Repackaging the Archive (Part XI): Decadence and Sincerity in the Risk Society: Partying Until the World Ends

August 22, 2014

I originally delivered the following remarks at the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They seem oddly appropriate at the moment.

It is a familiar trope in the rhetoric of the American jeremiad to draw a comparison between the high decadence and subsequent fall of the Roman Empire and the similar decadence of the contemporary United States. So it is tempting to make such a comparison when considering a recent series of pop songs released in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis that celebrate “partying.” Since Lady Gaga’s first single, “Just Dance,” appeared,[1] a series of prominent female pop singers have released music videos that unambiguously celebrate decadence. Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” (2009), Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” (2011), and Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends” (2011) all portray gyrating bodies having simply way more fun than anyone could possibly have, reveling in their own meta-celebration.[2] Such images easily invite a critique of these videos’ lack of self-awareness, their problematic support of binge drinking, and their apolitical celebration of decadence as a mode of being in a time of global financial crisis and austerity. Inarguably outgrowths of a specific brand of American exceptionalism and a youth culture in which hedonism has become an end-in-and-of-itself, what is perhaps most disturbing about this party program, however, is its relative sincerity.

By focusing on Ke$ha’s invitation to an eternal party, Perry’s strangely sincere meta-filmic nod to the 1980s, and Spears’s dance club at the end of the world, I will argue that these videos should be read not as jubilant affirmations of existence and individuality, but as particularly cynical expressions of life in what Ulrich Beck calls the “risk society.”[3] These singers signal a cultural inability to imagine a coherent future in the face of the present multiplying networks of global risk, and exemplify a need to perpetuate and maintain a decadent cultural fantasy by erasing the disasters and crises that define the present through the spectacle of nostalgically reappropriating the past or fervently anticipating the end.

Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” released in April 2008 roughly six months before the full impact of the financial crisis became apparent, functions as a kind of template for the decadent party anthems that would follow:

Notice here that Lady Gaga is already presenting a number of features that will get repeated by both Ke$ha and Perry. The house Gaga enters at the beginning of the video has clearly already been a site of revelry and substance abuse, as the previous night’s passed-out party goers have merely to await Gaga’s arrival before reawakening and resuming the party. Gaga is not separate or detached from the hedonism, but rather a full participant in both the revelry and the blacked-out aftermath of binging. She has perhaps had more to drink than “a little bit too much,” as she asks, “Where are my keys? I’ve lost my phone,” but the deleterious effects of alcohol—e.g. not remembering the name of the club one is in—are “alright, alright” because the solution to whatever problem the world of this song presents is simple: “just dance”; everything is “gonna be okay” if one simply dances.

The logic of this song is repeated almost verbatim to the point of plagiarism in Ke$ha’s own debut, “Tik Tok.” Unlike Gaga’s video, however, when Ke$ha sings, “Wake up in the morning feeling like P Diddy; / Grab my glasses, I’m out the door, I’m gonna hit this city. / Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack, / ‘Cause when I leave for the night, I ain’t coming back,”[5] it is difficult to perceive any irony in her voice. For whether considered by itself or with the considerable retrospect provided by Lady Gaga’s subsequent career, “Just Dance” at least holds out the possibility of critical self-awareness toward the hedonism the song appears to be advocating. For not only does “Just Dance” acknowledge that something may actually not be all right with the world—that things need to be made okay, somehow—but that perhaps “just dancing” is not an adequate or acceptable solution to the problems being presented. In other words, an ironic reading of the video is not foreclosed, and the call to “just dance” might very well mean something else.

The partying Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” advocates, on the other hand, appears to foreclose any reading other than full-blown support for the decadence of the video, as it is difficult to argue that its hyperbole is in any way tempered by self-awareness. The partying Ke$ha portrays is not in reaction to anything or offered as the solution to a problem, but rather is something that she says, quite clearly, never stops. Partying, even if it doesn’t start until Ke$ha walks in, is a state of being in “Tik Tok.” (If the party starts when she walks in, then it is going on around her all time time.) Decadence becomes a kind of perpetual present, a nightmare eternal return of partying and drunkenness, resulting in hangovers that, one might imagine, also never end. Ke$ha cannot stop partying, whether she’s doing something as banal as brushing her teeth or whether she’s being groped (“boys tryin’ to touch my junk”) “the party don’t stop, no.”

In this way “Tik Tok” is emblematic of life under late capitalism. The logic of Ke$ha’s nonstop party wagon depends, like current theories of the free market, on the exploitation of illimitable resources so that it can grow without end toward no goal other than its own disastrous perpetuation. Further, as someone once pointed out about the cultural logic of late capitalism,[6] the song has no sense of history (other than an incoherent reference to Mick Jagger), and it is incapable of acknowledging the history of its own form (i.e., its blatant indebtedness to Lady Gaga). Simultaneously, the video is unable to posit any coherent sense of the future (let alone imagine some kind of utopian project). The song and its title, “Tik Tok,” while acknowledging that time exists, subsumes the human experience of temporality within the regime of its party-ontology, foreclosing any past or future. If Frank Kermode were once able to famously read the poetic expression “tick-tock” as “a model of what we call plot, an organization that humanizes time by giving it form,” then Ke$ha’s song remains only “the interval between tock and tick [a] purely successive, disorganized time of the sort that we need to humanize.”[7] In other words, the experience of the perpetual present of Ke$ha’s decadence eschews any narrative structure, any sense of a beginning or end that would make sense of the actions of the party’s participants. Consequently, there is something deeply inhuman about Ke$ha’s call for constant partying, and I do not think it too much of a stretch to equate the inhumanity of Ke$ha’s pursuit of unending decadent pleasure that has no other aim than the production of more pleasure with the inhumanity of being implored to constantly enjoy that is so much a feature of the contemporary experience of late capitalism. “Tik Tok” thus evinces a profound despair about the state of the world, one in which the fleeting present of youth, with its all-too-brief but ultimately damaging and disastrous holiday from history, is the only option left in the wake of the global financial crisis. Both the past and the future have been foreclosed, and Ke$ha’s song only holds out one incredibly cynical alternative: forget about the world and turn toward a solipsistic and uncritical pursuit of pleasure at the expense of everything else. And the most disturbing part of this injunction-to-enjoy is how sincerely this message is delivered, with no alternative imagined or even hinted at.

Something similar occurs in Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”[8] and Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends.” If “Tik Tok” is a nightmare glimpse of an eternal present with no sense of a past or future, Perry and Spears are emblematic of further failures to engage with history or imagine a future from within the regime of contemporary decadence. To turn first toward “Friday Night,” consider the following moment from the video, right when Perry receives the classic 1980s filmic makeover that turns a nerdy girl into a (more-or-less) conventionally attractive one:

The logic of this video is persistent. The alcohol-fueled regime of (poorly remembered) contemporary decadence is framed by the nostalgic (and anachronistic) reappropriation of the 1980s. Perry’s nod toward this period, however, glosses over the deep and abiding irony of 1980s popular film that she draws upon so heavily, an omission perhaps best evidenced in the video’s use of saxophonist Kenny G. Not even the sax player on the original track, Kenny G’s “lip-synched” sax playing functions strangely. Rather than being used ironically—i.e., everyone knowing that Kenny G is thoroughly uncool, but pretending to like him in an ironic, hipper-than-thou manner anyway, as would have been historically appropriate—he is presented as the apotheosis, both musically and visually, of the video’s nostalgia. In Perry’s historical vision, it is Kenny G that fully represents the past, even though anyone who could actually remember him would have thoroughly reviled his music. Juxtaposed against party-goers playing Just Dance 2 (2010) and the presence of the house band, the pretty much always reprehensible late-1990s boy-pop group Hanson, history from within the logic of Perry’s decadence becomes merely a playground of now empty cultural signifiers that can be strung together in whatever loose fashion serves the video’s own fairly obscure ends. This is only exacerbated by the appearance of Corey Feldman and Debbie Gibson as Perry’s parents near the end of the video, who serve to reinforce how incoherently popular culture from the relatively recent past is perceived from the decadent alcohol-haze of contemporaneity.

Though he was describing a possible future for American fiction rather than what I am calling “Lady Pop in the Age of the Networked Star,” David Foster Wallace’s comments on sincerity that conclude his 1993 essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” on the relationship between irony and postmodern cultural production, might equally apply to the strange sort of sincerity I would like to suggest that “Friday Night” displays:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-conscious and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backwards, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.[10]

Though clearly Perry is neither “literary” nor much of a “rebel”—even in the sense Wallace gives the word—she most assuredly appears “willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs,” for she does not appear to be desiring any other reaction to this video. Rather than be impressed by her hyper-self-aware postmodern recursive reflexivity, her anachronistic, Pynchonian use of reference used in the necessary service of debunking and exposing the illusions of postmodernity, her audience is merely encouraged to affect a cool smile of knowing (but not really knowing) that Kenny G’s presence in the video is slightly off, a bit too sincere even as it attempts to produce the kind of ironic stance that once was not a staple of popular culture, but a violent critique of its implicit and uncritical assumptions. In other words, in the same fashion that Wallace once relentlessly critiqued postmodern televisual production for cashing in on the literary irony of Thomas Pynchon et al, Perry is cashing in on the naïve sincerity of the present, a sincerity perhaps best captured in the phrase, “just express yourself.” Even in something that on its surface first appears to be hyper-referential and recursively ironic becomes, in Perry’s vision, yet another articulation of the overwhelming call of contemporary mass media to: just be yourself, express yourself, be true to yourself, in other words, to be sincere. What the self is that is being expressed, however, is anyone’s guess.

Britney Spears takes this sincerity, as she puts it, “to the next level”[11] in a video that unintentionally contemplates the eschatological horizon of the solipsistic, yet empty sincerity of contemporary decadence. Her video for 2011’s “Till the World Ends” is set on 21 December 2012—the purported date of the Mayan Apocalypse—as what appears to be a meteor approaches the Earth. In the video Spears and a gang of rejects from the Mad Max films, in light of this dire situation, have decided to stage a dance party at the end of the world:

There are a number of striking things about this video and, to my mind it is a fairly incredible allegory for certain contemporary approaches to global risk. First, the disaster Spears and her cadre of orgiastic pre-post-apocalyptic dancers anticipate is thoroughly fantasmatic. We are not within the realm of the (still realistic) cultural fantasy of Mutual Assured Destruction that Donald E. Pease and others have located as the dominant US national fantasy of the Cold War,[13] nor are we within a postmodern simulation in which the disaster explodes into reality that Slavoj Žižek finds when he analyzes the attacks of 11 September 2001.[14] Rather, the disaster fantasy here is a loosely fabricated fringe-eschatology thrown together by people trying to sell books by exploiting the historical deferment of the millennium, something that Norman Cohn pointed out long ago has been going on since at least the Middle Ages.[15] For Spears, in other words, the Mayan Apocalypse is just the most convenient and visible contemporary sense of an ending, and its lack of any correspondence to the very real, very persistent contemporary sense of disaster, whether it be ecological, economic, or political, matters not in the least. What matters is merely the fantasy of apocalypse. We are living in what Ulrich Beck calls an era of “global risk,” so the pervasive and ubiquitous sense of disaster that characterizes the world risk society gets transformed in Spears’s eschatological vision into whatever old disaster she wants. Divorced from the realities of the last decade, the natural disasters, the various wars being fought by the US, and a time characterized by what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism,”[16] Spears is able to sublimate the anxieties and fears of contemporaneity and turn them into a dance party that, even with disaster looming literally right outside of its door, cannot seem to concern itself with the impending doom nor step away from the decadent enjoyment of the club long enough to attempt to avert.

So second, it is further striking that in “Till the World Ends” the disaster appears to have actually been averted. One is encouraged, I believe, to imagine that the dancing was so good, that Spears and her pals got “on the floor” so well, that the meteor was diverted, and though there is little-to-no diegetic evidence to support such a reading, this redemption-through-dancing speaks to the pervasiveness of the fantasy on display so blatantly in Spears’s video and the depths of its cynical despair. Not only does the video exemplify a cultural inability to imagine other modes of being or a coherent sense of the future that is not eschatologically foreclosed by the conditions of contemporaneity and its redemption-through-partying validates solipsistic decadence as a proper mode of reacting to disaster in an age of global risk—i.e., ignoring it—but “Till the World Ends” suggests that this decadence actually might save us from disaster—i.e., that if we all just partied enough, kept dancing hard enough, the world might not end.[17] The horizon of this stance, if we recall Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok”—and it should be mentioned that Ke$ha also co-wrote “Till the World Ends”—is that if we just let capitalism run its course far enough, that if we all just ignore the increasingly dire ecological realities, economic catastrophes, global violence, and just keep enjoying ourselves, everything will be “okay.” This is in no way to suggest that we should be looking to these female pop stars to articulate a coherent politics, that if pop music was less decadently fantasmatic it might solve problems, et cetera. But it is to suggest that these videos brilliantly capture contemporary modes of decadence and put on display, with very little window dressing whatsoever, the solipsistic sincerity that ideologically props up this decadence. And of course it is fitting that I am delivering this paper mere days after Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast of the US and only a week before an election in which climate change and the environment have been discussed precisely zero times by the candidates. In other words, the world is ending and we need to stop dancing.

 


[1] Lady Gaga, “Just Dance” (Santa Monica, CA: Interscope Records, 2008), 12” single. The single was released on 8 April 2008, and her full-length debut album, The Fame, was released 19 August 2008 (Santa Monica, CA: Interscope Records), mere weeks before the full impact of the financial meltdown became apparent. Like so much else in her career, Lady Gaga was ahead of her time with regard to post-crisis decadence.

[2] For these videos see https://bradfest.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/abstract-decadence-and-sincerity-in-the-risk-society-katy-perry-and-britney-spears-partying-at-the-end-of-the-world/.

[3] See Ulrich Beck, World at Risk, trans. Ciaran Cronin (New York: Polity Press, 2009).

[5] Ke$ha, “Tik Tok” (New York: RCA, 2009), CD single. The single was released 7 August 2009, and Ke$ha’s full-length debut, Animal, was released 1 January 2010.

[6] See Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).

[7] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 45, emphasis mine. I would also mention that Robert Lowell’s “Fall 1961,” in which “Back and forth, Back and forth / goes the tock, tock, tock,” is really about “All autumn, the chafe and jar / of nuclear war; / we have talked our extinction to death” (Collected Poems, ed. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003], 329).

[8] Hereafter “Friday Night.”

[10] David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1997), 81.

[11] Britney Spears, “Till the World Ends” (New York: Jive Records, 2011), CD single.

[13] See Donald E. Pease, The New American Exceptionalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

[14] See Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (New York: Verso, 2002).

[15] See Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, rev. and ex. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).

[16] See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007).

[17] As David Foster Wallace once said of something else, this is so stupid it practically drools.


Repackaging the Archive (Part X): The Hyperarchivalism of the NSA’s Prism with Links

June 15, 2013

In a recently published essay, I have defined the term “hyperarchive” as “an archive whose goal, whether stated or not, can be seen in an attempt to gather together as many documents and texts as it can, regardless of content.”[1] This term clearly applies to the recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) data collection. In fact, Prism may well be the best example of a hyperarchive to date (besides the Web). To not at least gesture toward talking about Prism and massive data collection on this blog would constitute gross negligence.

One of the things that this blog consistently tries to demonstrate, draw attention to, and complicate/challenge, is the relationship between technologies of destruction and accumulation, even if only by noting (and sometimes enacting) such relationships with little-to-no commentary. I have refrained from saying much about the recent and developing story about Prism and the NSA,[2] both because it seems too “obvious” and too complex. Prism is an accumulatory technology with clear dangers and evils (which I do not think I have to spell out). Some of these dangers and evils are quite old now, and quite familiar.[3] Others are just emerging, and the potential for misusing the kind of data collected by Prism appears to be limitless. Given the parameters of the hyperarchival impulse of contemporaneity, and the reality of ubiquitous access to massive amounts of information, it is not even vaguely surprising that the NSA has been amassing massive amounts of data. And obviously there is quite a bit wrong with this (part of which is the fact that Edward J. Snowden’s revelation is not surprising).

Glen Greenwald, the writer for TheGuardian who broke this story and has been consistently reporting on it, asked nearly a month ago, “Are All Telephone Calls Recorded and Accessible to the US Government?” Most of us have probably been asking this question for a number of years. The fact that we have been asking this question seriously, for a sustained amount of time,[4] only reinforces the realities of contemporary informatics: that many of us have always tacitly assumed that we were being watched, recorded, etc., pretty much all the time. The fact that we are not much, much more upset about this scandal is probably due to this reality of contemporaneity. Thus Snowden’s whistleblowing is functioning as a confirmation of what everyone always already knew: the emperor is naked, we know, are not pretending otherwise, and don’t seem to mind. This is disturbing, to say the least.[5]

Basically, the issues being raised by the NSA scandal, the implications for thinking about information, surveillance, discipline, and control, issues regarding archives and literature, technology and war, media and communication, contemporaneity and the risk society, immigration, the nation, and the state, are many. I will not dwell on them here, in hopes that thinking about these issues will take the form of an essay (hopefully destined for a more permanent home in a [slightly] different kind of archive). In lieu of more sustained reflection and further remarks, here is a pretty decent smattering of links related to the issue in (more-or-less) chronological order. I imagine I will continue to post links regarding Prism well into the future.

A collection of Glen Greenwald’s articles (sometimes with co-authors). Greenwald has been the principal journalist covering the scandal.

“Are All Telephone Calls Recorded and Accessible to the US Government?” The Guardian (4 May 2013).

“Obama’s Terrorism Speech: Seeing What You Want to See,” The Guardian (27 May 2013).

“NSA Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily,” The Guardian (5 June 2013).

“Verizon Forced to Hand Over Telephone Data—Full Court Ruling,” The Guardian (5 June 2013). (Has a .pdf of actual court ruling.)

“NSA Prism Program Taps into Apple, Google and Others,” The Guardian (6 June 2013). (The big one.)

“The National Security Agency: Surveillance Giant with Eyes on America,” The Guardian (6 June 2013).

“Edward Snowden: The Whistleblower Behind the NSA Surveillance Revelations,” The Guardian (9 June 2013).

Other Links:

John Markoff, “Pentagon Plans a Computer System that Would Peek at Personal Data of Americans,” The New York Times (9 November 2002).

Kieran Healy, “Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere,” Kieran Healy (9 June 2013).

“Daily Report: Dismay in Silicon Valley at N.S.A.’s Prism Project,” The New York Times (10 June 2013).

John Cassidy, “Why Edward Snowden is a Hero,” The New Yorker (10 June 2013).

Ewen McAskill, “Edward Snowden: How the Spy Story of the Age Leaked Out,” The Guardian (11 June 2013).

Aaron Bady, “Massively Open Online Police State,” The New Inquiry (12 June 2013).


[1] See Bradley J. Fest, “Apocalypse Networks: Representing the Nuclear Archive,” in The Silence of Fallout: Nuclear Criticism in a Post-Cold War World, eds. Michael J. Blouin, Morgan Shipley, and Jack Taylor (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 102, n. 41. I also use the term “hyperarchive” in Bradley J. Fest, “The Inverted Nuke in the Garden: Archival Emergence and Anti-Eschatological Aesthetics in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” boundary 2 39, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 141, 147. And obviously I have used this term extensively on this blog.

[2] For the breaking of this story, see Glen Greenwald, “NSA Prism Taps into User Data of Apple, Google, and Others,” The Guardian (6 June 2013), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/06/us-tech-giants-nsa-data?guni=Network%20front:network-front%20main-2%20Special%20trail:Network%20front%20-%20special%20trail:Position1.

[3] Of course, as Felicity Capon reports for the The Telegraph, sales of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) have unsurprisingly skyrocketed in the wake of the NSA scandal. See “Sales of Orwell’s 1984 [sic] Rocket in the Wake of US Prism Surveillance Scandal,” The Telegraph (12 June 2013), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10115599/Sales-of-Orwells-1984-rocket-in-wake-of-US-Prism-surveillance-scandal.html.

[4] In 2009’s Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon wonderfully goes back to the beginning(s) of the Internet and retroactively inserts contemporary paranoia about data surveillance into the 1970 of his novel. The NSA scandal might very well justify Pynchon’s famous and now fifty-year-old paranoia.

[5] Especially as someone who, for my first “serious work of literature,” read Nineteen Eighty-Four around the sixth grade.


Repackaging the Archive (Part IX): Concluding Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time after Twenty Years and Some Notes on the Mega-Text

March 30, 2013

Wheel of Time

We’re a team of sparkle horses lashed to capitalism.

—Bardo Liere Parté, “Index of Petty Tragedies”

I am both embarrassed and proud to report that I recently concluded reading Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (1990-2013). I have been reading this series of novels for the past twenty years. And I have not been alone in this activity.

Spanning fourteen volumes and nearly twelve-thousand pages,[1] Jordan’s text is quite the literary achievement in terms of longevity, scope, and length. The Wheel of Time of time is, quite simply, one of the longest fantasy epics ever written. And I imagine that it will continue to capture the popular imagination in a number of ways going forward. If George R. R. Martin’s projected seven volumes of A Song of Fire and Ice (1991- ) can be made into a wildly successful television show on Home Box Office, the sky’s the limit for The Wheel of Time. It does not seem too early to think about it as a text that should be taken seriously by literary scholars interested in emerging long forms, dispersed (or distributed) narratives, and the contemporary hyper-commodification of narrative.

The Wheel of Time raises questions about literary “authorship” and the novel-as-mega-text, and it resides between the two extreme poles of the mega-text: works by a single author on one end of the spectrum; and on the other, emergent texts like massively multiplayer online games and works of the multitude. Jordan’s tragic death in 2007, and the subsequent completion of the series by Brandon Sanderson, invokes not only questions about the death of the author, but the work of the multitude, as The Wheel of Time positions itself between these poles in a number of interesting ways, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Sanderson’s final three novels, The Gathering Storm (2009), Towers of Midnight (2010), and A Memory of Light (2013), though satisfyingly faithful to Jordan, and perhaps refreshingly concise, resemble Jordan almost too well.[2] One always got the sense with Jordan that his imagination had been run through some fantasy-narrative generating algorithm that just produced endless serialization, and Sanderson is nothing if not evidence that this type of narrative production (in the full sense of the term) can be outsourced. At the end of the day, The Wheel of Time is best understood as a narrative machine whose clear goal is to produce a considerable amount of money by selling thick volume after thick volume once every couple years for twenty-three years. When D.H. Lawrence once called Walt Whitman a machine, he had no idea. The Wheel of Time is an immense narrative machine. And its terms are drawn firmly by the conditions of late capitalism.

WoT2

And I mean that in a number of ways. First and foremost, though surely not on par with Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s Left Behind (1995-2007) and Harry Potter (1997-2007) in terms of commercial success and in the number of volumes sold, which wildly outrank Jordan in those categories, The Wheel of Time has still consistently debuted at number one on The New York Times best seller list, has sold over forty-five million copies, and is obviously one of the richest intellectual properties (IPs) available in terms of its potential for further commercialization and capitalization. Even Sanderson’s ending which, I suppose, is one I won’t spoil, leaves the door open to further narrative.[3] I will be surprised if there is not considerably more Wheel of Time ahead that will appear across a range of different media.[4] In short, it will become a text written by an unnameable many. Sanderson is probably only the first in a long line of Jordan surrogates.

But I wish this wasn’t the case. I hope they let it stand as a book / text that can only be read (despite all the text’s obvious and insidious problems, of which there are many). I know there is no way this will happen. We inhabit the small period of time when we can say that The Wheel of Time is principally a series of books rather than a dispersed set of (not always fully related) texts on diverse media platforms. There is yet no television show, no movie, no MMORPG. So for the moment it is an excellent example of a “single” author mega-text. (Sanderson is so faithful to Jordan that one might suggest he does Jordan better than Jordan, and more concisely.) And since it is such a large, exhaustive, encyclopedic text whose principal attraction is precisely its massive proliferation and accumulation, it is a good site to begin sketching some thoughts about how single author mega-texts function.

In a previous post on Mass Effect 3 I defined the mega-text as something that required incredibly non-trivial effort and time to experience or complete. I have been reading Jordan’s novels since the end of fifth grade. I consider this to be a non-trivial amount of time. I continued reading because I had become wholly absorbed in the series’ telos; like many, I had to know how it ended. I reached a moment when I had been reading The Wheel of Time for so long that I couldn’t not keep reading. This wasn’t a kind longue durée page-turner. It was like a job. (Once one gets in the habit of repeating a task, it becomes second nature.) Regardless of how much my literary taste may have matured or changed, once every couple years I found myself wrapped around a new Wheel of Time book for a day or two, tearing through its 900+ pages. Reading it became ritualistic, familiar, a way of marking the passage of the years. A way of reflecting. But I also constantly had to ask myself why I continued reading this interminable, never-ending tale that only seemed to accumulate narrative threads rather than resolve those threads. It was maddening.[5] By the time I received another volume I would have forgotten much of the narrative arc. So rather than be engrossed, I would often be confused, forgetful, dislodged. It became a way of remembering and pointing to a larger (often personal) and multiplicitous past, briefly and captivatingly glimpsed in the threads of narrative repetition and familiarity. Most recently, The Wheel of Time is yet more proof that I am indeed getting old. Time passes. The body wastes away. And I imagine I am not alone with such feelings. Twenty-three years is a long time to wait to learn how a story ends. The mega-text, quite simply, requires and produces different temporalities of reading.

Another reason The Wheel of Time is such an effective narrative machine resides in its affect. Its plot is compelling. That is its whole raison d’être. The series accumulates narrative threads from the perspective of messiahs, apostles, prophets, wizards (Aes Sedai), etc., etc., quite readily. With its hundreds of (often compelling) POV characters, it positions the reader as “agent” of the novel’s world’s history, a multiplicitous omni-subject urged to connect itself affectively to the dramatic sweep of the narrative network, to inhabit multiplicitous “subject” positions within the history of the series’ world. And the networked scope of the work is very much part of what produces The Wheel of Time’s particular brand of literary pleasure.

Jordan’s epic offers up a vast history that is often developed in excruciating and exacting detail. This often means that the emotional texture of Jordan’s prose is formulaic, with consistently flummoxed wooly-headed men being stared down by some bemused woman with her arms crossed beneath her breasts.[6] Each novel’s structure is fairly similar and repetitive, with some kind of “boss fight” at the end of nearly every volume.[7] And of course there are the necessary “twists” and peripeteia that upset the direction(s) of the narrative arc(s). More than anything, the series’ narrative is achingly, mind-numbingly teleological. At a certain point, the pleasure of Sanderson’s ending was that nothing was surprising, that it was predictable. Sanderson fulfilled his contract with Tom Doherty Associates as well as with the reader.

Consequently, a reading of The Wheel of Time as a fervently conservative, end-of-history-era document engaged in nostalgically imagining a strange Medieval version of a neo-liberal economic paradise, clearly suggests itself given the text’s sense of a monolithic, eschatological history. The (evangelical) Christian overtones of the reborn messiah figure lording over multiple nations in order to hasten and prevent the destruction of the world, thereby fulfilling “history,” is blatantly in line with Reagan-era neoconservatism, 1990s-2000s American neo-evangelism, and the national fantasy attending the closing days of the Cold War (there is a thoroughly “evil empire” who of course will get defeated.[8]) If there is any gesture toward other traditions, say, Eastern spirituality—i.e., the yin-yang duality of the male and female halves of the “one power” (which I think can / should be read as the mechanical / electronic harnessing of the universe’s forces along the lines of Henry Adams’s dynamo or the atomic bomb)—this spirituality is thoroughly orientalist, a result of mining other cultural traditions for their exoticism. The hegemony of European modes of living and their contrast to the more “exotic” cultures in Jordan’s world also reinforce the novels’ Eurocentrism, fully locating the West as the principal site of (its) history.[9] Further, many aspects of the books appear to be as almost perfect allegories for the displacement of 1990s conservative ideology onto this space of fantasy. The entire series is pushed by the inhuman weaving of “the pattern” (the force of the “free market”) toward the destruction (production) of the Dark One (profit). Rand al’Thor, the novel’s antichrist / messiah, known as the Dragon Reborn,[10], [11]rather than having as his principal activity the epic “task” of adventuring, largely spends his time dealing with bureaucracy and procedure, organizing men, putting them to work. By the final book, A Memory of Light, he is more like some kind of abstract idea or concept than he is anything resembling a rounded “character.” He is a messiah-as-American-CEO. Surrounded by advisors telling him otherwise, he still boldly sets forth on a path of radical individualism. And like any good technocrat, he grew up in humble surroundings, never asking for the mantle of leadership or responsibility to be placed upon him, while refusing to bend under the weight of his monolithic(ally normative[ly boring]) responsibility. He is the hybrid character that would be produced if the fantastic worlds of Ayn Rand and J.R.R. Tolkien crossbred.

Memory-of-Light_WoT_Michael-Whelan

One of the clearest things about how one should approach The Wheel of Time is that the series is everywhere marked by a will to project a world, to create or textually become a world. And this is one of the principal locations where its conservative project can be seen. The world of The Wheel of Time is its primary “character,” its primary concern, rather than the humans inhabiting that world. In fact, Jordan’s perspective on human interaction and social realities is fairly adolescent. This is probably unsurprising given that one can probably assume that TOR Books is aware that a significant portion of its readership are (or at least once were, like myself many years ago) male adolescents. So, rather than the creation of a world in order to more fully imagine the limits and possibilities of the human, this mega-text formally requires the reification of its human subjects, limiting their range of emotion and expression to the capacities of a geeky adolescent. That the series continually emphasizes the network of connections between the denizens of its world only reinforces the sense that reading The Wheel of Time can be like scrolling through your thirteen year-old nephew’s Facebook feed. Everything the characters think or say, regardless of its significance, is exhaustively and repetitively provided. Through the reification of the human in Jordan’s space, communication in this brand of the mega-text becomes principally mere information, hyperarchivally accumulating in order to absorb (and commercially collect) the reader(’s parent’s hard-earned cash).

Projecting or creating a world is often one of the principle features of the mega-text. These worlds can serve progressive or critical functions, like the world(s) Thomas Pynchon creates between V. (1963) and Inherent Vice (2009),[12] or they can, like Jordan’s text, endlessly reproduce the prevailing cultural logic of the text’s contemporary moment. In other words, there is nothing inherently progressive or liberating about the mega-text. It can serve less noble ends as easily (and perhaps more easily) than it can be a vehicle for critique. There is nothing inherently avant-garde or experimental about the mega-text. Jordan’s oft-commented upon drawing out of the series, its floundering in narrative complication and extension, especially (during the decade!) between A Crown of Swords (1996) and Knife of Dreams (2005),[13] is one of the best examples of the hyperarchival impulse of contemporaneity as realized in literary narrative. For a while, the series seemed to only be interested in endlessly accumulating itself, gathering more and more words and pages, despite its obvious eschatological thrust. It took Jordan’s death, a distinct and incontrovertible end, for someone to actually finish the series (something one might suggest Jordan simply could not do while he was alive). In this way, The Wheel of Time perfectly displays the underlying logic of the mega-text-as-commodity. It both must be teleological (apocalyptic) while always deferring the end in the service of profit, only ending when it no longer is profitable to not end. It can only end after the end; the mega-text in Jordan’s sense is always already post-apocalyptic. In this sense, The Wheel of Time’s serial nature is somewhat different than television or the comic book, though obviously similar. It had to have a sense of an ending, from page one, but it could only become a mega-text while deferring this ending, while simultaneously knowing that someday it must end. (In this sense, it also shares much with the nuclear imagination in terms of the continual deferral of an eschatological projection that [sometimes] seems “inevitable.”)

Perhaps more than anything, however, The Wheel of Time might now be considered a touchstone for the mega-textual novel. Obviously this claim can be argued with, and I hope it is, but in sheer scope and size, it will stand monumentally over the fantasy genre for a number of years. Though I don’t imagine it will ever replace Tolkien as fantasy’s primary referent, Jordan is surely trying to outdo The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949) in a number of ways, and the comparisons between the two will continually be drawn. George Martin will rival Jordan, but he would have to write for another decade (or more, probably) to equal The Wheel of Time’s scope. For the moment, The Wheel of Time is the mega-textual novel par excellence of contemporaneity. And I hope these brief notes begin to point toward some of the ways of engaging with the text that might prove critically productive. The Wheel of Time has so clearly captured a certain segment of the American imaginary precisely because of its size (and little else), and it is so clearly an outgrowth of our current moment’s hunger for accumulating text, information, and data, that to ignore its logic would be a major oversight for thinking about how literature works in the twenty-first century.


[1] It’s fifteen volumes if you count New Spring (2013). This is also to note that hopefully I will be posting more original material / critical writing to this blog now that I have finished the first draft of the dissertation. So stay tuned. There are a number of critical projects I have in the works that this seems the best venue for, including some thoughts on Fallout: New Vegas (2010).

[2] Jordan did leave behind considerable notes, and Sanderson claims that Jordan composed a manuscript of the last chapter, so the words are all his at the series’ end.

[3] Even if the fact that the series finally ended is the occasion for writing this post . . . one could easily imagine that, after the monumental adaptation of The Wheel of Time that goes from 2017-2032 (much like is happening with Star Wars [1977-?] right now), in 2042 they’ll make the first MMOARG, or whatever, as The Wheel of Time 2. Nerds of the future beware. I’m predicting the hyperinternetwhatevermachine is going to explode with impotent nerd rage about “authenticity” or whatever.

[4] Jordan’s IP has already tentatively started to cross-pollinate with other media. There was a Wheel of Time computer game published in 1999. Wizards of the Coast released The Wheel of Time Role Playing Game in 2001. During the heyday of Magic: The Gathering and collectible card games, there was a short-lived Wheel of Time: Collectible Card Game (2000). There has been a comic book series, published by Dynamite Entertainment, The Wheel of Time: The Eye of the World (2005- ). And there are reports of a video game in development by Red Eagle Games.

Most significantly, however, it has been reported that Jordan’s estate has optioned the rights to the Universal Entertainment Corporation. (The National Broadcasting Company has no idea what kind of goldmine it’s sitting on here.) Unlike Martin, Jordan is pretty PG-13, and thus perfect for primetime network drama. The scope of the narrative would probably permit a relatively small budget, at least at first (The Eye of the World [1990] occurs primarily in the countryside, and the first book’s ability to be filmed on a modest budget I have to imagine was on Jordan’s mind. Jordan might not be much to speak of as a prose stylist, but he repeatedly proved himself a shrewd businessman). I also imagine that there is a significant potential for a Wheel of Time massively multiplayer online game.

[5] I distinctly remember conversations in a warehouse one summer with another Jordan aficionado about how it would never end. I hope he enjoyed the series’ conclusion(s). This is also way of thanking all those I read and talked about The Wheel of Time with during middle school (the early 1990s).

[6] One might suggest that were Jordan’s prose any more rich or engaging (i.e., at all), this would distract from the absorptive quality of the narrative.

[7] In this way it readily suggests a video game adaptation.

[8] Even from the opening pages of the text can I imagine that this “spoiler” surprises anyone.

[9] I.e., the appearance of the Sharans in the last book, one of the few people / places in the series that was frequently referred to but never represented, is a particularly acute instance of Jordan’s orientalism. They appear seemingly randomly, without the (endlessly articulated) motivations of other events. They have nothing resembling the history of the nations the main characters inhabit. And their ahistorical existence means that they can readily be killed by the forces of “light” without worrying about their essential humanity (as opposed to killing the inhuman Trollocs or Myrddraal, inhuman monsters who have nothing resembling subjectivity). This is also probably the place to note that The Wheel of Time of course has an extensive wiki.

[10] Don’t worry I have neither the time nor the space nor the inclination to start talking about the plot, which is probably revealing in that the details of the events in the book, at the end of the day, are both superfluous and encyclopedic, normative and exhaustive, interesting and super boring. It also may necessitate a new way of talking about “reading,” because “close reading” (or “distant reading”) do not really work here. Perhaps a term like “patient reading” is in order—i.e., to critically approach The Wheel of Time simply requires the patience to read twelve-thousand pages (no matter how “entertaining” they might be).

[11] I should also note that Jordan is highly conservative in terms of gender and sexuality (though Sanderson addresses this a bit in the final books, which is appreciated), and is at times a bit misogynist. (I.e., Rand has three wives and continually misunderstands them. Then they’re frustrated by his inability to understand, which frustrates him, ad nauseum. There are very few relationships in the book that resemble real adult relationships.

[12] Who knows how Bleeding Edge (2013?) might (or might not) complicate this.

[13] Jordan’s titles were (laughably) unimaginative. If he had stayed alive indefinitely and kept writing (without finishing, ever), he would eventually have had to arrive at a title that read: The Noun of Nouns.s


Repackaging the Archive (Part VIII): The Pittsburgh Pirates and Fantasy Football 2012

August 30, 2012

Anyone who has ever read this blog before is probably not too terribly worried about it turning into a “sportsing blog” (or even, for that matter, a blog that talks about fantasy football [hereafter “ffootball”] or football or balls or l’s), but the part of me who adores watching numbers get larger—a not insignificant part—that gamic, stats-seeking, archival, nerdy, baseball-card collecting citizen of these United States . . . that oozing little pus of an excuse for subjectivity, is participating in at least five ffootball teams this fall: two w/ friends and three w/ total strangers (b/c I get bored sometimes and think it seems like a good idea to sign up for random leagues, which always feels weirdly unfulfilling after the drafts are over). In other words, the National Football League for the next little bit, in a an unprecedented fashion for me, has the potential to become my own little tiny archive of interest—i.e. interest in players that I have no vested interest in, other than, quite simply, hoping their numbers go up. I’m horrified, excited, and embarrassed. Mostly, I suppose, embarrassed. (And excited by numbers getting larger. Seriously.)

And so you’re probably like: so why the hell are you writing about it then? We didn’t have to know. Would’ve saved ya a lot of embarrassment. Well, I guess that’s the thing. R. and I went to see the Pittsburgh Pirates tonight, the first time all summer, for what is by all accounts an important game,[1] and what an idea sports is/are. The Pirates of the past 20 years are debatably the worst “team” of all time (see fn. 2). But how much merchandise everyone was wearing. How many people were there.[2] How expensive the beers were. Etc. It doesn’t matter how good the team is, who owns them, who’s playing for them, what their uniforms look like, where they play. We realized that what people enjoy, what they pay for, and the very real pleasures that sports can provide revolve around the idea of the Pirates. The name. The abstraction. The “team.” W/ the recent incarnations of the Pens and Stillers, it’s been much more difficult to ascribe fandom w/r/t those teams merely around just some vague abstraction. Sidney Crosby may very well be the best player alive right now. Among the many other reasons one might watch the Steelers, Troy Polamalu may very well be the NFL’s most consistently fun player to watch since 2003.[3] In other words, it’s very, very easy to look at the ’burgh’s other teams and realize why people might like watching them, rooting for them, wearing their jerseys, paying the seven dollars for a hot dog, etc. The Penguins and the Steelers have had those “transcendent” moments since I moved here that sports fandom is all about. They’re great, and watching some of those moments has also been great. Each team is more (and less) than an idea. They are specific, concrete, actual. We can point to things we like about them: players, moments, etc. But, to be blunt (and unfair), it is difficult to do such pointing at the Pirates of the last 20 years (okay, 8 really, for me).

So just as there is absolutely no real reason to be a Pirates fan at this point other than a geographic and frankly arbitrary sense of fidelity to an idea (and not even a very good one at that; the Yankees or, say, Manchester United, are far better ideas)there is no reason to play ffootball other than its idea.[4] But what exactly are these ideas?

What the “P” on fans’ Pirates hats signifies, is, well, a greedy and poorly run corporate conglomerate that said fan is ascribing w/ way more value than said organization in any way deserves. Same w/ the numbers in ffootball. My 2 team freshman year in ffootball made two things clear that anyone who has engaged w/ the simulation even briefly knows: 1) it’s random, like really random, and there’s nothing you can do about it b/c there simply isn’t enough complexity to the game to play it so well as to avoid the sheer, stupid (if almost great) Jordy-Nelson-scoring-30-pts-in-week-17-and-thus-catapaulting-my-terrible-Tebow-led-team-to-within-one-point-of-the-championship randomness; and 2) it completely changes the way I watch actual foozball, finding myself caring about and cheering for dudes I didn’t even know existed before ffootball. In other words, my team is a poorly wrought abstraction that has very little to do w/ 1) me, my choices, or my agency; or 2) the players themselves (let alone any version of football whatsoever). Ffootball, and I admit that this is explicit in its name, can never be anything more than an idea/abstraction.

So what are these ideas that we find ourselves so collectively taken w/? For I will admit that I very much enjoy my ffootball team winning (as well as the Pirates tonight), and I, in all honesty, have little-to-nothing invested in either one, so such enjoyment seems meaningless at best, and insidious, compulsive, neurotic, solipsistic, etc., at worst. Well, as the ffootball season is about to get under way, I’m gonna try to figure that out, try to figure out why I enjoy these particular numbers going up, why I choose to watch this game rather than another (or better yet, doing something else), why I haven’t given up on the Rooney family even though they’ve kept (the simply reprehensible) Ben Roethlisberger around. And ultimately, in both the Pirates and ffootball’s case, I feel like the idea is probably an archival one.


[1] Seriously, I was in a place they were showing ESPN today, and I caught that the Pirates were gonna be on tonight! (My rare use of exclamation should signal how singular that is; it is probably also significant that I didn’t remember this until about the 4th inning. We had gone downtown to go out to dinner, and decided to go see baseball instead since it was starting in like 10 min. and we couldn’t see a reason not to, other than we were kinda dressed fancy [seriously, it was weird—there’s nothing like heels, a print dress, and some new black jeans (I think my first pair ever) to make one feel out of place amidst a gaggle of yinzers in jerseys (nothing gainst the yinzers—I prob. am becoming one at this point, and that’s the thing, the fancy dress was an accident; neither of us even realized baseball was a possibility before we saw the crowds [which also immediate revokes my “yinz card”—or in other words, I gave a vocab quiz today, what am I? my third grade teacher? (I’m looking at you Mr. Lohr)])].) I feel like I lived through a period of Pittsburgh baseball history spanning from 2004 (when I got here and started paying attention) until, well, just now, during which the Pirates did not once play in a game after Aug. 1st that appeared on ESPN. And if they did, it certainly wasn’t b/c they were in the playoff race. The randomness, and really perfection of the evening—the Pirates won 5-0, Wandy Rodriguez was impressive, as was the middle of the Buccos order, and it was freaking gorgeous at the ever wonderful PNC Park—was probably akin to some cosmic mistake, where all of a sudden the entire city of Pgh entered a simulation of what would happen if the movie Major League (1989) started to dictate reality (in no way to suggest a hapless-equivalence b/t the heroic 2012 piratical hickory wielding monsters of tonight’s diamond conflict and Charlie “Wild Thing” Sheen’s team). This is all to say, the Pirates right now are in a fairly good position to make the playoffs this year, not to mention have their first winning season since 1992. They’ve had the most consecutive losing seasons of any major American professional sports team ever. (Really.) No wonder I’d sorta gave up on them a year-or-so-ago. I just couldn’t take the front-office-has-given-up-so-many-times-and-as-a-result-look-like-they’re-not-even-trying-anymore-to pretend-like-their-only-goal-isn’t-to-just-go-on-happily-making-a-tidy-little-profit-by-paying-what-the-Yankees-pay-for-A-Rod-for-a-whole-team(-minus-Doumit)-while-dealing-away-every-player-I-could-possibly-care-about. Seriously, since I have lived in PA, to the best of my memory, Jason Bay, Freddie Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Jason Kendall, Jose Bautista, Nate McClouth, Nyjer Morgan, Mike Gonzalez, Oliver Perez, and Ian Snell, and many, many others have been traded away, year after year, right before the trade deadline (wow, if they would’ve kept, and paid, even just those guys, that would’ve been quite the team b/t 2008-2010, w/ McCutchen leading off, and at this point probably not even the best player on the team. Hindsight? No. Anyone in fracking distance could’ve told the Pirates that these were all guys they should’ve kept during the last 8-20 years. It’s nice to see them winning, but hell. Unlike Bill Simmons’s understandable (if annoying) Boston fandom (see Monday’s article on the BoSox), the Pirates owners have been too truly terrible. As such, it is a dubious proposition whether or not the team’s fans should reward them too much for one winning season. If the players do some awesome miraculous stuff this year and win the series, it’ll be great, but the sins of Nutting et al shouldn’t go away so easily. Needless to say, I am conflicted about my Pirate fandom.

[2] There also weren’t that many people there, to Pittsburgh’s credit. Many whole sections were vacant for this “important” game.

[3] And he’s a sweetheart, has long hair, is hot, and the ladies love him, unlike some of his other notable teammates.

[4] This, of course, isn’t totally the case, as Captain Eegee’s Tucson Expats have gathered together a geographically displaced—and thus not arbitrary—group of people who I will very much enjoy, well, whatever it is that people “do” w/ ffootball. Go Pgh Scholars (renamed Happiness Is Submission To).


Repackaging the Archive (Part VII): CIV II and Nihilism

June 20, 2012

Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.

—Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting”

So Jesse Miksic’s article and a recent account of a decade playing Sid Meier’s Civilization II (Microprose, 1996), Alexis Madrigal’s “Dystopia: What a Game of Civilization II Looks Like After 10 Years” in The Atlantic, have got me thinking about the profound melancholy one can access in video games, a melancholy that other forms of media simply cannot produce. As Miksic points out, part of this is simply a result of time and repetition, of the experience of continually dying, of the near-catastrophic levels of frustration produced by, say, getting to the end of Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo: 1988), and finally beating the boss only to learn there is another (and another) and immediately dying. Or, more recently, inspired by Madrigal’s article I spent some time playing Civilization II the past few days, and experienced something I perhaps never had when playing in my youth. If you actually put the game on an even relatively low difficult setting (“prince”),[1] one can access an acute and nearly overwhelming sense of their ultimate futility, like, to do anything.

Having guided my group of Spanish imperialists into a prominent global position (this isn’t the futile part, but the opposite. . .), every other nation in the game decided that I was the big, bad aggressor, and weren’t having it. Shortly, in the span of a few turns, I found myself at war with the entire planet. I was behind technologically, if ahead in other ways. Mine was a pre-nuclear military. And Greece, Japan, America, the Russians, and the Vikings all indiscriminately nuked me to an appropriate level of global obsolescence, whereby they proceeded to turn their attentions away from me and nuked each other. I had fought back only b/c there was no choice. A war on five fronts and a production line churning out tanks only to have them quickly destroyed. The scenario was beyond my abilities. After the dust had cleared, and I was in a state of détente with everyone but the Greeks, I found myself still a large civilization, but unable to do anything about the quickly heating planet. I finally launched some nukes at the Greeks, thereby ending my war w/ them, but it was more an act of revenge and frustration than strategic. (I have no trouble admitting such petty human emotions as jealousy, envy, and hatred. . . for a computer.) The Americans were quickly decimating them anyway. I could see that the game could very easily go toward the nightmare scenario described by Madrigal, or else my defeat and erasure from the planet. In another game, I hadn’t even attacked anyone when I got nuked.

The experience of getting nuked in Civilization II, esp. if you have not nuked anyone yet, can be deeply unsettling. There is a brutal game-theory logic to it: if someone doesn’t have nukes, nuke them, they can’t fire back. Last night, my Athens (I was playing the Greeks), a high seat of learning and culture—I had built many Wonders of the World There—got  nuked out of the blue, decimating the city, raising the temperature of the globe, causing famine all over. I had it. I shut off the computer, sick of being so utterly destroyed, with so little agency over anything (I also could probably be a better player). No matter what I did, no matter my peaceful nature, utter destruction, or, what’s even worse, a very obvious continuing inability to do much of anything in the face of a thousand year war marked by broken treaties, collapsing governments, and untold (virtual) suffering, appeared to be the only world I could provide the denizens of my “civilization.” Sadly, this seems to be how best to describe reality.

Perhaps a better title for the game would be Endless Total War. It has obviously been critiqued, and rightly so, for its reinforcement of: a progressive, teleological sense of history and its implicit celebration of Western imperialism. But I feel like the deep logic revealed by playing the game, even for a little while, is the manner in which it continually emphasizes the utter depravity and violence implicit in the course of empire. The world and history, as it is “represented” by Civilization II, is simply horror-show. Any of the “higher” activities of humanity, especially “culture,” get subsumed into the universal violent antagonism the game never relents in emphasizing.[2] Constructing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is just a means to further global domination. Da Vinci, a means of issuing new “versions” of troops: legionnaires 2.0, howitzer redux. Religion is represented as a tool of pacification. Shakespeare a means to an end. Abraham Lincoln a genocidal maniac. Eleanor Roosevelt a demagogue.

Civilization II is, quite literally, nihil unbound.


[1] I never did as a kid, preferring the hubristic grandiosity of conquering the world, building all the wonders, launching the space-ship, not using nukes for some sort of weird ethical reason (even though I slaughtered nations indiscriminately), and etc. winning. I was obviously more well-adjusted as a teenager.

[2] It must also be noted, I was playing the “bloodlust” setting, where you can’t win by going to the stars. We aren’t going to the stars.


Repackaging the Archive (Part VI): No Sense of an Ending: Some Notes on the Mega-Narrative and the Reaction to the Ending of Mass Effect

April 23, 2012

Some time ago I weighed in on the ending of Lost. In that post I wrote about its final episode: “The whole format of the show—flashbacks, flashforwards, and flashes-sideways—always privileged character development, so of course the show ends on this. I’m not surprised per se, just disappointed to realize that I’ve been invested in what I thought was a fascinating show, w/ massive intellectual ambition, only to discover that all that ambition was a mere prop, mere window dressing to a fairly normative melodramatic narrative—i.e. redemption (gag).” Like the ending of Lost, the conclusion of Mass Effect, one of the most ambitious SF narratives/franchises/IPs to be launched in the last 5 years, has received similar attention from fans who felt it did not live up to the standards established by the rest of the series. The much discussed ending of Mass Effect 3, which I will spoil right now, however, enthralled me. The following is the ending I received in its entirety[1]:

And I cannot say about this ending what I said about Lost.

As my interest in Mass Effect is largely structural and this will ultimately involve a discussion of its narrative form, I will begin with telling my own story of the game. And indeed, this is largely the point of Mass Effect: following the branches of an immensely large decision tree, navigating a compelling and ethically complex narrative, constitutes the majority of gameplay.[2] And I imagine that the rich personalized narrative texture that results from players’ decisions constitutes the primary attraction of the game. For instance, here is the decision tree just for the endgame of Mass Effect 2:

So I’d been weaning myself off another mega-narrative w/ Skyrim, and having exhausted that, and reading Kyle Munkittrick’s bold assessment of Mass Effect, “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation,” decided I’d pick up in the middest w/ Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect 3 had just appeared, and though I heard the internet rumblings of an unsatisfactory ending to the game, I didn’t know yet that it had produced Downfall-levels of nerdish-ire. Staying purposefully ignorant of such discussions, I played through 2 and 3 fairly quickly, but thoroughly (i.e. I didn’t really feel like gathering up all the space debris, nor does my clunky old X-Box have online access).

Whereas Lost was hyperarchival in terms of the frequent references it made, and how it played with its own history and temporality (among other things), Mass Effect is hyperarchival for the simple reason that it is huge, and the narrative possibilities you don’t experience far outweigh the ones that you do. To have a handle on the branching narrative paths of the game would require a) playing it for a very, very long amount of time, or b) consulting the Mass Effect wiki frequently and often. Further, as Munkittrick points out, there is a wealth of reading material in the game: emails, communications intelligence, bureaucratic tasks, a codex developing the galaxy’s deep-history, quite convincing scientific information on the various planets you come across, etc. In short, Mass Effect’s narrative is . . . massive, both in form and content. To actually experience “all” of it (say, in the fashion that it would take one a few hours to read all the books in Skyrim), really is not possible unless one wants to spend simply an ungodly amount of time w/ it. In short, Mass Effect is a mega-narrative.

By mega-narrative I mean a narrative that is simply too big to traverse without incredibly-non-trivial effort. Not infinite of course, but prohibitively large. Something that, if one attempted to see and do everything the trilogy allows one to do, I’m not sure whether it would be impressive, or else show a particular kind of obsessive behavior that one can imagine being discouraged by parents, friends, lovers, and medical professionals alike. (And of course there is an attendant sense of adolescence to the whole thing. . . .) In short, reading a mega-narrative is always prohibitive. There are aspects of the narrative you will simply never know (because who really wants to spend the time?). Unless, of course, you have access to the internet. The mega-narrative thus also functions in conjunction with other media formats—i.e. they virtually require an additional, largely user-generated tool, to be approached rigorously.[3]

It is for this reason that no other narrative aspect of Mass Effect ever could achieve the kind of wide audience, let alone the conversation, that a single ending would produce. If every ending was decidedly different, for a game that relied so heavily on individualized character development, there wouldn’t be anything to talk about; no common narrative ground would be shared. Yes, the game is obviously rich in terms of the critical approaches it immediately suggests, but we’d have to talk about narrative in more abstract terms, constantly comparing one’s own experience w/ another’s. Did you choose the Quarians or the Geth? Which character(s) did you find romance with? I could go on w/ such questions for quite a while, but will refrain because, like hearing about someone else’s dreams, I imagine that hearing what another person chose to do in the game would be weirdly boring and meaningless.

Mass Effect produces a strong connection between a player and their avatar. This is achieved by the decisions you make in the game. These decisions ultimately affect the fate of species and the entire galaxy. But the real texture of Mass Effect resides in the micro-narratives interspersed throughout. Though sometimes cheesy, and of course melodramatic, the dialogue between characters is compelling, with particularly good voice acting from such notables as Freddy Prinze Jr., Michael Hogan, Tricia Helfer, Jennifer Hale, and Martin Sheen, among many others. Sheen’s voicing of the Illusive Man, though no Captain Benjamin L. Willard, is stellar.[4] The characters are emotionally complex, and the multitude of species allows the writers to explore some interesting paths (perhaps) unavailable to a more anthropocentric speculative universe. (And really I would go on, but I don’t want to seem too gushy.)

So it is understandable that mere days after the game was released, there was already an online petition to change the ending. For, despite slight differences, Mass Effect, for all its branching narrative complexity, has what (at least at first glance) reads an awful lot like a single ending. Further, as this video loudly demonstrates, there are a few narrative inconsistencies to the final minutes of the game, not least of which is a scene that shows one character who (presumably) died on my final mission somehow getting aboard the Normandy (a spaceship) and the fact presented in the Codex, and elsewhere in the game, that destroying the mass effect relays would obliterate the solar system(s).[5] But I imagine that the uproar about the ending has far less to do w/ the inconsistencies presented in the last few minutes than the simple fact that players’ sense of their unique individual experience was felt to be invalidated. As Sparky Clarkson writes: “The end of Mass Effect 3 disregards the player’s choices on both galactic and personal scales.”[6]

The conflict here, both at a structural level and as it is expressing itself all over the web, is perhaps, if not unique, then worthy of note considering the larger history of narrative. For it is not that a different ending is being demanded, but rather many different endings appropriate to the individual player’s experience of the game. As mediums, the oral tradition, novel, film, and television simply do not allow such a uniquely tailored narrative experience. Whatever one might say about a particularly good or bad sense of an ending, no one would dream of criticizing the ending of a novel b/c it didn’t fit w/ the decisions a reader/player made when engaging w/ the text. Because massively distributed media necessarily had to be confined to a relatively limited form (in terms of how much information could be conveyed and stored in a book, etc.), such branching endings simply weren’t possible. And this is precisely what is happening w/ Mass Effect. People are upset that, regardless of what actually happens in its ending, their own unique sense of individuality, of making the game “their own,” is threatened. There is something deeply strange about the demand for what amounts to a “personalized” ending; and though I think Laura Parker has a certain point, the issues at stake go beyond arguing that, “[i]f BioWare does change the end of Mass Effect 3 to mollify a handful of goading voices, the game itself would no longer be the expression of its original creators. It would cease to be art.”[7]

Rather, a game that truly provided multiple, relatively individual, non-repeatable endings would be a profound achievement in exploring what the medium of video games can dialogically express, and would(/might) draw the video game forever into serious discussions of art—i.e. we wouldn’t have pieces in The Atlantic still reading vids as (only) adolescent, puerile, onanistic fantasies.[8] It would also evince a level of technocratic, corporate control over the individual experiences of players that would be unprecedented.[9] They didn’t achieve such a feat in Mass Effect, and though I wish they had (and also don’t), to dismiss a text for what it didn’t do is always problematic.[10] Such a game will appear that does achieve something like this. I guarantee you. It is the horizon of possibility for the mega-narrative. But for the moment, Mass Effect continues to make clear “the dissidence between inherited forms and our own reality.”[11] And perhaps we need to look closer at a few aspects of the game to understand its ending. For what is incredibly weird about the ruckus raised by the ending (the blue, green, and red similarities), no one has really said anything about the ending itself—i.e. what it means, how we might read it, why might have the narrative ended that way rather than another, etc. You know, basic hermeneutic stuff, critical attention, which the game so obviously deserves.

First off, Caleb A. Scharf’s Mass Effect Resolves the Fermi Paradox,” deserves special attention. Scharf, an astrobiologist himself, argues that “the biggest idea, the biggest piece of fiction-meets-genuine-scientific-hypothesis is the overarching story of Mass Effect. It directly addresses one of the great questions of astrobiology—is there intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy, and if so, why haven’t we intersected with it yet?”[12] (This question is at the root of the Fermi Paradox.) The ending(s) of Mass Effect, whichever of the actually truly distinct endings you consider, answers this question, but each in a different way. Anyone perhaps unfamiliar w/ video games will notice that, even though each ending is only a touch bit different, the sixteen endings are distinct. (See this.) For instance, my “bad” ending (my personal favorite, for obvious reasons), has galactic eschatological implications for futurity—i.e. no Earth, species cut off from each other, stranded and wandering the galaxy—as opposed to other endings where there is at least an Earth, species still cut off from one another; or else a kind of utopian possibility of the coexistence of biology and AI; or the dystopian nightmare of a Shepherd/Reaper controlled galaxy, etc. These are actually incredibly different.The “bad” ending is a kind of M.A.D.; the conflict between synthetic and organic life is projected as always apocalyptic; this conflict can result in nothing but utter destruction. I adore its nihilism. The other endings are still catastrophic, but reveal deeper levels of connection and/or control between technology and biology.[13] (And the game also shows the effects of your decision at a local level, implying that there will be distinctly different destinies for the characters and, most importantly, their progeny.) No matter the ending, however, each one concerns the simple fact that, w/o speculating a technology like the mass relays—the gateways to the stars—galactic civilization simply is not possible. In this sense, the game destroys its own initial premise in the final minutes, which is a stroke of utter metafictional brilliance, and, given what we know about physics, it explores the dissidence of inherited forms (the space opera), with reality: that travel between the stars may simply not be possible w/o the godlike hand of a massive artificial intelligence.[14] There is thus something deeply nihilistic in the shared aspect of each narrative ending. And in this sense, one might say the game moves from a kind of fantastic messianism to a nihilistic realism, from the form of the 20th c. space opera to a hyperarchival realism in which we might, and this is to acknowledge all of ME’s ambition, lay to rest the shaky physics the 20th c. space opera always depended upon for its realization—i.e. FTL travel. ME, for all its ambition and complexity, is also a highly nuanced commentary on its own form and on the tradition of SF that went before it. As such, I believe we are actually invited to read the ending w/in an even longer history of SF. (But will leave that for others.)

At the level of characters w/in the game itself, it is important to note that in the dénouement your character becomes a “Legend,” literally “The Shepherd.” The obvious Christian reference aside, she is still deified. So, it should be presumably clear that the next installment in the ME universe will probably be in the (quite distant) future.[15] Either way, the distinct endings one might receive at the end of ME3 imply different universesthat one might import to a future title. Whatever universe might be possible, it is still a universe defined by the decision you, as a player, made.[16] Yes, this decision was boiled down to three simple options. But that was the point. The entire game had presented your options in black-and-white terms. You could either decide to be a paragon or a rebel. So in one sense, the introduction of this third way, this other path, is the point.

One way of reading the questions of choice and free will the game presents, then, is to understand that Shepherd’s coming into true consciousness (rather than, say, her considerable athletic intelligence) happens as a result of her realization that there are more than two options to solve a particular problem.[17] The “difficult” decisions you were forced into throughout the game were rarely a decision between a clearly correct and incorrect path, let alone a “good” and “evil” path, to the game’s credit. Regardless of the ethical complexity constantly confronting the player, however, whatever you did choose to do put you a step closer to the end. No matter the decision, the game was overwhelmingly teleological. No matter what you did, really, the end was always contained in the beginning, even if you made considerably different decisions to get to the final scene. This, unless I’m incorrect, doesn’t really resemble anything like true choice. Shepherd, even though she is “you,” is still an archetypal hero. So one might suggest that only where fate led her was where a real choice presents itself. And of course this still isn’t much of a choice at all, but is the one choice beyond which you as a character cannot go,[18] the choice w/ the most massive effects on the galaxy. And this choice is whether to blow something up, jump into a laser, or take control of the Reapers.

So, rather than reading the end as a lack of choice, a lack of any real “meaning” to your individual decisions, perhaps we should read it as the one moment in ME where you (as a player) have the most power over shaping the narrative w/ your decisions. B/c ME’s narrative trajectory is concerned with the eschatological horizon of life, whether life continues as biological, synthetic, or what have you, and your decision determines how the ensuing manipulation of this horizon will play out, by avoiding one apocalypse, you rewrite another. This may also constitute a new galactic cycle. Though life emerges spontaneously from the galaxy, even something as immense as a galaxy has a carrying capacity, and like any ecology, has some cyclical elements. (Or else this is ME reflecting on Nietzsche’s eternal return.)

In this sense, I would like to emphasize the point that Shepherd is the vehicle through which the narrative of the world of ME is told, rather than the world being a mere setting to explore her (i.e. the player’s) narcissistic fantasies. And indeed, depending on how you play, this is a point she continually makes through dialogue. ME, then, is far less about Shepherd, at the end of the day, than it is about itself, about its world/galaxy/universe. This is why the endings are so distinct. They all imply radically different futures, radically different galaxies, even if they all share the brutal, nihilistic realism of no real galactic future civilization being possible.[19] ME’s ending(s) reveal an incredibly deep history, and so to focus on the tiny bit of that history the few years of its narrative represents, is to fundamentally misread what is at stake in the game.

As the epilogue to the game emphasizes, Shepherd is primarily a figure through which the galaxy’s history and narrative can be understood. She is a significant node (but only a node) in the development of its complex ecology. More than any decision one makes in the game, she is such b/c of whichever of the three paths you pick. Yes, there are narrative inconsistencies, which might largely be attributable to the fact that we simply don’t know what happens between Shepherd entering the Crucible and the Normandy escaping. (This will probably be in the DLC, btw.) If the mass effect relays’ destruction really does destroy the solar systems they reside in, all the better. The inevitability of extinction, the blip of galactic time sentient life thrived and communicated across species and the galaxy—it is the anomaly of this that ME concerns itself w/. What the reaction to the ending of ME reveals, then, is that it is actually a game that is quite rigorous, as it eschews the easy narrative choice of redemption in favor of a cosmic eschatological perspective. Your choices, in the galactic scheme of things, don’t matter. The importance of any one individual—even the most heroic, storied, badass individual whose final decision has galactic import and changes the very life-cycle of the galaxy—is minimal. Rather than be upset about the fact that one’s individual gaming experience was “disrespected,” perhaps we should be thankful that a text as popular as ME had the gumption to refuse narrative normativity and to critique the cult of individuality the game’s very success is grounded upon.


[1] This is more-or-less the ending I experienced, except my character was a black female w/ blond hair, blue eyes, and wickedly luminous facial scars; a striking Commander Shepherd. Also, I am firmly of the (similar) mindset that by revealing some aspects of a text’s narrative (esp. its ending) it is thus “spoiled,” really probably means there wasn’t much to be spoiled in the first place. This is not the case for Mass Effect.

[3] Which I will not be doing here.

[4] It need hardly be mentioned that Mass Effect also had a very large budget.

[5] These inconsistencies have even caused one particularly industrious group of people to formulate an involved (and convoluted) theory that supposedly “explains” the end in logical fashion.

[6] Sparky Clarkson, “Mass Effect 3’s Ending Disrespects its Most Invested Players,” Kotaku (3 April 2012), http://kotaku.com/5898743/mass-effect-3s-ending-disrespects-its-most-invested-players.

[7] Laura Parker, “Why BioWare Shouldn’t Change Mass Effect 3’s Ending,” Gamespot (13 March 2012), http://www.gamespot.com/features/why-bioware-shouldnt-change-mass-effect-3s-ending-6366066/.

[8] Even if they often are.

[9] This is what is so ultimately disturbing about ME and the clamor for individualized endings. It is in the interest of the corporate mega-narrative for its reader to become as absorbed as possible in their IP, potentially at the expense of all other texts. What is more absorptive (and reifying) than a massively disseminated text that is capable of giving the illusion of actual individual subjectivity and agency? No matter the potential for aesthetic realization represented by the video game mega-narrative, there is also the potential for unprecedented control—viz. WoW.

[10] I.e. why weren’t there Transformers in The Wizard of Oz!? That would’ve been so much better.

[11] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 130.

[12] Caleb A. Scharf, “Mass Effect Solves the Fermi Paradox?” Scientific American (15 March 2012), http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/life-unbounded/2012/03/15/mass-effect-solves-the-fermi-paradox/.

[13] I’m sure there is an excellent Deleuzian reading out there.

[14] This, to be sure, is also the problem of Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2006).

[15] And the intellectual property that is ME would obviously thrive if such games were made w/ the same attention that the trilogy received.

[16] And seriously, how much more entitled can be when becoming a god of myth and legend is not a satisfactory enough individual experience w/ a game!? Are we all such delicate little important flowers that this isn’t enough?

[17] If I do have one criticism of the ending, it is that the Bartlebian option of preferring to do nothing wasn’t available. Though of course that is one ending of ME2, to its great credit—i.e. everyone dies, you fail, galaxy destroyed, before ME3 even begins. Which, of course, is another “possible” ending to the ME universe—i.e. you don’t even get to 3.

[18] Unless she lives. Well, of course she lives. She is a comic book character. Though I prefer my ending in which she dies.

[19] The same point can and should be made about Skyrim. Your character is far less a figure that you feel connection w/ than a vehicle through which to traverse the true “hero” of the game: its complex, vibrant world.


Repackaging the Archive (Part V): Vital Materiality and Milemarker, Part 2

June 24, 2011

Read / See Part 1.

In migration, the sun is no longer the terrestrial sun reigning over a territory, even an aerial one; it is the celestial sun of the Cosmos, as in the two Jerusalems, the Apocalypse.

—Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus[1]

Milemarker, Frigid Forms Sell (Arlington, VA: Lovitt Records, 2000)

Frigid Forms Sell takes Milemarker’s own self-aware aesthetic position one step further than simply commenting upon their own object production in a manner akin to what would be a musical/scenester/Skylab-Commerce version of David Foster Wallace’s “Octet.”[2] Though a clear awareness throughout the rest of their work of the hyperarchival forces they are inextricably bound to—coupled with the simultaneous awareness of how their own object-production attempts to resist such forces—is surely present, and to increasingly strange degrees,[3] Frigid Forms Sell (hereafter FFS)effectively changes the conversation in a far more politically ambitious way (than through recursive self-reference) by stressing the necessity of a perspective capable of attending to the relative vitality of all objects. What this album effectively signaled in their development as a band was a move that went beyond merely critiquing the contemporary consumer’s relationship to objects (whether they be a punk rock consumer or not), and imagined a politics centered around objects themselves, objects that, given the emergent properties of matter and the posthuman blurring b/t object/media/tool and human, now could be considered to display a kind of political “subjectivity.”

Though evident throughout the album,[4] its first three tracks display particularly effectively the inherent conflict b/t the idea of mute, inert, dumb matter, and matter considered as vital and/or vibrant, ultimately highlighting the dangers of a human-centered ontology, an ontology incapable of grasping the vital being of matter itself. The first track begins exploring the conflict b/t inert and vital matter formally, by performing this conflict as one b/t the digital and the analog. This brief “song,” an untitled introduction to the album, places one immediately in the realm of the wholly digital, both in terms of voice and sound. A mostly unparsable, heavily altered “human” voice says, well, something, [5] which introduces around twenty seconds of driving, electronic (if intelligent) dance music, only to be interrupted by a single, analog, distorted guitar, at which point begins “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth,” the album’s titular song.

This brief shift b/t the clearly digital and the clearly (if electronic) analog does three things: 1) signals what was then (in the late 90s) a quite complex node of problems (the analog vs. the digital, esp. w/r/t punk rock),[6] 2) gestures toward a mode of production and recording that Milemarker would continue to challenge in their work,[7] and 3) foregrounds the two primary modes that humans currently have of approaching the vibration of matter (i.e. sound): the analog and digital. W/ this shift from its digital “[intro]” to a more-familiar analog guitar introduction, Milemarker is, if not privileging, then at least noting that the digital has achieved primacy w/r/t considering vibrating matter, both in recorded music and elsewhere, and that despite the dominance of analog recording during the majority of the 20th c.,[8] it now takes a violent break, a classic guitar-violence, to place us back amongst the realm of the analog.

What is being performed w/ this break is not what it might at first appear to be: a condemnation of the instrumentalization of sound (i.e. vibrating matter) through digital recording practices, and thus a critique of anything digital. Rather, this break foregrounds that music, and thus sound (and thus matter), must realize that the beginning of the 21st c. is an entrance into a new sonic dispensation, a shift to a new ontic experience of matter at its most sensorial level (the aural), and that consequently we must radically re-think our relationship to matter itself now that our mode of recording and experiencing sound has fundamentally changed. One mode of doing this is to rethink the most common trope of rock-and-roll: the distorted guitar. Through this introduction of digital moving toward analog (rather than the other way around), Milemarker makes a claim that it is precisely the digital that allows us, indeed forces us to rethink our relationship to matter itself, not matter experienced as a cleanly articulated, smooth analog space of experience, but as a wildly fragmented, striated space that we can only map through ones and zeros. In other words, the myth of analog, the myth of the vinyl recording, was predicated on the notion that there was an inert object that could be known and recorded. W/ the introduction of the digital, experience is forced to acknowledge that the vitality of matter prevents such easy objectification, and, though the digital is surely less accurate at recording the material world (at the moment), it is, quite strangely (and I know this is an inversion of commonplace thinking), capable of glimpsing the vitality of the objects it records. In other words, our experience of the digital world forces us to confront its emergent vitality, the fact that a distorted guitar simply feels different in a digital medium, that it takes on aspects it never had before, or in other words, the internet is alive.

Furthermore, this shift signals something esp. important w/r/t power and its particular emergence as control in digital societies,[9] and it is something Jacques Attali notes particularly well w/r/t music and what he calls “noise”:

More than colors and forms, it is sounds and their arrangements that fashion societies. With noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world. With music is born power and its opposite: subversion. In noise can be read the codes of life, the relations among men. . . when it is fashioned by man with specific tools, when it invades man’s time, when it becomes sound, noise is the source of purpose and power, of the dream—Music. . . . Everywhere codes analyze, mark, restrain, train, repress, and channel the primitive sounds of language, of the body, of tools, of the relations between self and others. All music, any organization of sounds is then a tool for the creation or consolidation of a community, of a totality. It is what links a power center to its subjects, and thus, more generally, it is an attribute of power it all its forms.[10]

It is significant that Attali wrote this in 1977, if not only for the simple fact that the very ideological capture Attali is everywhere exploring in Noise has become exponentially easier, more insidious, and more total w/ digitally recorded  sound,[11] but b/c the “consolidation of a [digital] community” could be read in terms of Part 1’s emphasis on the fetish-object of punk rock vis-à-vis its various digital encodings—in other words as a perfect example of late-capitalism’s ability to absorb resistance into its own matrix of power and repackage it for easy consumption. The “[intro]” of FFS and its transition to the first proper song on the album, consequently, should be read as both enacting and resisting a complex (parallax) dialectic b/t the analog and digital, the laptop[12] and guitar, control and resistance, music and noise. The opening analog guitar riff of “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth” mobilizes a rock-and-roll tradition (the distorted guitar), that is, if not dead or dying, then re-coded digitally (i.e. the entire tradition is), sounding strangely hollow and inert after the vibrant and danceable digital introduction. The line b/t music and noise, clearly, is not only being blurred and commented upon, but the particular medium of that music/noise (digital/analog) blurs to become indistinguishable in this moment. The effect, in short, is that Milemarker is all of a sudden channeling, recording, producing, and reproducing something where, rather than fashioning a society through sound, code becomes foundational. In other words, though of course Attali is clearly applicable (still) to thinking through and w/ Milemarker, it might be more apropos to suggest that “everywhere codes. . . are the primitive sounds of language,” etc. In the introduction we are listening to code-itself, and the guitar, though briefly interrupting this digital moment in a (traditional) analog fashion, condemns the impotence of itself as a vehicle and weapon of resistance, thereby foreclosing a history that can now only be understood, in terms of sound, through its digital encoding, capture, and archiving,[13] while simultaneously opening a brief moment of utopian possibility, of the possibility to reconsider how we might negotiate the complex noise/music dialectic, only to also be foreclosed and shut down in posthuman apocalyptic glee by the first words sung on the album. What this all effectively does is redraw the boundaries of how to consider the object itself (the album) that a listener is engaged w/. Rather than imagining some idyllic, analog, distorted-guitar, rock-and-roll “pure” past that could be returned to if only we took a neo-ludditic stance toward the digital-objectival regime, it not only points out the inherent failures of considering the distorted guitar as a vehicle for revolutionary possibility, but points more productively toward the realization that sound, whether digital or analog, is now only code, ones and zeros, brutal ice-cubes of representation.[14] The material world, consequently, threatens to be completely broken down into code, and whatever vibrancy matter itself creates in sound, can only be approached as cold, inert, and objectival—i.e. translatable into code. This is the danger Milemarker confronts most directly on FFS.

The entirety of the lyrics to “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth” deserve full quotation here in that they quickly imagine the catastrophic outcome of such a code-based regime:

We keep waiting for the robots to crush us from the sky. They sneak in through our fingertips and bleed our fingers dry. There’s a product line attached to every form. The symptoms they ascribed to venereal disease all these years turned out to be side effects of the magnetic strips on the credit cards. There’s a product line attached to every form of suicide.

There are complex array of issues at stake here that continue to find expression throughout the rest of FFS, and these issues immediately signal Milemaker’s transformation of what at first might appear as merely a specific critique of media (digital vs. analog) into a crisis that fundamentally threatens (something like) “being itself.” W/ the first line (“we keep waiting for robots to crush us from the sky”), Milemarker has effectively washed up upon the shore of the (hyper)archive, upon a new dispensation of data- and object-relations having little-to-no connection to the safety previously found aboard the ship of anthropocentric metaphysics afloat in a sea of clearly definable limit-relations b/t humans, objects, data, and noise; they are suddenly deposited into a wholly posthuman world where objects (robots: the technological singularity) emerge from code, emerge from the very things (fingers) which were initially responsible for entering that code into the database in the first place through its primary entry point: the keyboard.[15] These robots, these vital objects, these machines w/ all the properties of being-itself, are archival machines, and they parasite back upon the very human input that made them possible, turning the most bodily of functions, sex and disease, into mere expressions of material force: magnetism and capital.[16] Suicide, the last, final act of will permitted to “life,” becomes not merely a “product line,” something to be reified and sold, but the various horizons previously available to this act can now only be understood within the robotic regime: the horizons have been redrawn by the robots “bleeding our fingers dry” in the same moment we create them through our most obvious archival process (typing). We wait for the robots to crush us from the sky b/c we have this holdover notion of a Terminator­-esque eschatology, of a limit-break where objects rise up to end “life,” but these vitally material objects interact w/ the human to the point of making that limit that consciousness cannot pass, death, merely another expression of an objectival-regime; what Milemarker reveals here is the brute reality of matter itself, w/o distinction b/t life and death, b/t “artificial” or “natural” intelligence/life, and consequently they reveal their engagement w/ a political ecology of things. What is stake w/in such an ecology, is that w/o a new perspective on the robotic-regime threatening the “human,” indeed, w/o radically rethinking the horizon of the human itself, current modes of relating to matter can only have as their horizon an eschatological closure in which the human disappears into the digital-objectival archive. The disappearance of the human should not be read here as a disappearance of the transcendental subject, nor even as tragic in any way, but of a fundamental inability to think anything other than traditional forms of political subjectivity. When suicide becomes a product line, a radical necessity is revealed, and this necessity is fundamentally ontological at its horizons.

“Signal Froze,” the third track on FFS, makes what is at stake—politically, ontologically, and archivally—even more explicit.

And the lyrics to this song also deserve full quotation: “The shipwreck survivors contemplate their icy tomb. Captain abdicates command over the intercom. No signals received on the radio. They’ll send a search party when it thaws. They’ll send a search party. . . right? My S.O.S. smoke signals froze and clattered down in cloudy ice cubes. Turn on the microwave and defrost the world.” To extend my ship-of-Western-metaphysics metaphor above, the ship has smashed upon the rocks of an objectival-archival world that the human can only perceive as an “icy tomb.” In the face of this, traditional sovereignty, traditional forms of power abdicate, and their “sign-off,” the captain of the “ship-of-state” sends out one last coherent analog signal transferring power to the icy-tomb itself (the cold object/archive). Language, as a result, can only take the form of an “S.O.S.,” a distress signal that, b/c of its newly instantiated objectival-archival medium, is not only transferred into code—absorbed, frozen, and reified—but clatters down, breaking into ambiguous, non-signifying, “cloudy ice cubes.” Language, the call, the distress signal, the plea for help, the primal (impotent) scream culled from the pain of individuation becomes mere cold geometry here. The only solution: nuke the world. The only solution: absolute radiation.

And it is from such a dismal perspective on the future of posthumanity that the true political stakes of Milemarker’s intervention become apparent. “Signal Froze” and “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth” designate the political perspective available to the thinking of matter, of objects, of things as inert, bounded, nonhuman, non-vital, dead. To make this visually clear, consider the following (reposted) archival apocalypse:

Clearly the premise of the above video is that matter (or code) does contain some amount of vitality, and that it will indeed organize into some coherent form. This form, matter’s final instantiation, its transformation of the earth into a giant black cube, perhaps a single digital (void-)pixel, however, reveals an underlying assumption about matter and its political horizon. Here, matter is always already poised toward entropy, toward non-complex singularity, and consequently, the political perspective available to thinking through matter in this mode is equally limited: it always approaches the heat-death of politics, there is no agency, subjectivity, or possibility for matter to do anything else but absorb us w/in its all-encompassing inertia.

“Tundra” makes the same point on FFS: “The ice age is coming. Better get a sweater or something. I don’t think the mammals are going to make it this time. Better get a prescription, so why you’re frozen you can still be smiling. You can’t outrun the tundra. So you might as well go under.”

Considering matter as entropic heat-death, as always moving toward an all-encompassing frozen tundra enclosing the world—this perspective does not leave room for anything except an acceptance of a quiet catastrophe, a silent eschaton. One “might as well go under.” Rather than go under raging against the dying of the light, attempting one last super-hero-type coup against the order of things, the only answer available to matter considered as non-vital is an absolute loss of agency, of revolutionary possibility. This isn’t merely passivity and resignation in the face of inevitable death. This perspective makes resistance into: “better get a sweater or something.” The irony of this “something” is total. It does not matter what thing one gets, what piece of matter one chooses to harness, what tool constructed from matter one tries to use. The very fact that it is matter itself, the sweater will only serve to more fully cover one in the slowly advancing logic of entropy.

So, obviously I am drawing heavily here upon Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter mentioned briefly in Part 1, a book whose project is to pose a political and ontological alternative to “Tundra,” a perspective on matter that attempts to “(1) paint a positive ontology of vibrant matter, which stretches received concepts of agency, action, and freedom sometimes to the breaking point; (2) to dissipate the onto-theological boundaries of life/matter, human/animal, will/determination, and organic/inorganic using arguments and other rhetorical means to induce in human bodies an aesthetic-affective openness to material vitality; and (3) to sketch a style of political analysis that can better account for the contributions of nonhuman actants.”[17] Though clearly not formulated in such clear theoretical terms, I would like to suggest that Milemarker is engaged in similar project, and ultimately achieves such a perspective—against “Tundra,” “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth,” and “Signal Froze,” three songs that outline the apocalyptic horizons of considering matter as nonvital—in two ways. The first is through a thorough acknowledgment that “organic and inorganic bodies, natural and cultural objects. . . all are affective.”[18] The affect that matter takes on during the course of FFS is primarily erotic, and as such, Milemarker, through proposing an erotics of things (or perhaps what I elsewhere called “archival erotics,”), is able to consider “each human [a]s a heterogeneous compound of wonderfully vibrant, dangerously vibrant matter,”[19] interacting complexly w/ a world that is not delimitable in terms of subject/object. The second mode of vital materiality they propose is quite similar to what Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker call “the exploit.”[20] In opposition to a digitally-networked regime of control, of sound as what constitutes the ground of power in Attali’s terms, they push the logic of the network, and consequently the nonvital perspective on matter, past its breaking point.

“Sex Jam One: Sexual Machinery,” and “Sex Jam Two: Insect Incest,” though initially they seem to indicate and propagate the nihilistic “might as well go under” of “Tundra,” to detail an impotent despair in the face of the machinery of sex, in fact propose an (if subtle) alternative. Again, to quote in full:

She looked at me with the biggest brown eyes and she screamed at me: ‘would you like to fuck?’ ‘I’ll cut off my hands if you cut out your eyes.’ It made sense to me. We slide up, mechanically set, for the perfect alibi of passion gone by. I’m all out of change and you’re up I-95. We’re the couple that couldn’t make the payments but kept the car anyway. If it’s going to have to be like that then we might as well arrange the perfect set for the perfect fame.

“Sex Jam One” could not be more incisive and immediate re: the potentially complete instrumentalization of human sexual relations, a statement that boils down all sexuality into its most brutal, simple, basic discursive formation: “Would you like to fuck?” Further, this formation of sexuality appears to also have a corollary juridical, contractual aspect—i.e. such a statement (“would you like to fuck?”) is no different than, would you like to buy this car, esp. in terms of the response it generates. . . okay, yes? well, then just sign here. . . “I’ll cut off my hands if you cut out your eyes.” One should not be too quick, however, to consider this merely as an extension of the dominating logic of reification—i.e. that, from Milemarker’s obvious apocalyptic perspective, well, yes, of course sex is emptied of its affect as well. For, if one realizes that something was actually “produced” or “conceived” from this “sexual machinery,” and that it was, indeed, a machine (“we’re the couple that couldn’t make the payments but kept the car anyway. . .”), then one might read this song in different terms than outlined thus far. The machine, the car, is kept; no hand of capital comes and punishes this “couple” for being unable to make payments on their car. Debt, here, is not only written off but ignored. The “sexual machinery,” the seemingly brutal reification of sex into a simple question and a violent contract, is confounded, esp. considering that no answer is given to the initial question. Instead, the question and the contract produce a machine, a thing, an object, but it is an object that, somehow, is outside of capital’s grasp. The sexual couple can keep this car. It has produced something that, no matter how strangely, evades the logic of capital in a weirdly simple fashion. It is an object that is affective, erotic, and conceived. Sex here becomes not merely a relationship b/t two objects, two reified bodies. Sex is able to itself produce further affect at the material level. A car, quite simply, becomes vital (or perhaps a subject).

Of course one must engage in interpretive gymnastics to produce a reading of “Sex Jam One” as anything more than simply a dismal presentation of sexual machinery. “Sex Jam Two,” however, presents a much clearer moment to consider the possibility of nonhuman materiality/sexuality and an erotics of things.

You could bring home the pollen, I could be the queen bee. The way the mammals do it is inefficient and unsanitary. You’ve got to whisper to me, make sure that I’m not dead. You’ve got to take your tweezers and pry apart my little legs. You ought to kick it to me and then bite off my head. That’s the way the insects do it. Exoskeletons filled with fluid. I wish I could peel away your humid human skin and attach you to me, parasitically. Yeah, yeah. Oh yeah. Yeah. (My emphases.)

“Sex Jam Two” traces a different kind of sexual machinery than “Sex Jam One,” namely an animal (or “insectival”) sexual machinery. Considering the original recording of “Insect Incest,”[21] which was collected on Changing Caring Humans, is also important w/r/t the song’s insectival nature. The original recording was quite a bit slower, sans keyboard in the background, and had Burian singing in a much more monotone, affectless tone—the only real moment of affect coming when he screams, with an extreme amount of (almost insectival) distortion, “exoskeletons filled with fluid!” The original recording, then, could easily be heard as a kind of critique, a consideration of insectival sexuality as nothing more than a fairly critical analogy of contemporary sexual practices. FFS’s “Sex Jam Two,” however, interprets the original song w/ quite a bit more feeling, and though the closing lines of “yeah, yeah, Oh yeah. yeah,” must still be heard in all their overflowing irony, the second version of this song (the one above) is far more celebratory of “insect incest” than the original.

There are two things that are primarily being celebrated: 1) the efficiency, the logic of bee- or insect-sexuality, and 2) the blurring of any boundaries b/t sexual bodies. This efficiency and blurring is immediately and quite provocatively signaled in the first line. Not only are normal gender/sexual stereotypes overturned here—the “woman” bringing home the pollen, the “male” being the “queen bee” responsible for the creation of the hive and other sexual bodies (i.e. its own sexual objects), but it should also make us think about emergent sexuality.[22] One of the things that has often been noted about bee (or ant) colonies is that, contrary to popular figurations (say Antz, or something), the queen of a bee colony has no hierarchical control over how the colony operates. Whatever intelligence or complex organization occurs in a beehive, it is a result of the complex network and flows of all the bees.[23] Consequently, redrawing a “sex jam” along the lines of emergent, insectival sexuality, decentralizes anthropomorphic notions of sex, and also creates new limits: “You’ve got to whisper to me, make sure that I’m not dead. You’ve got to take your tweezers and pry apart my little legs. You ought to kick it to me and then bite off my head.” The you/me, subject/object version of human biological sexuality is overturned to the point that, even though a “you/me” structures the imperatives sung by Burian, it is nearly impossible to find the “object” of the sex drive. The singer is simultaneously the “queen bee,” a thanatoid object whose vitality is in question (see insect “thanatosis”), a “female” whose legs need to be pried apart, and the male praying mantis who, after sex, is killed (or decapitated) by the female praying mantis. The erotic/objectival horizons of “Insect Incest” are rhizomatic, distributed, and do not participate in a human sexual economy, thereby redrawing erotic possibility and affect, redrawing drive and desire. Parasitic sex,[24] sex where there is a complex relationship b/t host and parasite (and clearly it is difficult to discern which is which here), presents a horizon of material possibility, a mode of thinking about objects, matter, and non-human “actants” (in this case animals or insects), and ultimately traces a line of flight from the world of “Tundra.”

The second mode of exploration regarding the possibility for a vital materiality occurs on the penultimate song of the album, “Server Error,” and quite closely resembles Galloway and Thacker’s notion of the exploit in protocological systems.

[W]ithin protocological networks, political acts generally happen not by shifting power from one place to another but by exploiting power differentials already existing in the system. This is due mainly to the fundamentally informatic nature of networks. Informatic networks are largely immaterial. But immaterial does not mean vacillating or inconsistent. They operate through the brutal limitations of abstract logic (if/then, true or false). Protocological struggles do not center around changing existent technologies but instead involve discovering holes in existent technologies and projecting potential change through those holes. Hackers call these holes “exploits.”[25]

On “Server Error,” Milemarker is perhaps at their clearest in terms of their call for and mode of resistance, and it is nearly impossible to not notice how they structure resistance through the exploit, from inside, from pushing the logic of the system past its breaking point, by masking oneself w/in the confines and structures of protocol, only revealing the true nature of the resistance after protocological control has been hacked. For “Server Error,” again, the lyrics deserve full-quotation (esp. considering it is difficult to parse them aurally):

I’ve got a recipe for integrity. We can just start tonight with just a kilobyte. We won’t save what we won’t take. That would just build the next mistake. It’ll look real clean. We won’t be seen. Take a bit each time you walk out five. We’ll destroy from within the information age. We’ll make a clever break. There won’t be an escape. Gradually weaken the machine piece by piece. Leave its shell in place. I’ve got a recipe for integrity. Act like you belong until the final stage.

Frigid Forms Sell, by working through the eschatological implications of a non-vital political project, pointing toward an erotics of things, and celebrating multiple sexual machineries, achieves its political vision on “Server Error,” and it is a vision only graspable when all the implications of what Galloway and Thacker call “networked being” have been dealt w/.

Networks are said to have a “life of their own,” but we search in vain for the “life” that is specific to networks, except their being as networks. On the one hand, the proof of the existence as such of living organisms is their living. On the other hand, the proof of the living aspects of networks is their existence as such, that is, their being. The question of “life” and the question of “being” seem always to imply each other, but never to meet.[26]

It is precisely from a perspective on the vitality of matter, on the vibrant nature of things, that Milemarker is able to explore this gap throughout FFS where “being” and “life” do not meet. Rather than “going down with the ship” on “Tundra,” they stake out the terms of not only the various possibilities for “being” vital materialism offers, but how to mobilize a politics from this perspective. It is impossible to not get an affective sense of this when listening to the album as a whole. There is a distinctly cold tone to the entire album, a mechanical approach to rock-and-roll that is continually upset by the experience of listening, of vitally engaging w/ its vibrating matter (sound). But to suggest that FFS completely achieves the “thaw” of the frozen matter, sound, and music it presents would be to ignore perhaps the two most important moments in the rest of their work where the issues here presented interact in a quite complex manner. These two moments are “Ant Architect,” on their album Anaesthetic,[27] and “Sun Out” on their final album (at least of this writing), Ominosity (2005).

“Ant Architect” is (in my humble opinion) Milemarker’s most well-executed, well-conceived (if not their “best”) song:

Mad scientist sits at his desk. Tries to decide which buildings should face east and which west. Allergic to the hive, the hive is giving him hives. He’s an ant architect, a meteorologist of mood swings and other things which shouldn’t be measured. If the brain is the engine and the heart is the carburetor, and the legs are made of rubber and the spine is made of pipe cleaners we can build our own people in any way we choose. We can push our own buttons like adolescent gods. We can bask in the glow of the new synthetic sun. The casket you know is the most comfortable one. We can suture the future shut like a cut. We can build epic structures which replicate us. Deaf-mute in a leisure suit who, try as he might, fails nightly. Fails miserably. Buys a colony from the back of a magazine, plays simulated city with real living things. His fear of death is intense as he crushes the ants. But there’s a freedom there: there’s no one to apologize to. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor.

Milemarker’s “mad scientist,” this “ant architect” inhabits the difficult, precarious position of a human coping w/ the realization that all matter is vital w/o regard for the human. He attempts to measure things which “shouldn’t be measured,” “mood swings,” yes, the affective output of chemical changes in the material body, but also, quite importantly, “other things.” The fact that these things which shouldn’t be measured are simply “other things,” means they can be any old things whatsoever, things as always other, things themselves, perhaps, but simply things. Things shouldn’t be measured. For we cannot, at the end of the day, ever really definitely measure any thing, and perhaps most importantly, things cannot measure other things either. There is always a gap, a lack, an abyss b/t things. And this “ant architect” inhabits the problematic and paradoxical position of the (mad) scientist whose role it is to measure things, while simultaneously completely aware that “the brain is the engine and the heart is the carburetor, and the legs are made of rubber and the spine is made of pipe cleaners”; in other words, the human is a thing as well, composed of things, and it is a thing trying to measure things, etc. W/in this objectival space, this space of trying to inhabit a position of perceiving matter as vital, there is always the danger of being able to “build our own people in any way we choose. We can push our own buttons like adolescent gods”; but there is the simultaneous realm of possibility, of celebration, where “we can bask in the glow of the new synthetic sun.” This “synthetic sun” should not be read completely ironically—being able to create light, and consequently, synthesizing the force (the sun) which is (probably) responsible for producing life and (surely) responsible for maintaining it, is the very paradox this ant architect inhabits. Inhabiting a space where one considers matter as vital is difficult, in other words.

What is at stake is the future itself, the continued existence of the species, for on the one hand the ant architect threatens to “suture the future shut like a cut,” to foreclose the possibility of the species in posthuman extinction by being able to “build epic structures which replicate us.” But at the same time, this posthuman position provides a new type of freedom: “But there’s a freedom there: there’s no one to apologize to.” The ant architect inhabits a space where the human has been almost completely decentered, where the old ontological chain of being has completely broken, and the idea of any sort of hierarchy, humans (or matter) being accountable to any other thing, is revealed as ludicrous. Consequently, though perhaps failing at his project, this ant architect inhabits, almost completely, the postmodern ethical position, in all its problematic complexity and ambiguity; he has embraced the reality of what Heidegger called Abgrund (absence of ground, the void), and must figure out how to live in a world of vibrating matter, in a world where there is no distinction b/t a pipe cleaner and a spine, a heart and a carburetor, legs and rubber, brains and an engines.

Perhaps the most important aspect of “Ant Architect,” however, is the final line that Burian sings repeatedly like a kind of mantra at the end of the song, evolving, growing, achieving a kind of life of its own: “Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor.” If the majority of “Ant Architect” defines a problem, a conflict, a difficult ethical space for the human faced w/ its own materiality, a materiality which also forces the human to confront the vitality of matter itself, then this mantra is, quite strangely, almost divorced from the rest of the song. Clearly there is a critique of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (aka anti-depressants, e.g. Prozac), of a culture chemically altering itself at a quite basic level, of a culture incapable of confronting their own material nature by masking the void through drugs, but it is also important to attend to the relative amount of joy (and then anger) in the manner Burian sings this mantra. The hive, the world, material reality, etc., gives this ant architect hives, he’s allergic to it, and yet there is no outside, he is responsible for the building and upkeep of the hive, trying to decide which “building should face east and which west.” One solution for the anxiety such a position produces (and thus the anxiety of the postmodern subject) is, of course, “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.” But clearly, this solution, this “cure” is also a poison (again, a pharmakos). Faced w/ the awareness that he can alter his own affect, that, by changing his chemical and material makeup, he can change his affectivity, signals that matter is affective as well.

What Milemarker achieves in “Ant Architect” is the incredibly difficult position of having to confront the vitality of matter and its implications for political action and existence, and an awareness of what Deleuze and Guattari called “assemblage.”[28] No, they do not provide any “answers” for inhabiting such a position, do not provide a balm for even how to go about one’s life once in such a position (or really even how to get there), but they do reveal the paramount necessity, both for ethics and the future of the species, for what Bennet calls a political ecology of things. The posthuman ant architect who has to choose (which building should face east and which west), who has to make a decision about what to build, how to build it, and ultimately why (suture the future shut or not, and to what end), must first understand his relationship to the hive, to chemicals, to affect, and to matter. He must understand himself as a finite moment of assemblage, a singularity.

The effects generated by an assemblage are, rather, emergent properties, emergent in their ability to make something happen (a newly inflected materialism, a blackout, a hurricane, a war on terror) is distinct from the sum of the vital force of each materiality considered alone. Each member of a proto-member of the assemblage has a certain vital force, but there is also an effectivity proper to the grouping as such: an agency of assemblage. And precisely because each member-actant maintains an energetic pulse slightly “off” from that of the assemblage, an assemblage is never a stolid block but an open-ended collective, a “non-totalizable sum.” An assemblage thus not only has a distinctive history of formation but a finite life span.[29]

The world-historical stakes for the finite assemblage that is humanity, and indeed the assemblages we call life and the world are expressed in “Sun Out,” as well as the relative bleak prospects for the future of any finite assemblage. Milemarker have always pursued a certain kind of apocalypticism,[30] clearly discernible in many of the tracks from Frigid Forms Sell discussed here, as well as elsewhere, but nowhere does their eschatological imagination find such clear expression than in “Sun Out”:

When the sun went out nobody noticed. It took a couple of months for the winter not to end. It took a couple of years for it to get colder and colder until people began to panic and demand an explanation. And then the scientific community convened and decreed that the human race was done, and though we all still had time to bear children, none of them would live to see 21. And it was just gonna get colder and colder and colder and colder from here on out. There lake of limbs had frozen over. No one ever, ever thought this day would come. It’s getting harder and harder to die of natural causes. If you make it, you’ll be one of the last ones. The sun has gone down for the last time. There will be no moon tonight. It’s over.[31]

Though one is tempted to read “Sun Out” as an indictment of current ecological, political, scientific, and technological practices (and it is), and one is equally tempted to see this song as ultimately dismissing the precarious political position they have constructed throughout their work in the face of apocalyptic doom and gloom, a kind of total pessimistic nihilism, it is significant to pay attention to their specific eschatological formulation here, and how it differs significantly from more commonplace or popular formulations. Namely, that when the sun initially went out nobody noticed, it took a couple of months for people to notice, it took a couple of years to have any real effect, and for humans to really care at all.

This delay, this gap, this lag-time b/t the event and its effects is quite notable in terms of more traditional formulations in the apocalyptic imagination. Though clearly not having any grounding in materiality (i.e. it is not possible, and it is “unscientific”), they are pointing toward a deeply materialist engagement w/ the world. Yes, we all know that the sun will eventually explode into a red giant and consume the earth (in millions or billions of years, we’ll also probably be long gone when this happens), but the sun to quite literally go out (like a light bulb), and for no one to notice!? this betokens another eschatological regime than we are used to. Namely, apocalyptic formulations (even some of the worst ecological ones [see my “Eco-Jeremiad”]), most usually depend upon some type of event, a moment in time, what Frank Kermode calls a peripeteia—this is also b/c the apocalypse seems limited to narrative (at the moment)—a turning point w/ a temporally definable before and after. Here, the event is not merely unnoticed, but deferred. It is this deferral, this delay in the event’s instantiation and its perception, that we should pay particular attention to. The apocalyptic thing here, consequently, is not the event, but humanities’ inability to notice the crisis, its inability to perceive the very end of material vitality in the sun. If we continue to inhabit the position of perceiving objects as dumb, mute, inert, it is this very position that is dangerous, that has its telos at the end times. In other words, one might very easily say here that Milemarker is suggesting that if we continue to think of matter as dead—or, rather, cold—then matter will indeed “just gonna get colder and colder and colder and colder from here on out.” For there is definitely a sense on “Sun Out” that if people were just able to perceive the sun going out, perceive the end of its finite, vital assemblage, then some action could be taken, the crisis could be averted. (I cannot help but think here of Danny Boyle’s underappreciated [if clearly scientifically absurd] Sunshine [2007].

Though of course, none of this discussion really pertains to that film at all, as it devolves into a strange sort of slasher thriller. . . .)

It is also quite important to note that Ominosity in general, and “Sun Out” in particular, sees Milemarker changing the general dynamic of their sonic output quite significantly, esp. in contrast to the cold, detached aesthetic they achieve on FFS, and the medicinal tone of Anaesthetic. “Sun Out” has little-to-no digital sound, with the exception of strange bleeps and blips in the middle of the song where everything dies down to a bass playing single notes, followed by a long drum-roll before the epic final pronunciation of the song, “the sun has gone down for the last time,” is repeated (again, mantra-like) w/ increasing urgency. “Sun Out” is more “rocking,” more “epic” (it is one of their longest tracks, clocking in at 8:12), and it is far more “vital” than most of the music I have discussed here.

Within the trajectory of their work, one could do worse than reading “Sun Out” as a kind of end, as a final musical statement, as a culmination of their thinking and long aesthetic project. Though steeped in apocalyptic imagery, and clearly stating that “it’s over,” it would probably be wrong, however, to consider “Sun Out” as a final, brutal, pessimistic, critical assessment of futurity—i.e. that their entire career was spent detailing the apocalyptic limits of postmodern contemporaneity and that we receive a final condemnation on their last album. Rather, as I’ve endeavored to explore here (and in Part 1), “Sun Out” defines a critical stance toward matter, that we very, very much need to attend to the material world around us in all its different formations, and particularly its most important formation (obviously) for the persistence of life on earth—the sun. Yes, in our current digital, archival dispensation we are inclined not to “notice” the extinguished sun, and thus, Milemarker suggests that through our very inability to perceive matter as vital, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, it ceases to be so. I also realize that this entire reading of their work may be a stretch, and perhaps requires more familiarity w/ Jane Bennet’s Vibrant Matter than I have here sketched, but, perhaps what this reading has attempted to achieve, even more than its specific delineation of a persistent theme in their work, is that perhaps the time has come to take Milemarker—and by proxy, many of the important hardcore, “post-punk,” or “(scr)e(a)mo”[32] bands of the late 1990s and early 2000s—quite seriously. There was an edge, a project, a vitality, and a vision that much of the music of this period had, a vibrancy that has (perhaps) disappeared. Part of this disappearance is intimately linked to the relative disappearance of the concrete musical object (the 7”, the LP, the CD), but this in no way means that we cannot redraw our relationship to musical assemblage; that there is way to treat our iPods as vital and vibrant moments of emergent assemblage. And that, rather than the world getting “colder and colder and colder and colder,” there is, in fact, warmth, vitality, and vibrancy to be found in the hyperarchive, in or despite the instrumentalization of matter, and in the ones and zeros that define our musical-aesthetic regime. If nothing else, Milemarker asks us to listen again and really hear how they made matter vibrate.


[1] Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia: A Thousand Plateaus, Vol. 2., trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 326.

[2] See Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1999), 131-160.

[3] Take Anaesthetic, for instance:


Also see Al Burian’s commentary on the album and its cover in “A Very Long Q & A with Al Burian of Milemarker, Challenger, and Burn Collector”, an interview conducted by Shawn Goldberg at Creative Loafing (a name I very much appreciate). It contains some interesting notes on the more-recent state of the band and Burian’s own current pursuits, including his excellent zine, Burn Collector.

[4] Also, for a moment, consider the album cover above (and the accompanying album-art). Each member of the band is depicted with a slight sheen on them, implying that they are cryogenically frozen; this freezing of the band—in the photo, the album-art, the recorded music—threatens to be thawed by the very temporal experience of listening to the album-itself, that there is something underneath which will become “alive” once again; one might expect this is the “music itself.” The song “Cryogenic Sleep” also makes it quite explicit that “being” or “subjectivity” has been frozen, incapable of interacting w/ the world, sleeping “through the sirens,” but still standing “against, though horizontally.” “I’ve considered my position and found no reason to run. I have no instinct for survival. My will to live is pillow soft. Perhaps that’s some indication of our state.” Resistance, or perhaps more accurately, thawing consequently can only take the form of: “I want to see this algebra cut in two. I’ve got to know why you left. I want to know why you said Molotov.” We need to ask a question, and merely listen. . . .

[5] Though I failed to find what the voice is saying, and despite the difficulty understanding what is said, it seems quite possible that the words “glucose fixation” are uttered, which is relevant, of course. . . .

[6] For the band that ruined this as an interesting problem to be explored in complex ways, or perhaps the band that made this cease to be a problem at all, or perhaps the band that made none of us really care anymore, see The Faint, esp. their album Blank Wave Arcade. (And, of course, yes, this was released before FFS.)

[7] See Satanic Versus. Two songs on the album (“Join Our Party” and “Idle Hands”) were recorded by the band digitally, the other three songs (“The Banner to the Sick,” “New Lexicon,” and “Lost the Thoughts But Kept the Skin / Satanic Versus”) were recorded under the tutelage of analog-guru Steve Albini, as was much of Ominosity.

[8] Not to mention the dominance of analog throughout human history.

[9] See Alexander Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004).

[10] Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 6. The passage continues: “Eavesdropping, censorship, recording, and surveillance are weapons of power. The technology of listening in on, ordering, transmitting, and recording noise is at the heart of this apparatus. . . to listen, to memorize—this is the ability to interpret and control history, to manipulate the culture of a people, to channel its violence and hopes. Who among us is free of the feeling that this process, taken to an extreme, is turning the modern State into a gigantic, monopolizing noise emitter, and at the same time, a generalized eavesdropping device. Eavesdropping on what? In order to silence whom?” (7).

[11] I am absolutely positive many people have said many, many interesting things about this re: Attali, but for the purposes of this less-formal exploration, it is outside my purview to pursue or provide whatever these things might be. My apologies.

[12] Seriously, my first experience of watching a “band” who simply “played their laptops” is eminently forgettable. . . .

[13] See the recent post, “Archival Decay.”

[14] I once heard that Neil Young said that listening to CDs sounded like ice cubes falling into a glass. The alternative to such a digital beverage would of course be the “water” of analog records.

[15] Furthermore, Milemarker is clearly in an aesthetic realm quite distinct from, say, Black Flag’s “Rise Above.”

What should be clear from the above video is the centrality of the human in this articulation of punk rock. Whether it be the classic revolutionary stance of “we are going to rise above” (these oppressive regimes that “keep us down”), the milling, swirling, vibrant bodies, the vital sheen of sweat on Henry Rollins’s muscled body (that is strangely not yet tattooed too much)—i.e. it is not the sheen of cryogenic freezing on Milemarker’s bodies—the sheer anger directed toward “them” (power still considered in terms of the human: the police, the state, parents, whatever)—Black Flag at this moment clearly cannot anticipate how their very symbol (the classic four black bars) would become merely a kind of teenage rite-of-passage into a sanctioned and absorbed form of resistance—e.g. Rollins on MTV and the phenomenon that is Hot Topic. Furthermore, every expression they are articulating is absolutely tied to an anthropocentric, analog ontology that cannot but feel nostalgic and perhaps quaint or naïve. It also might bear mentioning that I saw those four bars graffitied onto a light post the other day and was struck w/ how meaningless and empty the symbol now is, I mean, who is still going around drawing four black bars on stuff? To what purpose? And also, of course, none of this is to really denigrate Black Flag, for it is a sad state of affairs that the first comment on the youtube site for the above song says, “My generation needs a band like this so fucking bad.” Indeed, what would a band like this even look like at this point. Well, Milemarker. . . Also, for an excellent insight into the amazing phenomenon that was Black Flag, see Henry Rollins, Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag (Los Angeles: 2.13.61 Publications, 1994). (It is also quite incredible that, under the organization method I use for my biographies and autobiographies, Get in the Van is sandwiched b/t Rainer Maria Rilke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.)

[16] Capital here considered as an “nonhuman” force.

[17] Jane Bennet, Vital Materiality: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), x. Again, to see how / why (briefly) I am drawing upon Bennet, please consult “Part 1.”

[18] Ibid., xii.

[19] Ibid., 12-13.

[20] See Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

[21] See Milemarker, “Insect Incest,” Sex Jams (Philadelphia: Bloodlink Records, 1999). The cover of this EP is also an esp. interesting parody of Kraftwerk.



[22] See Steven Johnson, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (New York: Scribner, 2001), 29-72.

[23] If one has ever seen a bee colony trying to start a hive, massing around one another in an orgy of bee-bodies, they know exactly what I’m talking about (thanks Eric).

[24] One might also think here about Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “non-genital sex.” Further, there is very much a sense of what they call a “body without organs” in “Sex Jam Two”: “Flows of intensity, their fluids, their fibers, their continuums and conjunctions of affects, the wind, fine segmentation, microperceptions, have replaced the world of the subject. Becomings, becoming-animal, becomings-molecular, have replaced history, individual or general” (A Thousand Plateaus, 162).

[25] Alexander R. Galloway & Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 81. For the purposes of quotation in this format, I have removed italics and paragraph breaks from the original.

[26] Ibid., 118-19, emphases in original.

[27] Though slightly outside of the purview of this discussion, I’d like to provide a brief note on the title of this album, as it is quite important w/r/t their entire work. Anaesthetic is a frankly brilliant title, and though the album cover may be slightly odd (seriously, what’s w/ that Pegasus, see note 3 above), the Pepto-Bismol pink conveys a sense of how Derrida read Plato’s pharmakon (something that is both poison and cure). Further, it signals a lack of aesthetics, or perhaps a neutral ground: anaesthetic (of course, also an aesthetic, i.e. any old aesthetic whatsoever). And, to not ignore the most obvious reading: aesthetics as anesthesia, art as numbing agent, escape, delusion, but necessary for surgery—i.e. it is precisely such a song like “Ant Architect” that works as a kind of surgery: fixing, repairing, curing some debilitating disease brought on by the anaesthetic regime of late-capital. The problem, however, is that once off the anesthesia, once awake from the surgery, though we have no conscious memory of the surgery, our body very much felt and experienced the trauma of surgical invasion; despite the “happy” world of Pepto-Bismol pink we perhaps can only escape the trauma of history on the back of a winged Pegasus (or something). (There is also a weird sense of an almost fascistic symbolic order w/ this Pegasus and the stars.)

[28] For a strikingly apropos account of assemblage theory vis-à-vis “Ant Architect” see Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy for Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (New York: Continuum Books, 2006).

[29] Bennet, 24.

[30] For example, their Allmusic entry says that their early shows “include[d] snippets of ranting evangelical preachers played as background noise while the band is clad in shirts bearing the names of the four riders of the apocalypse, prompting one audience member to congratulate them on spreading the ‘Christian message.’”

[31] Milemarker, “Sun Out,” Ominosity (Kearny, NJ: Eyeball Records, 2005), track 6. My apologies for not also providing the audio for this song (which is quite epic), but I failed to find a working link to it. Of all the songs here this is perhaps the most unfortunate not to be able to hear directly for it is very much worth finding and listening to.

[32] I of course use this term loosely, for it seemed to designate something when this music was being made, and does not in any way designate much of anything today.


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