Land of Confusion

Like life, movies hinge on fiction. Industries operate on the bases of myth. Products and personae are crafted to achieve success through the acquiescence of narrative schemes. When I learned this, I began to think more critically about everyday storytellers, vendors, retail markets who aspire to monetize narrative methodologies; that every telling is prejudiced by a desire to tell. Which made me appreciate the value of narratology that yields revelations; notably, the distinction between belonging and connection, a lesson imparted by my therapist.

Belonging carries a desire to recognize that our acceptance is independent from our activity or the sanctions of others. In comparison, connection entails behavioural efforts and an element of reciprocity which one can appreciate immediately or in hindsight. I realize that my tendency to think of the future underwrites my pessimism and most of my anxiety. I strive to belong to peoples and places because I fear my own—and since nothing lasts forever, maybe inevitable—displacement and disposal. Many revere my ‘strength’ to which my productivity, output, and immutability are allegedly testaments. I admit that I’m a fighter, but it never occurs to anyone that the reason I fight so hard is to convey that I’m worth fighting for.

The ostensible message of the belonging-connecting distinction is that it’s fruitful to adapt and conform accordingly whereas striving for belonging is futile due to the inconstancy of the species. Humans breed fatuity amidst societal disparity and turmoil. What hurts most in life isn’t the resignation that accentuates the grim catharses which play out on- and offscreen—it’s facing the bad faith inherent to our existence. This is often convoluted in “Don’t play God” motifs. Stories in this vein duly note our tendency to deny agency to what—or who—we create, which parallels the systemic dehumanization of marginalized peoples in real time and dependents who are infantilized or objectified as chattel. Fiction explores this motif ontologically, proffering the inhuman to be existential. Demarcations, however subjective, may posit animal or inorganic beings are not owed the same moral standing as humans; but their sentience intuits that they have moral standing nonetheless that goes unrecognized.

Which is what I took away from Jurassic Park (1993). Admittedly, I never watched the film or anything else from the series although popular culture has immortalized the franchise. John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) is an idealistic magnate whose facilities cloned dinosaurs and sought to purpose them as amusement park attractions. Despite what one would think are glaringly obvious problems with this concept—seriously, dinosaurs?—Hammond is only inclined to revisit his idea after a lawsuit is filed against him by the relatives of an employee who was mauled, then killed by a velociraptor. To appease investors who’ve since reconsidered the viability of the project, he solicits expert approval from a pair of paleontologists—Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern)—and mathematician, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) who are toured through alongside his grandchildren, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello). Some scruples and existential tangents later, things unsurprisingly go left when the dinosaurs break free then proceed to terrorize, if not maim or devour whoever they can reach. Hammond employs scientists to clone Jurassic genomes extracted from mosquitoes preserved in amber, feminizing each subject so as to prevent reproduction and ensure thereby population control. To accommodate what gaps there are in the genetic material, the dinosaurs’ DNA are spliced with amphibians—which proves to be a crucial oversight once Dr. Grant finds a nest of eggs and notes how amphibians may change their sex for reproductive purposes.

When I sat down to watch Jurassic Park (and the rest of the Jurassic movies) earlier this week, I found a lot of parallels between the dinosaurs and Frankenstein. It all boils down to what ruination lurks in hubris: humans grossly overestimate their capacities, deluding themselves to believe they can subjugate progeny of any and all kinds. Perhaps, the most glaring example are the velociraptors who strikingly exhibit intelligence and determination. They retain memory, survey their enclosure for weaknesses despite the initially electrifying security measures, and tactfully collude in packs—the latter of which proves to be the warden Robert Muldoon’s (Bob Peck) downfall when one distracts him while another fatally closes in, subsequently elicits one of the most memorable lines in film history: “Clever girl.”

While Hammond and other venture capitalists speak to the potential for prestige and profit, the doctor[ate]s articulate concerns central to the problems. 

First, there’s the lack of failsafes. The dinosaurs run amok because their containment operates using a singular security measure whose foremost engineer—Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight)—is at odds with Hammond, the latter refusing to afford some relief towards personal financial difficulties despite his wealth. When Nedry broaches the subject, Hammond retorts with sanctimonious platitudes in a very “God helps those who help themselves” kind of way—even as he himself solicits others, experts, to help his cause. Consequently, Nedry arranges to sell assets to a rival company and powers everything down while doing so, resulting in the dinosaurs escaping their enclosures. Moreover, dinosaurs are beyond the scope of any defense ministry. There are no service personnel you can call in the event of Jurassic pandemonium. Who are you gonna call if the dinosaurs revolt? Police? Firefighters? Intelligence agencies? Ghostbusters?

Then, there are the research ethics—or lack thereof. Researchers should be as mindful of their work’s outcomes as much as their deliverables. Science has and continues to be utilized against marginalized peoples and nature by those who pursue ideological, political, or military objectives. BIPOC still navigate aspects of historical hegemonic campaigns such as eugenics. While none of the experts in Jurassic Park mention this specifically, they duly reproach Hammond for his unrelenting naïveté. For him, the prospect of novelty and patronage overshadow risks of human error and the savagery—and unpredictability—of wildlife. We can also appreciate the indigence from a socioeconomic perspective as Hammond’s idealism becomes almost Faustian since he is so obsessive. Even if there were no provisional risks, there is a failure to account for longstanding discourses which misidentify BIPOC as physiologically coded to be predators: a rhetoric popularized to substantiate their arbitrary abuse, exclusion, and dehumanization marauded to ‘hold them accountable,’ if not cast them as ‘beholden’ to their oppressors. It’s surreal when you think about it, how amenable positionalities like—or in proximity to—Hammond’s are keener to afford dinosaurs and likewise the benefit of the doubt in theory whilst denigrating BIPOC by weaponizing dangerous, if not fatal stereotypes against them in reality.

Dr. Malcolm speaks to these contentions in many ways, but most aptly when he says: “You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it.” This sentiment asserts that vanity hobbles growth. Despite how vehemently Hammond professes the scientific and remarkable value of dinosaurs, his adamance betrays that he indulges in the Jurassic less for results and more for access; just some vague, impassioned vision of opening doors irrespective of what lies behind them. Consequences may arise, but no one sets about crossing thresholds for outcomes. In contrast, the temerity to innovate or challenge injustice lands you nowhere as does vying for meaningful change. This takes on new meaning for those cast as transgressors against whom grudges are kept and enacted. Hammond embodies toxic, dysfunctional leadership that runs rampant. The failure of every initiative comes down to faulty oversight and poor, if not absent guidance. Tokenism exemplifies this as marginalized peoples devolve into personal tenures who fight over influence, resources, and sabotage principles. Hammond admonishes critique as cowardice or intolerance, but the real travesty afflicts those upon whom his wealth is contingent; the good, everyday people burnt by disparities and spat out of every space wherein they dare broach comfort. People like Hammond create, sustain, then ignore problems assume positions of oversight in perpetuity. This clearly isn’t the case for people like the fraught doctor[ate]s and employees: overworked, underpaid, even infantilized as they’re guilted into shirking their own needs to attain some noble goal despite no clear objectives or plans from affluents or superiors.

For me, the sight of the doctor[ate]s, Hammond, and his lawyer seated evoke the metaphor of having a seat at the table. Having been invoked by miscellaneous patriciates [some of whom many applaud and live through vicariously], I think it’s become futile. More futility is held in the emphasis of organizing the poor and working class who uphold high society despite having the most to gain from revolution.

I don’t know if this is a jaded insight, but I’m sure it’s at least a materialist one. Those who aren’t oppressed by the system—or are unaware of their oppression, or willing to overlook such to delude themselves—are unlikely to participate in its downfall. I often hold this in since it’s hopeless, hurtful, and I don’t want to be a downer, but it’s still true; and I still find it irresponsible that people—often, people with less, if nothing to lose—encourage us to simply ‘hope’ nonetheless. Find a tribe, they’ll say, Build your community.

Never lose hope.

The impetus to build community is overridden by the nonentity of conflict resolution. While intrapersonal conflict entails an active sustained effort to unlearn internalized hegemony, interpersonal conflict is compounded because marginalized peoples are—and remain—structurally disempowered which means they have more at stake. Despite our shared stratification, we are socialized to compete through cis-heteronormative nuclear models and capitalist regimes which cast difference itself to be adversarial. Spite underscores what social cues and hierarchies are encoded through an indirect verbiage and physicality. Moreover: spite is a comprehensive and rational trauma response to the convoluted, critical, alienating, thankless social interactions we endure. It’s almost cyclic in how a vast lack of love justifies a likewise barrage of hate wherein conflict is made palpable only in terms of avoidance or escalation, not management or resolution. This comes from idealistic albeit hegemonic tropes of love and safety, so uncritical reverence and deference comprise the ways in which people associate refuge. But these associations are unhealthy. Love and safety are not ‘givens’ contingent on performative or capitulatory variables. They come from your intuition and a higher wisdom which necessitates presence and consciousness regardless of who you’re with. This becomes driven home harder since I become increasingly solitary as I find myself exploited and alienated by networks of marginalized positionalities avowing a guise of community. My value is transitory. People are not. Welfare is a personal responsibility that comes from our vaster being.

True refuge does not call for ignorance—feigned or otherwise—or dimming yourself down to oblige a swarthy luminance. Too often, people misguide our ambition and valid suspicion, then trivialize our misgivings when we call them out. Rather than validate the sanctity of our distinctions, they instead incline us to downplay ourselves in some effort to empathize or sympathize with auxiliaries. It’s no coincidence that these people tend to envision safety as not being accountable. Never does it occur to them that progress comes down to being present where we apart from reasons to escape, as opposed to embodying an entirely new reality or living vicariously through the token acquisition of privilege.

Complacency favours an industrious denial of historical and ongoing harm, a denial that’s ironically enabled by optimism. Those like Hammond, who exert immense and rampant privilege, personify how opulence distorts even the barest virtue such as optimism or positivity—because not unlike the power they wield, everything they employ functions to thwart effective, crucial action conducive to their vanity projects. Moreover, this distortion is insidious in that it compels one to ‘look on the bright side’ which occludes even the clearest albeit darkest realities, dissuading the recognition or repatriation of harm because ‘everything happens for a reason’ or ‘will work out for the best.’ At large, people are urged to be positive to oblige imposed narratives of overcoming: good meets, then beats evil; the righteous and the joyful will prevail. Performativity obliges us to act happy, kindred, and occupied. Doing otherwise is deemed as ill-affect. As much I savoured the visuality and aural flair of dinosaurs onscreen, I didn’t feel much tension in their depiction as much as the grounds for their resurrection; just bearing in mind that Hammond—and to a lesser extent, the likewise not-so-BIPOC doctor[ate]s and grandchildren he consults—are keener to venerate dinosaurs whom are actually biologically coded to be predators with nary any commitment to absolve marginalized peoples (and even presently endangered species) whom are systemically and wrongly coded deleteriously.

Afforded by a vast budget and a confident motley helmed by Steven Spielberg, Jurassic Park marked the apotheosis of prehistory and dinosaurs onscreen through an extraordinary visuality in audiovisual virtuosity and immaculate marketing epitomized by prosperous merchandise. What makes it memorable for me though is that story wise, there has never been a clearer demonstration of analytical and corporate ineptitude.

The very same society that has—and continues to—degrade and demand things from marginalized positionalities like mine; the same that dehumanizes us and thereby imposes expectations upon us that we could never fulfill. It crushes us, inclines us to feel defective or worthless until we’re drawn to fight as if to earn our humanity or merit, but we never do. We can’t. The game is rigged. The odds can’t be beaten because they’re insurmountable. I can’t tell you how many I know still hoping, fighting, suffering; some young, some old, others fierce or resigned. In any case, none of us are free to be who we want. We’re just characters to those more privileged than us. From the sublime sticklers like Hammond to the quixotic counsel who misguide us—they don’t see our livelihoods as valid, if at all worth protecting. Because, who cares if we’re decimated by dinosaurs? Or, if we can’t get jobs or afford to live despite how avidly we’re told that ‘people like us’ are ‘needed’?

I understand how unhealthy or unhelpful it is to be consumed by the future, but I have never lived otherwise. I don’t hope. It feels dangerous. Despair is waiting without knowing what’s to come. The only way I can cope is to err on the not-so-bright side, trying to fast-track and create failsafes. Looking ahead is how I overcome adversity, including anxiety: knowing that it’s only temporary, that things will pass, that I’m bound for bigger or better things equipped with grit and qualification. Except this conviction has wavered in recent years. No matter how much I read or write, I will never be able to find the words to aptly convey the anguish that afflicts me more often than not these days. To be lauded for my perceived prestige and perseverance who’s clawed and scraped this far to become a doctorate candidate, assured that success was inevitable; as if things, life, gets easier just by sticking them out. Everything—the malaise yielded from my syndrome; the beloveds I’ve lost to death and dependencies who championed, sacrificed for my dream of professorship; the maudlin junctures I came to fear and avoid lest they break my stride—believe me when I say that I’m devastated to graduate; because contrary to the idylls sold by the privileged positionalities whose comforts expose them to be less trustful or genuine than capricious, it is now gallingly clear that nothing awaits me after graduation except abandonment by the very peoples and institutions who I need most. Which is why I can’t just ‘connect’ or live in the present. Presence is incorrigible when you are haunted by a fated absence. There are no words that can begin to express what that loss means to me.

Rock the Casbah

Many humanities and social sciences are kind of a paradox. Theories and inscriptions are rather solitary although the interests of masses underlie their objectives. This is a little different for me. Solitude and independence do reflect a lot of my own scholarship, but marginalization affirms how and why I make it a point to do many things in isolation. Positionality does not just inform me. It defines me. When it comes to praxis and pretenses of impartiality, it also nullifies idealistic attempts and assumptions. It drives home the reality that every community—however progressive—is ultimately rife with so many -isms and -phobias. This includes spaces which strive to empower marginalized peoples, particularly those operant on frames of the institution.

Which is why I think representation is a scam. The same disparities upon which the elites are contingent are the same ones which apply to skinfolk whom assume authority within the institutional status quo. There are no “ground-breakers” or “trail-blazers” which are operant within—rather than in resistance to—imperial regulatory systems. The avowal of those who ‘represent’ is why we struggle with the innate contradiction of traversing the violences of marginalization; because, at the same time, we strive to humanize these ‘representatives.’ Your faves will always quite literally profit at your expense, but you let it slide because they’re only ‘human’; and that discourse underpins many efforts to establish the existence of disparity. Some will argue the need to humanize everyone, including the ‘representatives’ who come by their come-ups in obliging—not ‘gaming’—the industrial complex. Likening them to be human, they say, is a part of emancipative efforts because dehumanization is a testament to the evils which prevail.

To which I honestly don’t care. These ‘representatives’ and their devotees insist upon the ethos of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism—in contrast to absconding marginalized peoples who repudiate those institutions. They employ multiculturalist and futurist imaginaries because they are keener to merely speculate about utopian prospects than work towards them. Which is why these folks can never reel in their adjacents. In the effort to humanize these types, people tend to overlook that they sparsely make space for their own because they strive to be distinct; and therein, arbitrate meaning at their own convenience.

In terms of academia, I find myself increasingly disinclined to pursue BIPOC studies or subjects which concern marginalized peoples because of the aforementioned. Those of us who see and experience the principles of imperialism and capitalism firsthand—which perpetuate colonialism, patriarchy, and amata-cis-heteronormativity—are precarious as is. It is nothing short of ridiculous to expect that we undertake the fruitless work of appeal. And it is fruitless: people are not amenable to conscience or reason when they’re the ones who reap the benefits. When push comes to shove, they will not prune their privileges to weed out what malignance comprise the root issues.

As I write this, a particularly pallid and privileged person who I have the displeasure of working with comes to mind; the progeny of a highly paid faculty and administrator who asserts that the systemic abuses and disparities we come by are through our own faults or choices.

Then, there’s another one: the Meghan who cosplays as the judiciary they aspire to become, whose arguments never cease to be facile since they are operant upon the assumption of an ideal world rather than the real one; as if the very laws they purport to uphold are impartial as opposed to being created, maintained, and even circumvented in the interests of hegemonic powers.

These people exemplify how marginalized peoples’ cannot be held to impart their realities. It’s not that deep to these types. But think of the depths in which we find ourselves sinking as we attempt to entreat or educate them. Our capacities (or lack thereof) to educate will always wane against these types’ obtuseness since they are unwilling and unable to grasp the basics despite the abundance of teachable moments; and their commitment to inaction under the guise of tolerance and civility is just a means to manufacture apologia.

And then, there’s us: endless and eclectic, a profuse populace with something for everyone. But our vast niches also work to disjoint us. Imperial legacies foster this disconnect through remnants of ascribed castes and concepts of capital which frame our worth and self-concepts in terms of eurocentric beauty ideals, disparate wealth, and productivity. We always fall short despite comprising a larger, more diverse percentile because we have yet to organize a collective, political dominion; and we instead acclimate to individualism only for anguish to make our needs manifest. I often think of this in relation to activists and content creators in “marginalized” genres. 

Another writer, whose anthology has received rave reviews comes to mind: featured in several prominent outlets and must-have lists, nominated for a few literary awards, read widely and locally—but still faces so much scarcity with so little support. I can’t help but wonder if they are bound to become another statistic; paged off as paltry in the coming year but immortalized by their glowing profiles only to be revived by an archivist who may one day stumble upon their work, long after its lure has waned. This person also exemplifies lateral violence since they have precluded the literary prospects of others, myself included; and likewise, continues to disempower us as they instrumentalize their privileges and connections to a problematic vendor. Moreover, against the grain of their alleged self-acceptance and luminescence, this speaks to the contrary: they have no real desire or power to change. Which is why they commodify their positionality as a point of entrance and reference only to anguish as they sow discord. What is also telling is how I encounter mentors and elders who never seem to hold this individual (and others like them) accountable but manage to hold them in high regard—which goes to show that shared identities or struggles are insubstantial when it concerns uncritical reverence and social capital.

This marks the conundrum of being an outsider regardless of whether you’re inside or outside. People would sooner burn everything to hell, including themselves, to oblige their faves or some prospective albeit improbable ally. People would also sooner light you on fire to keep themselves warm. Patrick Bouchard explores this in his short film Subservience. While the film primarily covers classism, it revolves around sheer disparity. Bouchard proffers a lonesome dystopian world in which vanity and their exploitation of an underclass nonetheless define the bourgeoisie. Lateral violence is subtly imparted as the servants do not glean solidarity in their shared oppressions, but uncritically oblige their overseers to their own detriment. What strikes me is each likeness attributed to the haute mode: a finely suited man who sports an impeccable cravat and satchel alongside a dainty costumed woman embodying a ballerina. These characters are fashioned after magnanimous patricians drawn in fairytales, if not the triumphant peasants whose principles afford them this aesthetic in conclusion. Consequently, karmic sentiments of goodwill and integrity are rendered ludicrous in contrast to the realities of systemic violence and exonerated—even encouraged—moral crimes wrought by the sheer existence of aristocrats.

Subservience also depicts class characteristics underscored by venal praxes and points of view. Neither likeness nor positionality is relevant when droves of everyday people become empowered by a party or enterprise. This is especially keen as masses are demonstrably, relatively easy to manipulate against one another. Regardless of whether it is to their benefit or detriment, it takes so little. What Bouchard conveys is how the sacrifices and resolve of survivors and marginalized peoples altogether in perpetuity will always give us insight into the living human beings who are overshadowed by the cults of politic or celebrity.

Bouchard’s servants are so modest, mute and downcast. They make me think of how similarly we may recount our own trials and tribulations. More often than not, we are not afforded justice or closure. Despair seems to be all that is vindicated when we revisit our pasts, including our adversaries. This is why we become increasingly curt and detached in our attachments or lack thereof: because we are conscious that this present is unlikely to be any exception, and that this present is likelier to dissolve into the callous precedents of which we are familiar.

So, maybe that’s how people get reeled into scams like ‘representation.’ Such concepts are reliant upon invoking nostalgia for a time, place, and being that never was. They build personae which are seemingly emblematic of who, where, and what we are in narratives. The key is discerning that these narratives posit these characters as ‘valid’ in a particular way: not as victors, but as objects worthy of consumption. In the industrial complex, it is the latter—not the former—of which tends to cultivate guises of adulation and ‘empowerment.’ And the thing about ‘representation’ is that, unlike worker autonomy, personae are not taking charge of their intentions nor do they revolutionize the parameters of dominant power systems. Once you grasp that, you realize that it matters not who wears the mask or enacts the pantomime since personae are not—and can never be likened to—the real people they purport to represent.

At its core, Subservience drives home how concepts like representation tether us to false positives and how proverbs which caution us to consider life at large—such as “All kinfolk ain’t skinfolk”—continue to resonate. The self-sacrificial retainers for Bouchard also reaffirm my own strength and survivorship in respect to myself and ancestry. Subservience inclines me too to remember from whom and whence I came; how the retention and assertion of this memory may honour its origins. That I may bear in mind which plots I have crossed and uncovered, what ground I have broken notwithstanding those whom have led me to quicksand; and what morsels I have nurtured to fruition beyond and within.

Born To Be Alive


Many other critics maintain that the Saw series forwent character development in favour of shock value, which rendered flat and consequently unrelatable personae; and that may hold true as viewers aren’t invested in player survival as much as they are passive to their imminent failure and demise thereafter. Fatality is conveyed through rapid, sometimes incorrigible reverse shots. Shots do linger, even in their haste, on timers and machinations which punctuate gruesome excisions. I never expected players to win as I watched each Saw instalment back when it debuted.


What I found telling was the profusely low likelihood of victory. The odds of success never increase with the number of players, most of whose involvements are cited as unethical since the lives of others are not subject to their own games, but meant as pawns in another’s; contingent upon a lone player’s decision or success. For me, this is yet another unnerving element: everyone can or does have a role to play. No one is safe or absolved. Jigsaw purposes people as actants or accessories in each game.


Saw is one of many franchises which vindicate my misanthropy as it evinces that—more often than not, regardless of what’s at stake—catharsis proves to be a fruitless objective. People are fickle. Proud. Rampantly complacent and unapologetic. Disparities which precede and prevail define our systems wherein too few, if any are truly invested in change. But Saw isn’t marked for me by its legion of losers or (very few) winners. It’s the indiscriminate subject selection. Games are not exclusive to particular demographics: they can and do include privileged positionalities. Had the series continued, I would’ve liked to see a wider inclusion of aristocrats and celebrities.


I would say that the attention paid to cops is thematic, but it seems more coincidental than calculative. The players in blue are primarily those assigned to the case. I find their deaths—and therefore, lack of revelation—entirely too convenient respective to Jigsaw’s/John Kramer’s [Tobin Bell] favour despite how he waxes poetic about their obsessions or shortcomings. I find the bulk of them are as unrelatable as the other players. Detectives Tapp [Danny Glover], Kerry [Dina Meyer], and Gibson [Chad Donella] are my only exceptions. The first being avidly albeit ignobly compelled to pursue answers to his own detriment, whereas insurmountable odds were foisted upon the latter.

Then, there’s Detective Rigg [Lyriq Bent] who invokes a little of both.


The entirety of the Saw series captivated me from start to finish. Quite frankly, respective to philosophy and cinema studies, I’m surprised by its absence in scholarship or wider speculation. For many, the franchise has been characterized and condemned as torture porn, coding sadism and gratuitous gore as a central [and tactless] narrative device. Others purport that Saw is an indictment of the very existentialism its eponymous antihero purports. That Kramer simultaneously establishes, maintains, and circumvents game parameters renders each trial to be a mere vanity project. What drives that prospect home is how he admonishes the murderous dimensions of his accomplices yet remains ultimately passive to them, allowing them to continue and therein subject players to inescapable traps.


Compared to the other Saw movies, Saw IV (2007) isn’t exactly more intimate although it does feature the smallest roster of swine fated to reap what they sow. Viewers know that individuation is key to the Saw series, a standard effected through Saw IV’s predecessors: the frigid formality of Dr. Gordon [I]; Detective Matthews’ graft and outrage [II]; and Jeff Denlon’s irreconcilable bereavement and outrage [III]. Peripheral players had explicit connections respectively to each film’s main players: forsaken patients, victims, or bystanders whom wither or stagnate because of cyclic anguish.


In Saw IV, Detective Rigg braves the moral quandary of complacency. He must acknowledge that he cannot—and moreover, should not—save everyone. That victory entails he be his own saviour imbues a degree of irony to this learning objective because goodwill is [ideally] supposed to be what motivates the intervention and prevention of violence, along with the subsequent detection or apprehension of its perpetrators. Bearing this in mind, it proves useful that players in Saw IV are rather impersonal instead of woven into Rigg’s personal tapestry because there is something distinctly universal in the conclusion he should arrive at. His game conveys that people are and can be accountable for their adversities despite the guise or actuality of victimhood. To impart this, one’s familiarity or lack thereof is inconsequential.


Parallels can be drawn between Rigg as an impulsive agent of judiciaries whom are prescribed to affirm social order, and Kramer who entraps wayward souls as an essentialist paladin. Transgression marks the distinction between the two. Rigg is spurred to action less out of virtuosity and more because he succumbs to an idealism that casts him as sanctimonious and headstrong. Whereas Kramer acts in a state of pronoia, impassive to what transpires within or beyond the realm of his control, Rigg assumes he himself possesses the capacity—no matter how grand or infinitesimal—to change things for the better and his failure to do so results in a crisis of faith.


Not once does it occur to either Kramer or Rigg that the system is broken. One need only consider the significance of hegemony and qualifiers of positionality which account for disparities. Introspectively, both men conclude—but cannot acquiesce—that no amount of conviction can absolve this. Kramer resolves to incite an appreciation for life itself in disconsolate people by subjecting them to excruciating machinations purported to trigger a survival instinct. He contends that he hasn’t actually killed anyone and that failure results because of the players themselves. Their fate, he maintains, is in their own hands.


Alternatively, Rigg endeavours to arbitrate justice despite the prevalence of injustice. That he is the most fervent denominator in the scheme of things—against the grain of comparatively hapless or dispassionate parties—means that he assumes rather fruitless pursuits. This in itself may bear an element reflective of modernity wherein the individual grows increasingly alienated and tasked against the decline [and deregulation] of initiatives traditionally attributed to the welfare state. Antiquity is conversely imparted through Kramer’s brute, analogue machinations which are contrived in the interests of functionality as much as austerity. Likewise, the phylogeny of enterprise or capital interest evinces oppressive contingencies as the market fails to yield fair or equitable outcomes. It is the accrual of capital, not magnanimity which becomes tantamount to esteem; and it is the inordinate, systemic concept of accountability that motivates Rigg to take action. The latter would be admirable had this been successful. Instead, Rigg finds himself shafted each and every time he goes out on a limb. Deliverance, honesty, virtue: the glare of reality dislodges what hopes he pins on these things to pass.


I think this is somewhat of a statement on how idiosyncratic it is to liken advancement to independence or free enterprise, as laissez-faire economics serve to embitter class brackets and monopolize any-/everything, including the welfare state. For me: I have yet to reconcile the anomie which afflicts labourers and the have nots while reckoning ceases to exist for cruel, parasitic elites whom own the means of production.


I could ramble [even more] about the implicit themes of horticulture, agronomy, and livestock which could be gleaned from the Saw series overall: the tacit likeness of flesh and anatomization [wherein Kramer details the literal and figurative bodywork of each apparatus he devises in his instructive recordings] to industrial meat production. Another thing I could ramble [even more] about is the horological dimension underlain in Kramer’s adoption of the pig guise since Saw IV reveals its origins to be from a zodiacal festival; but I’d think Kramer is too much of an empiricist to afford that much to fate or some prescription of cosmic order. I’m more inclined to think of a more blatant likeness in which Kramer regards subjects as bonafide hogs and is more or less apotropaic as he personally adopts the literal guise of one.


Saw IV markedly conveys the crucial roles played in everyday life and afterlife by law enforcement. Each film depicts subjects whose agonized [inter]connections arise from jurisdictive actors whom relish and uphold the venality of carceral regimes. Praxes and politics underlay the wrongdoing players suffer or execute. Depending on what you believe in—fate or magistry—sanctions Kramer interposes can be read overall as karmic or coincidental.


Saw IV proffers that life is conditioned on the vagaries of law enforcement. Kramer transposes Rigg’s compulsion to ‘save everyone‘ to reflect the proclivity of disciplinary, surveillance societies to—perhaps, unwittingly—tyrannize its citizens. Judiciaries and officers can and do summarily have marginalized positionalities incarcerated or executed for thwarting their purview. As Rigg strives to take all matters into his own hands and obsesses over missing or deceased colleagues, he inadvertently absconds the very social order he resolves to maintain.  He comprises a class of professionals whom cultivate and are privy to a wealth of information, domains, and governance unbeknownst to underlings or outsiders. Everyday people cannot monitor, enforce, or escape law and order. Therefore, they oblige these things lest they be punished or exiled.


Eventually, Rigg ascertains the prosaic likeness between people and gatekeepers. He realizes that anyone can be rendered invisible, powerless, and disposable regardless of panoptic polity. This revelation comes once he—under Kramer’s watch—is subjected to this asymmetrical oversight. This occurred to me earlier this week once I spoke to a [more misanthropic] colleague. No matter what came from the plight of our ancestors; no matter where or upon what one stands; no matter how ideal things may seem—we will always be captive. Modernity does not overcome, but rather breeds a wider spectrum of enslavement. An open-air prison is still a prison. So is a seemingly tolerant one.


Prisoners may rebel. Others will say that prisoners may riot, but these terms are not exactly interchangeable. Riots span a range of mass acts where people abandon what they know for what they don’t. They surrender themselves. They wholly aspire to integrate. Then, the crowd assumes a life of its own that thrives on insurrection. Rebellions concern the resistance of oppressed peoples against systemic violence. Rioters ultimately tend to be incorrigible and disjointed. They want to disrupt politics while rebels aspire to redefine or eliminate them.


Saw IV actually does a good job in illustrating these distinctions to me. Through Rigg, I see the heart of the judicial systems which subjugate—and quite often, sadly, fail to protect—life as we know it. His own life attests to how positionality renders hollow the impunity given to those in power who attempt to forge judicature with the master’s tools. Blackness compounds an already intuitive, identifiable figure whose persona is harnessed unbeknownst to its allusion. If imperial ascriptions of civil order cannot be leveraged concomitant to integrity and good faith by the successors of emancipation, only resignation is possible. What underpins his obsession is a desire for tangible action from the forces of order whose platforms are not only purported for, but capable of such.


The problem with Rigg is that his thought process and rationale are always one step behind his emotions. He speaks too loudly through his actions which consequently render him silent, and therefore unable to articulate that the justice system coalesces around an impersonal consensus that fails those most vulnerable. Rigg embodies how we cannot amend our oppressions as agents of the very discourse which justifies them.


The arm of imperial law is an empty platitude in and of itself. Which is why I think Rigg is such a relatable character. We are taught to value ourselves in relation to others. But our sense of worth is innately flawed because we seldom see real honesty or kindness in others, so we become enamoured less with what comprises actual people and more with what—or who—we imagine. Rigg is transfixed by the feat of rescuing others more than seeing people as (or for) themselves; and each time he ventures to save someone, he is unsuccessful and resigned to a litany of vain regulations. Kramer just sees people as a mere succession of genes and reactions to stimuli. He maintains that the will to live lurks within and he endeavours to coax it out because it is withdrawn from consciousness.


And, this is where I had and still—probably always will—have a problem: Rigg doesn’t really ‘qualify’ for a game to me. An indictment of agents whom wield state-sanctioned violence with legal impunity can justify Kramer’s overall focus on law enforcement. But while we can admonish penal overseers and systems for their failure to care for those they systemically prejudice, Rigg is condemned for caring too much. At best, he illustrates the necessity for boundaries: that we must recognize and respect our own limitations; that we may have a reality and satisfaction which aren’t conditional on vacuous optimism or the descent into pessimism that repudiates the future.

I can’t fault him for the latter.


Characters like Rigg [likewise marginalized, racialized] remind me of myself in that we are credulous albeit painfully aware of how miserable life is or can be. There are no windows of opportunity or to the soul. We don’t see windows. We see gutters. When we realize that we can’t tidy them, we become nauseated by what filth resolutely mounts. People then vilify us as ungrateful or obnoxious.

As if we choose to be like this.


Contrary to what most assume, we don’t lack will or imagination. It never occurs to anyone that our outlooks are actually vindicated by our lived experiences. We are cognizant of the (often unwitting or unapologetic) micro-aggressions that define the bulk of interactions with new or unavoidable people. Our lives have cultivated in lessons which affirm how and why trying to educate or relate is futile since our efforts prove moot. Because most folks’ [maintaining] privileges or feels always undermine our realities. Absolutely no one is exempt. Not even our own since “all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” Rigg is berated for being reckless and hopeless. Not once does anyone consider that his growing pessimism, however absconded, is valid nonetheless. The same world that builds certain people up has a predilection to tear us down. When we grow nihilistic and misanthropic, it is not indignant. These perspectives are borne of a presiding sense of despair that is beyond our control. This despair is also timeless. It is evinced by blood memory and cyclic evils.


Kramer urges Rigg to cherish his life. Of course, the implication is that one cannot watch over others at the expense of overlooking themselves. The most obvious moral is that people must save themselves. Another implicit one is that people cannot be saved if they don’t want to be. Sure, Rigg cannot and should not assume the responsibilities or plights of others; but I think that’s beside the point.


People liken me as exigent since I dwell on ensuring my survival and question the purpose of survival. I see myself in Rigg as starved and restless. I see myself in his incensed bereavement and the sheer intent which serves as his only cudgel to go onward. Rigg is completely within his right to despair. Some of the most dehumanizing things I face concern the reproach and disbelief of my emotions. This world strives less for reckoning and justice than it does for composure. There is always someone or something, some richling or platitude, that rebukes me even when I know I have every right to be angry or despondent. It’s not that I should be happy to be alive. It’s that I should be happy that I’m allowed to exist.


Which adds another dimension to how insidiously privileged positionalities appropriate our cultures and mechanisms to strengthen their condescension. Our grasps of value and welfare break free of imperial concepts in temporality which are linear and forever bind us to anguish, and are meant to afford us the power to determine our own paths as Arrivants and Indigenous peoples. We instead see these models adulterated and weaponized by colonial contemporaries to legitimate their inaction, indecision, or disengagement. It’s fine for a SWAM to vacate his office to the detriment of others citing a mental health crisis. Whereas it’s somehow not fine if I express contempt for maltreatment and abuses of power from that office—despite my own crises. I am often deigned insatiable because I question the absence of guarantees or precarious odds. My ND obliges me to a daily cocktail of prescriptions. I can’t sleep without sedatives. Every night, I knock myself out simply because I’d lay awake musing of all the ways my life can—or is bound to—unravel; and on all the people I’ve loved and lost, and how it’s only a matter of time before I lose the ones I’ve got now.

Saw IV doesn’t drive home that we can’t save everyone. It conveys that we just can’t win.

Another Brick in the Wall


I think people largely enjoy films wholly for their narratives; as in, the principle of there even being a narrative. Although events may be disjointed and crucial moments tend to manifest later rather than sooner, the story still unfolds chronologically. Personae embody clear beginnings and endings despite whatever happens between, and we have some grasp of meaning or lack thereof which is something that we lack in real time. Because our lives are ultimately nonlinear albeit spatial or temporal. The prevalence of disparities or institutions incline us not to what we deserve, but to whatever awaits. I’ve known many people who see life as a precipitous, an ongoing avenue that can be climbed like a mountain whose inevitable lows are justified by heights which accord to joyous apex. Lately, I find myself thinking life is more of a descent: less of a mountain climb than a fall down a rabbit hole, more of a plunge than a summit.


Nothing like the movies.

Narrative pretense is meant to suspend our disbelief which is usually accomplished by some resonant line or likeness. This obviously goes well beyond the movies in how we’ve literally been cultivated from infancy not only oblige, but perform particular social norms and mores. Performativity has been definitive in growth and learning. From day one, we’re groomed through positive and negative reinforcement. We’re told to act or think in certain ways so that we may optimize our odds of success or acceptance. Most importantly, we’re alienated if we fail to deliver the script.

This was driven home in each and every scene in Lesson of the Evil. Pretenses are the means through which its lead—the handsome, charismatic Seiji Hasumi; played by Hideaki Itô—accrues favour in social capital. His allure is fruitlessly dissected through pensive exchanges and musings from secondary characters wherefore his charms become inexplicably uncanny, but never cease to enthrall. Yet Hasumi thrives as much from his looks as his strong albeit sociopathic grasp of social contracts. He knows that the mechanisms involved respectability are grounded in reciprocity: the determinant of a star is applause, hence they must simultaneously gauge and appease their audience; and although the audience excises the power of their patronage, they are resigned because they are beholden to the spectacles before them. The transactions underlain in each exchange—of look, touch, dialogue—incline characters to distrust their instincts. Which is why their prolonged albeit valid suspicions never materialize.


Nobuyasu Kita [director of photography] also effects the magnitude of social contracts as well as their innately contradictory nature through chilly colour grading and volley of deep space. The indistinction between genuity and pretension is thematic to many films for which Kita as served as cinematographer. He relates the tenacity and indecision of the ties that bind through ever-shifting rack focuses, and through profuse overhead and low angles which serve to alienate as much they put things in perspective.


Kita also reinforces each characters’ positionality as most instances of match on action are low angle whereas Hasumi is primarily shot from eye level. This conveys how principle and reciprocity are inconsequential as charisma undermines the infrastructure of social contracts. People like Hasumi are beheld more than they are upheld because they feign relativity. In supplanting terms of engagement with terms of endearment, disparities and boundaries are things they can easily dissuade or neutralize. Which is kind of reminiscent of the conglomerate apparatus—celebrities, elites en vogue—whose simulations of amity or solidarity sustain fans and consumers. The sight of Hasumi straight on accentuates the uncanny albeit immaculate extent of this deception: how everyone, including the audience, are duped by his artifice of parity; and how we are inclined to uncritically cede, devoid of facts and instincts.


Another noticeable aspect in the cinematography is the lack of montage. The only exception is an instance of cross-cutting wherein Hasumi is nonplussed by a pair of ominous crows, then revels in mortally wounding one of them. The pair are understood to be Norse mythological incarnates of thought [Huginn] and memory [Muninn], key to Hasumi’s fabled defense of absolution. This likeness eclipses subsequent character exchanges, and that was the only aspect of the film that I found disappointing. Unconsciously, these crows may serve as metaphors for thought and memory: looming, inconspicuous, and almighty albeit precarious. Everyone in Lesson of the Evil exhibits this, including Hasumi. Appearances, intents, and purposes falter because of harrowing memories, points of origin, and the inability to wholly suspend their disbeliefs. Which also speaks to how social contracts are largely operant upon efforts to contrive thought and memory to be selective.


For me, this resonated on another level in terms of politics and scholarship: the conscious choices I make to not only secure, but reclaim my personal time and space; and it is no coincidence that that primarily entails disengagement. We are constantly told that establishing and respecting boundaries are the means to health, transparency, and productivity. At the same time, we are also told that maturity, efficacy, and compromise require that our boundaries be fluid, amenable to negotiation. And, nobody articulates that bullshit quite like the idealists I encounter whom aspire to be educators or judiciaries. These people are typically prone to tangents and false equivalences, assuming sanctimonious platitudes. Their lack of self-awareness sees them opine as if they were to adjudicate; and they are unable and unwilling to see that the very laws which govern us—to which they purport their loyalties—were created, gatekept, and circumvented by imperialist hegemonic powers.


We like to think that these people will be duly dealt with; that their superiors will inevitably conclude that they are inimical or otherwise unremarkable; that their penchants or privileges will eventually count for little since they only count for so much; that cosmic justice or karma will prevail and they just won’t last. Unfortunately, that is hardly the case. These people tend to fall upward. Institutions are rife with them, and they are adulated by those likewise or none-the-wiser.


Which is why our own likeness in Hasumi makes Lesson of the Evil all the more unnerving. The only difference between him and the majority is that he assumes a particularly callous and destructive stance without conscience; whereas others begrudgingly yield, weighing the pros and cons of pretension or conformity, and salvage what pride they can in conclusion. People like Hasumi embody the social contracts which force us to maintain the guise of civility. Not because of their success or disposition, but because of how they [claimers] the narrative as a means to sublimate their contempt. Their stories are principled on the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword and manifest in the realization that those who wield the sword incline those who hold the pen. Lesson of the Evil shows this as its other characters relinquish their own swords on principle and assume Hasumi has done the same, only to discover that he is innately driven to weaponize any means to an end.

UPDATE – 11/27/2020 – This piece was actually shared on the Takashi Miike Facebook page


How Soon Is Now?


Most films I’ve seen tend to open with extreme long shots. Likewise, the cinematography employed in first minute is often termed to be establishing shots since this is where audiences are granted their first taste of perspective; and in these shots, the camera is impartial in being parallel. Subjects are occluded by a literal and figurative bigger picture as visuality unfolds along a linear axis. But this indistinction isn’t exclusive to long shots. Even in close ups or medium shots, impersonality can be effected since subjects themselves preclude the absence of narrative. Ambiguity may also maintain characters as unknowns if we can’t discern or relate to their motives.


Which is probably why nothing gets under my skin quite like psychological horror. It’s a subgenre whose horrors I have yet to fully describe, but maybe that’s the point; maybe it’s meant to invoke aversion—angst, fear, irresolution, loathing—by an inarticulate form of unnerving. It’s a distinct vein in the body of horror. There’s no pun intended when I say the body of horror has become a corpse. It’s an apt figure of speech since the horror genre has become oversaturated with a multitude of half-assed tropes whose imitability have devolved into pastiche and clichés which cheapen narratives as camp and disingenuous. The vein of psychological horror isn’t exempt from the corpse-like genre’s autolysis, which explains why it’s acclimated—if not, collapsed—with hallucinatory dei ex machina purported to be abstract.


For me, good psychological horror films lead down a path which turns outs to be along a hillside. You don’t think to go on because the rise is unassuming; but no matter how far you go, something seemingly innocent or happenstance always occludes the apex. When you finally reach the top, you settle in to take in the view—only to realize that all along, there was a path next to yours. Not only is it adjacent, it’s well-trodden and whoever has walked it is worlds ahead of you. When you retrace your steps, you discover that your path wasn’t a ‘path’; not because it was fundamentally different, but because you’ve got nothing to prove there was ever any path at all. Still, you know there was a path. There had to be. How else could you be here? After a cursory glance, you realize you actually aren’t at the top; but the path you’re so sure of has yet to manifest. However, whatever lies ahead is on even ground. There’s no up or down. There’s just forward. It just makes sense to distrust whether you proceed or pack it in. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Given humankind’s tendency to destroy itself, you have to wonder if there’s such a thing as an advance. Except this outlook isn’t about logic or entropy. It’s personal. Everything in your life has led you to this point. You lived under the impression that you were going somewhere; you were meant for somewhere.


Now, you’re in the middle of nowhere.

Psychological horror plays upon the mundane. It evokes fear in the fact that life as we know it is and always will be fractal despite the totality of the human mind. This subgenre’s best movies effect that catharsis comes down to alienation and disenchantment; and living under the weight of revelation that you were never really alive to begin with, wondering if you’ll ever feel alive, or resigned to the conclusion that one can never truly feel alive in the absence of delusion. These prospects aren’t fantasy-like or speculative. They’re real, if not imminent. Life itself as a phenomenon is novel, but each life as it manifests is empirically unremarkable. Existence is recurrent. Evolution doesn’t boil down to cultures or technologies because everything is already preset. In this way, history is bound to repeat itself because the knowledge of the past hasn’t inclined us to heed it. There is no God or angels regardless of how miraculously one may take flight because any ascent is contingent upon obliging demons a priori. Any happy ending or inspirational anecdote is moot, if not fallacy when disparity has a predetermined meaning.


It’s been a while since I’ve cracked open Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or Ligotti; but I remember what they were on about. I’m sure when I dust off their classics—wherever they may be in my never-ending library—I’ll be able to better relate psychological horror to continental philosophy for an academic article down the line. Which makes me think of a recent exchange I had on campus. These days, as a PhD student, I’m usually the most senior in my [required] elective classes. I happened to take one last semester which concerned philosophy and artificial intelligence, specifically if the latter could be capable of sentience or actual intelligence.


Although the crux of its was philosophical, this class was cross-listed as a psychology course; and I only mentioned that because that might account for why it ended up being predominantly dudes, some of whom were edgelords (and some of whom I’ve seen lurk and whinge on campus pages). One day, we happened to gloss over the virulent egotism and bigotry of an infamous academic who happens to be a patron saint for today’s edgelords. The fact that those in my class incline people to “consider” them is unsurprising. I found one of my fellow students who proceeded to explain Nietzsche surprising—and amusing. Nietzsche came up since he was frequently cited (and laughably, misread) by the notorious aforementioned academic.


I pretended not to know anything about him; I let this student—who was an undergrad with little, if any background in philosophy (or by extension: early modern and contemporary studies, classics, English, and miscellaneous social sciences or humanities—all of which I was familiar with or had aced)—try to explain what was behind [and what justified that bogus scholar’s reference of] Nietzsche, of all people! I won’t recount the bullshit he proceeded to relay as if it were remotely corrigible; but I will say it was surreal to see someone so woefully wrong feign expertise, even as they registered that their inarticulation betrayed their very own fallacy.


Which is kind of a good segue into the film I watched this week, Abandon. It follows Catherine ‘Katie’ Burke (played by Katie Holmes), a university senior whose ambition and meticulosity ensures she is bound for a corporate ascent. The plot is driven by the pursuit of her ex-boyfriend, Embry (played by Charlie Hunnam) whose estate seeks to declare him deceased given his disappearance two years ago. Benjamin Bratt rounds out the narrative tripartite as Detective Wade Handler who is tasked with privately investigating the case. Although it’s been dubbed as psychological horror and likened to the realm of mystery, Abandon employs psychological horror at its core. It’s a series of everyday albeit eerie sketches which unearth many seeds which have failed to flourish for our three points of interest. Repression is personified mainly in Katie, the austere beauty whose fanatic WPM and hyper-focused scholarship overshadow her sense of self, time, and space; while Embry—the bourgeoise narcissist with a penchant for theatre—embodies sanctimony and mania. Handler represents a grim sense of wonder as his gazes seems to search offscreen, into the distance, in pursuit of something further than answers; something I suspect may reference one of many ruinous machinations of modern capitalism wherein happiness ceases to overcome the technologies which augment reality, prosperity, and celebrity.


Each character, including those peripheral (such as the now wider-knowns: Gabrielle Union, Tony Goldwyn, and Zoey Deschanel), is walking a hillside path despite lacking any concept of summit. Abandon builds upon this, but falls short because it lacks continuity and momentum. Integral aspects of character development are only referenced in passing. These could’ve been explored as opposed to several emphases on impersonal character exchanges. The institutional angle of Abandon—through lenses of post-secondary education, neo-liberalism, and law enforcement—effects just how much success and survival are operant upon quick, superficial, and incisive insights as opposed kindness or principle. In terms of cinematography, the film employs a maximum visual and expressive use of the depth of field in long-shots which are underscored by foreboding scores. Fatalism and disconnected are further conveyed as the characters’ interrelation is conveyed through a singular or flattened planes. These span cool palettes and barren landscapes.


For viewers, the horror of Abandon is one that bleeds in. We’re gradually unnerved as we watch Katie, Embry, Handler, and the rest of the ensemble scurry by because we’re inclined to consider our own paths in contrast. Thematically, this is what defines the film. As we wade onward, even as we may have yet to cultivate any sense of direction, the people and the world as we once knew fall away; but even if we’ve outgrown them, we can never shake the sense that it is us who they’ve left behind. People don’t persist because of any particular objective, but because they are constantly reminded of how little the world thinks of them. As we grow older, we don’t grow freer. We aren’t entrusted with independence and responsibility in adulthood, we’re categorically tasked with such as we’re expected to hold our own on the market.


And, that’s really at the heart of Abandon. It drives home that our most poignant moments ensue when we find ourselves as alienated and isolated, instead of appeased by some abstract sense of reckoning or greater good. People are vainly inclined to emulate some semblance life even as they gradually die inside because of what alienation prevails during our formative years.


When The Party’s Over

…if it ever started.


I think a part of growing up in this day and age is discerning IRL prospects from fickle social capital. This may be part and parcel with the assertion: “High school doesn’t last forever,” a proverb engrained upon young student bodies by various adults; mostly career or guidance counsellors. The saying didn’t really resonate during the first half of the twentieth century since success and acceptance had been so politicized in terms of aristocracy and respectability. Since face was so esteemed, there wasn’t such a thing as outgrowing your class: literal or figurative.


Then, “High school doesn’t last forever” was only alluded to in the sixties given the ascent of the middle class along with scores of rags to riches celebrities who became staples of transcendence, divination, and countercultures.

During the late seventies, it became a mantra to empower marginalized academics; people who were defined by isolation and scarcity with a penchant for STEM fields—who would go on to cultivate lucrative empires, some of which are revered to date. This carried on into the eighties where class divisions somewhat coalesced since students could be sponsored more openly as opposed to exclusively, if not painstakingly chosen or moderated by private benefactors. These ascensions would play into the innately contradictory pastiche of decadent albeit disillusioned yuppies and revellers. New drugs along with new cults [of celebrity and Darwinian sci-fi angles] bled into what became an antithetical outlook of existentialism and nihilism.


What drove home the mantra was how everyone could relate to how high school was particularly hateful and hierarchal. Knowing it literally was only a matter of time was said as an assurance. What was ironic was that it had to be said in the first place, because it evinced the inaction of the adults who floated this consolation. The toxic cultures of high school were bred by the same people who sold this proverb as motivational. There were no callouts or interventions. No expulsions. Not much beyond a slap on the wrist. The very same people who swore the anguish wouldn’t last forever either ignored or idled by as it happened. Except in these decades, students had a firmer grasp of world events and a whiff of corporate politics. The wider range of press, peer groups, along with the seamless portals between nightlife and the high life shaped their emotive and intellectual landscapes—and with that came not only the cognizance, but reactions to adult hypocrisy.


Of course, hypocrisy was nothing new; its awareness just materialized as a rite of passage. Pop culture monetized tropes of student solidarity on a local level. The villainous parliamentarians and warmongers were still screwing the world over, but students were inclined to note how they were otherwise antagonized; and to an extent, to note how their protectors [parents, guardians, voting or apathetic adults] had themselves played into the hands of the evil, elite overseers—whose legacy they would fare against once they grew up.


The more they stewed and speculated, the clearer things became. The immediate adults didn’t have their best interests at heart which was even more of a betrayal than the tyrannous conglomerates. So, the objective became to overthrow, not merely outwit disgruntled parents and educators.

Even though ranks were clear, peer groups diversified by interest. There were still kings and queens, but also monarchies—which wasn’t too different from the real world. What marked the shift in the later decade was how one could not only climb ranks, but climb as high as they desired by any means possible to the chagrin of peers and elders. Growing up afforded the prospect of independence and outclassing anyone at anytime.


Which would be great if life was only about reputation. The consolation that there are bigger fish to fry in the sea of life as well as possessing the agency to move with, lead, or even surpass the school doesn’t hold much water for the people who must swim against the tide. Everyday people internalized a morsel of that when they found themselves alienated; wholly investing in systems and socialites only to turn up short. The “cool kids” were everywhere and nowhere—the selective [back then, rare] social influencers, the glamorous heirs, the ingenious economists, the reclusive visionaries—all of whom were just as likely to be the gold stars or the odd ones out in high school.


By the time the nineties rolled round, people began to notice that there was a distinct singularity of the real-time scene king or queen. They offered little, if anything of real value that was usually in the form of a single “circumstantial” asset. The royals were by default conventionally attractive which made their “good looks” unremarkable—something people invariably learned through the billion-dollar beauty industries which banked upon consumer insecurities, and the gatekeepers who absconded them. Beyond that, what was there? Contagious laughter? Comic “genius”? A golden arm or other appendage? Generous allowances?


Whatever it was, it was always one thing. There was a range of depth (or lack thereof) in terms of personality or what made the cool kids unique as people in and of themselves; but when it came to popularity, all of that was insubstantial. While this fact wasn’t new, it struck home in the nineties for most of the same reasons students were inclined to think more critically about what did/didn’t set apart their peers and protectors decades before. The nineties just drew this out more because [of] most civil wars had been escalated or prolonged to a disastrous precipice; the hypervisibility and Othering of drug epidemics and state sanctioned brutality; the individualism and idealism which defined Generation X; and many people believed 2000 would be the end of the world.


This decade also saw a break where adults could no longer assume an inactive or misguided whilst condescending stance for youth. What were understood to be adult ills found their way to high schools and afflicted students therein. Adults couldn’t simply sit back and assure students nothing lasted forever in this decade because by then, things had gone too far to the wayside on a grand scale. Surviving high school became a feat in itself. The drug use, gun violence, and a burgeoning attempt to acknowledge rape culture yielded too many casualties. I also think that a good chuck of adults in this era were also incentivized to act since they bore in mind their own youthful revelations and resistances. They had seen casualties firsthand of their own or of others. Grassroots initiatives and community outreach became transformative staples. Anti-bullying, anger management, and gun control (and education) campaigns emerged in the tragic wake of murderous spats between students. Active efforts were also explored to better suicide prevention. The derisive resolve of grunge icons and the underground also inclined folks against uncritically revering authority.


And, that all gradually wilted once the internet flourished. There was the upside in enabling connectivity, insulating communities, and open access information. However, none of that outweighed the cons: cyberbullying, cyber-stalking, death threats, doxing, romanticism; and how the power of numbers is subverted to quantify rather than qualify merit, instead of uniting a working majority against a corrupt minority who control natural and monetary reservoirs.


While people started to question and outgrow the popularity complex and the one-dimensionality of those at the top, the 2000s saw the internet completely transform the cult of the individual. Social media imbued users with a wealth of tools to assume airs. Unlike what folks came to see as the garden variety patrician IRL, online personae assume a sentience because of technological matrices. This is evinced in the disparities between the Kiki who gleans acclaim [by means of circulation and validation] from tens of thousands online, everyday people and celebrities alike; and the unremarkable mendicant who is ultimately faceless and penniless IRL.


Truth or Die (also known as Truth or Dare) is one of many movies at whose heart is the confrontation of shifting positionalities and the culture shock of new versus old technologies. It follows the familiar setup of scores unsettled and bones unpicked premised through flashbacks which afflict what’s intended to be a friendly reunion. One of the integral conflicts sees a main character’s (Felix, played by Tom Kane) unrequited crush that sows discord—which would go on to ultimately hollow past and prospective relationships. While the character’s trauma remains in the foreground, a core focus is their deficit social capital as a result.


While the murder mystery that unfolds is rather formulaic, what makes Truth or Die unique is the lens of it looks through. Reality hinges upon the fact that media and capital are at odds in how they serve to disrupt or fracture social networks. The main characters comprise a peer group whose members were popular in trademark fashion: the archetype one who is an optimist, the goof, the athlete, the rich, the rationalist—but nobody was ever more than one. The present day reunion makes for a contemporary past their former lives were set in, which informs the precarious rank they held over their nonplussed classmates.

True to the adage, the group dissolves as time passed. They grow enraged, then estranged after a fallout. Most of them forget one another as they make new ties once they sever old ones. Felix’s brother, Justin—played by the handsome David Oakes [who has made me salivate since The Borgias]—orchestrates their reunion. He invites them to a dinner party; the occasion to celebrate Felix’s homecoming; the venue being a cabin on his family’s estate. While some might cite the lack of character development or back story could hamper the story, I find thats exactly what strengthens the narrative in respect to the theme of reunion. Whats past or present is inconsequential since these archetypes, just like those of high school realities, are genuinely unlikeable characters. It doesnt matter where they came from, where theyre headed, or what trials and tribulations they face. Theyre the cool kids. Their existenceand statusis contingent upon their often cruel subjectification of others. Nothing justifies that. No insight into their personal lives or catharses would elicit sympathy; which is what makes Justin’s creed somewhat identifiable, if not noble. This role also drives home Oakes’ virtuosity as an actor. At least, if you’ve kept up with his filmography. This is one of many characters which evince his mutability. His personae are superb since he’s totally believable as hero or villain, and he’s married the two in this latest crusade.

20This kind of rising action isn’t exactly new, but precarity is what marks this departure: how easily havoc can be wrought by ranks and media is what’s thematic of the overall film. I found Truth or Die more honest and grounded than similar series—Gossip Girl being the infamous example—in its dynamics and execution. Profound revelations bleed through point blank dialogue in the absence of cosmic or quirky coincidences. The lack of pretension redirects viewers to the actual plot rather than suspend their disbelief. And the cinematography that hones in on every subject through mostly mid to tight closeups emphasizes both literal and figurative faces. An expressive focus is further diffused by russet, sparsely furnished interiors and dark forest thickets which comprise the mise-en-scène.


There’s also an element of surrealism as bites of a melancholic, transcendent narration muse upon both living and dying in the moment. Moreover, how the moment loses rather than retains meaning as new technologies emerge to record it. Truth or Die incorporates a dimension of mastery which motivates one’s compulsion to photograph, videotape, scrapbook, or otherwise archive; where one can always assume a degree of control—however small or significant—over a moment that technology can capture. It also relates to a generational divide; where antiquated technologies crystallize precious moments versus the profuse modern, individual histories which hang online through public archives and activity logs.


However, Truth or Die falls short in its adherence to the archetype tale. Occasional campy exchanges and emphatic, spontaneous outbursts undermine narrative tension. This ends up reducing a chunk of reactions to stilt performances. Erraticism then minimizes the characters’ desperation as they try to bully out confessions and search for escape routes. It’s hard to believe they’re driven wholly by a sense of urgency as they saunter through scene by scene since they can’t be bothered to tread lightly. It’s even harder to believe they’re sympathetic as they turn on one another in a way that’s more flighty than callous.


Then, there’s Felix as a framing device: the clumsy recluse everyone is so keen to demoralize. His credulity makes for an obvious red herring. The camerawork is also a bit shaky in parts where it shouldn’t be; and cuts which go from straight on to canted angles disjoint the focus, particularly in sequences with dialogue.


And, the obvious thread that ties everything together here is that life does indeed beat beyond high school. Ironically, this is a pretty obvious element that tends to be downplayed or entirely overlooked in high school whodunnit reunion tales. The only explicit, fleshed out references to high school are ambivalent flashbacks that allude to potential murder motives or scenes within (or following) the climax when the culprit is unmasked. You’d think that wouldn’t be the case given the literal premise of these tales. It’s a shame because it’s such a simple, clever way to frame plot and character development—which in itself motivates why people have high school reunions.


No matter how much times change, the saying that “High school doesn’t last forever” resonates on the principle that happiness and bragging rights await those who take playground politics in stride. People don’t show up to high school reunions to check in or rekindle friendships. They show up to show out: drive home how they’ve become “cool kids” in their own right; gloat over how the cold, real world of adulthood overshadows whatever twinkled at the centre lunch table or bleachers.


The motive is petty in hindsight, but something most of us can relate to. I’m not exactly stewing over things everyday, every time, plotting in the wilderness; wearing a skull shirt and trench coat, resolving to enact vengeance—only to realize no matter what, it will always consume me long after the final execution. But I’m aware there are past qualms I’ve yet to suss out which have manifest in how I relate to things; and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t feel the teeniest bit vindicated if I heard tragedy struck the monsters I knew in high school. Truth or Die acknowledges this not so guilty pleasure as it reinforces not only how far its circle of friends have fallen from glamorous graces, but how these falls serve as comeuppance. Nobody is perfect nor are they exempt from karma, but there are certain people who are duly dealt a distinct brand of just deserters.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

01 landscape

As innovative as they seem, I think these up and coming social media personalities (especially, the marginalized peoples) have hard[er] times ahead. Because the more likes/followers/subscribers they see will do little, if anything to aid them as they face a glaring disconnect. Seldom do they discern that their lived realities [from which they draw reference] will remain incongruous to the faceless, gratuitous reverence of their online lives.

I find this to be a sad debacle, but the phenomenon is nothing new. Alan, Kali, and Damon** are MGMT majors who were kind enough to share some insights on this with me. They’re no strangers to social media, networks, or marketing; and their understandings of connections have been further augmented by their own anecdotes.

02 hovel

Together, we scroll through some of the more popular feeds; feeds filled with profiles who, in the wake of disastrous house bills and vitriolic campaigns, have ascended with viral insights and have cited their positionalities in opposition. For the most part, they’re all stars. There are few people unfamiliar with their handles, bylines, or explosive exploits. Beyond the sedentary, salaried constellations appear to be charismatic figures on the rise. Their statuses have been shared tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of times; many of which have been screenshot and shared longer and further. Some have been relayed offline to accessorize gigs and lectures. Others have been printed, then postered around to accentuate existent disparities.

The MGMT scholars I’ve met shake their heads. What strikes them are the crowdfunds, rustic crafts, and miscellaneous independent projects which are peddled by the creators—and drive home the callosity of capitalism wherein the survival of marginalized peoples is most precarious, visionary or otherwise.

03 cows under the oak

It’s the paradox of social capital, I gather. It means nothing if it can’t be monetized.

Alan shrugs, then shifts in his seat: “This is the difference between people like these and celebrities.”

Alan is from El Salvador. He spent the better parts of his life backpacking through South and Central America as a volunteer for several outreach programs. He describes himself as a rolling stone: shuffled between homes and schools after his parents were murdered by the Contras. Business came some years after he became more involved in community service. He found himself alongside diverse personnel amidst various grassroots initiatives, many of whom were stretched too far and too thin. Alan resolved to take business in an effort to further aid; and he was impressed with how entrepreneurs prospered through free-access, social media technologies.

We met two years ago through an academic support network. Sharing many of the same politics, frustrations, and rants against the institution led us to become fast friends. Back then, he was relatively new to social media. Not much has changed, but he made a point to join Twitter.

04 herd under trees

“Less than a tenth of the people who are seen the most are paid the most,” he shrugs. “Nobody ever stops to think that isn’t a coincidence.”

As resourceful as most graduate students tend to be, Alan started an independent marketing company last winter. It’s one of many side jobs he’s taken since his scholarships have declined and academic employment rates have become touch-and-go. The most important yet seldom mentioned aspect of grad school is how things very rarely stay on schedule, which results in what essentially become indefinite degrees. I suspect this is why graduate admissions now require payment [bank] statements and funding outlines prior to acceptance; because the academic industrial complex need be assured students are able, regardless if they are willing to pay in the instance of whatever (or whomever) may prolong their programs.

06 in the grove

Ceasing that tangent, I refocus on Alan’s marketing hustle. He retains several clients, all either founding independent brands or hopeful startups. Their biggest misconception, he says, is believing high numbers of likes/follows/shares are tantamount to success.

“It [this misconception] comes from celebrities,” he explains. “People see celebrities all the time. They think they’re seeing the whole picture, but that’s not even a fraction of the picture.”


“I think it’s apart of social engineering,” Kali adds. She muses about how commercials wire us to process things in a weird way, as if we’re granted an exclusive look although everyone else is also watching. Her anthropology thesis spanned surveillance and state control. What I read as the main takeaway: the irony of how it takes nothing for unseen sources to moderate hypervisible masses. Kali says her research and the humanities’ precarious job sector led to her marketing. Like Alan, she earns extra income by providing consultant social media [marketing-campaign] services. It takes very little for her to profile prospective clients.

“The thing is, business is a constant,” she states. “So is the state of crisis.”


Essentially, Kali thinks that the world hasn’t—and won’t—stop turning despite how bad things become. This is evinced in how no scale of devastation unnerves how seamlessly capital is maintained by popular culture and celebrities. It’s something Kali finds jarring to behold. She also mentioned this last year when we met at a conference, then again once we reconnected this spring.

On the surface, Kali relates to much of what’s said by these increasingly popular profiles; whose positionalities are also marginalized. However, she is cognizant of the reality that chafes beneath. Kali once comprised these ranks years ago. Before her accounts were resolutely suspended [due to notoriously faulty algorithms], then shut down after trolls doxxed her: her posts enjoyed a torrential traffic. Her virality earned her an occasional shoutout and invite to panels; and caught the eye of a publisher who solicited her manuscript. She remembers being awestruck after what felt like innumerable photo shoots, speaking events, and the odd compliment from an A- or B-lister who strayed into her mentions.


This recollection makes her eyes glassy—because it’s bittersweet. What began as a somewhat cathartic outlet to rage against the machine and pride an identity she’d concealed in her small town, became a hollow testament. All she put out in the world—for every person she’d served as fodder or inspiration—had amounted to little, if anything in return. Almost every labour or appearance had been unpaid; and she could barely afford trinkets with the rare, modest honorarium. Despite what seemed to be avid fans, her book barely sold. Her publisher shortchanged her advance: a loss she’s swallowed since it was substantially less than what she would’ve had to pay—and couldn’t successfully crowdfund—in legal fees. Moreover, her transparency had proven for the worst since she was eventually outcast from her IRL community and couldn’t garner any aid from her online one.


Kali and I have shared dark chapters with each other which I won’t detail, but I will say her spirit never ceases to amaze me. Nor does her ability to keep a clear head. In a rather objective fashion, she pegs a handful of profiles I’ve shared. Bound for hurdles, she says. That is, if they don’t log off indefinitely. She already recognizes two whose online presence have waned in the wake of IRL afflictions. She also notes their calls to aid and action which have been met with silence. Yet, their viral insights are crystallized. They continue to be shared, cited, and [I suspect] plagiarized.


Damon attributes this to the market itself. He holds a degree in communications with a minor in history. Social media, he believes, is like Hollywood. Rather, what we’re sold as the image of Hollywood. He discerns how much the picture varies from the reality: how inessential glamour or ambition are against the grain of contracts, cliques, and callbacks. Damon says going viral is a matter of making lightning in a bottle, then cultivating something steady from the static. The common ruts people find themselves in are to get hung up on trying to build the perfect storm or to glean something similar from the ensuing charge. For Damon, thinking in terms of lightning is key. The jolt is a practical metaphor. It illustrates that the means to success are just as fickle as their constituents.

14 the coral divers

Damon grew up in Buxton, North Carolina: a small town with the lion’s share of attractions in a string of islands known as Cape Hatteras. The kind of place where no nook or cranny is beyond a nodded hello or goodbye in passing. It was also the kind of place that thrived on tourism, which is how Damon came to consider business in his sophomore year. Seasons saw the town littered with what he recalls were “obscenely wealthy and wasteful” businessmen. Once he befriended their kids—who were his age at the time—he followed their suit in ways to connect, and that was how he got on social media. Intrigued by the burgeoning personalities and debacles, he resolved to explore how advertisements could abridge what he understood to be long lasting impressions.

15 the water fan

In the winter of 2008, seemingly out of nowhere, Damon saw a dramatic shift online. Lightning had struck, then burnt out the cool kids. Scandals deposed royals whose reigns dated back to grade school. When tensions bled offline, the damage proved irrevocable. Damon recalls how the wave had been tidal, how nobody expected it; although in hindsight, he believes the outcome was inevitable. He muses that insecurity and malice underpin popularity; and that the public nature of respectability and social media graft a performative dimension which cheapen [what are purported to be] transparency or sincere messages. These elements would precipitate what people—players and onlookers alike—knew to be an unspoken creed of artifice and umbrage until they peaked to brew a perfect storm.

For Damon, this explained why and how easily the mighty had fallen—to be instantaneously replaced. He says the key in working social media to your advantage is realizing that inconstancy is the only constant. This is why many rising stars are fated to burn out. If they don’t wane under adversities on- or offline, they’re likely to dim against the lustre of shinier newcomers.

16 nach dem tornado

Unlike Alan and Kali, Damon works decidedly less in marketing. Odd, outdoorsy jobs—trades he’s learned from his family—make up the bulk of his extra income. In terms of MGMT, he strives for employment in the private sector. This semester is thankfully his last, he tells me.

Sifting through choice feeds, he adds: “The problem is…they forget there are people behind the profiles.”


This statement holds true as users wade through the drag culture online that fosters immediate albeit erratic esteems; a culture characterized by varying degrees of deprecation and harassment—often under the guise of tough love or comic relief as an offshoot. But Damon says this to address platformers directly; noting how particular figures peddle empowerment, but actually thrive upon the misery of others since they are unable to monetize or romanticize their own. He discerns that there’d been countless falling outs amongst the cool kids, many of which ended either amicably or in blocks. People buying their own hype is what set it ablaze, he says. Rather, too many people.

Alan, Kali, and Damon conclude that bearing in mind the people is key: real people exist within and beyond whatever discourse or canon they assume. Social media has afforded people relatively accessible platforms whereupon one might speak, be heard, and resonate apart from a world at large that silences them. It enables people to connect with one another, learn, educate, in addition to cultivating local and international initiatives.

18 shooting the rapids

However, the individualism of profiles is contingent upon the falsity of [what I’ll call] ‘lone supremacy’; that is, the misbelief of one being invaluable or holding inerrant mastery. Pillars within communities (however sincere or disingenuous) fail to grasp that people and therefore, ranks are interconnected. The engagement—likes and shares; subscribers and followers—that subsist profiles is no exception. Whatever social capital is generated becomes indistinct since all capital is controlled by the state. This is why voices alone prove fruitless for speakers. Mere statements, however insurrectionary or insightful, are rendered vacant once they manifest upon platforms which themselves are a form of enterprise.

17 the woodcutter

Which goes back to Alan’s earlier distinction between these figures and celebrities. The latter are integral to (and consequently operant through) imperialist propaganda; endorsed by conservative corporate interests. Conservatism strives to conserve, not equalize or challenge modes of power. In contrast, independent figures tend to clamour for clout; marked by misadventures as they aspire to become ringleaders in the online circus—a futile distinction as hegemonic powers have commodified and now define the carnivalesque.


Neither prosper on their own merits, but the individual figures are discerned as particularly unremarkable. The world doesn’t revolve around them and under no circumstances will it cease to turn. Moreover, their virtual support systems are intangible; dislocated by the industrial complex wherein they struggle to survive. Those who pay them lip service pay them little, if anything else. What marks the circus is that it’s definitively performative. Whether audiences boo or applaud, their presence is always in passing. Their lives process beyond the tent. For the attractions, there’s not much beyond the ring.

Fame is a long, if not endless trivial pursuit for public figures of any variety. The same could be said about seeking validation. Catharsis is an even rarer prospect. People seem more intent to press forward than process lessons learnt from times past: another mortal flaw upon which social media thrives and exacerbates. The cursory ovation it corrals doesn’t hold up in the long run. The same can be applied to the historic decline of actual circuses which grew obsolete against entertainment technologies; and further into what derision, poverty, and isolation characterized the offstage lives of performers. We need only look at trenders to see that not much has changed in this vein.


Alan identifies this as a principle in advertising: “Everything is always great—even when it’s not. Happy or sad, people are on a soapbox.” The platforms imbue everything with a sensational aspect. People fall short as they yield wholly to the immediacy of social capital and what whims it bolsters therein, despite no operative prospect of what comes next.

Kali suspects this also relates to audience retention since the pretence disinclines people to look away. Because enmity coexists with fascination, people goad and gauge unhealthy or unrealistic behaviours. She says this is why folks muster little, if anything for the [figure’s] rise whereas they relish the downfall. This is an important dimension as marginalized peoples may be consumed as well as surveilled to the amusement of more privileged positionalities, only to be placated by saccharine acclaim. The truth is unspoken because it’s inconvenient.

13 shark fishing

As an avid reality TV fan, Damon agrees; nothing that independent figures are different than contractually obligated (and remunerated) personalities. Certain whims can be indulged within the realms they are dramatized. Lone figures aren’t so much “indulged” as they are misled to believe their adversities are mere brooks to pass. He thinks back to the circus parallel, saying that history really repeats itself.

We pride ourselves in this day and age for our “progress”; as if our modern technologies and sociological strides enable us to live easier and repress less than our ancestors. But the old world has a way of coming back to haunt us, whispering within until we are likewise aggrieved; and our foundations in life as we know it fracture, stone by stone. What we’re faced with is a myopic weight we can under which we may yield or moderate.

**Names have been changed in this story for personal reasons and to avoid associations with clientele

List of Illustrations

Ivan Shishkin
Swiss Landscape (1866)
Hovel (1861)
Cows Under the Oak (1863)
Herd Under the Trees (1864)
In the Grove (1869)
Landscape (1861)
Backwoods (1872)
Pine Forest (1866)
Pine on Sand (1884)
Little House in Dusseldorf (1856)
Birch Grove (1896)
Summer (n.d.)

Winslow Homer
The Gulf Stream (1906)
The Coral Divers (1885)
The Water Fan (1899)
Nach Dem Tornado (1889)
The Portage (n.d.)
The Woodcutter (1891)
Shooting the Rapids (1902)
Shark Fishing (1885)


The Kids Aren’t Alright


The word “freedom” in its most common iterations has been and will likely remain such a romantic and bourgeois concept. I could say the same for terms like “self-care” and “solidarity” given how social media has advanced. In this day and age, the prospect of this commodification seems like a Black Mirror episode. I don’t say that because of some dystopian, authoritarian regime. I say it as an old millennial who’s lived through various social media startups; and who’s watched technologies breed toxic, viral online cults of the individual. When the internet took off—back when dial-up was a novelty, long before high speed—I was too young to process the implications of an open access world stage, but I was old enough to appreciate and beaters in tandem with the pulse of globalized connectivity.


I related to profiles and trends on the other side of world. I published my first stories and poems through a number of fandom sites, and I received critical feedback. I also encountered forum moderators on power trips and profiles whose popularity insulated them from accountability, if not reality. There were also targeted harassments and death threats hurled close to home. The worldwide web and its hubs had pros and cons which I barely managed to navigate. All in all, I was incredibly lucky—literally. Luck is the only thing I can liken it to: I managed to surf the web relatively unscathed despite torrents of online predators, burgeoning Mean Girls and stalkers, on top of miscellaneous cyberbullies, some of whom would go on to instrumentalize -bait message boards and revenge porn.

Maybe I was just lucky to be apart of a generation that came of age around the tail end of the early IMs, MySpace, and LiveJournal; the latter two which I never really got into. Few of us seemed to register the very hard and real consequences of our glamorous, invincible online personae: personalities which can now bleed into offline violences evidenced by the organized hate campaigns and fatalities which prompted today’s rampant cyber-safety initiatives.


When these platforms hit, it was under the guise of affording users a unique and ideal way to articulate their narratives. Personalization was the lure. It wasn’t just a colour scheme change or avatar. It was an entire profile which offered an individual composite that interlocked with other profiles. You could be unique to last detail, but simultaneously apart of something. It started off as basic, then the gravity hit once people were exposed or locked out. The old school technologies were somewhat innocuous in that their limitations beguiled their users and observers. Things becoming more personal and capable didn’t enable solidarity or connectivity. They inclined users to critically consider that there were real people behind the profiles.

Real people who could suffer real consequences.


Which seems harmless when it comes to particularly deplorable subjects; like that lawyer whose rant against Spanish speakers went viral, the Yale student who saw fit to call the police on a fellow student asleep in the campus lounge, and the like.

Except these [many] cases don’t account for the bigger picture: the plethora of users—everyday people, many marginalized peoples—who are antagonized at large. The onslaught of one’s personal information—hometown, relatives, high school, college, employment, etc.—coupled with unchecked, poorly moderated usage ceases to reinforce ties rather than sever them.


At large, the social media conglomerates we know now meant that Big Brother wasn’t watching anymore because people simply (perhaps unwittingly) volunteered all their information. For all the good plugging in seemed to yield back when I was younger, the bad has since profoundly evolved. There isn’t an expiry or vast scrubbing option. Regardless of how far back they stretch, our highs and lows have been immortalized and are able to nullify how far we’ve come. Our meltdowns and milestones can be gleaned in a matter of clicks or mutuals, just as our hangouts and hobbies. It takes little, if anything for people to poke holes real-time.


Unhealthy online habits have also transcended cyberspace as particular users don’t take kindly to intervention. This makes for two polarizing extremes: users whose IRL is demoralized and therein overshadowed by virtual anguish, and users divorced from reality as they’re insulated en masse by positive reinforcement. Both scenarios correlate to a world whose connective modes have become increasingly callow: a world where values aren’t earned as much as they’re amassed. Everything has always been for sale, but a new currency was introduced through contemporary social media technologies. These platforms enriched everyday people who grew loved and/or hated beyond their wildest dreams, which cultivated a new breed of celebrity whose merits are defined by cliques and compatibility. Consequently, merit is defined less [if at all] by talent.


The charisma boils down to nostalgia for a paradise lost which in reality, is a world that never was; or a paradise promised which is a world that will never be. The appeal is less about substance than projection. All of the personalized nodes on social media optimize sharing with incentives for oversharing, which enable user audiences to live vicariously as well as intimately through personae. Which ironically desensitizes users to reality. The immersive, often ignoble insights bred online see users emulate caricatures and luxuriate despite their absence of privilege. Identification subverts the reality that one is just another number because they comprise the base of a higher power in numbers. This is why cyber-safety personnel strive to drive home not only the dangers of hypervisibility, but also anecdotes of profiles who’ve yet to reconcile their virtual esteem with real-time losses such as firings, assaults, bans, amongst other quandaries.

Quite simply, the charge gleaned from plugging in doesn’t cover other disconnects.


Life offline isn’t as uncomplicated because our identities and settings are multifactorial and not so much compartmentalized. Tumult in real time can’t be blocked, muted, or filtered away. Our lives are largely defined by our adversities and adversaries: whether or not we overcome them, and how we identify them. Only they can get distorted. Networking technologies ushered users onto a world stage tailored to their own scripts—only to enact faulty Community Guidelines and algorithms which mismanaged curtain calls. They then leave users to their own devices when real life steals through their intermissions.


I say all this to preface a new series I came across this week on Netflix: On Children. It’s a Taiwanese anthology series which has drawn comparisons to Black Mirror and The Girl from Nowhere given its dystopian read on technology, connectivity, and coming of age. But what sets On Children apart is how and why it drives home the impacts of social media and school as determinants (not mere accessories) of fate. Modern technologies and academia have altered our sense of self and identity in addition to concepts of home and happiness. Our conceptualization of success is a value system obliged in the scheme of colonization and white supremacy. Attempts to use race, class, gender, and the like to assign (or rescind) rank are exclusionary; and moreover, subjective as these characteristics are not impartial or ontological. On Children conveys how individualism—particularly as an aspect of neoliberalism and through the lens of childhood—is a paradox.


From youth, people are conditioned to believe that assimilation and accumulation are the means to happiness and success; and despite their efforts, they are inevitably damaged and disillusioned. Parents and guardians are keen to encourage conformity as much as reverence for the imperialism and capitalism which comprise the world as we know it. They espouse principles of discipline and abstinence; they claim these principles lead to a payoff of wealth and acceptance. No sooner would they contest, if not acknowledge the historical and present socioeconomic violences marginalized peoples (including themselves) face. The legacy of colonialism informs our ancestry as much as current praxis. By that same token, technology magnifies this in its impersonal, bureaucratic nodes; especially in grading systems. Social media platforms and communications technologies are also crucial in fashioning mass responses—which takes on an even direr meaning when we consider the significance of payola and propaganda.


The children at the heart of On Children speak to this in their narratives. The horror is how these tales are not far off in terms of life understood. What’s thematic of this series is the integration of virtual reality and uncompromising authority in discerning how children develop their sense of self (or lack thereof) in accordance to society, parenting, and identification. They don’t simply choose to go forward. They must. There is no alternative. There are no heroes or silver linings. And, there are no distinctions to be made since ultimately no customization or personal detail sets them apart. They agonize to achieve stellar grades only to discover that they are unremarkable. Scholarship is denoted by exhaustion and isolation which foreshadows failure in the grand scheme of life. After graduation, people are essentially small fish in a big pond because the real world is not contingent upon A’s or good character references. With the hyperlinked globalism of technology, the pond then becomes an ocean where students are bound to fail even further as they’ve yet scale amongst the school they swim within.

For me, On Children also hit close to home in my own studies and upbringing. The older I grow, the more I learn how much scholarship truly exists beyond the books and grade point averages. No amount of micromanagement [parental or otherwise] or academic integrity can thwart life’s course; just as no respectability politics will save us. Nothing really prepares you for the hard lessons in store. And, regardless of how hard you’ve worked, how far you’ve come, how “good” of a person you think you are, how much you’ve suffered: you aren’t guaranteed a happy ending.

Kissing Strangers


I don’t like to call myself a writer. Bearing the occupation is a double-edged sword. On one hand, I could own it. I make a little, but helpful income as a writer; specifically, ghostwriter. While I can’t disclose my clients, I have recognized my work elsewhere. I publish under my own penname and adjust my own prose accordingly to avoid plagiarizing myself since I’ve sold the rights to similarly created content. Moreover, my own writing earns exponentially less than ghostwriting.


Which brings me to other hand: anyone can be a writer. Independent bestsellers are typically plucked from obscurity thanks to social media. Most of them lack middlemen or filters. If they don’t hire professional assistants or score a literary agent, they bank on shock value or cliqued networking; which requires a lot of time. It also requires patience and instinct. There may be distinct target demographics, but the public is altogether fickle—which is why things often change; why viral content that was once everywhere, palpable to everyone and everything dries up in a matter of weeks. People have a loose grasp of time in the market since they frame things in terms of immediacy.


First impressions matter because gratification must be immediate. So, it’s unsurprising that fruitful figures tend to have a loose grasp of right and wrong; and even looser grasp of accountability, almost like children. They make little, if any sense of how the world turns and their place in it. I think this is why they people—buying or selling—never think to burn bridges; why they can go off the deep end only reel and reconcile. The only thing they seem to understand is that it pays to be popular, often by being provocative.

book2Fame is not unlike writing. It’s about quantity, not quality. Writers are seldom seen for their words, but their assets. Calling myself a writer inclines folks to ask not what I write, but what I’ve sold; and since I’m not really selling—at least, under my name—I don’t have any business calling myself one. The only things I have to show for my writing are a fat stack of manuscripts—novels, short stories, screenplays, an unfinished memoir—rivaled by an even thicker packet of rejection letters. A stray reader may leave a decent review. They have hope I can either improve or publish something to acclaim.


I have bills. I have dependants.

I don’t have good sales skills, but I do have knowledge and a choice. I know that everything is for sale, even if money is not always the currency. I also know how invisible, impoverished and therefore, inconsequential I am. I know money is just paper and pieces of metal so, I have chosen to monetize this craft however I can to amass what I can of this constructed medium of exchange.

I have chosen survival.


I’ve also just chosen one of many jobs. Ghostwriting is the ideal route for me since it’s simply supply and demand. It takes no time at all to get your feet wet as a content creator amongst classifieds. Each assignment affords you some scope to familiarize yourself with a client. More often than not, satisfied customers revisit your listing; and in a matter of months, you’ve built a recognizable and reliable client list. Rates climb slowly, but surely. The key to making the most of this is time management. You write off time for correspondence if you can’t schedule check-ins; if your subject requires research, you wade into whatever that may be. Most importantly, you spend time looking into your actual clients: if they have positive feedback, references, and good standing with their source of listing; which requires more time if you’re still building, shopping around.


What sold me on ghostwriting is that it requires little to no audience engagement. I’m not on the prowl for potential readers; I’m not dangling freebies or swag on the prospect of sampler loyalties. If they haven’t found me already, my skillset is enough to solicit clients and earn me a guaranteed payment. This isn’t too unlike how regular jobs work: you clock in, clock out, and an employer pays you hourly; sometimes, a flat fee. The rate of pay is contingent on the economy and industry of your field. Time and pay coalesce when you work independently, albeit there are hurdles for entrepreneurs.


Last Wednesday, two bills which were pitched to curb online sex trafficking passed the American Senate by a landslide. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) will criminalize the “promotion or facilitation of prostitution” and those who “facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.” Overall, FOSTA and SESTA are initiatives which will screw over sex workers. These bills are poorly conceived because they conflate sex trafficking with consensual sex work. They have no clause that discerns between consenting and non-consenting sex workers and clients, which will result in gross exploitation and potentially violent working conditions for regulars whom evade their execution.


In the realm of ghostwriting, think of these bills as equivalents geared to criminalize—I don’t know, bad writers. FOSTA becomes the Fight Online Bad Writers Act (FOBWA) while SESTA turns into the Stop Enabling Bad Writers Act (SEBWA). The problem with the initiatives of FOBWA and SEBWA is that while they aim to outlaw bad writers, they do not have clauses which specify, let alone define what makes a good writer. Rather screening or prosecuting bad writers specifically, these bills would instead outlaw all writing. While I’m not the greatest writer, these bills would be ridiculous for obvious reasons; and if legislators endeavored to regulate the business of writing in the wake of these bills, I would probably have a smaller pool of clients and likely see even less of a profit due to service fees.


While I’m not equating literary work with sex work, I can appreciate the entrepreneurial and ethical threats FOSTA and SESTA pose to sex workers. Moreover, the absence of social networks which concern sex work altogether bodes badly for present and prospective sex trafficking victims. Networks are comprised of safety nets and public records [however informal] which include reviews and references. In addition to actual job listings: advisory boards and mailing lists which cover everything from ringleaders to bad clients, to workers practices, to precautionary prompts and check-ins will now be shut down.


Respectability politics are also at play as there are others, including writers, whose platforms are being suspended or shut down for what moderators deem to be inappropriate content in accordance to FOSTA and SESTA. There are independent erotica writers whose books have been removed from Amazon, CreateSpace, and Draft2Digital; and academics whose references to sex work have been wiped from their cloud storage. In light of how popularity propels profit, however, I doubt those cuts will be made regarding traditionally published authors or famed scholars.


Of course, the implications for how bills like FOSTA and SESTA may influence other countries to erect and enact similar legislation are also huge. The implications are huge because the world at large seems disturbingly comfortable with the fact that life as we know it is contingent to debt and depression under some pretext of one paying their dues. Bestsellers or success stories who strike gold are the result of unlikely albeit lucrative gambles and inherited wealth. Survival within a corrupt, capitalist economy that positively reinforces those whom oppress or shortchange is further hindered by policy and profit motives.

For more information on FOSTA and SESTA, check out #SurvivorsAgainstsSesta and the immense insight of Phoenix Calida

[stock photos from kaboompics]

Wicked Games


So, I’ve been seeing a lot lately re: Amazon’s new review policy. Apparently, it’s cracking down and either banning or removing what it deems to be biased reviews. Book bloggers are predictably outraged, if not panicking.

I mean, I understand this from the bloggers’ POV since reviews are essentially their brand and a stream of income. However, as the writer I am, I’m kind of confused. Because, it seems like the majority of the reviews are “biased” in regards to the actual business model and how bloggers come by these books to review in the first place—which neither affects writers like me here or there.

Yes, I understand the algorithms and formulae wherein numerous reviews amplify visibility. I also understand that there’s something to be said as to how one actually “procures” or solicits reviews. For traditionally published authors, reviews are typically solicited from mainstream outlets; Publisher’s Weekly, for example. Independent authors can appeal to that circuit with the right contacts or sales ranks to “merit” folks take a gander, I guess.


Independent authors may or may not hire PR, PA’s, or promotional platformers to distribute free copies of their books to reviewers. There’s no payment for this. They’re giving away free books for folks to review at their discretion. These reviewers also have the option of simply not reviewing as well, regardless of whether or not they’ve received the book. PR, PA’s, and hub sites with master lists of reviewers just distribute your book. They may guarantee a certain number of reviews too, but from whom?

Moreover, independent authors have to pay for all this themselves. They don’t get promo budgets to spend like traditionally published authors and all that stuff is expensive; and writers like me quite frankly don’t have that disposable income. On top of actually writing, we’re editing, formatting, designing covers, and working otherwise. Plus, some of us aren’t editing, formatting, or designing the covers due to information and technology gaps or limited access—which is another expense.

And after all of that, we’re still prompted to simply gift our products for reviews in an attempt to stymie the system or for “great exposure” and pay more money for the privilege of distribution. It’s uncompensated labor and something I find to be a rather ethically ambiguous dynamic.


Of course, there’s the alternative of simply approaching bloggers and “gifting” them ourselves without the middlemen of PR, PA, or boutique review hubs. Either way, the odds of them at any point in time actually buying our books to review them is slim.

Which again, is why I’m confused and a bit nonplussed by the outrage. These reviewers are freely given the fruits of our labours. They aren’t buying our books to review them, but we’re buying or begging to be reviewed. Not to mention, these reviewers aren’t actual “experts.” We’re not exactly paying to be graced by literary legends or those whose prowess is in prose. These are just everyday people. They’re regular readerships whom monetize the reviewing system. Jolene with thousands of followers, visitors, and reviews under her belt is indistinguishable from Brenda who just enjoys romance and decides to blog her reviews as a pastime. Either can get onto a reviewers’ list (and pocket) relatively easily if they’ve consistently reviewed, use social media, and know the lore of the big leagues. There are some hobbyists who don’t charge, but the lot does.


Reviewing itself has become another lucrative industry thanks to the algorithms and specs determinant of our visibility and success. Folks are compensated for their reviews and quotas in some cases. These reviews aren’t mandatorily “good” either. Regardless of whether you just asked or paid, or the fact that it was a free read at your expense: they can still pan the book in their review—which you paid for, literally and figuratively. That’s not biased in itself. Everyone’s entitled to their view. Unfortunately, given the aforementioned, not everyone is entitled to be acknowledged.

For writers like me, it gets kind of worse.


Often, independent authors do not take priority over traditionally published ones. From what I’ve seen, it’s somewhat odd to see that reviewers seem likelier to actually buy books from the latter as opposed to the former. Reviewers may have reading lists stretching into next year and it’s at their discretion which come first. Whether the priority is chronological or otherwise, they’re likelier to be keen to traditionally published authors or bestsellers first simply because they’re familiar. They may also be getting bonuses or other incentives independent authors may not be privy to [afford and/or award]. Besides, common names or well-known authors are popular. They’ll drive traffic to their venture. Moreover, they’ll be the filler everyone else is talking about. Because, who mentions the unknown or little guy around the water cooler; especially when folks are already talking about somebody else, somebody known?


Now, factor in the disparities somebody more marginalized overall fares against even if they make the cut. Think about the narratives reflecting that positionality emerge to the chagrin or bewilderment of many reviewers whose measuring stick is mainstream. Then, factor in any legit bias—which may manifest in any of the steps I just mentioned: of precisely how and why a reviewer comes by the content they review, and note how many have a disclaimer saying they got a free copy in exchange for one: good or bad. Think about the implications of capitalizing on the desperation of a creative demographic vying for visibility when they’re resigned to scream into a void regardless of their time or effort—only to selectively boost some and backlist or ignore others.

This is how marketing itself works. Trends are eventuated by folks playing favourites. It’s why the same story can be told a million times and progressively make bank. It’s why the need for “diversity” persists: because there’s little, if any space for variation. A number of marketers, social media specialists, and prosperous folks can speak to this too. It’s no coincidence particular people are visible, “viable,” & altogether supported while others…well, aren’t.


Then, there are the actual reviewers: everyday people just reviewing. Similar to the hubs that offer services “a la carte” which include promo, most of them are just well-meaning albeit misguided social media users whom just snowball on your behalf.

Think of it like a team. If you want to win, you’ll want to have experienced players; players with your best interest in scoring a goal. Not folks who’ve never played or are halfheartedly, however earnestly trying to get in the game. Algorithms, formulas, and overall data collection that measure quantity over quality don’t care about good players. They care exclusively about goals. In theory, you could have lacking players and that’d be okay so long as they scored. And “scores” are indiscriminate, even if they’re foul goals; even if your team (or the very league) is riddled with penalties. No matter what, the more, the merrier.


In the scheme of everything I just mentioned, reviewers are like your teammates—except their objective to score is questionable when you critically consider if they’re present; if they’re with you or actually rooting for bigger, better booksellers and tropes from other bleachers. While you essentially play by yourself for yourself (hardy-har-har). Ideally, your teammates may eventually indulge your personal objective—but what are the odds, especially when the time is now?

Remember, these reviews don’t equate or translate to sales. So, it’s a present-but-not-really game where you’re scratched onto the scoreboard by the end; while these teammates nonetheless proceed to plug other, popular names around the water cooler; and you’re the one paying the check.


It honestly reads as somewhat sanctimonious and disingenuous when I see the lot arguing their right to review by saying Amazon’s new review policies are hurting independent authors; and that they [the reviewers themselves] are all for independent authors. Because if that were true, this dynamic of free books in exchange for reviews wouldn’t be so determinant. Moreover, if this exchange system worked, every author who “gifted” these free books would have returning reviewers and readerships based on good reviews.

Ask yourself, how many reviewers actually reinvest their compensation or pay these gifts forward to the independent authors for whom these reviews are crucial? How many reviewers leave good reviews and actually buy a book from the authors they review? When reviewers say “I’m looking forward to reading more from this author,” how many of them actually intend to read more by buying a book from that author versus expecting to just get more free books, and they’ll just write the author off if they don’t?


Reviewers are not outraged because this new policy effects independent authors. They’re angry that it compromises their business and ongoing, free libraries. They’re mad that they’re suddenly disqualified as viable sources. They’re upset because in the game, Amazon has moved the goal posts and redrawn the boundary lines. They’re geared to play, but are now being smacked with requirements or aren’t allowed on field. In addition to that, every score they’ve made prior is being called into question. There are many whose reviews have been deleted and deemed “biased” under this new policy.

Whether this policy addresses actual bias in the reviews or the grapevine is something they can discern. They were right in a way though since the implications and liabilities of this are huge, particularly for independent authors—whom may demand refunds or whatever else to make up for this. Amazon isn’t on the hook, they are. Obviously, it depends on the terms between authors and reviewers per service though. In any case, this new policy has some potentials, good and bad. It can also be adopted by other platforms.