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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.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Junetopia

When Andrew Hussie canonized a transgender character in response to a fan finding a Toblerone he hid in a cave, it was more than just a weird stunt. It was a piece of revolutionary performance art, and an affirmation of a new model for fandom.





If you haven't heard, the Homestuck character formerly known as John Egbert is now trans, and goes by "June". The reason for this is because someone found the toblerone pack that creator Andrew Hussie hid in a cave, and in return he granted June Egbert canonicity as a mystical boon.

Well, that's not quite right.

I think the toblerones were actually in some ruins NEAR a cave.

That's the basic outline, though, and it lines up, in a bizarre dream logic sort of way, with the general plan for Homestuck's future. Homestuck has always been a heavily collaborative project, with music and art coming from a wide range of fans. The story's semi-canon continuation in the form of the games Hiveswap, Friendsim, and Pesterquest, and the novel The Homestuck Epilogues, were all contributed to by Andrew Hussie, but to a large extent written and directed by other people. 

This is just the start, according to an enormous essay sent into the Perfectly Generic Podcast to be read on air. That was pretty bizarre from my perspective, because I happened to be a guest on the podcast on the day Hussie wrote in, and his essay largely backs up a claim I've made for a while now: that the Epilogues are a metafictional call to action for the fandom to produce art of their own, to respond in various ways to the often difficult content of the story. I really need to stress, though, that I had no idea the statement was coming, and it felt, at the time, like some sort of bizarre performance art that I'd been caught up in... which I guess, basically, it was. And that seems to be the way the official materials of Homestuck will be produced from now on, at least to an extent. A goal for What Pumpkin moving forward is to empower fans. Toblerone Quest and the officialization of June Egbert is one particularly silly instance of that.

It's silly, but it's also serious, a kind of game Hussie is playing with the fandom, with serious import. It's pretty obvious that the officialization of June was more than just a spur of the moment decision. I also doubt quite a bit that it's just a "joke" or "Hussie acknowledging a headcanon", as many on Reddit insisted. Hussie showed immediate interest in the June Egbert interpretation as it took off in the wake of the Epilogues, even providing pieces of evidence to Pesterquest director Aysha U. Farah: namely, the Trickster Mode image early in the comic of a sprite of Vriska modified to look like John. This became the June Egbert template. Tons of people involved with What Pumpkin have enthusiastically thrown themselves into the reading, and Kate Mitchell themself has strongly advocated the reading's textual support, proclaiming that "June is inevitable". To me, that doesn't exactly scream "it's just a headcanon."

No, even if we're unsure of future canonicity, I still wouldn't call this a "headcanon". I'd describe this as a "reading" or "interpretation." This isn't just a nice fantasy about the text that exists sort of orthagonal to canon, but something that informs our understanding of the text and its messages grounded in textual details. This might seem odd, since there's not a lot of overt "evidence of transgenderism" in the comic, at least not of the stereotypical kind. Dave pontificates at length about gayness to the point of it being an obvious fixation, but John doesn't go on at length about wearing dresses or having boobs or whatever. I actually at first wrote this off as just a headcanon--one I supported because, well, trans everything, but not one I assumed there was a lot of textual support for.

Then I reread Homestuck.

It turns out that John DOES fixate on gender, maybe on par with Dave's fixation on sexuality. John simply fixates on masculinity, adopting absurdly stereotypical ideas about its performance and accouterments, inspired in part by popular culture, and by the stereotypical behavior of his father which he must live up to after his father's murder. John avoiding grappling with gender directly parallel's Dave's repression of Bro's abuse, Rose's reluctance to deal with Mom's alcoholism, Karkat's hyper-performance of quadrant relationships when he gravitates towards cross-quadrant relationships himself, and perhaps most strikingly Roxy's hyper-performance of stereotypical femininity, repressing their complex gender feelings and profound attraction to their "best bud" Jane. John confronts a model bourgeois social order in which something as radical as having your name or gender changed seems unthinkable, and responds by repressing feelings really hard. John is a character who likes to know who the good guys and bad guys are. John notoriously tends to do whatever people tell him to do.

John is exactly the kind of person who struggles to understand why they're so unhappy and unfulfilled, why they can't seem to do more than lie around their house feeling shitty. It couldn't be something gender related, after all. If I was REALLY transgender, one might think to one's hypothetical self, surely I'd have absolute, definitive proof! And I've sunk all this effort into learning how to groom facial hair!

And yet, there are slip-ups, moments where an interest in exploring other possibilities shines through, though often in a confused and conflicted form. There is, most prominently, the tutelage of John under Vriska. The "June" name comes from an exchange between the two characters, and Vriska literally dresses June up in her own outfit, which June basically seems to be into. This sequence is followed by June tricking Vriska into referring to her as "Mr. Anderson," a reference to the movie The Matrix, which is now generally read as a trans allegory, due to its directors both coming out as trans women. "Mr. Anderson" is, notably, how the villain of the movie refers to the protagonist, refusing to recognize the new name "Neo." But, as with John, the trans reading is buried, obscured, something only addressed sideways. That doesn't make it less trans, it just makes it trans in a way that's familiar to some people who transition later in life, people who don't fit the model of "I've always known" or "born this way". It's not hard to see why people attracted to the June Egbert reading sometimes read Vriska herself as transgender, attempting to further June's transition as an exercise in vicarious wish fulfillment.

Through this lens, June's story mirrors Homestuck and the Epilogues as a whole, enriching the overall work--which is probably why it's already receiving subtle nods from the Pesterquest team, such as Courtney Brendle's depiction of a teenage Rose painting John's nails. The story of June parallels the overall arc of Homestuck's kids and their struggle to make a transcendental escape from bullshit systems and narratives. June suffered in the old world, but she can't figure out, in the absence of a community to support her or stories to help her understand her own condition, how to build a different world for herself. The tradition of all dead Homestuck universes weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Reading her as trans, and asserting the possibility of a June Egbert who appears in official media (though, not necessarily "canonical" media in the sense of being the one, true timeline) is therefore an optimistic fantasy about being able to, even in your 20s or 30s, realize that there's something fundamentally shitty about the way you've been living, and change it.

Toblerone Quest's form therefore weirdly parallels its contents. The June Egbert narrative is one of a character breaking through her learned complacency about the order of the world. In some iterations, this breakthrough--this hatching of an egg--is a happy, positive event, but in others, such as the story Godfeels, it is a desperate struggle to overcome the weight of assumption and assert a trans character's right to exist. Toblerone Quest, as a strange piece of performance art that flies in the face of how continuity "should" be made, is also a break with our learned complacency about the order of the world, just on the level of art and audience-author interplay.

What's more, this use of weird performances that invite (or impose) audience participation to break through complacency isn't a new strategy at all. A variety of theatrical traditions, tracing back to folks like Antonin Artaud and the Dadaists, conceive of performance as a way of rattling people out of the alienation of modern capitalist culture. Probably the most famous and influential of these traditions comes from Guy Debord and the Situationists in midcentury France, and Toblerone Quest is a great example of their processes of rerouting ("detournement") and drifting ("dérive"). (If you look up these terms, you'll usually find them untranslated, but that strikes me as obscure and pretentious, so I'm just going to use an English equivalent in the rest of this article.)

Rerouting involves taking existing structures, traditions, or images, and subverting them in various ways. This doesn't mean just inverting them, but making something new: Situationist leader Guy Debord uses the example of the satanic "Black Mass" as something that just inverts the Catholic Mass without actually changing the structure. Rerouting is more like an anarchic game--say, determining canon by leaving a toblerone in a cave for someone to find. It's not an inversion of the way fans and media creators usually interact, but rather something much weirder and goofier.

Drifting involves building a "psychogeography," a mix of subjective and objective observations about a space that you gain by moving outside your normal path. Rather than just walking from your apartment to the store, for example, you might deliberately wander down a series of back alleys and make note of what you find there, or use a shopping center in some way it wasn't intended. Or, you might appropriate a cave for a magical trans-formation quest. Or, you might take a bunch of discord messages sent to you by Andrew Hussie, print them in a limited run zine, and leave them at a small book shop, prompting the fandom to collect and (hopefully) circulate them.

At their best, these processes of rerouting and drifting can transform our engagement with the world into a strange kind of free play. One of my favorite examples of this is the Circle Line parties that the anarchitect collective the Space Hijackers used to throw. Building portable bar and dj tech into suitcases, the Hijackers, true to their name, would take over the Circle Line subway in London and ride the loop a few times, partying hard the whole while. The goal was partly to have a party, but also partly "to destroy any previous ideas as to how to operate within a train, and what a train is used for. By having a party we wanted to corrupt peoples future experience of the Circle Line, as the memory of the party will recurr each time they use the train."

The aim of the Space Hijackers, the Situationist International, and a number of other groups using related strategies were typically utopian, reaching toward a new social and individual order. It's no coincidence that the Situationists, as well as a number of similar groups, developed their methodology right before the revolution of 1968. In fact, a number of groups saw 68 as the culmination of their work, the ultimate rerouting of public life! It's also no coincidence that many of these movements--the Situationists' rival group GRAV, the Community Arts movement in the UK in the 70s, the Dadaists and Surrealists--were fascinated with game designs. Their games were often meant to disrupt our perceptions, or suggest types of collaborative or revolutionary activity as opposed to competition.

This is how I see Toblerone Quest: as a kind of utopian and collaborative game. 

I've seen sentiments to the effect that strange eboys distributing toblerones is no basis for a system of franchise governance. I'm actually sympathetic to that. I am, after all, working on a large scale guide to creating shared world fiction, and, spoiler alert, I actually think something like a parliamentary system is a pretty good idea for a large scale shared world project. It's true that if canon was determined just by who got to the toblerone first, that could result in some shitty scenarios, like people canonizing transphobic things instead of trans-affirming ones.

Except, that's not... really what happened? At all? Andrew didn't determine from the outset that whoever found the toblerones would literally be the new Andrew Hussie. In that sense, yeah, his response was what you might call "a joke". Or, it's what you might call a game, not a game bound by specific rules of play but a game of absurd pretend. And one of the nice things about a game like that is if a player is being an asshole, neither Andrew nor anyone else are obligated to keep playing the game with them. It's weird to me that this obviously critical aspect of consent has eluded a number of commentators!

That strikes me as an eminently sensible way of running an art practice, which is a real different thing from running a franchise. It's a way of producing experiences dynamically, as a collaborative performance with other people. Yeah, there are some down sides, in that such a performance is by nature temporally and geographically limited, but that's just... any art form that isn't distributed through Netflix and Amazon. I don't quite understand the portrayal of this as a mark of privilege or the dominant cliques in the fandom always getting their way, when in reality a random person with 200 followers who just happened to be in the area saw Hussie's post about leaving toblerones in the wilderness, and went out to pick one up, and then had a fun twitter interaction that cemented a popular and well founded queer reading of the story.

As a rerouting and drifting, it's effective because it breaks with normal behavior, use of the geography, and assumptions about our lives--most prominently, assumptions about how art gets made in a highly corporate-dominated mass media context. It's true that a participatory performance piece requires that the participants have the time and energy to engage and be physically and mentally present. This was true of the Situationists and their fellow travelers as well, and my source for a lot of what I've said about them, Claire Bishop's Artificial Hells, is premised on the idea that participatory art isn't always as egalitarian as it seems. The Situationists, for example, could be real elitist pricks, toward the public and toward their fellow artists! But that problematization of the work they did doesn't undermine a simple fact: this kind of play is fun! Its limitations are part of its point. It looks out toward a hard to grasp utopian future where art production is a kind of weird game we play together, and if we're not there yet, it prompts us to consider what it would take to get to that world.

This creative utopia recalls others. I've talked about utopias quite a bit in my analysis of Solarpunk, Who Killed The World?, but those are utopias built from the rubble. There's other more hospitable, playful examples we could point to. Iain M Banks gives us The Culture, a transhuman interstellar collective where, their needs having been provided for by the AIs that organize society, people are free to self actualize. Jon Bois gives us the world of 17776, where humanity has simply stopped aging, and in the effective absence of death have invented new ways of amusing themselves--largely, through football.

In these stories, the authors ask how we might spend our time if we weren't preoccupied struggling for survival and worrying about the world ending. That's, of course, pretty much what the Homestuck Epilogues are about. There, though, we see the characters struggle to imagine a new reality, still caught in the patterns of the old. In Candy, in particular, the characters fall into the old gender, sexuality, and familial structures of the old world, with fairly disastrous results. For goodness sake, John starts the comic bemoaning how lonely and unfulfilled he feels in Suburban Washington, and then after the game ends recreates the suburbs exactly with a bunch of consorts playing the part of his suburban neighbors! John is miserable, but can't envision an alternative.

The most daring character in this context is Roxy, who by the end of both timelines has started to imagine a different way of being. In one, Roxy tries heterosexual monogamy and domesticity and concludes that some things work for her (bearing and raising a son) and others don't (being married to a sadsack like John; identifying strongly as a woman). In another, he builds a relationship with Callie, and the two begin exploring their gender identities and sexualities, consciously critiquing and discarding elements of the old world that just don't apply to them.

When characters in 17776 invent games of football that last decades,
When characters in the Culture novels freely transition between male and female and back again multiple times over their centuries long lives,
When Andrew Hussie hides a toblerone in a cave to play a strange game with his fandom,
When John Egbert, already middle aged, realizes that she'd rather be June Egbert,
These fantasies present us with a utopian possibility.

They take the traditions of our world and reroute them creatively to give us glimpses of a very different status quo. It's one that as I write this I'm having trouble articulating myself. Like June, I struggle to see beyond the systems I learned by rote, whether it's the gendered behaviors and physical form I learned to live with, or the assumptions about how franchises treat canonicity and the relationship between fan and author. 

I suspect that some of the negative takes on Toblerone Quest similarly struggle to see beyond the very real immediate struggle for survival. We are surrounded by competitively structured games, which mirror our own need on social media to clout chase and jockey for attention and the monetary support that comes with it. Some of the lateral violence that afflicts queer communities stems from these zero sum games, as people secure their own position by denouncing their fellows for not performing their queerness properly. June Egbert has received some of this, as people claim her narrative here is "bad representation" because John is a "cis character" being, I guess, force femmed by Andrew Hussie and the fandom. Or something.

But like June, I look at the life I'm living, and can only conclude that it's not making me happy. My process of transition, like my process of coming to understand this reading of Homestuck, has been a frustratingly slow and messy struggle. The history of participatory art is similarly littered with failures and half-formed experiments that a cynic might dismiss as a failed revolution. And yet, we keep pushing forward and attempting to break through the wall of complacency. Something like June Egbert, Toblerone Quest, and the elated fandom response, inspires me to imagine something different, and that might be the best endorsement of an art practice that you could hope for.
I hear your heart beating in your chest
The world slows till there's nothing left
Skyscrapers look on like great, unblinking giants
In those heavy days in June
When love became an act of defiance
--Florence + The Machine, "June"

This Has Been

Junetopia

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2 comments:

  1. Fantastic article!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Spider Church supports this interpretation, and also this utopian vision more broadly.

    ReplyDelete

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