The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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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.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Vriska as Fight Club Fan: A Bodyless and Timeless Persona Teaser Excerpt and Book Announcement

The following is an excerpt from my new Homestuck collection, A Bodyless and Timeless Persona, part of the essay "Is There A Text In This Classpect?" This essay, exclusive to the collection, applies reader-response theory to Homestuck in order to answer the question: "Just what is a Homestuck character, anyway?" The answer is, predictably, pretty weird and complicated. This excerpt comes from a section about one of the weirder things Homestuck characters represent: you, the reader. You can read a previous excerpt from the beginning of the essay here.
We have the suggestion from the start of Homestuck, even if it's a suggestion that comes pre-undermined, that the characters are... us, the readers. This is the source of some real interpretive weirdness, because it's not really possible to resolve the contradictions present in the first few pages of John's introduction: in many ways we do guide the actions of the characters, but once created the text is static barring the occasional games and things. And if the comic invites us to take on a role of far deeper identification than normal, with sequences like John's trip through the timeline demanding that we do actions for the characters, like entering passwords in order to continue, it also continually reasserts the autonomy of the characters and their ability to reject everything from authorial intervention to our own desires for the narrative.

One of the weirder instances of this comes midway through Act 6, with the line "You are now Caliborn."






I always find this moment really stunning, even when I know it's coming, because it completes a kind of mirroring that appears throughout the narrative where Caliborn is positioned as a dark mirror to the protagonists of the comics, via visual and audio cues. Here, we finally get to "be" Caliborn, like we are the other major characters, and while it's true that we've "been" some much weirder stuff, I can't help but find this particular move very portentous-seeming.

We "become" Caliborn after he has entered his session, at a moment when he is standing on his desolate home planet, having staunched the blood from his self-inflicted leg amputation with pages of Homestuck fanfiction originally pasted in a ~ATH manual. We're positioned as being this character who has murdered, and will murder-by-proxy, a whole lot of people we've presumably come to like (and who we've also "been"), as he (we) actively tear up Homestuck's narrative.

But again, immediately this call to identify with the character is undercut. We get several pages of this narrative, stepping into Caliborn's lack-of-shoe-and-also-one-robot-leg, and then suddenly, at the moment when previously we've been given an intro sequence like John's at the very beginning of the comic, Caliborn stares directly into the reader's eyes and the narrator stumbles.

What follows is a desperate attempt by the narrator (Hussie, now dead) to convince you/Caliborn that you/Caliborn are definitely really having the thoughts Hussie is ascribing to you/Caliborn. At this point the whole illusion of identification collapses: our entire sense of whether we can think the alien thoughts of Caliborn has been called into question simply through the suggestion that "Caliborn's thoughts" might not be his thoughts at all, but an external imposition.

This is the problem of Homestuck dramatized. Even as we as readers want to identify with and in some sense become the characters, the narrative is always putting up barriers and highlighting the limitations of that identification, and of our ability to suspend our disbelief fully.

Now, for me, this is great stuff, because suspension of disbelief and identification aren't critical tools I'm really that enthusiastic about. Reader response theory can actually help us to understand why. These concepts seem to commonly be used to justify, at least in my experience, an adherence to existing beliefs--an adherence to the repertoire you already enter a text with. This can be used to justify all sorts of shoddy worldbuilding, from excuses about the absolute need to make everything as straight and white and male as possible, to redesigning aliens to look as humanoid as possible because how else will people find them relatable?

There's no way around the fact that reading only to confirm your preconceptions isn't exactly the mark of intellectual maturity. And while worrying about suspension of disbelief and wanting to identify with characters can be a valuable technique for drawing upon the repertoire in order to make material accessible and draw the reader into the world of the text, demanding that everything within a text confirm rather than challenge the repertoire is problematic.

We've already seen this with Mindfang's journal. I mean, Vriska and Aranea are basically bad Fight Club fans, paying attention to the bulk of the story only to crop off the ending in their heads, getting really enthused about Tyler Durden without recognizing him for the parody of masculinity he is.

Just as Vriska and Aranea are seduced by Mindfang's journal, so too might readers be seduced into overidentification with characters--characters, for example, like Vriska and Aranea. We can see this in some of the responses to the comic that depend upon a level of identification that pretty much transparently throws out huge swaths of the text in order to elevate one particular character to the status of True Hero. 

For an excellent example of this, consider a bewilderingly popular and acclaimed series of just godawful incoherent arguments that came out after the end of Homestuck. Specifically, consider the following:





There is much that we could dig into here. The outright incorrect information, for example, both textually (the timeline was not rebooted "for Vriska" but for Terezi--this is explicit in the text), and in terms of fandom response (how you conclude that there are no strong feelings in the fandom about Vriska Serket is beyond me). And there's the bizarre assertion that not knowing whether to root for or against a character makes them a bad "main character." But listen, while I could devote endless pages to dissecting every grotesque knot in this tangled interpretation of Homestuck, I'm not really interested in that as much as I'm interested in the way this particular reader does to Vriska Serket what Vriska Serket does to Mindfang.

This is a picture of a reader being utterly caught up in the mythology that the character has constructed, trapped in an illusion that, apparently, no amount of canon information can contradict. Consistency has been found in the resonance between repertoire and the material of the character, and so this over-identification takes hold. The result is that rather than seeing the text as a whole, the writer sees only those bits which conform to a predetermined reading. Rather than allowing for a flexibility of interpretation compatible with an avant-garde narrative, the writer here applies a rigid high school understanding of drama with their chosen character cast as the grand hero, then criticizes the text for not bending to accommodate them.

It's not that radical reinterpretation is something I'm necessarily against. After all, I'm the one who used the very theories I'm brandishing now to argue that Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash totally definitely kissed in this one episode of My Little Pony. But I think there's a real issue when a text as experimental and dynamic and complex as Homestuck is crammed into very narrow understandings of character behavior and motivation. It radically diminishes the open possibilities of the comic in a way that I honestly think does a huge disservice both to the text and to our capacity as readers to challenge our own understandings and expectations.

In Homestuck, then, we're constantly vibrating between two poles, between the invitation to over-identify with the character, the invitation for the character to be the reader, and the recognition that characters overtly or covertly resist this identification and our assumptions. The ambiguity of "You" in Homestuck represents this never-resolved tension, and it is one of the things that makes Homestuck so compelling: a constant reminder that in some sense even as we are stepping into the text as reader, we are being read, and our own repertoire is being laid bare.

You can pick up A Bodyless and Timeless Persona in its full Ebook form by becoming a $5 subscriber to my Patreon. Or, you can read "Is There A Text In This Classpect" in a raw text format by becoming a $1 subscriber. As a $1 subscriber you'll also have access to my article drafts, the text of other exclusive essays like this, and my patron-exclusive review series. As a $5 subscriber you get access to all that, plus my StIT Podcast series, periodic Let's Read Theory audio, and the original image files used to illustrate StIT and collections like this.

I am also intensely pleased to announce the second half of my collection series on Homestuck, which will focus on my first love in comics: form and the way Homestuck revolutionized the field of Hypercomics.

I present, A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities: Essays on Homestuck and Form



This collection features four articles on Homestuck's experimentation with comics and hypercomics as a medium, and the uniquely experimental fandom that these experiments spawned, as well as an all new exclusive article on the wave of hypercomics that Homestuck inspired. This collection will be the first pop-academic look at Homestuck's place within a wider history of the comics medium, and will be available to $5 backers of the Storming the Ivory Tower Patreon.

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