My Up-and-Down Journey through the Wanderhome Book

I play and read a lot of tabletop RPG (TTRPG) books in my spare time. Whether delving into misty old-school fantasy games like Beyond the Wall or surveying a lavishly illustrated combat game like Lancer, reading RPG books can sometimes be nearly as fun as playing them.


Lately, though, I’ve been on the hunt for games that shake things up a bit. Luckily, a helpful friend (digitally) handed me a copy of Jay Dragon’s new pastoral-furry RPG Wanderhome. On first read, it gave me a lot of what I’ve been looking for in a new game. It jettisons dice and game masters in favour of a consent-based system of moves and go-round-the-table world building. To act, instead of testing fate with dice rolls or other wagering systems, players declare actions that make their character vulnerable or uncomfortable and receive a token. They can then spend that token to change something about the world. There is no accounting for failure here, and knowingly so.


Rather than drawing out a player’s cleverness or grit, these tokens create a sense of giving and taking. There are no real failures or even violence in Wanderhome’s world of the Hæth, but there are also no power trips or strokes of blessed fortune. As I read and leafed through the lovely illustrations and colours of the PDF, I felt a sense of gentleness and lightness.


For much of the book, however, that gentleness is tinged not with joy or celebration but with a seeping sense of loss. Many of the game’s setup steps talk about trauma, at least indirectly. For example, for each playbook or character class you choose traits, skills, or things that you love and then also something you have left behind. The Dancer, for example, gets to choose three dances they perform gladly and one that “they have left behind.” (p. 53) Pushing this theme further, the Exile playbook is almost all about trauma and loss. As an Exile, the player is asked: “You once had a place you called home. It’s gone now. Choose 1 true reason why you cannot return, 1 reason you tell everyone else, and 1 reason you worry is the truth.” (p. 57) It’s bleak stuff. There is obviously potential for compelling play and storytelling, but I admit I was put out by the whole thing. A case of mismatched expectations.


The game’s game-master-less system descends from a game concept called Belonging Outside Belonging. Belonging Outside Belonging (BOB) comes from the mind of designer Avery Alder. I don’t like any of Alder’s games at all because they feel more designed to create group therapy-style talk than gameplay per se. That’s a matter of taste, of course, and the BOB system finds itself put to much less dour and joyless use in Wanderhome. But the way that the player puts themselves in uncomfortable or vulnerable situations to earn the right to change the world in stronger ways still darkens the emotional palette of Wanderhome’s book.


I honestly had moments of anger reading this. I felt like the game I wanted, which was a light pastoral game of travel and talk, had been taken away from me. There are also annoying bits of writing in the book that set me off a little bit, and there is a much angrier version of this post in my drafts. I’m thankful that I didn’t publish it, though. Given more time to think about it, I don’t think I mind nearly as much as I did on my second and third reads of the book.


The reason for that is that the game has a number of guides and rules that help players cut out sad or traumatic matters from play. So there was no point to me getting angry or crestfallen about the game because the sad stuff just wouldn’t come up in my games. Even though it’s still in the book and has forever coloured my impression of the design and its goals, that’s not all bad. I might prefer a light, short campaign covering fluffy slice-of-life journeys through green fields, but the game has more ambition than that. Which I don’t like, but thankfully, the game is open to my preferences as well.

So the only major problems I have left with the book are related to some of the writing. Your mileage may vary, but I think that Wanderhome goes a little too far in keying players in to a narrow way of feeling while playing. Sections of the worldbuilding chapter on the Wanderhome world’s calendar, for example, are kind of maudlin and overwrought, leading up to the writer actually apologizing to the reader for how sad the previous bits had been. (p. 43) Like all of my complaints, this is an aesthetic problem for me, but it sets me on edge, nonetheless. I would have loved a more direct and confident presentation for the world, and I’m curious why the writer felt they had to say sorry to me. So though I’m over my first bouts of annoyance with the book, I’ll admit I don’t share the designer’s goals and still feel a little cheated by the split between the presentation of the book and its story content.


And so it goes. I’m still very happy my friend gave me my copy of the Wanderhome PDF and I look forward to playing with them as soon as I can. If nothing else, the worldbuilding settings and character materials in the back half of the book give you an open book to write in. And above all else, I love that the book has some compelling thoughts about why adventures involve travel and why people choose to move from place to place. Even if I don’t like a lot of the dour material, there’s probably enough sunshine for me after all. Take a look at Wanderhome if this all catches your eye. Just go in knowing what it is and what it’s trying to say before reading.

A Ramble on Escaping Concrete Domes in Brewster McCloud (1970)

Brewster McCloud, directed by Robert Altman, released 1970

In short, Brewster McCloud is about the titular boy’s attempt to fly like a bird. He squats in the fallout shelter of the Astrodome, studies birds with his partner in crime, Louise, and inevitably falls down onto the astroturf and perishes. And though I haven’t mentioned his huge number of serial stranglings, you can already sense that Altman’s Brewster is a little kooky.

Brewster might be the main character in the traditional sense, since it’s his journey we follow, but birds as a group are much more important than any of the people we find in this Houston-based oddity. In fact, the voiceover narration talking about birds (pronounced to us by a gradually bird-ifying René Auberjonois) makes me wonder whether we’re watching a movie about people at all. All the characters are frequently compared to birds, and our larger social structures, particularly love rituals and social hierarchy, are given bird analogues as well. The movie is profoundly strange and goofy, as are the people in it, from the turtleneck-hoarding supercop to Shelley Duvall’s race car driver/tour guide character. A flock of strange birds indeed, as my grandfather would put it.

What can we take from this little summary of bird figures in this film? I’d wager that it’s pretty simple: the human desire to simply be able to fly away and find freedom in the air is infectious and far from the only ways in which their many species exert a pull of desire on us. The Astrodome itself starts to look like a colossal concrete nest by the end of the movie, and my main intuition about the movie is that it’s about the ways in which our attempts to achieve freedom through invention and the overburdening of earth are destined to collapse. There is the Astrodome itself, a novelty when the film came out and now sitting empty and largely unused. We have airplanes, a source of freedom only for the very few who can own their own and skip the horrendous security lines. All the trappings of industrial modernism offer tempting luxuries that exact tremendous consequences. It’s a classic mad scientist story, down to the ghoulish murders. (Manages to be a very funny movie at the same time, though, which is typical of these Altman curiosities I love so well)

Unrelenting construction and technological expansion creates dreams of escaping it. The great irony, I think, is not just that Brewster makes the very foolish decision to try to fly to freedom from inside the Astrodome, but that he tried to turn himself into a bird with heavy metal wings, taking a huge toll on himself. If we are going to find some kind of meaningful freedom in our lives, we can certainly dream of flying like birds, but contrary to Louise’s words, our freedom lies somewhere closer to the ground. It would be best, indeed, if we could simply observe the free birds of the sky and live our dreams out as much as we could, content in our own selves.

Full Text of Drown in Time: The Essay

Drown in Time v2.jpg

This is the raw text from which selections were taken for my Drown in Time zine project, recently published earlier on this very blog. Best of luck in all endeavours!

When I was young, rainforests were not our friends. High seas, low lakes, these were not my friends. Living on the shores of Lake Michigan, air misted with rust, meant falling in love with sand, clay, limestone, and feral dogs. Not many people make video games about lakes. Games ramble around lakes, but rush to plunge into the sea.

Bloodborne and Ecco the Dolphin, my two most important partners in making this record, are about seas. They are about dread, loss, prying all those feelings apart. Naming those feelings is tough, because they lurk in cobwebs that can’t be grasped unless they are broken. If I had to give them names and form I would say:

“I was born too late to live in a standing world”
“I can feel my friends dying when I’m awake”

Oceans are our friends, or we will not live. Regardless, Ecco and Bloodborne are games kept apart by decades, fashions, even dimensions of illusionary geometry. But when I watch Ecco drown over and over again, lungs bursting deep underwater, spent from chasing cosmic beings who kidnapped his entire pod, the fevered Fishing Hamlet and its milk-eye moon spill into me. I’m not trying to convince anyone of this link, but in making this record of thoughts and feelings, in brightening the murkiest corners of my fear and grief, I found that thinking these two games together creates an insight to soothe harsh mourning and allow us to pass through and beyond the guilt that so often colours our feelings about the world and our friends of all forms with which we share it.

Opening my eyes. The tiny fishing hamlet welcomes a guest. A castaway from far-off Earths, born and bred for water, breathing in the sour fish-rank air wafting out from the shore. And here she is, oh! Even in darkly stillness she bears herself as queen of seas, a silk white whale washed up on the rank beach. ECCO’s body tightens; it’s a familiar, sickly feeling rotting his fins, poisoning his heart.

Sweet Queen, he thinks, unhallowed in her prime, left to putrefy in timeless, cursed, unyielding quiet. Around her alone the angry brine stench fallen across all of ECCO’s senses abated.

KOS: Weird and queer are you, dear breathing fish. That you know the words of the stars, the utterings of the hidden sky. Ears as yours are rare as time here, though…I am sad you must see this world of rags while living. Bow and tell me, KOS: how did you learn the speech of seas and skies?

ECCO bowed immediately. She was nothing like the other sky-beings he knew, and had made the sea her home, even if she had not been born here. Her corpse did not stir an inch, but the voice piercing as moonlight waxed through the sea, filling it with being.

ECCO: I have also met beings of the sky, Queen. She hated the water, or…she needed to devour it to live. But she whispered, in her way, before I sent her into nothingness.

KOS: The sea is bottomless with forgiveness. And with revenge. I can sense your pain––It is mine too, breathing fish. Both of us have seen our worlds unmade in moments. I sense that the stricken one who devoured your frithful life was a distant relation of mine. Not, fear not, that there is any love thickening blood in our kin-lines.

ECCO’s sound-eyes saw much. KOS, the bereaved mother of orphans, made him see. He could not stop seeing the work of blood in this place, its quicksilver cruelty, maddening insults to the moon betokened by severed heads and a milk moonface.

ECCO: I…will tell you a story to ease your heart, dear Queen of the Bloodless.

KOS: Please, dear one

ECCO began with Earthlight. Never had he heard of marauding landfolk or the mass harvesting of fish from the seas. But he told what he did know––the whales, the queerfolk of the water, the magical spheres, the world where the seas had found each other through great arms of water in the sky, bringing the world into a kinship of water. And of the burning breathlessness of drowning, endless suffering brought on by the other queen in the sky.

KOS: Please, loved son, you are so full of words for one so young. Still, I want to hear more about the great arms of the seas coming together, and the flying breathing-fish.

ECCO: In both of our worlds, time is not a steady current but curse and weird power creates pools and eddies that wind and stall for rock-ages before they are unstuck or set straight. Time is queer, and I met one of my thousandth descendants, who flew like a gull and could communicate with his mind alone.

KOS: You are…truly blessed to have a line of blood running so long, and to know that it’s so.

ECCO: Though I was in much danger in this unknown future, I think I agree, my Queen.

With all ECCO’s power he remembered the exaltant highways rising in giant arches pulsing in the blue. From atop these vast watery highways ECCO recalled the sight of the Earth bending under him, its blossoming surface empty of pain or darkness. Everything shone. Though he faced near-death at the hands of strange creatures, dashing just out of the reach of the great Medusa looming to greet him, he carried this future in his memory as a treasure held in safekeeping, a check against lurking and murking despair.

KOS: I am slain in spirit by this tale. In your world with no landfolk the Earth turned towards light. I am tempted to say that without these beasts our world might have stretched out to some future near the one you tell of. But…I remember the happy days when those in my care found the truth of water, and land and sea became one kin-without-blood…

KOS: A Queer Sea, arms bending to link the seas of blood, milk, and water inside all creatures. We all need a sea to live, whether outside us or inside.

ECCO’s heart was broken.

***

KOS: It is my turn, my son, to speak to you. It will be so, and you will carry these stories back to Earth with you. I once received a visit from a certain other queen. She did not speak, but her friend and lover read to me a letter I will never forget. It remains the only human language I ever sought to commit to memory––save the customary laws of my children. It seethed through my dreaming times.

It reads:

Seeking Your glorious mercy, we have sought Your sea to hear the words of a Queen lesser than You, a sovereign of blood accustomed “Vile” to our murderers. Take to heart the insults of the faithless Church, and wear them, Your Highness, as a brand––this we said to Ourselves, the lonely and last Regnant Queen of Cainhurst, Deathless. So Vileblood are We. Heed, Your Highness of the Sea vast and begrudging, the word of the mountain, I plead.

Our people are murdered. We fear Your children now lie dead and accursed, or will soon. It seems only Blood, and only Blood deemed worthy, will bring together the people of next dawn in this world. I plead that You deign to grieve my selfsame tears, Lady of Waters, as Our children fade from sight Alike. Together, if you will bear my pretense, we feel the Moons becoming faint, the promise even of daylight unspoiled becoming like a dream, something we the deathless must cruelly endure like timeless winter.

History has been written by the despoilers and cutthroats, my Queen. Our blood, Our queer and vile selves brook no equals or superiors save Yourself in sea or heaven. It is too late to do aught. It is too late to grieve and find peace. But to grieve and break, to wreak one thousand times over Our horror onto the heads of the murderers––this undertaking I urge You to join.

Give not an inch of Your illustrious self. Kill before being killed, oh Queen. Break their bones and give the orphans of this world a sign radiating the majesty of Our Selves, plunging the bloodletters and bloodfuckers of the world into a black obscurity so dense not a stroke of a letter will survive of them. But We, if I may humbly say so, will laugh as they bring their own roof down on top of them.

It is for cruelty, signed, in sorrow,
Cainhurst

***

ECCO suddenly sickened. Cleaving closer and closer to the shore and KOS’s limp corpse, hard anger swelled to fill his lungs and neck. He felt himself sink under its weight. He didn’t even feel the anger firsthand–-it was cold and hard, agelessly stout. In stark relief against this anger he recalled:

HOW GOOD IT IS TO BE BACK IN THE COOL WATERS OF THE EARTH

This curse was not his to understand. As near as KOS was, in truth she was as alien as any being, though she poured herself out to him, wordlessly. ECCO pulled himself away from her, finding himself back among the stars.

Goodbye to the queer sea, hello again. In the cool waters ECCO knew as his home, he heard the chatter of his friends and family. His pod. Bliss, effortless and light.

But sadness and grief and hate live in every ocean, inside or out. And every sea, every heart is unfathomable and bloodless.

I’m 26 and as I get older and older it seems everything worth feeling, having, or doing is wrong or late. Wisdom flies only when the world has lain down to sleep, grief, the teacher of all, crafts her stories in the past tense. My blood, too, is Vile and unfit. I am weak and foolish, a frail bit of dust. But it is only in such bitter and hateful motes that the Love of Creation abides strongly.

We are queer, bloodless, useless EXCEPT TO OURSELVES, which is praiseworthy above all “right” things!!!!!!

In seeing the Great Lake I know that the unfathomable sins of civilization will not stand so tall forever.

 

I am like a pelican of the wilderness; I am become as an owl of the waste places.

I watch, and am become like a sparrow that is alone upon the housetop.

Mine enemies taunt me all the day; they that are mad against me do curse by me.

For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping,

Because of Thine indignation and Thy wrath; for Thou hast taken me up, and cast me away

My days are like a lengthening shadow; and I am withered like grass.

But Thou, O LORD, sittest enthroned for ever; and Thy name is unto all generations.

Psalm 102

Zine Release: Drown in Time––Ecco the Dolphin Meets Bloodborne

Screen Shot 5779-11-20 at 2.25.17 AM.png

Drown in Time v2

^^download here

Drown in Time is a means of working through a few obsessions that bled into each other. Ecco the Dolphin, Bloodborne, ecology, pollution, the feeling that the world has already ended and nothing I do can or will ever matter. Time as water, choking as it sloshes here and there.

But more honestly, this zine comes from a strange fever that overtakes me once in awhile, the need to just put art together to speak for me about thoughts and nightmares that are hard to talk about.

And no, it’s not really interactive––that just came off the top of my head as a good subtitle.

Zine Release: Depression and Desire (With Bonus Old Zine)

Depression Zine Witch of Endor Piece

Link: Depression and Desire

This zine is concerned with exactly what it sounds like. It contains several pieces of digital art and three main parts. First, there is a sympathetic reading of the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor from the perspective of someone with anxiety and depression. Second, I included a piece on the problems of living with depression in a land and in a space that is also afflicted, especially focusing on environmental damage and the stress that it can cause. Finally, there is a two-page microfiction about angel-capturing monks and their ability to change the world around them.

 

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1d9t_eb5-tPAURRszuboYVwkRPlHaHEvy

I am horrified of ruins

Bonus Link: Plunge: An Agender Life

Mostly a series of discussions of issues related to (lack of) gender, visibility, and other issues to do with my own queerness. Also includes a great number of art pieces and a few essays.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1fwJuLrLATf14EXxHQp06IfnvFfKxcyLc

I hope that you enjoy them and get a lot out of them.

How Guy Maddin Makes a Philosophy of History Out of Frozen Horses

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 9.41.38 PM

My Winnipeg is an audio film before it’s a visual experience. Its skeleton is oral poetry, mythology, the voice of Guy Maddin that manifests the pictures around it. Animation is just one medium that this documentary-fantastic poetry evokes like an incantation, freely jumping from archival footage, new footage, reenactment, colour, black-and-white film, and the illusory images of the poem’s fantasies.

I want to highlight the way the poetry of the film and its visual manifestations conjure up a kind of philosophy of history. Namely: the film’s use of animation, its creation of a “critical cartography” of space (and, I’ll argue, time), demonstrates the power of history gone intimate and non-linear.

The narrator of the film describes a scene where, on a frigid night in Winnipeg, a squirrel electrocutes itself on a power line and starts a fire with its body that spreads to the stables of the nearby horse track. The horses dart into the river where their bodies are frozen, becoming grim statues that nevertheless become hot spots for perambulators and even passionate lovers who create a baby boom the following spring. These children were “born of horses.”

When inhabiting the bodies fashioned by animators, the horses move, escaping from the fire into the ice. Their journey, punctuated by jabs of huge text on the screen, carries them through the frame, which is itself covered by footage of fire. The horses plunge into the water, where their animated bodies become frozen in a way that preserves their frenzy.

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 9.41.54 PM.png

And with a fade to black, the film shows, through a recording made by a camera, the grisly aftermath of the history that happened in animation. Animation makes the past move, while the camera records stasis, even if it is an erotically charged stasis. As the narrator calmly exposits, “the horse heads are always frozen in the same transports of animal panic, an abandonment reading unambiguously to the young lovers of Winnipeg.” Animation joins with the fire from which the horses are fleeing, the energy that animates their fear, which leaves the camera, live-action, as a frozen medium, one that signals and “records” the fear and terror but only in a cold retrospect.

Ian Robinson put it this way:
“Through the muddling of the dreamed city and the archived city, My Winnipeg defers the singularity of place to a configuration of stories. In this cartography, the textuality of Winnipeg emerges as a contested ground, a site where truth emerges through a dialogic event between spectator, film and the memory, archive and idea of the city.”(1)

And, as this sequence deftly shows, that “configuration of stories” is expressly nonlinear. It takes its form from layered, haunted wholes and double images. Animation, being expressly dreamlike and artificial, makes for an apt medium for summoning up the ghosts of old racehorses and communicating their fear and panic through graphic means.

My Winnipeg’s inclusion, and the esoteric and unreal nature of most of the “live” action footage often makes me mistake this for a fully animated film, since its textures and kaleidoscopic energy are so much more important than the medium used at any particular moment. Its actual animation and its live action scenes seem cut from the same mythological and memorialized cloth.

Even where there is no footage, no “documentary evidence” that can serve as visual confirmation of the horses’ plunge, animation can supply a flexible surrogate that has perhaps an even more powerful effect. And since much of the live action footage in My Winnipeg is fabricated/reenacted or modified anyway, animation fits seamlessly in the film’s narration.

While Robinson’s argument is primarily about the way that Maddin’s use of animation, multimedia montage, and poetry relates to place, my own argument is about how it productively disrupts the linearity of conventional histories. Although the narrator’s history does address events that have dates attached to them, sticking to something like conventional chronology (though not to empirical accuracy), its timeline winds, like the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, around and through countless places. Its timeline bends around memories, traumas, personal myths, and, as mentioned, the insistent flow of Maddin’s voiceover narration.

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 9.41.12 PM.png

Nonlinear histories like those told by My Winnipeg are crucially important because they do not trend towards some final end or towards an inevitable present. Rather, they point out how the history haunts the present, and show how the past incarnates itself in the memories, bodies, and, yes, the art of people in the present. Once again quoting from Robinson, this animated segment evokes and brings to life “the event of place.”(2) The horses racing out of the fire and into the ice, freezing under the gaze of the animator and then the camera, show that history does not march evenly forward but rather surges, locks in place, winds absentmindedly, comes crashing down like Maddin’s favourite downtown buildings.

As a historian, I am inspired by this film to take history, even if not so far into the intimacy of mythology and memory as Maddin, at least to acknowledge that the histories I am writing are all, in some sense, animated. Whether through my writing, the images in my mind as I pore through archives, or in the spectres and landmarks they leave behind, history-making has always been a form of animation.

Notes:

  1. Ian Robinson, “The Critical Cinematic Cartography of My Winnipeg,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies vol. 23, no. 2 (Fall 2014), 105.
  2. Ibid, 104.

City Egg, Country Egg: Narrow Notes on Urban Wildlife Ecology

Screen Shot 2017-11-28 at 12.54.13 AM.png

Steven and Krista Latta’s article on the population decline of the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) is less an article about the nighthawk and more about the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). Noting hte aforementioned decline in the population of the insectivore, migratory nighthawks, the authors attempt to find a causal link between this decline and predation of nighthawk eggs by crows. Since the crows’ population has recently ballooned in American urban areas, the authors believe this may be a “non-mutually exclusive” cause of the nighthawks’ decline.¹

To test this hypothesis, the authors devised a method that utilized artificial nests of egg clutches distributed on different university roofs, each with a different roofing (stone, large or small gravel, etc.). These were compared against another set of experimental egg clutches distributed in a rural area where, the authors hypothesized, crows would be less likely to eat the eggs. In order to reduce the chance that the crows would memorize the locations of the artificial nests, the researchers placed each new experimental set “on a different rooftop, and a rooftop was only revisited after a minimum 7-day interval between trials” in the urban areas, and moved the clutch locations in the rural area, a forest preserve, without repetition.² They watched each clutch through camera feeds for 72 hours before being inspected. If their eggs were missing, they were considered to be predated.

At the end of their experiment, they found that none of the rural ground clutches had lost eggs to predation, while 44.7% of the urban nests suffered plundering over a 72-hour span.³ Moreover, every act of predation caught on camera was the act of a crow. From these results, the authors draw the conclusion that crows “could limit reproductive success of nighthawks in urban environments.”⁴ These results are certainly striking, and, within the confines of the author’s experimentation, the significant difference in predation between rural and urban areas, with their differing levels of crow activity, they suggest there is some veracity to their claims. However, there are also some significant gaps and inadequacies in their method and in their structural assumptions that inhibit the usefulness of the study.

First, as the author’s admit, the use of artificial nests and surrogate quail eggs is a useful expediency but is nonetheless a sub-optimal compromise method. Because the experiment here concerned a species that lays its eggs on the ground without much nest structure, there could be less of a discrepancy between predation of quail eggs and real eggs than in other studies using similar methods. However, as the authors also admit, their artificial nests lacked any parental defence, which could skew results, especially in areas where the eggs are highly visible and exposed.⁵ This flaw is not necessarily fatal to their conclusions, however, because rural predation was far, far lower than urban predation despite the use of false eggs. The relative difference could, therefore, be considered more significant than the absolute accuracy of the predation rates they found.

Another difficulty with the study is a minor discrepancy in the authors’ presentation of their methods between the urban and rural settings. While the false nest sites for the eggs at the university are described in great detail, down to the density and size of the gravel lining the rooftops, the rural sites are simply presented as being “on the ground.”⁶ Though there is a note that the sites chosen were in accordance with an encyclopedia of American birds, the reader would benefit from a short description of what those sites might be, since they might be quite physically distinct from exposed urban rooftops. This is not so much a methodological as a presentation error, but it leads to an inadequate understanding on the part of (this) reader, which could be remedied in only a few words.

More importantly, the previous flaw points to a more structural problem with the experiment: the lack of a precise knowledge of the differences in crow behaviour in rural and urban areas. The entire premise of the article is that crows are more active and more numerous in urban centres, which is the reason they were identified as a potential cause for population declines in the first place.⁷ When the authors admit that their article is unable to resolve the question of why they saw such a discrepancy in predation between urban and rural areas, it shows the weakness of one of the core assumptions of the study. As Latta and Latta assert, “Differences in abundance of crows between urban and rural sites may also play a role in determining predation rates, though we expected at least some predation in rural areas given the common occurrence of crows there.”⁸

Without more precise knowledge of the differences in crow populations and behavioural patterns in the rural and urban areas under investigation, the authors can only speculate that the urban crow population is higher or more active than the rural. Relative abundance of other food sources and competition from other predators in urban or rural areas and the the greater ease of finding and predating eggs on rooftop nests could all be factors driving the differences the authors see. Because of this, although the results the authors obtained show a strong contrast between the two ecological zones, they do not give the reader a clear grasp of why this might be nor whether crow behaviour is directly causative of this difference.

To conclude, none of these flaws strip away the entire worth of the study, but the inadequacy of their method and some of the vagueness of their assumptions prevents them from deriving effective results from their data. Simply knowing that nighthawks face much higher predator pressure from crows in urban areas is certainly worthwhile. But there is missed potential here. On a broader level, though, this study illustrates the logistical and logical challenges of posing effective ecological questions that can be answered using a set time and budget. And as urban ecologies grow larger and larger, it pays great dividends to understand the nonhuman life-cycles and energy dynamics that pulse within the city. It also reminds us to be mindful and caring for every environment rather than only ones that we can designate as “wild,” since the wild is often happening right above our heads. Figuratively and literally.

Notes:

1. Steven C. Latta and Krista N. Latta, “Do Urban American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) Contribute to Population Declines of the Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor)?” The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, no. 127, vol. 3:529.

2. Ibid, 530.

3. Ibid, 531.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid, 532.

6. Ibid, 530.

7. Ibid, 529.

8. Ibid, 532.

New Series: Solarpunk and the Aesthetics of Optimism

Solarpunk and Optimist Aesthetics Header.png

Solarpunk aims to develop images and narratives that inspire hope and optimism. As an aesthetic, it visualizes future human achievement. Moreover, it tries to cultivate a tinkering, democratic, and cooperative attitude towards social matters and a reverent attitude towards ecology in its audiences. Those audiences, formed online and through fiction publications, have also produced a great deal of commentary on the “movement,” its goals, and its advantages and shortcomings. Unabashedly utopian and sunny, solarpunk, in the eyes of its boosters and practitioners, professes optimism as an oppositional virtue, projecting a ray of sunlight through the dim clouds of post-apocalyptic pop media.

Not only is solarpunk supposed to inspire real activism and practical solutions to environmental and social problems, its proponents are also, at this stage, highly activist about this nascent subgenre. There is even a manifesto for it. So although it is a literary and artistic tendency first and foremost, many of the authors we’ll be encountering in this new series inject far loftier ambitions. While this seems appropriate given the defiant can-do-it attitude of solarpunk, it also generates a set of interesting questions:

1. What is the relationship between the literary work and any practical activist or infrastructural work done in the name of solarpunk?

2. Does solarpunk aspire to become more than a literary movement or does it sit content appropriating and recontextualizing works that fit the aesthetic but are not formally affiliated with it?

3. How do the creative workers and critics promoting solarpunk conceptualize their own politics–as uniquely solarpunk, or merely influenced by it?

While I can’t answer all of these questions in full, I want to look more closely at this genre because it represents a rather unique post-ironic and anti-nihilist approach to thinking about ecology and technology, society and the individual, and “the end of the world” vs. the end of the world as we know it. My other reason for investigating solarpunk and some of its many close relatives and affiliates is a profound skepticism. To be brief: I am unconvinced that this lustrous approach to “punk” can be the basis of a radical critique of the status quo, at least not at this point. While sentimental cynicism can be just as noxious as untempered idealism (in the dreamer sense, not the Marxist insult), existing critiques of futurism and visions of earthly harmony cast doubt on the project of “re-brightening” science fiction and our collective visions of the future.

In order to think through these fundamental concerns and approach an answer to the three questions I posed earlier, I will be exploring some of the genealogy of solarpunk, its current manifestations, and looking at specific critical writing and image and literary production associated with solarpunk.

My first post will look at Castle and the Sky, Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, and Princess Mononoke, which have all been claimed as part of the aesthetic heritage of solarpunk and even recommended as part of a “syllabus” for those getting familiar with the subgenre. I want to explore what Miyazaki’s relationship to the stated goals of solarpunk really are and look at his own evolution, since we can’t assume that every film will have the same relationship.

In the second post, I will look at Adam Flynn’s “Notes toward a manifesto” for solarpunk. By putting this document in dialogue with a few other “manifesto-type” documents related to the subgenre, we can get a sense for what sympathetic critics and academics see in solarpunk and explore some reasons why this might be the case.

Third, we’ll delve into a more explicitly political solarpunk-pusher. Specifically, we’ll look at Solarpunk Anarchist’s blog and Facebook presence and the media and audience that they have curated. This gives us a sense of at least one of the vital audiences that solarpunk has generated. Comparing it to some of the more popular solarpunk tumblr blogs, we can use Solarpunk Anarchist as a way to perceive how explicit political commitment matters as far as audience cultivation and ideology. Though solarpunk is political to its core–at least in a moment where it has not been widely commercialized or appropriated by mainstream media–it’s useful to look at a more directly political wing of the subculture to see how solarpunk’s inherent politics might be contrasted and compared to a solarpunk infused with and infusing an anarchist ideology.

Solarpunk’s defiance of nihilistic or pessimistic appraisals of the future is one of its core tenets. For the fourth post, therefore, I’ll be considering some of the nihilist and some non-nihilist critiques of futurism or of optimism more generally. There are many reasons to be suspicious about the rhetoric of hope and light that solarpunk offers, but that hopeful ethos is also its greatest point of differentiation with other -punk subgenres.

Finally, in the fifth and final post, I will conclude with a critical summary of solarpunk as it currently exists. I’ll hopefully be able to get ahold of some of the more prominent solarpunk literature and investigate how short story writers construct their worlds and characters. At the very end, there may be room for speculation about what solarpunk’s contribution to radical ecology and politics might be.

Optimist aesthetics, especially partisan ones that claim an oppositional, counterculture basis, are a rarity today. That much is certain. And through this series of pieces on solarpunk, I hope we can all acquaint ourselves better with this tendency and all of its twisted tendrils.

Mononoke, Violence Against Women, and The Partiality of Truth

81ahJju-xJL._SY445_.jpg

  1. The Medicine Seller as interpreter
  2. The Spacetime of Grudges
  3. Violence Against Women

Mononoke is a detective show with a definite formula. The Medicine Seller (薬売り) exorcises mononoke, monsters borne from the unresolved and secret grudges of those who have been wronged. To do so, he must know the shape, the truth, and the reason of the mononoke. Only once he has all three pieces can he draw his sword and resolve the imbalance that has been created by violence, neglect, and the resulting ill karma.

Every episode is driven forward by revelations. The mononoke makes itself known as a danger in every story, manifesting as sounds, images, and violent action. In one episode, the mononoke strangles a sword-wielding man. In another, it takes a subway train and its passengers hostage. An old grudge or unresolved tension has made itself known in the present, mundane space. Nothing functions normally in these cases–present and past are conflated, events occur over and over again, spaces redouble themselves or change dramatically. Nothing is allowed to move or to transform as usual until the suspension of the grudge is broken by the Medicine Seller. In that sense, he is one who reconciles, who acts in order to keep the mundane world free of glitches.

As I already mentioned, however, he cannot act without first listening. He listens to a pregnant woman and an innkeeper discuss their pasts, he pieces together a story of forbidden love from an incestuous priest, tying a multi-vocal story into a truth. This act of uniting various stories, of listening to every witness without judgment and finding an actionable principle that unites them is the act of interpretation. Fundamentally, the Medicine Seller is an interpreter, someone who listens to human and mononoke alike to determine what must be done to appease the supernatural grudge. In his interpretation, he brings together fragments that were once separate or incomplete, which often means bringing secret or taboo acts or desires into the light.

e02c4423d7e18a08b763450de9d6652a.png

Of course, this does not make him fundamentally different from any detective. In an old article on the methods used by American detectives, Captain Duncan Matheson writes:

Every crime tells a story capable of interpretation. A peace officer that cannot read the story has no value in its solution. This is where the detective comes in. He makes a survey of the premises, the scene of the crime, the neighborhood and all the intimate details connected therewith.¹

A good detective story is mechanically elegant. The detective unravels the story for us and we are privy to all the pieces of the story and are invited to make our own interpretations. Typically, the greatest pleasure of the mystery story is in being given a surprising or slightly twisted version of a story we already think we know. The pieces can fit together many ways, but ultimately only one way is true, only one way of looking at things enables the detective to make the correct judgment. So not every interpretation has equal value.

For Mononoke and the Medicine Seller, the crime is not usually something contemporary or, sometimes, even recent. These are crimes that have lain dormant, curdling into malevolence while they remain unsolved. Mononoke, whether they can speak or not, are witnesses to as well as traces of the crimes from which they emerge. They often take an agency in the solving of the case, and the Medicine Seller has to weigh their desires and needs as well as those of the human beings affected by them. Part of the pleasures of Mononoke for the viewer, then, is the discovery of something human and recognizable at the core of beings who appear completely alien and incomprehensible. By unraveling their story and their reason for being, their shape and actions become understandable. The Medicine Seller bridges us to these strange beings, acting as a medium as well as an exorcist. Because there is no placating the mononoke without listening to its peculiar voice, which is as unique as any person’s.

2. The Spacetime of Grudges

NWynB.png

Before thinking about violence against women in Mononoke, we can first consider the architecture. Space takes numerous forms in the show, and while many scenes are staged as flat tableaux and composed like Edo-era Japanese prints and paintings, in more dramatic moments the camera will push rapidly forward and backward through depths that were barely hinted at earlier. This sense of hurtling forward and backward accentuates the strangeness of the space, especially when apparent exits are closed, rooms multiply copies of themselves, and the world outside a fragile vessel (boat, train) becomes demonic and hellish.

When the mononoke warp space and time, it’s usually as an act of aggression against the perpetrators. They arrest the normal flows and create pockets of stasis or chaos where reality is uncertain and everyone loses their bearings. Passage is often denied, whether through rendering escape illusory or impossible or simply binding someone in place. And the show constructs space differently depending on the nature of the grudge. The shape of the mononoke is not the only thing determined by its truth and reason, but the shape of everything.

3. Violence Against Women

In the third arc of the show, a woman confesses to killing her entire family. According to the law, her fate is already sealed by her words. The Medicine Seller, however, is not satisfied, sensing a mononoke. His skepticism and questioning of the imprisoned woman leads to her realization that her violence was not actually directed at her family but, rather, at herself. She committed a virtual suicide because of being trapped in abusive status marriage. As mentioned in part 2, the spaces of the episode shift the nature of the crime or crimes. Her conflict, although it originates from outside circumstances and physical and mental abuse, becomes confined within herself. The arc therefore begins in a prison cell and finishes with her escaping through a window, running away from her abusive family once and for all.

The intimate nature of the violence committed against her contrasts with the explosive publicity of the crime to which she confesses. She says that she slaughtered her family and hung their bodies from a tree in plain sight. Her rage, so heavily internalized, at last explodes like dynamite, creating an unmistakable sign. She publicly confesses as well. Nevertheless, these confessions and signs turn out to be illusions, even falsehoods. Most of the arc takes place in the confined and intimate spaces of her memory, which has a confusing, repetitive quality. In order to lay these illusions bare, the Medicine Seller crafts his own illusion, a man in a Noh mask, in order to show the woman how her situation had robbed her of her self-worth and her humanity, causing her to seek her own destruction through execution.

Nearly every arc revolves around or involves a similar act of violence against women. These acts typically punish “improper” affections or desires or women’s attempts to enter masculine spaces. For instance, the final arc deals with the sensational murder of a woman journalist who wanted to expose corruption and collusion between the local mayor and the capitalists who wanted to build a subway in the city. In the end, not only is the murderer haunted, by various witnesses all comprehend a much more complete picture of the crime, facilitated by both the mononoke and the Medicine Seller.

Violence against women is often concealed by shame and taboo, both in the show and in the real world. The function of the Medicine Seller is to go beyond these boundaries and reveal the truth of the matter. Although we know little about the Medicine Seller and he appears as an impartial judge or actor, he in fact always taking sides in one way or another. After all, the revelation of truth never affects two people the same way. And many would rather live with the affliction of a mononoke, an undying grudge, than ever allow the truth to come to light. The Medicine Seller’s interpretation, the mosaic composed of all the little truths, shatters those who are protected by customary silence and power.

Notes:

1. Duncan Matheson, “The Technique of the American Detective,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 146 (1929): 214. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1017564.