In every dream home a heartache: the Hapsburgian MCU, suburban cosa nostra, synthetic lovers, domestic realism, full-surrogacy, the falling rate of enjoyment, mothers & others, and how the sausage gets made.
While WandaVision‘s self-referential take on television has closed out with ‘The Series Finale’, the metamania of social media fandom assures the product a vigorous aftermarket.
The internet is awash with breakdowns, details-you-missed, explainers, recaps, references, reveals, reviews, spoilers. Fanatics aplenty leap on the corpse of each passed episode. Upon the dissection table, episodes are sliced open to reveal their truth using folk critical takes on explication de texte and structuralist semiotics.
Perhaps this is par for the course, as Mat Johnson and others have noted, once God is dead in European culture, all western fiction tends towards the detective story – asking why, then, did this happen?
“The mystery form is the fundamental structure of contemporary storytelling, and the mystery comes out of the European Enlightenment and the idea that you can look at chaos and by applying your intellect you can come to an understanding through reason as opposed to just saying, “God did it,” right? “
Counter to the boxset binge the serial released in instalments, like WandaVision, purposefully creates a pause between each story beat creating room for application of the intellect between each “appointment viewing”. The story is handed over to the audience for inter-episode speculation, to become the detective, the mystery solver. Clues are pored over – what does that character’s name mean or suggest? which film is showing in the cinema in the background? – and what does that suggest? what music is playing? what shape or symbol does this placement of elements suggest? The fanatic also brings to this task a body of extra-textual lore pertinent to the particular fictional universe and to the wider tropes of fantastika.
There’s a risk of course that, like the growing pile of ‘dead cats‘ on Boris Johnson’s table, WandaVision‘s ‘Easter eggs‘ become the whole show -overwhelming the narrative at play. This is the inborn sickness of the Marvel dynasty – each generated instalment is essentially a prequel for the subsequent issue. The MO of the franchise mirrors the libidinal frustration of consumer society, whereby the desire for a good is not extinguished by its acquisition or consumption – but its very acquisition or consumption instead evokes desire for qualities associated with a different product, always the next thing.
Nevertheless, there’s a memetically compromised tendency produced by this close inbreeding – ‘the falling rate of enjoyment‘. The family resemblance becomes tighter and tighter, the forms of novelty fewer, the range of action smaller. So, as the franchise proceeds, an end-credits sequence promoting the next product becomes accompanied by a mid-credits sequence towards another output; the tags themselves just concentrated forms of the foreshadowing of other creations contained within the work currently being consumed. Each film, every series, prefigures those to come. Each ‘phase’ is just another final-boss yuga in an ongoing cycle without release. Eventually the compromised memetics will mean that it can produce no viable issue, but until then its reign will persist. Multiverses may introduce a little hybrid vigour for a while, but kissing cousins alone cannot prevent the decline, eventually the memetic fitness is doomed.
Some of the fanatic noise about the series has focussed on its ‘philosophic’ aspects, mainly the paradox of the Ship of Theseus (as expressed in the final episode). Some commentators went further and also considered the ethics of The Avengers as a whole or of Wanda Maximoff in particular.
When Wanda alone is discussed, much of it centres on the question of whether she is the villain of the show. This was a popular fan theory mid-series, but declined towards the end as alternative, appropriate, antagonists were revealed. After the finale, a few folk were left pondering her potential as a future villain post-show, while fewer still remained questioning her actions in the series. the_jonker on Reddit was one of those, suggesting that ‘this show has a serious ethics problem‘.
The final episode makes Wanda’s ethical dilemma clear – does she maintain her ideal life with her partner and children at the cost of the autonomy of West View’s residents, or does she liberate the residents of West View from her enchantment and lose partner, children and domestic bliss. In the end, she releases West View from her spell and Monica Rambeau tells her that “They’ll never know what you sacrificed for them”.
‘Ex-fucking-cuse me’, notes the_Jonker in response, describing how ‘Wanda built a personal paradise on a foundation of torture and slavery’. What even this critic fails to note however is that Wanda’s vision of the good life is the West(ern) view of the same.
This western world view is rooted in Judaeo-Christian tradition: humans are considered dominant over nature, natural ‘resources’ are understood primarily by their use value and by their benefit to humanity. ‘Man’ is first, and human beings are superior to all other things in the environment – be they living or non-living . The normative conception of this Man is the white middle-class in the rich countries of the global north.
The lives of this global middle-class, the richest 10% of the planet (which includes everyone earning the UK median salary of c. £29000 or higher) are supported by the exploitation of the more-than-human world. The rapacious mining and deforestation, relentless polluting, displacement and extinguishing of cultures, ecosystems and species – nightmares of our existence which we consign to the wretched of the Earth, the tortured and enslaved biosphere, the silenced others. It’s not only Wanda who is trapping lifeforms in this west view.
As Adam Curtis noted in HyperNormalisation: “all of us in the West – not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves – have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all around us we accept it as normal.”
‘For over half a century, worldwide growth in affluence has continuously increased resource use and pollutant emissions far more rapidly than these have been reduced through better technology. The affluent citizens of the world are responsible for most environmental impacts and are central to any future prospect of retreating to safer environmental conditions… Any transition towards sustainability can only be effective if far-reaching lifestyle changes complement technological advancements. However, existing societies, economies and cultures incite consumption expansion and the structural imperative for growth in competitive market economies inhibits necessary societal change.’
– Thomas Wiedmann, Manfred Lenzen, Lorenz T. Keyßer & Julia K. Steinberger, ‘Scientists’ warning on affluence’, Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 3107 (2020)
Just like Wanda, those of us in the affluent world choose through the way we structure our existence whether to maintain our exclusive consumer lifestyle at the cost of the autonomy and integrity of the more than human world, or whether to participate in the collective liberation of people and planet and make ‘far-reaching lifestyle changes’ – but in doing so, lose the gated refuges of our personal, private, paradises.
If we don’t sense much agency in this matter it’s unsurprising after four decades of rampant individualism and privatisation, riding on top of twelve thousand years of agriculture. The practices and rituals of collectivity are absent from our life-ways. Our ecological self has retreated from the world, leaving identity to be contained by our skin and extended only to our blood-kin.
‘…who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’
– Margaret Thatcher, ‘Aids, education and the year 2000!’, Woman’s Own, (31 October 1987)
The only collective form of identity afforded the neo-liberal self, the only locus for solidarity is ‘the family’, the workshop of social-reproduction. The family home, for those that can afford it, is the fortress – the last redoubt. Outside the world may be crazy, inside it’s just us – our thing – a suburban cosa nostra resisting the claims of the exterior
Wanda Maximoff, east European orphan – her birth family all dead, her partner dead – chooses to form an ‘American family’, the capo of her own cosca. She forges her family ex nihilo (or out of heartache) in the shape of the American TV shows of her own abbreviated childhood. She places the surrounding territory under her ‘protection’. Her family is nuclear, constructed and performative. Her solution to her woes is atomised and individual.
Captivity in the Stark-plex live/work, serviced-apartments of the Avengers Compound along with the rest of the orphans and misfits might not have been the best-fit for a depressed goth – but that kinship did suggest the possibilities of forming a ‘forever family’ in covent with displaced others. She rejects not only the corporate co-housing campus accommodation but the alternative solidarity network. Despite the queerness of her affair with a purple painted synthetic lover (who may, or may not, have genitalia), and her evident parthenogenesis, she chooses not to embrace her weird but instead to fabricate a family as performed on American television – a domestic imaginary where ‘[bourgeois, biological] family is forever’. The radical potentials of both herself and her synf are denied.
Perhaps this is unsurprising. Wanda is an exile, a refugee, fleeing war zone after war zone, seeking some kind of sanctuary and, as Sophie Lewis has noted, for migrants ‘the nuclear private household is the form that you have to ape to have a chance at being able to pass into the US‘.
But we’re all here, we’ve all learned this normative, the type of relations we are supposed to perform, the story of how we should limit our boundary of care, the exploitations of others we do not discuss, plausible deniability that we know our freedoms are bought at the expense of others’.
Alienation, battery farms, billionaires, border controls, child labour, climate migration, colonisation, coltan mining, deforestation, dispossession, domestic servitude, DRM, droughts, endangered species, endocrine disruptors, extraction, feedlots, freshwater depletion, gig economies, glacial melt, greenhouse gases, hydraulic fracturing, industrial agriculture, junk food, junkyards, kerosene, KPIs, laissez-faire economics, land grabs, monoculture, monopolies, nurdles, ocean acidification, orangutans dying, palm oil plantations, patenting biology, patriarchy, pesticides, plunder, precarity, quantitative easing, racism, rentiers, surveillance, sweatshops, tar sands, tax havens, union busting, uranium tailings, VOCs, war, extinctions, youth suicide, yield failures, zero hour contracts, zoonotic spillover.
We want cheap flights, cheap food, disposable x, fast fashion, free content, happy motoring, happy pills, holidays in the sun, low taxes, a new phone, peanut butter, Prime delivery, rising house prices – but we don’t want to hear about how the sausage gets made.
If there’s a way out of this then we’ve got to expand the boundary of caring, cultivate a proliferation of relations of care – we cannot limit what matters to us to what’s good for us as individuals, families, nations or species. We cannot Wanda-normalise the torture and enslavement which allows us to live the way we do. We need to find kinship with the whole world.
‘Making kin seems to me the thing that we most need to be doing in a world that rips us apart from each other, in a world that has already more than seven and a half billion human beings with very unequal and unjust patterns of suffering and well-being. By kin I mean those who have an enduring mutual, obligatory, non-optional, you-can’t-just-cast-that-away-when-it-gets-inconvenient, enduring relatedness that carries consequences…
I’m talking about redefining family and I feel like my own family has been a tiny little piece of living that, including my biogenetically related kin. And my family has never been just human beings. To be any kind of animal at all is to be within obligate mutualisms with a whole range of other plants, animals, and microbes and living as a holobiont, not as a single organism or individual. It’s good science.
– ‘Making Kin: An Interview with Donna Haraway; Steve Paulson interviews Donna Haraway’, Los Angeles Review of Books, (December 6, 2019)
WandaVision closes out with the witch living alone, kin-less, in a wilderness retreat and researching chaos magic. She’s looking to use the power of the Earth but, like Agatha before her, she has rejected supernatural sisterhood for a solo path. As audience we are taken away from what just happened and directed to ponder what’s next? – but those of us who are affluent citizens of the world should perhaps tarry a while longer with earlier events and seek our own resolution with the victims of the West View.