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What I do have though, and what God gives us plentifully, are mysteries. Midnight Mass ep 3
Your heart's desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
In light of the direction of the thai social media discourse on Mike Flanagan’s 2021 Netflix limited series Midnight Mass, I should clarify that the argument presented in this article, such as it is, has its basis in two theoretical concerns.
First, at this time of such stunted political possibilities, the so-called thai left is somehow still coming to grips with its own cultural legacy. Its defaulting to rote labourist and simplistic anti-royalist rhetoric in analyses of fictive works and in protest speeches, which produce nothing beyond what the mass is already saying, indicates a new status quo at which the thai democracy movement in general has arrived. Yesteryear’s demand of monarchy reform has devolved into a demand for political prisoners’ right to bail, which in turn has been (cannon)watered down to a demand for the right to peaceful assembly. The movementist non-strategy has predictably come up short against a state so insulated by its apparatuses that it hasn’t even had to entertain the possibility of opening a dialogue with the protesters. The constitutional court’s ruling on 10 November 2021 that any call for monarchical reform amounts sedition is but the latest case in point. Likewise, on the cultural terrain, it has been shown time and again that the use of criticism solely as an outward gaze is easily subjugated for consumption under late capitalism. The dramatic interplay between the author’s inscribing of truth into the narrative content and its uncovering by the reader at the site where everyone expects or unexpects it to be, no longer constitutes a dialectic since such sites already operate under real-world assumptions of a capitalist ideology.
Secondly, the thai police’s ramping up of repression against Thalugaz – a loosely organized section of protesters from economically precarious backgrounds who push at the boundaries of the middle-class liberal notion of peaceful protest – has had the public again asking whether the police are still human. This question is fundamentally weird: Its rhetorical usage is existential (How can you commit such brutality and still call yourselves human?) while its literal elicitation (Cops are Swine-Things in human disguise), which only works through metaphors, is ontological. A revolutionary program requires concrete analysis of concrete situations. As far as modes of fiction go, socialist realism manifests the modifier “concrete”, which addresses truth as objects of consciousness, but only well-executed weird fiction can convincingly interrogate the ontological, that is, the dialectical relation between subject and reality, between analysis and situations. Thus, weird fiction’s most relevant lesson to the political subject, and a supplement to realism’s assumption of reality, is criticism of the subject’s own inward processes.
According to the socialist weirdist Joel Lane (RIP), supernatural fiction emerged as a serious mode of literature at the end of the nineteenth century as a result of the revelation that the western Enlightenment project had been nothing more than a discourse of domination. After the apocalyptic rupture that was World (read: Farang’s) War I, horror fiction split into two distinct traditions: existential horror, which tries “to redefine [Judaeo-Christian] beliefs in a secular and morally ambiguous world”, typified by writers such as Ray Bradbury, Dennis Etchison, M.R. James, and so on; and ontological horror, which declares untenable a reality defined by the totalizing humanist perspective, pioneered by such weird luminaries as HP Lovecraft, WH Hodgson, Arthur Machen, etc. A psychoanalytical reading of Midnight Mass yields, in addition to the series’s obvious existential preoccupation with the afterlife, an ontology of loss, one characterized by the contradiction between the loss of desire and the loss of jouissance.
Six hours to Nirvana
For all its judeo-christian trappings, Midnight Mass offers a deeply buddhist narrative experience. This confusion may account for the disappointment, on the part of some audience, with the show’s first half. Indeed, all supernatural mystery is revealed as early as episode 3 when Father Paul Hill confesses that he is none other than Monsignor John Pruitt, rejuvenated by the blood of an angel he had stumbled upon in a desert tomb during his pilgrimage to Damascus. The rest of the show revolves around each character’s confrontation with being human and alive and, eventually, death.
Functionally speaking, the christian and the buddhist afterlife serves the same clinical purpose. In primitive buddhism, the goal of the subject is to achieve Nirvana – the subject’s coming to terms with their mortality – so that they are not reborn into the cycle of life and suffering. Into this original teaching, the Pure Land buddhist sect incorporated an afterlife into their teachings. Their prediction is that many people cannot easily become enlightened and require the metaphor of another life, one after which Nirvana can be achieved. In Midnight Mass, this need for a correct subjective handling of the contradiction between living and not-living characterizes Pruitt, who says in episode 5:
“I was terrified of death, and that’s actually what brought me to God. Trying to understand how death, um, her [his sister’s] death, specifically, could be part of God’s plan. That question, that brought me all the way to the priesthood, actually . . .”
The angel effectively grants Pruitt and, in later episodes, most of the residents on Crockett Island access to an afterlife through a blood covenant that returns them from the dead as vampiric creatures. The show’s existential underpinning plays out in each character’s moment between their first and final inevitable death by exposure to daylight. The revolutionary suicide of the atheistic Riley Flynn, who finds peace not in his mechanistic materialist rationalization of death but in his love for his childhood friend Erin Greene, sets in motion a chain of events that would bring about the climactic arrival of the holy spirit.
In the final episode we see the Crockett congregation who have been turned by the angel’s blood go on a midnight feeding frenzy all over the small island, either killing or turning the rest of the townsfolk. Bev Keane, the congregation’s most zealous member and de facto leader, in a fit of surplus enjoyment, orders all the buildings on the island burned except for the Bev Keane community center within which those of the angel’s covenant would seek shelter come morning. Eventually, the community center and the church are also burned down by the team effort of Erin, the muslim sheriff Hassan, and Sarah Gunning, town doctor and Pruitt’s secret biological daughter. The surviving Crockett residents, now without a shelter against the coming dawn, gather at the town center midst the burning ruin to await in solidarity and sing their last hymn. In this enactment of the communion we can detect the radical baseline understanding of the christian holy spirit used by Slavoj Žižek in his lectures and books: It is “the love between believers” and “the spirit of the community of believers” that arises through self-organization. To this we should also add the communist necessity, the practical consideration based on material necessity for organizational praxis inherent in Maoism and theorized by J. Moufawad-Paul, a basis without which any sociopolitical organizing eventually becomes ineffective. Divested of god and prophets and angels alike, the necessity to confront death, that ultimate mystery that is no mystery to anyone, insists that the surviving Crocketteers cannot do it alone. The erstwhile liturgical mass becomes in earnest the proverbial marxist mass now in control of their opiate. Elsewhere we see some of the main characters reaching or failing to reach Nirvana in their own way: John Pruitt and Mildred Gunning, the love of his life, cradling Sarah’s body in silence; Erin reminiscing her conversation with Riley as she lays bleeding out from the angel’s bite; Hassan and his son Ali praying the Fajr with Bev Keane whimpering nearby alone and inconsolable as the sun rises. Flanagan’s writing, direction, and the congregation’s heartfelt rendition of Nearer My God to Thee combine into one of the most radical cinematic moments in recent years.
The many facets of reactionism
Two common descriptors of Bev Keane I have come across on thai reviews of the series on social media are สลิ่ม and the sarcastic คนดี (a “good” person). The former term most commonly refers to thai conservative reactionaries, the latter to the conservative notion of a morally good person, loyal to the royals and the nation-state. Despite these clear and functional definitions, eclectic application of the terms has divided the thai democracy movement along unnecessary theoretical lines; those who do not completely agree regarding tactics or principles with the liberal consensus, which is a very vocal portion of the protesters, are offhandedly labelled สลิ่ม. One example of this kind of extempore สลิ่ม includes an acquaintance of mine who suggests, from analysis of similar movements in other countries, that protest shouldn’t be relied on as a vehicle of social change since it is a tactic independent of any concrete strategic goal. My own experience with the internal culture and systemic strength of the thai state apparatus seems to corroborate this assessment. Legal transactions in the ten to hundred millions of baht are still made on a regular basis between the apparatuses and private companies both international and domestic, unaffected by outcries over royal and military spending no matter how loud or whether they were heard in the parliament or in the streets. Only last week a meeting was held between a USAmerican arms manufacturer, a branch of the royal thai armed forces, and a thai limited company, discussing an upgrade program for a whole fleet of vehicles as if the economy hasn’t been ravaged by a global pandemic. In Midnight Mass, labelling Bev Keane a สลิ่ม or reactionary can also prove problematic if we judge reactionism by the content of a subject’s belief (i.e., devotion to a non-inclusive version of god) since sheriff Hassan, one of the obvious favorites of the show, also harbors a devotion to the USAmerican nation-state evident in his ignorance of the role of US imperialism that led to the attacks on 9/11, something that Flanagan’s script tries to downplay with Hassan’s personal but uncritical anecdotes about state apparatuses such as the FBI and NYPD whose actual legal crimes are far more violent than racist treatment of muslim officers.
Does this mean that our ontology has become untenable at this stage of the cultural status quo? We should take a step back and return to the fundamental Maoist outlook regarding the universality of contradiction. As Chairman Mao says:
“The universality or absoluteness of contradiction has a twofold meaning. One is that contradiction exists in the process of development of all things, and the other is that in the process of development of each thing a movement of opposites exists from beginning to end.”
In our present context, this means that contradiction exists within a subject’s conscious beliefs. Psychoanalysis may further suggest that a primary contradiction within a psychoanalytic subject is one between conscious and unconscious, that is, between belief and ideology. The royalist ethos is certainly founded on pure reactionism against the threat of social change, but to a lesser extent this is also the case for those protesters who have opted to call themselves “the people” (ราษฎร) after the 1932 People’s Party to identify with an alternative authority belonging to an imaginary premodern moment without understanding how such moments and their practices led to the current social order in the first place. The study of contradiction is endless. My suggestion would be that we emphasize the disciplined application of this universality in political work and ditch any confidence we may have in truth, since truth itself is ontologically suspect.
Desire and jouissance
Simply put, what is at stake for most of the characters in their moment of rupture is desire, the human love for others, while Bev Keane only had jouissance, the divine love for the big Other, to lose. Father Pruitt abandons his divine mission at the precise moment he confesses to Mildred that the real motive behind his bringing the angel to Crockett Island was so that the two of them could have a second chance at life together; he KNEW all along that god was simply an excuse. The contradiction between his belief in god and his motive, however, is not a simple matter of total opposition: neither are isolated truths that have nothing to do with one another. For was it not the bedridden and senile Mildred to whom Pruitt, still in the guise of Father Paul, administered his first and only eucharist outside of regular services? God, hitherto sustained by a surplus jouissance produced by Pruitt from Joe Collie’s murder and the massacre at the church, loses its exploited subject when he finally verbalizes his preterite cathexis. This moment of libidinal re-reinvestment never arrives for Bev Keane.
There is a temptation to arbitrarily delineate desire and jouissance based on their respective object. But it is my working hypothesis that jouissance operates according to a specific subjective process, not to a specific content. Starting from the formulation of surplus jouissance from Marx’s concept of surplus value in Lacan’s Seminar XVI, we can draw a parallel between the subject of value and the subject of enjoyment to better understand the latter.
1. The subject of value refers to a worker in a capitalist labour market. The worker produces surplus value, say, for a firm, most of which becomes sustenance for the capitalist relation of production while the worker themself receives a meager portion of this surplus so that labour power is reproduced. However, this particular subject has no class consciousness, and they feel a measure of pride that their hard work has made the shareholders richer. This is where enjoyment comes in.
2. The subject of enjoyment: Suppose that they now work for a repressive state apparatus, be it the army, the police, or in a repressive capacity at a social institution. What this subject produces as profit, to be circulated within the organizational culture, is surplus enjoyment extracted from the subject’s “emotional” labour while beating protesters in the name of peace, disappearing dissidents for the royal family, torturing suspects for money since criminals have no recourse, or forcing gallons of water down a cadet’s throat for the sake of tradition. This extraction is disavowed in front of the public, with performative claims to operating within legality or strict adherence to the institution’s rulebook, because functionally a repressive state apparatus is not supposed to produce a surplus. Notice that in the thai police/armed forces Line groups or casual workplace conversations, the first concern is never that a suspect or political prisoner has been killed in custody, but rather to make it a lesson that the murderer, one of their own, got careless and didn’t turn off the camera. The sense of institutional pride, far from originating in their propagandistic duty to the people, comes from the meager portion of jouissance produced in that region outside the law but well within the bounds of power culture. Hence, the first rule of the thai armed forces academies is to never speak to outsiders of the injuries done on you, and to treasure abuse as a sign of strength that distinguishes cadets from civilians. As with the capitalist relation of production, most of the surplus jouissance produced by the subject of enjoyment becomes profit for an Other, the institutional culture, so that the culture itself is reproduced, leaving crumbs of that jouissance for the noncoms, the cadet commanders, or the riot police to enjoy and reproduce their “emotional” labour power.
As is the nature of all subjects, even the most democratic-spirited of activists are caught up in the production of jouissance in one form or another. For myself I can honestly say that there is a certain enjoyment to the sight of Bev Keane in her final moments, excluded from love and the holy spirit, clawing at the dirt, digging her own unmarked and empty grave.
The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug; their feet are caught in the net they have hidden. Psalm 9:15
 Joel Lane, “This Spectacular Darkness,” reprinted in This Spectacular Darkness: critical essays by Joel Lane (Tartarus Press, 2020), 1 – 4.
 See for example Laura Pitcher’s “Squid Game & The Rise Of Anti-Capitalist Entertainment,” https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/squid-game-netflix-anticapitalist?fbclid=IwAR2O_QaB8JpbNkLkaoRBTcpwfInq4KYK15USwygHh_WSmZFMzSCpIb8a-84.
 Kazushige Shingu; Tetsuo Funaki (2008), ” ‘Between Two Deaths’: The Intersection of Psychoanalysis and Japanese Buddhism,” Theory and Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1177/0959354307087885, 256-257.
 Slavoj Žižek, “Meditation on Michelangelo’s Christ on the Cross”, https://scholarship.rollins.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1042&context=specs, 7.
 John Milbank; Slavoj Žižek, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?, (MIT Press, 2009), 282-283.
 J. Moufawad-Paul, The Communist Necessity: Prolegomena to Any Future Radical Theory, (Kersplebedeb, 2014).
 Midnight Mass episode 6.
 Mao Zedong, On Contradiction, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_17.htm.
 See Tad DeLay’s discussion on fundamentalism and delusion in God is Unconscious: Psychoanalysis & Theology (Wipf & Stock, 2015), 6-7.
 Cormac Gallagher, translator; Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XVI, (lacaninireland.com), http://www.lacaninireland.com/web/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Book-16-from-an-Other-to-the-other.pdf, I 6 – I 7.