26.12.12

15 books for 2012

Continuing with the annual summaries of books read this year. The new kindle, as predicted, has meant more reading, hence the list of favourites being expanded to 15. They have generally been longer as well – obviously the weight of physical copies has been a deterrence in the past, though not one I was particularly conscious of. The kindle itself I'm still a little ambivalent about, since there are lots of things books do better. Colour being the most obvious one, but also navigation, footnotes, index pages, highlighting and annotations, all of which need improving if ereaders are to replace paper-based technology. One thing of huge benefit the kindle offers is the integrated Oxford English Dictionary, which makes looking up definitions relatively painless. My vocabulary has expanded as a result, which I suspect has had a less than salubrious effect on my writing. The previous sentence being a case in point.

As for my intention to write more about what I've read: output (crudely measured) has actually declined over the years (80% of favourite books in 2010, 60% in 2011, now 40% in 2012). Not an encouraging trend, and one I am committed to arresting if not reversing in the new year. Still, hopefully the fall in quantity has at least been mitigated by a rise in quality.

Schismatrix Plus - Bruce Sterling
Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë [link]
Shadow & Claw - Gene Wolfe
Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel [link]
Bleak House - Charles Dickens [link]
Rare Earth - Paul Mason
Moby Dick; or, the White Whale - Herman Melville [link]

The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour - Andrew Rawnsley*
Discordia - Laurie Penny, Molly Crabapple
The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It - Paul Collier

Maggie the Mechanic / The Girl from HOPPERS - Jamie Hernandez
Habibi - Craig Thompson [link]
Asterios Polyp - David Mazzucchelli [link]
Sundome vols 1-3 - Kazuto Okada**
Indian Summer - Hugo Pratt, Milo Manara

*More like just the 'fall', really, isn't it? The 'rise' (probably as interesting, I suspect) was covered in a previous book.

**basically Fifty Shades of Grey with the genders reversed.

24.12.12

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

When staging the wizard battle between Gandalf and Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson was adamant that flash and fireballs be avoided. Instead, the invisible spells zinged like whips, the actors were flung against the walls. Noses filled with blood, dirty nails cracked against stone. The fight was physical. REAL.

More broadly, when giving the brief for the design of The Lord of the Rings as a whole, Jackson told the staff at Weta Workshop to imagine Middle Earth as a real place, the way J.R.R. Tolkien presented it. The crew had the enviable task of excavating this secret history prior to the “Fourth Age” dominated by the race of men. It would be an effort in alternate archaeology, rather than of uninhibited imagination.

And it worked. The Lord of the Rings films and books were my Star Wars when I was growing up: I had the soundtracks, the screen-savers, the reference guides. My favourite piece of tie-in merch was a book called The Lord of the Rings: Weapons & Warfare, which read like the films narrated by a military historian. The detail was extraordinary. Middle Earth as presented by Jackson and his crew was REAL. You could fucking RESEARCH the place.

Which is why the super mega 48 frames-per-second look of The Hobbit robs the franchise of some of its magic. It reminded me of the disconnect between Northern Lights, which dwelt heavily on the concentration camp atmosphere of Bolvangar, and The Golden Compass, which tried to conjure the tacky wonder of Chris Columbus’s Hogwarts. The Hobbit is less jarring, but the gloss and smoothness subtracts from the immersive grainy tone set by The Lord of the Rings. I saw the film in 2D, thankfully, but I imagine the extra dimension would make the effect even worse. As it stands, The Hobbit in many places looked to me like the fabulously illustrated cutscenes of a Warcraft game. NOT REAL, that is.

The problems don’t end there, though (and you thought this was just about cinematography!) The Hobbit, unfortunately, is a mess. Tolkien’s books are unfairly maligned for being plodding and weighed down with description. Actually, I think even the long first part of The Fellowship of the Ring is carefully and deliberately paced. Jackson just had to speed it up a little to fit it into a three hour film. He kept the fundamental division between the first and second parts intact. And he can do brevity: the second half of Fellowship does the Pass of Caradhras, Moria, Lothlórien and Parth Galen all in an hour and a half. The Hobbit, as a book, is positively zippy. Rather than editing it down, Jackson committed himself to filling it out.

Tolkien’s books supplied the first and third Lord of the Rings films with natural endings which would carry enough dramatic weight to leave an audience satisfied: the death of Boromir and the coronation of Aragorn. For The Two Towers, Jackson and the writing team had to tie-up the sprawling plot-lines on their own. They succeeded, just about, in Sam’s speech at the end (“There is some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for”). Not poetry exactly, but effective precisely because it is simple, coming from an everyman who can only dimly comprehend the huge forces crashing around him. It’s why the story is told through the eyes of hobbits in the first place: Tolkien’s faintly paternalistic faith in the common soul triumphing over the ambitions of the great. That speech was the product of many sleepless nights and countless re-writes. Nerves were shredded over it, and it’s a superior feat of composition as a result. Two Towers will never have the simple through-line of Fellowship or the operatic sweep of Return. It is the worst film of the trilogy, but it is arguably also the most impressive – despite its numerous disadvantages, it nevertheless works as a standalone work.

If the much shorter Hobbit is divided into three, it’s difficult to see where the natural endings of the first two parts will fall, or what will provide the thematic unity for each installment. For An Unexpected Journey, Jackson set himself the same challenge as in The Two Towers, and here he doesn’t quite pull it off. Bilbo’s arc – from small-minded, comfort-seeking obscurity to self-sacrificing hero – strains credibility. Martin Freeman isn’t to blame, I think. He is very well cast in the role. Rather, the accumulating series of set-pieces (in which Gandalf repeatedly serves as resolution deus ex machina) distract away from the developing relationship between the dwarves and their burglar. Too much time was wasted on ancient battles and giants throwing rocks at each other: indulgences Jackson can scarce afford when there is a company of more than a dozen to introduce. When Bilbo’s heroic last stand finally takes place, I didn’t quite understand why he did it, even though he explained himself very clearly afterwards.

The film as a whole feels like a guilty treat for the filmmakers and the fans. Much of the overlong framing sequence with Frodo would be puzzling for those who don't have every second of the extended DVD edition of Fellowship committed to memory. The inclusion of Saruman and Galadriel in Rivendell was needless: they were cameos serving only to trigger fond memories of their star turns in the previous films. We know how this story will end anyway. It was already succinctly told in the prologue of the first Lord of the Rings film. I’m left wondering if the hefty new Hobbit series will have anything new to add.

12.12.12

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

It's a testament to Dario Argento's skill that 40 years on, the final sequence manages to rustle up some thrills and surprises. Although then again, I'm hardly a dab hand at puzzling out murder mysteries. Unfortunately, the need to keep the audience guessing means that the perpetrator's motives are left to be filled in at the very end, in the most risible manner. The detective wheels in a psychiatrist to spin out a tired (even then, surely?) rape-revenge narrative. There are no clues to be added up which point to such an explanation, it's tacked on in the worst possible way. The only interesting part of the diagnosis is the notion that these repressed psychotic tendencies are activated through exposure to a piece of art – something which links in to Argento's description of the 'cruel' and 'perverse' ideas that surface from deep within and provide the subject matter for his work. His film is about films, their power to invoke our most secret and dangerous desires. Horror blatantly uses sex and violence to titillate, but it's surprising how often this is allied to a strong moralistic tone: the violent psychos are collared, regular 'healthy' sexuality triumphs, passion is curbed by reason, women are once again brought to heel. Taboos are broached, only to be reinforced again. It's like these horror masters unfurl their fantasies, then desperately try to claw them back before they can shake our confidence in the order of things. Ironic, given the paranoia such 'video nasties' managed to whip up.

9.12.12

Asterios Polyp

Mystified by the opinion that this 'is by no means an easy read' – I powered through it in a couple of days. The book's heft is misleading, rarely are there more than 6 panels a page. But Mazzucchelli uses those pages like an expert: style seamlessly folded into the storytelling. My favourite sections are two largely caption-less chapters near the end summing up the best and worst aspects of the protagonist's relationship with his wife. Mazzucchelli's interrogation of the idea of duality permeates the narrative, but ultimately it succeeds because the title character is so likable, before and after his transfiguration.

8.12.12

Fear Itself

Event comics need a theme big enough to be relevant for all the characters tied into it. Siege didn't really have that, which may have been where my patience with these superhero titles ran out. Secret Invasion was inexplicable to those not already well versed in years worth of Avengers backstory, but at least it used alien shape-shifters to try and work in a comment on the 'War on Terror', suicide bombers and the dangers of imperialism (the latter in one page, after all the punching is over – this is superhero comics after all).

Fear Itself is in line with this noble tradition, while thankfully foregoing the requirement to be up to date with the latest developments. The book starts with a protest in New York: a subtle nod to the debate around the plan to build a mosque near Ground Zero, but also perhaps casting a rueful glance at the fate of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Avengers gather on the roof of their tower to take stock, and listen to Iron Man give a State of the Marvelverse address on the way people have been 'lied to and ripped off', the threat of chaos created, and the need for a new New Deal to 'make people feel safe again'. Crazy coming from a guy in golden metal armour, but this is superhero comics after all.

In fact, Stark's admission that 'we can't punch a recession' sounds awfully like the writer's admission that the genre he's working in is not fit for the purpose of capturing a sense of today's anxieties. Ostensibly, the book's project is to show the way angry people get violent when they get really really scared. But actually, it's the fear that's the important motor for the story. And in looking for an existential threat with a sufficient apocalyptic payload, the victims of imperialism are once again drafted into service. The Serpent is Odin's brother, deprived of the throne and bent on assuming it. Odin is an indifferent God, accepting the slaughter of humankind in order to protect his near and dear. Our heroes are caught between a destructive intentions of those at the wrong end of empire, and the rejection of the 1% at the top of it.

28.11.12

The Book of Mormon

The Mormons' trademark shiny happy disposition is a great fit for the toothy smiles and jazz hands of musical theatre. The form's protocols are observed, but the satire cuts through the suffocating good cheer that would normally put me off. The cast have the difficult task of balancing bathos with pathos. Too much of the former and you are left with a simple diatribe against the self-delusions of religion, and anyone can do that. What is more interesting is the way religions actually work. The question that needs answering is WHY people believe these 'fucking weird', even malicious, fabrications. The Book of Mormon attempts an answer, with some success. One of the great ideas in the show is the way Elder Cunningham draws on his pop culture knowledge (Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings) as a resource when adapting the Mormon holy text. This both demonstrates the way narratives are stitched together from previously articulated narratives (whatever is available), and the way religious movements have done this in the past to stay relevant. Arguably Christ used Judaism for his own purposes, as Joseph Smith used Christianity for his.

Following on from the previous post, alarm bells will start ringing whenever privileged writers try to portray less privileged cultures. Trey Stone and Matt Parker are white guys setting much of their story in Uganda, and they ask their cast to speak with African accents. To their credit, they partly get around the difficulty by very blatantly calling it out while the characters are still in America, and they continue to do so: the missionaries chant 'I am Africa!' when they successfully convert the village, and there is even a dig at Bono (who is fair game as far as I'm concerned). Parker and Stone mostly stick to making fun of American attitudes, and if you were being kind you could lump 'maggots in my scrotum' and sex with babies to cure AIDS as part of the same satirical project. However, they do also take a stab at evoking the genuine African experience by giving Nikki M. James a solo where she dreams of living a life less 'shitty'. Again, pathos expertly mixed with bathos. And any worries I had about the imposition of alien attitudes onto an existing culture were blown away by the strength of her performance. The cast as a whole were brilliant, which certainly helps Stone and Parker get away with it.

9.11.12

Habibi

The controversy over the book's 'orientalism' is certainly worth paying attention to. Obviously, Craig Thompson is an American depicting a vaguely Middle Eastern setting and culture, which will inevitably set alarm bells ringing. It doesn't help that the book features a sultan's harem, slavery, and the sexual abuse of children and women. The author certainly doesn't exhibit a sense of superiority. Neither is there a significant amount of 'othering' going on, at least on a conscious level (not like, say, Frank Herbert's concern over the hubris of 'Western man'). If anything, Habibi ends on a distinctly cosmopolitan note. I'm thinking particularly of the third and fourth panel on p.672, where the new family walk into and are lost in a crowd of people – out of the story and into our lives – Thompson is working under the assumption that the characters he is portraying ultimately share the same essence and worth as us, and that condescension or idolization are both to be avoided. The author's intentions are irreproachable in that respect.

If I have a problem with the book, it is with Thompson's predilection for over-explaining himself, brought out particularly in the eighth, image-less, chapter. His characters sometimes spend too much time telling the reader the precise reasons behind their emotions or actions. That said, Thompson's sense of precision is also one of the book's great strengths, in that it is put together with extreme care as a visual narrative. He employes a dazzling array of devices (repetitions, contrasts, symbols) in telling the story, to the extent where I get the impression the book could work as a pretty solid primer for the range of possibilities presented by the comics form. In that spirit, I'll note some of the effects I noticed in the first chapter below.

The first panel of a drop of ink is all meta, obv, but the idea as developed in the rest of the page is a bit more subtle than that. Sure, this is the creation of the story as well as the world, but the ink is also a river – a sustainer of life. The book will continue with these transitions between religious myths and lived experience. Indeed, one of its main themes will be the way such bedtime stories layer and make sense of our reality.

The page is divided into a nine-panel grid. Later on, Thompson will explicitly draw attention to the range of patterns that can be worked into these nine squares – the fact that they can be read vertically and diagonally as well as horizontally. This is also brought out on the first page. The middle panels make reference to the water / earth / fire / air idea which will be significant later. There is a certain male-female contrast between the left and right of the page. Finally, panels 3 and 9 foreshadow the very end of the book: where our heroes decide to go up the river, and where Dodola is freed from the predations of a patriarchal society.

On the next two pages there is a cross-page contrast between a hand holding money on the top left corner and a hand holding a pen on top right (which also recalls the very first panel). Dodola appears to be sold for water as well as money – the issue of control and exploitation of natural resources is something the book will continue to explore.

Page 12 is another nine-panel grid, with certain visual repetitions when read vertically. The final panel on that page ('So pure') is called back to on page 14 ('It proves that you were pure') – the veneration suggested by the act of washing the feet contrasted with the subjection of the veil. The image of the veil is carried on to the next page, where it symbolises people's separation from the divine essence – the separation of reality and storytelling. The implication being that writing can lift that veil.

The next couple of pages map out a progression from literacy to knowledge and corruption – an orthodox reading of the fall of man as a journey from the innocence of childhood to the experience of adulthood. Page 19 literally draws a religious frame around the events portrayed in page 22.

The 'River Map' of the chapter's title refers to the nine-square maths problem which stops the flooding in Dodola's story, but also serves as a metaphor for the imposition of order on an unpredictable world. Taking that a bit further in a meta direction, comics are also a way of imposing order on reality – magic charms that will protect us against devils and make us braver when faced with the unknown. The story will go on to explore other themes, and this first chapter almost serves as an introduction to the methodology Thompson will use to do so. For me, this internal logic makes it the strongest of the lot.

6.11.12

The Castle of Cagliostro

I remember Harold Bloom said somewhere that the object of Don Quixote's quest is ultimately unanswerable, that he endures his many humiliations because the reader demands it of him. I was reminded of this at the end of The Castle of Cagliostro (Hayao Miazaki's first film), when Clarisse asks Lupin to stay with her, and Lupin physically pulls himself away from the proposition. He can't settle down. Why? Unanswerable by the film itself, it's because the readers of the manga and the watchers of the anime series demand that Lupin stay the same adventurer-thief. Telling that such a finale does not feel like a cynical move to ensure the viability of further sequels, but rather suggests comparisons with Cervantes. Fact is, in that moment, I believed that Lupin is genuinely torn up at the prospect of love and serenity at the cost of abandoning his true self and forgoing a life of danger and excitement. Whatever essential qualities the character embodies (and I knew nothing about Lupin III before watching this film) Miazaki did a fine job of encapsulating them, and demonstrating just how essential they are.

31.10.12

The Death of the Author

In keeping with my snide attempts to play down the philosophical innovations of canonical enemies of positivism, I'm going to attempt to demonstrate the way the implications of Roland Barthes's famous essay do not (as far as I can tell) actually amount to a grand departure from traditional literary criticism.

Barthes begins with the contention that "as soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself ... the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins". We may ask how watertight this distinction is, whether narrative really does not act with a view to effect reality (understood as broadly as possible). Although this is exactly what Barthes wants to get away from, I am left wondering what can motivate 'intransitive' writing? Are writers satisfied merely with the playful reproduction of symbols? More on this below.

Barthes provides a sweeping historical survey of the rise of the author, suggesting that narratives were originally 'performed' by 'mediators' (perhaps the oral tradition which produced the works of Homer is an example of this). "The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual". It is "logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the 'person' of the author". Broad strokes, obviously, and I am compelled to put forward the fact that anti-capitalist theories and experiments have been formulated within a positivist framework, an interjection spurred by my commitment to the notion that any critique of current relations of production has to be couched in an empirical understanding of the world.

Barthes goes on to use the French symbolist poet Mallarmé as an example of the "essentially verbal condition of literature", where "only language acts, 'performs', and not 'me'". Easy to say about symbolist poetry perhaps, but Proust is a more difficult fit. According to Barthes, the author of In Search of Lost Time "blurs writer and characters": Charlus does not imitate his real-life inspiration Montesquiou. As I understand it, Barthes is saying that Charlus is the original way Proust saw Montesquiou, and the real person behind the character is only a 'secondary fragment'. Again, not territory Barthes is interested in, but this leaves us bereft of an exploration of the way the character of Charlus was created by his author.

Barthes suggests that "the author is never more than the instance of writing" – "there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now" – an "enunciation has no other content (contains no other proposition) than the act by which it is uttered". I am not capable of fully engaging with this argument, since I'm not familiar with the linguistic theories Barthes is appealing to. As I understand it, the basic point being made is that language is not tied down to the task of representing a universally understood reality. But from this, Barthes goes on to argue that "the hand, cut off from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin ... no other origin than language itself." In this light, authors merely regurgitate the language they have internalised. Their thoughts and emotions are already encoded in the language they are familiar with, so the act of writing is the manipulation of these codes into new forms. The text is therefore qualitatively different from those original emotions and thoughts. Fair enough, although it would be well to remember that authors are not merely unconscious language reproduction machines. They make conscious choices about the language they use, and these choices are to some degree recoverable.

For Barthes, a text is a "multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash ... a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture ... "the book is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred". In other words, writers do not express feelings, but repackage existing quotations. Language develops over time independently of the reality in which it is used. However, we should not forget that we use language to do things like communicate our understanding of reality to each other (both in very direct ways such as recipes and indirect ways such as fairy tales). Therefore, you can argue that certain writings are intended to be understood by others as a record of the author's understanding of reality. Their meanings are to some extent recoverable and we can have some sense of the person behind the writing they have produced. Leaving that aside, there is also the very simple point that even if we wish to describe works as a collection of quotations (thoughts and emotions encoded in enunciations previously uttered), these quotations can still be traced, and the way they are assembled by the author can be recovered and explained by the critic.

Barthes does not see the point in doing this: "to give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing". Once the author and their "hypostases" (society, history, psyche, liberty) are discovered, the critic claims victory. Barthes describes this as an act of tyranny: instead, "to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law". I can only understand this point through Nietzsche, who identifies a religious impulse in the practitioners of the scientific method – their need to explain reality through the collection and comparison of empirical data is a manifestation of a hunger for a single transcendent truth by which to order that reality. Rejecting such an impulse is indeed a radical move: the individual reader has complete liberty to read the text in whatever way they want. But is such individualism desirable? I do not think it is when it comes to throwing away useful things like reason, science and law, but what about traditional literary criticism? Ultimately, what is to be gained from a complete understanding of the author of a text? This is perhaps the most probing and unsettling question Barthes leaves us with, and one I'm not sure I can answer yet, but notably, Barthes doesn't really provide an answer to it either. It appears that for him, liberty from considerations of authorship is self-evidently preferable.

However, Barthes has quite an unusual concept of what a 'reader' of a text is: "he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted" – "the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost". We may ask how a reader would be able to know more about a work's sources than the author, but it is clear that for Barthes, the reader is no longer a person. Rather, he is "without history, biography, psychology". I can only understand this to be an unreachable ideal – a vantage point that gives access to every single linguistic experience and stimulus the author of a work has ever had. Obviously, this is not possible, but ironically enough, it is generally the vantage point that literary critics work towards. Crudely put, the critic who finds and "disentangles" the most "quotations" can claim victory – only a minor modification in the understanding of the methodology Barthes is arguing against.

25.10.12

Schism

I know Jason Aaron mainly from his unremittingly grim Vertigo series Scalped. He carries forward some of that bleakness into writing superheroes, but gives it a sardonic twist. Basically, rather than wallowing in the pits of despair the human condition can throw us in, we get satire and snappy quips from Wolverine instead. Sadly, this playfulness gets toned down in the later issues as the more serious threats and dilemmas emerge. The first issue is very funny however, and rather artfully sets up the theme of the book. We see Logan dragging himself back from whatever mission he was sent on, ridiculous war wounds visible – 'Just the usual', apparently. He dismisses the combat training class he has scheduled in the morning, and asks why these kids aren't off enjoying themselves, before being reminded that persecution has forced them all to become soldiers. In several subsequent conversations with one young mutant called Idie, Logan becomes convinced that under Scott's leadership, the X-Men have drifted too far from their pedagogic duties. 'I wish we lived in a world where you could all afford to act your age' declares Scott in a speech rousing the young mutants to defend their home. Against the odds, Logan decides to make that world possible.

I've been reading some of Dan Hind's and Laurie Penny's writings on the Occupy Movement, which may be why I find it tempting to add an Occupy gloss on this 'Schism' idea – Logan retreating to a radical alternative tradition in which the young's abilities will be nurtured and their potential fulfilled, while Scott sticks to the practicalities of equipping those under his care to fight and survive in a hostile environment. This reading may not have been intended by Aaron, but his choice of villain is significant – privileged, psychopathic children who overthrow the Hellfire Club and set out to terrorize the planet with the aim of making millions. Unlike Idie, these kids truly are monstrous, and they serve to highlight the possible dangers of Scott's brand of leadership, though through my revolutionary lens I'm also seeing allusions to callous and irresponsible masters of finance holding governments to ransom.

Scott's reference to Jean Grey was a bit out of nowhere. Aaron leaves it up to the reader to decide whether he has identified the underlying reason behind this most recent case of Logan's recalcitrance, or whether Logan is simply astounded at how off-base Scott is in bringing her into this. I would side with Wolverine against Scott on this one, but I would have preferred if both gentlemen had been allowed to move on from that old love triangle.

Kieron Gillen's Regenesis was tasked with explaining the splits in the X-community. It could have been quite a dull housekeeping issue, except that a framing device is used which serves to undermine the ostensible agreement that the decision to stay or go is a matter of conscience. In bleed panels, prehistoric analogues of Cyclops and Wolverine slug it out around a campfire, claiming supporters one by one. By framing things in this way, Gillen suggests that this IS a competition, one where the personal strength and charisma of the rival leaders is playing a decisive role in apportioning followers.

Sidebar: by accident I skipped pages 5 and 6 of that issue, because apparently turning pages properly is still a challenge for me, but I was surprised by how little story I lost in the process. There was some minor character stuff with Iceman on page 5, and Psylocke on page 6, but you still understood the basics of what was going on. Which shows that an already compressed issue (a bunch of characters were given just one panel to explain themselves) could have been EVEN MORE compressed.

21.10.12

William Blake

Spent some time yesterday evening with All Religions are One and There is No Natural Religion, two series of philosophical aphorisms by William Blake written around a decade after the publication of David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. What surprised me about Blake's pieces was how closely he follows the methodology of the empiricists, even though he proclaims to feel contempt and abhorrence for the ideas of Locke and Bacon. Blake must have decided that the best way to pour scorn on this tradition is to undermine it from the inside – use empiricism against itself. However, I hope to show that the gains of such a strategy were probably more limited than what Blake was hoping for.

The 'Argument' of All Religions are One is a stringent declaration of scientific principals. But 'Principal 1' proceeds with what Hume would consider the 'unphilosophical' claim that 'the forms of all things are derived from their genius'. I encountered the use of the word 'genius' in a natural religion context when researching my MA dissertation, it crops up in William Derham's work as an analogue for 'telos' – the purpose or end for each and every object in the universe. Blake's proposition that all objects have a purpose is a teleological one. As Hume had shown, such propositions cannot be empirically substantiated.

Blake goes on to suggest that as men all look alike (even in their variety), so are they all in possession of the same intrinsic 'genius', our minds (even in their variety) all work in the same basic way. 'Principal 4' is very interesting because it makes the very Humean point that men are everywhere the same.

'Principal 4' also puts forward the suggestion elsewhere elaborated as 'Man can have no idea of any thing greater than Man as a cup cannot contain more than its capaciousness'. And yet our 'Poetic Genius', or the 'Spirit of Prophesy', nevertheless compels us to imagine the stuff we cannot encompass with our senses. This drive is the source of all human religions. Ironically enough, Hume would have no quarrel with Blake's conclusion that religion is the product of the imagination. He would just feel queasy about privileging it over the philosophical (or scientific) method, as it is a pretty unstable source of moral and political values.

The above describes the source of religion in a very naturalistic way, which may make There is No Natural Religion quite a confusing title for the second series of philosophical aphorisms. 'Natural Religion' is a slippery term. It is usually contrasted with revealed religion, the most important source for which is scripture, but what it actually is depends on who you ask. Some Enlightenment thinkers posited the existence of a innate moral sense which invariably led people to an awareness of God. Blake rejects such a reading on empirical grounds, arguing that you cannot perceive something your senses cannot. However, he acknowledges that men use their 'reasoning power' to compare and judge what they have perceived. Our senses can be educated to understand more than our surroundings, but when they are 'untaught', or 'organic', they only perceive and desire immediate objects already familiar to the senses. Thus, the natural man lacks a natural religion.

[Apparently, it has been suggested that the above argument is ironic, and is contradicted by the second part of the piece. I disagree, because I think Blake has too little to gain from pointing out the fatuousness of the suggestion that men cannot deduce ideas beyond those immediately perceivable by their senses (which empiricist argues that exactly??). Fact is, 1.II indicates the way humans put perceptions together to form ideas using their 'reasoning power', and this is taken up in part 2.]

Men can perceive more than their senses reveal, because the accumulation and comparison of sensory data eventually indicates the existence of certain natural laws governing our reality that cannot be perceived, yet which we accept (gravity being the big one in the 18th century). New discoveries (such as Newton's) change the 'ratio of all we have already known'.

The third proposition doesn't survive, but I think the rest is still explicable: the bounds of knowledge become loathed by those who possess them – they find the mechanical clockwork universe unsatisfactory. If the many objects of the universe are rendered the same as the few observable objects by the laws of physics, we are still left yearning for more: 'less than all cannot satisfy Man'. We strive to fill the gaps left by science, but are incapable of satisfaction.

Here Blake's teleology comes back in. If mankind's nature is to desire the infinite, they must be capable of possessing it, because the forms of all things are derived from their genius. The philosophic and experimental can only halt at the ratio of all things, unable to go beyond it. The poetic and prophetic, on the other hand, can see the infinite in all things. But poetry and prophesy is irrational, sourced from the imagination. Thus men are only truly fulfilled when they let their imaginations complete their understanding of the universe. To come back to the title, religion is not a natural mechanical result of the senses, but the result of a striving to possess knowledge of the infinite.

In response to this, Hume need only repeat his contention that teleological arguments are 'unphilosophical'. In practical terms, his cheerful skepticism undercuts Blake's notion that humans absolutely have to construct imaginary solutions to plug the gaps in our understanding and gain fulfillment. But Hume was a rare case in the 18th century. His close friend Adam Smith knew as much, and told him so. Smith had more time for the Stoic notion (revived in Scotland by Shaftesbury) of the melancholy produced by skepticism. And he so much as confirmed Blake's point that the imagination provides a salve for these disappointments in religion.

But these comforts are still imaginary, and for Enlightenment thinkers like Hume and Smith, suspect. Blake noted in 1800 that morality is a product of philosophy: 'the poet is independent and wicked, the philosopher is dependent and good'. I guess what this means is that the philosopher is dependent on a rational understanding of the universe, and is bound by the need to delineate moral rules by which to govern society. The poet is free from such burdens of responsibility, their job is to 'excuse vice, and show its reason and necessary purgation'. Poets provide an imagined structure by which to fill reality with meaning and assist people to grasp the infinite. They also provide an understanding of the emotional drives which produce evil, and in so doing, purge it. It is a much expanded role for the imagination, but it is nevertheless surprising how many of Blake's Romantic conclusions are shared with his contemporaries on the side of the Enlightenment.

14.10.12

Detective Comics #854

I read the first issue of the Batwoman Elegy book written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by J.H. Williams III. Yes, finally, I know. There was noise around this on the internet aaages ago about the artwork in the series – this is a comic that rewards close reading of the layout and page design choices of the creative team far more than the dialogue. The story itself is serviceable but not especially original. Sidebar: I wonder if Greg Rucka is now known as the guy that does sensitive portrayals of lesbian crime-fighters, so this is now just the expected avenue for all his projects. Better than doing insensitive ones, I guess, but it's interesting why he keeps revisiting this ground) Anyway, after pretty much everyone else, I thought I'll have a look at the book, and make some notes about some of the patterns and effects I spotted in the first issue.

The first panel on page 1 is black and white, a guy getting chased – which looks like it is setting up your typical black and white, noir / crime story. Colour starts to bleed into the second panel as we cut to the guy's face, while the third panel shows the pursuer, a crimson bat on the silhouette of a woman – suggesting a superhero twist to the story.

The spread on pages 2 and 3 confronts the reader with the bat symbol head on. Like the fleeing perp (suitably called Rush) we see flashes of the woman through her bat sigil, panels 1 to 4 pulling us in before we get a boot in the face in panel 5.

Page 4, Batwoman gets her seduction on. Panels 2 to 5 in the middle of the page form a kind of left wing / head / body / right wing figure (the smile in the 'body' panel is probs the most pervy bit in the issue). The page as a whole shows Batwoman breaking Rush down, literally crushing him underfoot. But the final panel glows with hope as she offers refuge. The glow is carried into the first panel on the opposite page, where Batwoman (literally) picks Rush up again. Page five transitions from her gaining mastery over Rush, to showing her subordination to Batman.

The splash on page 6 and 7 is an over shot with Batman in the shadows on the right, and Batwoman leaping onto the roof. The contrast between the pool of water reflecting the sky on the bottom left and the darkness on the right is purposeful, I think – indicating where our mirror is. Batman is the oblique force in this book, we are going to be in Batwoman's head for for most of it. Panel 5 on that page looks like two panels, the frame of the window almost becomes a border. Brings a nice sense of completeness to the panel it reflects, where the window frame is a more subtle line of division between the two characters.

The movement from page 8 to 9 is all about Batwoman's shift from her nightly to her daily existence. No bleed on the final panel – we're back at home, boxed in, safe. The series of six panels show Batman reprimanding Batwoman's long, loose hairstyle, only for us to realise that it's actually a wig. Not something that is explained in this issue, could be a way to conceal her real identity (but if so, why not change the hair colour?) I like to think of it as a prop that assists her in assuming the larger-than-life character of a crime-fighter. You could also read it in a Red Sonja way – Batwoman uses her looks and flirts with Rush even though she's gay.

We see the dawn outside in the last panel. Panel 1 on the next page shows us the sun in full splendor, and breakfast. We return to 'normal' looking comics for a pretty normal scene of an argument between lovers. Pages 12-13 and pages 16-17 mirror each other a bit – the widescreen panels in the middle of the two spreads establishing first the look of the apartment and then the secret room in which Katherine becomes Batwoman.

The page-turn from 18-19 to 20-21 is a great moment of build and release – Batwoman actually kicking apart the panels as well as the goons. The simple effects are often the best. Page 22-23 look like a pack of cards falling into place, or the layers slowly being peeled back to reveal the villain. The final page's layout mirrors the layout in page one. Three widescreen panels on top of each other. But now everything is blown out in full colour. The opponents are wearing costumes and are evenly matched, and we are definitely looking at a superhero comic.

The entire issue is designed to accentuate the contrast between Batwoman's nightly crime-fighting excursions, and her real human being she becomes in daylight hours. We move into the light and back into the darkness – into more conventional page layouts, and back into more stylised, arch panels. It also signals a move between genres: crime, superhero and melodrama. The issue as a whole has 'shape', presenting an internally coherent piece of story. A good way to get thinking about the effects that can be achieved with the comics page.

10.10.12

Nietzsche

Spent some time going through boxes of old school and university work, deciding what to store and discard, when I unearthed some notes which informed the series of posts ending here. I didn't type the ones on The Genealogy of Morality because they were long and I was lazy, but I always meant to come back and finish the job. Nietzsche is not one to carefully plan his essays, but there is a structure to the book, which is why I have presented the arguments pretty much as they unfold.

The book concerns itself with the question of how man invented good and evil, and whether these concepts help or hinder man's progress – whether they boost his confidence or lead to degradation. Nietzsche is interested in how useful moral categories are to human health, and very quickly declares his view. The virtue of self-sacrifice, central to the Christian ethic, is 'antilife', leading to a nihilistic outlook and a surrender to nothingness. He seeks to provide a critique of modern moral values by revealing the circumstances of their development.

The 'English psychologists' explain that morality originates in a utility that becomes habitual, and eventually forgotten (no names mentioned, but this sounds awfully like David Hume's theory of justice). Morality is actually formed by the activities of the noble, powerful and superior, who create language and make and break hierarchies with no thought to utility. Etymology provides evidence for this ('good' from 'refined' and 'noble', 'bad' from 'common' and plebeian').

The priestly caste have made man an 'interesting' creature by creating the idea of evil, which diverges from the aristocratic mode to become its opposite. Priests hate strong and free activity, tarring it as stupid. They introduce intelligence to history, and make the poor pious. This development is characterised as a slave revolt in morals, a period of transvaluation.

The way it works: ressentiment (a reaction to external activity, denying it and imagining revenge) becomes creative and ordains values. The noble possess immanent fortune, their activity rewards them with happiness and they live for themselves. Resenters create imaginary transcendent values in contrast to those of the powerful. They are passive, clever and silent. While the noble have unconscious regulatory instincts, resenters are inventive in their relations (as will be explored below).

Man is separated from his predatory essence, and becomes psychologically complex. At the end of the first essay Nietzsche indicates that noble and slave characteristics have been internalised, becoming the equivalent of a kind of superiority and inferiority complex constantly struggling against each other within ourselves (and, indeed, Nietzsche).

The Second Essay fills out this picture by providing a kind of conceptual history of the creation of present-day social and political structures (not unlike Rousseau in the Second Discourse).

Human beings have an active ability to forget, they can ignore sensations, plan ahead and think. Memory is also active and willed – you construct your self, fix you character, and can promise to be the same person in the future. The sovereign individual is free from custom. He (it is always a he) is a master of circumstances, nature and weaker wills. He can assign his own value to everything. He makes the customs that make common men regular and calculable. He is entitled to promise, because he is strong enough to ensure that he can fulfill them regardless of accidents or fate. This ability is instinctual.

Memory is activated through pain. Values are grafted onto the psyche through torture, which make ephemeral slaves fit for social cohabitation. This in turn makes them capable of peaceful thought, and the development of conscience.

Bad conscience (or guilt) comes from debt, punishment from repayment, and damage from pain. When a promise or contract is broken, the creditor is allowed the pleasure of dominion and cruelty (i.e. indulging his anti-social feelings). As an aside, Nietzsche suggests that there is no festivity without cruelty – human beings find innate joy in the suffering of others. However, over time this pleasure has been refined and translated into the imagination. Meaningless suffering is now framed as taking place inside the theatre of the gods.

Man is a 'measuring animal', comparing his power to others. Justice is simply good will between equal powers, who force a contract on the less powerful. Those who break the contract are punished as debtors or outsiders. As the community becomes more established and wealthy, it can sustain more attacks, and the penal code is relaxed. The powerful can ignore injuries, they have an objective view which allows them to settle the ressentiment of weaker powers.

The active feelings to dominate and possess are of more biological value. The basic functions of life are to injure, exploit and destroy. This is the human animal at one with his nature. Justice is an exception imposed on immediate struggles in order to acquire larger units of power. The view of justice as revenge or a deterrent is inaccurate, a reinterpretation by new powers. In prehistoric times, justice as a deterrent does not work, as there is no concept of guilt. The criminal is unaware of the reason for his punishment, they experience it in the same way they would a natural disaster.

The will to power seeks gain mastery over weaker powers, and defines its functions according to its interests. The new interpretations created by strong wills are arbitrary and circumstantial. There is no teleology of utility. The will to power lies behind all things, all events. It does not adapt to external circumstances, but reinterprets and restructures external circumstances. It is beyond definition. Only that which is without history can be defined. Nietzsche postulates a universe comprised of oppositional wills (the definers) which structure experienced reality (the defined).

The state of nature (regulated by instinct and characterised by war and nomadism) gives way to society and peace under all-powerful tyrants. The first state is a tyranny of conquerors, which forms the common people and cages their freedom. Predatory instincts are internalised and turned inward. Your cruelty is directed against yourself.

The debt of the present generation to their forefathers and the founders of their race transforms these creditors into spirits that grant advantages. The debt increases as the people's advantages, wealth and power increase, so that these spirits become gods. Universal empires adopt universal divinities. Atheism threatens to destabalise this construct and create a 'second innocence'. To prevent this, the means of repayment are closed off. God is sacrificed for man's sins, creating an absolute debt to God, and eternal punishment for impiety. The cruel animal instincts are placed in opposition to the divine ideal, so that there is never any escape. The natural healthy human living in all of us is negated, and bad conscience (guilt / sin) is an ever-present principal in our psyches.

The Third Essay describes the agents of this change in greater detail. It starts by looking at the psychology of the artist, someone who has an unreal inner existence, but desires an existence in reality (independence, self-definition). This is unlikely, the artist cannot stand alone, and is often reduced to a sycophant.

Nietzsche restates the facts in themselves: animals strive for favourable conditions to expend their energy and achieve a feeling of power. They loathe obstacles and other animals. Everyone acts according to their interest. Philosophers (and all 'inventive spirits') ensure their independence through the ascetic ideal of poverty, humility and chastity. Their domineering instinct is used to bridle pride and sensuality. Like women's use of the mothering instinct, this carves out a space for their free activity. Contemplative men in fearful ages have made asceticism fearful – they have inflicted inventive cruelty on themselves and gained the respect of others. In doing so, they have made philosophy possible.

The will to power behind asceticism seeks to place a new evaluation on existence. This present life curtails the ascetic's freedom, so it is rejected as a bridge to the next. The ascetic feels ressentiment against the fundamental conditions of life which leave him deprived. The paradox leads him to find pleasure in pain and ugliness. The physical world is an illusion. The usual perspective is reversed.

Here we come to Nietzsche's famous description of objectivity: this is simply having 'all the arguments for and against at one's disposal'. You exploit the diversity of perspectives in the interests of knowledge. There is no pure reason or impartial subject. Only more and different eyes which provide greater objectivity. Nietzsche insists that you cannot get rid of feelings, or the operation of the will to power.

Nietzsche is claiming that he has these different perspectives, understanding both the ascetic personality and the noble one it has supplanted. He can see through to the origin of things because he can trace the transvaluations effected by different wills over time, and can strip them away to reveal the will to power lying behind all of history.

The ascetic ideal serves to sustain life in its disappointments. Those who cannot master the world master themselves instead. Nietzsche sees this as a physiological problem, describing it as a sickness, and suggesting that ascetics should be kept away from the free and healthy. Once the transcendent is stripped away by science, it will lead to nihilism and self-contempt. It is the manifestation of the will to power of the weakest, inspired by ressentiment and the desire for revenge, and seeking to make the fortunate ashamed.

The priest is a manager of ressentiment, redirecting vengeful feelings back onto resenters, and rendering the sick harmless. Again, this is explicitly described as a physiological problem – men with better constitutions can digest painful experiences. The sick, on the other hand, are rendered listless. Religion reduces the feelings of life, will and desire, acting as a kind of hypnosis giving nothingness a positive value. The will to power is syphoned into good works, reciprocal behaviour and the community interest. The weak are herded by priests, while the strong are solitary creatures, desiring absolute tyranny.

As mentioned above, Nietzsche suggests that asceticism has made man interesting. It has sought to improve, but has actually damaged, the human animal. Like Marx's respect for capitalists, Nietzsche allows a certain admiration for the agents who have effected so monumental a change in human consciousness. The simple instinctual relations of strong and weak have been overturned. Men are now controlled by more insidious means, their will to power cannibalising itself, resulting in a new world order overseen by priests.

According to Nietzsche, science is the most recent and most refined form of the ascetic ideal, having no belief, no ideal, no passion or conviction. Scientific activity is spurred by dissatisfaction, and it does not establish truth but probabilities. However, scientific practitioners still believe in the truth (a reality to define) and renounce interpretation as a way to comprehend the universe. Science does not explain the cause of this will to truth. Only Nietzsche, with his awareness of the genealogy of perspectives constructing the desire for definition beyond the self, can provide answers.

Science is dangerous because it threatens to impoverish life. It cools the feelings. By showing life to be random and dispensable, the need for a transcendent solution becomes ever greater. But by revealing man to be an animal, a nothing, this solution is discredited. The new knowledge gained does not satisfy human desires for self-definition. This fosters self-contempt and an inescapable nihilism. The only solution Nietzsche sees is the restoration of that primitive uninhibited self-defining individual last seen during the time of Napoleon.

I'll paraphrase Raymond Geuss's description of Nietzsche's argument as a conclusion: the book deconstructs itself down to a hypothetical prehistoric homo sapien entirely at one with nature. Nietzsche provides no evidence for the will to power, and his history is just conjecture with a bit of philology. His metaphysics are groundless and his politics are crazed. Nevertheless, his description of the psychological drives and effects of religion would go on to influence the concerns of existentialists (and others), and his characterisation of intellectual history as a series of willed interventions independent of physical and social structures set up the enquiries of post-structuralists (and others) in the 20th century.

4.10.12

Beginning to See the Light

'...there lay the paradox: music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated – as good rock and roll did – challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics.' - Ellen Willis

Not entirely related, but have been thinking a bit about authors unconsciously reproducing their (socially conditioned) neuroses / desires in their work, versus the conscious manipulation of such (socially conditioned) drives. Mind on the page honesty versus intellectual engagement risking emotional distance. Obv the greats manage to construct a balance between these imperatives.

For pulp / genre / comics, as well as for pop music, the former is the prominent active ingredient. It's interesting the way the effective + affective representation of sometimes extreme, sometimes ugly, sentiments (love, hate, sex, violence) can be enlightening in themselves.

Not entirely related again, but have been thinking a bit about the contention of a lot of poptimists (Tim Finney is the one I remember voicing this view) that all music can be treated with equal seriousness. Some authorial intent is more conscious, more intentional, so treating it 'seriously' may involve traditional activities like unpacking the lyrics, poses and ideology of the performer, this on top of the historical work of situating the artist / scene within its context, all quite sober and academic. Where authorial intent is more difficult to discern, or less well developed, the poses and ideology to be found in the context around the artifact may provide matter for similarly sober investigation. I wonder... in cases where the idea of a piece is simple, direct and powerful, the listener doesn't have much room for exegesis, and so is forced back onto reflecting on their own response. I guess there are many avenues for 'seriousness'...

Scattered thoughts, obv.

28.9.12

The Hunger Games

I read Lord of the Flies in school, which I imagine provides the model for this film (I haven't seen Battle Royale) – children killing each other in the wild, basically. But while Golding was interested in the darkness of man's heart, The Hunger Games goes in an Orwellian direction, exploring economic exploitation and the methods of social control used to dampen resistance to it. In other words, it's a political fable, with the kind of radical politics that I'm seeing a lot more of recently (cf. Snow White cast as a revolutionary).

The hero, Katniss Everdeen, is introduced as a Robin Hood figure, illegally hunting in the king's forests. Her display of fortitude and dignity in the contest she enters turns her into a symbol of rebellion against an authoritarian regime (Wes Bentley the Duke of Nottingham to Donald Sutherland's King John), although we'll have to wait for the next adaptation before we see her at the vanguard of an army. I'm guessing, btw. I haven't read the books.

The games are an interesting tool of ideological subjugation, their logic isn't spelled out by the film, and I'm still trying to tease it out (perhaps I really should read the books). Donald Sutherland mentions that the only thing more powerful that fear is hope, which to me suggests an analogy with the myth of the American Dream. The 'tribute' is forced to ruthlessly compete to the death in order to win fame and riches. The reality, of course, is that the rules are always stacked against them, and the privileged are shielded from the bloodbath.

If the arena is used as a microcosm for capitalist society, the analogy is sophisticated. Candidates compete on marketability as much as on survival skills. The audience don't just want spectacle, but character. The clever thing about the film is that Katniss and Peeta win the game by rejecting the dictates of competition, but in doing so they are forced into roles in another narrative chosen for them – star-crossed lovers going down together rather than tearing each other apart. And Katniss clearly isn't comfortable playing along. The film's ending is both triumphant and disquieting, since the hero survives but isn't free.

Some criticism has been levelled at the film's shakey camerawork and use of close-ups. Milage may vary on this, but I though all the action scenes were perfectly explicable, and thus well presented. Sure the camerawork was often used to convey the subjective experience of Katniss – not only the adrenaline-soaked thrills, but the moments of delirium, confusion, anger, serenity. It was effective. Not only that, but I liked the ragged montage at the beginning introducing us to District 12, and the contrast made with the glitzy stage and the clinically smooth shots of the puppet masters in the Capitol. Not a new idea, but a good one. The film as a whole was expertly put together, and one of the finest I've seen this year.

22.9.12

Moby Dick; or, the White Whale

Finished it a while ago, but was too busy / disorganised to get any thoughts down on here, so I'm going with memory, the highlights I made on my kindle, and the short update posts I've left on Whitechapel's The Book Club 2012 thread.

First, Ahab, who is actually less of a presence in the novel than I expected, and whose motivation was surprisingly easy to understand. It's all in this passage below:
Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines.
The whale to Ahab represents that "outrageous strength" and "inscrutable malice" that built a universe which inflicts arbitrary punishment on its sentient inhabitants. His crusade is against a God that has left an imperfect creation for his creatures. And it's not the punishment, so much as the fact that its arbitrary, that incites Ahab's fury. This questioning of divine order is why the voyage is impious and blasphemous. Not only that, but Ahab is actually unsure if natural evil is animated by a hidden rational power – perhaps it's just arbitrary. It doesn't matter, fair play demands that Ahab fight the imbalance. The final part of the passage is a bit garbled, but it suggests that Ahab questions the notion of fair play as well, the "Truth" trumps it. But he reels himself back from such doubts, and goes on to address Starbuck's defiance.

The adjective that keeps cropping up with Ahab is "monomaniac", which serves as a useful contrast with the narrator and reigning principal of the novel, Ishmael. While Ahab's quest for vengeance supplies the propulsive narrative force of the novel, this keeps getting destabilised by the circling centrifugal nature of Ishmael's narration. Moreover, while Ahab supplies a singular reading of Moby Dick's significance, Ishmael's digressions concoct a heap of different allusions and conclusions bolted on to the whale, a lot of them (to me anyway) quite trite and unfulfilling. He is a mind at play, unbound by ideological or linguistic orthodoxies, delighting in everything around him (and mischievously undermining the veracity of his account). I think Melville didn't have to add that final epilogue explaining how Ishmael survives. It would have completed his ascension to the all-embracing, omnipresent consciousness he was moving toward through the book – from the individualistic self-definition of 'Call me Ishmael' to being dissolved into the sea and becoming one with the story he is telling.

I found the tone of the beginning of the novel to be unexpectedly wry and whimsical. A welcome surprise, but Ishmael's subsequent lack of focus on the ship became very tedious. I was left wishing that many more chapters fell under the heading of "sundry mystifications too tedious to detail". Melville tests the reader's patience in deciding to demonstrate Ishmael's irreverence and sense of wonder so comprehensively. Large sections of the book left me restless. The experiment of living provided by Ishmael, while maybe more admirable, was not that much more attractive than the experiment of living provided by Ahab, and I don't think Melville intended the two to cancel each other out.

Rape in the Media

Reposting this comment on the Whitechapel forum, as blog-padding but also so I don't lose sight of it.

I wrote this after seeing Fincher's version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, pasting relevant paragraph below:
Depiction of rape is complicated. One argument is that it can only be justified when it is done from the P.O.V. of the victim, with his or her lack of consent irrevocably clear to the audience. Thus you try and limit the circulation of potentially dangerous sexual fantasies, which might lead to imitative behaviour in the real world. Another is more liberal, one that the Alan Moore who wrote Lost Girls might support. Fantasies are fantasies, who are you to judge what is criminal or not, if it remains inside people's heads? You can be as disgusting as you like, as long as you respect the rules of consent in the real world and ensure you do not hurt anyone. There are difficulties with such a John Stuart Mill view, but I tend to lean towards it rather than try and legislate on how sex should be portrayed in art. We should live in a world where we can be trusted to control our desires, rather than have them controlled by someone else.
The Alan Moore reference above may be a bit off. A better example might be Milo Manara, who I remember saying somewhere that the erotic aspect of his work (which includes depictions of rape) is ok because it's not real, it's just a book. From what I remember, he then goes on to suggest that porn actresses who debase themselves for their viewers' pleasure are performing a kind of public service and should be venerated, which strikes me as an infantile response to the porn industry, and may indicate some of the problems with his attitude.

But basically, I think my liberal belief that you should be able to produce whatever filth or stupidity you want and have it tried in the court of public opinion is compatible with my desire for beauty and intelligence in the art I consume. When judging the latter w/r/t rape, I prefer to do it case-by-case, that is to say, look at what a work's intentions are, what it says about rape and whether that's ok, rather than build rules for the portrayal of rape to be applied to everything you consume.

Fwiw, I thought the rape of Lisbeth in Fincher's movie overstepped the line, the scene should have cut when the door closed. More broadly, I thought the film failed in its intention to condemn violence against women. Manara's intentions as a pornographer are pretty clear, so I tend to give him a pass, tho once you get past the astonishing artwork the dude strikes me as pretty creepy. Moore's fixation on rape is certainly creepy as well, but it looks like he's aware of it, and that makes a massive difference (tho should say haven't read anything of his after the awful LoEG 1910).

8.9.12

The NeverEnding Story

This is like the urtext for two of my favourite fantasy films: MirrorMask and (to a lesser extent) Pan's Labyrinth. It's not as complex as either of those two films, however. The ending is particularly problematic, being a wholesale endorsement of make-believe as wish-fulfillment – the only way to deal with bullying is to escape into a flight of fancy where your pet dragon chases your tormentors into a skip.

The most interesting part of the film is the way it uses symbol to infer some rather unsettling ideas. The twin sphinxes as female sexual predators, their imperious gaze uncovering male doubt, annihilating male potency. The mirror which reveals the whimpering boy behind the all-conquering hero. More of that darker aspect of fantasy would have been welcome. But I guess there's only so much you can get away with in a film for children.

15.8.12

The Avengers

My problem with The Avengers is that Thor was too good. Specifically, Tom Hiddleston in Thor, whose performance I think matches the range and intensity of Heath Ledger's Joker. As Film Crit Hulk (my own film crit hero) points out, in The Avengers Loki serves to accentuate and develop the arcs of the six main characters. But this leaves less room to explore his own background and motivations.

Let's look at those anyway. From Thor, Hiddleston brings a feeling of resentment and ambition, but he also takes on something of the Red Skull's ideology in Captain America. Humans have weak minds imprisoned in frail bodies, and require a Nietzschean strong man to rule them. Happiness for most lies in the predictability of slavery — the alienation of the responsibility associated with free will.

And the way humanity decides to fight this evil is... to get a bunch of strong men to defend or avenge them. There is a tension here, which was brought out for me in a scene between Captain America and two cops, where the latter claim the responsibility of defending the innocent, before willingly divesting themselves of that responsibility as soon as Cap demonstrates his superior strength. This moment is played for laughs, and sure Cap's authority comes from charisma rather than fear — the fact that the Avengers use their power to defend freedom makes them the heroes. And the totemic idea of Phil as the rallying force behind the team gives an 'of the people' spin on their activities. I'm aware of all that. But when I remember Nietzsche's point that charisma is ultimately produced by fear, the vox pop platitudes at the end of the film leave me with some rather uncomfortable feelings.

Whedon's work always pits the small guys against the big evil. Without the army, Loki is just one big guy against six (which includes the Hulk). A more satisfying villain for Whedon would have been the shadowy (quite literally) cabal behind S.H.I.E.L.D, and the film takes some steps in that direction. Whedon undercuts Fury's endorsement of nuclear weapons; the problem of the alien invasion is solved without them. Retaliation is delivered in spite of what the Avengers were doing on the ground in Manhattan, and it is clear that it will have serious repercussions in the next film, as the strike draws the eye of Thanos. If Whedon is indeed to direct the sequel, I expect extraterrestrials will not be the only antagonists the new team will have to face.

ETA: There has been a bit of discussion about the relative objectification of Black Widow compared with Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. It did strike me when watching the latter that the Nolans were overtly taking care to ensure that Anne Hathaway was never sexualised by the film itself, only by characters in the film. On the other hand, The Avengers features a two-shot of Scarlett Johansson with Tom Hiddleston in which this happens (thank you internet). The thing to emphasise about the frame is that it does work on a character level — Black Widow as this rooted immovable object on which Loki is weaving his manipulative spells. But it also features a leather-clad arse squarely in the audience's face (i.e. a sexual object on which the audience are invited to...) POINT BEING, both of these things are going on. I guess for those not interested in Johansson's arse, the character stuff may be enough of a justification for the shot to be framed in this way, but I have to admit that it took me right out of the film. Points lost there, Mr. Whedon. Also, me.

Should say that I think in other respects Black Widow's character bests Catwoman's in the feminism game, in that the Nolans end up throwing Kyle at Batman as a consolation prize for his trials, while Romanoff is more self-defined throughout. It's tricky though, because both characters essentially conform to the same femme fatale archetype. I do like Whedon's decision to emphasize the way Black Widow consciously creates the impression of vulnerability in order to work loose the prizes she is after (an aaaage is spent establishing this trait at the beginning of the film). Using femininity as a way to exploit patriarchy for your own ends. It's not a new idea (you could argue the femme fatale archetype is built on this), but a good way of addressing her sexualisation in the future. Black Widow CHOOSES to be objectified. The impression of weakness is a weapon wielded from a place of strength.

13.8.12

Prometheus

Nothing these characters do seems to make sense. For sure. I mean, the film just has the stupidest scientists ever. Damning in a project that has this much money, and such a renowned legacy to live up to. With that in mind, these basic lapses become unforgivable. This film is an abject failure in formal terms.

And yet, and yet...

I caught quite a late screening, and went straight home to bed afterwards. And I dreamed about it, vividly. The dream didn't repeat any of the scenarios or visuals in the film. To be honest, my dream was in many respects more awesome – featuring a reanimated tyrannosaurus rex imbued with a human consciousness, and a perpetual survivor protagonist like Abélard Lindsay from Schismatrix, who is there to observe the decay and death of the human race (I think some sort of wish fulfillment on my part maybe). It was all very Grant Morrison telling tales of the dying Earth. I wish I could remember more of it. Unfortunately, the dream was SO awesome it woke me up in the middle of the night. I made a concerted effort to memorize as much as possible and then promptly went back to sleep, so that failed. Anyway, the emotional state created by the film obviously has some kind of staying power, which was carried over into my sleeping life.

One line from the film in particular sent me down this rabbit hole. Paraphrased: "they created us and now they want to kill us, I need to know why". It got me thinking about the desire to understand your origin and the origin of the universe, and how this has manifested historically in the imagination of great benevolent beings that have sacrificed themselves to bring about life. The opening sequence of the film makes this Promethean myth literal. But the universe these gods have created, not to mention the very stuff of humanity, is dangerous. The gods are not only capricious but murderously so. The void beyond our tiny planet is an inhospitable nightmare. The universe is not benevolent. It is out to kill us. We are now facing down an environmental cataclysm that may very well lead to our annihilation. We now have the technological capacity to wipe out our entire civilization. Like the Engineers in this film, if we are not careful our weapons may be the end of us.

For me, the film is less about the act of creation and more about the feeling of being created, without knowing the reasons why, and the slowly dawning realization that we may become extinct NEVER knowing the reasons why. It reminds me of that time as a teenager when I was grappling with these questions. Specifically, I remember reading about the impact a supervolcano or a meteor can have on the Earth, and recoiling in horror at the possibility of so much unaccountable human death. Emotionally, I had to convince myself that such colossal meaningless destruction would never be allowed to happen, something must exist to prevent it. I couldn't otherwise cope or process that glimpse into the very purposelessness of existence. It was a kind of existential nausea, perhaps. Or maybe something closer to Lovecraftian cosmic horror.

Alien may owe something to Lovecraft, I don't know – the cold iron maiden embrace of deep space. The xenomorph was also a creature of single-minded predatory sexuality, an image of the most destructive, dehumanizing aspects of the human psyche. Both of these ideas are in Prometheus, although actually its most terrifying scene is the med-pod sequence where Shaw gives birth to a totally repellent, rapacious squid creature. The body horror was so acute I had to look away from the screen for several seconds (and I thought I was relatively inured to scary movies by now). If it alludes to the virgin birth, it is all the more irreverent and disconcerting: suggesting in stark terms that humans have the capacity to spawn mewling needy selfish monsters, and that mothers may find their children utterly inexplicable and disgusting.

Film Crit Hulk, whose writing I have recently discovered and have fallen very hard for (dude is so otm on everything), has argued that the film's insistence that the gods do not explain their ways to man, whilst being a worthy theme, also necessarily leads to unsatisfying drama. Instead, Lindelof should have had the courage to supply his own explanation in the face of a meaningless reality – human beings having always created meaning through storytelling and artistic endeavour. I don't think that advice is correct, because despite the endless idiocy of the characters and the senselessness of the plot, the ideas behind the film still managed to evoke a very strong emotional response, at least for me (as I have indicated, I'm rather susceptible to the concerns of this film). I think there could have been a way to fix the mechanics of the film's story whilst preserving the thematic foundation which Lindelof pitched for the film, and which supplies its peculiar horror. We shouldn't discount the possibility that Lindelof is a good guy with interesting ideas who just isn't very good at the nuts and bolts of storytelling.

6.8.12

The Dark Knight Rises

I had tempered my expectations for this, and they were met. The Dark Knight is one of my favourite films ever, but otherwise I am not much of a Nolan partisan, finding their work minus Heath Ledger impressively constructed but emotionally distant.

I was thinking a little bit about why that is. It's strange, because the Nolans have had the opportunity to work with very talented actors. Michael Caine, for example, has a couple of really intense scenes in the new Dark Knight Rises film. You cannot fault his performance, I think, but there is something in the way it is presented that robs it of impact, at least for me.

A film can be seen as being composed of five elements: plot, character, setting, theme and style (mise en scène might be the more appropriate term, but it is very pretentious. And French). The Nolans are master mechanics when building plot, and Inception might be the best showcase for their proficiency in this field. The Dark Knight Rises is also extremely busy plot-wise, despite the fact that it's near three hours long. Every scene is briskly efficient with moving the story along, and character-building is fitted around the necessity of getting from point A to B. So the swings in character arcs are sudden, and not always properly earned. When Alfred's tearful goodbye came up, I wasn't really connecting with the emotional content of the scene, just thinking the film needed to get rid of Alfred now. Plot takes precedence over character.

Of the five elements, plot is the least important for me. If a film has complex characters, intelligent themes, a well-designed world and an original style, I'll be ready to forgive lazy plotting, if I notice it at all. This is why the Nolans' intricate story constructions fail to dazzle me the way they do many others. I found Inception frustrating because it was a lot of hard work (I had to see the film twice to really understand what was happening) and it didn't leave me with very much at the end of it.

Just as an aside, I didn't much like the decision to end Inception on a question, which I thought was a tongue-in-cheek switch-around designed to break the fourth wall and get the audience thinking about films as compact inception operations. This is an interesting point, sure, but it also dissolves the film's dramatic resolution. I'm quite glad that Dark Knight Rises settles for a punchy statement instead.

Quite a lot of the discussion around The Dark Knight Rises has revolved around plot-holes, actually. I cannot add anything to it apart from to say that all the Batman films feature hair-brained Bond villain ridiculous schemes, and I admire the way the Nolans stay true to the ludicrous nature of the superhero genre whilst keeping the tone dark and gritty — a well-executed balancing act between realism and pulp.

What is interesting is that these plot-holes are standing out for people, despite the fact that the other films could be picked apart just as easily. I think this may be due to The Dark Knight Rises not managing to present a coherent theme which justifies the loopy story it is composed of, as The Dark Knight did. This is discussed in greater detail here and here, and I don't see the need to go over the same ground. Just to say that the exegesis around the use of images that recall Occupy and Al Qaeda is not facetious. Or if it is, the film-makers are to blame for putting the allusions there without making sense of them. The film ends up presenting a really weird axis of evil, worthy of the deranged Frank Miller. I suspect, as Film Crit Hulk does, that the Nolans were not consciously filling their film with right-wing paranoia. Their focus was squarely aimed on the character of Bruce Wayne and giving him a heroic, happy send-off. The Dark Knight Rises is about fan service and spectacle, and the suggestive allusions were thrown in with little thought.

1.8.12

'there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men' - Herman Melville, Moby Dick

28.7.12

Mala

To see what the fuss is about, since the guy is revered as the wise man on the mountain by a lot of UK dance producers, I watched Mala's Red Bull Music Academy lecture recently. It's a great watch, a whole hour in which interesting questions are put to a thoughtful producer in front of a broad audience. And for sure, Mala's integrity and conscientiousness are extraordinary and admirable. However, I found some of the positions he was taking puzzling and frustrating, which prevented me from getting sucked into the mystique.

First of all, and I'm sure this has been argued extensively already, but it bears repeating: naming something does not necessarily limit your ability to understand it. This is very much the historian in me asserting that everything is a part of history and situated in a context that helps explain it. Therefore understanding a work involves understanding the connections between it and its environment. I think an audience should be trusted to do this without facing insinuations that they are somehow diluting the purity of the way they listen to music. Giving something a name does not automatically reduce the intensity of your experience of it. Music can be thought about as well as felt, and there is value to both pursuits.

Plus I smell hubris whenever an artist declares that their work cannot be 'put in a box' or defined in relation to other works. Implicit in the claim that a work is indefinable is the suggestion that all that other stuff that has a name is somehow stale and inferior. Mala is probably aware of the genre = generic trap, and explicitly laments the fact that any music is pigeon-holed by the media machine. But even without its nefarious influence, how are people to talk about the music scene they are part of? Common sense demands that they refer to it by some term. If the artists involved themselves are unwilling to provide one, others will.* That may be the underlining problem: your product is being defined and disseminated without your control. But this is an inevitability Mala is aware of: music takes on a life of its own. Once you put it out there, to some extent it stops being yours. And your audience has given it a name. Nothing strange about that.

[*Interesting in this respect the contrast with grime, where Wot Do U Call It? generated a bunch of names (sub low, 8 bar), and where Wiley actually tried to stamp his own brand on the music (eski beat). But once a consensus term was established everyone fell into line, including Wiley, who has started calling himself the King Of Grime (with some justice).]

If anything, I would say loyalty to a cultural legacy that imposes a very rigid and inflexible distribution model for your work (dubplates, pirate radio, limited runs of vinyl) encourages it to be put in a box whatever it sounds like. Signalling your respect for a certain tradition by emulating its rituals clearly marks you off and encourages others to form certain very clear associations. Compare this to the relative anonymity of an MP3 streamed or downloaded from the internet, which (if you're lucky) may come with the name of an album and a small image of its front cover. There is less to latch onto, fewer associations you can make, when you are exposed to music in this way.

To me vinyl looks cumbersome and expensive. True, when I have seen a favourite album in that big package I think I've glimpsed some of what vinyl-fetishists find so alluring about the format. But I'm also suspicious of those feelings, since I have this idea that music should be able to stand alone without needing the material around it to have an effect.* So the only argument for vinyl that makes sense to me is the quality of sound it produces, and as I'm not enough of an audiophile to really appreciate the difference vinyl makes, I'm happy to leave it aside for cheaper alternatives.

[*This can be construed as naïveté on my part, since there is a context to the consumption of music as well as the production of it, which can have a pretty huge impact on your appreciation of that music. And actually the format in which that music is presented (a record, a cassette) can be seen as a feeble attempt to exert some kind of control over that experience. But that control is weak. Other factors (taste, emotional state, the weather) exert a much stronger influence, I would argue.]

I'm going on about vinyl not because I want people to stop buying it, only to point out why I don't. In fact one of the things that I really value about labels that put out vinyl is that the effort and expense required means that releases are few and well thought out (unlike MP3-centred scenes like glo-fi or hip hop where there is a staggering amount of material to trawl through). I'm lucky in that most uk dance labels (incl. favourites like Butterz and Hessle) give their audience a choice of format. It's the restriction of choice that I find frustrating.

And it is an impotent kind of frustration, since I realise that creators can and should be able to present their work in whatever way they think best. All I can do is point out that consciously limiting your output to a certain format doesn't strike me as a particularly open and welcoming attitude to have. This comes out more forcefully in an interview with Loefah, where he identifies vinyl-buyers as the real 'hardcore' – the audience his label Swamp81 is targeting. Which I think is wrong-headed, in that buying vinyl may correlate with a certain respect for music, but not absolutely so. This means you may not be reaching some of the 'hardcore' who for whatever reason don't buy records.*

[*I wouldn't say I identify with Loefah's 'hardcore', btw. I'm more of a skittish dilettante when it comes to dubstep and its offshoots. My allegiance to grime is firmer, not least because I admire its expansionist drive.]

More generally, there is something cliquey about the 'this is for the people that know' declarations, and something precious about the 'we are not looking for attention' assurances. Why would you want to limit the exposure to your work to those that 'deserve' it? This was brought out for me in Mala's repeated insistence that the seminal Haunted / Anti War Dub release will never be repressed, in the face of one questioner who was clearly eager to have a copy. I think there is something unwholesomely inward-looking about the preference to protect and buttress the value of your record for the people that already own it, as opposed to allowing new people to attach a value to it as well.*

[*Not to mention the kind of market distortions and unsavoury speculative behaviour you get when you restrict supply in this way.]

Should repeat again that Mala seems to me like an upstanding fellow, and he's responsible for beautiful things like 'Forgive' and 'Misty Winter', which automatically earn generous measures of my respect. I'm aware that launching what amounts to a series of cloaked ad hominems at him is not the best way of showing that, but I would stress that my rambling is less about Mala and more about myself, specifically why I can't buy into his point of view despite liking some of his work. And the work is good – that new Cuba album sounds primed for summer...

21.7.12

'We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.' - H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

20.7.12

'modern people under lawless conditions tend uncannily to repeat the darkest instinctive patterns of primitive half-ape savagery in their daily life and ritual observances' - H.P. Lovecraft, The Horror at Red Hook

15.7.12

From up on Poppy Hill

By some quirk of fate, I was actually in Yokohama when I watched this film. From up on Poppy Hill is set in the sixties, but Yamashita Park and the Marine Tower are still recognizable parts of the landscape. Like all Studio Ghibli productions, it is beautifully animated. Magical, even though it is one of the few Ghibli films which is set in a real place and time.

A bit like Arrietty, the story is slight, and unfolds at its own pace. It has some weak elements, however. The central mystery – are they or aren't they siblings? – is rather unbelievably melodramatic, as one of the characters admits. Perhaps baby-switching was a common phenomenon during and after the Korean war. Even if it was, I don't think the film dealt with the repercussions that creates particularly well. It is at its best when it explores the daily life, in school and at home, of the protagonist Umi. She is perfectly charming, and in her own quiet way, one of the most inspiring heroines the Ghibli production house has created. Which is saying something.

'a post-revolutionary society is unthinkable'

‎'...if we take seriously the scale of social and psychic upheaval represented by a revolution, a post-revolutionary society is unthinkable: for someone not born in a post-revolutionary situation, it takes the process of going through a revolution to fully imagine it. To depict it is to diminish it.'
One of the ways to get around the 'so go on then, what is the alternative?' question. But shouldn't we then ask exactly what value to attach to something we cannot describe. How logical is it to believe something unrepresentable is both possible and desirable? Is it worth striving for a society you cannot even IMAGINE clearly?

I did like The City & The City, and Perdido Street Station to an extent. But if this is the sort of thinking that underpins Miéville's fiction, I don't know if it is ever going to affect me that deeply. Unless (to risk repetition) there is a change of heart / crisis of confidence / personal breakdown that takes an axe to his hopes for the restoration of humanity to some prelapsarian social and psychological state.

7.7.12

Arrietty

The urge to compare with other Miyazaki films still ever-present. This one reminds me most of Totoro, in its small scale and the way it slowly unfolds. It takes a certain amount of confidence to hold back so much in a film for children (espesh with the digital animation wonders Pixar is coming up with), and it is admirable, although (as ever) I prefer Miyazaki doing visuals and themes in widescreen. Should say he didn't direct Arrietty, he just wrote and produced it, tho I suspect creative control was quite close.

The pivotal scene is the conversation in which Arrietty reveals herself to Sho, where the subject turns to the way humans have changed the environment and have unwittingly destroyed countless species of animal and plant life. I'm not sure if Mary Norton's Borrowers were intended to be a comment on climate change, but this is what they become here, and it is an interesting imaginative conceit to take the POV of the creatures being trampled to extinction. They are tenacious and noble and so on. What's more interesting is the contrast between the unthinking, obsessive housekeeper Haru and the sickly, melancholic Sho – who is inspired by the struggle of the little guys and survives his operation (notably not a spoiler, since we are told this in the very first line of the film).

MOST interesting is the realisation that the Borrowers don't want our help, even though they are in a position of weakness. Arrietty and Sho's relationship can never develop, they are inalterably different and must live separately. My only problem with the film is is why it has to have an unhappy ending – why this inequality cannot be bridged, why humans cannot reach some accommodation with the natural world. Maybe Miyazaki isn't all that sanguine about the prospect, or maybe dramatically it would have been too trite a note to end the film on. But as someone who hopes to live on this planet for some time yet, and still manages to be impressed by the scale of human ingenuity, the tone felt a bit unnecessarily elegiac.