Psycholonials – Part 2: Text and Subtext

This is the second part in a short series written by Victoria, who you can follow at @arachonteur. You can also check out Burning Down the House, her Homestuck fan project.

“It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.”

Japanese game auteur, Hideo Kojima

You are 100% certain Hideo Kojima said that. [1]

>The text and subtext of Psycholonials are in conflict.

Sourced from @puppetmotel

Psycholonials operates on two levels – the surface level and the way this surface level speaks indirectly about other things. The surface level might not exist solely for the ways it can speak about other things, but it’s too shallow to exist without its subtext.

The surface level of the story sucks. It’s really, really bad. The bulk of the story of Psycholonials – things like Zhen’s previous cancellation, her meteoric rise to popularity, her schemes and pranks, and even the fall of America are all told off-screen. In the recount of the setup for the story, I successfully excised two fairly major characters: Abby, Zhen’s successful influencer friend, and Percy, a pathetic little simp (in the story’s words, not mine). I’m going to continue excising Percy for now. Will he come up again? We’ll see.

In Chapter 2, Abby and Zhen start a crypto scheme as “pranxis”, the form leftist ideology takes within the Jubilite Manifesto. While Abby’s been living off the funds of her rich, conservative parents, starting a clown revolution takes more money than that, and Zhen’s plan involves catfishing Abby’s mom and convincing her to invest in cryptocurrency, which is actually funding Zhen’s clown empire.

Abby’s parents never show up on screen. They do not speak, and their plotline is met with “How’s this subplot going?” in a very detached way. They don’t even get a presence on the cast page, which includes completely inconsequential guys named like, Nintendo and Hardbody. Pete Buttigieg, who appears in 3 images, gets a cast page appearance, but Abby’s parents don’t. A few chapters later, Abby’s parents die, as an indirect result of Z’s actions. This happens off-screen too. And the narrative wants us to care – this is one of several things that goes wrong that leads Z into the finale of the story – but I just… don’t, because they’re not present in the story. They’re even less people than any given throwaway clown.

The bulk of the surface-level developments of Psycholonials are not well-told or even compelling in most cases, but in being so lamely expressed and underdeveloped, it does an interesting trick: it sort of forces engagement with its subtext. You can’t really appreciate developments in the story because they’re shallow, and they’re shallow enough that it makes you ask, “Why is this here, and what is this doing, non-literally?” And the answer is that this is not a story about killing cops and raising a clown army to very justifiably get the United States’ ass, but a story about Homestuck, and its impact on specifically Andrew Hussie.

In turn, things that don’t make sense in the literal story make more sense in the nonliteral one – it makes more sense that Zhen could just leave New Whimsiphae without being killed instantly by the United States death machines if you read it not as “Zhen is leaving the Jubilite armies behind” but as “Hussie is leaving Homestuck behind”. The US has had people killed over less, and this kind of “nobody cares, really” thing really forces the end when it comes to this kind of analysis.

It’s a shame – a lot of the literal beats hit are extremely interesting. At one point, Zhen, after getting COVID and taking a bullet to the leg, gives a clown named Joculine the role of second in command. While I’ll be talking more about Joculine later, at this point she provides an interesting question. She repeatedly asks Zhen, “what’s next?” which, in the text, is about a revolution that threatens the stability of America. It’s an extremely interesting, complex question that could be answered through the medium of interactive fiction. But it just kind of pisses Zhen off, because she doesn’t know. It pisses me off because it’s only a question about “If a revolution succeeds, what would happen next?” in the most vapid possible way – it’s as much, if not even more, a question of “what happens next in Homestuck?”,which is not nearly as important a question.

The answer to “what happens next in Homestuck?” is always “something insane, obviously”.

The textual level is significantly more interesting, on all fronts, and answering this question in the context of the surface level feels almost critical. “Revolution” isn’t intrinsically anti-capitalist, or leftist, and Hussie, et. al spent 100,000 words in 2019 telling us all about how if we don’t have a plan post-revolution, we will inevitably rebuild the world we left behind, with all its flaws intact, with The Homestuck Epilogues.

Since not everybody’s read Homestuck or The Homestuck Epilogues, I should explain – I wouldn’t say revolution is a core theme of Homestuck, in any sense, but it’s sort of an inevitable topic when the themes of Homestuck come up. Homestuck is largely about the fight for control over a new universe. In a lot of reads on Homestuck, this new universe is treated as a metaphor for the new Internet.

“Legend holds that Skaia exists as a dormant crucible of unlimited creative potential.”

With the release of The Homestuck Epilogues, this new universe, despite being wrenched free from the grasp of overtly capitalist, fascist villains, is loaded down with the cultural remains of the Earth they left behind. This is literal in some cases – the new Earth, dubbed “Earth-C” is literally the Earth they left behind, transported to the new universe through time and space shenanigans typical of Homestuck. It’s also possessed of the same cultural institutions that were so antagonistic within Homestuck – the antagonists of The Homestuck Epilogues are the heroes of Homestuck gone wrong. Jane Crocker, a character whose arc in Homestuck revolves around her search for identity after being raised from birth to embody a brand, rebuilds the corporation that caused her such pain in Homestuck. Dirk Strider, whose arc in Homestuck is (broadly speaking) about his relationship to his tendency to treat people as puppets to be manipulated, callously puppets around characters from Homestuck in his new role as metatextual author figure of The Homestuck Epilogues.

It’s a distinct recognition of a very real failure point in revolutions – that it’s just as often a change in names only. With Zhen trying to destroy America, “what’s next” is a really, really good question to ask of her. Unfortunately, Psycholonials’s surface level is a vector for its subtext and its analogies first, and its surface level is left to rot.

[1] Mark Fisher, the person who coined the term “capitalist realism”, the actual thing I’m referencing here, attributed this quote to both Slavoj Zizek and Fredric Jameson, but I couldn’t actually find any sources for Zizek saying it, so Jameson gets the wiki link.

>Psycholonials, despite being wrapped in trauma resulting from it, refuses to critique its past.

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

– Antediluvian philosopher-ninja, Dirk Strider.

You are 100% certain Dirk Strider said that.

Sourced from @drdevonprice

I once spent a few days reading through the Homestuck author commentary, using a deprecated old Chrome extension that displayed it under the page. There was exactly one moment that stuck out as interesting, beyond Hussie making really offensive jokes and recoiling at how much Bill Cosby showed up in the story. It was Hussie referring to the dancestor intermission, in which they created 12 characters for the sole purpose of making fun of fans, characters that ranged from insensitive to horrifically racist, as “actually kinda bad”.

It’s really the only time I’ve ever seen Andrew Hussie admit that the writing in something they made is bad.

They would dunk on their art for being bad sometimes, but it’s not really controversial to just say that sometimes, Homestuck looks bad. It’s the nature of the beast, and the ways it looks bad are still compelling, most of the time. That kind of self-reflection stops there, though. “Actually kinda bad” is the most reflection and self-criticism you’ll get out of the person who more or less codified an entire medium, and this repeats itself in Psycholonials. Despite being wrapped in Homestuck, very rarely is the actual text of the Jubilite Manifesto, the stand-in for Homestuck, explored.

There’s a few moments – the Manifesto’s gender triangle is pretty similar in nature to troll romance, a lens for the world so shockingly coherent that people still use it. It’s hard to not think of that as a parallel to Homestuck, but critique, from any angle, is shockingly missing. It feels almost like an illusion. You’d think it’d be there, because it makes sense for it to be there. Psycholonials is trying to portray Z as a flawed character making mistakes, using a manifesto she wrote to lead a cult into war against the US, before backing out and deciding it was too much for her.

Something Psycholonials wants you to know is that Andrew Hussie has changed. They’re not the belligerent racist-for-shock-value (not meaningfully different from a racist with no qualifiers to me) they were in the past and they’re on the side of the good guys. Characters in Psycholonials talk the talk. Potshots are taken at the United States, again rightfully so. And the things that everyone knows are bad are condemned – Z is openly anti-imperialist, and the story openly rejects and laughs at any potential read in which Z “went too far” in revolting against the United States.

But in terms of the text, the Jubilite Manifesto is never spoken of, outside of the terms pranxis and the gender triangle. Pranxis is effectively just praxis, but with clown bullshit – in the text of Psycholonials, this is stealing from the rich. There’s that aforementioned crypto scam – this is what pranxis is. It’s shallow, in a way that seems almost purposeful, coming from an author who once infamously put paragraphs of pirate-themed pornography in their story for the sake of characterizing a character who was, at that point, a secondary character who was slated to die within pages. And it’s understandable, to some extent, but it’s disappointing. It’s afraid of its own stakes, and is more interested in presenting the story of the Homestuck fandom and its massive reach, and its impact on Hussie than anything else.

But you can’t have the Homestuck fandom without Homestuck, and discussing why Homestuck was popular with teens is an interesting question, because on all fronts, Homestuck is a fucking mess. It’s a nightmare web of symbols, signs, themes, characters, facts, etc. and it’s dense enough that there’s plenty of reads on Homestuck, not all of which line up cleanly with each other. Zhen herself is even a Homestuck. One of the posters that signal her interests to the audience is a sticker of Karkat, and 4/13 marked on a calendar with a house. Homestuck is never mentioned by name, but we all know. We all know. And in her final letter to the audience, she refers back to Terezi. Again not by name, but in reference to the geographic layout of Martha’s Vineyard in relation to Nantucket resembling a decapitated dragon.

Homestuck is not mentioned by name, but its presence is thoroughly felt, and this makes it shocking in its absence.

But in comparing the development of Jubilites as a force to Homestuck fandom, it gets messy. Of note is that early in the story, whenever the Jubilites grow as a group of people, it’s because Zhen kills cops. There is a direct line between clout and killing cops. It’s self-aggrandizing in a way that feels almost parodic. If it is actually a joke, it fails to land. If it’s not a joke… what parts of Homestuck feel even remotely comparable to killing a cop.

(Except for that one part in [S] Cascade, where Bec Noir does literally kill a cop.)

The only real comparison is that they are both spectacle, which… I don’t know about this one. It feels revisionist.

Homestuck got popular on a lot of fronts at once – Hivebent [2] introduced a lot of things that fandom still fixates on today. There’s a lot of points where discussion of characters with time travel powers distinct from Homestuck’s form of time travel sort of warps itself back around the understanding of time travel as expressed in Homestuck. People still use troll romance terms, and I still see class/aspect pairs in people’s bios! Like, if there’s any way that Homestuck really got people into it, it’s because it gave people a lot of tools for self-identification and expression, through a unique language of symbols and systems that hasn’t really been captured since.

A few notable fan videos. Top-to-bottom: A fan animation based off a joke album made by Toby Fox, one of Octopimp’s videos, and a massive fan collaboration animation based off of the Homestuck song Rex Duodecim Angelus. A true land of contrasts.

This isn’t even really considering the aspect of fanworks getting people into Homestuck – the way I would get people into Homestuck in 2012 was through sharing Octopimp’s Ask Gamzee videos. Not a single one of these ways Homestuck fandom grew are comparable to killing a cop, but it is the backbone on which Z builds her audience. Obviously the Jubilites enjoy the part about making clownsonas and expressing themselves through the gender triangle – these two things are the only vector upon which any Jubilite is characterized within Psycholonials, but to act like that’s the only impact of Homestuck on people is… it sort of disarms its own place in culture.

In place of saying anything meaningful about the way Homestuck impacted people and why people liked it, Z kills cops.

(Which, again, I want to restate for the audience, is a good thing to do, in Psycholonials.)

Previously, I recapped how we got here, and here, we really got into it with Psycholonials’ missing potential. So now, let’s talk about its biggest misstep, based in what the text is doing rather than what it could have done.

And then we can finally talk about what I actually liked about it.

[2] Editor’s note: Hivebent is Act 5 Act 2 (yeah) of Homestuck, which introduced the troll characters and whole new dynamics that helped shape Homestuck’s fandom.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s