The Tomorrow War

The Tomorrow War is an intriguing film. [Major spoilers below.] It is something of an amalgamation of World War Z and Edge of Tomorrow, but it is also a fun and dynamic alien invasion movie in its own right. It has also crystallised something for me that I’ve felt for years but never quite known how to articulate…

When I was growing up, my grandpa loved old war movies. Mostly “prisoner of war” stuff, like Colditz and The Great Escape. I liked them too. They were often great family viewing. (At least in Britain, but let’s not go there…)

As I grew older, I remember being quite surprised about his love of such films. He fought in World War II, after all, and served as a navigator for the RAF. But he never talked about it. I don’t think he was under any illusion that war was something to enjoy or remember fondly. And yet, there was something about seeing this kind of romantic vision of wartime that was cathartic or calming for him, I think. It allowed him to relive what must have been one of the most affecting times of his life, but with a certain amount of distance and through a certain kind of soft-focus filter. He was just one man in a nation of men who, after the war, needed to tell themselves a certain kind of story.

In more recent years, it is interesting to see how that kind of film has developed with a new kind of veteran in mind. Ever since American Sniper came out in 2014, after a generation of veterans were starting to settle back into civilian life post-9/11 and the war on terror, there have been periodic film releases that insert a Chris Pratt or a Bradley Cooper into the mix — basically any young white contemporary American everyman — in order to tell a story (whether explicitly or implicitly) about duty and responsibility and, perhaps most importantly, the emotional toil of coming home. These films aren’t dramatizing what happened over there — this isn’t Jarhead or Black Hawk Down or a film from that generation of war movie — but what happens when it’s (supposed to be) all over. They are essentially PTSD films, told largely through flashbacks.

I have no problem with that kind of narrative. I find American militarism pretty nauseating, truth be told, but I do have a soft spot for films that explore its complexities. (I’ve seen American Sniper more times than I’d care to admit, actually — the result of a hangover from a childhood obsession with Clint Eastwood and his particular brand of reactionary anti-hero, I think.) As films, they can actually be quite charming, even if they are clearly made with a certain kind of ideological standpoint in mind. But what is telling, in consuming this sort of movie, is watching how that standpoint changes over time.

The Tomorrow War is fascinating in this regard, mainly because, through its time-travel drama, it facilitates a major subplot that explores the impact of intergenerational PTSD quite specifically.

Chris Pratt is a veteran of the Iraq War trying to kickstart a new life and make something of himself after the military. But it’s not going very well for him and he’s getting very sad and angry about it. When we meet him, he’s just walked into a house party he’s supposedly hosting, but he doesn’t interact with anyone there. He’s like a ghost, almost, with no time for anyone but his wife and daughter and, most significantly, some people on the end of a phoneline who might be offering him his dream job. But he doesn’t get it. And he takes the rejection surprisingly badly. The world fades out around him, as if this setback in his career is nonetheless taking him back somewhere much darker. There’s a dark sadness within him that is rising.

Alongside Pratt’s clearly undiagnosed PTSD, we learn about how he’s also deeply resentful of his father, played by JK Simmons. When he arrives home, he’s given an unopened Christmas card from the man, which he throws in the bin. (Though the narrative suggests Pratt goes dark over his failed job interview, this minor detail looms ever larger as the story progresses, as if the Christmas card is the real trigger for him.) Simmons, we later learn, came back from ‘Nam a broken man and wasn’t really present when Pratt needed him most. They’re estranged and not really on speaking terms, largely because Pratt refuses to engage with him.

Then the aliens arrive. Pratt goes into the future to fight a war, and whilst he’s there he meets his daughter, fully grown and now a Colonel fighting off the invaders — and she resents him. She keeps him at a distance and later tells him some home truths (albeit related to a life he hasn’t lived yet). She tells a story about how, when she got older, he and her mother separated and he was a bit of a mess. In the end, just seven years later, she watched him die following a car crash, after they’d been estranged for years. It is a case of “like father like son”, as it turns out. Whatever was eating Pratt when we first met him, devoured him whole a few years later. This disturbs Pratt greatly.

But something also clicks for him. Suddenly, you see this intergenerational picture being painted. Post-‘Nam dad is followed by post-Iraq son, and tomorrow war daughter isn’t really having any of it. Later, when Pratt is unceremoniously sent back to the past, having watched his future daughter die, he sets out on a redemption mission to destroy the aliens — frozen in ice on the Russian tundra, as it turns out — in order to make sure the war never happens and his daughter never has to die. But in the process, he ropes in his Dad, and together they’re two shaken veterans — one of them maybe an alcoholic — doing what they unfortunately do best and trying to save the world.

The psychological picture painted here is fascinating. None of this really takes precedence. It is all back story; little details that paint a big picture, which is nonetheless a familial backdrop to a big spectacular alien invasion movie. But these little details change the film in quite a profound way, I think.

Despite how it might sound, this isn’t quite the gung-ho American militarism we’ve come to expect. It doesn’t have much ideological pomp about American exceptionalism, filling its role as the world’s police force. Pratt is sent on a suicide mission into a war that America (but also the world) is definitely losing. It’s Vietnam, yeah, but it’s also the Middle East. But then, the aliens are not the Viet Cong or the Taliban. This isn’t a fantasy do-over, winning the war that was previously lost. This is a film about a band of troubled veterans who truly want to redeem themselves, haunted by the things they’ve done or the world they might have created through their actions. This is a band of veterans turning the tables. A Vietnam war vet and an Iraq war vet fighting off an invading species. This isn’t Predator, with a tank-like Schwarzenegger fighting off the single alien guerrilla, getting his own back on the enemy and securing the cathartic victory otherwise denied him (although the aliens in The Tomorrow World do look like the monstrous lovechildren of a xenomorph and a Predator). This is a film about vets redeeming themselves by fighting off a hoard of (notably white) invaders, rather than being one of them. It’s a film about war vets getting the sharp and sour taste of their own medicine, and wanting to use the time they have left to fight off an invading force. It’s a film about war vets stopping a war from ever taking place.

The Tomorrow World feels like a film for anti-war war vets, in this regard, dressed up as an overblown alien invasion movie. This feels like burnt-out American militarism creating a narrative where it gets to save the world from itself.

Mare of Easttown:
2021’s One True Cop Show

After a protracted break halfway through the season, my partner and I finally binged the last few episodes of Mare of Easttown last week.

It’s a good show. Though I got odd True Detective vibes — meaning it will probably be unbearably cringe on repeated viewings — and there were a few excellent essays that noted how much it aped the major plot points of Twin Peaks, it was Aaron Bady’s essay for the LA Review of Books that really nailed what made Mare of Easttown such a compelling watch in 2021:

The normal life of a cop turns out to mean being an exceedingly unwelcome presence in the life of her town (which is also her family). Or at least this sure seems to be what we mostly see in Mare of Easttown, where no one’s problems have policing as their solution, and where no one seems to like our protagonist. The sister who won’t press charges on her brother — because what would that accomplish? — sets the tone in episode one, and it goes on from there. As a cop, we see Mare erase video evidence, tackle an old man with dementia, and plant drugs in Carrie’s car. But the most socially beneficial cop interventions we see are specifically non-carceral, like calling the gas company to yell at them for turning off the heat, driving someone to the parish shelter, or just rounding up a bereaved father’s family to comfort him when you bring the bad news. When Mare is in full on badge-and-gun mode, she mostly just brings violence to her town, which is also her family, who avoid her as much as possible.

After a cold winter of Black Lives Matter and #KillTheBill protests, when the function of policing in contemporary society was called into question more damningly than at any other time in recent memory, Mare of Easttown starts to feel like strangely appropriate viewing.

Just a few months ago, the UK was gripped by Line of Duty fever. A weirdly written piece of “copaganda”, the show was mostly so entertaining because it got so high on its own self-regard. The British answer to your average cloyingly American cop show, it often had laugh-out-loud moments where none were intended. But that was part of its charm. The ridiculousness of its vision of British policing was pure escapism. And yet, for many, it didn’t really sit right. Considering all that was going on around it in real life, it felt more than a little tone deaf.

On the contrary, Mare of Easttown, for all its flaws, felt perfectly placed. A cop show that persistently puts forward the implicit suggestion that policing solves little. Though Bady rips the show to shreds, and smugly highlights plot holes I didn’t even register, it is hard to disagree with his reading. But I think that makes me like the show even more.

“The Pilgrim Fathers … driven by IT.”

Beginning his Studies in Classic American Literature, D.H. Lawrence questions the perceived “childishness” of the old American classics.

The old American art-speech contains an alien quality, which belongs to the American continent and to nowhere else. But, of course, so long as we insist on reading the books as children’s tales, we miss all that.

American literature requires — deserves even — a reappraisal, because it is we who are missing out when we patronise those writers of the new world with new things to say. And yet it is hardly surprising that so many would treat American art-speech so scathingly. Lawrence continues:

It is hard to hear a new voice, as hard as it is to listen to an unknown language. We just don’t listen. There is a new voice in the old American classics. The world has declined to hear it, and has babbled about children’s stories.

As I sat reading this opening chapter on a humid Sunday afternoon, I found my mind drifting to Stephen King’s IT and the notorious scene where the children all have sex with Beverly Marsh as they attempt to leave the sewers.

The scene came under fresh scrunity a few years ago, following the recent film adaptations, which drew more attention to it only by leaving it out.

What does it mean? Why is it included? Is it appropriate?

The general interpretation I see is that the Losers require some kind of end of innocence moment before they return to the outside world. Sex is a doorway out of innocence and childhood. But once they leave the sewers, having defeated IT, the children “regress” to a normal suburban existence; to a normal childhood. Their memories are repressed.

I wonder if King is illuminating the same tension that Lawrence is here, in a suitably immoral fashion. The scene is inappropriate because of the age of the children but, like so many American novels, perhaps the issue remains the same. This is not a children’s book — that is, a book for or about children — not really. America is defined, in its adolescence, by sex and violence; it is fitting, if nonetheless disturbing, that the characters in IT are too.

What the children really require is an end to fear. In defeating IT, they defeat fear, but they are nonetheless disconnected by their ordeal. Desire overwhelms them. The sexual experience reunites them but it is nonetheless contaminated by the drives that brought them there.

For Lawrence, IT is not to be feared but embraced. IT is freedom. Freedom is not doing whatever you like on a whim but “doing what the deepest self likes.” (Interestingly, for Lawrence, the “most unfree men go west, and shout about freedom” — a shout that “is a rattling of chains, always was.”)

IT is the deepest self. IT is our deepest fears and desires both — because, of course, sometimes we fear what we want the most. Indeed, even as Lawrence affirms IT, he paints IT as a horror, as if to fully comprehend it would ruin us, but comprehend it we must. He writes:

If one wants to be free, one has to give up the illusion of doing what one likes, and seek what IT wishes done.

But before you can do what IT likes, you must first break the spell of the old mastery, the old IT.

[…] The true liberty will only begin when Americans discover IT, and proceeds to fulfil IT. IT being the deepest whole self, the self in its wholeness, not idealistic halfness.

That’s why the Pilgrim Fathers came to America, then; and that’s why we come. Driven by IT. We cannot see that invisible winds carry us, as they carry swarms of locusts, that invisible magnetism brings us as it brings the migrating birds to their unforeknown goal. But it is so. We are not the marvellous choosers and deciders we think we are. IT chooses for us, and decides for us. […] We are free only so long as we obey.

The same is true of the Losers. Indeed, when Beverly recalls their copulation in the grey waters beneath the town, her memories are broken up and punctured by birds.

All of them . . . I was their first love.

She tried to remember it — it was something good to think about in all this darkness, where you couldn’t place the sounds. It made her feel less alone. At first it wouldn’t come; the image of the birds intervened — crows and grackles and starlings, spring birds that came back from somewhere while the streets were still running with meltwater and the last patches of crusted dirty snow clung grimly to their shady places.

It seemed to her that it was always on a cloudy day that you first heard and saw those spring birds and wondered where they came from. Suddenly they were just back in Derry, filling the white air with their raucous chatter. They lined the telephone wires and roofpeaks of the Victorian houses on West Broadway; they jostled for places on the aluminum branches of the elaborate TV antenna on top of Wally’s Spa; they loaded the wet black branches of the elms on Lower Main Street. They settled, they talked to each other in the screamy babbling voices of old countrywomen at the weekly Grange Bingo games, and then, at some signal which humans could not discern, they all took wing at once, turning the sky black with their numbers . . . and came down somewhere else.

Yes, the birds, I was thinking of them because I was ashamed. It was my father who made me ashamed, I guess, and maybe that was Its doing, too. Maybe.

The memory came — the memory behind the birds — but it was vague and disconnected. Perhaps this one always would be. She had —

Her thoughts broke off as she realized that Eddie comes to her first, because he is the most frightened. He comes to her not as her friend of that summer, or as her brief lover now, but the way he would have come to his mother only three or four years ago, to be comforted; he doesn’t draw back from her smooth nakedness and at first she doubts if he even feels it. He is trembling, and although she holds him the darkness is so perfect that even this close she cannot see him; except for the rough cast he might as well be a phantom.

“What do you want? ” he asks her.

“You have to put your thing in me, ” she says.

It is the last fear to break: their fear of each other. If it is disturbing in its rupture of adolescence, so be it. So is the American soul forever adolescent, in both its waywardness and its overarching obedience to an ideal. But adolescence is still where America remains most free. Much like the Losers in Stephen King’s novel, Americans aren’t free when IT is dead. They are at their most free when they are fighting IT.

Real Simulations: Notes on the Matrix Trilogy

I spent my Friday / Saturday watching the Matrix trilogy for the first time in many, many years. The first one was still good! The second and third ones weren’t so much…

Invited to talk about simulations for “Simulations Like Us”, a conversation of sorts hosted by Enrico Monacelli as part of Turn Us Alias, an online music festival organised by Saturnalia, I wanted to read the films via Ray Brassier’s critique of the philosophy of Alain Badiou.

Neo, to me, is Badiou. They both proclaim to see the world through a mathematical ontology but both fall back on a strange kind of affirmative quasi-Christian philosophy, in which they simply will their way past the new capture that undoubtedly results from becoming one with the very thing you hope to critique. For Brassier, it seems like Badiou’s inability to account for this is a major stumbling block in his philosophy… I’m not sure I can confirm or deny that but it is definitely true of the Matrix trilogy.

Anyway, in the end, I ejected all the Badiou chat from my talk and just spoke about the Matrix. Thanks to Enrico for the invitation and for the really excellent discussion afterwards. I don’t know if it was recorded or anything but here’s my contribution below anyway.

Also thanks to those who set up the excellent Minetest server to host further discussion. I had a lot of fun in there. At first, I just collected loads of free drinks tokens. Then I took acid and killed a horse. Then I had a go at a parkour challenge but fell in lava but then I also glitched out so I couldn’t die. My Sonic the Hedgehog avatar (because you gotta go fast) is probably still in the lava pyramid somewhere… Anyway, it was a truly unique Minecraft experience. (There are two screenshots from my adventures at the bottom of this post.)

Thanks to everyone who came by and asked questions.



Real Simulations: On the Matrix Trilogy

Today, declaring that “the world is a simulation” has all the profundity of ending a story with the words “it was all a dream.” But that our outlandish stories sometimes turn out to be dreams isn’t a problem in and of itself. The problem with saying “it was all a dream” is that this often undermines the fact that dreams are really cool. They’re mysterious and fascinating and question-begging. They are starting points, not points at which to end.

In this sense, dreams and simulations share something in common.  They are situations: sets of circumstances in which we might act. Discovering what our circumstances are necessitates the question of what we do with them. As such, to say a story was all a dream is as laughable an end to a fiction as “it was all a life” would be to an obituary. It undermines the content and its affects, because knowledge of the conditions under which we engage with the world are important foundations, not conclusions. To discover something is a dream or a simulation doesn’t answer questions, it only begets more of them. This is because it is only at the point of realisation that we can truly choose how to act. It is only after discovering the true nature of an event that we can act accordingly and with fidelity to its truth.

It’s for this reason that, when talking about simulations, I think a film like The Matrix remains an interesting talking point. By now, culturally speaking at least, it is an example so far beyond cliché as to almost become interesting again. Much like a story that ends with the words “it was all a dream”, it has become something like an essential archetype that tells us a great deal about ourselves and the limits of our imaginations; limits which we’d perhaps prefer to just ignore.

Personally, I think the first film still stands up as a classic science-fictional exploration of our late-capitalist world and its contradictions. It is no surprise, however, that that allegory has been betrayed by the very system it sought to describe.


The disjuncture between the nature of reality and the nature of simulation is the Matrix franchise’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. At first, the potentials offered by the characters’ shared ability to lucidly dream within this simulation we call ideology seems to be infinitely productive but are these potentials not then betrayed by the characters’ dogged pursuit of the end of the dream as such? Is this even the case? It seems like a given, in the first film, that to destroy the machines is to destroy the Matrix, but just as the film’s sequels superficially address the symbiosis between man and machine, irrespective of the war raging between the two, it later becomes apparent that this symbiosis extends also to the relationship between reality and simulation. Here the true philosophical question at the heart of the Matrix begins to emerge. Are we at all capable of talking about reality and simulation in themselves? Or are we doomed to a restricted perspective that can only ever comment on the relationship between the two? A relation that is always making attempts to obscure itself, due to its being conditioned by the circumstances of late capitalism.

For example, in the first film, Neo’s desire for truth within the Matrix is mirrored by his desire, in the real world, for the destruction of the lie. But Neo immediately slips onto a paradoxical plane where an understanding of his own emancipation from the simulation is only possible in the context of his continuing non-freedom in reality. As such, if Neo is help humanity to transcend the Matrix, he has to become one with it. When Neo first gets a load of martial arts training uploaded directly into his cerebellum, the pun is obviously intended when Tank tells Morpheus he’s been going for ten hours straight. “He’s a machine!” he says — and necessarily so. Neo has to see like a machine to beat the machines. He has to become a better dreamer in order to dream differently. But when Neo’s powers later become useful outside of the Matrix, in the sequels, what does that say about reality itself? At what point does Neo’s oneness with the world and its representation just become another form of capture?

This tension in the first film is best explored through the character Cypher, who betrays his emancipated cohort to the machines because he wants to return to the lie and forget the truth. He is sick of the questions; for him, “ignorance is bliss.” His betrayal is presented to us as the selfish reasoning of a man who enjoys his own oppression. But Cypher’s reasoning makes a lot more sense than Neo’s utter lack of criticality, which is to say that Cypher’s unbelief, even if exercised through evil, seems far more rational than Neo’s techno-Christian evangelism. In this sense, Cypher is a nihilist but he is also much more of a realist than those who declare themselves to be on the side of the Real. This is only exacerbated in the sequels, when the militarised religiosity of the freed peoples of Zion feels even more ideologically unhinged than the somnambulist behaviour of those trapped within the Matrix.

This begs the question: do the characters in the Matrix really want what they say they want? Intriguingly, in the first film, the dichotomy between necessity and desire appears to be wholly absolute. The real world is necessarily a world without seduction. The slop that the characters eat, for instance, is described as this perfect substance that contains every mineral, protein and amino acid that the body needs, but it is still slop. The character Mouse claims that this slop, then, evidently doesn’t supply everything the body needs. He then changes the subject to talk about the Woman in the Red Dress — a programme he has written into a training simulation for the Matrix — a simulation of the simulation – in which she is meant to distract the dreamer. The Matrix is clearly the world of desires but we might interpret the lesson provided by the Woman in the Red Dress as being that your desires aren’t always going to make you act in our own self-interest.

Mouse’s more immediate insinuation, of course, is much more superficial. He seems to be making the point that the body also needs sex. But the Woman in the Red Dress isn’t somehow sex personified; she’s still just a sexy image. She’s seductive, like the Matrix itself, but she’s nothing more than that. She’s a centrefold, ripped out and stuck to the digital façade. She has no lines. She walks on and walks off. But there is a deeper psychoanalytic point made here. The fulfilment of all our basic needs is nothing if we can’t also tickle our libido but the Matrix has monopolised desire so absolutely that the real world is one even more devoid of an imaginative sexiness. In this sense, the Matrix is a libidinal sandbox. Anything you want you can have. In the real world, the opposite is the case. There is nothing to want. You do what must to survive and little more than that. So which world is more real in that respect? Mouse says: “To deny our own basic impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.” So what good is the real world, then, if it is a world without desire? Or rather, what is the real world if it is devoid of things to be desired? So surely we can acknowledge that, despite its irreality, the characters all like the Matrix to a certain extent? Yes, the human battery farms are horrible and the world is a hellscape and unplugged humanity lives underground fearing for their lives, but in the Matrix Neo can fly!?


This strange tension between reality and simulation, necessity and desire, isn’t just highlighted by the plot holes of the later sequels, however. It is readily apparent in Morpheus’s own mind games, which he uses to awake Neo to the possibilities of his newfound agency within the Matrix.

For Morpheus, the real world and the simulation are hardly that empirically different. Morpheus makes this clear when he first reintroduces Neo to the old world. Neo is aghast, running his hand along the back of a wore leather armchair in a pure white void.

“This isn’t real?”

“How do you define ‘real’?” Morpheus replies, smugly. “If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” This is true enough. And yet, whilst this may explain the Matrix, it hardly grounds what Morpheus, in the previous scene, calls “the real world” upon any sort of superior truth. Are we supposed to believe that the real world is the real world simply because it is the worse of the two? And how does this explain Neo’s emergent ability to use his superhuman powers in the real world as well as the Matrix? If the real world is as much of a simulation as the Matrix is, then isn’t the Matrix just as real as the world in itself? If that’s the case, then what is anyone fighting for?

From the vantage point of the end of the trilogy, Cypher’s betrayal in the first film only becomes more interesting in this regard, as we consider the extent to which it mirrors the Wachowski sisters’ meta-betrayal of their own franchise. Do they want what they say they want? Are they not also seduced by the very thing they want to critique? Their hypocrisy is plain to see in the later films, when the critique is so bloated on steroids that the visual effects go into hyperdrive at the expense of the story. As a result, the trilogy is robbed of all punch and satisfaction. In the end, the Matrix is rebooted — hurray!(?) — but the character’s sacrifices carry no weight now that we have overdosed on the very spectacle that the film sought to question. We are left flirting with our own impotence as an initially good idea is extended outwards into a trilogy of bad ones — a trilogy that leaves us on a cliffhanger with Neo — and, indeed, the new itself – left for dead whilst the Matrix supposedly starts over again, having successfully reterritorialized the threat to itself. Agent Smith, the true deterritorialising agency, unhooked from the rules and regulations of the computer mainframe, somehow becomes the ultimate villain, as if, as far as Neo is concerned, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and so reality and simulation enter a new period of peace; a new stasis. Bizarrely, it seems that, somewhere along the way, we have been left with the suggestion that this utter dissipation of the first film’s potentials is meant to be something to celebrate. In truth, it only leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

And so, The Matrix franchise ends precisely where it began. This is all a dream, the first film tells us, in its opening scenes. The final scenes of The Matrix Revolutions tell us much the same thing. This was all a dream, a recurring one at that, and wasn’t it fun. Maybe you’ll have that same dream again one day. With all of this in mind, the first Matrix film becomes a perfect allegory to the nature of neoliberalism’s cybergothic capture of human subjectivity. By contrast, the film’s sequels are an ironic demonstration of how capitalism reterritorializes all of the critiques we might lay at its feet into a sickly postmodern confusion.

Simulations Like Us @ Turn Us Alias

This Saturday I’ll be taking part in “Simulations Like Us”, something of a conversation between myself, Reza Negarestani and Enrico Monacelli, which is running as part of Turn Us Alias, an online event organised by Saturnalia.

00:00 25/07/20
https://discord.gg/m2KwfZG
voice channels — caffè letterario

From the 90s onwards, the idea of a simulated environment has become a pervasive, intrusive thought. From the hype surrounding the Matrix trilogy to contemporary neuroscience, which has transformed our cognitive abilities into a series of functional simulations of the outer world, from Philip K. Dick’s techno-gnosticism to the VR-craze of the past ten years, the idea that we are stuck in a fake and controlled world has become the metaphor for our contemporary predicament. What once was a cyberpunk metaphor is now almost a lived and urgent fact of our day to day life.

Come join us on Turn Us Alias festival to see how deep the rabbit-hole goes, as we discuss through the lags, the glitches and the hiccups of a post-lockdown Discord server, the future and the fate of this idea.

I think this is going to be a lot of fun. Swing by and read more about Turn Us Alias below, including what you’ll need to do if you want to play.



Turn as alias is a video game and a 24hrs music festival, following the tradition of our beloved Saturnalia.

Join us on Minetest to access music stream and play to find the hidden secrets of digital Viale Molise.

As Macao in Milan, this space is open to everyone, celebrating the freedom of expression of any kind, so respect all other players online as you would do irl.
Turn Us Alias supports Brigate Volontarie per l’Emergenza, you can do it too 🙂

(ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧

https://bit.ly/BVEsolidalioltreemergenza

✧゚・: *ヽ(◕ヮ◕ヽ)

They’re a group of volunteers based in Milan, formed during Covid lockdown to help people in need.

To play, first download Minetest:

WINDOWS 7, 8, 10: https://www.minetest.net/downloads/ → .exe is in the bin folder
MAC OS: https://github.com/krondor-game/minetest/releases/tag/2020-01-19
LINUX: https://www.minetest.net/downloads/

You can also play with Android mobile, you’ll get Minetest from the Google Play Store.

Once you open the game, click on “join game” and search TURN US ALIAS. Enter by clicking on the server then choose your name and password and connect.

First time you enter, you have no privileges — you’ll gain them by playing.

If you need help, want to chat, ask something or take part in the talks, join our Discord server here: https://discord.gg/Rg92yUw

If you’re not into games, you can attend the festival watching us live on Twitch: https://www.twitch.tv/turnusalias

Good game — Have fun!

The Rotten Western (Part 1)

Below are some preliminary thoughts on The Last of Us Part 2 that I’d like to add to as I keep going with my current first play-through of what is already an incredible game. It should go without saying that this post comes with a big spoiler warning: come back later if you haven’t played it yet.

This post is also part of an ongoing project I’ve mentioned a few times in recent years and which I’m (still) very slowly building behind the scenes: a book I’m calling Frontier Psychiatry. More on that soon.



Every era of modernity has had its own Western. The genre is a cultural weathervane for the United States (in particular but not exclusively) to reflect on, as well as assigning it a trajectory. By morphing and responding to each new phase of the USA’s history, the Western – although modelled on an ideological (and, therefore, also idealised) form of the past – suggests a state of mind in the present and what it sees in its own future.

The Sheriff, in this sense, is a great American imago. In many a classic Western, it is the sheriff or lawmaker who fights off the Red Man, the mad dogs, the robbers and rapists. And yet, he is also often an anti-hero – embittered, traumatized, perhaps a drunk. Indeed, as the genre has developed, along with America’s sense of itself, so too have the archetypes at its heart – and these developments have not always been positive. For instance, the frequently explored subgenre of the Acid Western paints a picture of the Wild West that acutely reflects the anxieties of the 1960s and 1970s. Most importantly, despite the horror of the environment, it is a subgenre that imagines the West as a mythical land that still retains a psychedelic function – that is, it retains its imaginative function as a land on which new (non-capitalist) worlds could manifest.

It is becoming ever clearer that our stories of a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested United States describe a new West for today – a putrescent West, rotting from within. The TV adaptation of The Walking Dead epitomised this new kind of Rotten Western with a distinct lack of subtlety. The show’s sheriff protagonist, Rick Grimes, definedthe show as a piece of transitional media in this regard. It walks a midway point between states of mind: between a nostalgia for the frontier and a fear of it, with the zombie hoards functioning a little too well as a racialised native other, at home in death.

Whilst this was an interesting tension in 2010, a decade later it is clear that the show exists in a very different world, in which the show’s internal drive to make a post-apocalyptic America great again takes on a far less melancholic momentum. With this in mind, the (apparent) death of Rick Grimes – the downfall of the great white imago – was long overdue and overwrought. By the time it happened, the show’s audience had begged so long for something new that the change went unnoticed by those who had stopped watching many seasons ago, but it was also unsurprising. For a long time, it had be necessary for the show to put its money where its mouth is.

No character can be afforded plot armour – that was The Walking Dead’s central traumatic assurance to its audience. This often led to grief being used as a plot device, often profoundly, but this rule seemingly began to test the writers’ own resolve as their audience staggered onwards in a brutalised daze. If the show was to stay true to its word, it had to refresh itself frequently. In a way, it was like the show’s narrative could do what much of its cast could not – shedding its skin, healing, becoming-new rather than becoming-rot. For many, it failed in that regard, and Rick Grimes’ lengthy rule as the only sheriff in town was the show’s Achilles’ heel. The sheriff was long best his best when he finally got the axe, both within the narrative of the show and within culture at large.


What has struck me most, in my playthrough (so far) of The Last of Us Part II, is that this franchise seems confident that it will not make the same mistake as its televisual cousin. Not only have characters been refreshed – I found that Ellie’s big nose, no doubt affixed to her face to settle that fall out with Ellen Page, took some getting used to – but, most controversially, the central character of the first game, Joel Miller, is brutally murdered at the end of the first act. There has been a lot of consternation online about this, and a lot of outright anger, but all I see in these responses is grief, of the sort that any viewer of The Walking Dead should be used to. In a zombie apocalypse, there is no plot armour. Joel, in the first game, demonstrated this in reverse. It was his daughter who died at the very start of that game’s first act, but in the final act Joel saves Ellie from a similar fate – murder, essentially, at the hands of the “state” (loosely defined as a pervasive militarised body) or, perhaps, for the sake of an apparent greater good. (A contentious connection to make between the two characters and one I don’t want to unpack here for the sake of brevity.)

The second game takes this brutality to a whole new level, Indeed, violence is one of the game’s primary USPs. This is a really fucking brutal game. And yet, the fact that the emotional impact of the game matches up to its gory spectacle is commendable. There are enough games out there that are all gore and no heart.

This sort of brutality is one of the defining characteristics of the Rotten Western – and, indeed, the Western more generally. In fact, what we are seeing with The Last of Us as a franchise is that it seems to be building towards some sort of trilogy, like the Spaghetti Westerns – those “operas of violence” – of the Seventies.

In the first game, you have an archetypal story of deliverance, specifically for Joel. It was the big Texan’s reluctant task to (quite literally) deliver an immune Ellie to a militia group, the Fireflies, so that they can develop a cure. But underneath it all, Joel also has to set himself free from the trauma of his daughter’s death at the start of the outbreak which has, at first, made him brutally cold to the world around him. It is Ellie who eventually thaws him out. [1]

In The Last of Us Part II, the tables have turned. The wintery tundra in which the first act of the game is spent tells us one thing only: Joel and Ellie’s hearts may have warmed, but the world is still cold to them – and to us. A fire still burns, however, and it reignites deliverance, turning it into vengeance. [2]

I think it is important that this act of revenge comes following the violent destruction of Joel as the sheriff-imago. In fact, it couldn’t realistically be anyone else. The Walking Dead‘s over-reliance on traumatised women and the horrific demise of the Asian-American Glenn, though still traumatic, felt like familiar instances of American dispensability for too many. It is a superficial twist on the black guy always dies first, swapped out for the minority always dies worst. This is to say that, in The Walking Dead, more abstractly but no less predictably, the less archetypal characters always had less plot armour than the likes of Rick Grimes.

Many have complained that the priorities of The Last of Us Part 2 betray a violent wokeness, through which the teenage lesbian outlives the patriarch, but it seems to me like this is the world that The Walking Dead didn’t have the nerve to inaugurate until its audience was passed the point of caring: a world in which the unseen and more nomadic subjectivities embedded within American life fair better than those we are more accustomed to cheer on.

Think again of the Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We have long wrestled with the fact that there is a future that may not be for-us. We might think of that as a world without the human race, or we might think of it as a world without the hegemonic subject of capitalism.

This is the first lesson taught by the Rotten Western.


[1] Western’s often play on deliverance like this, particularly in their video game variety. Fallout: New Vegas anyone?

[2] In fact, this is one of my favourite things about the haven of Jackson – the little frontier town out in the mountains of Washington where Ellie, Joel and co. have been holed up since the events of the first game. Whenever it is mentioned, I can’t help but think of June and Johnny Carter singing about how they got married in a fever. Joel and Ellie may not be “married”, but the threat of the characteristic body burn-out of infection certainly cemented their bond.

We Must Imagine Sisyphus Pathological

I finally watched Joker the other night. It was pretty good. Most takes on it seemed bad though.

For instance, I — along with about half of Reddit — kept thinking about Sisyphus throughout my viewing, particularly Camus’s absurdist Sisyphus. It is as if Arthur is the epitome of the Absurd Hero — or so the script wants us to think. This is to say that, despite all the shit he’s put through, we have to imagine Arthur happy. Otherwise why would he continue to live? He has to be able to affirm the meaningless chaos of the universe, affirm the drudgery, and find the funny in its absurdity.

The issue with this sort of analysis, of course, is that whilst it seems fairly obvious and accurate at the level of cinematographic symbolism, that’s only because we’ve let our eyes lead us and stripped out the broader context.

Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker isn’t like Heath Ledger’s. That much was clear to me. In fact, surely Ledger’s Joker was far more of an Absurd Hero? He doesn’t have the heavy symbolism of a long flight of stairs to climb up; nevertheless, he is absurd in his defiance not of the Gods but of capitalism. In wanting to watch the world burn, we can say he wants to suffer. He flourishes in a world of conflict, which is what separates him from the other gangsters, who are supposedly thrown into a life of crime for various material reasons. The Joker, however, wants to be there. He’s made a choice.

This is what defines his character. He offers up a backstory sometimes, about his facial scars, but it’s obviously all bullshit. He knows it’s easier for these basic heroes to imagine him a man corrupted, and he toys with them in this sense, giving them reasons for existence only to cast doubt on them. Even this is just a joke to him.

The Joker (in Ledger’s portrayal at least) is such a diabolical character precisely because he demonstrates the difficulty in imagining him happy; imagining him motivated by revenge or greed is far easier than imagining him being driven purely by a sadomasochist pleasure principle.

Phoenix’s Joker isn’t like this. He laughs despite himself. He’s medicated. He phantasises. He’s not happy but unwell. He’s a Sisyphus who only makes sense if we imagine him as he is: pathological.

“What’s so funny?”

“I have a condition…”

In psychoanalytic terms, Phoenix’s Joker is a true psychotic. Whereas the classic Joker is basically just a hysterical pervert, truly enjoying the violence of the world, Arthur slips out of the symbolic order entirely. He’s not consciously subverting our value systems. He’s tragically outside of them. This is demonstrated by his jokes, to an extent. Puns and homophones are his primary comedic domain; a comedy where slippages of meaning are affirmed. But this is an innocuous glimmer of the true tendencies that lie within. In reality, his cognitive experience is some distant from this largely innocuous eccentricity. It is only through language, and grappling with it, that he is able to make sense of life. Despite what he goes on to do, his actions aren’t really a part of this.

For instance, Arthur laughs when he experiences any negative form of emotion — due to a brain injury, it is suggested — but it’s a hollow laugh. This is what makes him creepy rather than evil. He’s not an absurd hero affirming his lot in life. He explicitly refuses to affirm it, in fact. He might enjoy slippages of meaning within his own hypothetical stand-up routine but when the world at large misunderstands him, he gets violent.

In this sense, Arthur is a psychotic unable to subjectify his experiences because his experience is foreclosed, in spite of his capacity for linguistic expression.

For Lacan, foreclosure is a sort of alternative to repression, where something is ejected from the symbolic order as if it never existed. For Phoenix’s Joker, what is ejected could be — in true Lacanian fashion — a father figure (and we see this in his relationship with his mother), but instead it seems that what is rejected is sadness itself.

This isn’t just the case in terms of Arthur’s emotional expressivity; it is also the case socially. His mother calls him “Happy”, for instance, (nick)naming him after an emotion he is not destined to feel. It’s the tragic irony of the sad clown taken to an oppressive Lacanian extreme — as if “happiness” is the fantasy of the big Other that he is being forced to embody despite himself.

This is a genuinely interesting twist on the tale, even though the film buries it under a heavy symbolism that implores we give it a more superficial meaning — but, in that sense, the film, in true modern Hollywood fashion, is guilty of precisely what it is critiquing. Phoenix’s portrayal of the character may have genuine depth but the direction is likewise guilty of this same foreclosure, insisting we think of him as the Absurdist Joker that Ledger portrayed so well, when in fact Arthur is anything but. This is to say that not only is Arthur foreclosed in his world but in ours too.

Thankfully, this foreclose is not as bad as with Jared Leto’s Joker, who failed because he seemed to misunderstand the importance of this psychoanalytic slippage. His Joker is just “crazy”. It was a Joker caricature; a stylistic variation on a Joker we already know and can account for as a cliched archetype. It failed to do what all successful Jokers are supposed to, which is tell us something quietly profound about ourselves in our contemporary moment. Whilst Ledger’s spoke to a absurdist-nihilist streak within Noughties capitalism, encapsulating the decadence of a new fin de siècle, Phoenix’s Joker tells us something else about now. Not that we might choose our own happiness and nihilistically affirm our chaotic world but that the psychopathologic intrusion of modernity into the psyche gives us very little choice in the matter at all.

In this sense, Phoenix’s Joker is rightly a sort of incel icon. But that’s not to say he demonstrates himself as a viable political subject, as many incels try to portray themselves. (Before you ask: no, I haven’t seen TFW No GF yet.) Just like Travis Bickle, similarly referenced in this film so heavily that it starts to get annoying, his political activities are little more than attempts to insert himself into a symbolic order. We, as viewers, might be able to imbue it with a certain vigilante moralism but it is hardly a conscious form of activism. Bickle is a slave to his own psychosis, drawn into the underbelly of his New York neighbourhood simply because that’s where he lived. He attacks pimps through an inability to navigate his own circumstances rather than out of an ideological need to clean up the streets. He attacks them because they are there and so is he.

Given the emphasis on language and an inability to effectively communicate in the world, it is easy to see why many incels characterise themselves as violent autists but the further (inadvertent) strength of Phoenix’s Joker in this regard is that he demonstrates how their communicative impotence is acutely psychotic rather than autistic. There are many on the autistic spectrum capable of understanding politics far better than they do, for instance. No, there’s is nothing more than a pathology dressed up as an ideology and, in this sense, Phoenix’s Joker is precisely the Joker we deserve.

Metanarratives: Notes on Westworld S03E02 and our Televisual Golden Age

Spoilers, obviously…


Westworld took a big gamble by diminishing itself for half of an episode in service of a jokey plot twist.

During the first half of the second episode of series three, I felt really weird about what I was seeing. The show was suddenly so wooden. It felt like the writers had decided to introduce a bunch of unnatural narrative elements in order to keep the series going passed last season’s quite natural end point. As a result, it felt like poor Westworld fan fiction rather than Westworld proper.

And then it turned out that that was entirely the point.

This episode got meta — really meta. The opening in World-War-Two-World — or “Warworld” as the cast called it — teased a show not yet finished playing with other genres. It also revealed that this is a show not yet finished playing with other genre functions. The superficial pastiche and the over-bearing symbolism of a new world at war felt like the show had either completely lost itself or it was making a comment about the world of television production out here in the real world. I was grateful, if still somewhat convinced, when it seemed more like the latter.

The glimpses we saw of a hypothetical Game of Thrones World, for instance, whilst inside Maeve’s simulation within a simulation, were a funny twist considering how the televisual landscape has changed since this series started. In fact, I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say that this episode was a sharp dig at that final season — a bait and switch, feigning a dive before getting back to the story proper.

But what for?

For many years we have supposedly been celebrating a new televisual “Golden Age” but I’m sure many would now acknowledge that this time of great prosperity has started to wane. Many shows — Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are the first to come to mind — have found themselves unable to live up to their own grandeur, whether in failing to tie up loose ends or continuing to hang around long past the expiration of their welcome.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the makers of Westworld felt themselves pushing into this “expired welcome” stage of their development. This is a show that has been so convoluted and demanded so much of its viewer’s attention that it must surely be aware that the average viewer will not have mapped out the show’s twists and turns to such an extent that the narrative continues to hold together without some implicit scaffolding on the writers’ part. It was a discomfiting surprise that the Westworld writers sidestepped this altogether.

The holes in the plot and the complete disconnection from the end of the last season felt weirdly like a shoddy attempt to keep a character alive beyond the decisions of a previous writing team, like when a character is miraculously resuscitated or killed off in a soap opera to account for external issues or market demand. Maeve took on the brunt of this but Stubs the Bodyguard’s continued existence also felt like a convenient moment of deus ex machina.

This latest episode played up to this with an uneasy fidelity. Even when the joke was revealed, it left an odd taste in the mouth. This was an odd way to reintroduce the supplementary character arches in this third season. What I was left with, personally, was a feeling that this show is well aware of the questions left unanswered and the tight grip it needs to keep on its own internal logics if it is to get away with its own continued existence. It was a somewhat brave move, I think, to play up to the average fan’s need to warm back up to the world and its narrative after a couple of years off our screens.

It is a brave move because, with the cancellation of The OA and the shallow grave of Game of Thrones in its rearview mirror, and with The Walking Dead lumbering on far too much like its own namesake, there are a lot of challenges and lessons to be learned for new and continuing shows in our present moment. The likes of Better Call Saul are showing the way ahead for complex narrative universes — although, at this point, even that show’s predictable structure of character-developing vignette after character-developing vignette is starting to wear thin — but Westworld feels like one of the last “big” shows on our screens to emerge during that late-Golden moment to still be happy reinventing itself. Nevertheless, it has a lot to prove.

Whether it will be able to prove itself going forwards obviosuly remains to be seen, but watching this latest episode of Westworld, it feels like the response from within their production team has been a defiant: “Hold my beer…”

“We’re not coding the hosts; we’re decoding the guests”: Notes on Westworld Season 3

In my new book, Egress, I spend a long chapter going on about Westworld, how it’s connected to our cultural understanding of the American West, and how the classic racialised undertones of its second series (“Go native or go home!”) tell us a lot about how we continue to understand unconsciousness and its relationship to political action. (It’s, hands down, the chapter I’m most proud of and excited by and it’s a topic that I could — and intend to — dedicate a whole other book to at a later date.)

With all that in mind, the return of Westworld for a third season is something I’m really excited about, so below are a bunch of notes that I made whilst watching (and preparing to watch) S03E01.

The first thing to say is that I’m expecting the show to take a further turn regarding its central investigation of human unconsciousness. The first season explored why this unconsciousness should be raised; the second explored the potential and messy results (good and bad) of doing so; the third seems to be about how, more specifically, capitalism can still attach itself to these developments.


It was an inspired — and wholly believable — development in season two when it was revealed the park’s management was tracking the guests’ behaviour along with the hosts. As Bernard said last season, most succinctly: “We’re not coding the hosts; we’re decoding the guests.”

Every visitor to the park was being analysed and recorded with their behaviour uploaded to the cloud so that the park could run various experiments, cloning the consciousness of each individual and trying to replicate them in 3D-printed bodies. As it turns out, this is much harder to do than to allow consciousness (or unconsciousness) to emerge within a mind (somewhat) naturally. To replicate an already living person often led to rapid cognitive breakdowns and an accelerative dementia.

Regardless of the success of their experiments, the Delos Corporation was very much aware of the value of the data they’ve hoarded and so they aimed to capitalise on it and use it to — I don’t know — develop market research or something. It’s the sort of data I imagine companies could use, in the outside world, to create the most profitable hysteria on Black Friday, for example, or in ways that are far more insidious. All this computational data about unconsciousness and human desires will surely be used, by its very nature, in unthinkable ways. It’s a key to the back door of human consciousness. All the more reason for the hosts to stay one step ahead of capitalism’s capture of their “masters”. If they want to overthrow the world they have so far been denied access to, in order to make it their own, they’ll need to stay one step ahead of this unconscious capture in much the same way as they need to stay one step ahead of an all too physical capture also.

In the first episode, these threats were only teased. “Dolores” — side note: I’m having great difficulty remembering who is who now, following last season’s body swapping — found herself nearly captured (physically) and seems to only just becoming aware of the way the world she has newly entered works.

One of the first scenes in this first episode shows her robbing an old visitor to the park, whose information she’s acquired from the Delos servers. She takes all his money explaining that she’s become aware of its importance in this world and she wouldn’t want to exist too long in it without any.

If Dolores has newly acquired financial concerns, she’s not the only one. The new season opened with a flurry of implicit questions on this topic:

What’s the affect of the park’s revolution on the market in the outside world? Relatively speaking, it’s a tremor. A worrying one, for those in the know, but a “blemish” nonetheless — at least financially speaking; not counting the bodies. The hosts may have overthrown their world but our world is a lot more complex. How they will use their newly raised unconsciousnesses to overthrow capitalism’s iron grip seems to be the question of the season. That is, if they need to overthrow capitalism at all. They want to overthrow the greedy, selfish humans. Fucking with the market is certainly be the best way to get their attention. Just as Dolores has so far used the humans’ reliance on technology to her advantage, using it on one rich domestic abuser to employ his own unconsciousness against him — calling it his “unauthorised autobiography”, which I liked — exploiting the market might allow her to manoeuvre the humans in newly unconscious ways.

As she becomes increasingly aware of capitalism’s importance to the workings of the unconscious human mind, she might find that she’s able to manipulate things in ways even she hasn’t yet thought of. Perhaps she’ll become one with the system itself, in much the same way Maeve did within the confines of Westworld last season. Consciousness has broken free of humanity and is taking its own path. Maybe capitalism is due to do the same thing…