Best of the Decade: An Autobiographical Top Ten
An autobiographical top ten. This list offers, in no particular order: movies, books, graphic novels, games, whatever, that I encountered somewhere between 2010-2019.
I bought a paperback of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2006) in an airport, not sure which one, sometime in 2010. I do remember that my intention was to find something that would tenaciously hold my focus. I’m a decent flyer but I tend to while away my time switching between three of four different points of distraction, music, books, writing, not really able to focus properly on any one thing. The experience is a mix of guilt and frustration, guilt that I’m not being productive in this oh-so-precious airborne period cut off from emails, texts, and other distractions, and frustration over the fact that while soaring through the air in an aluminum tube with my knees crammed obliquely against my sides and my elbows drawn up over my shoulders like some demented praying mantis, I’m unable to focus with any critical acumen on what I’m trying to read, watch, or listen to. What a time to be alive!
Up to this point, the early 2010s, I had been estranged from science fiction. Academic study in literature had imposed a steady diet of American ‘masters’ and European modernists. My edification from high school onward was almost uniformly nostalgic. I toted around copies of Stefan Zewig and Milan Kundera as though they were speaking to me and not some lost spectre of Europe. I read John Updike like I could relate to post-war Americans debating drugs and religion. I did feel something for the disaffection of Carson McCullers and Raymond Chandler, and genuinely relished the humor in Bulgakov. In the end, however, I was mostly left asking who David Lodge and Alistair MacLeod were writing for, because it wasn’t me. It wasn’t exactly like I was suffering impostor syndrome; it was more like self-abnegation. These were the demigods of letters, and if I wasn’t illuminated by their writings then the problem surely lay with me and not with the cultural gulf between their worlds and mine. I had to fit their molds, their worlds, even if that meant I didn’t recognize any connection to my own. I didn’t know my own time was trying to say things about the future I was soon to inhabit.
I had listened to Gibson’s reading (1994) of Neuromancer a couple times in the millennial transition period 1998-2002 but had felt that coming out as a real believer in the dystopian woes projected by sci fi was tantamount to wearing a tinfoil hat to keep the signals out. Pattern Recognition helped to shake up my inherited views on literature, Art, and what reading ought to be. It spoke about experimental cinema in a way that made it a real mystery of production and distribution. In the novel, aesthetic interpretation and corporate espionage are bound up with literacy in history, visual culture, and the internet. Everything in the novel felt so present, so effervescent because it spoke a cultural language that was active. Its liveliness arose from the roots it extended into the world we live in. Its energy came from everyday experience and an ability to render salient the emergence of the everyday from always modulating structures of power and entropy. The novel wasn’t nostalgic but credulous, and this appealed to me in a way I hadn’t known I needed.
I can’t recall exactly when I started Jeff Lemire’s devastating series about the endurance of human tenderness. It must have been around 2012-2013, the tail end of a period where the bar industry had hollowed me out through sleep deprivation, maladjusted circadian rhythms, and poor nourishment. My blinders were up because hating one’s job is, itself, a form of full-time labor. The point is, I wasn’t ready to have my heart cracked open. But something, probably Gus’ sweet, dopey, chocolate smeared face staring up from the cover, lead me to pick up the first volume of the series.
He looks like a creature born for a shitkicking: wispy, pencil necked, no meat on him to keep off the cold. Maybe that’s what it was, he just wasn’t designed to win.
In a near future, a handful of children are born as animal hybrids. No one knows why, but these mutants afford a clear target for the impotent rage of a species staring down the barrel of its own, self-caused, extinction. In quiet, expansive settings borrowed from the sparsely populated swaths of land in-between Canadian cities, Lemire scales down his story of humanity’s end time, boiling away the fat from habitually overstuffed post-apocalyptic worlds. Lemire’s effort is to forge a drama about parenthood, innocence, and the drive to endure that is punctuated by genuinely arresting scenes of violence and malice. How does tenderness meet terror? What do the meek actually bring to encounters with mercenaries? The answers may not be completely satisfying, but they’re not meant to be. Endurance is not resolution, and after reading this story I began to understand that endurance may simply stand as resolution’s opposite. So, what does it look like to endure horror with grace? I believe Gus is that vision.
I saw Upstream Color (2013) in its opening week not because I was a Primer (2004) acolyte—Shane Carruth’s first film had spawned a small but voracious following because of its detailed play with temporal paradoxes. I didn’t know who Carruth was despite his cult status and wouldn’t see Primer for a few more years. I saw Upstream Color because the images that did leak out in its conspicuously anemic marketing, in posters, magazines, and the teaser, had me hooked. Without the context clues of genre or character implied in most trailers, the images circulating prior to Upstream Color’s release felt incisive and fresh: a couple clutching one another in a bathtub; a gauzy image of a swimmer suspended in water with a yellow orchid crispy rendered in the foreground. It felt a bit like the experimental film in Pattern Recognition, images would emerge from the ether and I would try to link them together, guessing at the shape of this mysterious film.
I had studied film as an undergrad but nothing in my understanding of film editing or sound seemed capable of describing how this movie worked—and it worked! I both completely understood what the plot was about and was utterly bewildered by what I had just seen. It was like watching Don’t Look Now, but x 1000. You get the story, but how it’s put together seems to open a trapdoor and you fall through the world’s flooring. You’re seeing relationships between objects from fresh angles, in new inter-dependencies. The film’s editing scheme was unlike anything I’d come across. Upstream Color was an instance where seeing, sensing, hearing, touching, all effervesced into new configurations that I had to sift through, that I am still sifting through. It is one of the few movies that I was compelled to see again immediately after my first screening.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects
I read the bulk of Ted Chiang’s novella on the steering wheel of my hooptie while waiting to get my oil changed somewhere outside of Palmer Park in the spring of 2015. The book was (criminally) out of print, but the Detroit public library system was able to inter-library loan a copy from somewhere. So, I picked up my copy and went to have my car serviced. Just another thrilling day in post-industrial America.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects (2010) is about digients or, digital entities, that live in virtual space. They’re wee anthropomorphic critters that possess a toddler-like level of sentience. They don’t grow physically, at least their avatars remain stunted and cherubic, but they are capable of learning. People form deep attachments to their companions yet, as with all things, time passes. People lose interest in their toys, which means that the ersatz daycares where users meet to allow their ‘kids’ to play together begin to close. The kids feel this loss. They miss their friends and they complain about being shut down for longer and longer periods. Imagine if, when you couldn’t spend time with your pet, you put it under an induced coma. The digients want to live fuller lives. They want to learn more, socialize more, experience more consistent forms of affection and care. The digients begin self-advocating. But their existence is dependent upon people subscribing and investing enough time and money to continue their digital upkeep. Technology keeps moving and the digients’s code is regularly in need of updating. The digients, it would seem, require some form of social support to maintain the infrastructure and programs necessary for their existence. However, as more and more people abandon their charges, the corporation responsible for designing the digients announces that they are going to stop publishing updates. The kiddies can’t be ported into new platforms and risk death-by-obsolescence. Will people simply ‘turn off’ the creatures that they raised from nascency into articulate, caring, fearful beings? Will people fight to establish some basic rights for these creatures based on the fact that they can think and feel? Will people simply abandon their digients in virtual space, leaving them to be trafficked for the pleasure of sadists? Or, will some people find ways to set their wards free? In The Lifecycle of Software Objects digital computing encroaches upon sentience and the ethical demands of technology flip, ethical imperatives are not viewed solely from the perspective of the human but are solicited on behalf of digital progeny i.e. thinking, feeling, defenseless software.
In Lifecycle, neoliberal political economy, computing, resource allocation, and marketing, are all connected, sure, but the stakes are different than in other narratives positing the enmeshment of systems. We’re not trying to visualize a causal chain of actors and events that lend us a sense of the global whole. The aesthetic is not geared toward the geopolitical. There’s no Treadstone, Blackwater, Spectre, corrupt Senator, or whatever, to pin down at the end of this road. We’re working with how affective attachments survive the onslaught of subsumption and production, maintenance and obsolescence.
The novella is first about ethics and secondly about ontology, form, digital media, and other philosophical-cultural terms asking, what are the emotional costs of coping with capricious flows of platforms and systems? What chance does digital life have when continents of software begin to move? Alternatively, the book could be called the non-sovereignty of software subjects. In this respect, the novella probes the limits of our willingness to ensure that (radically) non-human forms of life are allocated space to persist. A cute and cuddly species just went extinct last week. Their decimation will be slow, but their biome has been obliterated. What ethical ties bind us strongly enough to ensure that the life around us moves along with us as we scavenge strategies for persistence? Donna Harraway recently suggested that kinship names one enduring bond, Lifecycle presciently takes up our attachments to kith and kin to see how resistant they are to dissolution.
Note: the novella is back in print, included in Chiang’s new collection Exhalation.
Tree of Life/Melancholia
In my memory these two films play back-to-back. I’m sure I saw them months apart, but their elegiac visions of the universe and their interest in telescoping from the cosmic to the all too human make them estranged cousins to me. First, they both take too long and pay off less than their evident sense of self-importance would suggest. But, when they hit the mark, like when Kirsten Dunst’s fingers begin to spark with electricity or when the Moldau opens on to a flow of images plucking out childhood experiences of curiosity, ecstasy, and fear, it’s hard not to feel lifted in your core. Both films are astonishing and boring, deeply felt and disconnected for reality. They are, for these reasons, very special to me because they taught me about my personal bandwidth of ambivalence.
I hated Melancholia for obvious reasons. The trappings and backbiting ridiculousness of the uber-wealthy is the last place I want to spend my final moments. The stolid old house with its gorgeous fixtures and immaculately manicured lawn were sterilized murder scenes long before the planet Melancholia slammed into the Earth. Asked to sympathize with the alternatingly withholding and weepy emotions of an upper class finally meeting a force capable of unseating their hierarchical death grip struck me as tasteless. I much preferred Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998) as an exploration of humanity’s final moments if only because it lands less like a self-satisfied, cleverly-cruel allegory and more as an open question about what things might actually look like when the end arrives. As much as I love Dunst’s performance, and it is phenomenal, her character’s callousness seemed vile. None of the “humor” landed, and whatever makes Lars von Trier laugh is still lost on me. I believe this is because to laugh so pointedly at human earnestness requires a level of cynicism achieved only by those whose security has never, actually, been threatened. That aside, he’s just boring after a while, isn’t he? I mean The House that Jack Built is to Funny Games what Gus Van Sant’s Psycho is to the original, right? But I digress… For all my detractions, there are sincerely indelible moments burned into my mind. Melancholia’s opening sequence is beyond inspired. Its aims itself straight down the line between an aesthetic borrowed from stolid, finely lit advertising and unhinged, mantic visions. The effect is so profound that the sudden thrust into real-world, Dogme 95-style handheld swish-pans is not only disconcerting but deeply disappointing. Even if we hold back from calling the film’s opening moments sublime (see Steven Shaviro’s essay here), we can agree that they proffer a wondrous and affecting uncanniness. We’re enjoined to relish the final moments of the earth because, at least, they will be different than the everyday.
Tree of Life is an elegiac vision of humanity’s place in the ceaseless expanse of the cosmos. It is about a middle-class white family growing up in the 60s in Waco, Texas. It is about their son going off to Vietnam and not coming home. It is about another son’s yearly ceremony to commemorate his brother’s passing: lighting a candle, a call to dad, and a shit-ton of brooding at home, at work, in the elevator, in his memory. I heard the film described as leaning entirely upon “the greatest hits of classical music,” and it’s hard to argue against that position as Malick’s film mobilizes music conspicuously to tie together images of galaxies and tricycles into continuity. Those images of distant galaxies and emerging star systems are, inarguably, breathtaking. And Malick’s imagination of the afterlife as a sun dappled beach where families reunite feels right to me. This spiritual space offers instances of reunion but remains painfully non-verbal. We get what we want, but only up to a point, and it’s enough. On this beach we remember what has been lost and are gifted the boons we craved as children: reunions, caresses, understanding, the opportunity to meet our parents as peers. The whole idea is really something, but the problem is that in Malick’s middle-class, Ivy-league, all-American familial imaginary what we need from the afterlife redounds to a hug from Dad. If only he wasn’t so withholding, maybe Sean Penn would have developed into something more satisfying than a disaffected, rich, successful, architect with an incredible house… Wait a minute. Yes, part what goads me about the film is that it is a paean to white, patriarchal inevitability. The film’s ruminations on metaphysics arrive through not having to worry over issues of class, race, gender. Despite the fact that the film gestures to post-industrial insecurity, this is never really a problem because when paired with dinosaurs, nebulae, and cellular mitosis, the high emotional costs extracted by layoffs, bills, mortgages, etc. are microscopic by comparison. What rises to the fore are instances of profundity, transcendence, and to use Malick’s favoured term, grace. This is, of course, the point of it all. Malick wants us to set aside our ordinary concerns to glimpse the grandeur of capital ‘B’ Being in all its melancholic longing and ecstatic wonder. There is a wealth of grace in the film, expressed through moments of quiet tenderness. A father and son finding harmony while playing "Les Barricades Mystérieuses" seems overbearingly obvious when you step back and notice the metaphor, but in the moment, the melody, the instance of togetherness, the image of Mr. O’Brien quietly turning out the living room lights, and Jack’s childhood voice working though what a father is, “Making up stories… Says don’t put your elbows on the table. He does,” coalesce into something as close to an expression of grace and yearning as I can imagine. In the end, the film’s beauty is predicated on a willingness to share in Malick’s melancholy for the American family, especially his placement of a nostalgic vision of the 60s at the centre of the entire, limitless, universe. I find myself alternatingly compelled by his visions and ejected from his reveries so I won’t begrudge people who find the film less than persuasive, but I also can’t count myself among the film’s detractors.
Straining my patience and guiding me to profound reaches of feeling, these films are like engines of ambivalence. They refuse to release their grip on my imagination and turn up in my mind just when I need them most. It is because these films formalize techniques for activating a whole spectrum of feeling, from distaste to elation, that they work like skeleton keys in my mind, capable of turning any number of locks to understanding and self-expression.
I’m running low on time, so I’m slipping this one in here anachronistically in deference to Dark’s ruminations on time, repetition, pattern, and the potential to break with inevitability. The magnificent writing of this German series manages to hold fast to the caprices of human desires and the yokes of familial ties while completely rewiring time. The series is masterfully acted and expertly shot. Its soundtrack is peppered with tracks that rehearse themes of returns, departures, cages, circles, echoes, and the emotional admixture of proximity and estrangement that haunts families. Maybe that’s the core of it: in the series time becomes a method for negotiating how people can be, on the one hand, so close as to be identical, while on the other hand, still separated by an insurmountable gulf.
RuPaul’s Drag Race
We watched Drag race together in 2017 during periods in and out of hospital. Whatever happened in that year is a mess in my head. I remember things in snatches and in abstract calculations (so if I had pneumonia in January of 2017, then my cousin must have visited the previous spring, and I must have tried going to back to work for Christmas 2016, but then I transitioned off peritoneal dialysis to hemodialysis later that winter, and so on and so on). But competitors, challenges, and winners of the eight seasons we devoured in a few short weeks remain very clear in my mind. I remember cheering aloud when Chi Chi DeVayne’s beads snapped during "And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going", spilling across the catwalk like iridescent pearls. I remember how personally you took Jinkx’s win; just a little light let into a world that had turned more unfair. Mostly I remember crying very, very often in big sloppy globs of tear-snot. We needed to cry a bit, and to feel like there were still chances to seize, and victories to be had. Drag Race lifted us a bit.
So, fuck Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Mad Men I stopped watching all those shows after their second seasons anyway. Drag Race is the most compelling thing aired on TV between 2010-2019.
Southern Reach Trilogy:
There are a few films, books, songs, art works that I have to categorize under, what the fuck did I just see/read/hear? I mean what the fuck in a good way. L’Avventura was an early what in the fuck experience. I’d include Guy Maddin’s Careful, Bootsy Collins, and The Leftovers, as other what in the living fuck examples. A what the fuck experience is one in which the thing you’re seeing, reading, or hearing comes at you in such a way that the whole of your previous experiences of viewing, reading, or listening prove woefully inadequate. It’s not really about being wowed. A lot of my what the fuck experiences are characterized by an initial feeling of aversion because the work makes me feel stupid. Inevitably, though, a really solid what the fuck will lead me back. I think it’s similar to what Stanley Cavell called art’s “unfinished business.” Unresolved threads and lingering questions move from just tickling the edges of my imagination to blotting out my thinking altogether. Subconsciously, compulsively, obsessively, I’ll start the process of picking the thing apart not because I want to understand how it works but because I have to. The Southern Reach trilogy is one of my biggest what fucks of the decade.
I saw the collected FSG edition of The Southern Reach trilogy in a bookshop in Ann Arbor in the winter of 2015. It was so beautiful: the light buttercream color of the dust jacket offset with bright peach X’s, the clean lettering, the forest green and aquamarine feather crossing the cover. I just knew that whatever was inside these pages was mine, it was for me.
The Southern Reach trilogy is incredible. It’s fucking weird. It’s a glory to behold. In it, a marine biologist who specializes in “transitional environments” treks through a place known as “Area X.” In Area X flora and fauna are acting strangely, mixing in ways they shouldn’t, appearing in places they oughtn’t, and often looking back or calling out in ways that are disconcertingly familiar. The biologist, as she is known in the text, was sent into Area X by the Southern Reach, a quasi-governmental military research agency, overseen by shadowy intelligence officers. It’s unclear what’s happening in Area X, and the information the biologist is given before crossing over is utterly useless but what she does find behind the shimmering, alien border of Area X is breathtaking.
A lot has been written about Vandermeer’s trilogy, and some good (short) articles about its relationship to ecocriticism and new materialism can be found here, here, and here. An extended essay on the trilogy by Kate Schapira, “Time to be Something Other than Human,” is available for free here. I’ve also written about Annihilation here, too. While the text does lend itself to theoretical frames, I can’t stress enough the pure pleasure of reading this story for its characters and the familiar yet wildly reimagined world they encounter. There’s plenty of tenderness, ecstasy, and bafflement to be found in these pages. I promise you’ll be uttering what the fuck more than once.
Citizen (2014) arrived through my partner’s influence, landing squarely in 2015. I believe Citizen to be a galvanizing work of the decade, but in writing about it here I’ve committed the error of trying to lend my words to a text that already illustrates its perspective so affectively. So, I’ll try to be brief. In recalling Rankine’s work I benefited from reading a brief symposium available here.
Artistic experimentation tends to gesture to a utility closet of established techniques and aesthetic-historical markers in order to render evident how this work has radicalized traditional tropes and forms. This makes experimental works generally occult, impenetrable, and as a result, stupefyingly boring. If you don’t know the interpretive framework for the experiment at hand, you don’t have access to the knowledge on offer. In a manner of speaking, experimental art has always had a hand in policing Art citizenship. My experience of Citizen was one in which experimental form, specifically Rankine’s prose style, her use of enjambment to create mass and propulsion, and her interleaving of visual art, deepened, enriched and more provocatively engaged my experience.
Many of the passages in Citizen are addressed to “you.” Interpellation becomes a method. Whoever “you” actually are will engender snug racial, gendered, and cultural identifications or incongruities, overlaps, partial-recognitions, vicarious relations, alienation. In the degree to which the me reading is not the “you” addressed we are brought to measure our proximity to or distance from citizenship; that is, to the relentless burdening foisted on racialized bodies in America.
I started playing Nier, in spring 2017. I was undergoing another modality of dialysis. This one allowed me to stay at home rather than shuttle back and forth to the hospital and for that I am thankful. However, this modality, I was to learn much much later, ill-served my body type (just one of the unplannable caprices in the tandem dance of disease and medicine). So, I spent months in a half-healthy but otherwise foggy, ill-tempered, narcoleptic, and disconnected state. It was prime time to repair my estrangement from video games. I always had the passion, but now I had the time.
I think I’m still playing Nier. I don’t know if the game will end for me not only because it offers so many different actual endings, some humorous, others profound, but because its abundance of endings left me with questions that are still in the process of resolution. Recently gaming scholar Patrick Jagoda asked what a close reading of a game would look like and immediately I thought of my experiences playing this game. How could I articulate the detail of my engagement, the emotions invoked, the reversals of fortune, the meta-level reframings of everything I’d poured into it? Nier is an experience that pays off the more you invest whether rifling through wikis and chats to understand the lore behind the exceedingly weird characters that pepper the game’s post-anthropic landscape; spending hours trying to solve locked-door puzzles; endlessly searching dessert wastes for loot; backtracking to play through alternate story branches; failing on purpose to witness a ridiculous ending. The game is a stable marriage of so many unstable elements: western philosophy (yes, there are characters named Pascal, Sartre, and Beauvoir), waifu, an interrogation of free will and temporality, visualizations of scarcity and the post-Anthropocene, Biblical references alongside extra-terrestrial threats, ubiquitous militarization, genocide, robot cults, I could go on and on. The game is brilliant and insane, philosophically ponderous and laughably horny, but invariably worth the hours upon hours spent with it.