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.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Nasty, Brutish, and Short: The Promised Neverland and Human Nature

The nightmarish final boss of hit manga The Promised Neverland is... philosopher Thomas Hobbes??

Content warning for major late manga spoilers for The Promised Neverland, cannibalism, gore, monarchy, body horror.

Take a look at this rough beast. A crowned king with a miter and scepter striding across the land, a colossus. This is Thomas Hobbes's LEVIATHAN. It's a bit hard to tell from this picture, the first picture that illustrates his book of the same name, but the Leviathan made up of a mass of people. That's not just some people, some collection of various guys, but The People, the whole collection of folks that make up a governed population. In other words, parsing out the symbolism, the governed make up the body of the ruler--the ruler can only rule through agreement with the governed.


Hobbes is a monarchist writing during the English revolution. Hobbes loves monarchy. In fact Hobbes believes that the monarchy should be constitutional--that agreement with the governed--but that constitution can't ever be overturned and replaced. "Consent of the Governed" turns out to be a bit of a bait and switch. Still, for Hobbes the ruler embodies the state and the whole of the people. The Leviathan is this big squirmy mass of all the members of a nation, coming together to establish authority. We need that colossus, Hobbes says, because it is our fundamental and material human nature to fuck each other up.

Without the Commonwealth we'd all simply, ah what's the expression...

Eat each other alive.

The Promised Neverland is a story about kids being raised in an orphanage which is actually a farm for tasty tasty brains which are fed to alien monsters. The protagonists of the story--Emma, Ray, and Norman--stumble on the truth and spend the course of the anime adaptation scheming to escape the farm with as many of their fellow kids as possible. People get eaten, there's a ton of mind games, it's a tense and suspenseful horror story. It's actually really worth reading, and the manga just wrapped up, so if you want to go pick it up quick before reading this piece I honestly highly recommend it, though it shouldn't be strictly necessary for understanding the article.

In fact, it might be worthwhile because I'm not gonna talk much about that first stretch of the story covered in the anime adaptation. I'm more interested in a much later part of the manga. This is a shonen, sorta, so of course the threats have to escalate over time. The demons that eat the kids have sort of a... corporate monarchy. The noble houses ruling this demonocracy each have a series of corporate farms that they own and operate on a monopoly basis. At the top of the hierarchy is the royal family, which remains strong by literally eating the best food. Which, remember, is kids.

All this works because of demon biology. Demons have a super unstable genetic code. They take on genes from whatever they eat and only have human-like intelligence because they eat humans. Literally the only way they can maintain a civilization is through human flesh. Without it they simply eat each other alive. A famine is also essentially a zombie apocalypse for them.

Eating the best meat makes demons more directly powerful. On top of that, the Royal Family enjoys other perks. Like, most demons can regenerate their bodies unless their single core resting within their central eye is destroyed. Already a formidable challenge for humans to face! But the royals sometimes have two cores.

Now, all that largely serves to drive forward the shonen structure of the story. Late in the comic, the kids attempt to wipe out the noble houses and the royal family, including the current queen Legravalima. She's an incredibly powerful foe and they need to employ all sorts of dramatic tactics and countertactics and so on, but ultimately it ends in disaster upon the reveal of Legravalima's hidden second core. In shonen fashion, Legravalima turns out to be a two stage boss fight. But what's really interesting is the specific form this disastrous revelation takes:

Look familiar? Look a little... Hobbesian?

Now, the battle itself goes down like this, roughly:

The kids successfully manipulate a disgraced former demon clan into working with them to attack the palace during a big festival. Everyone dies. The wild clan dies, the noble houses die, everyone dies. In particular the demons do a lot of cannibalism while they die, cause remember that's actually an evolutionary advantage for them. They absorb all the nutrients for their rapid regeneration and mutation and also get the benefits of all the good good human meat the noble families have been high on the hog with. Indeed, the disgraced clan even devours and replaces members of each noble house beforehand, a story beat that deserves its own article on symbolism, probably.

And then it turns out that Legravalima has that cool second core, and she turns into a mass off writhing flesh that eats damn well everything, just gobbles it all up. So you get this incredible image of practically the entire fucking dead cast of this crazy story all sort of emerging from the flesh of this giant monstrosity. A ton of the major players have just been funneled upward, through the nobility, through the dissident clan, and finally into Legravalima's body as she devours her allies and enemies. 

And then the big fucked up flesh cocoon opens and this regal and faceless entity walks out and triumphantly starts telling everyone how happy she is to eat them. Cool shit!

Ok so what's really exciting to me about this is the way the queens transformation makes really literal the abstract image of the leviathan colossus. She is quite literally made up of the polity she rules over because humans and demons alike are part of her body.

Remember I said that it was a little hard to tell that the leviathan was made of many people? That's cause they've all got their backs turned to the audience. That's not the only printing of leviathan though and the other is even more strikingly similar to the queen:

A body made up of the heads of all the people the state has consumed. Fuck yeah. I like that first image though because it reverses things from the queen. Faceless subjects making up a sovereign vs a faceless sovereign where the subjects are visible. This strikes me as meaningful because, yeah, for Hobbes the monarch is a person, but he's much more significantly a force and an institution. That institution in Promised Neverland is one of relentless consumption that goes beyond identity. It's just a raw force that exists to devour.

So, Promised Neverland's leviathan can be read as a deconstruction of Hobbes's. For Hobbes the citizens agreed to an essential pact: they gave up their individual autonomous freedom--on condition everyone else gives up their rights too--to the sovereign. That means that by definition it's a one way ticket to monarchy town. (Monarchy town is what the cool kids call the "Commonwealth"). You can't say the ruler isn't doing what's best for you. After all, you said yourself that you would give up your right to make your own decisions! And, what, you want to go back on it now? You want some sort of "right of revolution"?

Meat needs to learn its place.

And that's the problem with Hobbes. Our guy is a materialist. He's analyzing not from some higher cosmic spirit but from the simple realities of survival, desire, and power on earth. But that power only extends from the personal following to the political in this super abstracted way--we're like this as humans therefore we should get together and form a government like this. But the actual creation of governments follows just as much from the material! It doesn't abruptly transcend into the realm of philosophy but stems from historical contingency and material conditions and contradictions in a particular era!

It doesn't matter whether the queen is a constitutional monarch or whatever, it matters that the ruling class of this demon world have erected a system of governance that can maintain itself through force and economic control. All this talk of "right of revolution" and so on is beside the point. What matters is that the common demon peasant or proletariat class is under constant threat of the plague of starvation and degeneration, and are suppressed by the military force of the state.

What's so exciting about Promised Neverland is that all this is explicit. Hell, it's a plot point and the fundamental question that the protagonists grapple with. If the material circumstances were different in this world, Emma asks, could we humans and demons have been friends?

She's asking that specifically because early in the story she meets up with Musica, a demon who's living in exile in the wild, and she and her companion sonju befriend and help the kids. Musica has what's called "evil blood", which means her genetics don't change with what she eats, and if she doesn't eat humans she is still able to maintain her sapience.

No, think for a minute why such a seemingly beneficial mutation might be called "evil blood".

If you thought "that sounds like propaganda", congratulations you're achieving correct levels of cynicism. So, Musica's been around for a few hundred years, and the last time she was active she attempted to take on this Messianic role, saving the common people during one of their periodic horrible famines. The ruling class responded by murdering everyone who consumed her "evil blood". This is explicitly because without the threat of starvation they would have no way to maintain their monopoly on the means of production (of tasty humans) and consequently their position of power.

So the story is very aware of the material realities of governance. Part of that reality is the realization that the demons making up the worker and peasant class are also exploited, victims of a system that leaves them in a state of hunger and violent struggle. It's not that without governance they would revert to eating each other alive, it's that the governing body maintains a state of perpetual near crisis so that chaos can be imposed if the populace ever threatens revolt. Hobbes gets it backwards. Barbarism is not what the state comes into being to prevent, it is the tool the state uses to maintain its necessity.

So in this context Legravalima's design is a fantastic subversion and reversal of the leviathan. She's made up of the citizenry the polity, but it's in fact all the people she and the aristocracy have consumed! She's this writhing mass of the whole system of exploitation. Having eaten even the rest of the aristocrats, she is the perfect bloated nightmare image of the Absolute Monarch. You want a monarch immune from the "right of revolution" cause she's made up of the whole body of the populace, well, here you have it! Like, literally she's too powerful because of everything she consumed, and her mere presence strips Ray and Emma of their autonomy, freezing them in place in terror of her authority.

Well, until it all becomes too much to contain. You know that thing in anime where people are like "you're already dead"? Well, if you think about it, that's really the statement of dialectical materialism. The contradictions already present within a system create states of crisis that bring bring it down and give rise to new states of being in a revolutionary upheaval.

Monarchy, you are already dead.

What a stunningly literal example of the contradictions of a system boiling over unable to be contained! The queen literally dissolves into gooey ruin because she attempts to devour more than her body has room for. Badass. I love it. 

Admittedly it's not like the people then actively rise up in revolution. The text isn't you know perfectly marxist-leninist or whatever. But I think this is a fantastic (in both meanings of the word) visualization of how the materialism of history trumps the materialism of Hobbes and his "human nature". Even demons with Musica's help are able to overcome their "innate" need to eat humans. Who knows, maybe without her they could've arrived at other technical solutions. Earth is in the year 2045 or so, so like, probably they've got stem cell tech that could just grow artificial blood cells. That's not important though. What's important is the story's recognition that if it wasn't in the material interests of the ruling classes to allow that technology to become widespread they simply would not do it.

Oh and in case you miss the subtext, the story has its ultimate opponent, a human named James Ratri, straight up say: look, you think you can escape to earth and everything will be fine, but humans are no fucking different than demons, you dumb babies, our world is a mess too!

When the kids actually get to earth, though, it turns out that after decades of collapse, contagion, and climate disaster the earth has unified under one world government. There is no more concept of "immigrants". The internal contradictions of earth led to the exact kind of civil war that the heroes were able to prevent on the demon world. And in the end a new system was instated not cause everyone got together and voted to have a King but because that upheaval transformed the material conditions.

Like I don't think this is a Marxist parable of anything like that. It just happens to be a solidly told story that really uses the surreal allegorical potential of the comics medium to go to some exciting places while always keeping an eye on the way its lore is grounded in the material. Doing that means grounding its morality too. You can't say everything is the result of material conditions and then simply commit a genocide. You always have to be aware of the intrinsic potential humanity even in the demons. 

We don't have a capricious demon-god sitting outside of time and space willing to grant us ironic and conditional wishes though--a core part of the manga's resolution. If we want to change our conditions we have to do it ourselves. We've got to make it so the leviathan trying to digest us can't swallow its food.

This Has Been

Nasty, Brutish, and Short

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