Category Archives: Classics

The Story of High School

Imperial Stormtrooper with two high school girls

Photo by Danny Choo / CC BY-SA 2.0

I just started watching an anime series titled Beyond the Boundary. Yes, another one. This particular series is about a high school boy teaming up with his classmate to hunt down monsters. The animation is good, though the story’s a bit clichéd on the relationship front. In the end, I like it well enough as something to decompress with after a long day.

What strikes me, though, is the realization that there are a hell of a lot of anime series set in high school. Thinking about it some more, though, I have to admit that there are actually a lot of stories – anime and otherwise – set in high school.

The Japanese high school story is distinct from the American high school story, but both versions largely elide what takes up the majority of an actual high school student’s life: academics. We are shown scenes from before class, after class, whispered conversations during class, and interruptions during homework and study after school, but simply going from what is depicted we could not appreciate that these scenes are tiny particles of a student’s personal life snatched from the all-devouring temporal maw of the modern educational system. The state desires citizens and it will keep children in a totalizing and regulated environment until something more compliant comes out. Or until something not quite fitting into the system jumps out, but that’s mostly okay too, since modern society also needs poor people to exploit.

But we move away from the central topic. Like Don Quixote’s romantic tales of chivalry, which never mention knights-errant packing clean shirts or budgeting their travelling expenses, the high school story takes it for granted that the audience understands that the dull banalities of everyday life are being handled by the characters offscreen while the interesting stuff happens front and centre.

Inherently, then, the high school story is a fantasy story, for what is modern life but a collection of dull banalities, and what is fiction but an escape from those banalities? Here is what matters, says the high school story. Here, romance blossoms and ends, friends come and tearfully go, rivals clash and compete, adventure strikes, life is lived. Here is something better than reality – here is truth.

But this truth can only be found in fiction. Who has time to investigate a mystery or sabotage a date or spy on a committee meeting or do any one of the thousand clichés found in fiction? Who has time when ever more minutes of ever more days are increasingly scheduled and regulated and penciled in? And when one has free time, one must be preparing for the period when one does not. Get enough sleep, study, wash your school and work clothes, prepare your lunch for the next day, shop for groceries to make lunch with, and so on everyday over and over.

This explains the prevalence of the high school story. High school is essentially the last period in a middle class person’s life where they’re old enough to have grown-up wishes but young enough to have free time. Not as much as in previous generations, but certainly more then they would as young adults. And unlike undergrads, should things get too bad for a high school student then they still have the psychological safety blanket of running to mom and dad for help.

We fantasize about what we do not have, and what we fantasize about is doing anything else besides what we’re supposed to. Our secret yearnings are for some rose-coloured and nonexistent past when there were enough rules to protect us but not enough to constrict us.

Most of us don’t want to do what we’re currently doing. Why else does procrastination take place, and why else should so many Youtube videos be watched in the middle of the work day? People who lived outside of the strictures and constraints of the state did not all live happy and fulfilling lives, but they certainly spent a lot less time doing things they loathed. “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” is a guiding principle for them, not an insult. If I’m hungry I eat, if I’m sleepy I go to bed, and if I’m unhappy doing something I find something else to do.

From the problem, we come to the solution. But what solution? What could a better world look like? I think it would involve less regulation, less constriction, less hierarchy. In other worlds, less of the state and more anarchism. But whatever this better world looks like, I think we can all agree that it won’t look like the one we have right now.

A closing thought to ponder on – if alien archaeologists were to find the remains of extinct humanity millions of years hence, they might erect this epitaph: “Here lies the human race. They spent most of their time grinning and bearing it.”

I accidentally wrote a Cormac McCarthy fanfic

Lately I’ve been considering the moral underpinnings of the nut shot and how it relates to the debate on the existence of God.

I’ve asked around and found that most guys have taken multiple blows to the testicles over the course of their lives. This result was surprising to me since I figured that the crippling pain of the experience would discourage the possibility of repeats, but life throws us curve balls occasionally.

So, long story short, I wrote a pastiche in the style of Cormac McCarthy pontificating majestically about nut shots. Think of it as the opening for a magisterial work examining the experience of suffering.

I’ve titled this piece “So You’ve Been Kicked in the Testicles”.

So You’ve Been Kicked in the Testicles

The pain of being kicked in the testicles is not merely a physical pain but an existential one, which is to say that the pain is not contained in one part of the body but rather located throughout the entirety of one’s existence. When crippled by a blow to the groin, time loses all meaning and it feels as if one’s entire life has been spent with stabbing pains on the crotch.

Better and worse is the experience of seeing others receive a blow to the groin. It’s a sight uniquely tinged with both sympathy and hilarity in equal measure. There’s a recognition of pain, an empathetic understanding of living with the savage terror of existence in our uncaring universe, but there’s also the joy born of relief that the one so bedevilled is not oneself. The blow to the testicles lays bare the fiction of a just world, for there is no fairness in the disproportionate anguish caused by a random testicular blow. Faced with this fundamental injustice, how else can one react but with laughter?

Feminist horror films

Horror films and feminism don’t tend to go together. There’s nothing inherently misogynistic about horror if you simply go by its technical description: a film genre seeking to elicit a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience’s primal fears. What’s misogynistic about scary things happening? However, in practice horror films reinforce gender stereotypes and punish nonconformity.

But why should this be so? Why are horror films full of sexually licentious women being murdered as karmic punishment for their sins? Why is emasculation and violence such a large part of horror movies? Why do horror movies inevitably begin with a stereotypically peaceful and content nuclear family as a representation of the normal before having this singular perfection disordered by outsiders? Because at their core, most horror movies are based on what horrifies men.

I could go into a long screed about how Hollywood is male-dominated and how the male perspective is the default and unmarked viewpoint in most mainstream cinema. However, you should already know this, and if you don’t, then I’m telling you now that this is how it is. That isn’t what interests me right now.

Instead, I simply want to assert that this hegemony cannot apply everywhere. Surely there must be horror films where women are not mere victims. Surely there are horror films which a feminist can watch.

Of course, to have redeeming value it’s not enough for a horror film to simply have Strong Female Characters. They’re everywhere nowadays, which is rather tiresome. More importantly, they’re all the same. So what if a woman is good at violence? Is this something that’s necessarily positive? They’re not so much characters as stereotypes, and boring ones as well.

So what follows herewith is my own attempt at making a list of feminist horror, omitting those with Strong Female Characters. In no particular order:

  1. Ginger Snaps
    • The first example that springs to mind because it was specifically made to meet the challenge of making a horror film that wasn’t misogynistic. It succeeded, in spades. Briefly, it’s a werewolf movie that explicitly compares the monthly cycle to menstruation, a premise which in retrospect seems rather obvious.
  2. The Descent
    • An all-female group of spelunkers encounters monsters underground. The characters are strong and female, but they’re not Strong Female Characters. They have private griefs and unvoiced guilt and burning drives and passions. In short, they have inner universes and human feelings. I liked how subtle the movie is regarding the motivations of the women.
  3. The Company of Wolves
    • The movie is about the Little Red Riding Hood story but foregrounding the sexual terror, which to be fair is so prominent in the original that it’s barely subtext. The film ends with an admonishment towards girls to beware of men, just to remind the audience exactly what the whole thing was about.
      • Little girls, this seems to say
      • Never stop upon your way,
      • Never trust a stranger friend,
      • No-one knows how it will end,
      • As you’re pretty, so be wise,
      • Wolves may lurk in every guise.
      • Now, as then, ’tis simple truth:
      • Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth.”
  4. Byzantium
    • A mother and daughter pair of immortal vampires in hiding make their way to a small English town on the beach. Like the previous movie, this one was also directed by Neil Jordan, though it has a more straightforward narrative and is less in the camp of magical realism. Sadly, the movie sunk into nowhere when it was released, but hopefully it’ll be discovered by more people over time.
  5. Jennifer’s Body
    • A girl is murdered by a rock band and comes back to take her revenge. It wasn’t the greatest thing ever but it wasn’t as terrible as the online consensus was saying. Probably it’s some kind of latent nerd antipathy toward Megan Fox’s presence in the cast. I’d say the movie was solid enough.
  6. Alien
    • This has an actual strong female character but is otherwise a monster movie about an alien stalking the working class crew of a starship. It doesn’t have any specific examination of feminist concerns but Ellen Ripley is now a classic character as far as female horror protagonists go so this movie gets a pass.
  7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    • A stereotypically vain and vapid cheerleader becomes a champion against the supernatural. The movie is explicitly about female empowerment but of a specifically white and middle class type of female empowerment. Still, the attempt was made, so here it is on the list.
  8. Carrie
    • This last example I’m iffy on because I haven’t seen the original or the remake. However, I feel it would be remiss of me not to at least mention this movie. I even know the gist of the story: bullied girl with psychic powers takes a bloody revenge on her tormentors. Thinking on it now, the story doesn’t seem to address specifically feminist concerns. I’ll have to make this listing provisional until I’ve actually seen the movie.

Anyway, this list should be a good starting point for a marathon. One of these days I’ll try watching these all back-to-back and see how I am come out on the other end.

Superheroes and the American Dream

Peter Parker and the fateful spider bite

From Slog:

I do drug research for a biotech company. One day, when I was taking blood samples from some rats that had been dosed with a radiolabeled (Indium 111) MS drug, the little son of a bitch bit me (not that I really blame her, we fuck them up pretty good). So, I am proud to say that I have been bitten by a radioactive rat.

I have as of yet developed no superpowers. If I do, I will let you know.

The classic superhero origin is a story of blind luck: the protagonist – still mortal, still mundane – stumbles upon a mysterious MacGuffin that transforms him (and it’s mostly “him”) into a protector of conventional morality.1 Perhaps he finds a dying alien who grants him a weapon of unimaginable power. Perhaps he discovers he was always different and that he has powers beyond the abilities of mortal men. Perhaps he is bitten by a radioactive spider and has gained the consequent abilities of arachnids. Whatever the specifics, in most superhero origins, the hero merely has his powers handed to him.

If you think about it, it’s a paradoxical idea. Are not superhero comics one of the most quintessentially American of media? Is not the pursuit of the American Dream a vital part of the American cultural narrative? Does not the very idea of reward without sacrifice go against the dour Protestant work ethic that informs American society?

And yet there exists the superhero.

Continue reading Superheroes and the American Dream

Real-Life SuperHeroes

This essay was originally posted to the No Scans Daily LiveJournal community.
The face of the superhero in real life

Following the post about which superhero universe is better to live in and the ensuing discussion on the psychology of the superhero, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the self-styled “Real-Life Superheroes” or Reals.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Anyway, these are real people who dress up in costume and go out to fight crime. Perhaps you’ve heard about them before, but if not, perhaps you might care to peruse a few articles about them.

There’s apparently even a documentary about one real-life Justice League – they call themselves Superheroes Anonymous. Okay, it’s actually an annual conference for real life superheroes, not a team.

What’s fascinating is finding out about how these Reals act and what ostensibly motivates them, and also reading between the lines and speculating about them. This is not Watchmen, Nite Owl never had a poster of Captain America in his living room. I think this is the biggest difference between our world and any comic book universe, since none of them have 80 years’ worth of superhero comics establishing what superheroes are before anyone ever tried putting on costumes and fighting crime.

Continue reading Real-Life SuperHeroes

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

For history-minded people who are also China watchers, it’s fascinating to see how China’s current drive towards accelerated industrialization resembles the historical trajectory of European industrialization.  There is, of course, the massive pile of Chinese migrant labourer bodies stacking up from various coal mine accidents, sweatshop fires, and worker riots.  All of this recalls “Western” experiences, and if you squint at the headlines in the right way you can even imagine you’re reading a news article from the 19th century.  The wealthier Chinese are even aware of this:

But an odd change has come about in some [Chinese] shoppers’ minds. As members of China’s business and political elite, they have come to believe that the world is a huge jungle of Darwinian competition, where connections and smarts mean everything, and quaint notions of fairness count for little.

I noticed this attitude on my most recent trip to China from the United States, where I moved nine years ago. So I asked a relative who lives rather comfortably to explain. “Is it fair that the household maids make 65 cents an hour while the well-connected real estate developers become millionaires or billionaires in just a few years?” I asked. He was caught off guard. After a few seconds of silence, he settled on an answer he had read in a popular magazine.

“Look at England, look at America,” he said. “The Industrial Revolution was very cruel. When the English capitalists needed land, sheep ate people.” (Chinese history books use the phrase “sheep ate people” to describe what happened in the 19th century, when tenant farmers in Britain were thrown off their land to starve so that sheep could graze and produce wool for new mills.)

“Since England and America went through that pain, shouldn’t we try to avoid the same pain, now that we have history as our guide?” I asked.

“If we want to proceed to a full market economy, some people have to make sacrifices,” my relative said solemnly. “To get to where we want to get, we must go through the ‘sheep eating people’ stage too.”

In other words, while most Chinese have privately dumped the economic prescriptions of Marx, two pillars of the way he saw the world have remained. First is the inexorable procession of history to a goal. The goal used to be the Communist utopia; now the destination is a market economy of material abundance.

Second, just as before, the welfare of some people must be sacrificed so the community can march toward its destiny. Many well-to-do Chinese readily endorse those views, so long as neither they nor their relatives are placed on the altar of history. In the end, Marx is used to justify ignoring the pain of the poor.

Certainly it’s a mealy-mouthed excuse for an excuse: It’s okay for Chinese to exploit their fellow human beings because the British did the same 150 years ago.  The British also forced the Chinese to buy British opium at gunpoint and cede Hong Kong in the Opium Wars, so my inner cynic wonders if the Chinese are also planning on doing the same thing to other countries.  Then again, the march of progress means that often the new capitalists are welcomed with open arms.

Of course, this pattern of worker abuse is not just a simple reiteration of Western history being played out by people with darker skin.  For example, no witches were ever burned in England because manufacturing jobs were scarce.  The present isn’t the past and the (cough, ahem) Third World isn’t the farcical Napoleon III to the First World’s l’Empereur, Marx’s witticism notwithstanding.

For one thing, while it may be tempting to think of all of this “stuff” as happening in foreign countries or in the past, the resurgence of Taylorism and “scientific management” (a discredited management philosophy organized around getting the most productivity out of workers and damn their health and comfort), the introduction of flexible labour and contingent work (in rural as well as in urban areas), the migration of capital and jobs, and the shrinking of the working class labour market in the “West” means that things are getting crappier where white people live too.  Some economists are even admitting this, despite the fact that most of them seem to be propagandists of global capitalism.

In fact, the globalist project has been so dismal in its rewards that it’s been traded in for straight-up nationalism in some quarters (e.g., the US, Russia, Pakistan, Japan, and so many other countries).  “Here we go again,” say the historians, though in this sequel the Indians sometimes fight off the cowboys successfully — note, though, that it’s not the absolutely downtrodden countries that are resisting successfully, but the ones that already have some power.  Lest anyone forget, remember also that the elites of those countries are hard at work exploiting their paisanos, so what we’re seeing is more like one group of elites fighting off another group of elites than the underdogs beating the five-time league champion.

All of these thoughts were triggered in me when I read about the recent fashionability of skin tanning among wealthier Chinese (via Boas Blog’s shoutout to Racialicious).  Note that light skin was previously the in-thing to have to signify one’s wealth since it’s a sign that one isn’t a common labourer working outdoors, just like in Britain before the Industrial Revolution and just like it is today in many developing countries (and let’s not forget that skin whitening creams are used by many black people in the US, UK, and the Caribbean, though they’re used for slightly different reasons than mere signifiers of wealth).  With the expansion of the airline industry, the drop in ticket prices thanks to cut-throat competition, and the greater number of vacationing middle class people created by industrialization, tanned skin has become a sign that the possessor has been to an expensive holiday overseas — again, like the way tanned skin became fashionable in Britain as a sign that the person has been to the Mediterranean, most likely during their Grand Tour of Europe, such holidaying becoming only possible by the building of railways to criss-cross the continent.

So there you have it: The more things change, the more they stay the same (barring the odd witch-burning and war on Islam here and there).