Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thunderball


I've been struggling to write this review of Thunderball this past week — not because I've been too busy with school, but because I'm hesitant on how to crack the particular angle at which I want to approach the text. I've recently completed a class on Toni Morrison; the most valuable element of the class for me was the introduction of critical race theory into critical tool box. Previously, as my readers have come to notice, I've mobilized a mixture of traditional literary close-reading techniques with more Marxist terminology, with a dash of Foucault here and there. Critical race theory has helped structure and mobilize my chaotic and unformed thoughts about my orientation towards race. I'm white, male, middle-class, and straight; I couldn't be any more privileged. My awareness of the intrinsic inequality beating at the heart of the world has been awakened and developed these past few years and critical race theory, along with feminism, has helped me articulate these feelings. As Allan G. Johnson writes in his book, Privilege, Power, and Difference, "to justify such direct forms of imperialism and oppression [of slavery/capitalism], whites developed the idea of whiteness to define a privileged social category elevated above everyone who wasn't included in it" (49). Imperialism, capitalism, and power are all inextricably linked with James Bond — not just in figurative ways but in literal ways as well.

The more I'm educated on my own position within a dynamic of power vis-à-vis race, gender and class, the more I'm problematizing hitherto banal elements of my cultural loves. Namely, James Bond. After seeing Skyfall recently, I was struck by the problematic aspects of the narrative. The list is long: Moneypenny's desire to be a secretary and not a field agent, the elegiac tone for the golden days of the British Empire, the gay panic of Javier Bardem's character, even the misdirection of the male gaze upon the queer figure of Daniel Craig. There's even an elegiac tone for a (seemingly) forgotten way of Scottish aristocratic life when men had servants simply for the maintenance of firearms and tunnels.

I read Thunderball because I love(d) James Bond. I hadn't any desire to revisit the films as they're uniformly terrible save for the anomalous Casino Royale. Thus, I chose one of the many Ian Fleming novels. Thunderball, I thought, would be a good place to pick up from my last Fleming novel, Moonraker, as the former is the beginning of the informal Blofeld trilogy. In addition, I remember practically nothing of the film (other than the bloated scuba scenes that stretch on for infinity). Thunderball has a long complex legal history that involves two other writers, two films, two studios, and unbearably tedious copyright issues. This is not the time and place to delve into such banalities. Instead, I want to examine why I love James Bond so much despite my acknowledgement of Bond being a rather loathsome character and concept.

Thus, I plan to examine the guilty pleasure of James Bond.

Suffice it to say that in this adventure, James Bond accidentally delays SPECTRE's masterplan when he is forced to go on holiday and ends up butting heads with a secret operative coincidentally on holiday as well. After a suitable length of time (one third of the novel!), Bond goes on assignment to the Bahamas where MI6 and the CIA believe SPECTRE has hidden two atomic bonds with which they are threatening the world.

There are a couple moments in Thunderball that are fairly exciting; they are few and far between. The more interesting stuff happening in this novel is with James Bond himself. Generally, Bond is a bit of a cipher. He's a fantasy figure upon which the audience loads themselves. Bond physically dominates an opponent with only his fists and the audience dreams of one day possibly doing the same. Bond easily seduces a woman within moments of meeting her, and the male faction of the audience hopes to achieve such a goal. I'm not sure what the female half is doing — swooning at Bond's confidence and good looks or retching with disgust at his loathsome lechery. Regardless, Bond is loaded with all sorts of fantasies from the audience. He is acting out what we wish to be.

So it's all the more interesting that the literary Bond, that accomplishes these feats within the text, also resists and textures the audience's fantasies. While he might drink like a fish and smoke like a chimney, Fleming takes time during Thunderball to remind the audience that this addictive personality has its physical costs. Bond reflects on his body being improved after a stay in the holiday resort. He understands that his behaviour is an expression of a coping mechanism, but it's mostly a transference process that has physical addictions and ailments manifesting his mental scars. Certainly not the most original of metaphors (the film Looper picks this idea up with the most tedious of results). However, it's evocative. It resists the superheroic aspects of Bond the character. Later in the book, during an aquatic fight scene, Bond suffers injuries to the head. Knowing that repeated concussions are correlated to a later history of depression and suicide, I'm struck by the fantasy of what a future, retired Bond might look like. Thunderball is at its most interesting when its main character is physically weakened or emotionally disabled — which isn't very often, and of course, this speaks to the fantasy and the privilege at the heart of James Bond.

The Dark Knight Rises picks up on this energy as well. The film wants the audience to know that Bruce Wayne is physically disabled and emotionally stunted. Of course, in a typically Hollywood (privileged) exercise, Wayne's masculinity is deeply related to his physical conditions. When confronted with two beautiful women, Wayne's confidence increases to the point where the film totally forgets that Wayne is a broken man. His recuperated libido cures his limp, in other words.

Both Batman and James Bond appear to be the apex of a matrix of domination (as per Patricia Hill Collins) or a matrix of privilege (as per Estelle Disch). Both are white, male, straight, and decidedly upper class. Bond holds the title of commander from the British Navy — arguably the most visible symbol of British imperialism. He is firmly entrenched within two branches of the English government: the military and the British Secret Service. The Wikipedia page helpfully offers a detailed biography of Bond's familial origins. Without laboriously pouring over the details, Bond comes from moneyed stock. He is, indisputably, privileged and through a matrix of domination, sustains this privilege throughout his life by systems already in place meant to reward and perpetuate Bond's privilege.

How could I possibly root for a character that exists purely as vehicle for fantasy and for the perpetuation of an intrinsically unfair system of discrimination? How could I justify my participation with this discourse? I bought the boxset of novels; I've seen the past five Bond films in the theatre; I've written copiously on the subject and I speak openly of my love for Bond. Previously, it's been unapologetic. I was fine with the cognitive dissonance of being aware of Bond's lechery and classism. I thought, simply, that the awareness of this inequality was enough to rationalize or excuse my fondness for the English spy and his adventures. I could "look past" these problems and enjoy the films on their own. My mother says I read too much into things, but as I've stated time and again, a lack of critical thinking might result in the sublimation of insidious ideology without the subject's awareness.

In other words, my constant participation with the ideologically questionable discourse of James Bond might actually be sustaining the ideology itself. After all, I'm recirculating the problem by acknowledging it without doing anything about it. I'm normalizing the process of saying "hey I know Bond is sexist" and yet purchasing the books and tickets to films. I'm engaging in interpassivity by letting other critics denounce Bond and saying, "hey it's enough that someone else is criticizing Bond — I can still see the films". The reality is "that my silence, my inaction, and especially my passive acceptance of the everyday privilege that goes along with group membership are all it takes to make me just as much a part of the problem" (Johnson 129).

Despite this, I don't think this blog is the appropriate place to exhaustively catalogue the moments of sexism and racism in the novel Thunderball. So then what is this post for? Why I am struggling to write a review of Thunderball as if it were any other text?

Previously, I've never believed in the idea of a guilty pleasure. There are multiple reasons for the existence and subsequent refutation of the guilty pleasure. Capitalism's current mode is the imperative to enjoy and self-indulge at all costs. You deserve this. You're owed this. You worked hard, so enjoy this... at all costs. But the guilt comes from the awareness that there are (many) other options that are also competing for your attention. When you pick something that you unequivocally enjoy yet acknowledge that there might be something that hypothetically more entertaining, more educational, more worthwhile, you justify your choice by repeating capitalism's mantra of "you deserve this". Which is, of course, the point. The guilt comes from the anxiety of choice, the tyranny of enjoyment, and the rapacity of capitalism. Thus, I'm positively skeptical of any such concept of guilty pleasure. If you enjoy something, just enjoy it.

Including James Bond. After all, Thunderball is fun. There are two atomic bombs, a race against the clock, soul-searching, romance, action, gadgets (a Geiger counter masquerading as a camera), barracudas, scuba fights, plane crashes, assassinations, gambling, sex, and did I mention action? Superficially, Thunderball is a fun exercise and the reader shouldn't feel guilty for seeking out pleasure in the form of literature. Thunderball, dispersed across its surface, is a flat injunction to enjoy by thrills, not by guilt.

But now I'm skeptical of even that. Especially when this type of blind indulging leads to the circulation of hegemonic concepts of whiteness, class and gender. Thus, for me, guilty pleasures take on a more menacing character. Not only because the guilty pleasure appears to be the norm in the mainstream (Honey Boo Boo, X Factor, Glee, Real Housewives, etc etc etc) but because the negative emotions of the taboo are so intimately linked with the pleasure principle. The masochism of constant indulging is pleasurable because it's taboo. Thus, the capitalistic injunction to enjoy is a complete success.

I'm no longer interested in being a passive subject, at the whim of the logic of late capitalism. But on the other hand, I'm not trying to convince anybody that "I'm one of the good ones". Just by making myself aware of the problem doesn't solve the problem. I'm not exculpating myself by writing 2,000 words about the -isms in Thunderball. Rather, this review is exploratory. It's not an argument that Bond is racist or sexist (it is undeniable that this is true) nor is it a defense of my relation to Bond and thus to privilege. Rather, it's a mea culpa.

Privilege needs the compliance of other privileged members to sustain itself (Johnson 131). It's a public that is interested in survival through the circulation amongst strangers (Warner 50). So this post is meant to introduce myself into a counterpublic that is oriented towards systemic change. Johnson writes,
change isn't simply a matter of changing people. People, of course, will have to change in order for systems to change, but the most important thing is that changing people isn't enough. The solution also has to include entire systems such as capitalism whose paths of least resistance shape how we feel, think, and behave as individuals. (141)
I want to challenge James Bond and its "obvious" legitimacy through a counterpublic of discourse. Challenging individuals creates defensiveness: my mother's supposed refutation of reading too much into things. Thus, with this blog, and Thunderball, I openly question the legitimacy of James Bond's, and subsequently, my privilege. Other people might choose to follow in my path, and in this slow and inexorable way, we might shift the paradigm of inequality.

Or, we might burn down the system of capitalism and replace it with democracy, a system where James Bond doesn't get his job in the Secret Service because of his race, his familial ties, his education, his social and cultural capital being unconsciously and invisibly manipulated like a brand.

I'm aware this is a really long review of Thunderball that isn't really a review. Instead, it's a personal exploration of the guilty pleasure, but with the guilt being my awareness of the matrix of privilege that structures not only James Bond but my very reading of it. And of course, this isn't the last time I'm going to engage with a text, a concept, an ideology in this personal way. The whole point of the project is to do so and keep exploring in order to effect some sort of change, albeit in incremental ways. Or, riot and burn it all down to start from scratch.

Works Cited

Johnson, Allan G. Power, Privilege, and Difference. London: Mayfield, 2001. Print.

Warner, Michael. "Publics and Counterpublics." Public Culture. 14.1 (2002): 49-90. Print.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Awful Opinions

Here's a controversial opinion for you. Despite what decades of individuating pedagogy has trained us to believe, not every single person on the planet is special, and thus, not every single opinion can be included in the debate. Going one step further, not every opinion is valid. Some are just wrong. It's a logical inevitability that not every opinion can be right, because most opinions are oppositional. In other words, there are literally billions of people with wrong opinions. And yet, our current mode of "you're special, you deserve it, buy this" operates on the assumption that everybody is comfortable knowing their opinion is a) valid and b) correct, when I'm positive that this cannot be the case.

What this means is that people tend to spout off opinions without examining them, where they cam from, and what they mean in a larger context. Opinions, like people, do not exist within a vacuum. Most opinions are shaped by cultural, social and genetic factors. It's worth examining why we tend to prefer Batman over Superman, no?

Case in point, somebody at work told me that he had finally seen the third Batman film. Well, most of it. He hadn't finished. He proceeded to tell me that it was awful, stupid and silly. I tried to get him to expand on this. All he could tell me that it was silly.

I'm sure the word he was looking for, if he had known it, was campy. The Dark Knight Rises, even with its dour and dark tone, manages a level of camp with Catwoman and Bane that the previous installment in the film hadn't. Camp, by definition, operates under the aegis of irony, and yet because of its exaggerated performance aspects, it's also a deep form of sincerity. Camp is both a loving tribute and a vicious mocking of the normative.

This ambiguity to The Dark Knight Rises has made this particular individual uncomfortable. He's not sure whether Batman is meant to be taken seriously, allegorically, or literally. Of course, I'm willing to admit that this might be due to flaws in the film rather than flaws in the viewer.

I asked him about The Avengers to further gauge his critical opinion. I want to know what he thought of something similar so that I have a better understanding of critical barometer. Unfortunately, he couldn't remember anything of the film, other than he didn't like it, which says something about both the film and him as a viewer.

He did manage to tell me that the worst comic book film he had seen was X-Men: First Class. At this point, I totally shut down and disregarded his opinions.

You might say I'm being defensive about the films I like. You might say I'm being overly sensitive about films I enjoy. Or you might say that this particular individual just doesn't like comic book movies.

But here's why I could disregard his opinion. He has chosen a contrarian position without understanding why he chosen it. He is resisting the dominant mode, which admittedly, is terribly flawed and infantilizing in its own way, but he's unable to articulate why he's doing so. He can't just simply dismiss a genre - unless he can tell me why he's dismissing a genre.

If you can't understand your own position, how are you going to defend it? If you're position is indefensible, why are you bothering to hold it?

These are awful opinions not because they don't align with mine, but because they are without thought, without articulation. While this guy and I might agree on The Avengers and disagree on The Dark Knight Rises, I can rest comfortable knowing that my opinion is more valid because I can express myself.

You can't just grunt and say, "I didn't like, but that's my opinion." You can't just say, "opinions are subjective" because if that was true, we wouldn't have experts in the field who we look to for expert and therefore more valid opinions.

This particular individual is the absolute perfect middle class consumer of culture in that he simply accumulates artifacts of culture without ever examining them and placing them into a greater socio-cultural context. He is infantilized to the point where he confuses high end shows with complexity and maturity. He conflates seriousness with quality and allows for the dominant to make his choices for him.

I'm not a better person than him; I'm just better at articulating myself.

I've written a lot about this democratization of art and I'm working on something big right now, so you can see why this is important to me. It's about the culture industry disregarding and flattening our intelligence and then we congratulate ourselves on our ability to choose "high" quality artifacts.

Good for you that you watch Mad Men, but are you thinking about it at all or are you just sitting there and "enjoying" the acting? Do you think Batman's quasi-conservative neoliberalism is surface or was it intentional? Do you think The Walking Dead's bizarre relationship with race is indicative of wider issues in the cultural depictions of race or is it some sort of ironic stance taken by the film?

If none of these things, or similar things have occurred to you, then you have a lot of work ahead of you in convincing me to take your opinion seriously.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Central Park Five


At the end of reading Sarah Burns's account of the wrongful convictions of four black and one Latino teenagers, I was in tears. Not only for the lives wasted, but for the victims. Despite the relatively happy ending of this story, the Central Park Five had a large chunk of their lives taken away, replaced with horrendous memories and wounds etched deeply in the psyche.

Obviously, I was deeply taken with Burns's account of the crime, the arrests, the investigation, the trial, incarceration and eventual overturning of the convictions, and this is due to Burns's mostly powerful and persuasive prose. Burns does not pretend at any point to be an objective journalist, which might increase the affective power of the book, but certainly complicates the narrative's effectiveness as document.

Burns's goal for the book is clear from the outset, which should not be surprisingly considering that the outcome of the trial and eventual overturning is well known and well publicized. Essentially, The Central Park Five functions to criticize a justice system that is fundamentally racist. The narrative also aims to indict any member of the public that had private interests not connected with the innocence of the five teenagers. Any lawyer or public figure that had any political motive is characterized as essentially exploiting the case. Not only that, the narrative heavily castigates incompetent figures in the case, from the "sloppy" and "disjointed" lawyers to the officers and detective that Burns extensively implies were outright fabricating testimony. She offers the great corruption investigation of the NYPD in the mid nineties and the neologism "testilying" as damning evidence that the NYPD were only interested in one amazingly racist narrative and not in any inconsistencies and contradictions.

Unlike other complicated legal narratives, such as the West Memphis Three trial or the Jena Six, The Central Park Five is fairly clear and concise. The five young men didn't do it; the real rapist did and confessed with plenty of physical evidence and intimate knowledge of the crime to corroborate the confession. The whole incident seems, according to this book, fairly black and white. This helps the emotional resonance of the text (hence my tears) but again, serves to weaken Burns's argument.

Is The Central Park Five a "true crime" narrative? Is it a political polemic on the systemic racism within the USA? Is it character study of wrongfully convicted teenagers who know have varying degrees of success navigating a post-exoneration life? Due to its brevity and Burns's outsider status (she is not a journalist but a law student), The Central Park Five does not quite function as any of the aforementioned genres. Instead, this text is a mishmash, a highly affecting portrait of a city with a crime problem and a justice problem. Burns doesn't spend enough time with the Five post-conviction, and she doesn't spend enough time with them after the overturning of the convictions. Instead, the men become ciphers with Burns's vitriolic rhetoric taking center stage.

Burns presents Ann Coulter's remarks on the overturning of the case with little commentary other than the heavy implication that Coulter herself is racist. The article is here, and it's worth reading. From the first sentence, Coulter engages in the same language as the sensationalist press of 1989; she refers to the group as "a mob of feral beasts" and goes on to deploy other animalistic metaphors. The comparison between black man and beast, a common theme in Burns's narrative, is still prevalent within the media, she eventually concludes.

The rest of her conclusion is unsatisfactory, unfortunately, but this might be due to her inexperience with the greater justice system as a whole as well as the rhizomatic nature of the justice system itself. The world is complicated and Burns admits that there are no easy answers to how best to prevent such an incident.

Despite the weakness of her conclusion, as well as her refusal to be either an objective journalist or an effective political analyst, The Central Park Five is one of the most arresting and affecting portraits of an intrinsically flawed justice system that I have ever read. Her entire thesis, that the system is rigged, is so totally convincing that she could have simply suggested such a thing and I would have been persuaded. This is an important and engaging text.

Of course, I haven't even discussed the subsequent documentary (how I heard of the case) and the subpoena issued by the City of New York. You can read a bit about that here, in an interview with the Five. I plan on seeing the documentary, and having my ire raised again, a hatred of systemic abuse and a dehumanizing process motivated by statistics rather than individual human lives.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Native Son and Counterpublics


"Well, to tell the truth, Mr. Max, it seems sort of natural-like, me being here facing that death chair. Now I come to think of it, it seems like something like this had to be," says Bigger Thomas to his lawyer (Wright 415). The novel Native Son appears to be espousing a rather depressing nihilistic tone in this section, going on to eventually argue that Bigger's motive to murder a white woman was created completely through an intrinsically racist social system in which black and white, segregated by class and skin, are fundamentally unequal. The hegemony of white people exerts an inexorable pressure upon individuals, the lawyer argues in his epic speech. This scene, in which Max mobilizes a long and affecting defense of Bigger Thomas, is an address to a specific public rather than the public. Essentially, Max is undertaking a complex introduction of a counterpublic, individual black people, into a larger unwelcoming public of white people. In this post, I will deploy Michael Warner’s theory of publics and counterpublics in order to affirm the deterministic ideology hinted at by Bigger Thomas. That is to say that Bigger Thomas’s acceptance of how it should be has been determined by the creation and circulaion of a public and a counterpublic, organized by unequal social divisions based on race.

First, it is worth laying out Warner’s theory of publics and counterpublics and thus we must lay out some important groundwork. Warner’s paper, “Publics and Counterpublics”, was published in 2002, but has its roots in Warner’s previous books. For this theory, Warner is updating Habermas’s book Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. In this very post, I am addressing a specific public rather than the public as a social totality. A singular public is not the sum total of interested agents operating within all of a polity. A public can be “a concrete audience” with a sense of a totality, bound up by the event (this post) and by the shared physical space (Blogger) (Warner 50). A public can also be a public created by its being addressed. In this sense, when I am reading this essay, “the concrete audience of hearers understands itself as standing in for a more indefinite audience of readers” (50) and thus a public is created by the engagement with the discourse of the seminar paper. In Warner’s theory, a public is self-organized in that it is created by virtue of being addressed; it is a relation among strangers; it is both personal and impersonal in that it addresses a collective of specific discrete individuals; it is constituted through mere attention, which is similar to Althusser’s interpellation; it is a social space created by the circulation of discourse; it directs by specifying in advance its target. A public is stranger sociability in a pure form because it selects members based on the only relatable criteria: the members’ unfamiliarity with each other. Since a public can be directed using stranger sociability and relatability, it is fundamentally a political entity, even if the address itself is not political.

A public, as we have seen, is ideological in that it depends on an arbitrary social closure. In the case of Native Son, the criterion is colour of skin. It also depends on the institutionalized forms of power with the ability to realize the agency of the specific public. The publics with the discourse most widely circulated tend to more misrecognized for the public.

Warner was interested in publics and counterpublics as being created through the written word, as in a “concatenation of texts through time” that create and sustain them. Only when a pre-existing discourse can be assumed and a future discourse predicted, can a text create a public by address. Wright’s Native Son creates a public by addressing a collective of unknown readers, by assuming familiarity with a past and with the present, and finally postulating a responding discourse that addresses the topic of the social condition of African Americans. Because there is a continuum of discourses, there is a link and thus an interaction. This interaction is usually conceptualized using metaphors of conversation. Publics answer, talk back, respond, argue, shout, etc. The “interactive relation postulated in public discourse” expands past the binary metaphor of speaker and listener because of its intrinsic citations and circulatory power (64). In this way, a public is meant to undergo circulation. Its existence is temporal in that a public only exists in the moment of address as well as in its supposition of a future circulation. Thus, a public in this formulation can be read similar to a Foucauldian discipline. One of its major interests is its self-sustainment and dissemination through the manipulation of bodies, or in this case, strangers.

Public address, while superficially specific to the individual, is addressed to a multitude of strangers for the purpose of persuading, educating, directing, or manipulating. Strangers are categorized and organized by virtue of coming within range of the address itself. Because the public address is structured for the individual, any character or trait the address depicts “typifies a whole social stratum” (75). A public, then, is constituted of individuals shaped into a collective whole. In Native Son, a public is being addressed and assembled by the media, which provides misinformation and the misrecognition of Bigger Thomas as a rapist. However, as the thesis of the text seems to imply, a public is being sustained through institutional and systemic measures that simply circulates the discourse that enables the media to perpetuate the misinformation.

I will now argue that Native Son is exposing the existence of a larger hegemonic public through the logic of negation, which is to say, by the proof of a counterpublic. I would contend that Bigger Thomas, and other African Americans of Chicago’s South Side ghetto, are assembled and concatenated into a counterpublic that is sustained by a public, or as aforementioned, a systemically racist and unequal social organization.

A counterpublic can be quickly defined using Nancy Fraser’s phrase, “a subaltern counterpublic” or a parallel discourse that includes and addresses subordinated social groups that circulate oppositional ideologies. While alternative publics (such as Christians in a secular society) are still ultimately a subpublic, a counterpublic is always aware of its subordinate status. It defines and organizes itself by what it is not, which is to say the dominant public (again, which is not necessarily the public). A concrete example that Warner provides is the queer counterpublic. The address of this counterpublic does not assume the general heteronormativity that the dominant publics assume. Any speech that addresses queer individuals will circulate until it meets resistance from an individual who does not want to be misrecognized as queer. Thus the queer discourse will circulate in non-dominant avenues by virtue of the members not being constituent parts of the dominant.

In Native Son, one counterpublic is the Communist party, its constituent members misrecognized and vilified by the dominant public. During Mr. Britten’s interrogation of Bigger, he asks if Bigger ever heard Jan call anybody “comrade” (Wright 220). The address of “comrade” has complex signification within the dominant public and within the text. Comrade immediately marks and organizes the addresser as belonging to a counterpublic of the Communist party. The addressee, when confronted with such a formal address, has two choices: either accept membership into the discourse of the counterpublic, or refuse participation by virtue of membership to the dominant discourse. In the text, members of the counterpublic are referred to in disparaging and distrustful terms, such as “those Reds” or “Commies” (187). The dominant public circulates a discourse in which the subordinate are marked essentially as subordinate, which both affirms the subaltern status of the countepublic and confirms the dominant status of the hegemonic public.

The bulk of Native Son is concerned with the existence of a counterpublic made of African Americans. In one sense, the counterpublic of African Americans is assembled through the organization of the different races in physical urban spaces. Bigger Thomas, while not a flaneur in any self-reflexive way, does provide the narrative with many instances of urban navigation and subsequent border crossings. The primum movens of the plot is Bigger’s employment with the Dalton family. After leaving the dark and narrow space of the family’s apartment (1), Bigger walks through the white neighbourhood in which the Daltons reside. There, the narrator reflects that “this was a cold and distant world” where distant would refer to emotional distance, but also to figurative distance for an individual African American. Figurative barriers are described that serve to keep a counterpublic out of the urban space dominated by the white public; Bigger has difficulty navigating the protocol of entrance into the Dalton house, as well as he must go through a fence and a locked gate. While attempting to gain entry, Bigger reflects that if the police were to see him, they might assume he was here to rob or rape somebody (49). In this we can see Althusser’s interpellation. The address of the police concretizes Bigger as subject to a dominant ideology, which is circulated through a public discourse.

This physical transgression of borders at the Dalton residence is merely a microcosm for the organization of the city itself. Much of the urban space is divided into sections based on race, which are then subdivided into sections based on class. Mr. Dalton owns the holding company that owns South Side Real Estate Company which controls property all throughout Chicago. A “line” exists between the property accessible to black renters and to white renters, one insurmountable by Bigger due to the colour of his skin, and thus, due to his status as subordinate. The manifestation of this essential opposition of public to counterpublic comes in the prescriptive nature of the areas themselves. Though Mr. Dalton considers himself supportive of African Americans, he would only rent houses to them in “prescribes areas” (199). The houses themselves become physical expressions of the difference between the public and counterpublic. The houses that are accessible to black renters were once owned or rented by “rich white people,” or the dominant public, while now they are occupied by African Americans or are “standing dark and empty with yawning black windows” (209). Both descriptors, “dark” and “black,” are significant in their evocation of African Americans themselves. Later, Bigger reflects that black people are kept “bottled up like wild animals” because black people had to “live on their side of the ‘line’” (288). The public convinces the counterpublic of their subaltern position through this physical demarcation. One of the reporters, questioning Bigger, remarks that “these Negroes want to be left alone” (246), thus affirming the difference. In another instance, the media reports that affirming the counterpublic discourse can be accomplished by “conditioning Negroes so that they have to pay deference” (324). During Mr. Dalton’s interrogation, he is asked why he refuses to rent houses to black people in white sections and he responds, “Well, I think Negroes are happier when they’re together” (378). Due to Mr. Dalton’s privileged social and economic position, his discourse has better circulatory power than any counterpublic that might dispute such a claim. Mr. Dalton’s opinion as a public is taken to be “the public” and this interaction “invisibly order[s] the political world” (Warner 77) and so, the black people must live in prescribed areas. In the Chicago of the text, the desolated physical spaces the black people live in are representations of the counterpublic discourse.

Moving over the borders from the white area and the black area, the transgression of the counterpublic into the oppositional public, is expressed in Bigger’s awareness of the transgression of taboo. Rather than a super structure of ethics – in which murder is, by default, taboo – this taboo is seen in social awkwardness. When Mary suggests going to “a real place” for food, Bigger is made completely uncomfortable (Wright 78). A restaurant, or a public space, in a counterpublic is not a space for members of a different public. If the counterpublic’s space is assembled through the aggregation of subordinate subjects, then the intrusion of a hegemonic member fundamentally changes the very character of the counterpublic, shifting it, instead, into a subpublic with a different dynamic of relational power. A white person’s very presence in the restaurant changes the dynamic of counterpublic and Bigger’s awareness of this marks his knowledge of his membership to a counterpublic.

Other taboos are transgressed, not just in social and urban navigation, but in ethical situations. The colour of the victim’s skin is irrelevant to the crime of robbery, yet Bigger recognizes completely that robbing Blum, the white storeowner, “would be a violation of ultimate taboo” (14). This awareness of the breaking of taboo is affirmed in the circulatory power of the counterpublic. Early in the text, when Bigger is questioning the unfairness of the city’s organization, Gus tells him to “quit thinking about it. You’ll go nuts” (21). As seen before, the counterpublic’s very self-knowledge as subaltern allows for the circulation of the subordinate discourse which assembles itself. Bigger is not merely “mechanically repeat[ing] signature catchphrases” or slogans, but performing them “through social placement” (Warner 73). At other points in the text, Bigger is unable to express his feelings and his motives to white people, preferring to stay silent, or being unable to articulate exactly, as the “telling of it would have involved an explanation of his entire life” (Wright 356). Only after long conversations with Max, also a member of a counterpublic, but ultimately belonging to the dominant public of white people, can Bigger articulate his hopelessness in the face of such a vast imposing structure of racial inequality.

The hopelessness of the integration of public with counterpublic is expressed in the determinism at the heart of the text. It is inevitably an interaction laden with doom throughout the text. The counterpublic’s existence is precarious, and circulated through counter discourse. Warner writes, “One enters at one’s own risk” (87). The counterpublic that Bigger belongs to, while self-reflexive of its subordinate status, “provides a sense of belonging that masks or compensates for the real powerlessness of human agents” within this fundamentally unequal society (81). In this way, Native Son exposes the existence of a hegemonic public and its opposite, a subordinate counterpublic, as formulated by Michael Warner in his essay “Publics and Counterpublics”.

Works Cited

Warner, Michael. "Publics and Counterpublics." Public Culture. 14.1 (2002): 49-90. Print.

Wright, Richard. Native Son. 1940. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. Print.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Skyfall


Yesterday at work, somebody asked me what I thought of Skyfall, considering I had seen it on opening night. Now, at work, I'm one of three guys that have an academic background in English, out of a possible thirty to forty. Thus, any time I'm asked a question like this, it's totally fraught with complications. Are people asking me because they think that I'm a good judge of film? Are they asking me because I have a stronger background in film than they have? Or are they asking me in an ironic way because I tend to share my opinions with everybody, even if they didn't ask? And how do I answer? Do they care about the complexities of the film and subsequently, of my opinion? Or do they just want to know if it's worth spending money on?

When I answered, I'm simply said, "It's better than Quantum of Solace, but not as good as Casino Royale." I feel like this reply does the work of answering the question while not conveying the nuances of my opinion or the strengths and flaws of the film - which people are generally not interested.

One of my friends, who went to the film with me, interrupted me and said that I was too judgmental. He went on to say that I don't like anything and that nothing's good enough for me. I became defensive, tried to argue with him using logic, and then we got into the oft-fought Hobbit debate (he's totally on board with Jackson's trilogy - I couldn't care less). Long story short, his accusation that I'm too judgmental gave me pause to think.

You see, I'm a longtime defender of James Bond, including the shitty Bond films. Even the obvious misogyny and imperialism and sexism and techno-fetishism isn't enough to deter me from being entertained by a Bond film. I've even read a few of the novels. In my review for Moonraker, I framed my discussion with the idea that even if I like something, I can at least be realistic or aware of its short-comings. I think this philosophy has served me well (enough that somebody asked me contribute to their new urban website as a film reviewer). I rarely offer encomia for even the things I love.

Despite my love for Casino Royale, I don't think it's perfect. Surely we can all agree that the first hour of the film is particularly stirring while the second hour is fairly forgettable.

On the other hand, I'm one of few defenders of Quantum of Solace. Yes, the film is tonally uneven and a mess structurally, but there are some excellent scenes. The opera sequence is a bravura impressionistic performance, and the climactic showdown at the end is thrilling. Everybody seems to give Quantum of Solace a bad rap just because it doesn't quite hit the same level of quality as Casino Royale. However, it's still leagues ahead of most of the Roger Moore Bonds.

This should serve to demonstrate that I am judgmental, but honest and fair. That's what I strive for in my reviews. I want to show that I can balance the good and the bad of the film and come to a conclusion. All films have some merit and some weakness. It's always worth understanding them. And after which, putting the film into a greater cultural context. What kind of culture produces or reflects such a text, or vice versa? Simply accepting a text, without any greater awareness, strikes me as empty consumption and is especially fraught when the text is engaging in suspicious ideology.

James Bond, as a franchise, is a great example of this, I should think. What else does Bond offer but empty action, rampant sexism, veiled imperialism, and quite a bit of technological fetishism? What else is there to these films?

Thankfully, the three Daniel Craig films have done some work in asking this question; they have laboured to ask what value Bond has in the 21st century. The first film posited Bond as a battering ram, simply a tool of the British government, but by the end of the film, the tool has developed a sense of autonomy. The second film asks what happens when this autonomy is not rooted in "Queen and Country" but personal investment. It's an attempt to rationalize how a man could commit so many murders in the name of a country.

The third film, Skyfall, and the ostensible object of this review, asks what is the relevance of figures such as Bond in a technologically-oriented, politically murky unstable global stage? What value does one man have in fighting against unending waves of terrorism that have no faces and no rational motive? This is why I think Skyfall is thematically stronger than Casino Royale, but not better as an entire film experience.

Skyfall opens incredibly strong. In fact, it's a better pre-credits sequence than any other Bond film in the entire franchise. Not only does it pertain to the plot, but it opens up some of the themes of the film. On top of this, it's an utterly visceral and incredibly shot sequence. The trailers are wisely based on the opening scene, because this is where all of the film's thrills are held.

There's a foot chase, followed by a car chase, followed by a bike chase, followed by a fight on top of a moving train. It's the car chase that's extremely effective. Mendes, and whoever his capable editor is, arranges the shots in a different and surprisingly coherent manner. It's a stark contrast to Quantum of Solace's awful opening. Mendes shoots the car crashes from the perspective of the civilian cars being caught in the crossfire, but then cuts away, assuming the audience knows what happens when a car hits another.

It's this type of confidence that propels the first half of the film. For an hour and a bit, I was utterly convinced that this was going to be the best Bond film ever made. I had no idea where the plot was going (save for one super obvious thing regarding M) and the direction and cinematography (ROGER DEAKINS FTW) were immaculate. The Shanghai skyscraper fight is, hands-down, the best action scene I've seen all year, bar none. It's so good that I'm positive nobody will top it by year's end.

My enthusiasm was running high, all the way up until Bond and the villain finally meet. And thus, at this point, the halfway point, Skyfall runs out of energy entirely and becomes a series of loosely linked scenes without any emotional investment or verve.

Once Javier Bardem's villain is introduced, the film liberally borrows the cat-and-mouse structure of 2008's The Dark Knight, of which I've wrote copiously. Bardem's villain gets caught (all according to plan) and when Bond realizes he's been one step behind, he turns the tables. Or whatever.

There was an intriguing moment during the film that I have to spend some time talking about. Javier Bardem has Bond tied up to a chair and he's trying to convince Bond that M is actually the bad guy in all this, that M's manipulation and coercion is far more dangerous because it's ideologically fraught and tied up with the illusion of "queen and country". He opens Bond's shirt to see the bullet wound that Bond suffered from earlier in the film (which is confusing, but that's another paragraph) and then... touches him sensuously. Bardem grips Bond's thighs in a provocative way and asks him if there are any official protocols on that.

What elevates the scene from awful (oh noes, the villain is gay!) to interesting is that everybody in the theater, except for me and maybe a few other people, were laughing. I'm assuming that such overt queer performativity was uncomfortable for the audience and their confused reaction was to laugh out of a feeling of awkwardness. This, to me, is utterly fascinating.

Say what you want about the advances in gay rights across the globe - but we still have tons of work to do in equalizing all people when a bunch of straight white guys in Canada in 2012 can't even handle a dude inappropriately touching Bond but they can handle the misogynistic torture porn that characterizes modern horror cinema.

It's the ambiguity of Bardem's character that is most affecting, I think, but simultaneously a weakness. Like I mentioned, Skyfall owes quite a bit to The Dark Knight, especially in the sense that Bardem, like Heath Ledger's Joker, is a figure of chaos and without meaning. He's unmoored from the signifying chain and this creates anxiety in those who cannot slot him into an organizing category.

However, The Dark Knight was focused on contrasting three figures dispersed across a spectrum of law and order. Skyfall does not manage to compare Bardem's ambiguous villain with any figure. Instead, he's simply an obstacle for Bond to overcome, rather than an ideological opponent.

If you had switched the villains from Quantum of Solace with Skyfall's, then perhaps both movies would have been recuperated. Quantum of Solace's antagonist was unfettered and out of control capitalism and therefore dangerous to the British Empire. This would make sense in putting Skyfall's Bond in context with a world increasingly dissimilar with Ian Fleming's world.

And Bardem's villain is totally motivated by revenge, which would have been an excellent contrast with Quantum of Solace's Bond's rationalization of revenge using state-mandated ideology.

But alas, this is not to be. Bardem's emptiness and irrelevancy in Skyfall's themes are part of the film's downfall. The 23rd Bond film expends all of its energy in the first half and degrades into a listless exercise of cat-and-mouse in the second half. The finale of the film, depressingly predictable, seems so utterly rote and mechanical, as if the filmmakers had a better idea in mind, but this ending was the only one approved by the studio. The climax goes through the motions, and thus it never earns the emotion that the finale thinks it deserves.

Skyfall, while exhilarating in the first half, is a letdown by the end. This is especially true in the last couple moments when the fanservice becomes extreme. But that's another article, I think. Rather, let's leave the review with this one thought: Skyfall is a good movie, but not great. It does a lot of good work in trying to understand Bond as a 21st figure, but never follows through on its own premise.

So this is my long review that justifies my judgmental behaviour. This review's dual purpose is to articulate my feelings on the film (always complicated) as well as understand why I have complicated feelings about things.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Book Review Round-Up

Introduction

I've been reading a bunch of books from novel series, or romans fleuve. I appear to have some sort of obsession with novel sequences, as if they are somehow more satisfying than an individual novel. I think it's worth exploring why I'm obsessed with serial fiction or longer form narratives than the singular novel or the short story, but I have yet to come up with a possible explanation. I do know that I'm adverse to short story collections (despite reading some magnificent collections) and more willing to forgive technical issues when the canvas stretches to multiple novels. That being said, this particular trio of reviews concerns two novels in two cycles and one stand-alone. I've organized this trio by their chronological setting; the first being set in the 20s, the second in the 30s and finally the last one set in the early 40s. All of them concern Englishmen and women, and all of them are concerned with social structures.


In the Making

The introduction to the recent Penguin reissue remarks that G. F. Green, a writer hereto wholly unknown to me, was saddled with the not unfair descriptor of "writer's writer". It seems that Green was more well known among fellow authors than the greater reading public. This might be due to Green's intense and focused prose, or it might be due to the subject matter.

Randal Thane is apprehensive about leaving his sister, his governess and his home for prep school, but when he arrives, he enters into a whole new adult world. He becomes obsessed with an older boy who holds incredible power over Thane.

In The Making is incredibly short, but incredibly dense. At a slim 144 pages, this took me a week to read. Every sentence is intricately constructed - so much so that the focus of the criticism should be directed at the prose, rather than the plot. In terms of story, not much happens. But due to the prose, each set piece takes on a dreamlike epic tone, where the hypersensitivity of the protagonist intensifies the experience. Green manages to successfully capture that hotness, that queasiness of falling in love so perfectly, where every step you take is imbued with importance and solemnity.

I'm reminded, of course, of At Swim, Two Boys which I read earlier this year. Both novels are concerned with first love among two boys during a period when such a thing is not permissible. Where At Swim, Two Boys deploys a large canvas, In the Making uses the smallest one possible. There are other characters in In the Making, but they don't really matter at all. It's all about the two boys and their "love affair".

If that's even the way to describe it. The entire novel is focalized through this hypersensitive protagonist, so it's entirely possible that the romantic/sexual interest is not entirely reciprocated. There are hints, but even the climactic kiss that the boys share is fairly ambiguous:
[Randal's] hands were clenched in the ruffled hair and he gazed into Felton's eyes. The blood knocked through his body and blinded him. He pressed his lips on Felton's mouth. Felton stirred, and Randal remained motionless. His search and desire were for the instant forgotten for they had momentarily become that action.
I was inclined to read this scene a couple times. It's fairly easy to make the mistake of thinking that Felton either did or did not return the kiss. Green keeps Felton's thoughts and actions fairly obscure, in order to keep the focus on Randal. Thus, the reader is left without the knowledge of Felton's feelings.

On the whole, I liked the novel. Its prose was a bit too dense for me. As much as I enjoy quality prose and poetic language, that's not really the type of reader I am. I'm hesitant about dismissing the novel due to my own personal tastes when this is clearly an impeccably constructed novel that somewhat suffers from its period. The sexiest this novel ever gets is the illicit kiss. The rest of the novel works due to its hazy dreamlike qualities and Green's purposeful ambiguity.


The Acceptance World

It's been three years since I read the first two books of Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time (I never bothered reviewing the second book) but I remember quite liking them for Powell's elegant easy-to-digest prose, and for the humour. I'm not quite sure why I didn't keep reading, but I'm somewhat glad I didn't. I wasn't the strongest reader in 2009 (neither am I the strongest now; I have much to learn). Using the Wikipedia summaries of the first two books, I plunged back into the world of Nick Jenkins and his gigantic cast of dancing twirling friends and acquaintances.

Once started, I'm immediately reminded of the disposability of Powell's construction. That is to say that everything seems so inconsequent and the scale so utterly exiguous. It's due to the paltry size of the world in contrast with the size of the cast. That is to say, that despite deploying a cast of dozens, the world seems small because everybody is connected through familial or work relations. Plus, every conversation and every interaction is based on the most frivolous of circumstances. It's a nonstop cocktail party for seemingly three books in a row.

This isn't necessarily a negative attribute of course. I've previously expressed an affinity for the "cocktail party" trope in fiction, in which upper class dolts make buffoons of themselves through dialogue and imbibing to excess, so it's quite out of order for me chide The Acceptance World for the same thing. After all, Oscar Wilde made a career out of conveying the inconsequentiality of his own society with wit and aplomb.

At the third book, I'm starting to get a better sense of the large scale project that Powell has embarked on, something that is hinted at in the two previous texts. It's hard to portray a sense of time's expanse when the canvas is only two small novels long. With more space, Powell is able to display the temporality of these social connections. In order words, the longer this project goes on, the more its themes of dance are concatenated.

In terms of a singular novel, The Acceptance World is a bit of a mishmash of episodes only loosely strung together by a shared cast. The contentious position of secretary to a fading novelist structures most of the action of the novel. It creates the background for the episodes of dinner parties, cocktail parties and gossip. Plus, the political upheaval happening contemporaneous to the novel's action comes to the forefront. Marxism, Trotskism and Communism are responsibly name-checked to increase verisimilitude within the text.

Another element come to play is the relatively novel concept of the easy divorce. Of course, easy is a relative term, as the laws in the UK during this era were notably antiquated and somewhat lopsided in its distribution of blame or social judgment. As the cast comes of age - it appears the main characters are in their late twenties, early thirties - the insolubility of marriage rears its nebulous head. How to deal with the estrangement of forced cohabitation or the alienation from marriages built on social connections rather than love? The end of The Acceptance World is simultaneously optimistic and wary of the future of a love affair; Nick has engaged in a relationship with Jean, a married woman who doesn't love her estranged husband. However, the husband is due to return, and Nick and Jean's future is not quite so clear. Nick expresses hope due to their love for each other, but worries about the reunion of man and wife. It's an interesting note to end the novel, and elevates the rest of the inconsequential fluff to another plane.


The Great Fortune

We finish this trio of reviews with the beginning of another sequence of novels. This time, it's Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War which comprises six novels. Based on her own experience with her traveling husband, Manning depicts a marriage and its inherent complexities across a canvas that includes the Second World War, Romania and later Egypt. However, we begin with The Great Fortune, starting when Guy and Harriet have just married and come to live in Bucharest.

The Wikipedia page helpfully informs the reader that Manning's critical reputation has been decreasing in recent years due to her Orientalist approach to Eastern Europe. She depicts a country of Others and their bizarre foreignness. Harriet is always an outsider to the Romanian world, and is thus alienated from it because of its insurmountable differences.

However, I would argue, this unfairly reduces the complexity of Manning's novel and does a disservice to the overall project. It seems to me that Harriet is not only alienated from her surroundings, but also distanced from her marriage and even her conceptions of what marriage should be. Her social situation is far more precarious than she suspects, which I believe mirrors the stature of the British Empire.

The Great Fortune offers a portrait of the decline of the British Empire as characterized by Yakimov, the mooching laze-about that attaches himself to whomever would offer him a meal. On the rare occasions that Yaki has money, he spends it frivolously on rich meals and expensive wine, never worrying about the future, content in the illusion that as a British subject, he'll always have a community.

I'm inclined to defend the novel against accusations of Balkanism or Orientalism because that allegation engages in the same type of essentialism that Said's theory decries. Not everything that occurs in The Great Fortune reduces or flattens the Romanian people. That's not to say that Manning offers a totally nuanced view of Bucharest; it's not the purpose of the project to do so. Rather, Manning offers a nuanced view of an alienated subject within a world that is not familiar. The subject is alienated from itself, a bifurcated subject within a discourse totally unfamiliar.

Manning's ability to relate such a topic gains its power from her masterful eye for detail. Her evocation of Bucharest is totally immersive - even with the suspicion of inauthenticity. She paints a wondrous portrait of a city through four seasons: the smells, the clothes, the weather, the snow, the filth, the cars, the colourful characters. It's all quite effective.

The second half of The Great Fortune has a bit more energy than the first half, due to the increasing speed of the oncoming war. In the beginning, the proceedings are somewhat listless as Manning takes great care in introducing her quite large cast and their respective positions. By the halfway point, the threat of the Nazis and political problems becomes palpable, creating conflict and anxiety among the characters. It comes to a head with a brilliant sequence in which Guy puts on an amateur production of Troilus and Cressida (a play I'm totally unfamiliar with) that totally outside the cast's awareness, mirrors the play's fall of Troy with the end of the innocence before the war. It's certainly the best part of the plot, and I'm totally reminded of the comedy inherent in the amateur production that Robertson Davies so professionally mined.

I quite enjoyed The Great Fortune and look forward to the next chapter in the saga.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Book Review Round-up

Introduction

I've given up on Goodreads entirely. The structure of the system had a tyrannical hold on my reading habits and proclivities. I was unable to purchase or read a book without consulting the site in order to gauge the book's quality. Of course, as I've mapped out, this is an intrinsically flawed protocol. My engagement with books was being mediated, and I would prefer to minimize layers of mediation for a more authentic experience. That being said, preventing me from counting and rating books is proving to be a surprisingly liberating experience. Instead of reducing a reading exploit to five or lower stars, I'm trying to return to blogging about books in a bigger way. My review of Ondaatje's novel was an attempt to return to my former style of blogging rather than essays on cultural studies. However, picking up where I left off (my last good review was in August) is a difficult process. Thus, I submit a series of smaller reviews that are less about in-depth literary analysis and more about qualitative judgments.


Some Do Not...

Surprisingly, I was not inspired by the recent adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch to read Ford Madox Ford's quartet, Parade's End. I tried reading it long ago (2011) after I had successfully read The Good Soldier (which I thought not great, but time has a way of altering our opinions). I gave up with Some Do Not... because it's rather dense and elliptical. However, as I've read more and more, the difficult works appear to be less difficult after I try again. Some Do Not... remains a difficult work, still elliptical, but tenacity and perseverance helped me finish the opening novel of the quartet.

Christopher Tietjens, while not of the same sharpness that the protagonist of The Good Soldier has, is a particularly occluded character. For the duration of the novel, even with its sliding through time, I never got a really excellent sense of Tietjens' opinions or motivations. He does some specific things, such as withdraw from a prestigious social club due to another character's manipulation of Tietjens' bank records, but this "problem" is just as quickly waved away. What doesn't disappear is Tietjens' sense of morality. His wife takes a rather dim view of the structures of monogamy, but Tietjens stays by her nonetheless.

As an opening novel of a quartet, the novel takes its time introducing the theme of morality and Tietjens' adherence to his code, but at the same time, introducing the character with whom Tietjens will abandon the code. The "some do not" of the title refers to the arbitrariness of the rules of society. For some, the rules are meant to be followed and believed, a controlling and structuring ideology that helps them make sense of the world. I can predict confidently that the other novels set explicitly in the war will help shake Tietjens' convictions due to the utter horror of the war.

As an individual novel, it's not an entire success. Certainly this is an easier and more fun read than The Good Soldier if only for its technical virtuosity. The stream of consciousness that so seduced Ford is on in full force, but never as garishly as when Woolf deployed it. It's a stronger performance in terms of experience, but as self-contained novel, the plot's a bit too thin. There are a few amazing setpieces, but when Tietjens' wife is introduced late into the novel, we're unsure of her character other than her infidelity. It makes her actions inscrutable, but not in the same way Tietjens' actions are. Rather, Mrs. Tietjens just seems thinly drawn and shrill, the way a male writer unfamiliar with women tends to write them. Their only scene together in the novel is confusing and obscure.

That being said, I quite liked the novel.


The Three Musketeers

I bought the Penguin edition back in 2005 or 2006 and I finally read it. That makes it the oldest book in my collection to have been read. The only other contender is Joyce's Finnegans Wake, which I probably won't read until I have a solid vacation. I bought The Three Musketeers because I a) read The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte and b) wrote a paper on Dumas because of the aforementioned thriller. Ostensibly, I was inspired by Dumas's total acceptance of the commodity-based model of publishing. Allegedly, he wrote adventure stories for the adventure, not for the story. I only received a B on the paper because I hadn't fulled sketched the character of Dumas (the point of the exercise).

After a six or seven year wait, did the book measure up to my expectations? First, this is a remarkably strange question to ask that occludes a deeper more disturbing question of my book-buying practices. Secondly, yes and more. The Three Musketeers was one of the most ruthlessly paced novels I have ever read. It's an entirely breathless endeavour that barely takes time to question the logic of anything that's happening.

It's hardly worth repeating the plot here, but it does serve to mention how hopelessly convoluted it is. Certainly, it doesn't make a lick of sense, and the characters' motivations are pressed into conformity with history. Yes, D'Artagnan and his ilk are loosely based on historical figures, but a good portion of the cast is made of real people and thus, Dumas was constrained by history's immutable facts. When a soldier kills the Duke of Buckingham, Dumas must make use of that soldier, logical or not.

I suppose it's interesting to read The Three Musketeers with an eye on theory, specifically historiographic metafiction (two words Chrome's dictionary hates). Dumas tends to paradoxically flatten and flesh out historical figures. Certainly, the Duke of Buckingham is developed as a character, to the detriment of his own existence and own idiosyncrasies. He is flattened to serve a plot, while simultaneously being developed for the machinations of the plot. It's an interesting balance that Dumas walks between fidelity to historical record (there's a long boring part about a siege when Dumas has to hold the reader's hand through complicated history) and lively adventure.

It's a different sort of Victorian-era novel than I'm used to and that might be due to the country of origin. I'm always drawn back, time and again, to the literature of France because it's so refreshing and different than anything offered by the rest of the West. I'm tempted to read Victorian-era Spanish literature to see what it's like, but I'm too nervous because I know nothing about Spain.

The Three Musketeers is a thoroughly fascinating and entertaining read. So much that I went out and purchased the Oxford editions of the two sequel "novels". I put the last word in quotations because the last novel is 2,000 pages long and split into three individual volumes!


Sula

While I had to read this for my Toni Morrison class, I wanted to get something down on it as a piece of literature. The only other Morrison novel I've read is Beloved, which I appear not have reviewed, despite my reading it during this blog's lifetime. I remember it as practically a masterpiece; its Gothic and Southern elements were effortlessly attractive to me as a reader. I was supposed to read it for class two weeks ago but didn't because I don't reread novels (a practice I might give up soon). Thus, Sula represents the second Morrison novel I've ever read.

It's a much easier read in that the prose is more conversational and the subject matter isn't so relentlessly dark. There are grotesque passages in Sula, but it's not oppressive. Rather, Sula is a shorter, more accessible work, but manages to retain a similar level of complexity.

What I think draws people to Morrison is not her storytelling craft, which frankly, isn't that great. I don't think people are reading Morrison novels for their plot but rather for the fecundity of ideas, symbols and meaning. A Morrison novel opens itself up to a plethora of different and sometimes contradictory impressions, and this is what I think attracts so many readers and critics.

Take for example, Sula's birthmark. In the novel, the facial birthmark is "read" in different ways by different people. Some see it as a tadpole, others see it as a snake, and so on. The different readings of Sula's birthmark is a synecdoche for Sula herself, and her town's various ways of reading Sula. But this, I would contend, is what makes Morrison's novel so good. The novel itself can be "read" in a variety of fashions.

The big question to ask about Sula is about its content rather than its form. What is this book about? Superficially, the plot concerns a small semi-rural town in which two black girls become friends despite their differences in the 1920s. However, the novel steadfastly resists this reductive summary due to the elliptical, protean, episodic nature of the structure. Nel and Sula, the two girls at the heart of the novel, are only two of six focalizing characters. The peripheral characters are as important to the town and to the novel.

So then, if the novel is and isn't about friendship, is it about black femininity in the early twentieth century? Is it about proto-feminism? Is it about the fractured nature of storytelling? Is it a fable about African modes of storytelling and history? Is it a novel about African Americans or is it an African American novel?

All of these and none of them at the same time is the answer of course. The differing significations of Sula is a synecdoche for the novel itself and thus this explains Morrison's power over the reader.

No doubt, in a month, you'll be reading an essay written by me that compares the different signification in Sula to the multiplicity of symbolism in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. I'm already formulating a paper on it.

Sula is a fantastic novel, not just for the wealth of representation in the novel, but as well for its success in portraying the friendship of the two women. It's not Beloved, but it would be her best novel, if Beloved hadn't come about.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Ted


There's an intriguing moment near the beginning of Ted when the eponymous teddy bear and his human best friend are watching Flash Gordon. Wahlberg says that this is the American fantasy: a football player called to save the universe. I would contend that the true American fantasy has shifted due to the rising of women's social capital since the 1960s. The real fantasy is to sit on the couch and smoke weed with a bro while a hot chick asks for little from you.

Of course, later in the film, Wahlberg and Ted meet Sam Jones, the star of Flash Gordon, and they proceed to party. And in the eyes of the hot girlfriend, partying is bad, bro. Mila Kunis, an otherwise attractive and smart person, seems to find Wahlberg's character lovable enough to put up with Ted, but when she wants Wahlberg to settle down, he goes out and parties with his id, otherwise known as Ted.

There's a strange trend of films from the past fifteen years in which children in the bodies of men are forced against their will to grow up. The films are structured as a quest story, where the object of their quest is their own maturity. Judd Apatow and other filmmakers have relentlessly explored what happens when a bro's id is left untethered. Of course, in typical American fashion, some sort of compromise is discovered by the end of the film, whereby the bro and his best bud can both achieve maturity while still banging the hot chick.

Culture is where society is mediated for the individual. The subject sees himself or his society reproduced and repackaged upon the screen, dispersing pat pro-social messages across the surface. Ted, and similar films, are expressing a deep and wholly recent anxiety of white middle class men: women are controlling and impose alternative structures. Of course, this alternative structure is simply engagement with society on a productive level. The montage in these films usually include the main character throwing themselves into their job, becoming better employees. A connection is established between maturity and loyalty to labour. The films are thus asking their audience to engage in the game of capitalism in order to bang the hot chick and keep the bro.

This is a reductive reading of Ted and films of its ilk, but certainly an illustrative reading. I recently read this book by Adam Kotsko and while it was an interesting read, I think Kotsko is missing out on the economic factors. He argues that there are three forms of awkwardness: everyday awkwardness (like a guy not understanding how to react in situations), cultural awkwardness (like marriage being an unfeasible enterprise) and radical awkwardness (assimilation of different cultures creates strain). He devotes the middle third of his essay on Apatow films and how they express an anxiety over the controlling structures of marriage. In times of greater gender fiscal equality, women have the freedom to choose better. Thus, the characters in films are implicitly asking themselves why the women would bother to choose them. Thus, the quest for maturity presents itself.

In Seth MacFarlane's directorial debut, Wahlberg is an exceedingly attractive guy without confidence who has a teddy bear that represents the wish fulfillment of every middle class white American: he sleeps around, he parties, he has had casual sex with celebrities, he has no responsibilities. This last item is explicitly referred to in the film. During the climax of the crisis of friendship, Ted berates Wahlberg for blaming everybody else for his own problems. Nobody forced him to party; nobody forced him to stay immature.

Here is where I think Kotsko's analysis falls a bit short. I would contend that while no person is forcing Wahlberg's actions, his entire ideology is being shaped by culture and the greater organizing principles of capitalism. There is no greater enjoinder in the present day than to party. The demand to party is tyrannical to the point where films such as these are inevitable.

Capitalism orders the subject to consume, immediately buy products and replace them just as quickly, and to indulge in pleasure. Advertising is always asking subjects to treat themselves cause they "deserve it" but even this tyrannical enjoinder to enjoy is limiting. People reject being told what to do. They will choose not to do something even if it is pleasurable because they have been ordered to do so. Thus, Wahlberg and other bros are being constantly asked to party, but inside, they seek structure and order. All humans do. They secretly desire to be controlled.

The inevitable response to this is to transfer the desire to party onto fictional characters such as Ted, who get to enjoy and party to the maximum limit. Ted is then the fantasy figure. The character who is both admired for his freedom and paradoxically resented for the very same reason.

Therefore, as I mentioned, films like Ted are inevitable. They represent interpassivity; the films do the job of partying for us so that we don't have to. However, as they are still part of culture, they also represent anxiety about controlling structures.

Inevitably, a film like Ted is a complicated and contradictory exercise. It is a fantasy that comes to be resented. Ultimately, the film, and others, end with the compromise of satisfactory interpersonal dynamics (engagement within society as productive subject) and measured consumption (the best friend remains in life). Still, subjects would prefer unfettered consumption and total self-indulging. There's a reason why the third act of Ted, a wildly atonal chase sequence, falls so flat, as does the by the numbers conclusion.

The great success of capitalism is that it can offer a structure fundamentally antagonistic with itself as a solution. There is no "alternative" structure as presented by the film. Rather, it's choosing between two modes of subjectivity that are still ultimately subordinate to capitalism.

And that's how you do a Marxist reading of a bromance comedy.