaction. ‘I was asked just seven hours ago in another country, ‘So how do you go about pleasing everyone?’ I was like’ What…?’ Not to say that that’s what anyone should try to do anyway, but how would one go about it? Especially with Star Wars.’ With a series like this, spanning more than four decades, nearly a dozen films, several TV shows, and countless novels, comics, and video games, the fanbase is so far-reaching that discord may be inevitable. ‘We knew starting this that any decision we made — a design decision, a musical decision, a narrative decision — would please someone and infuriate someone else,’ Abrams said. ‘And they’re all right.'”

You can see how the viewers’ response to Star Wars might be taken as a reflection of contemporary political and cultural life in the US. In the New York Times, Annalee Newitz affirmed Le Guin’s view that cultural artefacts, sci-fi or not, are reflective of the society which produces and consumes them:

Star Wars became a new national mythos; it rebooted America’s revolutionary origin story and liberty-or-death values using the tropes of science fiction. Now, however, the movies no longer strike the same chord. Just as America’s political system is falling into disarray again, our cultural mythmaking machine is faltering as well.”

How and why we critique Star Wars may well reflect some deeper truth about the times we live in, but there’s another dark side to all this (get it?). To some extent the divided criticism is irrevelant, given that TROS earned an enormous amount of money. Indeed, the controversy only helped bring in the dollars (not to mention all the baby yodas hiding under the xmas trees this year). We entrusted our storytelling to a capitalist behemoth, and it’s disconcerting that cultural criticism has no impact on its forward march. Some have suggested that the F rating which Entertainment Weekly gave The Witcher was motivated by a desire to get more eyeballs (and more $) by artificially stirring up controversy. Given that the internet runs on divisiveness and ire (these are our social currencies), that might have been an economically shrewd move. But was it good cultural criticism?

Martha Graham, essays on the internet, Sara Ahmed; tempora cum causis (3)

Ancient. This week at BU we had an incredible visit from the Martha Graham Dance company. Artistic director, Janet Eilber, lectured on Martha Graham‘s innovations in dance, showing clips of past productions, as well as bringing on stage two dancers, Charlotte Landreau and Lloyd Mayor, who performed parts of works by Graham which draw from Greek mythology, Night Journey and Errand Into the MazeNight Journey dramatizes Jocasta in the moment of devastating self-knowledge, Errand Into the Maze has Ariadne encounter the Minotaur. Eilber vividly described the Graham dance technique as one focused on the effortful physicality of contraction and release, coiling; how the body behaves when it experiences intense pleasure or pain. This effortful physicality was brought before our eyes by the dancers themselves in their demonstration. It was an incredible thing to witness. Up close, in an intimate environment. 

This week I also took a trip to the University of Toronto Mississauga to speak in the UTM-JHI annual seminar series, this year on Fragments. I spoke about the fragments of Latin verse in the Ciceronian corpus (the topic of my book), as well as on the theory of the “fragment” more abstractly; here’s the handout and the slides.

 

Modern. I find myself with a large appetite for personal essays about the internet. A lot of them are ultimately negative. Famously, there’s Lindy West’s account of the troll who pretended to be her dead father to harass her online; also told in Shrill (2016) and on This American Life. West eventually quit twitter, though not because of that; plus, she has a happy life on instagram. Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror (2019) starts with an essay — “The I in the Internet” — describing how the performative construction of the self is pushed to the limits when faced with an ever present, internalized, and usually hostile audience. Not to mention, as Tolentino notes, the fact that internet hostility is deliberately manufactured to make money; we seem not to be drawn so much “to the puddles and blossoms of other people’s curiosity and expertise” (pp4-5) but choose instead to engage in an economy designed to thrive on the heightened emotional state of its users.

Maeve Higgins is more optimistic. In the final essay — “The Golden Record” — of her most recent book, Maeve in America (2018), she describes the phonograph records carried by the Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977. These 12-inch gold-plated copper disks hold sights and sounds carefully chosen to represent life on earth at that moment by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan. Voyager 1 and 2 have reached interstellar space; the images and sounds on the Golden Record can be played, as Sagan said, “only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space.” For Higgens, instagram stories, which show videos and images on a feed that disappears after 24h, have something in common with the golden record. Hope, for one thing. Hope that someone will encounter the message and understand it: the golden records are inscribed with instructions on how to play the media contained within. Higgens writes (p239): “Today, with these images I get to share with anyone who cares to look, I am asking the question: Do you understand me now? Here is what I’m trying to tell you.

An optimistic view of the internet is hard for many reasons. In classics, we have to reckon with the ways toxic online communities use ancient material for malicious ends, as Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men (2018) so vividly describes. We also seem unable to escape the idea so often repeated that social media is inherently superficial, vain, vapid; and that it is these qualities in particular which harm us. The first episode of Broad City season 5 (“Stories”) presents itself as an instagram story, documenting a day in the life of Abbi and Ilana, coopting the forms of the medium to undercut and satirize it. In the last scene, Abbi says: “because we were filming it, it’s not even our ‘story’ anymore.” With these final words (of the premier of the final season), Abbi and Ilana ask their audience to contemplate how a comedy act between two friends, developed out of the sparkling chemistry of their private intimacy, has grown beyond itself into a stage play for a massive audience. Real life performativity is amplified when we make ourselves public: via “publication,” art no longer belongs just to you, and on the internet your image takes part in more than just your own selfhood. 

Internet.

Excerpt. Sara Ahmed 2017: 15-16: “My citation policy has given me more room to attend to those feminists who came before me. Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our [p16] way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow.”

Daily Life. In Toronto the autumn leaves were just nuts! 

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Horace, “Steven Universe”, Jia Tolentino; tempora cum causis (2)

Ancient. In the Greco-Roman world there is a persistent idea that the people of the past were better than those who are alive today and that, as time passes, humanity only continues to degrade more and more. Hesiod’s metallic ages of mankind is an early (and very famous) example of this. A passage of Horace which expresses this idea nicely and particularly cynically is Odes 3.6.45-58 (here comes the Loeb):

damnosa quid non imminuit dies?
aetas parentum peior auis tulit
nos nequiores, mox daturos
progeniem vitiosiorem.

Iniquitous time! What does it not impair? Our fathers’ age, worse than our grandfathers’, gave birth to us, an inferior breed, who will in due course produce still more degenerate offspring.”

The Romans were deeply invested in the idea that an individual was a living reinstantiation of his forebears (a classic example of this is the Barberini Togatus statue). Yet, no one, no matter how hard they try, can be an exact “copy” of a precursor. Simply by being a distinct iteration, we introduce differences, breaking points. Such breakages with a recursive path are, in the Roman formulation, an opportunity for corruption to take place. Like so many who are alive today, I find these cracks in the iterative veneer to be the space where creativity and originality live. And I’m wondering, too, whether it is the case that in 2019 the youngest generation is, in reality, worse than those who have come before.

Modern. Steven Universe is so beautifully written and touching that there is a good chance I’ll get misty-eyed as I watch. The training montage between Connie and Pearl and the song Do It for Her always makes me cry, for some reason. There is so much to love about Steven Universe: the concerted recuperation of the colour pink, the secret behind Garnet (no spoilers), Sadie’s journey to self-acceptance, and, of course, Stevonnie — an experience. When the Steven Universe movie came out, I held off on watching it at first because I knew I had to be in the right frame of mind, emotionally speaking. Animation has always held the power to elicit deep emotions from its audience, even if at times there has been a perception that it is childish or superficial (“it’s just a cartoon” — same thing goes for video games). But especially now, with so many examples of emotionally complex and affecting animation flooding the market, we can break with that perception. Recently, I did watch the Steven Universe movie (The Tale of Steven). One of the standout moments for me was the reappearance of Opal and her duet with the Steven-Greg fusion (Steg), included below. I hadn’t realized that Opal was voiced by Aimee Mann! And Steg in the movie is voiced by her bandmate, Ted Leo. The creator of Steven Universe, Rebecca Sugar, has said that Aimee Mann’s It’s Not (from the album Lost in Space) is her favourite song of all time; there’s a video (I also include it below) of her covering It’s Not, and introducing her performance with: “it’s probably the reason I like to do comics and stories about space, and also it keeps having new meaning for me now; it starts to feel like it’s about television animation.”

Internet.

Excerpt. Jia Tolentino 2019: 14: “The self is not a fixed, organic thing, but a dramatic effect that emerges from a performance. This effect can be believed or disbelieved at will. Online — assuming you buy this framework — the system metastasizes into a wreck. The presentation of self in everyday internet still corresponds to Goffman’s playacting metaphor: there are stages, there is an audience. But the internet adds a host of other, nightmarish metaphorical structures: the mirror, the echo, the panopticon.”

Jia Tolentino illustrated by Joanna Neborsky, from Jacqueline Rose’s review of Trick Mirror.

Jia Tolentino; illustration by Joanna Neborsky

Daily life. Austin started painting again, and now our shed is an art studio!

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