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 24, 2022

To Watch All My Heroes Sell A Car On TV

As generations age out of our youth valorizing culture, but find no purchase in our political gerontocracy, what form does the art of those too old to rock and roll and too young to die take?

Let me quickly sketch a picture of culture. We have in many ways a profoundly youth-oriented culture of young beautiful action stars and young beautiful pop stars. I'm painting with a broad brush here, so please excuse the generalization and don't pester me with whatever exceptions you're arming yourself with. By a similar token: generally, politics is dominated by a segment of boomers and, astoundingly, a large number of people still hanging onto power with mummified grip from the Silent Generation.

So consider a culture that rapidly discards its young to make room for younger and more beautiful replacements, while not making room for any sort of transition into actual power. Millennials, the very oldest of which are now in their *40s*, have made a foray into the senate: we now hold exactly one seat out of the already appallingly undemocratic 100 seats in the chamber.

This is eerily mirrored in Hollywood, which is overwhelmingly driven by sequels, reboots, and ongoing franchises, often ones pre-dating the birth of a large swath of the audience. Yet: old stars might be trotted out for a cameo (or their likeness resurrected with CGI) but for the most part the rebootquels are dominated by attractive youths. (Attractive youths that, as RS Benedict points out, are remarkably sexless, objects to be looked at but not touched.)

The John Wick movies helpfully defines the contours of the situation: only able to be produced because Keanu Reaves has made so much money and is friends with so many really talented stunt performers and coordinators, the films present an ongoing story of a guy who has aged out of his profession as hit man, but finds himself inescapably sucked back into the vortex of an increasingly incomprehensibly exaggerated hierarchy of assassins, a pawn in a conflict between elderly powerholders. It is notable both for being such an exception in its production and casting, and for capturing something of this strange cultural limbo we find ourselves in.

There are echoes of this from within the cultural machine as well, though the response to The Last Jedi will probably ensure that we'll never get anything like its portrayal of its aging heroes as washed up losers ever again. Luke is sort of a perfect Gen X hero, his ambitions totally disappointed, bitterly sneering at the young people rising up to replace him, crushed by his inability to overcome the corpse legacy that the Jedi traditions have saddled him with. The Force Awakes weirdly recapitulates the original Star Wars, setting up a world after the happy ending, in which the heroes are totally powerless to prevent the events of their story from simply happening all over again. The Last Jedi develops this into one of its central themes: the impotence of Luke and Leia in the face of the logic of empire and the recurring rise of fascism from within the liberal order is mirrored by the impotence not just felt but *anticipated* by Rey and Kylo. Rey desperately wants to believe that she could attain the power to break the cycle; Kylo craves power to rise and seize the institutions he believes he is entitled to.

Luke just wants to drink his blue milk and grill. Luke has given up. Luke is what happens when you take a Rey or a Kylo and just run them through a few decades of disappointment.

Luke is so god damn relatable. No wonder so many people hated seeing themselves and their own objective impotence and obsolescence put on the screen! No wonder Disney has pivoted so completely to telling prequel stories where all your favorite heroes remain young and heroic forever!

Something like Ghostbusters Respookening or whatever the shitting hell the most recent one was called comes across as a bit ridiculous I think precisely because it rings so false. The entire narrative is predicated on the resurrection of a passed on legacy, and indeed the film itself has been portrayed by its director Jason Reitman as an attempt to grapple with a franchise that was "passed on" to him by his father. It's all a bit silly. It's Ghostbusters for goodness sake, not exactly a deep and sentimental film. For its flaws (such as "not being a good movie") the notorious Female Ghostbusters grappled with the film-as-tradition from the perspective most of us share: that of outsiders. Reitman instead exemplifies the incestuous slurry of Hollywood production and the way it resolves the contradiction between the impotence of the new and the unmarketability of the aged: it hands legacy productions on to fresh faced failsons.

The Homestuck Epilogues presented a future for the characters of the most important work of our generation as not remaining forever youthful teenagers but actually becoming adults. This had made many people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move. I was not one of those people. In fact, some of the conversations in the novel about adulthood and continuing to live despite no longer being the center of the narrative helped me get through one of the worst periods of my life. I saw myself reflected in the story in a way that, sure, the teenagers who picked up Homestuck in 2018 in archive form probably found rather alienating.

The critical discourse on the Epilogues, such as it is, seems to have settled into a groove of reiterating what a traumatic experience they were for the fandom, a kind of bomb dropped maliciously on the community, with Homestuck 2 being an attempt to keep performing in the rubble. I find this deeply alienating. I *liked* the Epilogues. Much more than I expected to, in fact: I had, after all, written extensively on how the end of Homestuck was complete and satisfying in itself, cutting off where it does specifically because it represents a gnostic escape by the characters from the prison world of "canon".

I'm glad I entered into the Epilogues with the background of that reading. The Epilogues, most notably Candy, directly and explicitly tangle and muddy the concepts of "narrative", of "canonicity", of "identity", and of "adulthood", all under a broad fascination with how life "should have gone" and has failed to go. The Epilogues open with a specific choice presented to the main character John Egbert, a choice between "meat" or "candy". What these concepts mean for Andrew Hussie feels about as clear as what the "Aura" or the "Historical Materialist" is for Walter Benjamin but broadly they encompass:

🥩 action, plot progression, "canonical" information, combat
🍭 fluff, romance, interpersonal drama, "extracanonical" information.

The narrative forks at this point between the meat and candy timelines, with the Candy timeline falling into a metaphorical (and, it transpires, literal) black hole in the narrative, cut off from any sort of relevance or meaning.

That's at least how it's experienced by John in the Candy timeline, who spends the next couple of decades gradually sliding into miserable alienation, periodically punctuated by impotent rage. Part of his impotence comes from his awareness on a deep metaphysical level that his life is not operating how it "should have gone", that he's been exiled from the timeline where he actually mattered. (In one of the novel's many attempts to problematize its own premise, in the Meat timeline he slowly dies of an alien toxin in the back seat of his dad's car after leading superfluous teenage copies of his friends into battle against the tyrannical narrative god of the original comic.)

So, the ending of Homestuck constitutes an escape from the narrative and the nightmare of having all your most miserable moments laid out as part of the story of your life. It is a fundamentally Gnostic move, a rebellion against a single image of how things "should be" that has been imposed upon the characters by a malevolent patriarchal power whose reach extends through time and space. (This is one of the many ways the story is also deeply queer.) The Epilogues, by popular demand, tell the story of what happens after that escape, putting the characters back into a kind of narrative prison. But this time it's one partly of their own making and perception, a bifurcation that rapidly spun out via fan works like Godfeels, Pumpkin Path, and the Ink Black Appendices into a multitude of alternate, doomed possibilities. Meat and Candy seem particularly interested in a strange tension: to be the hero, to be relevant, is to have awful strife imposed upon you. To be irrelevant is... well, to be irrelevant. Pointless. Powerless.

I've seen people dismiss the Candy timeline as weird and unnecessary. As a 29 year old suffering from chronic pain, living with parents while struggling to work, closeted and still not on HRT, completely cut off from any meaningful political power or even representation in a deeply antidemocratic country, it was obvious to me which of the two timelines most resembled my life.

There is a certain death-cult valorization of the artist suicide in our culture. There's even a club for it, though by definition people like Hendrix or Cobain could only be inducted posthumously. Maybe the Epilogues should have been set a few years later, when John and his companions were 27 rather than 23. While Candy John can't know directly that Meat John dies a slow agonizing death at a young age alongside his teenage friends, the two sides of the story read against each other suggest that on some level the angst the surviving John experiences is precisely the angst of growing up, growing old, *growing out of youthful relevance to a culture which is always hungry for more red meat*. It is the same angst that leads Dirk--who in the Meat timeline orchestrates the catastrophic events that ensure the story will "keep going"--to dramatically commit suicide in the Candy timeline, cut off from his promise of youthful relevance and unwilling to experience the rest of existence as just A Regular Guy.

It is the angst of being too old to rock and roll, and too young to die. Of going through the misery of your teens and early 20s just to watch your heroes sell a car on TV, a life cut off before it can begin and left to just sort of collect dust in long slow decline.

I had, at the point the Epilogues released, taken a long hard look at my life and where it was going and where the world was going and become gradually more and more convinced, each repetition of what had started as an idle thought carving grooves of delusion deeper into my psyche, of this: that I had died at some point while living in Toronto, Canada. Everything after that was just a kind of, I don't know, death delusion? Mistake of the universe forgetting to clean up and garbage collect the variable known as [Deadname] long after [he] ceased to be relevant? Certainly not anything that we could call "Canon."

And then I read the conversation, late in Candy, between John and his estranged ex wife Roxy:

We're just adults, we're not dead.

Huh, I thought.

Well, that's eerily relevant, I thought.

I'm not trying to say that the Epilogues singlehandedly turned my life around. The Epilogues didn't get me on estrogen or get me on an anticonvulsant that gradually healed the damaged nerve in my jaw or the muscle relaxant that helps me keep the pain from flaring up again or get me an apartment away from my parents giving me the courage and space needed to come out to them. They also unfortunately didn't get Bernie Sanders elected and couldn't even fix the comic's fundamentally broken readership and internal labor structure. Fiction isn't magic, and I'd trade all the "representation" in the world for the power to actually fix the dysfunction in our society.

But the conversation, in which Roxy brutally deconstruct's John's melancholy, challenging whether it actually *matters* that they don't exist in a timeline where they get to throw their lives away heroically fighting evil or whatever, did something for me. It remains one of the only stories I've seen so eloquently expose the grim subtext of our rebootquel franchise culture: die young, because you haven't got a future.

The Epilogues face that down by presenting an entire half of the story that *does not matter* and exploring the characters who choose to keep living regardless.

When I woke Sarah up from the nightmare that became, almost verbatim, the dream that Rose Lalonde describes in Godfeels of a "suicide wind" pulling her out of the world, we were still in Pittsburgh, packing all of my belongings to be put in a great big U haul crate, bound for the suburbs of Seattle. In a little less than a month we would find out that the home we were guaranteed was not somewhere we could stay after all, and the person who had guaranteed we would be safe had simply... changed his mind. As self care. The grinding machinery that would deposit us two months after that in a long stay hotel with our kitten Ruthie--at that time she had another four months to live--went into motion at that moment. We would spend much of the intervening time desperately prying at the machinery that was preventing us (due to bureaucratic negligence, incompetence, and just possibly outright corruption) from getting into new housing.

It slotted into Rose's narrative nicely at any rate. While John and Dirk struggled with the psychological impact of being in the "wrong story", Rose experienced the breakdown of "canonicity" as the breakdown of her body. In the Candy timeline the complete break from reality spares her, allows her to simply stop caring. In the Meat timeline the burden of having to keep the story going physically wrecks her.

Godfeels... is sort of an odd case for Rose. The story always existed as a reply to the Homestuck Epilogues and a deliberate parallel to Homestuck 2. Then Homestuck 2 was gone. There was no more "real story" for Rose or anyone else to engage with. The circumstances of its creation eerily paralleled the narrative: Godfeels is rent from the fabric of canonicity due to John Egbert realizing she is transgender and renaming herself June, a plot beat that was always planned for Homestuck 2 but now was a thread left dangling in the breeze.

So when Rose describes to June the feeling that the characters in Godfeels are "living on borrowed time" there's about... five or six layers to that, and an awful lot of them are autobiographical.

The question of canonicity in these stories isn't just a metatextual, postmodern game we're all playing with language. I think "canonicity" is best understood as these stories expressing a feeling of having been cut adrift from a social narrative. Too old to rock and roll ("our story did end. And yet...") and too young to die ("and yet here we are."). In this context, June and Rose being in a complex romantic and sexual relationship with two other women, and the fact of June's womanhood at all, read to me as a parallel to a sense that queer adults in particular who are incapable and/or unwilling to assimilate into cishet bourgeois culture are a kind of mistake of reality that reality just might decide to correct. There is a sense, as Sedgwick describes in her essay on paranoid and reparative reading, that in queer communities "no one is passing on the family name."

So when one of the other members of this relationship, in an erotic fanfiction responding to Godfeels, a fanfiction responding to a largely fan-driven development of a multiply-authored sequel to an agender person's bizarrely and unexpectedly popular hypercomic, justifies her willingness to introspect about the lie that her relationship is built on by stating that she's pretty sure the story is non-canon... well, that stands out to me. It reads to me as, among other things, an expression of the sense that any reality in which we could build a stable life for ourselves couldn't possibly be real. Its presence in a work so far removed from the logic of capital valorization and franchise management strikes me as particularly poignant.

It feels like there's a recursive kind of action here, where an aging bunch of creatively inclined and engaged people is pushed to a marginal place within culture, and responds by producing art precisely about that experience of irrelevance. Remember: art isn't magic! I'm observing what I think are some possible readings of a few texts as a reaction to particular social pressures, not suggesting we can write our way out of our material conditions. But by the same token, it means something to me that I can participate in a project like Godfeels, a story about "getting the hell out of your 20s". It means something to see the characters in the Homestuck Epilogues strive to continue living despite the very fabric of reality and indeed large swaths of the audience stamping them as "irrelevant". It means something to see someone as old and cynical as Luke get roused to action. Oh, and it means something to see Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance at age 40 performing live in a cute dress.

Culture may be in a pretty dire place, but I'm not ready to lay down and accept irrelevance just yet. After all, you're never too old to rock and roll when you're too young to die.

This Has Been

To Watch All My Heroes Sell A Car On TV

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