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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Homestuck, Destiny, and why Social Constructs are Bullshit

==> StIT Reader: Survey The Mayhem


You enter the pub to find that things are EVEN WORSE THAN USUAL. Most notably, there seem to be MANY SAM KEEPERS. This is a terrible development, you think to yourself. And you are correct. One Sam Keeper was already just about all that you could handle. This is ENTIRELY TOO MANY SAM KEEPERS.

The most agitated looking of the Sam Keepers is PONTIFICATING ABOUT SOME BULLSHIT.

==> StIT Reader: Listen to pontification

Sam Keeper: Oh god, who could have possibly predicted that my extremely nebulously defined and possibly totally bullshit powers as the mythic Page of Paper could have caused so many problems? All the jumping I've done recently between various places has just created all these weird, kind of creepy alternate versions of myself, and now the whole blog is stuck under some mountain... I'll never finish my epic quest at this point and grow up to be a Well Adjusted Adult! And I have this whole article to write about how totally perfect and unassailable every aspect of Troll culture is! What the heck am I going to do???

==> StIT Reader: Offer to listen to Keeper's excellent theories about quadrant shipping

Hell no. Keeper made her bed and she can sleep in it. Or more specifically she stole your chair and she can sit in it. Yeah, that metaphor scans, kinda. Anyway it's probably just Keeper's intractable destiny to fuck everything up forever.

Hold on, though, it looks like one of the other Keepers has something to say.

==> Sam Coper: Sort this mess out



Sam Coper: You know Alternian culture is bullshit though right?

Sam Keeper: What the heck? Who are you?

Sam Coper: I'm you, but way, way calmer. Way calmer. Jesus buddy. I'm the you that actually learned to cope with things instead of doing an acrobatic fucking pirouette off the handle every time something goes wrong. And also I figured out that I can make this God Tier outfit have a cool skirt and shit, look at it!

Anyway, for real though, Alternian culture is bullshit, and so is your destiny, and that's... actually kind of a huge theme within the comic.

Sam Keeper: Ok, look, you're gonna have to break this one down for me a bit more.

Sam Coper: With pleasure.

See, Homestuck, among many other things, reveals that lots of stuff we think is natural or an inescapable fact of reality is actually a social and historical construct! And in fact, Homestuck shows that our identities might be a lot more free and fluid than we think.

==> StIT Reader: Try to understand.







I first became interested in the idea of identity in Homestuck based on the way the comic treats romantic and sexual identities, and its contours of queerness.

Now, Homestuck is responsible for a fascinating little technology called "quadrant shipping." In this model of romance, rather than a simple binary switch (in love/not in love) there's a system represented by suits in playing cards. Rather than just , representing traditional romantic love, there's also ♦, , and --diamond, club, and spade. I won't try to summarize all this in the level of detail covered in the comic itself, but in short:

♦ represents Moirallegiance, a kind of platonic romance that involves two people acting as stabilizing forces in each others lives represents Kismessissitude, a passionately antagonistic relationship where negative emotions are erotically charged represents Auspistism, where one person acts as a mediator between two others in order to diffuse the passionate feelings that would otherwise bloom into Kismessissitude or possibly Matespriteship<3 span="">

What's really notable though is that Andrew Hussie details all of this stuff in the form of a lengthy info dump, and this info dump starts out by claiming:

The problem is that when the subject of troll romance is broached, our sparing human intellects instantly assume the most ingratiating posture of surrender imaginable.

Now, we can tell immediately that this is patently untrue. Plenty of people have looked at this and understood it on an intellectual level, certainly. Just from a standpoint of looking at our pop music I think there's plenty of evidence of romance fitting into the other three non-Flushed quadrants. Look at all the songs for example about loving and hating someone at the same time.

Sam Keeper: Well sure, the Quadrants are a totally fantastic way of understanding relationships, and Hussie's a damn fool for not realizing it!

Sam Coper: Well, hold on--I'm not saying here though is that Hussie-as-author is mistaken just because Hussie-as-narrator is clearly wrong. I mean, look, he's being overtly ridiculous at this point in the comic, proclaiming that human relationships are totally straightforward and never confusing. One of the things you gotta know with Homestuck is that narrators are never reliable. In fact they can be relied upon to be unreliable. There's probably an applicable line from some pirate movie here but we don't have time for that decade old nonsense, we need to talk about what's Hussie's really interested in talking about here:

He's interested in revealing how ideas about love--and quite a few other things besides--are social constructs.

It's probably worthwhile to take a moment to explain what I mean about things being "social constructs." 

It's actually a pretty straightforward concept. Things that we think of as "natural" are actually cultural or historical. That's... pretty much the basic bare bones idea. We take things as innate to humanity, but really particular cultures exert vast pressures and efforts in order to maintain a particular status quo. And this is something I think Homestuck is very useful for exploring.

One example that seems pretty obvious to bring up here is the idea of heterosexuality as "natural."

There's a lot of cultural assumptions or myths about heterosexuality as a natural default that humanity has deviated from due to our culture. However, when we start to analyze actual wildlife we see a huge range of sexual relations that totally undermine this idea of a straightforward heterosexual default. We can look at human history as well and see that the idea of "straight" and "gay" as coherent rigid categories actually emerged over the course of the last century or so and has very great difficulty mapping onto previous cultures.

This is important stuff because we can see with this example that the construction of a "natural" way of doing things is deeply tied to debates over basic human rights. And we can also extend this example to many other things that are part of our ideology and question the historical and cultural use of beliefs that we hold in our cultures.

And what Homestuck does is encourage a healthy suspicion of these narratives. One of the ways it does this is, of course, through unreliable narrators. We're shown again and again that anyone claiming to offer a complete and perfect account of the narrative shouldn't be trusted either because they're ridiculous (Andrew Hussie) because they're well meaning but overly enthusiastic and prone to spinning out elaborate theories as fact (Calliope, who represents a particular form of fan engagement) or are just manipulative, terrible people twisting information for their own ends (Aranea, Doc Scratch). Narrators in Homestuck are simply not to be trusted. There's loads of characters who get sucked in by narrators, to their eventual great sorrow--Vriska, Aranea, and Rose are all victims of this, and Terezi might be the most notable victim of all. More on her later.

But we can also see this deeper in the narrative as well, in the way the history of the setting plays out.

There's lots of stuff to do with trolls that seems to have a pretty definitive biological rationale. For example, the existence of both black and red relationships seems grounded in reproduction--both types of relationship can, apparently, produce separate but equally viable biological material.

But we can go even deeper than that. Trolls have different colors of blood, and those blood colors correspond to different positions in society. This has resulted in a caste system, with lowbloods--who tend to have warmer hues--at the bottom of society. These trolls tend to have shorter lifespans, but this is balanced by their tendency to have a variety of psychic powers. So the Highbloods, some of whom live for MILLENNIA and who are pretty powerful in their own right, are naturally suited to rule. Right?


Sam Clicker: CLICKCLICKCLICKCLICKCLICK

Sam Keeper: Oh god it's getting spores everywhere, that's horrifying.

Sam Coper: [clears throat] Right?

Sam Keeper: Oh, uh, yeah s-

Sam Coper: Not so fast! This is basically the story that we're told, but remember that what narrators say and what the NARRATIVE says are two different things... and even the stories that narrators tell might have different morals than what those narrators give them.

From a narrative perspective we're actually given quite a bit of information suggesting that the caste system and the whole Alternian cultural ideology is bullshit. We're told that lowbloods are naturally weaker and shorter lived, but we also see quite a bit of evidence that lowblood psychic abilities are used as a technological resource.

Sam Seeker of Many Names: Yes and the details of Alternian society are [weird titters] quite horrifying!! 

Sam Keeper: Wait who's THIS asshole?


Sam Seeker: We even have one notable instance of someone being used as a LIVING BATTERY to power the interstellar flagship of the Empress, for example, during which his life span is artificially extended despite his "lowly" status!! This character's narrative may be extreme but I think there's plenty of evidence to suggest that lowbloods are exploited for their exceptional powers and the imperial conquests of the trolls seems predicated to a large extent on the ability of highbloods to capitalize on lowblood bodies!!

We also know that there was an entire caste--lime bloods--who were WIPED OUT ENTIRELY for being a threat of some sort to the Hemospectrum!! We've never been given a solid explanation for this--it could be merely the influence of the baleful Lord English who loathes that particular color... but I think there's some hints in the narrative, particularly the claim that the limebloods were a threat to the caste system, and the presence of the ruby red blooded MUTANT Karkat at just the place in the hemospectrum where the Limebloods should have fallen, that suggests they may have been particularly prone to blood color mutation or even transformation. As I write this my friend essayofthoughts (who I definitely would not sacrifice to further my MAD QUEST for the name of a DEAD GOD!!) also has let me know of a theory that limebloods were particularly good at conciliatory relationships, adept to the point where they represented an unacceptable limiter on highblood capacity for violence and so were wiped out in order to further the aims of Empire!! What a pity that they were all DESTROYED UTTERLY ahahahaheheheh!!

Sam Coper: Yes, thank you for that valuable information, you terrifying freak version of us! The reason for this though is less important than the fundamental fact that the Hemospectrum, despite the frequent claims by both Alternians and their alternate timeline counterparts the Beforans that it is only natural for highbloods to rule over lowbloods, is kept in place by mindbending acts of genocidal violence. There's at least some variance in blood color (we see two fan trolls get blown up and they have custom blood colors so hey, it's canon now!) so strict delineations between castes probably has about as much validity as, you know, racial science does here on Earth which is to say jack fuckall. And aside from the violent pogrom against the lime bloods, we also see two political revolutions that are both violently repressed, with drastic changes made to society in order to limit the potential of future revolutions (including the full move of adult trolls off of Alternia to colony worlds!)

What we see then is that there's historically a whole series of deliberate political actions taken in order to limit the power and autonomy of certain groups.

You know, kinda like how this shit works on Earth.

Sam Keeper: Ok, but how does this apply to the rest of the comic?

Sam Coper: Well, there's a number of narratives that parallel this idea.

Maybe the most adorable one is the relationship between Dave Strider and Karkat Vantas. Now, it's worth noting that Homestuck is, delightfully enough, a comic in which barely anyone is straight. And two of these not straight people are Dave and Karkat, who seem to have formed some sort of relationship together.

What that relationship is, exactly, is a little bit vague though. And within the comic that vagueness serves to uncover some of the arbitrary qualities to both human AND troll romantic structures. I've already noted that the whole idea of a definitive quality to human minds that make quadrant shipping incalculably alien is nonsense--all the evidence we have in the comic and the fandom suggests that this is not really the case. Human characters seem quite capable of experiencing romance across the quadrants.

But as that's going on there's another sort of muddying of the waters that I think is important. We could just say that human romance is limited but we can move beyond our arbitrary human love to the TRUE quadrant love... but the quadrants aren't a transcendentally pure and natural system either. In fact, Dave and Karkat seem to have arrived at a kind of relationship that transcends the quadrants. One particularly interesting post on Tumblr suggests that Dave and Karkat effectively parallel each other in their stories when it comes to queerness: Dave realizes that he is attracted to another (albeit alien) boy, while Karkat comes to recognize that he is the troll equivalent of queer--namely, someone who isn't comfortable within the rigid confines of the quadrants who has always struggled against them and felt stifled by them.

Something like the quadrant system is therefore useful in pointing out the limits of human romantic ideals... but by the same token, as useful as the quadrants are (and I've certainly found it to be very useful for articulating aspects of my own polyamorous relationships), they are still a particular construct developed historically that, for Karkat, ultimately need to be dismantled. And even the particular contours of troll queerness are somewhat arbitrary: Kanaya seems to be attracted solely to other women, but this simply isn't something that is socially meaningful on Alternia. The relevance or irrelevance of that though is ultimately arbitrary and cultural.

This matters when we encounter the dark side of the quadrants.

Sam Keeper: Wait, the quadrants have a... "dark side?"
Sam Coper: Like most social constructs, yeah.

We can see most viscerally the negative aspects of this social construct in the relationship between Terezi and Gamzee. This is a blackrom, but if blackrom is antagonistic (and we do have some positive examples of this throughout the comic, such as the pranking and trolling dynamic that John and Terezi have) this relationship is overtly abusive.

I think the response of the reader to this relationship can sometimes parallel the experience of the characters. The human characters seem unsure of whether or not this relationship is just a "troll thing," and the trolls seem to be somewhat uninterested in intervening on Terezi's behalf, with disastrous results. This is a good example of the way that the quadrants, for both outside human observers and actual trolls, validates toxic behavior within the context of the belief that the system is natural. We can parallel this quite strongly with assumptions we make about gender roles in our society: assumptions about gender roles for men and women are often used to dismiss abuse and fail to intervene. Blackrom as a natural thing allows the characters and potentially the readers to dismiss as simply natural behaviors which ultimately cascade into extreme abuse and ultimately a whole bunch of people dying.

So, to sum up, we've got the introduction of the quadrants by a narrator so unreliable that he ends the comic dead because of his own stupid mistakes, then the quadrants themselves are deconstructed as a social institution through both Karkat's transcendence of the quadrants and Terezi's suffering due to naturalized extreme violence.

To hop back to Dave and Karkat, actually, their relationship is interesting because it parallels their overall destinies. Now, this is a notion that in the comic is explicitly linked. We have, running simultaneously, this kind of social constructedness stuff, and then in broader terms we have these wider ideas about myth arcs and the things that characters are supposed to do in order to Grow As People. We're specifically told that the Classpects that each kid is assigned are designed to encourage their self actualization. 

And most notably of all, we have an explicit link between romantic systems and destiny at the end of the Quadrants lecture:

But if there was one theme to be hammered through his thick skull, it would be the trolls' cultural preoccupation with romantic destiny. Yes, the romantic landscape is rife with false starts and miscues and infidelities, red and black. But every troll believes strongly that each quadrant holds one and only one true pairing for them, and it is just a matter of time before the grid is filled with auspicious matchups through the mysterious channels of TROLL SERENDIPITY.
In short, their belief is that for each quadrant there exists a pair or triad of trolls somewhere in the cosmos that were... made for each other.

Now, leave aside for the moment that the pair that is "made for each other" ends with a series of romantic disasters and both of these characters dying horribly (a common theme in Homestuck actually)...

I would actually argue that the end of the comic largely embraces the idea that victory is achieved in part by steadfastly refusing to engage the intended "destiny" the game has planned for them.




Past Sam Keeper: Which I totally called by the way.
Sam Coper: Oh no.

Sam Keeper: Oh HELL no.

Past Sam Keeper: Oh hell YES! The end of the game concludes with the characters dodging out of the time loops of the game to escape to a universe free from the strife of the story, and individual characters (Rose most flagrantly) seem to have succeeded in doing what they wanted to do not through a coherent quest arc or narrative path but through simply trying to do their best. That's really interesting to me because there's a fertile space between the social construct and the game construct of the Destiny.

This bothers some people. It didn't bother me and you probably know why if you've been following along with my articles for a while: I saw all of this coming four years ago and predicted that the ending would involve ESCAPE. For people who are fans of, you know, other theorists who shall remain unnamed, the fact that Dave didn't go off to use his welsh bullshit sword to kill Lord English is very disappointing. Over and over again what I see is claims that Homestuck has failed to adhere to Good Storytelling. This is, in short, a bunch of bullshit, but it's interesting bullshit in that it's CONSISTENT bullshit, and I think what we're really seeing here is a break between people interested in the characters in their own right and people interested in characters as just pieces within a vast cosmic chess game with neat and tidy loops and resolutions and so on. They should've read my article. My article is basically the best thing to happen to this fandom, JUST MY OPINION. And hey, listen, I have this great idea for how to solve all the problems with Feminism forever using My Little Pony, let me just exp-

Sam Keeper: No, no absolutely not, fuck that, fuck you, we're done here.

Sam Coper: God I hate that guy. But he's not really wrong, I guess. 

If we look at someone like Dave we can see that there's a fascinating parallel between a series of realizations that he has about his childhood and destiny. We see him come to terms with the fact, most notably, that his childhood with Bro Strider was in fact extremely abusive and neglectful and he carries a lot of baggage because of that. We also see him realize that many of his behaviors were driven by an internalized fear of his own queer identity and a strong reaction against the possibility of queerness. And finally, we do see him kill a proxy of Lord English but the fated final battle that many predicted never comes to pass, and he seems to come to terms with the idea that he really is, for real, not interested in being The Great Hero that his Bro ostensibly was, he's not doing some refusal of the call bullshit, he's just not into it.

And this is totally fine.

What links all of these things is that he comes to recognize that the paths set out for him by his brother, by his culture, and by his Destiny, aren't actually that useful in terms of his psychological needs. That's totally fantastic, and honestly I really struggle to see how having things perfectly matching up to an Epic Destiny Of Hero's Journey Good Storytelling Three Act Structure TM would be more satisfying than seeing someone  start to work through a whole bunch of catastrophic mental baggage and move in a positive direction.

I think it's worth considering the way that destiny and social construct parallel each other here, basically. Social constructs, whether the Hemospectrum, the Quadrants, or the western construct of Heterosexual Monogamy, can become a kind of destiny that constrains and damages, because of the way they become naturalized, because of the way that things outside of those systems become inconceivable. And in the end, destinies might not matter too much because we have a suggestion that they might ultimately end in basically the same place

And personally, I find the challenge that Homestuck offers to all these different kinds of destinies, whether Epic or Social, incredibly empowering, inspiring, and yes, satisfying. I can understand in a sense that people might be disatisfied that every character's path doesn't form a perfect parabola drawn through space and time, or perfect loops circling around themselves, but that's kind of the point:

Sam Keeper: I see. It's only in the context of a well formed social construct that these things seem natural. It's only within the context of a very carefully constructed lie about the way the world has always been and will always be, in the context of this convenient falsehood, that these narratives seem absolutely well plotted and well formed.

Sam Coper: That's right! In the end, what's best for us might be to plot our own course entirely.

And I think the best course is for me to take over this blog entirely.

Sam Keeper: Wait, hold on, what the fuck?

Sam Coper: If you want to read the draft for this, as well as the draft for the next few articles, you can as a $1 subscriber to my Patreon! 

Sam Keeper: Oh my god.

Sam Coper: These articles are made possible by my backers on Patreon. Subscribe to view article drafts, see behind the scenes artwork, listen to the podcast versions of each week's article, or even to commission an article from me.

Sam Keeper: Jesus, can you at least plug the book?
Sam Coper: Yeah, I was just about to get to that, hold your horses. Get it? Horses?

Sam Keeper: Lord give me fucking strength.


Sam Keeper: I take it back. This "distributed self" thing is a bunch of bullshit.

1 comment:

  1. I feel like the quadrants were "deconstructed" when Alternia (Alt. Bef. II) was "deconstructed" in a gout of fire and death, or as it dawned on the Trolls that their entire lives had been engineered to coerce them into a more warlike culture as per laid out in their ancestral contract.

    So really all they had to do was wit for Gamzee to render the former hive structure untenable, and BAM! Unavoidable systemic change via drug-withdrawal-and-brain-damage-induced multiple homicide!

    Then the game grooms 'em for ruling the next round of frog spunk, and so on. In a way it's a mix of acknowledging the requisite for making people learn things and letting them fail, while also perhaps noting an inevitability of change?


    I also find it interesting how the classpect system is multifurcated- like a sort of balance of nature and nurture.

    Sidenote:
    You should put ads on here, I have negative money and want to support you for holding different opinions than myself, and it's getting harder and harder to stay out of echo chambers these days, and unfortunately The Overchan is not what it once was, what with the Clearnet being terrified of onions.

    -Hexidecimark

    ReplyDelete

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