Issue #111: This is Not a Westworld Recap Newsletter

I have a terrible track record in any attempt to have some kind of weekly sub-series within the newsletter, but when it comes to writing about Westworld season three episodes, I’m two for two. I’ve always admired the gift some authors have (Matt Zoller Seitz, for example) to write substantively about every episode of a show in a given season. TV recap culture is 90% garbage, so I am trying to offer a higher-class of episodic TV writing. Needless to say, skip ahead if you haven’t seen the episode and are planning on watching it.

Likewise, I am also writing about Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a topic I may come back to if a new point of interest emerges.

Finally, a brief note on the work of Chester Himes. Enjoy.

Writing Life’s Vitality Out of History

In "The Winter Line," Nolan and Joy's Westworld has maintained a sustained engagement with the ideas established in the show's premiere. Last week we talked about Descartes’ evil demon. This week, the show literalized that demon with Maeve in an actual simulation. Of course, it’s unlikely Descartes’ evil demon would be brought down by some difficult math problems and complex plot turns. And yet, the idea of the "simulation within a simulation" and the anxiety and suspicion one necessarily brings to the all-too-unlikely organization of the universe are reinforced by this latest plot turn.

While Maeve's initial appearance places her ostensibly in Delos's WarWorld but it is quickly revealed that she is in fact in a computer simulation, a being without a body, all indicated by some clever foreshadowing. Her short-lived reunion with the computerized facsimile of Lee Sizemore makes for some great moments as he protests to her claim that they are in fact in a computer program "I feel real." And if hosts are capable of self-awareness, why not these lines of code?

But the episode chooses to defer these considerations, instead focusing on that thing inside one's self that promises one's own destruction in both Maeve's A plot and Bernard's B plot. In an example of the aforementioned complex plotting Maeve uses to crash the simulation in which she is imprisoned, she gives stolen "plans" to each of the (fake) Nazi soldiers occupying (fake) Italy resulting in each soldier unwittingly participating in an "I am Spartacus" moment of Maeve's own design.

It's a brilliant twist. The hapless faces of the soldiers as they pull the plans from their pockets and the ensuing shootout dramatize an existential point made more emphatically in Bernard's return to Westworld. Seeking Maeve, he instead finds Ashley Stubbs. Stubbs is revealed to be a host, something else heavily foreshadowed in the preceding season, a turn that serves to explain his utter inefficacy and haplessness in seasons one and two. When Stubbs says to Bernard, "you decided to come back to the one fucking place you're not supposed to be, which makes me wonder if free will might not be somewhat overrated," we are reminded of the limitation on free will exercised by the unconscious and the psychoanalytic principle of repetition compulsion. Stubbs and Bernard proceed to investigate the Delos parks, with Bernard stopping to use "clean" tech to assess whether or not he's been inflicted with some hidden malicious code, a “corruption,” by Dolores. What is more human than this anxiety one has about the thing inside that might ultimately undo them? This point is not lost on Stubbs who says, "This isn’t exactly the ideal moment for introspection, Bernard."

Even if Descartes' evil demon isn't responsible for deceiving a person according to their senses, is there not something sinister about any deity that might put human beings on Earth cursed with something inside them that is intent on tearing them apart? This psychological principle, or theological/ontological reality, if you like, is what occasions the creation of Rehoboam: the newer, gentler god.

Accordingly, this week's episode introduces us to the creator of this god, Engerraund Serac. Serac, likely the man to which Dempsey alluded last week, captures Maeve (restored to corporeality) and vaguely explains Rehoboam to her. He says:

Humanity has been a miserable little band of thugs stumbling from one catastrophe to the next. Our history is like the ravings of a lunatic. Chaos. But we've changed that. For the first time, history has an author.

This authorship of history is to remove that essential thing in the core of the subject that invites their self-destruction, to erase the subject entirely, and truly reverse the status of human and machine. Serac's project and the whims of Rehoboam turn humanity, Caleb, for instance, into something more mechanistic than even the hosts.

Do we accept a cruel god that grants us freedom, a freedom that is all-too-likely to result in our self-inflicted demise, or demand a better, gentler god that divests us of that freedom in exchange for prolonged life of the body but impoverished life of the spirit? This question is in the realm of Lacan's forced choice from Seminar XI:

Your money or your life! If I choose the money, I lose both. If I choose life, I have life without the money, namely, a life deprived of something. I think I have made myself clear. (212)

Rehoboam's authorship is intent on writing the vitalness of human life, which needs death as a counterbalance, out of history.

Speaking of authors, Nolan and Joy seem intent on developing the comedy of Westworld this season. Aside from Bernard and Stubbs' witty banter, this episode includes a number of hilarious easter eggs. D.B Weiss and David Benioff play unnamed Delos techs taking care of a host version of Drogon — the Game of Thrones crossover that George R.R. Martin has so often asked for. Likewise, Drogon is being shipped away from WesterosWorld (more likely Medieval World from the 1973 Westworld film) to Costa Rica — the location of Jurassic Park, another one of Michael Crichton's most enduring creations.

These metatextual moments are a welcome addition to this season's richness.

Island Prisons and the New Horizons Report

Quarantine? It ain't so bad. Here I am relaxing on the beach.

Just kidding, I live only according to the social pressures of "social/self/physical-distancing." That is my Animal Crossing: New Horizons character, a fact that was doubtlessly obvious to you if you have been on the internet at all this week.

If you are tired of seeing Animal Crossing screenshots on your timeline, you may want to skip this section of the newsletter. But for the unindoctrinated, the game makes you responsible for the flourishing of a small town — in this case, based on a deserted island — and lets you engage in leisurely activities such as fishing, bug collecting, flower cultivation, and foraging. Despite the deserted island setting, New Horizons is more Gullah Gullah Island than Lord of the Flies and more screensaver than Sim City. The game encourages you to take it at your own pace... by force, if necessary, as progression of the game is time-locked according to the passage of real-life hours and days. But it is not an unusual sight to see players stargazing or sitting beachside for long periods of time.

Like any ostensibly infantile thing that attracts the attention of huge swathes of adults, Animal Crossing has been read very cynically by many. These critiques are not entirely unwarranted. Despite being reduced to the status of a meme, it is worth keeping in mind that a significant segment of the game is dedicated to paying off an unexpected and significant debt in exchange for your 'island getaway.' The relaxing setting of New Horizons is also a debtor’s prison.

But, more importantly, this is a game that encourages taking in the wonders of a fictional outside all whilst staying inside. This makes the game's eco-friendly message tremendously ironic. Because of this, I posit Animal Crossing should be appreciated more for its function than its form. After all, one doesn't often find themselves going outside to play football after a long stretch of Madden or a pickup game after a 2K session. Video game versions and real-life activities, even when one is a facsimile of the other, serve fundamentally different purposes. Animal Crossing is a canvas for its players' creativity as well as a facilitator of long-distance socializing.

When I first started playing the game on Friday, I bought into the cynical reading of the game. I was frustrated, sequestered on my own private island as everyone progressed individually (multiplayer is locked until the next calendar day) and felt as though the game actually prohibited group play rather than encouraged it. But, as the game opened up, I found myself jetting around to my friends' islands, having them come visit me, and engaging in collaborative projects such as playing the "stalk market" (turnips are the game's fetishistic commodity of choice) and sharing clothing designs.

Speaking of clothing designs, the customization Animal Crossing offers is unparalleled. I have marveled at how creative people have been with the game. For instance, a friend of mine (Neichelle) has taken to recreating her actual phone case for her in-game character.

We've also seen recreations of popular film scenes and the iconic works of art of our era immortalized in a new form.

From the beginning of his time with the game, my buddy Cory has been dedicating his efforts to producing accurate real-life garments from Acronym, Issey Miyake, Rick Owens, and other brands. His single-minded dedication to these detailed digital reproductions is admirable and has gotten him a little bit of attention on social media from fans of these brands.

These projects, I hope, are just the tip of the iceberg of what one might accomplish in the game. Though Animal Crossing doesn't offer the same open-ended customization as something like Little Big Planet or Dreams, the creation-within-constraints makes the achievements all the more impressive. My hope is to see a variety of expressive town layouts, home designs, and closets full of custom gear. While we can't get any fits off under quarantine, Cory has preserved the gift of drip for New Horizons players everywhere.

The Poetry of Chester Himes’ A Rage in Harlem

Those looking for quarantine reading need look no further than Chester Himes’ 1957 classic, A Rage in Harlem. The first in the “Harlem Detectives” series, the novel follows the hapless square Jackson in a caper involving stolen gold, counterfeit money, and a suspicious U.S. marshall. I have written about Himes quite a bit, even making some of my serious academic writing on his work accessible in this newsletter, but I would briefly like to focus on a detail that is often ignored, particularly in the early stage of his career: the brilliant quality of his writing.

A Rage in Harlem is a kinetic, frantic book with a plot that moves at a breakneck pace. Still, Himes’ writing is incredibly detailed with each character given paragraphs of description even if their appearance in the novel is minuscule.

Some of his most impressive moments are descriptions of the city itself. For example:

Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.

This is Harlem. (93)

Though his description of the residents of Harlem is not exactly flattering here, it is consistent with his vision of the city as nihilistic, haphazard, and without mercy. Himes does not point the finger at the two-bit crooks of Harlem he chronicles in this novel, but instead, as indicated by his detailed descriptions elsewhere, examines them with extreme pathos. Likewise, he clearly represents the systemic inequalities that produce the economic situation in this New York City neighborhood as well as making the most morally reprehensible figure of his novel an exploitative, opportunistic, white funeral home owner.

Himes’ description is equally strong here:

Muggers with scarred faces cased the lone pedestrians like hyenas watching lions feast.

Purse snatchers grabbed a poke and ran toward the ark beneath the trestle, trying to dodge the cops’ bullets pinging against the iron stanchions. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.

White gangsters, four and six together in the bullet-proof limousines, coming and going from the syndicate headquarters down the street, passed the harness cops in the patron cars, giving them look for look. (113)

Again, this panoptic view captures within its gaze not just the pedestrian criminality of the struggling but the systemic exploitation — named by metonymy for what it is, crime — facilitated and engaged in by the police.

Himes’ unparalleled writing, incisive political commentary, and truly human conscience is well worth your attention.

Until next time.