I’ve been wanting to write about Steven Universe for a while, but I’ve had a very tough time coming up with the backing research for it. The point I wanted to bring up and what impressed me the most in this work was how relatable the character of Steven (or others characters too) was. Like… noticeably more relatable than the average show.
From his awkwardness to his enthusiasm for his passions, from his figurine collections to his movie marathon, from his carelessness to his moments of worries, I think many of us can see ourselves to some extent in Steven.
Which is also interesting in the light of personal identity being another key point of the show. The concept of fusion is a really powerful metaphor for the union of two people becoming a different entity and yet keeping their identity, or for these moments when you feel you’re several people in your head. This show toys around the eternal question of What is in a name, what makes Amethyst what she is, how can Sugilite keep a part of Amethyst-ness and yet be someone entirely different? Notice how the show plays around this issue by having most of the characters who can use fusion named by common nouns (incidentally the gimmick of the title sequence).
Also the emphasis on the question of identity is highlighted by the cute tasteful references that the show makes to His Dark Materials and its Deamons, through The Spirit Morph Saga but yeah this is me being a Pullman fanboy as everybody should.
Most of our cells in your body will die and be replaced, and you’ll almost be a totally different you in a matter of years. The very elegant Theseus’ “paradox” highlights how difficult that question is: if you your boat is leaking and you fix it by replacing a broken plank, it’s still your boat, right? What if you replace another, plank after plank, until you get rid of all original wood. Is it still the same boat? When has it stopped being? What constitutes its identity?
I kinda like Hume’s existentialist view that identity is some kind of unobtainable dream goal, a ridiculous concept for an ever-changing human being which is ultimately a succession of different states or memories. But I recently heard futurist Ray Kurzweil offering what you may call a classical synthesis to this problem. If you’re ever-changing between different states, maybe the secret of your identity and of what makes you you is in this change itself, in the patterns and the hows of how it operates.
Why the frack would a futurist be interested in this question is one of my favorite subject when it comes to technology: as you upload more and more of your brain onto the internet (respectively as you augment your body more and more with technology), what becomes of you ? (highly recommend this short story by a friend of mine) Kurzweil’s point was that you could upload an individual by understanding and mimic-ing these patterns of change.
And I mean it may make sense, since the world is deterministic, to put the crux of identity in how you react to it, for if you don’t have anything to react to, what do you have to define against? In the same way that such a thing can be so Raven, maybe what’s Amethyst about Sugilite is her Amethyst-ish reactions. So will we have one day the possibility to merge our uploaded consciousnesses into super gems? You betcha!
But let’s leave here the scary AI reflections for a while and go back to the real problem that this show tackles in my opinion: the relatableness (realism ?) of a character, also known as the why doesn’t Jack Bauer go to the toilet like ever conundrum. The difficulty for me to make this article is that there’s about as many answers to “how realistic should a character/art be” as there has been artists, from ultra-realists to surrealists…
There’s no shortcoming of debates (Aristotle, Boileau, Hume…) about what art should be, often centered around the notion of Beauty and Aesthetics. And yet I’ve struggled really hard to find an answer to that question: why don’t characters go to the toilet? Why don’t they binge watch Netflix, talk about their favorite anime, self-loath, repeat scenarii over and over in their heads, etc… Don’t tell me that it’s not essential to the plot because the flipping long descriptions in Flaubert or Tolkien sure as hell aren’t either! And as a writer, should I ever consider writing a character doing all of the above? What makes a reference to Dr Who so cool in My Little Pony, but will make my writing look like My Immortal if my character does it? Is it simply a question of authority?
But maybe by focusing on an absolute, be it a narrative arc or a more abstract concept of beauty, thinkers tend to overlook the richness and value of a mundane ? Abstracting may be a projection onto a higher level of sense, but it paradoxically also robs the thing from its complexity and faults which were part of its essence! Is abstract really a “higher” plan then? Wouldn’t identity rather reside in the everyday mundane interactions against which one defines oneself? The secret to identity is in this ambivalence, for a horse partakes in the general horseness by having the characteristics of a horse, but is also THIS horse as opposed to all the other horsekin.
Steven Universe is an ode to all these flaws and oddities that makes an Amethyst THIS Amethyst, as opposed to the Amethyst-ness shared with Sugilite. I’ll conclude this not-so-productive rambling with food for thoughts, a quote from a famous french philosopher and elevator builder:
“Et c’est assez curieux de se dire que les hasards, les rencontres forgent une destinée…”