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.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Room For You Inside: Pink Floyd In Quarantine

You barricade yourself in your hotel room; it becomes a fascist rally. You write a concept album about your alienation; it becomes the Thatcherite Revolution. You live in modern luxury; it becomes a mad haunted house. This is a story about Pink Floyd's The Wall and the culmination of half a century of No Alternative.

Content warnings for discussion of quarantine, isolation, apartment horror, drug abuse, mental breakdowns, neoliberalism and its brother, fascism.

The great insight of Pink Floyd's middle and late period output, and Roger Waters's solo work, is that a poetic and also a very practical resonance hums between personal catastrophe and political catastrophe. Margaret Thatcher's politics of mass cruelty twines around and into The Wall's narrative of a rock star's descent into alienation and fascist violence, most notably. And, of course, in deep, foundational terms, the band's exploration of social institutions that seem mad--war, the record industry, capitalist excess, and even the relentless crush of time as filtered through the "quiet desperation" of British culture--is inextricably linked to the psychological collapse of their own founding member, Syd Barrett.

To teenage me, Barrett was the Rosetta Stone that unlocked Pink Floyd's surreal, esoteric, and just plain weird music. It feels like that's the case for a lot of fans, or at least it was in the 2000s online, scrounging Lore from random cd reviews, people breathlessly passing around stories about how Barrett, guitarist and driving creative force of the early psychedelic rock version of Floyd, "flamed out," losing his mind on too many concerts and too many drugs. And of course there was the story of Barrett wandering into a Pink Floyd recording session years later, unrecognizable to his band mates, an event apparently traumatic for his friend Waters. "See Dark Side of the Moon is a concept album about all the things in modern life that drive people mad," I'd explain to my bored teen friends with the fervency of any autistic kid with a Special Interest. It took me a while to connect the lore of Barrett to the wider sociopolitical context Pink Floyd were recording in: not just the madness of "war" but the madness of Vietnam and the Faulklands; not just the madness of "money" but the disintegration of the post war social safety net and the tightening screws of Thatcherism and Reaganism.

This seems pretty familiar to me. Both the election of Trump in 2016 and the election of Boris in 2019 were preceded for me by catastrophic (inter)personal events, traumatic and schismatic moments of abuse and removal of safety that I started putting myself back together from just in time for the world to break apart dramatically again, on a much broader scale. Very "as above so below" shit, all things considered. Hell even more regional municipal elections seemed to follow the pattern. My own walled off room of decay, my apartment in Toronto, completed its final cataclysmic decay with the collapse of my physical and mental health, and my roommate's disappearance down a black hole of alcohol and coke (taking a bunch of my money with him, inevitably), toward the end of the year in 2018. This was right around the time Doug Ford was elected as premier of Ontario. As I crashed traumatically out of Canada, ripping apart my life, behind me this newly elected right wing goon erected a billboard at the US-Canada border. 


These political coincidences crop up in many biographies, of course. Enough catastrophes happen every year to make it trivially easy to link the personal and political in this way. Yet, I don't think these links are experienced as coincidence but as narrative, and given the deeply personal nature of madness, we should explore rather than explain away these links. The parallel development of Syd Barrett's madness with the upheaval of '68, followed by capital's long, brutal campaign to crush dissent and any form of meaningful power, is coincidence (serendipity) and also coincidence (synchronicity). It becomes a profoundly meaningful coincidence one within the art of Pink Floyd's remaining members--David Gilmour, Richard Wright, Nick Mason, and Roger Waters.

And why shouldn't it, after all? Barrett's problems were, as the album Wish You Were Here lays out in bitter detail, exacerbated by a music industry culture of exploitation, greed, and excess, masquerading as rebellion. My problems, and indeed the problems of my abusers, were exacerbated by a neoliberal order that pits people violently against each other in the absence of robust social systems of support. Pink's problems in The Wall, and the problems of his abusers as explored in The Final Cut, stem from unaddressed cyclical trauma wrought by the seemingly inescapable cycle of war. There are real, material connections between individual madness and collective disaster, though they aren't always dumbly causal.

There's more. We could look at the life of leftist folk musician Phil Ochs, whose own psychotic break with reality was preceded by the crushing of both protesters at the Democratic National Convention in 68, and the violent overthrow of Chile's leftist government. Or we could look to other fiction, like Joseph Heller's classic Catch 22, which uses a fragmentary style to explore the parallels between the personal madness and brutality of soldiers and the bureaucratic madness and brutal stupidity of the US war machine. In fact, while this linking of personal and political madness has fallen out of favor in favor of a medicalized, individualized story of mental illness, this sense of madness as social is incredibly old and still boils away under the surface of our clean neoliberal conceptualization.

It would of course be useful if it could simply go away. This is one of the foundational great projects of neoliberalism, a political philosophy developed in the wake of the unrest of the 60s where the free markets of early liberal capitalist philosophers like Adam Smith would be let loose to rampage freely, and we would all understand that, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, "there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families." Madness, under neoliberalism, is a "you" problem. There is no other way to respond it beyond exhorting people to fend for themselves--"no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours."

Of course, that's not typically how the neoliberal order plays out. The history of neoliberal and libertarian philosophy is one of brutal military and police state repression. In the development of the science of violence, neoliberal leaders like Reagan and Thatcher, or Blaire and Clinton, or Obama and Cameron, appear less like aloof matriarchs and patriarchs gazing down fondly upon children allowed to run free, and more like, say, a guy sitting alone in a destroyed hotel room, recomposing the ruins into a mad fantasy diorama of fascist violence.

It's one of the most arresting images in the film version of The Wall, and it captures something essential about what the film posits is happening not just to Pink's brain but to society as a whole. The Wall is full of surreal images of things being smashed or degraded only to be reconstituted in new, barbaric forms. A cathedral is smashed by a rampaging stone wall to be reconstituted as an abstract neon temple to excess. Humans metamorphose into grotesque animals. Pink himself degenerates into a pink slimy mass before finally clawing the goo off and emerging as a dapper Nazi, all ready to receive a fawning profile in any contemporary news outlet you might choose. The central images of The Wall are of course the titular white brick wall, and a smashing hammer. To a great extent, the neoliberal project was one of smashing, one of Shock Doctrine, where all the old order was broken apart, like a guitar through a tv screen, and then rebuilt in authoritarian forms.

Much of The Wall takes place in this smashed hotel room, and there's something remarkably applicable about that as well. In the visual language of the film, Pink's hotel room is an inaccessible fortress. It is introduced by a weirdly low shot travelling through an empty hallway, the space seemingly vast and inhospitable. The first encroachment on Pink's fortress--a hotel cleaner attempting to open the door--is juxtaposed both with a gate being rammed by wild rock fans, and a desperate charge of the British army across No Man's Land in the second world war. There's a paradox in these contradictions: they bring together multiple analogous experiences, and yet the experience they parallel is one of isolation and siege. Pink in his paranoia and alienation takes Thatcher's exhortation that we must first take care of ourselves to its ultimate extreme, building a mad bunker from which he can defend against any attack in any form, whether that be violence or the terror of human connection.

I have spent most of the last few years locked in rooms with my computer while the world, and my immediate geography, goes mad around me. In Toronto I found myself in an apartment I nicknamed Murnau Haus. The floor on the second story sagged weirdly, the electrical wiring was touchy at best, the walls and ceiling did not meet at right angles. By the end of my time there, an infestation of rats had chewed multiple three to six inch holes in the walls. It was a place that felt profoundly sick, the architecture seeming to reflect my own increasing desperation, pain, isolation, and paranoia. Murnau Haus melted around me while the rest of my life also disintegrated under a battery of trauma and chronic pain, and the neoliberal order that had so fully smashed up the modest social safety nets and institutions of collective power was itself smashed up and reconstituted as a new fascist order. Oh, and also there was a one armed alcoholic in the basement who claimed to teach piano to young girls, and who would spend several hours boiling chicken hearts until the whole house smelled like them.

This is all, of course, profoundly stupid in addition to being profoundly traumatizing and insane. Part of these experiences of madness are elements of absurd weirdness. It's hard to talk about my traumas, both because of the terror that opening that particular door for public inspection will expose me to further violence, and partly because they sound like dumb fake nonsense. Maybe I needn't worry. We're all getting real familiar with the unison of trauma and dipshittery, surely. Within the Anglosphere at least, fascism seems to come hand in hand with the most grotesque buffoonery. And hell, we're all familiar with the madness of isolation too, I guess! You wanna know what's REAL absurd is I wrote the initial draft of this article in December 2019! This whole project PREDATES the Covid 19 pandemic! Insert Roger Waters deranged laugh here, I guess!

But what really fascinates me about my own experiences is how tied the feeling of social and psychological isolation is with the sense of being trapped in a haunted house where the very architecture is in some way going mad. Pink's hotel room is a perfect symbol of such a descent, infrastructure that perversely transforms and becomes nightmarish and alien as Pink's own mind becomes a bunker. The Wall and The Final Cut repeatedly make this comparison, with The Final Cut's title track describing an outsider navigating Pink's mental fortress in great detail before finally being gunned down, unable to make it through Pink's defenses.

These bunkers are haunted by ghosts. The surreal no man's land and ruins that Kid Pink wanders through in various sequences of the film are haunted by the "bricks in the wall" that helped encourage his state of alienation. Most notably, in an asylum or military hospital of some sort, the young version of Pink comes across the older version of himself:

The most important ghost haunting the bunker is Pink's own ghost. The madness here is circular. The madness here is us.

Haunted house stories are, of course, nothing new. The idea of a place architecturally or geographically mirroring its owner's madness or the madness of the ghost haunting it goes back a very long way, perhaps with roots in legends like that of the Fisher King whose wounding renders the land infertile, or the curse brought down on the city of Thebes by Oedipus's crime of incest. But in The Wall, and increasingly in other stories from the period stretching from the upheavals of the 1960s to the full imposition of neoliberal order in the 80s, madness haunts these places not through the traditional trappings of the Gothic, the cliches of spooky skeletons and long dead ancestors, but through modernity and through society.

The madness that overtakes the titular building in High Rise is a social one, for example. It is, indeed, profoundly class-based, and technologically facilitated. JG Ballard, writing the novel in 1975, and Ben Wheatley, directing a film adaptation in 2015, both are fascinated with the building as a kind of technological infrastructure, totally isolated and self contained. People can and do leave to go to work. And yet, within the building, barbarity, rape, excesses of all sort, and decay reign supreme. Like the hotel hallway, the gulf of the parking lot surrounding the high rise transforms the space into a notional bunker in which madness can take hold.

But wait, there's more! In Shock Treatment, the less successful but incredibly remarkable successor to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the entire town of Denton is transformed into a reality tv set + asylum, and in the dreamlike fluid reality of the movie the "hygiene" of mental health is tied to fast food promotion, American cultural values, and, paradoxically, wild celebration of celebrity and hedonism. In Gremlins 2: The New Batch a hyper-advanced high rise in New York is transformed by the titular gremlins into a similar place of wild abandon, as all of the tools of corporate bureaucratic and technological order are turned on their ostensible masters and the infestation of madness threatens to spill out into the whole city. The crew of the Nostromo are assailed not only by the monstrous freudian Alien but by the machinations of the faceless Weyland-Utani corporation. And, of course, Stanley Kubrick provides multiple examples in this genre, from the war room and the army base in Dr Strangelove, to the spaceship that goes mad in 2001 A Space Odyssey, to the brightly lit modern conveniences of the Overlook Hotel that gush blood and provide luxurious services to a whole host of nightmarish specters.

These stories share a pathology that resonates with me. The are stories about madness, about architectural isolation, about architectures that take on and reflect madness, about the social and economic systems that give rise to madness. They are ghost stories about modernity and the present as much as and often much more than about the past. Some of them are even ghost stories about the future. The future, as Derrida points out in his book on the hauntological, Specters of Marx, is also capable of producing ghosts. They are stories about bunkers. They are stories about being trapped in a space from which there is no escape.

They are stories about how there is no alternative.

I have a theory about why so many of these stories seem to crop up around the 70s and 80s in particular, and it rests on that notion of "there is no alternative". This, of course, was another of the rallying cries of Thatcher, signifying that the unregulated markets of neoliberalism were the only way to order society. It can be seen, as a future ghost, much earlier though, in events like the Kent State Massacre, the struggle with protesters at the Democratic National Convention, the failure of the 68 upheavals across Europe. It returns as a ghost in the policies of Clintonites in the 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union as the last suggestion that some other form of society might be conceivable.

The image that emerges in these stories of the mad bunker reflects this new ideology. The horizons of our political worlds extend only to the edge of our hotel rooms. There is, in fact, no world at all outside the wall. Of course, as a whole history of wars in Vietnam, in the Faulklands, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Iraq again, and on our own streets as a militarized police crushes dissent and maintains race and class division demonstrates, the ghost of an alternative haunts the neoliberal mind, the bunker that has no outside is still always under threat and must be defended with force. Through this, neoliberalism's one permitted alternative begins to manifest in the smashed remains of the bunker: the fascist state.

One of the questions that has haunted me over the last few years is how does compassion give way in ostensibly progressive spaces to abuse, jockeying for power and authority, and madness. Maybe part of it comes from the bargain neoliberalism offers. If you can resolve yourself to building your wall, you can succeed within this social order. Part of the impetus of The Wall's creation was an incident during a Pink Floyd performance where a fan climbed up the metal fence separating the band from the audience. Roger Waters, in a moment of disgust, spit on the fan. Rogers apparently came away from the incident profoundly rattled by the dynamics of power and control there, but not everyone does. If you are already isolated and struggling, and someone points out to you that if you just toss some other poor wretch out of the bunker you'll be a little better off, well. It is a bargain, after all. "'Listen, son,' said the man with the gun, 'there's room for you inside.'"

I struggle profoundly not to build a wall, myself. Every year seems to bring some new fucked up trauma, and inevitably the defenses spring back into action. The fantasies of violence and retribution. The fantasies of just dropping out entirely. The fantasies of becoming the kind of unassailable demi-god that Roger Waters imagines that crazed fan seeing there on stage. The fantasy of becoming the ghost of modernity haunting a house that warps and rots and goes mad around me. It increasingly feels like the whole world is caught up in such fantasies, that there really is no alternative. I keep watching people try to build an alternative, trying to build an alternative myself, only to see it shattered, betrayed, brutally crushed, excised, ignored, derided, over and over and over again.

What I have tried to do is at least map the geography of this mad bunker, if only to understand better how we arrived at this point where there seems to be no outside at all, to our ideology, to our madness. If I could just follow back the ghost of how we got here, I think to myself as I write, maybe I could find a way out.

Isn't this where we came in?

This Has Been

Room For You Inside

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