Monday, September 1, 2014

Fundamentals: Aesthetics and Ethics

I've been thinking about this for a while, and I've decided to start an irregular series of posts in which I discuss sort of fundamental ideas behind how I approach texts, write for this site, and just generally approach the world. There will be at least a couple this and next week, mostly because I realized that I had something I wanted to say, but felt I needed to explain some underlying concepts first. And it just generally occurred to me that I might want to have some posts I could just point to and say "go here" instead of having to repeat myself in articles and comments. Anyway, this is the first of these posts.

One of the most basic principles underlying my approach to criticism is that aesthetics are inextricable from ethics. Before I go any further, I should make clear that I am emphatically not endorsing Chekhov's view that all art should be didactic and encourage "good morals." However, neither am I endorsing Wilde's contrary ars arsa position.

First there is the trivial sense: the creation of art is an action, which occurs in the real world and has consequences for real people. It is thus impossible for it to not have some moral dimension--"it's for art" is not a defense against accusations of immorality. (Although, to be clear, many "moral" objections to art are simply prudery; however, the correct response is not "art is above moral concerns" but rather "your morality blows.")

More importantly, however, aesthetics and ethics are fundamentally connected at their root: both are expressions of values, which is to say that both aesthetic and moral judgment derive from some underlying sense that some things--objects, ideas, sensations, material social conditions, whatever--are better than others.That quality of better does not actually vary between the aesthetic and the moral; better is better.

So, while separate categories, the aesthetic and the moral are inextricably intertwined. You can see it in the way we sometimes respond to either, the way we might refer to an immoral act as "disgusting" or a particularly moral one as "beautiful," or conversely the way we might refer to bad art as "wrong" and good art as "right."

This entanglement, in turn, means that the moral dimension is a legitimate consideration in any form of criticism. It is not as simple as saying that aesthetically good art must also be morally good or vice versa; rather it is, as I said, that the ethical dimension is one thing to consider in making aesthetic judgments (and the aesthetic is one thing to consider in making moral judgments).

A short version: beauty is good, but it is neither necessary to, nor sufficient for, goodness. Goodness is beautiful, but it is neither necessary to, nor sufficient for, beauty.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

It isn't nothing, it's everything! (Rarity Takes Manehattan)

I am about 80% sure this bit was added in just to explain
Pinkie Pie talking about hot dogs back in Season 1.
If the qlippoth are the anti-sephiroth, then the absence of sephiroth, the "hole" which can be filled with any fruit of the Tree, is Da'at, Knowledge. In Jewish tradition it is identified with the awakening of self-awareness and with adolescence, and divided into the "upper gate" that mediates between wisdom and understanding, and the "lower gate" that mediates between pure intellect and emotion. It is thus the heart of the creative process and the path to Enlightenment--and yet it itself is empty, just a container into which any of the ten true Vessels may be place.

In some variants of the European occult tradition, most notably Aleister Crowley's, it is a gateway to the Abyss, beyond which lies the inverted tree of the qlippoth, and which must be crossed to attain true Enlightenment. There is battled the formless demon Choronzon, the shifting one who becomes your own shadow; there one is forced to either abandon the quest or abandon the Self.

Back in the Jewish tradition, the Zohar calls it "the key that opens six." Just so we're clear on what we're talking about.

It's January 4, 2014. The top song is still Eminem and Rihanna with "Monster." The top movie is once again and quite deservedly Frozen. In the news, a pair of terrorist bombings in Volgograd, Russia; ISIS takes control of the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi; and attempted arson at a gay nightclub in Seattle results in only a small fire and no injuries.

In ponies we have Dave Polsky penning "Rarity Takes Manehattan," and something more or less new for the series: a season-long, preplanned arc.

That this arc is season-long and preplanned is not controversial; that this is something new for the series and in this episode might be, so let us consider. First, there are some intimations of arcs in the first and third seasons. However, the creators of the show have made clear that the Grand Galloping Gala was not a preplanned arc in the first season, but a throwaway reference that they decided to run with; meanwhile, the Princesses' testing of Twilight ended up, thanks to the reduced length of Season 3, compressed into the premiere and the finale, so not so much an arc as a single story and its sequel.

The second objection is that the arc was introduced with the appearance of the crystal box at the end of the season premiere, so how can it said to be introduced in this episode? And the answer is that no event can be the "First Annual..." anything; it's not annual until the second year. Likewise, an arc can be intended, but it doesn't become an arc at the beginning; only when a second episode continues it can it be clearly seen as an arc. Of course, in hindsight "Castle Mane-ia" and arguably even "It's About Time" are part of the arc as well, but watching the series in order, that is not yet apparent as of "Rarity Takes Manehattan," while it is fairly straightforward to recognize that the ending implies that the rainbow thread will return--and since we know the ponies are keeping their eyes open for six unknown keys, parsimony suggests the rainbow thread as a candidate for one, making this episode a sequel to the premiere and implying five more like it, presumably one for each of the Mane Six. (Which is, of course, what occurs.)

So what, actually, is happening in this episode? There are three layers at work here, all important.

The first is the running theme we've been seeing all season of exterior intrusion. In this case, it's again an ideological alien, namely our villain of the week, Suri Polomare, notably voiced by Tabitha St. Germaine, the same actress as Rarity. We have, in other words, a pony with the same voice and profession as Rarity, but devoid of her essence. Chokhmah is literally Wisdom, but in the process of creation it represents the underlying creativity, and is also known as the power or palate of selflessness, a fitting choice for the pony of Generosity. Its qlippothic counterpart in Crowley's system is Ghagiel, the force that hinders the creative process, surrounds itself with pride and ego, and dwells in a world of illusion and lies.

Thus we find Suri Polomare, the embodiment of the capitalist ideal of the economically rational actor. She is motivated purely by her own self-interest and pursues only her own advancement, exploiting those too weak to stand against her, such as Coco, sucking up to those with the power to give her what she wants or stand in her way, such as when she tricks Rarity into giving her the fabric, and then betraying her benefactors when they are no longer useful or powerful enough to endanger her, as when she tricks Rarity into staying away from the judge. She is without scruple, perfectly willing to be dishonest, violate the trust of others, or steal, as long as she profits from it--even in the face of defeat, she will use trickery and underhanded tactics to get the victory, as long as it's in a way that she thinks she won't get caught.

By contrast, Rarity's song "Generosity" presents the more typical pony way of life, which is basically a socialist utopia. She describes Manehattan as a gift economy in which ponies, motivated purely by the desire to help others and confident that it will eventually come back around, do favors for other ponies. She demonstrates by giving a hotel bellhop an enormous tip and, along with the others, helping a taxi driver fix his wheel. After the song, the episode demonstrates the power of this concept by having the taxi driver, out of gratitude at the Mane Six's earlier help, volunteering to take Rarity to the fashion competition when she needs to get there in a hurry, and then the bellhop helps the rest of the Mane Six get Rarity's dresses there in time. But note that Rarity helped several other ponies during the song, none of whom do anything to help her in the rest of the episode. Such is the nature of generosity; while the rational actor is entirely about personal profit and thus works to guarantee it, the generous actor doesn't care about their own personal gain, and accepts that it might work out in the end or it might not. The point of generosity is not to accumulate gratitude as a sort of currency, but to be generous; personal gain is irrelevant.

This means that it is quite possible for a rational actor to exploit a generous one, as Suri does to Rarity. In the short term, Suri comes very close to destroying Rarity, making her act extremely ungenerously as she pushes her friends hard to make a second round of clothes for the contest (the image of young women in a small room, working themselves to exhaustion on sewing machines, is almost certainly a reference to sweatshops). But here we get the second layer of what's going on in this episode: Rarity is being tested. She is pushed to the limits of her generosity by Suri's greed and manipulation, and very nearly falls into the trap letting herself be guided by personal gain, denying the ideals she expressed at the beginning of the episode. This is the illusion Suri/Ghagiel weaves, because the rational actor wins in the short term, making it often look as if economic rationality--or, to call it what it is, callous, manipulative selfishness-- is the winning approach, that the bastards will always win in the end.

But Rarity passes. She abandons the contest to find her friends. Winning, acquiring, gaining, is less important than making and maintaining social bonds--and it's true. An excessively rational person cannot be trusted, because they will eventually betray you once that is in their best interest; loyalty is irrational, and therefore only a somewhat irrational person can be trusted. The illusion in which Suri traps Coco is, as Coco notes, in getting her to believe that everyone is as cruelly rational as Suri, and that Coco must therefore go along with Suri's desires in the hopes of one day being able to advance her own goals. But this is false; people are far more generous than is logical, as Coco realizes from observing the generosity of Rarity and the Mane Six.

This is the third layer: by passing her test, abandoning gain in order to reconnect with and do something nice for her friends, Rarity teaches Coco about generosity. Rarity is evolving beyond being merely an icon of generosity; she is a source of it, spreading it to others. And because Coco learns generosity, she gives Rarity a gift as well, allowing Rarity to win out over Suri in the fashion contest and netting Coco a new job as a costume designer with the theater company. As the simulations in the article I linked demonstrate, the selfish bastard wins in almost any isolated contest, but over time and a sequence of contests, the altruistic and generous--the followers of strategies the researchers dubbed "nice"--triumph because they are able to trust one another and cooperate, while the rational actor becomes isolated.

The illusions and selfishness of Gaghiel are defeated. The first key is found, and moreso we have found the formula for acquiring the rest: each pony shall be tested, and in passing their test, shall teach another--fitting for the fruit of Knowledge.

For now we are done, but we shall be returning to the Abyss soon enough.

Next week: But there are more shadows here than just the qlippoth. This episode had perhaps the highest density yet of references for the older viewers, from the Fifth Doctor to the cast of Mad Men to Grumpy Cat. The bronies are invading the show more and more--what darkness follows them? The dread specter of adulthood is here...

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Kill la Kill Liveblog Chat Thingy Returns!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We'll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST today.

Chatlog below the cut!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Fiction Friday: Continuing the XS fanfic where we left off...

Seth lay on his bed, watching computer code scroll through the air. "Well, looks like it's not hiding in your personality routines, whatever it is."

"You're sure it's there?" asked Izzy. "I can't find it."

"I'm sure," said Seth. "Your unused cycles aren't. Something's running in them, and I want to know what it is and how it got in you."

"It's creepy, not being able to detect it."

"Yeah, well, that's what has me worried. A virus that can infect you has to be more than some kid playing around. It's somebody who knows what he's doing. But the virus doesn't seem to do anything! It's processing something in spare cycles, but it has no inputs or outputs I can find, and it always gets out of the way whenever you need the cycles. It's like it's waiting for something -- but if that's the case, why run at all? Why not just sit there quietly until it's time to do whatever it's programmed to do?" Seth threw a grease pencil through the display. "Turn it off. I'll work on it later."

"Hey, boss, you made me, remember? You'll figure it out."

Seth rolled back off his bed and grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair he'd slung it over. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he walked out into the hall. His footsteps echoed on the shiny metallic deck, kept meticulously clean by a small army of cat-sized maintenance robots, one of which whirred past his door as he left the room. The walls were a warm, friendly shade of tan above and silver-gray below, marked here and there by the golden splash of a lamp. A multicolored stripe ran between them. Potted plants, marked as "oxygen reclamation units" on the ship's blueprints, lined the corridor, and a holodisplay in the corner was busy cycling through Izzy's latest attempts at drawing. Privately, Seth thought she should stick to interior design; her drawing of him looked like he'd lost a fight with several very large, very angry bouncers and one extremely irate barber.

He walked the other way down the hall, toward the elevator that led to the cargo deck and the AMWS bay.

"You all right, boss?" asked Izzy.


"You're worried," she said. "Is it money?"

"Nah. We'll make do. We might have to make ourselves scarce in Federation space for a while until we can make some of those back payments, but we'll figure something out."

"Vix isn't going to stay much longer if you don't find a way to pay her soon."

"I know," said Seth. "But we need a crew. If people figured out you can run the ship alone --"

"You're worried about the virus, aren't you?"

"It shouldn't be possible to hack you, Izzy! You're way too complex and self-referential for an intruder to hide."

"And a computer that can be hacked can't be trusted to control the ship unsupervised. You'd need at least one more crewmember, and you can't afford the ones you've got."

"That's not what I'm worried about!" The elevator reached bottom, and Seth stepped out into the AMWS bay.

"Aw," said Izzy. "That's sweet of you, boss."

"Yeah, yeah. I'm going to see if I can tweak any more maneuverability out of AMWS Two. Watch the drive output while I do, huh?"

"Captain!" shouted Wehj's voice over the intercom. "We've picked up what looks like a space battle near the fifth planet!"

"Izzy, feed it to the AMWS' screen." Seth watched as lines of light and blossoms of fire erupted around a large cargo ship, boxier and more heavily defended than the sleek Isolde. It was no match, however, for the dagger-like warship bearing down on it or the AMWS units picking off its defenses.

"All right!" said Vix. "A chance at some decent salvage. I'm staying somewhere with a tub tonight!

"Pirates," Seth hissed between clenched teeth. "Both of you, get down to the AMWS bay, now. We launch in five minutes."

"Captain, you can't mean we're going to help them! That's a real warship out there, with real military AMWS! We can't take on something like that," Wehj whimpered.

"That's an order!"

Seth hopped down from AMWS Two. "Prep the launchers and load AMWS One's missile batteries. Arm all weapons, and set us on an intercept course with that warship, best speed," he ordered Izzy.

He had his flight suit on and was just sealing his helmet when the others arrived. "Suit up!" he ordered. "We're launching in two."

"This is crazy," said Vix. "There's a pocket cruiser and a dozen military-grade AMWS out there! We've got one bow cannon, one out-of-date military AMWS, and a pair of heavy lifters you slapped partacs on! Besides, what does fighting them accomplish? We drive off the pirates, we get to keep whatever debris they leave behind. Maybe a few damaged AMWS at best, and we have to split it with the ship they're attacking. Just wait a little while, and we'll have an entire ship's worth of scrap metal, any munitions or cargo the pirates don't carry -- way more stuff."

"I gave an order!" snapped Seth.

Vix stepped forward, topping him by a full head. In her black flight suit, the helmet still deflated and dangling from her collar, she looked sleek and deadly. "I refuse to risk my skin with nothing to be gained from it."

"I am the captain of this ship!" Seth shouted, beginning to purple.

"Not for long, unless you figure out how to pay off some of those loans."

"Bounty," said Wehj.

The other two turned to look at him.

Wehj cringed but kept talking. "Federation has bounties out on hundreds of pirates, and we're not far from their space. There's a good chance we can sell these scraps to the Feddies for a lot more than market value?"

Vix rubbed her jaw. "Yeah, okay, could be worth it," she admitted.

"We launch in 70 seconds," Seth said, ignoring her. "Finish getting on your suits and power up your AMWS." He climbed the concealed handholds on AMWS One's leg and swung into the upper of its two cockpits.

"You all right?" asked Wehj, eyeing Vix warily.

Vix growled. "If this doesn't pay off, that's it. I'm bailing, and forget the back pay. There's gotta be some other ship in this shitpile system that needs crew." She glanced at Wehj. "You with me?"

He considered a moment. "...Yeah, I guess I am."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

I'm feeling silly

In the season premier of Doctor Who: The Legend of Korra, "Deep Breath of Fresh Air," the Doctor tries to deal with the spirit vines choking Victorian London, but her loss of connection to her previous lives makes this difficult.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Utena Dump, Episodes 26-30

I have a guest post on Doctor Whooves up at Phil Sandifer's TARDIS Eruditorum. Give it a read; then, on the off-chance you haven't already, read everything else he has ever written. He does to Doctor Who and British comics what I do to ponies and Madoka, only better.

If you're coming over here from there, welcome! A brief explanation: what you're looking at currently is a biweekly dump I've been doing of my comments on Mark Watches, another site at which I am a semi-regular commenter. As the title implies, this particular dump is my comments on Revolutionary Girl Utena, episodes 26-30.

If you're looking for something more in-depth and Eruditorum-y, I recommend clicking on either of the two Readers' Guides links in the sidebar. My Little Po-Mo is my ongoing project studying My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, while The Very Soil is my now-complete project on Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

Ep 26-7

[Due to illness, I never commented on Mark Watches Utena 26. My irate paragraph of comments on MWU 27 was an apology for this. We pick up with the second paragraph:] Fortunately, if I HAD to miss an episode, at least it was Miki's Nest Box, which I find the least interesting episode of the series. I am pretty sure it is only there because the formula demands that a duel with Saionji be followed by one with Miki.

This episode is, fortunately, a lot more interesting. More than any prior episode, it really makes clear that for all her cruelty and posturing, Nanami is incredibly, toxically innocent. It is an important contrast to the Akio car and its offer of the adult experiences unavailable in Ohtori. As horrifying as that is, this episode is a reminder that being stuck in childlike innocence is no less horrifying. Whatever the path away from horror is, it lies through experience and out the other side, not cowering and clinging to a safe, comfortable past.

Poor Nanami. Her Tragedy is that her sense of worth is entirely wrapped up in the approval of others, and as the rich little princess that approval comes not from anything positive she does, but from remaining in her define place and following all the (impossible, contradictory) rules laid down for her. Of all the characters, she is perhaps the one who needs to break the shell most--and, interestingly, in this episode she metaphorically does so by exploring her maternal side in defiance of social rules that say when and how she is permitted to do so.

And Chu-Chu hatches, leading me to my latest theory: Chu-Chu IS the World Revolution. He is what breaking the world's shell creates.

Ep 28

One thing that really stands out to me in this episode is the scene of Shiori and Ruka first meeting. First, it definitely foreshadows the end of the episode, but I've never seen anyone (myself included) actually catch it on first viewing: Shiori HAS to be lying about polishing his sword every day since he's been gone, since Juri's been captain of the fencing team since the first episode and Shiori only transferred in partway through the Black Rose Saga.

Shiori's hair looks brown in the orange light bathing the lockers. Given that orange is Juri's color, it may be a reference to how Juri makes her feel so ordinary and unspecial.

Anyway, I utterly despise Ruka, and this episode contains one example why: He lied about someone polishing his sword, and Shiori lied about being the one who did it, so apparently in Ruka's eyes that makes Shiori a liar and himself cunning. Yay double standards!

It's appropriate his hair is a darker version of Miki... he's basically what Miki could become if he let his entitlement overwhelm his empathy and crossed over into full-on manipulative bastard--he's basically the PUA to Miki's Nice Guy Syndrome.

(Of course, "Miki lets his entitlement overwhelm his empathy" works as a capsule description for basically every Miki episode. When he's not the focus, he's a pretty cool kid who needs to mature up a little. Moment he gets to be the focus character, he starts getting all "Mine!")

And then there's Shiori, who... yeah, okay, she lied to get the boy she liked and was a willing participant in his schemes against Juri. But I don't think she's acting out of entitlement, but rather the same horrifyingly low self-esteem we saw in the Black Rose Saga. Shiori has always struggled with feelings of inferiority, and always believed Juri looked down on her. Compounding that now, Shiori also hates Juri because she believes Juri pretended to be her friend just to get into her pants. This doesn't justify Shiori's actions, of course, but it does help make clear how Ruka is able to manipulate her in this episode. (Surprise surprise, the proto-PUA predator went after the girl with low self-esteem that he could easily control. What an upstanding guy.)

Have I mentioned that I utterly, ferociously despise Ruka?

As for Juri... Eh. We don't really learn anything about her we didn't already know. After Miki and Saionji, that's kind of becoming a pattern in he Car Saga.

Ep 29

Trigger warning: rape, homophobia, sexual violence against lesbians

Shiori is a WRECK when Juri talks to her. She really did develop feelings for that asswipe Ruka.
Ruka physically pins Juri and forces a kiss onto her. So we can add straight-up sexual assault to his list of sins. Then he threatens to destroy Juri's most precious possession, all to make her hate him enough to duel him, even after she's agreed to do what he wants, all so he can set her up as "to blame" or a "willing participant."

And now that he has Juri doing "whatever he wants," Mr. Sexual Assault takes her on a ride in the sexmobile so that they can take the role of bride and groom in the duel.

And then at the end of the episode we learn that this was all a scheme by Ruka, who's got a crush on Juri, to "free her" from her destructive crush on Shiori.

So, yeah. He sexually assaulted the woman he's interested in to end her same-sex attraction. That's called "corrective rape," and it's a real thing that happens to lesbian women.

Ruka is a complete, utter monster who never shows a trace of doubt or remorse. He cares only about HIS wants and HIS perceptions, and uses his strength and fencing skill to violently force them onto Juri. He is the worst person in this entire show, and the fact that he's deathly ill excuses NOTHING.
At least we get a fucking amazing dueling song?

And Juri is still, 29 episodes in, the only member of the student council Utena has never actually beaten.

But whatever, Ruka's a homophobic, misogynistic, rapist asshole and we're well rid of him.


Ep 30

What's most interesting to me about this episode (besides it being just generally relentlessly uncomfortable) is how much like typical, non-fantastic, generic shoujo soap opera it is. I mean, Utena looks older than she is thanks to being a billion feet tall, so it would be easy for a viewer who's never seen Utena before to think this is about a high school girl with a crush on her best friend's kinda skeevy older brother, as opposed to RELENTLESS NAIL-BITING HORROR.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The One Actually Funny #AskIslamicState Tweet

Most of the #AskIslamicState hashtag is a predictable melange of testosterone-poisoned, armchair-general posturing, racism, and religious bigotry, but one tweet I saw in my brief sojourn into the hashtag's depths stood out as being actually pretty funny:

...And yeah, I'm aware that this is probably not going to be remotely relevant by the time it actually goes up, thanks to me actually having a buffer for once. *shrug*