The Exopunk Manifesto

A dissertation on mechs and exosuits that has been sitting in my Drafts folder since april of 2017 ( ps exopunk isnʼt a real word and this isnʼt a real manifesto )


Those of my friends who are present on Mastodon have probably heard the Mech Discourse. By Mech Discourse I donʼt mean discourse critically discussing mechs—of which there could stand to be a little more—but discourse uncritically employing mechs : ― This is my mech, they say, indicating themselves, their bed, their house, their social media. ― But what is a mech ? you might ask. I am not sure I have ever received a good answer.

Mech Discourse has always bothered me, and this post is a rough attempt at critically examining why. In doïng so, it proposes an alternative metaphor—that of exosuits—to help highlight some of the aspects of mechy language that I find problematic.

Now, it is a Known Fact that I am a Samus girl at heart ; I identify as a Samus girl and my profile picture has frequently been pictures ( concept art; manga clippings ) of Samus ; also, æsthetically, I tend to prefer exosuit­‑driven media to mecha­‑driven stuff—so one could just chalk this post up to genre preferences ( and perhaps those with more mech experiënce than I will form a rebuttal which does exactly that ). One could also argue that mechs and exosuits arenʼt really all that different and that all of these points are moot. But instead I am going to argue the following two things, that :

  1. Exosuits and mechs tend to be different tropes with different conventions, and
  2. Exosuits are a better choice, from a compositional and subcultural perspective, for a great deal of the things for which I often see mechs get used.

And again, my purpose for doïng this is to get people thinking about the words and metaphors that they use and maybe the implications which that might have on the capital­‑D Discourse after all.

There are also a number of things which I am not going to explicitly argue but which should hold true for any critical discussion of media and culture, namely :

  1. Not everyone has to hold the same opinion ;
  2. There are always exceptions and subversions but that doesnʼt mean we canʼt talk about tropes or trends ;
  3. Itʼs okay to like problematic things so long as you do so knowingly and critically ;
  4. Itʼs possible as a media author to interact with problematic tropes or conventions in a meaningful and beneficial way ;
  5. Furthermore, you should acknowledge the past history and conventions of the tropes you interact with or put into your work.

These points are things which are generally taken for granted in the field of critical media studies but which people who donʼt normally have those sorts of conversations can sometimes forget.

What is an Exosuit ?

Exosuits are science­‑fiction devices ( in both senses of the word ) which enhance or modify the abilities of their wearer to allow them to survive in otherwise inhospitable environments or accomplish otherwise difficult or impossible tasks. Spacesuits are probably the most basic, and well­‑known, exosuit. In many cases, exosuits have no militaristic function at all : See the quarians from Mass Effect.

As a note on language, I'm using the term exosuit to refer to any full­‑body covering whose purpose is to enhance or supplement the abilities of its wearer. This differs slightly from the Wikipedia term, powered exoskeleton, as my focus is not purely on strength and mobility, but also such things as breathing in space.

Although it stretches the definition of the word full­‑body, I'm also going to include things like the Kamui from Kill la Kill as possible exosuits.

When exosuits do have a militaristic or combative function, it is often secondary, or built with purposes of defense in mind. Samus Aran, for example, was genetically and cybernetically engineered by the Chozo both to enable her survival on the generally­‑inhospitable­‑to­‑humans planet Zebes and to serve as an instrument of peace in the galaxy. Many of her suitʼs key upgrades are entirely focused on mobility or defense, with the iconic Varia Suit enabling her to enter superheated areas as she carries out her mission.

Samus argues with the Chozo about the destruction of butterflies which endanger the planet of Zebes. From the Metroid Database English translation of the Metroid Manga.Samus disarms the weaponized butterflies and destroys their weapons using the Power Suit, but leaves the butterflies themselves unharmed. From the Metroid Database English translation of the Metroid Manga.

Pages 57 and 61 of the Metroid manga, Chapter 2

( Note : Manga are read right­‑to­‑left. )

Heroes in exosuits are frequently personally opposed to violence, and these convictions both frame and materially affect the suitʼs abilities and function. As assistive devices, exosuits are not seen as tools but as bodily extensions, and by necessity are closely attuned to the thoughts and actions of their wearers :

Mother Brain informs Samus that the Power Suit can only react to her own thoughts—not think for her. A Chozo asks Samus what is wrong, and why she hasn't invested her emotions into using her suit. From the Metroid Database English translation of the Metroid Manga.The Chozo continues, reminding her of why they fight as protectors of the galaxy. From the Metroid Database English translation of the Metroid Manga.
Samus says that she understands, but then runs off. From the Metroid Database English translation of the Metroid Manga.Samus sits alone ( with her pet Rabbilis, Pyonchi ) at the top of a cliff. From the Metroid Database English translation of the Metroid Manga.

Pages 44–47 of the Metroid manga, Chapter 2

( Note : Manga are read right­‑to­‑left. )

Even Iron Manʼs quintessential exosuit was originally designed as an escape mechanism and not a combat vehicle. The energy source which powers it has the primary intention of keeping shrapnel from entering Tony Starkʼs heart. Tony is not a fighter : In the first Iron Man movie, the military capabilities of the suit are portrayed as begrudging necessities—had Stark not had the objective of removing his weapons from the wrong hands, he probably would have been content simply using his suit for joyrides.

Exosuits are almost always designed for sustainability and efficiency, with the assumption that if they should fail, there is no walking away—remember that the primary purpose of an exosuit is to protect and carry people through otherwise unsurvivable situätions or impossible tasks. Which is to say : Upon failure, their wearers are thrown into situätions which are impossible or unsurvivable. If Iron Man loses an arm, so does Tony Stark ; if the power source in his chest goes out, he literally dies.

In addition, exosuits often carry explicit drawbacks for their wearers, and typically connotate sentiments of compromise. For the quarians of Mass Effect, the exosuits which protect their immune systems also weaken them further, to the extent that linking suit environments brings a high risk of disease. In Kill la Kill, Kamui feed off of their wearerʼs blood, and present a challenge of shame and embarrassment which must be overcome. For Samus, the Power Suit enables her misgendering and obscures her true identity and kindheartedness. And even with Tony Stark, the Iron Man suit is a symbol of both his personal failures and of the past trauma which he feels it is his responsibility to bear.

At the same time, as both assistive devices and markers of weakness/vulnerability, exosuits also play an important role in identity formation and how their users are perceived. When one thinks of astronauts, quarians, Ryuko, Samus, or Iron Man, one pictures the assistive devices that they use to carry out their mission or survive in their day­‑to­‑day life—to the extent that it is Samus without her Power Suit that gets a separate name—Zero­‑Suit. At the same time, the sight of the exosuit carries with it the implication a ( particular ) body which it has been formed to encase. To borrow conceptually from Jasbir Puar, the exosuit and its wearer form a sort of assemblage—each neither fully reducible to the other nor fully distinct. This assemblage conditions both how exosuit wearers are perceived by others, and how they come to understand themselves.

What is a Mech ?

The picture for mechs looks very different. Mechs are hardly ever pacifistic ( is such a thing even conceivable ? ), frequently designed as tools of capitalism ( heavy lifters, mining tools, deforestation ) or explicit militarism ( attack mechs ). They are frequently wasteful ( diesel ), overpowered, and destructive. When mechs are employed, the drawbacks are not borne by their users—but by others, or the environment, through acts of violence. ( How many killdeer eggs are crushed by mechs each year ? This is a Real Question that the makers of Voltron Donʼt Want You To Ask. ) Instead of reshaping their wearers to exist comfortably within their environment, mechs violently reshape their environments according to the whims of their wearers while simultaneously displacing responsibility for the collateral damage.

This is best exemplified through the trope of the “ scrappy mech ”, a mech “ cobbled together ” from whatever is on­‑hand for the purposes of ( sometimes ) survival but ( usually ) attack or self­‑defense. Of all the mechs, these are frequently the most wasteful and damaging : leaking oil, attacking in wide, inaccurate sweeps, devastating their environment. At the same time, the blame for this devastation is usually deferred back onto the environment—for not having the resources available for building a “ better, less­‑destructive ” massive murder machine.

At the same time, mech fiction ( usually unwittingly ) also often presents us with another alternative—as mech access is typically a privilege that not everyone gets to enjoy. These non–mech users ( whose very presence can be a distinguishing factor between mechs and exosuits—there are no non­‑spacesuit users in space ) not only have to suffer hostile environments without the help of mech technology but also are frequently the first people harmed through mech usage. And yet they typically ( plot contrivances aside ) are able to eke out a liveäble life. What makes mech users different from these suffered souls ? Well, they have the “ guts ” ( power ) to “ act ” ( violently ) to “ overthrow ” ( enstate anew ) an oppressive regime. Or, in the more libertarian variant, theyʼre just inherently superior and get to do whatever they want as a result.

Youʼre probably already getting the gist of my argument because Iʼm not exactly beïng subtle about it ! Mech media is like superhero movies but the bad kind of superhero movies because instead of an analysis of power and what it means to find oneself wielding it, you instead get people in giant walking tanks blowing each other up because they can.

This sounds like Iʼm saying the whole genre is problematic and youʼre a bad person if you enjoy it ( Iʼm not ), so let me just pause a moment and say I loved Gerard Wayʼs SP//dr and there is absolutely room within the genre to examine how ordinary people, forced into positions of violence by governments and militaries, come to ( dis ? )identify with those subject­‑positions and deal with the ethical problems that result, as well as a whole host of other similar topics. But SP//dr is an unethical medical procedure forced onto a child without her consent and thatʼs a far cry from the « this is my mech » romanticizing bullshitposting which kicked off this Journal entry in the first place.

Exosuits V. Mechs

The final battle at the end of Iron Man nicely illustrates the difference between an exosuit—designed primarily for transportation and the protection of its wearer—and larger, more mecha­‑like designs—wastefully built for combat. The Iron Man suit is lightweight ; it is built for speed, manœuvrability, and flight ; the Iron Monger is bulky, imprecise, and barely able to get off the ground. In Iron Man, Tony Stark is able to take advantage of Obadiah Staneʼs lack of forethought, cockiness, and lesser engineering capabilities to emerge victorious—but the truth is that in a fair fight, most exosuits are tactically inferior to mechs in a combat situätion. This is a bad thing if you are a fascist who only cares about strength and virility and a good thing if you are literally anyone else.

⟨ Cue the philosophy jams. ⟩

Those of you who paid attention during Book Two, Chapter Three of Avatar : The Last Airbender will know that there are eighty­‑fivethree main options regarding how one can direct their energies in battle, known as jing. Positive jing occurs when attacking, negative jing occurs when retreating or defending, and neutral jing occurs when waiting and listening—or as Bumi puts it, doing nothing. ( In the world of Avatar, jing are explained in terms of martial arts strategies, but also can be seen reflected in daily life. ) Exosuits, by design, balance these three energies :

Avatar Aang waits and listens inside rock armor as Combustion Man walks by.

A frame from Book Three, Chapter Five of Avatar : The Last Airbender

Aangʼs rock armor forms a sort of exosuit, and here he is demonstrating a ( tactical ) use of its neutral jing.

soft chambers’ ideal method of playing super metroid is to advance to brinstar and curl up into a morph ball in the downy, mossy embrace of an underground jungle

here we are safe in our power suit exoskeleton, deep beneath the harsh acid-pocked surface of zebes

here we can rest and watch the endless drifting of the spores

here we have found a cozy digital space

Soft Chambers, cozy digital spaces

For mechs, on the other hand, while you have positive jing in spades, negative jing tends to look more­‑or­‑less like “ positive jing but in reverse ” and neutral jing is… well, completely fucking absent. This is perhaps best exemplified in the finale of The Legend of Korra, when Kuvira, a normally cool, methodical, and strategic leader—and an expert earthbender trained by a Beifong no less—becomes hotheaded and impatient once inside her giant mechasuit. When you're in a twenty­‑five story tall giant robot, it doesnʼt make sense to just sit and wait.

( And yes, Kuvira is a fascist. Designing for positive jing at the expense of all else is rather fascismʼs defining trait. )

Or perhaps we can look to The Legend of Zelda. In The Legend of Zelda, the Triforce has three components—Power, Wisdom, and Courage—and these three Forces must be brought into balance before the Triforce itself may be used. Exosuits exhibit equal parts of all three :

Mechs have no shortage of Power, but their tendency for wide, sweeping attacks and frequent inclusion of an Eject button nullify the importance of the other two traits.

And finally, approaching this same concept from a different angle, The Dragon Prince ( Book 2, Chapter 9 ) holds that there are three types of knowledge : knowing with your head, knowing with your hand, and knowing with your heart—Mind, Body, and Spirit, respectively. Once again, exosuits balance all three forms :

Once again ( Are You Noticing A Pattern Yet ), mechs overemphasize the Body/hand—action and instinct ; Power ; positive jing—and deëmphasize the Mind/head—situätional awareness and responsiveness ; Wisdom ; negative jing—and Spirit/heart—sustainability and persistence ; Courage ; neutral jing.

If youʼll let me nerd out about this fictional culture I created, in Sevensi philosophy, positive jing / Power / Body are referred to as heavenly energy, negative jing / Wisdom / Mind are referred to as earthly energy, and neutral jing / Courage / Spirit are referred to as mortal energy. Harmonizing these three energies is considered a prerequisite to embodying the Human spirit, and it is their balance within the exosuit which allows it to reflect the humanity contained inside. Mechs, on the other hand, are not superhuman so much as nonhuman, and frequently appear in dystopian worlds and warlike scenarios—where the spirit of humanity has been crushed and fragmented.

My references to fascism arenʼt entirely for show ; I actually think we need less media with mechs. Iʼm just gonna go ahead and say it : I think we need less media with mechs. And maybe, if youʼre an author trying to write a science fiction story where a bunch of punk teens go and stick it to the man—consider giving those teens exosuits instead.

Why Does This Fucking Matter

Because honestly, for all its lighthearted nature, this stuff worries me. I get that this is like… 85% just Cultural Difference but the deployment of intentionally dehumanizing, impersonal weapons of violence and exploitation as cultural icons and currency is not without effect, and—

—Well, I canʼt finish this sentence without talking about the fediverse itself and its histories of violence and exploitation, which bear uncanny resemblance to the narratives of mechs and are often manufactured by the same voices. Contemporary social media, like a mecha squadron, is a machine for extracting value and entertainment from its environment, with little care or attention paid to those who live there ; when things go poorly, when caretakers speak out, it is often they who are blamed for not providing enough, for not being caring enough, for turning cold when depleted, for problematizing those massive voices who, in such broad sweeps, come to shape the environment in their image.

And here we get to the crux of the matter : Although the fediverse is far from apolitical (as some might have you believe), it is mostly lacking in any real sense of social justice. The complicated conversations about power structures and violence—which are relevant not simply at the level of the State or Capitalism but also within our communities, and our intimate relationships—that are part and parcel for any social justice discourse are largely absent from our conversations ; attempts to broach these subjects by well­‑meaning white people rarely get past the stage of « such­‑and­‑such is Actually Racist ». People donʼt care about justice. people care about mechs.

Maybe if I phrase this strongly enough somebody will finally get around to showing me a counterexample ! Because Iʼve been looking. I google "power structures" and "fediverse" and the first result I see is a post on the Official Mastodon Blog about « the centralization of power on the internet », why itʼs bad, and how Mastodon is the beginnings of a solution. Important stuff maybe—but positing Mastodon as the solution to the centralized internetʼs imbalances of power only serves to erase and normalize the imbalances of power within Mastodon itself, as any undergrad who has taken Intro to Gender Studies could tell you. ( I run the same search for Twitter and I get… a bunch of random tweets. Okay, admittedly Google is Not Great. But unlike the fediverse, with Twitter you eventually (( around page 4 )) start seeing some Relevant Content. )

Iʼm on the verge of digressing bigtime and really this needs to be another Journal entry of its own. But this is especially concerning to me because for all our talk about « bashing the fash » ( translation : enacting violence against fascists ), there is very little talk about « bashing fascism » ( translation : ending fascism by depriving it of the structural support that it depends on to perpetuate its power ; definition : fascism is an oppressive regime founded around institutionalized violence ). You canʼt have a conversation about ending fascism without having a conversation about violence and its place ( or, ideally, just imo, non­‑place ) in our communities. Just trusting in your fists isnʼt enough.

And yes, Iʼm the trans girl that all the other trans girls get mad at, because I criticize trebuchets and guillotines and mechs and other weapons of violence, and deprive people of their shitposts and rhetorical coping mechanisms, and maybe, just maybe, you shouldnʼt be using violence as a coping mechanism in the first place but I mean really now, Iʼm just a girl, who am I to judge. My goal in writing this post isnʼt to dance around and stick Problematic stickers on everybodyʼs foreheads and if youʼre interpreting it in that way then maybe you should grab a cuppa and really take some time to ponder that gut response.

This isnʼt actually a manifesto, and Iʼm not actually telling people to go around making cool exosuit dramas which critically represent the embodied experience of assistive technology and the inherent vulnerability in all of our lives either, although I do think that would be rad. My goal in writing this post is to get people to maybe think about the metaphors they deploy and the identities that they assume, and how those identities serve to either mask or make apparent such things as their inherent vulnerabilities as people, their ties to others and to our community, the reality and validity of their embodied experiënce, and the possibility of their continued existence on this earth.

They try to say we bad kids from the start,

Grandchildren of Marx and Coca­‑Cola, yeah, quoting Godard,

And you saying that everything is cinema since

The moving pictures in the center of your living room telling you shit,

Like : Youʼll never be shit ; walk away from all your dreams ;

Spark up, drop a lighter on a trail of gasoline

Leading back to the vehicle you crashed before you came,

Never looking back : Cut ; boom ! ; End of Scene

Blue Scholars, Cinemetropolis