The New Lovecraft, Better than the Old Lovecraft…

[This post was initially written in 2017, a few months after reading a novella by Cassandra Khaw, but was never completed. Unfortunately I forgot about in a deluge of other work and responsibilities. So now I’m finishing it late, but the concerns about the “Lovecraftian weird are still relevant.]

After reading Cassandra Khaw’s latest novella, A Song of Quiet, months ago [now years ago!] I was struck again by the ways in which a number of contemporary authors from marginalized social positions have been appropriating Lovecraftian tropes to tell stories that are diametrically opposed to H.P. Lovecraft’s ethos. Considering that Lovecraft was a raving racist, that many of his monstrosities were projections of his fear and hatred of the other, the transposition of his cosmic horror and weird fiction into registers that are anti-racist, feminist, and politically progressive is not only interesting but feels a bit like a welcome vengeance against a man who spent his entire writing career despising nearly everything that wasn’t white. Moreover, these detournements of Lovecraft are by-and-large better written and more imaginative than the thousands of “Cthulhu Mythos” stories that are cranked out by fans who will eternally excuse Lovecraft’s chauvinism.

khaw

Something critical is added when the so-called “Lovecraftian” is mined by authors Lovecraft would have disliked for simply existing. With A Song of Quiet and the earlier Hammers On Bone, for example, Khaw channels Lovecraft through Barker and the Silent Hill franchise, dousing everything with feminism and anti-racism, to produce something that imparts the feeling of Lovecraft’s most evocative works while still feeling wholly new. Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is a more direct response, an appropriate “fuck you” to Lovecraft’s most racist moments that generates its own unique form of disquietude.

lavalle

To this we can add the work of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, particularly her edited anthology She Walks In Shadows which hosts a plethora of Lovecraftian-against-Lovecraft short fiction that still remains marginalized by Lovecraft’s dogmatically faithful fanbase.

shadows

It is worth wondering why writers who come from communities that Lovecraft himself would classify as the Terrible Other would bother finding inspiration in his tropes. That is, if the reactionary undercurrent of his work is driven by the desire to exclude and otherize anyone who falls outside of white male categories, then it would indeed be logical to classify his work as thoroughly politically suspect. In some ways he doesn’t leave us another option: the meaning of his horror is based on everything excluded from whiteness and, once you realize that this is his worldview, you don’t have to work very hard to recognize that a story such as Shadow Over Innsmouth is merely an exercise of Lovecraft’s disgust for miscegenation.

But there is something else to be found in Lovecraft that is larger than his own backwards perception of reality. As one of my old internet comrades once pointed out, the Lovecraftian impulse that has defined weird fiction, which is larger than his squalid chauvinism, is about how small we are in the face of a pitiless cosmic reality. What we now call Lovecraftian, despite the pathetic beliefs of Lovecraft himself, is the possibility of the eclipse of our existence and reason by a reality that is unfathomably beyond human consciousness.

Such a Lovecraftian-beyond-Lovecraft is not helped by the defenders of Lovecraft-the-racist who work overtime to make excuses for his racism. Indeed, the greatness of LaValle’s take on the Lovecraftian weird is to turn Lovecraft’s racism into a moment of weird fiction. Is it odd that the best iterations of the Lovecraftian are actively opposed to the shitty fan base (and the crony critics such as Joshi) who actively reject any critiques of their racist idol? Hell, even Brian Keene has trashed the mindless critical defense of Lovecraft’s racism. I’m also reminded of the many times that Nick Mamatas––who created another great Lovecraftian-against-Lovecraft novel, Move Underground––has had to deal with the dogmatic defenders of Lovecraft who are upset that their saint could ever be accused of being the despicable chauvinist that he was.

The point being, I’ve always enjoyed the appropriation of the Lovecraftian weird more than Lovecraft himself. Even when my political understanding of Lovecraft was underdeveloped I was much more drawn to those works that built on his weird fiction than his weird fiction itself. That is, 20 year old me found John Carpenter’s The Thing and In The Mouth of Madness more interesting than The Mountains of Madness and Shadow Over Innsmouth; I also preferred reading Ligotti’s short stories to Lovecraft’s overwrought prose… And this was before I came to recognize Lovecraft’s racist ontology!

Ignoring the Lovecraft devotees who dogmatically refuse to accept that their saint was a racist piece of shit (because fuck them, and who cares what such unimaginative assholes think), the question(s) become(s): why does Lovecraft’s ghost linger in the work of authors he would have despised, who appropriate his genre against his ethos, and why is this appropriation meaningful? I don’t think I can provide a proper answer to this question aside from suggesting that what can be gleaned from the Lovecraftian ethos––how small we are in the face of a pitiless cosmic reality––translates properly into the smallness felt by marginalized communities in the face of a hegemony that presents itself as cosmic reality.

Which is why the appropriations of the Lovecraftian by writers from these communities, or writers who care about the struggles of these communities, are always more interesting than those who would abide by Lovecraft’s ontology. After all, Lovecraft saw the marginalized as a gross affront to his cosmic reality. That is, what he was describing was an attack on white hegemony and so he could not help but translate this attack into something of terrible metaphysical significance since it undermined his understanding of white supremacy––as all members of the oppressive class translate the challenge of their oppression into a cosmic insult. But in doing so he presented a series of tropes that, in the hands of those he excluded, could be transformed into an understanding of cosmic horror as white supremacy or, alternately, as a pessimistic panacea to white supremacy, or as something uncoupled from his warped understanding of reality and transformed into a metaphor for the collision between centres and peripheries. It is only when Lovecraft’s notion of the ineffable is delinked from his impoverished political outlook that it an be truly articulated, that we get a real approximation of what is truly horrific, that something far more interesting than a mythos of shoggoths and elder gods emerges.

Emily Wilson’s The Odyssey

This blog takes its name from a quotation in Marx’s Grundrisse that asks “is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Iliad with the printing press, not to mention the printing machine? Do not the song and the saga and the muse necessarily come to an end with the printer’s bar?” Which is to say the Iliad as well as the Odyssey are historically mediated texts that can only be imagined according to their historical circumstances and are in many ways incomprehensible if we try to understand them according to the logic of the contemporary conjuncture.

In the second chapter of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment we are meant to accept that the ancient epic of Odysseus prefigures bourgeois logic. The reader is exhorted to think Odysseus as a symbol of the bourgeoisie as if the logic of capitalism was already existent in Ancient Greek thought. A generous reading of this chapter might conclude that the authors were merely talking about the way in which the Odyssey was translated and cognized in the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, but such a reading would have to ignore the fact that Horkheimer and Adorno did not make this declaration of distance. They seemed quite convinced that Odysseus was the bourgeois subject. This projection of contemporary conceptions unto the distant past indicates that these two Frankfurt School scholars failed to grasp that the ancient epic was alien to the world of powder, lead, and the printing bar. That they themselves were reading Odysseus according to a conception generated by the very Enlightenment dialectic they sought to critique.

In this context, Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey is notable for its ability to demonstrate that the world of Odysseus is alien to the contemporary conjuncture––is not possible in the world of powder, lead, and the printer’s bar––but that its alienness can be comprehended according to a translation structure that renders it avidly readable. That is, through a translation apparatus that translates the poem into intriguing and elegant English that makes it a joy to read, Wilson simultaneously demonstrates how distant and alien the world of Odysseus is from our present. He is definitely not the paradigm of the bourgeois subject, as Horkheimer and Adorno ludicrously and ahistorically claimed, but the subject of an alien political order. Although there is a case to be made that they were reading the story of Odysseus through the imagination of a translation industry that was isometric to the emergence of the bourgeois subject, they themselves do not establish this distance. They are in fact captured in the early capitalist capture of The Odyssey.

Odyssey

Thus, The Dialectic of Enlightement‘s treatment of Odysseus’ story reads as if these Frankfurt School authors sought to defy Marx’s statement in the Grundrisse when they wrote that chapter, relying on the Renaissance and Enlightenment translations of the ancient text, and were thus absorbed by the kind of thought Marx warned against. Because to claim that Odysseus is the ur-pattern of the bourgeois subject is to project the present upon the past and thus violate historical materialist reasoning. Such a backwards logic is a hallmark of bourgeois reason. But when we reject this reason, as we should, we cannot read it into the past where it never existed in the first place. And Wilson’s translation persistently demonstrates that Odysseus is not this bourgeois subject.

Wilson defamiliarizes the epic while simultaneously trying to draw us closer to its meaning, making it cognizable in our language. The reader is thus struck with a world that is thoroughly alien to the modern conjuncture but that, being an eminently human world, still possesses some form of universal resonance. Odysseus weeps and we understand why he weeps, Telemachus is fatherless and we understand this tragedy, Penelope struggles to assert some level of control in the realm of ancient patriarchy defined by her husband and often enforced by her son. We understand how misogynist and chauvinistic this world is, how its particular type of slave-based class society is different from our own, but we can feel the resonances of contemporary patriarchy and the institution of modern slavery in this ancient text.

In my reread of The Odyssey through the Wilson interpretation I realized how much I had forgotten about my original read (which was decades ago in my undergraduate degree) and how much pop-culture and texts like The Dialectic of Enlightenment mediated my memory of that reading. For example, the fantastic details of Odysseus’ twenty year exile are relayed in only 4 out of the 24 books. Thus the “heroic” events that comprised the focus of the old Kurt Russell adaptation, the two television adaptations, and the main concern of Adorno and Horkheimer, are a minor detail of the source material. Rather, most of the book is about Telemachus’ search for Odysseus, the latter’s escape from Calypso and his final bid to return home, and Odysseus’ many deceits upon returning home as well as his massacre of Penelope’s suitors.

I also forgot that the surviving heroes of The Iliad were scattered and killed in the time-frame of The Odyssey with only three returning home to survive: Nestor, Menelaus, and Odysseus––the last, being the concern of the latter epic, living in exile for two decades. Meanwhile every other surviving victor is dead. Notably, Agamemnon is murdered upon returning home; Ajax is killed in transit for mocking the gods.

Furthermore, Odysseus’ encounter with the dead in that minor part of The Odyssey that concerns his “odyssey” further demonstrates the tragic gulf between this epic and its predecessor. While the shades of the dead gather, vampire like, to become cognizant by drinking the blood of sacrifice, Odysseus’ dead friends inform him of this failure to survive. Agamemnon’s shade speaks of his betrayal at the hand of his wife and her lover (with no guilt regarding the sacrifice of his daughter, which is deleted entirely in The Odyssey). Ajax’s shade refuses to speak with Odysseus because of previous conflict. Achilles’ shade delivers that line that in a previous translation influenced Milton’s Satan declaring it is “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” For Achilles, which tells us something about the ancient world of The Odyssey, it is better to live as a slave then reign in Elysium… Which Wilson evocatively translates as “I would prefer to be a workman, hired by a poor man on a peasant farm, than rule as king of all the dead.”

These episodes and my memory of the epic aside, it is worth inquiring about the status of Wilson’s translation. Since I am not an expert on the Homeric epics, and am definitely not a classical studies scholar, I cannot comment on the efficacy of this translation. But other classicists have done so, as well as many literary theorists, and Wilson herself is an important classical scholar. Indeed, those criticisms of Wilson’s translation from other classicists who read Homer in the original Greek say more about the kind of translation those classicists want (i.e. closest literal translation possible while recognizing there is no such thing as a “pure” translation, preservation of epithet repetition, rejection of modernizations of metaphors/descriptions, preservation of dactylic hexameter), because there is no possible way any translation could preserve all of these desires simultaneously. And in any case, when these criticisms are made they are usually minor side points in reviews that are otherwise glowing––such as the Armstrong and Mawr reviews.

Considering that you’re not going to get every scholar of classical Greek poetry to agree on what makes a perfect translation––there is no such thing as a perfect translation––the question about whether Wilson has produced a meaningful translation becomes a decidedly more philosophical one. Philosophical in the sense that I have described in my own work (most notably in my upcoming Demarcation and Demystification) as bringing clarity to meaning and demarcating this clarity. Hence, in some ways, it is not the simply the purview of the classical translation industry (of which Wilson herself belongs so she is arguably as authoritative as anyone else, including her critics) to decide what makes a translation meaningful but it is about the question of translation in general and about what translation means, what particular translations function as, and thus whether or not particular translations accomplish the goals they set out to accomplish as a discrete translation within a general understanding of “translation” as a whole.

The act of translation functions to establish a relation (relation in the sense meant by Glissant) between two languages, and readers of one language to the Other of another language. Within this function, then, every translation of a given text is intentional; translation happens according to a logic that is designed to make a given translation do something particular with this relationship, to establish a particular meaning between two language. In this sense every translation establishes a relationship that other translations do not establish. Even the most banal translation decisions regarding an epic poem––do I stick to the most literal translation possible, do I seek to preserve the meter, do I try to find a compromise––are driven by this choice of relationship. Thus the question of a translation’s efficacy becomes “does translation x make a clear decision on how it wants to establish the relationship of translation and, if so, does it succeed in executing this decision?” Poor translations, then, are not ones that are disagreeable to one or other translators’ personal translating preference (“I wish the translator had chosen to do x instead of y“) but are translations that have no clear approach to the translation, fail to fulfill the demands of the translation decision, and/or are just poor copies of other translations that had clearer decisions that were better accomplished.

So what does this mean for Wilson’s translation. By her own admission in the 91 pages of introductory material she did not set out to do another (but better!) translation in the style of Lattimore or any of the other standard translations. Others had already done the close-to-literal, preservation of the hexameter, thoroughly erudite prose variations, shadow Greek versions, or etc. She felt no reason to reproduce what already existed and her intention to translation was driven by a decision to create something she felt was lacking in the translation industry of The Odyssey. Her translation decision was in fact somewhat unique. Wilson set out to craft a translation of The Odyssey that made it cognizable to modern readers while preserving the distance of the ancient world, that was eminently readable while preserving the line structure of the original, and thus made the epic sing according to modern sensibilities while not giving up on its removal from these sensibilities. The translation decision was thus very clear and, based on its reception and my own read, she largely accomplished the goals set by her decision. Indeed, I challenge anyone to find a translation of The Odyssey that is both accessible and not a pithy summary/reimagination divorced from the poem itself. She has succeeded in making a translation of the actual poem (that is not a summary or retelling but an actual translation) that grips the reader––even the reader untrained in classic literature.

Wilson has accomplished a startlingly singular translation. In doing so she had demonstrated the ways in which a translator can become a second author.

For those who have never read The Odyssey, and for those who read it before in another translation, I invite you to read this version. You won’t be disappointed. As Wilson writes at the end of her second introduction to her translation:

There is a stranger outside your house. He is old, ragged, and dirty. He is tired. He has been wandering, homeless, for a long time, perhaps many years. Invite him inside. You do not know his name. He may be a thief. He may be a murderer. He may be a god. He may remind you of your husband, your father, or yourself. Do not ask questions. Wait. Let him sit on a comfortable chair and warm himself beside your fire. Bring him some food, the best you have, and a cup of wine. Let him eat and drink until he is satisfied. Be patient. When he is finished, he will tell his story. Listen carefully. It may not be as you expect.

And indeed, despite all of the buzz I heard about this translation of Odysseus’ ancient fiction, it was not what I expected.

Review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Prime Meridian

Prime Meridian‘s fictional universe reminded me of the world of Blade Runner. Not the replicants, action set pieces, and squalid neon environment, but a world that is adjacent to ours, a near future where space exploration and planetary settlement are a reality but are lurking at the peripheries of the narrative. In Blade Runner (both movies in fact) we are told that humanity is spread throughout space, and characters make reference to other worlds but, like the majority of people residing within this fiction, we never see these worlds. Moreover, by the time of Blade Runner 2049 the imaginary of this series became an alternate future history due to the fact that the first film’s setting of 2019 was no longer believable in 2017. Atari and PanAm were still major corporations; the cold war still persisted in some form. Similarly, Prime Meridian seems to be set in an alternate future history where the Soviet Union still persists: it is only several years ahead of our own world, and the development of its social networking technology is believable, but it also possesses a slightly altered past (with different films and filmmakers slotted into its adjacent 1930s) and the fact that there is an established outpost on Mars.

Of course Prime Meridian is not Blade Runner. Or rather, if it is, then it is a Blade Runner told from the perspective of those who comprise the populations through which the latter’s main characters navigate. Anonymous everyday people whose struggles are “common”, represented by extras.

More accurately, the comparison to Blade Runner is mainly relevant if we need to locate a Science Fiction precedent for Prime Meridian. For just as its history is adjacent to our own, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novella is adjacent to Science Fiction. The SF elements are scaffolding; the book draws upon them in order to drive its protagonist’s narrative arc but they must necessarily lurk as subtle and normalized elements of the fictional terrain.

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Prime Meridian‘s protagonist, Amelia, is a working class woman trapped within the boundaries of her social class in Mexico City. Passage to the settlement on Mars represents an escape from everyday drudgery, and has for years before the novel starts, but this passage costs. Unless one wants to end up in massive debt and over-exploited, a significant fee is required in order to gain access to Mars and Amelia works to save up enough money for this nearly impossible goal. Her main job is as a “rent-a-friend” through an application called “Friendrr” – where wealthy lonely people, such as the starlet Lucia who is one of Amelia’s clients, are able to pay their way out of loneliness. Another job she eventually takes up is the selling of her blood to rich buyers who, like Peter Thiel, think that blood transfusions from the young will ensure longevity.

Years before the novella starts Amelia’s dream of Mars was more concrete. She possessed a scholarship to a university, that allowed her to hob-nob with wealthier members of society, but she lost this scholarship because her mother’s terminal illness forced her to drop out of school. Her university friends, belonging to a wealthier social class, left her behind; her boyfriend, pressured by his rich father, left her. The escape represented by Mars became more elusive, and this elusiveness is made all the more poignant by her relationship with Lucia who once starred in a film about a fictional Mars, the representations of which are interspersed with Amelia’s story. There is the Mars of Amelia’s world, a white-washed settlement on the periphery of existence. There is also the Mars of Lucia’s film industry past, an adventure pulp from the 1930s.

Amelia’s desire for Mars is reinforced by the successive phases of alienation visited upon her by social circumstances. Her loss of the scholarship. Her relegation to a social embarrassment by her economically privileged university friends. Her failing relationship with her sister. Her reunion with her ex-boyfriend, Elías, which is one in which he hopes to keep her as a mistress. That part where she tries to free a rat from a trap and is bitten for her compassion would be tempting to read as metaphorical of her existence, especially considering how she lashes out at some of her friends, but it is not so bluntly metaphorical: it better represents catalyst of the return of the repressed, the motivation to confront her sister.

In the end it is the imaginary Mars that allows for Amelia’s passage to the real Mars. We never witness the real Mars, despite the clues we are given, though it is the novel’s narrative line of flight. A line of flight that bursts through the boundaries of predatory romance represented by the character of Elías, a wealthy man singularly offended that Amelia will choose Mars over a future of being little more than a mistress where “he might devour her whole and she’d cease to exist, be edited out of existence like they edited scenes in the movies.”

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Recently I’ve read a number of amazing SFF novellas that should, if we lived in a world that wasn’t defined by genre categories, be treated as literary fiction proper. Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers On Bone and A Song For Quiet, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Winterglass – to name a few. Moreno-Garcia’s Prime Meridian joins the ranks of these interventions and, like them, ekes out its own unique space as an elegant novella that deserves to be recognized as more than a genre expression.

I’m still a little confused as to why Prime Meridian was self-published since its author is a rising star within the SFF milieux and, not to be insulting, it possesses a level of literary quality that the vast majority self-published works do not possess and in fact fall far short of possessing. In my mind something must be broken in the world of mainstream publishing when a critically acclaimed author decides to publish something with clear literary qualities outside of the SFF avenues that normally publish her work.

“There are only two plots. You know them well,” Moreno-Garcia concludes Prime Meridian, referencing a claim made by Lucia earlier in the novella: “A person goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town.” This claim is ultimately cynical because neither of these plots are truly borne out in the novella. The journey never happens, though it is desired, until the end but is only promised; Amelia is a stranger interloping on the lives of her privileged friends. In any case, the book was a joy to read and I would like to imagine that its protagonist did go on a journey and this journey provided her with a better life.

The Punisher’s Liberal-Imperialist Narrative

It would be easy to dismiss the recent Punisher series, the next Netflix MCU series, as simplistic action porn based on a hero whose super powers are guns and killing people. After all, aside from Punisher-esque protagonists being the staple of US action cinema, we’ve already had multiple versions of this second tier comic character: the campy Dolf Lundgren version, the “realist” Thomas Jane version (with a short film spin-off), the splatter-punk Ray Steven version. And yet this version of the Punisher, despite its predictable character development and clumsy attempts at pathos, is worth taking seriously for one reason only: it is the most coherent expression of liberal-imperialist ideology.

Like establishment Democrats who still think the answer to Donald Trump is Hillary Clinton, and that the entire world would not only be better but sanctified if Clinton had won the election, the writers of the Punisher want you to know that they are critical of the current violent order. Not critical enough to think through the foundations of the American system, but critical in a cosmetic sense that earnestly believes it is not cosmetic. The ethics of the Punisher is the ethics of Hamilton, of appeals to Obama’s legacy, of claims that the Founding Fathers would be displeased with “Trumpism”, that the American Dream is worth saving if only we could rid ourselves of evil elements that stand in the way of its final consummation. When it is cynical, and it does play itself mainly as cynical, this cynicism lies only in the fact that the glory of the American Dream might always be thwarted by the corruption of human nature.

Corruption: it always has to do with corruption. For the dyed-in-the-wool liberal the problem with the state of affairs isn’t the foundation upon which this state of affairs rests (i.e. capitalism and imperialism) but instead particular elements – corrupt individuals and connected conspiracies – that betray justice. Otherwise the foundations are legitimate; the solution is to excise the corrupt elements and save a system that is otherwise just.

The new Punisher series tells the same story, but with modern liberal characteristics. Frank Castle is a veteran of the US war upon Afghanistan who was ill-treated, betrayed by corrupt elements in the war apparatus, and turned into a “hit man” instead of a “soldier”. The very idea that these categories are distinct, and that there is a righteous soldier who is not a hit man, speaks to a belief in the justice of imperialist war, that US involvement in Afghanistan is otherwise alright if corrupt elements hadn’t involved themselves. Moreover Castle’s trauma, a complex of being misused by his superiors and then violently betrayed with the murder of his family, becomes the central theme. And this is a very modern liberal theme: the abuse of contemporary veterans, the PTSD of “our boys”, the fact that any problems of war (and a war that is presumed to be just in the first place) are in how they negatively affect imperialist soldiers.

With a liberal attention to detail, the series focuses upon the trauma of the neglected veteran, a Democrat talking point. One important character runs a support group for veterans, soldiers attempting to find themselves at home and recognize that their trauma has to do with sacrifice upon the nation’s altar. This support group provides the impetus for significant plot points: not only does it eventually serve as the redemption of Frank Castle, but it launches the trajectory of a “wrong” way to deal with war trauma, the character of Lewis who, in rejecting the group’s help, becomes the series’ Oklahoma Bomber.

Anything that is bad about imperialist war, according to this narrative, is only bad because of the trauma of the imperialist soldiers. Why do they experience trauma? Because they were either misused or were treated poorly upon their return to US soil. Being an imperialist soldier is never questioned; those who engage in this vocation are treated honourably by the series, as if they have chosen the highest good – Castle refuses to kill other soldiers, even though he has become a vigilante, because these are the “good guys”. Even more reprehensible, but consistent with the series’ ideology, is the fact that the trauma of the victims of imperialism barely registers. In the flashbacks to Afghanistan those resisting the occupation are gibberish enemy savages, worthy of annihilation, with the exception of one individual who was “wrongly killed”. This individual is in fact a collaborator, a cop for the puppet dictatorship, who was murdered by his own corrupt allies.

But back to Lewis. Here is a character whose trajectory should be understood as the trajectory of a white nationalist, since he espouses precisely what today’s fascists espouse, but we are meant to feel for him. Even though Castle and Karen Page call him a terrorist because his assaults affect civilians, we are still forced to humanize him when his counterparts in Afghanistan are not allowed the same humanization. It’s some Dylan Roof shit, with the veneer of military institutional sanctification. Castle shares a moment of sympathy with him, even, when he suicides in a meat locker. Why can’t we all get along?

Other characters spring forth to form this liberal imperialist imaginary. Dinah Madani, an Iranian-American operative in the War on Terror in Afghanistan functions to consummate the liberal US dream that people from sites of oppression can and should be prosecuting US hegemony. She celebrates this hegemony, she pontificates about how “good” the US was to her immigrant parents, she has transcended racism. Her only problem is the barriers of corruption that prevent her from saving the American Dream. Ah, the liberal dream of a rainbow coalition of oppression!

The resolution of the series is the end of corruption, the unity of Madani and Castle, and an epilogue where Castle finds himself in that space to work out his trauma, which is only ever the trauma of the oppressor and never the trauma of the oppressed. Castle’s brown shirt vigilantism is thus channeled into liberal avenues of imperialist PTSD management and that is the moral of the story.

But this moral of the story is overdetermined by Castle’s freikorps style activities, which should otherwise be understood as fascist. The series works overtime to question this vigilantism while still giving it free reign. The Punisher is thus a social fascist narrative, which is precisely the ideology of liberal capitalism.

The Review, The Critique

The over-democratization of reviews and critiques in venues such as Amazon and Goodreads, far from opening up a space of popular discourse, has resulted in the crudest forms of populism. While it is indeed the case that we ought to build a culture of popular criticism, it is also the case that when such popular criticism is overdetermined by capitalist ideology the result is the valorization of the lowest common denominator. The average Amazon and Goodreads reviewer, paradigmatic of reviewers of art on other popular sites, has proven to be compromised by a bourgeois subjectivity that is disciplined by the capitalist culture industry.

What we find in these so-called “democratic” review spaces is the domination of impression over substance, the conflation of personal opinion with objective standardization, and the a priori assumption that one’s feelings about a work of art are tantamount to an objective critique. The “star” rating mechanics are not helpful in this regard since the encourage readers to rate a work of art based on their subjective apprehension of this work rather than a consideration that is anterior to whether or not they personally “enjoyed” the work in question. A reader-reviewer is thus encouraged to rate, in a positivist/mechanical manner, a work according to whether they personally “enjoyed” it, and thus to collapse personal opinion with objective critique, rather than to think through the work outside of the realm of opinion.

(This is to say nothing of “brigading” review practices where individuals on platforms such as Amazon or Goodreads decide to “punish” an author they dislike for dubious political reasons by one-starring them en masse.)

There is indeed something odd about Yankee-influenced discourses of democratic critique. There is a weird populism that treats personal opinion as existing on the same level of objective assessment. USAmericans, and those devoted to the USAmerican regime, are weirdly invested in the conflation of opinion with fact. An entire species of thought regimes are based on the assumption that every opinion is equal, and those expressing these opinions should have the right to treat them as truth even if they are in opposition to science. USAmericans pat themselves on the back when they defend the right of anti-science weirdos to treat their opinions about six day creationism as fact. This understanding is translated into the so-called”democratization” of literary criticism: USAmerican subjects, and those with the same magical thinking, are rating works of art and literature based on their own ‘sacrosanct’ opinions which they have been taught to see as objective. “Every opinion is valid,” is the liberal claim when this is, in fact, not the case.

This opinion-review practice can thus result in reviews that should not even qualify as proper reviews of a work of art in that they undermine the reviewer’s very ability to speak coherently about the work in question. One cannot provide a thorough accounting of a work of art, an aesthetic interpretation that tries to understand what it means as a work of art and its importance in the history of artistic production, if it’s being treated like a choice between a banana and bowl of cereal.

For example, I’ve encountered reviews that admit to not finishing a book because they found it “difficult” and then one- or two-star the book that they did not read because they did not finish it. You would think that finishing a book should be mandatory to writing a review that possesses the right to rate. You would also think that a reader’s inability to understand a piece of literature says more about the reader than the book: it is not the book’s fault, unless it was thoroughly obscurantist for no good reason, that an individual reader lacks the attention or care to try to understand it; that one- or two-star review should apply to the reviewer’s reading comprehension and not the book. Ulysses is difficult. Hopscotch is difficult. 2666 is difficult. It is entirely laughable to imagine that the worth of these great works of literature should be decided based on their difficulty. Conversely, does the fact that the same someone can mindlessly consume a Harry Potter novel and give it five stars mean that pulp fiction possesses a higher literary quality than works that are one-starred because of their difficulty? The very idea is ludicrous and, again, speaks to the collapse of the categories of personal taste/opinion and critical assessment.

The culture industry’s reconfiguration of reading comprehension and literacy around commodification and patterns of consumption has encouraged and valorized the insipid opinion-review. The idea of thinking through a work of literature, film, art according to its own terms – its aesthetic qualities, its relation to the social-historical context of creative production, the best interpretation of its meaning as a work of art – is excluded from a practice of thinking that has been cultivated by bourgeois ideology. While there was a time when bourgeois art critics could pat themselves on the back for their understanding of culture, those days are long gone: the logic of the bourgeois order, which only cares about art and literature insofar as it can be commodified, now militates against the very culture it once pretended to represent. Bourgeois cultural education is no longer an education that teaches an appreciation of the arts (this is the residue of a time when it opposed the dregs of feudal society, when it was generating creative thinkers), but an education of commodification and mechanization in every sphere of life: Transformers movies are its apotheosis.

But to review something rigorously, to engage with a piece of art in a manner that gives your review (and even your mechanical rating) justification, requires effort beyond the one-dimensionality of personal taste. That is, critically reviewing and engaging with a piece of literature or art is not represented by the insipid populism that is centered by the Amazons and Goodreads of the world. The idea, here, is very simple: it is possible to review a work of literature and art you don’t personally enjoy and still understand and celebrate its artistic/literary merits. And this is precisely what a “good” (meaning honest and critical) review should do: suspend personal taste, recognize that consumptive patterns are the result of socialization, and attempt to think through a piece of literature, art, or film according to artistic/literary standards that, though historically inherited, lurk outside of my personal tastes.

To review critically is to suspend your personal taste and opinion, to transcend the opinion-review practice. For example I do not enjoy reading Proust but I understand that the artistic importance of Proust transcends my personal taste. If I was ever to write a review of his work I would treat it with the gravitas it deserves: I would read it fully, I would engage with it as a work of art outside of my own enjoyment of the work, and would not dare to fire off an asinine review based on my inability to actually read the text in question. I never finished Swann’s Way (though I made it halfway through), let alone the other books of Remembrance of Things Past, because I found it entirely boring – and this is why I refuse to review Proust according to my personal experience of trying and failing to read his literary output. And if I had read him thoroughly, and had still failed to personally enjoy his work, I would still be wrong to review his work solely based on my personal experience. It is possible to understand the importance of a work of art without liking it… Unfortunately the populism of reader reviews in sites such as Amazon and Goodreads encourages the opposite.

If we are ever to transcend the mechanical appreciation of literature and art that is cultivated by these populist review sites we need to also recognize that thinking through a work of art/literature requires a suspension of personal taste as well as the requirement that the reviewer fully engage with this work. I don’t have to personally “enjoy” a particular work to recognize it as important; my opinion and taste should be suspended if I aim to write a review that matters, that can speak beyond the infantile category of subjectivism. Otherwise it is the celebration of Transformers and Harry Potter all the way down.

Nostalgia for Harvey’s To Bring You My Love

The other day, while taking my daughter to day camp, I was playing P.J. Harvey’s To Bring You My Love on the car stereo. Released in 1995 during my last year in high school, this album is one that I consistently return to, perhaps my favourite of Harvey’s discography, and unlike so many other albums of that period of my life I feel that it never dates. The ominous riff of the opening and title track, the heretic lyrics that spill across every song, the sinister anger that underlies the album, the story songs about murder and isolation… It’s hard to imagine anyone who cares about music would not like Harvey after hearing this series of tracks.

P.J. Harvey holds a special place in my heart. In grades eleven and twelve I spent a lot of time hanging out at a friend’s apartment (an emancipated minor whose home sadly became a juvie drug-dealing den) listening to Rid of Me over and over while smoking pot and watching Cronenberg films. To Bring You My Love was part of the constant soundtrack of grade 13 (which used to exist in Ontario) and my first year in university. Is This Desire was released in my second year in university and was instrumental in impressing the woman who would eventually become my wife. The story goes like this… I had just bought Is This Desire and dubbed it unto a cassette I could play in my parent’s van. After a late night at a hipster coffee shop I drove a woman I barely knew home. She asked me if I was playing the new P.J. Harvey on the van stereo and, without realizing that Harvey was her favourite musician, I turned it up. Years later we would end up dating but she still remembers this event as the moment that she was attracted to me. Yeah, that’s right, P.J. Harvey was instrumental in determining the course of my life.

But still, after so many albums that have all been brilliant, it is to To Bring You My Love that I keep returning. For those who haven’t listened to it yet the best way to describe its assembled songs and ethos is to think of it as a soundtrack to the works of Flannery O’Connor. And if you are unfamiliar with O’Connor then think of the following: a bunch of sinister songs that are about serial killers, mothers murdering their children, vulnerable women who have been demonized, abandoned, or taken advantage of by itinerant preachers. Come on, Billy: meet the monster.

This album is so essential to my development as a music lover that I am always shocked when someone who claims to care about music is unfamiliar with its existence. It’s a little like discovering a lover of “classical” music is unfamiliar with Beethoven.

To Bring You My Love is the album that first demonstrated Harvey’s breadth as a musician. Before 1995 her albums were paradigm examples of angry post-punk – brilliant examples but only several steps sideways from a garage band. Even then she was influential: Kurt Cobain cited Dry and Rid of Me as influences to the direction Nirvana was taking post-Nevermind. (And recently, probably because of this, Harvey was asked to front Nirvana, filling in for Cobain, for a reunion tour. She declined.) Before To Bring You My Love her work was already influential, and if she had ended her career as only a visceral post-punk musician, or even continued in the same vein, she would still be important. But To Bring You My Love was a transitionary album: the three piece garage band was discarded, Harvey began to incorporate different instruments into the arrangements of songs representing different genres. The distance between Long Snake Moan and Down By The Water is massive in terms of musical genre, but this gap is bridged by the overall theme of the album: an O’Connor southern gothic theme.

Since this album Harvey has produced albums that are not only thematically unified but have been designed to stretch her boundaries as a musician. White Chalk, for example, structured every song around a broken-down upright pianoLet England Shake was not only structured around Harvey’s desire to learn the autoharp but was thematically unified around the working class history of World War One. And, in my opinion, it was To Bring You My Love that signified this transition to a musician that transcended genre categories, an album that left the childhood of post-punk garage anger to embrace a musician adulthood that would be consistently surprising.

Although To Bring You My Love is not Harvey’s greatest album, my love for it is driven by both my nostalgia and my belief that it is her most emblematic: it signalled her decision to become a serious musician more interested in composition than being confined within a particular genre. I remember, for example, being disappointed by her Stories From The City Stories From the Sea because I felt it did not live up to the strength of her previous Is This Desire (the title track of which, I should mention, was the “slow dance” selection for my wedding). And yet, in retrospect, I have come to appreciate the choices she made on that album, her unwillingness to abide by what was expected: the song This Mess We’re In is sung primarily by Thom Yorke, demonstrating that she was more concerned with making a song than performing it – her skill as a composer necessitated, in this one song, her desire to have another voice other than her own take on the lion’s share of the performance.

Hence, To Bring You My Love represented Harvey’s shift into the category of song composer over and above song performer. Similar patterns can be observed amongst her male contemporaries, such as Nick Cave who she briefly dated. But while Cave continues to receive multiple accolades for his skills in composition and production, Harvey still dances on the margins. And I listen to the emergence of this margin dancing whenever I replay To Bring You My Love – from its opening low register guitar riffs to its concluding haunting organ chords.

On the Dead-Beat Dad Trope

The dead-beat dad is such a common phenomenon that it is now a pop-cultural trope. Whereas two generations earlier television and movies reified the nuclear family as a fact of nature, and one generation earlier the depiction of divorced parents became normal, no longer a sin to be overcome with a Parent Trap, the patriarchal rot at the heart of the traditional family was finally demystified. Families defined by the absent father, the single mother (sometimes struggling and sometimes not) free from an abusive spouse, and a reflection of the rejection of the world of the father was slowly normalized.  The dad as dead-beat became a trope that reflected a reality that previous family tropes had obscured.

Mens Rights Activists (MRAs) often latch onto this trope as evidence of misandry within the culture industry. Against feminist claims about sexist depictions of women in media, MRAs like to claim (either out of ignorance, dishonesty, or a combination of the two) that it is men who are depicted in a sexist manner, the dead-beat being a paradigm example. Since they also claim that men suffer in custody arrangements since more women end up as custodians of the children, the trope of the dead-beat is perhaps particularly offensive since it reveals the lie to their crude empiricism: while it is correct that in situations of divorce and separation most women retain custody of their children, it is also a fact that most of these men do not challenge custody because they are in reality dead-beats who resist paying child support. The trope thus reflects a reality MRAs (some of whom probably are dead-beat dads) work hard to suppress.

But the thing with the culture industry is that, while it cannot help but reflect certain truths about social reality, it is quite adept at remystifying its tropes according to common sense ideology. Hence the emergence of a pernicious variant of the dead-beat dad trope: the redeemed dead-beat whose shitty behaviour is justified by noble gravitas. Since it is true that a large number of fathers in the imperialist metropoles are absent dead-beats of one kind or other, the media trope exists as an entertainment verisimilitude: most viewers will not identify with depictions of stable nuclear families, a large population cannot even identify with loving cis-het male divorcees. But in order to maintain this verisimilitude without turning men into eternal villains, which would alienate a massive swathe of the male consumer population, the trope of the dead-beat dad as maverick hero has manifested.

The 2008 film Taken best encapsulates this turning point in the dead-beat trope, the moment where it is recaptured by patriarchal ideology. Although significant as the film that catapulted Liam Neeson’s acting career into the type-cast of the gruff/aging/world-weary action man, Taken‘s true importance is in the reactionary reclamation of the dead-beat trope. Indeed, the characterization that would become Neeson’s current type-cast is only interesting if we understand its necessity for the performance of an ennobled dead-beat.

In Taken Neeson is only a dead-beat because of his commitment as a patriot. As a violent enforcer of US imperialism he was forced to make a hard decision between his family and the nation and, as any patriot with his particular “skill set” should do, he committed to the latter. If he is a dead-beat it is only because his family cannot understand the deep man pain of having to violently commit to the imperial aegis, so as to give their life stability from the horrors of terrorism. The inner truth is that he is only a dead-beat because his family, who could not understand the depth of his commitment to a better life promised to all imperial families, is incapable of understanding his pain of sacrifice. He is only a dead-beat because he sacrificed his family on the altar of the greater nation. In this way he is an echo of the Homeric hero: Agamemnon literally sacrificed his daughter to appease Poseidon, a sacrifice justified by the fall of Troy and the victory of the Achaians.

We are meant to feel pathos for Neeson’s dead-beat dad who, upon retiring and returning home, discovered that his home life, like that of Odysseus, is in disarray. But in the contemporary world of Taken the absentee father (whose absence was also justified) cannot murder his wife’s suitors and reclaim his patriarchal seat. Instead, more noble than his Homeric counter-part, he is forced to be “cucked” by a substitute father who is depicted as weak and decadent. There is no examination about whether Neeson’s character, Bryan Mills, has paid child support, let alone the political questions regarding a dad murdering for imperialists. Bryan Mills is the victim, showing up at the birthday party of a daughter he barely knows like every dead-beat asshole ever and we are expected to root for him because he is the real father; his nobility has already been established.

Taken in fact works hard to convince the audience that there is a good reason for being a dead-beat dad. It’s a good thing that Neeson never paid child support, never did any child-care or house work, because he learned those very “masculine” skills required to be a true father. Good thing he was a violent imperialist dead-beat because, when his daughter is abducted, he can prove to his ex-wife that he is the real father by doing what his effete substitute cannot: using all of his skills earned as a dead-beat in service to Empire to save their daughter. He murders and tortures all of the terrorist sex traffickers, demonstrating that the dead-beat is a noble protector, to save his daughter from slavery. In the end the nuclear family is validated by the violent dead-beat. Hell, Bryan Mills doesn’t even give a shit about the abducted daughters of other fathers, who aren’t as masculine to save them, because he ignores hundreds of other victims in his singular goal to preserve the sanctity of his biological family. It is the noble dead-beat who swoops in to save a daughter he hadn’t given a fuck to raise or support––but he is the biological father, the authentic head of a family he saves from the skills earned in as an absent parent.

In the 2016 film Deadpool Ryan Reynolds’ character, Wade Wilson, jokes about Liam Neeson being a bad father in Taken. “They made three of those movies,” Wade Wilson quips: “At some point you have to wonder if he’s just a bad parent.” The bigger joke, though, is that the audience isn’t asked to wonder if Neeson’s Bryan Mills is a bad parent before he parachutes in to rescue a daughter he has no social right to call daughter. According to the evidence supplied but suppressed by the movie, this dead-beat dad was a bad parent from the very beginning: abandoning your daughter so you can be a Yankee murderer, leaving her to be raised by a single mother without child support, should signal the behaviour of an abusive asshole. Instead, Neeson’s father in Taken is depicted with mythic grandeur: the dead-beat who justifies his absence by using the skills gained in this absence to prove fatherly machismo.

Taken is not alone in this retrograde reclamation of the dead-beat. Take 2014’s 3 Days To Kill, co-written by Luc Besson who was also behind the screenplay of Taken. (Is Besson a dead-beat dad? This seems to be a common theme in his current work.) In this film, Kevin Costner plays a CIA killer who, for reasons similar to Bryan Mills, has been absent from his daughter’s life. Hell, Costner even tries his damnedest to sound like Neeson’s gruff portrayal of the world-weary imperialist murderer. Battling against his hyper-sexed woman handler, Costner’s character must recenter himself as a father for a daughter who would lose her way without the reestablishment of the nuclear family. This daughter’s rightful resentment at his absence in her life is off-set by the fact that she needs him for stability. The tragedy is that he was only a dead-beat insofar as he chose to serve his nation, leave the child-rearing to a wife whose prime duty is to raise children, and thus the viewer is entreated to view his awkward attempts at reunion as truly parental. To be a dead-beat dad, we are meant to believe, is a supreme act of sacrifice.

This reclamation trope must necessarily brush up against the grain of reality. For in reality, dead-beat dads are not noble figures. As a father who cares about my daughter I cannot imagine abandoning her for some greater good, especially since the good I pursue is diametrically opposed to patriarchy––I can’t imagine leaving the lion’s share of childcare to my partner. Aside from these political motivations, it is hard for me to care about a father being taken seriously as a father when he hasn’t given a fuck about his daughter’s life for most of this daughter’s life. Seriously, why would any dead-beat dad who has spent the majority of his life ignoring his child suddenly become this child’s saviour? If this mythic biological impulse wasn’t enough to stay with the child, or at least to provide child support, then it probably won’t ever manifest in a meaningful way.

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When the dead-beat trope is not being reclaimed and sanitized, however, it still functions to regulate our understanding of fatherhood and valorize patriarchal ideology. Since asshole fathers are so common there is a tendency to lionize a dad who manages to be a decent parent more than his mother counter-part. That is, there tends to be over-excitement around a father who cares for his kid, who does house work, who nurtures. No such excitement is accorded to mothers for doing the same thing because they are “expected” to be nurturing. In film and television the nurturing father is celebrated in a way that the nurturing mother is not; this both reflects and reinforces the way we understand parenting in reality.

All a dad has to do to qualify for a father of the year award is to not be a dead-beat. A pretty low bar to clear if you really think about it, but because so many assholes don’t clear this bar it’s seen as a victory for humanity when fathers simply succeed at being decent, equitable parents. It’s endearing and cute, like many anomalies are, prized because of its rarity. Sometimes it generates an aura of martyrdom: the man who gave up on being “masculine” (a career, maverick autonomy, etc.) for noble reasons, like Bryan Mills’ sacrifice at the altar of national security. The trope of the tragic widower (such as Jude Law’s character in 2008’s The Holiday) expresses this kind of nobility, a nobility denied to the widow.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called a “good father” by complete strangers simply because they saw me playing with my daughter, taking her on long TTC rides, and pretty much doing what most mothers do on a regular basis. I get congratulated for being a responsible parent like I’m a hero for doing some pretty banal shit that my partner and a lot of women also do without random compliments by passersby. Being aware of this attitude, along with the fact that my partner has not received the same attention for doing identical work, prompted me to reflect on the matter a while back, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Moreover, this celebration of the father who beats the dead-beat odds is amplified for nurturing single fathers who have sole or primary custody of their children. Hell even if they have equal custody and do their part they are heroic!

Hence, even when the reality of male privilege in the context of parenting is accepted as normative, when the fact of the dead-beat dad becomes a trope, this privilege is still reinscribed. Either the dead-beat is justified with these ludicrous Taken narratives, or it becomes a low bar that, once cleared, congratulates cis dudes for being just okay. Our current understanding of the family really does need to be demolished.