Quarxs is an early computer-animated TV show from 1990. It was produced three years before VeggieTales and Insektors, four years before ReBoot, five years before Toy Story, and thirty-two years before Morbius.

Created by digital artist Maurice Benayoun, it’s a fake documentary showcasing imaginary lifeforms called Quarxs. They have a strange relationship with space and time, and their behavior in the physical world is peculiar. For example, the Elasto-fragmentoplast wraps around small curved objects and smashes them, while also turning liquids into solids. The Spiro Thermophage lives in pipes and causes hot water to flow faster than cold water. And so on.

Basically, the Quarxs are gods of the gaps. Everything confusing about our universe (from dark matter to the missing socks in tumble-dryer) is directly or indirectly caused by them. The show consists of a rambling Attenborough-style scientist capturing Quarxs and putting them in a cage and demonstrating what they do. Then there are credits.

If this sounds like a total waste of time, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Quarxs is basically an art demo for a nascent medium (computer graphics). It was supposed to wow people at SIGGRAPH demos and get cited in post-predeconstructive media studies journals. It was not supposed to be particularly compelling TV.

You have to force your head into a weird space to enjoy it. Think how an abandoned internet message board from 1999 feels. Empty, irrelevent, superseded, and chanting with an eerie, hypnotic aura, as though its sheer deadness gives it power. That’s the space where Quarxs lives and dies.

The media landscape of 1990 was different in ways that barely make sense now. Battle-lines were drawn up and fought over digital art – even whether the concept could exist. Computers were regarded by artists as business tools – “computer generated art” made as little sense as “cash register generated art”. One of the challenges for historians of computer-generated art is that many rejected the title.

Quarxs had a hard row to hoe. There were no TV shows like it, and few precedents in the art world, either. It’s one of the founding examples of digital art, along with Frank O. Gehry and Heath Bunting. It’s a piece in a puzzle that’s been solved for so long that it’s hard to believe that there was once nothing here, just a blank space.

(Fans of classic gaming will remember a similar shift happening at the same time. PC games in the 80s were branded as “intellectual” fare: meaning flight simulators and CRPGs and text adventures. Action was the domain of consoles. Then, within a few years, a flurry of fast-paced action games for DOS shattered that preconception: Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Prince of Persia. “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen” – Lenin)

To be sure, CGI was limited in 1990, which cramps Benayoun’s visions greatly. Half the time, the determining factor in a given Quarxs’ abilities is “can we animate this on a SGI IRIS with 2MB of memory, y/n”? The Elasto-fragmentoplast turns liquids into solids. Why? Mostly because it saves the animators from having to render fluid physics, which would have been a pipe dream in 1990. Unlike Steve Speer’s (probably even more groundbreaking) short “The Only Taste Is Salt”, the show consists of short and simple camera movements, and there are no human characters.

There’s some entertainment value. The narrator of the show (a self-described “esteemed cryptobiologist”) is obviously quite insane, and makes frequent references to some unknown people (or things?) persecuting him for his views. His explanations of the Quarxs are questionable but hilarious. Why does the Elasto-fragmentoplast pursue rounded objects? Because, as a male, it has a fetish for curves.

Benayoun seems to be laughing at the conservatism of traditional media artists. Near the end of the show a new species of Quarx is discovered, the Mnemochrome, that vandalizes priceless works of art by swapping bits of them in and out of each other (with a prominent digital scanline effect). The narrator has an aneurism.”Good heavens! They have no respect for anything!”

Is it true? Is technology the end of art? Probably only to the extent that it’s the end of everything. Evolution is a ladder seemingly without an end: no creature can command the top forever. We only exist because other animals don’t. Soon there will be something else standing above us, and the ruins of our world might then seem as strange as Quarxs does in 2022.  “Remember Man, as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so you soon will be, together in Eternity.”

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A lumbering parable that asks “what if we used humans as livestock?” A provocative question that has never been asked before, except in A Modest Proposal and Soylent Green and Sweeney Todd and The Road and…

Marcos works at a processing plant for “special meat”, ie, people. An infectious plague has rendered all animal meat poisonous, and the government (through euphemism and bureaucracy) has legalized cannibalism. Most of his book involves Marcos going about his daily life while feeling sad.

The book never gets out of its own way. It’s so certain that it has a great premise that it never moves past that premise and does anything with it. Marcos is a flat and uninvolving character. The endless quotidian detail of his job just provokes a response of “Yeah, eating humans is horrible and awful. So what?”

I suppose the book is intended to shock us awake about the horrors of factory farming, or whatever. It’s a thought experiment often advanced by environmental ethicists. “How can you be comfortable eating a cow but not a person?”

For the same reason I’m comfortable driving over asphalt but not a person. Asphalt isn’t people, and neither are cows. The parable falls apart for me because it comments on a real life issue in a way that distorts the issue beyond recognition.

Moral philosopher John Rawls proposed that ethical decisions be made behind a “veil of ignorance”. Imagine you’re a baby that’s about to be born. You don’t know anything about who you’ll be, or your circumstances, or anything. You might be a king or a pauper. In light of this, what world would you like to be born into?

Specifically, would you want to be born into Bazterrica’s world? I wouldn’t: I might be special meat and suffer any number of horrible experiences. But suppose Rawl’s veil of ignorance crossed the species barrier. You might be born as a human, or born as a cow. Would you like to exist in that world (ours)?

The thing is, I can’t imagine life as a cow. Do they experience pain? Certainly. Is it the same pain as ours? I don’t know. Are they conscious? Probably. Is it a sort of consciousness where they can anticipate the future, feel regret, imagine different circumstances, and so on? I don’t believe so. These are questions Tender Is The Flesh doesn’t get around to answering. Most people object to factory farmed livestock because the animal suffers in the process, but raising humans as livestock would (to my view) be morally wrong even if the human didn’t suffer, because you’re infringing on the will of a highly conscious being. You can’t swap animals with humans in this scenario, the whole equation changes.

Bazterrica’s world needed a stronger sense of realism. Instead, it comes off as fantasy, totally disconnected from our world, less A Modest Proposal than Gulliver’s Travels. The scenario makes little sense. Nobody would raise humans as livestock even if it were legal to do so. Humans are strong, intelligent, and capable of communication and using tools, all of which would make them extremely dangerous to their captors. Worse, they take fifteen to twenty years to reach maturity, during which time they must be fed millions of calories. How could that be economically viable? I think if meat became inedible we’d start meeting our protein needs with things like soy instead.

The inciting incident is that Marcos receives a female human as a gift-slash-bribe. He’s supposed to eat her. He develops feelings for her instead, and eventually impregnates her, (ironically) a major crime. I was reminded of something I saw on Reddit. If Elmer Fudd was trying to rape Bugs Bunny, it would be horrifying. Luckily, all he’s trying to do is kill him.

This is another big moral issue: pets. We have furry animals in our homes that we consider part of our families. But on a certain level, this is more manipulation. They’re there to fill selfish emotional needs. Thousands of dogs get abandoned once they’re no longer cute puppies, and even well-cared for animals are living a life they weren’t designed for. There’s an argument that keeping a big dog in a suburban apartment is as wrong as raising a cow in a feedlot. This was the stronger side of the book for me.

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They used to make these little boxes where you’d jiggle a dial and someone’s voice would come out. The voices belonged to radio jocks, who were in constant competition for listeners. Some had smooth voices, some played the right music, others had the “local perspective”. Then, in the late 80s, they started saying naughty words.

“Shock jock” radio hit its peak in the 1990s. The usual format (used by scores of stations) was two guys with a line in outrage, dodging fines and performing increasingly outrageous stunts. It was a simple, effective storyline with ready-made heroes and villains: the plucky, scrappy radio DJs (yay!) versus the big bad “management” entity that was always trying to ruin the fun (boo!). The FTC enforced strict content guidelines for public airwaves, and it was a game to see how far jocks could take edgy content. You almost had to keep tuning in: it might be the last day your favorite show was on the air.

Opie & Anthony were a shock jock duo of exceptional quality. They achieved success (in between repeated firings and cancellations) as a kind of everyman Howard Stern show, doing a mix of stunts and pranks and gross-out bits. They weren’t afraid to lampoon the radio business itself – their “Jocktober” bits were quite revealing as to how fake and constructed almost every part of a commercial talk radio show is. In their later years they transitioned to being a proto-podcast, focusing almost entirely on interviews and nonscripted content.

This new focus on personalities made something clear: one of the hosts was way more talented than the other.

Gregg “Opie” Hughes had gone to broadcasting school and knew how to push buttons and go to segues. But Anthony Cumia was a dementedly funny, with thousands of fascinating stories, a skill at impressions, and an ability to “rap” with almost anybody. He was self-destructive (a race-rant got him sacked from his own show), but was ridiculously skilled at what he did. The crosses in his backyard weren’t the only thing on fire.

Or as Jim Norton says:

“Regardless of the discussion, the context, the topic, Ant has the ability to reach in with perfect timing and pull out something funny. He is by far the most talented radio performer I’ve ever known, and he’s as fast as any comedian who has ever lived. I’m a great get if you nee someone to describe an old lady falling down the steps or a blumpkin joke, but Anthony can be captivatingly funny describing air-conditioning duct installation. He can walk you through every aspect of the most monotonous activities, paint a perfectly clear picture, hilariously veer left and right, and will not once stray into the territory of boring.”

Permanently Suspended: The Rise and Fall… and Rise Again of Radio’s Most Notorious Shock Jock is Anthony’s biography. Disappointingly, it has coauthors. Indeed, large sections read like one of Anthony’s broadcasts transcribed. It basically covers his life from childhood to 2017 or so, when he was hosting a show with Artie Lange (which he no longer does). I’m not sure who it’s for. Non-O&A fans won’t care. O&A fans will have heard all of these stories told before on the radio, many times. But it’s funny and fast-moving, and there are lots of photos.

I found the hardscrabble early O&A years particularly interesting. Again, most of it you’ve heard, though it’s good to know that Ant’s hatred for WAAF program director Dave Dickless continues unabated.

This Dave Douglas guy was always just a bug up our asses. He once said, “You know what you should do? Take a picture of who you envision as an audience member. Who do you picture? Find a magazine with a picture of someone who resembles this person you have in mind and put that picture in front of you on your mixing board. So when you’re talking into the mic, you get an image of who you’re talking to.” The fucking guy actually said this! Well, we nodded and smiled, and I couldn’t look at Opie and he couldn’t look at me at this point. We were just laughing our fucking asses off. […] Then we found a Swank magazine and cut out pictures of a woman squatting and posted the pictures. “Here’s how we picture our audience: a bunch of filthy cunts.”

The book captures Anthony’s head at a particular moment, when he’s immersed in his current gig, and that weights the book in a way I didn’t care for. Reading about a millionaire building a studio in his Long Island mansion is boring. And there’s obviously a lot of juicy drama that he leaves out – stuff like his fling with transsexual Sue Lightning that you’d only know about from the now-banned subreddit.

Anthony has zero business skills (as he admits himself), and his career has been spent waiting for lucky breaks. But in the long run, nobody in radio was that lucky. In 2000, satellite radio emerged as a commercial force. Because it didn’t use the FTC’s airwaves, it could be completely uncensored. Everyone thought that satellite would be God’s gift to the shock jocks: instead, within a few years the format had been killed forever.

Why? It turns out that shoving a wiffle bat up a female intern’s fundamentals was never that funny (particularly when you couldn’t see it). It was interesting because of the shock: you weren’t allowed to do stuff like that on the air! Once you were, the shock disappeared, and the whole enterprise stood revealed as boring and hack.

The book is bittersweet because it records an era that will never come again. The mid 90s exist in a cultural gray zone of sorts: too late to be lionized like the 60s, too early to be effectively archived by the internet. Shock jockery is the kind of thing that was once everywhere, but now mainly exists in memory. Anthony Cumia is a graying part of a once-great legacy.

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