Vermin gnawing the arteries of control
The drifting smoke concept subversion evades an exact consensus on characteristic determinators or measurement methodologies. The young and inexperienced conceive of everything they do as subversive – an extension of flexing autonomy. The distinction drawn in the vectors of dissent, between the rebellious and the subversive is marked by efficacy and volume. Both the rebellious and the subversive wage war on established tradition and embedded institutions of stagnation, but each travel idiosyncratic trajectories in dismantling the architectures of power.
The rebellious storms the front gate. Enraged and howling, the rebellious hurl themselves tooth and nail on their chosen enemy. Loud, visible, and aggressive. They wage a continuous zero-sum pitched battle until one or the other collapses and dies. A Somme of concepts.
The subversive infiltrates the cracks and openings in the architecture of hierarchical systems. Disrupting and corrupting from within, the subversive is calculating and unknown. Exploit a weakness, find a fault line, start deconstructionist event chains flowering out from pressure points of tension. Accelerate an autophagic instinct to the point of violent self-cannibalisation. The rat corpse clogging the piping of concepts.
Spawned from the mind of a young adult, Crooked God Machine dwells, as should be expected, in the war camp of the rebellious. Through overt and unfocussed allusions to societal elements, the Autumn Christian of 2011 reveals a number of axes to grind. However, a couple of dirks amongst the axe heads suggests a shift in approach. As noted in previous musings, there’s an undertone of transition to the book that makes it useful material for discussing what does and doesn’t work, and why.
The external realities sporadically paralleled cannot be detached from their socio-political inferences. The unfocused sense of late-teen hometown angst persists with characters performing exactly this, but given the context, the middle class ennui seems disjointed and out of place. People in a society perpetually existing somewhere between the Witcher and Neuromancer, but undergoing full-scale collapse, have bigger things to worry about than how much their hometown sucks. A disgruntled teenager responds to a world that they can see going wrong but are neither experienced nor knowledgeable enough to be capable of pinpointing the reasons.
Subversion requires comprehension. It is the reason that so much music protesting social, economic, and political frameworks, despite justifiable anger and necessary rejection, is persistently shallow. There is a finite number of times you voice disagreement with ‘the system’ before it is demanded of you to specify the source of disagreement and propose an alternative. The unfortunate truth is that, for a menagerie of reasons, most people can articulate the outcomes generating the aggravation, but can neither explain the cause nor the solution. Those that can are often experts in their relative fields, and their criticisms are so obtuse to the broader population that only other people, usually with an interest in perpetuating the status quo, will understand the problems in constructive detail. Trying to fit that into a memorable, much less enjoyable, verse-chorus-bridge structure is not easy. Do you want to try writing a punk anthem about how time preference dictates behavioural patterns across class divides to the benefit of established power structures? You probably don’t.
The catharsis of venting incoherent anger is inadequate for the purposes of subversion. Subversive media requires knowing your enemy and the mechanics of their operating procedure. When you know the how and the why, then you can find weaknesses and exploit for profit using education and dissemination of specific information, and pinpointed illustration. This is why powerful players don’t necessarily want well-educated populations despite the educated populations being necessary to the general advancement of civilisation. The better educated the population, the more sophisticated your politicians and economic community has to be and the less secure any position of power is, unless they can become a techno-authoritarian state leveraging the products of education in the use of population suppression and social engineering.
The religious parallels in Crooked God Machine do not undermine religious institutions in the real world. Christian clearly had objections to organised religion, but instead of breaking it down merely pointed to, and mirrored, the hypocrisy and cynicism present in the real world. However, hundreds of millions of people were already well aware these failures, resulting in a regurgitated sermon to, ironically, the choir.
The social parallels are arguably the weakest part of the book. They illustrate some clear frustration with the world, but that frustration is amorphous and as a result the society painted by the book makes little sense, trapped in a Schrodinger’s collapse state – simultaneously falling apart and quirky-but-functional. Because the story doesn’t know what it wants to be, the parallels are nebulous. If there is some form of allegory here, it’s not immediately clear. While consumerism and media are aspects of society, Crooked God Machine’s handling of these parallels separates them from the generalised social degradation dispersed throughout the setting in random acts of mob violence, poverty, and miscellaneous symbols of decline.
Arguably, even more relevant today than at the time it was written, Fight Club subverts the social conceptual models of male success. Navigating relationships comprises a disoriented amalgamation of poker and chess, utilising social hierarchies, status posturing, and intention/response cue interpretation. In the 90s and prior that was limited, to a greater extent, to face-to-face interactions and whatever narratives could be disseminated through 3rd-party channels. That reputation grinding has only become increasingly prevalent and inflated as the Internet and social media have taken over increasing proportions of people’s existences and identities.
Fight Club’s nameless narrator expresses pity for people packed into gyms seeking to emulate the name on their underwear. Today gymrat and ‘gains’ culture is a literal meme. Fight Club offers the idea that materialism has parasitised and replaced the nesting instinct. Sex submits to the Ikea catalogue, functionality gives way to aesthetic telegraphing, questioning whether your table has the correct number of authentic ‘handcrafted’ imperfections. We live in the age of the influencer and status signalling via consumption has only become more ostentatious.
Now we have viral youtubers buying expensive cars and property, performing grandiose marketing stunts disguised as generosity. All of which squats on the back of the commodification of hand-to-mouth poverty exemplified by ‘Yeezy’ and Gucci, clothes reduced to a spiderweb of holes; wear and tear associated with hard hikes, extreme sports, or homelessness rather than the catwalk. The fashion industry flaunts its detached extravagance even as its existential purpose becomes increasingly unclear.
Crooked God Machine’s lobotomy spiders and TV preacher seem to represent the modern media and marketing industrial landscape. These two elements get closer to encapsulating genuinely subversive content. The presentation is far more coherent, sustained, and ultimately more effective than any other proto-social commentary present. The process to the arcs of these elements feeds into the stronger aspects of the book. There sense of insidiousness that steadily builds around them, as they aren’t significant threats on first appearance, slowly increases their threat via prevalence and impact over time. Moreover, there are connections for readers to make here, the Western hemisphere choked with advertising and media – both legacy and new – hunting down every shred of spare attention and influence. Readers have more active connection and experience, no matter their demographic or background, of this, and so the TV show and the lobotomy spiders represent a far more tangible threat – not only to the characters, but to the audience owing to their lack of distance.
The book is not subversive, though it does head in the right direction by positioning a point of conflict in the mundanities of everyday life that people can directly connect their own experience to. It isn’t trying to subvert one set of dominant values with another, draw attention to a supressed reality, or reframe the context of an institution. It is still just illustrating the problem the author sees as it is, without attempting to change the perception of marketing and media.
J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition subverts human sexuality, reframing it from soft curves and earthy allusion, to the intertwining of incongruous angles and twisted car parts. It would inspire his most notorious novel, Crash. Crash itself would, judging by the pearl clutching and howls about the state of society, prove to be an extremely effective piece of subversive literature. Crash focussed itself on the aftermath of the car crash, wound-fucking therapeutics: any hole’s a goal; by contrast The Atrocity Exhibition fixated itself obsessively on the moment of impact, represented in fragments of disjointed prose and shattered narrative.
The obsessive cycle of attempting to process, failing to process, and retrying to process trauma, characterises PTSD as explained by trauma theory 101. This neurotic attempt-failure-attempt-again cycle is all too apparent in The Atrocity Exhibition; the book frames and reframes sexuality and car crashes past the point of insanity, drawing the behaviour of animalistic sexual instinct into parallel with the behaviour apparent in psychological scarring. That which is all but expected and enforced by society is also that which it simultaneously shuns, fears, and pathologises. The subtle dehumanisation of human sexuality grinds in the background of a collage of geometry and clinical terminology that pervades the impersonality of a hospital, the reference points of popular culture, and the intimacy of penetration.
In doing this Ballard managed everything that Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch could not. Burroughs drew a penis on the wall and wrote ‘rape’ and ‘racism’ around it, before standing there leering at everyone passing by and emphatically jabbing his finger at the penis on the wall. I could never get rid of the impression that he seemed to be waiting for people to understand what he was saying, failing to understand that everybody got it, but nobody was impressed.
Ballard, by contrast, gives you a framed Rorschach test. He knows what he wants you to find and he’s prepared the inkblots in such a way as illustrate his greater point. The Atrocity Exhibition, despite the obsessive repetition, doesn’t beat you over the head with its message, it gives you the pieces necessary to reach the desired conclusion and lets you think you came up with the idea yourself.
This is the dividing line for subversive media. The most effective subversive media frames itself in a way that allows the audience to go through the process of analysing and constructing their own picture and drawing their own conclusions. People may differ on the specifics, but they should fall roughly into the same broad area. There are always some who will come to a completely different conclusion – and that’s fantastic. The act of questioning and interpretating at a personal level is crucial to any subversive work.
If you are excessive with your delivery, you make it too easy for the audience, they begin to feel like they’re being led on, they start to back away because you look sleezy. If you just stand there at a pulpit, beating a gavel and sermonising without cease, then you will attract a certain amount of attention. The vast majority of that attention will quickly leave when they get bored of being preached at.
Crooked God Machine’s problem is that it doesn’t have a response to the real-world problems that it’s paralleling. It thrusts them into the limelight, lets them sing their little song, and then there’s no follow up and so they resort to just singing their song again. Repetitive shock tactics have an awful return on investment over time – they should be treated as single-serving for the same reason that once you’ve told a joke you don’t immediately repeat it. In relying on the ‘strong and stable tables’ method of delivery you undermine your own message to all but the stupidest people in the room.
On the other hand, Autumn Christian clearly wasn’t trying to write something overtly subversive. The subversive tones are a side effect of having those parallels in the narrative as points around which she built a horror narrative. Nevertheless, it is worth considering when working through a second draft or editing a manuscript, whether your audience will pick up on undertones and implications, and whether you can expand on them without losing your entire plot to mission creep.
This isn’t to say that authors need to blow-by-blow a full bullet point plan solution to the problems they allude to. America Psycho offers no solution to the terrible repercussions of the culture that it outlines, but simultaneously it weaves those subversive illustrations of its world in the narrative well enough that the reader is never given the impression that Ellis is brow-beating them with a lecture on problems that they are already well aware of. In fact, that book itself admits to its own sense of futility and the expectation that nothing will get better, which is a valid response to its own critique: ‘This is not an exit’.