My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic premiered on 10 October 2010 on The Hub network, a joint venture between Discovery Communications and Hasbro, Inc. Hasbro also co-produces the series in association with Studio B. Lauren Faust, veteran of other award-winning animated series like The Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, took the helm for the first season. Serving as creative director, Faust has successfully rebooted the MLP:FiM franchise into a plucky, upbeat, and generally charming new iteration. The Flash animation is invariably high-quality and works well with its constraints, to the point that the show often appears cell-animated and occasionally (especially in long shots) even achieves a visual effect that recalls Disney’s high-budget 2D animated films. The show also features quality voice work across the board, and well-written scripts featuring humor that’s broadly targeted to appeal to children and their parents—an adorable pony blindly charging headlong into a rock is funny, and it’s even funnier when the rock is a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Each episode focuses on a particular value, like tolerance, kindness, sincerity, sportsmanship, and other socially positive messages. Sexuality is non-existent, and violence is generally portrayed as an ineffective recourse for solving problems.
Surely, something so innocuous can’t possibly ground any complex or radical political dynamic.
Well, in less than a year after its release, the television show—based on the line of toys, mutually targeted at young females—has garnered an overwhelmingly positive response from teenage and young adult males. They call themselves bronies. They are proud members of a largely-online fan community that purportedly sprouted up on the 4chan boards. It has since spread as far as the hardcore gamers on the Bungie and Valve forums, and beyond. “My Little Pony Meetup Groups” is dedicated to bringing fans together IRL, and strong showings at conventions in coming years wouldn’t be unexpected. But for the moment, the bulk of the activity is online, in the fan websites and communities, as well as any place that remix culture can express itself. So far, the official response has been friendly and equally enthusiastic. Hasbro, to their credit, have been totally cool about intellectual property rights and fair use. The show’s creative team has acknowledged their unlikely online fan base, and is purportedly adopting content developed by the community into the show’s canon—like Derpy Hooves. Derpy began her life as a background character, but fans picked the character out of the lineup of anonymous ponies thanks to an oversight during animation that left her cross-eyed. The community gave her a name, and the MLP:FiM creative team has adopted the character concept beginning in the episode “Feeling Pinkie Keen”.
Clearly, something is afoot. A children’s series about brightly colored talking ponies doesn’t seem likely to draw a highly invested male following—about as likely as it is to make those political arguments I mentioned. Certain bronies disagree with you.
“I watch a show for little girls called ‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’…”
But the target demographic didn’t stop Stephen Magnet from conducting a brief and comedic tour de force of pony physics for a school project. In the process, he netted himself a moderately successful viral video and scored some free swag from Hasbro. And he’s not alone in devoting attention to MLP:FiM‘s relationship with science; but whereas Magnet playfully addresses problematic representations of physical phenomena in the show, other fans were more disturbed by the representation of scientific knowledge itself in the episode “Feeling Pinkie Keen”. These fans took issue with the apparent moral, that conviction should not be contingent on evidence or reason. (These are not, of course, the only scientific questions that the online fan community has raised.)
“You don’t believe because you don’t understand.”
If this sounds familiar, you may recall a little debacle in the early ‘90s that is affectionately remembered as The Science Wars. This was a good old fashioned knock-down-drag-out wherein postmodern philosophers, sociologists, and other academics set their crosshairs on (what they saw as) the hegemony of science—both as a discipline, and that discipline’s body of knowledge. Together, these intellectuals argued that science’s definitive objective truths were socially constructed and should therefore be regarded as possessing only relative, not absolute, validity.
More recently, Insane Clown Posse’s song “Miracles” took up the same, if now nearly-decades-old, arms and summarizes them: “Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work? / And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist / Ya’ll motherfuckers lyin’, and gettin’ me pissed”. Lyrics like these, coupled with strange and surreal visuals, caused the music video to go viral in the summer of 2010. The apparent message, echoing the postmodernists’, provoked an outcry that the song advocated intentional ignorance, recapitulating the early ‘90s scientific rejoinder that the radical academics were not only anti-intellectual but poor thinkers and scholars to boot. The geeks of Noisebridge, on the other hand, went to one of ICP’s concert venues—clad in lab coats and clown paint, armed with posters and their prodigious brains—and enthusiastically offered to teach science to any fan who cared to listen.
And then there’s Lauren Faust, pony godmother to a whole new generation of equine enthusiasts—all of whom seem to agree that friendship is, indeed, magic. Faust responded apologetically to the controversy brewing around the frictive episode, expressing regret that such a message had accidentally crept in. Her intention with this episode, as with all the others, was to convey a positive social message, not a negative intellectual one, and was sorry that the episode could be so misconstrued and offensive.
I, on the other hand, take a third position: that the so-called “misconstrued” message is valid, positive, and suggested on a deep level. The case here recalls one of the more eccentric positions that emerged in the course of the Science Wars: the intellectual anarchism of Paul Feyerabend. In short, Feyerabend argues that science’s principles are internally inconsistent, and that any mode of understanding or worldview will have certain gaps that may be successfully accounted for within another mode or perspective (and each of these will, of course, have at least a few gaps of its own). This is the Swiss-cheese model of knowledge. One way of understanding will be able to explain certain things that another cannot, and vice versa, just as two slices of Swiss cheese will have different patterns of holes (gaps); if you put different pieces of Swiss cheese over a picture or a page of text, each different slice will expose and obscure different portions of the image or text. (This is explained more fully below, using relativity and quantum mechanics.) None of these views (slices of cheese) is inherently better, or truer; each simply fulfills a different function, often in different times and places.
MLP:FiM grounds this position in a dynamic between two western cultural practices that we can broadly dub, for the purpose of this discussion, literacy and festivity. The former is a figure of orderliness, rules, strictures of any degree; the latter is the tendency to disrupt, dispel, and abandon the former. These archetypal cultural politics are an analogy for incommensurable of modes of thought. MLP:FiM transforms the socially political situation into the intellectual one according to an associational logic that is visual in nature and incommensurable with the tendency toward scientific rationalism. As such, the narrative itself operates according to the very logic that becomes the object of scientific scrutiny in “Feeling Pinkie Keen”. In other words, the cultural object’s narrative logic reflects the lesson of a Swiss cheese model of knowledge. The following pages examine “Feeling Pinkie Keen”, in conjunction with other supporting matter and details, to explain and elaborate these points.
I can’t emphasize enough that none of this constitutes a directed attack on science’s validity within its own domain. More than anything, it can be seen as a call to any lingering naïve postmodernists to move beyond the idea that science is something to attack and refute. Science works precisely as it should. The danger creeps in when we try to extend it beyond its proper bounds, to apply it to a domain of observations that, when it is scientifically explained and that explanation is taken for absolute truth, fail to capture a vital aspect of sentient experience (either human or pony). This is analogous to David Chalmer’s “hard problem” of consciousness, the qualitative aspect of perception, the feeling of red that a science of optics cannot capture. It also finds a parallel in the sense of intuition, an understanding that cannot be intellectualized; this is exemplified in the genius of M.C. Escher, whose intuitive knowledge (self-described as natural perception) inspired graphic artworks that express ideas which cannot be captured or approximated by verbal explanations or commentaries (even his own).
In these analogies, science and writing occupy the same exclusionary position. This is because literacy’s intellectual paradigm provides a foundation for science; thinkable, knowable truths can be written down, recorded. But this excludes those things that science’s explanatory power, expressed in language, cannot adequately capture, and those aspects still exist and influence our experience and thinking. So, in a parallel sense, we can also read the episode as a call to meet the humanists halfway (you know, since friendship is magic) and consider how certain things may fall outside the realm of scientific explicability without relegating them to inconsequentiality. This isn’t directed specifically at scientists per se, but rather at the techno-scientific utopians, those among us who value science and consider all else to be secondary, or accidental.
Remember, both Faust and her fans consider the misconstrued message—like the character Derpy Hooves—as accidental, something that is secondary or non-essential. In the case of Derpy Hooves, her crossed eyes resulted from an oversight, and that became the starting point for a new canonical character. My argument here is that the so-called accidental message of “Feeling Pinkie Keen” is implicitly visible in the show (as a cultural object); rather than being accidentally read into, or out of, the episode, the message is contained and expressed on a deep level that we cannot consider accidental, even if it was consciously unintentional.
“This is ridiculous. This can’t be happening. This makes no sense. I have to figure this out.”
Imagine, if you will, the Scientist; she is in her lab with her Assistant, and they are working together to transmute base metal into gold. Unfortunately, the Assistant is distracted by the lovable antics of the Fool. The Fool suggests that the Scientist put on a jacket, and the Scientist replies that the lab is quite cozy. When she turns back to her work, she finds the entire lab has disappeared into thin air, leaving the Scientist out in the cold.
That, more or less, is the first scene of “Feeling Pinkie Keen”. Pinkie Pie’s precognitive twitch (her “Pinkiesense”) tells her that something will fall from the sky. She warns Twilight Sparkle, whose dismissive attitude earns her an inexplicable frog to the face. The opening theme plays, leaving the viewer to contemplate the phenomenon of “weird rains” that deposits frogs, fish, flowers, and a variety of other things instead of water—a paranormal referent upon which science has speculated but never offered conclusive or convincing explanation.
As evidence mounts for Pinkiesense’s reality and validity as a form of knowledge, Twilight staunchly refuses to accept its accurate (though not precise) predictions as anything but coincidence. Pinkie reassures Twilight that the latter doesn’t believe simply because she doesn’t understand, prompting Twilight to launch a scientific inquiry—first through biometrics and later through field observation. In the first case, Twilight attempts to measure the bodily disturbance that Pinkie experiences during her twitches, but leaves the lab (symbolically located beneath the library, Twilight’s home) with no data and yet another confirmation of the predictive power of the pink pony’s anatomy. During her field observation, she sets out to disprove the phenomenon’s validity entirely, falling victim to the ensuing hazard (a roving swarm of bees) at the very moment she believes she has debunked one of Pinkie’s predictions (a moment of Lysenkoism wherein Twilight reaches prematurely “proves” her foregone conclusion).
Twilight refuses to believe in anything that she cannot understand. From the perspective of Bruno Latour, a key (but not overtly hostile) player in the sociological side of the Science Wars, Twilight’s intellectual fallacy is that she attempts to pigeonhole her object (Pinkiesense) into a preconceived framework of understanding that is incommensurable with the logic and articulations of the object itself. The object must be approached on its own terms if it is to be understood; you have to think with Pinkiesense rather than against it. Initially, Twilight can’t accommodate this. Her negative attitude stems from the phenomena’s apparent acausality—there is no obvious or logical link between Pinkie’s twitches and the ensuing event, no intermediary mechanism that would account for the predictive twitches (as either precognitive or causal) and provide an underlying, rational reality and a functional understanding of Pinkiesense. Unfortunately for Twilight, the course of the episode reveals that, whatever Pinkiesense is or however it works, the scientific approach can’t quite put its finger (or hoof) on it.
We all know how much geekdom loves science (and I mean that totally affectionately), and some fans were provoked to the now-familiar condemnation that the episode’s narrative arc exalts ignorance and threatens progress. One fan has issued a counter-apology to Faust, speculating that the response was a knee-jerk reaction that closed off the possibility of perceiving the social message, the one which Faust had intended. The fans had been thinking about the episode on an intellectual level rather than a social one. In truth, both of these levels/perspectives must be taken into consideration.
“It was under ‘E’!”
We should digress here to an astute point, made during these Pony Science Wars, about the similarity between science and magic as MLP:FiM presents them. Unlike science, which is causal, magic appears mechanically acausal (at least on the surface; there may be a science to pony magic, but at this point it’s nothing more than fan speculation). We do know, however, that like science, ponies master magic through study and discipline, and its user directs it toward achieving a specific end. This is the essence of science, of literacy—recordability and repeatability in the interests of utility. Rather than subordinating magic to science, this depiction suggests that magic operates parallel to science under the intellectual paradigm of literacy that defines their similar values and functions.
Science and literacy assume that, when dealing with objects, there are essences and accidents. To paraphrase the classical line of thought, a pony is a pony because she has the form, the essence of a pony; color and speciation are accidental because they don’t effect whether or not a pony is a pony. Literacy depends on truth and repeatability because it grounds itself in what is stable, unchanging, constant in the world; for science, this is the foundation of true knowledge. And, based on those assumptions, science hasn’t done so bad for itself. But the accidentals are still part of lived experience, and must be accounted for, because if we don’t, then we only get part of the big picture.
Take, for example, the optics of Sir Isaac Newton. In order to deal mechanically with the behavior and nature of light, Newton chose to focus on its particle characteristics and consider the wave characteristics as accidental; he accounted for them after he had a solid foundation in a particle (or, as he called it, corpuscular) theory. But over the intervening centuries, science has realized that, however effective Newton’s mechanics may be, they are not “true”, so to speak; they’re true enough to get the job done, but the progress of science from the late nineteenth century onward (beginning with Ludwig Boltzmann) has shown us that Newtonian mechanics isn’t a perfect predictor, nor is the universe essentially stable and perfectly orderly. The dual wave and particle aspects of light are just one example of this; understanding photons as both particles and waves, without emphasizing one characteristic as dominant, is integral to fully understanding light.
That’s just a small glimpse into the weird lives of subatomic quanta. Albert Einstein spent the later portion of his life trying to reconcile his general relativity—which replaced Newton’s mechanics as the most accurate physics of the very large—with quantum mechanics, the strange physics of the very small. Together, these two approaches let us deal with matter at opposite ends of the size spectrum, but science aims at the fundamental nature of reality which, if it is mechanically explicable, must operate according to rules that underlie both relativity and quantum physics. Like Twilight’s quest to reconcile science and Pinkiesense, Einstein didn’t manage to pull off this hat trick, and physicists still soldier on to this day, keeping his torch burning. Achieving this end would be something like uncovering the mutual foundation of science and magic in MLP:FiM: magic is subsumed by literacy and becomes a partner of science, since both are recordable and repeatable. Pinkiesense complements them, provides knowledge that neither science nor magic can, just as quantum physics supplies knowledge that falls outside the domain of relativity (although both are still part of science as a whole).
Science is a scheme for understanding a certain order—what that order is, and how things fit into it. But there are things that resist being ordered. They are, in a sense, anarchic—not socially, but intellectually, as they refuse to conform to our logical understanding of how reality works. That is Pinkiesense’s counterpoint to science, and it reflects Pinkie Pie’s defining role in the series, the archetypal quality that governs her social interactions with the other characters and her function in the narrative. She is the anarchist.
“whatever it is Pinkie Pie does”
Pinkie Pie is, quite simply, a party animal. In the show’s mythology, Pinkie symbolically functions as laughter, an integral component of friendship; in the narrative proper, the diegesis or story-world, she is a loose cannon that moves according to unknown machinations. She is “random” (as Rainbow Dash declares in “Swarm of the Century”). She is a lord (read: pony) of misrule, a cultural archetype associated with carnival and revelry. (I’m using Northrop Frye’s idea of the archetype here, not because it’s “true”, but because it accurately describes the situation and dynamic we are presented with.) It is the lord’s responsibility to maintain revelry and cheer during carnival time, a folk (or “low” culture) celebration characterized by feasting, joking and mockery, and intoxication. (It is also characterized by an emphasis on sex and defecation, two aspects we see particularly suppressed in polite society and on television.) Pinkie fulfills her role as lord through her antics, quirkiness, and songs, setting the carnival atmosphere with her swingin’ parties and baked treats. Carnival’s intoxication or disorientation is less prevalent on this level (we’ll see it crop up more significantly later), but if there is intoxication in the ponyverse, then it’s a sugar high, and it’s revealed in Pinkie as she dashes around snatching sweets to the cry of “Are you gonna eat that?”
Festival, generally speaking, celebrates excess. Laughing, intoxication, feasting—none of these are utilitarian practices. This will become important later, when we consider how Pinkie’s character changes under Twilight’s scientific scrutiny and Twilight’s cognitive disorientation at the climax of “Feeling Pinkie Keen”. We’ll come to all that presently; for the moment, it’s enough to note that when we revel, we transcend the orderly world by partaking in activities that fall outside its realm.
Mikhail Bakhtin, in his study of Rabelais and medieval carnival culture, is perhaps the most notable thinker to understand festival, revelry, and comedy as such. Carnival alleviates the standard social restraints, deviates from order into revelry. The Romans were so serious in their conviction that festival and revelry fell beyond the bounds of order that they believed their Saturnalia celebration existed outside of normal chronological or calendar time. Rather than being a brief interlude, it was supposed to be an actual return to the time-before-time, to the rule of Saturn before he was deposed by Jupiter. (Of course, the Romans had a real penchant for taking things to extremes—like sacrificing their lord of misrule at the celebration’s conclusion.) Umberto Eco argues, on the other hand, that carnival serves merely to reinforce the dominance of the institution from which it appears to break. I argue that this only happens if we allow it to, by retaining rules and refusing revelry. By nature, carnival is disorderly and tends toward liberation, and when it is unconstrained it dissolves the strictures of the status quo, letting everyone party their collective ass off.
We could say, then, that carnival seems accidental when judged by the standards of literacy; revelry does not make immediate contributions to progress and scientific knowledge. By these standards, festivity is excessive (in Derridean parlance, supplementary). Though pony revels aren’t manifestly excessive, they are in excess to everyday life—they serve no practical purpose (other than promoting friendship, an important aspect of pony culture, but not constitutive of civilized life), and as such, they serve the same function as human revelry: providing a line of flight out of the general condition of order. No looking after animals, no studying, no work of any kind. Revelry may not advance literacy’s agenda according the standards the latter has set for itself, but festival still fulfills an important role in the individual and social dynamic.
The first season’s finale foregrounds the characteristic of excess when the ponies attend the Grand Galloping Gala, a high society gathering hosted by Twilight’s mentor, Princess Celestia. Our little ponies are patently miserable the entire evening; their idea of a good time is entirely incompatible with social milieu in which they find themselves. This is not a carnival, but rather a stodgy social order that values restraint over release. After all hell breaks loose and the pony pals bail to hit up a donut shop, Celestia confides in them that she invited the group in hopes that they would liven up the evening. They succeed in this, at least, but the high society guests refuse to abandon social constraint for revelry, and the highly orderly party hopelessly collapses—much like Twilight as she struggles to understand Pinkiesense within the limited (though still appreciable) explanatory capacity of science.
“I’m just letting Twilight follow me around all day without knowing it.”
When Twilight begins treating Pinkie like an object—as science treats all things that it studies—Pinkie reacts by making a subtle shift in character, from the lord of misrule to the jester. If the lord presides during festival time, then the jester is his/her disguise when order is ascendant. The lord of misrule may be the presiding prankster of carnival, but the archetypal fool becomes the jester when s/he cavorts about the ankles of the powers-that-be.
The jester always knows more than he or she lets on, expressing the secret in riddles and cryptic wordplay that the uninitiated frequently regarded as, well, foolish nonsense. You’ll recognize that Twilight treats Pinkiesense in precisely this way. When Pinkie comes under scientific scrutiny, she subtly shifts her archetypal characteristics from the lord of misrule (the party animal) to the jester (sly, seemingly subordinate, but secretly subversive). This latter guise possesses the same characteristics as the insubordinate object, which is a transformation of the fool from a social to an intellectual role.
Socially, then, Pinkie plays the role of the jester, but intellectually, she plays the role of the object. While the jester riddles and plays with the court, the object seduces the observing subject, leading him or her on, fulfilling the fool’s social role on the intellectual level. Pinkie’s behavior is characteristic of each, and the difference between jester and object is a product of perspective: social, or intellectual. Twilight, the observing subject, treats Pinkie as an object, and Pinkie happily obliges her.
As part of this transformation from the social to intellectual mode, Pinkie shunts certain cultural aspects onto Rainbow Dash, and these are then displaced into other episodes. That is, Dash doesn’t appear in the episode because the narrative must eliminate certain elements, and because it also suppresses Dash along with them, she manifests them with a vengeance at other points in the first season. This is the logic of the cultural object, as we will see.
Pinkie’s knowing “without knowing it” (in this section’s title quote) echoes Pinkiesense—an intuition. Obviously, she does know that Twilight is following her, but holds her tongue, since letting on “would spoil the secret”. What is the secret? Probably not that Twilight is following her, since Pinkie openly tells Applejack. In this case, her statement seems to be a further teasing invitation to Twilight’s scientific inquiry. The secret (a defining characteristic of the object-status Pinkie has taken on now that she’s under scientific observation) is more akin to what the documentary filmmaker—who ideally observes without intruding or influencing—tries to record.
This is what the photographer pony, Photo Finish, potently expresses in her iconic line: “I just point my camera and I captcha…da magics!” Without manipulation, solely by letting her object be an object, Photo Finish gets quality shots. The photographer’s object herself, Fluttershy, emphasizes this. Rarity convinces Fluttershy to model because of her natural grace and poise, and Photo Finish is only satisfied with the shots of Fluttershy acting naturally (that is, uncomfortable in front of the camera), rather than practicing Rarity’s advice for successful modeling. Despite her distaste for modeling, Fluttershy persists as a favor to Rarity. If friendship is magic, then Photo Finish has, in fact, captured it.
Magic, as discussed above, is implicitly already “captured” by Twilight and the paradigm of literacy. When Pinkie compares Pinkiesense to magic, Twilight mounts her symbolic soapbox and clearly defines how magic aligns with the principles of science: it is the result of study and practice, directed toward useful ends. This understanding of magic falls into the domain of literacy—it can be written down and repeated, and once understood can be put to the practical use of manipulating the material world. Pinkiesense, on the other hand, is intuitive rather than intellectual, and passive rather than active—Pinkie senses that something will occur but is not privy to detailed information, nor is she able to exercise her own agency through those acausal means. Magic, and science, are both subjectively guided, whereas Pinkiesense seems to be more a matter of either receptivity or synchronicity. Twilight’s drive in “Feeling Pinkie Keen” is to repeat the aligning of science and magic, but this time bringing Pinkiesense into line with the others—that is, bringing this new type of acausality (or “magic”) into the fold of literacy, justifying the scientific approach and worldview on multiple levels: apparently inexplicable phenomena can be rationally explained, repeating the principle of repeatability itself.
Language is the core of literacy, and thus pony science and magic. Here, Fluttershy throws more light on why Twilight resists the apparently anti-intellectual Pinkiesense. Fluttershy is a caretaker of animals, and communicates with them through verbal language. When the ponies venture into the Everfree Forest, Fluttershy notes the strangeness of animals caring for themselves, emphasizing the predominance of order in the pony worldview and language as an integral component of that order. Pinkiesense, on the other hand, is neither manipulable nor more than vaguely expressible in language. Like the visual medium in which it is represented, it is a bodily intuition. Notably, Fluttershy may be able to communicate with animals, but she seems to have incredible difficulty comprehending Angel, a rabbit who communicates visuo-bodily, just like Pinkiesense. (Fluttershy does also communicate bodily, with her intimidating stare, but this functions more as an imposition than an interaction.)
“Did your Pinkiesense tell you that, too?” “Nah, I can just see it.”
A quick recap to introduce what comes next. We’re working off of the anarchist principle that science has a limited domain and cannot account for all experienced phenomena. This doesn’t mean that science is wrong or bad; it just means that there are other ways of knowing things, and these other modes can be as meaningful and satisfying as scientific knowledge. We’ve also seen how objects, as objects, have their own perverse will which we can either ignore or try to account for. To account for it, we need to pay attention to the object itself and understand its own logic.
What follows is a concentrated attempt to do precisely this: follow the articulations of the art (or cultural) object—in this case, “Feeling Pinkie Keen”—to prod at it until it gives us a hint of its secret, a clue about how it works. (Yup—fuckin’ ponies, how do they work?) The goal is to present a logic of art that stands outside scientific realism. Rather than devaluing the latter, the former complements it by revealing aspects and associations that the scientific mind, by default, is neither conditioned nor encouraged to perceive.
Art, like Pinkie the anarchist and her Pinkiesense, operates according to an acausal or associative logic of correspondences-at-a-distance. To understand how it works, you have to start thinking as it thinks—no amount of science will help you. In animation like MLP:FiM that includes language, the verbal and the visual are complementary, participating in an interplay with one and producing an overall effect which neither element can replicate on its own, in isolation from the other. This means that, in addition to the normal working of language (the characteristics and roles of which we are by now familiar with), MLP:FiM also incorporates a visual logic to which language, the tool and foundation of literacy and science, is not particularly adapted (in fact, language handles it quite awkwardly). Thus, this visual logic likewise doesn’t fit with what we normally think of as sensible or rational. However, we’re talking about a cultural object, a piece of art, and its function is to show us these things according to their own, and its own, logic. It is a way of seeing and thinking, and when we can do it, we complement scientific understanding with the independent ability to step back from, without completely abandoning, the scientific perspective.
“Feeling Pinkie Keen” approaches its climax in Froggy Bottom Bog, where the ponies are looking for an event that Pinkie senses but can only describe as “a doozie”. Twilight assumes that the immediate absence of evidence confirms her conviction that Pinkiesense is nothing more than coincidence. But even she proclaims victory in the name of science, she coughs on a miasma heralding the arrival of a monstrous hydra, and this seems to yet again validate Pinkiesense as more than mere coincidence. (It only seems to, but we’ll come to that.)
In all shots clearly depicting the hydra (i.e., not an extreme close up and not a long shot through mist), one of the four heads is visually differentiated from the other three by its positioning, its facial expression, its activity and/or attention, inclusion/exclusion from the shot, and probably other features. This corresponds to the dispositions of the four major characters involved in the episode’s narrative, one of whom (Twilight) has thus far been out of step with the other three. Spike, Applejack, and Pinkie all place authentic belief in Pinkiesense. Fluttershy is present here, but functions more as a McGuffin rather than a proper character; she is a device that advances the plot, first in accidentally dropping the frog on Twilight, setting the ensuing events in motion, and later when Pinkie, Applejack, and Spike fear for her safety. Twilight, of course, believes that verifying Fluttershy’s safety will debunk Pinkiesense once and for all.
So, there is a sort of symmetry between the four characters and the heads of the hydra. This correspondence points out the exclusion of two major characters, Rarity and Rainbow Dash, from the episode’s narrative. Rarity is not even mentioned, and Rainbow Dash gets only a single namedrop. (Rainbows are mentioned, but only in juxtaposition with Twilight getting hit with a door.) However, their influence is pervasive if we pursue MLP:FiM‘s visual logic.
The episode’s opening scene immediately suggests Dash’s absence. Spike and Twilight are distracted by Pinkie slinking around in a multicolored umbrella hat. The coloration of Pinkie’s hat recall Dash’s rainbow mane and tail, emphasizing her absence. Its shape recalls the jester’s cap (which makes an appearance as the shape of the medals awarded for comedy at the pony’s talent show), emphasizing Pinkie’s role as an archetypal fool, a characteristic which she shares with Dash.
Dash is invoked by name when Twilight rounds on the hydra, allowing the others to escape across a chasm. She asks herself “what would a brave pony like Rainbow Dash do?”, considers, then runs screaming at the monster—a maneuver of confidence, but also with great comedic value, a pair of aspects that distinctly translate Dash’s absent personality into characteristics that Twilight expresses. Confidence, tied to competitiveness, is a general characteristic Dash portrays most of the time. Her trickster aspect is most concentrated in the episode “Griffon the Brush-Off”, wherein Pinkie and Dash join forces in a prank spree. The tricksters’ brand of humor plays into that episode’s narrative by fulfilling comedy and revelry’s archetypal function of dissolving or escaping constraint, symbolized in the conversion or ousting of a blocking character. (Also in this episode, we see Pinkie once again breaking the rules of reality in a comedic fashion, miraculously appearing in all of the places Dash attempts to hide from her.) Through their associative connection, Dash shares Pinkie’s playfulness for an episode, but in “Feeling Pinkie Keen” Dash’s characteristics manifest in Twilight’s showdown with the hydra (and in Twilight’s general attitude, as we will see shortly). In doing so, Twilight recreates Dash’s actions in the second episode of the series: both Ponies confront a challenge, allowing their friends to cross a symbolic divide. But Dash’s influence on Twilight in “Feeling Pinkie Keen” does not end there.
Twilight also takes on Dash’s characteristic competitiveness, seeking as she does to establish her world view as truth (and in the process playing interlocutor to Pinkie). Literacy is, of course, classical Greek in conception, and the Science Wars showed that literacy preserves its competitive heritage, tending toward a “Thunderdome” approach to truth. Just as she acts as the lord of misrule at the gala, disrupting the social rules of high society, here Pinkie acts as the unruly object of the premodern general economy, disrupting the formal scientific worldview by refusing to grant it the truth Twilight seeks.
We see the same sharing of character traits when Pinkie sheds certain of her lord of misrule characteristics and these resurface in Dash’s trickster aspect, the centerpiece of “Griffon the Brush-Off”. Dash’s trickster aspect is preserved beyond this most potent iteration in the necklace worn with her formal dress, which visually resembles a cluster of grapes—an iconic image of Dionysian revelry which was, of course, celebrated with comedy and festivity. The classics of Western comedy were written specifically in honor of Dionysus, with several plays judged against one another (competing) during the festival. Thus, we see that revelry and competition form a coherent complex in Dash’s character. The spirit of competition was pervasive throughout Greek society, not just in its games, and we can see it echoed in the competitive aspects of our own everyday culture, particularly the knowledge values we adopt from the literacy paradigm.
In sum, Rainbow Dash herself has been suppressed, but her characteristics are distributed to other aspects of the “Feeling Pinkie Keen” narrative. We can think of this as art’s way of “remembering”; something that is not immediately present can still exert significant influence over the narrative surface (the sights and sounds presented to you, the pony-loving viewer). So, where’s Rarity? Her influence is felt in Twilight’s worldview, which grows to envelope the episode’s narrative; in a sense, the narrative economizes by eking Rarity out and preventing a redundancy that would interfere with the episode’s visual and plot rhythm. The narrative does, however, preserve the rigidness with which she follows the rules of fashion and high society by transferring that unwavering, dogmatic adherence onto to the suddenly hard-assed Twilight Sparkle.
“Super-extra Pinkie Pie”
It’s not Twilight’s fault that she thinks Pinkie’s extraordinary behavior can be scientifically investigated and explained. After all, Pinkie Pie’s predictions demonstrate accuracy and consistency, as the same twitches precede a certain corresponding event. The twitches even begin to develop like a language when “combos”—linear strings of distinct twitches in syntactic order—are introduced. Everything points to a sort of hidden logic—even Pinkie herself, when she suggests that there is a secret behind the whole course of events. All of this is a strong lure to the scientific mind, but as soon as Twilight begins treating Pinkie like an object to be studied, Pinkie immediately begins acting like an object with a secret, a hidden truth to be revealed.
Jean Baudrillard theorizes objects just as such, drawing on the idea of the sacred in the premodern general economy—that objects possess and exert agency of a different kind than our own. They reveal this when they reach the point of excess, called ecstasy, a characteristic the object shares with the festive lord of misrule. This is what allows the fool to get the best of polite society, and the object to get the best of the rational observer. Because our subjectivity is defined by our literacy, this incommensurable (not scientifically explicable) quality of the object is suppressed, allowing that very characteristic to crop up when we least expect it. We experience this in the events we classify as accidents, and these are nothing more than an aspect of reality that we cannot, or do not, perceive or acknowledge as necessarily existing. The converse notion, that accidents are inherent and can’t be eliminated, is a central point in much of Paul Virilio’s thought.
Twilight’s escape from the hydra is entirely accidental. The monster lunges for her, propelling her over the edge of the cliff, but not quite far enough to reach safety. As she plummets toward the bog below, a pocket of gas inflates and the muck’s viscous surface cushions Twilight’s fall, then sends her rocketing back upward, where she bounces gracelessly to safety. With everyone across the chasm and out of harm’s way, the hydra blows a raspberry with one of its heads as it lumbers off in the other direction.
The hydra, of course, isn’t the doozie. The scientific object, Pinkie and her sixth sense, now predicts an even greater danger that is still in the offing. This is simply too much for the empirical Twilight, and she finally gives up once and for all on understanding the workings of this fickle mechanism (or rather, figuring it out as a mechanism). Here, we finally hit the point of excess and vertigo. In the cases of both carnival and the object (which are really the same case, just from different perspectives), excess leads to vertigo or disorientation. Vertigo, like anarchy, does not oppose rules; it simply disregards them and their authority. In premodern festival and revelry, this vertigo removed the individual from one order (the status quo of his or her society) to reveal a different one (the visionary experience, a source of mythology and art). As a type of play (see Callois), the essential activity of carnival, vertigo strongly contrasts competition. Dash’s character potently expresses the latter; competition works within and around rules, analogous to the rules of science (Twilight) and society (Rarity). Indeed, literacy was Plato’s alternative to oral culture, the passing down of knowledge through rites and mysteries. The Eleusinian mysteries, perhaps the most famous of these, relied heavily on vertigo; participants were presumably dosed with something akin to psilocybin, led into a darkened space, and presented with a dramatic representation of the cult’s secret knowledge. The vertiginous experience imparted a new worldview to the initiates; in literacy, the worldview is established through repetition—writing and reading—and expanded through competition—who can provide the best, the most efficient, the truest theory or formulation?
Twilight finally reaches vertigo when Pinkiesense reaches logical excess, becomes an ecstatic object that pushes past boundaries and limits. When Pinkie’s continued shuddering indicates that the hydra was not the dooize—that the hydra wasn’t even a blip on Pinkie’s full-body radar—Twilight has finally had enough. Whatever Pinkiesense is, however it works, the fact that there is still something “doozier” than a hydra out there is simply beyond Twilight’s comprehension. It is too much, too excessive, too far beyond the bounds of her mode of understanding, and she abandons all hope of scientifically understanding Pinkiesense. And that, of course, is “the doozie”. In this expression of agency, the object shows itself to be, like the lord of misrule, an anarchist—it doesn’t seek and hold power, but rather acts to encourage the dissolution of such political relations. (Scientific dystopians, rejoice! You have nothing to fear from computers; as you can see, the object is apolitical. It has no interest in running the show, it just wants to do object stuff.)
“What else can I do?”
Twilight encounters a new logic or order to the universe that does not fit neatly into her own understanding of how the world works. It does not devalue the work of science (and magic), but it suggests that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Ponyville. It sets certain limitations to scientific understanding, and things that fall beyond these bounds can seem to turn an otherwise orderly universe on its head if we persist in using an inappropriate set of rules to explain them, or explain them away.
In closing, let us return to the identification of magic and literacy. This is underscored by the similarity of the episode’s opening and closing scenes. In the opening scene, Pinkie Pie and her umbrella hat distract Spike from assisting Twilight with her magic; in the closing scene, Spike is distracted from taking Twilight’s dictation by the sight of both Twilight and Pinkie in their matching umbrella hats. Spike, of course, never gets the chance to send the letter; Pinkie’s tail twitches one last time and the note’s addressee, Celestia, drops out of the sky to receive it personally—almost like she knew it was coming. Of course, this would imply a greater degree of precognitive precision than Pinkie appears to possess. As such, the episode seems to encourage the idea that Pinkiesense can be refined and mastered (just like a pony’s innate propensity for magic), and thus that it functions in a way that may be commensurable with literacy after all.
But the princess is a sly girl. Remember her plot at the gala? Well, at the end of “Feeling Pinkie Keen”, the ink on the writing desk is the invisible ink, used by Pinkie and Dash to prank Twilight in “Griffon the Brush-Off”, solidifying the scientist’s newfound kinship with the anarchist. Celestia also keeps a jar of the same ink around (also seen in “Griffon the Brush-Off”), suggesting that even deific rulers have their anarchic side. So perhaps the possible commensurability of Pinkiesense with science and magic is just another recalcitrant invitation for exploration—another secret?
In the series’ first episode, when Twilight sees cataclysmic events looming on the horizon, she attempts to warn Celestia. The princess, however, tells her mentee that she ought to “stop reading those dusty old books” and “make some friends”. Twilight interprets this as a dismissive response, but in the end, Twilight’s friendship with the others achieves a resolution that research and study could never hope to accomplish. In this way, the series strongly suggests that the lesson Twilight seems to learn is indeed one about the limits of science and the value of incommensurable knowledge. A message of complementarity seems appropriate for a show about friendship which emphasizes, from the very beginning, that those of us with certain strengths and abilities can help others who, on their own, would be at a standstill.
And so we come back around to Stephen Magnet (yup—fuckin’ magnets—this is how they work). I understand that his argument is all in good fun, and I laud his presentation, approach, and enthusiasm. But we can all imagine what a scientifically realistic, mimetic MLP:FiM would look like—something that would never make it on the air, because it would consist of ponies doing real-life pony things like standing in a field and probably eating an apple or two. The aesthetic and narrative choices that Magnet critiques are part of what makes the show enjoyable and engaging. What makes art art instead of science is that it does not have to adhere to intellectual formulations or the standards of reality as we generally understand it; as an object of perception, it has its own logic and agenda, and to understand those we must think with it rather than against it, follow its nuances rather than impose upon it. MLP:FiM obviously advocates for openness and tolerance in the social realm, but it also encourages us to strive for those same values on the intellectual plane, in the sociality of knowledge.
A pretty profound polemic, coming from candy-colored ponies.
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