It inevitably ends with subversion

Monday, May 2nd, 2022

The rule-abiding nature of genre means that there is an internal logic to its artistic progression:

It inevitably ends with subversion. When a genre’s possibilities have been depleted, the last trick left is to invert the tropes. This is a sign that the genre is out of new things to say. Since the professional class is rewarded for telling genre fiction, those who rise to the political class can only communicate in tropes. Increasingly, all political stories are told as inverted genre.

Author one tells a story about a good knight who slays an evil dragon. A trope is born. Author two is influenced by this story, but can’t write the same one, so writes about a knight struggling to be good who slays a sympathetic dragon. The genre is made complex, and the trope is expanded. Author three has to contend with both of his antecedents, and so he has less space to write a dragon story. The obvious remaining choice is to write about an evil knight who slays a good dragon. Perhaps this is done with a wink that pokes fun at the fantasy genre as a whole. Inverting a trope may seem like “subver­sion,” yet this process strengthens the genre and allows it to continue after it has exhausted itself. Author three’s story only works if the audience is familiar with stories one and two.

This process explains many of the popular political narratives of our time. “I’m socially liberal, but fiscally conservative.” Political stories have to change with changing circumstances, but our leaders only know how to tell genre. In order to tell a new story, they would have to abandon false certainty and set off into the unknown. Instead, old genre stories get inverted, and forms of authority which no longer hold value are kept alive through faux subversion.

The entire phenomenon of the nonconformist bureaucrat can be seen as genre inversion. Everyone today grew up with pop culture stories about evil corporations and corporate America’s soul-sucking culture, and so the “creatives” have fashioned a self-image defined against this genre. These stories have been internalized and inverted by corporate America itself, so now corporate America has mandatory fun events and mandatory displays of creativity.

In other words, past countercultures have been absorbed into corporate America’s conception of itself. David Solomon isn’t your father’s stuffy investment banker. He’s a DJ! And Goldman Sachs isn’t like the stuffy corporations you heard about growing up. They fly a transgender flag outside their headquarters, list sex-change tran­sitions as a benefit on their career site, and refuse to underwrite an IPO if the company is run by white men. This isn’t just posturing. Wokeness is a cult of power that maintains its authority by pretending it’s perpetually marching against authority. As long it does so, its sectaries can avoid acknowledging how they strengthen managerial America’s stranglehold on life by empowering administrators to en­force ever-expanding bureaucratic technicalities.

Inverted tropes also define the relationship between the Left and the Right. Rather than tell a new story, the Left and Right tell genre fiction that depends upon their mutual opposition for meaning. Pope Benedict XVI once argued that modernity brought the believer and the atheist closer together because the believer is tempted by doubt while the nonbeliever is tempted by “perhaps it’s true,” and both stories are linked by fundamental uncertainty. A similar dynamic ex­plains why our politics is simultaneously divisive and homogeneous. The Bass Pro shopper tells a story in which patriotism is expressed through the consumer choice to wear an American flag T-shirt. The Bushwick woman tells a story in which getting an ugly haircut makes her “nonbinary.” These stories don’t make sense unless they are told in opposition to the story of the libtard, or the patriarchy, respectively. Polarization makes political actors dependent on their political opponents, which increases divisions because any area of agreement threatens to erode entire political identities. These lazy stories find their apotheosis in our politicians.

Our politicians, their staff, and their political consultant remoras are the worst storytellers in society. Mass democracy has become a selection process that rewards politicians for being as shameless as possible. Indeed there is nothing more embarrassing and pathetic than the way politicians try to be cool or relatable. From wearing flannel to the Iowa State Fair to live streams in which they make a big deal out of drinking beer, politicians are constantly relying on the dumbest tropes.


  1. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    Making something original is easy, it’s making something good that’s hard.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    I love genre fiction. Nothing wrong with telling great stories so long as you don’t mistake them for reality.

    Or try to substitute them for reality.

  3. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    Arguably, the mark of a Great story is that one may experience little to no trouble at all if exchanged for reality; or indeed, a salutary effect even.

  4. Handle says:

    I think it was Voltaire who said the test of genuine artistic creativity was to make something new but without being bizarre. Novelty is empty without beauty and in the end remains merely derivative in the form of mockery, farce, distortion, mutilation — deconstruction without reconstruction.

  5. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Relative to the corporations mentioned in the article, they seek the lowest possible level of moral and professional degeneracy just above failure.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    Great fiction illuminates reality. Middling fiction reflects reality. Inferior fiction ignores reality.

    Pseudo-great fiction – also known as message fiction – is an author tract on reality, where the author is out of touch. It tends to broken aesops and glurge.

    Genre fiction gets caught up in its own tropes and thus becomes self-referential. But it’s fun, and you can easily sneak greatness into it.

    A corporation is a legal fiction. It is constructed entirely of words and kayfabe. It is its own reality, without a center. Only the profit motive connects it to reality. When that’s lost, the corporation degenerates into LARP, and then into bankruptcy.

    I recently watched American Psycho, and was struck by the fact that no one was shown actually doing any productive work, or even making business decisions.

  7. Longarch says:

    I binge-watched Wandavision and thought, “Boy, I could really go for some serious high-powered superhero fiction!” So the very next day I binge-read Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The good news is that Watchmen is a skillfully told story. The bad news is that I found Rorschach to be a very sympathetic character.

  8. Longarch says:

    Daniel is the fellow in the owl costume, who rightly points out that the whole planet is on the brink of annihilation. Rorschach replies: “Some of us have always lived on edge, Daniel. It is possible to survive there if you observe rules! Just hang on by fingernails … and never look down.”

    Many people who have fallen through the cracks of the current system have been living like Rorschach for years. Some of them were born into this type of marginal existence. A great many Westerners have been hanging on by their fingernails, just surviving, with no hope for improvement of their lives.

    Watchmen was considered a very notable subversion of traditional superhero stories when it came out, but by now it has been studied so thoroughly that it has probably been thoroughly digested by the great propaganda-pornography complex. I fear that any positive effect of subversive art is quickly overwhelmed by the capacity of the degenerate sectors to co-opt subversive images. I have seen parliamentarians wearing Guy Fawkes masks in parliaments as cheap publicity stunts. I have seen porn stars in Italy’s parliament. Now all that remains is for a porn star parliamentarian to don a Rorschach mask on the floor of a parliament as a publicity stunt, and pop culture will finally implode.

  9. Isegoria says:

    I re-read Watchmen a couple decades after first reading it and found it a product of its time.

    On the shelf of Hollis Mason — the original Nite Owl, turned car mechanic — are three books: his memoirs, Under the Hood; Automobile Maintenance; and Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel, Gladiator, which many argue is the original inspiration for Superman. I recommend Gladiator.

  10. Isegoria says:

    The Strident Hermit King of Comics, Steve Ditko, is famous for co-creating Spider-Man and Dr. Strange. He’s also somewhat less famous for creating the Question — and infamous for creating Mr. A — which both inspired Alan Moore‘s Rorschach, from The Watchmen.

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