Billy Jack vs Dirty Harry

I am teaching a class this semester on the New Hollywood (i.e. American filmmaking in the 1970s). Since the class is being conducted entirely online, I am posting my lectures on discussion boards for the students to read (and respond to). The first three films I have shown this semester are Taxi Driver, Dirty Harry, and Billy Jack. Here are my comments on the latter, with some comparisons to the previous two films.

Billy Jack makes for an interesting contrast with Dirty Harry. Both films were released in the same year, and both films deal with the theme of vigilanteism in the context of the political, social, and cultural divisions of the time — with regard to which they take opposite sides. Both films were wildly popular at the time. Billy Jack seems to have slightly edged out Dirty Harry at the box office (this is unclear; some sources I have found online say Dirty Harry earned more; but in any case, both films had high grosses, and it was very close). However, today Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character remains iconic and well known, even among people who have not seen the actual movies; whereas Billy Jack has been nearly forgotten (the few online sites I found that mentioned Billy Jack at all are mostly all about how awful, unintentionally funny, and incompetent the movie supposedly is). (Though Quentin Tarantino seems to like it).

While Dirty Harry is a mainstream Hollywood product, Billy Jack is an independent film all the way. Tom Laughlin and his wife Delores Taylor basically made the movie all by themselves. They self-financed it, they wrote the screenplay together, they starred in the movie (Laughlin as Billy Jack, and Talyor as Jean Roberts, the director of the school), and Laughlin directed and produced it — as well as taking personal charge of distributing the movie after the original distributor did a poor job. The film was an enormous hit, and its sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, 1974) also did extremely well at the box office. The figure of the character Billy Jack also expanded beyond the movies to become a popular culture hero.

There are certain aspects of Billy Jack that admittedly do not play well today. Most notably, Laughlin, who is white, plays a character who is supposed to be half-Native; and the film in other ways appropriates Native American culture. Nonetheless, the movie is one of the first American movies to acknowledge the injusices done by white settlers to Indigenous people. (Several revisionist Westerns of the 1970s did so as well; but Blly Jack is the only 1970s movie I know of to show this in the present, not just in the Old West). Billy Jack focuses on Native people much more than on Blacks and other minorities, but it clearly takes the side of the 1960s/1970s counterculture, and the anti-War and anti-racism movements of the period. (The American Indian Movement is not as well remembered today as, for instance, the Black Panther Party, but it was equally militant and active at the time the movie was made).

Billy Jack, like Dirty Harry — and for that matter, like Travis Bickle — is a Vietnam veteran turned avenger back home. (His backstory is fleshed out more in the sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack, where we learn he was a Green Beret who grew disgusted at American massacres of Vietnamese people). But Billy Jack is not a police officer, and his concern is not to clear the world of “scum” or “punks”. Rather, he seeks to protect his people and their land, and especially to protect the experimental Freedom School and its children. (Laughlin and Taylor actually ran a Montessori School in Los Angeles for a number of years, before making this movie). The portrayal of the police in Billy Jack is also interestingly ambiguous — the Sheriff seems to be a fairly decent guy, but his Deputy is a racist who also abuses his daughter and serves as a lackey of Posner, the rich man who runs the town. We first get to meet Billy Jack when he stops Posner and the deputy sheriff from killing wild horses in order to sell the meat for dogfood.

Billy Jack carries a rifle, in contrast to the .44 Magnum favored by both Dirty Harry and Travis Bickle. He seems equally at home on a horse and on a motorcycle. But Billy is also an expert in martial arts. Billy Jack is one of the first American films to feature Asian martial arts; this came several years after Bruce Lee displayed his martial arts skills in the late-1960s TV series The Green Hornet, but before Lee’s movies, made in Hong Kong, were shown in the US and really popularized martial arts. Billy Jack also precedes the popular American TV series Kung Fu, starring David Carradine (yet another white actor playing a non-white character), that also did a lot to popularize Asian martial arts in the US during the 1970s).

I am very interested in thinking about how the figure of Billy Jack became such a cultural icon in the 1970s (and also about why he was forgotten in subsequent decades). Laughlin’s Billy, like Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, is a sort of throwback, a figure of pre-1960s masculinity: strong and fairly silent, keeping his own counsel, utterly righteous (though the films have vastly different definitions of righteousness), entirely courageous, and unbending in his commitment to his goals, which involves serving and saving other people (the honest citizens menaced by punks for Harry, and the Indians and schoolkids for Billy). They are both tightly reined in, but they both seem to get off on their own violence when they have the occasion to exercise it. One might even compare Eastwood’s “feeling lucky” speech to Lauglin’s speech to Posner before attacking him (“I’m gonna take this right foot, and I’m gonna whop you on that side of your face. And you wanna know something? There’s not a damn thing you’re gonna be able to do about it”). But Harry and Billy nonetheless feel utterly different from one another in terms of their screen presence. How can we describe this difference?

Part of it has to do, of course, with the difference between the big-city environment of Dirty Harry (and also of Taxi Driver), and the largely rural environment of Billy Jack (which was shot in New Mexico and Arizona). (Though as a lifelong urban person, I myself tend to see big cities as places of multicultural vibrancy, rather than as places of danger and decay). But it also has to do with the ways the characters’ surroundings are depicted. In Dirty Harry’s San Francisco (and also in Travis Bickle’s Manhattan) there seems to be no sense of community or of interpersonal contact. Everybody is completely alone, or at most part of a couple (like Harry’s partner and his wife). Crowds of people go down the street with complete anonymity and no real interaction. At best, Harry knows the owner of the joint where he gets the exact same lunch every day, and the guy who lend him surveillance microphones. There’s also the liquor store owner who carries a gun because he has been robbed so many times; Scorpio pretends to be friendly and sympathetic, only to rob him yet again.

The situation in entirely different in Billy Jack. The school is an interdependent community; and the town seems to be so to some degree as well. Even the ugliest actions, like the way Bernard (the son of the rich guy who controls the town) abuses some of the kids from the school has much more of a social context than the interactions between total strangers in Dirty Harry. I think that this is emphasized by the activities engaged in by the students from the school. Even if you don’t enjoy their frequent forays into folk singing and improv theater, you have to accept that these are forms of engagement and interaction. They even include the Sheriff and the members of the city council in these activities; they are anxious to show the straight world that they are sincere and creative, and just want to live and let live. I read one online review that criticized the movie on the grounds that Jean’s “no drugs” policy at the school was completely unrealistic; but in fact this is addressed within the movie itself, when the students do a skit about dope smoking and parental disapproval of it, in which the young people take on the role of parents and cops, and city council members are inveigled into playing the disaffected, dope-smoking teens.

Also, the vigilanteism that is uncritically celebrated as necessary in Dirty Harry is itself overtly scrutinized in Billy Jack. There’s the time when Billy Jack is going to beat up Bernard, but Jean convinces him to just force Billy to drive his car into the lake instead. When Bernard abuses the non-white kids in the ice cream parlor, Billy Jack comes to their rescue, but he forces Bernard to back off without beating him up. We then have the martial arts set piece in the city park, where Billy Jack solo uses his martial arts skill to defeat close to a dozen of Bernard’s friends, before finally being overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. That seems a lot cooler to me than Harry’s .44 Magnum. It’s true that we root for Billy Jack when he finally kills Bernard — because Bernard has both raped Jean, and is having sex with an underage girl. But even this is not unambiguous, since Jean retains her pacifism and calls Billy to account for the killing.

A lot of critics, both when Billy Jack was originally released, and more recently, have criticized the movie for trying to have it both ways: giving us lectures about pacifism, yet at the same time giving us the gratification of seeing Billy beat up the bad guys. But this seems to me to be an unfair criticism, since again the movie explicitly sets up a kind of dialectic between pacifism (argued for mostly by Jean) and vigilante revenge (which motivates Billy). Billy keeps on saying that he is trying to be a pacifist, but not succeeding, and feeling guilty as a result. And then there is the moment during the siege of the building where Billy is making his last stand. Billy tells Jean that she has a peaceful soul, in contrast to his anguished and violent one. But Jean responds that this is a load of crap. She has no equanimity or acceptance of having been raped; she says that she has been fantasizing continually about making Bernard pay for what he did. But she held back, she says, because her taking revenge would ultimately harm the young people in the school, and their welfare is her biggest responsibility.

All this is exemplified by the movie’s ending. It isn’t what we expect from this genre of movie. Billy neither holds out singlehandedly against numerous assailants, nor goes out in a final blaze of glory. Instead, he surrenders, and allows himself to be taken away by the police, in return for promises that the government will continue to fund the school and leave Jean as its head. He mentions that the government has again and again broken all its promises to Native Americans, but hopes that this time it will be different. And as Billy is taken away, all the students from the school stand up and raise their fists in the Black Power salute (which was still a highly controversial gesture in the United States at this time). The movie leaves us with a grim but nonetheless hopeful assessment of what is to come, rather than indulging in myths of either redemption or destruction (myths which are invoked ad nauseam in American culture, and which are arguably fascistic in their implications).

Billy Jack is admittedly fairly pedestrian in its cinematography and editing; there is nothing here on the level on Don Siegel’s finely honed action editing in Dirty Harry, let alone the formal mastery of Scorsese in Taxi Driver. But there is still much to admire in Billy Jack, including its earnest vision of political hope, its rather dialectical approach to issues that are treated much more one-sidedly even in aesthetically more accomplished Hollywood films, and the way Laughlin’s Billy Jack functions as an iconic figure of masculinity (but in startling contrast to such contemporaneous figures as Eastwood’s Harry and to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle). As little tolerance as I have for improv theater, nonetheless I cannot regard Billy Jack as incoherently over the top, or as camp — which seems to be the main way it is regarded today, by the few people who remember it at all. Billy Jack deserves a far better place than it currently has within the history of American film; and I would even say that it is worthy of consideration, and indeed emulation, by those who are still thinking about the possibilities of making politically progressive art today.

Cadwell Turnbull – No Gods, No Monsters

Cadwell Turnbull’s new novel, NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, will be published in a few weeks (September 7). Via NetGalley, I got to read an advance copy, in return for providing an honest review.

Cadwell Turnbull was previously the author of THE LESSON, a parable about colonialism in the form of a story about aliens (from a planet technologically far superior to ours) establishing a presence in the US Virgin Islands (where the author is actually from). That novel excelled at combining vignettes of everyday life with its sf premise, which worked both allegorically (as a representation of colonialism) and intimately and realistically, in terms of the characters and their interactions.

This combination of everydayness with weird/uncanny premises works even better in NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, which makes sense entirely on its own, but which is also announced as the first volume of a trilogy (the “Convergence Saga”). The speculative premise here is one that might more readily be characterized as urban fantasy than as science fiction: there are “monsters” among us in the world as we know it now, shapeshifters (werewolves etc), psychics of various sorts, soucouyants (people from West Indies folklore who can cast off their skins and move about invisibly), and many others.

NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, however, has a far different feel than any other urban fantasy I have read. And this has a lot to do with the everydayness I mentioned. There are magical powers, and there are people using these powers both for good and ill; but for the most part, these powers are just another part of the life circumstances of the people who wield them, and who just want to get on with their lives, pursue activities of value, have romances, and so on — just like everybody else.

This in itself is a brilliant commentary on our social myths and fantasies. All too often, both in works of fiction and in what might be called the social imaginary, a distinction is made between ordinary folks and people with extraordinary powers, who become either heroes/saviors or villains (or both, depending). This type of story itself depends upon a bigoted set of assumptions; since the “ordinary folks” are generally assumed to be straight white men. Think of how the newspapers distinguish between everyman and so-called ‘special interests’ — the “average” American is always somebody like a white male working-class midwesterner who is mad as hell about immigrants and people of color allegedly getting ahead at his expense, and who therefore supports Trump. Why is such a person any more ‘ordinary’ than, say, an unmarried Black lesbian mother of two kids who has to work backbreaking jobs with long commutes just to make ends meet?

Anyway, one of the great things about NO GODS, NO MONSTERS is that it simply ignores such bigoted assumptions. Among the many characters we meet in this book, an ordinary person just trying to get along with their life might well be, say, a biracial trans man who is married to a woman but who generally considers himself asexual, and who is an anarchist activist devoted to organizing bottom-up cooperative enterprises owned and run by their workers (rather than by a capitalist boss). Or an ordinary person just trying to get along with their life might be an ex-drug addict now trying to repair relations with estranged family members, but who is also a werewolf, and who has been able to go straight and pull themselves together due to his bonds with his werewolf community. Or an ordinary person just trying to get along with their life might be somebody like the novel’s narrator, a failed academic who leaves the US mainland and goes back to his home in the Virgin Islands; he isn’t quite sure what he wants, or where he is headed, but he has the imaginative power to enter other peoples’ lives and observe them silently, which is where the material of the novel comes from.

In other words, there are lots of ways of being ordinary; most people just want to get along. It is this wanting just to get along that turns them into social activists, because our society is set up in such a way as to block their flourishing. There are many instances of this in the novel, having to do with racism, economic inequality, heterosexism, and so on. But most strongly, in this novel, it has to do with people having to hide their feelings and their very existence because they are “monsters.” Early in the novel, one of the main characters has to deal with how her estranged brother was murdered, a Black man shot and killed by a cop. Except it also turns out that her brother was a werewolf, and the cop shot him when he was in animal form. Werewolves keep to themselves, and do not harm ‘ordinary’ human beings, but who not part of the magical/monster underground is going to believe this?

In the course of the novel, the existence of monsters is revealed to the general public (or to straight people), in an event called The Fracture. Many of the monsters are more relieved than disturbed by this; they are anxious to come out of the closet and go public with who they are – a civil rights movement arises. But there are also forces seeking to suppress the evidence, and to make the monsters disappear from public view once again. The videos that proliferated across the Internet, showing the transformation of werewolved back into human form, mysteriously get erased. This itself seems to be a supernatural act. For there are also secret societies of monsters with their own hidden agendas, who seek to manipulate events for their own power and profit. And some of the monsters do in fact have scary supernatural powers. And there is also a lot of bigotry against monsters on the part of other people, even otherwise progressive other people. And there is still a lot of violence; this is a book that does not shy from representing murder, mutilation, and other ugly forms of abuse. Some of this violence is of the sort that we expect from the supernatural-with-elements-of-horror subgenre that this book belongs to. But more of the violence comes from straight people killing monsters by shooting guns — a form of violence that monsters are just as susceptible to as any other human beings. Monsters, like other outsider minorities, are much more often the victims of violence than its perpetrators.

NO GODS, NO MONSTERS does not have a single narrative focus; the narrative will stay with one character or set of characters for a few chapters, then switch attention to other ones. This back-and-forth seems to have disturbed some of the more simpleminded advance readers who posted on Goodreads; but it is essential to how the book works. This is a sort of networked novel. Human beings, ‘monsters’ or not, are social beings; nobody is an island unto themselves. What happens to people happens in the context of their relationships to other people. The different characters and plot strands scattered through the novel ultimately turn out to be interconnected — albeit interconnected often by what network theorists call ‘weak ties’, rather than through some grandiose and paranoid design. I have already said that the novel focuses on everydayness, and that it absorbs its supernatural and ‘monstrous’ visions into this everydayness; well, loose entanglements and interconnections are part of this everydayness. The novel gives us a powerful sense that, although nobody is unequivocally in control, nobody is insignificant either. This is one of the novel’s gifts, and part of what makes it so moving.

This sense of interconnection also pertains to the narrator. Though often he is recounting, in the third person, what happens to other people, he also has his own story, and his own emotional problems — his failed relationships, although entirely mundane, resonate strongly with the failures and problems experienced by the other characters, who are either monsters or the straight people who love them. The narrator’s insight into the lives of these other characters is itself something of a monster-like power; his “I” is there, although invisible, when things happen to other people. Mostly he is unnoticed, but sometimes the monsters, with their supernatural powers, are able to detect his presence, He seems, therefore, to be able to travel through time and space via astral projection; there are also references to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the sad life of that theory’s inventor, Hugh Everett, itself becomes a strand in the novel interwoven with the entirely fictional ones. It is noteworthy how the special status of the narrator who says “I” does not seem like a metafictional/postmodern conceit, but is itself woven into the textures of the novel’s world of networked interchanges, mirroring situations, and general drift. Throughout the book, existential crisis and everydayness also interpenetrate one another.

The novel’s title, NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, is itself a play on the old anarchist slogan, “no gods, no masters.” This is an egalitarian hope, something that cuts against the structure of the system of patriarchal racial capitalism in which we actually live. But such an “axiom of equality” (to cite something that has been formulated in varying ways by such theorists as Jacques Ranciere and Alain Badiou) is essential both to what it means to be human, and now to what it might mean to be posthuman or more-than-human. It is essential to anybody’s flourishing. In the novel, there are both gods and monsters. But the slogan “no gods, no monsters” is chanted by the monsters themselves, and their supporters. The “monsters” we meet do not want to give up being monsters — which is who they are, or what it means to be themselves — but they want to abolish the sense that “the monster” is an absolute other, an aberrant category, designating people (or sentient beings) who cannot be admitted into society. Isn’t this the dilemma faced by so many insurgent groups today (people of color, women, gays and lesbians, trans people, disabled people, and so on) who are always getting accused of “identity politics” when they point up how they are being excluded and victimized precisely on the basis of their perceived “identity”?

In short, NO GODS, NO MONSTERS is a reflection on some of the most crucial issues and social conditions that we are faced with today. At the same time, it is quite singular — different from just about anything else I have read. Its combination of detached drifting and fascination makes for a unique reading experience, a tone I have not found anywhere else.

Rivers Solomon, Sorrowland

Here is my review of Rivers Solomon’s new novel, Sorrowland. The book will be published on May 4th. I received an advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley, in return for providing an honest review.

Rivers Solomon is the author of two previous books: An Unkindness of Ghosts, a space opera crossed with a neo-slave narrative, and The Deep, a narrative elaboration of the hip hop group clipping.’s reboot of the Detroit techno band Drexciya’s mythology of an underwater civilization composed of the descendents of kidnapped Africans who were thrown overboard during the Middle Passage. Both of those books were powerful and thought-provoking, but Solomon’s new novel, Sorrowland, is even better. The book feels like science fiction to me, even though it might more likely be categorized as gothic horror, or even magic realism. Solomon’s writing is one more instance of the genre hybridity and emotional and conceptual reach of speculative fiction writing in the twenty-first century, especially by writers of color.

It is difficult to discuss Sorrowland without giving away lots of spoilers, but I will do my best to keep these to a minimum. The reason it is hard to avoid spoilers is that the narrative works by continual expansion. It starts out with a very narrow focus, but continually opens up, or spirals outward, to new dimensions and new contexts. What starts out as a grim survivalist tale about isolation, loneliness, and deprivation ends up as a much broader account of the United States as a repressive hierarchical state founded upon racist terror. The writing is tightly focused on naturalistic detail, even as it offers up the most unsparing judgments, and even when it opens up to the most fantastical happenings.

At a number of points throughout the book, the narrative reaches a crux, a confrontation. Each time this happens, you think about what might take place next; you imagine the most extravagant possibilites, and wonder if the author will dare to go there. And each time, Solomon does not so much go there as go even further, to an outcome (or a new stage) that exceeds even my most delirious expectations. (Of course, my inability to imagine such happenings in advance is part of why I am not a creative writer, but a critic-scholar who seizes on books like Sorrowland as opportunities for reflection and expansion). At each of these cruxes, it feels like I have had the rug pulled out from under me, and I am forced to realize that, ‘no, this is vaster and more horrifying than I had previously imagined.’ I should note too, though, that every time these developments are given fictively scientific explanations, rather than supernatural ones; this is part of the reason that the book feels science fictional to me, despite the fact that its tropes have more in common with gothic fiction. Even as we discover and feel forces that are cosmic in scope, and disproportionate with our commonsensical understandings, they still ultimately have empirical roots and explanations. There is no rupture or bifurcation here between the natural and the social, or between the material and the spiritual.

Sorrowland gives us the story of Vern, a young albino (and apparently intersex) Black woman. When we first meet her, she is 15 years old and pregnant. She is extemely nearsighted, and does not know how to read. She is hiding, alone, in the woods, having run away from the only home she has known, a Black nationalist commune called Cainland, somewhere in the US Deep South. Cainland is all about Black pride, education, and self-sustaining independence for its community; but it is also extremely patriarchal and puritanically religious. Life in Cainland involves a seemingly endless series of chores, prayers, punishments, and medical exams and injections. Vern, still a girl, was forcibly married to, and impregnated by, its stern leader, Reverend Sherman.

But all this backstory is only filled in gradually, over the course of the book (and with revelations placed strategically at unexpected points in the course of the narrative). At the start of the book, Vern gives birth to twins, unassisted, in the heart of the forest. The novel has a great and compelling opening sentence: “The child gushed out from twixt Vern’s legs ragged and smelling of salt.” Vern immediately thinks of drowning this child, to preserve him from a worse fate. But instead, she cares for him “with what gentleness she could muster, and it wasn’t enough to fill a thimble.” Though the child is referred to as “he” (together with his sibling, born an hour later), Vern raises them without any ascription of gender. Their names are Howling and Feral. Vern and her babies remain in the forest, apart from any human contact. They subsist as hunter-gatherers. Conditions are harsh, rather than idyllic; Sorrowland is no robinsonade. But Vern’s survivalist skills are sharp enough that they make do.

Things happen around Vern and her children, however; she is not truly isolated, but submerged in the world, or in nature. The novel has an ecological vision, according to which all things are entangled. Vern has a living connection to the trees, and more generally to the animals and plants and fungi. But there are more disquieting things, as well. Vern is stalked by a “fiend,” who continually taunts her, sometimes by setting fires, and otherwise by leaving murdered animals hanging from the trees, often adorned with baby clothes or toys. In addition, Vern is frequently tormented by hauntings, visions of the dead who sometimes speak to her, and other times just appear mutely before her. They include people she remembers from her time in Cainland, but also people from deeper (ancestral, community) levels of memory, like lynching victims she sees hanging from trees. And on top of all this, Vern starts to notice strange changes in her body…

Saying more, with any detail, would involve those spoilers I said that I would try to avoid. So I will just note that Vern lives with her babies in the forest for four years; and then — at not quite a third of the way through the novel — she has to return to, and deal with, what most of us know as the outside world (and what she mostly encountered in the past during short supervised trips outside Cainland itself). Surviving in contemprary America without any form of ID, or any money or credit cards, is in some ways more difficult that surviving in the forest. But Vern finds allies and helpers, as well as persecutors and enemies. She and her children are gifted with greater resources, as well as assaulted with wider and more articulated dangers. And Vern herself continues a metamorphosis (both physical and mental) that at once debilitates her, gives her strength, and puts her in danger from forces that want to control her. She is no longer entirely human, though in some ways this also ties her more concertedly to human histories and communities. (Again, I must be vague in order to avoid giving away too much).

Like Solomon’s other novels — only even more so — Sorrowland is at times overwhelmingly distressing, though it manages to eke out a bit of hope by the end. A lot of what happens in the course of the novel really hurts. The pain is both inflicted by others, and also self-inflicted, as Vern has to some extent internalized her own oppression — this is part of how she was educated, as well as how she experiences the world. Though Vern ultimately becomes something like a superhero, she also continually has to face her own limitations, an existential finitude that would exist in any context whatsoever, but that is massively amplified by social injustice. This is still another way in which the novel feels science-fictional to me; it combines a daring cognitive scope with a careful parsing of how it feels to be caught up in, and very nearly swamped by, powerful social and technological currents.

The prose of Sorrowland is deeply affective and intellectually cutting at the same time, a combination few writers can manage. Concrete physical and sensory details, and a deep sense of corporeal being, coexist with tremendous leaps of abstraction, not to mention citations of such authors as James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Jacques Derrida. There’s even a joke about a book supposedly called A Poststructuralist Critique of Embodiment (which is entirely silly, and yet at the same time deeply apropos to what is going on over the course of the novel). The novel starts out with a harshly delimited horizon, but it ends in a sort of cosmopolitics.

Sorrowland is an extraordinary novel. it is continually and astonishingly inventive, while at the same time (I don’t know how to better express this) it has the force of necessity, of something that just has to be. It begins with the harshness of childbirth; and it ends with “the night calls of one thousand living things, screaming their existence, assuring the world of their survival.” The book is itself a deep and ferocious expression of survival; and — perhaps, even, we may at least hope, beyond its final pages — of flourishing.

Thoughts on transgression in the 21st century

This posting should probably be called Thoughts on “Transgression” — since it is difficult to think of transgression today without using air quotes or scare quotes of ironic distancing or whatever. Transgression was an important move in 19th and 20th century Euro-American aesthetics; from the Paris bohemians shocking to bourgeoise, through surrealism in Europe and the Beats in the USA, on to much of the LGBTQ art of the late 20th century. But what remains of this today?

Transgression, like so many other things, has largely been commodified and corporatized in the 21st century. What used to seem subversive is now no longer so. There is no sexual kink so extreme that you cannot find an internet community devoted to it. Of course, transgression always had different political valencies. If anarchism, extreme sex, and psychedelic drugs were transgressive, so were the eruptions of violence and destruction that the Italian Futurists loved, and that culminated in fascism. There’s always been a large degree of uneven development (to borrow and detourn a Marxist term) involved. For instance, I am second to no one in my admiration of Georges Bataille’s deeply transgressive critique of bourgeois capitalism (including of how it prepared the ground for, and then accomodated, fascism). My first book was half about Bataille. But what can be more stupid, boring, and old-fashioned to read today than Bataille’s pornographic fiction, with its extreme (and all too typical of male intellectuals of Bataille’s generation) gynophobia? — as in his ludicrous description of the female genitalia as “hairy and pink, just as full of life as some loathsome squid… that running, teeming wound.”

Even more seriously, perhaps, transgression today is largely a phenomenon of the ultra-right. Bari Weiss urges us to embrace the daring of the “intellectual dark web,” where people express such “dangerous” and “taboo” ideas as white supremacy, normative heterosexuality, male superiority, and the attribution of all differences among human beings in social power and wealth to the inexorable effects of genetics. This is what happens when large corporations, in order to maintain their sales, pay hypocritical lip service to “diversity” and “multiculturalism.” Yesterday’s mainstream ideology, which still has widespread support throughout society despite polite surface disavowals, is now packaged as a rebellious and transgressive refusal to conform. This is the basis of websites like 8Chan, and of the appeal of Donald Trump, whose supporters love him precisely because he violates the norms of social and political propriety.

I am not really bothered by the loss of transgression as a gesture, or as a self-aggrandizing form of display. I am happy to get beyond that, to stop being impressed by that sort of grandiosity. What I do wonder about, however, is the existence of ideas that really are disturbing — not just ‘disturbing’ to liberal opinion because we don’t say such things (even when we really believe them) in polite white society. Neither the race-baiting of the alt-right, nor even something like Nietzsche’s whole-hearted advocacy of enslaving the large majority of human beings, is all that shocking today: we have a whole history in which such positions were hegemonic (and, beneath hypocritical disguises, they still actually are, more or less).

What I am thinking of, instead, is some propositions that are raised, often indirectly, in science fiction novels and stories. Take, for instance, the idea that perhaps it would be better if human beings were to go extinct, leaving the planet to other (and hopefully less rapacious) organisms. This idea is raised at least as far back as 1969, in the short story “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), and it has been taken up by many science fiction and environmental fiction writers since. Such a contemplation of complete human extinction is genuinely disturbing, in a way that neither Georges Bataille’s sexual fantasies, nor the alt-right’s sadistic imaginings of domination, could ever be.

But perhaps the very totalization of imagining human doom makes things a bit too simple. There are other suggestions I have found in recent speculative fiction that are not quite as extreme, but perhaps even more unsettling. In my forthcoming book Extreme Fabulations, I write about several science fiction texts that pose the question of human extinction in a somewhat different way. WHat these texts propose is that, from an ethical and political standpoint, complete human extermination might well be less bad that a catastrophe that allows the wealthy to survive the doom they have inflicted upon everyone else. None of the texts I have in mind quite state this, but they do raise it as a question. The best known of these is the two most recent novels by William Gibson: The Peripheral (2014) and Agency (2020). Both of these novels envision a 22nd century in which something like 80% of all human beings have killed off as a result of multiple ecological catastrophes; but the affluent have survived the damage, along with enough people to be their servants, and enough technology to make their lives pleasant. Though Gibson does not raise the point directly, he raises in the reader’s mind (or at least in my mind) a question of justice. I find it intolerable that a group or class of people who have essentially committed genocide should get to enjoy the fruits of what they have done. This is not far from a real-world situation: it is obvious that, today, the international billionaire class is aware that we are headed to ecological ruin, but that they are unwilling to spend even a small part of their wealth, let alone undergo discomfort, in order to alleviate it. They have decided, instead, to bunker down and outlive it (or, in the case of Elon Musk, escape it by moving to Mars): they anticipate that eventually they, or their descendants, will be able to emerge from hiding, and resume ownership of a world from which most other human beings, together with innumerable other species, will have been eliminated. This may well be a ridiculous fantasy; perhaps there will not be enough left for them ever to resume their privileged lives. But am I wrong to feel an ethical revulsion at this prospect? Is it not more ethical to have total human extinction, than to allow the perpetrators of mass death to survive and get away with it?

Here is another science fictional scenario, that I will discuss more briefly. Several sf texts that I have read recently — Carl Neville’s novel Eminent Domain, and Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s short story “Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods” — both suggest that the continuing existence of the United States of America makes the achievement of any degree of freedom and prosperity, or any sort of humane socialism, in the rest of the world impossible. Sriduangkaew’s story pretty much explicitly advocates the destruction of the USA and the violent extermination of its people. While Neville’s novel neither envisages nor advocates any such thing, it nonetheless makes it clear that the continuing existence of the USA is an absolute stumbling block to any hopes for liberty, equality, and general well-being anywhere else in the world. This seems to me to be the inverse of the situation I described in the previous paragraph. As a comfortable, affluent, and generally privileged citizen of the USA, I don’t really want anything to happen that will harm my own way of life, of those of my children, friends, and relatives. Nonetheless, I find the ethico-political claim made by these works of fiction to be compelling and largely true: that the maintenance of American power across the world, and of affluence for a smaller group of Americans among whom I must include myself, is contingent upon the immiseration of a large majority of human beings, and only the complete elimination of the American imperium and the American threat can possibly alleviate this situation.

So these are some of the uncomfortable thoughts that are too extreme even to call “transgressive,” that will never be entertained by the proponents of the Dark Web, whose right to be expressed will never be a cause celebre for the opponents of so-called “cancel culture,” but whose logic I find it hard to counter, much to my own distress.

Charlie Jane Anders, Victories Greater Than Death

Here is my review of Charlie Jane Anders’ new science fiction novel, Victories Greater Than Death. The book will be published in two and a half weeks. I received an advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley, in return for providing an honest review.

Charlie Jane Anders’ new novel, Victories Greater Than Death, the first volume of a projected trilogy, is great fun. It is Anders’ first book for a YA (Young Adult) audience, which means that it has teenage protagonists, who are shy and moody and nervous about their infatuations. It is perhaps less conceptually audacious than some of Anders’ other work; but this is only a relative observation. There’s still a lot going on in Victories Greater Than Death, even if its main purpose is to entertain.

Victories Greater Than Death is about a bunch of human teenagers, of various gender identities and ethnicities, who find themselves transported onto a starship, and e in a galactic war. A multi-species and relatively non-hierarchical federation, the Firmament (ultimately guided by benevolent computers like those of Iain Banks’ Culture novels) is engaged in struggle against a fascist counterforce, which we can think of as an analog to the contemporary Earthly movements behind Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, Orban, Duterte, Netanyahu, and so on, only expanded to a galactic scale. In the course of the novel, we get everything that we expect from space opera: exciting interstellar battles, majestic discoveries, last-minute escapes, daring rescue missions against great odds, and the sociology of navigating interspecies differences. We also get everything we expect from YA fiction: the emotional ups and downs and intensified agonies and ecstasies of teenagers who are geniuses but misfits, struggling to define themselves, to do something meaningful in the world, and to make sense of their own emotions. What we do not get, thankfully, is the overdone template of YA dystopian fiction today, in which a plucky teen girl, all on her own, overthrows a totalitarian world order. Anders has something much more imaginative in mind.

Victories Greater Than Death deftly combines teen interiority with galactic socio-politics. The narrative focuses upon six teens who leave the Earth behind and venture into space. They are gay and straight, female, male, and trans, and from different continents and ethnic and racial groups. Their multiplicity is echoed by the crew of the warship the HMSS Indomitable, who are drawn from different humanoid species originating across different planets. Anders’ worldbuilding feels solid and well-thought out, although she definitely puts wacky imaginative detail ahead of plodding sociological plausibility.

In its worldbuilding, Victories Greater Than Death entertainingly subverts many of the expected genre clichés. For instance, the HMSS Indomitable belongs to the Royal Navy. We all know how space opera is obsessed with galactic empires. But it turns out that the Queen, ostensibly at the head of this interplanetay society, “isn’t a monarch,” but rather “more like a librarian”; she interfaces with gigantic AIs, “gathers the knowledge of a million worlds,” and “shares it with everyone in the Firmament.” She is more Barbara Gordon or Rupert Giles than she is Elizabeth Windsor. Learning this is a great relief to one of the teens, an Afro-British gay man who hates his memories of “being forced to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ as a small child.” I give this detail as only one small example of how the novel continually plays with the tropes of both the space opera and the teen romance, and twists them into delightful new forms.

Tina, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, is a white American teen girl who is actually, under disguise, the genetic clone of a legendary Firmament starship captain from a planet of purple-skinned humanoids. She is supposed to have the captain’s memories implanted into her own brain as well, but the operation backfires. She gains her predecessor’s procedural and semantic memories, but not her personal ones. Tina now knows how to fire a “positron cloudstrike gun,” and she knows cultural details about the various galactic species, but she does not know what her predecessor actually did, or what sort of person she was. This turns out to be a good thing rather than a bad thing, because Tina reaps the rewards as well as the confusions of hybridity, without having her own personality swamped by that of her supposed ‘original’. In any case, this extra-human or post-human layer of doubt works to intensify the romance aspect of the novel, which has Tina pining for one of the other teens, a dark-skinned trans woman from Brazil.

In giving Tina this divided and incomplete heritage, Anders also undermines the tiresome narrative stereotype of the Chosen One. As a result of her incomplete transformation, Tina cannot be the one who saves the world; more broadly, she cannot be “The One” (like Neo in The Matrix) at all. This is, first, because such a savior figure does not exist; and second, because any such figure would be a nasty, megalomaniacal dictator if he or she did in fact exist (that would be the novel’s antagonist, Marrant, who leads the fascist rebel forces: fascists have leaders, but egalitarian democrats don’t).

Instead, Tina learns a number of things. In the first place, although Tina picks up the powers and abilities of her predecessor, and therefore is a superb warrior, she finds that she cannot live with herself after killing people. This is the case even though she only kills people in self-defense, in order to stop them from killing her and her friends. She becomes a pacifist, and hopes to defend the Firmament and oppose the fascists while maintaining “non-offensive status.” It remains to be seen, in the other volumes of the trilogy, just what this will entail.

In the second place, Tina learns that she can only help to save the world by joining up with her friends. The group of Earth teens integrates successfully into the larger galactic community aboard the Indomitable, but they also stick together and have one another’s back. Defeating the bad guys is a group effort, in which everyone has their individual roles. Nobody can go it alone, but also nobody can substitute for the uniqueness of anybody else.

Multiculturalism is replicated on multiple levels throughout the novel. There’s the multiplicity among the group of Earth teens, and there is the larger multiplicity of the humanoid races existing in harmony on the starship, and throughout the Firmament. But beyond this, there is a looming, still broader level. We gradually learn the backstory behind the Firmament. An older, now vanished species, known only as the Shapers, went through the galaxy ages ago, aiding the growth of humanoid sentient species on many planets, while at best stymieing the development, and at worst exterminating, all the sentient non-humanoid (and especially non-vertebrate) species they found. These crimes stand behind the current splendor of the Firmament, as much as slavery and genocide stand behind the United States of America. The fascist antagonists in Victories Greater Than Death embrace this ugly heritage, as much as right-wing forces in contemporary America (with analogs across the world) do. But even the good guys, the Firmament, are not free of this history. In principle, the Royal Navy is supposed to cross the galaxy, aiding the helpless and oppressed. But in practice, this doesn’t always happen — the Firmament has a long history of broken promises and calculations based on realpolitik. And this, too, is part of the legacy our teens have to deal with.

The end of Victories Greater Than Death gives us something of a cliffhanger, preparing us for the later installments of the trilogy. Most of the plot strands are resolved, and the immediate bad guys are defeated. But there is a cost — Tina’s best human friend, and one of the alien good guys as well, are left in a coma — and there are intimations of greater dangers to come, as well as the lingering, unresolved issues that I have already mentioned. I look forward to the sequels; but for now, Victories Greater Than Death is a fun, satisfying, and also thought-provoking read, which I can happily recommend to an adult, as well as a YA, audience.

NFTs

Here are some thoughts about NFTs and the art market. NFTs — “non-fungible tokens” — have become the latest art world craze; The New York Times explains them here.

My question is how we might think of NFT’s in the context of what Walter Benjamin called mechanical reproduction or technological reproducibility (depending on which translation you use). Benjamin says paintings have an aura because they are unique objects: the photo, postcard, or other reproduction of the Mona Lisa is not equivalent to the actual painting. But this is no longer the case with mass-reproduced objects, like cinema for Benjamin. And this was why Benjamin saw a revolutionary potential in cultural forms without an aura (the opposite position to Clement Greenberg’s rejection of kitsch).

Now, one of the things Benjamin didn’t quite get was that, in an economically unequal society, the privilege of the aura is recreated in other ways. Benjamin dismisses the “phony aura” of the movie star; but I would argue that, say, Marilyn Monroe’s aura is no more or less “fake” than the aura of the Mona Lisa. Benjamin failed to grasp how celebrities themselves actually do have an auratic presence, in the same way that unique paintings do. Even today, there are also still auratic fetishes about technological differences: things like film vs video (e.g. Quentin Tarantino still insists in making his movies on photographic film, and snobbishly considers that you aren’t really seeing the movie unless you see them projected on an analog projector in 70mm). More generally, every time technology destroys the aura, or destroys the distinction between original and copy, the “culture industry” finds ways of bringing the distinction back. Digital files can be reproduced indefinitely without any degradation of quality, but often the files are degraded anyway, in order to maintain the prestige of the original. e.g., mp3s use compression, lowering file size by degrading quality, so they actually aren’t exact copies of the master recordings. So-called “digital rights management” also restricts the circulation of electronic texts (as well as audiovisual works) in order to maintain an artificial scarcity; the reason for this is to increase revenue, but to the extent that it makes a work unavailable or irreproducible, it once again creates an aura.

Benjamin was interested in aura as a form of elitist cultural prestige; for him, it was more like something for the old aristocracy than something for the bourgeoisie. But in today’s financialized capitalism, this distinction falls away. Anyone with enough money can buy a Picasso, a Warhol, or a Basquiat; the snobbery of the old-rich art connoisseurs becomes less relevant, when (for instance) rappers can hire (white and impeccably aristocratic) art advisors to tell them which canvases to buy. Or to put this all another way: aura and prestige have traditionally been tied to access: as long as there is inequality of access, the work has an aura, and the people with access to the work have prestige and power in a way that people without access don’t. There are only a certain number of Warhols or Basquiats in the world, and reproductions don’t quite do them justice; so these works retain their aura, and their owners retain a measure of prestige. But Benjamin was right that movies don’t have quite this level of aura or social prestige as paintings did: I can watch a Tarantino movie on my computer, even though Tarantino himself scorns this and sees it as an inferior form of access. Widespread piracy of written texts, circumventing DRM and making the books available for free, not only harms publisher profits, but denudes the book of its aura as well. (This also explains why some books are published in limited numbers in high-production-value formats, even though there is no change in the actual text).

As far as I can tell, the brilliant thing about NFTs is that, for the first time ever, it completely separates ownership and auratic prestige from the work itself. I cannot really appreciate Basquiat’s brushstrokes when I see a digital or photographic reproduction of one of his paintings, in the way that I could if I had the painting itself. But I can download, essentially for free, the exact same digital file created by Beeple that just sold for $69 million. NFTs entirely separate prestige, ownership, and bragging rights from access. Some rich asshole just paid an enormous sum for the aura of Beeple’s file, and presumably this will be re-sellable indefinitely, perhaps at a profit. But this unique ownership, embedded in the digital “token” that records it, has no longer has any relation to the possibility or the difficulty of actually looking at the work in question. The aura is a different file from the file of the work itself. The separation of monetary value from the object is very much like what happens with financial derivatives, which float free from their “underlying”. There is a unique, and therefore expensive, prestigious, and auratic “essence” to the work, but this “essence” no longer has any relation whatsoever to questions of access, or to the actual availability of the experience of the work.

I think this would be a great model to apply to other cultural forms as well. Writers are worried about selling their works, and nervous about piracy, because their royalties are the only way they get paid. At the same time, most writers would like to be read as widely as possible. NFTs offer an escape from this dilemma. If I were to write a novel, and if I could sell an associated NFT of the novel to somebody like, say, Martin Shkreli for a million dollars — then I would be paid for my work, and I could still let everybody else download the novel for free. Shkreli could “own” my novel in the same way as he owns that never-released Wu Tang Clan recording. In 2014, before NFTs became widely accepted, RZA sold Shkreli the exclusive rights to the recording itself; nobody else gets to hear it. If RZA had been able to sell Shkreli an NFT instead, Shkreli would have the same bragging rights, and the Wu Tang Clan would have gotten the same money, but everyone in the world could hear the music.

Nicky Drayden, Escaping Exodus and Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis

I just finished reading Nicky Drayden’s just-published Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis (2021), the sequel to the first Escaping Exodus (2019). These books are absolutely bonkers, and I mean that in the best possible way. I haven’t absorbed enough from just one reading of these novels to be able to draw out their rich implications as fully as I would like. In what follows, I will mostly avoid spoilers as I write about what these novels offer in a fairly abstract way.

The Escaping Exodus books are space opera of a sort. The Earth is nothing more than a distant memory. Human beings live, not precisely in spaceships, but rather inside the bodies of the Zenzee, enormous (moon-sized) living animals that travel in herds through outer space. Inside each Zenzee is a complex array of parasitic or symbiotic microfauna, and an equally complex human society. These societies differ radically from one another, after thousands of years apart. The people in the novels have to negotiate their own social worlds, together with the biophysical challenges of their host environments.

That’s the basic premise of the novels. What really brings the books alive are their rich, world-building details, including a lot of gross and squishy macro-anatomy, odd foods that range from delicious to repulsive, complicated sex/gender/family/class systems that are as inescapable as they are arbitrary, and Machiavellian political infighting. These societies aren’t easily described along a utopian/dystopian axis. In the main world of the novel, for instance, same-sex relationships are just as common, and just as accepted, as heterosexual ones. Women are pretty much in control of everything; men are mostly expected to remain in the domestic sphere, and when they appear in public their appearance is beautified through makeup and revealing garments. There is a rigid class system, with a powerful aristocracy who can get away with pretty much anything, and workers who have almost no rights or privileges. Families are rigid institutions, but they are nothing like the nuclear families of our own society. Instead, these families are composed of multiple spouses, all of whom are consigned to pre-determined roles, and with child-bearing heavily policed as well. Of course, the way these structures are taken for granted within the society, to such an extent that the characters are nearly unable to think their way outside them, can be seen as a cognitively estranging ways of reminding us that our own gender and family arrangements are equally arbitrary and constraining. But the florid proliferation of these arrangements makes an impressive point in its own right; and it is further relativized by the brief glimpses we get of social arrangments inside the other Zenzee worlds (my favorite, perhaps, is the insane world in which there is no gender inequality, but children from a very young age are trained to be warriors; the result is a heavily hierarchical society filled with paranoia, as everyone is full-time engaged in trying to betray and undermine their superiors, while at the same time policing their inferiors to prevent the same thing from happening to them; assassination is common).

The overall effect of all this world-building is quite amazingly delirious, even though in logical terms it all hangs together, and makes at least as much sense as the more humdrum world-building arrangements projected by other sf writers (let alone the world-building arrangements that we ourselves inhabit, and take for granted more than we should). The social relations that I have just described are overlaid by ecological ones, based on the relation between the human beings in general, and the organisms that they inhabit. The human beings initially exploit their Zenzee as resources to be plundered; when the weight of human activities saps the energy of the Zenzee and kills it, the human inhabitants simply transfer themselves to another one. But gradually it becomes clear, not only that this environmental pillaging is unsustainable (making the books into ecological parables), but also that the Zenzee themselves are sentient and feeling organisms, whose own needs and desires need to be taken into account and respected.

Indeed, the novels are concerned above all with various forms of intertwinings and co-dependencies that exist on multiple scales and levels, moving from particular sexual relationships among human individuals, to social arrangments and exploitative class structures, all the way to large-scale ecological dependencies such those between the human beings and the Zenzee. On all these levels, people and communities need to negotiate between their own needs and those (often quite different ones) of the others they encounter. These negotiations can be understood anthropologically and sociologically, of course, but also physically in terms of energy flow and biophysical resources.

The novels thereby suggest — without spelling things out too explicity — an ontology that is very different from anything we are accustomed to. Our most basic categories break down, and it becomes evident that we need different ones. This is both intriguing and difficult, because the characters in the world(s) of the novels never articulate their primary assumptions systematically. They are unaware of their presuppositions in the same way we are all too often unaware of our own (ultimately in the same way that, as McLuhan said, fish are unaware of water). The result is a kind of exciting indeterminacy. For instance, the traditional binary between biological and social simply makes no sense in these novels. Neither of these terms is reducible to the other, or can be explained in terms of the other; but the social and the biological are nonetheless so inextricably intertwined that we cannot find a stable boundary between them. Recent feminist and ecological thinkers have addressed this sort of situation by means of linguistice coinages like Donna Haraway’s naturecultures or Karen Barad’s intra-activity; but in Drayden’s world(s), somehow these hybrid words/concepts don’t seem quite right either. This is yet another one of those cases where even our most advanced theoretical articulations have yet to keep pace with the constructions of speculative fiction.

In any case. we need to infer the consequences of Drayden’s world-building — together with those arising from the wild twists of her plots — indirectly. This is of course one of the main characteristics of science fiction narratives in general; but Drayden carries this “cognitive estrangement” to an extent, and with a meta-referential skill, that is quite unusual. I am tempted to say that, where we expect science fiction to introduce a novum that induces cognitive estrangement, the Escaping Exodus novels present the experience of cognitive estrangement itself as the novum. The books continually force us to reconsider whatever we have already accepted and agreed to. The novels present us with a series of ethico-ecological imperatives, and work to convince us that these imperatives are both urgent and entirely rational. But whenever we get to some degree of acceptance and resolution, the narratives then up the ante in startling and outrageously hyperbolic ways. The Escaping Exodus volumes are immediately gripping and entertaining; but they also push us inexorably into a series of increasingly crazy WTF moments, whose imperative logic we nonetheless have to accept.

Arkady Martine, A Desolation Called Peace

Here is my review of Arkady Martine’s new science fiction novel, A Desolation Called Peace, her sequel to the Hugo-winning A Memory Called Empire. The book will be published in three weeks. I received an advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley, in return for providing an honest review.

Arkady Martine’s new science fiction novel A Desolation Called Peace is a sequel to her Hugo-award-winning debut, A Memory Called Empire. Like its predecessor, Desolation is a far-future space opera. Martine carries over her exquisite world-building, and some of the same characters, from the previous volume, and gives both world and people a series of new challenges. The galaxy-spanning Teixcalaan Empire — reminiscent of both the Byzantine Empire (the subject of Martine’s scholarly work as a historian) and the empire of the Aztecs — regards itself as the epitome of civilization. All outsiders are disparaged as “barbarians.” The Empire is at once aesthetically dazzling, enormously wealthy, bureaucratically vast, and politically ruthless. Its accomplishments in art, literature, and architecture are unparalleled. It dominates galactic trade and commerce, and controls access to the “gates” (presumably wormholes) that allow for travel between distant planetary systems. With its fearsome military might, the Empire slaps down anyone and anything that dares to challenge its worlds-spanning dominance. Teixcalaan is something like a science-fictional analogue of the United States (at least in the period after we “won” the Cold War but before our recent decline), though its overtly totalitarian political structure bespeaks a franker acknowledgment of aspects of the American Empire that we tend to dissimulate, even to ourselves.

A Desolation Called Peace switches fluidly among multiple points of view; but like its predecessor, its main character is an outsider (a so-called “barbarian”): Mahit Dzmare, from the small independent space colony Lsel Station. The Station is fully in the Teixcalaanli sphere of economic influence, but it has so far managed to preserve its political independence. Mahit has grown up studying, and loving, all things Teixcalaanli, while maintaining her Lsel cultural identity. In A Memory Called Empire, Mahit is sent as Lsel’s ambassador to the Empire. Coming to the Teixcalaan capitol planet and city, she fully indulges her love for its culture; but her ambassadorial charge is to preserve Lsel Station from the Empire’s imperialist designs.

Immediately upon arrival, Mahit is thrown into a world of complex and treacherous political scheming (that fully merits the adjective ‘Byzantine’ in its looser metaphorical sense); at the same time, she is forced to recognize that, no matter how well she integrates herself into Teixcalaanli cultural life, she will never fully be accepted by it. She will never escape being regarded as an inferior barbarian. Mahit acutely feels the same post-colonial dilemma that so many people of color and people from elsewhere than Western Europe or North America have had to face in our actual world today: how to negotiate between their having been shaped by, and having come to love, certain aspects of Euro-American culture, and their inescapable awareness that this culture has systematically devalued and exploited them.

A Desolation Called Peace inverts the situation of the previous novel. Now, several Teixcalaanli legions find themselves at the edges of the Empire, engaged in low-level space combat with a nonhuman but sentient alien species. If the Teixcalaanli regard human beings from other cultures as barbarians scarcely worthy of recognition, how can they deal with this far more deeply alien presence? The aliens’ technology is at least equal, and in some ways superior, to that of the humans; but their communications, both among themselves and when they address themselves towards humans, don’t seem to be categorizable as anything we can recognize as language. Given the inscrutability of the aliens, together with their mastery of stealth guerrilla warfare, it seems that the Empire is faced with an alternative between humiliating withdrawal, or genocide of the alien species on a planetary scale (with the latter still not guaranteed to end the war for good).

In this situation, the linguist and spy Three Seagrass — Mahit’s Teixcalaanli contact and semi-love-interest from the first novel — is called to the space frontier to try to find a way of negotiating with the aliens. Three Seagrass asks Mahit to come along and help her. Mahit agrees, because she is in political hot water back home at Lsel Station; although she preserved the Station from direct annexation by the Empire, she is still regarded by her own people as overly pro-Teixcalaanli and therefore untrustworthy.

What follows is another story of (sorry) Byzantine political intrigue, combined with the ontological uncertainties of a First Contact novel. A Desolation Called Peace is rich on a personal-is-political level, as Mahit must negotiate her way among many stresses: the distrust and disdain of the Teixcalaanli in general, the condescension of Three Seagrass despite the mutual sexual attraction between them, and the ill-will of her Lsel compatriots — not to mention the difficulties of grasping the desires and beliefs of civilized beings who nonetheless look grotesque and menacing to human eyes, and whose vocalizations (which they think of as singing) literally cause nausea due to infrasonic vibrations when heard by human ears in human bodies.

I should probably be a bit more circumspect in the rest of this review, so that I do not give away too many spoilers. I will just say that the novel’s resolution comes about through Martine’s other great theme, besides questions of borders and negotiations and cosmopolitanism. This other theme has to do with the nature of individuality, and of possible connections among minds and bodies. The major science fictional novum of A Memory Called Empire, alongside its broad political and cultural vision, is a key technology that Lsel Station has, but the Empire does not. This is what the novel calls the imago — a prosthetic computational device that contains the memory and personality of ancestors or predecessors. Upon reaching adult maturity, every Lsel citizen is implanted with an imago that is suitable for their personality, and for their chosen career. Mahit is given the imago of Yskandr Aghavn, her predecessor as Lsel ambassador to Teixcalaan, and who shared many of her cosmopolitan interests and even (to some extent) sexual proclivities. An imago often contains a multi-generational line of predecessors, and its personality is supposed to integrate with that of the host. For various reasons, Mahit finds such integration difficult, over the course of both novels. The technology is supposed to be a Lsel secret; but when the Teixcalaanli find out about it they tend to be both fascinated and horrified.

Questions about the integrity of the self, and of personality connection and integration, are central to both novels. Mahit is genuinely helped by Yskandr’s imago, and mostly values their integration, but she also sometimes has difficulties with having what is ultimately another person “inside her endocrine system.” Similarly, after Mahit finally has sex with Three Seagrass (maybe this is a spoiler, but after we’ve been teased about this prospect over the length of two long volumes, it just had to happen eventually), she worries about what it means to say that “this person has had their hands inside you.” So it is not too much of a stretch to see the technological forms of personality integration imagined by Martine as extensions of sexual connection — just as First Contact tropes in science fiction generally are extensions of actual worldly problems of connection among people of different cultures and belief systems. In all these cases, questions of intimacy — of welcoming someone who in one sense combines with you but also at the same time remains other than you — are combined with questions of freedom and coercion, and of unequal power relations between the partners.

A Desolation Called Peace imagines an expanded range of technologies of connection among separate bodies and minds — alike among the Lsel Stationers, the Teixcalaanli, and the aliens. I will just mention that these exist, on several levels, without going into description and analysis of all of them. It is quite beautiful the way in which these prospects of connection nicely resolve the narrative, and lead to at least a certain possibility of peace, beyond the alternatives of either continual skirmishing or violent annihilation — while at the same time, things remain open, complicated, and unresolved on a broader, philosophical level, and in terms of future prospects for the characters and their societies. A Desolation Called Peace gives us so much of what I look for in science fiction: deep and cogent worldbuilding, characters who definitely intrigue us and grab our attention, whether or not we actually like them, and deep conceptual speculation, which opens up new prospects for thought.

India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975)

I have been teaching exclusively online since March 2020, and I will continue to do so until at least the end of 2021. This means, among other things, that I have to write out all my comments that might otherwise have just been delivered verbally, during class discussion. Last spring, I posted some of my remarks on music videos on this blog, but I haven’t posted any class notes since. But I wanted to post my notes on Marguerite Duras’ movie India Song (1975), since I think this film is still under-discussed (though revered by many cinephiles).

Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) was one of the major French novelists of the second half of the 20th century. Her movies are not as well known as her prose fiction, but she directed close to twenty films, wrote the screenplays for several others, and had a lot of her novels adapted into movies by others. Duras was a white French woman, but she was born in Vietnam, which was a French colony (part of French Indochina) at the time (Vietnam only became an independent country after World War II; it then went through decades of war before the Communist north and the pro-US south were finally united in 1975). Duras’ parents were schoolteachers, which is to say they were minor bureaucrats in the French colonial apparatus that ruled Indochina at the time. Duras moved to France itself in 1932, when she was 18 years old, and lived there for the rest of her life. During the Nazi occupation in World War II, she was active in the Underground resistance. She started publishing fiction towards the end of the War, and continued prolifically from the 1950s through the 1980s. Her first involvement with cinema came when she wrote the screenplay for Alain Resnais’ first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), one of the key works of the early French New Wave. She started directing her own films in the late 1960s, and continued doing so right through until the early 1980s. Often her work crossed genres and used the same characters and situations in different works; thus India Song was first written as a play before it was made into a movie, and it contains elements and characters from a number of Duras’ novels from the previous decade (most notably The Vice Consul from 1965, but there are others as well). India Song itself was further transformed in a later movie by Duras, Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (1976), which used the identical soundtrack but had entirely different visuals.

The most surprising and challenging thing about India Song, in formalist terms, is the separation between the images and the sound. We see the main characters of the story — Anne Marie Stretter (Delphine Seyrig) and her husband and various lovers, as well as the Vice Consul (MIchael Lonsdale) who is in love with her — but they never speak on screen. (Besides these main characters, the only other human figure we see is that of a single Indian servant who turns on lights and passes out champagne glasses on occasion). On the soundtrack, we hear a number of disembodied female and male voices who tell us (or tell each other) the story of these characters. We also hear music (the song called “India Song”, which the voices at times refer to directly, as well as a number of other 1930s-style not-quite-tango dance numbers, all composed specifically for the movie by Carlos d’Alessio), and some background ambient sounds, plus the untranslated speech and singing of the Laotian (? – it seems) beggar woman coming from outside. The music may or may not be diegetic; the story includes at its center a big party at the French embassy, but we never see this event, since the camera remains in a different room, with an unused piano and a gigantic mirror, into which some of the characters occasionally wander). There is also, from time to time, in addition to the main voices, barely discernible background murmuring, in both French and English, which is perhaps the chatter of the guests at the party (we cannot tell for sure whether this is diegetic sound or not; part of the effect of the movie is to make the diegetic/non-diegetic distinction itself break down).

The voices recount to each other the story of Anne Marie Stretter and the Vice Consul; sometimes this is in the past tense, and sometimes in the present. Sometimes the voices describe what they see: but this is not always the same scene that we see on screen. At other times, the voices speak the characters’ own dialogue, instead of commenting on the characters in the third person. These dialogue sequences seem to coincide more or less with what is happening visually on screen at the time, but we do not see the actors’ mouths moving; we don’t really know for sure if the characters are actually saying these things, or only thinking them. At a climactic point in the film, there is a dialogue between Anne Marie Stretter and the Vice Consul, in which he tells her of his love for her; she responds that she feels the same way, but will not stay with him. The offscreen dialogue starts as they are dancing together on screen; but they soon move offscreen as the dialogue continues. After this, the Vice Consul starts screaming (he has already said to her that he will do this); apparently (as far as we gather from the voices) he is kicked out from the party for acting this way, but he still continues screaming from outside afterwards. We hear the screaming, on the soundtrack, on and off for a good stretch of time, but we never see the Vice Consul making a scene or actually screaming. After he has left, we only see him in a single shot where he is walking down the road away from the camera (and not screaming).

As for the images, most of the film takes place in the French ambassador’s mansion in Calcutta. The setting is a lavish mansion, but crumbling into decrepitude. Most of the interior shots are set in a single room, with a piano and an enormous ceiling-to-floor mirror. The camera never moves when it is in this room, but Duras gets amazing effects from the mirror, as we sometimes see characters only in the actual room, sometimes only in the mirror, and sometimes both. All this energizes our sense of space, although the room’s decrepitude and gloomy color scheme (sort of a pukey green, which is contrasted with Anne Marie’s red dress) conversely makes the room feel dead. There are some other shots in other rooms of the mansion, which are also fairly dark and often show the characters in nearly motionless tableaus. Early in the film, we see Anne Marie and several of the others lying on the floor, nearly passed out from the heat; closer to the end, there is a tableau of her and the five men (all but the Vice Consul) standing on a sort of verandah, as the light varies from murky to bright and back again. Interspersed with these fixed-camera shots are a number of sequences of the ruined mansion from outside, or of the park surrounding it; these are usually left-to-right tracking shots.

For the last half hour or so, the setting is different; we are told that the ambassador and his entourage have moved from Calcutta to the Ganges delta. Here the indoor scenery is lighter and brighter. There is one extraordinary shot where Anne Marie and the five men walk through the central corridor of the empty hotel restaurant, the camera tracks backwards as they walk forward. They continue walking, left of the camera and out of the frame. The shot continues, with the camera now motionless. as the Vice Consul comes in, tracing their steps, walks all the way to the camera, and then out of the frame on the right. (I am not sure, but I think that this is the only time the camera moves in an indoor shot).

India Song could be regarded as what is now known as slow cinema, though the term hadn’t been invented yet in 1975. What’s certain is that there is nothing random about any of this; everything in the movie is quite planned and deliberate. Duras produced the soundtrack first, and then shot images to accompany it; this is a procedure that is almost never done in cinema (usually the images come first, and the soundtrack is calibrated to match the image track). (Music videos, which didn’t exist yet in 1975, are the only contemporary form in which images are matched to pre-existing sound, instead of the reverse). In any case, because the movie is not shot naturalistically, it invites us to think of the juxtapositions between sound and image in a new way. Most movies naturalize the relation of sound to images; when we hear people speaking, we see their lips moving, and the non-diegetic music matches the mood of what we see happening on screen. Other movies deliberately mess with image/sound coordination in certain ways, in order to get certain reactions from us (in some classes, I have shown a sequence from Takeshi Kitano’s 1989 film The Violent Cop, in which a vicious fight between a cop and a gangster is accompanied by music that sounds like it belongs in a softcore porn film instead; his whole point is to blow our minds with the incongruity). But India Song doesn’t take either of these approaches; the relation between what we see and what we hear is oblique, but always meaningful.

Since the people on screen never actually speak, we mostly respond to them by interpreting their body language. Mostly, they seem bored, enervated by the heat; their lives seem sterile and repetitious, drained of meaning. It is as if they share the decrepitude of their surroundings. Delphine Seyrig, as Anne Marie, dances listlessly and without energy, handled by whichever man she is dancing with at the moment; the dance postures are always sterotypically correct. Sometimes she breaks into a smile, but we don’t get the impression that this does much to alleviate the monotony. We are told by the voices that Anne Marie has sex with any number of men, with the tacit approval of her husband — it seems that the Vice Consul, who is the only man who is truly aroused by her, to the point of obsession, is the only man she will not sleep with. Often we see these people smoking, though they usually just hold the lit cigarettes, without actually taking a puff.

The decrepitude of these characters’ lavish surroundings is a powerfully anti-naturalistic feature of the movie; we would have to presume that the mansion was not decrepit like this when it was actually being lived in in 1937. Usually, because of the intensity of the action, movies seem to take place in a heightened present (regardless of the year or historical period in which they are set). India Song amazingly goes against this; because of the decrepitude both of the setting and the characters, it seems to be played out in the past tense (in other words, it is not just that it takes place in 1937 when the movie was made in 1975, but everything we see and hear radiates pastness, over-and-done-with-ness, instead of the present tense featured alike by historical epics, futuristic science fiction, and movies set in the present moment). This in itself is a remarkable achievement. I am inclined to think of the voices we hear on the soundtrack as ghosts: they are not really present; and the now that plays out for them, when they describe what they see and what the characters are saying, is an already long-past now, which for that reason can only be revived in this ghostly form of images without substance, and sounds without bodies to produce them. (Gilles Deleuze, who we will read later in the semester, is the only film theorist I know of who conceptualizes the idea of films not in the present tense; though he develops this idea independently of his discussion of Duras).

India Song works as a political commentary on European colonialism in Asia, something that Duras was concerned with, and all too familiar with as a result of her childhood as a French colonialist in Vietnam. The film shows us the lives of white European colonialists, bureaucrats of colonial occupation, who are rich and powerful but have no knowledge of, or connection to, the people whose lives they control, and who they oppress. The colonized masses are never seen in the film: they are represented only by the voice of the beggar woman, whose ongoing life, in conditions of extreme poverty, contrasts with the vapid existence of the white colonials. (There is also, as I have already mentioned, the discreet presence of the one Indian servant who we see briefly). The colonial rulers live in ignorance and isolation. The men are involved either in bureaucratic governance or in making money through business; the women (of whom we see only one, Anne Marie Stretter herself) have nothing to fill their lives, but are kept as trophy wives or mistresses by the men. We are told that Anne Marie Stretter has already tried to commit suicide once, with a lover, but the attempt failed. We also learn that Anne Marie used to be a concert pianist, but she has stopped playing and now basically does nothing. The abandoned piano (with the music of India Song, and a photo of Anne Marie in her youth) is prominent in the mise en scene, and it notably remains unplayed. (We are told at one point that it is out of tune, due to warping as a result of the heat).

There is a remarkable moment, in the latter part of the film, after everyone has gone to the islands. We see a tableau of Anne Marie and the five men (all but the Vice Consul) seated around a dining table, dressed mostly in white, and brightly lit (as was never the case in the mansion). The camera pulls back slowly from the group. The offscreen voices tell us, for the first and only time, that it is 1937. They add by cataloging what is going on in the world at this time. Japan is waging war against China, and they have just bombed Shanghai. In Spain, the civil war goes on, and the Republic is on the verge of being destroyed by the fascists. In Russia, the Revolution has been betrayed by Stalinist terror. In Germany, the Nazis have just held the gigantic Congress of Nuremberg rally, consolidating their power. Suddenly it all gets crystallized for us: these people live in a bubble, a sort of vacuum, unconnected to and unaware of not only their colonial subjects (the very people they oppress), but all the horrible things that are going on in the world. I find this an absolutely stunning moment, because of how it emerges from the otherwise even tone of the film, and how it both estranges us from what we have been seeing for over an hour and a half, and gives us a sudden deeper insight into it).

Why does Duras make a long movie about such worthless people? Why does she dwell upon their splendor and decadence? (I am thinking both of the characters’ wealth and privilege, and of the way they are ironically portrayed, by being shown in the ruins and decay of a retrospective view of their lives? (I say retrospective, because of the temporal disjunction at the heart of the film — the way it doesn’t seem to have a present tense, the way the decay of the mansion in which we see them is apparently decades removed from the life they lived in 1937). I think the answer to this is in the tale of passion at the heart of the story: the Vice Consul’s hopeless love for Anne Marie Stretter. Duras is, in a certain sense, an ultra-romantic novelist and filmmaker. Her compulsive subject, in nearly all of her work, is hopeless romantic passion. (Part of her claim to be a major feminist writer and filmmaker is the way she takes this stereotypically ‘feminine’ subject and twists it around, analyzing it, pushing it to extremes, suggesting both its inescapability and its failure or impossibility). Here, the Vice Consul is the only one of the male characters who realizes the full extent of his vacancy and nullity. He is madly in love with Anne Marie Stretter, despite barely having met her and knowing nothing whatsoever about her. He sacrifices everything in his life, including notably his privileged position in the diplomatic corps, to his overwhelming, and totally ungrounded, passion.

We learn that, in the backstory, the Vice Consul has been dismissed from his consular position because he started shooting at random into a leper’s colony, indiscriminately murdering the native inhabitants. I think the point of this is that he has only literalized what all the European colonialists are doing when they make their livings in Asia by oppressing the inhabitants. All the other colonials are every bit as racist as the Vice Consul, but only he has had the bad taste to overtly and publicly act it out. Leprosy is significant in the movie both literally and metaphorically. Lepers were in the past separated from the rest of society, because their illness was believed to be so highly communicable. In earlier times, leprosy was a menace in Europe as much as elsewhere, but by 1937 it had largely been eliminiated in the affluent West (although effective treatments were not developed until after World War II). Leprosy has therefore been traditionally metaphorized as a form of social stigma. But we are also told by the voices in the film that leprosy involves decay of the nerve endings, so that sufferers do not actually feel pain, even though their bodies are in a state of decay. In this sense, the voices describe the situation of the European characters in the film as a “leprosy of the heart.”

The Vice Consul’s passion is both a symptom of the malady of the European colonizers, and a desperate (and inevitably futile) effort to overcome it. His screaming about his unreciprocated love for Anne Marie Stretter — a screaming which we hear on the soundtrack, but do not see — is both a deliberate social transgression (it gets him ostracized from white colonial society in a way that even murdering native people did not do) and a desperate attempt to express what cannot possibly be expressed. For Duras, extreme erotic passion is both fascinating and delusive. It is a demand for something that cannot possibly be attained — my fusion with the person I love, at the same time as that other person remains unattainable, because the condition of my love is precisely that they are utterly different from and alien to myself.

In nearly all of Duras’ novels and movies, this excess of passion is at the center. The Vice Consul’s passion is a desire that ruptures all social bonds, and all structures of meaning. Duras romanticizes and celebrates this excess, because it is the ultimate rejection, both of all social constraints and of the very state of being self-enclosed or trapped within one’s own subjectivity. But at the same time, it is entirely futile, because such a crossing of all boundaries is impossible; and also because such extreme feelings are inexpressible. Anything you say or do is inadequate to the desire you are trying to express. All words fall short, and all deeds are ludicrously ineffectual. Such extreme desire cannot really be represented; to represent it in any positive way would be to sell it short, and thereby to trivialize it, and indeed even to betray it. In this sense, the sexual passion that is the ultimate subject of India Song is not represented anywhere in the movie. We neither see it nor hear it, although everything we do see and hear testifies to it — or rather, testifies to its absence. This is the deepest reason for the separation of sound and image in the movie (as in most of Duras’ movies). What the movie is really about is what falls between the cracks, what neither soundtrack nor imagetrack can contain.

Throughout the 20th century, and into the 21st, artists have been obsessed with transgression, insisting on images of extreme sexuality and violence in order to scandalize audiences and break taboos. Duras turns this impulse inside out, in effect suggesting that transgressive images themselves overly tame and normalize the actions that they present — the effort to shock only ends up making the “shocking” material banal. This is why Duras is interested instead in what cannot be presented at all, what resists being captured cinematically, what falls into the disjunction between sound and image. By showing us daily banality, she preserves the extreme passion from being banalized. Life is exhausted in these movements of excess.

India Song therefore ends with the voices informing us of Anne Marie Stretter’s suicide, which once again, of course, is not directly presented to us on screen, but only communicated to us indirectly. Anne Marie has sex with just about anybody; but this sex is evidently entirely insignificant. Perhaps it temporarily relieves Anne Marie’s boredom, but it doesn’t seem to mean anything emotionally. The one passion in the movie on the part of any of the white characters, that is not just idle and trivial, is the Vice Consul’s passion for Anne Marie. But it is for this very reason that she turns him down. She reciprocates his passion only by failing to connect with him as massively as he fails to connect with her. Were she to accept him, as she does with all her other prospective lovers, this would only trivialize his passion, and extinguish her own. Another way to put this is to say that there is no solution to, and no escape from, the sterile and empty lives of the colonists. The movie’s grim message is that only escape is death, and the only meaningful passion is the one that culminates, not in satisfaction, but in death. At least this is the case for the European characters; Duras said in a interview that the only non-tragic character in the movie is the beggar woman who we never see. The beggar woman, Duras says, goes on with her life despite conditions of deprivation; but this is something that the European characters, even or especially with all their affluence, are unable to do.

A brief note on Chris Beckett’s TWO TRIBES

Chris Beckett’s novel Two Tribes contains a more or less naturalistic account of events set in the author’s actual time and place: the book is about class differences in the UK during the Brexit disputes of the late 2010s. But this account, while it is contemporary for us, is framed as being written by a historian in the year 2266. This future narrator uses (fictional, but naturalistic) diaries from the 2010s as her raw material, in order to describe a failed romance between an upper-middle class man who is an architect, and a lower-middle class woman who is a hairdresser. Though these protagonists are both small business owners (and hence petit bourgeois in Marxist terms), they are very far apart in their values and assumptions, their habits and interests, and their social circles. The text moves back and forth between third-person descriptions of these characters’ lives, and first-person reflections by the narrator, who seeks to understand these lives from her own perspective as someone living in a twenty-third century Britain ravaged by climate catastrophe, economic decline, and authoritarianism. But there is also a third time level to the novel, consisting in scenes that are set in the narrator’s past, but that the narrator admits to inventing out of whole cloth, due to the absence of sufficient documentary evidence. These added scenes are also supposedly set in the late 2010s. But the narrator acknowledges that they would actually have taken place a bit later in time: the near future for us, but still the distant past for her. These scenes point to the origins of a violent civil war in later twenty-first century Britain, between high-tech armies bankrolled by professional and managerial elites (Tony Blair-style “New Labour” people), on the one hand, and fascist militias controlled by Tory aristocrats who recruit soldiers from the resentful white working class, on the other. This civil war is recounted as being nasty and quite destructive, even though the novel reveals that the instigators on both sides come from the same tiny ruling class. Beckett’s novel thus works on multiple levels with the estrangement effects that come from differences in perspective, due both to class antagonisms and to temporal displacement.