Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Something Larger Than Life. (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency)

 “This isn’t me, this is some weird after image.
My signature, on everything I made.
My thumbprint deep in the cosmic clay."
-Grant Morrison, 2014
As an aside, fuck you Max Landis.
In the past, I’ve described this project as a psychocronography, and I feel now is a good time to explore what that means. The genre of literary criticism was created by Dr. Philip Sandifer in 2009 for his blog “The Nintendo Project,” a look at every single game released on the NES in alphabetical order. As of this writing, the project has stalled after the second author, going under the pseudonym FreezingInferno, quit shortly after the GamerGate debacle made them not want to write about video games anymore. To be fair, said debacle also made me give up on video games entirely (I should also note that Frezno was also stuck on an entry for Ninja Gaiden that involved Twine). Yours truly has optioned to finish the project should my Patreon reach $500 (Hint, Hint). Regardless, in the wake of Sandifer’s far more successful follow up, “TARDIS Eruditorum,” other projects within the style of psychocronography began to spring up, including but not limited to “Vaka Rangi,” “My Little Po-Mo,” “Pushing Ahead of the Dame,” and “Xenomorph’s Paradox.”

In retrospect however, it was discovered that the true origin of Psychocronography was in fact the Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell comic “From Hell,” beating the Star Wars character Thrawn by two years. The comic details a series of murders in Whitechapel attributed to the serial killer dubbed Jack the Ripper (pictured after quote). In an interview with BBC Films in “anticipation” for the god-awful film adaptation, Moore explained the methodology of his analysis thusly:
The idea was to do a documentary comic about a murder. I concluded that there was a way of approaching the [Ripper] murders in a completely different way. I changed the emphasis from 'whodunit' to 'what happened'. I'd seen advertisements for Douglas Adams' book "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency". A holistic detective? You wouldn't just have to solve the crime, you'd have to solve the entire world that that crime happened in. That was the twist that I needed.
Given this revelation about the nature of Psychocronography, we should perhaps look at the genre of criticism from the angle of “From Hell.”
Gull at work.

The first thing of note given the comic is its genre. Though it is extremely indebted to thehistorical fiction genre given that it has an entire appendix devoted to detailing every single historical link the comic makes (ranging from the connectivity of the conception of Adolf Hitler and the first Whitechapel Killing to when Alistair Crowley was alive), its true genre is in fact fantasy. This isn’t to deride the work’s quality as many who use the term often do (in many ways “From Hell” is the second best thing Moore has written [behind The Mirror of Love]). Rather, this is to point out that a narrative wherein Jack the Ripper performs a magical ritual to give birth to the 20th century (specifically one that transports him into said century) fits very nicely into that genre of fiction. And indeed elements of the fantasy genre have been known to bleed into psychocronographic works, most notably in Sandifer’s “The Last War in Albion,” wherein Sandifer performs a séance to summon a spirit of a notable artist for an interview.

There is of course another aspect of the comic that simultaneously pushes it within the genre of Fantasy, and it is perhaps the second most psychocronographic moment in the whole comic: the chapter dubbed “Gull, ascending.” (The most psychocronographic moment in the whole comic is the aforementioned Hitler/first killing moment, which also loops in an inexplicable wash of blood, which occurred in one of the world’s most populous Jewish quarters, a massive fire down Ratcliffe Highway, and John Merrick.) The chapter details Jack the Ripper’s apotheosis, swinging back and forth through time via a structure the comic calls The Fourth Dimension. As the comic explains:
Fourth dimensional patterns within Eternity’s monolith would, he suggests, seem merely random events to third-dimensional percipients… events rising towards inevitable convergence like an archway’s lines. Let us say something peculiar happens in 1788… a century later related events take place. Then again, 50 years later. Then 25 years. Then 12 ½. An invisible curve, rising through the centuries…
There are numerous moments within this structure of note, including Robert Lewis Stevenson coming up with the idea to write Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Peter Sutcliffe, and an 1888 case of blood raining down upon the Mediterranean. But for our purposes the moment of note is that of Jack the Ripper’s encounter with William Blake, a moment that would define the entirety of psychocronography. Much like this blog, Blake is a specter within the book being invoked and referenced, though never once appearing until this chapter.

As mentioned in a previous post, Blake was known to have seen things. It’s ambiguous even today as to the source of these visions (be they psychological or mystical), but as this is a fantasy novel, Moore goes with the latter and has the ghost of Jack the Ripper visit Blake one night. Naturally, Blake is terrified by the vision, not the least of which due to Jack the Ripper taking on a scalier, more terrifying form than he had on the mortal coil. Later, when discussing his vision with his friend and fellow artist John Varley, Jack the Ripper reappears to Blake. Naturally, being of the artistic Blake begins to draw this monstrous being.

And he would dub the painting he would create out of his initial sketches The Ghost of a Flea. By defining Jack the Ripper as a ghost, we find the purpose of Psychocronography: to find the ghosts lurking within a work: the untold connections, the odd coincidences, the monstrous implications that are at once wondrous and terrifying. The ghosts that haunt the architecture we call history.

Of course, the act of being haunted is, much like the magical ritual, one of unintentionallity. What separates the two pieces of mystic thematics is that to be haunted does not require one creating the other whereas the magical ritual does. One need only look at Jed Blue’s exploration of the episode of Batman the Animated Series Harlequinade in “Near Apocalypse of ’09” for an additional example of a work of fiction creating a magical ritual (and all the flaws of that approach). But for an exploration of hauntings, let’s look at a show that’s been rather inexplicably skirting the edges of this project: Steven Universe.

Steven Universe reading a book.
Steven Universe follows the adventures of its titular character (pictured left) on many a magical adventure fighting off monsters in both the physical sense of Giant Worm Monsters as well as the metaphorical sense of Capitalism is Killing my Friends. Core to the show’s ethos is that of empathy towards others and the pains of repression. The former theme is perhaps the more obvious of the two, as Steven attempts to understand and help those around him (with varying degrees of success). Most notable are his interactions with the gem dubbed Centipeetle, a corrupted gem (corruption in this context refers to the fact that the gems are a species of hard light holograms and some of the gems are incapable of showing non corrupted forms and lash out because of this) who was once an enemy of Steven’s. As the series goes on, Steven attempts to heal Centipeetle’s corruption via care, understanding, and liquid medicine called Spit. At one point, Centipeetle gets to a point where she can communicate with Steven, and he tries to understand what happened to her. In the end, Steven reunites Centipeetle with her crew, which is all he can do.

Concurrently, recent episodes have explored the theme of repression through the show’s main antagonists: The Diamonds, the rulers of the Gem Homeworld that wish to destroy the Earth, as it reminds them of the death of their sister, Pink Diamond. At one point, Yellow Diamond has a villain song (because what musical wouldn’t let Patti LuPone sing?) about the benefits of repression “What’s the use of feeling, Blue?” Now repression isn’t what defines their villainy (that would be imperialism), but it does highlight an aspect of it and codes the act of repressing ones feelings as wrong within the scheme of the show.

Of course, this theme goes further back than simply the recent episodes. It can be found within Steven’s wrongheaded decision to repress his humanity in Full Disclosure, Pearl’s complex feelings towards Greg, Steven’s father, in Mr. Greg, and the entire character of Kevin, most notably in the latest episode Kevin’s Party wherein he literally tells Steven not to be emotionally honest with Connie. (As an aside, related to this is Pearl’s inability to tell Steven what happened during the War the precedes and defines a smaller part of the series than fans would like it to. Most have read this as being a sign of Gem mind control from Pearl’s time as a slave. The likelier and more thematically apt explanation for this would be that Pearl is repressing her guilt for what she did during said war [incidentally, I’m on team “Pearl Killed Pink Diamond”].)
Steven Moffat with Lion.
Now that we’ve done a brief thematic exploration of Steven Universe, let’s look at one of the show’s ghosts: Steven Moffat (pictured right). Moffat is a Scottish playwright, notable for working on such shows as Sherlock, Doctor Who, and Jekyll. Thematically speaking, he explores the rubbish nature of masculinity, the impact of faulty technology, and dangers of repression. Going from the top down, his look at masculinity has its genesis from his sitcom series Joking Apart, an exploration of why his marriage failed utterly and how it was all his fault. Over the course of that series, and its spiritual successor Coupling, the lead would grow into a better person via his various failures forcing him to change. The lead of that show would in turn inform his later works (for better and worse) be they the rejection of Grimdark stories in A Good Man Goes to War or Jekyll’s attempts to make a monster of a man less cruel.

While the theme of glitchy technology does start out in his sitcom work, it becomes more pronounced when he starts writing Doctor Who. For example, there’s Silence in the Library/Forests of the Dead, wherein the life preserving machines trap those who try to escape the library in a pleasant version of the past, and living generally good lives but not the ones they’re supposed to be living. Then there’s The Bells of Saint John, which has the main baddies use the internet to suck out the souls of people to fund their capitalistic agenda.

A third example of glitchy technology also provides us with a look at the theme of repression within Moffat’s work. It comes from the episode The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, wherein a medical pod crash lands in London near the body of the soon to be dead little boy. The technology within the pod tries to revive the child, but inadvertently looks at humanity as being akin to the child and tries to heal everyone else as well. Given these examples, it’s not so much that the technology is broken, but that it’s working wrongly in a way that can’t be fixed. Corrupted, if you will.

The way in which the episode is resolved is by Nancy, the child’s mother, accepting him as her child. She was a young mother in a time that didn’t accept young mothers, and presented herself as the child’s sister. By revealing herself as the boy’s mother, the medical tech is able to realize that not all humans are gas mask wearing creatures crying out for their mothers and acts accordingly. There are other examples of repression within the episode from Nancy being able to steal food for her homeless friends because the person she stole it from represses his sexuality to the utopian future being presented as one without repression. Other examples in Moffat’s work include the Doctor’s inability to express his mental state after Heaven Sent in a healthy way to Sherlock’s repeated claims that he’s an emotionless being who is pure logic, typically done while shouting emotionally.

Now to make explicit what I’ve only implied, there is some connective tissue between the show Steven Universe and the creator Steven Moffat. Obviously there’s an intense distain for repression, but they also share an exploration of glitchy technology in the form of the Gems themselves (though one should avoid viewing them as mere objects as the term technology would imply). Both shows created by Steven Moffat and the series Steven Universe are rather infamous for their interminable and inexplicable hiatuses. And they both share a critical relationship with the concept of masculinity.

There are other connections (both are teetering on the edge of full on angry leftist without ever jumping off the boat of populism [though moments like the extremely blatant speeches about the horrors of capitalism and advocating the extrajudicial assassination of Rupert Murdoch do get close] thus causing some problematic moments [The Problem of Bismuth and the inability to actually cast a woman as the Doctor throughout his entire time as showrunner]), most interestingly in the character of Rose Quartz, Steven’s mother, whose character arc appears to have been akin to a gender swapped version the typical Moffat plot of a clever, witty, bumbling jerk learning to be less of a jerk through their relationships with other people (note how being with Greg gives Rose an actual connection with humanity as opposed to her previous views on the species, which were more akin to treating us like a fetish object).

Now, were the connections intentional? No, Steven Universe’s influences are more within the realm of anime and children’s cartoons from the 80’s than sitcoms and kids shows from the 90’s. You can’t intend to be haunted. Hauntings come from the inexplicable connections that only come about through accident and happenstance. And through these connections, these specters haunting the texts we explore in our psychocronographies, we can learn more about the world around us.

Jack The Ripper hovering above
the streets of Whitechapel
(Next Time: October 10, 2017)

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[Photos: Shada Directed by Pennant Roberts Written by Douglas Adams, From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, Steven Moffat (age 8) Taken by Bill Moffat, Steven’s Lion Directed by Ian Jones-Quartey Written by Lamar Abrams and Aleth Romanillos]


  1. Replies
    1. Yes that would fit, but From Hell fits in better with the themes of the blog.