Throwing Shade: The Metaphysics behind Objectification in The Magicians

Promotional Image for the Magicians (SyFy)

I’ve broken up the crazy end-of-the-semester season by sneaking in episodes of The Magicians, the SyFy series based on Lev Grossman’s novels. The premise of the novels and TV adaptation blends Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Paper Chase, and a host of generic 90s shows about good-looking 20-somethings to imagine a grad school for magicians. It took a few episodes for the show to click for me (I can pinpoint the exact moment in the fourth episode of the first season), and now I’m enjoying it immensely. It’s the closest thing to Buffy in tone that I’ve seen in years.

But it’s also a critique of Buffy’s optimism (or was it Joss Whedon’s optimism?). Things in The Magicians keep breaking. Every solution to the show’s major crises spawns further crises. There is never any resolution, a vivid illustration of what philosophers call a “wicked problem”—a problem so complex and intractable that there’s no way to test for solutions or even know when you’ve stumbled upon the least bad solution of the many bad solutions.

“Why can’t anything just be fixed,” wonders Kady in the season 2 finale. And that’s pretty much the overarching theme of The Magicians: nothing can ever just be fixed.

I’ve been thinking lately about one narrative invention in The Magicians magical universe, the idea of the shade. A shade is that part of a person that imbues them with emotions and empathy. In secular terms it’s a bit like a conscience. In religious terms, a soul might be the analog. Shades can be removed—either by force or by choice—and the result is a human who resembles what we might commonly call a sociopath.

The Big Bad in season one of The Magicians removed his shade by choice, rendering him unswayable by pity, untouched by regret, and immune to shame or guilt. In season two Julia is another character who loses her shade. It’s accidental, a metaphysical mishap that occurs during the magical equivalent of an abortion after she’s been brutally raped by a god. Losing her shade makes it impossible for Julia to empathize with others on anything but an intellectual level. Unlike the Big Bad, Julia is a fundamentally good person. She knows she’s supposed to empathize with others, so she tries, without much success, to fake it. Losing her shade also makes it possible for Julia to deal with—ignore is probably a better word—her own post-traumatic stress. She can’t even empathize with herself, in other words.

Julia is about to push her best friend into a trap with an evil god.
Julia is about to use her best friend, Quentin, as bait in a trap for the evil god Reynard (The Magicians, “Lesser Evils,” Season 2, Episode 9)

I was struck by how the shadeless Julia recklessly put her friends in harms’ way as she pursues revenge on the god who raped her. She saw her friends as a means to an end and acted on that. Julia’s narrative arc in season two is an uncanny display of objectification, fitting several criteria that the philosopher Martha Nussbaum famously laid out in an 1995 essay. In “Objectification” (Philosophy & Public Affairs, 24.4, pp. 249-291). Nussbaum diagnoses “Seven Ways to Treat a Person as a Thing,” which I’ll quote at length here:

  1. Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.
  2. Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
  3. Inertness: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
  4. Fungibility: The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type, and/or (b) with objects of other types.
  5. Violability: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary­ integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
  6. Ownership: The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.
  7. Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into ac­count. (257)

Julia primarily exercises #1, #2, and #7. So, not a total sweep of the objectification criteria, but close to what the gods themselves exercise in The Magicians. (The gods add fungibility, violability, and ownership, at the very least.)

At some point Julia asks her frenemy Kady to act as a kind of external shade, a moral compass to tell Julia when she’s going too far. It’s an interest objectification twist, as Julia instrumentalizes Kady but in a way that acknowledges Kady possesses a subjectivity that surpasses Julia’s own experiences and feelings.

Why does all this matter?

For me at least, it matters because I’ve begun to pay close attention to the way American society—whose economic and cultural might was made by possible by enslaved people who were literally and legally considered objects—I’ve begun to pay close attention to the way American society objectifies others. Objectification—treating people like things that have no autonomy, no interiority, no subjectivity—is happening, at all levels of our government and national discourse, right now.

The Magicians offers a metaphysical explanation for why objectification happens. The objectifier has lost their shade, that “tiny beating heart” at the center of one’s being, as the Big Bad explains to Julia. A shade—or lack thereof—is the fantasy equivalent of what we often see in science fiction, where technology is the reason for someone’s increasing emotional disconnection to others. In Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon (2002), for example, there are some humans who have lived so long through cloning and the digital transfer of their consciousness into new bodies that they become “Meths”—or Methuselahs, centuries-old humans who view mortal humans as their playthings.

Looking to fantasy and science fiction for explanations of objectification might, might, give us some insight for understanding how objectification happens in the real world. I’m not saying Donald Trump lost his shade, but I’m not not saying that.

Seriously, though, fantasy and science fiction can also expand our imaginative possibilities for overcoming objectification. Call it speculative humanization. Returning the humanity of objectified people. Julie turns to her support network to help her. Science fiction offers examples too, like Lauren Olamina’s hyperempathy in Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower (1993). Lauren is born with hyperempathy, a neurological side-effect of her mother’s drug addiction, which causes Lauren to experience the pain (and pleasure) of others. Hyperempathy makes it nearly impossible for Lauren to cause suffering in others, unless she wants to suffer herself.

What other theories of objectification do fantasy and science fiction offer? And what other paths toward reinstating empathy do fantasy and science fiction offer? How do we lose our humanity, how do we regain it, and how do we stop treating people as things? These are the essential questions for our times.

The Century of the Fugitive and the Secret of the Detainee

Cops used a forward-looking infrared device (FLIR) to find traces of Tsarnaev’s heat signature.

The 21st century will be the century of the fugitive. Not because fugitives are proliferating, but because they are disappearing. And not disappearing in the way that fugitives like to disappear, but disappearing because they simply won’t exist. Technology won’t allow it.

A manhunt summons forth the great machinery of the state: scores of armed agents, ballistic tests and DNA samples, barking dogs, helicopters, infrared flybys. There is no evading it. It’s nearly impossible now to become a fugitive. And the more difficult fugitive life becomes, the more legendary fugitive figures become. As Peter Stallybrass and Allon White put it in their classic study of the grotesque and carnivalesque, “…what is socially peripheral is so frequently symbolically central.” The more marginalized and rare fugitives become, the greater the role they will play in our symbolic repertoire. In film, literature, music, art, videogames—in all these arenas, the fugitive will play a central role. Fugitives will come to occupy the same place in our collective consciousness as cowboys or pirates. And just as the Western film genre dominated the mid-20th century—while agribusiness was at the same time industrializing the west, making the cowboy superfluous—the 21st century will be dominated by the symbolic figure of the fugitive. Continue reading “The Century of the Fugitive and the Secret of the Detainee”

On the Predominance of Cupcakes as a Cultural Form

Crimson Velveteen Cupcake

One cannot help but observe the predominance of cupcakes in modern America. Why the cupcake, and why now, at this particular historical moment?

What the fuck is up with all the cupcakes?

Within five minutes of my home there are two bakeries specializing in cupcakes. Two bakeries two hundred yards from each other. They sell cupcakes, and that’s about it. Cupcakes.

Go to a kid’s birthday party and if you survive the bowling or the bouncy castle or the laser tag with the mewling mess of Other People’s Children shouting and screaming, you and your kid will be rewarded with a cupcake. No cake, maybe not even any candles. Cupcakes, that’s it.

Theoretically they come frosted or plain, but plain is such an outright disappointment to everyone, it’s almost embarrassing, so frosted it is. Topped with swirling piles of sugar and fat, the cupcakes come bearing equally saccharine names like Red Velvet Elvis and Cloud 9 and, no shitting you, Blueberry Bikini Buster.

My friends, my very smart friends in academia who study the latest trends in culture and technology, I have a question. You can talk about the spatial turn and the computational turn all you want, but can someone fucking explain the cupcake turn to me?

I have my own theory, and it goes like this: cupcakes match—and attempt to assuage—our cultural anxieties of the moment.

Cupcakes are models of…


It’s not a whole cake. It’s a miniature cake. A cake in a fucking cup. A cupcake is a model of modesty. And it’s the best kind of modesty, because it paradoxically suggests extravagance. Cupcakes are rich. And expensive. You could buy two dozen Twinkies for the price of a single caramel apple spice gourmet cupcake.


By the very nature of their production, cupcakes are made in multiples. A 3×3 tray of 9 cupcakes or 4×4 tray of 16 cupcakes, it doesn’t matter. Cupcakes are serial cakes. Mass produced but conveying a sense of homestyle goodness. Cupcakes are the perfect homeopathic antidote for the industrially-produced food we mostly consume. Fordism never tasted so sickly sweet.


On the surface, gourmet cupcakes are artisanal desserts. For all their seriality, cupcakes still contain minute variations in flavor and toppings. Yet underneath, the base model remains the same. Cupcakes embody the postmodern ideal of the manufactured good that has been injected with artificial difference, in order to conjure a sense of individuality. Cupcakes are indie desserts. And like hipsters, cupcakes are pretty much all the same. Cupcake sprinkles and hipster scarves serve the same purpose, turning the plainly ordinary into the veiled ordinary.


Ontologically speaking, just what the hell are cupcakes anyway? A cupcake’s not really a cake. A distant cousin to the muffin, maybe. Is it a pastry for the 21st century United States, a kind of American croissant, full of gooey American exceptionalism? The cupcake itself doesn’t even know what it is. It’s a hybrid form, a Frankencaken. But in a culture frightened by change, blurred borders, and boundary crossings, the cupcake makes all those scary things palatable. As long as it comes in little accordion-pleated paper cup.

Austerity, seriality, artistry, hybridity, that’s what cupcakes are all about. The perfect food for our post-industrial, indie vibe Great Recession. Enjoy them while they last.

Crimson Velveteen photograph courtesy of Flickr user Gina Guillotine / Creative Commons Licensed

30 Days of Night, Again, and Again, and Again

One midnight a short time ago I picked up 30 Days of Night, a vampire graphic novel I was looking forward to, after having read some great reviews. (In 500 Essential Graphic Novels, for example, Gene Kannenberg calls 30 Days of Night a “livid, modern-gothic triumph.”)

I finished the first volume by 1am. Was I too scared to sleep afterward? No way. The only thing that kept me up was trying to figure out why I was so underwhelmed by the comic.

The series begins with a great premise—vampires go on a thirty day feeding spree in Barrow, Alaska, during the darkest part of winter, when the sun will not rise for another thirty days—and at first glance Ben Templesmith’s graphics look stunning, crowded with expressionistic Nosferatu vampires against brushed and splattered grey-black backgrounds.

But on both levels—narratively and visually—30 Days of Night is unrewarding.

The problem with Steve Niles’s writing is its flatness. Aside from a few pages early in the book (when the sheriff spots the vampire swarm approaching, each panel a closer shot than the one before, ending with a horrific close-up of the vampires looking like Edward Gorey’s creatures on steroids)—aside from a few sequences like that, the pacing is flat. There is no rising tension, no build-up of suspense. We know everything we need to know by the end of the first few pages.

The graphics likewise have a plodding sense of sameness about them. However vivid, frenzied, and edgy they are, it’s the same panel, over and over and over. There’s no sense of motion. Even when a panel depicts a vampire in the act of gutting a human, blood splattering all over the page, there’s a still-life sense about the scene. Visually, it’s beautiful, the fast strokes and scribbled outlines recalling the Muromachi Period in Japanese painting in the 14th and 15th centuries. But such dark beauty fails to create visual tension between panels. The images are too frantic, too much of the time, and the effect is a grinding repetition that, however much it may resemble the bleak sameness of the northern wastes of Alaska, sacrifices storytelling for the sake of artistry.

Where Have All the Princesses Gone?

Ian Bogost has a theory about Every Computer Animated Film Ever that boils down every plot into a universal structure, not too dissimilar from the monomythic Hero’s Journey. I don’t have much to add about the narrative conventions of the genre, other than to seize upon one point Bogost makes in passing and to expand upon it. The hero of nearly every computer animated film ever is, as Bogost puts it, an “anthropomorphized creature protagonist.”

As I commented on Bogost’s post, I’d argue that the “anthropomorphized creature protagonist” is a technical effect of what we might call the platform of CG films: for at least twelve of the last fourteen years (going back to Toy Story in 1995), humans, especially their faces, were simply too difficult to render in CG. So Pixar and Dreamworks had to make do with anthropomorphizing Potato Heads, cars, rats, bugs, fish, and so on.

What I find fascinating about the genre is how the technical limitations of CG transformed the more standard Disney princess story. From the late eighties to mid nineties we had Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan. And suddenly, nothing. No more princesses.

The animated princess is a thing of the past.

A final thought: is it a coincindence that post-Toy Story we find the most “othered” princesses: Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998)? Is it a sign of multiculturalism or some sort of reaction to CG, the death rattle of pen and paper animators?

Facebook, Intellectual Property, and Why am I not richer than I am?

I am glad to see that Facebook relented and reverted back to its old Terms of Service. Having had my likeness used without my permission (you know who you are, Kirk Cameron), my songs stolen from me repeatedly (yes, I’m looking at you Beyoncé), and even movie ideas ripped off (see below), I was appalled that Facebook would own my intellectual property in perpetuity. Now I may rest easy and continue to pour my abundant creative energies into the production of easily digestible and ransackable culture.

Leaves of Clover
Click picture for larger image

What Can Psychics Tell Us about the Present?

A friend wondered aloud why psychics always seemed to be women. It’s not a question I had ever considered, but it made sense once I paused to think about all the psychics I had ever seen in pop culture. They were all women. The archetype for me is the gypsy fortuneteller in “The Wolf Man,” condemning poor Lon Chaney, Jr. to a lifetime curse of moonbeams and a mouthful of bloody canines.

It’s not that men who predict the future don’t appear in mythology, folklore, and modern popular culture. It’s that they predict a different kind of future than psychics. Women psychics are called upon to foretell intensely personal, private dramas: future loves, distant health crises, far off financial success or ruin.

Somehow it has happened that men in the popular imagination who see the future are prophets, who speak of widespread tumult affecting everyone: war, famine, disease. Unlike a female psychic, whose foresight is restricted to the intimate inner lives of her patrons, the male prophet operates in the public sphere, telling the entire nation or world where it is bound.

The anonymous gypsy soothsayer versus the revered Nostradamus, the Delphi Oracle versus the Book of Revelation’s Paul, Dionne Warwick and the Psychic Friends Network versus Edgar Cayce. It’s the same pattern every time.

The Psychic/Prophet dichotomy is essentially a reworking of the socially delimited options traditionally available to women and men in European and American culture. Women are confined to the private realm (the family and household), while men dominate in the public realm (national governance and defense). These narrowly defined roles apply not only to the actual constructive maintenance of the social fabric, but also to the virtual work that psychics and prophets perform.

Something else to consider: judging from my limited experience, psychics often foresee a karmic world in which balance is restored, a redemptive future where a window opens for every door that closes. A job loss leads to an exciting, fulfilling career path. A heartbreak gives way to a true love. Life-threatening illness paves the path toward enlightenment. Prophets, however, warn us with zero-sum propositions, with clear losers and winners, stark differences between right and wrong, where equilibrium is not the outcome but a sense of justice is.

Now here’s a crude essentialist thought: is this difference in vision between a world restored to its communal spirit and a world riven in two the difference between the way women are taught and expected to interact with the world (by nurturing it) and the way men are taught and expected to interact with the world (by dividing it)?

The Heart of Iron Man

Something about David Denby’s review of Iron Man in The New Yorker has been bothering me ever since I saw the film for myself. I’ve finally figured out it has to do with Denby’s misreading of the superhero genre, rooted in a disregard — shared by many critics and moviegoers — of the source material for superhero movies, that is, comic books.

Now, I am not a Marvel fanboy, and I definitely never was an Iron Man fan. But I still feel the need to come to director Jon Favreau’s defense here and respond to Denby’s review, if only because the review has resumed a conversation that has been going on in fits and starts in my mind since the first Spider-Man movie in 2002.

Two elements of Iron Man are particularly susceptible to the general misunderstanding of the comic book form that is so widespread: Robert Downey, Jr.’s eyes and Tony Stark’s heart.

About Downey’s eyes, Denby comments that

…once Stark climbs inside and becomes Iron Man he loses his perverse charm; Downey without eyes is Downey cancelled.

True, there is something transfixing about the glint in Downey’s eyes. And true, this glint disappears behind the mask. But this is the inherent nature of the superhero genre: an appealing character must don a mask, hiding the very bodily feature that film has taught us, through the widespread use of the close-up, is the indicator of emotion — the face.

In comic books, it’s a different story. Because all the images are still images, the hero with a mask is on the same plane as the hero without a mask. Emotions are conveyed, not through facial close-ups, but through the artwork itself: slanted or jagged lines, scenes exploding into the gutter, full-page panels that slow down reading, and so on.

A superhero movie with a hero whose face is static behind a mask — Batman, Spider-Man, and yes, Iron Man — is actually an homage to the source of the film. The masked superhero whose expressions are inscrutable is “quoting” the form of the comic book. In her studies of film adaptations of literary works, the film theorist Millicent Marcus has coined the term “umbilical scene” to describe such tributes: a conscious or unconscious acknowledgment by the film of its literary “mother.” In superhero movies, these umbilical scenes can be predictable in-jokes, such as the Stan Lee cameo in every movie based on a Marvel character. Or they can harder-to-decipher formal decisions, such as the unmoving mask.

The first umbilical scene I ever noticed in a Marvel-universe movie was the absolutely inanimate mask of the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. The effect was actually disconcerting, to see this supervillain speak from behind a frozen face. I first thought the Green Goblin’s mask was some sort of play on Japanese Noh theater, but I realized soon after that Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, even more so than Spidey in the film, was a conscious recognition of Spider-Man’s origins in the stock-still pages of a comic book.

The second element of Iron Man that Denby gets wrong is that “Tony Stark is more like James Bond — he’s always on top.” Again, I’m no fanboy, but I have to point out that Denby glosses over Stark’s fatal flaw: his injured heart, which comes into play on both literal and metaphoric levels in the film. The archetypal superhero must have a weakness. Superman has his kryptonite. Peter Parker has his Aunt May, and Iron Man has his heart, which is seconds away at any given moment from being shredded internally by the shrapnel in his veins.

In terms of Achilles’ Heels, Stark’s heart is a much richer narrative device than, say, a rock from the planet Krypton. There’s a very neat internal/external dichotomy going on with Stark. There’s the obvious and surface-level theme of physical vulnerability, staved off through engineering and technology. But there’s also the symbolic nature of the tender heart, surrounded by armor — that is, Stark builds barriers to protect what turns out to be a fragile emotional interior.

I don’t know where the inevitable Iron Man franchise of films will go, but if they follow the comic books even remotely, they will have to reckon with (1) Stark’s damaged heart, always threatening to “crash” in a more profound way than any cybernetic exoskeleton might and (2) the dark side of Stark’s “James Bond” style of living, which manifests itself in the comic books as depression and alcoholism.

With these dangers on the horizon, and only a metal suit to protect himself, Tony Stark cuts a much more interesting figure than most superheroes. And I’m looking forward to what happens next, Avengers Initiative or not…

The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones

Indiania_Further_sm.jpgContinuing on the Indiana Jones theme, I also discovered in my old comic book box the first couple issues of “The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones” (larger image). This was back when the Indy characters had the potential to be a serious franchise — there was a Young Indiana Jones on television, you had the comic book, and a whole slew of videogames.

Honestly though, the comic book wasn’t that memorable (apparently like the new movie). In fact, I didn’t even remember that I had these rare, uncommonly rare, extraordinarily rare comic books.

Flipping through the first issue, however, I did find one image that I instantly recalled, as if it had been burnt somewhere in the reptilian part of my brain twenty-five years ago. Oddly enough, it wasn’t in the story itself. Instead, it was the inside of the back cover, a stark black-and-white preview of the next month’s issue:


This image actually gives me the creeps (larger image). The low angle looking up emphasizes the skeleton’s towering — but seemingly silent — presence, while Indiana Jones clutches some sort of treasure, the rays of his lantern illuminating but bisecting him, foreshadowing the swing of the sword from the pure darkness behind. Nothing is at a right angle, giving the whole scene an off-kilter tension, doubled by our helplessness, our inability to warn Jones of what we see. This single image, by the celebrated team of John Byrne and Terry Austin, surpasses anything in any of the actual Indiana Jones comic books.

The Death of a Legend: Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston and the NRAAnyone who knows is me is expecting a flurry of posts about the sad news of Charlton Heston’s death. For a while, back in the late nineties, I was single-handedly trying to forge the field of Heston Studies. My work focused on Heston’s informal sci-fi trilogy from the late sixties and early seventies: Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green. One of those essays — “There Goes the Neighborhood: The Seventies, the Middle Class, and The Omega Man” — was even published in a collection called Shocking Cinema of the Seventies.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about posting the other essays, and finally, tragically, now seems like an appropriate time to do it. So bear with me as I dig through my files and look over these old fossils, and if they’re not too embarrassing, look for them here in the future…

Pope John Paul II in Action

Tradermaester-maestertrader Adam remembers young Karol Wojtyla (henceforth known as “the pope boy”) running through the streets of Poland in Marvel’s comic book adaptation of his life. I’m happy to bolster Adam’s memory with these EXCLUSIVE!!! images of the pope boy playing soccer in his hometown of Wadowice (larger image).

The Pope plays soccer…(Small)

For my part, the image from the comic book that has stayed with me for over 25 years, the image which I don’t even have to open up the comic book to recall in vivid detail is the Pope skiing (actually, he was only a cardinal then, but who’s keeping track?). Look at him go!

The Pope loves to ski…(Small)

What form! What grace! What cool pope shades! (Larger Image)

A glut of Popes on eBay

The Life of Pope John Paul IIInspired by the strange coincidences between Adam’s and my first forays into comic books as children, I’ve dug up this gem from my attic: Marvel Comic’s “The Life of Pope John Paul II” (full size image). Published in 1982, this graphic biography (as opposed to a graphic novel) tells the “entire story” of Pope John Paul II “from his childhood in Poland to the assassination attempt!”

What excitement! What exclamation marks!

I bring up this prematurely illustrated hagiography now because I got this comic from a trade with Adam in the early eighties. It was Adam’s and now it’s mine. My question is: what the hell did I trade for it? And how did Adam persuade me that this comic was worth a trade in the first place? Sure I was a good Roman Catholic boy, but so was Adam. He should’ve wanted the comic book just as much as he convinced me that I wanted it. And gosh, the assassination sounds like a good enough read, but I’m sure whatever I traded had some pretty violent bits too. So why did I do it? I don’t know, and for years I secretly harbored a resentment that I had been had.

It wasn’t until decades later, when the pope died, that I realized perhaps this musty old comic book had some value. So — and I now admit that this was the real impetus for rescuing my comics from my parent’s attic — after the pope’s death, and probably even before the new pope was picked, I logged on to eBay, prepared to sell this “collector’s item” to some sobbing, mourning Catholic desperate for one last piece of pope memorabilia.

Yes. I planned to profit on the pope’s passing.

Does this make me a bad person? A good person doing a bad thing? A sinner? A seller? A merchant of death?

I don’t know. But I do know that I wasn’t the only one with this idea. Apparently all across the country were hundreds of other adults who had held onto their misbegotten Pope John Paul II collectible comic books from their childhood. Because there was a glut of pope comics on eBay. Dozens of the very same comic, all for sale for the highest bidder. It was a buyer’s market in pope comics. So saturated was the market that I didn’t even bother to sell.

So here I am, a few years later, faded old pope pictures in hand, my chance to make something of a decades-old trade with Adam long gone.

Or, not…

Maybe Adam still has whatever it was I traded for Marvel’s “Life of Pope John Paul” and he’s finally ready for a counter-trade…