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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, November 30, 2022

Parafiction and the Bluecheck Crisis

A single joke tweet dropped pharma giant Eli Lilly's stock value by $15,000,000,000. Inside the aesthetics and strategies of Parafiction: the hoax as activist art.

Content warnings for: discussion of anti-queer violence, chemical spills, medical oppression, corporate malevolence.



Earlier this month, a verified account for pharma giant Eli Lilly tweeted, simply, "We are excited to announce insulin is free now."

This cut the company's value by about $15,000,000,000, according to Gizmodo's projection, because if there's one thing the most rational and efficient system of Capitalism absolutely despises unto death it's a price left ungouged or the desperate left unexploited! The tweet did what a thousand exposés on the repulsive and arbitrary price hikes a near monopoly of drug producers inflicts upon the sick could not do, and hit the company in the wallet--killing, quite literally, with kindness.

The tweet of course was a hoax, one of countless hoaxes that exploded on Twitter in the wake of the asinine plan by the site's new owner, blood emerald failson and actual worst poster Elon Musk, to replace the system of verification that assured companies and individuals were who they said they were with one where you could just... pay $8 to get that coveted blue check mark. Predictably, people immediately spun up, for a comparative pittance, verified accounts for Eli Lilly, Nintendo, George W. Bush, Tony Blair... really any person significant enough to be loathed by a large population of people who had a spare eight bucks just lying around.

This was very funny. Let's vivisect the joke, shall we?


It's not just a joke, first off, but a particular kind of activist hoax art, what Carrie Lambert-Beatty calls "Parafiction". For Lambert-Beatty, Parafiction is... sort of like fiction, but a bit to the side. Rather than just received as fake, it is believed "by some of the people some of the time" she says, slyly referencing and nodding to "parafiction pioneer P. T. Barnum". It's, in other words, a lie. A dupe. A hoax. But it's all those things in kind of a weird way too: it's not just a deceit but a kind of prank whose punchline is the deception being unveiled.

Not that all parafiction operates as a gotcha in the conventional sense--parafanfiction in particular delights in the simple process of creating credible artifacts and traces of fake media. The recent explosion of the fandom for fiction Martin Scorsese film Goncharov is a good example of this. While there might be people who enter the fandom thinking the film is real, the bulk of engagement comes *after* people realize the deception and can be active players in the game of pretend and deception.

When parafiction employs the strategies and aims of activist art, though, there tends to be someone on the other end taking the pratfall.

There's something invigorating about watching companies get their stock tanked by randos on Twitter. The specific actual damage it does is part of the entertainment value, as is the damage done to Twitter itself. And make no mistake, that damage is remarkable! After the tweet, and after Twitter's failure to respond quickly to Eli Lilly's angry demands that the tweet be censored on a platform where, per Musk, "humor is legal", the corporation pulled their quite significant ad campaign from the website completely.

Does this matter? Musk's fawning cult of personality has rationalized away the damage to Twitter as a corporation by falling back on the cost of entry: every person pranking Eli Lilly or Nintendo has to pay $8 for an account they're immediately going to have taken from them. This will surely represent significant revenue for the company! This is very funny and stupid. Twitter's main income source is its advertisements. There is no way on god's green fucking earth that Eli Lilly no longer daring to use the website at all, let alone for paid advertisements, can be offset by one dipshit paying $8.

This is because the business of twitter and other entertainment companies is primarily offering a product that can gather people around and segment them into various affinity groups. Both the paid employees of the site, and the unpaid people who consume the site and also generate all of its content, are doing labor to create particular commodities: audience segment commodities. These segments of groups of people to be advertised to are then sold to the actual buyers of the business of Twitter: advertisers.

We are working, through our posts, to a lesser or greater extent, to produce audience segments for Twitter to sell and for Eli Lilly to buy. So, the disruption of this commodity production through our posting alone is a significant crisis. All for the low price of $8!

It's at this point where the art--our emotional and aesthetic response to the targets getting a pie in the face--meets the activism--a public disruption of the relationship between a pharma corp preying upon the physically unwell and a social media corp preying on the mentally unwell (namely, all of us still using the website).


That's the basic pitch for parafiction. I want to get a bit deeper into the weeds now, though, of the reading I did for this article. In particular I want to talk about how I jumped to parafiction in the first place from the Eli Lilly hoax. See, when I saw what was happening on twitter, I immediately remembered another similar event: the Yes Men Bhopal/Dow Chemical hoax.

The Yes Men were an organization of art pranksters who primarily intervened in the world with parafictional performances. That's the nice way of putting it. Another way would be to say they're con men targeting legitimate institutions. Their methodology was actually fairly straightforward: copy a professional website of an organization like the World Trade Organization, put their own contact information in, and wait for someone from a professional conference or news agency to take the bait. At this point, posing as a legitimate representative, they could proclaim all manner of outlandish things in front of a large audience. As parafiction, the intervention works because of the breakdown of trust, the revelation that this audience accepted a whole raft of dreadful things because, as the Yes Men put it themselves, they were wearing suits.

In other words, the performances functioned because people at least temporarily believe that the Yes Men were "verified".

Like the Eli Lilly hoaxers, the Yes Men managed to take a bite out of the stock of Dow Chemical. Appearing on the BBC as a spokesman for the company, one of the team--going by the joke name "Jude Finnesterra"--announced that the victims of the horrifying 1984 chemical spill in Bhopal India would finally be compensated, and the company would take full responsibility for the negligence of its subsidiary Union Carbide. Markets reacted accordingly and the stock price dropped. As with Eli Lilly, no good deed goes unpunished by the most efficient and ethical economic system man has ever invented!

Lambert-Beatty places a lot of the value of this performance practice in exposure. The same is true of Sean Morrow, the staff writer of More Perfect Union who pulled the Eli Lilly stunt--and indeed, most of the organization's video on the subject attempts to contextualize why Eli Lilly and Twitter were deserving targets. The operation is sort of a proof by negation: publicly state you're going to stop being evil to force the target to also publicly state that they will under no circumstances ever stop being evil and they're offended you'd suggest otherwise, actually. The Dow Chemical hoax also, for Lambert-Beatty, has the effect of imagining an alternate world, exposing not just the malign workings of the system we live in but the possibility for a better world that we don't allow ourselves to imagine.

Is it effective? Is it aesthetic? Maybe! But before wading into those questions I just want to take a moment and ask: is it *ethical*?

Yes. I mean, yeah, whatever. As the Yes Men succinctly put it, when charged with giving "false hope" to the victims of Union Carbide, "If the deaths, debilities, organ failure, brain damage, tumors, breathing problems, and sundry other forms of permanent damage caused by Dow and Union Carbide aren't enough to arouse your pity, and the hour of "false hopes" we caused is - fantastic, we won! Go straight to Bhopal.net and make a donation." Well said.

The humorous side is easier for me to see than it probably is for a lot of bluecheck journalists and politicians, for whom the verification debacle has been a cataclysmic crisis. Isn't there a moral hazard, some way in which parafiction partakes in the same erosion of trust, norms, and agreed upon reality already under assault?? I couldn't care less, personally, compared to the open season on queer people Musk tacitly announced on the platform, and the kill lists that are more or less being posted freely by large fascist accounts. The horrific and murderous consequences of this in places like Colorado Springs have little to do with verifying people are who they say they are. When the New York Times or Guardian publish medical rationalizations for interpreting transition care or the existence of trans people as child abuse, I can't say that I sit here thinking, well thank CHRIST this account is verified and I know the logic of genocide is coming from a RESPECTABLE institution! Phew!!

Please, before we start making ethical *judgements*, let's learn the art of making ethical *distinctions*. Let's look at the advertiser panic over Twitter from another angle. It's true that one of the things many of these large advertisers do not like to share a platform with is hate speech. That's good. Advertisers surely also do not like us posting about the necessity of seizing the means of production and overthrowing the bourgeois state. That sucks! They also don't like pornography, or poor people squatting on their titled land in ideaspace ("copyright infringement"). That blows! I see bluecheck types describing the twitter rules and operating procedures as rational, in this sense. And they're right! But we as non blue checked workers and renters and people who have to just survive this stupid world, people who can be workers *and also* thinkers, can make distinctions between things arrived at rationally that we think are also good, and things arrived at rationally that benefit only audience segment commodity producers and purchasers, not us. Also, let's be fucking real, the rules care way more about protecting idea landlords than people victimized by hate speech, because advertisers might get EVENTUALLY a little squeemish if enough trans women get brutalized, but will be IMMEDIATELY outraged if their logos are infringed. It behooves us to recognize the actual material reality of these dynamics.

Still, I can support at least SOME interest in truth, such as the fact check feature on twitter, which users immediately employed against Elon Musk when he tried to "well actually" Bernie Sanders about insulin prices. Genuinely, honest to god, the worst poster of all time.


What of those other questions though? Reading a lot of academic art criticism and philosophy kind of is like letting the Muppets set up residence in your brain. At a certain point puppet parodies of all your favorite thinkers just start bellowing arguments at each other, and it can get kind of hard to hear yourself think over the din. They don't even have to have directly addressed each other! Like, Eve Sedgwick in her essay on paranoid and reparative reading never talks about parafiction, and neither does Claire Bishop in her book on the history of participatory art.

I can't get the critiques out of my head, though. Sedgwick's essay on paranoid and reparative reading ("You're So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay Is About You") has an awful lot of complicated things to say, but one of her core insights is the limitation of a method that "puts its faith in exposure". For her, drawing upon affect theory, a paranoid theory of the world seeks to prevent the surprise of negative experiences, to guard against them, and is a "strong" theory paradoxically in how it seeks to cover all bases, and with each new failure grows and spreads. And yet, it *does* fail, and all the paranoid mode's attempts to expose, disillusion, or de-tune media messages seem to have added up to... well, what? After decades of deconstruction, we seem no closer to liberation.

Actually, that criticism lines up with some of Lambert-Beatty's own observations of the early career of the Yes Men. She points out that early efforts to pose as legitimate sources--web pages for the George W Bush campaign and for the World Trade Organization--fell a bit flat because of their focus on "revealing truth". At a conference posing as WTO representatives, for example, they floated the idea of a human rights credits market where human rights abusers could buy vouchers from more egalitarian countries. This seems hardly distinguishable as satire. Is it that far off from the carbon credit market, currently the only thing keeping Elon Musk's fake car company profitable? (No wonder the cars keep exploding and running over pedestrians--they're an epiphenomenon of the real carbon credit commodity the firm actually produces!) Lambert-Beatty notes that, if anything, these stunts can make the present conditions seem relatively acceptable compared to their dystopian visions.

She continues to operate, though, in what I'd call a paranoid critical mode: the government is run by crooks and tv men, wars are carried out like publicity stunts, and most of the press is just press releases from corporations. It's hard to argue things have improved since the Bush administration in which she was writing. So, she proposes, the antidote for mass cultural truthiness might be to turn it against itself with parafiction and reveal the whole sham. But Sedgwick also notes a paradox in this paranoid mode: it's a perspective that assumes new tricks and deceits and betrayals come from every angle and gradually comes to suspect nothing can be trusted, but it's also convinced that the truth would win out if everyone would just *listen*. From this perspective, truthiness turned on itself starts to resemble more of a spiral into ever increasing doubt.

Is this work really effective, then? That's where Bishop comes in for me: in Artificial Hells she repeatedly asks pointed questions about where activist art sits. Somehow it remains just activism enough that to question whether it works *aesthetically* is, like, sort of missing the point at best and belligerently reactionary at worst. But it remains just art enough that to ask questions about whether it *works* is also a faux pas! It's not supposed to show outcomes and results, it's, well, art! Isn't there something a little suspect about this waffling between positions?

If we're judging by efficacy, well, Eli Lilly's stock is back to about where it was, though it took a while to recover. Many of the other impersonations are probably even less effective. Tweeting from a verified George W. Bush account "I love killing Middle Easterners" feels like a pale imitation of the Yes Men wholesale copying the webpage of the Bush campaign two decades ago. I doubt it fooled anyone enough to be a particular annoyance. The turn towards Ideology as the preoccupation of the critics of capitalism was useful in some ways, but can obscure the fact that no matter how much I may think George W. Bush is a war criminal, there's not a damn thing I can do about it. Some of these jokes, reveal, if anything, just that lots of people are basically on board with this understanding of reality, we just don't feel empowered to do much of anything about it. In the words of Supertramp, you're right, and you've got a bloody right to say--but me, I don't care anyway!

And aesthetically... I don't know, certainly the jokes themselves aren't very good. Well, mostly. A fake Nintendo account did tweet a picture of Mario flipping the audience off, and I gotta admit I laughed at their response to someone protesting "Mario would never do that :(": "well he did". There's something about the deadpan, all lowercase response that really does it for me, paired with the verified badge. It does sort of expose an absurd element to the way our media culture operates, the childish conviction that any member of the public might know "what Mario would do" paired with the indominable ability of Mario's corporate owners to write the character's reality however the fuck they want.

Speaking of spiraling, here I am chasing my tail again, back to persuading myself maybe there's something here! Because it's not all paranoia, is it? I'm not sure I agree with Lambert-Beatty's focus on truth and fictionality and skepticism, actually, as that's not... really how I receive this kind of thing, I don't think?

I'm not sure Sean Morrow necessarily exposed Eli Lilly, nor the Yes Men Dow Chemical. What they did was prove a *perturbing annoyance* at least for a short amount of time. If we think of this as art, it's a weird kind of unconsensual performance art, one that by its hoax nature casts the company in the role of the hapless clown and compels some suit to step onto the stage to be jeered at.

I'm not sure I agree that the primary fool--and primary audience--is the audience dupe, pranked into questioning the morals of the corporation. Rather the audience is those of us who aren't particularly taken in, laughing as the mere threat of a *hypothetical* dupe in the audience forces Dow, Eli Lilly, Nintendo, and so on, onto the stage in full clown makeup.

My experience of this affectively is characterized less by a fear of negative affect and more... well, schadenfreude first and foremost. Bad joy. Delight characterized by contempt. There is still an element of revelation here that maybe makes this barbed parafiction the happy hardcore twin to the emo gloom of paranoia. As Sedwick says, the gloomy prescription of the leftist critic that things are bad and likely to get worse is "immune to refutation". But this moment of nose tweaking represents manifest evidence that these forces of exploitation and domination not only slip up and make themselves vulnerable, but that there's other disgruntled weirdos with $8 out there ready to shoot an arrow in that weak spot! If this is a paranoid theory, it's one that can take delight at being wrong.

Even in our moments of defeat I think there's some pleasure to be had for this art form. I woke up, having wrapped up this article, to a bit of a frenzy on my small Mastodon instance. Volkswagen had issued a cease and desist order for the joke account someone opened on the site, an account that I think only had one post, something to the effect of "Buy our Nazi cars!" I'd characterize our reaction as a kind of delight at outrage. The instance was quickly filled with memes about being under attack by Volkswagen Beatles, and jokes at the expense of Mastodon's hapless creator Eugen and his ongoing attempt to turn the fediverse into, essentially, a brand friendly port of twitter (but with him in charge). Some legal firm schmuck had to go through a list of mastodon accounts and send us an email, and we got entertainment for the rest of the day.

And we didn't even have to pay $8.


Programmer and blogger Aphyr, in his remarkable history of kink at Pride, makes a tongue in cheek ( 😉 ) assertion that the first Pride was not just a hookup, but arguably "an orgy". I think there's something worth examining there: that the expression of sexuality openly was itself a revolutionary act of defiance against police violence. I want to associate that with a theorization of the point of sexuality for the working class: to produce more workers and renters, at as minimal a cost to the capitalist, financier, and rentier class as possible. I don't think people are "sitting around in smokey rooms plotting" to make the world thus. Probably. But surely it hasn't escaped everyone's attention, surely we've all *noticed*, that a christian fascist cult hell bent on destroying all non(re)productive sex (gay sex, trans sex, kinky sex, sex on birth control or followed by an abortion) is seizing power in America at *the precise moment* that capital faces a crisis of lacking surplus labor? A crisis comparable to the one that helped end feudalism, one of mass death and a disabling plague abruptly handing leverage to the workers who survived?

I similarly don't think it's purely coincidence that this reproductively-oriented sexual regime that pathologizes unproductive sexualities has infiltrated and rotted out just about every area of popular fandom at the *exact moment* when tech companies face a crisis in profitability. It's actually fairly trivial to draw the connections. If these companies really are, at the end of the day, producers not of experiences for end users but instead produce advertising segment commodities, it's inescapable that advertisers have a hard time dealing with people whose primary consumption pattern is hyperdicked wolf girls, pool toy transformation, or suspension bondage. Some companies could get creative, of course--surely Lowes could find more than a few things to sell your average bdsm enthusiast--but it's fairly well accepted that sexuality is a hard sell. Don't take my word for it! CNN for example blithely lists out three types of "toxic content" making advertisers wary of twitter: misinformation (and no doubt parafiction falls into that category!), hate speech... and pornography.

Wouldn't it be convenient if everyone just... happened to decide that the sexless sterility of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or YA Lit was the only moral form of art, and certainly the main thing we should all be engaged with as fans?

Lambert-Beatty suggests that one of the benefits of parafiction is that entering the space of the hoax might allow us to imagine alternatives to our present conditions, by for a short time *believing we live in a different world*. A later conference appearance as the World Trade Organization by the Yes Men featured not blithe descriptions of atrocities but something utopian: a declaration that after serious study and consultation the WTO had concluded it was, itself, a complete failure and would immediately be disbanded and replaced by a trade *regulation* organization dedicated to equitable relations with the third world. Apparently, conference attendees were jubilant, offering to help the new organization with its aims. I feel a real twinge of the bittersweet reading about this. Like, is it possible that people really do *want* to do good, and would if they were just given the chance? That not everyone is a sadistic self interested bastard?

There might be artistic lessons from parafiction, and I think reading them in association with other forms of "toxic" art practice, such as kink and pornography, or copyright infringement, might point to a kind of activist art that could be both aesthetic in that it fulfills or at least gestures towards our desires, and effective in that it disrupts the logic of audience segment commodity production. I mean, god, imagine it, a world where we're not packaged up in boxes, our attention and environment sold off by and to the worst people on earth?

I'm not saying saying such practices can't ever be co-opted by capital, mind. I'm still not sure they even work. My reading process has left me with more questions than answers and part of the point of the article, I suppose, is to lay out the strange walk through the literature that led me to this tenuous place. But I guess, watching all this, I find myself arriving at a different conclusion of the practical value of these sorts of forms of artistic intervention?

Like, maybe we should think of the stab at Eli Lilly less as an attempt at final victory or undefeatable strategy but instead a tactical choice made in the moment to do damage. Is it so bad if some companies get their stock tanked temporarily, then in short order some other company starts selling a "Rude Mario" t shirt? Does the latter really completely undermine the former? Dow Chemical wasn't destroyed by the Yes Men and in that sense I suppose their intervention was ineffective. But the Yes Men did lose some really shitty people at least SOME money. These artistic moments, similar to formations like the Chapel Hill Autonomous Zone, don't represent a permanent state of exception, but they might represent a huge headache for some really dreadful fucks, for at least a time.

Is there not political or at the very least moral and aesthetic value in being the sand in someone's cunt?

This Has Been

Parafiction and the Bluecheck Crisis

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