On Reading the Comments and a Democratic Internet


“Don’t read the comments” has been a survival guideline for online publishers, videographers, and anyone who communicates online for as long as I can remember. Hunting down the causes of abusive, antagonistic, and downright cranky online behaviour has become something of an international sport. After all, people in “real life” (a phrase I would not oppose to the Internet since the latter is very much a real, if more ethereal, place) seem much more restrained and polite, less inclined to express hateful emotions. Whether because of anonymity, a lack of face-to-face contact, or another vaporous reason, the Internet brings out the worst in people. So goes the conventional wisdom encapsulated by the phrase, “Don’t read the comments.”

One article that recently dropped on Medium, however, attempts to shatter this reflexive tendency to blame the problem on online interaction in general. “Don’t read the comments,” while often a viable short-term solution to feelings of depression and self-doubt that can be triggered by nonsensical and abusive feedback, also forecloses the possibility of positive online communication and puts the onus on the abused rather than on the abusers. It’s effectively ceding hegemony over the comments section to the lowest crust of humanity. More to the point, we can never read the goal of eliminating or at least alleviating online abuse without directing the blame at the real culprits: the corporations and other entities that regulate online communication.

It’s certainly true that Youtube comments often seem to be spawned from some moist, toxic fungus dimension, but the real onus for protecting worthwhile speech while isolating and disempowering abusers is with those who wield power over the comments sections. To take a not-so-innocent example: I frequently use Yahoo!’s maligned (though not entirely malignant) social networking site tumblr. To put it mildly, the spectrum of fan interests and political tendencies on tumblr is vast. Much of my political maturation was aided by friends I met online who shared beautiful art and fruitful conversations with me. These are the kinds of interactions that platforms should be fostering. But, to use a slightly problematic example, to get the crops to grow, you need to control the weeds. Take life to give it.

Tumblr is often stereotyped as an overheated talking room for youthful liberals and leftists just cutting their teeth on critical vocabulary. While that faction certainly exists, there is also a proliferation of Nazi, “Third Position,” fascist, white supremacist, and other cancerous blogs that spread their bile and are free to do so. Never mind that their rhetoric and actions are often threatening or outright violent towards minority users, their speech is protected and ought not be interfered with! Such is the mindset of the administrators, at least.

The author of the linked article recommends that we all take personal actions to hold websites accountable for their enabling of abusive behaviour. He suggests that we replace “don’t read the comments” with “don’t use the comments section until the CEO of Yahoo! does something to prevent abuse of their users.” Unfortunately, such actions are likely to have little impact, because simply changing our speech patterns, while a necessary step towards breaking the common sense hegemony of abusers online, doesn’t scratch the real problem: the private and for-profit ownership of what should be open and democratic channels.

And a democratic channel does not mean one that is tolerant or open to abusers; it means that the rule of the people prevails over it. Protection of the vulnerable and preferential treatment of their speech over those who would trample over them is entailed, as well as the elimination of advertising and swift removal of oppressive voices from such areas. As long as the basis of belonging in an online community is as a customer or, worse, a traceable asset being sold to advertisers, we can never achieve this goal universally. What’s necessary now, then, is the cultivation and vigilant protection of open, progressive spaces for dialogue that can also embrace a mass audience, showing the world what a truly democratic Internet can do if freed from the admen and the trolls.

Don’t hold the platform owners accountable: overthrow them.

P.S. I personally have had many wonderful interactions in my own comments sections, and would like to thank everyone who has creatively and sensitively criticized or praised my work here. I’m grateful to all of you.

Mind, Body, Environment in Decay: Titus Groan


Like the bottom of Dante’s hell, Gormenghast is a flash-frozen world. Indifferent to the outside, its only concern is its ever-dwindling splendour. Everyone who lives inside the walls of fortress Gormenghast is captive to it, whether servant or Earl. And, inescapably, they are ensnared in time as well as place. It all seems to be at the end of its history.

Take the honoured Earl, Sepulchrave. His day begins with a vast breakfast that, every day, goes to waste. Afterwards, he spends his hours reenacting the rituals of Gormenghast, accompanied by Sourdust the librarian and keeper of ritual. True to his name, he is melancholic and withdrawn, taking some solace only in his vast collection of books. Learned and apparently great in intellect and grace, he nonetheless never wields his power as the Earl––there is no outlet for power. Whatever worlds he might have conquered are remote from the story, and he is isolated from all the others in his stone domain because of his legacy and duties.

Gertrude, his wife, has companionship a-plenty, though none of it human. Prickly and imperious around fellow people, she keeps her room filled with birds of all feathers, whom she dotes on. Perhaps more ominously, she owns a bevy of cats, often described in the language of the ocean as a “wave” of white fur. Wherever her husband is shrunken and defined by absence, she is defined by a distracted fullness: a large body, too many birds, too many cats.

They have a daughter, Fuchsia, but neither of them pay attention to her. She is left to the attic, her imagination, and the company of the castle doctor, Prunesquallor and the haggard Nannie Slagg.

At the beginning of Titus Groan, Gormenghast is thrown off balance by the arrival of a new male heir to the throne: the title character. Titus’ entry is of course expected, an event accounted for by well-honed tradition and ritual. There is his birth and his consecration as heir and that is that. But his birth coincides with a disruption of another kind; this one is named Steerpike. A kitchen boy with an outsized ambition and ruthless intelligence, Steerpike seeks power for himself and enjoys manipulating others. Titus and Steerpike are  the main plot engines in Titus Groan, though the former, being an infant for its entirety, seems to be at a distinct disadvantage, royalty or no.

On the one hand, the helpless boy born and nurtured into power. On the other, the grasping youth who will do anything to take it. One has to ask, of course, why Steerpike is interested in power in such a cold and desolate place. Ruling over Gormenghast, it seems, is just the end goal of a game, since it should be apparent to him that possession of this stone fortress, even an absolute command of it, yields no advantage.


It’s difficult to say whether Titus Groan is fantasy, per se. It certainly is a masterpiece of fictional world building, creating an alien society that does not exist anywhere and filled with strange rules and customs. But there is no magic or anything supernatural at all. Where it’s most comparable to fantasy is its exploration of the feudal European world and, in this case, its inexorable decline. If Lord of the Rings is pastoral feudalism triumphant, Titus Groan is feudalism hollowed out and exposed in all its absurdity.

Absurdity is the right word, too. Though Peake has a terrific talent for building tension and resolving it effectively––the battle in the Spider Room is particularly memorable––much of the book is actually very funny. You probably notice the characters’ names, which are one part solemn fantasy nonsense and one part Lewis Carroll pun. Grave moments are undercut by uncomfortable disturbances, and characters like Dr. Prunesquallor manage to be both annoying and strangely endearing. The good Doctor, in particular, is prone to throw off some impressively composed nonsense:

“What did you say they were? My memory is so very untrustworthy. It’s fickle as a fox. Ask me to name the third lateral blood vessel from the extremity of my index finger that runs east to west when I lie on my face at sundown, or the percentage of chalk to be found in the knuckles of the average spinster in her fifty-seventh year, ha, ha, ha!––or even ask me, dear boy, give the details of the pulse rate of frogs two minutes before they died of scabies––these things are no tax upon my memory, ha, ha, ha!”

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (New York: Weybright and Talley, 1967), 185.

Long and verbose, the novel is nevertheless quite subtly developed because it allows its talkative and often ridiculous characters to expose themselves through their actions and thoughts rather than just directly stating what’s going on. Except for one chapter that recalls modernist stream-of-consciousness prose where we are let into the characters’ heads while they eat dinner together, we are often left to wonder what they are really thinking or planning, particularly side characters whose points of view we don’t normally see. Titus Groan is not particularly dense with incidents, but it is dense with manoeuvring, plotting, and skulking, all of which build towards the few key turning points beautifully.

What I most admire about the book, however, is its use of the Gothic to its full extent. It drains all the romance out of ruins, and instead substitutes an unyielding (but not un-humourous) grimness. There is grandeur in Gormenghast, but no life, no pulse. Its people and its walls alike are already ruins, and one gets the sense that the world has already passed it by. Capitalism and modern life will relegate it to a tourist attraction soon enough, and I’m not sure if its residents would be all that sad to see it go the way of Stonehenge. I’m sure it would make an excellent restoration job; maybe make one wing of it a hotel.

Of course, there are two books remaining in the core trilogy of Gormenghast, and I’ll be reporting back on them as soon as I can. For now, we can all rest assured that nothing will “out crumble” the great walls of Gormenghast.


Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade


In one low-key scene near the middle of Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, our two protagonists are talking in a desolate pocket park. Kei, a former left wing revolutionary who has fallen in love with the male lead, a member of a ruthless paramilitary group, notices a crumpled heap of debris. It’s the remains of an old building. She asks him what used to stand there; what building used to occupy the empty space? He can’t remember, and she opines that, perhaps, they never noticed it in the first place, much less remembered it. In the midst of a vast construction boom, the film forces us to take notice of the wreckage and entropy left behind by “creative destruction.” It’s one of a handful of subtly profound moments that make the work of Mamoru Oshii worthy of attention.

It’s also notable that Oshii originally planned this film as a live-action piece, only later deciding to utilize animation. Jin-Roh has few flights of animated fancy, only a few dream sequences that could be easily replicated in live-action. Framed and shot in highly dramatic ways, it certainly benefits from animated techniques but in no way required them. Except, of course, that such a detailed and accurate recreation of 1950’s Tokyo, even the distorted vision seen here, could not be accomplished in live action because the old city simply no longer exists. Perhaps this is why the little vignettes and period recreations feel so meditative and significant even if they’re peripheral to the plot and its main themes: the film effectively represents city life in broad strokes, producing a tangible sense of space and its relations with the characters.

Oshii did not direct Jin-Roh (which translates to “man-wolf” or “werewolf” in English)––it was the debut of director Hiroyuki Okiura––but the film forms part of Oshii’s lifework called the Kerberos Saga. In short, the premise of this franchise is that Germany won the battle of Stalingrad and WWII. Japan is occupied and restructured by the Nazis rather than by the Americans. As in the actual history of Japan, the 1950s in the world of Kerberos are marked by sharpened political struggles between the bureaucratic and authoritarian government and powerful left-wing popular movements, some of which are armed. In response to growing chaos, the Japanese state organizes a paramilitary arm to suppress the violence, driving the communist movements (literally) underground to scurry like rats in the Tokyo sewers.

Our male lead, the taciturn fascist cop Kazuki Fuse, chases a red-clothed woman through these tunnels in the inciting scene. Cornering her against a wall, he sees she has an explosive device and prepares to shoot, but hesitates. She detonates the bomb, leaving him unscathed but apparently shaken by the event. While undergoing re-education, he meets someone who claims to be the bomber’s sister, Kei Amemiya, and the two engage in an ambivalent romance. All of this takes place against a backdrop of dry interdepartmental scheming and intrigue, as Fuse’s paramilitaries struggle against other branches of the defence forces in a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy-esque plot.

The latter, like the actual plot business in most Oshii films, is complex but also dry and cold, just interesting enough to drive the central drama forward. Machinations like those in Jin-Roh remind me of Metal Gear in a less operatic mode, with the same loving recreations of weapons and technology that blur the line between fastidiousness and fetishism. Though the spy story bites a large chunk out of the running time, the central thread of the film is the love story between Kei and Kazuki, always entangled with a belaboured Little Red Riding Hood allegory that Oshii and Okiura use to––some––good effect.

Fuse, like the rest of his fascist cop comrades, are explicitly coded as wolves, with the bomb-carrying women named Little Red Riding Hoods. Fuse carries a German-language copy of the fairy tale with him, and has surreal dreams where he stalks the sewers with a pack of actual wolves. Though there is subtlety in the film, it’s certainly not in evidence here. Characters pontificate about it at length, drawing out the metaphors between the sly seducing wolf and Fuse, who breaks down Kei’s emotional defences only to lure her to an inevitable destruction.

Closed in his iconic suit––which mixes German army garb with samurai armour––he is an emotionless murderer, but when stripped of it, he can regain some of his humanity. Much of the film hinges on the question of whether this soldier, a wolf by nature, can break out of his armour and live authentically again. The way Oshii’s scrip tries to resolve this question is ambiguous and difficult to unravel, but the central point to take away is that Fuse is deprived of meaningful friendships and connections by machinery––both the literal kind and the state machinery to which he belongs.

Kei’s character, unfortunately, undergoes a progressive degeneration as the plot continues. Always situated as a pawn and a disposable asset of one kind or another, her one major role is to be a dreamer and an emotional touchstone for Fuse. By the end, I found her reductive and annoying, a caricature of femininity who existed purely to suffer just for the chance to redeem her beastly love interest. She seemed less and less like a hardened professional and more like a frightened child the more the film went on, which is addressed within the story but in a dissatisfying way. At the end, she can be reduced to a symbol, Red Riding Hood, the naïve one who climbs into bed with a wolf. We can all at least be thankful that the overtones of rape in the story do not receive graphic treatment in Jin-Roh.

For me, Jin-Roh, like all of Oshii’s work that I’ve seen, is a mixed experience. Its treatment of its characters is at times callous and clumsy, not to speak of its (to put it mildly) questionable politics. But there are also beautiful and truthful moments, especially when the animators bring life to alternate 1950s Tokyo. Perhaps the most profound, and maybe unconscious, message the Kerberos universe has to offer us is that the Nazi occupation and its aftermath would not have been all that different from the American one.

2015 Reading Plan Summary


Back at the beginning of 2015, I prepared an annual reading list. My hope was not so much to read every book on the list as to set out a list of priorities for study and personal development. I feared that, once I graduated, it would become much more difficult to ensure that I was constantly learning and reaching past my current intellectual limits. In an ideal world, I could have read every book on the list, but given the fact that the first eight months of this year involved extensive archival research and writing of one kind or another, I only started to make significant progress on the list after August or so.

Given that, I’m satisfied with how much of the list I was able to tackle, particularly because it reveals the ways my own interests and activities wove through and around my reading and academic work. Without any more delay, here is the progress report:

Historical Books: 

  • Class Struggles in the USSR by Charles Bettelheim (finished volume 1 and one fourth of volume 2)
    • I already posted about this book to express my overall positive reaction. It’s a thorough and at times exhausting report on the early days of the USSR and the transformations the Bolsheviks both effected and underwent in those days.
  • Japan’s Capitalism: Creative Defeat and Beyond by Shinto Tsuru (started but did not finish)
    • This book is toxic to me, seemingly hell-bent on stopping me from reading it. Its dry, dusty Keynesian narrative of Japan’s postwar economic development has been impossible for me to read longer than ten pages. I’ll attempt this some other time.
  • Shinohata: A Portrait of a Japanese Village by Ronakld P. Dore (started but did not finish)
    • I expected this book to be more academic and sociological––and it is––but the prose style is much more casual than that would imply. I didn’t finish it because I had to shift my priorities to more urgent academic work.
  • The Ashio Riot of 1907: A Social History of Mining in Japan by Kazuo Nimura, Andrew Gordon, Terry Boardman (did not start)
    • I have not tried to read this beyond skimming the introduction. Not sure I’ll get around to this this year either.
  • Fanshen by William Hinton (Finished!)
    • Absolutely stunning. I’ve written two posts about it, and consider it essential reading for people who want to understand post-1949 China.
  • Rise of the Red Engineers by Joel Andreas (did not start)
    • I was about to start reading this when fellow blogger and comrade Workers’ Dreadnought suggested I prioritize Yiching Wu’s Cultural Revolution from the Margins, which I found excellent despite not writing a post about it. A post about it is forthcoming, but I have to consult my notebook of material I’ve written about it before I’m confident enough to attempt it.
  • Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Chile by Paul Sweezy (did not start)
    • I had no expectations of it and did not get around to it.
  • The American Film Industry by Tino Balio (did not start)
    • At the beginning of this year, I was quite passionate about the history of cultural industries, but that interest later diverted into a study of Japan and its relationship with East Asia’s popular culture. I never got around to this book, though, but I hear it calling from my shelf, so I expect it will appear on this year’s one-year plan as well.
  • Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon (did not start)
    • Too intimidating in length and not applicable to my immediate research interests.
  • Lineages of the Absolutist State by Perry Anderson (Finished!)
    • An excellent book, along with its companion. I already posted about this book as well, so check that out if you’re interested.
  • Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz (Finished!)


Sadly, this section does not merit individual reviews of each book because I only read two of the many items I listed at the beginning of the year. While I did experience a revival of interest in fiction after graduating from university, it did not bend the way I expected it to. My path wound back through some more obscure fantasy and science fiction instead. The only books I read from the 2015 list were Heart of Thomas by Moto Hagio and Pablo Neruda’s sublime Captain’s Verses translated into English. I did read the latter in Spanish as well, and large sections of the former in Japanese, but needless to say I understood them better in my first language. I also posted about both already to some extent.

Neruda kept me lifted up during some of the darkest knights of my life, lying lonely and despondent in hotel beds in Turkey. Many thanks to him for that.

I’ve already leapt to other books that do not appear on my list, including Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy and Jeff Vandermeer’s twisted fiction. Evidently my literary and fictional tastes are much less predictable than my academic inclinations.


At the bottom of last year’s list was short selection of more theoretical/philosophical works I wanted to explore. Fascinatingly, the “me” from early 2015 wanted to avoid reading exclusively theory all year, which I certainly achieved. Again, I only started and completed two book in this category: The Possibility of Naturalism from critical realist Roy Bhaskar and An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory by Ernest Mandel. Both of them were useful in their own way, and I have given the Mandel text to my partner as a primer on political economy. Still, neither are what one would call life-changing, and I can’t comment on them with much enthusiasm despite their utility. Such is how it goes.

I did review Possibility of Naturalism here if anyone is interested.


During my four years in university, my reading habits had to accommodate class syllabi and research priorities. During the first two years, I was able to wedge in a large amount of fiction reading as well as some extracurricular academic reading. The fact that I was able to read all of Gravity’s Rainbow during spare moments of a single semester remains a point of (probably misplaced) pride for me.

After the hot and exhausting summer of 2014, however, I threw myself wholeheartedly into reading Marxist and other radical political literature. That time marks the end of my fiction reading for almost two years. Only a Russian literature course could force me to spare time for fictional worlds and characters that had been such a staple of my imaginary life. Falling in love hardly helped either, of course.

Now, however, my reading is my own. No one sitting in an academic office can dictate what I read anymore. The onus has passed to me to maintain a rigorous personal, political, and artistic education, and I have been able to do so despite complicated work schedules. Whether or not I post a year-long plan for 2016, my readers will certainly be privy to the new angles and worlds I’ll be exploring this year.

Happy 2016, everyone.