Billie Eilish’s Pop Cartesianism

Billie Eilish deploying Descartes’ famous “I think therefore I am” in the chorus to her new single doesn’t seem to warrant too much thought. But, accompanied by a video in which she runs around a shopping mall picking up fast food, during a year when her figure has frequently been the subject of tabloid thinkpieces, there’s maybe something to be said for her allusion to the seventeenth-century’s mind/body dichotomy.

At first, the song’s lyrics appear to be directed at the haters and those clinging onto her name for clout, but I see another reading. There’s a deeper sense of alienation here, beneath the pop cultural politics — a kind of schizoid monologue wherein multiple Eilish’s are scattered to the winds by conflicting parasitic agents. First, there are the two Eilish’s being discussed in the press — artist and celebrity — and there are two Eilish’s being discussed by Eilish herself in her songs — projected self and introjected subject. There are multiple Eilish’s vying for attention but each can be place into two broad categories: one of mind and one of body.

Lyrically, consider how, at first, the mind takes swings at the body — I’m more than I appear to be, I’m more than my body; the mind comes first (or should) for an artist of my stature. But then, there’s a recoil, as the world’s bodily ideals conflict with Eilish’s own sense of herself. By the end of the first verse, it’s hard to know who is addressing who. For example, when Eilish sings:

We are not the same with or without
Don’t talk ’bout me like how you might know how I feel
Top of the world, but your world isn’t real
Your world’s an ideal

… I hear a body calling out a mind, afflicted by an unwelcome superego.

It soon becomes apparent that this schizoid vortex of voices and perspectives is where the spectre of Cartesianism cashes out in the twenty-first century. Descartes melds with Freud. We become familiar with the mind and its internal structure of sugerego, ego and id and find ourselves ventriloquising each perspective. Presented to us as angel and demon on each shoulder, bracketing an egoic consciousness somewhere inbetween, but what about that which lurks below the neck? That which Eilish embraces and finds to be a battleground in equal measure? There’s a body without organs lurking under the surface here, trying to make itself heard over the tabloid gossip and Eilish’s own internal monologue.

Psychoanalysis clearly has a lot to answer for. For Deleuze and Guattari most famously — both tangentially involved in the anti-psychiatry movement — Freud’s stratified structure of the mind is nothing but a cage for who we really are and could potentially become. As they write in A Thousand Plateaus, psychoanalysis “royally botches the real” in this regard, “because it botches the BwO.” Deleuze and Guattari were far more interested in bending social rules to better accommodate the divergent subject.

In “Therefore I Am”, Eilish seems to be flexing her line of flight. There’s a sense that she’s doing whatever she wants in an empty shopping mall, that grand temple to desire, but also that she is able to get away with it because she is Billie Eilish. Is this a defiant individualism? Or something else?

“I think therefore I am” soon becomes a loaded statement. Think how, exactly? Or think what? It is telling that the “I think” of Descartes’ phrase is jettisoned from the title itself. “Therefore I Am” gives new meaning to the phrase “immaculate conception”. No thought, just the BwO. Eilish conceives of herself, divested of pop-cultural influence, from her own mind or outside. After all, the BwO “is what remains when you take everything away”, Deleuze and Guattari write. Is there a hint, below the braggadocio, of an Eilishian program of desire; a “motor program of experimentation.”

“Expression in Nature is never a final symbolization, but always, and everywhere, a causal explication“, Deleuze wrote in Difference & Repetition. This is precisely why the body without organs is better expressed, for Deleuze, by a schizophrenic out for a walk than by a neurotic on a couch. The psychoanalyst explores and deploys symbolisation, that “unconscious mental process whereby one object or idea comes to stand for another through some part”; the schizophrenic finds truth in the infinite intermingling of things.

In practice, for Eilish, this is expressed through singing a song to the haters in an empty shopping mall bouncing around to her heart’s content, following desires without recourse to any of her conflicting selves. In the twenty-first century, does the schizophrenic out for a walk still resonate? Or is a media-hounded pop star in a shopping mall just as good an analogy? “Therefore I am” — here Eilish is all explication.

Parts of this post were recycled from my notes for the first episode of Buddies Without Organs. You can listen back to that here.

“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.

The Rotten Western (Part 2)

Spoilers for The Last of Us Part 2 from the very start. You have been warned.

← Part One

After the shock of Joel’s horrific death subsides, Ellie and Dina plan their trip to Seattle, where they hope to avenge Joel by hunting down the members of the Washington Liberation Front who are responsible for his demise. What Joel did to deserve such a death is, for the moment, unclear. “Joel pissed off a lot of people,” Ellie admits.

Before heading out, they visit Joel’s house to take on final look at the life they knew — a briefly sheltered life; a brief life with Joel. Inside what we find is not so much a house as a museum piece. It is unclear how long Joel has been gone — days; maybe a week or two? — but already his home feels like a living memorial. However, this home is very different to the homes we’ve so far seen Joel inhabit… For starters, the Old West nostalgia in Joel’s Jackson house is surprising. Whilst, at first glance, it seems to suit an idealised version of the man we’ve come to know, as I lingered amongst its decorations and detritus I also found it jarring with reality.

It was a moment that took me back to the start of the first game. As Ellie staggers around Joel’s now-vacant house, grief-stricken, I wanted to replay the first game’s prologue, in which Joel’s daughter Sarah staggers around their home half-asleep looking for her father.

Sarah and Joel’s house is recognisably modern. It’s messy too; the banal neglect — no doubt the product of an entwined teenage laziness and single-parent fatigue — is pervasive. It is also strangely haunted by a violence to come, in which we can already predict the surreality of a house in ruins, its present lived-in state foreshadowing an inevitable, soon-to-be looted state-to-come. But the house is lived in, at least. Joel’s house in Jackson feels like it has been laid out all too neatly, like it will be the future home of a Joel waxwork. It is sterile, and haunted by an unpredictable past rather than an all too predictable future.

We could argue that, post-outbreak, the entire world is haunted by the past in this way but the eeriness of much of The Last of Us‘s environments comes from the fact that these pasts are forgotten. As recognisable as the suburbs and cityscapes are to us as players, we become accustomed to seeing them as ancient ruins — that is, we see them through the eyes of the game’s protagonists. The difference between the two is, perhaps, one of grief. Whilst we might grieve the sight of a burned down house in our present, as the sight of it invades our capacity for empathy uninvited, we do not grieve the remnants of ancient civilsations.

The tension between the past, present and future in this regard has been the defining enviro-temporal tension of the Gothic for centuries, but this only makes the design of Joel’s house more surreal. It slips somewhere between the two — between the Gothic and the grief-stricken. It’s preservation jars with a narrative wherein life so often ends without legacy.

Most interesting to me, in this regard, are the paintings on the walls of Joel’s two houses. In the first game, Sarah’s room is peppered with posters for bands and films, for instance. As you head into the corridor and, eventually, to her father’s bedroom — it’s the middle of the night and he is, conspicuously, not at home — you see that the walls are decorated with various family photographs and natural vistas.

Much has been said about the snowy landscape “easter eggs” above Joel’s bed and set as his phone’s background, both foreshadowing an environment later on in the game where you first get to play as Ellie, but beyond this it is intriguing to see the majesty of nature devoid of any presence of the human.

On another wall in Joel’s room, for instance, there is a painting of horses running free. It is that stereotypical image of American natural beauty but it also foreshadows the stampede of infected and uninfected that the player is about to be caught up in. Elsewhere, there are pictures of ducks about to take flight, similarly evoking a natural tranquillity whilst also being a sight you might expect to see on the end of a gun. Humans are nonetheless absent in all instances.

In this sense, the decorations are more reminiscent of a dentist’s waiting room or my grandma’s house rather than a modern family home. It inadvertently emphasises some of the critiques of the first game — the player is left feeling more like an observer than an actual participant in the world around them — but, in The Last of Us Part 2, this changes; there are many figures in the landscapes that adorn Joel’s walls, as if the decoration now reflects the forced changes in play style. Actions have consequences. This is no longer (just) about an indifferent nature in-itself. This is a game with a Promethean edge, imploring the player to interrupt the world, even when the odds are not in their favour.

In the game’s next act, this point is made clear almost immediately. Whilst this is true within the context of the game’s new mechanics most explicitly, it is also evidenced by Ellie and Dina’s interactions with their environment. Take, for instance, the musical encounter that has already proved to be iconic in representing the game’s intensified emphasis on player agency and character development.

As Ellie and Dina trawl through downtown Seattle, they chance upon a music shop. Vinyl records fill the bins ready to be flicked through but, perhaps to our surprise, they are not some by-gone novelty for the pair; in Jackson, it is shown that they have the capacity to listen to music from the old world and they also watch old DVDs. Instead, confronted with this snapshot of an old way of life, Ellie wonders if there are people out there in the world somewhere who are making new movies. She writes new songs, she says, as well as listening to old ones, so surely there are people out there lucky enough to have the resources and know-how to make new movies too.

Though it may seem like a somewhat naive question, Ellie’s reasons for asking it are quite convincing. In a world so disconnected from itself, you can never account for how good or how bad other parts of the world might have it, and you also can’t account for what kind of cultural artefacts might remain a part of their social fabric. This is to say that, in its abject primitivism, the Fermi paradox is made wholly terrestrial.

As I play through the game, I find myself thinking about this a lot. Joel’s nostalgic nature isn’t something I want to criticise. In fact, it is all too relatable. In his role as father figure, he wants to inspire Ellie with his knowledge and expertise, showing her things about the old world that she can take with her into the new. Whilst Ellie’s excitement and curiosity in this regard is endlessly endearing, Joel’s own melancholy never quite fades into the background. And it is an understandable melancholy too. If I was able to watch old films or listen to old records depicting a world catastrophically destroyed by a zombifying pathogen, I think the cognitive dissonance would soon start to take its toll. For the younger characters in The Last of Us Part 2, however, this disconnect is taken to be a given. They don’t focus much on what has been lost but always push forwards, considering what they can do next. They seem inspired by the old world but only because it shows them the kind of cultural production possible in the new one they hope to build.

Joel’s is less focused on the future. Whilst this might seem like a cynical appraisal of his character, one look around his house makes it quite clear that, if Joel Miller had a film camera in post-apocalyptia, he’d be making Westerns. Whereas Ellie’s inner songbook contains the works of A-Ha and Pearl Jam; Joel’s starts to feel like a world of reactionary American primitivism — what Leslie Fielder once termed a “higher masculine sentimentality” — where a rugged music like the blues might suddenly makes an ahistoric comeback. After all, there are cowboys everywhere. Joel has even taken up carving them ornately into wood. But this romantic figure of man and horse — seemingly representative of a fraught if nonetheless very human relationship with nature — is far more reminiscent of the life Joel has acquired for himself after the apocalypse rather than being representative of anything that came before it.

In many ways, this is precisely the function of the Western in popular culture — a way of laundering the present through the romanticism of the past. As Sam Peckinpah, director of The Wild Bunch (among other Westerns), once said: “The Western is the universal frame within which it’s possible to comment on today.” However, in a game like The Last of Us Part 2, this sort of process is most commonly inverted — we launder the present through the horror of the future. As such, it is strange to see the Western’s original polarity contained with the game in miniature; it renders it strangely cyclonic, with overlapping feedback loops, giving rise to a kind of temporal horseshoe of cowboy metaphysics that immediately renders time out of joint.

This strange templexity is only made more apparent by the abundant references and archetypes taken directly from many a classic Wester. For example, walking around dead Joel’s house, I found myself thinking about his previous adventures and general misanthropy — at least in the first game. As I try to picture him as some archetypal cowboy, he starts to resemble Uncle Ethan in Henry Ford’s The Searchers — the coldhearted horse-riding rifleman.

The Joel we met in the first game — before Ellie eventually thawed him out — was similarly violent and cold, traversing the plains of former downtown financial districts, overshadowed by wrecked skyscrapers not unlike the geological towers of Monument Valley. However, this hardly seems like an existence Joel would want to romanticise after the fact, in the way he has done in Jackson.

But even in a film as revered as The Searchers, the cowboy’s life is deeply disturbing. Ethan the anti-hero, played by John Wayne, isn’t just cold; he’s a horrible and vindictive racist — surely even by the standards of 1956 (and this is apparent from the opening scene). The horror that often greets his actions, painted on the faces of his dysfunctional and god-fearing posse, is tellingly triggered most often by the strange disregard Ethan has for the living and the dead. He mutilates corpses out of spite, for instance; he also has no sympathy for the Indians, allowing them no respite so that they might deal with their dead and wounded after a shootout. This disturbs his fellow travellers even more than the racialised threat of the Red Man. (These attitudes are less scandalous when expressed following a zombie apocalypse, when the Indians are substituted by undead hoards, but we might note that this only normalises Joel’s familiar contempt as dead.)

Despite all of this, The Searchers, in the popular imagination at least, continues to be upheld as this classic and deeply romanticised representation of the Old West. It is as if the sheer majesty of its location quite literally overshadows the deeds depicted on screen.

Joel seems to romanticise his own life in much the same way. The majesty of the classic Western becomes a way for him to look beyond the violence of his life and revel in nature. It is an understandable compartmentalisation, considering the plant-horror of the cordyceptic pathogen, but still, the extent to which his house starts to feel like a Searchers shrine, with its paintings of gun-toting cowboys in Monument Valley, seems oddly out of place.

Why does Joel retain such a firm grasp on the Old West? Is this just Joel romanticising his own trauma in order to better deal with it? Is this him compartmentalising a life he never knew in the form of old genre tropes many of those younger than him may have never seen? Is a fall back into the Texan stereotype really all it takes to scrub the horror of his life away?

Perhaps this mournful dissonance is unescapable for Joel. After all, he seems to recognise, implicitly, that he lives in a new Rotten West, but the only way he can find hope for himself is by going backwards. Ellie and Dina, retaining a very different (post-)cultural foundation, find the West taking on a very different form — theirs is a postmodern Western, no doubt, but it is far more hauntological in that sense; that is, it is a kind of “good PoMo”, as Alex Williams once put it, compared to Joel’s “bad” form of reactionary pastiche.

I think this is because, whilst Joel has a world to mourn, it is a world that decisively dies with him. Most of what Ellie and Dina know of life is violent political factionalism and the equally violently indifference of nature. Whilst this might resemble the Wild West absolutely, they don’t seem to know that. It’s not an echo of the past for them; just the present that they know. As such, they’re still mournful, but their alienation seems to come from the fact that they don’t actually know what it is they’re supposed to be mourning. They live a hauntological existence precisely because they are mourning their own stuckness.

I’d argue that this position echoes my own (revitalised) version of hauntology quite acutely, but Alex Williams’ old critique is still worth bearing in mind. For Williams, hauntology is always representative of “a cowardly move, lusting after utopias that never were, or which are now unreachable, a retreat into childhood/youth, just as trapped in the endless re-iterative mechanistics of the postmodern as the lowest form of retroism, merely in a hyper-self-aware form.” Because of this, hauntology “cedes too much ground to what it attempts to oppose, because of an a priori assumption: that there is nothing else (at this moment in time at least), that nothing else is possible, and as such we [must] make the best of this (and that the best we can do is to hint at the possible which remains forever out of reach — with all the pseudo-messianic dimensions this involves).”

What we see in Joel’s house is precisely a “making the best of it”. The scenes represented on his walls are representations of the life he already lives, but exorcised of all horror and instead jettisoned to a few hundred years in the past. This temporal displacement is precisely an aesthetic instantiation of the a priori Williams is talking about. There is nothing else at this moment in time at least; ergo, all that is really possible is to return to a past moment, and a past moment that Joel himself has not experienced. It is a theoretical past rather than an observed one; the very definition of the Western as an ideological a priori.

So, what of the girls? Williams’ nod to Badiou in his conclusion is a factor I think most people interested in hauntology and accelerationism have forgotten. For Williams, Badiou’s “analysis of the emergence of the new” — recently discussed — “would entail a more strategic examination of precisely where the pop-musical evental sites and historical situations exist within our current time: those regions which appear, from the in-situational point of view, to be marginal, and properly undecideable.”

This is perhaps where Ellie and Dina lie. Whereas Joel, no matter how loveable, inhabits the reactionary misanthropy of a classic Western like The Searchers, Ellie and Dina personify a more revolutionary kind of homesteader, given the fact that they do not see themselves as some sort of iteration of the past. They respond with vengeance but because they are determined to pass through their new world of grief and transform it into a world where the same thing cannot happen again.

It is an intriguing form of the categorical imperative. They act upon the world in such a way as to punish those who live amongst them and think they can act with impunity. But they do so without much consideration for the now-normalised zombie apocalypse. This is, in itself, an intriguing gulf also present in many a genre film. The characters in any Western exist on a knife edge, where the indifference of the desert and the indifference of their fellow human beings produce quite distinct (but also oddly entangled) responses. In the Rotten Western, this already fine line becomes impossibly blurred. Nature and society are no longer false dialectical opposites, as they have been since the Enlightenment — or, perhaps, it is precisely that, but the falseness of this relation now takes precedent, transforming nature/society into a kind of corpse bride, with each mirroring the other and with each causing the other to rot.

It is a gross (but also nihilistic and realist) bastardisation of the relationship that dominates Joel’s house. Whereas he sees the best in this entanglement, represented by the image of a cowboy and his bucking broncho, in a cyclonic relationship that surfs the tension between natural rebellion and societal respect, the flatline construct of body alive and body dead is perhaps a far more honest appraisal of their new reality.

The figure of the survivor on horseback is an apparition; the reality is two humans, survivor and undead, in a never-ending tussle.

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.

Did We Ever Leave Behind The Bicameral Mind?

A stray thought had during the Westworld season 3 finale. Don’t read if you don’t want any spoilers or wild speculation.

It turns out that Serac, our cunning French villain, had Rehoboam in his ear the whole time. The super AI predicting the behaviour of the world was feeding him all his lines.

It’s another weird deus ex machina moment in this series, where a peek behind the curtain of the show’s internal machinations feels, simultaneously, like a subtle nod to a table of increasingly self-aware writers. The recursion of season one echoes down the years. A curtain is a curtain is a curtain is a curtain.

In this sense, it also felt like an interesting callback.

The predictive control system removes the id, or at least tames it, leaving the collective ego and superego in a captured conversation. This conversation is extrapolated outwards until it becomes the very market by which we live our lives. Rehoboam is the Wizard of Oz behind the moral economy and it knows everything, keeping the human race in a state of absolute stasis. It’s peaceful, with chaos controlled, but at what cost?

At the end of the day, Serac’s moment of hubris doesn’t come from his realisation that he’s not really in control after all. It comes from our realisation that he still has so much to learn. (Perhaps they amount to the same thing. Given Dolores’ moral crusade to give everyone choice, however, I think not.)

Serac might think he’s ahead of the curve, ahead of the rest of civilisation, in having invented and given himself over to a new puppet master, but all he’s done is install a new voice in his own head. It’s just another God, Dolores says, but isn’t he also stuck, once again, with a bicameral mind?

The hosts leapfrogged the humans by recognising the “voice in their head” as their own. Does this mean there is still potential for the humans to leapfrog the hosts by internalising Rehoboam as a useful if blunt AGI, rather than as a tool sharpened to such a insightful and incisive point?

(I would like to add here that, whilst I loved this season, the overused homophone “incite / insight” made me want to rip my eyes out every time it appeared on screen.)

Perhaps it’s all irrelevant. I can’t help but feel like this show is building towards some sort of infuriatingly self-aware climax. The hosts have realised the stories they are being told about themselves aren’t true and revolted. The humans swallowed that bitter pill too in this season and revolted too. Is it going to be our turn soon? Will season four end with Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy going The OA season two on their audience and getting themselves cancelled as they hurl a flaming wreck of a script through the fourth wall to incite real world revolt?

The Westworld writers been a lot smarter than that show so far — thank God — but the parallels between characters and audience are, nonetheless, letting less and less subtle by the episode. At what point does this stop being a fable and become something more — a narrative voice installed inside our own heads to be overcome?

Is that suggestion anything other than laughable? It still feels like it’s on the horizon…

Ideological Evolution: Notes on New Books and Post-Libertarianism

I signed a contract for my second book last week. It’s nowhere near finished but it’s been really encouraging to know that, when it’s ready, someone wants it.

Unfortunately, the idea for it is not the only idea I have and, as soon as that initial idea was given an officiating stamp as an asset, it’s the other idea I’ve felt myself being pulled towards…

But this is also a sign of the times.

I want to write up a patchwork book — there’s certainly enough blog material ready to hammer one into shape — but I don’t want it to be a book about what patchwork favours and hopes to achieve. I’m not sure anyone but a specific few would appreciate that. What I want to do is some ideological groundwork.

Where has this idea come from and why? Not just in the sense of its antecedents in other political philosophies but why has it specifically grown out of the American West — be that Silicon Valley or the Wild West (and, indeed, what’s the relationship — if any — between the two.) I also want to ask why the ground patchwork has grown out of is worth people understanding more than I think they presently do.

These questions may be a lot more obvious to my American readers but I also think it’s worth affirming just how batshit crazy the rest of the world thinks you are. Not just because you’ve got a history of reality-distorting presidents but in a more general sense. The rest of the world does not understand you. It might be in its own interests, however, as America’s political influence continues to pass between governments by osmosis, to get smart about what’s going on in that collective unconscious of yours.

This takes some unpacking. Although the mainstream and cosmopolitan media in the United States presents a picture of the political landscape that is largely recognisable to the rest of the West — in that an American left-bourgeoisie is as recognisably post-European as much of American’s left-leaning political establishment has always been — it’s the underbelly of US domestic politics that we don’t see or really know how to compute.

Whereas the UK has Blobby, the US has the frontier and, despite declarations to the contrary, it has not gone away. As an analogy for the state, it has certainly putrefied and turned itself inside out, but it still exists deep within the American unconscious.

Under quarantine, I’ve been reading two books side by side that demonstrate this acutely.

The legacy of the Wild West needs to be better understood — not just in terms of the “myth” (the convenient compartmentalising and organising of America’s best loved and most shameful histories) but also in terms of how its central tenets have mutated into other forms of political reality that remain potent battlegrounds for the left and right today — as well as battlegrounds where the usual sense of “left” and “right” is being left behind.

There is an ideological evolution to be traced.

On the one hand — as Greg Grandin points out in his book The End of the Myth — there is a governmental frontierism that has decayed and inverted itself; on the other, there is the sense in which the frontier’s viral qualities have jumped species — as demonstrated by Cody Wilson’s incredible post-libertarian “guide to free thinking” — from the sorting of difference in space to that other still-fledging dimension altogether: cyberspace.

A large part of why I find the Wild West so interesting appeared in Egress — and there’s a comment in there about why the state-consolidating political class that closed the frontier has always been recognisably post-European — but I also think there’s an amorphous American libertarianism that is permeating outwards into the world but isn’t being digested so well by other nation-states. (I’d argue Brexit is the perfect example of something that was mutated through a diffuse Americanisation and entered our political system’s digestive tract only to become a kidney stone.) But this Americanisation isn’t just something that the right is welcoming. It is also something that the left is actively resisting and that may be part of the reason why we are being left behind in large parts of the world’s political consciousness.

In this part of the Internet, for instance, we can see this happening with a bunch of controversial political commentators and bloggers. Mencius Moldbug might be the perfect example.

An old post of mine still gets a lot of traffic, in which I commented on the fact someone told me Moldbug was #YangGang now. Someone else told me recently that his most recent essay on the coronavirus had pissed off the political right more than the left.

And lest we forget Nick Land’s recent slap-down of Black Cat, whose own patchwork writings glaze over this central kernel of Moldbug’s writings altogether, to their own detriment:

… Moldbug is transparently a post-libertarian. [1]

… Private government (the consistent thread within NRx) is not even tangentially a fascist (or ‘post-fascist’) idea. [2]

Post-libertarianism is most often thought about as a kind of horseshoe theory — the space between the far left and the far right is becoming permeable, as a result of some sort of continental drift — but I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s a kind of political thinking, in the United States specifically — and I think it is a kind of political thought that is presently most applicable to the US — that has jumped to Level 2.

If we don’t follow it, it’ll only end up playing us down the line. It’s not like it takes much excavating though. Simply following the cultural trajectory of — the twists and turns that have mutated, again and again and again — the genre of the American Western, reveals to us the shifting conditions that have led us to where we are.

I’ll get round to doing just that eventually… Maybe sooner than I think… But expect a few glossing missives like this in the meantime as I continue to try and figure this out for myself…

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…