The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

StIT Reviews: Gnosticism Take 2 and Let's Read Theory: Reader Response

I'm hard at work bashing together the last elements of A Bodyless and Timeless Persona, my upcoming book about theme in Homestuck, and as a result tonight's article has a bit of an odder format than usual. It's a mix of my review series, which highlights some of the shorter pieces I've written for my $1 Patreon backers, and my Let's Read Theory series, where I go through theory texts and try my best to translate them into less academic language and consider applications for the ideas.

The material I'm posting tonight is united in both its applicability to Homestuck, and its interest in the way that we interact with language, meaning, and interpretation as readers. Carrying over gnosticism as a theme of course makes sense. I already did it once back when I posted my last couple of Homestuck articles, because core to my understanding of the comic is the gnostic nature of its narrative. The leap to language isn't all that hard once you've got that starting point. The word was with God and the word WAS God, remember? Language is deeply embedded in the traditions that Gnosticism is a part of.

But along with this is the reality of elisions and gaps that come from interacting with texts that are fragmentary, apocryphal, and originally to be read with a repertoire that modern readers simply don't have. This is where the idea of reader response becomes relevant, and the two texts I'm covering tonight, in audio posts accessible to everyone for free over on my Patreon, are foundational to this body of theory. Stanley Fish's "Is There A Text In This Class?" questions how we can do criticism, or do really anything at all, if language doesn't have an inherent set of meanings. He considers the way that language might be thought of as contextual, allowing us to still communicate despite the arbitrary nature of words. Wolfgang Iser considers the possibilities of interpretation opened up by considering a text not as a finished work of art in itself, but as the starting point for a game of imagination between word and reader, where the "literary work" emerges only in the subjective readerly experience. These texts can help us to understand the different levels on which a complex and avant-garde text like Homestuck operates, and the way it takes advantage of the gaps and contextual demands of language, and I think they also help us to explore the interpretive openness that often appears in Gnostic-like texts.

To explore that, let's consider another modern Gnostic comic, one that was allegedly part of the inspiration for The Matrix and one that blew my tiny fragile eggshell mind as a slimy teen:

Grant Morrison's The Invisibles

I'm not sure if it's ironic or fitting that a comicbook has such a contentious relationship with the semiotic structure of language, but there it is. Grant Morrison's magnum opus The Invisibles is fascinated with language--its interaction with reality, its limits, its ability to turn into something material and in some sense real, and its subjectivity.

The Invisibles follows the titular anarchic and arcane group of warriors as they fight covertly to free the world from the nightmarish Outer Church, ruled by, in fitting gnostic fashion, a group of terrifying Archons. To get into the headspace of this comic, start by assuming that anything remotely tied to weird conspiracy theories is true and all exists as part of a massive Manichean war between a universal dance party and an eternity of tyranny and mutation. The story starts with the recruitment of Liverpool trash Dane McGowen into one cell of Invisibles after their former fifth member was dragged into the sixth dimension by outer gods, and the first volume largely deals with his mystic initiation and his total failure to deal with absolutely any of what's going on, which, in fairness, involves almost being castrated by semi-human social workers, contacting space elves after eating psychedelic sewer mold, getting his finger snipped off by a faceless Aztec demon, and jumping off the top of Canary Warf, all of which is enough to make anyone feel a little weird.

It's hard to really describe just how balls to the wall crazy this comic is, really. And that's saying something for an author who among other things had Good Superman and Evil Superman merge together to form Mechasuperman in order to fight an immortal space vampire on the level of the metatext of the DC Universe so that said universe wouldn't end. People claim periodically that The Matrix was just a ripoff of The Invisibles, but honestly while there's a clear influence that series doesn't capture even a fragment of the strange shit in the comics. At one point Dane trades eyes with a pigeon so that he can be taught that cities are a kind of memetic virus that uses sentient species to propagate through the universe. This is never mentioned again.

No, The Matrix is pretty fucking straightforward compared to the source material.

But what they share is the Manichean struggle, and the fundamentally gnostic endgame: they're about getting up and out and away, and the first volume does make this basic idea pretty clear. It's about freeing humanity.

But what the world looks like after it's free is a bit more nebulous. Like many of the characters in Neoreaction a Basilisk (which I discussed in the last one of these articles), including John Milton himself, venerable apologist for God, The Invisibles seems to suspect that language corrupts. One of the bits of this comic that really wormed its way into my brain when my high school friend first loaned me all the volumes is a sequence where the character Ragged Robin encounters a number of creepy gasmask wearing outer church minions gloating over their discovery of the "secret of the Knights Templar:"

The head of John the Baptist, hooked up to some sort of strange engine that when you wind it up spits out prophecy.

Except... it sounds like prophecy to Ragged Robin, and to us the readers, but to the masked Cyphermen they hear only a litany of brutal orders.

The disconnect is resolved when Robin realizes that the head is, in fact, simply babbling in glossolalia. It's just issuing arbitrary sounds that each listener composes into a coherent message.

This gives a kind of hint as to the gnostic revelation within The Invisibles. Morrison is way too much of a punk to trust anyone else's image of utopia, and when Ragged Robin and We're-Not-Going-To-Call-Him-Lucifer-But-It's-Def.-Lucifer about the head and its message, the utopian vision they consider is one that seems profoundly solipsistic: Glossolalia is a heavenly language precisely because it allows the listener to shape the message and even reality itself to their needs. This sequence comes in the context of a lengthy, narratively unconnected, story about Percy Shelly and Lord Byron discussing the nature of utopia, alongside the characters traveling first through the carnage of the French Revolution (and it's certainly depicted as a bloodbath--Morrison is weirdly at once very radical and very, very Liberal, and seems to be horrified by any actual existing attempts to overturn the social order) and then alongside the Marquis de Sade himself through his own 120 Days of Sodom (updated with prisoners branded with bar codes and discussion of tracking chips installed at birth because look this was the 90s ok this is just what comics from this period are like). That context is used to underscore the point made with John the Baptist's babbling head: you can't trust a paradise that isn't of your own making. That's how the comic's primary badass (and Grant Morrison avatar) King Mob can say sincerely that the plan is for EVERYONE to win, including, in fact, the enemy.

Like I said, it's absolutely gnostic but in a weirdly solipsistic way that doesn't line up too comfortably with the original scriptures. But in the context of AI Feudal Lords being proposed seriously as solutions to the world's problems maybe a little bit of punk rock individualism is called for.

Either way, that's just the first volume, and later on we maybe find out that not only should we understand humanity as a kind of distributed entity across time and space (does that sound familiar, Homestuck fans?) but that we might all just be splinters of the SAME consciousness trapped in reality by a kind of "fiction suit," a game of virtual reality that went wrong. I told you: balls to the wall crazy. I'm still not really sure I understand even a fraction of what's going on in this comic.

Still, I can't deny that from my teenage prat years onward it's shaped my sense of a possibility for narratives that are fundamentally gnostic in construction and orientation: that seek not to resolve but to escape, to jettison from the confines of narrative itself into a weirder world beyond, possibly one where we each get what we need from the glossolalia of an open ending.

On The Gapostasis of the Archons

These kinds of gaps aren't actually all that uncommon within Gnostic texts themselves, for one reason or another. Like, look at this passage, from The Hypostasis of the Archons, which starts out recounting apparently the story of Noah and the Flood and then turns into something else--something far weirder:

Then mankind began to multiply and improve. The rulers took counsel with one another and said, "Come, let us cause a deluge with our hands and obliterate all flesh, from man to beast." But when the ruler of the forces came to know of their decision, he said to Noah, "Make yourself an ark from some wood that does not rot and hide in it - you and your children and the beasts and the birds of heaven from small to large – and set it upon Mount Sir." 
Then Norea came to him, wanting to board the ark. And when he would not let her, she blew upon the ark and caused it to be consumed by fire. Again he made the ark, for a second time. 
The rulers went to meet her, intending to lead her astray. Their supreme chief said to her, "Your mother Eve came to us." But Norea turned to them and said to them, "It is you who are the rulers of the darkness; you are accursed. And you did not know my mother; instead it was your female counterpart that you knew. For I am not your descendant; rather it is from the world above that I am come." 
The arrogant ruler turned, with all his might, and his countenance came to be like (a) black [...]; he said to her presumptuously, "You must render service to us, as did also your mother Eve; for I have been given [...]." But Norea turned, with the might of [...]; and in a loud voice, she cried out up to the holy one, the God of the entirety, "Rescue me from the rulers of unrighteousness and save me from their clutches - forthwith!" 
The (great) angel came down from the heavens and said to her, "Why are you crying up to God? Why do you act so boldly towards the holy spirit?" 
Norea said, "Who are you?" The rulers of unrighteousness had withdrawn from her.
He said, "It is I who am Eleleth, sagacity, the great angel who stands in the presence of the holy spirit. I have been sent to speak with you and save you from the grasp of the lawless. And I shall teach you about your root." 
(Norea apparently now speaking) Now as for that angel, I cannot speak of his power: his appearance is like fine gold and his raiment is like snow. No, truly, my mouth cannot bear to speak of his power and the appearance of his face! 
Eleleth, the great angel, spoke to me. "It is I," he said, "who am understanding. I am one of the four light-givers, who stand in the presence of the great invisible spirit. Do you think these rulers have any power over you? None of them can prevail against the root of truth; for on its account he appeared in the final ages; and these authorities will be restrained. And these authorities cannot defile you and that generation; for your abode is in incorruptibility, where the virgin spirit dwells, who is superior to the authorities of chaos and to their universe." 
But I said, "Sir, teach me about the faculty of these authorities – how did they come into being, and by what kind of genesis, and of what material, and who created them and their force?" 
And the great angel Eleleth, understanding, spoke to me:
And then the angel goes on to recount the entire beginning of the story all over again.

No, seriously. The story begins with the Gnostic account of creation, then goes through all the traditional history that follows albeit with a radically different interpretation, and then you get to the story of the Flood and suddenly the story just sorta veers off into this discussion which eventually loops back around to the very beginning recursively.

This is a fascinating example of the kind of gap or blockage that Iser is interested in. The story is to a Christian audience one of the most familiar, and thus it is tempting to fall into the illusion that the narrative will continue along familiar lines with, simply, some values reversed, creating a consistent new position. Instead, however, our anticipation of narrative continuity is foiled and we're presented instead with a radical new direction for the narrative to take, driven by a character who never appears in the canonical text at all.

I'm less interested in the intentionality of this swerve in its original context as I am in the readerly effect of this swerve for me in the present day. Its effects on me now, with my particular repertoire of familiar tropes, is profound. As a narrative and as a holy text, this works through, essentially, shock value--not shock driven by edgy content but shock driven by the narrative dramatically upending my assumptions. I find that it's like getting doused with cold water. It forces this whole new way of engaging with the text.

This might be one of the ways in which The Invisibles and Homestuck as avant garde texts carry the same sensibility of Gnostic scripture read in the present day. Core to Gnosticism of course is the assumption that the teachings we have been given are lies produced by agents of the Archons who rule this world. Isn't this the assumption of the Modern text, which constantly finds ways to make visible the gaps in our knowledge and the limitations of our beliefs, through avant-garde techniques? Again, I'm not suggesting this is something originally intended in the texts in some way, but it's impossible for me to not see a parallel as a kind of post-modern reader between the way characters like Sophia and Norea take over familiar narratives and the way avant-garde texts introduce metatextual elements to challenge the very process of reading.

Our Sentence Is Up

I'm struck by the parallelism of the end of Homestuck and the end of The Invisibles, both comics in which essentially every side gets what they want, and the structure of the narrative itself collapses dramatically.

In Homestuck we can see this in the way both the heroes and the villain have their apotheosis in parallel, Caliborn ascending and becoming a being capable of the kind of destruction he's always longed for just as the kids finally take the step into a new world free of the game's malign influence. This ending is challenging because it flies in the face of our understanding of what a narrative should look like, but this, despite what many in the fandom continually insist, doesn't make it bad, just, you know, avant-garde and artistically intriguing. The ending forces a recontextualization of what has come before in search of consistency. And I think it is quite possible to find that consistency, in an understanding of Paradox Space as the creation of all sorts of different vectors of agency and desire combining to form a subjective reality. And Caliborn, in the end, wants us to remember one thing:


The Invisibles concludes with the panels of the comic dissolving, eaten away by the effect of two realities splitting apart and humanity ascending into a higher state of being. The last few images are of Dane's final dialogue, as even the boundary between image and text become one. Making sense of this ending is tricky, and not something I'm going to attempt tonight, but this ending, like Homestuck's, asks us to reconsider the very assumptions underpinning our comic reading process.

At the very least, the last panel demands that we reread the last utterance in a new way. The closeup on the final word and period is a visual recontextualizer, providing information that, as Fish has it, helps us alter our sense of how we should understand the word "sentence." The pun here is that sentence can both mean a complete grammatical utterance, and a punishment for a crime. The close up transforms the final phrase into a kind of liminal, vibrating entity that occupies two positions at once, and this strange liminality demands we consider once more the other content of the comic and the way that language is positioned as a kind of force of control.

What I want to suggest with all this is merely that when we are confronted with strange texts like this, certainly in a Gnostic context but more broadly as well, it's worthwhile to consider what the texts are doing and why, rather than merely writing them off as bad writing. It's through being opened up by such texts, being read by them, that we come to understand ourselves better, and closing that off can only make us like Caliborn: stunted in our refusal to consider new possible ways of being.

And Homestuck in particular I think opens up some pretty incredible space where the reader enters the text...

But for that, you're going to have to read A Bodyless and Timeless Persona.

I will be releasing the book through my Patreon for $5 backers on Wednesday, August 3, at which point it will be possible for backers at lower levels to read the final article, "Is There A Text In This Classpect?" as well. Along with the book, backers at the $5 level have access to other cool stuff like the original Krita files used to compose the cover, and three hours of podcast material covering some of the articles in the collection.

And, of course, you also have access to my previous collections, My Superpower is Manpain! and Neighquiem for a Dream.

Let me know if you like this experimental article format, and remember to check in Wednesday for the book release!

1 comment:

  1. That article helped me in ways i cannot describe. Thank you for writing that.


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