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THE [REAL] TERROR
What if a big, ugly, ethereal polar bear is actually the harbinger of imperial expansion's rupture and collapse?
Today Frogman wants to talk about Lacan and AMC's The Terror @frogmanfilth
England is like some stricken beast too stupid to know it is dead. Ingloriously foundering in its own waste products, the backlash and bad karma of empire.
> William Burroughs, The Western Lands
AMC’s 2018 series The Terror begins in 1845; the middle of the decade in which Great Britain (rEmeMbeER whEN iT wAs GrEaT?!) establishes itself as global hegemon, world policeman, and seaman maximus. You’ll be as unsurprised as I was to learn that it’s the very same decade the nation “officially” adopted a policy of global free trade – when we really started going after the money. In fact, that’s precisely the purpose of the ill-fated expedition on which the series – 10 episodes, 8.5 hours long, and yet still incredulously referred to by our transatlantic cousins, the newly-woke-global-hegemon, as a “mini-series” – centres: a quest to discover the Northwest Passage, an ambition drenched in all the paper-thin finery of Rule Britannia Enlightenment knowledge-hunting that is, in reality, nothing more than a mad dash for the new trade superhighway to China. An obvious but important signpost: capitalism and imperialism are, and always have been, two sides of the same bloodstained coin.
The expedition begins all pomp and glory: officers draped in finery consuming three course meals with wine and whisky, the lower ranks munching their way through lead-poisoned cans of veal cutlets and tomato sauce – the result of a slapdash, chumocracy-style contract that breeds shoddy craftsmanship and proves fatal for “the masses”– nothing changes. But soon things go all tits up: HMS Terror and HMS Erebus may be the most technologically advanced warships of their day – newly updated with a steam-powered single-screw propeller capable of catapulting them along at up to 4.5km/h (!!) – but sadly for all the healthy white seamen, there’s a hard winter coming, and pack ice doesn’t give a shit how neatly your beard is trimmed or how cutting-edge your sloop is; despite good advice from Captain Crosier (skipper of the Erebus but second in command to Sir John Franklin, leader of the eponymous Terror and the expedition writ large) the ships push on, and soon become lodged in the ice, never to be freed.
After some half-arsed efforts to dig their way out, the difficulty of the situation becomes clear, and search parties are sent out from the boats to search for leads. During the outing, one of the parties manages to “accidentally” kill a native Inuit man. After failing to properly bury him (they force the poor sod down a fishing hole in the ice), soon ensues a plot device that comes to dominate many of the following episodes: a monstrous Inuit spirit called the Tuunbaq is unleashed upon the entire crew (more fool them; I’ve warned against the dangers of botched-burials in previous posts on frogmanfilth.org). The Tuunbaq – which can only be described as a polar bear with Klippel-Feil syndrome and pumped full of steroids, rendered in slightly budget CGI – pursues the men relentlessly, tearing them to shreds as it goes. To be frank, as satisfying as it is to see the prim and proper sailorboys torn to ribbons by their orientalised hosts, it’s ultimately a cheap thrill. What’s much more interesting is not what happens when the British empire comes up against Inuit mythology (which, it’s worth adding, the author of the original novel and co-writer of the series, Dan Simmons, rewrites and brutalises in order to create the silly creature – an unintended but telling act of aesthetic colonialism in of itself), but when the British Empire comes up against nothing at all.
All societies are built on Symbolic Orders; all Symbolic Orders are built on language. In so-called Great Empires, this is only compounded. Their expansion, exploitation, and hegemony rely upon rigid hierarchies, the ruthless control of desiring flows, and the foreclosing on socio-political alternatives. You need only look to the ridiculous names and ranks that are thrown around in the navy, or in any Repressive State Apparatus of your choosing – submission to the other, interpellation through language, and subjectification through naming are necessary and essential in the formation of, and entry to, society. Similarly, they don’t call it a grandnarrative for nothing: the meta-justifications for empire are the end-result (or end-purpose) of the name game; create enough words and soon you’ll have a sentence, then a paragraph, then a book, and then enough made-up phrases that you can funnel the desire of every man, woman, and child towards one hideous end – the ruthless expansion of your “collective” world view over all others. Under capitalist realism, remember that this is the profit-motive’s most powerful weapon.
One of The Terror’s greatest strengths is its cinematography; the Arctic feels as expansive, barren, and punishing as I can only imagine it really is. As such, the two little boats filled to the brim with God-Save-the-Queen hoo-rah find themselves in an exceptionally chilly version of the desert of the Real. The Real – all which lies beyond the bounds of the Symbolic, that which the Symbolic is designed to endlessly colonise, control, and supress – is a void, it is an absence, and that is precisely what these ships find themselves subsumed by. Where their route was once a part of a much larger narrative, given meaning through word only, once progress halts they realise that they lie beyond the Empire’s bounds, its words, and subsequently all the hope and meaning it provides; where their geographical coordinates are lost, their phantasmatic coordinates soon follow. In this sense, rather than imagining Tuunbaq as a quasi-spiritual whitewashed polar bear of subaltern vengeance, it makes a great deal more sense to understand it as an embodiment of the raging, screaming, deathdrive of the Real, bursting through their ruptured Symbolic order; the Id let loose as the ego – both individual, but also collective, national, imperial – loses its hold. This is perhaps why, in a particularly (small ‘s’) symbolic moment, the mutinous Sergeant Hickey cuts out his tongue, and as such any ability to consensually partake in the imperial-Symbolic, and feeds it (as well as himself) to the ever-raging Tuunbaq.
Which brings me to my next point via Lacan via Bhaktin via Moudileno: Another of The Terror’s greatest assets is its unflinching approach to the body; this is not gore for the sake of gore, “horror” for the sake of horror, but the grotesque body firing on all cylinders. From amputations to cannibalism, sodomising trysts to scalping and demi-decapitation, The Terror is littered with bodily functions and bodies at point of rupture. Bhaktin defines the grotesque body as a “body in the act of becoming, it is never finished, never completed”, focusing on “those parts of the grotesque body in which it outgrows its own self, transgressing its own body”. Therefore, though we can just take the blood and guts at face value, as the (small r) real representation of this Lord of the Flies on ice, we can happily take it one step further: bodies at the point of breakage, of transgressing their perceived limits, are reflective of hierarchies, discourses, and grandnarratives doing exactly the same thing. The language of the Symbolic defines the parameters of the singular body just as much as it does the collective will; when the bounds of those bodies are ruptured and collapsed it is because the relationship between those bodies and the hegemonic discourses that once defined them has been disturbed. The Terror reflects collapse of the Imperial narrative at a wonderfully visceral level.
And all of this leads us neatly to the series’ conclusion. The Tuunbaq is defeated by an aptly but unsubtly named Surgeon Goodsir who – knowing his own murder is imminent – douses himself in vinegary poison and slashes his wrists in another beautifully corporeal moment of Christ-like martyrdom; Hickey’s crew eat Goodsir, Tuunbaq eats Hickey’s crew, and you can guess the rest. This – along with the lead poisoning, starvation, and over three years of Arctic exposure in impossibly thin and well-kept coats – leaves all the men but Captain Crozier dead. Alive and well but for a missing hand (lost to the Tuunbaq) the Captain is rescued by an Inuit woman called Silna and taken to her tribe. After a few months of much needed R&R here, the British search party (finally) comes knocking, looking for the lost ships and their crew. “What do you want me to do?” asks the leader of the Inuit tribe; the scene cuts to the leader pointing at a photograph of Crozier brought by the search party and telling them that he is “dead and gone”. Unbeknownst to the Brits, Crozier stands outside that very tent, wrapped in his own set of tailor-made Inuit furs. The point here is this: Crozier’s body may – more or less – be in one piece, but he has chosen to sacrifice every dripping of the Imperial-Symbolic he possibly could. Not just his clothes and his rank, but (most importantly) his language too, having become fluent in the Inuit dialect; though the body lives on, the man that was Captain Crozier, the man that the British Empire had subjectivised as “Captain Crozier”, is both dead and gone.
The final shot is fitting: ex-Crozier walks away from the tent, and the scene cuts to him crouched by a hole in the ice, presumably hunting for seal, surrounded by an endless expanse of ice that bleeds seamlessly in the always-white Arctic sky and ghostly summer sun; subsumed not just by the desert of the Real, but its unbearable silence too. Imperialism – just like capitalism – relies on endless expansion, on endless ground to colonise and commodify. For this very reason, Empire’s greatest enemy is not the revenge-set subaltern it oppresses, but its own self-defeating logic: nothing can expand forever, one day there will be nothing left to colonise, and one day the hegemon will have to confront all that lies beyond its bounds – the empty, silent, raging void – and what then?
ALL TRUTH IS CROOKED, TIME TO WATCH THE CIRCLE
At the turn of the millennium Big Brother began to ask the audience which contestant they liked
the most, this year’s season of The Circle tells us that it doesn’t matter who we like anymore. @denglord
>Karl Marx, Grundrisse
10pm on a weeknight – a lockdown psyop commonly experienced as sofa-bound hex between dinner and bed. The person next to you vaguely suggests exchanging covering letters for a job at the intersection of art and technology that neither of you will get, so you reach through the house-share blend cbd fug to notch up the TV remote, feign interest in what’s glowing behind. Reality studio Channel 4 has been on in the background as long as you can remember so you’re not fazed upon realising commitment to its newest season of The Circle. The Circle, sort of based on a sci-fi novel that no one cares about, is sort of like Big Brother, which is sort of based on a sci-fi novel that far too many people care about. The Circle’s been going on for a few seasons now and has become a real hit – it’s a dystopian twist on real life in which contestants spend all day in their isolated apartments desperately marketing themselves as the most likable person in the ouroboros in order to win some prize money. In previous years of the show, as in Big Brother, the winner was picked by the audience. But due to the pandemic, this year’s show was pre-recorded and thus all voting conducted by the contestants themselves…
You find yourself inserted into the cereal guy meme template:
“they will never make a hit reality game show without audience interaction!”
Yesterday’s heretics diagnosed the rise of reality game shows’ ubiquity as a result not of their cultural prowess but of parasitic cross-platform engagement. Of course these shows are successful - they’re franchise-first feedback loops designed to maximise engagement and minimise abstract thought…The heretics held a torch up to the underlying ideology of these shows which is that they claim to have emancipated us from the perilous mythological worlds promised by art and politics…you know the best things in life are cheap and easy. Even though French guy Jean Baudrillard said that this might happen, he neglected to tell you how you might go about making people believe in more imaginative broadcasting. After all, brave defenders of the reality studio will turn and say what’s so bad about people enjoying things?
>Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication
>Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride
German guys are particularly good at explaining why we shouldn’t enjoy things, in particular: Friedrich Nietzsche. A guy that all sorts of sick fucks are obsessed with but you’re most drawn to the ones that tell you Friedrich thought that we put too much emphasis on the truth. Not the truth, which is cool, but a kind of truth that’s actually sort of a lie, you get me? He might’ve watched The Circle and told you that the tragedy is not that this type of show exists. The tragedy is that the contestants believe their best strategy in winning the game involves weaponizing their ‘authenticity’. Isn’t it strange that given a virtual presence with only text-based communication, the players instinctively validate themselves by revealing their failures rather than their successes? You can’t help being cynical now of the real-world stories of bullying, sickness, and alienation your favourite players spoke of. In this race to the bottom, you remember that the players who could not survive were those that were not able to concoct a special trauma to define themselves by – without a claim to suffering, they became untrustworthy. Meanwhile, as the players learned more about each other, bias and prejudice increased alongside information overload.
Consider Manrika, undoubtedly edited into the show to appear as the contestant most likely to win up until the last hurdle: her competition arc revolved around needing the prize money, unlike the rest of the contestants (including winner Natalya) who purported throughout to have joined the show as a ‘social experiment’. By revealing early on in the game that her family was torn apart by issues of addiction and financial precarity, she won the other players’ trust and maintained it even after betraying her closest allies one by one. But Manrika’s strategy failed – whilst she may have convinced the other finalists that she was most worthy of the prize money, that didn’t mean to them that she’s most worthy of winning the competition. After all, the a priori of going on any of these reality game shows is never really the prize but the virtual social capital that comes along with being on TV every night for three weeks...would you risk it all to potentially be allowed into the world of navigating a maze of shell companies to get sent free cosmetics? If we look at all the finalists on The Circle (excluding Joey and Pippa who were so obviously last minute props to extend the Manrika-Andy-Syed dynamic for an extra week of ads) we can see that nearly all the players recruited are already well versed in the mandatory entrepreneurialism of social media, be it as trend forecasting fast fashion influencer, self-help business guru, or clickbait YouTube prankster. Only winner Felix aka Natalya the armed police officer had the cold rationalist distance from real virtual social dynamics informing the other player’s decisions to make the other players believe she was worthy of the prize money. A quick glance at her Instagram profile makes it obvious she has little interest in being popular online beyond the immediate gratification of a few more likes. Her username could be the access code to a school computer, she is not verified, and she talks about banal shit like diy hair curling and contemporary fantasy lit. This is the perfect candidate to win a show which is all about self-policing your behaviour to match that of the corporate environment you find yourself in.
What if this is not a trait unique to the contestants on a reality show, but instead an obligatory social endeavour within a wider ecology of consensual brainrot? Just as the players in the game are shown unique versions of what’s going on in ‘the circle’ social media, real life social media likewise takes an algo-torial approach that means everyone’s feeds will always be unique. So whilst on the one hand things move so fast in virtual spaces that it’s impossible to forge a consensus reality on what’s going on and just happened, on the other you have a legacy media telling you that the pinnacle of prime-time entertainment is nothing more than a slowed down version of real life. You’ve started to put on your joker makeup by now.
>Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
But why did you not miss a single episode of The Circle, and why did you give your ever-diminishing-attention to it in the first place? The truth is that in an age where you are happier to keep a Netflix subscription or sit mindlessly through hours of sponsored YouTube content than pay your TV licence fee, terrestrial broadcasting seems like a wasteland of lost public space in which you can’t help but wish to salvage something joyous from the wreckage. The kind of consensual hallucination that allows The Circle to be a success makes you feel that the type of content programmed by legacy media is so far behind the cultural ‘avant-garde’ appearing in online spaces.
You could easily drone on about its 80s synthpop soundtrack that yearns for lost futures.....…, the fact it’s set in ‘luxury’ accommodation that’s so astutely bland as foreboding realisation that you’ll never own a house or something, how dictating their texts through producers-as-moderators delibidinizes the cyb-erotic affect of the finger-iphone-lover assemblage. Something about trolling and anonymity, authenticity and imposter syndrome, consciousness deflation yadda yadda yadda. But you also realise that teenagers don’t care about any of this, they don’t watch tv and a lot of them don’t spend years building personal brands on Instagram and Tiktok; they switch identity faster than you can refresh your feed. And they aren’t afraid to be anonymous. They don’t care about George Orwell and they don’t know who Dave Eggers is, but they could learn why they’re irrelevant faster than anybody green-lighting Channel 4 shows could convince them otherwise. Maybe then, The Circle’s newest iteration is not a signal towards an inability to imagine new forms of TV, but rather a desperate attempt by the evangelists of outdated programming protocols insisting stagnation in the face of new media beasts that are too wired to concentrate on how they’ll take over. Somewhere in the data mosh is a network of abstract engineers figuring out how to turn a circle into a geodesic dome with no tools beyond boredom and fantasy.