Otakon 2018 Schedule!

I’m at Otakon this weekend! I’m presenting two panels I haven’t done in a while:

  • Eva Pilots, Rose Brides, and Puella Magi: Heroic Trauma and Anime (10:45 PM Friday in Panel 7)
  • Hinamizawa Syndrome: Time Travel and Trauma from Higurashi to Erased (5:45 PM Saturday in Panel 5

If you’re there, come check me out!

My Anime Boston 2018 Panel Schedule

I’ve been sitting on this for a while: I am a featured panelist at Anime Boston 2018! With, like, perks and stuff!
It’s also going to be my first time presenting as a woman in public! I even used she/her pronouns in my bio in the program book! I’m exceedingly nervouscited.
Anyway, I’m presenting the following panels:

  • Firing the Canon: How to Stop Suspending Disbelief (and Why): 3/30 1:30-2:30 pm in Panel 310
    Yes, I am starting off the con by pissing off everyone there.
  • Spiralling Back: Gurren Lagann 10 Years Later: 3/30 6:00-7:00 pm in Panel 311
    With Viga Gadson! This is the same panel we gave at Otakon last year.
  • The Duel Named Revolution: Making Sense of Revolutionary Girl Utena3/30 11:00 pm-12:00 am in Panel 309
    Trying something a bit different–instead of being an ultracondensed version of the chapter of the same name in Animated Discussions, I instead drew on the first and last chapters to discuss queer identity, because OH HEY for SOME REASON that’s on my mind lately, plus it ties in well with the color symbolism stuff I posted here a couple months back, so a discussion of that is in there too.
  • Anime Doesn’t Exist: The Secret History of a Fandom:  3/31 10:30-11:30 am in Panel 310
    Why yes, I DID take advantage of featured panelist status to submit two panels that exist solely to piss off the audience. How kind of you to notice! This makes use of a lot of the same information as the secret history chapter of Animated Discussion, but to a slightly different place–that while the Japanese word anime refers to a sensible category of things, the English cognate creates a distinction without a difference.
  • Fullmetal Alchemy: The Real-World Alchemical Tradition and FMA: 3/31/2018 5:30-6:30 pm in Panel 311
    This is my standard alchemy panel. I like giving it, people like seeing it, why change?
  • The Avatar in Amestris: A Comparative Study3/31 9:30-10:30 pm in room Hynes Panel 309
    I’ve been sitting on these ideas for a while: Avatar: The Last Airbender and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood as mirror images, (inevitably failed) attempts by one culture to tell their own stories through the medium of the other, with an astonishing amount of (entirely coincidental) similarities.
  • More Forgotten Classics and Overlooked Gems: 4/1 12:00-1:00 pm in Panel 206
    My not-a-recommendations-panel-but-it-totally-is is back! I swapped out about half of the things from last year for new things, and by “new things” I mean “old things that have been forgotten or flew under the radar in the first place.”

Movies I saw in 2017, ranked

The following is a list of movies I saw for the first time in 2017, ranked from the one I liked most to the one I liked least, and with brief comments. (Comments are written with the assumption that the reader has seen the movie.) Note, though, that I liked every movie I saw this year.

  • your name.: This is it. This is the movie where I can finally stop qualifying the statement “Makoto Shinkai is a genius.” Prior to this, I always had to append “but this movie only points to his potential without showing its full extent.” But your name. shows what he’s truly capable of–like almost all of his work, your name. uses a science-fictional high-concept premise to tell an intensely personal story of love and loss, but in the past he’s had trouble landing the emotional beats and pulling off the concept at the same time, generally succeeding in one or the other, but never both. In your name., he does both. (And, of course, it’s visually stunning, but that should go without saying–it’s Makoto Shinkai.)
  • Thor: Ragnarok: The only way to truly move on from the horrors of empire is to burn the society built from that empire. Keep the people, but destroy the structures of power. Easily the best Thor movie and the best Guardians of the Galaxy movie.
  • Lego Batman Movie: This is the best Batman movie ever made.
  • Wonder Woman: Incredibly important for what it does and what it achieved, and many moments are brilliant–but the whole ends up less than the some of the parts. Plus it implies that Diana sat around doing nothing during the Holocaust, which goes beyond being out-of-character and shades into character assassination.
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming: Finally, a Spider-Man movie that gets it.
  • The Last Jedi: This is the best Star Wars movie because it’s the only one that realizes Star Wars is actually terrible: heroes get people killed, desperate last stands against overwhelming odds usually fail, terrible fucking people who do one good deed usually go right back to being terrible, and rebellions are built on sacrifice, not hope. Now if we can just get that droid uprising…
  • Guardians of the Galaxy 2: Looks great, and I’m a sucker for father-son stuff, but it’s fluff. To its credit, it knows it.

Movies I know I need to see:

  • Get Out
  • Coco
  • Professor Marsden and the Wonder Women
  • My Little Pony: The Movie

What movies did you like this year? Dislike? Are there any movies not on this list that I need to go see?

Book Review: Neoreaction a Basilisk by Phil Sandifer

Due diligence: I’m friends with the author, read and commented on an early draft of the titular essay, and backed both this book’s Kickstarter and his Patreon, and received the book through those channels. I have no financial stake in this book.
That out of the way: this book is properly brilliant. Perhaps the best testament to its brilliance is that I’ve tried three times to express how brilliant it is and ended up a couple paragraphs into an inadequate summary of the first essay before I deleted my review and started over.
This is a book full of monsters–philosophical horrors that represent the degree to which the worst ideas of the worst people are strangling our world in their tentacles, with each essay explores a different branch of this theme, one of the tentacles of the skulltopus. One by one, it looks at technophiliac white supremacists, nihilistically misogynistic gamers, Trump, anarcho-capitalist authoritarians, conspiracy theorists, transphobic second-wave feminists, and Peter Thiel, exploring their ideas (or, in the case of Trump, who doesn’t seem to have any, the psychic landscape of New York that spawned him) and seeking the monsters within.
But this is not simply a litany of all the ways in which terrible people are terrible. Instead, Sandifer repeatedly gives his subjects the opportunity to hang themselves by their own ropes, and shows how inevitably they do; ultimately, all seven topics are haunted by what Sandifer calls “basilisks,” ideas from which they flee but which they can never escape. In this, Sandifer borrows the name from Roko’s basilisk, a frankly hilarious incident in which a community of AI cranks accidentally reinvented Pascal’s wager and terrified themselves with it; the concept itself, however, he accredits to Eugene Thacker’s observations on the relationship between philosophy and horror.
Along the way are typically Sandiferian delights. As always, his ability to sensitively elucidate the bizarre thought processes of utter cranks is without peer; the first essay in particular is impressive in this regard, as it is constructed as a widening spiral through the thoughts of AI crank and Harry Potter fanfiction author Eliezer Yudkowsky, political crank and designer of questionable software Curtis Yarvin (a.k.a Mencius Moldbug), and drug-addled philosophy crank Nick Land. Throughout, one gets the feeling that Sandifer is going out of his way to be kind to his subjects, but it is not because they deserve it; instead it is to give them plenty of rope with which to hang themselves. The three ultimately come across, respectively, as a well-meaning crank who’d be harmless if not for the people listening to him, an utterly despicable human being, and a fascinating train wreck. The fifth essay is also a delight along these lines, as it playfully uses David Icke’s “lizard people” conspiracy theory as a basis from which to take apart conspiracy theories as a whole. (But again, Sandifer’s obvious fondness for cranks never quite crosses the line into forgetting that, for example, David Icke’s ideas are repulsively anti-Semitic, or that Land is providing intellectual cover for racism.)
Admittedly, the book is not perfect. I adore “Theses on a President,” for example, but it’s definitely out there–I love the metaphor of a Faustian exchange, giving up his name to become a brand, to represent the kind of toxic performativity that Trump exemplifies, but I suspect readers less familiar with Sandifer (and let’s face it, if you need a review to help you decide whether to buy this book, you’re not) might find it a bridge too far so soon after being asked to swallow the psychogeographic approach. At least, I know I would discounted the essay at that point, if I didn’t already have the introduction to psychogeography Sandifer helpfully provided in his earlier work. At the other end of the scale, the last two chapters feel a little perfunctory–particularly the last. Admittedly, it doesn’t take a whole lot of words to say “Peter Thiel’s basilisk is that he’s an idiot who got lucky,” but ultimately Thiel gets little more attention than some of the figures discussed in passing in the first essay–and given that he comes up in the first essay, it’s not clear why he deserves a chapter of his own.
All that said, this is still a vitally important book, and more importantly an excellent one. I cannot recommend it enough–and indeed, I intend to recommend it to everyone I know who is even remotely interested in politics, philosophy, or their intersection. This is Phil’s best work yet, and that is saying something.

You can buy Neoreaction a Basilisk here.

Much-Needed Housekeeping

After months and months of needing to, I have FINALLY updated the tags and site menu. Vlogs are now appropriately filed–the two completed series are under Completed Projects, and the rest are under Current Projects->Vlogs. The menus now acknowledge the existence of Let’s Plays–I’ve added them to both Current Projects and Completed Projects. Most importantly, I’ve completely restructured how NA09 is organized. All entries are now tagged by what volume they’re (going to be) in. The BTAS and STAS tags still exist, but they now only go to entries about the specific shows–Imaginary Story, Retroactive Continuity, and Crisis on N Earths posts are tagged by volume but no longer have the BTAS or STAS tag.
Hopefully this all helps make the site a little more navigable and content more easy to find. I’m going to try to be better about keeping the tags and menus up to date, but no promises.

I am aware I am behind on everything this week

I’ve been traveling since last Thursday, and it’s thrown me completely off. Sorry!
I will post this week’s NA09 when I get home tonight.
ETA: Or I’ll have a flight that consists of nothing but turbulence, get home feeling exhausted and sick, and crash hard.
NA09 will go up in place of the Thursday vlog post at noon EST. The vlog will go up Friday at noon EST.

Paralogy, the Paradox of Tolerance, and Diversity

A conversation with a friend ages ago collided with some stuff I’ve been musing on lately–thoughts still percolating on what all this has to do with solidarity and intersectionality and the circular firing squad–and this came out. In rather a typo-ridden rush, so thanks to Benny Blue for his fast and thorough proofread!
A while back—long enough ago that the rise of ethnonationalism was still worrying as opposed to horrifying—I was having an email exchange with a friend of mine about it and he raised a point that I couldn’t immediately argue: Ethnonationalists claim that ethnic divides are insurmountable and inevitably lead to (presumed violent) conflict. Isn’t multiculturalism a concession to the first half of that statement? Wouldn’t it be better to have a monoculture in which all association is purely voluntary and all identity is purely self-defined.
I reacted with visceral horror, but at the time couldn’t really formulate a counterargument beyond “No, that would be awful.”
Here, most of a year later, is that argument.
I’m going to start with some basic definitions from literary theory:
A story is a set of events: “The king died and the queen died.”
A plot is a set of events arranged in a sequence and given causal relationships: “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.”
A narrative is what’s left of a plot after you subtract out the story; it is the relationships between events without the events themselves.
Think of a plot as a kind of structure, objects in space supported by a scaffolding. The scaffold is the narrative; the objects it holds in place and connects to one another are the events making up the story. The same events—the same story—becomes a very different plot when you change the narrative: “The king died of poisoning, and then the queen died of hanging.” The first plot implies the queen mourned the king so deeply she perished; the second that she murdered him and was executed for the crime. Or a third narrative, different from the second only in a single word: “The king died of poisoning, and then the queen died of hanging herself.” Now we are back to the implications of the first narrative, yet the basic events—the “facts” of the story—never changed.
The Postmodern Condition
In 1979, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s seminal book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, used the concept of narrative as a framework through which to examine the broader world of human thought. He argued that all knowledge works the same way that literature does; that is, any knowledge system consists of two kinds of knowledge: positive knowledge (which is analogous to story) and narrative knowledge (which is analogous, as the name implies, to narrative). Positive knowledge consists of the facts and only the facts; narrative knowledge is what gives those facts meaning, by connecting and organizing them, placing them in relationships with one another. So, for example, if we think of a field of science as a knowledge system, the positive knowledge consists of the raw data, the experimental results or field observations, while the narrative knowledge consists of the models used to interpret that data.
Lyotard argued that the general trend of the 20th century was a trend away from grand narratives to petite narratives (also called metanarratives and micronarratives, respectively). A grand narrative is a broad, organizing idea, that is (or presents itself as being) universally applicable, true for all people in all places and times. By contrast, a micronarrative is confined to a single system of knowledge, and does not claim universality. Grand narratives span an entire culture; micronarratives exist within a single community. Modernism prized and sought after grand narratives: “All stories boil down to the Hero’s Journey.” “Everything in the universe can be reduced to Newtonian physics.” “Liberal democracy and capitalism are the best political and economic systems, and everyone everywhere would be better off under them.”
However, grand narrative comes at the price of squeezing out micronarratives. Communities who won’t “get with the program” are silenced and marginalized, whatever ideas they might have been able to share blocked because of their incompatibility with the grand narrative. Facts which cannot be fit into the grand narrative are discarded. Monoculture emerges—and soon begins showing its cracks.
Over the course of the 20th century, a number of developments undermined the grand narratives of modernism. Art movements like Dadaism and cubism questioned the “rules”—the grand narratives—of representational art. Scientific developments like relativity and quantum mechanics—which both appear to be true, and yet also appear irreconcilable—cast doubt on the grand narratives of physics. Civil rights movements, economic upheavals, and the conflicts engendered by colonialism cast doubt on the grand narratives of liberalism and capitalism.
Lyotard argued that these were all symptoms of the transition from singular grand narratives to a multiplicity of micronarratives. He proposed that the next stage of humanity—the next era of art and philosophy—after modernity would be characterized by what he called paralogy, a pun of sorts: it is a prefix and a suffix with nothing in between, suggesting systems of knowledge (-logy) coexisting beside one another (para-) without regard to their content (which would be the missing stem to which the affixes would normally attach). The titular “postmodern condition” of his book—which in turn has given its name to postmodernism—is the state of transition from modernism to paralogy, a period of confusion and social upheaval as grand narratives break down and micronarratives re-emerge or compete to become grand themselves.
But what does paralogy look like? Lyotard describes it as a multiplicity of coexisting knowledge systems, each shared by a given community. This exists in any society: the knowledge system of biology is shared by the community of biologists, the knowledge system of Jewish heritage is shared by the Jewish community, and so on. Someone who is both a biologist and Jewish is in both communities, and hence familiar with both knowledge systems; they use the narrative knowledge of biology when looking at biology facts, the narrative knowledge of Judaism when they look at Judaism facts, and some combination of both when looking at the positive knowledge shared between the two systems.
This is a microcosm of paralogy. In Lyotard’s conception of the post-postmodern condition, each community has its own system of knowledge, its own narratives, and applies them within that community. Any given individual belongs to multiple communities, and so each community is linked to the other communities to which its members belong, creating a network that spans all communities in the entire culture. Ideas generated in one community spread to others through this network, allowing all members of all communities to hear and evaluate them if they wish. To Lyotard this communication is key; he regards culture as an idea-generating engine, and paralogy makes it a better one: ideas which are non-obvious or even incomprehensible in one narrative can be found by another, and spread from there.
There’s another, and in my opinion better, argument for paralogy, however: it allows for the greatest possible diversity. Personal identity is narrative in nature: ethnicity is a narrative about where we and our customs come from, sexuality a narrative about how we experience (or don’t experience) attraction, and so on. When I say that I am a cishet male atheist postpositivist feminist socialist Jew, I am announcing a variety of ways in which I organize, relate, and assign meaning to my thoughts and experiences. In a paralogous society, I am free to belong to a multiplicity of communities that share each of those narratives, and many other communities besides. For virtually any facet of identity, I can find a group where that identity is shared, a community within which to explore, discuss, and evolve that narrative—and yet there is no concern of an “echo chamber” effect, because I belong to a multitude of other communities that have their own narratives, yet include some of the same positive knowledge in their system. More importantly, people who, in our current society, have had their identities marginalized and their narratives squeezed out by the grand narrative can do the same, freely forming communities where their identities and narratives are accepted and getting their ideas onto the same paralogous network as everyone else’s.
But isn’t this just what my friend described? People moving freely between ideologies and identities as they wish, in one grand monoculture?
No, but explaining the difference will require a bit of a detour and a closer examination of how narratives, and especially grand narratives, work.
Every narrative has certain ideas, or kinds of ideas, which it trends toward or away from. A work of purely mimetic fiction (also called non-genre fiction, but that’s another grand narrative at work) will not have characters go for a journey on a starship. A conspiracy theory transforms evidence that contradicts the theory into evidence that the conspiracy is powerful enough to fake the evidence. No scientific investigation will ever conclude that a phenomenon is the work of supernatural forces.
These are all examples of narrative imperatives: the structure of a narrative can have trends regardless of the positive knowledge associated with it. The sciences, for example, seek naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena; any positive knowledge which resists such explanation must be either rejected as an error or lie, or treated as an unknown but natural phenomenon for which there is no naturalistic explanation yet. “A god did it” is not science any more than traveling at Warp 6 is mimetic fiction. This is not a criticism of the sciences; it is an essential part of what makes them science. In this case, the narrative imperative is a good thing: if you want naturalistic explanations of natural phenomena, which you presumably do if you’re doing science, you want your narrative knowledge to push you away from supernatural explanations.
Not all imperatives are so benign. In particular, some narratives have imperatives that drive them to become grand narratives; in other words, some narratives will, given the space to do so, tend toward generating the idea that the community should impose these narratives on everyone and eliminate any and all contradictory narratives. I call these grandiose narratives: narratives which are not necessarily grand narratives in any given culture, but which contain a narrative imperative to become grand narratives if possible. Some examples of grandiose narratives which are not grand narratives in our culture: scientism, the belief that the sciences are the only true knowledge system, all others are false, and which therefore tends to the conclusion that other knowledge systems should be eliminated;* evangelical Christianity, which holds that there is a moral imperative to persuade all people to become Christians; antitheism, which holds that all religions are false and should be eliminated; ethnonationalism, which insists that one and only one ethnicity dominate a culture; and (just so that this list contains one item to which I am not fundamentally opposed) Marxism, which insists on a revolution leading to a single universal economic system and philosophy shared by all.
Since the presence of a grand narrative makes paralogy impossible, grandiose narratives are a fundamental threat to paralogy. But how to deal with them?
The Paradox of Tolerance
There is a common thread among grandiose narratives: they are all intolerant. Scientism cannot abide non-scientific beliefs, and given the opportunity and power, a community which adheres to scientism must seek to eliminate those beliefs. The same holds for evangelical Christianity and non-Christian beliefs or antitheism and religious beliefs. Ethnonationalism is even worse: it cannot abide non-ethnonationalist beliefs or other ethnic identities, and so, given the opportunity and power, an ethnonationalist community must seek to eliminate not just the beliefs but the ethnicities as well, which is to say it must engage in ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Grandiose narratives are thus anathema to a paralogous society; they cannot be tolerated if the society is to exist. In his The Open Society and Its Enemies (which, it should be noted, predates The Postmodern Condition by almost 25 years and thus contains no reference to paralogy), Karl Popper coined the term “The Paradox of Tolerance” for this phenomenon. He discussed it in terms of building a free and tolerant society: a society which tolerates anything, including intolerance, will inevitably be taken over by the intolerant and therefore cease to be tolerant.
Consider a society which is almost perfectly paralogous, but there is one community which is intolerant—let’s say they’re white supremacists. As a community in a paralogous society, they are on the network and able to spread their ideas—which, remember, were generated by a white supremacist narrative. Members of this group will be members of others, that being how the network works, and so will carry their racist ideas into other communities. Not all racist ideas are obviously so; subtly racist ideas will enter the knowledge systems of other communities, making those communities racist. The mere presence of a white supremacist community makes the society as a whole more racist—not every community will be equally “infected,” and some may even stay completely free of racism, but people of color be completely accepted and free to be themselves only in those few communities, the very definition of marginalization.
Or consider an example which doesn’t depend on paralogy or even the narrative-based epistemology we’ve outlined here: imagine a society which is perfectly tolerant, except for one anti-black racist. Put them anywhere in that society, and they make things worse for black people. If they’re a school teacher, their black students suffer. If they’re a clerk at the DMV, black people applying for licenses suffer. Even if we’re lucky enough that they don’t work any job that gives them power over any black person, if they have any black coworkers, those coworkers have to suffer dealing with a racist. If the racist has any black neighbors, or runs into a black clerk at the DMV when they go for their license—if, in short, the racist has any contact with black people whatsoever—the lives of those black people are made materially worse, and thus society as a whole is demonstrably a little less tolerant of black people than everybody else. There are only three possible things society can do to deal with this: lock the racist away somewhere where they’re guaranteed never to meet or have any effect on a black person (which is intolerant of intolerance), find a way to keep black people away from the racist (which is a restriction on black people but not anyone else, and hence intolerant of black people), or find a way to make the racist more tolerant (which is, again, intolerant of intolerance.)
Of those options, the middle one makes the problem worse; only the first and third actually work to make society more tolerant. Thus, a perfectly tolerant society is impossible unless each individual person is perfectly tolerant (which seems unlikely—we have to assume that if any reasonably sized society tolerates something, somebody somewhere is going to do it). A maximally tolerant society, by contrast, is one in which the only thing not tolerated is intolerance. This is the “paradox,” though it’s not actually one if we phrase it as follows: the maximal tolerance a society can achieve is to tolerate everything except first-order intolerance, where “first-order intolerance” is defined as intolerance of something which is not itself intolerant.
Note that we can still state the parable of the world’s only racist in terms of our epistemology, though it was presented as not requiring that epistemology: the racist’s knowledge system includes a grandiose narrative imperative to make life worse for their racism’s targets. It doesn’t matter if they themselves don’t care whether the rest of society shares their intolerance or not; as long as they act on their racism, the mere existence of this intolerance tends to create a society-wide grand narrative of intolerance.
Grandiose narratives are inherently intolerant; intolerance is inherently grandiose. They are, in other words, two words for the same thing, and hence the Paradox of Tolerance is also the Paradox of Grandiosity: the maximally paralogous society is one which excludes only grandiose narratives.
Paralogy vs. Monoculture
The Paradox of Grandiosity answers the question of how paralogy differs from my friend’s monoculture idea. Consider one feature of communities in a paralogous society: openness. We can describe the openness of a community as its position on a spectrum from fully open communities (which define a member as anyone who wants to be a member) to fully closed communities (which have requirements for membership that are impossible to achieve for anyone not born a member).
We can immediately see that an ethnonationalist community is going to fully be closed: along with any other requirements, if you’re not born part of the “right” ethnicity, you can never become a member of the community. But that’s true of racial identity in general: you may or may not choose to participate in or identify with the racial community in which you were born, but you cannot join any other. You can join closely related communities (for example, joining a family through marriage), and it is possible to be born part of multiple racial communities simultaneously, but racial identity is closed.**
The sciences are partially closed communities: becoming a scientist is possible for anyone in theory, but requires extensive effort and training. At least in some forms, evangelical Christianity is completely open; you can become one just by deciding you are one. Once you have joined, the pressure of the community and strong narrative imperatives will then begin making extensive demands, but joining itself is trivially easy.
These examples should make clear: a closed community is not necessarily grandiose or vice versa. Being closed is not the same as being intolerant—but my friend’s monoculture does not allow closed communities of any kind, since they restrict the individual’s freedom to identify however they want and participate in any community they want.*** My friend’s monoculture is intolerant of closed groups which are not themselves intolerant: it is first-order intolerant.
In short: the real concession to ethnonationalism is not acknowledging that diversity exists; it is rejecting that diversity should exist.
*”Eliminated” not necessarily implying elimination by force, of course. However, eliminating a knowledge system by persuasion still means the loss of its narrative, the dissolution of the community to whom that knowledge system belonged, the marginalization of any associated identities, and the erasure of any unique ideas which that knowledge system might have generated.
**Note that ethnicity and nationality are not the same as race and therefore do not have to function the same way. Judaism, for instance, is a mostly closed identity: someone who is not Jewish can become Jewish, but only through a difficult process.
***It is out of the scope of this essay, but I know that somebody at some point is going to ask about how all of this relates to trans issues, given that TERF rhetoric often includes criticism of the idea that anyone should be able to identify however they want and participate in any community they want without exception (which is justified) along with claims that this is what trans narratives imply (which is not). My answer, in brief: The binary model of gender is a grand narrative that rejects observable facts and marginalizes people. Those people are not themselves being intolerant—nothing about being trans, intersex, or nonbinary creates a narrative imperative to prevent others from being cis—and hence the binary model of gender is first-order intolerant. TERFs and other transphobes are grandiose and intolerant, and thus the maximally paralogous society cannot permit them.

Rainbow Revolution: Color Symbolism in Revolutionary Girl Utena

At the request of Ana Mardoll–who has just started a blog series on Revolutionary Girl Utena that you really ought to read, because she’s awesome–I am compiling all my thoughts on the use of color in Revolutionary Girl Utena in one place. This is a more than usually off-the-cuff post, drawing together (and in some cases copy-pasting) stuff from a bunch of different blog posts I’ve written and notes I’ve taken, so I’m not worrying to much about flow.
The main, most solid sources for what color means in the show are two episodes, “Tracing a Path” and “The End of the World.” The former is a clip show that assigns names to each of the duels in the Student Council Saga. As each duel is named, a stained glass panel is displayed showing the French word for the concept the duel is named after, and dyed the same color as Utena’s opponent’s hair. The latter episode then shows a similar panel as Utena faces off against Akio in the Duel Named Revolution. However, almost every episode has some use of these colors, and there are several prominent colors not assigned duel names, so ultimately the only source I can give for this is “the show as a whole, watched many times.”
So, let’s get into the colors.
Green is associated with the Duel Named Friendship and the Duel Named Choice. That is, therefore, what green represents: friendship and choice, interpersonal connection and free will. Generally speaking, a character’s hair color indicates what their path or destiny is–what road they are on. Thus, Saionji’s hair is green to indicate he is seeking and defined by his relationships, his friendship with Touga and his (imaginary) romance with Anthy. It is also the color of the dress Nanami sends Anthy to wear to the ball; at the time, Nanami is pretending to be Anthy’s friend, and Utena is trying to get Anthy to make choices for herself. (When characters wear something other than their usual uniform, it generally indicates they are taking on a role or playing a part.)
Green’s opposite color is red; hence it is also the color of the concepts in direct opposition to red’s: doubt or confusion (opposing conviction) and loyalty (opposing the self in both senses of selfishness and self-reliance). Again, these are strong traits in Saionji, who frequently misinterprets situations (such as the whole exchange diary fiasco), and whose loyalty to Touga remains unshakable even when Touga repeatedly demonstrates he doesn’t deserve it.
Blue is associated with the Duel Named Reason; blue represents reason, the intellect, and the mind, memory and self-expression. Miki’s blue hair indicates his genius, both academic and musical, as well as his fixation on a specific memory he wants to return to, the feeling of playing piano with his sister. Ruka’s blue hair, meanwhile, indicates his calculating, ruthless approach to dueling.
Blue’s opposite color is orange; hence it is also the color of possessiveness (opposing love), the idea that another person is “rightfully” your property. Again, see Ruka; also, that is frequently how Kozue presents herself, and even Miki in his focus episodes tends to start seeing Anthy as someone who “ought to” belong to him.
Orange is associated with the Duel Named Love; orange represents love, passion, and yearning. Juri’s orange hair indicates that she is driven by both a specific lost love, and quest for love in general–she is a closeted lesbian, and wants the power to revolutionize the world so that she can achieve the miracle of being allowed to love, and being loved in return.
Orange’s opposite color is blue, so it is also associated with that which cannot be understood through reason, the miraculous, the mystical, the spiritual. Again, Juri is seeking a miracle.
Yellow is associated with the Duel Named Adoration, and represents that which is placed upon a pedestal, the object of worship and protection. Nanami’s yellow hair signifies both her adoration of her brother, and that she is an object of adoration, the queen bee of the school. Similarly, Tsuwabuki’s yellow hair represents his adoration of Nanami.
Yellow’s opposite color is purple, and so yellow is also the color of stasis (opposing revolution). In the context of Utena, this stasis takes the form of an inability to age or mature, a perpetual childhood or adolescence. The adored child who must be protected and cannot grow up is the Princess, which combines all the meanings of yellow in one; hence the princess in the fairy tale that opens the first episode is wearing a yellow dress, because at the beginning of that story Utena is playing the role of the Princess.
Like green, red is associated with two duels: the Duel Named Conviction and the Duel Named Self. Red is the color of belief, selfishness, self-reliance. It is the color of knowing who you are and what you believe, and acting accordingly. Touga’s red hair and Utena’s pink both represent characters who are confident, proud, certain of their own identities, and always ready to act on their beliefs; the difference is that Touga’s beliefs are cynical and Utena’s idealistic.
Red’s opposite color is green, so it is also the color of manipulation (in opposition to friendship) and power (in opposition to choice). Touga, Utena, and Mikage are the strongest duelists, and all three are highly manipulative in very different ways: Touga uses promises, lies, and seduction; Utena swoops in to save Anthy and in so doing pushes her into performing Utena’s ideas of the savior-prince narrative; Mikage discovers the darkest desires of others and twists them to his purposes. And, of course, red is the color of Akio’s car, where he demonstrates his power and manipulates the duelists into fighting Utena again.
Purple is the color of the Duel Named Revolution. It is the antithesis of yellow, which is adoration. What is adoration? It is looking up to the object of one’s love, putting them on a pedestal, worshiping them, perhaps not even noticing how that degrades yourself. It is the princess, the Nanami, the one who plays by the rules and is accepted by society as “good,” no matter what she’s really like.
Purple is hate.
Purple is the witch.
Purple is what they’ve all been fighting for all along.
It is that which dwells in the castle.
It is something shining: the morning star, the deceptive beauty, the light which casts the shadow.
It is the power of miracles: the terrible sacrifice, the dark magic of blood and death.
It is something eternal: suffering that never ends.
It is the revolution of the world: the apocalypse.
Purple is the end of innocence. It is corruption and it is maturation. It is stasis and it is change. It is Da’at, the terrible black abyss that is nonetheless the path to enlightenment.
Purple is time.
Purple is putrefaction, the endless decay that endlessly brings forth life.
Purple is Anthy.
Other Colors
There are three prominent colors in the show that are not associated with named duels: white, black, and brown.
White is strongly associated with the Prince: it is the color of Dios’ clothing, Utena’s rose, and the rose frames that appear around Touga when Utena thinks he might be her prince. Lighter colors thus indicate closeness to the Prince and what he represents, so for example Utena is closer to the power of Dios than Touga–pink is red and white combined.
It is tempting to conclude that white is therefore “good” and black “evil,” and to an extent that’s true, but it’s important to remember that one of the strongest influences on Utena is Herman Hesse’s novel Demian (among other things, it’s where the egg speech comes from, as well as the use of apocalypse and global revolution as metaphors for growing up). In Demian, “good” does not mean acting ethically, but rather conforming to social norms, and likewise “evil” does not mean doing harm or violating others, but rather defying social norms. In that respect, it might be more accurate then to say that white represents that which is accepted and black represents that which is rejected, white is the socially acceptable and black the abject.
Sometimes, this aligns with morality: Ruka’s hair is a darker blue than Miki’s, and Touga’s a darker red than Utena’s, and they are definitely much worse people. However, that’s not why they’re darker; Ruka’s blue is darker because sexual assault is less socially acceptable than Nice Guy Syndrome, and Touga’s red is darker because being a lying, cheating playboy is less socially acceptable than being a heroic savior. To use an example where it definitely isn’t aligned with morality: Anthy’s skin is dark because she is utterly abject, the Witch whom society seeks to punish eternally for the sin of being a person instead of a perfect little princess.
Pure black, as we see in the Black Rose Saga, is thus that which is completely rejected, that part of ourselves which we push away so hard that we start to deny it even exists–the Jungian Shadow, in other words. Each of the Black Rose duelists descends into the deep darkness underground and the darkness within themselves, expressing and demonstrating the hidden parts of the people whose heart-swords they wield. For example, Kozue acts on the possessiveness that Miki tries to deny he feels toward Anthy; Wakaba acknowledges feeling unremarkable and overshadowed by her more popular and athletic best friend, while Saionji tries to deny that he feels this way about Touga. The darkness of the Shadow is not the darkness of evil, however, though it is where the idea of evil comes from; the Shadow is dark because it’s hidden. It must be not only faced, but accepted–Utena fights and defeats her Shadow Mikage, and in so doing rejects the aspects of herself he represents, allowing Akio to use those very same traits to manipulate her in the next arc. It is only when she admits and accepts the ways in which she has used Anthy–the same ways Mikage used people–that she becomes able to face Akio in the final duel.
Finally, there is brown, the drab color of the plain, ordinary, unspecial people. Wakaba, in other words, as well as Nanami’s hangers-on, that trio of boys always hitting on Nanami, and the vast majority of the unnamed masses who populate the school. But again, this doesn’t mean that brown is bad, just that it’s neutral; it is the color of not being particularly any one thing. In a way, the brown-haired characters are lucky–they have conventional dreams and acceptable desires, and therefore don’t need to break the world in order to become truly themselves. They get to just be.