Issue #192: Palm Tree Weekly

I’m on vacation, so this is a short one. Wish you were here.

See you for a more detailed engagement with philosophy and pop culture (may I interest you in some writing about Dave Chappelle?) next week.

2021 Fall Anime Season ‘Highlights’

So, these two shows aren’t really highlights. They’re just the shows I’ve watched. But, to be honest, me taking the time to watch any new anime is a rarity. Each had something about them that caught my eye, but neither has really delivered. Still, I found them both interesting enough to write a little something about.

AMAIM Warrior at the Borderline

Sunrise launching a major mecha franchise is an event. They are the studio behind Gundam (1979), Ideon (1980), Votoms (1983), Escaflowne (1996), and Code Geass (2006) just to name a few — but also no shortage of stinkers like Cross Ange (2014) and Buddy Complex (2014). So it's no guarantee the show will be good, but it's always interesting. In the case of AMAIM, named for the mecha used in the ongoing global military conflict, it seems like it's more Code Geass than Buddy Complex, but to what degree remains to be seen.

The series is part of a major marketing push to turn AMAIM into a franchise, something which always puts me off of a show. But no expense has been spared when it comes to staffing. Ken Okuyama, designer of the Enzo Ferrari and Ferrari P4/5, is in charge of the AMAIM's mechanical design. His work also includes a number of Japanese rail trains, including Shinkansen designs from 2013 until 2024 — when his newest train will enter service. Enthusiasm for Japanese trains is rarely matched, and Okuyama has largely succeeded in his work on the AMAIM.

They are as sleek as one might expect, but something is a little bizarre about the head in profile. Nonetheless, I think the machines occasion enough visual intrigue and are distinctive enough that if the show that houses them is strong enough, they can sell enough model kits to keep everything moving.

As for the plot, AMAIM is a product of contemporary anxieties in Japanese society. Japan is divided and colonized as a result of foreign intervention to aid Japan in dealing with their "economic crisis and collapsing birthrate." Protagonist Amō Shiiba is an Amuro Ray style otaku, with no real interest in the repression of the Japanese citizenry. Shiiba moves in the lowest rung of society, entitled to barely any rights whatsoever and orphaned. His only interest, however, is rebuilding an AMAIM in secret that he eventually uses to wage war against the occupying forces of "Oceania."

Shiiba also pilots his AMAIM, an anachronistic feature of his mecha. Piloted AMAIMs have been replaced by autonomous ones, controlled in the fashion of the military drone. Despite the obvious social commentary of this disparity, (the poor rebels risk their lives fighting against a legion of empty iron machines with pilots safely behind a screen) there's also a generic motivator for this premise. AMAIM can partake of the tropes of mecha anime as well as "isekai" or "different world" anime and manga. Shiiba is also joined in his insurgent efforts by a cute looking AI construct called Gai. AMAIM doesn't seem to be as fully committed to the structures of the isekai as, say, Gundam Build Divers (2018), but the olive branch to that fanbase is hard to miss.

My guess is, when all is said and done, AMAIM will be a watchable but forgettable run-through of standard mecha tropes with some modern anime sensibility thrown in for good measure. The setup hardly seems equipped to fully reckon with the political ideas it evokes. And the show seems, at least at first pass, derivative to a fault.

I plan to keep watching, but I am not too high on AMAIM. With the field of mecha anime shrinking, though, sometimes we need to draw deep from the well.

PuraOre! ~Pride of Orange~

No, that's not a typo. Yes, the name of this show really does have all those tildes in it. What I thought I was getting into was a typical sports anime about girls playing hockey. Instead, PuraOre! is an idol show in the style of The Idolmaster (2011) or Love Live! (2020). These types of shows also seem to persistently include diacritical marks in their names.

PuraOre! probably isn't for me. And like AMAIM, it's an attempt to launch a multi-media franchise. This anime is, supposedly, a glorified advertisement for a forthcoming mobile game. The show is cute enough ("moe") and brings together an interesting suite of influences. But, I'm not sold. I need the excitement of the matches and characters with an obsessive drive to win. So far, none of that has made itself felt in the series.

The Ontology of Running Into People

Here’s a little vacation inspired writing for you. Imagine you are somewhere that’s pretty big. Say, Key West, for example. And as you are going about your day, visiting tourist attractions, stopping to eat, walking around, and you keep seeing the same people. I imagine if you’re reading this and you’ve been on vacation, you’ve probably had an experience like this. There might be a couple or a group of tourists or whatever collection of so-and-sos who you see over, and over, and over. It becomes a little uncanny, right?

Perhaps a little. I’ve always found this fun, but relatively unremarkable. I might be in the minority in this evaluation. But hear me out. Whatever factors cause you to go from one place to the next, there’s at least some possibility whoever you are around at any given time will make decisions based on those same factors.

There’s a geographical constraint to consider. If you go from point A to point B in a certain amount of time, that means anyone could do the same thing. There’s also the consideration of the quality of an activity. A savvy tourist like yourself, I’m sure, only picks the best destinations, right? Well, we all have access to google, tripadvisor, various circle and star based rating systems. Starting to think about things like this, I would argue it becomes just about as likely that someone you saw at one place might make the decision, weighing the same things as you, to end up where you’re going.

Even knowing this intellectually, though, there’s still something about it — isn’t there? Is this simply another instance of apophenia? Or the (not unrelated) propensity for humans to believe in something like gang stalking? Films and television have instructed a generation of viewers that if they keep seeing the same person in different places, they are being followed. There seems to also be some relation to the notion of “main character syndrome” and the less overt issues human beings have with object permanence even as adults. But people still continue to exist and act even when you can’t see them — they might be taking an Uber to the Hemingway House Museum while you’re walking there.

All of this is to say I’d like to continue to give this some thought. In some small way, it seems feeling confused or taken aback by running into some random individual in different places over and over again is a (again, very small) failure of empathy. If we make a choice to do something, why wouldn’t someone make that same choice?

The Food of Key West

I’m no Jonathan Gold, but I have to remark very briefly on the fact that while visiting Key West I have had some of the best meals of my life. This is not a joke. The first place I ate after getting there was called Lost & Found and I had a very profound emotional experience while eating their food. I don’t typically get chips and salsa at random bars — an opinion I may now revise, because it was very good here. I also ate a fried chicken sandwich with some of the best spicy bbq sauce I’ve ever had.

For lunch the next day, I stopped by a taco place called Amigos. It looked a little suspicious. I hate any sort of ‘elevated’ expensive tacos. But, despite the price, and the reduction of the degree measure of the tortillas (theirs are square), I was very impressed.

I also ate some delicious pizza at a place called Clemente’s. This shit is so serious it doesn’t even have a website. I think they used to serve their pizza out of a repurposed trolley, but now it’s a hole in the wall on Fleming Street. There were dudes in sleeveless shirts and Adidas slides throwing pies into a brick oven like three feet away from where I was sitting. Truly unmatched ambiance.

There are a lot of logistical issues when it comes to running a restaurant in a relatively remote part of the world like Key West, so I am all the more blown away by the quality of what I’ve eaten here. Definitely worth the trip.

Weekly Reading List

Harry Ambrose is back. Wednesday.

Until next time.

Issue #191: Fuqua's Redemption

This weekend I saw a cat.

It’s a pretty good cat.

I also began playing the iOS exclusive JRPG Fantasian (2021), with a story written by original Final Fantasy architect Hironobu Sakaguchi and music by Nobuo Uematsu. It feels like a real, complete experience without any bizarre mobile gaming contrivances. The caveat being I am only an hour in — and it requires an Apple Arcade subscription. Still, worth checking out for fans of the genre.

This week, spoilers for the latest from Netflix and a conversation between me and a guy with broken sneakers.

The Man Made of Discourse: Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty

Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty (2021) really delivered a proof of concept for the Miguel Theory of Directorial Quality. I may have spent a tremendous amount of time badmouthing Fuqua last week, but his latest collaboration with Jake Gyllenhaal demonstrates what a truly exceptional director is capable of — and why Fuqua deserves to be considered one. A Gyllenhaal vanity project (he optioned and produced the film) and chamber piece (the film takes place in three rooms), The Guilty is also a remake of a 2018 Danish film directed by Gustav Möller. The production of the film also took place under some absurd constraints. Fuqua, quarantining because of exposure to COVID-19, directed entirely from a hardwired van. Gyllenhaal shared some interesting photos of the experience while doing press for the film:

With the conceit of phone calls to obscure the live Zoom performances of Riley Keough, Peter Sarsgaaard, Ethan Hawke, and others, The Guilty is pandemic era filmmaking that will age beautifully.

The film is a triumph of thriller storytelling — once you turn it on, it will be unlikely you’ll be able to turn away. But, at the same time, it’s certainly politically confused, perhaps because of an adherence to the European source material. Gyllenhaal plays a temporarily reassigned LAPD officer, Joe Baylor, working as a 911 dispatcher rather than with any police outfit. Wondering why he’s answering phones instead of cracking skulls? [Spoilers to follow.]

If you guessed anything other than “he killed someone,” you should watch more movies. The victim of Baylor’s extrajudicial killing is never identified beyond his age and gender — a nineteen year old man or boy, depending on your perspective. Thus, the racism and social antagonism that the film evokes with the backdrop of burning wildfires that could be the LA uprisings of 1992, or the so-called “2020-2021 United States racial unrest” that Wikipedia categorizes as “ongoing,” are a looming absent presence in the work. Even if cops aren’t equal opportunity killers, one might at least entertain the possibility that Baylor’s victim’s racial ambiguity opens up interpretive possibilities rather than closes them off. Baylor himself is hardly a sympathetic character, riffing on his work in End of Watch (2012), but there’s something about this castrated police officer as protagonist that feels anachronistic.

The Schraderian approach to depicting complete existential collapse is mirrored closely in Nic Pizzolatto’s screenplay (to which Gyllenhaal supplied uncredited contributions). Baylor suffers from tinnitus, clearly the result of recently having fired a gun. This is another clue, not to the mystery of what Baylor did, but rather to the film’s structuring principle — that Baylor’s obvious transgression is supposed to be a mystery in the first place. He also has chronic asthma, a failed marriage, and perhaps a lingering anxiety disorder. Elements that each evoke pathos but fail, to my mind, to reach the level of outright copaganda. Baylor is remarkably vulnerable, a conceit for the character only carried across because of Gyllenhaal’s livewire performance. Even if you believe End of Watch is the better film (and I don’t), there’s no denying that the performance Gyllenhaal turns in under Fuqua’s direction is far more layered. What makes this film a thrill is not the turns of the more-or-less obvious plot, but rather watching Jake work. By the end of the film, Baylor is dismantled.

Fuqua, Pizzalatto, and Gyllenhaal work through the nexus of punishment, power, and revenge with a principal character who is deeply confused about what constitutes a victim and a perpetrator. Baylor repeatedly takes as his prerogative the ad-hoc punishment of 911 callers. A wealthy businessman who patronizes a sex worker is left to “stew in it” after subsequently being robbed. An injured biker is given the sage advice of “don’t bike drunk, asshole” as a substitute for an ambulance ride. But it’s the call of the abducted woman, Emily Lighton (Riley Keough), that occasions Baylor going above and beyond his limited call of duty. With the power of the badge stripped from him, though he still identifies as “Officer Baylor,” his two greatest tools are wit and diplomacy. Suffice it to say, neither are well honed.

What Baylor comes to realize is that he may have more in common with the abductor, Lighton’s ex-husband Henry Fisher (Peter Sarsgaard), than he would care to admit. This momentarily perceived continuity is hardly the first or last of such realizations Baylor endures, however. As the film approaches it’s conclusion, his self-reflexive recognition becomes more painful and subjectively annihilating. What we see in The Guilty, as in many great films, is a castrated subject par excellence. Baylor is emphatically reduced to using only that which is within the order of the Symbolic — his discourse. He is, after all, gripping a telephone rather than a pistol. But without the ability to frantically grasp for something other, he cannot even deceive himself into thinking there is an escape from his prison of language. The infernal translating machine of his unconscious can only be expressed in signifiers rather than actions which might have fatal consequences.

Clocking in at a lean ninety minutes, Fuqua makes great use of the film’s limited real-estate and the production’s limited filming time. Even if the plot may come across as predictable to savvy viewers, the pace of the film and the fact that you are obviously supposed to be thrilled does a lot of work. Neither a total rehash of End of Watch nor Halle Berry’s The Call (2013), the Baylor character study may not have read the room very well. But, reading the room is overrated and good art usually the opposite.

Naturally Occurring Swag

I haven’t written much about sneakers or clothing lately, because I haven’t been buying any. It’s been 90 days since I’ve last made a gear purchase. But the relaxation of COVID guidelines and anxieties, a more freely-moving American population, and a renewed willingness to strike up conversations with strangers has returned me to an unfinished project about which I am very passionate.

“Coolhunting” or “trend spotting” is a fascinating, if extremely insidious and culturally destructive, enterprise funded by major clothing and sneaker brands. While I have my doubts that this is something still done today given the proliferation of social media, there is something special about the conversation between someone wearing something interesting and the person that wants to take their photo. Even better if that photographer is not turning in said photo to Nike or Adidas. Enter the Naturally Occurring Swag project.

Though my nomenclature is a little bit dated these days, I’m always struck by the rare individual who is wearing something exceptionally cool but made no effort to do so, nor has any cultural context for the significance of what they’re wearing. It all started with a picture I didn’t take but will forever live on in my memory. I was at an art show in Somerville in 2017 and I saw an older woman wearing a pair of highly coveted Air Max sneakers, the Jewel “Ruby Red”.

I immediately approached her and asked about them, and she said she bought them a few days prior on the recommendation from the salesperson that they were “good running shoes.” I don’t think she was trying to pull one over on me. The pure aesthetic appeal of the Air Max reached out and touched someone without the cultural framework or sense of scarcity.

Typically, it does happen to be older folks who fall into the Naturally Occurring Swag category. But, there are also plenty of geriatric sneakerheads out there. I have mad respect for them, but they’re not examples of what I am talking about. Once I stopped an older guy wearing Yeezys and he told me about his vast sneaker collection and love for Kanye. The swag was not naturally occurring.

But the guy I met this weekend really took it to the next level. He was wearing a pair of no-brand leather sneakers with a healthy amount of duct tape on the sole. He was also ready for his close up:

His excitement at being approached about his sneakers was palpable, but I was impressed by the job he had done wrapping the tape around the curve of the toe-box and along the side of the shoe. The line across the side of the sneaker is very straight. It was an eye-catching look, duplicated by controversial and largely swagless sneaker company Golden Goose:

As well as much more successfully done by Maison Margiela:

But, does anything really beat a home-made duct taped shoe? His whole outfit was pretty swaggy:

It would not have taken much convincing on his part to get me to believe his paint-stained sweater was also hand-distressed by an overpriced fashion brand. I asked him if he knew there were designer shoes held together with duct tape, and he told me he had “heard about it.” Here’s hoping his sneakers hold together for a few more years.

At any rate, not to get too “Humans of New England” on you, but I’m hoping I’ll have cause to revisit this topic. Nothing beats the NOS.

Weekly Reading List

Just this.

Until next time.

Issue #190: Jason Sudeikis is my mortal enemy

This week, I wrote about Ted Lasso (2020). It’s a TV show on Apple’s proprietary streaming service that people like a lot. I also like it a lot. I think it’s an entertaining, engaging, very funny show. I also think that many of the widely-circulating interpretations of the show are absurd. Even worse are claims that this show has some redeeming social value. I do not believe it does. But, you know, you’ll rarely find me telling you that something popular is a net benefit for society. And I feel committed to being critical of the things I like, especially the ones I like a lot. After all, I spend a lot of time thinking about them.

In this case, it just so happened that this week’s episode felt so egregiously ideological, and like such a blatant recapitulation of the show’s overarching logic, I had to engage.

Jason Sudeikis isn’t quite the evangelical for American ideology that John Krasinski is, but he’s close.

Ted Lasso and Rick Astley

Ted Lasso (2020) is a work of ideological propaganda. It only barely tries to disguise this fact. But in this week’s episode, “No Weddings and a Funeral,” the show went ‘mask off’ and ‘microscope on’ to expose the very formula that accounts for the show’s success. The paradigmatic exemplar of the symbolic method by which Lasso conveys genuine down-homey self-critical feel-good TV to its many viewers? Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” the Rickroll.

Before I explain how Ted Lasso explains Jason Sudeikis’s evil plan to turn us all into friendly, midwestern zombies, there are a few terms that need defining — irony and postmodernism. Claire Colebrook lays out a fairly provocative formulation touching on both in her text aptly titled Irony (2004):

Despite its unwieldy complexity, irony has a frequent and common definition: saying what is contrary to what is meant (Quintilian 1995–98 [9.2.44], 401), a definition that is usually attributed to the first-century Roman orator Quintilian who was already looking back to Socrates and Ancient Greek literature. But this definition is so simple that it covers everything from simple figures of speech to entire historical epochs. Irony can mean as little as saying, ‘Another day in paradise’, when the weather is appalling. It can also refer to the huge problems of postmodernity; our very historical context is ironic because today nothing really means what it says. We live in a world of quotation, pastiche, simulation and cynicism: a general and all-encompassing irony. Irony, then, by the very simplicity of its definition becomes curiously indefinable. (1)

Irony, then, at the most basic and relatively useless level, means “saying what is contrary to what is meant,” and the wallpaper quality of such a definition is by virtue of a postmodern world that Colebrook describes as one “of quotation, pastiche, simulation and cynicism.” For her, irony occasions a tremendous signifying problem. She writes:

How can there be an other or ironical meaning if all we have are texts? Does not the very notion of ‘meaning’ demand that there is a sense or depth to a text, that there is more to a text than its surface? (20)

Of course, we know, and Colebrook agrees (for different reasons), that despite the conventional wisdom of New Criticism, while there is nothing but the text, the vast majority of the signifier’s function occurs at the level that is not at the level of the ‘surface,’ phonetic, what have you — the level of what Jacques Lacan would call lalangue. Instead, the signifier activates a context-dependent chain of meanings that entail the subject’s unconscious.

In Colebrook’s gloss of irony, she takes language to be immensely complex in a way that makes irony, in a postmodern context, generative of endless possible speech acts even entailing the same signifiers or signs. She writes:

If the text is contradictory, absurd, clichéd or self-refuting, then we must assume that what is said is not meant. However, one cannot remain in a position of pure not-saying; for the not-saying is itself an act of speech. Postmodern texts have shown all the ways in which not-saying or ironic detachment generates a specific said. Saying is always saying that. (165)

For Rick Astley, “Never Gonna Give You Up,” and the Rickroll, the situation is a little different than, perhaps, what Colebrook could have anticipated just two years in advance of the first “duckroll.” Astley’s song becomes divested of its meaning by way of repetition, the way one might repeat a word until it sounds senseless to the ear. The song’s status as a particular kind of discursive function is complicit with this senselessness that repetition brings. The song is utilized to interrupt or replace some other text, one believes they’re viewing something and are instead treated to the Astley’s luscious baritone.

The “Rickroll” engages every possible element of humor discernible in the song and its video at once. The disjunction between Astley’s look and voice, his status as a forgotten one-hit wonder, the saccharine lyrics, and so forth all serve to buoy this sense of absurdity when the video is deployed unexpectedly. Colebrook critiques the privileged position one adopts when engaging in the basic, colloquial form of ironic discourse. She posits, “postmodern irony affirms the equal validity and ultimately groundless nature of all discourse” (120) rather than being the mode through which one might position oneself in an extra-discursive zone to pass authoritative judgment on meaning — or to have some particular kind of insight that gives one access to ironic meaning. Nonetheless, one assumes this position relative to the “Rickroll” to draw conclusions about the meaning of “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Even though none of the text may be earnest, the assumption that it is, and that one knows something better or sees something more clearly than Astley himself, serves as the engine of the “Rickroll’s” seemingly ceaseless advance.

But it should also be clear that irony and postmodernism are not collaborators in allowing viewers of “Never Gonna Give You Up” to assume this position. As Jean-François Lyotard writes in The Postmodern Condition (1979):

I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives … Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. (xxiv-xxv)

This definition from Lyotard paired with Colebrook’s thinking shows how reactionary Ted Lasso’s flight from irony is. For Lasso, the proliferation of meanings that emerge in the postmodern context are not worth the privileged position one might assume relative to “Never Gonna Give You Up” and the “Rickroll.” To turn to the show, take a look at the first evocation of the sacred song by Astley:

In the conversation between Rebecca and her mother, Deborah, Rebecca claims that it’s having heard “Never Gonna Give You Up” “ad nauseam” that has caused people to be “over it.” She is the poster child for the ironic distance toward the song — a postmodern strawman. Her mother rejects this premise, saying “once I love something, I love it forever.” This is the beginning of the reinstitution of a master narrative that would serve to define “Never Gonna Give You Up” in the same way for everybody who hears it. It is earnest, the ironists and reactionaries are in dubious agreement on this point. But the reactionary position that Lasso casts Deborah in suggests that the earnestness of the song is retroactively verified by the affect it can generate in a subject. “It just makes me feel happy,” Deborah says. This is a postmodern gesture in the sense that meaning is derived through a collaboration of the reader and the text. However, it’s a collaboration subjugated by a master narrative that rejects the possibility of the song and video’s disruptive force in the context of the “Rickroll.”

The most avowedly unironic use of the song is in a second example, where Rebecca sings the song in place of delivering a eulogy for her deceased father. Her relationship with her father is too complex to be expressed in simple prose. Music and lyrics are more apt — even if it is the hackneyed lyrics of a song that has been used to bits (Lacan Seminar XX 60).

This is the re-injection of sentimentality into the thoroughly ironic. If Rebecca, who dismissed the song hours ago as something collectively abandoned by society due to its endless repetition and comedic function, can find meaning in the song and use it to convey genuine emotion, what are the limits to this process?

Clearly they are few and far between. Ted Lasso has perpetrated such a scam on the masses with its conventional sitcom tropes that appear acceptable to a modern audience because they entail scenes of therapeutic care and admissions of masculinity’s flaws. Lasso doesn’t deconstruct that masculinity or critique it, however. Instead, it advances the image of a world where Homer Simpson is really a stand up guy.

This repetition of the same is Lasso’s most impressive trick. Ted Lasso as a character is hardly different from any patriarchal sitcom buffoon. But the embracing of a master narrative guaranteed sentimentality is so unexpected that it delivers something to audiences they didn’t even know they were missing. “Authenticity,” such that it is — and a commitment to the notion of ‘the golden rule.’ A farce, of course. Whether farcical or not, it hardly matters. Even the return of the “Rickroll” in the episode’s final scene can’t evacuate the emotive power that has returned to “Never Gonna Give You Up”:

Here, a “Rickroll” interrupts and displaces the actual cite of sentimental reflection, the home video. This conflation, instead of being frustrating, concretizes the bond between Rebecca and Deborah as well as evokes the scene just minutes prior. Here, Lasso delivers another, final, and finally worthwhile, point. However privileged of a position one might assume relative to a text, there will always be those who interpret it in a manner that’s out of sync with the discursive context that can produce such a position. Rebecca can look patronizingly at “Never Gonna Give You Up” and enjoy all the humor of Rick Astley’s image as expressed by the “Rickroll,” but Deborah, who loves the song, doesn’t even know what he looks like. And she’s not alone. The “Rickroll” only circulates so far.

Somehow, though, this point leads to the conclusion that there should be fewer meanings rather than more. Deborah’s naïveté means Rebecca should meet Deborah on her level rather than the other way around. Earnest appreciation is better than trained cynicism, so argues Ted Lasso again and again. Yet, Lasso’s earnestness is simply the product of the invisible hand of the market delivering a product that seems new. A transcendence of irony, but rather than post-ironic, it’s anti-ironic and aggressively so.

The show attempts to reintroduce the sentimentality to the form of the sitcom and the patriarchal ignoramus in the same persistent manner as “No Weddings and a Funeral” does with “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Anything that harkens back to a “better time,” where people were supposedly more friendly, less suspicious, and driven to connect with others should occasion the suspicion it tries to deflect. And a text pleading with audiences not to look beyond the surface begs to be subjected to the most severe scrutiny.

Ted Lasso may be funny, the second season especially. But the ‘heartwarming’ quality it conveys, pleasant though it might be, traffics a reactionary, reductive ideology of signification.

Weekly Reading List

Previously only released in Japan, Kimiko Kasai’s collaboration with Herbie Hancock, Butterfly, was reissued in 2018 and is now widely available on streaming services. One of the most prolific jazz pianists of all time, this “jazz-funk” masterpiece is highly slept on. Other album personnel include Alphonse Mouzon, Webster Lewis, Paul Jackson, Bennie Maupin, and Bill Summers. Also includes a cover of the GOAT Stevie Wonder’s “As.”

Until next time.

Issue #189: Red light, green light

In Alenka Zupančič’s Odd One In (2008), she opens the chapter “The Ego and the It” with a humorous reflection on a polite question:

In many languages there is a splendid and constantly used form of polite question. In English the question is: How’s it going? The greatness of this formula resides in the fact that the usual answer (Very well, thank you) leaves wonderfully intact the ambiguity of this question, its two possible “subjects.” In order to see this, it is enough to shift the accent a little and to emphasize the “it” in “How’s it going?” What I have in mind is that the full answer to the question How’s it going? might very well be something like: It is going very well. But me—well, that’s another matter. I’m tired, I’m depressed, my back aches.... (63)

Clever and theoretically illuminating as this bit is, I think it’s fair to say that both “it” and “me” are doing extremely poorly.

Over the weekend I watched two episodes of the new Netflix series, Squid Game. I thought about them for a while. And then I wrote about them.

The Nature of Desire in Squid Game

Squid Game (2021), a new “death game” live action TV show from Netflix, has been generating a lot of excitement. Having watched the first two episodes, I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit.

The show is deliberately paced, different from the breakneck plot progression of its most immediate comparison, Alice in Borderland (2020). It follows Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a destitute and recently divorced father who has a gambling problem. Like a more ostensibly sympathetic Howard Ratner, or a more easygoing Kaiji, Gi-hun’s aspirations at buying his estranged daughter a nice dinner and birthday present go up in smoke at the race track and at the UFO machine.

The compulsive nature of his behavior is clear even as his more altruistic side regularly emerges. He helps a woman who picks his pocket for his trouble (Kang Sae-byeok played by Jung Ho-yeon) and, once he’s entered the game (along with Ho-yeon, of course) he looks out for an elderly player, Oh Il-nam (Oh Young-soo).

But the question of avarice and desperation still remain. To test his psychological predisposition to playing games for money that could result in his death, a mysterious man confronts Gi-hun and offers to play ddakji with him — a game similar to American pogs where, using two folded squares of paper, one player tries to flip the other player’s folded square. Every time Gi-hun wins, he makes 100,000 won. But every loss means a firm slap in the face. He loses a lot. In fact, when Gi-hun finally comes out on top, he almost forgets himself and swings out his arm to slap his opponent.

In this moment, we see the extent to which Gi-hun plays the game for its own sake. There’s a childishness to him, a quality the show highlights with its opening — a reminiscence about the titular squid game.

Thus, Gi-hun joins a game to make the money he desperately needs but plays for more than just the money. This is the exact paradigm that structures his gambling addiction. If he simply wanted to make money, there are methods that are more reliable. But it’s the game itself to which Gi-hun is addicted; and not just because he wants to make money, but because he wants to be a winner.

Gi-hun is eventually kidnapped, along with 455 other participants, to play the mysterious “Game” that makes up the majority of the show’s action — a game in which losers are killed. In their first competition, red light green light, a motion sensing robotic girl in the style of the Big Boy Restaurant statue commands machine guns to finish off those still moving when she declares “red light.”

The propulsive forward movement of the game evokes the Lacanian death drive. One’s life is on the line and the trajectory through the game is dictated by a refusal to give up one’s desire. That desire, of course, is not always oriented toward money as its objet a facsimile but something more symptomatic which serves as the stand-in for that object-cause. But the true circumstance that begins to resemble the drive is the fact that the ostensible forward movement doesn’t get anyone everywhere. They are equally trapped in the symbology of arrested development playing a children’s game as they are in the Game itself, which returns them to their starting point once it has concluded. The players are only incrementally closer to a prize of obscene wealth, but it is safe to assume nobody is going to win it.

If my Lacanian readings sound harebrained as ever, consider the fact that the man himself is visible in Squid Game.

For as much longer as I am in position to be a partisan of Lacan (and I stress the uncertainty of this point), this is a good thing. The appearance of this book in Squid Game does more for Lacanian theory than this newsletter ever could. And it also further substantiates my reading. Desire’s janus-faced nature, oriented toward the objet a but ostensibly toward money and victory both, is revealed as contradictory in Gi-hun. He believes his participation in various games of chance and the Game of the show will lead him to wealth. But it’s precisely through his need for victory that he will be forced to relinquished his wealth. It’s a variation of the false choice, “your money or your life.”

The categorical imperative, though, is just as important to Gi-hun as desire. The examples of his altruism suggest a cosmic calculus. If Gi-hun has been “paying it forward,” his investment pays off as Abdul Ali (Tripathi Anupam) saves him in the course of the deadly game of red light, green light.

Shows in this genre are often as cynical and nihilistic as one can imagine, but between Abdul, Gi-hun, and Il-nam, this is a cast of characters fit for a young adult novel. Despite their foibles, desperation, and desirous nature, these three heroes are ultimately good guys in the most ideal sense. Rather than flattening moral and symbolic complexity, this heightens it. Even the best of us are subject to desire and the abyssal drive. A doting father can’t disentangle what is done for love and what is done for jouissance. In the end, Gi-hun can only award his daughter with a stand-in for the violence of his own despair.

The gun-that-is-actually-a-lighter mirrors the complexity of the Game. Despite how things may appear, everything that happens within the Game’s compound is a designed and intended outcome by the game masters. Disentangling the mystery of the Game itself — its purpose and who organized it — remains difficult after the show’s first two episodes. But understanding Squid Game’s characters and philosophical concerns is far easier. To where will desire lead Gi-hun? Only time will tell.

Weekly Reading List — Despite being 21 years old, old enough to drink, Nancy Fraser’s “Rethinking Recognition” reads as a timely and detailed exploration of the emphasis on representational politics and the separation from material interests and class unity that this shift has occasioned in some contexts. She lays it all out in the piece, of course. A riveting essay.

After stumbling on Accented Cinema’s Tony Leung video, I’ve gotten pretty interested in their work. This new video provides an interesting avenue of approach to Shang-Chi (2021).

And I’ve got some music for you.

Until next time.

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