nothing here but animal empathy

issue 043 - 9th February, 2020

CJW: Welcome to another issue of the nothing here newsletter. Our latest bonus letter was Part 4 of m1k3y’s Field Notes from the proto-Invisibles Monastary. To get access to it, our future bonuses, and the full archive, just go here to become a supporter.

MJW: My Instagram

Some days I opened my feed and felt like I was participating in a battle for hegemony. Twitter was where the fourth estate now gathered to talk to itself, and a struggle over what counted as common sense was underway... To be good at it was a new kind of talent. The best acts were irreverent, impulsive, zany, quick. They could be vicious or nihilistic, incoherent in the long run but meted out at such a drip that you didn’t notice or care. Lower-skilled participants doled out hearts to keep everyone going, like the bystanders who hand out cups of water at a marathon... Finally, in July, I thought: I’m going to have a heart attack if I stay here. 

I changed my password to thisisamassivewasteoftimeandnotthepurposeofyourlifeonearth.

[...]

It’s penciled-in eyebrows all the way down, down to the depths of the nth circle of hell where we all die immediately of a Brazilian butt lift, over and over again. But what is there to say? We know it, we know it, we know it. Still we keep scrolling, deeper down the well of our bottomless need.

CJW: This long read isn’t just on instagram or social media addiction, but also covers a whole range of issues and topics that we talk about here, including the way social media studies our behaviour in order to best sell us crap, and the ways they subtly (and not so subtly) influence our behaviour. It’s long though, so either use dotepub, or only open it up when you know you’ll be able to focus.

MJW: I took a week off twitter for my mental and physical health. That’s all I could last. The quintessential addict, I needed my hits too much that I’m actually surprised I lasted that long. 

I have three twitter accounts. Wait, no, I have five (I forgot my two podcasts.) I’m constantly switching between them, searching out those GOOD CHEMS. Look, I don’t do drugs anymore (well, I mean, I’m ‘California sober’…) and I have to fulfill my epic addictive tendencies somehow. Anyway, this article kinda went into all that, PLUS, as CJW said above, so much more.

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CJW: What's the harm in reading?(via Lele)

Many reactions to Fall’s story, for all that they come from nominal progressives, fit neatly into a Puritanical mold, attacking it as hateful toward transness, fundamentally evil for depicting a trans person committing murder, or else as material that right-wing trolls could potentially use to smear trans people as ridiculous. Each analysis positioned the author as at best thoughtless and at worst hateful, while her attackers are cast as righteous; in such a way of thinking, art is not a sensual or aesthetic experience but a strictly moral one, its every instance either fundamentally good or evil. This provides aggrieved parties an opportunity to feel righteousness in attacking transgressive art, positioning themselves as protectors of imagined innocents or of ideals under attack.

We’ve previously shared another piece by Gretchen Felker-Martin, I Don't Wanna Grow Up (And Neither Can You), which touches on some similar ground to the above piece about the controversy surrounding Isabel Fall’s story “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter.” If you haven’t already come across the story and the associated drama… well, good for you. Just do me a favour, and if you want to have an opinion, please don’t be like the puritans mentioned above who never even bothered to read the story before attacking the author and her ideas. The story has been taken down, but it’s archived here.

Related to the above link, here’s Xenogothic with some more thoughts on Falker-Martin’s piece and on the Attack Helicopter short story itself:

Sexually Identifying as a War Machine: Keeping the Trans* in Transgressive

The question becomes: How can we allow marginalised literature like “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” to flourish? And: How might we do so in a way that combats left and right identitarianism wherever it emerges?

It’s well worth reading, and ends with this thought, which I found compelling:

Why is Chelsea Manning more violently suppressed than Edward Snowden? Because she represents an attack helicopter gone rogue, reconnecting with a warrior spirit within her otherwise disciplined self. She is the machine the government don’t want you to see.

MJW: I was ALL over this ‘Attack Helicopter’ business as it was happening. I had a lot of THOUGHTS and FEELINGS about it, but because I am not trans, and because I know that some things, and indeed everything, is utterly nuanced, I kept my mouth shut and listened to what other folks, ones more suited to talk about it, said. I’m sorry some people were hurt by all this, and I’m sorry the author had such a shitty time and had to take down their story.

Either way, hurt or no hurt, I fucking hate online mob attack mentality. 

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CJW: The case for ... cities that aren't dystopian surveillance states | Cory Doctorow (via Sentiers)

The problem is that the smart city, as presently conceived, is a largely privatised affair designed as a public-private partnership to extract as much value as possible from its residents while providing the instrumentation and infrastructure to control any civil unrest that such an arrangement might provoke. Far from treating residents as first-class users of smart infrastructure, they are treated as something between gut flora and pathogen, an inchoate mass of troublesome specks to be nudged into deterministic, convenient-to-manage patterns.

A great breakdown of the dystopian possibilities of smart cities, but also a call for smart cities to become something else - something that works for, not on, people. 

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CJW: Artificial Morality

AI activists are not everyday brogrammers churning out grocery-code. These are visionary zealots driven by powerful urges they seem unwilling to confront.

 A brief provocation from Bruce Sterling on the morals of AI and it's developers. 

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CJW: Do We Care Enough About Animals to Save Them From Extinction?

The deaths of wild animals are so inextricably woven into everything that makes up human civilization that we are disinclined to combat them. As one researcher studying wildlife populations in the area around the Chernobyl nuclear accident wrote, “we’re not saying radiation is good for animals, but we’re saying human habitation is worse.”

However, one researcher I spoke to, who works on ways to combine agriculture and wildlife preservation, thought there might be some hope—not much, but some—if we could begin to see animals as individuals.

This is a fantastic piece by Jane Rawson on empathy, animals, and our responsibilities to them in life and in fiction. This is already giving me thoughts for an upcoming project. 

Maps Are Biased Against Animals

Despite animals’ impressive and undeniable impact on the natural landscape, the vast majority of world maps contain almost no historical record of their existence. Humans behave as if we are a self-reliant species, rather than one of many lifeforms, all of whom rely on the same fragile ecosystem to survive.

Jane Rawson also shared this piece. Both offer a new way of thinking about our relationship to animals. Where her essay talks about the difference it can make looking at animals (human and non-human) as individuals rather than groups, this article makes a case for representing animal habitats on our maps so that we may better consider the neighbours we share the land with. With the statistics about wild animals that Jane shares in her piece, it would seem that rethinking our relationship to wild animals is long overdue.

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CJW: Opinion | We Made the Coronavirus Epidemic (via Christopher Brown)

We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.

This is an interesting piece about the effects of our destructive consumerist ways, how they led to the Coronavirus outbreak, and how they will lead to more disasters in the future.

Also, any time someone tries to say we in the West are post-racial now, just remember the widespread anti-Chinese racism that came about thanks to the Coronavirus. 

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CJW: Who Goes There (at reallifemag.com)

Security questions rest on unexamined assumptions about what constitutes identity, and what biographical details can be assumed as universal, private, and memorable to internet users. They are a form of quiet disciplinary power; specifically, they help enforce the hegemonic subjectivity required to provide an effective and sustained labor force.

I love these sorts of essays, that cause you to rethink something familiar that you've never given a second thought to before. Here it is online security questions, and the assumptions they make about the users. It also goes into the history of SQs.

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CJW: Hopepunk can't fix our broken science fiction

We are still, in many ways, living in the world Reagan and Thatcher built—a neoliberal world of growing precarity, corporate dominance, divestment from the welfare state, and social atomization. In this sort of world, the reliance on narratives that feature hacker protagonists charged with solving insurmountable problems individually can seem all too familiar. In the absence of any sense of collective action, absent the understanding that history isn’t made by individuals but by social movements and groups working in tandem, it’s easy to see why some writers, editors, and critics have failed to think very far beyond the horizon cyberpunk helped define.

This piece echoes some things I've said (And thought) before. One thing I notice though is that for all the people willing and able to point out the problems with the longevity of cyberpunk, far fewer people are able to offer concrete suggestions for where we can go from here. My own thoughts currently are along the lines of "completely abandoning the -punk suffix and seeing where the chips fall" rather than actively trying to create something to follow cyberpunk because in doing so you will create something that is still tied to cyberpunk and thus continues to perpetuate it.

But I also have a cyberpunk novel coming out in the next couple of months, explicitly using cyberpunk as a lens to view our modern condition (and vice versa), so I'm kinda talking outta my arse here (and feeling a little targeted by the end of this piece, ha).

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CJW: 'Kentucky Route Zero' Pays Off on Nine Years of Hope and Doubt

I bought Kentucky Route Zero years ago, played through the first act and loved it, but never went back to it. I always told myself I would, and the release of the fifth and final act last week was a good excuse to return. The above, by Austin Walker, is as good an essay/review on the game as you're likely to find, but you'll want to play at least until the end of Act IV before you read it. (And yes, I do recommend you play it if the aesthetic appeals. It is a weird and compelling story told in fascinating fashion.)

On Twitter I saw someone say about Kentucky Route Zero, "What if the next great American novel wasn't a novel?" And whilst I understand what they meant and even agree as so far as it goes, I also think it diminishes the role of the language of video games in helping craft the story of KR0. The final moment at the end of The Entertainment is so shocking because you're the one turning your head to look. A similar effect could have been created in film, but not in a novel. For all the reams of text contained within KR0, this isn't a novel masquerading as a game, this is one of the best arguments yet made for video games as art (assuming that debate is still ongoing).

Which is a funny thing to say when I would also describe KR0 as less of a game, and more of an experience. Usually only RPGs have this much text, and this many dialogue choices, but as you play through KR0 you get the feeling that the choices you make don't really matter. You can perhaps control the tone at times, and decide which character's story you want to explore further, but ultimately the developers have a story to tell, and you are simply along for the ride. You become the mechanism by which the story can be told.

A part of me wants to play KR0 over again and pick apart the different layers of meaning in order to write long essays on the game, but another part just wants to read the essays.

It's at times melancholic, at times hopeful, obtuse, beautiful, Lynchian, touching, and on at least one occasion, tedious. It's about people, and the ways we are used as fuel for the capitalist systems that dominate our society. But for every tragedy touched on in the story, there are also connections being forged, friends being made, family being found. The final act centres around the potential of a new community separate to the capitalist structures, and for that reason it feels important. Looking forward, more and more it seems like collective action and community engagement will be our best hope, and that's where the game will guide you, if you let it. Also, in the last act you play as a cat and you get to meow at people. What's not to love?

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Cutting Room Floor:

CJW: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

It seems like a good week to talk about this novel, as it has some parallels to the Jane Rawson link above. First off, read this book, but don’t read the blurb on the back of it. The book is a slow burn, and the blurb will tell you what it’s slowly burning up to, which could ruin some of the journey.

There’s a refrain repeated throughout the book, aimed at its main character: You care about animals more than people. That resonated with me, partly because of how I’ve felt my entire life (I’m unable to watch nature documentaries because I can’t stand to watch animals suffer), and partly because of where my current fiction is going as I try and use it to grapple with climate change and our culpability in mass extinction and destruction of habitats. 

The narrator doesn’t really see animals as something different to or lesser than people, something demonstrated by the way she will give names to people and animals. The animals don’t have names that we can understand, and she believes that a person’s given name is rarely right for them. She even rails against her own name. By denying these human identities it’s as though she diminishes the sacred aspect that we hold for ourselves and our own. None of these people is more important than these animals, and every animal killed in the forest near her house deserves a proper burial in her cemetary yard.

So what we see through her eyes is a community of humans and non-human animals who are all equal - simply neighbours. And thus she sees people hunting and poaching in the area as murderers, and bothers the local authorities endlessly to try and get them to do something about even the legal hunting activities. The book does a great job of showing how her fellow villagers might see her as “just” a crazy old lady - constantly writing letters and working out people’s astrological charts - whilst also convincingly arguing her point of view.

It’s a slow burn, but worthy of your time.

MKY: Doctor Who (Season 12 1-5)

This is one of those ‘that show you may have stopped watching got good again’ takes. The new season of Doctor Who feels like science fiction for this stage - and I’m being very generous in saying this - of the Anthropocene. The two-part season opener had major Dark Forest vibes. The third ep ends with the most hopepunk speech; basically the Doctor almost looking straight at the camera and saying ‘the nightmare world of runaway climate chaos is just one possible future, the choice is yours.’ The fourth ep is the best Who mythology ep I’ve seen in a long time. And the fifth is classic Who updated for our shitty present. It’s been about a decade since I’ve dug this show so much.

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MKY: Where’s My Roy Cohn?

This is another solid origins of our shitty present documentary, and if you have the fortitude for a double-bill, watch Get Me Roger Stone after it. Donald Trump was his protege - that’s prolly all you need to know to wanna check it out, but you’ll learn so much more watching this, especially  if, like me, you’d somehow never heard of Roy Cohn until recently. Pretty sure the UK’s Dark Wizard In Charge, Dominic Cummings, is a fan too; ‘cause it sounds like he’s copying Cohn’s playbook, especially with regard to the way he plays the Mainstream Media.

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MKY: The True History of the Kelly Gang

If you wanted something completely different yet still complementary to watch after that Roy Cohn doc - a man who embraced his bad reputation and very much self-mythologised - check out this latest iteration of the Ned Kelly myth. Based on Peter Carey’s book of the same name - which I haven’t read, yet for some reason went to see him launch - it’s as much a movie about how a person’s life can become etched in a young colonial nation’s folklore as it is about their exploits. Compared to previous Ned Kelly films - of which this is the tenth, I believe - it focuses far less on his rampaging bushranger antics at the end of his young life, which made him infamous, to chart his life from boyhood til the end, and in doing so situating him more in the era. This is fleshed out by the roles played by Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam and that Kiwi movie star, Russel Crowe, who I rarely like, but very much did in this. For some reason I’ve been (re)watching a lot of post-apoc and colonial era (aka the Indigenous post-apoc) Australian movies this fire season - eg Mad Max: Fury Road, The Proposition, The Rover - and this film, especially with its blasted landscape, slots in perfectly amongst them.

CJW: Terms to Mute on Twitter

Marlee had this list as a screenshot, but (via Sean Bonner) here is a list you can copy and paste into twitter to clean up some of the crap they force into your timeline.

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AA: I recently came across this Medium post; it’s misogynistic, alt-right-y… and fascinating. 

Maybe 6 years ago or something, I told the joke the first time: “I got sober without having to find God. And honestly, I feel like I got jibbed”. 

I've never had major personal experience with alcoholism or religion, but those who have might find something worthwhile (maybe that's the wrong word… morbidly compelling, maybe?) here. Or maybe, like me, you're just a voyeur who likes reading weird shit on the internet? In any case, I find there’s a deranged vitality to this kind of amateurish writing that isn't there in a thousand hackneyed thinkpieces. Proceed with caution, dear reader! (It also occurs to me I would say similar things about this Justin Murphy interview about “Catholic Accelerationism”.) 

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AA: In a similar spirit of sharing without moral or intellectual endorsement, I've been reading about Jacques Lacan recently. This was prompted by a twitter thread discussing the influence of psychoanalysis on French autism policy. This then lead me to this article about Lacan’s interest in topology, which features bits like this: 

Lacan opens one session by telling his audience he has been playing with tresses of string for the past 48 hours to make different configurations of the four-ringed Borromean knot which represents how his Real, Imaginary and Symbolic registers are held together

This is the sort of thing I find stimulating to read, but intuit as largely bullshit. It’s compellingly dumbfuck in a completely different way to the above Medium post. I had about 30 minutes to myself this week and this is how I spent it? I'm clearly a sick man. Anyway, here is another nice diagram from the article

MJW: Queerstories Podcast

I’m doing Queerstories this month (I’m never nervous about speaking in front of crowds, but I am worried about whether I can be funny enough…) Anyway, if you’re in Melbourne, come along, if not, take a listen to some of the amazing speakers from this event curated by Maeve Marsden. The stories aren’t the standard ‘coming out’ narratives queer people usually get to tell, but instead, stories of existing and living while being queer. I haven’t made it through the full backlist yet (I’m not made of ears), but so far I’ve loved the stories told by Patrick Lenton, Gala Vanting, and Zahra Stardust.

AA: what about this thing: an interesting video about the Mandelbrot set. The story of its origins and the principles behind it are clearly illustrated and explained. I’d say I understood 90% of it, and I have no capacity for maths. Trying to comprehend how Mandelbrot, Gaston Julia and Pierre Fatou et al discovered and explored these nuanced fractal landscapes is a mind bender, especially if you feel like the world of numbers is some kind of Terrifying Eldritch Zone of Dread Chaos, like I do. 

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 CJW: That’s it for another issue. We’re up against substack’s limits, so I’ll keep this short.