Tuesday, September 24, 2019

"Talking about a new society requires being able to discard [time]:" An Interview with Estelle Ellison

This post was made possible by support from my Patreon! All patrons who pledge $5+ per month will also get access to an exclusive cooking blog. And while you’re at it, follow Abolish Time on Instagram and support her Patreon as well.

If you enjoyed this piece and want to see a full transcript of the conversation (lightly edited for readability), click here.

On a temperate September afternoon in Oakland’s Lower Bottoms, Estelle Ellison and I sat across a table from each other. We talked for well over an hour about her project, Abolish Time. We covered a lot: burning out of leftist organizing spaces. Making mutual aid more expansive. Answerability and accountability. Afrofuturism and Afro-pessimism. Cooking. And, of course, abolishing time.

A few hours after we were done, you could look out any of the living room windows of the house and see, across the port, the sun setting behind San Francisco. If you brought your view in closer, you could see the husk of a burnt-out car just across the street. Closer even than that, houses standing vacant. And in the reflection of that window: a lived-in space under threat of eviction. From the silhouette of Salesforce tower to the half-empty condo complex down the street, gentrification still looms over the Bay Area.

Our first topic was Left Unity. I self-described as a “communist who only hangs out with anarchists;” Estelle self-described as an “Afrofuturist Autonomist.” We’re both skeptical of the impulse, despite these differences. We can both also see the utility of it.

Estelle described seeing ISO members in the wake of Trump’s election shouting about Left Unity while hawking papers and rehearsing recruitment tactics. And then she hit on the heart of it:
Estelle: For the people who were showing up in the street it made sense. You don’t want to have an ideological conversation when you show up ready to put your body on the line. But at the same time it’s like, well, no, it’s doesn't make sense. Striving for Left Unity is fine. But if you’re not actually having the conversations to bridge together those schools of thought it’s artificial. It’s surface level. It’s just going to dissolve as soon as the immediate threat is lessened. Which has kind of happened! It’s not like there are deep inroads between organizations and affinity groups right now. It was just this initial moment of showing some force to dissuade fascists.
Without putting too fine a point on it, this is what we are trying to accomplish. Not striving toward an abstraction like Left Unity, but having a conversation where difference – of history and biography, of orientation toward the future – can be held up and acknowledged while also sharing skills and knowledge. We’re not doing some pantomime of “reaching across the aisle” to better accommodate each other’s political positions. We’re building trust and affinity.

Once we solved the problem of Left Unity, we began to talk more directly about Estelle’s project, Abolish Time. She notes that her Patreon is already most of the way to its (current) final goal, where she’ll be releasing zines – physically to $5+ donors, and possibly for free to anyone who signs up for an email list – that might contain some "spicy" exclusive content like a Letters to the Editor feature or even submissions. On the project itself:
Estelle: I guess [the title is] simultaneously hyperbole and literally what I think the goal is. The idea I had behind the title was obviously to grab people’s attention, but also by demanding something that intense I think it makes it easier to have conversations about how we whittle away at the foundations of society as we know it.

Some people talk about, y’know, burn it all down. We need a new world. But so many of the schools of thought we’ve inherited over the last two hundred years I don’t think go into much detail about – what would selves look like? What aspects of the culture that we’re in do we have to literally shed?

In careerist organizing spaces it’s almost like clocking in. Who cares how you got here. You might be middle class, you might be working class, but once you’re here it’s time for the work. The path to the future is when you clock in. It doesn’t matter what happens outside of that.

But it does matter! What happens outside of that is actually more important than whatever liminal projects we’re pursuing. No doubt it’s important to do tangible work that impacts people’s lives positively. But I think it’s a trap of capitalism to think, “oh yeah, it’s okay that I’m not pushing back against my bosses, it’s okay that I’m not interrogating these power dynamics that I navigate every single day, because for some part of my week or some part of my month I’m with comrades who have this shared vision.”

Bee: Right. And a specific project that you can deliver at the end of the month or whatever, and see your ROI in the world.

Estelle: Right, exactly. So yeah, Abolish Time is like, what happens if we discard that framework for organizing society. Because I don’t believe capitalism, imperialism, iterations of workers states, I don’t think any of them can function without this notion of time and productivity. This way of galvanizing people to show up at the same moment. It’s certainly not the only way to converge, because people converged before we had mechanical clocks or even sundials.

It’s just an awful thought experiment to have a society that shows up at the same time. Time helps people show up to their shifts on time, but it also prevents us from meeting outside paid work. I just think it deeply fucks up our social relations, and talking about a new society requires being able to discard that tool.
After a detour through the question of why she chose Instagram as a place for text – it’s a fascinating answer that you can read in the full transcript, covering everything from Instagram being the social media of choice for the radical queer community to getting burnt out on writing theory to having comrades like Subversive Thread and The Comrade Closet pioneering some of the work she wanted to do – we went a little deeper on the Abolish Time project.
Bee: In part 2 of the Mutual Aid Series you wrote: “We should be cautious of work that does not replenish what it demands of its organizers.” And since then you’ve tackled things like burnout culture, transparency, patriarchy and a bunch of other things. My question is: what does bringing all this under the title of mutual aid do? Or, what does mutual aid mean in your theory or practice?

Estelle: It’s a lot of things, it’s interesting. Every time I finish a draft of a piece I’m like, okay, which series does this belong in. And there’s a brief round of debate on both sides of that question. Once I settle on which series it is, it’s usually, I’ve decided at the end of the day this broadens our ability to establish relationships of mutual aid. And so my definition of mutual aid is less theory-based. [...]

It feels like having a mutual aid series that has that much breadth is kind of an attack on, again, the white punk anarchist image that people have in their minds that capitalism actively uses to divide people. Like ‘outside agitators’ or ‘white people with trust funds breaking windows.’ And it’s not until you’re in a place like Oakland and are on the ground and you’re like, I don’t know where they are. Or when you do see them they’re fighting fascists, or running interference on the police.

Bee: The closest you get to that out here is the juggalos, and they are not fucking trust fund kids. They’re mostly poor white folks who come in, fuck shit up and leave. But y’know, they’re also juggalos, so. Family.

Estelle: Oh my god.

Bee: MCL.

Estelle: You know. We all come from our respective backgrounds.

Generally my idea of mutual aid is like, how do we make our capacity to struggle sustainable? Or a renewable resource, to use an analogy. I feel like mutual aid is, at the end of the day, the most necessary part. You can’t have a sustainable political project if it’s not renewing what people are offering.
We talked more about accountability and how it is weaponized in organizing spaces. Estelle has an alternative to it: Answerability.
Bee: You touched a little bit on the weaponization of accountability. [...] I’m curious about what you mean by [answerability] and why you think it’s a necessary or useful term to introduce, rather than sticking by words like accountability or transparency, maybe? Which sort of also cover similar territory but not quite the same.

Estelle: For sure. I mean honestly in a large way it’s a thorn in my side from the group I burned out of. But also on the flip side, my boss talks about accountability. I’m walking on the street in Rockridge hearing white businesspeople talk about accountability referring to their employees. To say nothing being in a literal bank talking about accountability and talking about debt culture. Accountability just felt like this expectation. I guess I’ll back up.

So my idea behind answerability is, not taking away from the positive impact of people taking responsibility for their actions or trying to do harm reduction or, if they can, helping the person harmed heal and repairing that relationship. I’m just not against those things. But I don’t want to take all these other uses alongside my desire for those kinds of social transformations/good. And so answerability for me, writing about it, instead of having this leader in my head feeding me this stuff, if I make it more about, if I can use a dynamic term – not unlike calling my project Abolish Time, maybe it helps broaden people out or, if nothing else, when they hear accountability they’ll pause and check to see how is this being used. Is this being used coercively, is this appropriate for this scenario?

Bee: Reframing accountability in a new way – it’s almost like there’s a competing term now where you can be like, well, does that work better? Does that apply to the situation better? Do I need to be answerable right now rather than accountable? And maybe sometimes you need to be fucking accountable, and doing the work of answering peer to peer questions is not relevant.

Estelle: You bring up an interesting question. On the one hand, I’m not in the business of policing people’s language. At the end of the day a lot of the writing in Abolish Time is a rhetorical device that’s designed to start a discourse that someone can take autonomously into their lives or into their networks. [...] Pursuing that line of thought you brought up, does answerability have the ability to get us there?

You answer for your actions in this peer-to-peer format. If you’re answering for your actions you’re admitting it, you’re naming your fault. And I think answering centers that you’re in relationship with another person or community. Whereas accountability can be made into this individualistic thing you do in isolation. Even talking about this most recent background with organizing, the main takeaway is that when you have an intervention it doesn’t work unless there’s community. You can’t have a successful process in isolation that’s just the person who was harmed and the harmer.

So in answering, if you have a conversation, you’ve admitted you’ve done this. Here are the impacts. If you’re willing to admit it, what are we going to do about it. That’s what I imagine is the extension of answerability. Because you’ve answered for your actions you do have a responsibility to follow through and address what went wrong.

Bee: And what the needs of the person who was harmed are. That sort of thing.

Estelle: As opposed to, oh, I’m accountable. I cost them this itemized list and I need to repay my debt. It becomes more transactional, and there’s more pressure on the person who did harm to arrive at accountability on their own. It doesn’t always hold space for what in their life, what enabled that harm to be committed in the first place.

And answerability might include addressing the fact that a harmer doesn’t have housing or, y’know, lost their job. At that point, when you’re talking about precarity, asking them to be accountable might just be like, you’re going to be unhoused. Or you have to leave town. Maybe you’ll have the resources to correct your behavior, maybe you won’t. But you have to be accountable. So.
Estelle’s discussion of answerability touched off some personal feelings for me. I’m currently in a community where the question of accountability processes is looming large. Over that, though, is the threat of legal repercussions for callouts and a rising tide of right-wing gamers trying to weaponize the fear of “cancel culture” in their latest attempts at organizing around culture wars.

Because of that I asked a long-winded question about peer-to-peer vs structurally imbalanced accountability/answerability processes. I wanted to know Estelle’s thoughts on how to engage with these sorts of processes, whether from the perspective of the person who was harmed or from the perspective of the person who has done harm. From there we talked a bit about non-peer processes and taking account of your leverage.
Estelle: It is a sorely needed skill and experience. Part of the reason I ended up in community work was because I kept having friends... or myself, being in situations where I was being harmed. And I was just like, oh my god, we need someone who can do this. This is an apparent need that will keep coming up. And it’s just very difficult.

I feel like the simplest answer is just to build mutual aid with your network before something happens. And that gives you the best chance of coming out of a process alive, or intact.

Bee: Right. And that goes for people who did harm unintentionally or because of lack of knowledge. If you have people who understand you and aren’t just going to blindly defend you because they like you better than the person you’ve done harm to, everyone comes out better for that. Even though it can be miserable and tricky and very difficult also.

Estelle: I mean, yeah. If the person who did harm doesn’t trust that the person they tell won’t immediately discard them they’re not going to tell anyone. Then it becomes other people’s responsibility to coax it out of them. It’s not truly other people’s responsibility! At the end of the day, ideally you have a person who has done harm who can recognize that what they did was outside of their values and wants to do something about it. And they need to be proactive.

When a person that’s more insular is moving from that basic fear [of disposability discussed in the post When Hurt Feelings Become an Excuse], there’s only going to be an intervention once someone else discerns what’s happening and chooses to intervene.

Bee: And then that can turn into big blow-ups or ostracization or other things that often don’t take into account what they’re making this person be accountable for. Like you were saying earlier, if they are in a precarious position, or if they’re somebody who has done truly bad things and is not willing to own up to them, and then you just kick them out, they go integrate in a different community where the callout hasn’t reached yet. And you’ve protected yourself at the expense of others.

Estelle: And that happens in the Bay Area! I know two not-insignificant instances of someone who had a process or was called into a tribunal and just peaced out and relocated here. And it took a couple years for people to get up to speed here, and who knows where they are now.

But yeah. I think, assuming you haven’t already developed those networks, the first goal is understanding the network. Understanding who is connected to the survivor, understanding who has the closest relationship to the person who has done the harm gives you an idea of what first steps might be.

Bee: Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

Estelle: In the instance of a callout. What does the interaction look like? We have restorative justice that’s focused on the survivor. It’s just focused on the healing. It may include the person who has done harm making amends or supporting that process. Or it may not even include them at all. You can have a successful restorative justice intervention that has nothing to do with the person who did harm. Whereas transformative justice is that plus what do you do about the person who did harm.

Bee: Right.

Estelle: So obviously with the survivor it’s like: understanding what their needs are, understanding who they trust, understanding the capacity of the person they trust, figuring out who has capacity to support them in this process for however long it needs to go. But with the person who did harm it’s like, how do you get them in the room with you? And I think the answer to that is you need to know who they trust. Or if you can’t do that, you’re talking about potential violence basically. Not always.

Bee: This is a broad spectrum of things we’re discussing.

Estelle: Exactly. Do you show up at their work? Do you put public notices if they’re unresponsive? I think all of those are messier, more... I don’t want to say reckless. Because in some instances that’s the righteous choice.

But the likelihood that the person’s going to, of their own volition, want to conquer their own harm, or whatever in them generated that harm in the first place. If you have a friend who’s like “hey, I know what happened, I’m really disappointed, I want to see you do better. What would that look like for you? What do you need in order to do something about this?” That’s just your ideal scenario regardless. Because it’s always uncomfortable talking to someone who has done harm. But if that person just feels like, “the end of this is me being disposed of,” it’s just a bad leverage tool.

Bee: Because of my own situation I’m thinking about non-peer interactions. Where one person has significant privilege or structural power over another. [...] I’m curious if you think the same general rules apply? Should you be conscious of the abusers fears in that situation and think about them in the same way you might think about someone whose more obviously disposable in that community? Does it require a completely different approach at that point? You don’t have to have an answer for this, I’m just curious about your thoughts.

Estelle: It’s tough. I mean, it doesn’t sit well with me.

Around the time I joined (or started) my mentorship (or whatever) a friend had already called me in and asked me to help with a process that involved a stranger who had done harm, where there weren’t any community links to the person. And it was difficult. We were doing intel about how to contact the person. I don’t want to get too much into it, but getting him in the room was unsuccessful.

I was pretty cautious in that scenario. I was opting into, “no, we need to lie to get him in the room so we can confront him.” And another person was more impatient, was like, is that transformative justice if we’re being dishonest? It’s like, no. It’s leverage. This person used power to harm someone. We need to use our power to get them in the room.

So the intervention was unsuccessful, but the restorative side of it ended up being successful. And that ended up looking like meeting every month or two, or twice a month, to just have dinner with the survivor and talk to them about what’s going on. Checking in, [seeing] how their therapy’s going.

But I mention that to say, immediately I asked my mentor “what would you do in a scenario like this?” And she was just like, “None of my tools work in non-peer based situations.” And she was like, “well I have someone who was in my cohort who did work like that.” And when I met her she was like “Oh I don’t really do that anymore.” It wasn’t sustainable work. That’s where the deep discomfort comes.

Because then you’re in a situation where you’re gaining intimate knowledge of how terrible someone is. Y’know, working from a place of powerlessness. Again, mutual aid comes up. What can you do when you’re trying to survive but also respond to and anticipate this person acting in bad faith or continuing to harm or gaslighting or trying to do a preemptive campaign to ostracize the survivor? It’s being willing to process things with the group that’s being impacted or the person that’s being impacted. And on the flip side being willing to take stock of your leverage options. And having stages of escalation.

Best case scenario, the person’s like “I’m terrible, I feel horrible about this, what can I do.” Worst case being like, “Fuck you, no one will believe you.” What do you do when they’re receptive to a process? and what do you do when they’re outright hostile towards it? And you just can’t answer that question without being in conversation with the people who are affected. And the answers are going to look different depending on the context and the people involved.

I wish a more clear-cut answer came easily to me. But I don’t believe that’s well-trod ground. I think that’s where callout and disposability culture comes back. If we can’t do the successful abolitionist intervention, we can cancel them.

Bee: This is where we have leverage, basically.

Estelle: Exactly. In that sense it’s like, it is what it is. That’s the consequence for a person who has done harm, it's disposability. And at the end of the day that’s the consequence of their actions. Whether or not we want disposability to be there.

Bee: Right. Because it just comes back to the larger question of capitalism, right? We live in a society in which disposability is central to keeping wages down and shit like that. So we can’t just say, like, “Well, I don’t want to see people as disposable, so therefore they aren’t,” because they are.

Estelle: And that’s kind of the slippery slope I’m seeing. Because in those instances it’s pressure on the survivor to forgive the person who harmed them. To maintain their purity from disposability. And that just seems fucked to me. It’s like no, it’s not the survivor’s responsibility to forgive. Not forgiving the person who harmed you is not the same as incarcerating them! But that’s the rhetorical rabbit hole that people are falling into. Because it’s way easier. It’s a simple solution. And it’s even more confusing when it’s people who are major proponents of transformative justice kind of waltzing, lock-step, into the rabbit hole.
At this point we had been recording for forty minutes and I was feeling a bit raw, so we took a quick break. I sat outside and stared at the city for a few minutes, and at the port, and at the charred carcass of a car. I came back in and got some water. We checked in – was I feeling okay? (I got there.) Did she have another commitment soon? – We set up for another half hour or so of recording before her out. Would you be surprised if I said we went over that 30 minutes? Because we sure did.

I reopened the conversation with a long quotation from her post Erasing Patriarchy from the Future. The segment I pulled talks about the different ways trans men and trans women deal with transphobia in community spaces. I think it’s one of the only genuinely good takes on the different experiences trans men and trans women have of transphobia that I’ve seen; I’ve seen too many that treat one experience as less valuable than the other.

That was obviously all prelude to this question:
Bee: I'd be curious to know a little more about your process in terms of writing. When you're thinking through these questions do you try to keep your eye on the ball (staying laser-focused on the topic at hand), take the lay of the land, or some third thing entirely? How do you manage that?

Estelle: It’s interesting. I appreciate how the project (especially having patrons who support the project) has really challenged me to refine my process. That one in particular was kind of dialed in a little bit, just because there was – I thought I would have more wiggle room to make the one about Why Men Must Perform Care Work. I thought people would okay sitting with it in isolation – but because of the discourses you mention I realized it was more urgent to respond and flesh out some of the stuff I couldn’t fit into ten slides. Which really, now that I have a Patreon tag and title card, it’s eight slides.

For that one, I remember I took bullet points on people’s comments and the conversations that came up around it. I start with bullet points. My first step is still to go for breadth. What is thematically linked? That flushes out the main takeaways. Once I feel the bullet points are substantial enough I basically make a thesis. I’ll start building the connections, like slightly longer bullet points. Once I have those I’ll start writing above it, and as I mention points I’ll cross off the bullet points. So I have a reference of what I’ve already explored, and from there I just feel out the transitions.

It’s odd, now I can look at Google Docs and be like, that paragraph fits in a slide. And it’s a really good pacing queue, in trying to limit my meandering. That has a stronger effect. I try to make it so that each slide has some reward for the reader, as opposed to like, “Oh, where’s this going.” So it’s kind of both. I try and limit myself to certain breadth of the theme, but I also try and distill some depth from each of those bullet points.
At this point I cut in to ask about another pair of posts: How White Supremacy Made Your Solidarity Anti-Black, and the earlier 4 Steps Toward Ending Anti-Blackness.
Estelle: Yeah. Another comrade, one of the people who pushed me to become an anarchist, who is also a scholar in their own right of Afro-pessimist thought and texts, they exposed how the first post (about 4 steps) was kind of a sleight of hand.

I was using some of the framework of Afro-pessimist thinkers but trying to apply them to tangible actions that I don’t think any of the authors of those major texts would necessarily spend any time talking about or writing about.

And so that friend was like, “hey, I see the use of these things, and can we acknowledge a lot of the purpose about talking about anti-blackness and misogynoir is recognizing that white and non-black people of color are participating in anti-blackness?”

And they went even further, which is true, the whole notion that even the category of human isn’t for black people. When someone talks about equity or recognizing our humanity is a fatalistic relationship to a world that constructs black people as socially dead.

Bee: Right.

Estelle: And in our back and forth conversation, I said, hey, some of this shit makes me feel despair. And I see other prominent Afro-pessimists who are super in your face about the rhetorical arguments of Afro-pessimist thought. Not to pathologize, but I also see some of them being like, “I’m literally suicidal. I literally can’t find love.” They’re speaking from the harm that they’ve experienced also. And it’s more about affirming that and bringing people’s attention to that than it is about making a foundation for people to make some headway on the social effects that make black folks feel that way.

Having some distance from it, and hearing back from my friend who went to Indonesia and was talking about bonding with black folks out there, and just remembering that anti-blackness is global, it just felt right for me to dive into that and tackle the sleight of hand that I performed last time.
One last time, I’m going to point you to the full transcript here. At this point we talked about Estelle’s post The Scale of Our Struggles (which is probably my favorite post she’s done), Rasheedah Phillips’ Black Quantum Futurism project, antifa militias and queer self-defense. We moved on to global vs local revolution and the question of prefigurative politics and organizing as science fiction. Seriously, check it out.

Right around when we needed to wrap, I realized we hadn’t talked about half of the Abolish Time project. The Mutual Aid Series is augmented by the Mapping Time series. It’s been a somewhat tough concept for me to wrap my head around, so I asked:
Bee: What is mapping time, can you give some examples of it, maybe, or some structures for other people to do it?

Estelle: Yeah. It’s pretty simple? Part of the simplicity is that there’s not a single method to do it. Again, it’s based almost exclusively on Rasheedah Phillips’ Black Quantum Futurism: Theory and Practice. I made a primer about that thesis, about different ways of reading the future.

Breaking it down, mapping time is trying to share a stream of consciousness with someone, where it’s done with someone else. For your own self, you’re mapping out points in time where your agency is significant. The only times I’ve done it in group have been in a workshop in a transformative justice context.

Individually I’ve done it when I've been the go-to person for an interpersonal conflict. I used mapping time to grasp the past context and plot out where things might go, what likely variables might be or diverging points. Organizing what incremental progress, what iterative cycles might need to be contended with first.

I’ve also done it privately for myself when I was being abused and needed to figure out how I was going to survive in the workplace while this conflict was dragging on. Trying to embrace the worst case scenario, and from there trying to see what’s likely, what should I be pushing for, what should I be mindful of.

It’s almost like a self-soothing strategy in that instance. You don’t want to do it because you’re afraid of the worst case scenario, but once you get the worst case scenario on paper it feels more distant and foreign, and you see like, “Oh, this timeline is more likely. This seems doable. I should push for this.”

Bee: When you do it do you draw it out like a literal timeline? Or is it like bullet points?

Estelle: I’ve done a few. I’ve seen in graphic design, there’s a treeing process where there’s like, an arm and then a fan of possible choices, and then one of them is chosen and it grows into another fan point. To throw back to videogames, in Detroit: Become Human – which is just straight up anti-black. I saw the trailer and I was like, why would they do this? In Detroit of all places? The writing is simplified Martin Luther King.

Quick aside: I think most, if not all, robot stories are anti-black.

Bee: I think I can follow you there.

Estelle: In any case, what they do, since it’s very choice-based and there are arcing timelines: every time you finish a chapter you can see what the possibilities were (and that encourages replay value). The maps I’ve made – prior to that game coming out – do honestly look a little bit like that. You’re thinking through what’s the most likely. And you’re charting: of the things that were likely, of the things that are likely, of the things that will be likely; it’s like a map of where you’re at along that timeline. It’s like a temporal compass in a way.

Bee: And you said that each point is a point where you have or had agency? Can you expand on that just a tiny bit?

Estelle: Yeah. So one of the maps I made was for the process I was supporting. I marked the date when the conflict happened. I marked how that was the product of the two people living together suddenly, without expecting to share living space. And marking, okay, things de-escalated when they were able to stay with someone else. And then a room opened up here. And that was another node.

So there was a node when someone was able to give them a place to move for a short period of time, and there was another node when I could help them have housing. In that sliver of the timeline, there was change because agency was exerted.

Bee: Right, okay.

Estelle: You plot out the time so that a line becomes, once that change is implemented, there’s going to be some degree of coasting where the effects of that point are seen. But it won’t necessarily be the catalyst for complete restoration until that person, in recognizing that they won’t have to worry about living with the person who harmed them, if they express agency from that point of stability, that’s another node.

Bee: Right.

Estelle: So then it’s like: are they more stable, do they have more resentment, where do they go from there now that that material part of their life is addressed.
At this point we did the plugs: follow the Instagram, back the Patreon. Estelle mentioned that the zines are coming off the heels of the last goal met, where she will be writing “anecdotal vignettes about my experiences on the left.” A novel in the works, and an invitation to “a collection of Afrofuturist political writing that is supposedly coming out in Spring of next year.”

We turned off the recording. I was prepared to look out that window one last time in an act of literary closure. Then I mentioned that I had never got around to asking about reproductive labor.

At Estelle’s insistence, we fired the recording back up and talked for another twenty minutes. Consider it a post-credits sequence after the final shot of the sunset behind Salesforce tower, landlords slowly encircling.
Bee: So I’ve asked you for a couple of definitions about answerability and stuff like that so far. I wanted to ask one more that’s maybe a little self-indulgent. Maybe it’s a little more hopeful also? I don’t know. You have been talking about reproductive labor since the second part of your Mutual Aid series, [...] so for most of the last three months. I have been writing about reproductive labor in various capacities for a very long time.

Estelle: I liked your Patreon post about it.

Bee: The cooking one?

Estelle: Yeah.

Bee: Thank you. That was somewhat inspired by you.

Estelle: Aww.

Bee: Can you talk about what reproductive labor means to you, and how you conceptualize its transformation over the course of the struggle we have going forward? [...]

Estelle: Yeah. My first introduction to it was through Marxist Feminism. The way it was explained to me then was like, bosses and capitalists don’t want to pay for our care. They don’t want their profit to be spent on that. Their profit in that way is not possible unless there is someone doing free labor. Extensive labor. Probably the most labor there is. We all eat everyday, we all hopefully have a home that we live in every day.

Bee: That needs to be cleaned and upkept, and, yeah.

Estelle: Exactly. And then when there’s childcare involved it’s tenfold. You’re literally caring for a new life 24/7. That’s, arguably, a larger industry than Amazon even though that’s historically the biggest company we’ve ever seen. But there’s no pay for it outside of domestic nurse work.

Bee: There’s no pay for it except where it can be profitable for a capitalist somewhere.

Estelle: Exactly. And that’s not to, obviously mad respect for people who do reproductive labor for a living individually. But yeah, it’s not the state. It’s not even built into our wage really. It’s just the bare minimum. It’s similar, just like how you can’t have a conception of time that’s universal, you can’t have the social status of whiteness without anti-blackness, the same way you can’t have male privilege without reproductive labor being forced onto women, largely, for free.

I really like Silvia Federici’s recent work returning to the witch trials and the commons, and how that struggle was largely about transforming society to give men privilege over women and their bodily autonomy. That’s kind of the precursor to the figure of men as the “breadwinner.” Siloing women with this work and making them dependent on the income of men.

And I think cis identity only exists to enforce that division of labor. So with men and reproductive labor, that’s the critical struggle. It’s a struggle we see every single day. When you see the couple with the kid out, who is attending to the child?

I work a retail job at a bookstore. And I can tell when it’s dad’s turn to be in charge of the kid. Just by walking in, him being unresponsive, being frustrated, the kid acting out. He doesn’t have the interpersonal skills to even care for his child in a lot of instances. And this isn’t universal. Sometimes I see a “good dad” and it’s refreshing.

So with patriarchy, it’s based on the entitlement to that division of labor. I don’t need to care for you because you have girl friends. I pay for things here so I don’t need to participate in the housework/reproductive labor. So in a way it’s a miniature class war between individuals.

And on the flipside of that, with internalized misogyny, you have women who pride themselves on that work and wouldn’t have it any other way, or it doesn’t make sense to confront the men in their lives for being comfortable with that inequity.

The main goal is interrogating that and pushing back. Y’know, self-defense against men who are abusers but also social pressure against men who haven’t been challenged on this. Who do want loving relationships, do want community, but just don’t have these skills. And figuring out how you bring them into that world of compulsory skills without it being anyone’s responsibility but individual men, is the challenge. Like, how do you instill genuine self-motivation to dismantle yourself, really?

As a non-binary person, I'm like, destroy all gender. But it doesn’t seem reasonable to want everyone to unmake themselves. So I’m open to the possibility where we have cisgender people who will completely transform what that even means, where their identity isn’t based on the subjugation of another.

Bee: Yeah. I think everything you said there is absolutely correct, 100% in agreement with all of that. But I end up focusing a lot more on the reproduction of the self as well as the body, maybe?

I think of a lot of media in terms of reproductive labor. You have to go home, you have to eat, you have to sleep in order to go back to work. But you also need to decompress with alcohol or weed or videogames or TV or whatever. And how much that is reproducing yourself for work, and how that is itself a weird, specific thing where it’s all part of a market in the way that a lot of reproductive labor... Well. I guess that all reproductive labor is engaged in markets. You have to go buy the meat that you’re going to cook your husband or whatever. You have to buy sheets and cleaning products and etc. etc.

But there’s a more direct relation, where you buy the new Wolfenstein game so that you can sit there and play it for 30 hours and find out it’s actually quite good, and I enjoyed it very much! But that allows you to do things like think about the kinds of questions you want to ask someone for your Patreon. Or, y’know. I’m a bad example of this right now because I’ve been out of work for entirely too long.

Estelle: Wage work.

Bee: Yes. Yeah. Yes. Very true. I’ve been reproducing myself and others during that whole time. [...] The reason I ask the question of transforming reproductive labor over the struggle rather than abolishing it is because there’s no abolition of reproduction. I mean. There is. It’s death. And extinction. That’s it.

Y’know, I’m a nihilist. I have ideation problems sometimes. But I don’t really want to build my theoretical understanding of the world around like, what if everyone just died? That’s boring. I’m curious about, in terms of maybe keeping cis people but fundamentally rearranging how that identity is based around exclusion, is really interesting to me.

Because I’m also interested in thinking about – maybe this is the point I’m trying to make. I’m really fascinated by the idea of art under communism, or what does art look like? What do we do to mentally and selfishly reproduce ourselves under a system other than capitalism? And like, I don’t know? But I want to. And it’s hard to think through. And I think your talking through the gender stuff and the race stuff is actually really helpful in thinking that through also.

Estelle: Thanks. It’s somewhat related to the Scale of Our Struggles post about iterative cycles. On a certain level we’re giving ourselves to the unknown by setting out to change the world. Because we’re stuck reproducing ourselves without pay or compensation, we have intimate knowledge of what we want and need. And I don’t think we’ll opt into abstaining from the more joyful parts of reproduction.

I do think the more men who do reproductive labor, the less gendered reproductive labor will be. And that opens up a whole lot of new possibilities. It either will mean you can’t know who's more likely to cook, or it might mean everyone knows how to cook. And what does our collective capacity look like when that’s the case?

I think that, you talking about art and how things transform, I think that’s something our future selves are going to have to decide! Ideally, if we’re making progress, we’ll be able to decide because we’ll have consensus around what is entrapping us right now. It will be more comfortable not to know, because we will know what the points of struggle are. In the meantime, we’ll always have something to measure our actions against. And whoever, whenever those things are buried, I think there will be a spontaneous recognition of what’s possible.

That’s kind of a non-answer. But I don’t think there’s a way to know otherwise.

Bee: I think it’s as close to an answer as we can reasonably get under the current conditions that we live under. We have to do the work! And doing the work will destroy some things and open up others. And maybe one of those things that gets destroyed is time.

Estelle: True. True.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Hieron and its Consequences

This essay was made possible by my Patreon supporters. Join and get access to early criticism, a cooking blog, or even commission me!

I should also note that there are things that might be considered spoilers for
Twilight Mirage and aspects of Hieron and Marielda. I’m a bad judge of what people think of as spoilers, though. It’s mostly in broad terms. Skip the sections that begin "Much later in the show we'll find out," "One example of consequences," and "An example: there is a moment in" (and the 3 following paragraphs) if you don't want later-season specifics; in general if you're very sensitive to that kind of thing, maybe come back to this.

Ignorance and Consequences

In episode 12 of Autumn in Hieron, the first season of Friends at the Table, a player does something I’m still in love with. In the decade and a half I’ve been playing tabletop roleplaying games it stands out as my favorite moment of tabletop roleplay of all time.

There are plenty of contenders. It’s hard not to give that to the time a Bard in the game I was running performed a song (in real life) for a potlatch festival for her character’s Sweet 16. Or when a player incapacitated another and then died falling off a building (three times) while trying to break back into the room to add their ear to a necklace. It’s hard to place it above inventing a gym bro to date a football bro in the middle of the tragic horror apocalypse game Ten Candles, or another Ten Candles game where Cathy (like, Ack! Cathy) rolled a half-dozen successes (and kept narrative control) on the last roll, or any moment when a player I’m GMing for lights up for the first time, suddenly understanding the appeal of what we’re doing.

There are even moments in other Actual Play podcasts, like Adventure.exe or The Adventure Zone or The Film Reroll or Interstitial, when character and world meet to bring about a decision that is inspired, surprising, and inevitable.

None of those, though, had the same impact on me as the decision to feed a Word Eater "ignorance."

*****


Friends at the Table is an Actual Play podcast about critical worldbuilding, smart characterization, and fun interactions between good friends (at least that's what they say at the top of most episodes). It started in September of 2014, with episode 12 happening in December of that year.

At this point they've run three seasons (plus one mini-season) of Hieron, a post-post-apocalyptic, post-Fantasy world where orcs are archivists obsessed with patterns, the world is a palimpsest of the gods' failed experiments, and the cancerous nothing known as the Heat and the Dark looms.

Between those seasons they've also explored a science fiction universe inspired by cyberpunk, mecha anime, and labor called the Divine Universe. They create all of this fiction by playing tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeon World, Blades in the Dark, Follow, and a number of other systems where they "play to find out what happens" live in front of microphones, then edit and release it on a weekly basis.

I started listening sometime late in 2014 and have continued to since. Just as they are approaching their fifth anniversary, they are also wrapping up the world of Hieron. For both sentimental and topical reasons, then, I'm focusing on the Hieron seasons of the show for this essay. To that end, I've relistened to all of those seasons in the last month or so. It's all still incredibly compelling.

*****


So: Word Eaters turn out to be what made goblins into what they are. You know goblins, probably. Little green humanoids, barely capable of language, fodder for adventurers, obsessed with trinkets. Loose anti-Semitic stereotypes, in the case of most Fantasy fiction. In Hieron, they howl in the distance. They also invite the players into a cozy home and let them read books, drink tea, and rest. They are people, some more dispossessed than others.

While resting with one of the friendlier goblins, the adventurers find out about Kindrali (also known as "He Who Remembers the Day," which becomes relevant two years later). They seek out Kindrali. They find him. He is a little off. Quick to resort to sarcasm and smirks. They find him again. Kindrali is a decayed corpse, who happens to be in the same room as the false Kindrali they are talking to. They put two and two together.

In a typical session of a tabletop roleplaying game, this is a very well put together fight. The GM has established an NPC that can give some color to the world while remaining unreliable. The players find him on good information, and then have something to go on after. A battle is had and won despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

Instead of that action, a single word is said.

*****


My latest relisten helped me realize that there are two things that Friends at the Table does particularly well, especially when it comes to Seasons of Hieron. One of those I won't get into until after I finish the story of the Word Eater. The other, which I'll develop alongside that story, is what I think the GM and the players do best. They build critical worlds with aplomb, characterize themselves impeccably, and have genuinely funny social banter. One of the other things they focus on, though, is dramatic irony.

Regularly, the players will know things their characters don't. They play through this. The characters make choices that are against their own best interests, because the characters don't know any better (even though the players do).

Based on what they've produced, this seems to be an internal guideline - play into dramatic irony. But I appreciate it mostly as one aspect of a broader commitment. The stories they tell are deeply committed to consequences.

*****


Much later in the show we'll find out that Word Eaters are something like incipient gods. Or, at least, that the gods were made in the same fashion. "Nothing flinched" and then there was Samol, or Hieron, the world and its avatar, one and the same. Samol’s desire to see the world full of life birthed Severea, and his desire to provide for people birthed Samothes.

The pantheon of five are rounded out by Galenica, who was birthed of the desires of people, and Samot, husband to Samothes, who stole Severea’s name when he was a Word Eater (emissaries or avatars of that same Nothing that flinched) and then apologized. Samothes and Samot then had a son, Maelgwyn, who became Samothes by murdering his father in attempt to birth a new god out of the experience of regret.

Whether Word Eater, desire, or absence of nothing, each of these gods are the speech act made material. Instead of simply doing by saying – as in an officiator declaring "I now pronounce you man and wife" effecting matrimony on two individuals – they are by saying. At the beginning of Spring in Hieron, the final season in this world, one of the players spends a few (in game) years hanging out with Samol. They develop an inside joke about how boring it was to be the first thing in the world. The refrain of that joke is simple: "There was no one to talk to."

Samol never says, to the best of my recollection, that he spoke Severea and Samothes into existence. But this is a podcast, where nothing happens unless it is said aloud. And it’s a tabletop roleplaying game, where the Lumpley Principle rules: "nothing happens, in the fiction of role-playing, unless someone says it and it's heard by others," to quote the gloss from The Big Model wiki. Hieron can’t be anything other than a speech act, because it’s a recorded conversation. And Samol is Hieron, and Samol made gods of his desires and of a Word Eater.

Whether a Word Eater or a God birthed of another’s desire, speech acts (“speech ontos” seems a little pretentious even for me) are fickle. They eat "regret" and become tyrants, obsessed only with reshaping a world-eating cancer into a productive force. They focus on the concept of a storm and blanket the world in ice. They steal the names of cities, causing civil war.

This Kindrali that the adventurers encounter is in some ways the most fickle of all. He stole the city’s name and was unsatisfied, consuming more and more words. Which is another reason it is poetic that he ends up being dispatched by just one word.

*****


I wrote a very long version of the following argument about a half-decade ago. I present it in a truncated form here for two reasons. The first is that I want to make it clear what my convictions are when it comes to these sorts of games. The second comes at the end of this minor section.

Tabletop roleplaying games are at their best when there is a dialectical tension between the GM and the players. The GM rules the world. She sets up situations, guides the players through them, plays the people they encounter, and enforces the rules. The players take control of one person within the world, embodying them to the best of their abilities. When they press hard enough, the world breaks.

When they push even harder, though, there is a synthesis. The players take over the vestigial roles of the GM. This is a relic of the history of these games that I don't need to get into. But they become, rather than co-authors in the creation of a story, its cooperative owners. The person who runs the game - usually the one with access to the books (the capital, so to speak) - is dispossessed of their control, becoming nothing more than someone who can adapt to the new norm, get reeducated according to it, or wither away. The stakes are a little lower than real life, so the players probably don’t have to literally take The Coup’s advice.

These games start in social interactions: friends come together to hang out and have an activity to participate in while doing so. They become commodified by way of rulebooks, social capital, and the simple fact of organizing time outside of wage labor. When they really work, though, the commodity is overthrown. People go from loose hangouts to structured, commodified hangouts, to hangouts they are truly equal in. And they hopefully learn to better relate to each other because of the game played.

That second thing? It’s the thing that Friends at the Table does so well – focusing on, embracing, and exploring consequences. That’s the way to play games into their own little revolutions.

*****


Here's the story: after visiting the friendly goblin Mee Kosh, The Great Fantasmo (the Wizard, played by Nick Scratch), Throndir (the Ranger, played by Andrew Lee Swan), and Hadrian (the Paladin, played by Art Martinez-Tebbel) scout out some caves to find Kindrali. They do. He talks to them. They discover the corpse of Kindrali in the same room. The impostor Kindrali, a Word Eater, prepares to devour them. The Great Fantasmo leans into this false Kindrali and summons up his memories. He says one word.

In play and as a podcast, this involves Nick Scratch describing things his character is feeling, remembering, and projecting. Things like being a young academic, full of fear at his new surroundings and the impostor syndrome that develops from it. Worry at how people think of him. Misery at the prospect of failure. Horror at how he used to feel all these things.

In this same moment, Nick Scratch is actively characterizing The Great Fantasmo. The Wizard is cocky and self-assured to the point of absurdity, a miserable traveling partner. He is bookish in the most infuriating way possible, obsessed with learning what is right without doing anything. He is a small-minded man operating with all the tools to pretend he is as open-minded as they come. He is insufferable, and his player knows this. So his player calls upon all his small-mindedness, his pettiness, his jealousy, his insecurity, and banishes a potential god from existence.

*****


An example of consequences being a driving principle of play in Friends at the Table is the situation being described. The GM set up an encounter. It’s a big fight that caps off a portion of the adventure. The GM almost certainly spent time drawing up a sheet full of hit points, moves, character motivations, and an imagined scenario in which the players eke out victory. This disappears once it becomes clear what The Great Fantasmo is doing.

The play is too compelling, the fiction too interesting, to revert to what was prepared. It is to Austin’s credit that he recognizes this; many GMs would not. The consequences are entirely too cool to dissolve back into a discussion of how much damage one person does, regardless of the lost hours spent preparing those hit points.

Other examples abound throughout the show. In the first season of the Divine Universe, COUNTER/Weight, a player gets a girlfriend by failing a bunch of rolls in a row, only to succeed at the one that matters. It’s important because she flirts through it. Autumn in Hieron also has a moment where a character dies in combat and can only come back to life if she promises to kill Death’s son, one of her only friends. She does. Three times – he is, after all, Death’s son.

There is also the way that Austin sometimes handles failed rolls, like the one Keith (who plays Fero, the Druid, and the character who hangs out with Samol during Spring) managed in Winter in Hieron when trying to convince Uklan Tel, an orc who might be the most accomplished academic in Hieron, to make a difference. The failure leads to Uklan Tel agreeing and throwing himself into field research. Two (real life) years down the line, that field research (in Spring, which is set over ten years later) ends up with him semi-inadvertently providing materials to help an apocalyptic cult give body to an undead god-dragon in order to hasten the end of the world.

Twilight Mirage, the second season in the Divine Universe, has as many examples as the rest (though I’m boiling each down to one apiece). One that might not seem like a consequence is the last fifteen (or so) minutes of the final episode of the season. The player characters check in with Gig Kephart (also played by Keith), a livestreamer in the post-Utopian titular universe. They answer a handful of canned interview questions in ways that are wholesome, humorous, and tear-inducing.

It’s not like the consequence of mechanical failure that lead to Uklan Tel, or the strength of roleplaying(/flirting) in mechanical failure that lead to a girlfriend, or the consequence of figuring out character alignment that lead to the death of Death’s Son. It’s more about how roleplaying can lead to a compelling world with fascinating people in it and how, left alone to do their thing, they can become consequential.

*****


The moment The Great Fantasmo banishes the Word Eater comes out of two specific moves in Dungeon World. The first is Art Tebbel's. He asks "what here is Evil?" He has a quest, established in a much earlier episode; he cannot suffer an evil thing to live. The GM confirms that this Word Eater is evil. Because of that, he can't leave. His fellow adventurers must make a choice: split the party and leave, or support him. This move is used effectively throughout much of the rest of the Hieron seasons, especially in developing a complicated and beautiful relationship with another player's character.

The second is a Spout Lore roll by Nick Scratch, where he attempts to learn about the Word Eater. Scratch rolls a "mixed success," which means he learns something "interesting but not useful." The interesting fact is that the Word Eater is very old, the eater of the word that lead to the goblins becoming what they are. Before they became "goblins" they were citizens, co-creators of the city that Throndir is from. They were people, not monsters. And this Word Eater was one who ate that knowledge and continued to eat more and more.

Nick Scratch, the player of The Great Fantasmo, takes this "interesting but not useful" knowledge and runs with it. This specific Word Eater isn't content to consume regret and live forever instrumentalizing cancer. It wants more. So he gives it a new word, wrapped up in the context of himself, the character. In so doing, he establishes The Great Fantasmo. He turns subtext into text; the insufferable academic turns into a rounded-out human being (elf), with all the pettiness that involves. And he wins a fight in a tabletop roleplaying game without having to indulge in hours of rolling to hit, rolling damage, rolling to avoid damage, rolling to figure out how to do damage, and on and on.

*****


If you’ve never played in or run a tabletop roleplaying game, the importance of establishing consequences might sound like a truism. Even if you have, it probably does. What I appreciate about Friends at the Table – among many other things – is how it clarifies that it isn’t something that just happens automatically. Like gender, it’s a choice you regularly make and perform.

Consequences are hard. They can be about rewarding good play, thinking beyond what the players are doing, punishing failure in interesting ways, or making the stakes of the world clear. All of these things help shape an interesting fiction. They can also be about how we relate to each other.

Because the most regular consequence, when playing roleplaying games, is alienating your friends. Things go great until they don’t, and then the group dissolves.

It might be in a moment that upsets or triggers another player and doesn’t get worked through, and so ends up contributing to a toxic environment. Or it might be the consequence of failing to properly organize the game in the first place, leading to its slow and (seemingly) inevitable dissolution. Which leads to lost friendships, which leads to lost opportunities to think through things or to collaborate on projects. Or, at a basic level, to enjoy the company of others.

Turning the reality of consequences into themes, as Friends at the Table does, is a helpful way of imagining (or remembering) what consequences actually are. They’re failed rolls, in the sense of fucking up a social situation. They’re roleplaying too well, in the sense of being who you are at that particular moment too insistently, for good or ill. They’re moments of social beauty, when you’ve set up social situations to include people who make you want to cry because they are so good at making and doing things in this terrible world.

Fictionalizing the broad reality of consequences won’t suddenly make a listener understand something that they refuse to. Especially if they have material reasons not to, which are too easy to imagine under white supremacist patriarchal capitalism. But sometimes fiction pushes you in new directions, whether you want it to or not.

*****


The resolution to The Great Fantasmo whispering "ignorance" into the Word Eater's ear is both immediate and long-term. Immediately, the players and the GM have a moment of shock and appreciation. Long-term, Kindrali becomes a character in the mini-season of Marielda, the Word Eaters are recast as potential gods, and the whole religious structure is changed.

Around the same time as this is happening, the other group of players is on a boat. One jokes about undead pirates. A whole ontology is birthed out of that joke. Play is respected, whether it is in character (like Fantasmo's) or out of character (like the joke about zombie pirates). The whole point of an Actual Play podcast is that it isn't a story. It's a storytelling exercise that gets modified by randomization.

Which brings us to the end of this story and this analysis. Which means it’s time to talk about the other thing Friends at the Table does especially well.

**********


Fiction, Produced by Deconstruction


Here are two questions: why should you listen to people playing tabletop roleplaying games, week by week? What is it about this method of telling stories that works?

For the first, I can’t exactly say that I do. I tend to take long breaks and then catch up. Following an Actual Play podcast week to week ends up being a chore for me, as I try to remember things over the play. I end up listening in big chunks – whole seasons or arcs, ideally – sporadically. I’m also not spoiler-averse and don’t have a tendency (or material requirement) to keep up with the conversation, which helps. (Thus this behemoth of an essay, primarily about something that happened on Friends at the Table five years ago.) The release schedule has more to do with the "podcast" element than it does the "actual play," given that podcasts are business as well as art.

To the question of why do it at all, there’s a fairly obvious answer. It’s fiction. Friends at the Table is very good fiction. Themes of labor and organization co-exist with a deep sadness and frustration with the world, are shot through with joy in victory and play, and shine through in a genuinely felt world full to brimming with people. Most of whom have very good names. Perhaps you enjoy fiction? This is one way to do so.

But then, despite a number of attempts, I’ve never been able to stick with fiction podcasts. I’ve listened to a hundred or so episodes of Welcome to Night Vale (it was a weird week), a dozen or two of Strange Horizons, a handful of episodes from various Escape Artists properties, and even some of The Writer's Voice from The New Yorker. Each had their merits (some more than others), but they ultimately ended up reminding me that my brain simply doesn’t work in that way. In a very specific environment I can enjoy audiobooks. There’s something about listening to someone clearly read something off a page that immediately blanks my mind.

It even happens in Actual Play podcasts, if I’m being honest. Friends at the Table will occasionally have intro speeches – generally by Austin, playing one of the NPCs – for instance. Or The Adventure Zone will have extended descriptive sequences that are pre-written. I have to struggle to pay attention when that happens, which is very unlike the rest of the listening experience for those podcasts.

Which leads us to the second question. What works, here? There are the specific answers we’ve already addressed: strong play that leads to compelling situations with interesting resonance; structural choices that emphasize the strengths of the genre. There are also the things we’ve touched lightly on, like critical worldbuilding that uses existing tropes in new ways that undermine their racist origins, enjoyable banter among friends, and more.

All of these are procedural. They’re points about the process of the fiction, rather than the content or its themes. This is important, because what Actual Play does – and what Friends at the Table does particularly well – is to collapse form into process. It is deconstructive, even deconstructionist. The creation is the act of creating.

So what works about this method of telling stories? It’s that they don’t just tell. They show. And not like the CIA-approved maxim. They show how the decisions are come to, what is left to chance or whim, what is painstakingly crafted ahead of time or after the fact. They tell a compelling story while showing how it is made compelling.

An example: there is a moment in Spring in Hieron when Hella Varal, Lem King, and Adaire Ducarte fight a bone dragon. It’s a bravura sequence. Adaire, the Thief (played by Janine Hawkins), comes with a plan to hogtie this animated dragon corpse. Lem, the Bard (played by Jack de Quidt), makes a beautiful mess of everything while still being helpful. Hella, the Dark Knight (fka the Fighter, played by Alicia Acampora), carries the combat. Until she dies. Almost.

Near the end of combat, there is another moment. The players have succeeded so many times, only to fail. They’re fighting a dragon. That failure has to mean something. Hella is given a choice: keep a ring and get killed, or let it go and live. The dragon has been fighting for this ring the whole sequence. It’s clearly important. Plus, Hella’s girlfriend is literally the god of Death. She’s come a long way since she killed the previous god of death’s son. And the rules say you roll when you get killed. You have, roughly, a 15% chance of being totally fine; a 40% chance of getting a bargain to stay alive; and a 40% chance that your character truly, irrevocably dies. There have been a handful of these rolls across the years, and no one has failed.

The act of listening to how that gets decided is very constructive. Alicia acts in seven different ways, despite only having two options – to roll or not to, to grab the ring or not to. She works through narrative framing (obviously the hero grabs the ring to spite the dragon), character framing (Hella has been carrying this ring on her person for over a decade without thinking about it), social framing (if the GM declares this ring important, the player should obviously protect it), fictional framing (Hella’s dating Death, getting stomped on can’t possibly be that bad!), more fictional framing (the cancerous nothing they know as the Heat and the Dark is almost certainly at play and far more powerful than the Queen of Death), and more. The rest of the people on the podcast talk her through these moments, offering their opinions, providing context where they can. It’s fraught.

As I recall, Austin Walker suggests the possibility of a break, Jack de Quidt reinforces it, and Austin ultimately enforces it. They break (for five minutes, according to the published audio; who knows what that means) and come back. Alicia makes the decision she makes, and it helps clarify who Hella is at this moment, what her priorities are, what the world will continue to look like, and what the endgame of this final season in Hieron is going to look like.

I feel like it is important to reiterate here: this is all part of the text. I’m not recounting what I think must have happened based on the fictional events that transpired. I’m recounting what I’ve listened to a couple of times now. This is the fiction.

The fiction is also the history of Samol, Samot, Samothese, Severea, and Galenica, and the adventures of The Great Fantasmo and Throndir and Hadrian and Hella and Adaire and Lem and Ephrim and Fero, and the lives of Red Jack and The Lardwulf and Uklan Tel and Lenny Lenova and the Sage of the Sands and Emmanuel and Walligan Upchurch and Hedy Braum and many more. It’s the reconfiguring of Marielda and the updating maps of the world as the apocalypses come and go, and it’s the story of the development of community in the Last University and Velas and Rosemerrow and The New Archives.

It’s a Fantasy world (post-Fantasy, post-post-apocalyptic), in other words. There are a profusion of proper nouns that gain resonance only once you’ve experienced the world in which they’re set. But unlike Tolkien or Martin or Brooks or Kingdom Hearts, the way this world is told isn’t as set in stone. Or more accurately, the way the world is told includes all the deliberation, the consequences, the ignorance of people figuring it out in real time.

There are things that are supposed to grab you in a narrative. The flow, the pacing, the excitement. Crafted things. Big fights. Consequential moments. And there are the things that tend to grab me: strange choices, awkward characterizations, moments of resistance. Actual Play podcasts at their best manage a synthesis of these two kinds of taste.

What happens at the end of that (alleged) five minute break is incidental. No matter how Alicia chooses, the fact of getting to hear the choice being proposed and then made is fascinating.

What’s important is how the discussion around that break, the break itself, and the consequences of it are all part of the recording. It’s all part of the text. Remember: playing into dramatic irony – things the players know that the characters don’t – is, as far as I (a fairly avid listener) can tell, a principle of the show. The actors are alienated from their characters. The listener is alienated, because of that, from the fiction. It’s all very Brechtian. Except that it ends up producing tear-jerking, laugh-inducing, cathartic moments, just like the best bourgeois fiction.

This is what it comes down to. Friends at the Table manages to straddle that line between being deeply critical of the stories we tell because they make us feel good under the particular, deeply immiserating, iteration of capitalism we currently live under, and telling those same stories very well. It does this by actively deconstructing the stories as it tells them. Other Actual Play podcasts engage in the same deconstruction, by the fact of their form, but don’t engage with consequence the same way.

So, to ask again: why should you listen to people playing tabletop roleplaying games, week by week? What is it about this method of telling stories that works?

For the first: you shouldn’t; as a recent Variety article makes clear, the podcasting business is currently being gentrified. A platform-capitalist takeover is happening, the same way it did the web a decade and change ago. Unless you’re committed to engaging with the fringes and opposing that gentrification.

And for the second: if you’re interested in good fiction, and you’re interested in one process by which it’s made at the same time, you have something to look forward to. If you have a familiarity with tabletop roleplaying games, even better. Hearing a story be actively deconstructed as it is produced continues to be a thrill. Even five years after I started listening.





PS: Lord Ephrim, the Baron (fka the Immolator, played by Andi Clare) is also an incredible character and I regret not having space for him in this. So I just want to shout out Andi: like everyone else on this podcast they are an inspiring roleplayer, and if there’s one episode of Friends at the Table to listen to it’s episode 9 of COUNTER/Weight, where they drive some incredible scenes.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Friendship Without A Self: Kingdom Hearts

This post was made possible thanks to my supporters on Patreon. If you'd like to see more like this, please consider becoming one!

A name defines an object. Describes the span of it. Gives it purpose. We embarked upon the Replica Program to ensure our new power stays ours. Now, our shadow puppet, "No. i," lives. It needs a name. Something to define it. To give the hollow vessel purpose. (Secret Report Day 7: Meaning, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days)
Xion (No. i) was essentially indistinguishable from a natural human, though she became unstable due to the influence of others. (Secret Report 7: On the Replica Program and Reanimation, Kingdom Hearts 3)

Kingdom Hearts is a series of roughly 10 videogames released over 17 years. For the most part, those games are action RPGs; games with a third-person perspective in which you largely control one person and interaction is either context-sensitive or combat, which happens in real time.

Each individual game in the series is relatively easy to break down: a young man embarks on a journey to fix something that has gone wrong. After trials and tribulations, he succeeds. The twist to this hero's journey is that this success is, inevitably, because of the help of his friends.

If Kingdom Hearts is about any one thing, it's about friendship. Which makes sense: it's a collaboration between the videogame publisher and developer Square Enix, and the media behemoth Disney. It's a series of games where original characters team up with Final Fantasy's Cloud and Yuffie and Squall/Leon to go on adventures with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Goofy and Pluto. They meet Sephiroth and Pinocchio and Hercules and Ariel and Aladdin. Disney films about True Love and fantasy videogames about Killing God met in the middle, and thematized the process by which this series came to be.

What these games are about and how they are about it are two different things entirely, though. Stories about friendship are a way to reflect on how we are social outside of strict reproduction. They can point to ways in which being with one another can be beautiful or harmful regardless of our intention. They can even identify moments or possibilities of solidarity that we might otherwise have remained totally unaware of. At my most sentimental (or revolutionary, depending on your perspective), I even think they can point us towards modes of engaging with - and disengaging from - intimacy in a world beyond capitalism.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. That "easy breakdown?" It's a lie. Not the part that's more or less The Odyssey or the Hero's Journey. The lie is the phrase "a young man." Because that implies a stable, consistent identity. And the stories these games tell have none of that.

Which is a bit rough, right? Because without that "young man," who is there to have friends?

Put more concisely: Kingdom Hearts is a series of games about friendship. It is also a series in which identity is never not compromised, multiple, fractured, incomplete, and overdetermined. Kingdom Hearts is about friendship without selfhood.

***

What follows is a short summary of all relevant information in each entry in the Kingdom Hearts series.

Near the end of Kingdom Hearts, Sora turns his Keyblade on himself. He does so to unlock his heart, because he has just learned that his best friend, Kairi, has hidden her heart away inside of his own for the bulk of the game. He wants to let her free. He does. In doing so, he becomes a Heartless. For a brief period, you control this Heartless, wandering through a massive castle. You find your friends; Kairi recognizes you even though you look like a random enemy. She hugs you, and you become yourself again.

At the beginning of Kingdom Hearts 2, you spend two hours doing chores as some boy named Roxas who you, the player, have never heard of before. He turns out to be the consequence of that earlier action; Sora's Nobody, his body-without-a-heart. He also turns out to be trapped in a simulation, living out a fantasy life programmed by Ansem so that Sora can return to himself whole.

Except that Nobodies are people's bodies, and Roxas looks nothing like Sora, not really. He actually looks like Ventus, a boy of Sora's age who we don't meet until Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (set ten years before the events of Kingdom Hearts). There we find out that when Ventus failed to stop Xehanort, his heart wandered into the void and found Sora's, who was like five or something. So Ventus has been in Sora for over a decade.

In Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, we learn that Roxas spent his time in Organization XIII prior to getting trapped in that simulation. There he became friends with Axel, another Nobody. Nobodies, lacking hearts, are not supposed to be capable of feeling, which is what hearts do. He also became friends with Organization XIII's 14th member, Xion, who turns out to be a clone of Sora (or, to be more specific, a replica implanted with Sora's memories of Kairi who is becoming her own person). She's been manufactured to siphon off Sora's memories so he can never be completed again, even if Roxas is somehow trapped in a simulation and funnelled back into Sora, for instance. Oh, and Xion's name (before anagramed and an X added, as Organization members must) is "No. i," which is about as on the nose as it gets.

Sora is trying to regain his memories because in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories he wandered into this place called Castle Oblivion. There, a witch named Naminé (and the structure itself) distorted his memories, causing him to forget Kairi and convince him that he was actually friends with Naminé his whole life. When they meet, Sora inveighs Naminé to wipe him of his memories so that an Organization XIII member won't hurt her. He cares more about a promise to her - one that he knows he didn't really make - than his own selfhood. She does and he stays true to his word. Except that it was never his word, because he is not himself. Because he is a always already others, and his memory is being actively modified by a place and a person, and because he even knows that this was never his word. And still he stays true to it, because it is his word.

In the end he is given another choice. He can remember what happened in this castle, and the time he had with Naminé. Or he can forget it and regain the memories he has last over this time. He chooses the latter, forsaking this person he stayed true to even though he knew that truth was a lie. he chooses to forget his experiences in Castle Oblivion in order to have his previous memories restored, necessitating the destruction of Roxas and Xion, who (re)become part of him.

In Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, Mickey, Donald and Goofy want to investigate what happened to Jiminy's journal. Jiminy Cricket chronicles your exploits throughout most of the games. They digitize it and find it full of bugs, so the three appeal directly to the data version of Sora from the very beginning of the journal to act as an internal antivirus. Data Sora is super down. He wanders through the journal fixing bugs. He thanks Naminé and saves Riku, who is actually the journal embodied. He learns about hurt, and how it can be important as a reminder of loss. He is not Sora, and so Sora remembers none of this; except that he does, because Sora isn't really, or just, Sora either.

Time travel isn't introduced until Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, where the player splits time equally between Riku and Sora as they embark on a quest to become Keyblade Masters, only to get suckered into another plot from Organization XIII. Not only is this the game where they learn about people's constituent parts (Nobodies, Heartless) being able to be reconfigured into their "whole," "original" self, they learn that time is a function of selfhood. See, you can only travel in time by abandoning your body and becoming a Heartless. And even then you can only travel to where you have already been. This is how time travel works: you can only go whenever you've already been, and you cannot be you.

And then it all comes to a head. Xehanort (he's been the actual baddie behind everything) produces thirteen versions of himself to populate The Real Organization XIII. That corresponds to the 13 pieces of darkness that the χ-blade broke into (alongside seven pieces of light). Sora is, of course, both. He is meant to be the 13th piece of darkness, but assembles the seven bearers of light to engage in a final battle. Kingdom Hearts 3 is the ending of a trilogy of ten games, and so it is meant to be a synthesis, where it all comes together. The loose ends are tied up, the victory of light over dark is assured. And it happens, kind of. Except what it really reveals is that no one is anyone, and that everyone is everyone, and that the saying they try to shoehorn in repeatedly - "may your heart be your guiding key" - is irrelevant. Friends are what it comes down to, on both sides.

***

If Sora is the protagonist of Kingdom Hearts and is never himself, then the antagonist - Xehanort - is a funhouse mirror. In Kingdom Hearts, the villain is Ansem. He's a Heartless (the embodied darkness of a heart shorn of its mind/body). In Kingdom Hearts 2, the villain is Xemnas - an anagram of Ansem with an X added, if you hadn't already got it memorized. He's not the guy who digitized Roxas; that's actual Ansem. See, Ansem (from Kingdom Hearts) and Xemnas are actually the Heartless and Nobody of Xehanort, a disciple of Ansem who stole his master's name. The Ansem who digitized Roxas is the original, and he's a good guy/friend of Mickey. Ansem is also an enormous dick, but that's not entirely relevant right now.

Xehanort's goal, revealed slowly over the course of the whole series, is to push the world into an apocalyptic conflict. He wants to lift the veil of the world, ending the current one and creating a new one where things can be better. He's a revolutionary who has no social bonds. And his friends are various hims. Which isn't necessarily solipsistic, given the fractured selfhood at this series' core.

The funhouse mirror is that Sora is only ever presented as Sora, mostly; this character design houses Kairi and Ventus and Roxas and Xion's hearts. Xehanort is almost never Xehanort. He's three people - Xemnas and Ansem and Xehanort - whose ultimate, apocalyptic plan involves him becoming 13 people. Even when Xehanort is on screen, he's equally likely to be Young Xehanort and Master Xehanort standing next to each other. Time travel. Sora is the body without a self; Xehanort the self without body. You might say, equally truly, that Sora is the body full to brimming with selves while Xehanort is a self stretched thin through bodies. Either way, the question remains: who are these people friends with?

***

Fiction writing, writ large, can be approached a number of ways. Some writing says: here is the truth of this world. Described, enacted, and organized. Other writing says: here is truth of these characters, discussed, conveyed, and organized. Still other writing says: here is the truth of this world, but it was actually the truth of the characters. We call this an unreliable narrator. And there's the inverse, writing which says that it is the truth of the characters but is actually the truth of its world. We tend to call this literature.

In any story, it's difficult to tell whether what we know is epistemologically or ontologically true. You might shorthand that to "subjectively" or "objectively;" the former has to do with knowledge, the latter with being. Stories are made of people talking and interacting, and they are made by people writing and drawing and animating and devising mechanics. The unreliable narrator weaponizes that difficulty; we only know what is in the text (and what we bring to it and what we assume about it). Fiction is untrue, after all, but read (or played or watched or heard) by real people.

All of which is to say: it's difficult to say what is precisely "true" in Kingdom Hearts. Or more specifically, how this world actually functions versus how the framing and the storytelling conveys that functioning, and whether there is a difference there (spoilers: as with all fiction, there isn't, objectively speaking, and of course there is, it's the most important thing). Doubly so when the closest thing we have to a point of view character is actually half a dozen hearts in a singular body, absolutely reliant on the bonds of friendship to function.

With that in mind, it's hard to make claims about the ontology of Kingdom Hearts. But there's one I'm fairly confident in: it is a universe in which triads are a fundamental principle. Kingdom Hearts has, as far as I can tell, precisely one binary: light and dark. Otherwise everything is in threes.

Some examples: In every game but Kingdom Hearts 3, your party is three characters full. In Kingdom Hearts, there are interactable elements called Trinities, even. Friends tend to come in threes: Sora, Riku and Kairi; Mickey, Donald, and Goofy; Roxas, Axel, and Xion; Ventus, Terra, and Aqua. But also Sora, Donald, and Goofy and Mickey, Riku and Sora. These threes aren't exclusive. Humans are thirds, even. Heart, mind, and body. This can be experimented on and reproduced. A Somebody (that is, a whole person) consumed by darkness becomes a Heartless (a heart without a body) and a Nobody (a body without a heart), as long as they have a strong enough will (which is to say soul or mind).

From systems to story, the world is carved up into threes. It's a world, in other words, where a statement like "us vs them" wouldn't make sense. Or at least it wouldn't be as compelling as, say, "us vs them vs the rest." Where a phrase like "here and there and everywhere" would have to translate to "here and there and there and everywhere." Because unless you're talking specifically about the war that underlies reality, most things only make sense if there are two other things that complement them. True love isn't a Sora/Riku ship, it's the truth of the matter: that when they grow up, assuming things don't come between them, Sora and Riku and Kairi might well establish a triad. Kingdom Hearts is ontologically against the couple form, is what I'm saying.

***

There's this other videogame called NieR:Automata that came out in 2017 (this is the part where I spoil bits of both NieR:Automata and Kingdom Hearts 3, if that's something you're worried about). It's one of the most affecting things I've ever played; full of small moments that showcase the world and how it is materially constructed. To beat it, you have to play through it around three times. Each time rolls credits, and then the game changes.

At the beginning of the second playthrough (route B), you control a robot. It's one of the mundane enemies you have already defeated hundreds of. You try to revive your brother by bringing them oil, tripping over wires on the way there and back. If it isn't inspired by that moment in Kingdom Hearts where Sora turns into a Heartless (when freeing Kairi's heart from his own), I'll eat my hat.

At the very end of NieR:Automata, you get a final credits sequence. You play a hacking minigame that you've played many times before, and shoot them. Getting through it becomes impossible. You have to acknowledge that things are worth doing, that life is worth living, that games are worth playing. It becomes more impossible. You are finally asked to accept help. When you do, the minigame becomes playable again. Beatable. Even easy. At the end, you're asked to make a decision. You can keep your save files, making it easy to revisit the game. Or you can delete them, meaning if you want to experience things again you will have to invest another 20+ hours, but you will be one of those people that helped you. A real person in the world will be able to pass that final trial because of your sacrifice.

In the lead up to Kingdom Hearts 3's final battle, Sora is reunited with all of his friends and they are wading their way through an army of Heartless. They're over-overwhelmed. You play through a huge boss fight. The enemy only regroups, consolidating their forces into a literal tornado. Sora decides to defeat them on his own. He jumps in, and a brief cutscene happens. A character from the past offers help. You regain control, and are surfing on a wave of Keyblades. The screen instructs you to press the Triangle button. Whenever you do, a bloom of light emerges from Sora, and a name on the left side of the screen disappears. Each of these names is someone who has spent time in Union χ, the Kingdom Hearts mobile game. You are, presumably, expending their life to help Sora get to the final confrontation with Xehanort. The reference point references.

The best aspect of NieR:Automata is how everything in the game feeds into the greater thematic considerations. The biggest, most explanatory cutscene does as much work as a bit of optional side dialogue or a shitty sidequest where you race a robot around a map. The game, in other words, is incredibly tightly wound around specific thematic concerns that leaves many other things - the gameplay, the pacing - to feel baggy or awkward for many players. It is also a work in translation in an industry that systematically devalues storytelling. Kingdom Hearts is much baggier.

***

Kingdom Hearts begins in "the age of fairy tales." This is its prehistory, when the Worlds were one World, and everything was light. That's fairly standard Fantasy fare, as is the fact that the world became rift by darkness. We never actually play in that prehistory, because storytellers and their audiences are told that conflict drives narrative. But the way that they narrativize that transition is important. From the mouth of Yen Sid in Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance:

[I]n time, the World was overrun by legions who wanted the light all for themselves, and the first shadows were cast upon the land. These warriors crafted "Keyblades" in the image of the original χ-blade, and waged a great war over Kingdom Hearts. We call this the "Keyblade War." But though the war extinguished all light from the World, the darkness could not reach the brightness inside every child's heart. With that light, the World was remade as we know it today, with countless smaller worlds shining like stars in the sky. …  After all, light begets darkness, and darkness is drawn to light.
There's a lot to unpack here. The first thing: the placement of the phrase "light begets darkness." The fact that it falls near the end of this quote is telling. It is a truism, one that could itself do the work of explaining all this lore away. The world is full of light, and light begets darkness, therefore some dark elements arose and attacked the light. Instead it is almost an afterthought; the light was coveted - presumably by the light, or people filled with light, because darkness is only introduced by this action.

One of the stories we tell about the birth of capitalism takes place in England in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, all the way through the 19th century. It's a long, slow process known as the Enclosure of the Commons. Under feudalism (hardly a world filled with light), there was significant arable land that was held in common. Peasants used it for subsistence farming, primarily. The emergence of a bourgeois class, people who owned capital, or the means by which to produce goods, necessitated a different kind of labor than the peasant provided the lord, even in agriculture. They pressured this system and it pushed back, but in the process laws were enacted, violence done, and land taken. Peasants were pushed off the common land and turned into wage laborers, people who could not feed themselves except by producing value for someone who had capital. This class, the bourgeoisie, slowly gained more and more power - socially, economically, politically. Then, from the late 17th to the late 18th century, they caused wars. Revolutions in England, France, and America overthrew feudal society, making capitalism the logic and practice by which the world was structured.

It's not a one-to-one translation, obviously. But there's a core similarity there which absolutely does not need to be similar. The world has this good in it. It's a resource; it is how people feed themselves or literal motes of goodness. People see an opportunity to exploit that goodness toward their own ends. They take it. Wars, and the world is changed. Specifically, it is fractured, becomes alienated. People no longer live together in the light, but scattered across worlds. People no longer reap the fruit of their labor, but sell it to the market in order to be able to purchase food and rest from others.

The inciting incident behind the sole binary in this series is an act of enclosure and dispossession. The motivating action behind nearly every game in this series is driven by this war, whether that's the reclamation of Kingdom Hearts or the production of a new Kingdom Hearts or the χ-blade. That motivation might underpin the action, but the people in it are an entirely different story. They're a human shape filled to bursting with selves or a self stretched among a baker's dozen bodies, after all. Or they're replicas filled with one person's memory of another, or bodies without hearts that shouldn't exist and definitely shouldn't have feelings and definitely love each other deeply as friends. And so much in between.

***

Stories can do a lot. They can model behavior that we might want to see in the world, or might want to struggle against. They can help our brains make connections that might not have occurred to us otherwise. They can explain phenomena we aren't equipped to deal with, or they can obfuscate complicated relations and make them seem simple. They can provide comfort, soothing you during a frightening period or letting your brain rest enough to return to work in ideal shape the next day. They tend to be about something, or some things, and so they can accumulate on top of our previous understandings of a concept or a relation, making it more robust or hiding something crucial.

They always do certain things. They exist in relation to the dominant ideology of the time, and in relation to the position of the author(s) and their own social and ideological commitments. They transform ideology, the way a person understands how the world works and how they move through it - even if unconsciously - into fiction, a discrete thing that can be analyzed, understood, and thought about. And they are products of labor, whether written or designed or curated or told.

Stories about friendship can teach us how to be in the world with others, or how not to be. They can teach us how other people are, or how they want to project having been, in relation to others. They can even suggest glimmers of how we might be under a different regime, one where the profit motive is gone, or where meaning is a product of trinary, rather than binary opposition. These lessons can be muddled, useless, or unproductive just as often (or even more) than they are clarifying.

Stories about friendship in a world of trinary opposition, where people are not themselves and everyone is everyone, are bound to be muddled. They can't model behavior, and when they do it must almost necessarily be a failing. But they can spark possibility. They are still fiction, after all, something worked on, something with a concrete relation to the illusions that cause the world to function the way it does, something that provides us a framework by which to better understand those illusions and bring that understanding to the work we have ahead of us. That work is not going to involve wielding a massive key like a sword, beating the embodied darkness of people's hearts into submission and locking and unlocking discrete worlds from each other.

It will involve standing with one another, regardless of whether or not we are at one with ourselves. And it will involve conflict as we struggle against those who pursue, single-mindedly, their own apocalyptic (profit) motive in order to continue to reshape the world in their own image.

Kingdom Hearts' story can't be explained. In the same way that no other story can, not without fundamentally telling a different story. Because what is important isn't that time travel is the abnegation of the self that is tied to the self, or that darkness is impassable by everything except Gummi Ships, those in control of darkness, Keyblade Armor, and also maybe Monstro and Captain Hook's ship, for some reason. It's the experience of learning this young man is young men and women and no one at all, and the way that breaks against your own ideological presuppositions or melds with them immediately. It's whether you play Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and get mad because everything ends up forgotten, canonically, because that feels like cheating to you, or whether you embrace it because of the beats along the way and the fact that it is true in this world, regardless of any character's memory. It's the moments of skepticism followed by joy you get in starting a new game and finding out that, hey, this terribly-named thing called "flowmotion" in Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance seemed overwhelming and useless and gimmicky but it actually makes moving around this dense, bizarre world a joy in itself.

And some of us - all of us, I think - have complicated relationships to the self. We aren't just who we are. We're conditioned by the world, and by each other. And having this joyful, messy way of reflecting back on that can be helpful. It's partially a coincidence that Kingdom Hearts finally grabbed me when I was coming to terms with my gender identity issues. For you it might be something else. But being able to reflect on the world with the help of Sora and Xion and Naminé has taught me about myself, and about how people interact with the world. Especially when that world's common goods are enclosed on and alienated.