The stories we tell ourselves about the world are important

C. Auguste Dupin and Roderick Usher in conversation, sitting opposite each other in a dark house

The characters C. Auguste Dupin and Roderick Usher in a still from The Fall of the House of Usher. Source: Netflix

This blog post contains spoilers for the 2023 TV series The Fall of the House of Usher and probably for season 1 of the 2022 TV series Andor.

The recent TV series The Fall of the House of Usher is a modern day re-imagining of multiple Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems (none of which are adapted faithfully from the originals).

It’s fun, it’s well-made, and it includes Mark Hamill chewing the scenery in a very entertaining way.

The story revolves around the fantastically wealthy and powerful Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline, their massive capitalist business empire, and Roderick’s children. The title of the series fairly clearly points to where this is all going.

In What Do 'Succession' And 'The Fall Of The House Of Usher' Really Have In Common? Tori Preston argues:

Actually, I’d argue there’s an even bigger thread tying the two shows together, a foundational theme that each series tackles from opposing directions: Consequence. What does consequence look like for the super rich, the 1%, and is it even possible?

I’ve not watched Succession, but from the summaries I’ve seen this sounds like a valid proposition. But Preston goes on to say:

In Usher, money and power aren’t enough to divert the repercussions of the characters’ actions — but only because that money and power came from Verna’s immortal agent of justice in the first place.

And here see it from a slightly different perspective: the fact that in Usher only the supernatural can ensure that the rich and powerful suffer the consequences of their actions only shows how unimaginable it is — for the writers and for the viewers — that the rich and powerful would ever suffer the consequences of their actions in 2023.

In other words our shared understanding of the world is that the 1% are above the law, and so untouchable by us mere mortals: the stories we tell ourselves about the world are important.

I don’t want to quote that Jameson/Žižek/Fisher line about the impossibility of imagining the end of capitalism again, or even Ursula K Le Guin’s corresponding quote (if you’re new here I discuss both here) but…

And here I’d like to bring in a third TV series that seeks to critique the rich & powerful and the systems they use to maintain their increasingly authoritarian grip, and like Usher and Succession it is — oh, the irony — only available on a powerful capitalist corporation’s streaming service.

As you probably know Andor (which I wrote about in the post Radical futures re-emerging in mainstream science fiction) is part of the Star Wars franchise set before Rogue One, itself a prequel of sorts to the original Star Wars: A New Hope.

One thing that sets Andor apart from the rest of the franchise is the complete lack of the spooky wu wu of “The Force™”: Andor is normal people fighting oppression, without using a supernatural deus ex machina to achieve their goal.

Perhaps it avoids the trap of Fisher’s capitalist realism because it’s so significantly removed from real life, being set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…, or, to put it slightly differently, perhaps it uses the imaginative distance of science fiction to deliberately escape the inescapable, to imagine the unimaginable.

Which brings me back again to that question I repeated in my last post:

if the trap of capitalist realism is that “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism, then how do you imagine the end to capitalism” and the possibility of a better future free from its chains?

In that previous post I suggested that deliberate use of jarring juxtaposition in surrealism was one possible method.

Andor would suggest that transporting the whole conflict to an imaginary place and time is another device that can be used.

But, for these purposes, presenting the only possible means of escaping the grip of oppression as the supernatural — as happens in Usher — doesn’t help. It removes the idea that collective human agency can defeat the systems and the people who have power over us.

Of course it’s obvious that we shouldn’t expect any deliberate assistance in ending capitalism and building a better potential future from large corporations growing rich by providing streaming entertainment or anything else. As Paul Graham Raven wrote last year:

“But Paul, Andor is a good story with a good message; why should we care about its being a franchise or not?”

Because in celebrating it we are celebrating first and foremost capital’s indefatigable ability to recuperate critique of itself. An anti-fascist story in the Star Wars franchise is an anti-fascist story that enriches the Disney empire—and yes, my using the term “empire” is a very deliberate textual allusion. An anti-fascist Star Wars story is Che Guevara’s face peering out from the front of a T-shirt made of cotton which was watered by aquifers in ever-more-dessicated countries, ring-spun and sewn on machines manned by children in sweat-shops, shipped from half a world away and sold in a mall you drove to… and it doesn’t even credit the photographer.

There is no ethical consumption under capitalism and it seems that we are still stuck with the desperate hope of finding ways to bypass the constraints of imagination imposed by capitalist realism, against which capitalism uses the process of recuperation to neutralise radical ideas, preventing us from imagining a future without it.

But is capitalism so fucking perfect, so flawless, that everything that is produced under its auspices is an inescapable trap? Could it not be that occasionally something slips through the cracks?

Could the writer who is picked to pen yet another product in the capitalist empire’s franchise be not another imperial drone, but instead a … rogue one? [Pun totally intended, SorryNotSorry]

I’m sure that capitalism can move quickly after the fact to try to mend any damage to its aura of invulnerability, but I can’t believe that capitalism is invulnerable or so perfect in its conception that nothing slips through.

But again I’m left wondering how to find the means of escape. The stories we tell ourselves about the world are important, because somehow they must offer us some hope for a better future.