Strange Toys

Imagine you’re in some medieval Kingdom and the king is a mendacious psycho and the reality is that his policies are going to a) harm pretty much everyone but the rich and powerful; and b) erase the good works of many generations. People will suffer and die. The consequences to the wider world will be dire. Things will be broken that will be impossible to repair.

Now imagine you work at a College of some sort in that Kingdom and your part of the College is supposed to teach people how to make toys. You’ve always loved toys. You know them as good and wonderful things. They help people to grow and discover and play, which is why you’re working at the toymaking department in the College. You believe in play.

However, toys have changed in the decades leading up to the rise of the psycho King. Accordingly, the toys the College teaches young toymakers to make are very different from the wooden horses, card and board games, and storytelling games of yore. Indeed, these new toys are so complicated that few people, even you, completely understand how they work or what they do. A vast network of personnel and business concerns is involved in their production. They require the support of a painstaking and continuous gathering and processing of resources: Magick generated by burning oil or coal; rare minerals dug up from faraway mountains by indentured labor; Wizards’ machines to carve secret summoning inscriptions too small for the eye to see; panes of enchanted glass that open hypnotic windows onto imaginary worlds and visions; the design and implementation of the imaginary worlds and their rules; and the strategic deployment of techniques for capturing, holding, and manipulating the attention.

The cost in blood, sweat, and tears of pulling together these materials alone might have been enough to raise your concern even without the psycho King there to jerk you out of your slumber. “Is this really about Play?” you might have asked. “Is this amount of Magick really necessary to confer the boons I wish to confer? Or is something more sinister going on here?” But you, like so many others, had trouble taking your eyes away from the glass.

Nevertheless: now you are awake. The glass is smashed.

“We must put away these strange toys and smash the King! The Kingdom is at stake!” you exclaim. “And then, once the King is gone, before we resume our toymaking, we must pause, remind ourselves of what matters, look in the mirror, and ask: to what end, to what end, to what end…?”

Countless other words . . . had simply ceased to exist

“As we have already seen in the case of the word free, words which had once borne a heretical meaning were sometimes retained for the sake of convenience, but only with the undesirable meanings purged out of them. Countless other words such as honour, justice, morality, internationalism, democracy, science, and religion had simply ceased to exist. A few blanket words covered them, and, in covering them, abolished them. All words grouping themselves round the concepts of liberty and equality, for instance, were contained in the single word crimethink, while all words grouping themselves round the concepts of objectivity and rationalism were contained in the single word oldthink. Greater precision would have been dangerous.”

George Orwell, 1984

I never thought we’d have a leader with a combover

“I never thought we’d have a leader with a combover. I always thought people would sense that the combover subject was covered in shame and that his demand for our pity and tact on behalf of protecting his fantasy of self-completion would interfere with the idealizations through which democratic polities still invest leaders with a larger-than-life resonance. But as the current Big Sovereign intends to know nothing about governing, while bargaining and bullying from the throne of gut justice, his higher law is the lower law. He is unafraid of being a cartoon because cartoon characters never die, they keep going long after mere humans would be destroyed. Already an icon recognizable in silhouette, he and his larger-than-life appetite for outsized greatness can then revitalize an “America” that transcends the democracy of the ordinary that is marked by time and the attrition of life, intimacy, and labor. His energy literally gives life to the fantasy of an outsized life, so “tremendous” it can decree democracy at its scale, in its shadow.”

Lauren Berlant, Big Man