EPisode 6: Welcome to Night Vale - [TITLE REDACTED]
I always say I’m going to disconnect my microphone when not in use but do I ever do it? Nope. (Sigh)
I need to open up with a joke don’t I? (Pause) My existence. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.
I never said it was a good joke, did I? Hi! It’s M. Welcome to Episode 6 of Miscellany Media Reviews. Today, I want to talk about the hit podcast Welcome to Night Vale, and by that, I mean I want to give a much overdue (but hopefully) unheard answer to a question stemming from a conversation I had with a classmate in graduate school. So we’re talking a two year delay, here. But in my half-hearted defense, this was towards the end of our program, and I had a lot of graduations to go to and my own to prepare for. Consequently, I was just mailing it in during a conversation with someone I didn’t particularly get along with in a context that I’m 90% ready to call a (in quotes here) joke.
But I might be getting too far ahead of myself here. So let me bring it back. Welcome to Night Vale is a production of Night Vale Presents. (Pause) Oh my word, I’ve listened to that show far too much. Look, I went into it a little bit during my Within the Wires episode, but yeah, I don’t blame you if you don’t want to go back and play catch up. Welcome to Night Vale is a serial fiction podcast created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. In this case, the word “serial” may not be the most appropriate. There are some multi-episode plots, world building moments, and running jokes, but you can jump in and be up to speed fairly quickly.
Regardless, the premise of the show is that you are listening in on the local radio programming of a small desert community in the American Southwest where all conspiracies and everyone is well aware of it all, from the constant surveillance, the mysterious otherworldly beings that frequent local hotspots, and some questionable business practices utilized by the various small businesses the town depends on. From an outsider’s perspective, these things are deeply troubling, but to a citizen of Night Vale, it’s just a Tuesday.
Now, if you couldn’t guess by the sheer existence of MM Reviews, I kind of have a weird brain that does seemingly pointless things like pontificating too much about something as absurd as Shrek the musical. I have to think way too much about why it is a like a thing and why I’m inclined to invest so much of myself into a thing. Instead of just enjoying the thing. This was probably a habit that I first learned in university. In university, I couldn’t keep the media I love separate from my academic pursuits. I was constantly trying to blend the two whenever I got free reign on an essay. I’ve made some passing remarks to that end. In my defense, I was a political science major with an intense interest in political theory. That isn’t to say that political theory is a boring subject. (Pause) Usually. However, it does lack something in the sense that while it’s technically not less whole, it could always be better with this additional piece. Political theory, whether or not it wants to admit it, can only benefit from dancing with the fictional. You can outline strict principles all you want, but fictional endeavors are what lets you see the way these different factors work together or against each other in a more tangible.
That’s the stage, I love overanalyzing the things I enjoy. I have a specific way in which I feel compelled to do this. And along that line of slightly discombobulated thought, this podcast was owed this treatment. That fall I had gotten to see my first live show of Welcome to Night Vale. It was their Ghost Stories show, and it was pretty great. So this weird and unnecessary dissection was bound to happen. And with my being in graduate school, I was under intense pressure to make profound observations. Add to that, the first novel had been released rather recently, which gives insight to the actually workings of Night Vale without having to rely on a single perspective so much. Yeah, super endeavor.
So, all good academic endeavors start with some sort of observation or question. And that observation may be the aforementioned, I need to say something profound because I’m stuck in this rat race and want to shut down the annoying people around me. Perhaps that could have worked, but even I’m not spiteful enough for this to sustain me. It was an inciting force. That’s it.
And it’s not like there isn’t a lot that could be talked about in Night Vale. (Music fades in) While the focus of most discussions is Night Vale’s absurdism, there’s a lot there that can be unpacked every time an otherworldly figure or place or event happens. These things provide fodder for us to reassess our relationship with the reality we would otherwise take for granted.
In this case, I felt compelled to explain just how EVERYONE in Night Vale could be content living in such clear chaos and in the absence of the freedoms the listeners have grown to expect in their own daily lives. I mean, think about how the public reacts to every report of privacy breeches from companies never mind secretive government organizations with questionable motives. (Music peaks and then starts descending) And yet, to the people of Night Vale being asked to speak louder into the supposedly hidden mics or to do anything to make this surveillance easier is not disconcerting. The presences of the Hooded Figures aren’t questioned. Time may or may not work but who cares. Everyone seems content and not frantically packing up the cars to leave.
However, one of the premises my argument depends on is that if people weren’t happy, they have the ability and agency to do something about it. And frankly, that premise could be hotly debated. But either way, it’s not like the people of Night Vale languish in misery. The two Night Vale novels that I would also recommend to you drill that point in. People go about their daily lives and find a great deal of happiness despite or in spite of all it. To me, that presented a very interesting puzzle. Even more puzzling, though, was how sympathetic I was to that feeling. For better or worse, I could easily imagine myself building a very happy life in that small desert community, checking out Mission Grove Park or taking a few classes at Night Vale Community College. Assuming nothing earth shattering happens on days when I have class.
Yeah, I know. That seems weird.
I mean, I’ve spent far too many hours of my life reading about the virtues of freedom, privacy, and proper democracy. And I think it should go without saying that I think libraries should be safe havens rather than Jurassic Park-esque enclosures for librarians or that a Glow Cloud dropping dead animals everywhere just shouldn’t be a thing. I mean, that’s a fall hazard. That’s an accident waiting to happen.
Now at this point, you might be saying that things like the Sheriff’s Secret Police, meaningless attempts by an ineffective City Council to hide from their actual responsibilities, and terrible attempts to cover up the existence of angels aren’t as fictional as I’m suggesting. Fair enough. But the—But the Glow Cloud thing. I mean, come on. Give me that one.
After quite a bit of thought which justified re-listening to all the episodes that were out thus far and rereading the novel a few times, the conclusion I came up with is that Welcome to Night Vale was representative of a shift in our priorities, how we perceive utopia, and what makes a perfect society.
(Music gradually fades in)
Thomas More was the one who coined the term utopia with his book called Utopia published in 1516. It was a satirical take on the political corruption and religious hypocrisy Moore saw around him in sixteenth century Europe. But because of this motivation or (in quotes here) inspiration, as it were, More focused on the way society functions. While this includes social customs, including slavery, I’d argue that it’s more efficient to think of this more of a discussion of the mechanisms that go into a supposedly perfect society rather than a complete depiction of a perfect society, even for those times. It was about operations. How should a (in quotes because of the slavery thing) good society be operated? (Music peaks and then fades out)
And maybe you think that’s the only proper approach to the question. While I don’t disagree with that notion, I don’t agree with the absolutism of that I hear underlying it. Apologies if it’s not actually there. Because by most hallmarks, not only is Night Vale not a utopia, it’s probably a dystopia. Okay. It actually is a dystopia. And maybe when I first tried to make this argument all those years ago (softer) not that long ago (normal) I was pushing my point too strongly by glossing over or downplaying the very real problems with the socio-political order of Night Vale, and that’s why I was so unpersuasive. Because to deny the real facts of the situation is to essentially disprove your own argument.
So let me amend my argument to you all. While I don’t think Night Vale could be called a utopia in any proper sense of the word…. In fact, I see that there is a very strong argument that Night Vale is actually a dystopia. In fact, it may be the best example of a dystopia if you need to provide an illustration for one. For whatever reason. Like if you’re a teacher and need to illustrate the concept to students. That would be a really great lesson, now that I think about it. It would certainly be really interesting….
But despite being a dystopia, there’s something that sets Night Vale apart from the typical understanding of dystopia, something that is decidedly utopian but has been fairly neglected in discussions about utopia or utopian societies. At the time, I said that this singular characteristic actually shifted the scales, turning Night Vale from a conceptual dystopia to a utopia. Now, however, I think that’s a bit… Much? Dramatic? Needlessly sensational to get attention? Either way, this trait I’m about to explain is important, and I still stand behind that. However, it doesn’t completely overwrite all the societal issues in Night Vale. The disappearances orchestrated by the Sheriff’s Secret Police alone is concerning enough never mind all the things that plague Night Vale. Back then, I was far too naïve about this ills. Or I just didn’t give them much thought. Correction, I didn’t give it enough thought or thought that steered in the right direction. I mean, I did have a lot of other things in my mind at the time, and I was blinded by my sheer excitement at this not profound but a fun insight.
(Music fades in)
So now, after I’ve taken the necessary time and thought on the subject, I’ve got a better argument. I’d say that Night Vale offers a new point of consideration thus far ignored in philosophical discussions of utopian societies.
Namely, Night Vale is far more inclusive than any society that has ever been or maybe could ever be hoped for. Its citizens accept each other regardless of race, orientation, corporeal form, shape-shifting ability, or profession. The aforementioned Glow Cloud that drops dead animals in its awake is the head of the PTA and does a fairly good job at it. A literal five headed dragon ran for mayor as did a woman without a face and who was getting up in years. Oh, and it’s radio host is a gay man who—for a while—was too busy pining over the new scientist in town to actually do his job. (Music peaks and begins to fade.)
That’s pretty inclusive, which is pretty neat.
But on the other hand, it’s not something that has seemed all that relevant when discussing society through this particular lens. The lens first crafted by Thomas More. Is that a problem? A lot of other research is being done in political science in general and political theory specifically through other lenses about inclusivity and social tolerance. So it’s not a neglected topic. However, I would say it does matter. Because this lens and the terms dystopia and utopia are incredibly important. These are the theoretical terms that have seeped into the popular consciousness without losing any of their meaning or being distorted in any way. The rise of young adult dystopian literature is a perfect illustration of this. For young people who may not take politics classes or study political theory or even for those who did, these books were integral to their political education and awakening because of how approachable and enjoyable the subject was. In addition, it was a group endeavor, creating a venue for young people to discuss and hash out ideas that could later be put in to practice.
But these (in quotes) educational materials, as it were, focused on the act of identifying and reacting to broken governments, creating a gap that Night Vale and perhaps only Night Vale is able to fill.
Back to this proposed hole in the definition of utopia. Tolerating differences was not a concept Thomas More would live to see because he lived in a pre-globalization age in which to be an Englishman—for example—meant looking a certain way, acting a certain way, and believing a certain creed. You would then only have to build a society or a series of mechanisms around which an Englishman could be the best Englishman he could be. And perhaps by an extension of this failing (though I’m making no effort to prove that here) any more modern conception of utopia simply assumes that people will all have a space to exist, in which they can do what they wish without fear of governmental reprisals, and be completely satisfied or fulfilled with that.
But that doesn’t always seem like enough, at least recent years have made me and I’m sure a bunch of other people question if that is enough. Because human beings have the tendency to be, well, fairly horrible to each other under the flimsiest of pretenses. Co-existence is nice, but a government can’t guarantee it by saying we don’t care who you are. The government might not care, but someone else probably does.
(Music fades in)
But that’s not the case in Night Vale. There are spats and feuds, to be sure, but those aren’t based on differences only disagreements stemming from someone’s actual actions or choices. Even the pettiest grievance—that between Cecil the host and his brother-in-law Steve Carlsburg is not a matter of distaste but justified by Steve’s perceived inability to properly look after Cecil’s much beloved niece or complete inaction in the case of Janice’s girl scout cookies. And of course, reactions to actions however negative are completely acceptable. These things were the product of someone’s choices and may directly impact someone’s life by, let’s say, making him take on the task of selling copious amounts of girl scout cookies in a community that doesn’t seem very, well, cookie-driven. (Music peaks and begins to fade out) (Softer) Actually, I’d consider that to be another dystopian trait, but that’s just me…
(Normal) Well, there’s also Carlos’s perfect hair, but that’s like truly perfect hair. Or Cecil thinks it’s perfect hair. Probably. Maybe. This gets into how reliable Cecil is as a narrator. I mean they say love is blind, so even if he’s all good on anything else, well…
Back then, I argued that this was a critical aspect of utopia, even if it was overlooked. I still stand by this. Without it even in the best case scenario, you’re talking about indifference. And I just can’t help but think that indifference is not enough.
Real world example for a second. I live in an apartment building where my neighbors and I largely practice mutual indifference. (Softer) I say “largely” because I’m pretty sure they can hear me recording my podcasts including my frequent mistakes and repeating lines which is making me really insecure right now. Yeah like really really insecure right now. Really. (Normal) I think the closest I get to actually interacting with one of my neighbors is my continually telling his dog that he is a very good dog and a very handsome dog. (Pause) Hey someone needs to tell that doggo about his status as good doggo and it might as well be me. But back to the point, while it’s nice to live without the judgment of my neighbors, mostly, there’s still something missing. It’s, well, lonely. There’s something weird about seeing the same person every day or every other day but not knowing what their voice sounds like. It’s a weird cognitive dissonance type thing that occasionally makes me question reality. Is that just me? It can’t be. Human beings aren’t solitary creatures. We need social interactions in the same way we need air and water. Under Night Vale’s model, we’d have that. No matter who you are. Add to that, we still depend on each other for goods and services. Something you don’t have to worry about relative to your apartment neighbors but something incredibly relevant when you leave the house. Does indifference mean that you can shop indiscriminately at any venue or does it mean that you are left to fend for yourself and to find a place that cares enough to be willing to engage in the transaction? Are transactions guaranteed under indifference? Or do we just not care if somebody who walks in our store is going to be able to get the good we usually sell? Because they can always just get them form somebody else, right?
Indifference is great and all, but it’s still subject to consequence and interpretation. And if you choose the behavior, you have to choose these other things or at least accept the inevitability of them. Which may not make this the pinnacle of perfection you thought it was.
(Music starts again and then gradually fades out)
And at the time, I thought that was a pretty strong argument, though—like I said—it was stretching itself thin. In putting too much emphasis on human solidary being a cure-all relative to all societal ills, which Night Vale has plenty of, I created something that could not be argued out of a surprisingly decent argument. Sooooo it many ways, the fabric of my argument probably just ripped in two from being stretched too far.
But in the moment, I wasn’t called out for that. Instead, my conversation partner asked me what I thought of the radio as an object (of insert her somewhat forgotten words here).
Yeah, bad on me for not remembering what she said. My bad. I’m not going to mince words about that. But my memory lapse is partially due to a sort of defensive reaction. Because—as I saw it—her question seemed to go against the entire argument I had just made. (Music peaks and begins to fade out) If I remembered the actually wording of her question, that might not be true, and her question might have made more sense. I think she meant it as the radio as an object of connection or interconnectedness. Maybe she meant it as an object of communication which would have been a little blunt, but hey, I don’t remember what she said, so I have no business to judge her for it.
Also, once again, this may have been the product of my misdirected argument. By focusing on the ability to accept, I thought I had all my bases covered, but not so much. It was an assumption I had to make for the sake of time. So it was partially out of desperation, but it still wasn’t \ a great thing to do. I assumed that by saying Night Vale citizens don’t focus on external signs when judging a person’s worth, I covered a larger argument in a very indirect way. Namely, the physical is not so important in Night Vale, and this seems to go beyond physical characteristics. Things that by all senses are real can’t be assumed to be real. Like clocks. That one drove Carlos crazy. In Night Vale, if you actually see something, you genuinely may be better off “saying nothing and drinking to forget” because you can’t in any way be sure you actually saw something or are capable of making sense of whatever stimuli hit your eyes.
But the radio is a safe bet, right? It’s how we are hearing this information. The radio is definitely real. Yes, it’s definitely real, but you had to put emphasis on it. The more supernatural aspects of their lives have left the citizens of Night Vale with a disjointed relationship with reality and with the physical, and now you can’t assume that anything is real. You have to argue it. You can’t just trust the realness of something. Now, because you can’t trust that something is real, you can’t put the emphasis on the object as anything or in any form.
And that’s—perhaps—a better way of explaining what the allure of Night Vale as a community and Welcome to Night Vale as a podcast is. Well, partially. I need to not make the same mistakes that I did in the past and bracket what needs to be bracketed. As a podcast, Welcome to Night Vale is just amazing on a technical level, and I don’t want to detract from that in anyway. So I hope that this doesn’t seem reductionist. But the world of Night Vale is one in which physical traits that define someone’s life in other places don’t have the same emphasis or power over us. Because, you know, they might not exist. They could very well not exist. Actually, best to assume they don’t exist.
Think about those status symbol items people normally attach a great sense of self-worth to. Ironically, the first example you might think of is a high end watch, and clocks are a bit of a loaded subject in Night Vale. Suppose you put your entire sense of self into one thing only to find out that this thing doesn’t exist. That would sting, yes. But there is more to you than that item. You existed before that item, and odds are, you will exist after. You need to realize this, but not only do you need to realize this. You need those around you to do it as well and validate your new understanding of the self.
The same could be true about wealth or degrees issued by high-end universities. Suppose they don’t exist. It’s possible they don’t exist. What are you now?
(Music gradually fades in)
Night Vale both as a podcast and as a community bends towards absurdism, which supports my claim. The universe is chaotic and without purpose. Human beings are just as useless. Why should that suddenly change when it comes to those things around? If we don’t matter, how can our degrees of merit matter? How can the objects we care about matter?
(Music peaks than gradually fades out)
Rather than fall into despair when realizing the universe is purposeless and indifferent to one’s existence, citizens of Night Vale have found a peace or what could be better described as a liberation rather than an attack on their personal autonomy and a reason to despair. Ironically, by being able to live in the face of so many outward signs of their cosmic insignificance, citizens of Night Vale have found a different kind of freedom.
This shouldn’t be used to minimize the horrors of these conspiracies when examining them at face value in the same way that the study of literature as a way of communicating political thought doesn’t minimize the act of engaging in philosophical arguments. To that end, the horrors of life can’t always be embraced or coped with. So when something like Strex Corp comes along and crosses that line, rebelling against it is the only acceptable option. These other conspiracies are relatively harmless in comparison and largely allow for the citizens of Night Vale to simply adjust and find a great deal of happiness, more so perhaps because they are unencumbered by the materialism or tribalism the real world is plagued with.
As to that last point, make of it what you will. I may be stretching my argument again. In which case, rest assured that I will circle back to the issue in another two years. Already made a reminder in my calendar. Or maybe happiness as a metric or value or virtue just isn’t your jam. Fair enough. At the time I was super into a guy whose researched centered on happiness as a metric for societal wellbeing or prosperity. On that subject, I don’t have any more expertise to offer you. I don’t know what his variables or definitions were. We were never at the point that I could force myself to care about something I think is conceptually absurd even knowing that there’s probably a manifestation of that idea that makes sense or that I am essentially appropriating it right now. Look, happiness is important, but I just don’t understand how you can make a number of it and then use that number to compare different situations. He could have found a way to do it, but maybe not. I really don’t know. He caught my eye for showing interest in the philosophers I love so much. In fact, we had classes together focused on these thinkers. It seemed like the universe was screaming that he and I could be very happy together, maybe even soul mates if that’s something worth believing in. Or that’s what I thought, but in reality, he might have been taking those classes because he had to take classes and those ones were just there. That’s being presumptuous. Or not charitable. He might have been actually interested. Who knows? Well, he would know. But he and I never stayed in touch, assuming that is something I could have asked him. Probably not. The only thing I can be sure of is that he did not study their words as intensely as I did, and he preferred dancing in the clubs to dancing with their arguments.
Neither way of living is intrinsically bad. In proper moderation. But they are—largely—incompatible. At least, our manifestations of these choices were largely incompatible.
It’s just a fact of reality, I guess, that people dwelling in the same space are going to have different tracks to their lives. And the way these paths interact seems to resist any mathematical models. In their models, intersecting lines have one point of connection but otherwise diverge forever, and there are parallel lines that never interconnect at all. And this might be where I lose you because I’m talking about simple mathematic principles and trying to connect them to people who are not—generally—a collection of points organized in a linear way. Consequently, any attempt to use the language of one to explain the other is never going to make perfect sense, and I shouldn’t expect it to.
I mean, we can touch and interact with other lives and go about our own way. Conversations, transactions, traffic jams, these are all interactions. But I would suggest shifting the perspective away from these small things that are inevitable in co-existence and towards a bigger person Regardless of whether or not we should, I don’t think we give same thought to the person we sit next to on the bus that we might to people we recognize as being part of a shared community. Both are interactions, and they are interactions on different levels. When invoking—perhaps foolishly—these mathematical principles, I’m focusing on a certain level of interactions. Not the individual level but that of the community. Particularly in smaller towns like Night Vale, we don’t simply meet once and then diverge. Mostly. It’s unlikely. We could come together once every couple years or so for, let’s say, elections and then go about our daily lives. Or we could fail to do that by excluding others for whatever arbitrary reason. Like, not having a face or being a five headed dragon. And thus, live parallel lives, never crossing over.
Neither of those things sounds right. In part because the act of shaping the socio-political order isn’t reserved to a single day on the calendar or a single group of people defined lazily. Recent years should make that abundant clear. The act of shaping the world in the face of a negative forces can happen without warning and unceasingly. And also together
In short, I think the worthwhile message of Night Vale is largely (quoting), “Sure this isn’t great but lock hands and get through this. Except Steve Carlsburg (Pause) Okay, still Steve Carlsburg but he has to stand far away from me. I don’t want to look at him. Everyone else come around. Because even if the cosmos doesn’t care, I do. I care about you.”
(Music fades in)
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