Subverting Subversion

If I encounter the enemies of my enemy, should I consider them my friends? If a statement is not not false, does that make it true? Propositional logic gives an affirmative answer to the second question. Other systems of logic are less decisive, and may be more helpful when contemplating real-life decisions. After all, the brigands who murdered my enemy may treat me no better. So if superversion opposes subversion, where does that leave the subversion of subversion?

Tom Simon described the relationship between subversion and superversion in an essay that begins with this extract from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

‘Do you believe in God, Winston?’

‘No.’

‘Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?’

‘I don’t know. The spirit of Man.’

‘And do you consider yourself a man?’

‘Yes.’

‘If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are nonexistent.’ His manner changed and he said more harshly: ‘And you consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and our cruelty?’

‘Yes, I consider myself superior.’

O’Brien did not speak. Two other voices were speaking. After a moment Winston recognized one of them as his own. It was a sound track of the conversation he had had with O’Brien, on the night when he had enrolled himself in the Brotherhood. He heard himself promising to lie, to steal, to forge, to murder, to encourage drug-taking and prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases, to throw vitriol in a child’s face. O’Brien made a small impatient gesture, as though to say that the demonstration was hardly worth making. Then he turned a switch and the voices stopped.

Simon’s analysis of Winston Smith concludes that his rebellion was…

…doomed from the start. It is not just that the man who inducted him into ‘the Brotherhood’ was a spy for Big Brother. Winston’s failure was even more fundamental. He tried to rebel by becoming a subversive, but the Party itself was a gigantic instrument of subversion. O’Brien’s vision of the future was of ‘a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’ How can any rebel avert such a fate by throwing bombs or spreading disease? All the methods of the Brotherhood were simply ways of doing what the Party wanted done.

Subverting subversion is presented as futile. This prompts Simon to offer a different kind of response to subversion.

In such a state, there is only one way to make a difference. You cannot subvert ruins; but you can build right over top of them. If to subvert is to destroy a thing from below, might we not coin an opposite word? We could destroy a state of ruin from above, and, as I like to say, supervert it. Where people have abandoned their standards, we could suggest new ones (or reintroduce whatever was good and useful in the old). Where institutions have been abolished, we could institute others to do their work. Above all, we could instil the ideas of creation and structure and discipline into human minds and hearts, and especially the hearts of the young.

There is much to admire in Simon’s essay. However, I wonder if Simon draws the right lessons about the methods used by Winston Smith, and the forces that destroy him. A boot upon a human face is a vivid metaphor, but even that image is not wholly nihilistic. It requires that somebody has manufactured a boot.

Winston Smith does not live in a Hobbesian anarchy, where all are at war with all. His society is at war, but the threat posed by foreign powers is used to unite the population. Much has been built by Ingsoc, the party which rules. In particular, they have constructed a very large government, which has a permanent character even though it impoverishes the population. They have also developed a ubiquitous surveillance network, and they are in the process of rolling out a new language. These are not modest accomplishments. They require a rigid adherence to a single strategy, which is why loyalty is so important to Ingsoc.

Ingsoc prevails over Winston Smith not by killing him, but by co-opting him. The soul of Winston Smith is decimated, but his body lives on. What made him Winston Smith has been annihilated, in order to secure the loyalty of his shadow. This is how the novel ends.

He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

Even if the goals of Ingsoc are nihilistic, it is not nihilism without limit. Their goal is a mirror reflection of that espoused by classical liberals. If the paradox of freedom is that there must be some limits on freedom to maintain a steady maximum of liberty, then there must also be some limits on nihilism to maintain a steady maximum of oppression. Orwell’s indictment of socialism is compelling because it shows how the free thinking pursuit of socialist principles can lead to doublethink, and ultimately to the prohibition of any alternative thought.

[Ingsoc] rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement originally stood, and it does so in the name of Socialism.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a powerful story because we all take the side of Winston Smith. Even socialists sympathize with Winston. Winston’s struggles may have been futile, but I am loathe to discount his methods. In Winston’s society, subversion was the right response. He could not be expected to simply ‘build over’ Ingsoc, putting in place rival institutions. In order to build something new, he would first need to clear the land of existing obstacles. More importantly, he would need to work with others to do that. But how do you find others to work with you, when everyone suffers the oppression of Big Brother? How should we do it, in the world we live in? Subversives can do more than destroy. They may use subversion to send a signal to others, in order to construct coalitions. Subversive methods may be key to getting people’s attention, and encouraging them to join the fight.

A winning strategy requires more than the pursuit of victory; an enemy is also defeated by their own failings. Perhaps Ingsoc could not be defeated, but Winston was still right to fight in the only way he could. When Winston was defeated, it was because of his human frailty. To maintain the hope of eventual victory, we must first refuse to be defeated. As Sun Tzu observed:

In antiquity those that excelled in warfare first made themselves unconquerable in order to await [the moment when] the enemy could be conquered. Being unconquerable lies with yourself; being conquerable lies with the enemy. Thus one who excels in warfare is able to make himself unconquerable, but cannot necessarily cause the enemy to be conquerable. Thus it is said a strategy for conquering the enemy can be known but yet not possible to implement.

Simon was right that an endless revolt loses all purpose. He is right to rail against the perpetual subversives who, like Don Quixote, have grown obsessed with old battles and outdated stories. They try to relive imagined glories by fighting villains and monsters that do not exist. As a consequence, they may fill fantasy worlds with caricatures of what they claim to find in the real world.

Because Simon is right to criticize the ‘subversive’ critics, we cannot allow a contradiction to emerge, where our enemies are permitted to use the weapons of criticism, but the rest of us forego them. Criticism is less heroic than constructing something new, but heroes fight to win, and they should exploit the weaknesses of their enemies. Just as importantly, subversion often makes for a good story. To build and operate the Death Star would have been a tremendous feat of engineering and logistics. But Luke Skywalker is a hero because he blows it up!

Whilst we try to maintain a positive outlook, we should remember the enemies of superversion are not weak. On the contrary, they have a passionate commitment to building bigger, bolder, more ruthless governments, that would be empowered to increasingly police what ordinary people say and think. We do need alternative institutions, but we also need to subvert any institution that obstructs our right to offer alternatives. This leads me to conclude that the method of subversion is not contrary to superversion, but necessary for it. What distinguishes the proponent of superversion is they do not allow subversion to become a goal in itself.

Tom Simon on Superversive Fantasy

Mr Simon explores the question, “Does Fantasy equal Subversion?” and takes a Mr Grant to task for his embracing of this idea and goes on in his usual engaging style to draw us into what is wrong with the idea that fantasy, and all art, needs to be subversive. As “My Superversive” himself, Mr Simon obviously disagrees with this madness.

Does Fantasy equal Subversion?


Subversion is a popular word in literary criticism nowadays, and some persons have suggested that it is the principal function of fantasy. Not a function, which may perhaps be true, but the function, the sine qua non of imaginative literature. John Grant has gone so far as to propose that anything that is not subversive is therefore not fantasy at all, but a subliterary ersatz that he derisively dubs Generic Fantasy, ‘this monstrous tide of commercially inspired, mind-numbingly unimaginative garbage — this loathsome mire’. In Mr Grant’s taxonomy, virtually everything derived from Tolkien, or showing his influence, is ‘garbage’ and ‘mire’. He does leave himself just enough room to wriggle out of the logical implication, which is that Tolkien himself did not write fantasy; but he does this by allowing that Tolkien’s work is, in some unspecified way, sufficiently ‘subversive’ to meet the Grantian standard.

Now, this is a remarkable claim for anybody to make. If just one author in the appalling history of the twentieth century was not ‘subversive’, it was J. R. R. Tolkien. He was an enthusiastic supporter of order, authority, hierarchy, in both the temporal and spiritual spheres; a passionately orthodox Catholic, a royalist, a hidebound traditionalist who did not even approve of refrigerators and called aeroplanes ‘Mordor-gadgets’. When Orwell said that a Conservative is ‘a thing that does not exist nowadays’, he was merely proving that he had never met Tolkien. A full study of Tolkien’s conservatism would fill up many books, so here I shall confine myself to a couple of quotations (cited in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien) that sufficiently illustrate the point:

I am not a ‘democrat’, if only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power — and then we get and are getting slavery.

Touching your cap to the Squire may be dam’ bad for the Squire but it’s dam’ good for you.

Now, some foolish and superficial modern people, whose sense of history extends no further back than the remote primaeval dawn of the 1950s, think Tolkien was subversive because he was loudly opposed to ‘robot-factories’ and the destruction of the English countryside. In fact, and this note runs strongly throughout his work, he regarded industrialism and pollution as subversive, the one degrading human nature, the other destroying the order and beauty of nature as a whole. This sentiment became fashionable in the 1960s, and many of those who adopted it were subversives; but their reasons were not Tolkien’s. They opposed industrial civilization because their parents favoured it; Tolkien opposed it because it destroyed the kind of life lived by all the generations of his ancestors.

This leaves Mr Grant in an awkward position. According to his rash definitions, The Lord of the Rings must be ‘Generic Fantasy’ and ‘garbage’ because it is not ‘subversive’; but what most of his audience means by fantasy is ‘stories like The Lord of the Rings’. Mr Grant has not only cut off the branch he is sitting on, he then has the audacity to announce that it alone is the real Tree, and all else is merely a diseased fungoid growth. Often a surgeon must amputate a limb to save the patient; but he amputates the patient to save the limb. Whatever else this is, it is startlingly original.

Read the Rest

Tom “Mr Superversive” Simon talks about Lord of the Rings

Tom Simon had an interestingly superversive article published in the most recent issue of Sci Phi and they have an excerpt from “The Making of the Fellowship” up on their website. Give it a read!

The Making of the Fellowship: Concepts of the Good in The Lord of the Rings

by Tom Simon

In my story I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero.
—The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, no. 183


Evil is its own best propaganda, especially in fiction. Few people can entirely resist its fascination: many a hero has been upstaged in the popular imagination by his opposing villain. Milton’s Satan is a more interesting figure than Milton’s God, and Darth Vader is far more popular than Luke Skywalker. J. R. R. Tolkien actually made his villain the title character of The Lord of the Rings, but wisely chose not to portray him directly in the story. Sauron is always off stage, mysterious and menacing; in his absence, the One Ring becomes the focus of evil. The Ring, and the evil for which it stands, have an unwholesome glamour that draws the attention of nearly every reader and critic. In J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, possibly the definitive work in the field of “Tolkien Studies,” Tom Shippey devotes a 51-page chapter to “concepts of evil” in The Lord of the Rings. I know of no comparable inquiry into Tolkien’s concepts of good. These tend to be mocked (by hostile critics), or passed over in silence, or at best taken for granted.

To the philosopher, this lacuna presents both a symptom and an opportunity. Ethics is not primarily the study of evil; it is the attempt to define and understand the Good, and evil is defined merely by its opposition to that. We know that Sauron is Evil with a capital E; but what is the good to which he is opposed? What did the “speaking peoples” of that place, as Tolkien calls them, consider worth doing, and what, by their standards (and their author’s), made for a life well lived?
All of the major “speaking peoples” were represented in the Fellowship of the Ring: Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits. Let us begin, as Tolkien does, with the hobbits. Hobbits are anachronistic in Middle-earth, and deliberately so; they have clocks and umbrellas, tea-parties and tobacco, as befits an idealized and sanitized version of the rural English among whom Tolkien spent his formative years.
The Prologue, “Concerning Hobbits,” and the opening chapters give us more than enough information to go on with. The Shire, which Tolkien describes as a “half republic half aristocracy” in the letter quoted above,

[They] had hardly any ‘government’. Families for the most part managed their own affairs. Growing food and eating it occupied most of their time. In other matters they were, as a rule, generous and not greedy, but contented and moderate, so that estates, farms, workshops, and small trades tended to remain unchanged for generations.…
They attributed to the king of old all their essential laws; and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules (as they said), both ancient and just.

As Frodo observes, “No hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire.” The few swords in the Shire had not exactly been bent into ploughshares, but they were preserved as mathoms, keepsakes or museum pieces, not for use.

Clearly we are looking at an idealization; which at any rate makes it easier to identify the ideal. This is preindustrial Western man, not as he ever actually was, but as he aspired to be; and sometimes the aspiration was nearly fulfilled. In the peaceful and sheltered society of pre-1914 England, the habit of violence was easy to avoid. Moral softness acted in concert with the Christian moral code, which persisted long after the decline of the churches. The society of the Shire takes this tendency to the point of caricature. All kinds of serious crime, not just murder, were virtually unknown: we are told that the principal duty of the Shirriffs was chasing down stray livestock. It is a utopian society, but utopian in a peculiarly English vein: hedonistic without addiction to pleasure, liberal without the selfishness that is the frequent vice of liberty. Hobbits were governed not by laws and magistrates, let alone police and soldiers, but by their own deeply ingrained sense of the fitness of things – their moral sentiments. Adam Smith would have approved, though probably with a knowing smile at the author’s thumb on the scales.

But it is not enough to be hedonistic and liberal. Pleasure and freedom do not maintain themselves without effort. In the life we know, that means both the moral effort of following “The Rules,” and the physical effort of defending one’s society against enemies who do not share these values. We find both in the Shire. A number of hobbits desert “the Rules” at the first serious temptation, and enlist as bullying Shirriffs under the rule of Saruman, in his guise as “Sharkey.” Robin Smallburrow describes the process:

‘There’s hundreds of Shirriffs all told, and they want more, with all these new rules. Most of them are in it against their will, but not all. Even in the Shire there are some as like minding other folk’s business and talking big. And there’s worse than that: there’s a few as do spy-work for the Chief and his Men.’

Minding other folk’s business: the cardinal sin of the liberal Utopia. In Tolkien’s youth, one of the worst insults one Englishman could offer another was “Nosey Parker.” But every liberal society is vulnerable to Nosey Parkers, as the history of the last hundred years has shown. When Lotho Sackville-Baggins made up his mind to take over the Shire, he was minding other folk’s business with a vengeance; but the other folk were not willing to mind his business by stopping him. Only when Sharkey’s rule became unendurable did the hobbits resolve to throw him and Lotho out; and they did so only with outside help. For the four hobbits of the Fellowship had been trained in a sterner school, and knew how to deal with Sharkey by sterner methods than name-calling and complaining.

Read the rest in Issue #2 from Amazon, Castalia House or Smash Words

The Art of Courage, the original Superversive essay by Tom Simon

One of the earliest articles outlining the idea of superversive fiction was by Tom Simon who blogs over at Bondwine and was published by L. Jagi Lamplighter. He outlines the idea of Superversive Fiction in The Art of Courage. Tom also has an essay in the latest Sci Phi Journal about the good as found in the Lord of the Rings.

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